Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Sunday, 21 December 2008

19 December 2008

So, will Barack Obama change the world? Er, probably not.

Will he radically change US foreign policy? Well, maybe he will, but there again, maybe he won’t.

If you heard our programme from here last night, you’ll have heard four of Washington’s most respected foreign policy analysts discussing the likely future shape of US foreign policy once Obama takes office next month. And what struck me about them was how uncertain they were. (If you missed the programme, it’s available on the website, as is an extended version, including a question and answer session with our invited audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.)

Will Obama keep his promise to pull US combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of moving into the White House? Probably, yes.

Will he make any headway in reviving the Middle East peace process? Probably, no.

Will he sign up to a new global agreement on reducing carbon gas emissions to combat climate change? Possibly, but it’s far from certain.

And so it goes on. During the Presidential election campaign, Obama promised “change you can believe in”. But beyond the rhetoric, there weren’t that many concrete policy proposals, especially in the field of foreign policy. Which is why even the best informed analysts here really have little clear idea what he’s planning to do.

And here’s the key issue: the over-riding preoccupation of the incoming administration will be how to revive the economy. Peace in the Middle East, forging a new relationship with Moscow, breathing new life into nuclear non-proliferation – all that may have to wait.

So what should we expect? Well, the rhetoric will certainly change: you won’t hear so much about the US ending tyranny and spreading democracy around the world. There’ll be more of an emphasis on negotiations, and on building international alliances. But will it be, in the words of a New York Times columnist,“continuity we can believe in”, or, in the words of another New York Times columnist, “a sweeping shift in foreign policy”?

Our panellists couldn’t agree. Is a change of tone the same as a change of policy? Or do US national interests always eventually over-ride Presidential ambitions? We’re about to find out – and the answer could well shape the world we live in.

Just a word about next week: on Christmas Eve, we’ll have a special pre-recorded programme in which we’ll be looking at the arguments for and against global population control; there’ll be no programme on Christmas Day, but we’ll be back as usual on Boxing Day. I’ll be taking a short break, so no newsletter from me next week …

Friday, 12 December 2008

12 December 2008

How often do I get the chance to write about the transition from feudalism to democracy these days? Not often, is the answer. So when the opportunity arises, I grab it.

The island of Sark is one of those places you need a powerful magnifying glass to find on the map. It’s the smallest of the Channel Islands, just off the northern coast of France – and it’s in the news today because only now is it experiencing the uncertain pleasures of a democratic political system.

In the words of the official Sark government website: “Sark holds a unique position within the Channel Islands, which themselves hold an unusual position in Her Majesty's possessions, in that they are not part of the United Kingdom or Great Britain nor are they sovereign states. Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark have their own insular legislature, judicial system and administration.”

Which means, for example, no income tax, no health service, no unemployment benefit and no old age pension. And until yesterday, no fully-elected parliament (which is called the Chief Pleas. Please don’t ask me why.)

The main investors in Sark are multi-millionaire twin brothers, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay. They’re not great fans of feudalism, and they lobbied to introduce a fully-elected parliament, which they fondly believed would be much more likely to welcome their ideas for reform and modernisation.

It seems they were wrong. The islanders have elected a parliament made up overwhelmingly of representatives who were not on the Barclays’ most-favoured list. As a result, the Barclays have started shutting down their businesses on Sark. “The islanders got what they wished for,” was the stark comment from their lawyer.

I visited Sark once, more than 20 years ago. The man in charge, then as now, was the Seigneur, Michael Beaumont – I described him at the time as “a most friendly man with a relaxed manner and a ready smile … he reminded me of the better kind of headmaster, living in semi-retirement somewhere, perhaps in East Anglia.” Not a typical feudal ruler.

He owns every inch of Sark (it’s not a vast area, about two square miles, with a total of 600 people living on it). He’s the only man allowed to keep pigeons, and the only man allowed to keep an unspayed bitch. And now he has to come to terms with democracy.

More to the point, so do the islanders. According to the Barclays’ lawyer, the brothers have been investing about £5 million a year in Sark – and that’s now going to stop, because, in effect, the islanders elected the wrong people to parliament.

Democracy can sometimes be expensive. And 12 days before Christmas, about 140 people have lost their jobs. How odd that, in 2008, they should be reflecting that they might have been better off if they’d stuck with feudalism.

I’ll be in a very different sort of democracy next week: on Thursday, we’ll be broadcasting a special programme, live from Washington, in which we’ll be discussing with a panel of experts Barack Obama’s foreign policy priorities as he prepares to take office next month. I hope it’ll provide us with a real insight into what changes to expect after George Bush’s eight years in the White House. So I hope you’ll be able to tune in, either on air or online.

Friday, 5 December 2008

5 December 2008

I wrote last week that we journalists aren’t very good at dealing with stories that move slowly, over a long period of time. Well, today I’m going to put that right: Zimbabwe has been slowly disintegrating for nearly a decade now, and it’s time to put it back at the top of our agenda.

We’ve reported three times this week on the ever more appalling crisis there: on Monday we had a remarkable eye-witness report from Harare on how soldiers had gone on the rampage; on Tuesday, we reported on the worsening cholera outbreak; and last night, we had an interview with the Prime Minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga, who called on fellow African governments to “push Mugabe from power”. (All programmes are still available via Listen Again on the website.)

If you’ve missed the latest developments, here’s a taste: the central bank has raised the cash withdrawal limit from banks from the equivalent of 18p a day to about £34 a week. It’s issued new 50 million and 100 million dollar banknotes (they’re worth about £17 and £34 respectively). And remember, these are the “new” dollars that were introduced in August, when 10 zeros were knocked off the old ones.

No wonder everyone uses US dollars or South African rand instead if they can. The official inflation rate is now said to be 231 million per cent, although how anyone can calculate that is quite beyond me.

So let’s forget the figures. The shops are empty, the hospitals, by the admission of the health minister himself, are “non-functioning”. More than 500 people have already died of cholera, more than 10,000 others have gone down with the disease – and there’s a chronic shortage of water-treatment chemicals so that for a period this week, the capital, Harare, was without water.

I’m not sure anyone ever really believed after the elections earlier this year that President Mugabe would agree to share power with the opposition MDC. But for months, as Zimbabweans struggled to feed themselves and their families, the diplomats tried manfully to come up with a deal that would save Zimbabwe from total destitution. They failed.

The MDC seem to have decided there’s no point in continuing with the pretence. Within the next few months, Jacob Zuma will become President of South Africa, and they expect him to take much tougher line with his neighbour to the north than did Thabo Mbeki. We’ll see what happens, if Robert Mugabe is still in power then.

When I was in Harare in 2000, to report on parliamentary elections, people told me: “Mugabe won’t be here for much longer, he can’t go on for ever.” (He’s now 84.) The so-called land reform programme was already well under way, and most white farmers had already been forced to leave. It was the beginning of Zimbabwe’s long slow descent into economic collapse, as food production dwindled and investment dried up.

For years now, Zimbabwe’s neighbours – and others – have waited for the country to reach a tipping point, a moment when the whole rickety structure that has kept Mugabe in power for so long comes tumbling down. After the first round of the presidential election last March, it looked for a time as if that moment had arrived. But his forces regrouped, reimposed their will by sheer brute force, and he survived.

Now is another potential tipping point. The army is restive, disease is spreading, and the very basics of human life – food, water – are disappearing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mugabe was gone by the end of the year.

By the way, our editor, Alistair Burnett, has written a piece on the BBC Editors’ blog this week about how we try to balance our coverage of foreign and UK news. Should we, for example, have done more about the Baby P case on Monday, or the Shannon Matthews story last night? You can read his thoughts here -- and we’d very much appreciate your view.

Friday, 28 November 2008

28 November 2008

“Isn’t it terrible about Mumbai?” said the man in the BBC canteen, just hours after the first news of the attacks on Wednesday evening.

“Are there any pictures yet?”

Pictures. Of course. He wanted to see the pictures – and the attackers wanted him to see the pictures. They wanted us all to see the pictures: pictures of people, dead and dying; of security forces rushing about, not knowing where to turn; of great iconic buildings in flames.

The IRA used to talk of their major attacks on the UK mainland as “spectaculars”. They were, literally, spectacles. We live in the age of the image, so those who seek to become globally visible must create global images.

Here’s a (partial) list: 11 September, 2001. The Twin Towers in New York, smoke billowing from the upper floors before they come crashing to the ground. In your mind’s eye, you can see the images now, can’t you?

12 October 2002: The Bali nightclub bombings. Destroyed clubs, dazed tourists. More images.

11 March 2004: The Madrid train bombings. Mangled wreckage and twisted tracks. More lasting images.

7 July 2005: The London bombings. A red, double-decker bus, its roof ripped off by a suicide bomb. More images again.

And now 26 November 2008: The Mumbai bombings. The Taj Mahal Palace hotel, one of the most recognisable buildings in all of India, with flames and smoke billowing from the roof. Another image that our minds will not erase.

Approximately three and a half thousand people were killed in those five attacks. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the other hand, an estimated five million people have died as a direct and indirect result of conflict. In Darfur, an estimated 200,000 people have died. In Zimbabwe, we don’t even have an estimate.

Do you have an image in your mind from Congo, Darfur, or Zimbabwe? No, nor do I.

And I’ll tell you why. We journalists are good at reporting sudden events. We’re good at surprises, the bigger the better. We call them “news”.

We’re not so good at things that happen slowly, or over a long period of time. We’re also not very good at things that happen in places that are dangerous or difficult to reach, where there’s no reliable power supply to recharge our cameras, mobile phones and satellite transmission equipment. In other words, we’re much better in big modern cities. Cities like New York, Madrid, London and Mumbai.

I don’t say you should blame us for it; it’s just the way it is. And those who plan terrorist attacks know it. (They also know that they get a lot more coverage if they attack Westerners than if they attack “locals”. Nearly twice as many people died in the Mumbai train station attacks in 2006 as died this week, but they were all “locals”.)

India has the third largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan. But unlike in Indonesia and Pakistan, India’s Muslims are a minority, and many of them feel they are systematically discriminated against by the Hindu majority. If it turns out that the Mumbai attackers were Indian (I hate the label “home-grown”), that may be relevant.

If it turns out that there is a Pakistan connection, we have reason to be seriously worried. The not-very-experienced Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, has been trying to improve relations with India. If someone in Pakistan is trying to stop him by killing scores of Indian citizens, he’s in big trouble.

It may take a while before we know who was behind the Mumbai attacks. We may never know for sure. But when we remind ourselves that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, we have to hope that cool heads will prevail.

Friday, 21 November 2008

21 November 2008

If you’ve been trying to figure out how those Somali pirates managed to clamber aboard the giant oil super-tanker Sirius Star in the middle of the Indian Ocean last weekend, I think I can enlighten you – because I’ve done it.

Well, something rather similar, at any rate. Many years ago, I was invited to spend a few days aboard a super-tanker in the Gulf. But it had no intention of stopping for me, so I was ferried out in a launch from Dubai to meet it, and then clambered up the side with the help of a none-too-secure rope ladder. I imagine the pirates did much the same thing (although they wouldn’t have had to do too much clambering, given that the tanker was fully laden with 2 million barrels of crude oil and therefore lying very low indeed in the water).

The point being that super-tankers are not easy to defend. They are slow, and ridiculously difficult to manoeuvre. What’s more, they need only a handful of crewmen on board, so half a dozen pirates with a couple of Kalashnikovs are probably all you need to seize control.

Hijacking a super-tanker – or any other kind of sea-going vessel -- is a bit like taking someone hostage. Its only value is what someone else is prepared to pay for it. The Somali pirates wouldn’t have much use for the crude oil, or for the tanker itself – but the several million dollars in ransom money they expect to be able to extort will buy each of them a very nice home, a top-of-the-range 4x4 and as many guns and nippy little speed-boats as their hearts desire.

So here’s the question: should the ship’s owners refuse to pay up? Yes, it’d be tough on the crewmen, whose lives could be at risk – but all previous experience suggests that paying up merely encourages a repeat offence. That certainly seems to be the view of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who said yesterday: “There is a strong view of the British Government, and actually the international community, that payments for hostage-taking are only an encouragement to further hostage-taking.”

And here’s another question: could it be that paying a million dollars – or even 10 million dollars – once in a while for a hijacked ship is a pain that ship owners are prepared to bear? Most of their ships don’t get hijacked, and even if they start sending them the long way round Africa, instead of through the Gulf of Aden and up towards the Suez Canal, that won’t necessarily do them much good – after all, the Sirius Star was heading south towards the Cape of Good Hope when it was seized, simply because it’s far too big for the Suez Canal.

So who will stop the pirates? There’s no authority in Somalia, nor has there been for the best part of 18 years. It’s now nearly two years since the internationally-recognised interim government, with the help of the Ethiopian army, defeated the Union of Islamic Courts which had ruled much of Somalia for nearly six months. But now the Islamists are back in strength, and the Ethiopians are reviled as an occupation army. Think Afghanistan and the Taliban, and you’ll get the general idea.

By a strange coincidence of timing, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo both now find themselves back in the headlines. In Congo there are 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers and a high-profile diplomatic effort to restore security to the east of the country. In Somalia, on the other hand, after the collapse of the interim government, there is virtually no effective international engagement at all.

I think the most heartbreaking scene I ever witnessed was in southern Somalia in 1997, when I was there to report on a catastrophic floods emergency. I came across a deserted hospital – the staff had all left when they ran out of drugs. In the dust outside sat a woman with two tiny dying babies in her arms, sobbing almost silently as she watched their lives ebb away. She had brought them to the hospital in the desperate hope that she would find help there. But there was none.

That was more than 10 years ago, when Somalia had been without a government for “only” six years. The sad truth today is that Somalia still has a lot more to worry about than pirates who hijack super-tankers. And I fear there’s no end in sight to its suffering.

Friday, 14 November 2008

14 November 2008

I’ll be honest with you: I’m going to try really hard to take this weekend’s global economic summit seriously. But it won’t be easy.

I’m not a great believer in summits: the truth is that the real work usually gets done in the weeks and months leading up to them, by hard-working civil servants whose names you’d never recognise. When the Presidents and Prime Ministers eventually turn up in their limousines, there’s rarely much left for them to do, other than hobnob around, do a bit of grandstanding, whisper to each other in corners and corridors, and hold not-very-informative press conferences.

Will this one be any different? Well, there hasn’t been much time for preparation, if only because the financial crisis erupted with such fury in September that there’s scarcely been time for anyone to do any preparing. My guess is that at the end of the weekend, they’ll announce with great pride that they’ve all done terribly well and agreed unanimously that lots more meetings need to be held.

Which, I admit, is probably a good thing. The last thing we need in our current predicament is each government and central bank going their own sweet way without any consultation with anyone else. But if you’re going to reinvent the wheel, an unwieldy committee made up of the world’s most powerful (and wannabe most powerful) nations is not the best way to go about it.

Do I have an alternative suggestion? Er, no. And my impression is that the events of the past couple of months have given these guys such an almighty fright that they may just be in a mood to do some serious thinking. Whether they’re also in a mood to do some serious compromising remains to be seen.

So here’s a little test for you. Can you name the members of the Group of 20 who are on the summit invitation list? They are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

You’re right, that’s only 19. The 20th is the European Union, which is the only way countries like Spain and Poland get a look in. According to the G20 website, the member countries represent around 90 per cent of global gross national product, 80 per cent of world trade, and two-thirds of the world's population. In other words, in strictly economic terms, just about everyone who matters.

In tonight’s (Friday’s) programme, we’re going to be discussing the prospects for this weekend’s summit with three supremely well-qualified economic thinkers: the US deputy trade representative John Veroneau, the French government economic adviser Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, and the Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University, New York.

We recorded the discussion yesterday afternoon, as they all happened to be in London, and what struck me was how little they expect to emerge from the next couple of days. Yes, they agree that much needs to be done, especially in the field of tighter financial regulation – but they all say it’s going to take time.

Quite apart from anything else, there needs to be an agreement on what exactly has to be fixed before they start discussing how to fix it. And no one is unaware that their host this weekend, President Bush, will be off the world stage within a matter of weeks. His successor, Barack Obama, is making himself scarce this weekend, for all the usual protocol reasons – but no real work will get done till he’s got his feet under that desk in the Oval Office and has made his own thoughts known.

So, yes, let’s by all means pay attention to the summit this weekend. But let’s not pretend that all those presidential jets and motorcades will bring us renewed prosperity and stability by Monday morning. I still suspect that few, if any, of the summiteers know exactly how we got ourselves into this mess, so it’s asking quite a lot to expect them to get us out of it just yet.

Friday, 7 November 2008

7 November 2008

WASHINGTON DC -- I always enjoy it when pundits are proved wrong, even if the pundit is me.

For example: remember how they said Spanish-speaking voters wouldn’t vote for a black candidate in the presidential election? They did, by more than 2-1.

How blue-collar working class voters wouldn’t support a smart Chicago lawyer? Yes, they did, in states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

How voters lie to pollsters about supporting a black candidate, because they don’t want to look racist? If anything, it was the opposite … it seems that slightly more people voted for Barack Obama than the polls suggested.

Oh, and how I went to Missouri in September, because Missouri always gets it right? Er, not this time, it seems, because the unofficial indications are that by the slimmest of margins, it went for John McClain, even while Barack Obama was basking in victory.

And here are a couple more little nuggets for you. Obama won the largest share of white support of any Democrat in a two-man race since 1976. He won 43 percent of white voters and 96 percent of black voters. But despite a massive drive to register new black voters, national turn-out among blacks was just two per cent higher than last time.

A columnist in the New York Times yesterday called this week’s election “the first real 21st century election … As a nation, we rejoin the world community. As a sustaining narrative, we found our story again.”

I think that may be over-stating it. America is still split down the middle – there are nearly as many people who weren’t persuaded by the Obama oratory as those who were … and for all the jubilation out on the streets of the major urban centres, there are still many millions of Americans who view the prospect of an Obama presidency with forboding.

And yet. Can you think of any other country which has elected as its head of state someone from a minority community? The only one I can think of is Peru, which in 1990 elected Alberto Fujimori as president. (Not a happy precedent, in fact: he’s currently serving a six-year prison sentence for abuse of power.)

The symbolism of a black president in the White House is over-powering, and if you doubt its significance to African Americans, just listen to my interview with the writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, which was broadcast on The World Tonight and Newshour on Wednesday evening and is still available online.

The scenes of enthusiasm which greeted Obama’s victory were stunning – Washington on Tuesday night felt a bit like I remember London feeling on that night in May 1997 when Tony Blair was first elected. A new beginning, a fresh start, a young leader with a young family, brimming with ideas and energy.

This is no time to dampen his supporters’ enthusiasm. But as their euphoria begins to fade, they will have to acknowledge that excitement will soon give way to the gruelling reality of governing an America that’s in the grip of a deep economic downturn and embroiled in two messy wars.

It has been a fascinating week to be in the US – and the Obama presidency will be well worth watching.

Friday, 31 October 2008

31 October 2008

I’ve just spent a few days in Sarajevo, talking to Bosnian radio broadcasters about how they do their job and how I do mine.

You probably remember reading about Sarajevo: for three long years in the early 1990s, it was pretty much constantly in the headlines. Bosnia was engulfed in a vicious civil war, part of the deadly conflagration that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia. For most of that time, Sarajevo was under siege, bombarded by artillery and mortar shells fired by Serb gunners in the hills that surround the city.

These days, many of Sarajevo’s physical scars have healed. In the 12 years since I was last there, in the aftermath of the war, the churches and mosques have been rebuilt, and the red tiled roofs on the private houses have all been repaired. Now, new steel and glass office blocks line the road from the airport and give parts of this most charming of ancient European capitals the look almost of a Kuwait or a Dubai.

But I don’t want to give you the impression that this is now a normal, functioning state. Bosnia is still a nation divided, both emotionally and politically. The Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniaks as they are now known) are in a sort-of partnership with the Bosnian Croats, in what they call the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian Serbs have their own “entity”, the Republika Srpska, which is in theory part of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but which to all intents and purposes runs its own affairs.

So if you were confused during the Bosnian war, I’m afraid you’d still be confused now. “This is a very strange place,” said one man I met. “The Bosnian Croats want to be part of Croatia; the Bosnian Serbs want to be part of Serbia. Only the Bosniaks are happy to be Bosnian.” It’s not exactly a recipe for the building of a successful nation.

But it doesn’t need an enormous leap of the imagination to see Sarajevo as a flourishing European tourist destination, a Balkan answer to Prague or Vienna. It has a unique charm, built partly on the ancient wooden structures in the old town, and partly on its location, surrounded by high wooded mountains every bit as scenic as the Austrian Tyrol. (Tourists of a historic bent can of course stand on the very spot where Archduke Ferdinand was shot in June 1914, which became the spark that ignited the First World War.)

Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, and up in the mountains there are ski runs and hotels galore, ready and waiting to be used. In the city itself, there is a national museum, an ancient synagogue and one of the world’s most priceless historic Jewish manuscripts. There are mosques, Serbian Orthodox churches and history at every street corner.

The only thing wrong is the politics. Paddy Ashdown, who was the international community’s most senior representative in Bosnia between 2002 and 2006, wrote the other day, together with the former US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was one of the main architects of the peace agreement which ended the Bosnian war in 1995: “It’s time to pay attention to Bosnia again, if we don’t want things to get very nasty quickly. By now, we should all know the price of that.”

Indeed, we should. Maybe the European Union and the new US president should add Bosnia to the “to do” list.

Friday, 24 October 2008

24 October 2008

So, what’s it to be? Would you rather I wrote about George Osborne and the £50,000 he didn’t ask for from the richest Russian on the planet – or the gazillions of pounds, dollars, and euros that the bankers did ask for, and got?

Frankly, I think we can leave Mr Osborne alone. He’ll live to fight another day, I’m sure, a bit bruised maybe, but having at least learned a valuable lesson: that it’s not very clever to spin against a spin-meister and expect to emerge unscathed.

As for the bankers, why is it, I ask myself, that having dug deep into my pocket to lend them the £37 billion they apparently needed, I now hear the Prime Minister and the governor of the Bank of England warning that we’re about to plunge into a nasty economic recession anyway?

After all, we’re being told that – although you may not have noticed it yet – the banks are beginning to get back into the lending business again. And that’s good news, because banks that don’t lend aren’t doing what banks are designed for: looking after our money and using it to oil the wheels of commerce.

But don’t blame me if they’re not ready just yet to lend any to you, or if the terms they’re offering make your eyes water. Bankers scare easily, it seems, and they’ve just had a very nasty fright. So they’re still being very, very careful before they emerge from beneath the blankets.

Which leaves the question I started with: why the recession? Well, remember how you borrowed that extra £50,000 when you realised your home was worth twice what you paid for it? Remember how you used the cash to buy a bigger car, a humungous plasma screen TV, and installed a tasteful water feature in your redesigned back garden?

Now ask yourself this: are you ready to do it all again? What’s your home worth now, by the way? So maybe there’ll be no new car next year, no new electronic toys, and no more juicy contracts for the local builder/garden-designer/loft extender. Multiply that by the sum of your neighbours, and hey presto, there’s your recession.

And if, because you’ve all stopped spending, your local builder runs into cash-flow problems, his friendly bank manager may not be as friendly as he was last time. That essential loan to keep the business afloat for the next few months may not be forthcoming. The business may go bust. His 15 or 20 employees will be looking for jobs. They won’t be spending much, that’s for sure. And so it goes on.

But as you know, I like to look for silver linings where I can. Oil prices have plummeted – which means that you can probably fill up your car now for less than a pound per litre of unleaded. And the haulage companies that deliver the food to your local supermarket can breathe a bit easier as well. Which means food prices may stop rising.

And the pound is slipping against the dollar – which is good news for British exporters who’ve been having a rotten time over the last several months (although admittedly it’s less good news if you were planning to do your Christmas shopping in New York this year.)

Oh, and inflation is unlikely to be much of a problem now, which is good news for those on fixed incomes (like pensions, for example). Yes, the stock market is a mess, which makes your pension fund a bit unhappy – but I think we have to assume that at some point the sellers will become buyers again, and share prices will resume their upward progression.

You’re going to be reading a lot about the recession over the coming days, but take my advice: don’t let it get you down too much. Yes, it’ll be tough – especially, of course, for those who lose their jobs or their businesses. And yes, there may still be some nasty surprises waiting to jump out of some banker’s woodwork.

But if we keep our heads – and if governments and bankers keep theirs – I reckon we’ll be able to see it through. Mind you, I don’t think I’d want to be a Porsche dealer in Canary Wharf at the moment …

Friday, 17 October 2008

10 October 2008

Have you noticed how all the world's most learned economists so accurately predicted the current financial melt-down? How they warned that Iceland was about to teeter on the edge of insolvency? That after the US Congress passed the bank bail-out plan last Friday, share prices in New York and London would plunge yet further on Monday?

You haven't? No, nor have I. That's because the study of economics is no use at all in the current climate. What you need is idionomics. Don't worry, I'm an expert.

The starting point in the study of idionomics is a simple principle: No one understands anything. From this it follows that any pundit pretending to understand isn't worth listening to. (I naturally exempt all BBC colleagues, who seem uniquely able to explain what is happening, even if, like everyone else, they find it more difficult to predict what will happen an hour from now.)

Which brings us to the second fundamental principle of idionomics: Never predict the future; always confine yourself to explaining the past. (Many economists observe this principle even without acknowledging their debt to idionomics.)

The third principle combines two, apparently contradictory maxims: however bad it is today, it may well be worse tomorrow -- but never assume that because it's bad today, it will be worse tomorrow. This is sometimes called the "random unpredictability factor", and only very rich people fully understand it.

By the way, if you ever make it through to advanced idionomics, you will find yourself grappling with the difficult concept of "rich does not equal clever". This can be summarised (and simplified) by stating that very rich people should not be regarded as very clever. They are simply very rich.

I risked the scorn of my peers three weeks ago by writing in this newsletter: "I hope I'm not being a total simpleton if I suggest that some of the coverage of recent events risks losing a sense of proportion." And well, well, if I didn't read in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago:

"The magnitude of this financial disturbance should be placed in perspective. Although it is the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, it is a far smaller crisis, especially in terms of the effects on output and employment. The United States had about 25% unemployment during most of the decade from 1931 until 1941, and sharp falls in GDP. Other countries experienced economic difficulties of a similar magnitude. So far, American GDP has not yet fallen, and unemployment has reached only a little over 6%. Both figures are likely to get quite a bit worse, but they will nowhere approach those of the 1930s."

The author was Gary Becker, who won the 1992 Nobel prize for economics. And he's clearly studied idionomics as well, because he also writes: "The main problem with the modern financial system based on widespread use of derivatives and securitisation is that while financial specialists understand how individual assets function, even they have limited understanding of the aggregate risks created by the system. That is, insufficient appreciation of how the whole incredibly complex financial system operates when exposed to various types of stress."

Which is an uncannily accurate paraphrase of the first principle of idionomics: No one understands anything.

17 October 2008

I don’t know about you, but now that it seems global capitalism isn’t about to come crashing down around our ears after all, I reckon it might be time to try to catch up with what else is happening out there in the big wide world, beyond the hysteria of the money markets. (I‘m not suggesting the financial stuff doesn’t matter, simply that perhaps other things matter too.)

Afghanistan, for example. There’s a war going on in Afghanistan, as you may remember. A coalition of NATO-led troops are trying to “defeat the Taliban” (we’ll come back to that in a moment): many lives are being lost, both civilian and military. There are now more US and UK lives being lost in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

So maybe it’s time to take a long hard look at what’s going on. And that’s just what we’re going to do in tonight’s (Friday’s) programme. (If you’ve missed it by the time you read this, it’s available for the next seven days via Listen Again on the website.) It’s also, not entirely coincidentally, what the US administration is now doing, to try to redefine strategy for the coming months.

According to a report last week in the New York Times, US intelligence officials are warning of a rapidly worsening situation in Afghanistan, where they say reconstituted elements of al-Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban are now collaborating with an expanding network of militant groups.

What’s more, according to reports in the French press, a leaked cable from a senior French diplomat in London quotes the British ambassador in Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, as saying that the international military presence there “is part of the problem, not the solution.”

And the outgoing British military commander, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, told The Times 10 days ago that a military victory against the Taliban is “neither feasible nor supportable”.

So what it all adds up is that the entire NATO-led operation in Afghanistan is in big trouble. It began as a way of defeating the people held responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, and at first it did what it was meant to do: overthrew the Taliban, forced al-Qaeda into hiding, and installed a pro-Western government in Kabul.

But is all that now at risk of being reversed? If the Taliban are getting stronger again, might it be an idea to try to engage with at least some of them to see if there’s a way of encouraging them into a political, rather than a military, process?

And don’t forget, just across the border in Pakistan, there’s another war going on, as the Pakistani army tries to establish control in areas which have traditionally been left to local tribal leaders to look after. Trouble is, some of those leaders are sympathetic to, and offer hospitality to, Pakistani Taliban fighters who are both a threat to the government in Islamabad and only too happy to make common cause with their fellow Taliban in Afghanistan. (There are now more Pakistani troops fighting in the region bordering Afghanistan than there are US troops in Iraq.)

Complicated? You bet. But as the British discovered in Afghanistan in the 19th century, and as the Soviet army discovered in the 1980s, foreign armies tend not to win wars there. That’s why the fundamental policy review now under way in Washington is so important – and why I hope you’ll be able to listen to tonight’s programme and let us have your comments.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

3 October 2008

Funny, isn’t it, how the most complex political choices can sometimes be reduced to two simple words: experience, or judgment?

In the US, Barack Obama says his judgment is a better bet than John McCain’s experience. And here in the UK, the Conservative leader David Cameron says the same about the choice British voters will face between him and Gordon Brown.

But why is it, do you think, that if the opinion polls are right, financial melt-down is good for Mr Brown’s ratings – presumably because voters think they’d rather stick with what they’ve got in times of crisis – but also good for Mr Obama, who seems to be benefitting from US voters’ conclusion that it’s time they kicked the current bunch out?

In the UK, we seem to rally round the incumbent; in the US, they seem to do the opposite. Ah, the endless fascination of politics!

I stayed up late again last night to watch the vice-presidential debate. The Palin/Biden choice is not so much judgment against experience, but rather two-years-as-governor experience against 36-years-as-senator experience.

And there’s no rule in American politics that says Senatorial experience is necessarily better than Gubernatorial experience. After all ex-Governor Jimmy Carter, ex-Governor Ronald Reagan, ex-Governor Bill Clinton and ex-Governor George W Bush all made it to the White House.

And it’s worth remembering amid all the scorn poured on the governor of a remote state like Alaska that neither the peanut farmer from Georgia (Carter) nor the red-neck from Arkansas (Clinton) were exactly well-versed in international affairs when they first took office.

Having said which, how did the young Governor do against the not-so-young Senator? Did she screw up? No, she did not. Did she embarrass the Republican ticket? Again, no. Did she manage to claw back some of the credibility she lost over the past week or so? (One poll suggested that more than half of America’s voters regarded her as unfit to be President.) Yes, I think she did.

Governor Palin was folksy, smiley and, mostly, self-assured. Senator Biden was controlled, not always so good at connecting with the audience, but managed not to come across as patronising or bullying.

He concentrated on attacking John McCain rather than Sarah Palin – and he returned to the attack again and again. And about 20 minutes from the end, there was real emotion when he spoke of the difficulties his own family has been through: for a moment, it looked as if he was about to choke up.

On substance, I reckon Senator Biden was the clear winner. No real surprise there. But if Governor Palin’s task was to look credible and to defend John McCain, well, she succeeded. But the opinion polls all seem to be going Barack Obama’s way at the moment, and tonight the House of Representatives votes on the bank rescue plan.

So although I’m glad I stayed up to watch the debate, my guess is that by Monday, it’ll be forgotten. Because on Tuesday, there’s the second of the Obama-McCain encounters. I’ll be watching.

Friday, 26 September 2008

26 September 2008

I wonder what you’ve made of the political shenanigans in Washington over the past week.

There are two ways of looking at it, aren’t there? You might take the view that members of Congress have been fulfilling their duties as elected representatives and carrying out the wishes of their constituents in trying to amend the proposed bank bail-out deal on offer from the US Treasury.

Or you might see it all as sordid electioneering, with each side seeking maximum party advantage in the closing stages of a close-fought Presidential campaign, even as the financial markets teeter on the brink of melt-down in the continuing uncertainty.

If you take the first view, you will find supporting evidence in the New York Times, which reports: “It has become abundantly clear that members of Congress are hearing from their constituents, many of whom are furious about the proposed rescue.”

If you take the second view, you’ll find support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who told reporters that John McCain's suspension of his campaign was unnecessary and he was "standing in the way" by returning to Washington from the campaign trail. “If we lose progress, it's only because of one man, and that's John McCain."

The focus for much of the public anger seems to be the income levels of some of the biggest banks’ bosses. (And of course it hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed that the US Treasury secretary Henry Poulson, in his previous life as head of Goldman Sachs, managed to squirrel away something in the region of $65 million in bonuses alone over a seven-year period.)

If I were a US tax-payer, I suspect I may wonder why my contribution to the Treasury might be used to keep some of these chaps in the manner to which they have plainly become happily accustomed. Especially as it would appear to be their mistakes, misjudgments and bad calls that got us into this mess in the first place.

So why not let them all go the way of Lehman Brothers? Well, like ‘em or not, we need the banks. They provide our mortgages, they invest our pension plans, and they offer credit to the companies on whom we rely for goods and services. And there seems to be general agreement that however unpalatable the deal currently under discussion, doing nothing would almost certainly be a lot worse.

(Incidentally, one small anecdote: a local shopkeeper of my acquaintance was telling me recently that he had just acquired two more properties as his business expanded. The bank had approved his business plan, but at the last moment, withdrew its offer of a loan. That’s the credit crunch in action.)

And there’s still the thorny issue of how much the US Treasury’s “septic bank” might be prepared to pay for the toxic debt currently poisoning the system. As my colleague, the BBC’s superb business editor Robert Peston, points out: “If the bail-out is used to punish the banks, it probably won't save the global financial system; but if the banks aren't punished, then US tax-payers may well feel that their pockets have been picked.”

Friday, 19 September 2008

19 September 2008

I might as well start with an admission: I wouldn’t recognise a collateralised debt obligation if it came up to me in the street and shook me by the hand.

So if you were to doubt my expertise when I start pontificating about financial matters, well, I’d concede that you just may have a point.

But I hope I’m not being a total simpleton if I suggest that some of the coverage of recent events risks losing a sense of proportion. Yes, I know that Alistair Darling said that current economic conditions "are arguably the worst they've been in 60 years”. And I have no doubt that’s how it feels if you’re trying to keep the ship afloat in these storm-tossed seas.

Leave aside for a moment the hysteria on the stock markets. Consider the UK unemployment rate, up sharply to 5.5 per cent, and rising more quickly than at any time since 1992. But consider also: at 1.7 million out of work, the figure is still only just over half what it was 25 years ago.

All right, what about inflation, also up sharply? True, and it’s rising at its fastest rate for 11 years – but at 4.7 per cent, it’s still far lower than in 1975, when it reached 24 per cent, or 1980, when it was at 18 per cent.

Those of you of a certain age will recall a character called Corporal Jones in the TV comedy series Dad’s Army. His catch-phrase “Don’t panic!” was guaranteed to spark exactly the opposite reaction. So I won’t do a Corporal Jones.

Nor will I pretend that the events of the past two weeks haven’t been dramatic or serious. When a major UK mortgage lender is taken over; when one of the world’s biggest insurance companies is nationalised in the US; when iconic names in the financial world like Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley are bandied about like so many dodgy second-hand car dealers, even I can recognise that something is up.

But my experience of previous crises – and I don’t think anyone who lived through the recession of the early 1980s is likely to forget it – leads me to conclude that what goes down must, sooner or later, come back up again. The whole point of economic cycles, I would have thought, is that they are cyclical.

Yes, if you have a mortgage, you’ll be worried about interest rates. But doesn’t any prudent borrower factor in possible rate changes over a 25-year period? If you’re saving for a pension, you’ll be worried about the value of your pension pot. But unless you’re planning to cash it in now, there’s a fair chance it’ll claw back its previous value within the next couple of years. (After all, the stock market now, even after all the falls of recent days, is about where it was three years ago.)

Of course, jobs are being lost, businesses are suffering, and homes are being repossessed. Not for a moment am I suggesting that the current crisis doesn’t involve real hardship. And with the financial services industry playing such a significant role in the national economy, clearly a crisis in the City has important knock-on effects.

All I’m saying is that I doubt the world is about to end just yet.

Oh, and by the way, remember how oil prices were close to $150 dollars a barrel a couple of months ago? You may not have noticed, but yesterday, they were below $100. That’s a drop of one-third in eight weeks. Just thought I’d mention it.

Friday, 12 September 2008

12 September 2008

PHOENIX, ARIZONA -- A couple of nights ago, I was at a party of highly motivated political women here in Phoenix, Arizona. This is the state which John McCain represents in the US Senate, so perhaps you’d expect these female Arizona politicos to be thrilled by his decision to appoint a woman, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, as his vice-presidential running mate.

In fact, not so. Because these women were Democrats, and as one of them told me: “It’s not just about biology; it’s also about ideology.” To them, Sarah Palin is anathema, because she is pro-life, and they are pro-choice. (Or if you prefer, she is anti-abortion, and they believe in a woman’s right to choose.)

These are strange days in the Presidential election campaign. There’s been more talk this week about lipstick than about the economy or Iraq; more coverage of a vice-presidential candidate who has remained unavailable to reporters than to the other half of her party’s ticket, the man who would be President.

(Just to put the record straight about what Barack Obama meant when he spoke of “putting lipstick on a pig”: Sarah Palin is the lipstick, he insists, the pig is John McCain’s policies. He didn’t mean Mrs Palin is a pig.)

I’ve spent the past two weeks first in Missouri, then in Illinois, and now here in Arizona. And I have a few conclusions to report to you, admittedly wholly unscientific and totally impressionistic.

First, this election really is engaging people: everyone I’ve had contact with -- in shops, hotels, on the streets – has wanted to talk about it. (One exception: a young man here in Phoenix who within the last few months has lost his job, been left by his wife, and is now having his home repossessed by the bank … he told me he had other things on his mind more important than the election.)

Second, the people who support John McCain cite his political experience and his military background as the main reasons: his specific policies seem to have made little impact. And those who prefer Barack Obama say it’s because he inspires them as a new face and a new voice: they speak of him with the same reverence that McCain supporters adopt when they speak of their candidate.

Third, the Iraq war is just not an issue. Over the past week, I have had several hours of in- depth conversations with voters on both sides of the debate; not one of them has mentioned Iraq. (And if you heard our programme from Rolla, Missouri, last Friday, you may remember that no one in the audience there raised it either.)

Fear of terrorism is an issue, the economy is an issue, and for some, abortion is an issue. Both John McCain and Sarah Palin are vehemently anti-abortion (that’s why the pregnancy of Mrs Palin’s 17-year-old daughter made such an impact). Some women who desperately wanted a chance to vote for Hillary Clinton will never be able to vote for Sarah Palin – but the opinion polls suggest that many white working class women in particular are being won over.

A word of warning about those polls: many of them are showing relatively small shifts, often within the margin of error, and there is some evidence to suggest that the mood, when it is shifting, is being heavily influenced by daily media coverage.

So my advice is: don’t jump to any conclusions just yet. Yes, John McCain is doing better in the polls than he was three months ago – but if you look at the state-by-state breakdown of how he and Senator Obama stand, it still looks extraordinarily tight.

The first of my documentaries for the BBC World Service – “My Senator, My Vote” – will be broadcast next Wednesday. The second will be on air the following week.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

5 September 2008

ROLLA, MISSOURI -- I’ve been exploring parts of Missouri this week, in preparation for tonight’s live programme featuring an audience of local voters here in the small town of Rolla (population: 16,000).

Why Rolla? Because it’s simply the closest you can get to the perfect middle American town. Missouri is in the middle of America, culturally and politically if not geographically, and Rolla is in the middle of Missouri. The same number of people live between here and Canada as between here and Mexico; and the same number between here and the Pacific as between here and the Atlantic. So it truly is the middle of middle America.

A few hours ago I was watching John McCain’s speech on the closing night of the Republican party convention. Two things struck me about it: first, it’s obvious that his speech-writers are not close followers of British politics (I don’t think they would have used the phrase “Back to basics” if they’d known how much trouble it got John Major into); and second, voters who want change are now spoilt for choice. Both McCain and Obama are promising bucketloads of it.

Here’s the key passage from McCain’s speech last night. “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption … We're going to change that. We're going to recover the people's trust by standing up again for the values Americans admire. The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is going to get back to basics.”

To which the Obama campaign replied: “Tonight, John McCain said that his party was elected to change Washington, but that they let Washington change them. He’s right. He admonished the ‘old, do-nothing crowd’ in Washington, but ignored the fact that he’s been part of that crowd for twenty-six years …”

So you pays your money, and you takes your choice. The reason I’m in Missouri is that voters here have a unique record in choosing winning candidates in Presidential elections. With only one exception, they’ve backed the winner in every election since 1904. So if our audience tonight is a typical cross-section (which, of course, it may not be, since the programme is open to all comers), it should give you a pretty good idea how things stand, now that both parties’ conventions are over.

I don’t want to pre-empt tonight’s programme (we’ll have two local members of Congress on our panel, by the way, and voters will be asking them questions directly – it’s the kind of direct voter interaction you very rarely get a chance to hear), but I can say that over the past few days I’ve met pretty much an equal number of Republicans and Democrats who are convinced they’re going to win here in Missouri in eight weeks’ time.

Local Republicans are genuinely excited by Sarah Palin, the previously unknown Governor of Alaska whom John McCain has chosen as his vice-presidential candidate – and Democrats, especially black Democrats, are every bit as excited about Barack Obama.

So I do hope you’ll be able to tune in to tonight’s programme – and don’t forget that if for any reason you can’t listen at 10 o’clock tonight, you can always catch up via the Listen Again button on our website. It’ll be there for at least the next seven days.

Next week, I’m staying on in the US to make a couple of documentaries for the BBC World Service, but I’ll try to stay in touch anyway.

Friday, 29 August 2008

29 August 2008

I’m writing this just after 4am, having stayed up late to watch Barack Obama accept his party’s nomination as candidate for President. And I’ve been thinking back to the first time I watched a Democratic Party convention, exactly 40 years ago: Chicago, 1968, when there were fights, literally fights, over whether delegations from southern states should be allowed to participate because they refused to accept any black members.

Well, tonight, the Democrats embraced a black Presidential candidate. Forty years is a long time in politics.

While I was waiting for Senator Obama, I began leafing through a book that’s been sitting for months on my desk.: it’s called “Speeches that changed the world.” And it has reminded me that speeches do sometimes matter, do sometimes make a difference.

Will Obama’s speech tonight be one of those? I have no idea. But the speech he made at the Democratic party convention four years ago certainly changed his world: it launched him on a meteoric political trajectory that just might take him all the way to the White House.

And consider these:

The Conservative party leader David Cameron’s speech to his party conference in Blackpool three years ago, which certainly changed his world too: it won him the party leadership , and might well take him all the way to Downing Street;

John F Kennedy’s inauguration speech in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, which changed the way Americans thought about themselves and their country, at least temporarily;

Franklin D Roosevelt, in his inaugural address in March 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, steadying American nerves after the banking crash.

And, of course, Winston Churchill, in May 1940, as the Nazis swept across Europe: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

So I could have written today about the continuing crisis in the Caucasus, or about the collapse of the coalition government in Pakistan following the resignation of President Musharraf. But I decided not to simply because, in many ways, Barack Obama’s speech – and American voters’ reaction to it – may well have a profound influence on developments in both Georgia and Pakistan.

My impressions of tonight’s speech? There was more steel – and even more anger – than I had expected … this was a Barack Obama grittily determined to put America back on the right track, ready and willing to attack John McCain (“it’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s that he just doesn’t get it”) – and ready to strike one of the lowest blows I’ve heard from the man some commentators call Saint Barack: “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next Commander-in-Chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.” (McCain has a reputation as a man with a tendency to blow a fuse.)

There was plenty of the high-blown rhetoric we have come to expect; there was the personal back-story that is a given on such occasions – but there was also a hefty dollop of detailed policy proposals (on tax cuts, health care, and job creation, for example) that many American voters probably won’t have heard before.

So what the Democrats are hoping for now is a great big bounce in Obama’s opinion poll ratings as they head home, and the Republicans start heading for their convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Even before he spoke, a Gallup tracking poll was showing him six points ahead of McCain after two weeks of level-pegging. So from their point of view, the early omens are good. But of course, the same thing may well happen for McCain after the Republican convention, and then we’ll all be back at square one.

Oh, one final thing: happy 72nd birthday today to Senator McCain.

I’m going to be travelling in the US for the next couple of weeks: next Friday, I’ll be presenting the programme live from Missouri, the bellwether state where only once in the past 104 years have they not voted for the winning candidate in a presidential election. I do hope you’ll be able to tune in.

Friday, 22 August 2008

22 August 2008

The shooting war in Georgia seems to have ended, thank God, but the war of words shows no sign of abating. I reckon it’s time to go back to basics.

So here are two, inter-related questions, which might help us to understand how and why this nasty, and potentially dangerously destabilising, crisis erupted. One: why is NATO apparently so determined to go ahead with the applications for membership from Georgia and Ukraine? And two: why are Georgia and Ukraine so determined to join?

Ask NATO why it wants to expand its membership to include an ever-growing number of countries in central and eastern Europe, and you’ll be told it’s by far the best way to encourage peace and security in the region. The preamble to NATO’s founding treaty, which was signed nearly 60 years ago, says its members “seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.”

True, Ukraine and Georgia are quite a long way from the North Atlantic, but the view seems to be that peace, security and democracy easily trump geography. Nations that feel confident about their own security are less likely, so the argument goes, to indulge in reckless military adventurism.

In Moscow, however, for obvious reasons, you’ll get a very different answer to the same question. Look at a map of Russia’s western borders: along the Baltic coast, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all members of NATO. As far as the eye can see, with the exception of Belorus, just about all the European countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc are in NATO. And now, to make matters even worse, to the south-west, along the Black Sea coast, Ukraine and Georgia are both hoping to be members of NATO soon. To many Russians, it looks suspiciously like encirclement.

NATO was Russia’s enemy for half a century. Over the past decade, there have been attempts to convert enmity into partnership, but not with any conspicuous success. (Yesterday, Russia announced that it’s suspending all cooperation with NATO, which could affect an agreement to allow it to transport through Russia non-military supplies for use in Afghanistan.) Russia doesn’t like playing second fiddle in someone else’s orchestra: you may have heard the senior Russian politician Mikhail Margelov on last night’s programme: “We are not children who can be seen but not heard … Russia is a player on the world stage.”

So how about the answer to my second question? Why do Ukraine and Georgia want so badly to join? Well, perhaps because being in NATO would make them feel safer. It’s never comfortable living next to a big and powerful neighbour – and the angrier that neighbour becomes, the less comfortable you feel. If I were a Georgian, I think I might have looked at how the world has changed over the past 20 years and concluded that I may well be a lot safer sheltering under the NATO umbrella.

Mind you, not all Georgians – or all Ukrainians – share their governments’ enthusiasm for NATO membership. There are substantial minorities (as there are in some of the Baltic states as well) who hanker for the days when they looked to Moscow for protection. What’s more, there are many millions of ethnic Russians, and Russian-speakers, scattered throughout what used to be the Soviet Union – and many, like Vladimir Putin, still mourn its passing.

So a final two questions for you. If democratically elected governments express a considered wish to join NATO, and if they fulfil the membership criteria, are there any grounds on which they should be refused? And is extending NATO membership in a way that risks increasing Russia’s sense of insecurity a good way to “promote stability and well-being” in the region? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Friday, 15 August 2008

15 August 2008

All right, it may be a bit too soon to start talking about winners and losers in Georgia, but not too soon for a provisional tally, or to learn some lessons from the events of the past week.

Obvious loser: Georgia, and more especially, President Mikheil Saakashvili. He thought he could resolve the long-standing dispute with separatists in South Ossetia by military force – and he was wrong.

Obvious winner: Russia, and more especially, the Medvedev-Putin double act. They reacted swiftly and effectively, and demonstrated to their neighbours with brutal efficiency that it is definitely not a good idea to stamp on Russia’s toes.

Less obvious loser: the US. It was slow to react, and gave its allies in the region the impression that when push comes to shove, they’re on their own. Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states will all have taken note. (Last night, Poland signed on the dotted line for a US anti-missile installation to be built on its soil, although the foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski insisted when I interviewed him on last night’s programme that the decision to sign had nothing to do with events in Georgia. I leave you to make up your own mind …)

Less obvious winner: the European Union, and more especially President Nicholas Sarkozy of France. As the current older of the EU’s rotating presidency, he was impressively quick out of the starting blocks, and with the help of his hyper-active Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (whose CV, incidentally, includes having worked as a Red Cross doctor in Biafra in the 1960s, and then co-founding the relief agency Medecins sans Frontieres in the 1970s), he brokered an admittedly fragile ceasefire within less than a week of the conflict erupting.

We’ve learned a few useful lessons over the past week. First, Russia’s Putin-inspired national confidence can be – and will be – translated into military action when the Kremlin decides that’s what’s needed. (Arguably, the Chechens learned that lesson several years ago.)

Second, the Western enthusiasm for intervening in other people’s conflicts (Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor) hasn’t survived the new millennium. (Afghanistan and Iraq were very different stories, which don’t need to be retold today.) The Nineties were the first post-Cold War decade, and post-Soviet Russia was in meltdown, so for a brief few years, the West had things pretty much its own way. Remember President Bush Senior’s “new world order”?

Then, on the very last day of 1999, President Yeltsin resigned. His successor, Vladimir Putin, lost no time in rebuilding Russia’s self-confidence and national pride. Steadily rising oil prices meant cash was soon pouring into the Kremlin’s coffers, and Georgia has seen over the past few days what that can mean for Russia’s neighbours.

And here’s a lesson that the Kremlin has learned. If the West backs breakaway Kosovo, against the wishes of the sovereign UN member-state Serbia, on the grounds that it’s the wish of the majority, then Moscow can back breakaway South Ossetia, against the wishes of the sovereign UN member-state Georgia, on precisely the same grounds.

Life was a lot simpler when everyone agreed that “territorial integrity” was a sacrosanct principle. But now that the UN, no less, has agreed on a new principle – the “responsibility to protect” people at risk – then why shouldn’t Russia protect the people of South Ossetia when they come under attack from Georgian forces? Isn’t that exactly what NATO did in Kosovo when ethnic Albanians came under attack from Serb forces?

Back in 1992, in the warm glow of those early post-Cold War days, the American academic Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in “The End of History”: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Now the warm glow has long gone. Not so much the “end of history”; more the beginning of a new, more complex, and arguably more dangerous, history.

Friday, 8 August 2008

8 August 2008

I don’t imagine you see much reason to celebrate the current level of oil prices around the world. I don’t hear you cheering delightedly every time you fill up the car, or every time you have to pay your electricity bill.

If you were living in Iraq, on the other hand, where, let’s face it, they still don’t have much to celebrate, high oil prices should be excellent news. You’d be sitting on the world’s third largest oil reserves, pumping it out as fast as you can, with billions of dollars rolling in to the government coffers.

So: lots of cash available to rebuild the country’s decaying infrastructure. Develop a functioning electricity grid again; get clean water gushing out of taps in Baghdad and Basra; repair roads and bridges. Except … it’s not happening. Or where it is happening, it’s by no means enough, and more often than not, it’s being paid for by American tax-payers, not Iraqi oil revenues.

Here’s what the US Government Accountability Office reported this week: “From 2005 through 2007, the Iraqi government generated an estimated $96 billion in cumulative revenues, of which crude oil export sales accounted for about $90.2 billion, or 94 percent … Projected 2008 oil revenues could be more than twice the average annual amount Iraq generated from 2005 through 2007 …

“From 2005 through 2007, the Iraqi government spent an estimated $67 billion on operating and investment activities. Ninety percent was spent on operating expenses, such as salaries and goods and services, and the remaining 10 percent on investments, such as structures and vehicles. The Iraqi government spent only 1 percent of total expenditures to maintain Iraq- and U.S.-funded investments such as buildings, water and electricity installations, and weapons.”

Meanwhile, according to the GAO, the U.S. has appropriated $48 billion for Iraqi reconstruction and stabilisation projects since 2003, with about 70 per cent of those funds having been spent.

Now, you could argue, I suppose, that since it was the US that led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it’s only fair that the US should pay to rebuild it. (Remember US secretary of state Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule? “If you break it, you fix it.”)

But that’s not how it looks to the two senior US senators – Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John Warner – who asked for the GAO report. This is what they said: “The Iraqi government now has tens of billions of dollars at its disposal to fund large-scale reconstruction projects. It is inexcusable for U.S. taxpayers to continue to foot the bill for projects the Iraqis are fully capable of funding themselves. We should not be paying for Iraqi projects, while Iraqi oil revenues continue to pile up in the bank."

I spoke to the man who wrote the GAO report, Joseph Christoff, on the programme on Wednesday. (It’s still available via Listen Again on the website.) And he accepted that Iraq does have problems spending huge sums of money on vast infrastructure projects – that it’s just as important to spend cash wisely as it is to spend it quickly.

Still, I somehow doubt that the US Congress is going to be voting again to authorise billions of dollars in reconstruction aid to Iraq … with a new administration and a new Congress in place next January, I’d hazard a guess that the Iraqis will soon be spending rather more of those oil revenues than they have been up till now.

Which may, or may not, make you feel just a bit better next time you fill up the tank.

By the way, as the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed, this is my 150th newsletter -- and I’ve just been looking at what I wrote in my 100th. This is what I said on 6 July last year about Gordon Brown, who had just taken over as PM:

“If I were Mr Brown, I’d be keeping a very close look at the property pages. Because if house prices start tumbling, he’s going to be in big trouble. Interest rates go up (and, of course, there’s nothing he can do about that any more, since he gave the Bank of England full independence over interest rate policy), property prices go down … result: tens of thousands of very unhappy voters. If their pockets start feeling emptier than they have been for the past decade, they’ll stop buying so many giant flat-screen TVs and cheap flight holidays. And before you know it, the economy will be stalling. And whom do you think they’ll blame?”

Four weeks later, on 9 August, the European Central Bank injected an unprecedented 94.8 billion euros into the money markets to stave off what we soon learned to call the “credit crunch”. And the rest is history …

Friday, 1 August 2008

1 August 2008

I can’t help wondering if President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was watching television yesterday as the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic made his first appearance in the dock at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Did he imagine that one day he might be sitting in the dock as well? Did he try to imagine what it might feel like, listening to a sombre-voiced judge read out a list of alleged crimes, beginning with that most spine-chilling word: genocide?

Frankly, I doubt it. But perhaps he should have. After all, Radovan Karadzic evaded capture for more than a decade and by all accounts was living an undisturbed life behind that huge white beard and over-sized glasses until a shift in the political weather in Belgrade led to his arrest 10 days ago.

Who knows what changes there might be in Sudan over the coming decade? The point is that when it comes to prosecuting alleged war crimes, politics is all. But the case against President Bashir, charging him with three counts of genocide and five of crimes against humanity arising out of the conflict in Darfur, will proceed only if the UN security council gives the nod.

In the small hours of this morning, the security council voted to extend the mandate of the joint UN/African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur for another year. But it also “noted a request from the African Union for the council to use its power to suspend [the] indictment”, and further noted that some governments intend “to consider these matters further." If I were President Bashir, I think I’d find that quite encouraging.

There is, as I’ve discussed before, an intense debate under way among the people who think about these things about whether the priority should be to bring peace to Darfur or to prosecute those responsible for the violence. The Tanzanian ambassador to the UN pointed out on the programme last night that in Bosnia, the peace deal came many years before the arrest of Mr Karadzic (although not, as it happens, many years before the issuing of the indictments against him).

And there’s another question being asked too, especially in the responses to what I’ve written on my blog about all this. If you prosecute Radovan Karadzic and Omar al-Bashir, why not, for example, George W Bush and Tony Blair, for their alleged responsibility for the many thousands of deaths in Iraq? Is it true, as many bloggers complain, that only the losers ever face prosecution?

History, it’s often said, is written by the victors. (When Churchill was asked why he was so sure that history would judge him kindly, he replied: “Because I shall write it.”) Does the same go for justice? If the International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia are both in effect organs of the United Nations, does it inevitably follow that they will be “guided’ by the balance of power at the UN?

I don’t think anyone is claiming that the way the system currently works is perfect. Perhaps the best that can be said for it is that it is better than nothing. Because if we agree that heinous crimes committed by political leaders should not go unpunished, what alternatives are there?

Thursday, 24 July 2008

25 July 2008

I don’t get to meet many alleged mass murderers in my line of business – which is probably just as well, because I don’t much enjoy it.

My two encounters with Radovan Karadzic – in the days before he was indicted for genocide and war crimes, and was being wined and dined by European government leaders – remain imprinted on my memory as two of the most unpleasant experiences of my career.

The first time we met was at the height of the siege of Sarajevo. You may remember it: night after night, our TV screens showed people being shot at by snipers and shelled from the surrounding hills. So there he was, in the studio, the man everyone held responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in a vicious civil war.

I remember telling my colleagues that I would refuse to shake his hand. They ushered him into the studio ahead of me, I sat down opposite him and immediately began the interview. No pleasantries, no chit-chat. When it was over, I muttered a curt “thank you” and walked out.

On the second occasion, we met at his London hotel. He was late, and when he finally arrived, I saw him come into the lobby together with his wife, laden with shopping bags from some of London’s best-known department stores. Again, I tried to keep the pleasantries to an absolute minimum.

He was, as many others have remarked, a man with a remarkable capacity for, shall we say, claiming as true things that few others believed. During the siege of Sarajevo, he insisted in our interview that there were no Serb snipers shooting at civilians. No Serb mortars being fired from the hills; no Serb guns firing at UN planes bringing in relief supplies; no “ethnic cleansing” of Muslim and Croat villages.

So now he is to face his accusers at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. His capture is a remarkable symbol of how a democratically elected government can dramatically change the political weather. I find it hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he was arrested just four days after the appointment of a new head of Serbia's police intelligence agency, replacing a man who was said to be a close ally of the former Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

Don’t expect Karadzic’s trial to start any time soon. I’d guess early next year is the earliest likely starting date, and proceedings will be, as they always are in such cases, lengthy. And expect to hear a lot about “command responsibility” – will the prosecution be able to prove that Karadzic himself was personally involved in the decisions that led to the killing of thousands, including the slaughter of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica?

Article 7 (3) of the international war crimes tribunal’s statute lays down that the fact that crimes "were committed by a subordinate does not relieve his superior of criminal responsibility if he knew or had reason to know that the subordinate was about to commit such acts, or had done so and the superior failed to take the necessary and reasonable measures to prevent such acts or to punish the perpetrators."

So it won’t be enough for Karadzic to argue that he never ordered any massacres. (If you want to see the detail of what he’s charged with, you can find it on the tribunal’s website here. But I warn you: it doesn’t make pleasant reading.) The key allegation is that he “planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted the planning, preparation or execution of the destruction, in whole or in part, of the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat national, ethnic, racial or religious groups.”

Or to use just a single word, genocide.

Friday, 18 July 2008

18 July 2008

Good news about the crime figures for England and Wales yesterday, wasn’t it? According to the double-page headline in the Daily Mail: “A knife attack every 4 minutes.”

Sorry, wrong headline. But even The Guardian found something to worry about: “Crime rates expected to soar as economic difficulties deepen.” Same figures, different headlines. Confused? So am I.

Here’s how the Home Office put it in its announcement yesterday: “Crime in England and Wales fell by ten per cent since the previous year according to the 2007/08 British Crime Survey, and fell by nine per cent according to police recorded crime statistics.”

Over the same period, said the Home Office, the risk of becoming a victim of crime has fallen from 24 to 22 per cent, and both overall crime and the risk of victimisation are now at their lowest ever levels since 1981. Violent crime, vandalism and vehicle-related thefts have all fallen (by 12 per cent, 10 per cent, and 11 per cent) and domestic burglary has remained stable.

Which all sounds pretty encouraging, doesn’t it? So why, in heaven’s name, do we read almost every other day of another ghastly knife crime, resulting in the death of another teenager on a city street? Well, for one thing, the survey on which these latest statistics are based doesn’t talk to people under the age of 16 – so they will be of scant comfort to the families of Sunday Essiet, Amro Elbadawi, Lyle Tulloch, Arsema Dawit and David Idowu, to name but five of London’s 21 knife murder victims so far this year. (The Home Office is now considering extending the remit of the British Crime Survey to include under 16s.)

And of course, our perception of crime (two-thirds of us think crime rates are going up) does not stem from a cool analysis of the latest official data: we read the papers, we watch the telly, and we gossip over the garden fence. And fear of crime can be nearly as damaging to the social fabric as crime itself.

As it happens, I was chairing a debate organised by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College, London, last night, to discuss the government’s record on youth crime. (Its new Youth Crime Action Plan published earlier this week promised another £100 million “to stop young people from starting lives of crime” – to be spent on better prevention and support for victims; expansion of family intervention projects; and increasing the number of ASBOs and parenting orders.)

What the record shows is that since Labour came to power 11 years ago, the amount of money pumped into the youth justice system has gone up by no less than 45 per cent in real terms. Over the past few years, the number of first-time young offenders has dropped slightly – by about five per cent – but overall the youth crime picture hasn’t changed much. So what happened to all the cash?

Well, most of it seems to have gone on keeping young offenders behind bars. Only about one-third has been spent on the sort of social welfare programmes that youth justice practitioners believe are most likely to reduce the number of young offenders.

Talk to the professionals, and they tell you that many young offenders are themselves victims, whether of abuse in the home or of crime outside it. They may have mental health problems, they may be homeless, or alcohol or drug abusers – yes, they need to be punished if they offend, but they also need help. And sometimes, perhaps, as with parenting orders, it’s not clear whether what’s on offer is meant as a punishment or as help. (We’re going to be discussing some of these issues on tonight’s programme, by the way.)

So what would you do about youth crime?

Friday, 11 July 2008

11 July 2008

Let’s see if I can break the habit of a lifetime and take something that a politician has said at face value. (I exaggerate, as you know, but only slightly …)

It’s just four weeks since the man who once thought he was destined to be the leader of the Conservative party, David Davis, dramatically resigned as an MP because, he said, he felt he had to do something to halt the “relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms”.

Last night – surprise, surprise, after neither Labour nor the Lib Dems could be bothered to put up a candidate against him – the good voters of Haltemprice and Howden sent him back to the Commons to pick up from where he left off. Except that now he will languish on the backbenches, and his reputation, at least in the Westminster village, has suffered a substantial dent.

My point is this: Mr Davis said – and let’s just for a moment assume that what he said was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – that he wanted to give British voters “the opportunity to debate and consider one of the most fundamental issues of the day … the ever intrusive power of the state into their daily lives, the loss of privacy, the loss of freedom and the steady attrition undermining the rule of law.”

This is how he set out his case: “We will have the most intrusive identity card system in the world, a CCTV camera for every 14 citizens, and a DNA database bigger than that of any dictatorship, with thousands of innocent children and a million innocent citizens on it.

“We've witnessed a sustained assault on jury trials, that bulwark against bad law and its arbitrary abuse by the state; shortcuts with our justice system that have left it both less firm and less fair -- and the creation of a database state, opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers and exposing our personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers.”

This is all serious stuff. So did the nation rise to the challenge? Did we have the debate? Did we rally in support of the Lone Tory Ranger as he rode into battle against the power of the state? Er, no, actually, we didn’t.

Many of us, I suspect, would agree that deciding how to strike the right balance between the need to ensure our security and the need to guarantee our freedom is, as Mr Davis said, “one of the most fundamental issues of the day”. So why aren’t we ready to answer his call for a national debate?

Is it because we think that the government has got the balance right, so there is no need for any further debate? (The opinion poll evidence, by the way, is highly contradictory.) Is it because the issue is so complex that we just don’t know what to think, so we concentrate on trying to cope with rising household bills instead? Or is it perhaps because we’re not really sure what David Davis was up to, and we’re not in the habit of leaping to debate things just because an MP says he thinks we should?

When Mr Davis resigned, the media by and large were scornful of what was seen as a bit of shameless political grand-standing, an act of personal vanity by an MP bored with the humdrum nature of life as a front-bench spokesman. But the reaction in the blogosphere was overwhelmingly favourable … at last, people said, a politician who is prepared to put his principles first.

So, I ask again, why no debate?

Friday, 4 July 2008

4 July 2008

Suppose I gave you a choice: you can live either in a secular state, in which religion and politics are kept strictly apart, or you can live in a democracy. But you can’t have both – so which would you choose?

Suppose you’ve had a democratic election. The party that won has traditions rooted in religion – and although it denies any intention of allowing its religious beliefs to impinge on its policies, you’re not convinced. Worse than that … you strongly suspect that its leaders do intend to lull you into a false sense of security and then turn your country, step by step, into a fundamentalist theocracy.

Would you be justified in stopping them, by any means necessary, up to and including military force? After all, your country was founded on secular principles: are they not more important, enshrined as they are in the constitution, than the results of an imperfect electoral process?

Yes, I know I’ve over-simplified, but these are the questions at the heart of the deepening crisis in Turkey. And how they are resolved could have an immense impact on Europe’s relations with its neighbour to the east over the coming decade.

Remember, Turkey wants to join the EU (it already belongs to NATO). But remember also that four times in the past 50 years, the army has stepped in to “protect” the country’s secular traditions. Just this week, two senior retired generals were arrested in connection with allegations of a coup plot.

And the ruling AK party is facing a legal challenge to its very existence from the country’s chief prosecutor, who wants to ban 71 of its most senior figures from public life for five years, on the grounds that there is a "real and present danger" of it creating an Islamic state. Among the people he wants to ban just happen to be the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the President, Abdullah Gul, whose wife created a furore last year because she prefers to appear in public with her hair covered by a hijab.

So here’s some background for you: when Turkey arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, its first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, insisted that it must be a secular republic. (Article 2 of the constitution says: “The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law.”) Kemalism has become a quasi-religion, a secular faith embraced for decades by the country’s intellectual, nationalist and military elite.

But what happens to the democracy bit of the constitution if voters choose to back a party that is rooted in Islamism? The AK party, which has won the last two elections, owes its success in large part to support from Turkey’s emerging rural middle class – and it is challenging the long-established political dominance of the urban, secular, liberal elite.

So this isn’t just an argument about Islam in politics. It’s also a good, old-fashioned power struggle between a deeply entrenched political elite and a new breed of politicians, many of whom are what we would call “modern” Muslims.

An example: when I went to meet an AKP mayor just outside Ankara last year, I was intrigued to find that the two young women working in his outer office both wore their hair uncovered. So did a newly-elected female AKP MP whom I interviewed the day after the election. So don’t imagine that AKP women look as if they come from Iran. They don’t.

But neither should you under-estimate the importance of the debate now under way in Turkey. The old cliché has it that the country has always stood at a cross-roads between Europe and Asia, and between Christianity and Islam. It now stands at a political cross-roads too.

Oh, just one other thing: I know you’ll be thrilled to know that the Beard Liberation Front has just named me Hirsute Broadcaster of the Year 2008. (Look at the picture at the top of the page and you’ll understand why.) I am, as you can imagine, deeply honoured.

Friday, 27 June 2008

27 June 2008

You can call me an old softie if you like, but I do have just a smidgen of sympathy for Gordon Brown this weekend.

It’s a year since he finally made to it to Number 10, and all he hears is the sound of critics lamenting what a terrible job he’s doing. From the “best Chancellor in British history” to the “worst Prime Minister since John Major” … all in 12 short months.

So here, just for argument’s sake, is the case for the defence. First, look at the calendar. By the time he took over as PM, Labour had already been in power for a decade. That’s a long time in politics, and it’s at least arguable that no PM taking over after 10 years is going to have an easy ride.

Alec Douglas-Home took over from Harold Macmillan in 1963 (by which time the Tories had already been in power for 12 years) and was out a year later. James Callaghan took over from Harold Wilson in 1976 and lost an election three years later. John Major inherited from Margaret Thatcher in 1990, unexpectedly won the next election in 1992, but then limped on after the debacle of Black Wednesday until he was defeated by Tony Blair in 1997.

So the omens for Gordon Brown were never favourable. Second, look at the economic cycle. Yes, he liked to claim that he had abolished “boom and bust”, but even he must have known that the good times weren’t going to last for ever, although he probably couldn’t have forecast the sub-prime mortgage fiasco and the consequent credit crisis. It was never going to be easy to retain a reputation as a miracle-worker once the downturn set in.

I wrote in this newsletter a year ago, when he took over as Prime Minister with the cheers for the departing Tony Blair ringing in his ears: “I fear the warm glow of satisfaction will be short-lived … Political honeymoons don’t last long these days.”

We knew then that he was detail-obsessed: no one who had been listening to his Budget speeches over the years could have been in any doubt about that. But we didn’t know he would find it so hard to make decisions and stick to them. An autumn general election? Signing the Lisbon Treaty? Tax changes for non-doms? The abolition of the 10p income tax band? There’s been, shall we say, quite a bit of recalibrating on the hoof.

We knew he lacked Tony Blair’s easy charm and communication skills. But we didn’t know that he would find it so difficult to respond to voters’ needs as food and fuel price increases began to hurt.

So yes, it’s been a dreadful year for Mr Brown and the Labour party. Party strategists now seem to be divided into two camps: one lot are asking: “What do we have to do to win a fourth term in office?”; the other lot are asking: “What do we have to do after we’ve lost the next election?”

My own hunch at the moment is that it would take nothing short of a miracle for Labour to win. (And no, I don’t think a change of leader would help.) But let me give you a tip: keep a very close eye on that new mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He’s now by far the most powerful Tory in Britain, and I’m told there’s no love lost between him and David Cameron.

Maybe it’s because Boris thinks he’d make a better PM than Mr Cameron, or maybe it’s something to do with old Eton rivalries. But if the mayor gets into trouble – something for which, on past experience he seems to have a special talent – David Cameron and his plans could be badly hit.

Wouldn’t it be odd if Gordon Brown’s fate now rested in the hands of Boris Johnson?

Friday, 20 June 2008

20 June 2008

A week from today, the people of Zimbabwe will face an unusually stern test of their mettle. In the face of widespread violence and intimidation, will they have the courage to turn out to vote in the run-off presidential election?

Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, have already been forced to flee from their homes by supporters of President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. They will not be allowed to vote because they are no longer in the electoral district where they are registered. Others have had their identity documents confiscated by armed men at road-blocks because they did not know the words of ZANU-PF chants. They, too, will be disenfranchised, because without documents, they can’t vote.

So what about those who, despite everything, insist on turning out next Friday? Some of them, when they get to the polling station, will be “invited” to accept assistance from government agents. If they decline, they will be labelled as opposition supporters, and their homes, their families, even their lives, will be at risk.

You think I may be exaggerating? I wish I were. Just yesterday, Amnesty International reported the finding of 12 more bodies of murder victims. Most of them bore signs that they had been tortured to death. This is no longer a campaign of violence, said one senior Western diplomat in the region, this is terror, plain and simple.

But something is stirring among Zimbabwe’s neighbours. After having watched for years in silence as the country slid into poverty and anarchy, Mr Mugabe’s neighbours are at last speaking out. Over the past couple of days, as if with one voice, they have criticised the terror unleashed in Zimbabwe – and have warned that unless something changes pretty dramatically over the next few days, there is no way that the outcome of the election can be regarded as legitimate.

So here’s an imaginary scenario for you: the elections go ahead, and substantial numbers of people turn out to vote. The opposition MDC promptly announce that their leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has won. ZANU-PF say rubbish and, after another lengthy delay, just like after the first round of elections, pronounce Robert Mugabe the winner.

What then? Will angry opposition supporters take to the streets, as they did in Kenya? Will government troops and security forces go on the offensive and crush any sign of dissent? Will President Mbeki of South Africa, who’s meant to be mediating in the crisis on behalf of Zimbabwe’s neighbours, urge that the elections be annulled and some form of unity government cobbled together instead? (Reports in the South African press suggest that he is already, in fact, proposing something along those lines.)

It is difficult to see any prospect of President Mugabe, after 28 years in power, agreeing to step down. Yet the same was said at various times of the Shah of Iran and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. Yet they did, eventually, bow to the inevitable – one died in exile in 1980, and the other was executed in 1989.

The MDC are insisting that they will offer Mr Mugabe a guarantee of his personal safety. He is, even now, a hero of his country’s independence struggle, so he may avoid the fate of either the Shah or Ceausescu.

But he must know that with his neighbours now running out of patience (the Tanzanian foreign minister used those exact words in a BBC interview yesterday), his options are few. His neighbours fear a total breakdown of order across their borders – and it’s beginning to look as if they’ve decided that the only way to avoid it is by easing President Mugabe into retirement.

It’s going to be a tense few days, but we’ll do everything we can to report and analyse the developments for you as they unfold.

Friday, 13 June 2008

13 June 2008

Question 1: Are you in favour of referendums? Please answer either Yes or No.

Question 2: Are you in favour of referendums if you have good reason to expect the majority vote will not be the one you would wish? Again, please answer Yes or No.

Question 3: Do you think there are some questions that are just too complex to answer with a simple Yes or No? Please answer … but you get the idea.

I’ve just been in Dublin, where yesterday they were being asked to vote in a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty. This is pretty much the same document as the one we used to call the Constitutional Treaty, but French and Dutch voters put that one out of its misery, so now it’s been reborn without its constitutional fripperies.

I was in France and the Netherlands, too, for their referendums three years ago, so I may be in danger of becoming an EU referendum expert. And the one thing I have learned is that when people vote in these exercises, they tend not to answer the precise question on the paper.

Whatever the actual wording, the question people prefer to answer is: Do you approve of what the government is up to? Or perhaps: Do you approve of what the EU is up to? Or even: Are you happy with things in general, all things considered, by and large?

And because most people have little difficulty in finding things to complain about, the Noes seem to have a built-in advantage. (I’m writing, of course, before the announcement of the Irish referendum result. Maybe the Irish will prove to be rather happier than their French and Dutch counterparts were in 2005.)

The best question I saw asked in Ireland was in the Irish Independent: “Why should I say Yes to a legal document I don’t understand?”

So perhaps it would be useful for me to give you a taste of what the Lisbon Treaty actually says. It starts like this:

“1) The preamble shall be amended as follows:

(a) the following text shall be inserted as the second recital:

"DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of
Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and
inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of
law,";

(b) In the seventh, which shall become the eighth, recital, the words "of this Treaty" shall be replaced by "of this Treaty and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,";

(c) In the eleventh, which shall become the twelfth, recital, the words "of this Treaty" shall be replaced by "of this Treaty and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,".

I could go on, but I strongly suspect you’d rather I didn’t. (There are 260 pages of it, and you can read every word here.) To be fair, the Irish foreign minister, Micheal Martin, did point out when I interviewed him that people don’t necessarily read every word of the Finance Bill when it’s presented every year – but that doesn’t mean they’re not in favour of their taxes going down.

But then they’re not asked to approve it in a referendum either. It really isn’t easy to persuade people to say Yes to something which reads like the very worst that lawyers could come up with.

Oh, and if you want my thoughts on David Davis, the man who’s resigning as an MP because he has no disagreements with his party but wants to take a stand anyway, well, I’m sorry, but my flabber is still totally gasted. As you probably know by now, I’m not often left speechless, but …