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Friday, 21 December 2007

21 December 2007

It’s that time of year again … when I go into a trance and pretend that I can forecast what’s going to happen in the year ahead. It’s a silly game, I know, but it keeps me amused.

How did I do with last year’s predictions? Well, I feared that violence in Iraq would get worse, which it didn’t. I’m perfectly happy to have been wrong on that one.

I said Somalia would descend into more factional fighting, which it has done, not that anyone has taken much notice. I also said Gordon Brown would take over as prime minister (I claim no prizes for that one), that the SNP would probably emerge as the largest single party in Scotland, which it did, and that there’d be an increase in anti-Scottish sentiment south of the border, which there has been.

I also said that Mr Brown “might be sorely tempted to call a snap election in the autumn, both to establish his own authority and to wrong-foot David Cameron”. Which he was, and much good did it do him …

I noted that June would mark the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War in the Middle East and suggested that Hamas would not want to let that go unnoticed. And guess what, June was when they seized control in Gaza.

Finally, I noted that Romania and Bulgaria were about to join the EU and that Germany was determined to revive the debate over the EU constitution, sorry, reform treaty. Both turned into major stories of 2007.

So, what do my tea leaves tell me about 2008? First the US presidential election, and no, daft I may be, but not daft enough to predict the outcome of that one. Not even the most respected US political pundits are daring to forecast the winner at the moment, although I do intend to be in the US in early February when the picture may become a great deal clearer after a whole series of primaries and caucuses. Ask me again then …

I think the big story of the coming year will be the economy … because both in the US and in this country, it looks as if the decade of growth is coming to an end. So the big question in my mind is whether governments and central bankers can manage the downturn. And I’ll be watching for more bad news from the banks as they discover that the wave of speculative finance they’ve been riding so profitably for the past few years is now crashing down on them.

Which means even fewer smiles, I suspect, from G Brown. I predict that the opinion polls will continue to make gloomy reading for Labour, that the anti-Brown sniping from his own party ranks will increase, and that the Tories will still find it difficult to believe their luck. As for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, I fear they’ll continue to feel the pinch: on one side, a Tory leader who disobligingly describes himself as a liberal; and on the other, a Labour party that isn’t led by Tony Blair.

I think we’ll hear less about Iran and more about Pakistan. President Putin of Russia will become Prime Minister Putin of Russia, and I doubt that anyone will notice the difference. The Olympics in Beijing will be the occasion for much breast-beating about human rights abuses in China, and it wouldn’t surprise me if something goes horribly wrong.

I’m also going to be keeping a close eye on Cuba, which is already in the throes of a transition to a post-Fidel future, and on Venezuela and Bolivia, where there are growing signs of popular dissatisfaction with their populist leftist leaders. And finally, unfinished business in Kosovo: I expect a unilateral declaration of independence in February or March, and then a lot of grumbling and mumbling and gnashing of teeth from Belgrade and Moscow. But I doubt it’ll explode into a major conflagration.

As for what’s left of this year, I do hope you’ll try to catch the programme on Monday, Christmas Eve: it’ll be a bit different from the usual fare, because (i) we’ve already recorded it; (ii) it’s all about one subject; and (iii) no, you’ll have to listen to find out …

I’m going to be taking a break next week, so there’ll be no newsletter next Friday -- but the programme will be on air as usual (except for Christmas Day), so you’ll have no excuse not to keep up with world events. In the meantime, thank you for all your support – and comments -- over the past year.

Friday, 14 December 2007

14 December 2007

Don’t you love it when politics gets all cosy? Like in Argentina, for example, where President Nestor Kirchner has just handed over the baton (literally) to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Yes, she’s his wife. And yes, she was elected.

Or in the US, where President Bush I was followed by President Clinton I, who was followed by President Bush II (son), who may soon be followed by President Clinton II (wife).

My favourite, though, isn’t exactly “keep it in the family”, although it’s not far off. President Putin of Russia said this week that he thinks first deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev would make an excellent President. To which Mr Medvedev replied that he thinks Mr Putin would make an equally excellent Prime Minister. See what I mean by cosy?

But I’m not sure we should accept these Kremlin games of “happy families” at face value. Can you really imagine strongman President Putin suddenly becoming meek and obedient Prime Minister Putin, playing the loyal subordinate to a new President?

No, nor can I. In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, people who studied Kremlin power games were known as Kremlinologists. I think we now need a few Putinologists to guide us through what look likely to be some exceptionally interesting times up to and beyond the Russian presidential election in March.

On the subject of which: why do you think Mr Putin has turned against the British Council? The authorities have ordered all the British Council’s regional offices to shut down before the end of the year. Officially, it’s something to do with the council’s tax status and the fact that it charges Russians for language lessons. But as the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov openly admitted in a BBC interview this week, it’s really the latest move in the ongoing battle over the murder of the former Russian intelligence official Alexander Litvinenko in London a year ago.

President Putin attaches a lot of importance to looking strong. (Remember those photos of him in the summer, bare-chested and virile-looking as he went fishing?) That’s why he occasionally switches off the gas supplies to uppity neighbours (Belorus and Ukraine). It’s also why in the summer Russian bombers started flying Cold War-style sorties close to NATO and US areas.

It’s also, I suspect, why he’s taking action against the British Council. As I’ve written here before, the Russian bear may have been asleep – and a bit out of form – for a few years, but it’s wide awake now and feeling fighting fit.

We need to keep this in perspective. I don’t for one moment believe that the Kremlin wants to go to war, of either the hot or cold variety. But it doesn’t like being taken for granted. So it won’t, for example, sign up to independence for Kosovo, which is a major headache for the US and the EU.

It’s also making ominous noises about restarting the arms race unless it can do a deal with Washington over the anti-missile defence installations which the US wants to build in Poland and the Czech Republic. And in its current mood, don’t even think about getting Moscow’s approval for a new UN sanctions package for Iran. Amazing, isn’t it, how a few billions from oil and gas sales can do such wonders for your self-confidence.

I remember someone telling me shortly after the end of the Cold War that one of the new realities of the post-Soviet world was that you could get nothing done in the international arena without the approval of Washington. Moscow’s ambition now, I suspect, is that we should start thinking the same about them.

It’ll be interesting to see how President-to-be Medvedev decides to play his cards.

Friday, 7 December 2007

7 December 2007

Here’s a little test for you. Question 1: Do you think the US intelligence agencies got it right about Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction? Question 2: Do you think the US intelligence agencies have got it right now about Iran having suspended its nuclear weapons programme four years ago?

My guess is you answered No to Question 1. (It’s not too difficult, as the agencies themselves have admitted they got it wrong.) But what did you answer to Question 2?

First, a reminder of what the new US National Intelligence Estimate said on Monday: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

Compare that with what was being said two years ago: “[We] assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

Were they right then, or are they right now? If you accept that they got it wrong about Iraq, are you more likely to accept that they’re right about Iran? I don’t know about you, but this kind of stuff makes my head hurt.

So, always anxious to be of service, I have been trying to discover why the spooks and spies have changed their minds. Here’s what the New York Times reported yesterday: “American intelligence agencies reversed their view about the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program after they obtained notes last summer from the deliberations of Iranian military officials involved in the weapons development program …

“The notes included conversations and deliberations in which some of the military officials complained bitterly about what they termed a decision by their superiors in late 2003 to shut down a complex engineering effort to design nuclear weapons, including a warhead that could fit atop Iranian missiles.”

Which immediately raises another question: Where might they have obtained these all-important notes? Well, there’s an intriguing theory (and it is, as far as I know, no more than that) that a man named Ali-Reza Asghari may have something to do with it. He’s a retired general in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, a former deputy defence minister who was cold-shouldered after President Ahmadinejad came to power and who disappeared (defected?) in Turkey last February.

The Michigan-based Middle East analyst Juan Cole describes him as “someone who knows where all the bodies are buried with regard to Iranian covert operations” – and recalls that at the time of Asghari’s disappearance, a Turkish newspaper reported that “Turkish intelligence and police had discovered that Asghari was opposed to the Iranian government and that he holds information regarding its nuclear plan.”

All of which may, or may not, help you make up your mind. My point is simply this: intelligence estimates are, as their name suggests, estimates. They are only as good as their source material and the analysis of that material. Sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are not. Unfortunately, we often don’t find out which is which until long after the decisions based on the estimates have been made. But given what you’ve just read, if you had to make a decision now about how to approach Iran, what would you decide?

Friday, 30 November 2007

30 November 2007

I wonder if I could seek your assistance. It’s a financial matter and will involve you in no risk or expense.

What I want to do is make a sizeable donation to the political party that I support. But I’m keen to remain anonymous, so what I’m proposing is simply this: if you could forward me your bank account details, I’ll transfer the sum to you, and then all you need to do is write out a cheque for the same amount and pop it in the post to the party of my choosing. That way, I remain out of the picture, but the party gets the cash.

Sorry? Not lawful? Ah, I had no idea. All right, then, how about this? Commercial loans don’t have to be declared, I gather, so perhaps I could just lend the money instead of donating it, and we can talk about repayment terms at a future date.

No? What do you mean, unwise? So if I simply want to give a political party let’s say £600,000, you’re saying there’s no way I can remain anonymous? How appalling …

There again, perhaps not so appalling. Perhaps it’d be a good idea amid all the Westminster hysteria of the past week to recall why the rules are there. Back in the bad old days, as you may recall, we had no way of knowing who was funding our political parties. We had no way of knowing if some people were trying to buy influence, or honours, or even both.

So transparency became the watch-word. If we know where the money comes from, we can make an informed judgment about whether someone is up to no good. That was the theory. But some of these rich people are funny, you know … for some reason, they’d much prefer to keep their political generosity to themselves. So, guess what, as soon as the new rules are introduced, they start looking for ways round them. Just as they do with tax legislation … but that’s another story.

As you may remember, the TV mini-celebrity Neil Hamilton used to be an MP, until it was alleged that he took secret payments from the owner of Harrods, Mohammad al-Fayed, in return for asking questions in the House of Commons (Hamilton has always denied the allegations, but he lost his seat in 1997 to former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell).

All the main parties have had funding problems over the past decade … but they can’t agree on what to do about it. If more transparency means less dosh, they clearly do have a problem – although I confess to some sympathy for the view of our listener in Scotland whose contribution to our listeners’ debate this week said: “Very simple: the parties should attract more members and fund themselves from their subscriptions.”

So do I think Labour are in melt-down? Well, they’ve had a dreadful week, coming hard on the heels of a few other dreadful weeks. But let’s remember our history. The Tories went into free fall immediately after Black Wednesday. That was 16 September 1992 – and they clung on for nearly five more years. So no, I don’t think Gordon Brown will be leaving Number 10 just yet. But yes, we do live in interesting times.

Oh, and just for the avoidance of any doubt, my opening remarks were a joke. J-O-K-E. Please do not send me your bank account details. I’m not very good at resisting temptation.

Friday, 23 November 2007

23 November 2007

I’ve had an idea: why don’t we put Steve McLaren in charge of the government’s IT network? I mean, how much worse could he do?

What is it, do you think, about governments and computers? It’s 15 years now since the London Ambulance Service tried to introduce a new computer system, with all-but-disastrous results. Before that, there was the Passport Office computer fiasco which resulted in a backlog of half a million passport applications; air traffic control operations nearly went into meltdown when they tried to introduce a new computer system; and the disaster that was the Child Support Agency was largely the result of another major computer fiasco. I could go on, but it’d be bad for my blood pressure.

Perhaps you find it difficult to accept the story that the loss of the child benefit data was all the fault of some lowly tax clerk who stuffed a couple of computer discs into an envelope and shoved them in the internal mail, simply because he couldn’t be bothered to follow the rules. Me? Well, I may not know much about how computer systems are designed (oh, all right, I know absolutely nothing about how computer systems are designed), but I do know that it shouldn’t be too difficult to build a system that prevents unauthorised users from downloading the personal details of 25 million people and copying them onto an unencrypted disc.

Take the BBC’s computer system (yes, please do, just take it …). Suppose I want to change the order of the items in a programme I’m working on. I can’t, because the system tells me I’m not “authorised”. I dread to think what would happen if I tried to download anything onto a disc.

Here, in my comfy leather arm-chair in the snooze-room of the Grumpy Old Men’s Club, I contemplate this digital world and snarl. Except, of course, I don’t. Not really. What I really do is spend virtually every waking hour in front of a computer screen, whether at home or at work (yes, I know, get a life, Lustig …). I read, write, fill in forms, book holidays, pay bills, all on screen. I can’t remember how I managed before.

But sometimes, I hate it. I hate it when computers write me letters that make no sense. I hate it when computers answer my phone calls and then put me on hold for half an hour. And most of all, I hate it when somehow we’re meant to believe that this is all unavoidable and we’ll just have to accept it.

As for protecting my digital identity, I fear that battle is already lost. I’m the user of an Oyster travel card on the London transport network, so I know that they have a record of every journey I make. As the user of a mobile phone and a credit card, I know that my phone provider and bank can retrace my steps almost yard by yard. As can anyone with access to the images captured by all those CCTV cameras on top of every second lamp-post. I know that Amazon has a record of every book that I buy, and Google knows about every website that I visit. I don’t like it, but I accept it because the advantages, so far at least, outweigh the disadvantages.

And as for Mr Darling, well, after years of carefully cultivating a reputation as Mr Obscure, he has now gained a reputation as Mr Bad Luck. And for a senior politician, that really is bad luck. Ask John Major …

Friday, 16 November 2007

16 November 2007

You can sometimes wait several months for a decent foreign policy speech from a government minister, and then, blow me, two come along in less than a week.

First, we get Gordon Brown talking about “hard-headed internationalism”. I’ve already written about this on my blog (www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldtonight ... what do you mean you haven’t looked at it yet?) And then, yesterday afternoon, David Miliband popped up in Bruges of all places (remember Mrs T back in 1988, when, according to her supporters, she “reinvented Euroscepticism as an intellectually powerful and popular movement”?), to talk about the EU as a model state rather than a super state.

There are several ways to read these speeches … my preferred option is to look at them as a way of gaining an insight into how this post-Blair government proposes to order Britain’s affairs in the big wide world.

David Miliband began in Bruges by claiming impeccable perdonal Euro-credentials: “My father was born in Brussels, my mother in Poland.” Beat that. His key argument, hardly original, admittedly, was that “nation-states, for all their continuing strengths, are too small to deal on their own with these big problems (religious extremism, energy insecurity and climate change), but global governance is too weak.”

The Miliband vision is of a Europe that reaches out to its poorer neighbours – not only Turkey, but also the countries of the Middle East and north Africa. It must, he said, be “open to trade, open to ideas and open to people.”

It must also be prepared to use both “hard power” and “soft power” – in other words, military and non-military means -- not just to resolve conflict, but to prevent it. He spoke not only of past action in Kosovo and Macedonia, but also of current or potential future action in Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe and Burma.

So what did it all add up to? More fine-sounding words, more Blairite good intentions? Well, yes, the basic approach is little different from Blair’s: we have responsibilities to our fellow-citizens; the EU can be a power for good; in the era of a globalised economy, isolationism is not an option.

But I think I detect a subtle change of tone. Gone are the certainties, the fervour, the sometimes Messianic-sounding zeal of the former Prime Minister. In their place, yes, many of the same ideas, but wrapped up in a less religious packaging. This, it seems to me, is very much foreign policy post-Iraq. Lessons have been learned.

Of course, both Brown and Miliband recognise that the US is still the sole dominant world power, at least until such time as either China or India – or both – match its overwhelming economic and military strength. But there’s no attempt to argue that the world’s problems can be solved by simple means: both men are proud to be known as intellectuals, and they are happy to engage with complexity.

I am well aware that two speeches do not make a New World. Sounding good is easy. We’ll have to wait to see how they respond to deepening crises in Iran or Pakistan. But for those of us who take an interest in how Britain interacts with the rest of the world, it’s certainly been a fascinating few days.

Friday, 9 November 2007

9 November 2007

What’s the best way, do you think, to get Washington off your back if your democratic credentials are beginning to look a bit frayed? Easy: tell the White House you’ll have an election.

Like, for example, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, key ally of Washington but now roundly criticised from all sides for having declared a state of emergency. Or like, for another example, President Mikheil Saakashvili of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, another key Washington ally, who’s also now being roundly criticised from all sides … you get the picture.

There are far more differences than similarities between Georgia (population less than five million, and overwhelmingly Christian), in the permanently unstable but strategically vital Caucasus, and Pakistan (population 165 million, which is more than Russia’s, and overwhelmingly Muslim), a nuclear power which neighbours Afghanistan and which is widely believed to be the current home of Osama bin Laden. But within the past week, both Musharraf of Pakistan and Saakashvili of Georgia have declared a state of emergency to try to gain some leverage against their domestic opponents – and under heavy international pressure, both have promised that elections will be held within the next couple of months.

But of course holding an election does not necessarily mean that you’re running a healthy liberal democracy. (“An election is not the same as democracy,” a Ugandan MP once told me, “just as a wedding is not the same as a marriage.”) Yet, an election, if fair, is, I think, usually better than no election, if only for the simple reason that it should give people a chance to get rid of an unpopular government if they think there’s a better one on offer.

As a basic rule of thumb, it’s generally thought to be the case that if you want to be considered part of Team Washington, you need to have in place some sort of presentable electoral system. Unless you’re Egypt. Or Saudi Arabia. Or Pakistan. I recalled on my blog a couple of days ago what the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said after President Bush’s re-election three years ago. “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy . . . and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

But what happens when you have an election, as in the West Bank and Gaza, for example, and the voters choose someone like Hamas, whom you regard as a dangerous Islamist terrorist movement? Or as in Egypt, where if there were to be a free and fair election, something similar might well be the outcome? Do you go for elections, or stability?

In the case of Pakistan, General Musharraf’s colleagues reckon they know full well what their Washington allies’ priorities are. According to information minister Tariq Azim Khan: “They would rather have a stable Pakistan — albeit with some restrictive norms — than have more democracy prone to fall in the hands of extremists.”

When I made a series of documentaries about democracy a couple of years ago, I concluded that genuine democracy means not only having the freedom to be governed by whom you choose, but also, and equally importantly, to say what you want, and to hold your leaders to account under a fair and open judicial system. Even if elections are held in Georgia and Pakistan, in neither of those two countries would all those conditions necessarily be met. (As I write these words, I learn that the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been put under house arrest.)

Ah yes, I mentioned my blog: if you’ve missed my on-air announcements over the past 10 days, here’s the written version … I’ve started blogging. In other words, if you go to www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldtonight, you’ll find my thoughts about what’s going on in the world, some suggestions about articles online that you might find interesting, and occasionally a link to an item from a programme that you might have missed. Most important of all, there’s an opportunity for you to respond, both to what I write, and to what other listeners and readers have said. I hope you’ll take a look and let me know what you think.

Friday, 2 November 2007

2 November 2007

The first general election in which I took an interest was in 1964, when Harold Wilson put an end to 13 years of Conservative rule, and the man who was about to become his Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, was defeated in Smethwick by a Conservative who campaigned on the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”

Four years later, Enoch Powell shared his nightmare vision of a Britain over-run by immigrants (“Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”) And he was promptly sacked from the Shadow Cabinet by Edward Heath.

In those days, the debate about immigration was often in reality a debate about race. People who told you there were too many immigrants coming to Britain usually meant that there were too many black and brown people. Immigrants were people who came from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan. Countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, on the other hand, were safely sealed off behind an Iron Curtain, out of sight and out of mind.

Not any more. The end of the Cold War and an expanding European Union mean there is now a growing number of people moving between the EU’s different member states. Those in poorer countries are looking for work in the richer ones -- rather like the Irish immigrants who used to look for work in England and Scotland. They are white, not black or brown. So race is no longer a major part of the equation.

Here’s a little test for you. Is an Irish businessman in Birmingham an immigrant? A Scottish university lecturer in Brighton? A Canadian teacher in Bristol? A Japanese student in Burnley?

Here’s another little test. Every time you see the word “immigrant”, substitute the word “foreigner”. When we discuss the problems caused by higher numbers of immigrants, are we really talking about our suspicion of foreigners? Is it that we feel uncomfortable when we can’t understand what our fellow-passengers on the bus are saying? Or when there are products on the supermarket shelves that we neither recognise nor understand?

Perhaps I should declare an interest: I am myself the British-born son of immigrants. But that doesn’t mean I am not conscious of the strains that an influx of migrants can put on a society. I suspect that most of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are suspicious of what we don’t understand.

In his speech about immigration a few days ago, David Cameron said: “Until the 1980s, for much of our recorded history, Britain was a 'sending country', in that we had net emigration. Today, like the rest of the developed world, we are a 'receiving country', in that we have net immigration -- and immigration at a speed and scale we have rarely seen before.”

The same is true in many other European countries. In Italy, as we heard on the programme last night, they too are debating immigration levels, and crime, and deporting undesirables. In France, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany – nearly everywhere in the EU’s richer countries, you will find people worried about the numbers of immigrants.

Local councils say they can’t cope with the extra demands on scarce resources. Yet the overwhelming majority of the new migrants work and pay taxes. So if there is a shortage of doctors, schools or housing, it’s perhaps more to do with inadequate planning than with excess numbers. As we have seen over just the past few days, the government even finds it difficult to come up with an accurate estimate of how many people there are in the UK who have arrived from overseas. And I have yet to see a future population projection that turns out to be even half-way accurate.

In some ways, we have come full circle. It is just over 100 years since Britain’s first immigration legislation was passed: it was the Aliens Act of 1905, passed because of growing fears of worsening health and housing conditions in the East End of London, where thousands of Russian and Polish Jews were settling.

But those were the days long before the EU’s Single European Act, signed into law in 1986, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. It enshrined a single European market, defined as "an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured.” It’s that single word – “persons” – which few seemed to notice at the time. We’re noticing now.

Friday, 26 October 2007

26 October 2007

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” So said Winston Churchill, more than 50 years ago. In other words, if you have a dispute, talk it out, don’t shoot it out.

“Trying is almost always worthwhile.” So said the then Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, in a lecture last June about Northern Ireland as a model for conflict resolution.

Unarguable, you may think. But it’s not necessarily so, according to the former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who has just written a fascinating account of the Northern Ireland peace process (“Misunderstanding Ulster”, published by Conservative Friends of Israel) in which he argues that talking isn’t always and automatically a good idea, and that negotiating without pre-conditions can sometimes be counter-productive.

Let’s look at two examples. Some time within the next couple of months, if US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has her way, there’ll be an international meeting about the Middle East, designed to draw up a framework for future negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Prospects at present look pretty dismal; so much so that many in the region are saying it’d be better to scrap the whole idea than to have the meeting and come up with nothing.

As it happens, I was in Israel seven years ago at the start of the violent Palestinian uprising that became known as the second intifada. It came shortly after a failed Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David, held in the dying weeks of President Clinton’s second term. I wrote then: “I have never encountered such universal pessimism … Most worrying of all is what seems to be a total loss of confidence on both sides in the idea that problems can be solved by negotiation.”

That’s what happens when talks fail. If jaw-jaw doesn’t work, the strong temptation is to return to war-war. That’s why, Mr Hain notwithstanding, it may not always be worthwhile to try, if success doesn’t follow.

My second example is Darfur. Peace talks are meant to start in Libya this weekend – but as we reported on Wednesday night’s programme, it looks at the moment as if virtually none of the parties to the conflict will be there. Instead, one of the countless rebel groups in Darfur says it has kidnapped two foreign oil workers – a Canadian and an Iraqi – from an oil field that’s operated by a Chinese-led consortium.

When you’re invited to enter negotiations, you want as strong a hand as you can get. Maybe a couple of abducted foreigners make good bargaining chips. Could it be that all the efforts that went into setting up the Libya talks have simply increased the dangers?

The conventional wisdom among diplomats is that successful negotiations need to be meticulously planned. Each side needs to have a detailed and in-depth understanding of how far the other side can go to reach a deal. Oh yes, and it helps if each side trusts in the good faith of the other. A US president nearing the end of his time in the White House may be impatient for results, but that’s not the same as proper preparation for a handshake in front of the world’s TV cameras.

So am I saying it’s not worth even trying to negotiate a settlement in the Middle East, or in Darfur? No, of course not. But I do think there’s a danger in always assuming that jaw-jaw will end war-war. As I fear we are about to discover, it ain’t necessarily so.

Friday, 19 October 2007

19 October 2007

It gives me no pleasure at all today to say “I told you so.” But those of you with good memories will recall that back in May I sounded a warning. This is what I wrote then (Newsletter No. 94, 25 May): “I suggest that you keep an eye on Pakistan. Watch what London and Washington say as they try to prop up General Musharraf while inching him towards political plurality.”

A lot has happened since then, culminating in last night’s appalling attack on Benazir Bhutto’s convoy in Karachi. What made it doubly appalling was that it came as no surprise.

In May, I described Pakistan as “a seething hotbed of unrest”. If it was true then, it is truer today. President Musharraf, under pressure as never before during his eight years in office, has done a deal with Ms Bhutto, but there are plenty of people in both their camps who are deeply suspicious of a rapprochement which bears all the signs of having been if not engineered in Washington, then certainly encouraged.

Among her own supporters, the immediate reaction after last night’s attack was to blame elements in the Musharraf administration. Her return from exile, they say, was a direct threat to the power of the military and political leaders around Musharraf. So if the bomb attacks were indeed an attempt to kill her, there would have been at least a terrible political logic. With Benazir off the scene, and her long-time rival Nawaz Sharif safely bundled off to Saudi Arabia, Team Musharraf would have been able to hang on for at least a bit longer.

What now? More trouble, more tension, perhaps more violence. Karachi is a city always on the edge, and it’s the heart of Bhutto country. And don’t forget Pakistan’s neighbours: on one side Afghanistan, with the Taliban fighting hard to regain their ascendancy – and with plenty of sympathisers and supporters in Pakistan – and on the other side, India, still suspicious of its Muslim neighbour, and always worried about Islamist-inspired militancy in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

A final word about the BBC job cuts announcement yesterday. You will, I hope, be pleased to learn that your favourite Radio 4 evening news programme has emerged relatively unscathed. Our team remains intact, and our budget is being sliced only by the efficiency savings process to which we have become painfully accustomed. So we shall carry on, doing what we trust you want us to do: reporting and analysing both the UK and the rest of the world in as engaging a way as we can.

Friday, 12 October 2007

12 October 2007

I suppose it’s only natural, given that I have spent my entire adult life working with either the written or the spoken word, that I should be endlessly fascinated by words. If you ask me what I am reading, I am tempted to reply, like Hamlet: “words, words, words.”

So, let’s play a little word game. Which leading British politician do these words apply to? Strength, values, conviction, leadership. And what about these? Weakness, cynicism, calculation, followership.

The answer, in both cases, is Gordon Brown. Labour word-spinners want you to associate the first set of words with him (he used them a lot in his speech to the Labour conference a couple of weeks ago); the Tories, obviously, prefer the second lot (David Cameron trotted them out at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday). You will, I fear, hear a great deal of them from both sides over the coming months, because political strategists are convinced that these are the words that, if repeated often enough, may well sway your vote when the time comes.

And while we’re on the subject of words, aren’t clichés wonderful? That’s why they become clichés, after all, because they express a thought so effectively. Thank you, therefore, Harold Wilson, for: “A week is a long time in politics.”

This time seven days ago, I was tapping away at my computer not knowing if by today we’d already be in the throes of a general election campaign. Now, Gordon Brown is looking like a badly mauled lion, with great lumps having been gouged out of him by some young wild animal which suddenly lunged at him from the political undergrowth.

But Wilson’s point, back in 1964, was that political fortunes can shift in either direction with great speed. And if it was true then, long before 24-hour news networks and the internet, it is 100 times truer today. After all, a year ago, it looked as if Labour were heading into the political wilderness; a month ago, they looked as they were ready to rule for ever. So I’m not taking any bets on what they’ll look like next week, next month, or next year.

Perhaps you find all this Westminster village stuff boring and irrelevant. So here’s some info from Iraq that may be of more interest to you. The number of Iraqi civilians who were killed during September, according to official Iraqi government figures, was 840. Believe it or not, that’s less than half the August figure, and the lowest monthly death toll so far this year.

The number of US military fatalities during the month of Ramadan, which is just ending, was 51. That compares to 70 over the previous four weeks and is half the number of US service personnel killed during Ramadan last year. (All these figures are taken from a report by the French news agency AFP, which also says that although levels of violence may have fallen, US commanders on the ground admit that the security turnaround they’d hoped for has not yet happened, and that what they call Al-Qaeda attacks are in fact on the rise.)

And if you were listening to the programme on Wednesday, you’ll recall our report on the two million Iraqis who are now “internally displaced”, ie have had to flee from their homes but are still in Iraq. That’s in addition to the two million who have left the country all together since the invasion of 2003.

Whether you regard these latest figures as encouraging or depressing depends entirely on your point of view. I’d be interested to know what you make of them.

Friday, 5 October 2007

5 October 2007

If you want to understand the atmosphere at the party conferences this year, think of a group of eight-year-olds the night before Christmas: wildly over-excited, bright-eyed, tingling with anticipation of what lies in store.

Party conferences are always in the autumn. Elections rarely are (the last one was in 1974, although in the first half of the last century, autumn or winter elections were the norm) . So a conference which might be immediately followed by a poll is – for politicians and activists alike – a double dose of excitement. Elections, after all, are what politicians love most. It’s what keeps them going, makes them feel alive; so much more fun than sitting through interminable debates in council chambers or the Commons.

In Blackpool, the Tories surprised even themselves. As soon as George Osborne pulled his inheritance tax rabbit out of his hat, they were raring to go. In the faded fakery of the Winter Gardens, anything seemed possible, even an election victory.

Party activists are very different animals from the rest of us (and that’s true in all three main UK parties). Tory activists, for example, like talk of tax cuts, zero tolerance policing, and standing up for Britain. Voters seem to like talk of being kind to the environment, and caring for the disadvantaged. When David Cameron first became leader, he talked mainly to voters. Last week, he was talking to the activists, and his message changed – almost imperceptibly, admittedly – to accommodate their preferences. His skill was to do so while still reminding voters what he’d been saying to them too.

And yes, of course it was impressive that he memorised his speech. (No, it wasn’t improvised – how do you think Wednesday morning’s papers were able to print great chunks of it hours before he had delivered it?) But actors are pretty good at memorising scripts too – and we don’t automatically regard them as potential prime ministers.

As for the election, my editor – he who must be obeyed – thinks I should be ready to eat my hat, or humble pie, or possibly both. Last December, long before Mr Brown had even become prime minister, I boldly suggested that there might well be an autumn election. The editor thinks I might turn out to have got that wrong. Well, I’ve just looked up what I actually said (Newsletter No. 74, if you want to check in your leather-bound volume): “Although all the experts tell me I’m wrong about this, I still think [Gordon Brown] might be sorely tempted to call a snap election in the autumn, both to establish his own authority and to wrong-foot David Cameron.”

Thank goodness I chose my words with such consummate care. “Might be sorely tempted” … well, I think that’s been borne out by events, whatever he decides this weekend. So my hat, and the pie, will remain uneaten. Sorry, boss.

And although I never thought I’d say this, I will admit to just the slightest pang of nostalgia as my train rattled out of Blackpool North station on Wednesday, almost certainly for the last time. None of the parties has any plans to return to Blackpool: the hotels and the Winter Gardens are now simply too decrepit, as in truth they have been for years. But the sun shone in Blackpool this week, and the famed golden sands were, well, golden. Bye bye, Blackpool …

Friday, 28 September 2007

28 September 2007

Bournemouth first, then Burma … it’s been a week of Bs. (Yes, there’s one more next week as well: Blackpool beckons.)

I’ve been trying to work out why Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour party conference was so flat. I’ve heard a dozen of these set-piece orations from Mr Brown, and most of them have had at least a bit of old-time religion, a bit of Labour passion to get the delegates’ blood running.

Not this time, though, and I think there may be a simple explanation. It wasn’t Brown we were listening to, it was anti-Blair. Blair was flash; Brown isn’t. Blair was an orator; Brown isn’t (not any more, at any rate). And the political calculation is obvious: if David Cameron wants to be the “heir to Blair”, just when voters seem to have had enough of Blairism, well, what better person to turn to than anti-Blair (and, of course, by implication, anti-Cameron)?

And I’m indebted to Daniel Finkelstein of The Times for pointing out why parts of the Brown speech may have sounded vaguely familiar to any Americans who happened to be listening. “Sometimes people say I am too serious,” said the Prime Minister. “I know that sometimes people say I'm too serious,” said US presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000.

“This is my pledge to the British people: I will not let you down,” said Mr Brown in Bournemouth. “I pledge to you tonight … I will never let you down," said Mr Gore in 2000. Could it be, as Finkelstein suggests, that veteran US consultant and speech-writer Bob Shrum had a hand in it?

My last reflection from Bournemouth relates to something I remarked upon when Tony Blair announced he was standing down in May. He spoke then of Britain (“open-minded about race and sexuality, averse to prejudice and yet deeply and rightly conservative with a small 'c' when it comes to good manners, respect for others, treating people courteously”) in terms which sounded exactly as if he was talking about himself.

Mr Brown did the same this week: looking back on the summer’s various crises – attempted suicide bombings in London and Glasgow; floods; foot and mouth disease – “Our response was calm and measured. We simply got on with the job. Britain has been tested and not found wanting.” Just like you-know-who.

And so to Burma. Tens of thousands of protesters out on the streets; and a sclerotic military regime responding the only way it knows how. I’ve been trying to imagine how it looks to Burma’s two giant neighbours: India on one side, China on the other.

Both have major economic and strategic interests in Burma. Each is anxious to prevent the other gaining too much influence. Beijing wants to ensure that nothing gets in the way of a successful Olympic Games next year (although I hear whispers that preparations are not going well on that front). Delhi wants to ensure that in the race to become Asia’s undisputed economic super-power, China doesn’t gain too much of an advantage by tying up valuable energy deals with the Burmese generals.

So who can pull the levers to influence the generals’ response to the most serious challenge they’ve faced for nearly 20 years? And if the answer is India and China, then who can pull the levers to influence their response to the Burmese crisis? China has already shown in both North Korea and Sudan that it knows how to use its diplomatic muscle when it chooses to do so; perhaps the current crisis will provide another opportunity. As for India, which wants desperately to join China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, perhaps it’ll conclude that a bit of skilful diplomacy in Burma is just what’s needed to burnish its credentials. I wonder …

Friday, 21 September 2007

21 September 2007

I may as well start with an admission: whenever I talk to an economist, or a banker, or a financial analyst, I’m left wondering if I really understand anything that they’ve told me.

So I’ve spent the past couple of weeks trying really hard to concentrate on the intricacies of banking liquidity, cash cushions and regulatory oversight (No, sorry, I’m not sure what any of that means either.)

I have two guiding principles which have helped me through this whole Northern Rock farrago. One, courtesy of the late great economist J.K. Galbraith. I have his words taped to the window beside my desk in The World Tonight production office: “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

Two, courtesy of the former governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George: “There are three types of economist – those who can count, and those who can’t.”

All right, I exaggerate. But only slightly. The more I talk to people who ought to know about all this stuff, the less convinced I am. There are, after all, some very clever, very rich people working in the City of London, so how come they got themselves into such a mess?

Maybe Polonius in Hamlet was just a naïve simpleton who had no idea how a global economy functions. But I still reckon “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” has a lot to be said for it. As does “Don’t buy a pig in a poke”, defined as making a risky purchase without inspecting an item beforehand (thank you, Wikipedia).

Isn’t that exactly what all those clever investment banker chaps did when they snapped up a few million pounds of neatly packaged dodgy debts without looking to see what was inside the packaging? I mean, how clever do you need to be to work out that you could be heading for trouble?

A couple of serious points, though: perhaps the past two weeks have been a salutary lesson – perhaps we have learned to pay more attention to where we put our money and what our bank of choice is doing with it. Although I confess that I have no idea how we’re meant to come to a rational judgment when (in my case, at least) we don’t even understand the language the bankers speak.

And perhaps the regulators have learned that they need to keep an even beadier eye on what’s going on. A full-blown run on a bank is not meant to happen in a well-ordered capitalist society, because the whole structure is built on the notion that we have confidence in the currency and the banking system. Once that confidence goes, we stop trusting the banks, we stop lending them our cash, and the whole machine comes grinding to a halt.

I will continue to try hard to make sense of it all, both for your sake and for mine. But as I renew the cold compress around my head, I am also packing my toothbrush for my annual autumn jaunts to the seaside. Next week I’ll be in Bournemouth with Labour; the week after it’s Blackpool with the Conservatives. I’ll be in touch …

Friday, 14 September 2007

14 September 2007

In my perfect world, children wouldn’t disappear mysteriously and journalists would report only what they know to be true. We live, alas, in a world that is far from perfect.

Why can’t we admit that there are some questions to which we don’t yet know the answers? Why can’t we let the police (yes, even the Portuguese police) get on with the job? By all means, let’s scrutinise them, and report what they say and do … but do we have to do so much guessing?

If a criminal inquiry is under way, do we really expect the police and prosecutors to give us hourly updates? Are the demands of rolling news channels and the constantly updated news websites now so overwhelmingly important that a refusal to satisfy their endless need for fresh material is tantamount to evidence of incompetence or worse?

Of course, we want to know what happened to a missing child. Mystery and crime have sold newspapers since the year dot. I’m not naïve. And I know that police make mistakes. I know there are miscarriages of justice. (Guildford Four, anyone? Birmingham Six?) I know that media hysteria can sometimes play a significant part in judicial cock-ups. And I also know that the media can often play a valuable role in righting wrongs.

But that’s not what’s happening now. No one has even been charged, let alone brought to trial. We have no idea what evidence the police have collected, and we won’t know unless and until it is presented in court. Then, and only then, will we begin to be able to make up our own minds.

I’ve been in this business long enough to know something about competitive pressures. I know and understand why TV news channels and newspaper websites want to be first with the latest twist in a long-running story. But this has plumbed new depths of absurdity. We might just as well read detective stories as some of what’s been written over the past few days.

The former editor of the Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard, Max Hastings, who is not exactly a shrinking violet, wrote this week that he hangs his head in shame at how our trade has been behaving. So do I. And I’m angry, too, because I would much rather have written this week about the Iraq war testimony in Washington, or the reports of an Israeli air attack on Syria last week, or the deepening crisis in Pakistan. Instead, despite our best efforts to keep our own reporting from Portugal to the absolute minimum, I find the agenda has been hijacked.

Oh, didn’t I actually mention what this is all about? Sorry about that … but you knew anyway, didn’t you? (Apologies to readers overseas. A quick look at the website of any UK news organisation will reveal all …)

By the way, I’ve helped put together an online photographic essay with the picture agency Magnum, to mark their 60th anniversary. It looks back at six decades of conflict photography around the world. I do hope you’ll take a look and listen to the commentary … it’s at http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essays/conflict.

Friday, 7 September 2007

7 September 2007

I’m sorry, there’s no escape. It’s time to bite the bullet, or perhaps to grasp the nettle. The Great EU Debate is back.

I re-enter it with great trepidation. I know that, like the Middle East, or genetically-modified food, it is a subject which bores some of you to distraction, and enrages others of you to a state of near apoplexy. So just bear with me, all right?

As you may remember, there once was a proposal to draw up a constitution for the European Union. The voters of first France and then the Netherlands shot it down in flames in two referendums. That was a little over two years ago. There followed a period of stunned disbelief as EU leaders tried to work out why voters at least in those two countries seemed to see things so differently from their elected political leaders.

Now they’ve come up with something called the EU Reform Treaty. It either is, or is not, depending on whom you ask, as near as damn it the same thing, with merely the word “constitution” removed.

It is not for me to make a judgment on such matters, but I like to be helpful if I can, so let me point you in the direction of two websites which may be of assistance. The official government line (“It’s nothing like a constitution”) is admirably set out at www.europe.gov.uk. The opposing viewpoint (“Oh yes, it jolly well is”), together with a line-by-line, word-by-word comparison of the Reform Treaty and the draft constitution, can be found at www.openeurope.org.uk.

But it struck me during last night’s programme, during our discussion with Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun and Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, that perhaps all the huffing and puffing about having a referendum is a bit of a red herring. As I suggested last night, perhaps what it boils down is that those who don’t like the treaty do want a referendum, because they think they’d win it – and those who do like the treaty don’t want a referendum, because they think they’d lose.

But does any of this really matter? Well, sorry, but yes, it does. First, there’s not much point belonging to a club if it can’t take any decisions or deliver any benefits to its members. Second, the euro-debate has brought down prime ministers before now: the names Thatcher and Major spring to mind, and I suspect Gordon Brown has no wish to see his own name added to the list.

I remember a decade or so ago officials in Brussels used to say that the EU was like a bicycle: if it stopped going forward, you’d fall off. They tend not to say that any more, not since the disobliging voters of France and the Netherlands delivered their well-aimed kick to the wheels of the bicycle. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the EU still needs to do much more to persuade sceptical voters, not only in Britain, that what is being proposed is both necessary and beneficial. But I’d be interested to know what your view is.

Friday, 31 August 2007

31 August 2007

Sometimes, you lot really do surprise me. To be honest, I did not expect many of you to be tuned in last Monday … it was a Bank Holiday, the sun had been shining in much of the country, and I thought you’d all be out sipping refreshing what-nots with friends and family. But no, came the witching hour and you were glued to your radios. Your loyalty does you immense credit.

How do I know you were listening? Well, no sooner had we started our discussion about the housing crisis – where should we build all those new homes that the government says we so desperately need? – and your emails started flooding in. It is clearly an issue about which many of you feel very strongly indeed.

Dr S in Coventry, for example: “Unrestricted development is madness. Water shortages, more pollution from cars and electricity, more traffic on the roads, more flooding. Where will it end?”

Or, at the other extreme, Owen in London: “It is nice to hear someone like Austin Williams [one of our panellists] advocating unrestricted development without fear of consequences. All this environmental nonsense is just political correctness gone mad.”

And there were plenty more. Some of you blamed immigration for the housing crisis; others thought we should be building on at least some of the Green Belt, to relieve the pressure on towns and cities.

I know, of course, that most of you didn’t send an email. I don’t for a single moment think that those of you who did write in are necessarily representative of all our listeners. But I do find it interesting to get some idea of what you feel strongly about – and last Monday, I learned that many of you feel strongly about housing.

Briefly, a mention of two long-running international stories. First, you may remember, if you’ve been paying attention, that three months ago I warned you to keep an eye on Pakistan. If you heard my interview with the former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto on Wednesday night, you’ll realise why.

There are big things afoot in Pakistan: and it’s just possible that after eight years in power, the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf may be about to accept demands that he put in place a process of transition back to democratic rule. (Ms Bhutto’s arch-rival, Nawaz Sharif, says he’ll be returning from exile within the next couple of weeks. Expect sparks to fly …) The next few months will be crucial -- and don’t forget, Pakistan is a nuclear power which neighbours Afghanistan and where many Taliban and pro-Taliban fighters are based.

Second, Iran. There are whispers in Washington that the Bush administration may be planning a propaganda offensive within the next few weeks to prepare US voters for the possibility of military action against Iran’s nuclear research facilities. Some anti-Bush bloggers think the strategy will be the same as it was before the invasion of Iraq. Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, for example, cites President Bush’s remarks in a speech last Tuesday: “Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late.” And that, says Rubin, is remarkably similar to the language that was being used five years ago about Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

By the way, we’ll be reporting from Iran in tonight’s (Friday’s) programme to see what effect President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech nearly five years ago had on the country itself. Do tune in if you can …

Friday, 24 August 2007

24 August 2007

August is always a strange month for news: lots of politicians are on holiday, so there’s less of the usual sort of news about. But there’s one story we can always rely on – the publication of the GCSE and A level exam results. (If you’re reading this in Scotland or overseas, you are now excused, although some of the issues I want to raise are, I think, universal.)

Isn’t it terrible the way everyone seems to pass these days? Sorry, let me rephrase that: isn’t it wonderful the way the results get better every year? So which is it? Should we be celebrating the fact that each year, more and more candidates pass their exams? Or should we be mourning the “lowering of standards”?

For as long as I can remember, we have been asking these questions every August. And I think the fact that we still don’t seem to be able to agree on answers reflects our continuing confusion about what exams are actually designed to do.

My teacher friends tell me that exams should test what pupils have learned and understood and their ability to think for themselves. But universities and employers want exams to tell them who are the best and the brightest. If everyone gets an A at A level, teachers are delighted, but how do we know who’s best?

Except, of course, everyone doesn’t get an A at A level (it was 25 per cent this year, one per cent more than last year). Nor does everyone get a decent grade in their GCSEs. The results published yesterday show that just under two-thirds of GCSE candidates got a C grade or better – which means that more than one in three didn’t. Is that good news or bad?

But you know, and I know, that there are plenty of school-leavers who get very good A level results yet aren’t exactly champions at grammar or spelling, or indeed at basic maths. (Oh, all right, there are plenty of university graduates, too. Yes, and journalists …) Some university tutors and employers find that deeply depressing. Others are more relaxed.

Me? I’m rotten at illustrated calligraphy on vellum. And I wouldn’t know one end of a long-bow from the other. There was a time when I was rather good at changing typewriter ribbons – but I’m not sure I worry too much that my son doesn’t have a clue. Maybe our skills needs do change over time – and maybe in a computer age of Spellcheck and SMS text messaging, spelling doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Then again, maybe it does …

I think I’m allowed by the BBC’s rules on impartiality to say that, personally, I hate it when people can’t spell. And I’ve joined a group on Facebook called the Good Grammar Cult, which tells you where I stand on grammar. (Thanks, by the way, to everyone who’s joined me on Facebook … it’s fun, isn’t it?) But the exam debate is a complicated one – which is probably a good thing, because it gives us lots to talk about every August. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Now, let’s see what the weather is like over the weekend, because I bet my old newspaper colleagues are already brushing off their other favourite August headline: “It’s a Bank Holiday Washout!”

Friday, 17 August 2007

17 August 2007

Yes, I’m back from my break, and yes, thanks, I had a lovely time. I managed to keep in touch with events, of course, with the help of my trusty laptop and wonderful BBC News online – but thank goodness nothing much ever happens in August.

I gather there was just a bit of flooding (was it 20 million people affected across south Asia?), a spot of foot-and-mouth; a touch of turbulence on the world stock markets; several more British casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan – oh yes, and something about a great white shark that wasn’t photographed off the coast of Cornwall.

And guess what: Iran is back in the news. Two developments you may have missed during all the storm dramas (both financial and meteorological) of the past few days -- although you won't have missed them if you've been listening to the programme this week: the US is said to be about to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a “foreign terrorist organisation”, and Washington has just signed a new military assistance deal with Israel that’s worth some $30 billion over the next 10 years.

That’s an increase of about 25 per cent over current levels – and the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, says it will help to preserve his country's military advantage over other countries in the Middle East, ie Iran. (Incidentally, Washington is also providing generous military assistance to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Gulf states. What do they all have in common? They all have reason to fear Iran.)

I remember when the Cold War ended in 1989, analysts started asking who would turn out to be the new enemy of the West. (I’m no psychologist, but there seems to be a primitive human need to define ourselves at least in part by who our enemies are.) At first, Islam seemed to be the most likely choice. But now, our governments’ fears appear to be more focused: they don’t so much fear an entire religion, rather they fear the aggressive political manifestation of one branch of that religion, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Washington claims to have irrefutable evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are deeply involved in the surreptitious acquisition of nuclear technology, and are financing, equipping and training Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and a variety of militia groups in Iraq. They also, of course, were responsible for the capture of the 15 British marines and naval personnel in the Gulf last March.

But what good will calling them terrorists do? Well, it would enable the US to seize any of their assets that happen to be within US jurisdiction, and it would enable Washington to take action against any US company that does business with the Guards or their commercial front organisations. And, of course, it would be a way to ratchet up the pressure on the UN Security Council to agree to tougher sanctions against Tehran.

There have been signs for many months now in Tehran of strains within the government between those who favour opening up to the West and trying to defuse some of the current tensions, and those close to the mercurial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who prefer a more confrontational approach. There is a parallel debate in Western capitals between those who say the time for sweet-talking is over (the European Union tried “constructive dialogue” for years, but seems now pretty much to have given up), and those who insist that it is still more sensible to engage with the so-called “moderate” elements in Tehran. I wonder which approach you would favour?

By the way, on the subject of stock market turmoil, have you noticed that even after all the recent talk of crises and collapses, the current level of the FTSE-100 index (at time of writing, mid-morning on Friday) is just about exactly where it was a year ago? I sometimes wonder if we get a bit over-excited about these things.

Friday, 20 July 2007

20 July 2007

You know what an email is; and you know what e-commerce is (it’s when you buy a book, a CD, or book a hotel room online). But how about an e-coup?

Here in Turkey, that’s what they say they experienced last April, when the army put a statement on its website. If necessary, said a message from the top brass, they were ready to act to 'protect secularism'.

It didn’t need tanks in the streets or martial music blaring over the TV. The message was clear enough: Islamists, be careful. The army is watching you. Not a coup, but an e-coup (or at least the implied threat of one.)

This, remember, is a country – a member of NATO which also wants to be a member of the EU –where there have been two military coups (1960 and 1980) in less than 50 years. The army has also forced two more governments from power in 1971 and 1997. So when the military warns, Turkey listens.

Can secularism be a religion? Because if it can, it would be the official religion of Turkey. Or perhaps Kemalism is the better term, after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. (A couple of days ago, I visited the place in central Anatolia where he started his revolution in 1919.) Kemalism involves reformism, republicanism and populism, as well as secularism, which Ataturk defined as the absence of religious interference in government affairs.

Sorry about the history lesson, but if you want to understand the elections here on Sunday – which arguably are the most important in this nation’s modern history -- you do need to know just a bit about how this country was created out of the ashes of the defeated Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War.

But now let’s fast forward to 2007. Kemalism is still the state religion. But, er, the party in power for the past four and a half years is a party with a strong Islamist tradition. The party leader and prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, served four months in jail in 1999 for “inciting religious hatred”. His critics say he is planning to instal Islamism in Turkey by stealth … they quote him as having once said that “democracy is a train taking us to our destination”, by which they say he meant an Islamist state.

So far, there’s not much sign of it happening. But what prompted the army to rattle its sabres in April was a plan to make the foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, another man with an Islamist past, president of the republic. (His wife covers her hair with a headscarf, which in the eyes of Turkey’s secularists is definitely a step too far.)

Here, then, is the choice for Turkey’s 40 million or so voters on Sunday. Do they renew Mr Erdogan’s mandate, as a way of saying thank you for nearly five years of stability and economic growth – and perhaps as a way of saying to the army and the country’s traditional political elite: “Your day is done” – or do they withdraw their support because they’re worried that Islam will play a greater role in public life under a renewed Erdogan government?

This is probably the most secular Muslim country in the world. Here in Istanbul, few women wear headscarves. But as I write these words close by the magnificent Aya Sofia, the greatest church in Christendom for 900 years and then a great mosque for another 500 years, I can hear the muezzin loudly calling the Muslim faithful to prayer.

So, yes, the cliché is true: Turkey is a land of contradictions. On Sunday, just possibly, voters will have a chance to resolve a few of them.

I’ll be on air from Istanbul tonight (Friday) and again on Monday with the results of the election and what they might mean for Turkey’s future. Then I’m going to be taking a bit of a break – so the next newsletter will be with you on 17 August.

Friday, 13 July 2007

13 July 2007

I’ve had another one of my dreams. I was in a courtroom, and the lawyers were delivering their final arguments.

Lawyer 1: “Members of the jury, you will recall that I represent all those people who believe it was a serious mistake to award a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. Let me summarise for you, before you retire to consider your verdict, the reasons that we have given.

“First, it was an unnecessary provocation to the many Muslims, both in this country and around the world, who, whether rightly or wrongly, were deeply offended by Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. And surely, it can never be right needlessly to provoke people, especially when they are a minority who already often feel that their beliefs are misunderstood or ignored.

“Second, the granting of this award, at a time of heightened tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, has recklessly endangered the lives of all of us. I do not for one minute say that we should allow al-Qaeda to dictate who should receive an honour from Her Majesty the Queen – but I do say that those who recommend the granting of such an honour must be cognisant of the possible repercussions of their decision. It may now be nearly 20 years since Mr Rushdie’s book was published – and as you will recall, he has paid a high price for the offence he was deemed to have caused – but you will not need me to remind you that the extremists among us have long memories.

“Third, we recognise, of course, that freedom of expression is a principle that we must all value highly. I do not say that Mr Rushdie should not have published his book. But is it right for a government – or a State – to honour a writer who has so grievously offended a great many people? Does it not come close to saying: “We honour the fact that you have caused offence”? Or at least: “We know that you caused offence, and we regard it as a matter of no importance”? What message does that send to the many British Muslim citizens who wonder why their sensitivities apparently count for so little?

“Members of the jury, this was an unnecessary award and an unnecessary provocation. I urge you to find in favour of my clients.”

Lawyer 2: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I represent all those who argue that awards must be made purely on merit, and that to do otherwise would be to play into the hands of those who seek to impose their views on us by threats and by force. The question before you, I would submit, is a very simple one: Who should decide who is granted an honour in this country? The duly appointed awards committee, or the murderous extremists of al-Qaeda? There can, of course, be only one answer.

“The members of the committee who recommended Mr Rushdie for a knighthood say they did not discuss any possible political ramifications of their decision. That, I would suggest, is entirely as it should be. If he is a talented writer whose achievements merit official recognition, that is all that matters. I have no way of knowing whether you have read any of his books, or if you have done, whether you enjoyed them. But it matters not a jot: the distinguished people whose appointed task it is to make such recommendations decided that Mr Rushdie is an appropriate recipient of an award.

“Article 19 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ Nowhere does it say – nor indeed has it ever been suggested – that this right should apply only if there is no risk of causing offence.

“Members of the jury, my learned friend talked of an unnecessary provocation. But we have long recognised in this country that writers do have the right to provoke, as well as to offend, so long as they remain within the law. What kind of society would this be if we were to say no artist may be honoured if he or she has ever offended or provoked anyone? If that were to be the criterion, I suggest, there would indeed be few artists honoured.

“I urge you, therefore, to find in favour of my clients and uphold our cherished values of freedom and tolerance.”

And then I woke up. So you be the jury, you decide. Let me have your verdict.

Friday, 6 July 2007

6 July 2007

Yes, here it is. Your personalised, limited edition, souvenir 100th newsletter, something you will want to treasure and pass on to your children and grandchildren. A unique moment in history. And how better to celebrate than by welcoming home Alan Johnston, free at last after 114 days as a hostage in Gaza. Thank you, all of you, who signed the petition calling for his release and sent messages of support. We now know that he was aware of the campaign because he was able to listen to the BBC World Service in his Gaza dungeon … so it did make a huge difference, to him if not to his wretched kidnappers.

My very first newsletter was written on 8 July 2005, one day after the suicide bombings in London that killed 52 people. This one, almost exactly two years later, comes in the immediate aftermath of the attempted car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow. Who says there’s no symmetry in history? (And although maths was never my strong point, am I right in thinking that if I’ve written 100 newsletters in two years, it must mean that I’ve taken only four weeks holiday in that time? I really should get out more …)

Gordon Brown may have been planning his first week as Prime Minister for years – but he could never have planned for what his first weekend was like. A major security alert, a raising of the national threat level to “critical”, which is as high as it gets – it was certainly a brutal introduction to the reality of being at Number 10.

All the commentators – and the opposition parties – seem to agree that he’s acquitted himself pretty well. And they seem to have been particularly impressed by his new Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith – but I thought I detected a slight whiff of: “Well, well, who would have thought it? A woman can do the job of Home Secretary.” And there was me thinking we’d moved on from there …

But as I remarked last week, political honeymoons don’t last long these days, and I fancy that when trouble comes for our new PM, it will come from two directions. First, he should remember that old parliamentary advice: “Your opponents may be in front of you, but your enemies are behind you.” (In other words, among his own backbenchers.) True, he has one advantage over Tony Blair – he doesn’t have a Gordon Brown scheming next door all the time. But wait till the autumn … the grumbling will soon start.

Even more ominous, if I were Mr Brown, I’d be keeping a very close look at the property pages. Because if house prices start tumbling, he’s going to be in big trouble. Interest rates go up (and, of course, there’s nothing he can do about that any more, since he gave the Bank of England full independence over interest rate policy), property prices go down … result: tens of thousands of very unhappy voters. If their pockets start feeling emptier than they have been for the past decade, they’ll stop buying so many giant flat-screen TVs and cheap flight holidays. And before you know it, the economy will be stalling.

And whom do you think they’ll blame? Remind me, who’s been in charge of economic policy for the past 10 years …?

I’m not making any predictions, simply pointing out where the political storm clouds may be gathering. Opinion poll “bounces” are all well and good, but bouncing balls return to earth soon enough, no matter how high they’ve bounced.

But enough of the doom-mongering … this is a weekend to celebrate my centenary. So I am delighted to be able to announce that I am now to be found online on Facebook (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask someone you know who’s under the age of 30). The idea is that I can jot down inconsequential musings whenever the fancy takes me, and keep you up to date with what I’m up to. I also hope to be able to reach a lot more people with these newsletters, and I hope that you, and whoever else joins me there, will chat back and we can form a nice big friendly World Tonight family.

It’s called “social networking” and thanks to Facebook, I’ve already been able to wish a happy birthday to a listener in Paris whom I’ve never even met. If you like the sound of it, do join up and get in touch. (Just type Facebook into your search engine and take it from there.) If it doesn’t appeal, perhaps you’d be kind enough to pass the word to anyone you know who you think might enjoy it. I think it could be a lot of fun.

Friday, 29 June 2007

29 June 2007

There haven’t been many occasions over the past couple of years when both T Blair and G Brown can be said to have had a good day – but I reckon last Wednesday was one of them.

TB left the House of Commons to a standing ovation; GB finally got what he’s been waiting for for so long. But I fear the warm glow of satisfaction will be short-lived; I can’t help wondering how long it’ll be before normal service is resumed.

Just consider: Blair wouldn’t have gone this week if Brown hadn’t threatened a coup last Autumn. Brown wouldn’t have threatened a coup if he hadn’t become convinced that Blair’s word could no longer be trusted. Not since Cain and Abel has a relationship between two grown men been so destructive.

As for that Commons ovation, what was that all about? Labour MPs had been fretting for months about their opinion poll ratings under Blair, so how come suddenly he was their hero? And the Tories, well, since when did they suddenly decide that he was the best thing since sliced bread? The words “sentimental” and “hypocrites” spring to mind, although of course, I wouldn’t dream of using them.

I was struck when we spoke to voters in and around Birmingham on Wednesday evening how many seem to think they know all they need to know about Mr Brown. Sure, we’ve seen enough of him over the past decade, but it’s been very much a monochrome image. Now we get the full colour version. Whether you find it an improvement or not depends, I suspect, on your taste in political colour schemes.

How fascinating, though, that he has chosen Mark Malloch Brown, former UN deputy secretary-general, to be his minister for Africa, Asia and the UN. This is a man who was deeply loathed by the Bush administration while he was at the UN (the feeling, I think it’s fair to say, was mutual) – and who, for a top diplomat, was stunningly undiplomatic on our programme a couple of months ago when he delivered his less than favourable verdict on Tony Blair’s foreign policy achievements.

I know a lot of you find all this politics stuff less than enthralling. But you will know as regular readers of this newsletter that I believe passionately that politics do matter. (By the way, next week will mark my 100th newsletter: if you feel like celebrating, why don’t you try to inveigle two more of your friends into becoming subscribers? You know you want to …)

Political honeymoons don’t last long these days. (Ask David Cameron …) Mr Brown has an impending US Justice Department investigation into BAE Systems to deal with, to say nothing of that continuing Scotland Yard investigation into cash for honours. And how long will it be before he and his predecessor fall out over Middle East peace initiatives? Is the world big enough for two British prime ministers to strut their stuff on the global stage?

Oh, and did I mention Iraq? I didn’t get the impression when I spoke to the Iraqi foreign minister last night that he was entirely confident about the new PM’s commitment to keeping troops there much longer. And the deaths of three more British servicemen on his first day in office will certainly have reminded Mr Brown of his responsibilities.

So, yes, it is a new chapter. Remember when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher in 1990? In his very first parliamentary speech as PM, he announced he was abolishing the hated poll tax. Don’t try to tell me Gordon Brown isn’t capable of an equally dramatic gesture. If you care who runs the country and what they intend to do about schools, hospitals, pensions, the environment and our relations with the rest of the world – well, I’m sorry, there’s nothing for it: you’re just going to have to carry on tuning in.

And yes, yet again I have to remind you that our friend and colleague Alan Johnston is still being held captive in Gaza. It’s nearly 15 weeks now, which is 15 weeks too long. Please don’t forget him.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

22 June 2007

I dreamt the other night that I was walking in Downing Street and stopped to pick up a crumpled piece of paper out of the gutter. It seemed to be the draft of a farewell speech at someone’s leaving party.

“Y’know, people might find this hard to believe, but, well, I guess this is it. I mean, people will agree, I think, when they look back, that things really did get better. I’m not saying it’s always been easy, but it has been a privilege, for the people of this great country even more than for me, to have been your leader for these past 10 years.

“Look, I know not everyone agrees with everything I’ve done, but at least people know that, agree or disagree, I’ve always done what I know I believe to be what I believe I know to be right. And y’know, that’s what matters in life … principles matter, doing what’s right matters, even when people say it’s not right, because we all have a responsibility not only to do what we believe in, but also to believe in what we do.

“Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. This is a time for our country to look forward, to a time when elder statesmen will be able to advise on where we should be looking – right, left, right again, just like we were taught as children when we crossed the road – because, y’know, it doesn’t really matter all that much who’s living here in Downing Street … what matters is what’s gone before, the foundations that have been laid, the foundation hospitals that have been built but not yet paid for. People know that I will always be here, ready to serve, ready, right or wrong, to say what I passionately believe to be right.

“So this really isn’t a goodbye at all. Because true leadership, the kind of leadership that means something, my kind of leadership, means never saying goodbye. This is a great nation, and it deserves great leaders. For the past 10 years I’ve done my best for this country of ours, and I know my good friend Gordon will do his best too. That’s why I know he will need me here to help him.

“Let us never forget, for the sake of generations as yet unborn, as we seek to build that great city upon a hill, what this project of ours has always been about. The future, not the past. Hope, not despair. Opportunities for the many, not the few.

“And now, you must excuse me, because, y’know, the Queen is waiting …”

And then I woke up. By this time next week, he really will be gone. My personal memories of the Blair era are principally of those early Labour conferences after he’d been elected as leader. He grabbed the party by the throat and re-invented it. It was breath-taking to watch: after the cautious gradualism of John Smith and the heroic emotionalism of Neil Kinnock, here was a man with a plan.

In those early years, Blair was a consummate political operator. In 2002, I spent an hour with him at Downing Street, while he fielded questions for a live global phone-in programme for the World Service. It was an impressive performance: if there was one thing he excelled at, it was communicating.

But was Enoch Powell right when he said that all political careers end in failure? Has Blair’s ended in failure? My poor bookshelves are already groaning in anticipation of the tomes to come: “The Blair Years: An Assessment.” Then there’ll be “The Blair Years: A Re-assessment.” To be followed, no doubt, by “The Blair Years: A New Assessment.” But don’t worry, you won’t have to read any of them.

On Wednesday, Alan Johnston spent his 100th day in captivity in Gaza. The number of signatures on the online petition calling for his release now exceeds 170,000. It’s still available via the Have Your Say button on the BBC News website.

Friday, 15 June 2007

15 June 2007

I’ll deal with Gaza in a moment, but first, forgive me if I seem to have swallowed a dictionary. It’s all because our soon-to-be-departed Prime Minister used the word “feral” in his speech about the media.

“Today's media,” he said, “hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.”

Feral (adj.): a. Existing in a wild or untamed state b. Having returned to an untamed state from domestication.

I rather suspect that Mr Blair thinks “feral” is simply another word for “wild”. But in fact it means a bit more than that: so perhaps the key to the PM’s thinking lies in the word “untamed”.

Does he really want “tame” media? Media that take politicians’ words always at face value? That don’t question, or doubt, or criticise? Surely not.

Does he really want newspapers and broadcasters who merely listen carefully to what politicians say and report it faithfully, word for word, just as they used to do in the good old days? The public, he says, need to be properly and accurately informed – but are not well served because the media are interested only in a quick headline and a new sensation to attract the attention of an iPod-addicted generation.

I wonder if you agree. I’d be interested to know whether you think you are well served by the media, or whether you think Mr Blair has put his finger on something that needs to be addressed.

Me? He doth protest too much, methinks, although he is right to say that we do need to think about the relationship between politicians and media. Personally, I tend to go along with the American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken: the ideal relationship between us is like the one between a dog and a lamp-post. The PM, I suspect, is closer to the character in the Tom Stoppard play Night and Day: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”

Sure, journalists hunting in packs is not a pretty sight. Yes, the demands of 24-hour news channels mean we sometimes get things ridiculously out of proportion. But believe me, those saintly politicians don’t always speak only the unvarnished truth. And I do wonder if Mr Blair ever asks himself why the man who used to be known as “Teflon Tony” because no muck ever stuck to him eventually turned into the battered soon-to-be ex-PM we see before us today. (A clue: try a four-letter word, beginning with “I” and ending with “Q”.)

When he talks of journalists “tearing people and reputations to bits”, I suspect he is thinking of three people in particular: his wife Cherie, his former comrade-in-arms Peter Mandelson, and his trusted envoy and fund-raiser Lord Levy. True, they have all been savagely attacked in the media, at, I’m sure, great personal cost to themselves. Were the attacks justified? Not for me to say, m’Lud.

And what about Gaza? Well, with Hamas now in control, the Palestinians are probably further than ever from realising their dream of an independent state. But here’s a thought: given how terrified Arab governments will be of a militant Islamist party in control (Egypt? Jordan? Saudi Arabia?) – and of Iran’s ever-growing influence in the region -- I wonder if they might all try to get together and convene a regional conference to try to thrash out some answers. Back in 1991, the Madrid peace conference was co-sponsored by the US and the Soviet Union. Invitees were Israel, Egypt, Jordan (plus Palestinians), Syria and Lebanon. Can you imagine Mr Bush and Mr Putin doing something similar now? No, frankly, nor can I.

In October 2000, at the start of what became known as the second Intifada, I wrote from Israel: “I have never felt so fearful for the future of this blood-soaked region.” I’m sorry to say I still hold to those words today.

Our colleague Alan Johnston is still being held in Gaza – it’ll be 14 weeks, 98 days, on Monday. The number of signatures on our online petition calling for his release has now risen to nearly 150,000. Thank you to all who have signed it.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

8 June 2007

Cast your eye over the G8 beauty parade pictures from Germany. Now get a marker pen and put a big black line through the faces of the following leaders: Tony Blair, George Bush and Vladimir Putin.

Why? Because this time next year, two of them will have gone, and the third will be well on his way to the door marked Exit. Mr Blair takes his final bow in three weeks’ time; President Putin stands down after the Russian presidential election next March (at least, that’s what the constitution says he should do … there are those who wonder if he might be tempted to hang around a bit longer); and in a year from now President Bush will be in the final months of his eight-year stint in the White House.

Which leads me to wonder who the real global leaders are these days. Angela Merkel of Germany seems to have done wonders for her reputation while steering both the EU and the G8, and in France Nicolas Sarkozy can’t wait to get started. And although he’s not a member of the G8 – and even though you probably wouldn’t recognise him if he passed you in the street – don’t forget President Hu Jintao of China.

And my point is? Well, simply this: things change. Leaders change. National interests might not change, but the way political leaders interpret them does – and that means that the coming couple of years are more than unusually uncertain.

Suppose in early 2009, President Barack Obama of the US meets President Sergei Ivanov of Russia. Suppose later this year Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK meets Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany (a rather more likely scenario, I grant you, than the Obama-Ivanov one). Will they get on? Will they trust each other? We don’t know … and that’s my point.

As for G8 summits themselves, I confess that I have very mixed feelings. Do we really need all these world leaders to jet off every year to some isolated resort, accompanied by the inevitable battalions of officials and security people, so that they can simply sign a document that has been painstakingly negotiated by their officials over several months?

Or are they right to argue that only when they all sit down together – and more importantly, when they break off for their “unilaterals” (when two leaders meet in private somewhere) – can they do the really difficult deals? Perhaps they just like the feeling that there are some things only the top people can do.

Would the Gleneagles promises on helping Africa have been made two years ago if there hadn’t been a Gleneagles? In theory, there’s no reason why not – after all governments can use email too – but in practice, those promises weren’t made without the artificially-imposed deadline of an impending G8 summit. So on balance, yes, I suppose the summits do serve a purpose.

It’s nearly 13 weeks now – that’s 91 days -- since our colleague Alan Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza – and there’s been no word since the release of that video a week ago. Might his captors reckon that 100 days is long enough? We can but hope …

Friday, 1 June 2007

1 June 2007

I have a simple rule of thumb when I have to deal with stories from the world of “intelligence” – I don’t believe a word I’m told.

I have read enough about “black propaganda” and “psy-ops” (psychological operations) to know that information – and misinformation – is often used as a weapon of war. So I suggest that you treat anything you read or hear about Alexander Litvinenko, Andrei Lugovoi and the rest of them with a healthy dollop of scepticism.

I remember once during my days as a newspaper reporter getting a phone call from a man who said he was a glazier who’d been hired by MI5 to bug what was then the Soviet Trade Mission in north London. It seemed a pretty unlikely tale, but we checked it out, and it seemed to be true. But we couldn’t be sure until the editor told us one afternoon that he’d been contacted by a “friend in Whitehall” asking him to pull the story. That’s when we knew it must be true.

So, lesson one: just because it doesn’t seem likely doesn’t mean it’s not true. Lesson Two: Intelligence agencies are not infallible. (Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?) Lesson Three: what they tell us may not be the whole truth. Or sometimes not even part of the truth.

Yes, I do believe that Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned. Yes, I do believe that the police believe they have enough evidence against Mr Lugovoi to justify his prosecution. Do I think Mr Litvinenko was in touch with MI6? I think it’s possible. Do I believe they tried to hire Mr Lugovoi? I think that’s possible too.

So did MI6 murder Mr Litvinenko? I have no idea. Was the exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky involved? Again, no idea. Did someone want Litvinenko dead to send a message to other future renegade intelligence operatives? Maybe. Or did someone want him dead so that that his murder would implicate the Kremlin and sour relations between London and Moscow? It’s possible.

The intelligence world is, as I’ve written before, a wilderness of mirrors. Sometimes, what is done is less important than what is said about it afterwards. Things are never what they seem. I wrote two weeks ago about the frosty state of relations between Moscow, Europe and the US, and I hope you’ve been able to listen to at least some of Gabriel Gatehouse’s superb reports on the programme this week from Russia … if not, they’re all available via the Listen Again facility on the website. The West has got used to ignoring Russia since the collapse of the old Soviet empire; and Mr Putin doesn’t like being ignored.

By the way, just a quick note to David Cameron: in case you hadn’t noticed, the honeymoon is over. Fleet Street has decided you’re fair game now, so put your helmet on. It’s going to get tough out there.

Finally, it’ll be 12 weeks on Monday since our friend and colleague Alan Johnston was abducted in Gaza. I’ve just seen the video showing Alan, apparently well and in good health, although clearly speaking according to an agreed script. Let’s hope it’s a sign of better news to come. More than 120,000 people have signed our online petition calling for Alan’s immediate release; if you haven’t yet done so, you’ll find it here.

Monday, 28 May 2007

25 May 2007

Sometimes I think it is my duty to alert you to something that hasn’t happened yet. You can think of me, if you like, as an early warning system, an amber flashing light in the middle distance. Trouble ahead.

And this week, what do I see in the middle distance? Pakistan, population 170 million, the second most populous Muslim nation in the world. Formed in 1947 when the British carved up India to create an Islamic homeland. Its name means Land of the Pure.

Now, it’s a seething hotbed of unrest, and its military leader General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup eight years ago, looks weaker than ever. He is being torn apart by the incompatible demands of his Western allies, who insist that he cracks down on Islamic pro-Taliban militants on the border with Afghanistan, and a growing number of his own citizens who are beginning to see certain attractions in Islamic militancy.

For more than half of its 60-year existence, Pakistan has been ruled by the military. Its experience of elected civilian governments has not been a happy one; corruption and incompetence rapidly became their defining characteristics. When General Musharraf seized power in 1999, barely anyone complained. And when he quickly sided with the US after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he became a much-valued Western ally.

When I interviewed him four years ago, he was happy to be described as a bridge between two worlds: the West, and Islam. But that bridge is creaking dangerously now: the West thinks he has failed to stop the Taliban using Pakistani territory as a base from which to mount attacks in Afghanistan; his Islamist political allies in parliament think he’s doing too much to appease the West.

Does it matter? Oh yes, it matters a lot. Pakistan has a nuclear weapons capability. Remember? It has in the past gone to war against India over the disputed territory of Kashmir (still not resolved, even if relations between the two neighbours are now much better than they were). And I doubt that I need to remind you that many of the British Muslims who have been convicted in connection with terrorism allegations have spent time in Pakistan.

So why the warning signals now? Well, two weeks ago 40 people were killed in protest demonstrations in the teeming port city of Karachi. President Musharraf’s political allies were blamed for the violence. This week, there have been more protests in a number of cities; there are signs of growing public unrest. Pro-democracy activists are demonstrating; Islamists are demonstrating; lawyers are demonstrating, because the president decided to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court, a man with a reputation for speaking his mind.

Oh, and the minister of tourism, Nilofar Bakhtiar, has just tried to resign after clerics said she had behaved in an “obscene” manner by being pictured hugging a man in public after a paragliding flight. It is one of the many paradoxes of Pakistan that it combines a sophisticated, liberal intelligentsia with a form of sometimes unreconstructed Islamist revanchism. They do not sit happily together.

So, I suggest that you keep an eye on Pakistan. Watch what London and Washington say as they try to prop up General Musharraf while inching him towards political plurality. There have been at least three assassination attempts against him in the past couple of years; there may well be more. And the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the state is coming up this August.

Finally, I’m sorry if this is beginning to sound boring, but our colleague Alan Johnston has now been missing in Gaza for nearly 11 weeks. More than 100,000 people have signed our online petition calling for his release; if you haven’t yet done so, you’ll find it clicking here.