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Friday, 26 October 2007

26 October 2007

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” So said Winston Churchill, more than 50 years ago. In other words, if you have a dispute, talk it out, don’t shoot it out.

“Trying is almost always worthwhile.” So said the then Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, in a lecture last June about Northern Ireland as a model for conflict resolution.

Unarguable, you may think. But it’s not necessarily so, according to the former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who has just written a fascinating account of the Northern Ireland peace process (“Misunderstanding Ulster”, published by Conservative Friends of Israel) in which he argues that talking isn’t always and automatically a good idea, and that negotiating without pre-conditions can sometimes be counter-productive.

Let’s look at two examples. Some time within the next couple of months, if US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has her way, there’ll be an international meeting about the Middle East, designed to draw up a framework for future negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Prospects at present look pretty dismal; so much so that many in the region are saying it’d be better to scrap the whole idea than to have the meeting and come up with nothing.

As it happens, I was in Israel seven years ago at the start of the violent Palestinian uprising that became known as the second intifada. It came shortly after a failed Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David, held in the dying weeks of President Clinton’s second term. I wrote then: “I have never encountered such universal pessimism … Most worrying of all is what seems to be a total loss of confidence on both sides in the idea that problems can be solved by negotiation.”

That’s what happens when talks fail. If jaw-jaw doesn’t work, the strong temptation is to return to war-war. That’s why, Mr Hain notwithstanding, it may not always be worthwhile to try, if success doesn’t follow.

My second example is Darfur. Peace talks are meant to start in Libya this weekend – but as we reported on Wednesday night’s programme, it looks at the moment as if virtually none of the parties to the conflict will be there. Instead, one of the countless rebel groups in Darfur says it has kidnapped two foreign oil workers – a Canadian and an Iraqi – from an oil field that’s operated by a Chinese-led consortium.

When you’re invited to enter negotiations, you want as strong a hand as you can get. Maybe a couple of abducted foreigners make good bargaining chips. Could it be that all the efforts that went into setting up the Libya talks have simply increased the dangers?

The conventional wisdom among diplomats is that successful negotiations need to be meticulously planned. Each side needs to have a detailed and in-depth understanding of how far the other side can go to reach a deal. Oh yes, and it helps if each side trusts in the good faith of the other. A US president nearing the end of his time in the White House may be impatient for results, but that’s not the same as proper preparation for a handshake in front of the world’s TV cameras.

So am I saying it’s not worth even trying to negotiate a settlement in the Middle East, or in Darfur? No, of course not. But I do think there’s a danger in always assuming that jaw-jaw will end war-war. As I fear we are about to discover, it ain’t necessarily so.

Friday, 19 October 2007

19 October 2007

It gives me no pleasure at all today to say “I told you so.” But those of you with good memories will recall that back in May I sounded a warning. This is what I wrote then (Newsletter No. 94, 25 May): “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.”

A lot has happened since then, culminating in last night’s appalling attack on Benazir Bhutto’s convoy in Karachi. What made it doubly appalling was that it came as no surprise.

In May, I described Pakistan as “a seething hotbed of unrest”. If it was true then, it is truer today. President Musharraf, under pressure as never before during his eight years in office, has done a deal with Ms Bhutto, but there are plenty of people in both their camps who are deeply suspicious of a rapprochement which bears all the signs of having been if not engineered in Washington, then certainly encouraged.

Among her own supporters, the immediate reaction after last night’s attack was to blame elements in the Musharraf administration. Her return from exile, they say, was a direct threat to the power of the military and political leaders around Musharraf. So if the bomb attacks were indeed an attempt to kill her, there would have been at least a terrible political logic. With Benazir off the scene, and her long-time rival Nawaz Sharif safely bundled off to Saudi Arabia, Team Musharraf would have been able to hang on for at least a bit longer.

What now? More trouble, more tension, perhaps more violence. Karachi is a city always on the edge, and it’s the heart of Bhutto country. And don’t forget Pakistan’s neighbours: on one side Afghanistan, with the Taliban fighting hard to regain their ascendancy – and with plenty of sympathisers and supporters in Pakistan – and on the other side, India, still suspicious of its Muslim neighbour, and always worried about Islamist-inspired militancy in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

A final word about the BBC job cuts announcement yesterday. You will, I hope, be pleased to learn that your favourite Radio 4 evening news programme has emerged relatively unscathed. Our team remains intact, and our budget is being sliced only by the efficiency savings process to which we have become painfully accustomed. So we shall carry on, doing what we trust you want us to do: reporting and analysing both the UK and the rest of the world in as engaging a way as we can.

Friday, 12 October 2007

12 October 2007

I suppose it’s only natural, given that I have spent my entire adult life working with either the written or the spoken word, that I should be endlessly fascinated by words. If you ask me what I am reading, I am tempted to reply, like Hamlet: “words, words, words.”

So, let’s play a little word game. Which leading British politician do these words apply to? Strength, values, conviction, leadership. And what about these? Weakness, cynicism, calculation, followership.

The answer, in both cases, is Gordon Brown. Labour word-spinners want you to associate the first set of words with him (he used them a lot in his speech to the Labour conference a couple of weeks ago); the Tories, obviously, prefer the second lot (David Cameron trotted them out at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday). You will, I fear, hear a great deal of them from both sides over the coming months, because political strategists are convinced that these are the words that, if repeated often enough, may well sway your vote when the time comes.

And while we’re on the subject of words, aren’t clichés wonderful? That’s why they become clichés, after all, because they express a thought so effectively. Thank you, therefore, Harold Wilson, for: “A week is a long time in politics.”

This time seven days ago, I was tapping away at my computer not knowing if by today we’d already be in the throes of a general election campaign. Now, Gordon Brown is looking like a badly mauled lion, with great lumps having been gouged out of him by some young wild animal which suddenly lunged at him from the political undergrowth.

But Wilson’s point, back in 1964, was that political fortunes can shift in either direction with great speed. And if it was true then, long before 24-hour news networks and the internet, it is 100 times truer today. After all, a year ago, it looked as if Labour were heading into the political wilderness; a month ago, they looked as they were ready to rule for ever. So I’m not taking any bets on what they’ll look like next week, next month, or next year.

Perhaps you find all this Westminster village stuff boring and irrelevant. So here’s some info from Iraq that may be of more interest to you. The number of Iraqi civilians who were killed during September, according to official Iraqi government figures, was 840. Believe it or not, that’s less than half the August figure, and the lowest monthly death toll so far this year.

The number of US military fatalities during the month of Ramadan, which is just ending, was 51. That compares to 70 over the previous four weeks and is half the number of US service personnel killed during Ramadan last year. (All these figures are taken from a report by the French news agency AFP, which also says that although levels of violence may have fallen, US commanders on the ground admit that the security turnaround they’d hoped for has not yet happened, and that what they call Al-Qaeda attacks are in fact on the rise.)

And if you were listening to the programme on Wednesday, you’ll recall our report on the two million Iraqis who are now “internally displaced”, ie have had to flee from their homes but are still in Iraq. That’s in addition to the two million who have left the country all together since the invasion of 2003.

Whether you regard these latest figures as encouraging or depressing depends entirely on your point of view. I’d be interested to know what you make of them.

Friday, 5 October 2007

5 October 2007

If you want to understand the atmosphere at the party conferences this year, think of a group of eight-year-olds the night before Christmas: wildly over-excited, bright-eyed, tingling with anticipation of what lies in store.

Party conferences are always in the autumn. Elections rarely are (the last one was in 1974, although in the first half of the last century, autumn or winter elections were the norm) . So a conference which might be immediately followed by a poll is – for politicians and activists alike – a double dose of excitement. Elections, after all, are what politicians love most. It’s what keeps them going, makes them feel alive; so much more fun than sitting through interminable debates in council chambers or the Commons.

In Blackpool, the Tories surprised even themselves. As soon as George Osborne pulled his inheritance tax rabbit out of his hat, they were raring to go. In the faded fakery of the Winter Gardens, anything seemed possible, even an election victory.

Party activists are very different animals from the rest of us (and that’s true in all three main UK parties). Tory activists, for example, like talk of tax cuts, zero tolerance policing, and standing up for Britain. Voters seem to like talk of being kind to the environment, and caring for the disadvantaged. When David Cameron first became leader, he talked mainly to voters. Last week, he was talking to the activists, and his message changed – almost imperceptibly, admittedly – to accommodate their preferences. His skill was to do so while still reminding voters what he’d been saying to them too.

And yes, of course it was impressive that he memorised his speech. (No, it wasn’t improvised – how do you think Wednesday morning’s papers were able to print great chunks of it hours before he had delivered it?) But actors are pretty good at memorising scripts too – and we don’t automatically regard them as potential prime ministers.

As for the election, my editor – he who must be obeyed – thinks I should be ready to eat my hat, or humble pie, or possibly both. Last December, long before Mr Brown had even become prime minister, I boldly suggested that there might well be an autumn election. The editor thinks I might turn out to have got that wrong. Well, I’ve just looked up what I actually said (Newsletter No. 74, if you want to check in your leather-bound volume): “Although all the experts tell me I’m wrong about this, I still think [Gordon Brown] might be sorely tempted to call a snap election in the autumn, both to establish his own authority and to wrong-foot David Cameron.”

Thank goodness I chose my words with such consummate care. “Might be sorely tempted” … well, I think that’s been borne out by events, whatever he decides this weekend. So my hat, and the pie, will remain uneaten. Sorry, boss.

And although I never thought I’d say this, I will admit to just the slightest pang of nostalgia as my train rattled out of Blackpool North station on Wednesday, almost certainly for the last time. None of the parties has any plans to return to Blackpool: the hotels and the Winter Gardens are now simply too decrepit, as in truth they have been for years. But the sun shone in Blackpool this week, and the famed golden sands were, well, golden. Bye bye, Blackpool …