Sunday 30 March 2014

Poll Position

I hate to point this out, but a lead is a lead, people.

When the Prime Minister's party is cock-a-hoop at being "only" one point behind (in one poll), then it is all over.

In The Pink

Another year in which I have been told by people well over 70 and with no axes to grind that they have "never heard" of rose vestments.

As with a lot of things favoured in trad circles, I am beginning to think that the places that still have them are the only ones that ever did.

A friend of mine who used to serve at a cathedral that shall remain nameless once told me that even the servers there from before the War had never heard of such a thing.

I am not saying that it is a good thing that most people's liturgical experience before the Council was probably no better, or even worse, than it has been since. But I do not think that that can be gainsaid as a fact.

Nostalgia for the 1950s has nothing to do with liturgical enrichment today, and is in many ways positively inimical to it.


Rumour has it that, in giving Royal Assent to the same-sex marriage legislation, the Queen has breached her Coronation Oath. But the reality is that she would have done so if she had not assented.

The text of the Oath reads:

"Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?"

"All this I promise to do," replied the Queen.

Thus, within the meaning of the Oath, is the same things said in four different ways.

"The Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel" are defined as "in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law," which is defined as "the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England," which are defined as "all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to [the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge] or any of them."

Those rights and privileges are of course defined by Parliament. Within the understanding of the Coronation Oath, whatever Parliament defines as the rights and privileges, mostly in relation to incomes and property, of the Church of England's clergy are the only meaning of the settlement of the Church of England, thus the only meaning of the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law, and thus the only meaning of the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel.

The Queen is therefore bound by the Coronation Oath precisely and solely to sign whatever Parliament puts in front of her. That, and that alone, is her sworn duty as monarch.

It should be added that, just as did and will apply in relation to civil partnerships, anyone contracting a same-sex civil marriage with a member of the Church of England's clergy thereby acquires his or her rights and privileges in relation to pensions, housing, and so forth.

Nor should one assume that such will be few in number. As, to cite another example topical today, those who do not know about the homosexuality of a third or so of Conservative Members of Parliament at any given point since time immemorial are too ignorant to pass comment, so too are those who do not know about that of somewhere between a quarter and a third of the Church of England's clergy. Again, at any given point since time immemorial.

The Union IS Scotland's Culture

How could you fail to have an argument about identity in Scotland – and at a time like this? A referendum on independence should be the very definition of the moment to have it.

You'd have thought the Scottish cultural air would be thrumming with an accrued history of intellectual fighting and flyting over who we are, dating back to the unions of crowns and parliaments, through the Enlightenment and into all the scientific and artistic legacies of 19th and 20th-century Scottish culture, as manifested now, at a constitutional crossroads.

But this is a strange time.

The argument about Scottish culture is not being had. The accusation aimed at the Better Together campaign is that it has no positive vision of the UK.

But, by exactly the same token, the yes campaign has little more than economic promises, based on speculation that an independent Scotland could be better off financially.

In this reductive economic standoff, Scots are defined only by geographical residency, our identity dependent on resolving the currency problem, our future pegged on the dubious question of EU membership.

There is lots of angry smoke in the debate, but no real fire.

There was, curiously, more cultural expression during the process of devolution.

Glasgow had been galvanised by its year as European city of culture; Scottish artists ("Scotia Nostra", as Douglas Gordon referred to them in his 1996 Turner prize speech) were seizing their place in a global market; the new parliament in Edinburgh (with its Catalan designer) was being worked up into the capital's most extravagant experiment in modern architecture; Trainspotting (with its Scottish producer and English director) transformed the image of Scottish cinema; the "new Scottish fiction" was gripping publishers from Edinburgh to London.

That was a time of constitutional reorganisation, but now, on the brink of revolution, Scotland's cultural elites seem to have fallen into sterile postures of consensus.

The majority of artists and writers – the ones who are prepared to speak up – are yes voters by default, but not argument.

The minority who disagree remain largely mute, cautious of their reputations, fearful of vilification. The atmosphere is tense, nervous and unimaginative.

The only discernible argument about identity currently to be had is the daft idea that an independent Scotland would become like Scandinavia.

No one who really knows Norway or Sweden (and they are not easy to know) would confuse their discreet, anti-confrontational, technocratic political cultures with our liberal and disputatious – Scottish or British – ones.

But beyond the economics, where is the legendary Scottish dispute?

This may be the first time Billy Connolly has been heard to say that he doesn't have an opinion (recently asked about the referendum, he replied that he had more in common with a welder from Liverpool than a Highlands crofter, but wouldn't be voting in September).

Ian Rankin, despite his detective Rebus being a classically cantankerous character of Scottish fiction, isn't touching the subject.

Cosmopolitan painters such as Callum Innes, Peter Doig or Alison Watt have not been tempted to air their views on traditions in Scottish art.

One former Dr Who, David Tennant, says it's not his business, since he doesn't live in Scotland and the new Doctor can't speak, due to BBC impartiality rules, which is also why no explicit opinion – either way – will emerge from the likes of Andrew Marr, Eddie Mair, Kirsty Wark or James Naughtie.

The BBC, with its Reithian foundations, is a fundamentally Scottish-British institution.

The problem is that the in-or-out binary question bypasses the reality of Scottish culture, which has, historically, lived out a duality.

It is not the state, or geography or ethnicity that defines what it means to be Scottish.

As David Stenhouse writes amusingly in How the Scots Took Over London, the streets of the British capital are paved not with gold, but with a road surface invented in 1816 by John Loudon McAdam.

In the 19th century, Scots, having invented modern city planning in Edinburgh, were designing half the bridges across the Thames.

London is not an English city, but a world city – and never more so than now, in the era of mass migration.

It is Scotland's biggest market and its third most important portal to the world.

A vote for independence in September would not mean separation from England (a matter of cartography that was resolved 1,000 years ago).

It would mean separation from Britain, a country that was created and constituted by Scots at least as much as it was by our partners in the union.

But the Scottish Enlightenment, the diaspora, Scots in the empire, Scottish explorers and scientists and philosophers and inventors – the tartan seams in the British story – have been bleached out of a narrow debate.

Almost every great Scottish writer has struggled with, or been inspired by, their dual identity.

Boswell thrived on his Johnson. Burns wrote poetry to Britain as well as Scotland. Scott gave the name Waverley to the fluctuating loyalties of Jacobite fervour and Georgian settlement. Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde universalised the split psyche.

Scottish creativity sprang from its argumentative, oppositional nature.

Scotland wasn't subsumed by the union; its institutions of law, education and kirk were flintily sharpened against the English. The existential battle for identity fought by Lewis Grassic Gibbon or Alasdair Gray has been won – and the picture has become plural.

Completely different versions of the country have emerged in the hands of Allan Massie or James Kelman, Irvine Welsh or Alexander McCall Smith. But they are the old guard.

Writers, artists, poets, film-makers – even those who desire independence – no longer obsess over national identity.

Contemporary Scottish culture is international cosmopolitan, or personal. Dundee and its gaming culture (home of Grand Theft Auto) is global.

Many Scots feel equally British and Scottish. This is not depressing dilution, it is cultural chemistry.

The most exciting current Scottish film is David Mackenzie's Starred Up. Produced by Gillian Berrie, boss of Scotland's leading, home-grown production company, Sigma, it is the most visceral English prison story ever told.

The best 21st-century work of Scottish theatre so far has been Black Watch. Written by a Scot (Gregory Burke) and directed by an Englishman (John Tiffany), it put the Scottish National Theatre on the international map.

Scottish culture is not defined by the technocratic trade-offs between market and state that are contemporary politics.

The current Scottish government – which, make no mistake, is popular and effective – nevertheless has no record on culture.

Scottish cultural identity is borderless. The British dream is not a confining state, it is a creative and commercial opportunity.

Saying no to separation should mean saying yes to a different constitutional settlement for the UK as a whole.

That is what all the political parties now need on the table. The status quo is not an option.

Enhancement and ratification of the powers of the parliament in Holyrood would allow Scotland to get on with being itself and, with no contradiction at all, to reap the creative potential of a Britishness, which was ours historically and is ours still to make.

Saturday 29 March 2014

Age Concern

Not to say, Help The Aged.

Whenever assisted suicide has been proposed, the Prime Minister of the day has always publicly opposed it in very strong terms.

It is good to see David Cameron keeping up that important witness.

He is of course absolutely right that provision of this kind would lay vulnerable elderly people open to bullying by unscrupulous relatives and others.

The same is true of any provision for them to take out their entire pension pots in one go.

Custom and Practice

Not only would an independent Scotland be unable to keep the pound, but the Church of England has several serving bishops who are in same-sex partnerships. I was not going to have another cup of tea. But I need one after those startling revelations.

The people who most insist that the Church of England must not "compromise" on the second of those issues, at least, are those who are most wedded to the notion of it as a bulwark of national independence.

Yet, even in its own terms, its only argument for having adopted, only in the 1990s, a position on homosexuality entirely different from any that it had held in living memory, if ever, was the perceived need to submit to the opinion of the Anglican archbishops on either side of the widest point of Africa.

Those are not only geographically, but culturally, far more distant from England than Rome was even in the sixteenth century, never mind today.

As anyone on the Continent would tell you, any institution that existed primarily or exclusively as an expression of English culture would be unusually relaxed about male homosexuality, in particular. Until not even 20 years ago, that was exactly what the Church of England was and, even within English society, had always been noted for being.

Blessings of civil same-sex marriages are just going to take place in the Church of England, anyway. Nor has that body's bishops any power to discipline many, perhaps still most, of those clergy who might choose either to perform such blessings or to contract such civil marriages.

Moreover, and especially if a woman bishop is indeed appointed late this year or early in 2015 (since opposition to same-sex marriage is negligible among the women clergy, who also have a very strikingly high rate of divorce), the Church of England will itself be performing such marriages well within 10 years, and probably within five.

No one will break away. They never do, over anything. The people most likely to do so, relatively speaking, over women bishops are in any case at least among the people most likely to wish to bless or to solemnise same-sex marriages, indeed to contract them. An Ordinariate priest has already been found to have contracted a civil partnership. Well, of course.

There is no need to go back to Henry VIII. There is not even any need to go back to the Lambeth Conference resolution on contraception in 1930.

The Church of England effectively wrote the 1969 Divorce Reform Act, recommending what were to become its contents long before they did so, which was long before mainstream public opinion had become remotely receptive to them. It actively supported the Major Government's 1994 amendments that made divorce legally easier than release from a car hire contract.

(David Steel also states frankly that he did little more than write up the reports on abortion by the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and the Methodist Church as the 1967 Abortion Act, making it no surprise that they all supported it.)

Neither the Church of England, nor any part of it, is any potential bulwark against the other obvious departure, now that the principle has been conceded, from marriage as only ever the union of one man and one woman.

The Anglican Communion accepted polygamy, as a matter of principle and not only of pastoral necessity, as long ago as the Lambeth Conference of 1988. Not that there seems to have been any resistance from anyone or anywhere, but the lead in its favour came from the very African provinces that are now being held up as the bastions of orthodoxy.

Therefore, the liturgies of those provinces include forms for the blessing of "customary unions" and what have you. Well, ceremonies such as that which was performed for the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, and which are routine throughout the land, also fall under that description.

As do the very similar blessings of civil partnerships, which already occur wholly within the approved structure of the Established Church. And as will the blessings of same-sex civil marriages, until such time as the Church of England simply performs such marriages as if the parties were of opposite sexes.

It will certainly do so, very soon, and no one will bat an eyelid when it does.

United, Indeed

I make no pretence to following football for its own sake. But I do believe in local patriotism.

Manchester United's apparently famous Class of '92 might very well be in a position to uphold such values this time.

In general, however, and in order to avoid even the need for such bids, the grounds of football and other major sports clubs should be as they are in Italy, owned and run by their respective local councils.

Both parties ought to be in no doubt as to who was in charge, as Newcastle City Council has singularly failed to be in recent years where the very name of St James' Park has been concerned.

While the clubs themselves should be as they are in Spain, proper clubs with the fans as their members who elect the board, and who can decline to re-elect it.

Principalities and Powers

Who even wants yet further Welsh devolution?

There persists profound ambivalence, with well over a third voting No at the most recent referendum in 2011, as good as certainly including the great majority of those, still a significant minority but obscured by the First Past The Post electoral system, who are supporters of the Prime Minister's own party.

Plaid Cymru's share of the vote at the 2011 Assembly Election was only half the size of that which rejected further devolution in the same year.

An opportunity now presents itself.

The status of Wales as a distinct principality (a word for the avoidance of which the BBC has to prefer "national region", whatever one of those might be) within the United Kingdom, the Principality of Wales, ought to be confirmed in Statute, with the monarch as de jure Prince of Wales, and with the title vested honorarily, together with ceremonial duties, in the Heir to the Throne at the monarch's pleasure.

Legislation of the Welsh Assembly would come into effect with the Assent of the monarch as Prince of Wales, and primary legislation could not be submitted for that Royal Assent without the prior approval of a resolution of the House of Commons if it had been referred for such approval by the Prime Minister, or by the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, or by the Secretary of State for Wales, or by any member of the House of Commons sitting for a Welsh constituency, or by any fifth or more of the members of the Welsh Assembly, or by any third or more of those members (whether constituency, list, or both) from any of the five electoral regions, or by resolution of any local authority in Wales, or by a petition of at least 50,000 registered electors in Wales.

The greater number of the strongest supporters of, in particular, that parliamentary safeguard would be a very high proportion of the Labour-voting majority.

They suffer most as a result of the takeover of Wales by an upper-middle-class oligarchy which uses Welsh while living in English-speaking areas, exactly as predicted by Leo Abse in the 1970s, together with the weakening of trade union bargaining power throughout the United Kingdom, as also fully anticipated in the course of those debates.

Especially with the principality provision to put the belt and braces on Tory support, this ought to be proposed by Labour when the Bill providing for the next round of devolution comes before the Commons. However, it should simply be an additional part of that Bill, and not conditional on anything else.

If, most regrettably, this did have to be a backbench amendment, then obviously it would be best if it came from an MP who sat for a Welsh constituency.

But failing that, or perhaps within it, it would look like a very enterprising, and a very worthwhile, way of securing oneself 20 or more nominations in the next election for Leader or Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

Workers United Against The TTIP

A trans-Atlantic labour union, Workers Uniting, has called on the EU and U.S. trade negotiators to strengthen worker’s rights in the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The TTIP has been widely criticised by the world’s experts.

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in the US observed that with conventional trade barriers between the US and the EU already low, the deal would focus on non-conventional barriers such as freeing up regulations regarding fracking, GMOs and finance and tightening laws on copyright.

He claim that this trade agreement is not about promoting prosperity for all, but powerful industry lobbies trying to dodge regulation. 

Workers Uniting  calls for the TTIP to include a tax on financial transactions to support social programs and also demands that the European Works Council directive, chemical safety standards, and other European social legislation be expanded to include American workers.

This stance was reiterated from Trade Union leaders from both sides of the Atlantic. 

“We view TTIP as a threat to the rights of workers in Europe. We can’t afford to import America’s low labour rights standards.” 

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite the union. 

“American and European workers deserve a better deal. Our governments’ narrow focus on greater protections for companies must be transformed to include expanded rights and protections for workers.” 

Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), which represents workers in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.

A Socially Responsible Private Sector

Deborah Orr is more right than wrong:

Poor Ed Miliband. He is neither the problem nor the solution.

Instead, he's the inevitable product of a Labour party that doesn't know what it is or what it wants. That's the problem.

The Labour party doesn't know what it's for any more, and it has ended up with a leader who doesn't know, either.

It's not a socialist party any longer. It is not dedicated, as it once was, to achieving workers' ownership of the means of production.

Yet the reinvention Blair provided, in 1997, has been rejected, by voters and members. Miliband doesn't have an alternative, and when he stood as party leader, he didn't offer one.

What is the Labour party now dedicated to, or what should it be dedicated to?

Such a question tends to elicit responses such as "social justice" or "equality of opportunity". These may be pleasing concepts. But they are goals, rather than definitions.

For me, it's quite simple. The Labour party can reinvent socialism pretty easily.

It should stand for the idea – the fact – that workers are the means of production, and should therefore be treated with respect.

That's true to the party's traditions, and also happens to strike at the heart of many of this country's difficulties.

This is not to say that "wealth creators" should not be treated with respect. They are and should be.

A Labour party that pits the workers against the bosses is divisive, as is a Tory party that pits the bosses against the workers.

But, for all their talk of "One nation" or "We're all in this together", neither party really seems able to understand that a symbiotic relationship is what's required, in order to create a healthy and fully functioning society – one that has plenty of affluent, tax-paying consumers and fewer state-dependent people trapped in benefits.

Much of the trouble is that business philosophy seems only too happy to affirm all the most negative stereotypes that the left maintains about "the boss class".

Employers have for too long been encouraged to believe that their role is to afford their workers the least respect they can get away with – the lowest possible pay, the least demanding (to them) conditions, the minimum of job security.

The law has been remodelled in recent decades, so that it is on their side.

Yet, there are plenty of good employers out there, reaping the benefits of good, respectful staff relations, employers who understand that their loyalty is not to themselves and the market, but to their fellow humans – society.

But the temper of the ideological times is against them.

Their example should be inspiring all citizens – bosses and workers – to believe that the right solution is the most socially beneficial solution. Instead, ruthlessness and willingness to exploit is viewed as an admirable business trait.

During my childhood, it was workers and their strikes that caused power cuts.

Today, the boss of a private energy company warns that if his industry is investigated by the competition watchdog, there will be blackouts. Miliband's threat of a freeze on energy prices provoked a similar threat.

The big six energy companies last year made a billion in profit between them, quite clearly the result of their never-ending price increases.

Privatisation and deunionisation, far from ridding consumers of high-cost poor service, have simply replaced one concentration of delinquent power with another.

What was the point of "breaking" the unions, only to replace them with international cartels every bit as happy to shout "strike" if their own much more extravagant demands are not met?

The solution is not to diminish one group's power in order to hand it to another. It's to reject this sort of militant behaviour, whatever quarter it comes from.

If what's currently happening with the energy companies is not enough to destroy the idea that public is bad and private is good, then one need look no further than the housing market.

Placing supply in private hands, in the 1980s, has not let to a property-owning democracy, but a series of speculative bubbles, yet another of which is being inflated now, even though the human cost of such larks is plain to see.

Humans have a propensity for behaving selfishly, when given the opportunity.

Market economics are essentially an attempt to argue that selfishness can be harnessed for the good of society (as long as it's not the workers who are being selfish).

But what Labour, or any political party that wants to change our culture for the better, must communicate is that only individual responsibility can promote collective responsibility and vice versa.

Our dominant economic system is not based on the idea that the people of Britain are the 63 million musketeers: "All for one and one for all."

Instead, it's based on the idea that if someone is dependent on you, then you press home your advantage as hard as you can, and congratulate yourself for doing so.

This idea, above all, Labour must stand against.

The idea of interdependence, mutual advantage, has been resisted on both sides of the political divide. Our adversarial system decrees that this must be so.

Yet the result of that mindset is great disaffection and disengagement. People are not respected for being willing to do simple things and do them well.

On the contrary, they are despised for it, and then bosses complain about how they can't get the staff these days.

No one wants to turn up for a day's work, knowing that the person they work for is contemptuous of them. Yet the wages and conditions offered to people in Britain reek of contempt.

For a long time now, Labour has focused on treating the symptoms of an antisocial, anti-human, market-based economy.

The last Labour government let it run riot, while expanding the state to try to cope with the human casualties of the system.

The current government seeks to reverse that expansion, leaving the casualties to fend for themselves.

Under Miliband, the opposition talks about the cost-of-living crisis, which is just another symptom of a market system that is not delivering the widespread prosperity its proponents promise.

How can it, when it runs on the idea that prosperity – profits – should be maximized, not shared?

Of course, market systems exacerbate inequality. All of their mechanisms are geared to doing so.

Those who complain most bitterly about the Big State are those most likely to believe that redistribution of wealth or the amelioration of social troubles are none of their business.

The paradox of left-right politics is that only a socially responsible private sector can render an ever-expanding public sector unnecessary.

The party that wants the public sector to be smaller is the party least likely to tackle social irresponsibility in the private sector.

The party that sees itself as the champion of a large public sector, removes from the private sector much incentive to feel responsible for those it employs.

Each party has an inbuilt inability to deliver on its goals, and the electorate no alternative but to see-saw between the two of them.

When one party breaks away from this wretched game, both will have to.

So far, unfortunately, there's no sign that either will.

Friday 28 March 2014

Dreyfus Lee Travis

There ought to have been a verdict of Not Guilty last time. Why was there not?

The prosecution had failed to convince the jury, and that alone is what is matters. Isn't it?

They are determined to hound this man until they convict him of absolutely anything, or he dies.


Failed On All Counts

From Atos, to Legal Aid, to that of which Patrick Butler writes:

That just 6% of people affected by the bedroom tax have moved to a smaller home, as a BBC investigation has revealed, will come as no surprise to anyone living or working in social housing.

The policy had two aims, to save £500m on the housing benefits bill and to solve the problem of overcrowding by freeing up "under-occupied" social properties for families on the waiting list.

There is increasing evidence that the bedroom tax has failed on both counts.

For a start, the projected saving had already been downgraded to £390m, and the government on Friday suggested it would drop further to £360m.

There is also evidence that the costs of dealing with the debt, eviction and widespread misery caused by the bedroom tax may mean cash savings are minimal.

Most housing experts agree with the principle that social housing should be better allocated – so that, for example, an older couple living in a four-bedroom property whose children have grown up and moved away ought to move on to somewhere smaller to make way for a young family – but there is widespread consensus in housing and local government that the bedroom tax does little to facilitate that.

The government insists it is "doing the right thing" by pressing ahead with the bedroom tax, also known as the abolition of the spare-room subsidy.

Experts, however, say it is unnecessarily punitive, badly planned and will cost more than it saves.

The bedroom tax affects about 500,000 working people in social homes in Britain who are in receipt of housing benefit and deemed to have more bedrooms than they need.

Affected tenants face average deductions from their housing benefit payment of £14 for one spare room and £22 for two. In effect they have to meet the shortfall from their own pocket.

Housing associations report that many tenants wish to downsize, but no smaller homes are available.

In England alone there are 180,000 tenants under-occupying two-bedroom homes, but only 85,000 smaller homes available.

The scarcity of smaller accommodation is especially striking in rural areas.

Pensioners are most likely to have spare rooms, but the government has exempted them from the bedroom tax.

Two-thirds of those affected are disabled, and many have specially adapted houses. If and when they move, the taxpayer may be forced to meet the costs of adapting the new property.

The government said on Friday that the bedroom tax was not a failure because even if 6% of tenants downsized that still amounted to 30,000 people.

To put that in a local context, in the London Borough of Camden, which has more than 1,000 overcrowded households on its waiting list, the bedroom tax had succeeded - as of January - in moving on just 4%, or 84 of the 1,587 tenants affected by bedroom tax, and some of those may have moved anyway.

In Newcastle upon Tyne [there are no hyphens, let Guardian subs take note] there are practically no overcrowded families waiting to be rehoused.

The bedroom tax is estimated to "save" £3.2m in housing benefit in the city each year, but the council estimates that it spends more than £2m providing help and support to affected households, while the government is providing nearly £700,000 a year in temporary financial support to tenants.

Newcastle City Council says that a year ago it boasted its lowest ever rate of homelessness. As a direct result of the bedroom tax, it says, 139 families now face eviction.

It is not clear from the BBC report how many of those who moved went to smaller social homes.

Those who moved into private rented accommodation are likely to be paying higher rent, and so adding to the housing benefit bill.

What is clear is that any savings that do arise will be met by some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

Rental arrears are up among social tenants as a result of the bedroom tax and other benefit cuts, with 28% of them going into the red for the first time.

Personal debt is growing, as is food and fuel poverty.

Set aside the cynical spreadsheet calculations of ministers for a moment.

What food banks, advice agencies and housing professionals – people who deal day in day out with the consequences of welfare reform – agree on is that the bedroom tax is a turbo-generator of avoidable stress and human misery.

The Politics of A Thuggish Nation

Max Wind-Cowie writes:

What motivated Chris Grayling to go into politics?

I’m guessing it was a genuinely altruistic impulse – albeit one that, as with most politicians, was tinged with vanity and a desire to ‘matter’. He has acquired, now, some modicum of power. As Justice Secretary he runs our courts and our prisons.

His domain is smaller than health or welfare in terms of what we spend. But it is vital. Because he governs the line that divides us as civilised people from those who are barbarians – he is the guardian of decency when decency is most difficult.

How we treat those whose actions we deplore says a great deal indeed about our relative capacity to be good ourselves.

That’s why his decision to allow prison governors to ban books from being sent to their inmates is so unsettling and so unforgivable. It is the politics of a thuggish nation, not a decent one.

We lock people up because they are criminals. I am no friend to the chattering liberalism that robs the poor and the vulnerable of their agency by ascribing their criminality to their environment. We make decisions. We pay the price.

But that price should not be extracted at the expense of our common understanding of what it means to improve. Criminal justice in Britain is not, nor should it be, about how to most brutally repay the bad for their misdeeds.

It is about other things too – rehabilitation, the chance at repentance and, therefore, at forgiveness.

We all know that improvement requires hard work. Giving up smoking requires will power. That promotion demands longer hours.

Being good, when once you’ve been bad, necessitates a change within. And reading helps us to broaden and better our inner self. It is part of the process of self-reflection that makes us fully grown.

And no-one, bar the children we so desperately and correctly push to read, needs that more than prisoners.

The only justification for Grayling’s choice – and yes, it is a choice – that I can see is one of money. Searching parcels to prevent drugs entering the prison system means paying for people to do so.

By allowing prisons to simply stop allowing in parcels – containing, for many, the written word and a passport to redemption – we can save money. Simple.

But that is the sensibility of the accountant in a world that requires the instincts of a priest.

I can’t give Chris Grayling a cost-benefit breakdown of the savings achieved by encouraging souls to become gentler through engagement with literature.

And to do so would be to miss the point. Even one life changed, one soul improved, one less crime committed in the future because a young man (it is mostly men) has seen a different set of possibilities via the insight of a writer, is worth the cost.

Ministering to society’s outcasts requires patience, firmness and a genuine desire to make them (and our society through them) better. Grayling appears to lack that desire. Or, if he had it once, to have forgotten it.

It should come as little surprise that the Secretary of State is a little deaf to the power and the importance of books. His chosen medium appears to be TV.

He famously compared modern Britain to the drug riddled US TV drama The Wire – to howls of outrage from anyone who had both seen that show and left their house at any point in the last decade.

And a couple of years ago he bemoaned our ‘Jeremy Kyle’ generation – comparing millions of young men to the feckless half-wits who appear on ITV2 during the day.

All well and good. But I have a suggestion for Grayling.

When it comes to the young men in his charge – many of whom are indeed the products of a culture that lacks, above all else, any culture – perhaps he could help them avoid developing his weakness for TV?

If he really needs to save money, perhaps he could take away and sell the televisions, Playstations, X-boxes and DVD players that the prison system uses to bribe inmates into sullen passivity?

And perhaps he could use that money to provide a steady flow of literature into the cells?

That would be the kind of thing that a real conservative politician – motivated by altruism, firm but optimistic – might do.

That Britain Will Not Be Bullied

Peter Oborne writes:

On the whole, William Hague has been a disappointing Foreign secretary, and for an unexpected reason.

When Mr Hague was in opposition nobody shouted louder about the importance of British sovereignty.

In government, by contrast, he has repeatedly failed to stand up, or even attempt to stand up, for legitimate British interests.

There are numerous cases in point, but the most embarrassing concerns Mr Hague’s habitual crawling to the United States. Whatever the reason, he will never challenge Washington.

The most important current example of the institutional impotence of Mr Hague’s Foreign Office concerns Iran.

The Foreign Secretary has ceded control of trade with Iran to a department inside the US Treasury called the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), a body which monitors US sanctions by pursuing foreign companies involved in trade with Iran.

As I revealed in my column on February 19, OFAC bullies British banks through an informal system of secondary sanctions which makes it impossibly risky for Britons to carry out completely legitimate business with Tehran (including humanitarian aid).

The situation is so dire that (as of last month) the new Iranian chargé d’affaires in London can’t even open a bank account, making it impossible to pay electricity bills, council tax or run an office.

It is essential to stress that in Britain we have our own system of sanctions against Iran. I am not complaining about those, which have been democratically agreed and are open to scrutiny inside and outside Parliament.

But Parliament has never debated or even discussed these secondary (and in effect secret) sanctions imposed by OFAC, to which Mr Hague’s Foreign Office has silently assented.

So three cheers for Jack Straw for raising the matter in Parliament on Wednesday.

His well-informed speech, which can be read on, brilliantly exposes Mr Hague’s failure to stand up to what amounts to United States blackmail.

The great merit of old-timers like Straw, a former Labour foreign secretary, is that they bring institutional memory to British politics.

Straw pointed out that British governments have not always kow-towed to the United States.

Mr Straw reminded the House of Commons that shortly after Margaret Thatcher came to office, the US tried to push British shipping firms around.

Thatcher was having none of it and forced through the Commons the Protection of Trading Interests Act 1980, which was designed to "reassert and reinforce the defences of the United Kingdom" against attempts by America "to enforce their economic and commercial policies unilaterally on us" through "the extra-territorial application of domestic law".

This is exactly what is happening now with Iranian trade.

Unfortunately, this time William Hague and the Foreign Office are doing nothing. They have responded by grovelling to the United States.

Jack Straw produced some very startling statistics which showed how badly Britain has lost out as a result of Mr Hague’s grovelling.

British exports slumped by 73 per cent from $584 to $173 million between 2009-12, whereas US exports are down by a mere 11 per cent over the same period.

Insiders say that this is because US exporters have used their domestic political clout to negotiate exemptions with OFAC.

By contract, British exporters – thanks to William Hague (and David Cameron’s) refusal to stand up for Britain – are forced to do what OFAC wants with no right of appeal.

There is a telling lesson to be learnt from this miserable episode.

Mr Hague’s weakness flows from a basic failure to understand Margaret Thatcher's legacy.

She was famous throughout the world for the strength of her relationship with Ronald Reagan. Those who came after her – above all Tony Blair – sought to duplicate that relationship.

But Blair (and now Hague) made the disastrous error of assuming that the Anglo-American warmth in the 1980s came about because Britain lay down and allowed America to walk all over us.

This was a fundamental misinterpretation – as Charles Moore has showed in his wonderful biography of Thatcher.

The real reason for the strength of the relationship was because Maggie was never afraid to come out fighting for Britain, and Reagan profoundly respected her for it.

William Hague’s time as Foreign Secretary is coming to an end. Whatever the result of the next election, he is unlikely to stay at the FCO.

Though he will not go down as a distinguished Foreign Secretary, he has achieved a few good things in office.

In his final months, let’s hope he follows the example of Margaret Thatcher and not Tony Blair and makes it clear to the United States that Britain will not be bullied and blackmailed by a department of the US Treasury.

Thursday 27 March 2014

Sink The Bismarck

The Free Democrats, the contemporary incarnation of a unified Germany's founding National Liberal tradition, now have no seats in the Bundestag. Not a single one.

And Germany, while not exactly supporting Russia over Crimea or Ukraine, is very definitely playing both sides of the street.

These two facts are not unrelated.

Things are not as they were.

A Social Democratic Push Back

"In the real world across the channel, far from British craziness, vital issues are debated that our voters never hear about.

In Spain, protesters were out in force last weekend demanding a swing away from President Barroso's austerity politics.

Europe's neo-liberal leaning needs a social democratic push back.

TTIP, the US-EU trade deal under negotiation, puts at risk much of the hard-earned regulation that keeps EU food safe, water clean, cattle free of hormones, and working conditions fair.

At risk is a levelling down of standards for a single market with America, instead of an evening up."

The rest of Polly Toynbee's article has no relationship to what, until that naive final clause, are those wise words.

But SDP members (and Liberal Party members) who never joined the Liberal Democrats have long been notable for their lack of affection for the EU, on very much the grounds that Toynbee describes.

The people whom she specifically left behind in the Labour Party and to its left have, of course, always seen this reality entirely clearly.

She's getting there.

The Scarlet Standard

Of course The Red Flag was sung at Tony Benn's (of course, very traditional) funeral.

Whereas at the funerals of Robin Cook and Donald Dewar, the New Labour lot had sung The Internationale, the anthem of the Communist Party and once of the Soviet Union, and nothing whatever to do with the Labour Party.

Ponder these things, comrades.

Ponder these things.

The Bleeding Obvious

Like Dennis Skinner before him on Ukraine, Nigel Farage did nothing more than state what everyone could and can see to be the case.

The EU and NATO, by having fomented the Kiev coup, have blood on their hands.

Especially in the deep countryside, practically feudal Conservative Associations used to furnish us with MPs whose public schools had most certainly not sent them on to Oxbridge or to any other university.

The hereditary principle in the House of Lords could have a similar effect.

In those days, neither the City nor the Officer Corps even much cared for graduates, still less did they more or less insist upon them.

Meanwhile, the role of the old manual trade unions in Labour parliamentary selections is very well-known. They, too, furnished no shortage of Peers of the Realm.

I am not suggesting that those of us with academically swanky CVs ought to have no place in political life. There were always plenty of us, too.

But, with Dennis Skinner aged 82 and with Nigel Farage neither an MP nor ever likely to be, there has been a real loss of those who have not been trained out of stating the plain facts, and who are therefore likely to do so.

We have never needed them more.

Asking The Big One

Even if in terms that I should not ordinarily reproduce, and although he is wrong about Labour (which, admittedly, has not yet been as loud as it ought to be), Adam Ramsay asks an important question:

Nige or Nick – who has the bigger dick?

That seems to be the question of the day. Last night, the leaders of UKIP and the Lib Dems took part in an EU debate that was broadcast live on LBC Radio and Sky News.

They talked about immigration, then crime, then what various millionaires think, then immigration, then, just for fun, immigration again.

What they didn't talk about is, well, most of what the EU actually does.

Of all of the stuff they didn't mention, the most important is a thing called the EU/US Trade deal.

It's utterly terrifying. It's the biggest trade agreement in the history of the world and it's currently being hatched in secret somewhere in Brussels.

Like lots of things that matter almost more than I can imagine, they've given it a boring name in the hope you won't notice: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, also known by the oh so catchy acronym “TTIP”.

What we do know about the deal?

Trade unions know enough about it to say it'll allow our bosses to walk all over us at work.

Health campaigners know enough about it to say it might make it impossible to de-privatise the NHS.

Environmentalists are calling it a “polluters' pact” and anti-poverty experts say it's a “charter for corporate rights”.

Perhaps most of all, it terrifies those who care about democracy.

The deal says any corporation can sue a government if a new law will impact on their anticipated profits.

So, if a company is stomping over your rights at work, or has a factory spewing poisonous chemicals into your river, or is running a privatised hospital into the ground, and then you elect a government to change the rules to stop it, then that government can be sued.

As George Monbiot has pointed out, similar deals around the world have stopped elected politicians introducing price caps (are you listening, Mr Miliband?) and labelling tobacco.

I say “sued” – that's not quite right. Because that implies that it will be a judge looking at the case.


In the Wild West of the international market, it's more likely that the Sheriff will be an arbiter from an accountancy firm. You know, the same firms who make their money selling their services to the same big companies.

You might think that there would be an outcry from politicians at this attack on democracy.


With the exception of the Green Party, they have done absolutely bugger all. Largely, they support it.

In the case of the Tories, this shouldn't surprise us. They love big corporations. And with Labour, it shouldn't be a shock – they're as spineless as a jellyfish reading a Kindle.

But there are two parties whose attitudes to this whole thing might come as more of a surprise. And they were the two whose leaders were strutting their stuff on stage last night.

It's true that the Liberals spent the 19th century battling for free trade. But since then, they've added the word “Democrats” to their name, so you would think they'd give a damn about democracy.

Apparently not: supporting TTIP is a centrepiece of their European election campaign.

They plan to hammer the Green Party for its opposition and recycle claims about jobs that Manchester University's finest have called “vastly overblown and deeply flawed”.

This should shock no one.

A decade ago, in his brief break between being an MEP and an MP, Nick Clegg was a partner of a firm helping the powerful buy access to the EU so they can do just this kind of thing.

But what about UKIP?

After all, this is Europe taking vast powers away from the British Parliament. And that, surely, is just not cricket?

Don't be silly.

Nigel's the old City boy who got the job, funded by bankers and millionaires, acting as a happy clown to distract us while they nick our money.

“Don't take power away from British people,” his mantra goes, “unless you're giving it to global corporations, bankers and billionaires. Then it's fine.”

Noam Chomsky wrote about how the powerful get their way by setting up arguments over the little questions to stop us asking the big ones.

Last night, two privately educated former Tory Party members with big business backgrounds and millionaire backers waved their willies for the camera and expertly distracted us from everything we should be talking about.

Whose is bigger? Who gives a damn.

Russia's Revenge

In this absolutely essential article, Angus Roxburgh writes:

With Crimea’s illegal referendum and the peninsula’s annexation by Russia, a new cold war is starting.

That does not just mean diplomatic frostiness; it will mean a tense stand-off, sanctions, a military build-up and quite possibly Moscow’s incorporation of further land, including the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine.

At every moment there will lurk the threat of cold war turning into hot war.

The Kremlin is well aware how high it has ratcheted up the stakes: state television’s chief propagandist chose referendum night in Crimea to remind the world that Russia is capable of turning America into “radioactive ash”.

The immediate question is how Ukraine – and then the west – reacts to Russia’s takeover of Crimea. Sanctions might hurt, but there is no hope at all that they will force Vladimir Putin to reverse the process.

And, short of threatening military retaliation (precisely the thing that could trigger a major war), I cannot see what would deter Russia from responding to manufactured calls from Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine for “help”.

On 18 March Putin denied any desire to dismember Ukraine. But he has already authorised the use of force if need be, and between them Ukraine’s far-right nutters and Russia’s provocateurs could easily create the “threat to Russian lives” that would provide the pretext for intervention.

Thus would Europe’s borders be redrawn, and along them a new iron curtain would descend.

So much for the hopes we had in those days of revolution from 1989 to 1991, when it seemed we’d all be members of a peaceful, united, de-ideologised continent.

Historians will pore over the origins of this new conflict and see only confusion, lies, misunderstandings and puffed-up egos blundering towards catastrophe.

I have long believed that Putin, surrounded by myopic and conspiratorial advisers, does not understand the west, and that the west, so sure of its own righteousness and “victory” in the last cold war, hasn’t even tried to treat Russia with the respect it thought it deserved after throwing off the shackles of communism.

Now we are reaping the fruits.

Putin’s “political technologists” have been priming the canvas zealously for the bloody painting being daubed across the continent of Europe.

If I were a typical Russian television viewer, with no interest in chasing down alternative reportage, I would be quaking at the thought of what is said to be happening right now in brotherly Ukraine.

It’s like the Great Patriotic War all over again; jackboots, brownshirts, swastikas, truncheons; they’re banning the use of Russian; they just showed some millionaire fascist on a stage in the Maidan (Independence Square in Kyiv, the cauldron of the revolution) demanding that Russians be “shot in the head” – and the crowd applauded; “death squads” are being set up, the newsreader said; my sister lives in Donetsk, and my cousin in Kharkov – they’re going to be murdered; and now two people have been shot by fascist thugs . . . you see, it’s starting . . . Even by the standards of Putin-era television (indeed, even by the standards of Soviet television) the propaganda is jaw-dropping.

You have to slap yourself in the face to recall that just a month ago we were watching the opening ceremony of the Sochi winter Olympics – a magical evocation of everything that made Russia great: scientists and writers, composers and cosmonauts, poets and ballet dancers, philosophers and artists.

This is the European, cultured Russia we aspire to be, they were saying.

Even the Olympic ring that failed to open was somehow endearing, a reminder of what many westerners love about Russia – its maddening foibles, its pretensions to grandeur that often fall just a little short. The producers knew it and made fun of the lapse in the closing ceremony.

You see: we Russians can laugh at ourselves. We are just like you.

And then, it turns out, they’re not.

Or are they? Is it we in the west who can’t bear the thought of them being like us? Do we not prefer our stereotypes?

Bears, surly Siberians, cold unsmiling Muscovites, gangsters and spies, aggressive communists hell-bent on restoring their evil empire. Much more comfortable.

Good to have someone to hate: it makes us feel more virtuous. Did the US secretary of state, John Kerry, who voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, not love being able to say to the Russians:

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped-up pretext”?

I sometimes think the west understood the Soviet Union better than it does today’s Russia.

For one thing, it was simpler, more black-and-white. But we also had formidable Kremlinologists who knew how to read the signs hidden behind the propaganda.

Maybe our foreign ministries today are too obsessed with terrorism and Islam, while Russian studies are dominated (at least in the press and chancelleries, though less so in universities) by experts who, by and large, have a remarkably simplistic view of what is going on.

Analysis of Putin’s motives generally amounts to nothing more sophisticated than “he’s a KGB thug, an authoritarian kleptocrat surrounded by corrupt oligarchs, determined to restore the Soviet Union and destroy the west”. Much of that is true!

Yet it is only part of the story, and merely describes how he is, but not why, and does not consider whether we inadvertently created a bogeyman.

The Russian view of the west (particularly the one put out for public consumption) is equally flawed, driven by conspiracy theories and mistrust of America’s motives and aspirations.

But at least Russia has master diplomats such as the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who knows about the west not from hearsay but because he has studied nothing else for more than 30 years.

When the history of the new cold war comes to be written, its subtitle should be the immortal words of the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton: “I didn’t pick that up. That’s interesting. Gosh!”

This was her gormless response, in a now notorious leaked phone call, to the Estonian foreign minister, Urmas Paet, when he informed her that opposition gunmen – not President Yanukovych’s snipers – might have been responsible for the mass killings on the Maidan in Kyiv that were the catalyst for the Ukrainian revolution.

If this were true, it would be sensational, and have a big impact on the west’s view of the new Ukrainian government.

Yet Paet’s assertion turns out to have been based on a misunderstanding of something possibly said by someone who was in no position to make such a judgement in any case.

The minister said he had been given the information by “Olga”, a doctor who had been treating victims. Baroness Gosh had also met Olga, but not been given this incendiary news.

Why had they both talked to her? Presumably because the photogenic, English-speaking doctor had appeared on CNN and the BBC, describing the tragedy she was dealing with, and suddenly found herself an important source for top-level diplomats.

How often I have seen this happen in my years as a correspondent working in foreign parts: diplomats and journalists swarming around the same little coterie of “sources”, almost always several steps removed from the real decision-making and intelligence.

Poor Olga – Dr Bogomolets – is no forensic scientist, and perhaps something got lost in her (presumably English) conversation with the Estonian. Paet claimed she had said policemen and protesters had been killed by the same snipers:

“She can say that it is the same handwriting, the same type of bullets, and it’s really disturbing that now the new coalition, that they don’t want to investigate what exactly happened. There is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers, it was not Yanukovych, it was somebody from the new coalition.”

Dr Bogomolets later denied that she had told him anything of the sort; she hadn’t even seen a shot policeman.

Such was the level of “intelligence” being shared by western leaders as they shuttled in and out of Ukraine, taking decisions apparently way beyond their competence.

Senator John McCain swept in to town and shared a stage with Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far-right, anti-Semitic Svoboda party – a man who in many western countries would be a pariah, a politician from the same stable as Jörg Haider, whose election victory in Austria in 1999 caused the EU to impose sanctions against his government.

Did McCain know who he was wining and dining with? Did he care? Or is the only qualification for receiving unconditional US support a visceral hatred of Russia?

The US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland distributed cookies to the Maidan protesters, and discussed with her ambassador which opposition leader should become prime minister, as though she were viceroy of Ukraine.

“I don’t think Klitsh should go into government,” she said. “I think Yats is the guy with the economic experience, the governing experience.”

That would be the former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whose names are rather difficult to pronounce.

But she also knew the extremist Tyahnybok, and thought that Yats “needs to be talking to him four times a week, you know”.

All this was based on just what knowledge, one wonders. Does this arrogant American have more than the most superficial knowledge of the history and society and needs of the country she is moulding to America’s liking?

The west’s understanding is woeful.

How often was the benighted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, described as Putin’s great friend or poodle? Like hell he was.

The price he extracted from Russia to extend its lease on the Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea in April 2010 (between $40bn and $45bn) made Putin apoplectic.

“I would be willing to eat Yanukovych and his prime minister for that sort of money,” he said. “No military base in the world costs that much!”

When Yanukovych fled from the Maidan protesters in February this year and turned up in Russia, Putin didn’t even deign to meet him.

How dim must the EU’s foreign policy experts be if they were surprised that Putin trumped their “association agreement” with cheaper gas and a loan of $15bn?

The Ukrainian economy is in collapse – of course Yanukovych took the money. The EU spends hundreds of billions to bail out banks, but could not help Ukraine become a democracy.

Our governments appear to be utterly inadequate in foreign policy.

Our revolving politicians, one day in education, the next in finance, then at the Foreign Office, may know all about their domestic politics, but abroad (and especially regarding Russia) they are like Columbus setting out to discover India.

Of course getting Russia right is difficult.

I count myself pretty well versed in Russian affairs; it’s over 40 years since I started studying the language, the culture, the people, the politics. I have lived there more than ten years in all, under Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin.

But I know perfectly well I am an ignoramus compared to Russians.

I don’t understand the humour; I could never get the cultural references buried in satirical programmes such as Kukly, the Spitting Image equivalent that Putin banned.

It doesn’t stop me pontificating, but knowing how little I understand after all those years, I am horrified to see our flat-footed “diplomats” taking decisions so ill-informed and insensitive that they may be impelling the world towards catastrophe.

But it has always been thus, or at least thus since the collapse of the USSR.

No one wants to hear this at a time when Putin is marching his troops into a neighbouring country, but it is perfectly feasible to argue he would not be doing so – that he might not have become Russia’s leader in the first place – if the west had not been so inept in its handling of the collapse of communism.

The first post-Soviet decade – the Yeltsin years – were a disaster for Russia.

Americans applauded Boris Yeltsin. He was the kind of Russian we like – “burly” not surly, an iconoclast determined to root out communism, welcoming to western capitalists, comically drunken and impotent to oppose western foreign policies.

That the Russian masses were falling into poverty and insecurity was dismissed as a passing phase: it would all come right in the end.

That a handful of oligarchs swiped most of the state’s assets and Russia began to resemble a mafia state was no big deal.

The oligarchs’ money and TV stations may have been used to rig the re-election of a catastrophically unpopular Yeltsin, but at least it made sure the commies didn’t get back in.

I remember picking my way, as a BBC reporter at the time, through streets full of middle-class people selling off their belongings, to report on Moscow’s first Rolls-Royce dealership.

Unsurprisingly, most Russians came to associate capitalism and democracy with financial ruin and humiliation.

Some 25 million of them even found themselves outside Russia, living in the new independent former republics of the USSR (not all of which treated their guests with much sensitivity).

The west could have pumped billions into Russia, instead of imagining that freewheeling capitalism was all that was required.

It seems our governments had not the faintest idea of how deep the crisis of Russia’s economy was after 70 years of communism, nor of how dangerous the popular mood would become if there was no “cushion”: nothing to save people from poverty, and not even a veneer of respect for the destroyed Russia as a world power.

And that is how we got Putin – brought to power, ironically, by Yeltsin’s own family and advisers. Even they understood that the country needed a jolt.

Had Russia not been in such a mess, had “western” policies not been so discredited, the Russians might have chosen a democrat instead.

Putin came to the scene a political ingénu.

Today he looks intransigent and single-minded, but at that time he was so inexperienced he opened himself up to all kinds of advice.

He surrounded himself with western-oriented, radical reformers.

He wooed western leaders, longing to be liked, and mused about joining Nato one day.

He offered real help to George W Bush in his war in Afghanistan.

It was just at this point that everything went wrong.

Putin was still, at heart, a KGB man, schooled in deception and befuddled by his Soviet vision of the world.

He never understood what democracy meant, and began closing down critical media and gathering in power around himself and his quickly appointed clique of KGB comrades.

Naturally, the west took fright and began to build up its defences against Russia – even though, at this point, Putin had shown no ill intentions towards other countries whatsoever.

George W Bush’s understanding of Russia was, I guess, about as good as his understanding of Iraq: international affairs reduced to a few soundbites.

Ignoring Russia’s protestations, he pressed on with a missile shield, allegedly to defend against Iranian rockets but in fact positioned in such a way that the Kremlin saw its own strategic defences weakened.

What the point of this was, God only knows.

The system doesn’t work anyway (it’s like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet, from hundreds of miles away) and in any case Iran has since all but given up its nuclear arms pretensions.

Russia desperately wanted to be part of Europe’s security architecture, but Nato expanded eastwards towards Russia’s frontiers, thus making Russia, ironically, more of a threat than it would otherwise have been.

In return, the Russians started building up their own defences.

In 2008 Nato promised eventual membership to Ukraine, exactly what Putin now fears will happen as the country turns westwards.

Yet what if the west, instead, had calculated that Putin could have been persuaded to rein in his authoritarian tendencies in exchange for proper clout in world affairs? Cleverer diplomats might have persuaded him.

The result could have been the kind of Russia we wanted – democratic, peaceful, not threatening . . . and therefore a welcome asset at the global table.

By encircling Russia and undermining its security (which Nato expansion and the missile shield undoubtedly did), we created the enemy we didn’t want.

Halfway through his second term, Putin decided that America did not want to share power in the world. And he was right – not with a man who was locking up his critics and rigging elections.

Both sides were sliding into a spiral of mutual mistrust and hatred.

For Putin, the battle for acceptance was lost and it was no longer worth “improving” himself to regain it. He became the menacing, vengeful warlord we now have to deal with. Gosh!

Bill Clinton’s old Russia hand Strobe Talbott describes the upheaval in Ukraine today as Putin’s payback to the west, particularly the United States, for what he “sees as a quarter-century of disrespect, humiliation and diplomatic bullying”.

In his speech on 18 March, Putin resentfully listed all the grievances that have built up over the years, concluding that the centuries-old policy of “containing Russia” continues.

To be clear, what Putin has done in annexing part of Ukraine is unacceptable and should be punished, though goodness knows how this can be achieved without precipitating war.

We can probably never have a sane relationship with Russia until Putin and his henchmen are gone.

Yet perhaps, one day, the Russia we saw at the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony will be not just a figment of the imagination, but something we can all celebrate and welcome into our hearts.

However, our next generation of western Kremlinologists should bear this in mind: whoever is in the Kremlin – even the most likeable, “western” leader you can imagine – will have Russia’s interests at heart, not ours.

They will want a say in the world commensurate with Russia’s size and nuclear status, they will care about Russians living abroad, and they will resist anything they see as a threat to their security.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Freeze For Six Months

Ed Miliband should now try saying anything that he likes.

He could listen to the howls of derision.

And then he could see it happen, to David Cameron's applause, in time for Christmas.

The Night Before

Margaret Thatcher hounded Victoria Gillick through the courts in order to establish, without recourse to Parliament, an age of consent of 13 or younger, including for the performance of abortions without parental knowledge or consent.

Still, a parliamentary vote on this latest business with the morning after pill? Who is going to propose that?

Dead and Buried

I have to laugh, and to take a slight intake of breath.

People are criticising Pat Glass for not having turned up to the vote on the welfare cap.

But she was at the funeral of Stan Pearce. The number one man in the Militant Tendency within the Durham Miners' Association during the Strike.

Yes, the MP for North West Durham.

She tweeted a tribute to him, and everything.

Truly, this is no longer the Armstrongs' seat.

Putative heirs and heiresses to all that, your moment, if you ever had one, has passed.

Cold War Catholics

This Pope and the last one have been making great progress in co-operation with Russia on everything from protecting Arab Christians to upholding the traditional definition of marriage; there is no possibility of ecclesial rapprochement with the Orthodox, but that is not what this is about.

But a certain type of Catholic, the kind that thinks that this Papacy constitutes some kind of unwelcome rupture with the last one, is cheering on the attempted relaunch of the Cold War.

There are quite a lot of people to whom the world only made sense in terms of the Cold War.

Among English-speaking Catholics, hardline Cold Warriorism made some of them Republicans when their families had always been Democrats, Conservatives when their families had always been Labour, and so on

The Democratic and Labour Parties contained many hardline Cold Warriors, and were run by them, but that is by the by.

Moreover, those Catholics' own entry turned those parties into almost monolithic vehicles for the hardline Cold War position.

Giving up all of that, and giving it up so quickly and so unexpectedly, was a terrible wrench for them.

They are relishing the chance to resume normal service.

But they are wrong.

The thing that makes sense of the world is the Faith.

Weird and Wonderful

Although she is a bit unfair on Stephen Kinnock, and although she is wrong about drugs, Suzanne Moore writes:

Do you think Ed Miliband is … you know … a bit weird? What does this question, so beloved of pollsters, mean?

A lot, apparently, if the next election depends on perceptions of weirdness.

Personally I would like more weirdness to stop the interchangeable "normality" of the front benches. Politics is now so full to the brim of performative normality it hurts.

What is normal about Nick Clegg sitting beside David Cameron week after week with that haemorrhoid-advert face?

What is normal about Michael Gove thinking we want our children schooled by exhausted teachers approaching 70?

What is normal about a man like Nigel Farage, younger than me but with the worldview of my late grandad?

So when Miliband is urged to be less timid, to spell out what Labour is, he should clutch that nettle and make weird and wonderful soup.

He should do that weird thing of saying what he thinks.

He can stop with the thinktank code and its claggy abstraction and, with not much more than a year to go until the next election, spell it out.

Actually, not doing so is treating people as if they are stupid.

The outpouring of grief over Tony Benn and Bob Crow, even from those who disagreed with them, was surely to do with the fact that we knew who and what they stood for.

Labour, brought to power in 1997 by a coalition of different groups, now should not shy away from addressing class, age and gender. The recession brought that into sharp relief.

Labour has to get out of this holding pattern. As the economy is looking better, the party has to be direct. It also has to walk it like it talks it.

Why blab on about localism and then shunt into safe seats people like Stephen Kinnock for Aberavon in Wales?

He lives in London and is married to the prime minister of Denmark, so presumably does not hang around there much. Such patronage is a cross-party problem.

Miliband must communicate clearly where the faultlines in society are, and be open about these divisions.

The Tory budget was clearly aimed at older people, people who already have money and will now have more freedom to do what they like with it.

This was an absolute embodiment of Conservative ideology. It is old, encrusted in entitlement and it casts self-interest as the ultimate freedom.

Wealth once created must be hoarded. The cost of this is that younger people may never get to build wealth at all.

Who are the savers that George Osborne is freeing up? I don't know anyone under the age of 40 who has the barest chance of saving much.

Labour must surely stop worrying about the Spanxed-up middle and address the under-30s.

Tuition fees are a scandal and they have not worked even on their own terms. The selling on of loans has to stop. Rents have to be controlled.

The inflated housing bubble in the south has to be burst, so that younger people are not financially disenfranchised.

How to get them out to vote?

Well, Labour can look at what Barack Obama's team did and it can choose to appeal directly to this sector of the electorate.

They already feel the effects of the fake platitude that personal freedom (via money) trumps any notion of collective responsibility.

You are only free to pursue your dreams if certain things are shared and those things are: healthcare, education and childcare.

Women who have been punished so severely by this government need a hand up to get off benefits.

The only moralising we need around poverty is that it is wrong, that it is not a personal failing but a political one. Miliband should not be afraid to say this.

If the Tories continue to flaunt and entrench the wealth handed down to them, Labour has to make itself a party of the young, of the future.

Stop worrying about whether Ed looks prime ministerial. He doesn't, so give it up.

Just rewrite Gloria Steinem's line on being 50 and say: "This is what a prime minister looks like." A bit gonky.

Labour can be honest and say: "We can't do all the things we would like until the economy is in better shape, but we will save money where we can and share it out where we can."

Agreeing to the welfare cap is a signal to the haves that they will be "sensible" – and unfortunately this is the nature of the centre now – by penalising the have-nots.

Instead, it needs to spell out what it will do differently.

It can attack privatisation, because the public sees it does not deliver, whether on the railways or hospitals.

It can promise to end food banks.

It can propose to regulate the financial sector far more and stop regulating our private lives – from the criminalisation of drugs to endless daft health warnings.

It can reduce the defence budget to one suitable for a post-colonial power.

In short, Miliband need not be so scared of simple words such as "share".

Labour can say that future wealth and freedom will enable all young people, not just the lucky ones, to be able to learn, work, leave home and love as they choose.

If the opposition can't tackle this head on, can't even speak of a future where the public sector is as valuable as the private, then that really is weird.