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Friday, 30 November 2007

30 November 2007

I wonder if I could seek your assistance. It’s a financial matter and will involve you in no risk or expense.

What I want to do is make a sizeable donation to the political party that I support. But I’m keen to remain anonymous, so what I’m proposing is simply this: if you could forward me your bank account details, I’ll transfer the sum to you, and then all you need to do is write out a cheque for the same amount and pop it in the post to the party of my choosing. That way, I remain out of the picture, but the party gets the cash.

Sorry? Not lawful? Ah, I had no idea. All right, then, how about this? Commercial loans don’t have to be declared, I gather, so perhaps I could just lend the money instead of donating it, and we can talk about repayment terms at a future date.

No? What do you mean, unwise? So if I simply want to give a political party let’s say £600,000, you’re saying there’s no way I can remain anonymous? How appalling …

There again, perhaps not so appalling. Perhaps it’d be a good idea amid all the Westminster hysteria of the past week to recall why the rules are there. Back in the bad old days, as you may recall, we had no way of knowing who was funding our political parties. We had no way of knowing if some people were trying to buy influence, or honours, or even both.

So transparency became the watch-word. If we know where the money comes from, we can make an informed judgment about whether someone is up to no good. That was the theory. But some of these rich people are funny, you know … for some reason, they’d much prefer to keep their political generosity to themselves. So, guess what, as soon as the new rules are introduced, they start looking for ways round them. Just as they do with tax legislation … but that’s another story.

As you may remember, the TV mini-celebrity Neil Hamilton used to be an MP, until it was alleged that he took secret payments from the owner of Harrods, Mohammad al-Fayed, in return for asking questions in the House of Commons (Hamilton has always denied the allegations, but he lost his seat in 1997 to former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell).

All the main parties have had funding problems over the past decade … but they can’t agree on what to do about it. If more transparency means less dosh, they clearly do have a problem – although I confess to some sympathy for the view of our listener in Scotland whose contribution to our listeners’ debate this week said: “Very simple: the parties should attract more members and fund themselves from their subscriptions.”

So do I think Labour are in melt-down? Well, they’ve had a dreadful week, coming hard on the heels of a few other dreadful weeks. But let’s remember our history. The Tories went into free fall immediately after Black Wednesday. That was 16 September 1992 – and they clung on for nearly five more years. So no, I don’t think Gordon Brown will be leaving Number 10 just yet. But yes, we do live in interesting times.

Oh, and just for the avoidance of any doubt, my opening remarks were a joke. J-O-K-E. Please do not send me your bank account details. I’m not very good at resisting temptation.

Friday, 23 November 2007

23 November 2007

I’ve had an idea: why don’t we put Steve McLaren in charge of the government’s IT network? I mean, how much worse could he do?

What is it, do you think, about governments and computers? It’s 15 years now since the London Ambulance Service tried to introduce a new computer system, with all-but-disastrous results. Before that, there was the Passport Office computer fiasco which resulted in a backlog of half a million passport applications; air traffic control operations nearly went into meltdown when they tried to introduce a new computer system; and the disaster that was the Child Support Agency was largely the result of another major computer fiasco. I could go on, but it’d be bad for my blood pressure.

Perhaps you find it difficult to accept the story that the loss of the child benefit data was all the fault of some lowly tax clerk who stuffed a couple of computer discs into an envelope and shoved them in the internal mail, simply because he couldn’t be bothered to follow the rules. Me? Well, I may not know much about how computer systems are designed (oh, all right, I know absolutely nothing about how computer systems are designed), but I do know that it shouldn’t be too difficult to build a system that prevents unauthorised users from downloading the personal details of 25 million people and copying them onto an unencrypted disc.

Take the BBC’s computer system (yes, please do, just take it …). Suppose I want to change the order of the items in a programme I’m working on. I can’t, because the system tells me I’m not “authorised”. I dread to think what would happen if I tried to download anything onto a disc.

Here, in my comfy leather arm-chair in the snooze-room of the Grumpy Old Men’s Club, I contemplate this digital world and snarl. Except, of course, I don’t. Not really. What I really do is spend virtually every waking hour in front of a computer screen, whether at home or at work (yes, I know, get a life, Lustig …). I read, write, fill in forms, book holidays, pay bills, all on screen. I can’t remember how I managed before.

But sometimes, I hate it. I hate it when computers write me letters that make no sense. I hate it when computers answer my phone calls and then put me on hold for half an hour. And most of all, I hate it when somehow we’re meant to believe that this is all unavoidable and we’ll just have to accept it.

As for protecting my digital identity, I fear that battle is already lost. I’m the user of an Oyster travel card on the London transport network, so I know that they have a record of every journey I make. As the user of a mobile phone and a credit card, I know that my phone provider and bank can retrace my steps almost yard by yard. As can anyone with access to the images captured by all those CCTV cameras on top of every second lamp-post. I know that Amazon has a record of every book that I buy, and Google knows about every website that I visit. I don’t like it, but I accept it because the advantages, so far at least, outweigh the disadvantages.

And as for Mr Darling, well, after years of carefully cultivating a reputation as Mr Obscure, he has now gained a reputation as Mr Bad Luck. And for a senior politician, that really is bad luck. Ask John Major …

Friday, 16 November 2007

16 November 2007

You can sometimes wait several months for a decent foreign policy speech from a government minister, and then, blow me, two come along in less than a week.

First, we get Gordon Brown talking about “hard-headed internationalism”. I’ve already written about this on my blog (www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldtonight ... what do you mean you haven’t looked at it yet?) And then, yesterday afternoon, David Miliband popped up in Bruges of all places (remember Mrs T back in 1988, when, according to her supporters, she “reinvented Euroscepticism as an intellectually powerful and popular movement”?), to talk about the EU as a model state rather than a super state.

There are several ways to read these speeches … my preferred option is to look at them as a way of gaining an insight into how this post-Blair government proposes to order Britain’s affairs in the big wide world.

David Miliband began in Bruges by claiming impeccable perdonal Euro-credentials: “My father was born in Brussels, my mother in Poland.” Beat that. His key argument, hardly original, admittedly, was that “nation-states, for all their continuing strengths, are too small to deal on their own with these big problems (religious extremism, energy insecurity and climate change), but global governance is too weak.”

The Miliband vision is of a Europe that reaches out to its poorer neighbours – not only Turkey, but also the countries of the Middle East and north Africa. It must, he said, be “open to trade, open to ideas and open to people.”

It must also be prepared to use both “hard power” and “soft power” – in other words, military and non-military means -- not just to resolve conflict, but to prevent it. He spoke not only of past action in Kosovo and Macedonia, but also of current or potential future action in Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe and Burma.

So what did it all add up to? More fine-sounding words, more Blairite good intentions? Well, yes, the basic approach is little different from Blair’s: we have responsibilities to our fellow-citizens; the EU can be a power for good; in the era of a globalised economy, isolationism is not an option.

But I think I detect a subtle change of tone. Gone are the certainties, the fervour, the sometimes Messianic-sounding zeal of the former Prime Minister. In their place, yes, many of the same ideas, but wrapped up in a less religious packaging. This, it seems to me, is very much foreign policy post-Iraq. Lessons have been learned.

Of course, both Brown and Miliband recognise that the US is still the sole dominant world power, at least until such time as either China or India – or both – match its overwhelming economic and military strength. But there’s no attempt to argue that the world’s problems can be solved by simple means: both men are proud to be known as intellectuals, and they are happy to engage with complexity.

I am well aware that two speeches do not make a New World. Sounding good is easy. We’ll have to wait to see how they respond to deepening crises in Iran or Pakistan. But for those of us who take an interest in how Britain interacts with the rest of the world, it’s certainly been a fascinating few days.

Friday, 9 November 2007

9 November 2007

What’s the best way, do you think, to get Washington off your back if your democratic credentials are beginning to look a bit frayed? Easy: tell the White House you’ll have an election.

Like, for example, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, key ally of Washington but now roundly criticised from all sides for having declared a state of emergency. Or like, for another example, President Mikheil Saakashvili of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, another key Washington ally, who’s also now being roundly criticised from all sides … you get the picture.

There are far more differences than similarities between Georgia (population less than five million, and overwhelmingly Christian), in the permanently unstable but strategically vital Caucasus, and Pakistan (population 165 million, which is more than Russia’s, and overwhelmingly Muslim), a nuclear power which neighbours Afghanistan and which is widely believed to be the current home of Osama bin Laden. But within the past week, both Musharraf of Pakistan and Saakashvili of Georgia have declared a state of emergency to try to gain some leverage against their domestic opponents – and under heavy international pressure, both have promised that elections will be held within the next couple of months.

But of course holding an election does not necessarily mean that you’re running a healthy liberal democracy. (“An election is not the same as democracy,” a Ugandan MP once told me, “just as a wedding is not the same as a marriage.”) Yet, an election, if fair, is, I think, usually better than no election, if only for the simple reason that it should give people a chance to get rid of an unpopular government if they think there’s a better one on offer.

As a basic rule of thumb, it’s generally thought to be the case that if you want to be considered part of Team Washington, you need to have in place some sort of presentable electoral system. Unless you’re Egypt. Or Saudi Arabia. Or Pakistan. I recalled on my blog a couple of days ago what the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said after President Bush’s re-election three years ago. “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy . . . and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

But what happens when you have an election, as in the West Bank and Gaza, for example, and the voters choose someone like Hamas, whom you regard as a dangerous Islamist terrorist movement? Or as in Egypt, where if there were to be a free and fair election, something similar might well be the outcome? Do you go for elections, or stability?

In the case of Pakistan, General Musharraf’s colleagues reckon they know full well what their Washington allies’ priorities are. According to information minister Tariq Azim Khan: “They would rather have a stable Pakistan — albeit with some restrictive norms — than have more democracy prone to fall in the hands of extremists.”

When I made a series of documentaries about democracy a couple of years ago, I concluded that genuine democracy means not only having the freedom to be governed by whom you choose, but also, and equally importantly, to say what you want, and to hold your leaders to account under a fair and open judicial system. Even if elections are held in Georgia and Pakistan, in neither of those two countries would all those conditions necessarily be met. (As I write these words, I learn that the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been put under house arrest.)

Ah yes, I mentioned my blog: if you’ve missed my on-air announcements over the past 10 days, here’s the written version … I’ve started blogging. In other words, if you go to www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldtonight, you’ll find my thoughts about what’s going on in the world, some suggestions about articles online that you might find interesting, and occasionally a link to an item from a programme that you might have missed. Most important of all, there’s an opportunity for you to respond, both to what I write, and to what other listeners and readers have said. I hope you’ll take a look and let me know what you think.

Friday, 2 November 2007

2 November 2007

The first general election in which I took an interest was in 1964, when Harold Wilson put an end to 13 years of Conservative rule, and the man who was about to become his Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, was defeated in Smethwick by a Conservative who campaigned on the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”

Four years later, Enoch Powell shared his nightmare vision of a Britain over-run by immigrants (“Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”) And he was promptly sacked from the Shadow Cabinet by Edward Heath.

In those days, the debate about immigration was often in reality a debate about race. People who told you there were too many immigrants coming to Britain usually meant that there were too many black and brown people. Immigrants were people who came from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan. Countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, on the other hand, were safely sealed off behind an Iron Curtain, out of sight and out of mind.

Not any more. The end of the Cold War and an expanding European Union mean there is now a growing number of people moving between the EU’s different member states. Those in poorer countries are looking for work in the richer ones -- rather like the Irish immigrants who used to look for work in England and Scotland. They are white, not black or brown. So race is no longer a major part of the equation.

Here’s a little test for you. Is an Irish businessman in Birmingham an immigrant? A Scottish university lecturer in Brighton? A Canadian teacher in Bristol? A Japanese student in Burnley?

Here’s another little test. Every time you see the word “immigrant”, substitute the word “foreigner”. When we discuss the problems caused by higher numbers of immigrants, are we really talking about our suspicion of foreigners? Is it that we feel uncomfortable when we can’t understand what our fellow-passengers on the bus are saying? Or when there are products on the supermarket shelves that we neither recognise nor understand?

Perhaps I should declare an interest: I am myself the British-born son of immigrants. But that doesn’t mean I am not conscious of the strains that an influx of migrants can put on a society. I suspect that most of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are suspicious of what we don’t understand.

In his speech about immigration a few days ago, David Cameron said: “Until the 1980s, for much of our recorded history, Britain was a 'sending country', in that we had net emigration. Today, like the rest of the developed world, we are a 'receiving country', in that we have net immigration -- and immigration at a speed and scale we have rarely seen before.”

The same is true in many other European countries. In Italy, as we heard on the programme last night, they too are debating immigration levels, and crime, and deporting undesirables. In France, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany – nearly everywhere in the EU’s richer countries, you will find people worried about the numbers of immigrants.

Local councils say they can’t cope with the extra demands on scarce resources. Yet the overwhelming majority of the new migrants work and pay taxes. So if there is a shortage of doctors, schools or housing, it’s perhaps more to do with inadequate planning than with excess numbers. As we have seen over just the past few days, the government even finds it difficult to come up with an accurate estimate of how many people there are in the UK who have arrived from overseas. And I have yet to see a future population projection that turns out to be even half-way accurate.

In some ways, we have come full circle. It is just over 100 years since Britain’s first immigration legislation was passed: it was the Aliens Act of 1905, passed because of growing fears of worsening health and housing conditions in the East End of London, where thousands of Russian and Polish Jews were settling.

But those were the days long before the EU’s Single European Act, signed into law in 1986, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. It enshrined a single European market, defined as "an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured.” It’s that single word – “persons” – which few seemed to notice at the time. We’re noticing now.