Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The North Korean Question

As I write this (with our elderly Tonkinese cat tucked under my arm to stop her from sitting on the keyboard), North Korea seems a very long way away. But the problem it poses to the world community has become one of those international ‘questions’ that bedevil world history, on a level with the Balkan Question (one of the flashpoints of European history that led to World War One) or the Near Eastern Question (which dates back to the same period but is essentially still with us).
         The problem is two-fold. First there is the undoubted threat to world peace that North Korean aggression poses, although for the moment at least that takes the form of missiles and rhetoric, not armies on the ground. But more insidiously there is the problem of the regime itself, which deifies its ruler (and brainwashes the North Korean people to do the same), allows its people to starve while directing all its resources into its military programme, and stamps out every dissident opinion without any regard for human rights or freedoms. Since the inconclusive Korean War in the 1950s this regime has squatted in its corner of Southeast Asia, glowering and spitting defiance at the rest of the world. We would love to see regime change there, but have been resigned to impotence. Until 2017.
         What has changed? Mostly, I think, it is leadership style. The new young ruler Kim Jong-Un seems to be determined to develop his predecessors’ nuclear programme, which grows ever more ambitious, and to carry on their verbal battle with the world, and particularly with the United States. In that country too there is a new leader, and he is impatient of diplomacy and peaceful rhetoric and believes that a show of strength will cow Pyongyang.
         There is more than an element of gamble in both positions, as indeed there has been in the North Korean one for more than fifty years. So far their gamble has worked. A nuclear programme which threatened no one very much has been allowed to morph into one that poses significant danger for the region, and even possibly for the far west of the US. Sanctions placed on a country that a) does not care for the economic sufferings of its people, b) is indifferent to public opinion both domestic and international, and c) is perfectly capable of finding illegal ways to make money, really cannot work properly. Trump is now offering a gamble of his own, believing that North Korea does not really have the appetite to start a full-scale nuclear war that it would be bound to lose since the stockpile capacity of the West is much greater than that the North Koreans currently have. Stand up to Kim Jong-Un, Trump says, and North Korea will go back in its burrow.
         It is easy to see the attractions of this position. It is generally acknowledged that historically appeasement of tyrants has led them to become more aggressive, not less. Standing up to the bully is a standard piece of advice in school playgrounds (though nowadays actually punching the bully is discouraged), and Trump delights in schoolboy rhetoric. The gamble might also, if the North Korean leadership were sane and followed the normal rules of human logic, be successful. But this is a dangerous assumption. Saddam Hussein continued to sabre-rattle until removed from power forcibly, an action which turned out to have unpredictable consequences and did not lead to greater peace and stability in Iraq as the anti-Saddam coalition had hoped. Trump is gambling with the lives of the Korean people, north and south, and when you gamble it is always best to be certain that you can afford to lose your stake. Since his style is much more the instant tweet than the measured discussion and memo, I wonder whether this reckoning has been done. True, his announcements even on serious issues are often more hot air than reasoned policy, but in this situation the rhetoric matters.
         So, what is to be done? Is there mileage still in the existing sanctions? Or do we need a completely new approach?
         The key, it seems to me, is China. China supported North Korea, as a fellow-communist state, in the 1950s and has favoured a softly-softly approach to the rogue state ever since, although the two regimes are now poles apart in most respects. China is also very much the dominant power in the region, not least because Japan has no post-war history of defending itself and is heavily (though reluctantly) dependent on the US. China will not allow the West, and particularly not the US, to dictate Southeast Asian policy, nor will it stand by while non-Asian nations get involved in military action in the Korean peninsula. Thus, the North Korean Question is not so much about North Korean relations with the West, which have always been bad and are unlikely to change for the better anytime soon, but about Chinese relations with the West. China does not really approve of Kim’s regime, and as southeastern China actually borders North Korea the threat to Chinese security from a nuclear conflict is immense, but at the same time Peking cannot possibly be seen to collude with the US in destroying it. American recognition of the importance of China’s handling of the region’s politics, and a willingness to discuss the problem of North Korea privately with China in the light of that recognition, would go a long way to resolving the tensions between those two great powers, and thus open the door for China itself to be more firm with North Korea.
         At the same time, sanctions could be applied more rigorously and directly to military targets. There is good evidence that North Korea is getting round them and purchasing military hardware illicitly, which the international community could do more to prevent. China would be unlikely to oppose this, and it would not need new UN resolutions to implement. There does seem to be a new level of determination in this area, but there is also the real danger that it is already too late for this to make much difference.

         Human beings never seem to learn that diplomacy and peaceful sanctions are always to be preferred to war, whose consequences are very often worse than the situation military action was employed to tackle. If North Korea does actually attack the US or Japan, the situation may then have gone too far to avoid actual conflict. But the US should be warned: pre-emptive strikes are liable to be counter-productive in the long term, however tempting they may be to the self-confident nation. See Japan (Pearl Harbor 1941) for details.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Donald Trump and The Apprentice

I’ve just learned (by a circuitous route which I won’t bother you with) that Donald Trump invented the format so successfully used both in the US and over here in Britain for The Apprentice, and was its American host. I have always hated the British version with Alan Sugar, and never understood why it should be popular, as it seems to make a virtue out of treating subordinates rudely, crassly and ruthlessly. Do we really want our business leaders to behave like this? What came of the idea of bullying in the workplace and its negative connotations? 

Now that I know this about Trump his success as a Republican front runner for the presidential nomination makes much more sense. He is already known to a large number of the public through presenting this show. His ethical stance is familiar, and no doubt admired because it is forceful and confident (and many folk are like sheep, who wander aimlessly unless driven by a stronger personalitiy, whether it be shepherd or border collie; they feel safe in the hands of someone who has the confident authority to tell them what to do). But his values are all old-fashioned Red Neck ones. They may be appreciated by Republican hardliners, but I cannot believe that America as a whole will be taken in by them. I sincerely hope not, like most folk this side of the Atlantic. Trying to be in any kind of ‘special relationship’ with a leader like Trump would be next to impossible, as David Cameron is discovering. It would be Bush and Blair all over again, probably with similar disastrous results.


Of course, if our people are foolish enough to fall for Brexit rhetoric (which God forfend), we could actually need the special relationship, out in the cold bleak world as we then would be. I don’t hold with eurozone policies, and the European Union (particularly the Commission) has many faults, but I’d much rather have Merkel and Co than Trump. Still, maybe Hilary Clinton will get her just deserts, finally, and hold the presidential reins that as wife she relinquished twenty years ago. I don’t agree with everything she says or does, by any means, but she is at least an experienced, mature politician (and person) with a responsible party behind her. Perhaps Trump’s ascendancy will work for her, if they are the two selected representatives in the race for the White House, as the contrast will then be more obvious. I hope so. But of course so much depends on how strong anti-establishment feeling is at the moment.

Meanwhile, we have our own decisions to make, where anti-establishment feeling may also be playing its part. I would like to see the Better Together (wrong referendum, I know, but same idea) group being more positive. We don’t want to hear about how awful it would be if we weren’t in the EU. Let’s hear more positive reasons to stay. There are quite a few ….

Monday, 6 July 2015

Go with the drachma

 Amazing scenes in Greece this morning, though perhaps the celebrations may be short-lived when it dawns on them that saying “No” to European bailout conditions may not actually help them to escape the even more grinding austerity which they very understandably wish to avoid. I’m glad to see that some commentators are now laying the blame as much on the Eurozone and the IMF as on the Greek government, as seems only fair. The comment by a Manchester University professor on the BBC this morning, that it represented “a catastrophic failure of strategy on both sides” seems a most apt description.


However, where now? I can’t help feeling that if the Eurozone leaders could swallow their pride and consult with British finance ministers (after all, we have managed to prosper within the EU but outside the Eurozone, without any particular desire or prospect of joining the euro in the foreseeable future), we might see some new ideas. Why should the Greeks not go back to the drachma, for example, thus giving them much more freedom of manoeuvre to manage their own financial affairs and more sense of national sovereignty, and yet stay in the European Union? They would still be heavily in debt, and bankruptcy is not an option one would wish on anyone (see Iceland for details), but at least they would no longer be locked in to European-imposed policies that clearly do not have the support of the Greek people, and which just as clearly are not working (a five years’ austerity programme really should have shown dividends by now if the policy was going to succeed, it seems to me). There would be something to aim for, and it is clear that Greek independence and desire for dignity is an important factor that perhaps the EU has failed to take into account.

But will the Eurozone let them go? Not willingly, it is clear. Failure for Greece would probably make it more likely that other countries currently on or fairly near the brink would also fall out of the zone, and that increases the risk that the euro itself would finally fail. What that would mean no one quite dares to think. Not to mention the fact that once free of their eurozone shackles the Greeks might cozy up to dangerous players such as Russia, whose restive unpredictability the EU fears perhaps above all else.

Interesting times, certainly! Whatever decision is taken by the Greeks, there are dangers both for them and for others. But that is always true, at all times and in all circumstances. I wish them well.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Charles Kennedy - In memoriam

I was very much saddened to hear of the death of Charles Kennedy yesterday. Whilst he fell from grace with the general public - and did his party no good thereby - when he had to resign as leader, at his best he was a good, honest politician whom we shall be the poorer without. I particularly remember him leading the opposition to the Iraq War in 2003. It was a principled stand and one which I admired, running as it did against the established convention that all political parties stand united at a time of national conflict or threat. But Kennedy correctly saw that the threat was non-existent and the policy one of opportunism and expediency, where other possible options such as supporting the UN-led pressure on Iraq existed. I agreed with him, but more than that I thought it took a great deal of guts and political acumen to stand up for something that he and much of the party believed in, and which he thought important for our country. Many would say that he was right, and that the situation we now have in the Middle East is a direct consequence of the instability we in the West created when we removed Saddam Hussein from power without properly considering the consequences of doing so. Iraqi people embraced the idea of liberty from tyranny, but democracy needs to grow rather than being imposed, if people are to be able to sustain it.

It must have been a terrible blow to Charles when he lost his seat to the Scottish Nationalists in the recent general election, as for so many Liberal Democrat MPs who had worked hard for our country in Coalition only to be deserted by their partners and by the electorate. Not to mention the role played so clearly by our broken and skewed electoral system that does not deliver representative government across the country. Let us press to change that in memory of Charles Kennedy.

Rest In Peace

Friday, 8 May 2015

Reflections on the 2015 election

Anyone who read my blog yesterday, or who has passed my house here at Trevadlock Cross and seen the Lib Dem poster supporting Dan Rogerson, our now-defeated MP, will understand that I am truly gutted by what has happened in this election. Far from rewarding the Liberal Democrats for their efforts to keep the Conservative right-wing from dragging the Coalition further from the centre, or for their many good ideas and hard work in government, it appears that they have been punished, while their erstwhile colleagues have got all the credit for the Coalition’s successes. To a degree, that is clearly true, though it is most unfair. But why?

First of all, it is the common experience of minor partners in a coalition (evidenced from across Europe where coalitions are common) to be slaughtered in a subsequent election. But two further factors are significant, I think. One is that if you look at the voting patterns across England in particular, there has been a shift to the right represented by the good performance of UKIP (thankfully not translated into seats) and the victory of many Conservatives in Lib Dem-Conservative marginals – for example, the whole of the south-west, from being a Liberal Democrat stronghold, has gone blue. Second, the Liberal Democrats' core supporters were alienated by their involvement in the Coalition, which seemed to many (though not to me) a betrayal of principle. The notorious U-turn on tuition fees, which the party acknowledges to have been a mistake on many levels, made this worse, and the press put the nails in the coffin, making the Liberal Democrats appear to be perfidious and unprincipled losers – not the kind of image you want going into a close general election! Paddy Ashdown has bravely said that they will be back, and that Liberal values are needed more than ever, and although I am not a member of the party, I agree that their particular contribution to the political scene is important and I hope they will take courage. Nick Clegg may seem an obvious target for blame, but a leadership change may not be the best thing at this stage, particularly as the party has lost many of its key leadership figures, including those who held ministerial posts in the Coalition. Clegg is at least in parliament, and I would imagine his position is secure at least for the moment – more than can be said for Ed Milliband.

Which brings me to the most salient lesson that has come out of this most surprising election – that is, apart from the fact that pre-election polls may not reflect the way people vote on the day, and that BBC exit pollers can deliver accurate predictions! The Labour party ought to have won this election, or at least to have been the largest party, and they should have done much better in Scotland. An unpopular government, an austerity programme that may have improved our debt position and may have turned our economy around for the present at least but in the process has reduced large numbers to penury, amid grave doubts as to whether the Conservatives are truly a One Nation party, whatever their rhetoric, should not have delivered an increased number of Conservative seats, matched by a few percentage points increase in the general vote (based on trends – the final results are not all declared as I write this). That it has done so casts enormous doubts on the quality of the Labour leadership, some of whom have lost their seats. Their failure has been not to deliver coherent policy ideas so as to make a real alternative to the simple and obvious stance of their opponents. This must stand as a huge reproach to them, and the Labour party must address not only the question of the leadership but also where the party is going, and where it wants to place itself on a spectrum that now includes support for the left-wing Greens, whose greater share in the vote has returned its one and only MP to parliament with an increased majority.

The spread of votes set against the balance of seats – with the two major parties winning the vast majority of the one-person constituencies that currently make up our parliamentary democratic system – must raise again the question, in voters’ minds if not in Westminster, as to whether the first-past-the-post system is delivering any real democracy. Internet activists such as 38 Degrees, Change.org, and their local one-issue counterparts have found ways to influence policy outside the ballot box, which is to be welcomed. Yet the composition of the Westminster parliament is still of enormous importance. The country voted against the particular version of proportional representation that it was presented with in that referendum conceded by David Cameron to the Liberal Democrats as part of the Coalition agreement five years ago (how long ago it now seems!). But the question must be debated again. The first-past-the-post system protects us from extremist minority parties gaining a foothold in parliament, and many will feel it has protected us in this instance from UKIP, who came second or third in a large number of constituencies and must have gained a significant proportion of the vote, but only one or two seats. The disaster for the Lib Dems would have been on a smaller scale with PR, since the loss of their popular vote looks to have been around 12-15%  (bad enough), but the loss of seats far higher. In a PR system they would have ended up with about 50 seats, my rough calculation suggests, rather than the 8 or 9 they actually have.


Lastly, by talking up the SNP as an election manoeuvre to encourage people to vote for the Conservatives rather than Labour - whom they represented, probably misleadingly, as ready to set up a Labour-SNP coalition in the event of a hung parliament led by Labour - Cameron has landed himself with a real constitutional problem. Will we see greater regional autonomy across the UK, perhaps even some form of federalism? Or will the Scottish Nationalists merely make a nuisance of themselves at Westminster and demand another referendum on Scottish independence? Something needs to be done and quickly. Let’s hope that Cameron has the guts and determination, and the following in his own party, to do it.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

2015 Election - what short memories people have

How short our memories are for some things, and how long for others! The Liberal Democrats have been utterly vilified and pilloried for their U-turn on tuition fees, which they made under the pressure of being part of a Coalition, where their partners viewed the matter quite differently – and they have acknowledged their mistake. But on many many things, as has emerged in this election campaign, they vetoed policies that would have been socially damaging. They also carried the day on raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 (you may remember that this was a 2010 election pledge and predated the Coalition itself. Indeed, they won the argument on this so effectively that the Conservatives have made high income tax thresholds one of their keynote policies, thus neatly pulling the carpet from under their erstwhile Coalition partners. In fact, one would have thought their contribution to a successful first Coalition government under our new Five Year Parliament rules would have been met with approbation and rising polls. Instead, most unfairly, it seems that they are being blamed for failures and mistakes made by the Coalition, without any credit being given to them for its successes, many of which were in fact Liberal Democrat policies in the first place, taken on board by David Cameron as part of the deal back in 2010. How can this have happened? Unfortunately no one (not even my good self!) seems to know.

But one thing it does indicate is how desperately soundbite/kneejerk/unthinking our democracy has become. We cannot be certain (though perhaps we never could) that people will make up their minds on the basis of an calm and careful analysis of what the Coalition has done and what the separate parties might do if elected. The campaign has shown us that. Only the Greens have suggested we ‘vote with your heart’. The rest have appealed to self-interest and demonised their opponents, as they so often do. Campaigns are designed to hit the electors where it will really stir them, viscerally, into changing their minds. And what have we had? Persistent fearmongering about the possible part the SNP might play in a Coalition, and appeals to the basest of national self-interests in UKIP’s demands for a walk-out from the European Union and the main parties’ promises to put curbs on immigration, even though we all know (and party leaders have stated it) that this country’s prosperity over the centuries has been based on the work, loyalty and commitment of immigrants. (The rules as they stand make no sense anyway – a young friend of ours, who has been working in the US, and is married to an American wife, has to earn above a certain threshold before she will be allowed to join him here, now that he has taken a job in Britain. There has been no question of their applying for state support – and she is well qualified and can work for her own living, but her income is not taken into account.) On this only the Liberal Democrats have sounded a note of sanity – let them come, but let them earn the right to benefits, which should not be immediate or automatic. That seems fair – we cannot as a country support everyone from other parts of Europe or the world financially. But we can offer a haven for asylum-seekers (it is a scandal that they are locked up like criminals), and we can allow people to come and work here if they have a job and income lined up and are proposing to contribute to our economy via taxes and National Insurance payments.

Nick Clegg has made the excellent point that the Liberal Democrats do not expect to win outright (there was a time, in 2010, when for a brief moment we actually wondered whether they might be able to, at the height of Cleggmania), but that they are the best option to keep a minority Conservative or Labour government from flying Rightwards or Leftwards. For this alone they would be worth voting for where they have a realistic chance of winning.

We have an excellent local MP here, a sitting Lib Dem candidate who deserves everyone’s vote for the hard work he has put in over the last ten years. I shall certainly be voting for him, and hoping that the old British idea of fair play will come back into its own. If anyone has deserved some plaudits and a second go at Coalition, it’s the Liberal Democrats.


Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Forgiveness and Jihad

We’ve heard a lot in the past week or so about the British Muslim Mohammed Emwazi, so-called Jihadi John, and the relations of those he has executed in the course of his commitment to the group calling itself Islamic State have varied in their reactions to discovering his identity. Some want to ‘put a bullet between his eyes’, but a few others reminded us that If we only trade hatred, hatred is all that results. There is no end to it.  Indeed, said one, the whole series of events is a tragedy for everyone, Jihadi John included.
                There is a great truth here. First of all, even if we think only of our own wellbeing, forgiveness has been shown by psychologists to be better for us than vengeful thoughts, hatred and harbouring grudges. Our own happiness, and even our physical health, benefit from the positivity of forgiveness. Those who have come emotionally whole out of Nazi concentration camps, hijacking situations, kidnaps, or the loss of loved ones to the violence or carelessness of others, generally do it by, in one way or another, forgiving those who have wronged them or their loved ones, and moving on with their lives. Holding on to the negativity of hatred, resentment and the desire for revenge, even where this masquerades as a desire for justice, leaves us stuck in the mire of the traumatic experience itself. Only by forgiving, even if it is a long process (and it can be), and by focusing on the future hopefully rather than looking back to a painful past, can we make something of the life we still have.
                The interesting thing is that the tragedy of Islamic State and its brutal executions does indeed encompass Mohammed Emwazi. His reaction to his treatment by British security forces, who suspected him (rightly or wrongly, there is no way of telling) of possible involvement in extreme Islamism and tried to recruit him as a spy or informer led him not only to lose confidence in the authorities (as injustice frequently does) but to seek revenge. Whatever radicalisation he had already undergone became magnified, and his bitterness led him straight to Islamic State. He was not able to forgive the actions of those he felt had treated him unjustly in order to move on in the life he had in this country, where his employers and neighbours valued him and where he could have been a success. Instead he went out to Syria to join the jihadists.
Partly, I think, this happened because Islam does not encourage overmuch forgiveness, especially of ’outsiders’, i.e. non-Muslims. There is, indeed, a stark contrast between Islam and Christianity here – not between the historical actions of the two, I hasten to say, for Christians have sadly been as apt as Muslims or anyone else to strike back if threatened, at least since the era of the Crusades. But where Muhammad and his early followers, when threatened with persecution by their surrounding neighbours, embarked on jihad, a holy war against those who encircled them (and this was purely defensive in the beginning), Jesus went to the cross, forbidding his disciples to defend him with the sword, even defining, in his trial before Pilate, his kingdom as ‘not of this world’ simply because his disciples did not take up arms. And on the cross, he forgave those who had killed them, on the grounds that they did not really know what they were doing.
                Muslims are doing much heart-searching at present. Islamic State are claiming that their new territory is the beginning of the events that will usher in the end of the world (when, I believe, it is Jesus who will return to judge and rule, not Muhammad), and for devout Muslims this must be attractive. No wonder the disaffected and pious are liable to be radicalised, when all the West can offer instead is material wealth, moral relativism and the worship of celebrity. But at the same time, most Muslims, particularly those who have access to global media and can view Islamic preoccupations with some perspective, do not actually want the barbarism and fundamentalism that Islamic State and other Islamist groups represent. They know that the world has in fact moved on from that kind of brutality, and they are comfortable with that. The problem is that for Sunni Muslims at least the Koran is set in stone. It can only be read correctly in the original Arabic, not in translation. There can be no interpretation, no movement from its original emphases – though there has of course been much explanation and extrapolation by scholars over the centuries. What Muhammad did, what he taught, is paramount, and Muhammad was a child of the 7th century. How then should today’s Muslims respond to the twin challenges of extremism and Western culture – is there a Middle Way?

Perhaps there is. Jesus is, after all, one of the Muslim prophets, as are the Old Testament prophets of Judaism. Jesus is considered, indeed, second only to Muhammad himself. Perhaps there is something that today’s Muslims can learn from him, even if they reject the Christians view of his place in God’s plans – something about forgiveness and turning the other cheek. I very much hope so.