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Monday, 28 May 2007

25 May 2007

Sometimes I think it is my duty to alert you to something that hasn’t happened yet. You can think of me, if you like, as an early warning system, an amber flashing light in the middle distance. Trouble ahead.

And this week, what do I see in the middle distance? Pakistan, population 170 million, the second most populous Muslim nation in the world. Formed in 1947 when the British carved up India to create an Islamic homeland. Its name means Land of the Pure.

Now, it’s a seething hotbed of unrest, and its military leader General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup eight years ago, looks weaker than ever. He is being torn apart by the incompatible demands of his Western allies, who insist that he cracks down on Islamic pro-Taliban militants on the border with Afghanistan, and a growing number of his own citizens who are beginning to see certain attractions in Islamic militancy.

For more than half of its 60-year existence, Pakistan has been ruled by the military. Its experience of elected civilian governments has not been a happy one; corruption and incompetence rapidly became their defining characteristics. When General Musharraf seized power in 1999, barely anyone complained. And when he quickly sided with the US after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he became a much-valued Western ally.

When I interviewed him four years ago, he was happy to be described as a bridge between two worlds: the West, and Islam. But that bridge is creaking dangerously now: the West thinks he has failed to stop the Taliban using Pakistani territory as a base from which to mount attacks in Afghanistan; his Islamist political allies in parliament think he’s doing too much to appease the West.

Does it matter? Oh yes, it matters a lot. Pakistan has a nuclear weapons capability. Remember? It has in the past gone to war against India over the disputed territory of Kashmir (still not resolved, even if relations between the two neighbours are now much better than they were). And I doubt that I need to remind you that many of the British Muslims who have been convicted in connection with terrorism allegations have spent time in Pakistan.

So why the warning signals now? Well, two weeks ago 40 people were killed in protest demonstrations in the teeming port city of Karachi. President Musharraf’s political allies were blamed for the violence. This week, there have been more protests in a number of cities; there are signs of growing public unrest. Pro-democracy activists are demonstrating; Islamists are demonstrating; lawyers are demonstrating, because the president decided to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court, a man with a reputation for speaking his mind.

Oh, and the minister of tourism, Nilofar Bakhtiar, has just tried to resign after clerics said she had behaved in an “obscene” manner by being pictured hugging a man in public after a paragliding flight. It is one of the many paradoxes of Pakistan that it combines a sophisticated, liberal intelligentsia with a form of sometimes unreconstructed Islamist revanchism. They do not sit happily together.

So, I suggest that you keep an eye on Pakistan. Watch what London and Washington say as they try to prop up General Musharraf while inching him towards political plurality. There have been at least three assassination attempts against him in the past couple of years; there may well be more. And the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the state is coming up this August.

Finally, I’m sorry if this is beginning to sound boring, but our colleague Alan Johnston has now been missing in Gaza for nearly 11 weeks. More than 100,000 people have signed our online petition calling for his release; if you haven’t yet done so, you’ll find it clicking here.

Friday, 18 May 2007

18 May 2007

Do you remember who said this, and about whom? “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy … I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

The man who said it was President Bush. The man about whom he said it was President Putin. The date: June 2001, just months after Mr Bush moved into the White House.

I wonder what Mr Bush thinks about Mr Putin’s soul now.

Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had a chat with the Russian president this week – and she thought it necessary to deny that we’re heading towards a new Cold War. But the unfortunate fact is that there is a long list of issues about which Mr Putin and Washington have fallen out.

Mr Putin doesn’t like Washington’s anti-missile defence system, with its plans for installations on his doorstep in Poland and the Czech Republic. He doesn’t like Washington’s support for Kosovan independence (if Kosovo, why not Chechnya?). He doesn’t like the calls for tougher sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme.

Washington, on the other hand, doesn’t like Mr Putin’s plan to help Burma, one of the world’s most distrusted pariah states, to build a nuclear reactor. It doesn’t like the way he uses his gas pipelines as a way of exerting pressure on his neighbours, like Ukraine, Belorus and Lithuania. And that, by the way, is something that worries the EU quite a bit too, given that about 25 per cent of Europe’s gas comes from Russia.

Most worrying of all are the suspicions that Russia has now been waging “electronic war” against Estonia, disabling its internet and mobile telephone networks. Estonia is a member of both the EU and NATO – and NATO, remember, has an article in its founding treaty (article 5) which states that an attack against one member shall be considered an attack against them all.

Estonia’s foreign minister, Urtas Paet, told us on the programme last night (Thursday) that his country is now under attack in what he called a “21st century war”. NATO has already sent electronic communications experts to Tallinn to help the government combat this new threat.

Some commentators have started talking of a “slide towards Fascism” in Russia. A strong-man president, prepared to use his political and economic power against his neighbours; virtually no independent media; a tolerance of political thuggery and worse (remember what happened to the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the renegade intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko?).

For about a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West had things pretty much its own way. Not any more. High oil prices mean that cash is pouring into Moscow’s coffers. President Putin is in a far stronger position than Boris Yeltsin ever was, and he knows it. When any bear wakes up after a long hibernation, it’s wise to tread with care. The Russian bear, I suspect, is no different.

By the way, I gather we’ve elected a new Prime Minister. Gordon someone? I’ve been so busy reporting on other people’s elections, I seem to have missed ours …

For the past 10 weeks, I have ended every newsletter with a reminder of our missing colleague Alan Johnston, who disappeared in Gaza on 12 March. It was his 45th birthday yesterday, and there are now more than 92,000 names on our online petition calling for his immediate release. If you’d like to add yours, click here.

Friday, 11 May 2007

11 May 2007

All right, so what will it be? Peace in northern Ireland, or carnage in Iraq? The minimum wage, or the Millennium Dome? It’s such fun, isn’t it, pretending to be an instant historian, delivering our verdicts on Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, even though he’s still got another seven weeks to go before he has to pack his bags.

We daily news junkies love to make instant judgments. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but I somehow doubt that future historians will be devouring the thousands of words being spewed out now when they come to write their hefty tomes on “The Blair Era 1997-2007”.

But here’s a suggestion for one such future historian: “The role of jeans in European politics: 1997-2007”. Why? Well, I was reminded when I was in Paris on Monday how positively revolutionary it had seemed back in 1997 to see a Prime Minister wearing jeans. Because now, the French have had to come to terms with a President who also wears denim – when Nicolas Sarkozy set off after his election victory for a few days R&R in Malta, he was in unmistakable dress-down mood. Can you imagine Jacques Chirac in jeans? Quite … So there’s at least a PhD thesis waiting to be written, surely: “Jeans as a symbol of political change – Britain and France, two case studies”.

Political reputations have a habit of changing over time. President Jimmy Carter was mocked as an incompetent peanut farmer when he left office in 1981; now he’s hailed as a revered global elder statesman. Clement Attlee is said to have been described by Churchill as a “modest man with much to be modest about”; now, he’s remembered as one of our greatest peace-time Prime Ministers. Once, Ian Paisley was a dangerous, ranting bigot and Martin McGuinness was an IRA commander with blood on his hands. So perhaps we should hold our horses on the Blair front.

What interests me, having talked while I was in Paris not only about the new President but also about our likely new Prime Minister, is the future shape of European leadership. Brown, Sarkozy, Merkel, Barroso … all in their 50s, with no memory of the Second World War, no great commitment to some grand visionary post-war European project. Pragmatists, every one of them. I’m told that M Sarkozy wasn’t quite sure what to make of Mr Brown when they met in London a few months ago (he thought Mr Blair was wonderful, apparently), but he’s keen to move away from the automatic assumption that France and Germany will always work together.

I’ll save my own reminiscences of the Blair years until he actually goes – this may came as a surprise, but he’s going to be PM for nearly two more months – but just one thought for now: as I listened to him doing his “Now is the time to say goodbye” speech yesterday, it struck me that when he described the people of Blair’s Britain (“open-minded about race and sexuality, averse to prejudice and yet deeply and rightly conservative with a small 'c' when it comes to good manners, respect for others, treating people courteously”), he was in fact describing himself. So have we all turned into Tony’s clonies?

And finally, forgive a brief blast on The World Tonight trumpet. Some new audience research tells us that on the “appreciation index” (ie how much people actually enjoy the programmes they listen to) we now come only just below The Archers. And on the index of programmes that people say they make a “special effort” to listen to, we come third out of all BBC radio programmes, after The News Quiz and Five Live Sport. So thank you for your support, and spread the word.

It’ll be nine weeks on Monday since our friend and colleague Alan Johnston was abducted in Gaza – you may have seen the reports this week that the people who claim to be holding him have released a tape containing demands for his release. The BBC’s response was: “We of course welcome any sign that Alan may be alive and well. We profoundly hope that (this) news may be a sign that Alan will soon be safely released." Yesterday, Alan was named broadcast journalist of the year by the London Press Club.

Friday, 4 May 2007

4 May 2007

Tick tock goes the clock, in politics as in life. And there are few more potent political slogans than “Time for a Change.”

In the US, they reckon eight years is quite long enough for someone to be living in the White House. Even in Nigeria, hardly the exemplar of effective democratic rule, they put an eight-year limit on the presidency. So Tony Blair’s 10 years, exceeded only by Margaret Thatcher in modern British history, is pretty good going.

The late Hugo Young of The Guardian wrote shortly before he died in 2003: “Third terms slide towards inanition, or degrade into corruption and chaos … Three-term leaders outlive their usefulness, and Tony Blair is no different.”

Here in Scotland, where I’ve been for the past couple of days, Labour have been the dominant political force for the past 50 years. They’ve headed the governing coalition in the Scottish parliament since it was established eight years ago. And when I spoke to voters at polling stations in Glasgow yesterday, the most common message from those who said they were deserting Labour was that they were disappointed with how little had been achieved.

All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell used to say. And perhaps all governments eventually disappoint their supporters too. It is, after all, the whole point of multi-party democracy that we get a chance every few years to throw one lot out and give another lot a go.

By this time next week, Mr Blair will have announced his resignation. By the end of June, we’ll have a new Prime Minister. When the Tories pulled the same trick back in 1990, when John Major took over from Mrs Thatcher, he was enough of a new face to persuade voters to give his party one more chance. Against expectations, they won again in 1992.

But Gordon Brown is no John Major. For all his undoubted qualities, no one could claim that he will be a “new face” in Downing Street. So the next election will see the “tick tock” principle put to the test: time for a change, or stick with what we know?

As for Scotland, I’m writing this mid-morning on Friday, on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh. It’s more than 12 hours since the polls closed, and we still don’t have a clue who’ll be forming the next government in Edinburgh. But I’m prepared to make a prediction: even if the SNP do lead the next Scottish administration, a decision on independence for Scotland is still a long way off.

And I hope you’ve noticed how – despite all the confusion in Scotland about spoilt ballots, malfunctioning counting machines and impending legal challenges – I have resisted any temptation to draw parallels between the process here and what I observed two weeks ago in Nigeria.

On Monday, I’ll be in Paris to report on the outcome of the French presidential election. It’ll also be eight weeks since our colleague Alan Johnston was abducted in Gaza: despite everyone’s best efforts, he’s still being held captive. Please continue to keep him in your thoughts.