Saturday, January 30, 2010
Tony, it was 'Your Calculus of Risk' which was at the Root of the Iraq Disaster
The Blair images above, giving evidence at Chilcot reveal a man looking drawn but also using all those old (sleight of?) hand movements to which we are so accustomed. It was strange seeing him on the screen again, almost as if he had never been away. The newspapers have had a field day commenting on his lack of contrition, his lawyerly evasions and his existence, according to The Guardian, on a different 'planet'. The one phrase which resonated with me, though, was his 'calculus of risk' which Blair said was totally changed by 9-11.
He constructed a narrative from this point which seemed to convince him, seemed to hang together and seemed to hold Chilcot and his panel in thrall. He argued that after 9-11 there was a desperate danger that rogue states like Iraq would become havens for terrorists as the Taliban had for al Quaeda. It could not be ruled out that Saddam might do a deal with the 9-11 terrorists, acquire ther nuclear weapons Iraq so nearly had developed and inflict untold harm upon the world. It followed that Blair saw 9-11 as an attack on 'all of us' and so had no difficulty in being 'shoulder to shoulder' with George Bush as his fight was our fight.
Saddam had to be brought down: 'supposing we had backed off this military action, supposing we had left Saddam and his sons who were going to follow him in charge of Iraq... we know he retained absolutely the intent and intellectual know-how to restart a nuclear and chemical weapons programme.' The calculus of such risk in the post 9-11 world was such that an invasion was now justified.
Blair's line of argument was quite fluent and even credible up to a point. But there was one huge flaw. Suppose the calculus of risk was looked at the other way? Suppose western efforts at containment had proved successful? Suppose someone within Iraq had finally shot Saddam and taken him out of the equation? What if the bad scenarios are replaced by good ones? Then the war would not have been necessary? Isn't that outcome just as likely and credible? Instead he and his cowboy partner waded into Iraq, expecting to be welcomed but were seen as invaders; expecting 75,000 troops to be enough but were very much not enough; blindly dismantled the civil service and the forces of law and order and allowed the anrchy to kick off.
Blair wanted to invade to prevent his nightmare scenario becoming reality, but the execution of the war was so bad that the nnightmare was created anyway. Blair was and is, so desperate to justify himself that he was even able to claim 'we didn't end up with a humanitarian disaster' while the whole world knows that is exactly what Iraq very quickly became. At the core of the decision to invade was a careless indifference to the bad risks- like he and Bush and company thought just would not happen and a naive faith that the good risks would all come off.
We all know being a modern prime minister is fraught with difficulties and tough judgements but we hope our elected leaders will have the judgement they claim when campaigning to keep us safe from danger and not enage in military conflict unless the threat to us is real and substantial. It seems all Blair had to justify himself was a series of 'what ifs'; the aggreage of all these hypothetical dangers was by no means sufficient to justify lead us over the top and into the volatile and hugely dangerous spectrum of war. In the old days, Henry V and all that- kings led their troops into war. GeorgeII was the last king to do that at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. If Tony Blair had been required to go in with the troops, or if Euan had been a front line soldier I suspect he would not have been quite so gung ho about going to war.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
New Social Attitudes Survey Bad News for Labour
1. Party Allegiance: Out of the 4000 sample, 32% declared themselves to be Conservative supporters and only 27% Labour- the first time since 1994 Labour have not been in front.
2. .Brown and the Crisis: When asked if Gordon Brown's leadership during the economic crisis had made Britain's economic situation better or worse overall, only 43% opted for the latter, with 50% for the former. 28% reckoned he'd made it a 'lot worse'. This is appalling news for Labour and a sing voters know little of what the government has managed to do.
3. Change Needed Even among those who backed Labour in 2005, 38% now think it's 'time for a change'.
4. Redistribution: from better off to the poor: in 1994 51% agreed- now it's fallen to 38%. Among Labour supporters the fall has been from 68% to a startling 49%.
5. Apathy: depressing for supporters of both parties was the figure of 56% who believed they had no civic 'duty' to vote. Moreover, while 8% thought it was not worth voting in 1998, now the figure is 18%. As a militant supporter of, an albeit reformed representative democracy, these figures are the ones which make me most depressed. Some of the low ratings for labour merely reflect voter exasperation with Brown and his lack of political appeal. They will change as the pendulum swings, but despair at the system might make such swings irrelevant.
6. Public Services Spending. In 1997 62% favoured more spending on public services- the present figure is 39%.
On the plus side- well I thought so- we have become a lot more liberal during the past decade or so. There has been an increase from 38% to 45% among those considering it makes 'no difference to children' if their parents are 'married or just living together'. And those thinking homosexual relationships 'wrong' had declined from 62% in 1983 to 36% now.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Irony of Labour Shifting Voters to the Right
Redistribution: in the mid 1990s 50% supoorted redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. Now it is only 30%
Welfare: in 1997 46% thought unemployment benefit was too low; now it has dropped to below 30%
Inequality: voters have become less concerned about inequality and government efforts to combat it.
Curtice, perhaps mindful of those 1980s surveys argues:
Tony Blair's great legacy has been to achieve Margaret Thatcher's ambition," said Curtice. "One of the consequences of the New Labour shift to the centre is it has moved the electorate to the right."
The corollary of this is that Labour will have helped prepare the ground for Cameron when the election day arrives. Huge irony, I know, but it originates in the fact that Laour can only get into power if it appeals to middle class voters as well as the shrinking number of working class ones. Tony Blair was the perfect vehicle for making such an appeal- not Labour, not socialist but public school and Oxbridge with a posh voice. Trouble is, he did it far too well and seems to be morphing as much into David Cameron as Cameron is morphing into him.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Chilcot and the Election
Gordon will appear, then, before the election in front of the Chilcot Inquiry. Given that Hoon and Straw, not to mention Campbell, have now appeared and Blair will soon, we might consider the likely effects on the coming election. Hoon was so bland he doesn't really count as he tried to make out he was of no importance, almost 'out of the loop'; hew aqlso deployed his secret weapon of boring the panel to death. Straw, on the other hand, suggested he was central to the project and could even have stopped it had he been minded to object to the plan decided. Of the two I think Brown will choose a route closer to Hoon's than Jack's.
He will seek to play each ball with a dead bat to take out the drama and suggest he was merely a supporting actor to Tony Blair's highly suspect leading role. If cornered, I daresay he'll claim he supported the rest of the Cabinet in a decision which drew upon the best intelligence available at the time. Which is probably the best defence he's got. What about Tony? He's going to be interesting. Questions will focus on his promises to Bush to wade in with troops even without a specific UN resolution. But he'll easily evade them with the practiced skill of the ultimate slippery politician- and I say that with some admiration too.
But how will Gordon use Tony during the campaign? We hear he is to be deployed on behalf of Labour but I cannot see why to be honest. Against him he has: his hugely unpopular Iraq invasion decision, which has been highlighted recently by Chilcot; his megabucks lecturing; his Connaught Square house and his recently bought country mansion. He epitomises New Labour's 'relaxation' about people becoming 'filthy rich' and, given present circumstances, this goes down even less well than when he was prime minister.
On the plus side he has his Faith Foundation and his peace-making role in the Middle East. Problem is, nobody, apart from the few faithful, really cares about faith these days and his peace-making efforts have not obviously borne any fruit to date. I tend to think Blair, rather lke Mrs Thatcher in 1992 and 1997, is more of a liability than an electoral asset. He will merely remind voters why they lost trust in Labour and the only votes he'll win will be for for the man to whom he is still a role model: David Cameron.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Does The Daily Beast Show the Way for News Media's Future?
Woke up ridiculously early today and found trying to get back to sleep through listening to the World Service was frustrated by the interview with Tina Brown which was just too interesting for allow me to drift back off. Following her editorship of The Tatler, aged only 25, and later reign at Vanity Fair, not to mention her marriage to Harold Evans, the famous former editor of The Times and Sunday Times, she has long been seen as a major luminary of the print press as well as a leading socialite in her adopted home of the USA. At all her press appointments she established a record as an obsessive, innovative miracle worker.
Well, up to a point. Her Talk Magazine venture was initially successful but signally failed to survive the advertising recession. So the queen of the print press decided to join the enemy by setting up The Daily Beast, an online 'news aggregator' mixing celebrity news with a blend of other news stories. Take a look at it, if you haven't seen it yet and, I bet like me, you are impressed.
She was frank about the fact that she lacks the scores of staff of a major conventional title but insisted her tiny staff, which includes an investigative reporter-poached from a fading 'old' print paper- delivers the goods. Is it yet a substitute for a 'real' i.e. 'old' newspaper? Like the Huffington Post, not quite yet. But both of them are quite clearly getting there. Brown observed that 'The old model is broken but the new one is not yet properly up and running.' So such online publications occupy a hiatus during which reliable income flows are sought.
Advertising provides the main income source for most of the megablogs but this is not sufficient to finance the sort of overseas staff and investigative teams run even by the bigger tabloids. Where such income will come from is not yet clear but Rupert Murdoch's plans to charge for online news might provide a possible, (though perhaps regrettable) solution. Will we be prepared to subscribe to such publications? At the moment such sources are free of charge so a cultural shift will be necessary, but, like it or not, those of us who are addicted to news and current affairs may be inching towards such a reformulation.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Obama's Political Future Still in the Balance
One year on, how well has he done? Not too badly, by our reckoning. In his first 12 months in office Mr Obama has overseen the stabilising of the economy, is on the point of bringing affordable health care to virtually every American citizen, has ended the era of torture, is robustly prosecuting the war in Afghanistan while gradually disengaging from Iraq; and perhaps more precious than any of these, he has cleared away much of the cloud of hatred and fear through which so much of the world saw the United States during George Bush’s presidency.
But the caveats are formidable as Michael Crowley argues in today's Observer. If Scott Brown wins the Senate seat vacated by Edward Kennedy this coming Tuesday, even that 'affordable health care' achievement will be in great jeopardy; given trhe late Senator's life-long campaigning on this issue such an outcome would be a cruel irony. But the fact is Obama's honeymoon did not last long. Democrats- always less disciplined than the Republicans - have been moaning about the extent to which Obama has compromised and watered down his health reforms to win acceptance; they are not too pleased either about his ramping up the Afghanistan conflict with 30,000 more troops. His satisfaction ratings have plummetted from 67 in May to the present 49 points now.
An evitably the rightwing media have delivered an onslaught on the new black president which one cannot imagine being directed at a white Democrat in the White House. Rush Limbaugh and his fellow persecutors on the radio wave-bands have shown they have no shame when it comes to finding sticks with which to beat their president. Limbaugh has even suggested Obama is exploiting the Haitian earthquake for his own political ends, that it was 'made to order' for the president to 'burnish his credibility' with both light skinned and black skinned African Americans'.
Crazed fundamentalist Pat Robertson even went so far as to say that back in the 19th century, the Haitian people:
"got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, OK it's a deal."
The key thing to get right, assuming Martha Coakley wins Massachusetts on Tuesday, is the economy. If unemployment edges down from 10% voters might begin to appreciate the rare quality of their politically pragmatic and astute president. He took a gamble on a massive bali-out of the banks and a substantial Keynesian stimulus to the economy. If it works te project will remain intact and have a good chance of making a real difference if it fails, he'll ose control of Congress and might end up a lame duck president. Which would be a tragedy.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Out of Control Consumerism is the Chief Threat to the Planet
All kinds of scientists and ecologists warn us every day of the doom which is set to overwhelm us and it gives me no pleasure to flag up yet another, another, related to climate change but different, which we should start be worrying about as well. A report by the World Watch Institute describes how 'consumerism' has engulfed human cultures and the world's ecosystems 'like a tsunami'. It points an accusing finger at US 'greed culture', the desperate desire of modern man to accumulate and consume as life objectives. It observes that the:
average American consumes more than his or her weight in products each day, fuelling a global culture of excess that is emerging as the biggest threat to the planet. Erik Assadourian, the project director who led a team of 35 behind the report, said: "Until we recognise that our environmental problems, from climate change to deforestation to species loss, are driven by unsustainable habits, we will not be able to solve the ecological crises that threaten to wash over civilisation."
This habit of excess began in the USA but such a culture has been exported worldwide so that every world citizen is now a potential over-consumer. Owning prestige goods like expensive cars, houses, and personal effects have become worldwide badges of success and millions now strive to achieve the same level of unsustainable ownwership of material goods.
With 6 billion inhabitants the effort to sustain this exponential growth in consumption- 28% in the last decade alone- is gouging out vast indentations in the earth's surface, polluting both air and water and fast using up the finite resources available. The report sees some encouraging signs of attitude change, especially amongst the young, but argues that consumerism and changing views can only coexist up to a point. Even climate change deniers have to accept that a fundamental change of culture worldwide has to occur if the planet is not to head down the dystopic route indicated by novels and films like The Road.
Monday, January 11, 2010
Would a Minimum Price on a Unit of Alcohol Improve our Lives?
The excellent Economist magazine addresses the subject of cheap booze this week and considers the proposal that a minimum price be fixed for one unit of booze. It flags up that at Sainsbury's it is possible to get a pint for 34p. Admittedly it's a sweet, sickly cider but that won't deter an addict or any number of youngsters eager to get drunk cheaply. The Health Select Committee has suggested a minimum price would prevent such dangerous availability to the young and the addicted. Sheffield University research suggests a charge of 40 pence poer unit would save 1000 lives a year- at 50 pence 3000 would be saved.
It used to be the case that France led the European league of those with liver disease; we overtook them two or three years ago as the above table illustrates. The top table shows how alcohol consumption has declined in Britian from 11 litres per person in 1900, fell to about four during the midle of the century and then soared back up to double figures by the end of it. Per capita consumption is not especially high- we come 8th in Europe on that scale but when the 12% who do not drink are excluded the amount shifts up more than few notches. Moreover research shows Brits are more likely than other nationalities in Europe to end up fighting after drink or upset their families. Moreover, we Brits trend to indulge in binge drinking, unlike the continentals who sip slowly over long periods.
A minimum price would upset the producers of the booze but would not upset pub owners as this would equal the playing field a bit with the super-markets which are so undercutting their trade. Such a move might help persuade drinkers to revisit their pubs rather than sitting like The Royle Family on their sofas, swiggiung cheap cans of lager. Nick Cohen writing in the Observer yesterday, emitted a howl of rage at this 'new puritanism':
What do you imagine they say is a "moderate" level of drink? According to the health committee, the answer is six units – that is three pints or one bottle of wine – a week. This is not a misprint. The committee and its associated health professionals do not believe that three pints is a reasonable amount for an evening or a day, but the boundary a "moderate" drinker must not cross from one weekend to the next.
I suspect he has no reason to worry. Whether the government will bring in a measure bound to create controversey and offend a large number of voters a few months efore an electiohn is unlikely. But nevertheless, at the risk of being a puritan, a minimum price would be a postive step in the right direction.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Germans Make Communal Action re Icy Pavements a Legal Obligation
Locked in the deep freeze we now learn the unnerving news that if we do rouse ourselves to clear the pavement in front of our houses, we might be liable for injuries subsequently incurred by pedestrians using that particular bit of pavement; the linked article explains:
Under current legislation, householders and companies open themselves up to legal action if they try to clear a public pavement outside their property. If they leave the path in a treacherous condition, they cannot be sued. Councils, who have a responsibility for public highways, say they have no legal obligation to clear pavements. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents expressed its disappointment that public safety was being neglected because of fears of possible litigation. A spokesman said: “This is not showing a particularly good attitude. It would be much safer for the public to clear paths, even if it’s not on their property.”
My sister who lives in Bavaria tells me the opposite is true of Germany where every householder has a legal obligation to clear their pavements before 7.0am or face a fine. So you have to get up with the (frozen) lark and get shovelling and so do your nieghbours. Similar rules apply regarding litter- everyone is held to have a duty to keep the pavement clean outside their houses with the result that all pavements are clear of litter or renegade items of dirt and dust.
We often criticise Germans for being authoritarian and overly precise but in this aspect of their lives- as in some others- they show that reinforcing community values with legal rules, serves the community well. Too optimistic to suppose our rulers would ever think of anything so sensible.
Friday, January 08, 2010
And Here's to You Mrs Robinson
The appearance of Peter Robinson at a press conference in which he spoke of his sorrow at his wife's recent affair with a much younger man and her subsequent attempted suicide seemed nothing more than a poignant reminder of how politicians are only frail humans like most of us. We can all understand how an attractive older woman, wife of a major poloitical figure and one in her own right too, might fall for a very handsome younger man. And we can see, maybe, how it might seem worth risking all before life's brief offer of romance fades away for good.
But within a day the story has morphed into something far more complex and potentially toxic to both their political careers. I watched the Spotlight programme this afternoon shown on BBC 24 and realised it is far more than a fall from grace caused by old fashioned lust. It seems clear Iris Robinson was originally motivated by an altruistic desire to help the son of her old friend who had died of cancer.
She used her influence to raise £50,000 from two well known developers and helped the young Kirk McCambley to develop an attractive site for a new restaurant. However, the programme alleges that Iris:
i) asked for £5000 to be given to her in cash- a form of money often associated with less than wholly legal transactions.
ii) Lobbied on behalf of one developer for a business opportunities
iii) wanted the money paid back to her when the intense relationship hit the rocks.
Critics claim both Iris and her husband should have declared receipt of the £50K to accord with parliamentary rules and declared an interest when the need arose. Much of the detail has emerged from the evidence of Iris's political adviser, Selwyn Black, who revealed a number of damning texts (carefully retained) sent to him by Iris over a period of months. His role seems more than little ambiguous but in his defence he claims 'they betrayed my trust'. Kirk McCambley(pictured above)was a mere 19 year old but has also shown scant loyalty to his former lover.
I'm sure this story will generate many column inches and, if the allegations are proven, probably the destruction of two political careers. Iris's behaviour over the money seems suspicious: she acquired it ostensibly to help the aspirant young businessman but behaved as if the money was her own. In the present climate in which politicians are seen as money grubbing opportunists, the Robinsons must not expect an easy ride, nor that they will emerge with positions retained. A modern tragedy of weakness, avarice, lust and poor judgement, it would make a cracking film or televsion drama.
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Hoon and Hewitt's Coup Dies a Near Instant Death
That their ballot would probably find against Brown as the best person to lead them into the election is not in doubt. Gordon trails way behind his party in the popularity stakes and a majority of voters in one recent poll could not countenance the idea of another five years of Brown in Downing St. Labour will almost certainly lose anyway but a new leader might minimize the loss and facilitate a speedy comeback. The plotters have been courageous but very naive.
1. There is no constitutional means whereby such a ballot could be held
2. There is no candidate available in the wings- as Blair was in 1994- really keen to stand who is a credible future leader.
3. Hoon and Hewitt cleaarly had not won the support of Cabinet members as most of the lewading ones immediaterly rubbished the plot.
4. A contest would likely involve a number of candidates- certainly the ambitious Ed Balls, at least one of the Milibands and possibly John Cruddas and Alan Johnson. It would be hard fought and wold give an impression of division at trhe time when the party most needs to appear united.
5. It would not be a quick process and its long drawn out nature would wholly subvert the planning of an effective campaign.
6. There is no poll evidence that any other leader would make any major difference to Labour's chances.
In other words, it would be political suicide for Labour to take such advice right now. The time to move was last summer when the brave James Parnell fell on his sword to provide just such an opportunity. However, even though the Cabinet and party knew Gordon was a desperate liability nobody would step up to make Parnell's move the prelude to Brown's removal. Perhaps the final point against it is made by Jonathan Freedland in his article today in which he asserts:
One last thing holds Labour back. Even those who were once his enemies say that he is still the biggest figure on the stage; that he is a heavyweight who made the right decisions when the financial crisis struck; that it would be reckless to cast all that aside when there is – crucially – no polling evidence that any of his rivals would fare any better.
Freedland concludes, damningly:
The only reason Labour is not shoving Brown from the nearest top-floor window is that it lacks the nerve to save its own skin.
Tuesday, January 05, 2010
Which Miliband Willl it Be?
That both are very clever and able politicians is not in doubt, but who would make the best leader? David is the older-by 4 years- more experienced minister and recognised as potential leader, not to mention the object of effusive admiration from Hillary Clinton. But his attitude towards the leadership have been ambivalent. In 2008 he seemed to be making play to take over from the always struggling Gordon but his nerve seemed to fail and his speech at conference was the dampest of sqibs. Then in June last year James Purnell boldly resigned in an effort to bring Brown down. David again stood back and was happy to remain in post as well as rubbish Purnell's actions. David, also, while fearfully clever, lacks any common touch- he would seem painfully out of place in any Labour club.
Ed however, whilst younger, seems a better communicator and is reputedly more popular with Labour backbenchers. He was also a star at Copenhagen, arguably salvaging something from what seemed to be heading for complete disaster. He has also received a high profile since the conference. Moreover and, don't laugh, he looks better on telly than his elder brother who can look nerdish and lacking in facial character. Ed has a more mobile amusing face and film star eyes. These things really do matter when it comes to who will be judged most likely to haul in the votes.
So I would tend to say Ed is the horse I would place my wager on. Neveille was trhe yopunger son who became PM; Blair was the younger man who eclipsed Brown and I wouldn't be surprised if younger brother Ed emerges as trhe morte pipular choice in the end by Labour's electoral college. But I doubt if both brothers would ever compete against the other. It will be intriguing and maybe circumstances will eventually be the arbiter of who stands and who wins.
Sunday, January 03, 2010
Educational Standards an Appalling Disgrace
The Economist, back on 5th December 2009, suggests that too many candidates are gaining top grades in GCSE exams ever since the ‘cap’ was removed in 1988. Yet this apparent progress has been shown to be illusory by three recent separate studies. The think-tank Reform’s report focussed on the narrowness of basic requirements for 16 year-olds, required, as they are to take only three subjects-English, maths and science- and in some cases no others. The bias against vocational qualifications- for entry into university for example- tends to segregate the workforce and makes it hard for people to improve their employment.
This is especially dangerous now that globalisation has ratcheted up competition in the marketplace. Many of UK’s competitors-France, Japan, Canada- insist their children are familiar with a much wider range of subjects. Germany, which educates a third of its children in vocational schools, has reformed the national curriculum to lay down minimum standards in literacy and numeracy. Students in Sweden have to take over 10 subjects for their ‘gymnasium’ exams. Reforms experts judged questions in UK exams to be good in literacy but poor in maths and sciences.
The University and College Union(UCU) report analysed data from the OECD and found UK has fallen far behind in the percentage of students it educates 15-19. Belgium manages a figure of about 94%, the same as in 1995; Ireland 90% up from 78% in 95; Germany 85% for both years; France 85% and 88% but Britain below USA (80% and 72%) at 73% and 71%. Amongst 20-29 year olds the picture was similar: while the percentage in full or part-time education rose across the OECD from 18% to 25% in Britain it fell from 18% to 17%. See table above.
Finally test results for 11 year olds registered a fall of 20% among those schools achieving a minimum standard. Moreover, the number of pupils leaving school with an acce3ptable standard of English also fell.
It hardly requires me to add that this is a really shabby aspect of Labour's record, especially after Blair's promises in 1997. School buildings have been built and repared but the minds of those taught within-from ages 11-to 30- have scarcely made any real progress.