Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Theresa May, conservatism and Conservatism

In her first leader’s speech at a Tory Conference, Theresa May tried to explain the type of Conservatism she hopes to practise.  Although her address was popular with many delegates and the Tories’ poll ratings soared, it attracted frenzied criticism from left-liberals, who interpreted the sections on immigration as reactionary, and economic liberals, who were alarmed by May’s talk of government intervening to control markets.

Previously, I wrote that the new prime minister was associated with ‘pragmatism’ rather than any particular political ideology.  Mrs May’s conference speech suggested that she thinks Conservatism is something more than a commitment to free markets.  Her call to remember “the good that government can do” and her derisive comments about the “libertarian right”, were seen by some members of her party as a direct attack on their beliefs.

So, alongside alongside claims that May’s policies amounted to fascism, there were equally inflated suggestions that she was advocating socialism.  Rhetoric that tilted leftward on the economy and rightward on immigration made the implication of ‘national socialism’ irresistible to some commentators.  Tip-toeing around all that hyperbole, the speech combined some of the new populism affecting politics, with more traditional conservative themes.           

It is highly unlikely that Theresa May’s Tories will regulate companies heavily.  She prefaced her remarks about the economy by emphasising the party’s commitment to free markets.  The government’s slim majority in the House of Commons, and the hostility of a significant number of Conservatives, would prevent May from introducing a significant programme of regulation, even if that is what she intended.

There may be some limited measures aimed at protecting consumers, in particular industries.  The government is already involved heavily in ensuring wider broadband provision and mobile phone signal for example, because these services are considered particularly important to the rest of the economy.  Banks may be required to ensure that interest rates for savers reflect more closely the Bank of England base rate.  There may even be some legislation, largely aesthetic, around company governance.  

The policies trailed at party conferences often disappear rapidly, because these speeches are about setting a particular tone and attracting headlines, rather than the detail around important issues.  Mrs May’s speech was designed to appeal to voters, ‘ordinary working people’ as she insisted upon calling them, who regard big businesses with suspicion and feel that top executives are frequently paid too much money. The prime minister was telling them that the Conservatives are on their side.  

That’s not to say that she won’t make another speech soon, soothing any anxieties that her words might have caused among businesses, and emphasising that the financial industry and other publicly unpopular industries are vital to the economy.  In fact that is very likely.

The idea that Mrs May is trying to place herself ‘equidistant’ between right and left is not particularly illuminating.  In my previous blog, I observed that the idea of a Tory party torn between Thatcherite free marketeers and ‘One Nation’ Conservatives is a simplification.  Broadly, market liberal ideas, the meat of Thatcherism, are taken for granted across the Conservative Party and, until relatively recently, they attracted few serious challenges across British society.

So far, Theresa May’s team has made a rather good job of reading the mood of Britain, after the EU referendum.  While the Tories’ poll ratings reflect this success, they need to deliver a coherent plan for Brexit and govern well, rather than merely echoing public opinion.

Some more excitable activists reacted to Theresa May’s defence of government and her criticisms of failing markets by alleging that she was not espousing Conservatism.  That depends whether Conservatism (big ‘C’) is still underpinned meaningfully by conservatism (small ‘c’).

British conservatives defend free markets and civil liberties, because they are a defining feature of the UK's culture and society.  However, the free market libertarian desire to strip back regulations, laws and institutions as a matter of principle is something very different from conservatism, as it is usually understood.

Classical liberalism is an undeniable, and important, aspect of the modern Conservative Party.  There are a smaller number of Tories who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’.  Almost the entire party accepts the broad thrust of Thatcherite economics, to some degree.

Perhaps Theresa May was being needlessly antagonistic when she hit out at the ‘libertarian right’.  That doesn’t mean that her speech wasn’t deeply ‘conservative’, even if some of her colleagues would like to rid the Conservative Party of the ideas she articulated.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Irish FA blameless in Team Ireland guest-list 'controversy'

There were just two days between Northern Ireland’s matches against San Marino and Germany.  Time enough for the BBC to turn into headline news a petty dispute about the Irish FA’s guest-list for the official opening of the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.

This event took place before the San Marino game on Saturday night and included a ‘lap of legends’, with ‘some famous Northern Ireland faces’ walking round the pitch ‘accompanied by (special guests) from the football family’.  The IFA invited “well known fans”, like Carl Frampton, Jimmy Nesbitt, Gary Lightbody and others, but didn’t invite ‘Team Ireland’ Paralympians Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop.

Smyth complained about his omission on Twitter, choosing to ‘tag’ Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in his tweet, while McKillop registered his public displeasure later.  

This ‘story’ raises a few questions.  Why on earth did the BBC think it important enough to lead its television news in Northern Ireland?  What kind of person deems himself a ‘legend’?  And, perhaps the least interesting: why weren’t the two athletes invited?  

Smyth believes he was overlooked because he represents Team Ireland, rather than Team GB, two of whose members took part in the lap.   The IFA blamed an ‘oversight’.  The event had been arranged quickly and there were limited spaces for 'legends' available.  

There’s no reason to doubt that explanation, particularly because the association made a later offer to add Michael McKillop to the event.  However, had it decided to exclude ‘Team Ireland’ athletes on principle, the decision would have been perfectly justifiable.

Olympic teams and Paralympic teams, with very few exceptions, represent nation states.  

Team Ireland, despite its misleading name, represents the Republic of Ireland, whose symbols it uses prominently.  Athletes from Northern Ireland qualify for inclusion by virtue of their entitlement to citizenship of the Republic of Ireland, even though there is a separate UK team, Team GB, which represents Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It’s true that many sports, like rugby and golf, organise on an all-Ireland basis.  Though efforts to use inclusive symbols are often lacking, officially their representative teams represent both parts of the island, which spans two separate nation states.  

It would be unusual if the Irish FA were not acutely aware of these fine distinctions around sports eligibility, because it was involved in a prolonged dispute with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), the governing body for football in the Republic of Ireland.  In recent years, the FAI persuaded young Northern Irish players to defect to its teams, for which they qualified by virtue of Republic of Ireland citizenship.

Northern Ireland is a cross-community team and the Irish FA is a cross-community organisation.  It is right and appropriate that it looks to include people from all backgrounds at its events and attempts to reflect Irish culture and symbols, but that’s not the same as recognising the symbols, teams or institutions of the Republic of Ireland.

Olympic and Paralympic sport features multiple events, and athletes from Northern Ireland find themselves representing the Republic for various reasons, which don’t always include political allegiance.  The distinction between all-Ireland teams and Republic of Ireland teams is often ignored, either deliberately or because it causes confusion.  

When Rory McIlroy stated his intention initially to compete for Team GB rather than Team Ireland at the Olympics, there were howls of outrage and copious personal abuse, because he had played previously for the Ireland golf team, organised by an all-Ireland body, the Golf Union of Ireland (GUI).  

Rory later switched his allegiance to the Republic, before deciding eventually that he wouldn’t go to the Rio games at all. Throughout the whole acrimonious discussion, it was scarcely acknowledged that the GUI was always supposed to represent both parts of the island, relying on funds from member golf clubs in both nation states.

It would be odd if the Irish Football Association, of all sporting bodies, were so cavalier about important differences.  It is not responsible for the common conflation of 'Ireland' with the 'Republic of Ireland' and 'Irish' with 'citizen of the Republic of Ireland state'.  It’s that stubborn refusal by many nationalists to accept the fact of Northern Ireland’s existence that is frequently at the root of false controversies about discrimination against Irishness.           

Friday, 23 September 2016

Irish identity grounded firmly in the UK

The Irish Times published a series of articles examining relationships between “Ireland and Britain”.  In a typically forthright piece, the paper’s columnist, Newton Emerson, writes that he does “not feel Irish in the slightest”.  He grew up in Northern Ireland at a time when direct rule made it “as British as Finchley”.  

I’m a little younger than Newton and my attitudes are slightly different.  I do consider myself Irish, but the Irishness I feel has little to do with the Republic of Ireland and it sits happily alongside my sense of Britishness.  For me, Northern Ireland is “as British as Finchley”, or Stirling, or Caerphilly, it just isn’t the same as Finchley.  

I grew up in Ballymena, Ian Paisley’s heartland, where hostility to Irish identity was not  uncommon.  After winning his first international cap, one of the town’s rugby stars, Davy Tweed, was reputed to say, “I’ve played thirty times for my country (Ulster) and once for Ireland”.  

Like Newton, many of my cultural references came from British TV, sport and popular music, but I was also highly aware of Irish literature and music.  As a teenager, in the early nineties, my favourite group was U2, and I studied the full range of Bono’s musings, as well as the contents of the band’s lyrics.
As I got older, I still enjoyed the music, but I found his political pronouncements embarrassing.  That was a journey I suspect I shared with young people from all over the island.  

At school, the fashion at the time was to teach chunks of history, rather than its broad sweep.  Some of the topics were specifically Irish and some British, but, because our pasts are so closely entwined, mostly they were relevant to both identities.  Ireland was a prominent issue for Elizabeth I and the Stuarts, while a connection with Britain dominated Irish affairs in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Where politics were concerned, like many Northern Irish youngsters who were interested in current affairs, I knew embarrassingly little about our neighbouring state.  Proper political debates were conducted at Westminster, and local government in Northern Ireland offered a grim parody, embarrassing and futile in equal measure.  I read British papers, watched the BBC news and British political programmes on TV.

I was most aware of being Irish on holiday, where i spent summers on campsites in France, mixing mainly with children from the rest of the UK.  For English, Scottish and Welsh kids, my accent meant I was Irish, and I accepted that verdict cheerfully enough.  It didn’t seem to mean my Britishness was questioned, and I remember taking part in UK vs. the rest of Europe football matches, against players from the Republic.

This upbringing shaped my political beliefs, that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK and that Britishness accommodates Irishness, Welshness and Scottishness comfortably, as well as other identities from newer arrivals to our islands.

The Republic of Ireland purports to represent the Irish nation in its entirety, but that is not a claim that I recognise.  I’m from the part of Ireland that did not secede from the UK, and while I have certain aspects of Irishness in common with those who are not British, my Irish identity is grounded firmly in a multicultural, multinational United Kingdom.  

Thursday, 15 September 2016

There is no Brexit 'crisis' in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s public affairs magazine, Agenda NI, held a conference recently about the ‘Brexit crisis’. It was a clever title for the event but, almost three months after the referendum, it’s clear that there is no crisis around Brexit, and political attempts to manufacture one are not succeeding.
The exact details will be subject to complex negotiations, but Britain will leave the EU and both parts of the island of Ireland will have to adjust.
For Northern Ireland, Brexit presents specific challenges. There are anxieties about what form the Irish border might take, when it becomes a boundary between the UK and the European Union. The Republic’s ambassador in London, Dan Mulhall, told a Westminster committee last week that he is confident a ‘common travel area’, which guarantees free movement between the two countries, will be preserved.
These border arrangements pre-date membership of the EU and they complement British and southern Irish laws that ensure neither country’s citizens can be treated as ‘foreigners’ in either jurisdiction.
A victims campaigner, Raymond McCord, has challenged Brexit in the High Court, on the basis that it undermines the “peace process”. Although the case will cite clauses from the Good Friday Agreement, Mr McCord’s objections centre on a perceived threat to funding for victims of the Troubles.
It is unlikely that the court will find in his favour. The EU doesn’t form an important part of Northern Ireland’s peace settlement and the Good Friday Agreement is not a foundation-stone of the UK constitution.
The nationalist political parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, continue to call for a border poll on the strength of Brexit. Alongside Alliance and the Greens, nationalist MLAs have launched their own court challenge, demanding that Stormont gets to vote on Brexit in a motion of consent (which they intend to withhold).
Even so, they’re struggling to maintain the type of fury which greeted the initial referendum result. Opinion polls suggest that the issue of EU membership is unlikely to change many voters’ views on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.
Meanwhile, the Dublin government, which opposed Brexit vocally during the referendum campaign, is embroiled in its own row with the European Commission over tax arrangements with US technology giant, Apple. The Republic’s economy is heavily dependent on trade with the UK and, now its low tax deals with foreign investors are under threat, the idea of joining Britain outside the EU doesn’t seem so outlandish.
Even the gloomy forecasts about Brexit’s effects on the economy are proving unfounded. Although the value of sterling has fallen, consumers are spending plenty of money, manufacturers’ order books are full and the hospitality sector is booming. The IMF was forced to admit that ‘turmoil’ it predicted for the financial markets has already ‘subsided’.
There’s still plenty of uncertainty about the future. The prime minister says “Brexit means Brexit”, but that phrase obscures the fact that there are several options for the UK’s status outside the EU. There is disagreement even among government ministers about the desired outcome of negotiations with Brussels.
It’s important that our local politicians think about how Brexit can work for Northern Ireland and which arrangements suit us best. That includes making sure that goods and people can move across the Irish border quickly and easily, while we maintain close relations with our nearest neighbour. It also means considering how PEACE monies and other types of funding can best be replaced outside the EU.
Whether we like it or not Brexit is happening. It might involve some changes, but it won’t cause a crisis, it won’t derail the ‘peace process’ and it won’t collapse the economy. Northern Ireland’s policy makers have a duty to make the best of it, rather than stirring up panic or taking frivolous actions in the law courts.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

MLA posted on racist Facebook thread

Jenny Palmer won an extra seat for the Ulster Unionists in Lagan Valley, at last May's Assembly election.  The former councillor previously resigned from the DUP, after alleging she had been bullied during a controversy over Housing Executive maintenance contracts.

The MLA quickly caused a headache for her new party by becoming involved in a row about migrants trying to cross the English Channel.  She was accused of writing a Facebook post which compared them to dogs.

Palmer quickly apologised and explained that her comment was a poorly worded joke, which, on the surface, seemed reasonable.  However, she had replied on a thread started by a poster who made a shockingly racist comment about 'beating niggers' out from under a bus.

Why on earth would an MLA become involve in a discussion which opened with such an unpleasant remark, unless she intended to challenge its racism?  This wasn't just an instance of someone taking offence too quickly, where none was intended.  At the very least, it was a major error in judgement by Jenny Palmer, at worst it showed ambivalence to bigotry.

Taking the kindlier view, it still raises issues about the wildly inconsistent calibre of MLAs at Stormont.


Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Russia 2018 will be great and Northern Ireland supporters will want to be there.

Northern Ireland kicks off the World Cup qualifiers in the Czech Republic on Sunday.  The prize is a trip to the finals tournament in Russia in 2018.  The supporters' website, Our Wee country, asked me to explain why that'll be a great occasion and why Northern Ireland fans will be desperate to attend.  This post was originally on OWC's Facebook page.   

Last June, most of the country went Green and White Army crazy, as Northern Ireland experienced major championship football for the first time in 30 years.  It was a strange experience for long term fans who followed the team through thick and thin, regardless of success.  If you thought the hype around the Euros was something special, though, it will be ten times greater if we qualify for the World Cup. 
That’s a big incentive for supporters and, more importantly, for the players.  Don’t listen to the doubters.  Russia will stage a brilliant competition and no expense will be spared making sure visitors have a great time during summer 2018.

Bribery, hooliganism and Putin; the picture the media paints of Russia and its World Cup bid is bleak, but it is also biased and it draws upon the west’s political rivalry with Moscow and England’s hurt at not hosting the finals.  Actually, there will never be a better time to visit the world’s biggest, most fascinating country.  The President mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but he’ll make sure that this showpiece event goes smoothly.

Usually, securing a visa is the biggest inconvenience when you visit Russia.  Getting the paperwork, including a letter of invitation from a hotel, can cost over £100 and it now involves a trip to Edinburgh or London, where they collect ‘biometric data’.  In 2018, all fans will enjoy visa-free travel to Russia for the duration of the finals.  That’s a big saving for a start.

Critics cite the distance between venues in Russia as a big problem.  This issue is exaggerated, because the cities are ‘clustered’ to cut travel times, but the clincher is another freebie the Russians offered as part of their World Cup bid.  Ticket holding fans will be entitled to free travel between match venues, in summer 2018.  In Russia that usually means an overnight train, which is an experience to remember and saves on accommodation.  If you caught the ‘party train’ between Kiev and Donetsk, for the Ukraine game back in the day, you’ll know what to expect.

Then there’s food and drink prices.  Admittedly, if you want to hobnob with oligarchs and supermodels in Moscow or St Petersburg, these can be high.  Luckily, even in the big cities, the cost of beer is cheaper than back home, if you stick to normal bars, chain restaurants and kiosks.  Try Kruzhka or Yolki Polki, for cheap food and drink.  And, if you like vodka, Russia can easily wear out your liver in a month.  You can get half a litre of the stuff for about £2, in any Russian supermarket.

Many Northern Ireland fans know already that Russia makes a great trip.  We played in Moscow in 2012 and most supporters had a blast.  Our group set up its ‘local’ in a brilliant little bar just off Arbat (the capital’s main tourist street), after a week and a half visiting Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod (both World Cup venue cities).  It’s just a pity about the result, but then, that’s often the problem on Northern Ireland away trips.

The Russians will keep the hooligan threat under control, because they intend to use the competition to show off their country.  Already, plush new stadiums are opening ahead of the finals.  Russia also contains some of the world’s best tourist attractions, if you like a little sightseeing with your football.  Red Square and the Kremlin, the Hermitage museum, and the site of the Battle of Stalingrad are all in host cities. 

It’s no exaggeration to say 2018 could be one of the best World Cups ever.  Let’s hope Northern Ireland qualifies.

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.