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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 …

Friday, 6 June 2008

6 June 2008

Why did no one send troops into Burma to bring help to the hundreds of thousands of victims of Cyclone Nargis? Why is no one talking of military intervention in Zimbabwe to relieve the suffering of the people of that country? What on earth happened to all that talk we used to hear about “humanitarian intervention”?

It was to try to find some answers to these questions that The World Tonight co-sponsored a conference in London yesterday at the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House. It threw up some sharp differences of opinion and some fascinating insights into the debate now under way among policy advisers and academics.

Think back for a moment to 1999. NATO was in action in Serbia and Kosovo to support ethnic Albanians against Serb troops and militias. Tony Blair made a much-discussed speech in Chicago in which he said: “The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people's conflicts.”

Fast forward to September 2005, when the United Nations World Summit issued a declaration, later endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1674, which said inter alia: “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity … The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means … to help to protect populations ... In this context, we are prepared to take collective action … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

That encapsulates what has become known as the “responsibility to protect”, or R2P, doctrine. But something happened between 1999 and 2005. The attacks of September 2001 led to US-led invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq – nothing to do with “humanitarian intervention” or R2P. The idea of waging war for human rights was quickly overtaken by what President Bush called the war against terror.

So was R2P as a UN doctrine still-born? Does it hold out to people in need of protection a promise that the world’s most powerful nations no longer have any intention of fulfilling? It’s a fact that since Kosovo, which is now nearly 10 years ago, there has been no further “humanitarian intervention”. (The Australian-led intervention in East Timor later in 1999, and the British military intervention in Sierra Leone the following year, were both somewhat different, given that they took place either with what is known as the “coerced consent” of the authorities, in the case of East Timor, or with the government’s full consent, in the case of Sierra Leone.)

The former defence secretary and foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind argued at our conference that more often than not, “humanitarian interventions” do more harm than good. They change internal political dynamics, he said, strengthening some groups at the expense of others; they risk generating armed opposition from within; and they can change regional power balances. His message in a nut-shell was: “Except in cases of genocide, intervene at your peril.”

So here’s the question we’re left with: If one day we see more pictures on our TV screens of mass murder, as in Rwanda, or of callous indifference to profound human suffering, as in Burma or Darfur, will we press our governments to send in the troops? Or will we look at Kosovo – and at Afghanistan and Iraq, even though the armed interventions there were undertaken for very different reasons – and say we’re not prepared to get involved?

None of us likes standing by and doing nothing when we see our fellow humans in need. But is there a better way of helping them – a better way of fulfilling our “responsibility to protect” – than by going in with guns blazing? We’ll be discussing some of these issues on the programme tonight, so I hope you’ll be able to tune in and then let us have your thoughts via the website.