Friday 4 December 2009

4 December 2009

I want you to think of a country where the government has little or no control over vast areas of territory.

It’s a country that has known decades of endless conflict; where most people feel a greater loyalty to their tribe or clan than to their national leaders. A country of poverty and violence, with little infrastructure and where jihadi insurgents are a constant threat.

It’s also a country whose neighbours have used its land as a proxy battleground for their own wars; a country where chronic instability risks engulfing the region and causing deep concern in capitals many thousands of miles away.

Are you thinking of Afghanistan? I’m not. I’m thinking of Somalia. And of course, once we’ve run through the long list of similarities between the two countries, we come to the one big difference. There will soon be 100,000 US combat troops in Afghanistan – and there are none (well, maybe a handful of undercover special forces) in Somalia.

Why is that, do you think? If Osama bin Laden had been based in Somalia back in 2001, would the US have led an invasion of that country? Probably it would. But if the US had lost 18 of its soldiers in the most humiliating of circumstances in Afghanistan rather than in Somalia, would it have vowed never to return, as it did in Somalia?

Here’s the point: Somalia is much more of a mess even than Afghanistan – and quite possibly more of a security threat to countries like the US. The al-Shabaab jihadi fighters control more of Somalia than do the Taliban in Afghanistan, and are facing far less opposition. They also espouse much of the same philosophy as al-Qaeda.

In his speech on future military deployments in Afghanistan last Tuesday, President Obama specifically referred to Somalia: “Where al-Qaida and its allies attempt to establish a foothold — whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere – they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships.”

Which brings us to the suicide bomb attack in the capital, Mogadishu, yesterday morning. It was a graduation ceremony for medical students, young doctors who have been trained to take the places of the thousands who have either fled or been killed during 18 years of civil war. Three government ministers were among the more than 20 people killed when a bomber detonated his explosives vest towards the end of the ceremony.

Last night, Time magazine quoted a senior al-Shabaab official in Mogadishu as saying they had targeted the ceremony as part of their war against the internationally-backed transitional government. “We did not target the students – our target was the government … Our goal is to target the enemy of Allah.” On the other hand, this morning another al-Shabaab spokesman was quoted as saying they had nothing to do with the attack.

This is where it gets even more complicated. Some Islamist groups now back the government and have joined it in coalition. Last March, it was announced that Islamic sharia law would be adopted as the country’s official judicial system. Al-Shabaab is made up of some of the groups who broke away from the main Islamist movement, the Islamic Courts Union, and carried on fighting.

And of course, we mustn’t forget the pirates. They prey on commercial shipping – up to and including some of the world’s biggest oil tankers – seize them and then hold them and their crew to ransom. In a country with no functioning economy, it’s one of the very few ways available to make any money.

So why don’t we hear more about Somalia? One simple reason: it’s just too dangerous. Nearly five years ago my BBC colleague Kate Peyton was shot dead outside her hotel in Mogadishu; there are very few journalists who dare to report from there. After all, how many people reported from Aghanistan before September 11, 2001?

The BBC is lucky: we have a Somali service with a remarkable local correspondent, Mohamed Olad Hassan, based in Mogadishu. If you heard last night’s programme, you’ll have heard him describe how he was just feet away from the bomber when he detonated his explosives. Mohammed is lucky to be alive, and we’re lucky to be able to call on his services.

So we’ll continue to report from Somalia as and when we can.

Friday 27 November 2009

27 November 2009

I have a question for you: where have more US military personnel died this year – in Afghanistan, or Iraq?

Afghanistan, of course, is the right answer: 297 deaths so far this year, compared to 144 in Iraq. (There have so far been 98 UK military deaths in Afghanistan this year.)

But it’s also the wrong answer. Because more US men and women in uniform have committed suicide this year – at least 334 – than have died in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

I mention it because it’s worth taking into account as we prepare for President Obama’s announcement next Tuesday evening (Wednesday morning if you’re in the UK) on his plans for future military deployments in Afghanistan.

He knows that for tens of thousands of American military families – and for many, many more who live in their communities – what matters is not only how many men and women are killed in action, but how deep are the scars, both physical and mental, that they bear long after they have returned home.

So my hunch is that the President will present his decision next week as a strategy for getting out of Afghanistan. This, he will say, is what we intend to do so that we can leave the place to its own people, knowing that we have given them a decent chance of running it themselves.

I suggest that you look not so much at how many extra troops he’s decided to send (32-35,000 seems to be the current best estimate), but where he’s sending them and what he’s asking them to do. Because according to many analysts, there’s now a growing realisation in Washington that killing Taliban fighters doesn’t get you very far.

One of the most common questions that policy-makers get asked when they’re making decisions about military deployments is: “How will we know when we’ve won?” After all, no one expects the Taliban to sign a formal surrender document.

So, the usual answer is: when the people of Afghanistan can be relatively confident that they and their families are secure, and when there is a degree of political stability that looks likely to last.

Take a look at how other insurgencies in the region have been tackled. According to Paul Staniland, writing on the website, the usual deal involves “messy and ambiguous bargains that states make with armed groups and local political actors combining accommodation, coercion, bribery, and coexistence.”

He calls it “ugly stability”. “The government accepts that insurgents will continue to control parts of their own community, but insurgents know that pushing the state too hard can trigger a crackdown. Governments flip over some former insurgents to act as pro-state militias, insurgents and warlords sponsor normal politicians, and both sides become linked to peripheral war economies. A strange but often enduring quasi-stability can persist, whether in Karachi, the Bodo hills, or Nagaland.”

In other words, it’s not anything like what you’ll find in Westminster or Washington, but in a way, it works. And it’s an approach that closely resembles what a US army special operations officer, Major Jim Grant, is reported to have outlined in a paper called “One Tribe at a Time: A strategy for Success in Afghanistan.”

According to Fred Kaplan, of, Grant’s premise is that Afghanistan "has never had a strong central government and never will. Its society and power structure are, and always will be, built around tribes – and any U.S. or NATO effort to defeat the Taliban must be built around tribes, as well.”

So is this the picture that’s emerging? Forget all that stuff about democracy and women’s rights – what this is about now is getting out as quickly as possible without leaving behind too much of a mess. According to an increasing number of analysts, that’s likely to be the best offer available.

Friday 20 November 2009

20 November 2009

When you were at school, did you ever want to be friends with someone who just didn’t want to be your friend? However nice you were to them, they simply ignored you?

Now, I wouldn’t dream of comparing Barack Obama to a friendless school-child – after all, he’s probably one of the most popular men in the world, and a former Harvard law professor as well – but he doesn’t seem to be having too much luck at the moment making new friends among the people who count.

Iran, China, Cuba – you name it, he’s tried to be friendly. But wherever he goes, whomever he talks to, they all seem to be disciples of the 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Take Iran, for example: what do its leaders think are their nation’s eternal and perpetual interests? To do what Washington (and, to be fair, many other governments too) wants them to do? Or to plough on with what looks to many like a secret nuclear weapons programme in order to emerge as a regional nuclear power?

Or take China. Where do its interests lie? In forming a strategic alliance with the US, or with continuing its economic development while keeping a firm lid on political pluralism?

If you were sitting in Beijing, or Tehran, or even Pyongyang, and the message came from Washington: “Hey, we’ve got a new guy in charge, and he wants to be friends”, what would your immediate reaction be?

Would it be: “Oh, that’s nice, let’s tell him we want to be friends too”, or would it be: “Hmm, how can we get something out of this?”

I don’t want to over-simplify: it is perfectly possible, of course, for leaders to act in what they perceive to be their national interest and also to form alliances, or friendships, with former adversaries. But Palmerston’s view was that it’s the interests that come first, not the friendships.

Now, if you’re the man in the White House – and you passionately believe that it should be possible to find common ground even with former adversaries – it can be a challenge to work out what to do if your faith in the power of shared interests isn’t reciprocated.

What do you do about Iran, for example, if they seem to be stringing you along, saying that they might, one day, like to be your friend, but not just yet. What do you do about China, which seems to be making a lot of the right noises about reducing carbon gas emissions, but – again – not just yet.

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” was Churchill’s too-often quoted maxim. But if the other lot don’t fancy jaw-jaw, do you perhaps need a Plan B that stops short of war-war?

The Obama line is that it’s still early days. It takes time to create a new global diplomatic discourse; no one should expect new friendships to be formed overnight. And the White House can claim some success: there’s little doubt now that there will be a useful US-Russia nuclear stockpile reduction agreement soon, and Moscow seems to be closer to Washington than it used to be on the idea of some tougher sanctions against Iran.

We’ll be returning to some of these questions in January, when we’ll be taking stock of Obama’s foreign policy achievements on the first anniversary of his inauguration, with the help of some of Washington’s leading public policy pundits.

More on that nearer the time, but meanwhile, just a very brief toot on the trumpet: I wrote a month ago that I didn’t think Tony Blair was going to be chosen as President of the EU Council. And last night, he wasn’t.

Friday 13 November 2009

13 November 2009

Do you remember the floods of summer 2007, when some parts of England suffered more than twice as much rain as the average? On one day alone in London (20 July), Heathrow airport cancelled more than 140 flights, and 25 stations on the London Underground were closed. There was huge disruption affecting millions of people.

Now, fast forward to 2012. The opening ceremony of the London Olympics: 27 July. And just suppose it comes after two solid weeks of unusually heavy rain. Public transport has been disrupted, power supplies are down, in some places, food is running short. Could London cope? Are planners already trying to work out what they would do?

It would be what’s known in the trade as a “low probability, high consequence event”. In other words, it’s not very likely to happen, but if it does, it’ll have very serious consequences. And it is directly relevant to the current debates over climate change, in the run-up to the international climate change conference to be held in Copenhagen next month.

I spent a day discussing all this at a conference earlier this week, organised jointly by The World Tonight, the foreign affairs think-tank Chatham House, the journal International Affairs, and the scientific academy The Royal Society. (You may have heard our discussion broadcast on Tuesday evening. If not, you can still hear it via the website.)

It was one of those conferences that leave you with plenty to think about. So here’s some of what I learned:

 Planners are already working on “worst case” climate change scenarios. They regard climate change as a “threat multiplier”; in other words, all the other challenges that we may face over the coming decades – food security, access to clean water, increased demand for energy – become even more acute because of climate change.

 But traditional planning theory is based on the assumption that certain things will remain constant: rainfall in the future will be more or less the same as in the past; water flow in major rivers will remain pretty much what it was. If constants become variables as a result of climate change, how do you make your plans?

 In the Himalayas, average temperatures are already rising much faster than elsewhere. Glaciers are melting rapidly, which means that water flow in the major rivers, which depends on ice melting in the summer, is already down by 60 per cent or more.

 One quarter of all humanity depends on that water; and three of the nations in which those people live are nuclear powers: India, Pakistan, and China. Military forces in those countries are “war gaming” how they would deal with a major water crisis.

 Black carbon, soot, is one of the major causes of warmer temperatures in the Himalaya region because millions of people heat their homes and cook their food on open fires. But black carbon is not a carbon gas, so it will form no part of the discussions at the Copenhagen conference next month.

 The US Department of Energy has set up an Office of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence to provide detailed analysis of all available data on energy and climate-related issues. The US government regards the possibility of climate change-inspired conflict as a major potential security threat.

 Some intelligence officials worry about what they call “organisational adaptive disabilities”; in other words, they fear that governments simply aren’t up to the job of dealing with some of the scenarios under consideration.

By the way, did you hear about the major power cuts that hit much of Brazil this week and left nearly 60 million people in the dark? Unusually strong storms brought down power lines, apparently, and knocked out all electricity supplies to Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and several other major cities. (Brazil will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Think about it …)

But yes, I did pick up one bit of good news: the global economic slow-down has resulted in a significant reduction in the emission of carbon gases. We’ve got about four more years than would otherwise have been the case.

Friday 6 November 2009

6 November 2009

I suspect you’ve been reading and hearing quite a lot about Afghanistan over the past few days. But how much have you been reading about Pakistan?

The shooting dead on Tuesday of five British servicemen by an Afghan police officer whom they’d been training seems to have brought to a head many of the nagging questions that a lot of people have been asking about the whole Afghan operation.

Can we trust them? Is it worth it? Might it be better just to leave them to get on with it?

In Washington and London, the answers from government are Yes, Yes, and No. As I write, Gordon Brown is about to re-state his government’s determination to stay the course – Britain, he says, “will not be deterred, dissuaded or diverted.”

Meanwhile, in Pakistan …

The army is conducting a huge operation against Taliban fighters in the border region of South Waziristan. No foreign observers or reporters are allowed anywhere near the scene, other than on tightly-escorted trips … so we have no idea what’s happening. But it’s hugely difficult terrain, and it has defeated countless military operations before.

The government has been told to its face, by Hillary Clinton on her recent visit, that Washington doubts its resolve in dealing with jihadi insurgents. Many Western analysts believe that some army elements are still quietly backing jihadis based in Punjab, close to the border with India, even as the military are battling against their fellow-jihadis at the other end of the country.

Why? Because to many of the military top brass, even after everything that has happened over the past two to three years, it’s India that remains Public Enemy Number 1, not jihadi fighters. And if some jihadi groups can continue to make trouble for India in Kashmir – and let’s not forget the attacks in Mumbai a year ago – well, that, they seem to think, is bound to be good for Pakistan.

Looked at from Rawalpindi, the Pakistani military HQ, India is a military giant: its standing army, including reservists, is more than 3 million strong, making it the second largest military force in the world, after China. And a substantial chunk of that military might is stationed along the border with Pakistan.

The Obama administration insists that it recognises the crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan as inextricably linked. Hence that ugly name AfPak for its strategic approach. But for the simple reason that there are US troops dying in Afghanistan, and not in Pakistan, that’s where the attention is focused. (And because British troops are dying there too, we hear far more here about the Af than the Pak.)

So what flows from all this? Well, it’s cerainly true that Pakistan is in a permanent state of crisis. It is used to weak government, rampant corruption and insecurity. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read – or even written – that Pakistan is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Perhaps if the political leaders of Pakistan and India were able to do more to improve their relationship, then their military chiefs would stop glowering at each other with thousands of troops stationed more or less permanently on their borders. And then, perhaps, they could turn their attention to their domestic insurgents.

(The so-called Naxalite insurgency in India goes almost wholly unreported … did you know, for example, that just a couple of months ago, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxalites, or Maoists, as “perhaps the gravest internal security threat our country faces”?)

My point is this: yes, of course, Afghanistan has to remain the priority as long as our governments are sending troops there to fight and die. But Pakistan remains a serious issue, with a gruesome series of bomb attacks over recent weeks already beginning to dull the senses with their frequency.

Perhaps the fog will clear a bit after President Obama has announced what he intends to do about the US military’s request for tens of thousands more troops for Afghanistan. But the truth is that there is no end in sight. And things could get a lot worse before they get better.

Friday 30 October 2009

30 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I woke up. Funny things, dreams …

Friday 23 October 2009

23 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 16 October 2009

16 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 9 October 2009

9 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 2 October 2009

2 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Friday 18 September 2009

18 September 2009

OK, so maybe you’re wondering what to make of President Obama’s announcement that he’s abandoning (sorry, “putting on ice”) the Bush administration’s plans for anti-missile defence sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

What you make of it will depend very largely, I suspect, on how you look at the art of diplomacy. Do you see it mainly as the projection of national strength, in order to keep your citizens safe, or rather as the defusing of tensions, and the building of alliances with like-minded states, in order to achieve the same end result?

So: do you worry that by shelving the Bush plans, President Obama will make the US look weak in the face of Russian anger? Or are you encouraged that he seems prepared to hold out an olive branch – both to Moscow and, indirectly perhaps, also to Tehran?

Mind you, the way the decision has been explained has little overtly to do with being nice to Moscow. Not even President Obama wants to portray himself as someone whose main priority is to make new friends.

What he has said is that his military and security advisers have come to the conclusion that there are better ways to protect the US and its allies from a potential Iranian or North Korean long-range missile threat (which, in any case, his experts say, is rather further into the future than the Bush team believed). And he has gone out of his way to try to reassure the Czechs and the Poles that he’s not about to abandon them.

So let’s look at some of the likely repercussions. Moscow says it’s encouraged – but we’ll have to wait to see if there’s a reciprocal Russian gesture. Will President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin now move more rapidly towards a new nuclear arms reduction agreement?

Will they agree to tighter sanctions against Iran? Will they engage more positively in the carbon emission reduction negotiations in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit in December? Was there an implicit, if not an explicit, understanding between Washington and Moscow that a move by one will lead to a move by the other?

And what about the Iranians? Will they see the decision as a sign of weakness, or as an opportunity to engage more fruitfully with Washington, even on the issue of their nuclear enrichment programme?

As for the Poles and the Czechs, they’re feeling a bit sore at the moment. The governments in Warsaw and Prague have expended valuable political capital in backing the original Bush administration plans, often against substantial public opposition. So they’ll need a lot of stroking in the coming months.

And what you would make of it all if you were a Georgian, or a Ukrainian? Would you worry that Washington might look weak, and that Moscow might be tempted to throw its weight around even more than it has been doing? Or would you breathe a sigh of relief that at least one source of tension has been removed?

If the Obama decision was a calculated gamble, it’ll take a few months at least before we can begin to assess whether the gamble has paid off. But it was certainly a significant gesture, if not an entirely unexpected one.

We do live in interesting times., don’t we?

Friday 11 September 2009

11 September 2009

Suppose you were President of the United States of America. You walked into the Oval Office this morning, and here’s what you found in your in-tray, marked “For the President’s urgent decision”:

1. Afghanistan: the election was a fiasco. President Karzai’s credibility has vanished. General McChrystal wants more troops. Britain, France and Germany want an urgent international conference to decide what to do next. Yes or no?

2. Iran: their latest nuclear proposals add up to zilch, according to our guys. (The Russians take a different view, but they would, wouldn’t they?) The New York Times says our intelligence agencies have concluded that Tehran has created enough nuclear fuel “to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon”. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to have been conducting some mysterious secret mission in Moscow, apparently connected somehow to Iran’s nuclear programme. Mr President: you need to decide what to do.

3. Israel/Palestine: Everyone is waiting for you to unveil a dramatic new peace initiative. All we’ve got so far is the two sides agreeing to talk. Sir, it’s not enough, and Mr Netanyahu is speeding up settlement building even as he hints he’s ready for a “suspension” of new permits. We need something in time for the UN General Assembly in 10 days … your thoughts, please.

4. Health care: your speech on Wednesday seems to have gone down well. But it wasn’t enough, as you knew it wouldn’t be. You still need to do more to get some of our own people on the Hill on side, and Senator Olivia Snowe (Republican, Maine) needs a touch more sweet-talking. We think you’ll get something through, but we need to know how much further you’re prepared to go to buy off the unconvinced. When will you abandon the “public option” idea of a government-funded health insurance scheme to run side by side with the private schemes?

I don’t know about you, but if I were President, I think I’d find any one of these decisions daunting enough, let alone all of them together. But I guess no one runs for President thinking he’s in for a quiet life.

So Barack Obama is where he is, and soon he’ll be marking the first anniversary of his election as President. An increaasing number of American voters are asking what he’s managed to achieve so far … his economic stimulus package may have saved or created a million jobs, as the White House is claiming, but many more jobs have been lost.

Power and authority work in strange ways, so if the President gets it right on just one of the issues listed above, he’ll then be more likely to make headway on the others. Success breeds success, just as failure breeds failure. Trouble is: where will the first success come from?

Mr Obama sometimes gave the impression during his campaign that just by electing him, American voters could make the world a better place. But a ballot paper is not a magic wand, and the world’s problems didn’t melt away as soon as Barack Obama won last November.

And remember the brutal US electoral calendar … in November of next year, it’ll be time for mid-term Congressional elections, which means there are already plenty of Democrats in Congress more anxious to do what they think will please their voters than to do what will please their President.

So, suppose you were President … on issues 1 to 4 above, what would you do?

Friday 4 September 2009

4 September 2009

TOKYO-LONDON: Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, I’m writing this week’s newsletter 31,000 feet above ground level, somewhere over Siberia, on the plane back from Tokyo in that limbo time zone where it seems to be neither day nor night.

And I’m pondering the meaning of Japan’s population statistics, which make chilling reading for the newly-elected government after last Sunday’s earthquake election.

Imagine a country that knows it is shrinking. A country that knows it is ageing more rapidly than any other major industrialised nation on earth. Which has the highest proportion in the world of people over the age of 65, and the lowest ratio of under 15s. That country is Japan.

As I reported on Wednesday, on current trends, the population of Japan will have halved by the end of the century.

It is, literally, a country that is slowly dying.

According to one United Nations estimate, it’ll need to import 17 million foreign workers over the next 40 years, just to keep its economy afloat and provide enough carers to look after the elderly. (By 2050, there will be more than a million Japanese over the age of 100.)

I’m no social psychologist, so I wouldn’t dare to come up with an explanation for why Japanese couples aren’t having enough babies. But one theory is that Japanese women are increasingly reluctant to marry, because they think Japanese men have shown themselves unable to adapt to the needs of a new, more flexible society – and have retreated into a fantasy world of comics, video games and animated pornography where they feel less threatened.

The Japanese internet search engine Goo Japan reckons 70 per cent of Japanese men are still unmarried when they reach their 30th birthday. (Mind you, marriage rates in Italy, Norway, France and Ireland are even lower.)

So I found myself thinking at one point of the film “Children of Men”, about what would happen in a world where all women are infertile and the human race is dying out. Not that Japan is descending into anarchy – quite the opposite, in fact. It is still the most orderly place I know, where no one is impatient at traffic lights, and even the hungry and homeless wait in long neat lines for their food hand-outs.

On the one hand, it is the nation of Toyota, Hitachi, Panasonic and Mitsubishi, global leaders and still very much a force to be reckoned with. On the other, it is the nation of manga comics and young women who dress up as French maids to pander to the fantasies of lonely men.

In the current economic climate, the newly-elected government will have no shortage of competing priorities. But it’s already committed to increasing the children’s allowance to £170 per child per month, in the hope that a cash incentive will encourage more Japanese couples to have more babies.

After all, what could be more important for the country’s future?

Monday 31 August 2009

28 August 2009

TOKYO -- So I suppose you might want to know why I’m in Japan. Here are some answers:

Think back to 1997 – if at the UK general election, the Tories had been in power not for 18 years but for more than a half a century, would the Labour victory have been a big story?

If the world’s second biggest economy is about to fall into the hands of a left-of-centre government headed by a party that has never before held office, might that be interesting?

If the country that brought you the world’s biggest seller of cars (Toyota), some of the biggest names in electronics (Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic), the country that is America’s closest ally in Asia and a major provider of aid to Africa – if that country were about to embark on a journey into the political unknown, might it be of interest?

That’s why I’m in Japan. All the signs are that the opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, is about to win a landslide victory in Sunday’s general election. If it does, it’ll be the first time – with the exception of a few months in 1993-4 when hardly anyone noticed – that the Liberal Democratic Party has been out of power. It will be a watershed moment.

(Interesting little nugget: the man on course to be the next Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, is the grandson of the man who replaced the grandfather of the current Prime Minister, Taro Aso. They like to keep politics in the family here.)

Japan is a country in transition. And like all transitions, this one is breeding uncertainty and instability. Remember the “salarymen”, the Japanese workers who had jobs for life in companies that took care of them and their families virtually from cradle to grave? They’re a disappearing breed, replaced increasingly by workers on short-term contracts with little job security.

Remember how Japan used to have a reputation as a country with one of the narrowest wealth gaps in the developed world? Not any more … it now has the second highest rate of relative poverty in any of the major economies (the US comes first).

Remember the Sony Walkman, which brought the joys of music on the move to a generation of music fans in the 1980s, developed and produced here in Japan? Now, the Walkman has been replaced by the iPod, developed not in Japan but in the US.

So is Japan falling behind in this fast-moving digital age? Yesterday I visited a company where they make the chemicals that coat the metals that conduct the data in your PC, mobile phone and TV set. They employ a mere 50 people. Do they want to expand? Not really, they like it the way they are. That’s not how Bill Gates built Microsoft, but it’s one reason why most Japanese companies are failing to develop a global presence.

I also visited Panasonic, where they are working to develop a whole range of environmentally-friendly technologies that have little to do with your flat-screen TV or your digital camera. They showed me an eco-washing machine and an eco-microwave in an eco-house which can generate all its own power almost entirely from renewable sources. This, they believe, is the future.

And I met a man who runs a second-hand shop, which he calls the epicentre of his anti-capitalist revolution. We must learn to live with less money, he told me, which isn’t a message you’ll hear from the thousands of Japanese workers still scared of losing their jobs even as the economy seems to be climbing back out of recession.

So is Japan interesting? It is. Is it important? Ditto. I’ll be reporting from Tokyo in tonight’s programme, and again on Monday and through next week after the results of the election are known. I do hope you’ll try to tune in.

And by the way, if you’re very attentive, you may have noticed that this is the 200th in this series of newsletters. If you’ve read every one of them since I started writing them more than four years ago, congratulations and thank you for your loyalty. Here’s to the 300th!

Friday 21 August 2009

21 August 2009

I think it might be useful to try to disentangle two distinct threads in the debate surrounding the release of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.

Thread 1: was the right man convicted? Unfortunately, we shall probably now never know: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence agent, has abandoned his appeal and gone home to die.

Thread 2: was the decision to release him from jail on compassionate grounds justified because he is suffering from terminal cancer?

I have spent quite a bit of time over the years investigating the Lockerbie bombing and I am intimately familiar with the arguments over al-Megrahi's conviction in 2001. (If you're interested, you can read a background article I wrote at the time on the BBC website here.)

But to my mind, Thread 1 is not the most directly relevant in the wake of his release. It's Thread 2 - the use of the phrase "compassionate grounds" - that seems to me more worthy of our consideration.

Those who object to the decision taken by the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, ask: "Why does this man deserve our compassion when he showed none to his victims?" To which Mr MacAskill replies: "Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by ... no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated." (The full text of his statement is here.)

But should there be some kind of correlation between compassion and the seriousness of the offence committed? Is someone guilty of a heinous crime less worthy of compassion than someone who has committed a lesser offence?

Just two weeks ago, Ronnie Biggs, one of the Great Train Robbers, was released from jail because he is gravely ill. But back in 2002, Myra Hindley, one of the most reviled serial killers in British criminal history, was refused freedom on compassionate grounds and died in custody at the age of 60, having spent 37 years in jail.

Over the past five years, 48 prisoners in the UK have been freed on compassionate grounds; that's fewer than those who have died in custody of natural causes. In Scotland, on the other hand, the picture is different: of 30 applications for compassionate release on medical grounds since 2000 (not all of them, of course, from people convicted of murder), only seven have been refused.

I suspect, although I have no way of knowing, that most of the people who object to the decision to release Mr al-Megrahi are convinced of his guilt. Similarly, I would guess that those who agree with the decision tend to be those who have doubts about his conviction.

But suppose there were no doubts. Suppose he had freely admitted his guilt. Would the arguments about compassion then be different? Mr MacAskill says: "Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion ... but that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days."

I wonder if you agree.

Friday 14 August 2009

14 August 2009

So, where were we? (Yes, I had a lovely break, thanks for asking … walking in Scotland, and the sun shone every day.)

Well, before I hung up my microphone two weeks ago, President Obama was trying to make progress with his healthcare reform proposals. Two weeks on, guess what? President Obama is still trying to make progress with his healthcare reform proposals.

What’s new is that the British National Health Service is now playing a central role in the US debate. “Socialised medicine” – in other words, health care provided by the State – is anathema to American conservatives, and they’re using the NHS as a warning of what they say Mr Obama is trying to introduce.

It’s not often that political debate in America is influenced by what happens in the UK. (I don’t think I’d claim the same was true vice versa.) But the current debate in the US does have some echoes of the debate Britain went through in the 1940s when the medical establishment here fought tooth and nail to prevent the establishment of the NHS.

Incidentally, British Conservatives (with the exception of the occasional maverick like MEP Daniel Hannan, who has been popping up on US TV networks) insist that unlike their American equivalents, they are devoted supporters of the NHS.

Just last night, the party leader, David Cameron, sent out an email to supporters saying: “Millions of people are grateful for the care they have received from the NHS - including my own family. One of the wonderful things about living in this country is that the moment you're injured or fall ill - no matter who you are, where you are from, or how much money you've got - you know that the NHS will look after you.”

But President Obama undoubtedly is finding his ideas tough to sell. And it could be that one reason is that he has not yet put together a detailed package, which means there are still many unanswered questions about cost and the small print.

Robert Reich, who was a key figure in President Clinton’s first administration, wrote this week: “The White House is waiting to see what emerges from the House and Senate before insisting on what it wants … But that's the problem: It's always easier to stir up fear and anger against something that's amorphous than to stir up enthusiasm for it.”

No American needs reminding that Hillary Clinton tried – and failed – to introduce healthcare reform in 1993. The Obama team say they have learned from the mistakes made then … that they are working with Congress and health care professionals rather than against them to come up with a package that will be politically acceptable.

The stakes are certainly high, not least for the 46 million Americans (that’s about 15 per cent of the population) who have no health insurance. President Obama has invested huge amounts of personal political credibility in getting a deal through … and his administration will be seriously damaged if he fails.

How important is it? Look at it this way: according to the political news website, which says it has analysed just about every word the President has uttered in public since his inauguration, he has used the word “health” more often than “Iraq”, “Iran”, “Afghanistan”, and “terrorism” combined.

That’s how important it is.

Friday 24 July 2009

24 July 2009

I imagine you remember BSE and mad cow disease. Weren’t we told that anyone who had ever eaten beef was supposedly at risk of life-threatening brain damage? And you probably remember the bird flu scare. Maybe you even remember necrotising fasciitis, the “flesh-eating bug”, which had us all terrified a few years back.

Why are we so prone to health hysteria? And why do we apparently find it so difficult to tell the difference between a scare story and a genuine health emergency?

I have some theories. First, we live in a complex, confusing, technologically-challenging world. We are never quite sure how fresh is the food that we eat or how pure is the air that we breathe. We lie awake at night and worry: do I know enough, understand enough, to make the right decisions for myself and my family?

We scour the newspapers and sit glued in front of the TV or radio, hoping to learn something that will help us understand. Should I be eating more eggs, or fewer? Should my children drink more fruit juice, or less?

But the answers are usually as confused as the questions. We no longer automatically believe what we’re told, anyway – so even if a Government minister, or a doctor, tells us “This is how it is”, we are sceptical, or dismissive.

Which brings us, as you knew it would, to swine flu. Or flu, as I prefer to call it. I imagine that, like most people, you’ve had flu at some point in the past, and survived. (No jokes, please, about men who get flu: everyone knows that men suffer much more when they’re ill than women do … it’s just the way we’re made.)

Swine flu is this year’s flu. The only difference, so far as I can make out, is that the virus is slightly different from the ordinary, common-or-garden, seasonal flu, which means that the vaccine which is usually given to vulnerable people isn’t effective. This new flu may be a bit more likely to spread, but it seems to be no more serious as an illness (if anything, it might be a bit less serious – at least, for most people).

All right, so why all the fuss? Here’s my theory. First, officials never want to be accused of being unprepared, or of having failed to warn the public of a genuine danger. So they are naturally tempted to err on the side of pessimism.

Second, it is part of their job to prepare for the worst. They have spent ages drawing up detailed contingency plans. So when we reporters ask them: “What’s the worst case scenario?”, they have a nice, scary answer ready and waiting.

And why do we reporters always seem to look for the worst case scenario? Well, imagine tonight’s programme. I read the top headline: “There seems to be a new flu virus, but no one seems too worried.” Alternatively, I read: “There seems to be a new flu virus. Government scientists say up to a million people could be affected.” Which one would keep you listening? (Honest answers only, please.)

We don’t do hysteria on The World Tonight. We try to separate fact from speculation, and we try to examine, dispassionately, what officials are saying and how the experts react. As for me, I travel to work every day by Tube, and as I hang on to the rail, I remind myself that thousands more hands have been there before mine. Some of them, doubtlessly, have been coughed or sneezed on. So I wash my hands as soon as I get to the office.

If you want more information or guidance, the National Flu Service website is at, or you can try phoning 0800 1 513 513.

I’m taking a break for the next couple of weeks, and will try very hard not to think about swine, or flu. The next newsletter will be on 14 August.

Friday 17 July 2009

17 July 2009

Remember Burma? Remember those protests nearly two years ago by thousands of saffron-robed Buddhst monks, protesting against a dictatorial military government?

Let me jog your memory, because I think Burma may soon be back in the news again, and I’d hate to think you weren’t ready for it. (As you may recall, I see it as part of my task in these newsletters to act as a sort of early warning system. Consider this your Burmese early warning.)

First, within the next few weeks, the opposition leader and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi will learn whether her lengthy period of detention is to be extended yet again. (She has already spent 14 of the past 20 years either under house arrest or in prison, since before her party, the National League for Democracy, won an overwhelming victory in the country’s last elections in 1990.)

The latest charge against her is that last May she broke the rules of her current detention order by allowing into her house an uninvited American guest, who had taken it upon himself to swim across a lake to her home.

The expectation is that she will be found guilty as charged (the judicial process is not exactly as independent as might be thought desirable). And if she is convicted, there is a chance of more street protests, because the woman referred to by the Burmese simply as “the Lady” remains a potent political force.

More importantly, if she is sent to prison, she will be unable by law to play any part in the elections scheduled for early next year, the first national elections since the ones her party won back in 1990. (Her supporters think this is the real reason she has been put on trial.)

But why should you care about Burma? Well, my answer is the same as it always is in these circumstances: look at a map. On one side China; on the other India. The world’s two most rapidly growing economies, two regional super-powers. They care what happens in Burma, and so should we.

China’s leaders are particularly concerned. What matters above all to them is stability at home and stability on their borders. They don’t want any sudden upheavals in Burma, any more than they do in North Korea. That’s why I shall be watching carefully to see what Beijing says and does in the run-up to the Burmese elections next year.

Not, of course, that the elections will be anything like free or fair. But if you heard the programme last night, you’ll have heard the former United Nations humanitarian affairs official Richard Horsey, who spent five years in Burma, suggest that the new generation of political leaders who are expected to emerge after the elections may be just a little bit more open to dialogue with the outside world than the current bunch of geriatric generals.

In an article in the current edition of The World Today, published by the foreign policy think tank Chatham House, he wrote that the West “must position itself now to seize the opportunities next year may bring to push the country in the more positive direction we all want to see.”

It could be that nothing will change after the elections. But it could also be that with a US president who believes in engaging even with rogue regimes, there will be a genuine opportunity for a new approach. And despite the undoubted bravery of those Buddhist monks, who risked being shot by the security forces, it could be that some subtle signals now from the outside world will stand more of a chance of effecting a shift in Burma itself.

Friday 10 July 2009

10 July 2009

Here’s a question for you: why, exactly, are British forces fighting – and dying – in Afghanistan?

No army likes to go into battle without knowing why – and the government seems to be having some difficulty in coming up with an answer that works.

This was Harriet Harman, standing in for Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday: “It is important to make sure in the mountainous regions surrounding Afghanistan and Pakistan (that) we do not have a crucible for the development of terrorism that threatens not only the people in that country but the region and indeed the whole world.”

Sub-text: remember 9/11?

The new defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, said pretty much the same thing in more detail the same day. The priorities are, he said, (i) “to prevent a return to Taliban control that allowed terrorists to flourish and threaten our national security; (ii) to prepare the way for elections … by confronting the insurgents, denying them the freedom to operate, isolating them, and degrading their capability; and (iii) to provide the time and space for the Afghan forces to take responsibility for the security of their people, and for the Afghan Government to build their civil society.”

The key message from the government, then, is simply this: if you want a secure Britain, you have to help create a secure Afghanistan. In the words of Bob Ainsworth: “Our troops are in Afghanistan to keep our country safe from the threat of terrorism.”

Simple. Except, of course, it isn’t.

Critics like Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, say our military involvement in Afghanistan is unhappily reminiscent of how the US became embroiled in Vietnam. “Vietnam began with Kennedy's noble 1963 intervention, to keep the Communist menace at bay and thus make the world safe for democracy. That is what George Bush and Tony Blair said of terrorism and Afghanistan.”

No one is arguing that military force alone will create a safe and stable Afghanistan. (After all, the British army tried and failed more than once in the 19th century – and the Soviet army failed just as dismally in the 1980s.) The argument is whether the political progress that needs to be made can be achieved only with military assistance, or rather whether it will come, if at all, only when the foreign forces have departed.

As for the “winning hearts and minds” argument (yes, it was heard in Vietnam too), Jenkins is scathing: “The strategy of ‘hearts and minds plus’ cannot be realistic, turning Afghanistan into a vast and indefinite barracks with hundreds of thousands of Western soldiers sitting atop a colonial Babel of administrators and professionals. It will never be secure. It offers Afghanistan a promise only of relentless war, one that Afghans outside Kabul know that warlords, drug cartels and Taliban sympathisers are winning.”

But might Iraq be a useful example? Most commentators seem doubtful. For one thing, Iraq and Afghanistan are very different places, topographically, ethnically, culturally and historically. Yet critics say that much of the military thinking in Afghanistan does seem to be based on what has already been tried in Iraq. (Not really surprising; after all, the US General David Petraeus is the strategic mastermind in both countries.)

Those who doubt the wisdom of British military involvement in Afghanistan say the government is sending our soldiers to fight a war they cannot win.

Those who support the current strategy say that to pull out now would hand the country back to the Taliban – which most Afghans don’t want, and which would put the UK at risk of terrorist attack – and send a dangerous message of weakness to any other potential insurgent groups who may be tempted to follow the Taliban example.

What do you think?

Saturday 4 July 2009

3 July 2009

MEXICO CITY -- OK, I admit it, I wasn’t too surprised to find -- in a country battling against powerful and violent drugs cartels -- that there was tight security around the headquarters of the government public prosecutor’s office.

You know the sort of thing: crash barriers to stop car bombs; armed guards in flak jackets to stop armed attackers; airport-style metal detectors and X-ray machines as soon as you get inside the door.

I didn’t even raise an eye-brow when they took my photo, my electronic finger-print and a specimen signature on a digital pad.

But what did stop me in my tracks was when a stern woman in surgical gown and face-mask insisted on spraying my hands with some anti-swine flu stuff before I was allowed any further. Organised crime gangs are bad enough -- but drugs syndicates and swine flu … that’s a lot for any government to handle.

President Felipe Calderón says the future of democracy in Mexico is at stake as his government battles against official corruption and organised crime. But if his right-of-centre National Action Party (PAN) does badly, as expected, in Sunday’s mid-term elections, he’ll find it even more difficult to take effective action to confront the threats to the nation’s survival.

I’ve had a fascinating few days – from the rolling hills of Michoacán to the brash Gulf beach resort of Cancun, I’ve met warm-hearted Mexicans with two over-riding concerns: an economy in free fall and spiralling drugs-related violence.

The statistics tell part of the story: the economy expected to contract by nearly 6 per cent this year; remittances from migrant workers in the US down by nearly 20 per cent; tourism revenues down by 30 per cent. More than 6,000 murders last year; more than 1,000 kidnaps.

But the other part of the story is told by people like Vitoria, the sad-faced straw hat seller I met in Cancun. “Tourists don’t come here any more … they’re too scared.”

Or people like Mineko, third-generation Japanese-Mexican, kidnapped last October outside her stationery shop and held captive for a terrifying three weeks. Or Claudia Wallace, who lives with her husband and three children in their prison-like home, with guards at the front gate 24 hours a day, because she and her family refused to keep quiet when her brother was kidnapped and murdered four years ago. (You can hear her harrowing story on tonight’s programme.)

Why is Mexico in so much trouble? Partly because it lies unhappily squeezed between cocaine growers in Colombia to the south, and cocaine users in the US to the north. Much of Mexico’s violence is the direct result of organised crime gangs battling for control of the trade.

But also partly because Mexico has a hopelessly confused, multi-layered police system, organised at municipal, State and federal level, in which far too many police are badly paid and corrupt.

And also partly because some areas of Mexico still suffer terrifying poverty, which breeds alienated and angry young men who fall prey all too easily to the narcos.

President Calderón has called in the army to help him beat the bandits. It’s a controversial but largely popular strategy. So will it succeed? I’m afraid I have to fall back on that old journalistic cliché: only time will tell. Meanwhile, Mexico, the 13th largest economy in the world, with a population of nearly 110 million, teeters on the brink.

Friday 26 June 2009

26 June 2009

Suppose you could choose: which would you prefer? Money scandals, or sex scandals?

You can have both, of course, and if you put money and sex together, you can create an exceedingly potent brew.

Which brings me to Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy and shortly to be the host of a G8 summit. He is a man determined to make the most of his moment in the global media spotlight, but who finds himself currently embroiled in lurid tales of, yes, you guessed, sex and money.

There are snatched pictures of parties in his private villa, attended by half-dressed young women and an apparently totally undressed former Czech Prime Minister. There are allegations that someone paid young women to attend his parties. And, most damaging, there is a specific allegation that he spent a night with one of those women, who is now happy to tell all.

She apparently has video recordings made in his bedroom, which she has described in some detail. Mr Berlusconi himself denies any impropriety, says he has never had to pay for sex, and alleges that the young woman at the centre of the allegations has been paid to create trouble for him.

In Britain, we’ve been obsessed with MPs’ duck houses, moat cleaners and house flipping. (Oh yes, and now, there are the curtailed family holidays, gifts of Krug champagne and celebration dinners claimed by top BBC executives.) In Italy, the talk is of a 72-year-old Prime Minister, whose wife is divorcing him, and who’s at the centre of a steamy story that makes him sound like an Italian version of Hugh “Playboy” Hefner.

I lived in Italy for a time, and I like to think of it as my second home (not literally, I don’t actually have a second home). I reported on Silvio Berlusconi’s first election victory in 1994, and again on his most recent victory last year. I admire a great deal about the country, yet I confess I am puzzled both by him and by Italian voters’ reaction to him.

He is hugely rich, controls a vast media empire, has seen off countless attempts to prosecute him for corruption, and is the most successful politician Italy has known in modern times. He is brash, unapologetic, and treats women as if he had never heard of the word “equality”. So why is he apparently still so popular?

A friend who has lived in Italy for much longer than she cares to remember wrote recently: “Most Italians wouldn't recognise an ethical principle if they tripped over it.” Another commentator, Edmondo Berselli, talks of the country’s “moral amnesia”.

But suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Mr Berlusconi did have sex with a prostitute. Would that automatically make him unfit for office? Would it make a difference if he didn’t pay? Or if she wasn’t a prostitute?

Would his moral culpability be greater or less than that of a politician who avoided taxes or fraudulently inflated his expenses claims? Or of a head of state who had consensual extra-marital sex in his place of work? Or of a Prime Minister (British) who earlier in his career had a four-year extra-marital affair with another MP who went on to become a government minister?

The Italian equivalent of the chattering classes are horrified by Mr Berlusconi, but he still seems to do well enough at election times. Many Italian voters seem to take a similar attitude to the one I found when I asked American voters what they thought of President Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky saga. “He’s a man, ain’t he?”

But Mr Berlusconi does need to keep an eye on what his political allies are saying. The Catholic church does not like this kind of thing being widely written about in public, and there are signs that some of his coalition allies are also beginning to feel queasy.

The Prime Minister has never hidden his love of money, or of attractive young women. What he is now discovering is that in politics, when you put them together, you risk an explosion.

I shall be in Mexico next week, to report from a country hit by a triple whammy of economic crisis, spiralling drug-war violence and swine flu. Listen out for my reports on Thursday and Friday.

Friday 19 June 2009

19 June 2009

You’ve seen the vast crowds, you’ve heard the angry chants. But do you have any idea what Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is up to?

Iran’s political crisis remains on a knife-edge, a week after a presidential election that plunged the country into its deepest turmoil since the revolution 30 years ago. And a great deal depends on how it all ends.

Which is why I would so dearly like to know what Mr Rafsanjani is up to. (You’d easily recognise him: he’s the one major Iranian political leader who doesn’t have a beard. And if you’ve ever seen the picture of me at the top of our website or my blog, you’ll understand why I notice these things.)

Hashemi Rafsanjani is widely regarded as the second most powerful man in the country, after the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And to many analysts, the titanic struggle now under way on the streets of Tehran and many other major cities is not so much between supporters of the two rival presidential candidates, but a much more significant battle between Khamenei and Rafsanjani.

Here’s what you need to know about him. He was President from 1989 to 1997, ran again in 2005, but was defeated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ayatollah Khamenei made no secret of his preference for Rafsanjani’s rival, so there’s what you might call a history between them.

Now, however, Rafsanjani holds two immensely powerful positions at the heart of Iranian politics: he’s chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and dismiss the Supreme Leader, and he’s chairman of the Expediency Council, which arbitrates between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, which approves all political candidates and is meant to ensure that the country’s constitution is respected. (He’s also very rich, with extensive business interests, which has led many critics to accuse him of corruption.)

He has a reputation as a consummate wheeler-dealer, and was a key influence behind the scenes during the campaign of the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. For years, whenever a political crisis has loomed, Iranians have asked: What is Rafsanjani up to now?

Well, whatever he’s been up to over the past week, he’s been keeping very quiet about it. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a single public word from him since the election results were declared.

If the hope of the conservative elite was that the protests would die down after a few days, it looks as if they may have been wrong. I’m told that during yesterday’s silent protests, it took the marchers two hours walking 15-abreast to pass by … one estimate was that there were 750,000 people out on the streets of Tehran alone.

With every passing day, the pro-Mousavi protesters seem to be gaining in confidence. They know from the pictures they pass on to each other on the internet and on their mobile phones that they are far from alone. And they know from the uncertain response from the authorities that the power structure is confused.

Take a look at a map: on one side of Iran is Iraq, and on the other is Afghanistan. In both those countries, as well as in Lebanon, Syria and Israel, and further afield, governments are waiting anxiously to see what happens next in Tehran.

The irony is that the presidential challenger, Mr Mousavi, is no radical – far from it, in fact: he was until very recently a fully paid-up member of the ruling conservative elite. But now he has been cast into the role of opposition leader, a role he seems to have adopted, to the surprise of many, with some alacrity.

Nevertheless, I’m still waiting for the next move by the man they call “the shark”, Hashemi Rafsanjani. If he decides openly to challenge Ayatollah Khamenei, then, to use a phrase quite unfitting for a Muslim nation, all bets are off. And many Iranian analysts fear that this crisis could become a lot more serious before it’s over.

Friday 12 June 2009

12 June 2009

Do you think it might be time to start being nice to Zimbabwe again?

Yes, President Mugabe is still in power. And yes, as you’ll know if you’ve heard any of Mike Thomson’s reports on the Today programme this week, the place is still in an appalling mess.

But Morgan Tsvangirai, opposition leader turned Prime Minister, is currently on a six-nation tour trying to drum up some financial support for a government which, on paper at least, he now leads. He’s meeting President Obama today; he’ll be in London next week – and his message is simple enough: if you don’t help out my government now, it’ll collapse, and the alternative, in his words, “is too ghastly to contemplate”.

But here’s the problem: Western governments aren’t yet convinced that Mr Tsvangirai is really the man in charge. President Mugabe retains control of security, his cronies are still where they were – and crucially, the much-criticised governor of the central bank, Gideon Gono, is still in place.

Western governments want to make sure that if they do start handing over cash again, it won’t be siphoned off into sundry off-shore bank accounts. It might be possible to transfer money directly to, for example, the Health Ministry, which is controlled by Mr Tsvangirai’s MDC – but the risk is that that would free up other cash to be misused elsewhere.

Not a big risk, according to Teddy Brett of the Institute of Development Studies at the LSE, whom we spoke to on Wednsday’s programme – simply because nothing is currently being spent on health. Another option would be for donor governments to channel more cash through the international relief agencies. But Mr Tsvangirai isn’t keen on that because he wants to be able to show Zimbabwean voters that the MDC in government can make a difference.

The scale of suffering in Zimbabwe defies the imagination. It was once a model for sub-Saharan Africa; it is now a basket case. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled into neighbouring countries, mainly South Africa, to find work and food. No one denies that its people desperately need to be helped.

But the current position in Washington and the EU is that the unity government must do more to convince the outside world that it isn’t just a fig-leaf to cover the continuing brutality of President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. Mike Thomson’s interview with a senior MDC minister who says she and her colleagues still get daily phone calls threatening assassination is a stark reminder of political reality.

Bolstering just one party in a fragile coalition government is tricky, but that’s what donor nations seem to want to do. If Mr Tsvangirai can go back to Harare and tell his colleagues: “We’ll get more help, but only if ZANU-PF backs off”, then maybe there’s a chance of progress.

But if he goes home with the message: “I failed; I’ve come back empty-handed”, the MDC will look to its supporters as if it has failed in the one thing it promised them … the chance of a better life.

Friday 5 June 2009

5 June 2009

GDANSK, POLAND -- There are some weeks when I’m not sure what to write to you about, because nothing very interesting seems to have happened.

This is not one of those weeks.

President Obama’s speech in Cairo about relations between the US and the Muslim world? Fascinating and significant, certainly worth a newsletter.

Events in Westminster, the apparent public disintegration of the government? Not without interest.

The 20th anniversary of the beginning of the end of Communism in Europe, the reason I’m here in Poland? Definitely worth reflecting upon.

As, of course, is the 20th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, when Communist leaders in Beijing refused to do what their Polish counterparts were doing: accept that it was time to look for a new political model.

I’ll leave the Obama speech for another day ... but it did seem to me, having read the text of it, that there was plenty there to encourage the hope that Washington is ready to try a new approach.

As for Westminster, events are now moving so fast that between the time I write these words in my Gdansk hotel room and they reach your inbox, who knows what’ll have happened? (If you heard the programme last night, you’ll appreciate how quickly we sometimes have to adapt to new developments.)

So here are just a couple of thoughts about Poland and China. Why did 4 June 1989 mark the end of Communism here in Poland but not in China? Well, for one thing, the Polish democracy movement had been fighting for nearly a decade by the time the end finally came … remember, the Solidarity independent trade union movement had been established back in 1980, and had survived both the imposition of martial law and the imprisonment of its leaders.

In China, on the other hand, the protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere lasted barely seven weeks. True, there had been a fledgling pro-democracy movement, but with nothing like the depth of support that Solidarity had been able to build on in Poland.

And if you believe in the power of individuals to change history, reflect on the roles of two men: Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope, Karol Wojtyla, and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov. Here in Poland, the influence of both was enormous. (Even today, in a survey asking Poles who was the most influential man of recent times, the Pope came top.) The Pope came to Poland in 1979 and told Poles they need not be afraid and that they had the power to change their homeland.

Mikhail Gorbachov told them that it was up to them how they chose to be governed, in other words that there would be no Soviet tanks rolling through their streets, as there had been in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. And in China too, his pro-reform stance encouraged pro-democracy campaigners to believe that, as in the Soviet Union, it was possible for a Communist party to adapt.

In some ways, it already seems a long time ago. Walk through the streets of Warsaw or Gdansk, and it’s hard to imagine that just two decades ago, this country was “behind the Iron Curtain” (what a strange sound those words have now!).

But I remember those days so clearly, going on air night after night, reporting the end of Communist rule first here in Poland, then in Hungary, and East Germany, and Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria and Romania. No more Iron Curtain, no more Berlin Wall.

I’ll write about Gordon Brown another day.

Friday 22 May 2009

22 May 2009

Here’s a really stupid question for you: Is there any big difference between George W Bush and Barack Obama?

This is how it looked to the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd a couple of days ago, as she imagined a conversation between former vice-president Dick Cheney and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

“You’re running national security now and everyone knows it,” Rummy says. “You got Obama to do an about-face on the torture photos. He’s using our old line about how it would endanger the troops. He’s keeping our military tribunals. His Justice Department invoked our state secrets privilege to try to get that lawsuit on torture and rendition dismissed. He’s trying to stop any sort of truth commission, thank goodness. He’s got his own surge going in Afghanistan. He’s withdrawing from Iraq more slowly. He’s extended our secret incursions over the Afghan border into Pakistan.”

A clever piece of satirical writing? Of course. But like all satire, maybe it also contains a kernel of truth. The former White House legal counsel David Rivkin told me last night that Obama has now “bought into” the view that some of the Guantanamo detainees have to be treated as enemy combatants and will have to be detained indefinitely.

That’s not quite how the President put it in his typically eloquent speech at the National Archives Museum in Washington yesterday. (“The documents that we hold in this very hall -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -- these are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity around the world.”)

But when you look at the options he laid out for how his administration proposes to deal with the 240 detainees still being held at Guantanamo (don’t forget: many more than that have already been released by the Bush administration), they don’t look very different from those adopted by Bush, admittedly under pressure from the US Supreme Court.

Some of the detainees will be tried in normal criminal courts; some will be tried by “military commissions” (although with greater rights for defendants and with no evidence admissible if it was obtained using “enhanced” interrogation methods); some will be released; some will be transferred to another country; and some, if they can’t be prosecuted because evidence against them has been tainted in some way, will be subject to a new legal framework, as yet undefined, but understood to imply indefinite detention.

But there are a couple of big hurdles he still needs to jump over. Like who’s going to take those detainees who are released? Members of Congress aren’t at all keen on telling their constituents that a couple of dozen of ex-Guantanamo detainees are about to move into the neighbourhood – and other countries don’t seem too keen either.

As with his U-turn over whether to release more photographs showing US soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama is coming up against the harsh reality of persuading the people he needs to persuade (military chiefs, members of Congress) to see things the same way he does. He prizes consensus, which is another word for compromise, but sometimes that means stopping quite a long way from where he’d hoped to get to.

So his supporters on the left are already disappointed. His critics on the right are suspicious, or dismissive, or both. There are already suggestions that he’s preparing to water down some of his health care reform proposals in the hope of reducing some of the opposition from powerful vested interests. If those suggestions are true, stand by for more unhappy Obama-ites.

None of this means that he is a bad man, or a bad President. Nor does it mean that he will not succeed in at least some of his ambitious plans for changing America. But it does mean that as plenty of people warned him before the election, governing is a great deal more difficult than promising.

Friday 8 May 2009

8 May 2009

I’ve had another one of my strange dreams (or should that be nightmares?). I was on the bus, and I discovered a plain brown envelope lying on the seat beside me. Inside was a sheet of paper with a memo on it, unsigned and undated. This is what it said:

“Alan: You asked for my thoughts about all the Leadership speculation. Given what seems to happen to emails these days, I’m doing this the old-fashioned way, and will have it hand delivered to your home.

1. You are ideally positioned. Everyone thinks you’d be good to take over if (when?) Gordon decides to go. You need to say nothing and do nothing that looks as if you are campaigning.
2. Your appeal is who you are and where you come from, not what your policies are. In this respect, you have what I call the Obama factor. So your strategy must be to say little but to act natural. Emphasise that you can empathise. (Not like some, huh?) But we’ll need to come up with a position for you on the Post Office thing.
3. If (when?) Gordon goes, you will face competition from at least Harriet, Ed Balls, David Miliband, plus maybe Purnell and Burnham. Hattie is the only serious contender.
4. Your appeal to party members should be simply: Who’ll get the vote out at the general election? Hattie, closely identified with Gordon and not naturally voter-friendly, or you? No contest … This is nothing like the deputy leadership election: this one matters.
5. When the time comes, we should encourage media coverage highlighting your own life story. We could get someone to do a “compare and contrast” between you and Boris. “A Tale of Two Johnsons”, you get the idea. (Orphan, council flat, Tesco’s, postman vs Eton, Balliol, Classics. By the way, do you have some good childhood pictures?)
6. Your campaign should be based on the simple idea: “Alan Johnson’s Labour party: back where we belong.” You need to draw a clear line between you and Gordon. Something like the new London Evening Standard campaign? “Sorry for losing touch”.
7. Get Hazel on board, once she’s cleared up this expenses stuff. She may have to do a bit of grovelling. Authenticity is key: a bit rough around the edges is good. (Warning: former Telegraph editor Charles Moore has been touting Johnson/Blears as a dream ticket since last year. This is not helpful, so we should not draw attention to it.)
8. On the subject of the Telegraph, you will have to come clean about expenses. So far, they seem to have nothing on you, but if there is anything – anything – that anyone can make mischief with, let’s get it out in the open now. And I mean, now.
9. Timing: the party conference is the ideal time to go for a leadership election. Hustings at conference, at which you say that if elected, you will immediately ask for the dissolution of parliament and go for a snap election in late October. Campaign slogan: Alan Johnson’s Labour: back in touch with the real Britain.
10. Tell Straw, Mandelson and Darling to stay out of the way. No one who could ever be called smooth should be allowed anywhere near you …
11. You apologise for past mistakes (ie Gordon!), you say you know Labour needs to start again – and you go for the Tories’ jugular on cuts, cuts, cuts. “Who would you rather trust with our schools and hospitals? Johnson’s Labour, or Cameron’s Conservatives?” It will be essential to hammer home that Johnson’s Labour is not Brown’s Labour (or Blair’s Labour!). But we must not encourage comparisons with John Major.
12. Did you know that Mike Smithson of is offering 7/4 that Brown will be be first of the three party leaders to go; 10/1 that you will be his successor, and has a 20/1 bet that you’ll be PM on 31 December?

I say: Go for it. But one last question: Are you sure you want it?”

Then I woke up and there was no memo, and no brown envelope. Even so …

Friday 1 May 2009

1 May 2009

Power is a funny thing, isn’t it? You can’t see it, touch it, or smell it – but you know soon enough if it’s not there.

So does Gordon Brown have power? In theory, of course he does. He’s the Prime Minister. But just look at what he’s been forced into over the past few days.

Settlement rules for Gurkhas? Defeated. New plan for MPs’ attendance allowances? Deferred. Titan super-prisons? Abandoned. National database? Ditto.

There was a terrible moment on Wednesday, right at the end of Prime Minister’s Questions. It had been a rough old session, and the PM couldn’t wait to get out of the chamber. As soon as it was over, he bundled up his papers and headed for the exit.

Then the Speaker announced: “Statement on Afghanistan: the Prime Minister.” To jeers from the opposition, Mr Brown turned on his heels and made his way back to the dispatch box. He’d clean forgotten that he had more business to attend to.

So let’s take it as read that, in the elegantly understated words of Peter Mandelson, “it’s been a bit of a week.” David Blunkett said as much this morning: his message to the government, put blunty, was: “Pull yourselves together.”

But the question is this: Is it simply one of those Westminster squalls, that gets everyone in the village all over-excited and shiny-eyed? Or are we witnessing the slow but now certain disintegration of the Brown premiership?

I’ll leave the prognosticating to the BBC’s estimable political editor Nick Robinson and his Westminster colleagues. But I have been thinking back a bit.

Who remembers Alec Douglas-Home? He took over as Prime Minister when Harold Macmillan resigned in October 1963, and was defeated in the general election of October 1964.

James Callaghan? Took over when Harold Wilson resigned in April 1976, defeated in the general election of May 1979.

John Major? Ah yes, John Major. Took over when Margaret Thatcher resigned in November 1990, won a general election in 1992, and stayed in office until he was defeated by Tony Blair in May 1997.

So Mr Major was the exception, even if his 1992 election victory seemed both at the time and thereafter to be an aberration. For much of the following five years, he gave the impression, in the words of his one-time chancellor Norman Lamont, of being in office but not in power.

Gordon Brown knows his history. He knows all this much better than I do. That’s why, I suspect, he was so tempted to call an election in the autumn of 2007. He knew that with a mandate of his own, he’d have real, lasting authority. But he bottled it.

So his backbenchers no longer do his bidding. The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life ignores his wishes. The president of Pakistan cancels a joint press conference with him.

In June, there are local and European parliament elections. I do not expect joyous results for the Labour party. In July, the full details of MPs’ expense claims will be published, and the Westminster rumour mill is already churning red-hot with talk of forced resignations and by-elections.

On the other hand … there are some little green shoots appearing across the Atlantic. US consumer spending was up 2.2 per cent in the first three months of this year; savings were up as well, and prices rose by 2.9 per cent year on year. In the current economic climate, that all counts as good news.

And if the US recession is bottoming out, it may just be that we won’t be far behind.

Even so, if you were to ask me to bet on Mr Brown still being Prime Minister this time next year, I think I’d plead extreme poverty and head for the door.

Oh, and by the way, the World Health Organisation says we shouldn’t call it “swine flu” any more. It’s “influenza A (H1N1)”. What’s wrong with the “new flu virus”?