Tuesday, October 30, 2007

More from the Nasty Party

The sustained Tory programme of character-assassination-cum-amateur-psychoanalysis continues apace.

This time it’s Michael Gove who’s giving us his insights into Gordon Brown’s tortured psyche:

He had to recognise the new individualism which social change had brought about - although in his heart he could not reconcile himself to it. And he has had to accept that the attachments which stir British hearts are not those which once stirred his - and it leaves an aching emptiness inside.

Because acquiring power has involved a sacrifice of so much, in terms of youthful idealism, the surrender of any power is an acutely painful exercise to contemplate.

I suppose it’s an intellectual notch or two up from calling Brown “autistic”, but just as contemptibly personal. And particularly hypocritical, as Gove goes on to say:

In public debate [Labour] choose not to offer hope, but simply go on the attack. Instead of introducing a new and more plural style of Government they have tried to resurrect an old politics of division, denigration and distortion.

(For a great dissection of the flaws in Gove’s speech, see Hopi Sen.
[Update: And Tom Hamilton.])

Monday, October 29, 2007

Far-away lands of which he knows little

Last Friday David Cameron made a really bad speech in Berlin on foreign policy. It was intended as a rebuttal of “liberal interventionism”, which Cameron associated with Tony Blair but defined only as “the idea that we should just get out there into the world and 'sort it all out'”.

That’s the quality of his analysis. But of course it’s an ancient rhetorical trick to kick over straw men; no matter that nobody actually holds such a view.

He identifies the main global security problem as failed states:

Failed states not only fail to provide security for their own people, they threaten the security of others by serving as a launchpad for terrorism and violence. And failed states have a global, not just a regional impact.

Correct. But he goes on to explain (if that’s the word) two principles that underpin his own view:

My first principle may seem counter-intuitive: that to help protect international security, any state must put its own national security first.
My second principle is that we should replace the doctrine of liberal interventionism… with the doctrine of liberal conservatism… in the sense of a sceptical attitude towards the ability of states to create utopias.

Again, that states can create utopias is a view nobody holds (beyond perhaps a few lingering communists).

He does accept that:

‘National security first’ may sound like a perverse principle to adopt in an age of complex and globally linked security threats. Surely it is more important than ever that we put international security first? I don't agree. Every good military commander understands that no campaign will succeed unless you secure your home base first.

Oh my word. ‘Look at me, I’ve talked to some soldiers.’ Even as he tries to distance himself from any ‘war on terrorism’ outlook, he still buys into the way of talking about all global security challenges through a military metaphor.

But of course we know that he’s not really trying to refute a view that nobody holds; he’s just trying to disown the interventionist foreign policy of the Blair years. But the paucity of his analysis shows in the fact that despite his broader intent, he can’t say which of Blair’s wars – Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq – he might oppose.

As with grammar schools, Cameron seems to oppose military interventions – except for those that already exist.

So much for the intellectual quality. But his isolationist turn – reminiscent of pre-9/11 Bush – is a stinker of an idea in itself. Paul Collier, an Oxford expert on development policy, has an approach far better for combatting both global insecurity and poverty in failed states. A key element is that military interventions are – in severe cases – vital. He notes that:

…much of Africa faces high risks of internal insecurity from rebellions and coups. Partly this is due to decades of economic failure, and partly because the typical country is too small to reap security economies of scale. Africa needs a stronger international-security presence: prolonged peacekeeping in the fragile post-conflict situations, and "over-the-horizon" security guarantees elsewhere. Both of these should be conditional upon clear standards of governance which could be set by the African Union. The model is the provision of external security for Sierra Leone, about the most effective form of aid Europe has ever given to Africa.

Perhaps Cameron has succumbed to the pop-Whiggish view of British history that has (paradoxically) many Tory fans: that a country left to its own devices will naturally progress towards greater security, prosperity, freedom and democracy.

Some do; others do not. A thousand idiosyncracies shaped Britain’s development, and if we care about what happens in the political wrecks of the world that have their own unique situations, then external engagement is not utopian recklessness but a practical and humanitarian necessity. Sometimes this engagement will have to take a military form.

Scottish votes for English votes for English laws?

The ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) idea being kicked around by the Tories ought to be subject to a referendum – as were the devolutionary changes in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London.

But not a referendum in England.

Last week, I argued (in the context of the EU treaty) that in a representative democracy, “a referendum would be justified when a proposal would significantly weaken the link between people and policy by removing significant power from [their elected representatives]”. Hence the devolution referendums we’ve had were appropriate.

But what people-policy link would be weakened by EVEL? Not the link between English voters and policy outcomes, but rather the link between Scottish, Welsh etc., voters and policy outcomes. The people who would lose power are the ones who deserve a say: the loss of their MPs’ voting rights at Westminster was not part of the devolution settlements they voted for. A fresh mandate would be needed. Sure, an English referendum could be reasonable as well, but it’s not required on such moral grounds.

I’m sure the idea won’t catch on, but the logic of it seems pretty solid.

My own view on this is still pretty much as it was in a pair of posts last year: the House of Commons needs to stay unified and MPs procedurally equal in order to ensure the coherence of the Government – which derives its authority from the Commons. But that still leaves us the House of Lords to play with.

[Update: interesting takes on this issue can be found at Cassilis and Big Sticks and Small Carrots.]

Friday, October 26, 2007

“Mad people wielding razor blades”

Say what you like about Vladimir Putin (preferably if you don’t live in Russia), but he’s got a great turn of phrase.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tactics in a fragmenting Darfur

A(nother) ominous development in Darfur: the Justice and Equality Movement, a rebel group, has attacked a Chinese oil facility and taken two hostages.

The Justice and Equality Movement (Jem) say they want China to withdraw its support for the Sudanese government.

"The oil revenue is not coming for the benefit of the people of Sudan, but to kill our people in Darfur," Jem field commander Abdel Aziz el-Nur Ashr told the BBC's Network Africa programme. "All the people of Darfur believe that China is a partner for this genocidal government in Khartoum," he said.

He has a point: China’s investment in Sudan is in principle neutral towards and in practice supportive of the al-Bashir government’s brutality in Darfur. But such crude, aggressive threats are more likely to backfire.

China has been sticking its fingers into a lot of African pies in recent years, giving loans and trade deals to resource-rich countries without banging on about human rights and good governance in the way that Western governments and international institutions do. This means they’ve built up a network of client states, many of which are repressive to varying degrees.

The Chinese cannot possibly risk sending a message to any dissident groups in these countries that they can be scared off with a bit of violence. This means that they will have to resist – and be seen to resist – this threat from the JEM. In this context, any pressure China put on the Sudanese government in the near future could be seen as a capitulation. So it becomes that bit trickier for the Security Council to take a united tough line against al-Bashir, who continues to throw up objections to the deployment of the UN force that’s due in January.

Either the JEM are politically inept, or they’re trying to bolster their position in advance of future negotiations – or they’re just pillaging under the guise of ‘resistance’. They, along with several other rebel groups, are boycotting talks that are scheduled for this weekend.

The Darfuri factions (and the government-allied Janjaweed) have become increasingly fragmented, as many local leaders vie for status and spoils – making a workable resolution all the harder to find.

Lies, damned lies, and unparliamentary language

Gordon Brown said at prime minister’s questions yesterday that David Cameron was being “misleading”. Cue theatrical uproar from the Tory benches and demands that Brown withdraw the remark.

The Speaker, Michael Martin, urged more “temperate language”, but ruled that the word wasn’t “unparliamentary”.

Tory MPs were dissatisfied, and continued to aver that “mislead” was out of order, but they have short memories. Those of us with nothing in the way of social lives will recall a session of PMQs in 1994, when Margaret Beckett was acting Labour leader. She riled John Major on some topic or other sufficiently for him to say that she had “lied”.

Cue theatrical uproar from the Labour benches and demands that he withdraw the remark.

The then Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, did instruct Major to withdraw it. He didn’t do so as such, but instead repeated his statement, substituting “misled” for “lied”. This satisfied the Speaker (although not Labour MPs), apparently because “mislead” doesn’t imply the same deliberate intent to deceive as does “lie”.

Because of its parliamentary permissibility, though, “mislead” has in this context come to take on very strong connotations of deliberate deceit.

I’m glad we pay these people so much.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

EU referendum? Don’t ask me...

The new reform treaty is not the old constitution. Not quite. We hear a lot of waffle about how the ‘constitutional concept’ has been abandoned, but that’s a technical and symbolic difference only. It concerns simply whether all new and pre-existing provisions are bundled into one single ‘constitution’ or whether the old treaties are left as they are with the new provisions presented as amendments. It also involves dropping mention of symbols such as the EU flag and anthem – a piffling change.

On top of this, there are also some more substantive changes to the new provisions proposed in the treaty versus the constitution (including a British ‘red line’ or two), but the overall effect – let’s not play the percentage game – is much the same.

So: the Government promised a referendum on the constitution at the last election; does that promise still apply, given the changes? Technically not, as the new treaty isn’t the same – but given the large similarity, can we summon up the spirit, rather than the mere letter, of the manifesto pledge?

This involves looking at exactly why Tony Blair promised a referendum. Here things start to get strange. In his 2004 announcement of this policy, he said that there had been a long history of myth-making “designed to distance people's understanding of what Europe is truly about and loosen this country's belief in its place in Europe”. He went on:

It has been an unrelenting, but, I have to accept, at least partly successful campaign to persuade Britain that Europe is a conspiracy aimed at us, rather than a partnership designed for us and others to pursue our national interest properly in a modern, interdependent world.
It is right to confront this campaign head on. … Once [the treaty is] agreed… Parliament should debate it in detail and decide upon it. Then, let the people have the final say.

The curious thing about this rationale is that it wasn’t actually related to the contents of the constitution. Blair seemed partly to acknowledge this:

The question will be on the treaty, but the implications go far wider – as I believe we all know. It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country, Britain, wants to be at the centre and heart of European decision making or not; time to decide whether our destiny lies as a leading partner and ally of Europe or on its margins.

This presents a puzzle: if the aims were (a) to debunk euro-myths in open debate and (b) to resolve Britain’s relationship with Europe, then this particular proposal was beside the point. Indeed, such a referendum would have been a deeply flawed means of achieving these ends, as it would have formally focused on a specific set of new proposals rather than the bigger picture.

Aim (a) could be pursued by any programme of public relations; aim (b) might be best addressed by the Lib Dem suggestion of a referendum on EU membership generally (although such a move might well end up inconclusive, with a small ‘yes’ majority on a low turnout).

So, if the old policy was a bad means of achieving its declared aims, and an equivalent new policy would be an equally bad means, is the Government now obliged to hold a reform treaty referendum in order to pursue those aims with as much doomed incompetence as it made a manifesto commitment to do? The mind boggles.

This is largely beside the point, though. Whatever reasons Blair had, the promise was made. And while the treaty is different from the constitution, and the Government may avoid the letter of this promise by slightly more than a technicality, I think it’s near-impossible to argue that the spirit of that pledge can’t transfer over to this new treaty.

Governments are bound by their manifesto commitments. They’re not necessarily bound, though, to implement them robotically.

In a representative democracy, a general election is about choosing people to govern rather than being a composite referendum approving all items in a manifesto. A government must respond to changing events, is entitled to think again, and is obliged to make what it judges to be the best decision at any given time.

But election promises do matter. Those elected to govern are bound either to fulfil their commitments or to give good reasons for abandoning them, in the knowledge that they will later be electorally judged on this. (There’s also the option of calling a snap election to seek a different mandate.)

In this case, no good reasons for the change of policy have been given. And, without a revolution in political candour, none such can be given.

The Government is having a hard time explaining why the new treaty is different from the old constitution in such a way as to obviate a referendum because the original official reason for having a vote bore little relation to what was in the constitution. The real reasons both for promising one then and for avoiding one now are largely political expediency. (Similarly, the Tory position, then and now, has been far less edifying and principled than they like to claim.)

Cassilis, whose post this is partly a response to, interestingly takes a position on the treaty very similar to that of Blair three years ago. He wants a referendum, mainly because it would be a way of cutting through the myths and setting straight where we want to stand vis-à-vis the EU:

Most people, if they’re honest, simply don’t know enough about Europe and the way it’s governed. If they discard everything they’ve ‘learned’ from their favoured politicians or their paper of choice… they would most likely draw a blank… Whatever fears either side has about opening up this debate (and there are many valid ones, particularly on the ‘pro’ side) it’s been in effective hibernation for the last 50 years and until we remedy that our continued participation in the EU is based on a fiction. …the whole issue of the part we play in Europe’s future needs to be thrust to the fore and resolved for good or for ill.

There are some very sound points in there (do read the whole thing), and the overall aim – of bringing legitimacy via clarity and openness – is laudable.

But I have to disagree that a referendum on this treaty would be, as he says, “by far the best way” to do this. My earlier response to Blair’s position applies here: this would be asking the voters a specific (and highly complex) question in the hope of answering a much bigger and more general question.

Europe attracts a concoction of misrepresentation, emotion and dogmatism perhaps unique among British political issues. Cassilis takes this as meaning that it’s all the more important for us to take a chance to think it through carefully and arrive at some sort of resolution. That’s right, as far as it goes. But we also have to judge the chances of such an attempt failing or even backfiring. Imagine an all-too-plausible scenario: a nasty campaign, rife with scaremongering and accusations of lying; a low turnout; a close result. This would be more likely to poison the air than to clear it.

There’s a much broader question to ask, though. When, in a representative democracy, should there be a referendum? Given that our normal method of accountability is that the public elect MPs to produce policy outcomes, I’d suggest that a referendum would be justified when a proposal would significantly weaken the link between people and policy by removing significant power from that representative body.

Exceptions might be made when a government had won election on such a proposal; and of course the scope of ‘significant’ will often be subjective. Judgement on that will have to fall to Parliament itself.

Personally, I haven’t seen anything in this treaty to frighten me. The new appointment procedure and term length for the Council President are reasonable, as is the merging of the two foreign affairs commission posts into one (who will act when directed to unanimously by heads of member governments). The UK’s exemptions from justice/home affairs legislation and legal implications of the charter of fundamental rights are certainly suboptimal in their operation, but our ability to put our foot down is there. The new areas of qualified majority voting are largely technical and/or amenable to opt-outs – and in any case, for every veto we ‘lose’, we also lose 26 other vetoes potentially blocking our way.

In terms of the transfer of powers away from Westminster, this treaty doesn’t seem broader in scope from, say, Maastricht or the Single European Act. Furthermore, as Bill Jones notes, we do always have the right to leave. Opponents talk about the ‘surrender’ or ‘loss’ of sovereignty; supporters often speak of ‘pooling’ or the ‘shared exercise’ of sovereignty. My own take is that we’ve invested some sovereignty in the EU, which involves forgoing some legal freedoms in return for the enhanced power that comes from being part of this group. If, one day, we decide we’re not getting a good return on our investment, then we’re free to cash in and walk away. As such, ultimate sovereign power remains at Westminster.

I don’t see that the case for this treaty’s necessitating a referendum is very strong (although it’s not negligible).

There’s a related issue here, as well, which is that of when a referendum is effectively workable (as opposed to in principle desirable). The answer is to do with simplicity. A referendum requires a referendum campaign, and it requires ordinary members of the public to be able to form a reasonably clear opinion of what it is that they’re voting on. If this is not so, then votes will be cast on all sorts of grounds: the overall popularity of the government; previous or possible future policies in this general policy areas; one or two prominent but perhaps minor provisions in the matter at hand.

I think this treaty’s likelihood of being reasonably well understood by the public during a campaign would compare badly with other policies where referendums have been held or suggested. The multitude of policy areas its provisions touch on make it less readily comprehensible. (I can personally attest - as a fairly alert political anorak - that it is hard to get one’s head round the detail.)

Referendums work best when they are on single measures that can be, at least in rough outline, easily grasped. Naturally, issues such as devolution or electoral reform or even euro membership have all sorts of complex practical details and implications; but such matters are, at heart, about one single big idea. This treaty (and its predecessors) is quite a different beast: indeed, it’s a vast menagerie of policy measures, of varying size, in a myriad of areas. It would be tremendously hard to untangle in the public eye all these measures from others previously agreed and not up for debate, and also from hypothetical measures that may have been mooted but not actually included.

So, if I were an MP not bound by a manifesto commitment then I’d not support a referendum. However, had I been elected on such a promise, I expect I’d feel reluctantly obliged to apply it to this treaty. If I were prime minister, I might seriously consider calling a new election to refresh my mandate on this. But then again, I wouldn’t have promised one in the first place.

What a pretty pickle our political class has contrived to get us into.

Friday, October 19, 2007

With power comes responsibility


Big Issue founder John Bird has decided he will no longer stand as a candidate to be mayor of London, and will devote his time to fighting poverty instead. He said he planned to launch a political "movement" next year.

"Why do I want to manage a decline? Why do I want to manage a crisis? I'd have to do the Ken Livingstone thing - go out there and say I was sorry the police weren't there, or the transport wasn't there, or the bendy buses didn't work.

"I don't want to be an apologist. What I want to do is create a social movement that will lead people of all political classes, all political persuasions to help us dismantle this poverty," he said.

Well, those who govern can avoid becoming “apologists” [sic] by means of not doing anything wrong. Another view would be that some failures are inevitable and that when one is responsible, apologising for them is in fact honourable and decent. It looks as though what Bird wishes to avoid is actually responsibility and accountability (I don’t blame him: I’d not want such a bloody demanding job either).

Now, I’m all in favour of wanting to get rid of poverty. So can I point him in the direction of the Campaign to End Child Poverty? It does at least have the virtue of already having some organisational structure and momentum behind its work.

Bush on Iraq: “a rhetoric that’s as subtle as can be”

A transcript of a meeting between George Bush and then Spanish PM José Marìa Aznar has been published. The meeting took place on 22 February 2003, over three weeks before the start of the war. Some extracts to interpret as you will:

Bush: Saddam Hussein won't change and he'll continue playing games. The time has come to get rid of him. That's it. As for me, I'll try from now on to use a rhetoric that's as subtle as can be while we're seeking approval of the resolution. If anyone [on the Security Council] vetoes [the proposed second resolution], we'll go. Saddam Hussein isn't disarming. We have to catch him right now. … There are two weeks left. In two weeks we'll be militarily ready. I think we'll get the second resolution. … We'll be in Baghdad by the end of March.

Aznar: Saddam Hussein hasn't cooperated, he hasn't disarmed, we should make a summary of his breaches and send a more elaborate message. That would, for example, allow Mexico to make a move.

Bush: The resolution will be tailored to help you as best it can. I don't care much about the content.

Aznar: How will the resolution and the inspectors' report be combined?

Condoleezza Rice: … We don't expect much from that report. As with the previous ones, it will be six of one and half a dozen of the other. … After the inspectors have appeared before the Council we should anticipate the vote on the resolution taking place one week later. Meanwhile, the Iraqis will try to explain that they're meeting their obligations. It's neither true nor sufficient, even if they announce the destruction of some missiles.

Bush: This is like Chinese water torture. We have to put an end to it.

Aznar: I agree, but it would be good to be able to count on as many people as possible. Have a little patience.

Bush: My patience has run out. I won't go beyond mid-March.

EU treaty – help wanted

I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on with this for a little while now, and in light of this pleasantly calm, intelligent post by Cassilis, I’m hoping to step that up a bit.

So I have a question for anybody who might be inclined to reply: can you point me towards any decent analyses/discussions/evaluations of what’s in this treaty?

I’m looking for links to material that’s better-quality than the rubbish in most of the newspapers, preferably not zealously biased on one side or the other, and that I don’t have to be an expert in European law to understand.

Much appreciated.

Thrills, spills, action, adventure and the Lib Dems

The Lib Dem leadership race, the hottest political event since early 2006, is now well under way. With candidates dropping in and out like sitcom characters in a coffee shop, the excitement is already preparing to consider the appropriate procedures for deciding when might be an apposite time to start mounting.

To help you keep track of this orangey maelstrom, here’s a guide to the Runners and Riders (© lazy hacks everywhere) and their pitches for power!

(Disclaimer: The position of Lib Dem leader may not necessarily involve any power.)

Chris Huhne
‘If you elect me leader I guarantee that I will not run naked through the streets of London.’

Nick Clegg
‘I’m not David Cameron. Really, I’m not, and I wouldn’t want to be. I promise. But if you squint…’

John Hemming
‘Nobody’s ever heard of me. Not even Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg. So I really need to impress with this, my first notable public statement. I know! I’ll pontificate about moral philosophy while overlooking the basic first-year undergraduate distinction between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. You like that? No? Well, OK, I’ll pull out, then.’

Charles Kennedy
‘After my experience last time, I think it is highly unlikely that I will be hosting Have I Got News For You again. But in showbiz, you should never say never.’

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

An ontological argument for the existence of god in words of one syllable (and a rebuttal)

(Just a bit of fun…)

The argument

Try to think of the best thing that there could be (not just the best thing there is, by the way, but the best thing there could be). That thought makes sense, right? Let’s call that thing ‘god’, as god is meant to be the best thing that that is or could be (if he in fact is real).

So: you’ve got in your mind this best thing that there could be. Well, that’s good – but it’s not great. How great can a thing that’s just in your mind be?

If it weren’t just in your mind but in the real world with the rest of us as well, then that would be quite a plus. That would be great.

But hang on: if a god in the real world would beat the god in your mind, then the god in your mind can’t be the best thing that there could be, can it? We said at the start, though, that ‘the best thing that there could be’ makes sense. Now, for that to be so, then this best thing has to be in the real world – for real – and not just in your mind.

So this best thing – god – is in the real world. For real.

The counter-argument

No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. You’ve mixed up things and thoughts.

When you think of the best thing that there could be, you don’t then have that thing in your mind. A phrase like that is just the way we tend to talk. What you do have in your mind in this case is the thought of the best thing that there could be.

(And, in fact, as your mind is in the real world with the rest of us, so your thought of this best thing is in the real world too.)

And what’s true of a thing need not be true of the thought of that thing. An ant is small and a whale is big, right? So is the thought of an ant small and the thought of a whale big? Of course not: thoughts don’t have size as things do.

Now, you’ve got the thought of the best thing that there could be (god, let’s say) in your mind. How great does that thought have to be? Great, I mean, in the way that god is meant to be. Of course, the thought is just a thought – it’s fine as it is, but it need not be great in the way that god is meant to be great (or big in the way that a whale is big, and so on).

Sure, if you think of god then you can think of him both as real and as the best thing that there could be. What’s more, you can think of him as the best thing that there is, for real. And, as far as your thoughts go, that’s fine. But this does not mean that we can put your thought of him (which is real) on a par with him (who is just thought of as real) and say that what would be true of god is in fact true of your thought of god.

There’s a phrase that goes (more or less): ‘if a wish were a horse, then a poor man could take a ride’. But a wish is not a horse. And a thought is not a god.

(I was moved to produce this during a discussion over at Alex’s. For a more thorough look at ontological arguments, see here; for an entertaining musical treatment, see here – thanks to Timmo.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Proper authority and stopping genocide

Conor Foley and Norm Geras (and Conor and Norm again) have debated humanitarian intervention recently. The focus was on whether a state or group of states has the right (moral or legal) to intervene militarily without UN approval in another state in which, say, genocide is taking place.

Norm urges that there is a moral right and that if there is no legal right, then the legal system in question is an ass (my paraphrase). Conor argues that there is no legal right, and that if states go around disregarding international law as they please then we’ll have chaos. Norm suggests in turn that there’s a world of difference between breaking a bad law in order to save lives and breaking other, better laws for more selfish reasons.

On the tension between what he sees as a clear moral right and the possible lack of a legal right, Norm says:

if humanitarian intervention by a state or group of states without Security Council authorization is in all circumstances illegal, then this means that international law presently accommodates what is, by its own norms, massive state criminality. The law being upheld by (some) legal scholars, in other words, has a glaring logical contradiction at its heart.

This contradiction, I suggest, is the result of a deeper structural contradiction in international law. This may not be grasped if we try to understand it on the same model as national law.

Domestically, law is defined and imposed upon individuals by the government, with institutions that enforce laws and administer punishments. But what we call ‘international law’ is a set of agreements made between governments, covering their own behaviour. Enforcement of international law is voluntary and thus selective, as there is no global body with the political independence and resources necessary to act effectively. It’s enforced only when a sufficiently powerful group of governments decide that they wish to do so.

So a body of documents may call itself ‘international law’ but without reliable, independent application and enforcement there is no real rule of law in the international sphere. The ends are willed far more often than the means. Sometimes the means are even put completely out of reach.

This underpins the debate about the right of humanitarian intervention in the face of genocide.

The ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine (R2P), accepted by the General Assembly in 2005, acknowledges that it’s always best for national authorities to safeguard the wellbeing of their own citizens. However, if they are unwilling or unable to do so and allow terrible humanitarian suffering to be inflicted on their people, then an external force with Security Council authorisation may intervene militarily. This is very much a regrettable fall-back option.

This logic, though, goes a step farther than the UN can take it. What happens when international authorities are failing to protect these civilians under threat?

We know that the UN will often, for political reasons, fail to act. The principle by which R2P allows responsibility to be transferred, in certain dire cases, beyond the initially proper national authority to the UN, still applies in those even direr cases when the international safety net fails. Clearly, the UN itself can’t have any provisions governing what to do when its processes are inadequate for upholding its own principles. ‘International law’ doesn’t, and can’t, answer this essentially political question.

The UN’s subordination to its members means that it’s not the ultimate authority. The absence of a single world state, though, means that there is no such authority anywhere. This hole in the system is what underlies the contradiction Norm identifies, of the procedures for law enforcement tolerating (and even blocking the prevention of) massive state criminality.

This hole is also what gives rise to the problem of how to uphold the principle of R2P when the UN fails, and it’s what makes a ‘legal’ solution to that problem impossible.

Sending in the blue berets to stop state-backed massacres is inherently a more destabilising option than persuading the state government in question to put its house in order. But sometimes the ‘stability’ option won’t work. Likewise, mounting a non-UN-sanctioned intervention is inherently a more destabilising option than persuading the Security Council to authorise an effective mission (this is Conor’s point, and he’s right). But sometimes the fall-back ‘stability’ option won’t work either, and so two tiers of proper authority fail. Then what?

It’s widely understood that the passing of UN resolutions is arbitrary and selective, and that the supply of money and troops for their enforcement is also arbitrary and selective. It’s not such a huge leap to suggest that when such a system, which paints power politics as principled law, freezes up, there is a morally legitimate opening for others to stand up for those principles on their own.

Monday, October 15, 2007

An old trick

The Lib Dems are at it again:

[Menzies Campbell] insisted that he would stick to his pledge to lead the party "into the next election and beyond", telling members he was not too old at 66 to lead the party.

It’s very deft, the way he keeps doing that. In fact, it’s one of his smartest political tricks (not that that’s saying much).

Because, of course, the issue isn’t whether he’s too old: it’s whether he’s crap.

Official: donating to the Tories is insane

A silly season story seems to have been held over from August:

The Conservatives have lost a battle to keep an £8.3m bequest by a man whose son described him as delusional. Drugs mogul Branislav Kostic, who died in 2005, wrote his will in the 1980s after saying Margaret Thatcher would save the world from "satanic monsters". But his only son Zoran, 50, contested the bequest at the High Court, saying his father was "deluded and insane" and he was entitled to the entire estate.

But the thing is, times have changed since the 1980s. The Tories have ditched so much of the Thatcher legacy in their bid to look modern and caring that Mr Kostic Sr’s reasons for backing the party no longer hold true.

For many traditional party supporters, David Cameron’s infamous ‘hug a satanic monster’ speech was the last straw.

And, delightfully:

Handing down his judgement, Mr Justice Henderson, said Mr Kostic would not have left the money to the Tories if he had been "of sound mind".

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Something to bear in mind

It’s a major achievement for George Bush to lower my opinion of him, but he’s managed it. This time it’s holocaust denial, in the face of a congressional committee vote:

The nonbinding House resolution says the deportation of nearly 2 million Armenians from the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923, resulting in the deaths of 1.5 million of them, amounted to "genocide."

Bush and his officials had lobbied hard against this, and they deplore the result:

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack issued a statement expressing "regret" for the committee's action, warning the resolution "may do grave harm to U.S.-Turkish relations and to U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East."

Yes, it may well be expedient to pander to the political pathologies of a strategically useful country. But some lines just shouldn’t be crossed.

The 1948 Genocide Convention obliges its signatories (including, since 1988, the US) “to prevent and to punish” genocide. The record on this has been somewhat mixed, shall we say. But if such action is too often beyond our will, then we can – we must – at least bear witness to such atrocities, call them by their proper name, and make sure they aren’t forgotten.

As Hitler put it: “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”

Not the leader of the free world, alas.

I’m sure relations with Iran could be usefully improved by acquiescing in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s own brand of sly denial – any takers?

Update: Simon Tisdall (via Norm) has a novel take: “As most Turks see it, this… is an insulting, gratuitous interference in their sovereign affairs.” If so, then merely talking about early 20th-century history now constitutes “extraterritorial meddling”. I’m not convinced.

It may also be worth noting that the genocide pre-dates not just the current Turkish government and the births of almost all living Turks; it pre-dates the very formation of the Republic of Turkey from the Ottoman rubble.

White (Brown) lies and the stupidity of politics

I’ve just had an offer accepted on a flat in north London (one of the less trendy parts), which is all very exciting. There are still a lot of steps to go, but it’s looking like I might just be settled in by Christmas. One phrase from the process made me think of Gordon Brown, though. No, not ‘this is going to cost me’. Rather, it was ‘subject to survey’.

I think this flat is pretty decent. But possibly a closer look at the detail will reveal that it isn’t, in which case I’ll have to walk away from the deal. If so, will I have ‘bottled it’? Would that be cowardice?

Of course not. If something you’d provisionally planned to do suddenly turns out to look like a worse idea than you’d expected, it’s perfectly good sense to back out. Hence Brown: his early election plans were, naturally, subject to surveys of public opinion.

What actually reflected badly on Brown was not deciding against the election, but instead the thing that prompted him to do so: the sudden Tory poll boost from their party conference. But that, clearly, is something that would have been bad for him in any circumstances.

The other thing that reflected badly on him was his obviously untrue explanation for not calling an election. I won’t even bother to quote it, so piss-poor was the blather, but here’s a thing: was it really a reprehensible piece of deception?

I remember in the 1997 election campaign, Michael Heseltine went around saying he was confident of a Tory majority of around 60. In the final few days, he amended this to “60, nudging up”. In the face of Labour’s massive leads, everyone knew he didn’t really think this.

But nobody cared. It was just one of those things politicians say that aren’t true in order to keep a certain narrative officially alive. It was a move in the political-media game, which – while inane – was in accordance with the informal rules and not something that actually harmed anyone or constituted impropriety. Heseltine’s lie wasn’t reprehensible, because it wasn’t actually an attempt to deceive. He knew it was false; we knew that he knew this; he knew that we knew that he knew…

And so to Brown. David Cameron taunted him yesterday, saying: “The Prime Minister was asked, ‘Hand on heart, if the polls showed a 100-seat majority, would you still have called off the election?’ and he said yes. Does he expect anyone to believe that?”

But that’s exactly the point: Brown’s explanation was literally unbelievable – and he knew it. And we knew that he knew, and so forth. It wasn’t an attempt to deceive but just a declarative holding position from which to have rotten fruit thrown at him for a while. It made him look bad, of course, but the alternative would have been worse.

Much political debate – whether between opposition and government or between media interviewer and politician – has become a matter of ‘trying to trip the other guy up’ vs ‘trying not to give anything away that would trip me up’. It’s largely a charade, and all involved know it’s largely a charade, but they can’t give it up: whoever blinks first gets ritually flayed.

One aspect of this ridiculous game is that politicians are supposed to maintain the line that they don’t pay any attention to opinion polls or even really care about popularity at all. We all know that this is weapons-grade balderdash, of course. Every political leader pays close attention to polls, and hopes for good ratings. All politicians want to be popular and win elections. Only if we expect them to be heroically selfless, noble philosopher-kings is that a fault. We don’t, I think, really demand that, but there somehow seems to be a collective expectation that they should talk as though they are.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Brave new words

Tom Hamilton asks: “where does the phrase ‘to bottle it’ come from?” He adds that he could Google it, “But then it wouldn't make a blog post.”

Marvellously, this makes a blog post for me as well as for him.

Brian Barder (hat tip to Google) (sorry, that was silly) says:

The politicians and political commentators have a funny-peculiar way of adopting their own patois to describe current events. Thus none of them seems able to describe a decision by the prime minister not to call a general election this year other than as "bottling it", an expression surely unknown to ordinary people outside Westminster. We're familiar with the idea of a person having "plenty of bottle", which I take to mean something like chutzpah, boldness, readiness to take risks: but this latest cliché seems to mean the opposite, namely playing the coward. The OED online recognises the phrase "to bottle out" as meaning "to lose one's nerve; to back out of an action at the last minute, ‘chicken out’. slang", with a few examples dating back to 1979, almost all from journalism, but in recent days the required inclusion of the 'out' with 'bottle' seems to have got mislaid.

Which is good stuff. Reading this, I wondered if there might be some connection to ‘Dutch courage’, the phenomenon by which one becomes braver with the infusion of alcohol – very possibly from a bottle. If so, then ‘bottling it’ would mean that Gordon Brown had sobered up enough to realise that a snap election would be a bad idea. Hmm.

Then I looked at LondonSlang.com, which suggested:

bottle - courage, balls. eg "he lost his bottle", "he bottled out", "he's got a lot of bottle". The most common explanation of this term is that it comes from the Rhyming Slang 'bottle and glass' - 'arse'. ie. To loose ones bottle, to loose ones arse (incontinence produced by fear).

Interesting, but I’m not convinced. The explanation only really hangs together if the first ‘loose’ in that final sentence is a disregarded spelling mistake while the second ‘loose’ is beautifully apt.

And if we’re on rhyming slang, couldn’t there be a ‘bottle of beer’-‘fear’ connection?

At this point, though (and I’m surprised I lasted this long), I lost interest. You could probably Google it if you wanted…

(On the subject of ‘loosing one’s arse’: the German word for diarrhoea, durchfall, literally means ‘through-fall’. Nice.)

‘Not in my hands’

More inane concessions to a superstitious mindset that prefers to engage in special pleading than reasoned debate (via Norm):

Sainsbury’s is permitting Muslim checkout operators to refuse to handle customers’ alcohol purchases on religious grounds. It means other members of staff have to be called over to scan in wine and beer for them at the till.

Units of alcohol that such behaviour will save Muslim cashiers from consuming: zero.

Units of alcohol that such behaviour will prevent customers from purchasing and consuming: zero.

I don’t know the details of the Islamic rules against alcohol, although I gather that drinking the stuff is out. I’d be surprised to hear that handling it in the process of a sale is also forbidden whereas a pantomime legalistic refusal to handle it while remaining complicit in its sale is just fine.

Like so much else these days, this gesture is a public declaration of solipsistic piety and not an attempt to change anything in any way. It contrives to be both otherwordly and egocentric. Cognitive dissonance can spawn some strange contortions indeed, especially when infused with scripture.

And that’s a bad miss…

A serious unforced tactical error from Gordon Brown. For want of an original phrase: one of the longest weeks in politics has just passed. Imagine how much better Brown’s position would be now had he ruled out an early election on the Friday or Saturday after the Labour conference, rather than waiting for the near-certain Tory poll boost following their conference. Muppet.

So, certainly a few days of awful media coverage and possibly longer-term damage to his reputation. But let’s keep in mind exactly what it is that we’ve learned about Brown from this episode:

He is a politician.

He’s joined the long list of prime ministers who have considered calling an unnecessarily early election that they thought they were likely to win; and he’s joined the shorter list of those who then decided not to as it started to look as though they might not win.

(The fact that we’ve come to think that a four-year term isn’t unnecessarily long shows how widespread the practice has become.)

The ‘bottling’ – as we’re legally obliged to call it – was only a U-turn in the Keynesian sense (“When the facts change, I change my mind”). Yellow is the new Brown only if a desire to avoid suicide is cowardice.

The whole thing, though, is deeply unedifying and was badly thought through, and he deservedly looks stupid. But the suggestions of impropriety – ‘playing politics with the constitution’ and all that – are rubbish. All he’s actually done is to allow media speculation to rumble on and to keep the opposition in a state of uncertainty. Oh, and he’s shifted the timing of a couple of announcements whose timing was his to decide anyway.

True, he’s not been frank about his reasons for declining the option, but then nor has David Cameron been frank about whether an early ‘mandate’ election is needed (when at the 2005 election he’d said that “if you vote Labour you get Blair, you get Brown… So it doesn't matter whether you have Blair or Brown”). And dear old Ming Campbell has now proved himself as slippery as – well, as a Lib Dem, in now calling for fixed election dates when he had previously urged Brown to call an early election.

There’s disingenuous cant on all sides.

(The only occasion of truly dishonourable, partisan election timing that I can r call is John Major in 1997. Yes, he went the full five years – in the hope that somehow, Labour’s massive poll lead might diminish – but the skulduggery came in the detail. Major prorogued Parliament unusually early – well before its formal dissolution – which halted the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey. This meant that Downey’s potentially humiliating report into the cash-for-questions scandal couldn’t be published until safely after the election.)

Anyway. Did anybody really fancy canvassing and leafleting in the cold?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Talk is cheap: a Freemania charity appeal

Meet David:

Today I want to make a speech about why I want to lead our country. I am afraid it is going to be a bit longer and I haven't got an autocue and I haven't got a script, I've just got a few notes so it might be a bit messy; but it will be me.

David is 40 years old. He’s a political party leader from Notting Hill and is trying to get ahead in life. He has charm, brains and oratorical skill, but he desperately needs your help to succeed.

You see, David, like many young people today, is affected by poverty. Through no fault of his own, he is unable to afford such simple necessities as an autocue or even a full pad of paper – things that most of us take for granted.

Please, give all you can to help David realise his dream of delivering a fully scripted speech. All donations, however small, can make a difference. Please send your cheques to Lord Ashcroft, Conservative Central Office, 30 Millbank, London SW1P 4DP.

Thank you.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Talking down British troops?

There was nothing wrong with Gordon Brown going to Iraq to talk about troop withdrawals. But don’t take it from me; I have it on the highest authority, as interviewed on the Today programme yesterday morning:

James Naughtie: Firstly, Gordon Brown’s visit to Iraq. Is that something you welcome, and would you expect something specific to be said and to come out of it?

David Cameron: Yes. I mean, I’ve been to Baghdad and Basra myself and met with British troops, and they’ve been doing incredible, difficult work there. And if it’s now possible to hand over progressively to the Iraqi army and to bring more of our troops home, then he’ll certainly have my support.

By the afternoon, scenting an opportunity to show Brown up, the Tories had completely changed tack. Liam Fox led the charge:

You, Prime Minister, in your self-indulgent, plagiarised, 67-minute speech, how much did you dedicate to Iraq, Afghanistan and our Armed Forces? 126 words. 126 words. One word for every two servicemen or women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope you remember that when you are having your photo opportunities in Iraq today.

I have no idea whether this inane hysteria was an act or sincerely felt. I don’t care. But if I were a soldier in Iraq wanting some non-partisan prime ministerial attention, and keen to hear news of troop withdrawals, I’d rather Brown flew out to see us than devote some undefined threshold number of words to me in his party conference speech.

Was Brown’s use of troop numbers (total reductions vs those already withdrawn vs those already announced) dishonest? Here’s what he actually said:

I believe that by the end of the year the British forces, which have been 5,500, can be reduced to 4,500, and that by the end of the year, indeed by Christmas, 1,000 of our troops can be brought back to the UK and to other purposes.

There’s no implication anywhere that any of this is a new announcement (even though some of it is). Think carefully about what tense he’s using in saying that numbers “have been 5,500”. Note that his mention of the number 1,000 occurs only after he’s said that the reduction will be from 5.500 to 4,500. There’s no scope at all for confusion about the lower level of troops he means.

Hadn’t he promised to tell this to Parliament, though?

I stand ready and willing to be corrected on this, but I can’t find anywhere he’s actually said such a thing. True, many people (including me) had recently formed that impression, from his having said:

I’m going to make a statement to the House of Commons when we return in October, and I want to set out to the House of Commons how we are moving in the provinces for which we have responsibility in Iraq from what you might call the combat role to one where the Iraqis themselves take over the responsibility for their own security…

But nowhere does this suggest either that he’d mention numbers for withdrawal in this statement or that he wouldn’t mention such numbers in any non-Parliamentary statement. Any impression to that effect that I or various TV/newspaper pundits had formed seems to have been entirely our own fault.

That said, such a media expectation had formed, and so Brown’s move yesterday was predictably likely to draw him some flak. Probably the (politically) clumsiest move he’s made in the job so far.

Now, I could discuss whether these reductions would be a good thing for Iraq or for the British troops that remain, but let’s face it, the politicking is the far more important issue. Election on 1 November?

Monday, October 01, 2007

‘Lurch to the right’ is such a cliché…

David Cameron’s promise (February 2006): “The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich.”

Minimum value of estate to benefit from Tory inheritance tax proposals: £300,000.

Total cost to taxpayer: £3.1 billion.

Amount of this helping the most disadvantaged in society: £0.

Standard by which Cameron’s failure can be judged: his own.