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 Now, the Walkman has been replaced by the iPod, developed not in Japan but in the US.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.