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Friday, 30 October 2009

30 October 2009

I’ve had another one of my strange dreams ... I’m afraid it’s an occupational hazard that comes with being an incurable news addict.

I dreamt that a political analyst from Mars dropped by the studio – and this is what he told me:

“I have been studying your system of government here on Earth, and frankly, I can make no sense of it. I look at the maps, and I observe that you have divided your planet into lots of different countries, separated by borders, so I have tried to match these countries with how you people run your lives.

“I see that each country has its own separate governing structure (although I am puzzled by a place called Somalia, where there seems to be no structure at all).

“But I also see that in the continent called North America, you have something called NAFTA, which seems to link together three different countries called the United States of America, the United Mexican States (although I gather no one actually calls it that), and Canada. But they still have three separate governments. I understand that this NAFTA exists only for the purpose of commerce.

“And in the continent called Europe, you have something called the European Union, which doesn’t have its own government, but which does have its own parliament. I have been reading that now it wants to have a President as well, although it still won’t have a government. Apparently it has 27 different governments. Is this right?

“ My understanding is that most people who live in this European Union want to keep their separate governments. I have read about referendums in which they said they didn’t like their leaders’ ideas.

“So I would like you please to explain: if your system is called democracy, which as I understand it means that ordinary people decide how they want to be governed, why are your leaders in Europe so determined to do something which most people don’t want them to do?”

Also in my dream, there was a man from the European Union. This what he said in reply:

“My dear Mr Martian, I’m afraid you have it all wrong. The plans we have are the results of many years of discussions between all our different governments, each one of which has been fairly elected by the people they represent. That’s why we call our system ‘representative democracy’.

“In each country, people have had an opportunity to vote for parties with different ideas about how the EU should be run – but the parties they have chosen are those which have come up with the ideas which you seem to find so difficult to understand. For example, in the UK, there is a party called UKIP; in Ireland, there is a party called Sinn Fein. Neither of them is represented in government because neither of them got enough votes in a general election.

“You are right if you think that many European earthlings take little interest in how the EU is run. But they do like to be able to travel and trade freely across borders, and the people who run our businesses like being able to hire workers from wherever they are most readily available.

“I hope you are not making the mistake of believing everything you read in our newspapers, because they are not always reliable sources of information.

“When you were looking at your Earth map, did you notice a country called China? I ask, because it’s becoming a major economic power, and we Europeans think we need to group ourselves together to make sure that China and the US don’t decide for themselves how to run the world. As you will have noticed, European countries tend to be quite small, not like the US and China.

“What we EU leaders are doing is taking decisions which we believe to be in the best interests of the people who elected us. If they don’t agree, they can vote for someone else. That’s why we call our system democracy.”

The man from Mars had one final question. “Please explain: why is it called the Lisbon Treaty?” And the man from the European Union replied: “I’m terribly sorry, I’ve completely forgotten.”

And then I woke up. Funny things, dreams …

Friday, 23 October 2009

23 October 2009

So did you hear those huge sighs of relief as the Afghan president Hamid Karzai finally agreed to fight a second round election run-off?

Admittedly, they weren’t sighs of relief from Afghan voters – I suspect most of them are far more preoccupied with keeping their families safe – but in Washington, London and points west, political leaders and diplomats could finally relax. Crisis over – for now.

Why was it such a crisis? Look at it this way – you’re fighting a difficult, unpopular war with no end in sight. The man you’re ostensibly there to help – and who occupies his Presidential office in no small part because he’s the one you wanted there – has just been found to have pocketed nearly a million votes which, well, which sort of didn’t really exist.

No wonder President Obama isn’t quite ready yet to announce whether he’s going to deploy tens of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan. It helps if the guys you’re helping look as if they’re at least half-way honest. (By the way, can anyone tell me the difference between “examining all the options with due consideration”, which is what Mr Obama apparently does, and “dithering hopelessly”, which is what Gordon Brown is said to be prone to? I merely ask …)

I’m not na├»ve. I don’t expect a perfect electoral exercise in Afghanistan. But I have the impression that Washington and London both felt that Mr Karzai had really let the side down. It was all so obvious, somehow – and he probably would have won anyway, without all the fiddling.

So US vice-president Joe Biden and US special envoy Richard Holbrooke got heavy with him. It seems angry words were spoken, but Mr Karzai is a proud man who doesn’t like being pushed around. For weeks, he refused to budge.

It was Senator John Kerry, the man whom George W Bush beat in 2004, who eventually appears to have been able to sweet-talk the Afghan president into accepting a second round run-off.

Problem solved? Fraid not. Even if the second round is better run than the first round was, and even if Mr Karzai wins a cleaner victory, there’s still the small matter of the Taliban, the warlords and the drug barons to deal with. And let’s not forget: just across the border, the Pakistani army has now swung into action in South Waziristan, hoping that this time it’ll manage to dislodge the tribal and Taliban commanders who so often in the past have defeated it.

So Afghanistan is still a mess. And as the US commander General Stanley McChrystal has pointed out, the people of Afghanistan will be reluctant to offer their wholehearted support to the US-led military effort until they are sure that the international community is in this for the long haul. After all, would you put your eggs in Washington’s basket if you thought there was a chance the US might change its mind within the next few months?

Here’s the point. The outcome of the Presidential election isn’t what matters. What matters is that Washington makes up its mind what it wants to do and then does it. The anti-US forces have a clear objective: foreign troops out. I suspect there’s a need for the same degree of clarity from the international military command.

And on an entirely unrelated matter: for what it’s worth, I don’t think Tony Blair is going to get the job of President of the European Council, even if, eventually, President Klaus of the Czech Republic signs the Lisbon Treaty. I can’t put my finger on anything specific … I just don’t think it’s going to happen.

Oh, and if you thought I’d be writing about the BNP this week, sorry to disappoint you, but I sort of feel that enough has been already been written, at least for now. Perhaps another time …

Friday, 16 October 2009

16 October 2009

Just in case you were in any doubt: Yes, what’s happening in Pakistan is extremely serious.

Five major attacks in 10 days; more than 150 people dead. Coordinated attacks in Lahore, close to the Indian border; Rawalpindi, where the army is headquartered; and Peshawar, close to the Afghan border. (There are reports of another attack in Peshawar as I write this.) If this what the Taliban look like when they’re on the run, which is what Pakistani officials have been claiming, I’d hate to see them when they’re at full strength.

On the other hand, it does seem that they have been taking quite a beating. The Pakistani army have wrested back control of the Swat Valley region, even though it’s clear that some Taliban fighters remain. And they – or rather an unmanned US drone – did manage to kill the Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in August.

Has it weakened the Taliban? Probably – but clearly not to the extent that they are no longer capable of mobilising gunmen and suicide bombers across the country. Are the Taliban worried about the prospect of the major threatened military offensive in South Waziristan? Again, probably – but what we’ve seen over the past 10 days could well be their way of saying to the Pakistani government and military: If you come to get us, we can come to get you.

It’s said that there are around 28,000 Pakistani troops available for the South Waziristan operation – and there are thought to be around 10,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the region. Civilians are already fleeing, ahead of the expected onslaught, just as they did from the Swat Valley.

But no one in Pakistan thinks this is a war that can be won by military means alone. That’s why just last night, President Obama signed the law which will provide $1.5 billion a year in non-military aid to Pakistan, making it the third biggest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt.

So what now for Washington’s Af-Pak strategy? Well, President Obama may be announcing within the next week what he’s decided to do about troop levels in Afghanistan – I expect him to announce a substantial increase, but their deployment may be time-limited, and he may set “bench-marks” for the Afghan political and military leadership to meet.

One intriguing hint last night: the Afghan ambassador in Washington suggested that there may, after all, be a second round in the Presidential election, after the allegations of widespread fraud in the first round. If he’s right, it could be seen as a significant concession to US and other critics – although the final outcome will still be the same: Hamid Karzai will still be President.

I suggest that over the coming months, you keep half an eye on the American political timetable. This time next year will be the run-up to the mid-term Congressional elections: and if the Democrats are to retain control of Congress, President Obama will want to have a good news message from Afghanistan.

And a year after that, he’ll be embarking on his re-election campaign for a second term in the White House. What he’ll want more than anything will be to be able to say: “I can tell the American people that our military involvement in Afghanistan is coming to an end. Our security – and the security of the Afghan people – can now be left in the hands of the Afghans themselves.”

Which will leave just one, big problem: what will be happening next door in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state with a deeply-entrenched jihadi insurgency?

That’s why I said that what’s happening there is extremely serious.

Friday, 9 October 2009

9 October 2009

Now that the party conferences are over for another year, let’s play Let’s Pretend.

Let’s pretend we’ve already had the general election – and let’s pretend that the Conservatives have won.

So David Cameron is in Downing Street. And let’s pretend that he invites a few EU leaders over for tea. There’ll be Nicolas Sarkozy from France, Angela Merkel from Germany, Silvio Berlusconi from Italy (well, if he’s still around by then), and maybe Donald Tusk from Poland and Fredrik Reinfeldt from Sweden as well.

What do they all have in common? They’re each and every one of them leaders of centre-right parties – and even if they were joined round the Downing Street dining room table by the leaders of Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria, they’d still all share the same basic political philosophy.

Europe is now an overwhelmingly centre-right place to be. Of the major EU countries, only Spain bucks the trend: there, the Socialists were comfortably re-elected last year even as the country was in the grip of a very nasty recession. (The left has also just regained power in Greece.)

So here’s the question: why, at a time when capitalism and free market economies are going through a major crisis, are left-of-centre parties being defeated again and again?

In the past, wouldn’t they have been leading the charge against an economic system that has brought so much turbulence and uncertainty – and often real financial hardship as well – to so many millions of lives?

Last week, at the Labour party conference in Brighton, I heard Gordon Brown talk about how Labour would look after ordinary, hard-working, middle class families. This week, I heard David Cameron talk about how the Tories’ top priority is to look after the poorest people in Britain.

And I was tempted to look for a mirror, because I found myself wondering if politics is now reversing itself. And if so, why? Might it be that one reason why left-of-centre parties aren’t doing better during the current crisis is that they’re no longer saying the sort of things they used to say? And that centre-right parties are saying what centre-left parties used to say?

Or do voters take the view that if you need someone to sort out a capitalist mess, you’d better get people who really understand capitalism to do it? Or was Francis Fukuyama really on to something when he suggested that the end of Communism in Europe meant the end of history?

Some political writers have been arguing for years now that the terms “right” and “left” no longer mean much. But there clearly are still real differences in how political parties look at the world: David Cameron says, as Ronald Reagan used to say, that Big Government is the Big Problem; Gordon Brown says that although he accepts that governments should never try to do what they can’t do, they should never fail to do what they need to do.

There have, of course, been major social and economic changes throughout Europe over the past 30 years. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in traditional heavy industries like steel-making, coal-mining and ship-building have gone, and with them has gone the central role of trades unions and their political party allies.

So I’m not surprised that the shape of politics has changed too. But I do think it’s interesting to look at our forthcoming election battle through a European prism. The UK is no stranger to bucking European trends, so I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that because the left is in retreat across much of the European continent, it will head in the same direction on this side of the Channel.

But in our game of Let’s Pretend, if David Cameron does find himself hosting that Downing Street tea party, he’ll know that – Lisbon Treaty or no Lisbon Treaty – he just may have been part of a political transition that extends well beyond our shores.

Friday, 2 October 2009

2 October 2009

You will be pleased to hear, I hope, that I have safely returned from The Other Side.

I refer, of course, to the Land Beyond the Ring of Steel, the Land of the Labour Party Conference. It is a Strange and Peculiar Land where Politics is All.

Outside, the Sun shone and the Sea glistened. But inside, the Select Few were filled with Foreboding: their Mood was Dark and the Clouds were Gathering. (Enough capital letters, thank you. Ed.)

It’s been a strange few days. For one brief moment – after a gloriously over-the-top, end-of-pier performance by Peter Mandelson – it looked as if the conference delegates might have been ready to start smiling again. But Gordon Brown’s speech on Tuesday didn’t seem to deliver the goods – and then The Sun (the newspaper, not the bright yellow thing in the sky) went and ruined everything by announcing in that under-stated way it has: Labour’s Lost It.

By May of next year, the expected date of the election, Labour will have been in power for 13 years. By British political standards, that’s a very long time. With only one exception – the Conservatives between 1979 and 1997 – you’d have to go back to the days of Lord Liverpool and the Duke of Wellington (1812-1830) to find a single party remaining in power for longer. (The Tories also lasted for 13 years between 1951 and 1964.)

So it wouldn’t exactly be surprising if voters decide next year that Labour’s time is up. I wouldn’t expect the party to accept that publicly, but maybe it helps to explain the slight dream-like air of unreality in the Brighton Conference Centre.

I went round asking delegates how they would describe their mood. Nearly all of them insisted bravely that they were ready for a fight and in good heart. They said they have a “good story to tell” – the story of accomplishments that Gordon Brown rattled off at break-neck speed at the start of his speech on Tuesday.

The winter fuel allowance, national minimum wage, Sure Start, civil partnerships, shorter NHS waiting times, less crime, better school exam results … how can voters not be grateful for all that?

But they know the answer, of course. First, voters never say Thank You – not even to Winston Churchill at the end of the Second World War (which Mr Brown is reported to spend a lot of time brooding about). And second, after a bruising recession, with rising unemployment, and a Prime Minister who has claimed for more than a decade that he was uniquely able to steer an economy and abolish “boom and bust”, well, gratitude is in short supply.

Two more thoughts: Labour is still in thrall to the US Democratic Party (at least when it wins elections). The original New Labour project owed a huge debt to Bill Clinton’s New Democrats – and when I saw Sarah Brown do her Michelle Obama thing (“he’s messy and noisy” – Sarah B; “he doesn’t put his dirty socks in the laundry or put the butter away after breakfast” – Michelle O), it was clear that nothing has changed.

And finally, still in transatlantic compare and contrast mode, it seems you do need to be an actor these days to be a successful political leader: Reagan and Clinton were, and Obama is; Thatcher and Blair were, Brown … well, he isn’t.

It wasn’t a disastrous conference for Labour, and I suspect most delegates did feel a bit better at the end of it than at the beginning. But was it the beginning of a long fight-back to electoral victory?

What do you think?