Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Where are the buds of May's Conservatism?

Theresa May was Home Secretary for six years and she spent over a decade in the Conservative shadow cabinet. It might seem curious then, that, despite so much time in the public eye, the media had to print hurried profiles summarising her political beliefs, when she succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister.

Often these articles centred on aspects of Mrs May’s personal history and observations about her style of management, more than questions of philosophy, economics or ideology. Journalists and commentators struggled to summarise the ideas that inspired her to get involved in politics. The new Prime Minister was described as a pragmatist, who prefers “doing” rather than “talking”.

That’s not particularly satisfactory for newspapers, but it’s actually a rather conservative approach.

Based on little more than party and gender, May found herself compared to Margaret Thatcher, who reputedly once told a Tory policy meeting “this is what we believe”, as she brandished a copy of The Constitution of Liberty, by free market philosopher, Friedrich Hayek. Mrs Thatcher was not a typical Tory and Tory Prime Ministers have rarely been so ideological.

Mrs May says she is a ‘one nation Conservative’, which associates her with people in the party who reject Thatcherism in its purest form. She takes care to emphasise her commitment to social justice, claiming she will put the Tory party, “at the service of ordinary working people”.

Of course, these sentiments can be interpreted in different ways. Thatcherites believe that freeing markets from government regulation is the best way to increase social mobility. No-one openly opposes justice, social or otherwise, and Conservatives all claim to care deeply about the aspirations of “ordinary people”.

Many of David Cameron’s speeches and policy announcements covered themes similar to those developed by Mrs May in her first few weeks in office. Mr Cameron was another Prime Minister who usually preferred pragmatism to ideology.

The Conservatives are sometimes described as a coalition between free market liberals, whose archetype was Mrs Thatcher, and ‘compassionate’ or ‘one nation’ Tories, typified by Benjamin Disraeli, Harold Macmillan or, in more recent times, Ken Clarke. 

At a stretch, you might argue that fault-lines between some of these traditions still exist within the Conservatives, but that’s not a particularly useful way of viewing the modern Tories. May names Thatcher among her Conservative heroes. Similarly, David Cameron, though he was keen to cultivate his credentials as a ‘progressive’, spoke about a deep belief in “supply side economics”, which is an important component of Thatcherism.

Margaret Thatcher’s economic views have largely been accepted and absorbed across the Conservative Party (and beyond). Thatcherism now describes, not merely policies enacted by the former prime minister, but rather an ideological commitment to push free market reforms further, drive inflation lower and remove any remaining constraints on producers of goods and services.

It seems Mrs May doesn’t take this unrestricted view of the market. She has talked about plans to impose restraints on executive pay awards — binding businesses to decisions made by shareholders — and legislating so that employee representatives sit on company boards. Her proposals are modest, but those who think that government has no place telling private businesses how to order their affairs are likely to disapprove.

Mrs Thatcher’s controversial assertion that “there is no such thing as society” is often cited to illustrate the supposed callousness of her ideas. She was explaining her belief in the importance of individual responsibility, because “people have got entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations”. Many “one nation Conservatives” would agree with the latter remark, but disagree with her initial bald statement about society.

After David Cameron won the Tory leadership contest, he adapted Thatcher’s quote in his victory speech, attempting to distinguish the brand of Conservatism he hoped to promote: “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state”. During his time as leader, this theme developed into the “Big Society” — a concept that proved difficult to explain to voters.

The principle was that government should hand back various responsibilities to people within communities, who would be motivated to do a better job than their counterparts from the public sector. It drew on Edmund Burke’s belief that societies are made up of “little platoons” of engaged citizens, bound together by common interests.

The underlying ideas set out a strong case for Conservatism concerned with community, or ‘fraternity’, as Cameron’s special adviser, Danny Kruger, preferred, in his influential essay On Fraternity. In theory, the Conservative desire to decentralise government would complement a strong commitment to social responsibility. In practice, it was difficult to translate the intellectual case into workable policies, particularly during an economic recession.

The result was an ill-conceived hodgepodge, implemented almost exclusively in England. Cameron’s government introduced a bank to fund local projects and awards to recognise schemes which showed the Big Society spirit. A Localism Act offered community groups the chance to carry out council services and young people could volunteer for ‘citizen service’.

The Big Society’s most meaningful policy gave groups of individuals the chance to set-up “free schools”, outside the control of local authorities. Inevitably, this power held particular appeal for religious denominations and it resulted in high-profile controversies, such as the head-teacher who used school funds to make personal mortgage payments.

David Cameron quietly dropped the phrase “Big Society” before the last election and it is unlikely to be revived by Theresa May. The Tories might say that localism, community spirit and civic responsibility are important aspects of Conservatism, but they proved difficult to instil through legislation. Perhaps unfairly, Cameron’s time as prime minister will be remembered for “austerity”, welfare cuts and “Brexit”, rather than ‘one nation’ Tory policies.

Politicians like to talk about ‘values’, when they discuss the ideas that motivate them to do their jobs. Values are certainly preferable to ideology, but they should guide and imbue policies, rather than becoming an end to be realised by government.

Conservatism (small ‘c’) is more about a philosophical temperament than a set of preferred outcomes. Conservatives (small ‘c’) are sceptical about ambitious schemes that are supposed to make the world better and they’re inclined to place more value on the existing virtues of our society. 

In time, it will become clear whether Theresa May intends to pursue ‘one nation’ social policies, free market economics or, more likely, a mixture of the two, but her low-key, pragmatic approach suggests that her style of government will, in any case, be deeply conservative.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Time for unionists in NI to answer difficult questions?

In his latest News Letter column Alex Kane describes ‘unionist unity’ as the ‘idée fixe’ of unionism in Northern Ireland.  He says that unionism lacks ‘coherence and narrative drive’ and he points out that attempts to agree a ‘common set of democratic principles’ among unionists have delivered ‘diddly squat’.  It’s hard to disagree with any of that.

When this blog started out, in 2007, I wrote three posts which tried to ‘define unionism’.  They were a bit rough and ready, and far too wordy, but I stick by many of my ideas.  In essence, I argued that it was a sorry type of unionism that showed little or no interest in the rest of the UK and was focused, mainly, on protecting certain aspects of Ulster Protestant culture.

I’ve not changed that view, but, nine years later, I acknowledge it was arrogant to suggest that ‘civic unionists’, as they were described, were the real thing, while ‘cultural unionists’ were merely ‘Ulster nationalists’.  In 2016, with the SNP dominating politics in Scotland, and Brexit reopening debate about the UK constitution, anyone who supports the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, whatever their motivation, is important to unionism.

When unionists appeal for ‘unionist unity’ they generally have a single political party or an electoral pact in mind.  That’s nearly always a bad idea, because it alienates part of the pro-Union electorate and encourages the notion that unionism is about the interests of only one part of the community in Northern Ireland. 

High-minded objections to pacts look less convincing though, viewed from somewhere like Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which now has an MP who takes his seat at Westminster, after unionists from the UUP and DUP campaigned for Tom Elliott, who beat Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew.

There are now fewer clear distinctions between the two main unionist parties.  The UUP no longer has its electoral link with the Conservative Party and the DUP is led by a moderate politician, who started out in the Ulster Unionists.  The parties attack each other habitually but, while there are subtle differences between their policies, broadly their principles are similar. 

Under Mike Nesbitt’s leadership, the UUP has enjoyed some tactical successes, partly because it is prepared to cooperate with the DUP.  However, the party hasn’t articulated a unique ‘big idea’ to capture voters’ attention and distance it from its unionist rival. 

The UUP's decision to form an opposition, after the Assembly election, gives it an opportunity to carve out a distinct role, but working harmoniously with the SDLP might prove difficult while Colum Eastwood cranks up the nationalist rhetoric.  Ulster Unionists stayed mainly silent, while their opposition partners used the Brexit result to challenge the British government’s authority in Northern Ireland.

The referendum illustrated again how both main unionist parties struggle to balance broader loyalties to the United Kingdom with their regional mandate to represent Northern Ireland’s interests.  Conservative activists locally regularly attack both the UUP and the DUP on this basis, often with justification, alleging that they do not engage properly with national politics. 

Electorally, that argument hasn’t won much support, neither has it proved persuasive across the Tory party in Great Britain and it ignores tensions that are inevitable where power is devolved to regional institutions.  In Scotland, for instance, Labour and the Conservatives have struggled to compete against the SNP, which presents itself as a champion of Scottish interests, with no competing allegiances. 

Both parties looked seriously at ways of distancing their wings in Scotland from the national leaderships and the Conservatives revived their fortunes only by finding a charismatic young leader and emphasising a distinctly Scottish brand of unionism.

Against that backdrop, the liberal unionist MLAs, John McCallister and Basil McCrea, chose to form a new party, NI21, rather than join the Northern Ireland Tories.  That was a short-lived project, torn apart by internal rivalries, but it still outperformed the NI Conservatives at the polls. 

There’s not much prospect of a new unionist party, or one of the existing pro-Union options, challenging the DUP and the UUP any time soon.  Neither can a single unionist party reach all parts of the unionist electorate or win over voters from backgrounds that aren’t traditionally associated with unionist parties. 

Alex’s column mentions Peter Robinson’s support for a ‘council for the union’, which would span the various strands of pro-Union opinion.  There was understandable scepticism about the then DUP leader’s intentions, but perhaps the best chance of revitalising unionism in Northern Ireland is with this type of broad discussion about its underlying principles.  Then some of the best ideas, which haven’t yet been reflected adequately by mainstream parties, can start to influence unionist thinking more widely.  If the conversation is serious and restricted to finding the best way to promote the union, it needn’t entail any important compromises.

That would mean examining carefully the merits of the modern United Kingdom, the challenges it faces and the way that devolved regions, like Northern Ireland, fit into national politics.  What does it now mean to be British and how do culture and identity shape political allegiance?   Where do Irishness and other identities fit into a modern definition of Britishness?  How do unionists balance more successfully loyalties to their regions and loyalties to their nation state?  Will unionism have to change the way it looks at the constitution when the UK leaves the EU?

The discipline of answering these difficult questions mightn’t result in a single party or an electoral pact, but it could sharpen the way unionists think about politics and help them assemble a more persuasive and durable story around their ideas.          

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The power of information: The Invention of Russia and Nothing is True and Everything is Possible reviewed

Russia’s apparent mastery of misinformation has become an obsession of media in the UK and the US. I referred previously to The Times’ recent front-page lead, which reported a “secret propaganda assault” masterminded by Vladimir Putin, based on a new Sputnik news agency bureau opening in Edinburgh and some Kremlin-sponsored Russian language programmes starting in British universities.
The Russian government is supposed to be waging “hybrid war” on the West through an army of pro-Moscow TV commentators, state-backed football hooligans and internet trolls. The word ‘weaponised’ is bandied about with illiberal abandon in countless long-form magazine articles, promoted by brooding, sinister cover images of Putin or Soviet tanks.
You don’t have to be a raging Russophile to appreciate the irony.
Two of the more recent English language books about Russia have harnessed this mood by looking at the country and its recent history through the lens of its media. Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia won this year’s Orwell Prize, with its patchy examination of Russia “from Gorbachev’s freedom to Putin’s war”. Meanwhile, Peter Pomerantsev is a ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’, describing in lurid style his experiences as a producer for Russian state TV, in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.
Ostrovsky’s book gives an arresting account of the late Soviet era and the 1990s, focusing on the influence of journals, newspapers and television, to illustrate how ideas and images changed moral and social attitudes during the period. The author portrays a state whose course was determined by an elite — ideologues, academics, media moguls and journalists — who told the story of Russia to its people.
According to Ostrovsky, the USSR fell, not mainly because of ideological contradictions, ethnic tensions or a collapsing economy, but rather because Mikhail Gorbachev allowed press freedom to challenge the official version of life in the Soviet Union. During the 1990s and beyond, the direction of politics was determined decisively, not at the ballot box, but rather by who controlled the media and what they chose to broadcast or publish.
Ostrovsky tells a good story himself, returning regularly to a ‘dramatis personae’ of influential figures, through whom he looks at intellectual and generational debates taking place within the Russian intelligentsia. He pays particular attention to the Yakovlevs, Alexander, Yegor and Vladimir.
Alexander, born in 1923, made the journey from convinced Stalinist to an ‘architect of Glasnost’, becoming head of propaganda in Gorbachev’s Politburo. Like his journalist namesake, Yegor, (no relation), Alexander’s liberalising instincts were awakened during the Prague Spring of 1968, which Ostrovsky says persuaded a generation that the Soviet system could be reformed successfully to incorporate greater freedoms.
It’s in that period, and the subsequent suppression of ‘socialism with a human face’, that the author locates the intellectual roots of Glasnost and Perestroika. However, it’s clear that his sympathies lie, not with the people who tried to reform the USSR, but rather with those who hurriedly tore it down. That group is represented in the book by Yegor’s son, Vladimir, who founded Russia’s first daily business newspaper, Kommersant.
And it’s when Ostrovsky’s story reaches the 1990s that it encounters serious problems. While the opening chapters avoid moralising, he has to work his narrative round to condemn the unique “hatred and aggression” of the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin, as it is portrayed. For this reason, he must treat leniently corruption, economic chaos and authoritarianism in Russia under Boris Yeltsin.
Ostrovsky claims that popular television programmes later exaggerated extreme poverty and rampant criminality during the nineties. The use of state ‘loans’ to ensure that Russia’s oligarchs put their media assets at Yeltsin’s disposal during the 1997 presidential election campaign is excused. The threat of Communists winning back power, under Gennady Zyuganov, he implies, justified subverting democracy. The President’s use of force to crush opposition by the Russian parliament is similarly sympathetically described.
Where an author like Richard Sakwa sees threads of continuity which link the Yeltsin and Putin eras, Ostrovsky is keen to play down these connections. Putin is an aggressive, greedy, authoritarian leader, whereas Yeltsin was essentially well-meaning, his liberal intentions undermined by events and political pressures. The writer’s antipathy to the current president guides his judgements about Russia’s past as well as its present and his working assumption is that anyone who wants freer markets must also, instinctively, support political freedoms. It’s an unsurprising starting point for a journalist who has worked for the FT and The Economist.
The book concludes with a clichéd canter through the Putin years and a series of unsupported assertions, particularly around the wars in Georgia and Ukraine. It’s a version of events that has been told countless times. It feels hurried and there are few new or original insights, although comparing the president to popular figures from fiction, like TV spy Stierlitz or Danila, lead character from the film Brat (Brother), rather than 20th century dictators, is a novel twist.
No doubt it’s the modern material which attracts publishers and sells books, but it undermines some of the more thoughtful content and an interesting history of Russian media and political ideas from the 1960s through to today.
Where Ostrovsky threatens to be insightful, but disappoints the reader, Pomerantsev promises him titillation and delivers. This is yet another book about those crazy, bewildering Russians; their appetite for excess, their corruptibility and their showy displays of wealth. It’s entertaining enough in tawdry fashion, but it’s part of a growing genre of similar books, portraying Russia as an exotic, intemperate and unaccountable place. The novelty here is that Pomerantsev worked for the TV channel, TNT, which brought western style reality shows to Russia.
So we find a cast of provincial ‘gold-diggers’, Dagestani prostitutes and suicidal supermodels, hanging out at the fringes of the oligarchs’ world of armour-plated cars and exclusive night-clubs. We have the range of cults and sects which flourish in Russia, so much more thoughtfully examined in Daniel Kalder’s Strange Telescopes. We have Siberian towns where the figures who command most respect are mafia bosses. And we have trashy television channels, guided by state ideology, but free to devise hugely overblown entertainment shows, so long as they aren’t critical of the President.
This version of Russian exotica feels particularly exploitative, because Pomerantsev was part of the media machine he now caricatures. While there may be some truth to the clichés, they’ve been explored more penetratingly by other authors. There are countless other options for readers who want to wallow in the seamier side of Russia.
In modern societies, information is a powerful force, and inevitably controlling it plays an important role in shaping politics. Russia is a centralised state, where the media’s message is influenced heavily by politicians in the Kremlin, but that doesn’t mean that it has a monopoly on propaganda, as illustrated by the way it is commonly depicted in the west.
These two books both serve the western appetite for representing Russia as sinister and threatening, mysterious and exotic. The Invention of Russia, though, when it steers clear of anti-Putin bombast, also contains a worthwhile examination of the power of ideas and the written word in Russian culture.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Pro-EU arguments tapped into long tradition of British Russophobia

The campaign against Brexit was criticised for trying to frighten people into voting ‘remain’, as economic meltdown and the breakup of the United Kingdom were threatened, in order to support the idea that Britain could not leave the European Union without devastating consequences.  These tactics backfired, as the public became weary of the movement’s negative tone and cynical about the motives of an ‘establishment’ it perceived was arguing in its own interests, rather than the interests of wider society. 

As referendum day approached, David Cameron tried to put an even older British fear at the heart of debate, when he claimed that the UK would be ill-equipped outside the EU to deal with threats from “a newly belligerent Russia”.  The ‘leave’ campaign’s figurehead, Boris Johnson, was subsequently lambasted as a ‘Putin apologist’, when he suggested that Brussels’ foreign policy helped create conflict in the Ukraine.

The ‘remain’ camp’s Russian strategy was never likely to win prizes for originality.  The tactic of demonising Russia has been used to shape policy and popular opinion in Britain since at least the 19th century.  British Russophobia merely enjoyed a revival after the Russian economy recovered and the Kremlin reasserted its influence on world affairs, under Vladimir Putin.

There are some fairly alarming parallels between the current hostile attitude toward Moscow and the lead-up to the Crimean War.  Orlando Figes makes them glaringly obvious in his lively history of the conflict, Crimea, which describes how Russophobe journalists and politicians applied pressure on Britain to confront Russia.  They ascribed the darkest of motives to every Russian policy and constructed complicated conspiracy theories around the Tsarist government’s intentions.

It’s an attitude familiar to anyone who follows the war fantasies of the journalist Edward Lucas or the paranoid exploits of Labour’s Chris Bryant, who harassed fellow MP, Mike Hancock, for employing a Russian in his Westminster office.  It’s also evident in bizarre recent claims that Russian football hooligans at Euro 2016 were waging ‘hybrid warfare’ at the Kremlin’s command and countless other stories in the UK media.  Saturday’s London Times, for example, led with an article describing Russian language programmes at UK universities as part of a “secret propaganda assault” by Putin.            
Attempts to analyse seriously the motives behind Russia’s foreign policies, rather than demonise the country and its leaders, are rare.  So it wasn’t surprising when the remain campaign dusted off anti-Russian tropes to claim that Britain must stay in the EU because of the perceived threat from Putin.  The counter-argument, that EU expansion and its confrontational policies in eastern Europe actually fuelled Kremlin hostility, was not examined properly.

Yet there is some evidence from across Europe that the public has anxieties about its decision-makers taking an aggressive approach with Russia.  The Dutch referendum result, which rejected by a resounding margin an EU ‘association treaty’ with the Ukraine, was at least in part a rebuttal of Brussels’ attempts to craft a shared foreign policy.  The Lisbon Treaty imposed upon member states a tangle of obligations, which effectively merged the Union’s security policies with those of NATO. 

The narrative that Russia is a dangerous, expansionist power, intent upon rebuilding the Soviet Empire, rests on clichéd descriptions of Vladimir Putin, who, in the western imagination, is a dastardly mixture of mastermind and madman, and some fairly transparent misreading of recent history.  For instance, the 2008 conflict in Georgia, is portrayed repeatedly as a result of Russian aggression, despite clear evidence that it was caused by former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to attack South Ossetia, an interpretation endorsed by the EU’s own report into the war.

A complicated civil war in the Ukraine is simply an outcome of Russian belligerence, in most western accounts.   Media stubbornly refuse to examine more deeply the extraordinary nature of events on Russia’s doorstep, where a coup in Kiev unseated a democratically elected government, empowered nationalist militia and terrified Russian speakers and Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine.  Still less attention has been paid to the destabilising influence exerted by the EU and the US, who encouraged the Maidan demonstrations openly and interfered in the formation of the new regime.       

Annexing Crimea and becoming embroiled in civil war in Donbas were not Putin’s finest moments, but these actions suggest a leader prepared to act rationally and pre-emptively when he feels Russia’s national interests are threatened, rather than a power-crazed invader.  The idea of an aggressive, imperialist Russia, trying to regather lost territory, never withstood serious scrutiny.  Consistently, Putin’s most controversial gambits in foreign policy have been defensive in motivation and address perceived threats either to side-line Russia on the international stage or to damage its interests.

It’s easier for political leaders to scare voters into supporting policies, rather than win them over with persuasive arguments.  In the UK, US and other countries, Russia has often been used as a convenient ‘bogeyman’, proverbially deceptive and devious, which can be abused and accused, without actually posing a significant threat to the West.  Then there are the Russophobes with a harder edge, who believe the clichés, or profit from them, and are therefore devoted to alerting people to the Russian menace.  These attitudes are then mirrored in Russia, where western hostility is harnessed and reflected right back at the US and EU, for competing political purposes.

It’s a dangerous process, which damages relationships and allows mutual misunderstandings to flourish.  The outcome is that discourse around Russia and the West has degenerated to the point where predictions of an actual shooting war are entertained seriously. 

In such an atmosphere the ‘remain’ campaign’s arguments, that Britain had to stay in the EU to counter Russia, were not only absurd, but also deeply irresponsible.  They were grounded in old-fashioned Russophobe prejudices and deliberate distortions of recent history.  Actually, the conflicts in the Ukraine and Georgia showed the danger of the EU entangling its members in a mesh of opaque foreign policy obligations and the merits of the UK determining its own relationships with the rest of the world.       

Thursday, 7 July 2016

What the Brexit result means. And what it doesn't mean.

If the outcome of the Brexit referendum was unexpected, so much more the wave of hysteria which engulfed otherwise rational people after the votes were counted.  Many of the politicians across the UK who didn’t resign, or lapse into eerie silence, instead exploited this frenzy to claim that their particular agenda was legitimised by the result. 

Some members of the ‘leave’ campaign act as if the poll were a general election, which gave them the authority to form a right-wing, anti-immigration government, while nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland use it to justify their attempts to pull the United Kingdom apart.  Both are exploiting the sense of disorientation enveloping post-referendum politics, and a leadership vacuum that plunged the two biggest Westminster parties into crisis.

In this feverish atmosphere, there is a pressing need for calm thinking and a sense of proportion, so that the UK’s best interests and constitutional integrity can be protected outside the European Union.  It's a good starting point to consider what the result really means and what it certainly cannot be taken to mean.

Most fundamentally, the referendum provided a clear mandate for the UK to leave the EU.  Public opinion may change, but the government at Westminster must plan for Brexit, unless it finds very compelling evidence that voters have changed their minds.  The delegation of tricky decisions from democratic institutions to popular referenda is a dangerous trend, but once the process is started its outcome cannot be ignored. 

Whether or not the campaign was fought honestly, the result stands.  There were ample opportunities for both sides to refute their opponents’ arguments and take apart any alleged lies.  While the debate around EU membership was complicated and contentious, the referendum posed a simple, unambiguous question: remain or leave, in or out. 

It’s impossible to tell with any certainty which factors motivated the British public to vote leave, so its decision can’t be unravelled on the basis of unproven assertions that voters were duped.  Similarly, the result doesn’t support claims by some anti-EU activists that they have acquired a mandate for government. 

Campaigners detailed a wide range of alternatives for the UK’s future outside the EU, from remaining part of the single market, like Norway, to a much more distant relationship with Brussels.  They were necessarily ambiguous about a ‘plan’ for after the referendum, because the leave camp was a coalition, comprising people with very different views of how post-Brexit Britain should look. 

The electorate voted on the narrow question of EU membership, not broad visions for the UK’s future and certainly not rival manifestoes for power.  The leave campaign cannot claim credibly that its narrow referendum victory must mean an end to free movement and strict limits on immigration, or that only its supporters should be considered to become the next prime minister. 

Equally, in Northern Ireland, the idea that Arlene Foster’s position as First Minister is undermined by the Brexit result is an absurdity which her opponents should be embarrassed to articulate.  Fifty-six per cent of voters here opted to remain in the EU, but the DUP is unchallenged as Northern Ireland’s biggest party and it won its right to lead the Executive again in an Assembly election barely one month ago.            

However plaintive the arguments, a UK wide referendum is not equivalent to regional or general elections.  The fact that support for leaving the EU was not consistent across all the UK’s nations and regions doesn’t change the result either, despite the petulance of nationalists at Holyrood and Stormont.

The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon has encouraged the improbable notion that Scotland could stay in the European Union, even while the rest of the UK leaves.  She’s talked up the prospects of a second referendum on Scottish independence and rushed to Brussels to meet with the self-important President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.               

The SNP looks calm and measured in comparison to its counterparts at Stormont, Sinn Fein, and particularly the SDLP, with its shrill requests for the Republic’s government to become involved in Brexit negotiations and heady rhetoric that teeters between invoking the will of the people of Northern Ireland and the broader interests of the ‘Irish nation’.

Their hysteria reveals again that nationalists are in denial about the consequences of the principle of consent, a fundamental aspect of the Good Friday Agreement which underpins Westminster’s sovereignty in Northern Ireland.  It also shows a basic misunderstanding, or more likely a deliberate distortion, of the nature of this referendum.

Regional separatists have neither the right nor the powers to undermine parliamentary sovereignty, or to unravel constitutional ties between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  However, they can ratchet up their language to widen existing political divisions and it may be difficult for the government to resist demands for a second referendum on Scottish independence, if evidence persists that opinion has swung in favour of nationalists.

That’s one of the reasons why a calmer approach to the EU referendum needs to prevail, quickly, in London and among unionist politicians elsewhere.  Debate must centre on which form of Brexit best protects the UK’s interests, economically and socially, and it should include voices which favoured staying in the European Union, as well as those who wanted to leave. 

The poll was an important moment, which changes some things utterly, but it doesn’t spell the end of British politics nor can a comprehensive answer to every aspect of the country’s future be determined from its result.  People didn’t vote to overturn centrist government, nor did they vote to break up the UK.  It’s deeply opportunistic, dishonest and dangerous to imply otherwise.  

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Judged against his own priorities, Cameron was a failure as PM

Apparently David Cameron intends to be an active back-bench MP, so he might dispute the idea that his political career has ended, never mind in failure.  However, he must know that a prime minister’s term in office has rarely imploded so quickly, or so spectacularly.  Barely one year ago, he confounded the pollsters and became the first Conservative leader to win an outright majority in the House of Commons for 23 years.  Now he is set to hobble out of Number 10 in the Autumn, leaving behind a party divided by a bitter leadership contest.      

Mr Cameron was the moderniser who became Tory leader on the back of a pledge to stop “banging on about Europe”.   Yet, first he put a referendum on membership at the heart of British politics and then he lost a campaign to keep the UK in the EU, with the odds stacked heavily in his favour. 

While Mr Cameron looked to have secured the country’s constitutional future when Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom in 2014, a second independence referendum now looks likely and, this time, Scottish separatists will be favourites to win.  Similarly, in Northern Ireland, Brexit has re-energised Irish nationalist demands for a border poll that was previously a distant aspiration. 

There were other, subtler, failures too, for a prime minister who described himself as a ‘one nation’ Conservative and cited Harold Macmillan as his political hero.  Neither Cameron’s first government, formed in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, nor the latest Tory administration, were the careful, progressive guardians of the UK and its institutions that his supposed ‘small c’ conservatism promised.

The Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto avoided proposing ‘grand projects’ like reorganising the NHS, but the coalition government introduced the Health and Social Care Bill after only a few months in power, and Tory health ministers’ sweeping reforms are ongoing.  Across departments, Mr Cameron’s two administrations produced a steady stream of tinkering and legislation, much of it making change for change’s sake; police and crime commissioners, five year fixed term parliaments and commitments to turn every school into an academy.

There were contentious attempts to implement a fairer welfare system, which were based on sound principles of encouraging people off benefits and into work, but became entangled inseparably with the Treasury’s drive to cut public spending.  The UK’s economy improved during his time as prime minister, though while unemployment stayed low, living standards dropped.              

David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservatives started with the prospect of a hange in philosophy.  He seemed to favour a return to traditional values of ‘one nation’ Conservatism - a humane social outlook, pragmatism in foreign policy and a cautious approach to reform.  In power, those instincts were curtailed, as his government confronted a financial crisis and Cameron sought to manage Tory factions.            

In the end, his biggest accomplishments were party political; becoming the first Conservative prime minister for 13 years and then the first Tory leader to win a general election outright for 23 years.  Cameron’s broader legacy is more questionable and he was unsuccessful judged against his own stated priorities.  He made ‘banging on about Europe’ the focus of British politics, failed to consolidate the Scottish referendum result by strengthening the UK afterwards and ultimately he couldn’t impose his vision of Conservatism on his own party.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

From Euro 2016 euphoria to the IFA's new president

While I was in France, watching Northern Ireland compete at Euro 2016, I read Evan Marshall’s brilliant book, Spirit of 58, which charts the team’s first major tournament finals, almost sixty years ago.  

It’s a great story, describing how the country’s manager, Peter Doherty, transformed perennial whipping boys into a squad of formidable professionals, who then advanced to the quarter finals of the 1958 World Cup.  It’s written vividly and lucidly, on the back of freshly researched source material and a wealth of new interviews.

One of the striking themes, which clearly frustrates the author, is the consistent ineptitude of the Irish Football Association, the sport’s organising body in Northern Ireland.  The IFA refused to allow a full panel of players to travel to the tournament in Sweden, it frustrated Doherty’s attempts to scout opposition matches, it botched hotel bookings – with the result that an injury-ravaged team missed out on much needed rest – and, worst of all, it almost stopped Northern Ireland competing in the first place, because of controversy about playing games on a Sunday.  

Fifty-eight years later, much has changed and little has changed.  

The squad of 2016 certainly had all the amenities it needed to compete in France and it played matches on the Sabbath, during qualification and during the tournament itself, with few serious objections.  However, the IFA still has a formidable talent for bungling matters off the field, even while its international team is over-achieving on it.  

Last night, the association elected David Martin as its president.  This is a man who was forced out as IFA treasurer, after the sports minister made it clear that the organisation was not fit for purpose and couldn’t receive government monies while some of its officers were still in place.  Not to be discouraged, Mr Martin failed three independent suitably tests, as he attempted to find his way back into prominent posts in local football.  In 2013, the IFA changed its rules at an AGM, so that officers no longer needed to prove their suitability to an independent panel.

A lot of the problems underlying Mr Martin’s comeback would be familiar to the football community in 1958.  Tiny little clubs, many of them from church leagues, rather than Irish League teams, drove opposition to playing football on a Sunday and jeopardised Northern Ireland’s involvement in the World Cup.  Likewise, Mr Martin built up his power-base in junior football, and he was linked to the ‘Dunloy Proposals’, which almost derailed funding for the new National Stadium at Windsor Park, as small clubs made a grab for more influence.  

The IFA has changed over the years and there are professional staff amongst its ranks.  In most respects, it did a good job of promoting and organising Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 campaign, so that it was memorable for players and supporters alike.  It would be a real shame if that hard work is undermined by the election of the association’s foremost officer.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

EU debate doesn't impact Good Friday Agreement, but it exposes its 'conjuring trick'

European flag outside the Commission

The Good Friday Agreement was a clever, influential document because it defined a political struggle over sovereignty in Northern Ireland in terms of a much more slippery concept: identity.  No piece of paper could tell people whether they were British or Irish or both, and the prerogative of people born here to take citizenship of the Republic of Ireland existed long before 1998, but the agreement reassured voters that their professed identities would be recognised and respected under new power-sharing arrangements.

Northern Ireland is now in the midst of another emotional debate about sovereignty as UK voters decide whether to stay in the European Union or opt for ‘Brexit’.  Alongside practical arguments about the economy and the Irish border, some campaigners have tried to suggest that the principles which underpin the Belfast Agreement could be undermined by a vote for ‘Leave’.  The foolish implication is that Irish identity in Northern Ireland is dependent upon membership of the EU. 

That is a dangerous idea, which underestimates the extent to which relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland are on a solid legal footing and overestimates the reach of the Agreement.  All the practical rights of citizenship, residency and freedom of movement, exercised by Irish people in the UK and vice-versa, are enshrined in British and Irish law, most of it predating Good Friday 1998, not to mention Britain’s accession to the European Union. 

Anyone born in Northern Ireland will still be entitled to citizenship of the Irish Republic and, by extension, citizenship of the European Union, whatever the result of the referendum.  Likewise, the Republic is not regarded in British law as a foreign country and, if its citizens are resident in the UK, they have the same rights to live, work and vote as British citizens.  Some arguments are ongoing about how the Irish border might operate, in the event of Brexit, but there’s no serious suggestion that free movement across the British Isles would be restricted.

As for identity, the Brexit debate has shown that it is an elusive concept in comparison to sovereignty.  The Belfast Agreement determined that Northern Ireland’s constitutional future should be decided by a majority of voters here, but it also switched the central focus of politics to more abstract questions around culture and identity.  The arguments over the referendum don’t impact materially on power-sharing or other totems of the ‘peace process’, but they do threaten to expose the Agreement’s most successful conjuring trick.                         

Campaigners on either side of the referendum debate are using emotive arguments to support their points of view.  However, come the 24th of June, we’ll all still have to share the same region and confront the same issues, whatever the final result.  It’s irresponsible and inaccurate to suggest that either the peace process or the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland is under discussion.    Whether the UK decides to remain in the EU, or leave, no-one’s identity is under threat and no-one will be any less British or Irish, after the votes are counted.  

This article is published in today's News Letter.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 squad

On Saturday, Michael O’Neill announced his Northern Ireland squad for the finals of a major football tournament.  Not a sentence I thought I’d ever have reason to write, which makes it even pettier that I’m going to have a (very minor) gripe at his selection.

While I have the utmost faith in O’Neill to organise and motivate his team at Euro 2016, in my opinion he has a slightly lop-sided panel from which to choose.  Northern Ireland aren’t taking with them a recognised left full-back and the midfield looks rather threadbare too.

Throughout most of the qualifying matches, O’Neill deployed a conventional back four in defence, with re-purposed midfielder, Chris Brunt, on the left side.  Unfortunately, the West Brom regular picked up a serious knee injury in March, which ruled him out of the finals tournament.

When Northern Ireland played Slovenia in a friendly, the manager picked Michael Smith, from Peterborough United, who can play in either full-back slot.  The former Ballyclare Comrades and Ballymena United player showed promise, defending stoutly and displaying a willingness to get forward.  Previously, Daniel Lafferty had a spell playing reasonably regularly at left-back for Northern Ireland.

Neither man has made O’Neill’s squad, yet, curiously, Lee Hodson, who plays almost exclusively at right-back, will travel to France. 

It looks likely that Northern Ireland will line up against Poland, the Ukraine and Germany with a back three, rather than a back four.  By opting for this formation, O’Neill solves the problem of accommodating three Premier League centre-backs, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart, in his team.  He can also, in theory, make do without dedicated full-backs, as the defence will be flanked by more forward thinking players.

In warm-up games, while Conor McLaughlin and Paddy McNair played on the right hand-side, Stuart Dallas and Shane Ferguson, more commonly regarded as midfielders, started on the left.  The results were good, culminating in a comfortable 3-0 win against Belarus on Friday night, but top level opposition could target the flanks as weak-spots for Northern Ireland.

Successful, settled teams rarely play three centre-backs nowadays.  More frequently, the formation is used by managers trying to solve a particular tactical problem.  O’Neill’s conundrum is that he has three or four quality central defenders, but less to choose from at full-back.

However, with this squad, his options will be rather limited if he decides to revert to a back four, or even to stifle a team like Germany by choosing five defenders.  Realistically, a central player, like Jonny Evans or Craig Cathcart, would have to become a make-shift full-back. 

Likewise, if Northern Ireland suffers an injury to a midfielder like Steven Davis or Oliver Norwood, 
O’Neill will have less room for manoeuvre.  Ben Reeves has played little football this season, but he would’ve been a natural back-up for those players.  As it stands, Corry Evans excepted, the other squad members capable of playing centre-midfield are more defensively minded. 

These quibbles aside, what a pleasure to be discussing a squad of Northern Ireland players bound for Euro 2016.  Michael O’Neill knows better than anyone else who he needs in his team and how they should play.  Still, in football, half the fun is in the discussion.         

Come on Northern Ireland!   

Thursday, 12 May 2016

UUP opposition will work better if it's joined by the SDLP

Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt, made the first significant tactical gamble of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, this afternoon.  The UUP declined an Executive ministry, to which it is entitled under Stormont’s d’Hondt system, and became the first party to enter ‘official opposition’.

The idea of recognising a voluntary opposition was included in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014, concocted by the two governments, Sinn Fein and the DUP, and restated at the Fresh Start Agreement of 2015.  However, legislation to finally make it possible was introduced and guided through the Assembly by John McCallister, an independent MLA who lost his seat at last Thursday’s election. 

It’s deliciously ironic that Mr McCallister fought an Ulster Unionist leadership election campaign against Mr Nesbitt on the platform of taking the party into opposition, back in 2012.   

The UUP leader has taken a while to get to this point, but pressure to stay out of devolved government has intensified.  The party withdrew its minister from the last Executive, after revelations about the continued existence of the IRA and its links to Sinn Fein.  Yesterday, the PSNI chief constable made it clear to Mr Nesbitt that nothing much had changed in that regard, over the intervening seven months.

The UUP hedged its bets during the Assembly election campaign, refusing to state clearly whether it would take a ministry or not.  Its subsequent performance at the polls was underwhelming, despite widespread expectations that Ulster Unionists would win back seats.  Even still, there was speculation that the party leader could be enticed into the Executive by the prospect of an education portfolio.           

The UUP badly needs to find a compelling reason for voters to vote for its candidates and this decision should give it a clear purpose, which can be turned, in time, into a powerful message to the public.  Success will depend upon the Ulster Unionists’ ability to present themselves as an effective opposition and a credible alternative to the parties of government.

That task will be made easier if it is joined in opposition by the SDLP, which is also entitled to a ministry.  Because of the system at Stormont, no single party can form an Executive, but a cross community, voluntary opposition can start to present itself as a ‘government in waiting’.  Over the next week or so, we'll find out whether Colum Eastwood agrees.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

'The 2015 Election one year on; reflections & predictions (Part 2)' by Phil Larkin

In part 2 of his post, guest blogger Dr Phil Larkin reflects upon the prospects of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party and he predicts that the SNP has reached the peak of its powers.


Corbyn and the Labour Party
Jeremy Corbyn was made Labour Party leader in September 2015, after being nominated for the ballot by a number of Labour MPs, some of whom, like Sadiq Khan and Margaret Beckett, are kicking themselves for being so foolish. Corbyn was elected leader by over 60 per cent of the Labour Party membership, despite the reality that his views run counter to the vast majority of the Parliamentary Party on most key issues. During Ed Miliband’s time the rules on Party leadership were altered to give the membership a bigger say in the decision, and it was possible to join up online prior to the election for a fee of £3. I suspect that many who voted for him were younger members of the population with little or no memories of Labour’s travails during the 1980s. There are no such excuses for those who remember Labour’s fortunes during the 1980s, in particular the 1983 election; they are, quite frankly, old enough to know better.

As Opposition leader, in the estimation of those who supported him, Corbyn would trigger a massive renaissance of interest in politics among the youth of the country, terrify the Tory frontbench, and move the entire ground of British politics. As I predicted at the time, he has done nothing of the kind. He has proved just as wooden, plodding, cranky, and dogmatic as I believed him to be last summer. Corbyn’s political views petrified at some point in the 1970s and have not altered since. Yes, he has permitted those who voted for him to congratulate themselves on being so pure in their left-wing beliefs. He and John McDonnell have also guaranteed hours of fun for those who enjoy participating street protests and demonstrations which make them feel that they have achieved something but in reality all they have achieved is to alienate the wider electorate.

The main reason why Corbyn is always bound to be a disappointment to his followers is because, again, they attributed to him qualities which they wanted him to have, rather than seeing him for himself (the same flight from reality which predicted a Labour/SNP win in the 2015 election). To govern, as they say, is to choose, and Corbyn is not capable of the difficult choices of government. He has been accused of being anti-Semitic, a charge which he refutes, and I am definitely inclined to agree with his rejection of this charge. He is, however, altogether too comfortable in the presence of those who are. His entire leadership has been epitomised by the appointment of Seumas Milne, an apologist for Stalin, as Labour’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications. How can anyone believe that this is going to make the Party more electable in 2020? I firmly believe that anyone who states either that Corbyn will become Prime Minister or that he will change the nature of UK politics does not, at heart, really believe this. It is simply recitation of dogma.

There has been talk about a possible coup against his leadership should the local election results in May prove dismal for Labour. I am not sure what the results of the local, London Mayoral, and London Assembly elections, will bring for the Party, but frankly I am sceptical about, first, whether there will be any type of coup against Corbyn, and secondly, whether a leadership challenge (even successful) would benefit Labour in any meaningful way. It is likely that a future leadership election would produce a result similar to that of September 2015 should Corbyn still be on the ballot. Even if Labour MPs were to stage a coup against him, leaving his name off the ballot (which, technically, they could do under the Party election rules) this would provoke open civil war between the MPs and the Party membership, fought out in the unforgiving glare of media publicity. It is always a good policy to stop digging when you are in a hole.

Also, I believe that by the mere act of putting Corbyn in power, Labour has already forfeited the 2020 general election. It is probably best to allow him and McDonnell either to step down of their own accord, or wait until the result of the 2020 election, and then hang it firmly around the necks of both men, the MPs that supported them, and those in the membership who put them there.

I am convinced, however, that Labour will govern the UK again. It will require much hard work in purgatory, though. Perhaps the best strategy for the moderate, centre-right wing of the Party is to look beyond 2020, and prepare for the future. It is significant that MPs such as Dan Jarvis and Tristram Hunt are examining the question of how the Labour Party might have relevance in a fast changing society and an economy increasingly dominated by technology. Jarvis especially is cognisant of the great changes which have taken place in UK society and economy since the days of the Beveridge Report and the great Labour victory of 1945. He also notes the reality that the social mobility which characterised the post-War generation appears to have stalled: it is a sobering thought that it could be more difficult now for young people to improve their life circumstances to whatever level talent and intelligence allows them than it was for their parents and grandparents. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the growth in inequality between rich and poor which has accelerated over recent decades. This inequality is self-perpetuating: although real talent can always rise, it is still much easier to succeed commercially or professionally if you come from the right background, went to the right school, and speak with the right voice.

Part of the solution to inequality, as Tony Blair asserted years ago, is obviously education. Where Blair and New Labour perhaps got it wrong was in focusing almost exclusively upon traditional academic style and university education. The aim of his Governments was to get 50 per cent of all 18 year olds into higher education, which in theory was a great idea, but too many young people ended up studying for pointless degrees, leaving them chasing an all too small a number of jobs in services industries and financial services. Strangely, the Tories appear more pro-active on the idea of technical education and hi-tech apprenticeships, with Lord Baker championing the establishment of greater numbers of University Technical Colleges in England and Wales to provide such education for new generations of young people, with a view to them forming part of the labour market immediately on leaving school.[1] These are foundations on which a future centre-left Labour Party can build. I still believe, like Lord Healey, that Labour will be better equipped to manage and govern this technically orientated economy and society better than the Tories.

Sturgeon and the SNP
As I wrote in a previous article, the SNP is riding high at present. Its present surge will almost surely permit it to sweep the board in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections, and probably do extremely well in the 2020 general election (although perhaps not quite as well as in 2015). As I also wrote, however, the almost total victory of the SNP in 2015 will eventually prove its Achilles heel: from their present position, there is only one direction for the Party’s fortunes to go, and that is down. With each passing day in executive office in Scotland the SNP becomes viewed increasingly more as “the establishment” north of the border, and as Labour’s result in Scotland in 2015 demonstrates, political establishments can be knocked down in an instant. Furthermore, as time passes the SNP will be pressed to make the difficult choices on taxes and public spending which the Scottish Parliament and Executive will soon have the legal authority to make, meaning that it will be increasingly less easy for them to blame Westminster for such difficult choices. In addition, as I have set out above, the victory of the Remain campaign in June will reduce the chances of another referendum this generation will be reduced almost to zero: what then will the point of the SNP be? I believe SNP’s story over the next ten years will be that of decline.

[1] I increasingly think that there is something in the words of the comedian Alexei Sayle, who said in an interview that the political right make mistakes only once, while the left seems fated to make the same mistakes several times over. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

'The 2015 Election one year on; reflections & predictions' by Phil Larkin

The following is part 1 of a 2 part guest post by regular guest blogger Dr Phil Larkin. In part 1, Phil looks at the Conservative Party, its leader and the likely effects of an EU Referendum.  Tomorrow, part 2 will reflect on Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party and the prospects of Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, in Scotland.  


It is hard to believe that it is almost a year on since the General Election of May 2015. The results themselves were surprising in a number of ways, and there have been unforeseen developments on the UK political stage. The purpose of this article is to make a number of reflections on the events of this past year, and make some predictions about upcoming events on the political horizon.

Cameron, the Tories, and the EU Referendum
The Conservatives’ victory in last year’s election with a small but workable overall majority of 12 was perhaps the biggest surprise of 2015. The feeling of surprise and disappointment with this result on the part of Labour Party activists was due to the fact that some of them had put too much faith in what the opinion polls stated, and they saw in the polls what they really wanted to see. In hindsight, whatever little chance Ed Miliband had of a breakthrough in 2015 was laid to rest by Alex Salmond’s assertion that, in the event of a Labour/SNP coalition, he would be dictating the terms of the government’s budget, combined with Miliband’s seeming willingness and then vacillation over the idea of entering into such a coalition arrangement (quite apart from the reality that Miliband himself cut a lacklustre figure as Labour leader).

David Cameron really was the man of 2015. Not only had he managed to negotiate into existence and then to oversee a relatively successful Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, which lasted a full Parliamentary term, he also brought the Tories back into majority government for the first time since 1992. Furthermore, the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition led by Cameron had seen off the Scottish independence challenge in the referendum of September 2014.

It is my guess that Cameron decided to capitalise on the prestige gained from his election victory by scheduling the “In/Out” Referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU for June 23 this year. I predict that the Remain campaign will win the referendum by a reasonably safe, although not spectacular, majority. The UK will remain in the EU. It is true that the Out campaign can make a lot of noise and appeal to emotions, but, ultimately, unless they can persuade a majority of the UK electorate that life would be clearly, immediately, and demonstrably better off outside the EU. This is something which I do not believe that they can do. It is possible that the overall result will mirror that of the Scottish Referendum of 2014.

As victor in the referendum campaign, Cameron will then extend an olive branch to those Conservative MPs who were part of the “Exit” campaign, promising to forgive, forget, and move on (although I also have a hunch that he will have made mental notes of whose future careers he will assist covertly, and whose he will seek to stymie). In the interests of Party unity, Tory “Brexiteers” will have to accept his hand of friendship. It is difficult to know what will then become of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party; certainly the fire will have been taken out of their cause, and they will be obliged to accept the verdict of the electorate. The predicted Referendum result will also constitute a body blow for UKIP, and it is hard to see how they can continue indefinitely as a political force. I imagine that the SNP, behind the inevitable staged smiles, will be intensely disappointed that there was not a victory for Brexit: their hoped for trigger for a new referendum on Scottish independence will not be forthcoming.

David Cameron may then leave office a year or so before the 2020 election as the man who saved the Union, preserved the UK’s place within the EU, and shepherded the country through some of the worst vestiges of the recession (whether any of these epithets are fully justified or not). His successor may be George Osborne, although quite conceivably by 2018 or 2019 the Tories could prefer a newer, less shop-soiled figure to lead the Party. Barring some unforeseen event, like an equivalent to “Black Wednesday” in 1992, the Conservatives will go on to win the 2020 election, perhaps with an increased parliamentary majority and an increased share of the vote.