The arrival in the UK of the Libyan Foreign Minister and former Head of Intelligence, Moussa Koussa, raises some interesting questions. Consider the facts: one the one hand, although Moussa Koussa has, apparently, been a force for moderation in recent years, in his heyday he was an unapologetic defender of the use of force against Libyan dissidents and other opponents of the regime. Quite possibly he planned the Lockerbie and Niger airline bombings, and, if he didn’t, he knows who did and was complicit in the crime and in other acts of terrorism by Libya. In short, there is a prima facie case that he has committed crimes against humanity for which he should answer in the appropriate national courts or at the ICC in the Hague. The British Government is insistent that he hasn’t been given any kind of guaranteed immunity from prosecution – and, indeed, no national government would be in a position to give such a guarantee.
Since Stephanie has quoted me on the subject, I thought I’d share some thoughts on intervention and consistency.
But what of the Tory Party? This is where the Telegraph’s handling of Wikileaks is interesting. It clearly suggests a scepticism about Britain’s relations with the US, but does it indicate acceptance of a new, lesser but more realistic, understanding of Britain’s place in the world? We will find out over the next few years.
A couple of observations on the Wikileaks diplomatic info-dump as seen from London. First, European governments have been unanimous in their condemnation of Wikileaks, disgraceful undermining of diplomacy etc etc. But what do they really think? I’m sure they will be philosophical about the content of the US cables. These are the sort of assessments that every diplomat makes, and is supposed to make; I would bet a year’s salary that the sort of things American diplomats said about David Cameron would pale into insignificance beside the sort of things British diplomats said about George W. Bush – indeed I’d bet a month’s salary that they were barely more complimentary about Barack Obama in the early days of his run for the Democratic nomination. There used to be a custom that British Ambassadors when they finally left a posting would write a long, frank valediction – Matthew Parris has just published a collection of these Parting Shots and very amusing (and occasionally xenophobic) they are, and certainly not the kind of text that the locals would have been allowed to see at the time. That’s the nature of diplomacy – as is the allegedly horrifying proposition that diplomats were requested to collect information on their opposite numbers; the State Department added the rider, ‘if possible’ to this general request, and I image US diplomats at the UN and elsewhere will have immediately assessed that e.g. collecting Ban Ki Moon’s credit card numbers wasn’t going to be possible and will have binned the memo.
The London School of Economics runs a blog on British politics to which I contribute occasionally; this week I’ve posted on the British Government’s defence review, and I thought I’d share this with the Duck readership. A little bit of context: the new British government is simultaneously engaging in developing a National Security Strategy, while conducting a Comprehensive Spending Review and a Defence Review. The previous government made a number of rather bizarre defence procurement decisions without much sense of how they would be paid for so there is a problem here not entirely of the present government’s making. The majority Conservative Party in the governmental coalition is traditionally in favour of a strong defence, and in particular wishes to replace the existing Trident submarines – Britain’s nuclear deterrent – when they become obsolete. The Liberal Democrats, minority party in the coalition are less gung-ho generally and want an alternative to a submarine based deterrent. Liam Fox, the Conservative Defence Secretary is on the right-wing of the party, and stood for the leadership against the current Prime Minister, David Cameron. Cameron and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, are rather more firmly based in the 21st century and I suspect are less pro-defence spending than Fox, but the latter has out-manoeuvred them in the short term at least… now read on!
The Commonwealth Games begin tomorrow in Delhi, which offers a good excuse for some thoughts on two neglected topics in contemporary international relations – India and the Commonwealth. With 54 nations involved the Games are a major international sporting event, and were bid for by India as a way of demonstrating their emerging significance in the world, a kind of Olympics in a minor key that would do for the Indian bit of the BRIC nations what the Beijing Olympics did for China. To put it mildly, things have not quite worked out as intended. Some twenty plus firms were involved in the construction of facilities, corruption was near universal, and ten days ago the athlete’s village was still under construction and filthy. A small bridge collapsed injuring dozens. Part of the roof of the weightlifting venue fell down. A heavy Monsoon rain has led to dengue fever being epidemic in Delhi and – you couldn’t make this up – two days ago the Chief Medical Officer for the games went down with suspected typhoid. A plague of frogs is the obvious next step. In the insult to injury category, the Pakistani team have complained about poor security, a complaint that does seem to be justified; an Australian journalist strolled round the village with an imitation bomb in his rucksack without being challenged. A games official managed to make things worse by suggesting that complaints about hygiene and cleanliness reflected western standards which weren’t appropriate, a position that many Africans and Asians found rather offensive – strangely, their athlete’s didn’t appreciate the idea that they were OK with their beds being smeared with doggy-doo.
All this has lead to a stream of press commentary, Indian as well as British, Australian etc, to the effect that this reveals the hollowness of the Indian economic miracle, that first world India co-exists with a very visible third world India, and generally that this sort of thing wouldn’t, indeed didn’t, happen in China. I’d draw a somewhat different message. Yes, third world India is more visible than third world China, but that isn’t because the latter doesn’t exists, it’s because it is hidden up-country, out of the way of western TV cameras. Yes, there is corruption and in China some of the people involved had they dared to have misbehaved would probably have faced a firing squad – but that’s the difference between India and China. For all its many faults, India is a relatively free, pluralistic society. Corruption and incompetence survive because the draconian measures need to end them in a poor country would be unacceptable – and, for that matter, haven’t succeeded in China.
In any event, the games will go ahead and I predict will be successful if, at times, enjoyably chaotic; those stars who have pulled out may regret their decision. The Chief Minister for Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, took personal charge of the project, the village has been cleaned up at high speed by drafting in cleaners from luxury Indian hotels, that is staff who were well aware of the standard required, and the other facilities are, more or less, finished albeit only in the nick of time. The moral is that Indians are excellent improvisers and muddlers-through. My bet is that this quality will serve them well in the years to come. Sooner or later – I’d guess sooner – China will hit a serious political speed bump and the authoritarian regime there will either have to clamp down on the economic miracle, or change dramatically and risk anarchy. India hits political speed bumps approximately once every six weeks (the latest concerns the Mosque/Temple at Ayodhya), but its institutions are resilient and it survives, and will prosper. More power to its arm.
And what of the Commonwealth? It’s a confusing institution to most Americans, and nowadays to most Brits as well – if you want to find an enthusiast, find a Canadian, or perhaps a member of the British royal family. The cynic might say that originally the British Commonwealth, as it then was but nowadays very definitely isn’t, was designed to allow traditionalist Brits to think the Empire was still in existence. But while British no longer care about the loss of Empire, the Commonwealth survives and prospers – indeed it now has new members who weren’t even former British colonies, Mozambique and Rwanda. How did this happen?
Different countries have different reasons for supporting the Commonwealth – in Canada’s case it is to distinguish them from big brother down south, for Rwanda’s political class it is a way of countering French influence, for all the developing countries it is a source of aid and favourable trade with the developed country members. Looked at from a global perspective it is interesting that this is one of the few institutions where national leaders from North and South can relate to one another in an informal context. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs) which take place every two years (next meeting 2011 in Australia) under a rotating Chairperson (currently Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar of Trinidad & Tobago) are occasions where leaders from differently parts of the world can talk informally without interpreters and in a kind of family atmosphere, under the benign gaze of the nominal Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth. Incidentally, interesting if pointless factoid, because the Queen is the Head of the Commonwealth, members don’t have Embassies to each other, they have High Commissions – even the Republics go along with this fiction.
The Commonwealth has at least a nominal commitment to democratic government, and has suspended from membership (and thus trade and aid privileges) countries where coups have taken place or where there are systematic violations of civil liberties. All in all, it would be difficult to argue that the Commonwealth is a major player on the world stage, but it does make a small contribution towards making the world a more civilised place, and in that task we need all the help we can get.
For my first Duck post to be so parochial is a shame, but I can’t resist commenting on the result of Labour’s leadership election, declared a couple of hours ago. For someone such as myself who was once, briefly, one of Ralph Miliband’s students at LSE in the 1960s, the idea that the son of the author of Parliamentary Socialism should now be the leader of the British Labour Party is weird. That he should have obtained that post by beating his elder brother is positively surreal. Brothers have quite often competed for the top job in old-style monarchies – indeed, in the Ottoman Empire it was standard practice for the winner to have his male siblings garrotted, food for thought for both David and Ed Miliband this evening– but I can’t think of any similar instance in a modern political party. But perhaps we ought not to be surprised. David and Ed may be actual brothers, but virtually the entire leadership of the British political class, including the Prime Minister and his Deputy, have so much in common that they form an unofficial fraternity. They are all white men, late 30s or early 40s, educated at Oxford or Cambridge, former political advisers and policy wonks none of whom have ever held what members of the public would regard as a proper job for more than a month or two. They even wear the same suits and ties.
Ed beat his elder brother on the fourth round of voting by 50.6% to 49.4% after trailing on the first three rounds, in itself hardly a ringing endorsement, but more significant is the composition of his support. The Labour Party system for electing a leader, introduced in 1983, employs an electoral college in which one third of the votes go to the party’s Members of Parliament and European MPs, one third to ordinary members of the party in the constituencies, and one third to the unions. David won the first two categories (heavily in the early ballots) and Ed got home only by winning a larger proportion of the union vote. He is the first leader of the party elected under the new system not to have the support of all three elements of the college.
Miliband’s first speech as leader made the usual ritual references to a fresh start and reaching out to the public, but the reality is that the unions voted for him because he declared himself willing to support them in their campaign against the cuts in public spending that the Coalition is about to introduce, while David supported a more nuanced approach, recognising that the deficit poses a real problem and that the Labour Party, if it were still in government would be proposing at least some cuts. This was the position on which the Labour government fought the last election; David believed it was the correct policy and – rightly in my opinion – that that the general public simply wouldn’t accept as credible a reversal of this stance in opposition. Just such a reversal is what the new party leader is now going to be held to by the unions who put him in power.
Quite right too, I imagine some members of the traditional left will say – but an indiscriminate policy of support for industrial action in these circumstances will simply play into the hands of the Coalition. The core electoral battleground in the UK nowadays is in the southern half of England – Labour wins the Celtic fringe and much of the North, but this year only around 50 of the ca. 300 (out of 650 in total) parliamentary seats in the South of the country. Not enough – and the last thing that is going to bring these voters back is a campaign of strikes. Moreover, back in the 1970s the Unions were powerful enough to bring their members out for weeks at a time, and really did challenge the ability of government to govern. Nowadays the rank-and-file won’t stand for the loss of pay such long strikes lead to, and loss of legal immunities make long strikes hazardous for the unions themselves; it’s a matter of 24 hour stoppages at most, which irritate the public, but leave the government unworried.
Perhaps Ed Miliband will be able to find a way to keep the unions happy while not alienating the people he will need to vote for him in 2015 when the next election comes along. But he’ll have to do this knowing that the MPs in the Parliamentary party, and the ordinary members in the constituencies wanted someone else for the job. He might surprise us all by squaring the circle, but somehow I doubt it – my bet is that the terms under which he won the leadership of the party will ensure that he never wins the Premiership. That was certainly true of an earlier Labour Leader (and strong supporter of Ed), Neil Kinnock, and it is the view of the Government which has been silently praying that Ed would beat his brother. One senses a sigh of relief in David Cameron’s very generous welcome to the new leader.
As someone favourably disposed to the Labour Party I think this is regrettable – but even a neutral might feel that if there is one thing we have learnt in Britain over the last thirty years under both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, it is that good government positively requires a strong and credible opposition. Perhaps more important, the lack of a strong, well-led Labour Party will have consequences in Europe where the Right continue to dominate (note the unprecedented strength of the extreme right in the recent Swedish election) – and there’s a real irony here. Last November, when Europe was appointing its ‘President’ and ‘Foreign Minister’, David Miliband would have been a shoo-in for the latter job; he turned it down in order to stay in British politics. How he must be regretting that decision now – and given the zero impact of the person who actually got the job (Lady Ashton since you ask) the rest of the European left will share those regrets.