Friday, 22 September 2017

A scandal at the heart of Westminster

Don't you just hate it when do-nothing couch potatoes claim thousands of pounds of tax-payers' money, simply because they think they have somehow deserved it?

Doesn't it make you sick when benefits scroungers milk the system for all they're worth, pocketing tens of thousands of pounds each when schools, hospitals, police and fire services are hit with year after year of budget cuts?

Thank goodness people like that are kept far away from the levers of political power -- just imagine how they'd move heaven and earth to protect their privileges if they were given half a chance.

Except, of course, that they are in fact slap bang at the centre of political power, because they are members of the House of Lords, which means that they help decide which laws govern our nation -- and can block any attempt to cut back on their privileges.

Here's a quote from Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, which has just published a report in which he says: 'We’re witnessing an "expenses free-for-all" in the Mother of All Parliaments, with expenses claims soaring by 20% in just two years.

'The figures are stark. 115 Lords – one in seven of the total – failed to speak at all in the 2016/17 session, yet still claimed an average of £11,091 each, while 18 peers failed to vote while claiming £93,162. And most peers (58%) now claim more than the average full-time Brit’s take-home pay – for what is essentially a part-time role.'

Now, it's important to be fair about this. Some peers do extremely good work in committees and elsewhere, even if they rarely speak or vote in the chamber itself. According to a spokesman for the House of Lords: 'This research ignores members’ contributions including amending legislation, asking the government written questions and serving on select committees – more than 320 members served on committees in the last session of parliament – as well as parliamentary work away from the chamber.'

Which is -- sort of -- fine as far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far. Members of the House of Lords can claim £300 per day -- that's up to £6,000 a month if they clock in every weekday -- just by turning up and signing in. Some are reported to keep the taxi running outside while they do so.

If something similar existed anywhere else in the world, it would be called a travesty of democracy. The House of Lords currently has 798 members (the House of Commons has 650 members, which is itself far too many), and unbelievably, there are still ninety members (the 'hereditary peers') who are there because of who their forebears were -- think of them, if you like, as tribal chiefs. Twenty-five are there because they are bishops of the Church of England. 

You will not be surprised to learn that only a quarter of the members are women -- and the median age of all members of the House of Lords, according to the latest available figures, is 69.

These are the people who sit in our parliament. They make our laws, they approve government legislation (although occasionally, they refuse to approve, so watch what happens when they start voting against some of Mrs May's Brexit plans) -- and in my view, given that not a single one of them has been elected, they lack any form of legitimacy.

Many parliamentary democracies have a second chamber, usually as a way of checking, revising and amending laws that are passed by a lower chamber. Nothing necessarily wrong with that -- although New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden have all abolished their second chambers and seem to manage pretty well with just one. (A referendum in Ireland four years ago to get rid of their upper house was only narrowly defeated.)

I think we do need a second chamber, and I think its members should be directly elected, with no party affiliation, for a single term of ten years. There should be the same number as there are in the House of Commons, they should be paid a salary and they should be expected to work full-time.

Surely, it's time to move beyond this absurd notion that passing laws is something that gentlemen (and a smattering of gentlewomen) can do in their spare time, in between running their businesses and wining and dining in their clubs.

In the words of Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society: 'From lobby-fodder Lords only turning up to claim and vote, to couch-potato peers rarely turning up at all, the situation in the second chamber is a scandal.'

Friday, 15 September 2017

The Nobel prize - and the flaws of Aung San Suu Kyi

I have just a smidgen of sympathy for the Nobel Peace Prize committee. How were they to know that, 26 years after they awarded their prize to the (then) universally-admired Burmese human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, she would emerge as -- how can I put it? -- a somewhat flawed political leader?

After all, the general idea is that they award their prizes in recognition of past achievements, not as a forecast of future performance. (For some inexplicable reason, they decided to make an exception for Barack Obama, who was garlanded in 2009 after less than a year in the White House.)

Soon, they will announce this year's winner -- and I imagine they will be crossing their fingers that whoever they choose will turn out to be less, er, flawed than Suu Kyi. (Pope Francis seems to be one of the favourites, so there's plenty of scope, if he wins, for him to say or do something that is bound to upset someone, somewhere.)

That's the trouble, of course, with giving people prizes while they are still alive. Much better, I would have thought, to wait, as the Catholic Church does, for them to be well and truly dead before anointing them as saints.

Are Nobel Peace Prize winners living saints? Probably not, or at least not all of them, given that among their number they count Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state who won the prize in 1973, jointly with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam.

Tho refused to accept it, on the not unreasonable grounds that at the time the award was made, war was still raging in Vietnam and neither he nor Dr Kissinger had brought about peace. Kissinger, however, had no such qualms, leading the song-writer and satirist Tom Lehrer to remark that 'political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.'

Aung San Suu Kyi won the prize in 1991 'for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights'. Few would have argued then that she was not a worthy winner -- indeed, many spoke of her in the same breath as such other secular saints as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

Not any more. She has refused to condemn the appalling treatment being meted out by the Burmese military to the Rohingya Muslims, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh, preferring instead to condemn people she calls 'terrorists' for creating a 'huge iceberg of misinformation'.

Her fellow peace prize laureates Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu have both spoken out against her -- as has the Dalai Lama -- and the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has described what's happening as 'ethnic cleansing'.

As he said during a news conference in New York on Wednesday: 'When one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, could you find a better word to describe it?'

So what has happened to the valiant campaigner for human rights, who paid such a high price for her refusal to bow to the Burmese military? The short answer is that the idealist campaigner has become the pragmatist politician. The slightly longer answer is that she was never quite as saintly as some of her more ardent admirers wanted to believe.

Perhaps it is a mistake to award the Nobel Peace Prize to politicians (although to be fair, few could have predicted in 1991 that Suu Kyi might one day be sharing power with the generals who had persecuted her for so long). Keep it for the likes of retired politicians who have devoted their post-political lives to building bridges and fostering democratic reforms -- ex-presidents like Jimmy Carter (Nobel Peace Prize winner 2002) or Martti Ahtisaari (2008) -- or international organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005) or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007).

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who was mortified to read a prematurely-published obituary which labelled him 'the merchant of death', laid down in his will that the peace prize should be awarded to whoever 'shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.'

According to the peace prize committee, the most popular prize-winners ever (I have no idea how they measured popularity) have been Martin Luther King (1964), Mother Teresa (1979), Malala Yousafzai (2014) -- and Aung San Suu Kyi. I suspect that might have changed a bit over the past couple of weeks.

So spare a thought for the five Norwegian luminaries, appointed by the Norwegian parliament and chaired by Berit Reiss-Andersen, a corporate lawyer and part-time writer of crime novels, who will be deciding -- or have already decided -- on this year's winner.

Perhaps they'll play safe and give the prize to the Red Cross, even if it has won three times already, in 1917, 1944 and 1963. If they do, I can't say I'd blame them.

Friday, 8 September 2017

How politics has become a reality TV freak show

Guess what: we still haven't left the European Union. And if you were naïvely hoping that over the summer, someone, somewhere would have worked out how the UK might be able to negotiate a new relationship with its neighbours without inflicting immense harm on its own citizens, well, sorry, but dream on.

The government is at war with itself. Even the department in charge of extricating us from the EU is apparently at war with itself. There are also ominous rumblings suggesting tensions between some EU capitals and the European Commission. If I didn't know better, I'd say it could hardly get any worse.

So here's what I suggest. Ignore the lot of them. My hunch is that between now and March 2019, there'll be sound and fury galore, accusations and counter-accusations, insults flying in all directions -- and then at the last minute, there'll be agreement on a status quo transition deal which will allow the talks to continue until everyone drops dead of boredom. (And no, I don't think Theresa May will still be prime minister.)

If you need something to fret about -- and God knows, there's no shortage of reasons to be fretful -- fret about North Korea. Or the appalling atrocities being perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, under the distressingly disengaged gaze of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Fret about the fearsome hurricanes in the Caribbean and southern United States. Or the terrible floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, where hundreds of people have died and millions have had to flee from their homes. Or the unimaginable suffering of the people of Yemen, victims of a virtually unreported war, waged in part with weapons sold to Saudi Arabia by the UK.

If ever the world needed political leaders with the wisdom, judgement and determination to work together for the betterment of us all, it is now. Instead, we are led by a clutch of politicians characterised by either extreme narcissism, ignorance, megalomania or sheer incompetence. (Match the descriptions to the names: Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, Theresa May.)

If they all turned up on a desert island for a reality TV show, you'd avert your gaze in embarrassment. With the possible exceptions of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the world's leaders give every impression of being utterly overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges they face.

(I don't know about you, but I still haven't forgotten Donald Trump's breathtaking remark last April: 'This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.')

Our leaders belong on reality TV. Donald Trump was created, nurtured and promoted by TV -- and now along comes Jacob Rees-Mogg, another two-bit entertainer masquerading as a politician. Hey, folks, look at me -- I'm different, I'm entertaining. Vote for The Entertainer because he's not like the rest of them. Who cares about his views?

You think I exaggerate? At the Edinburgh TV festival last month, the head of CNN International, Tony Maddox, said this: '[Trump] is good for business ... Our performance has been enhanced during this news period.' Last year, Les Moonves of the US TV network CBS (salary last year: $69.6 million) said Trump 'may not be good for America, but he's damn good for CBS.'

Matt Taibbi put it well in Rolling Stone magazine: 'Donald Trump gets awesome ratings for the same reason Fear Factor made money feeding people rat-hair tortilla chips: nothing sells like a freak show.'

So there you have it: voters are increasingly attracted to what's unusual, different, and entertaining.  Who wants 'strong and stable' in an age when disgust with conventional politicians runs so deep? Jeremy Corbyn is hardly a freak, but nor is he conventional, hence his appeal.  

The people to blame are the traditional politicians. They failed to notice that the banks were driving the global economy headlong towards the precipice, and then they glibly presided over a decade of stagnating wages disguised as 'we're all in this together' austerity.

In the US, Hillary Clinton gave the impression that the Presidency was hers by right; in the UK, David Cameron blundered into a referendum that he lazily assumed he was bound to win, and then ran for the hills when he lost. His successor, Theresa May, called an election when there was no need, waged the worst campaign in living memory, and now seems to think she can carry on as if it was a triumph.

The thing about reality TV is that it isn't real, even though it pretends to be. The world's problems, on the other hand, are very definitely real, which is why it would be nice to have some more grown-ups in charge.

A political world in which clowns like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg can be seriously spoken of as potential prime ministers is a world in which the nursery is mistaken for the university library. Any day now, I expect Liam Fox to throw his toys out of his playpen. It'll probably be entertaining, if nothing else.