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

Friday, 26 February 2010

26 February 2010

I’ve been thinking a bit this week about different styles of political leadership. (No, there are no prizes for guessing why.)

Let’s take three examples: leadership by bullying; leadership by persuasion; and leadership by populism.

The bully believes that pushing people hard, shouting at them from time to time, making them fear his anger, is the only way to get things done. If challenged, he’ll tell you that he’s not pushing his colleagues or his staff any harder than he pushes himself. Inertia is the enemy of progress, he’ll tell you. And as any political leader knows, bureaucracies do inertia better than they do anything else.

If his most senior civil servant feels obliged to discuss his behaviour with him, he’ll deliver his warning in the form of a gentle lesson in the art of “how to get the best out of your staff”. And if, for example, his name is Gordon Brown, he’ll insist that he and his colleagues and staff always get along just fine, with barely an angry word ever crossing their lips.

The persuader will say that he’s a firm believer in the need to listen and to find common areas of agreement. He’ll tell you there’s always a way to bridge differences, and that a nation will always be better off when its political leaders look for consensus whenever possible.

If there’s a policy he’s committed to, he’ll perhaps summon his political opponents to an all-day televised debate, during which he will be seen listening politely, disagreeing gently, and cajoling whenever he can. But when his opponents refuse to budge, the persuader will find that he has no alternative but to face them down.

Maybe, as he lies in bed at night, he’ll wonder how you reach a consensus with people who don’t want to reach a consensus. And he may reflect on the uncomfortable political reality that most politicians tend to look for political advantage at every opportunity, especially in an election year.

If, for example, his name is Barack Obama, he may ask himself how he can persuade his Republican opponents that it’s in their interests to make him look good. And maybe he’ll conclude that it’s too big a challenge, even for him.

So what about the populist? He pleases the crowds by showing them that he’s one of them. He makes crude jokes, just like they do. He ogles pretty young women, even at the cost of his marriage. He knows that his supporters think there are too many immigrants, so he tells his much poorer neighbours that they’re not welcome (except for pretty young women, of course, because – remember? – his wife has walked out on him, and he may be 73 years old, but he’s single, and available).

He’s very rich, and very tanned, and is alleged by his opponents to keep dubious company and not always stay on the right side of the law. He attacks the judges as politically motivated, and openly uses his allies in parliament to try to ensure that he’s not charged with any criminal offence while he’s busy running the country.

If his name is Silvio Berlusconi (you’d guessed, hadn’t you?), his opinion poll ratings will remain pretty high (in fact, they are down a bit, but a 48 per cent approval rating is not exactly crashing through the floor), and he’ll give the impression that he has an unbreakable compact with his country’s voters.

So, there we are: three men, three very different styles of leadership. Each has been elected in a stable, developed democracy, yet the political cultures in which they operate are vastly different. (Yes, I know Gordon Brown wasn’t elected as Prime Minister, but nor were any of his predecessors. He, like they, was elected as an MP, and is Prime Minister only by virtue of being leader of the largest party in the House of Commons.)

My question for you is this: which leadership style do you prefer, and which do you think works best?

Friday, 19 February 2010

19 February 2010

Suppose I know that you’re planning to launch an attack on my family and my home. (The reason I know is that you’ve said so, many times. And you’ve already attacked us in the past.) What am I entitled to do to stop you?

I can put stronger locks on the doors. I can buy a gun and bullets, or a baseball bat, and prepare to repulse you by force if you burst through my front door.

But am I entitled to shoot you anyway, just to make sure you can’t do any more harm?

I suspect you’re tempted to answer No. Which would mean, to couch it in lawyer-speak, that you do not subscribe to the doctrine of “pre-emptive self-defence.”

So let’s consider another scenario. It’s early 2003. The US and its allies are about to invade Iraq. I tell you that I am in the remarkable position of being able, without any room for doubt, to arrange for the assassination of Saddam Hussein. Thousands of lives could be saved. Would you approve?

You can see where this is going, can’t you? Suppose the Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was buying long-range missiles from Iran on his ill-fated trip to Dubai last month. Suppose it was the Israelis who killed him, on the grounds that if he did get his hands on the missiles, Hamas would use them to kill Israeli civilians. Would his murder be a case of pre-emptive self-defence? Or a flagrant breach of both international law and basic morality?

Of course, there’s nothing new about assassinations. Brutus bumped off Julius Caesar in 44 BC and arguably ushered in the Romans’ golden age. More recently, in 1944 AD, a group of German officers tried to kill Adolf Hitler: would you have approved if they had succeeded?

For the past few years – and with much greater frequency under President Obama than under President Bush – unmanned US drones have been killing alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, with a lot less fuss than there has been over the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. (They’ve also been killing large numbers of totally innocent Pakistanis -- by one estimate, 687 civilians compared to 14 al-Qaeda operatives over a three-year period, in other words a ratio of nearly 50 civilians killed for every al-Qaeda operative killed.)

In 1986, US warplanes bombed Tripoli, in what looked to many people like an attempt to kill Colonel Gaddafi.

In 1988, a team of Israeli commandos murdered Yasser Arafat’s Number 2, Abu Jihad, in Tunis.

In 2001, a Palestinian hit squad murdered the Israeli government minister Rehavam Ze’evi in a Jerusalem hotel.

Last month, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, Hakimullah Mehsud, was reported killed in a US drone attack.

I choose the examples almost at random. Go through them one by one, and then tell me: Do you approve of some of the killings? All of them? Or none of them?

If you want to know what the legal position is, well, it’s complicated. But as I understand it (and remember, I’m no lawyer), there may, in some circumstances, be occasions when an assassination, in time of war, may be regarded as lawful.

But there are three conditions: first, that the use of force is necessary; second, that it complies with the principle of proportionality; and third, that it minimises the risk of civilian casualties.

Apply those tests to the killing of Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in his Dubai hotel room. Apply them to the use of unmanned drones in Pakistan.

Then let me know what conclusion you come to.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

12 February 2010

Depending on your sense of humour, you will either find this hilarious, or if you sometimes worry about the future of Europe, you may want to weep.

As you may have heard, a planned US-EU summit that was due to be held in Madrid in May has been cancelled after President Obama sent word he was sorry, but he just didn't have time.

But that doesn’t mean that preparations weren’t already well under way. And the big issue to be resolved, apparently, was which EU leader would get to shake the Presidential hand first.

The Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Zapatero, insisted that it should be him. After all, he would be the host, and Spain is the current holder of the rotating EU presidency.

Absolutely not, retorted Herman van Rompuy. I’m the newly appointed president of the EU Council of Ministers, so I should go first.

So a compromise was proposed: Zapatero would get first shake of the Obama hand, and van Rompuy would get to sit next to the US President at dinner.

Out of the question, said Jose Manuel Barroso. I’m the president of the European Commission. And sitting next to the US President is a privilege reserved for me and me alone.

I am indebted to the German news magazine Spiegel for the above account. So, if you’ve now stopped either laughing or crying, what should we make of this extraordinary tale? This is what Spiegel makes of it: “Europe seems intent on using etiquette to compensate for its diminishing role on the world stage. No one wants to admit what everyone can see: Europe's voice doesn't move anyone at the moment -- neither future major powers, like India and Brazil, nor leaders in Washington, Moscow or Beijing.”

You will, of course, remember what I wrote at the end of the disastrous climate change summit in Copenhagen in December. “The EU needs to reflect on why it wasn't even included in (the final evening’s) crucial 7pm get-together … Perhaps it's because in the eyes of Washington and Beijing, it simply doesn't matter as much as Brazil, India and South Africa.”

Yes, I accept that the new EU institutional arrangements put in place by the Lisbon Treaty will need to bed in. It’s possible that, over time, the EU will decide that it can manage without three simultaneous Presidents (four, in fact, if you include the President of the European Parliament), all demanding the protocol privileges appropriate to a President.

(I still remember the puzzled look on George Bush’s face, at a US-EU summit in Sweden in 2001, when the then Swedish prime minister welcomed him as “Mr President”, and then turned to the anonymous chap on his left – the president of the European commission – and welcomed him in precisely the same terms.)

Obama administration officials in Washington have admitted that they find the EU a confusing outfit to deal with. And they also admit that the US President has quite enough on his plate without flying across the Atlantic to meet a bunch of Europeans to whom he has nothing he particularly wants to say.

Yesterday in Brussels, EU leaders met to see if they could agree on what to do about poor Greece. They couldn’t. So they issued a statement which pretended that they had come up with something concrete, when everyone knew that they hadn’t.

If you look at the euro-zone, what do you see? One currency, 16 governments, and 16 electorates. For now, just two of them matter: the Germans, who don’t want their taxes to be used to bail out the profligate Greeks – and the Greeks, who don't see why their welfare benefits, pensions and state sector pay rates should be slashed to satisfy the bankers and hedge fund speculators.

I fear there’s more trouble ahead.

Friday, 5 February 2010

5 February 2010

Let’s play a word association game. I give you the word “corruption” and then you give me the name of whichever country pops into your head first.

Ready? Go.

Afghanistan? Nigeria? Pakistan?

Britain?

Surely not. The home of the mother of parliaments? The Palace of Westminster, where all members of the lower house are honourable (or even right honourable) ladies and gentlemen, and where members of the upper house are all noble lords or noble ladies?

Corrupt? What can you be thinking?

Yes, I know, they’ve just been ordered to hand back £1 million which they, er, weren’t strictly entitled to. But as Sir Thomas Legg points out in his report, that’s £1 million from a total of £55.5 million that was paid out in expenses and allowances over the five-year period he examined.

So let’s keep all this in perspective, shall we? Even the MP who’s been ordered to pay the most – the local communities minister Barbara Follett (wife of multi-millionaire novelist Ken Follett) – owes only a bit over £42,000. Which, when you think about it, is only about a quarter of what the England football team captain John Terry earns every single week.

And while we’re on the subject of perspective, £1 million – divided among 392 MPs and former MPs, and then divided again over five years – well, it’s little more than small change, isn’t it, when you compare it to what our friends at Goldman Sachs got as their bonuses this year.

But back to corruption. According to the leading anti-corruption campaign organisation Transparency International, if you compare Britain’s corruption reputation with that of its European Union partners, it is regarded as worse than Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Ireland, and Austria.

On the other hand, it’s said to be better than Belgium and France, much better than Spain and Portugal, and very much better than Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and sundry other east European countries.

So that’s all right then. No?

You could argue – indeed, MPs do argue – that they earn a very modest salary (£64,766 a year) to do a vital job. When they compare their salary with that of their friends and neighbours – lawyers, executives, quangocrats – they feel like paupers. (In fact, they’re in the top 5 per cent of UK wage-earners.)

So over the years, they’ve been doing what any half-way decent accountant would advise them to do – claim every penny they can get away with. Always, of course, staying within the rules, as they interpreted them. Which wasn’t too hard, as it happens, because the people paying out the cash were imbued, according to the Legg report, with a “culture of deference” to MPs.

Incidentally, I suspect you may have got a bit confused about Sir Thomas this and Sir Paul that while you’ve been trying to make sense of all the twists and turns. Let me make it easy for you:

Sir Thomas (Legg) is the former civil servant who was asked to review MPs’ expenses; don’t confuse him with Sir Christopher (Kelly), who’s the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Or with Sir Ian (Kennedy), who’s a lawyer and is now the chairman of a new thing called the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Or Sir Paul (also Kennedy – isn’t this fun?), who’s a retired High Court judge and has been adjudicating on all the appeals against the repayment recommendations originally made by Sir Thomas (see above).

And if it makes you feel any better, Ben Page of the Ipsos-MORI polling organisation told us last night that back in August 1944, when British forces were battling Nazi Germany and the UK was run by a coalition government, only one-third of British voters thought that their political leaders were making decisions in the national interest.

So maybe it’s part of our national culture. We just don’t trust our politicians – never have, probably never will. What’s new is that politicians are now trusted even less than journalists.

I’d better stop.

Monday, 1 February 2010

29 January 2010

Sorry this is a bit later than usual – I wanted to wait until after Tony Blair’s appearance at the Iraq inquiry today.

So, what did I make of it? Well, my overwhelming sense is that what we witnessed today was an extraordinary insight into the inner workings of the Blair mind.

You may agree or disagree with the decisions that he took – but after his six hours in the witness box, you can’t really claim that you still don’t understand why he took the view that he did.

Maybe you had better things to do today than sit glued to the TV to watch him in action. So here are some of the things he said that stick in my mind:

-- Everything changed after the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Not the risk that Saddam Hussein posed, but what Mr Blair called the “calculus of risk”. In other words, what might have seemed a tolerable risk before 9/11 was no longer tolerable after the attacks.

-- He didn’t make a “secret deal” with President Bush at his meeting at the Presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002 – but he did say, in terms, that he was committed to joining the US to “deal with” Saddam.

-- He is convinced that UN Security Council resolution 1441 did provide legal cover for the use of military force. He wouldn’t have gone to war if the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, hadn’t said that in his judgement military action would be legal – and, despite all his earlier misgivings, that is what Goldsmith eventually said.

-- As for the intelligence on which he based his assessment of the risk that Saddam posed, yes, the intelligence was wrong in some important aspects, but he is still convinced that Saddam had every intention of reviving his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes if he’d been given the chance.

Was there an apology? No. Contrition? No. Tony Blair was totally convinced in 2003 that he was doing the right thing – and today, despite everything that has happened since, he is still equally convinced.

Here’s the key quote: “What is important is not to ask the March 2003 question but to ask the 2010 question. Supposing we had backed off this military action, supposing we had left Saddam and his sons who were going to follow him, in charge of Iraq, people who had used chemical weapons, caused the death of over a million people? What we now know is that he retained absolutely the intent and the intellectual know-how to restart a nuclear and a chemical weapons programme …”

On his relations with the US, one thing he said intrigued me. He referred back to the discussions he’d had with President Clinton ahead of the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. What it boiled down was this: Clinton had helped us out on Kosovo, and I strongly felt we should back the US on Iraq. And don’t forget, there was no explicit UN backing for the Kosovo intervention either.

Did anything surprise me? Well, I was surprised to see how very tense and nervous he looked at the start of the day – true, he wasn’t on trial, but I suspect that to him it felt as if he was. And to be honest, I’d forgotten how fluent he is when making a case. This was a man who had done a lot of homework.

As for the members of the inquiry team, the professional interviewer in me rather admired the way they managed to interrupt his flow and stop him wondering off down textual by-ways where he plainly would have felt more comfortable.

So did we learn anything today that we didn’t already know? Not a lot about the mechanics of what happened, perhaps – but, in my view, a great deal about what was going on inside Tony Blair’s head.