Friday 24 September 2010

24 September 2010

Imagine you’re in a small boat, heading towards what you know will be a fearsome storm. Your young captain assures you that it’ll all be fine, and that on the other side of the storm, the seas are calm, the sky is blue and the sun shines brightly.

Out in front is a much bigger boat – you’re following it because your captain is determined that it knows where it’s going as it ploughs through the heavy seas. “I’ve discussed it with their captain,” he tells you. “We’ve agreed on the course we’ve set and I’m committed to it.”

Now you know what it feels like to be a Liberal Democrat. Captain Clegg tells you to hold your nerve as the clouds gather – but how brave are you? When I spoke to Lib Dem delegates at their party conference in Liverpool this week, it wasn’t fear that I saw in their eyes, but I’m not sure it was bravery either.

For now, most of them are prepared to trust Captain Clegg. He’s convinced them, for now, that he knows what he’s doing. But how fierce will the storm be when the public spending cuts begin to bite? And will their supporters on the quayside still be there, waving their flags and cheering, when the good ship Lib Dem limps into port?

(I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this metaphor going, but bear with me for one more paragraph.) And what about the big Labour ship, which hasn’t left port for months? Once one of the Captains Miliband takes control, will it head off in an entirely different direction – or at least at a much slower speed – avoiding the storm and making it back home long before you do, and in much better shape?

End of metaphor. In fact, I found the Lib Dems in Liverpool to be in pretty good heart. They like being in government at a national level, even though many of them already have experience of being in office either at a local level or in Scotland. Lib Dem ministers making policy announcements from the conference platform are an exciting novelty in a party that hasn’t had a taste of national power for 65 years.

And yet. They look at the opinion polls and they fear what’s coming. In local elections (and Scottish and Welsh elections) next May, perhaps in the midst of strikes by public sector workers furious about job cuts, will the Lib Dems lose hundreds of council seats? Will they even lose the referendum on a new voting system, that glittering prize which Nick Clegg won in return for signing up with the Tories?

And will they then ask themselves what they’re getting out of this coalition deal? Yes, they can tell voters that they have played a part in government at a national level, but what if that government becomes deeply unpopular, and Labour basks in the sunshine of opposition under a new and energetic leader?

Here’s what top Lib Dems say in response. First, we can already show that we have done good things in government (tax concessions for the low paid; an end to ID cards and DNA data base records; a bank levy; a Freedom Bill); second, remember that the spending cuts will be phased in over five years, so it won’t be as if a mammoth sword of Damocles comes smashing down immediately after George Osborne’s spending announcement next month.

And third, in the handful of local council by-elections they have contested since they entered the coalition, they haven’t been slaughtered.

But are they at risk of losing their identity? Could Nick Clegg’s speech to the party conference on Monday have been delivered by David Cameron, as some delegates grumbled? A lot of it probably could have been, although not the line when he said that he still thinks that the war in Iraq was illegal.

So what do the Lib Dems want? Nick Clegg is telling them that in government they can make a real difference. (“I still believe in our commitments to the developing world. The difference is I get to make those commitments at a UN summit and make them happen. I still campaign for political reform. The difference is I’m now legislating for it as well.”)

That’s the nice bit. The nasty bit is what voters might think if the Osborne Plan for reviving the UK economy doesn’t work. Before the election, Nick Clegg said he didn’t believe that the spending cuts the Conservatives were planning would be justified. “Do I think that these big, big cuts are merited or justified at a time when the economy is struggling to get to its feet? Clearly not.”

The big question over the coming months is whether voters decide he was right then – or is right now.

Friday 17 September 2010

17 September 2010

If you’re a typical Brit, you’re probably not much bothered about the visit to our shores this weekend of the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, aka Pope Benedict XVI.

About two-thirds of Britons are neither for his visit nor against it, according to a recent opinion poll, which, given the history of these islands, you may find somewhat surprising.

But there again, maybe not. We are, by and large, a secular nation these days – fewer than half of us go to church and our national leaders are careful to keep religion out of day-to-day politics. (Tony Blair’s former consigliere, Alastair Campbell, who once famously remarked “We don’t do God”, wrote interestingly yesterday of being a “pro-faith atheist”.)

And yet. Even if you remember only a few scraps from your school history lessons, you’ll recall that the role of Rome in our national life has often been the major issue of the day. You could even argue that Britain’s post-Reformation identity is built overwhelmingly on the notion that we are not subject to religious diktats from Rome.

On the other hand, there are about a billion Catholics in the world. About five million live in the UK, although only about one million go to church regularly. (That’s about the same number as in the Church of England.)

Back in the days when I was a reporter based in Rome, I had to cover Papal pronouncements on a regular basis. Sometimes it wasn’t easy to decide whether they were genuinely news-worthy. The rough rule of thumb, I was advised, was this: if the Pope had said the opposite, would the world have been surprised? If the answer was Yes, then probably the latest pronouncement wasn’t earth-shattering.

For example, suppose the Pope says it’s important to abide by Church teaching. Would we have been surprised if he’d said it wasn’t important? Yes, we would, which means that what he actually said probably wasn’t all that interesting.

Yesterday, in Edinburgh, Pope Benedict spoke out against what he called “aggressive forms of secularism”. In his homily during the open-air Mass that he celebrated later in Glasgow, he talked of the “dictatorship of relativism”, a favourite theme of his.

It’s not for me to pass judgment on what he said –– but I can say, I think, that these remarks needn’t necessarily be taken as shocking or provocative. After all, if you believe that you have been chosen by God to lead his flock and spread the Christian message, you are bound to be concerned by the secularism you see all around you.

All Popes have their critics, both within and outside the Catholic church. This pope in particular had no shortage of them even before he was elected to the pontificate. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was known in some circles as “God’s rottweiler”, because of his previous job as the Vatican’s guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy. His reputation, you could say, preceded him.

And then came the terrible deluge of sex abuse allegations made against paedophile priests in many different countries. The Vatican’s response was less than sure-footed, and I suspect that a substantial part of the anger that’s being directed by some critics at the Pope during this visit stems directly from the horror of the stories that have emerged.

Take Richard Dawkins, for example (and if anyone qualifies for the title of aggressive atheist, then surely he does). He described the Pope as “a leering old villain in a frock” and the church he leads as a “profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution.”

Would he have chosen to write in similar terms about the Chief Rabbi and Judaism? Or the imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and Islam? The Guardian columnist Michael White quoted a friend the other day as having once remarked that “anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of the Left". That may be stretching things a bit, but there does seem to be a visceral hatred of Catholicism in some quarters that you don’t find aimed at other religions.

Perhaps part of the explanation is that we live in a sceptical age, and Catholicism, more than most, is a religion of certainties. Non-Catholics – and especially non-believers – tend to find religious certainty difficult to deal with.

That’s not to say that there aren’t different theological strands in Catholicism, just as there are in all other major religions. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when a Pope – especially this Pope – preaches a traditional Catholic message.

Friday 10 September 2010

10 September 2010

I think this might be a good moment to remind you of the words of the First Amendment to the US constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble …”

From which it follows: one, that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has a constitutional right to build his Islamic cultural centre close to the site of the September 11th attacks in New York; and two, that Pastor Terry Jones of the 50-strong Dove World Outreach Center church in Gainsville, Florida, has an identical constitutional right to express his opposition to what he calls “extreme Islam” by burning copies of the Koran.

By the time you read this, it may have become clearer what these two men’s precise intentions now are. (At the time of writing, Mr Jones has “suspended” his Koran-burning plans; Imam Rauf is denying that he’s agreed to move the site of his proposed cultural centre.)

You will remember, I suspect, the furore five years ago when a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Many Muslims were deeply offended by what they took to be a gratuitous insult aimed at a religion which forbids the creation of images of the Prophet. Violent protests in many Muslim countries led to scores of deaths.

Those of you with longer memories may remember an earlier furore, in February 1989, when angry Muslims in Bradford burned copies of the novel The Satanic Verses. The author, Salman Rushdie, became the subject of a fatwa issued by the then supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and had to spend several years living undercover.

I was a newspaper reporter at the time, and wrote that the Satanic Verses row “encompassed a myriad of complexities: Two great religions, Islam and Christianity; secularism versus religious orthodoxy; artistic freedom versus state power; pluralism and tolerance versus doctrinal certainty.”

The issues today are much the same, but this, I would remind you, was more than a decade before the attacks of 9/11; it is as well to remember that these tensions long pre-date that fateful September day in 2001.

According to an opinion poll published yesterday in the Washington Post, two-thirds of Americans object to the proposed Islamic cultural centre close to where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to stand. And 49 percent say they have a generally unfavourable opinion of Islam – that’s the highest number since immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

Many Americans fear Islam. Nearly one in five wrongly believe that their President and commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, is a Muslim. Terry Jones’s church in Florida says its mission is “to expose Islam for what it is … a violent and oppressive religion that is trying to masquerade as a religion of peace, seeking to deceive our society.”

His plans to burn the Koran succeeded in uniting an extraordinarily disparate range of critics, ranging from the Pope to President Obama, General David Petraeus, and the US defence secretary Robert Gates, who phoned him personally last night to ask him to call off his protest.

Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, wrote on her Facebook page: “Book burning is antithetical to American ideals. People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation – much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.”

Which brings us back neatly to the issue of rights and responsibilities. I remember that at the time of the Danish cartoons controversy, a number of people said Yes, of course the newspaper had the right to publish them, but surely it also had a responsibility not to.

And now, some people are saying the same about building an Islamic cultural centre close to Ground Zero -- or organising a Koran-burning protest.

So what do you think? Do we sometimes have a responsibility not to insist on our rights, if there is a risk of causing deep offence or provoking a violent response? Or is it an essential part of living in a free society that we do have a right to say and do things, even if they cause offence?

Friday 3 September 2010

3 September 2010

I’ve got an idea – let’s ignore the Middle East diplomatic gavotte that wheezed back into life in Washington yesterday (don’t worry, I’ll tell you if anything interesting emerges), and let’s concentrate instead on what might be going on in North Korea.

Here’s why: some time next week, the biggest meeting of the ruling North Korean Workers Party in more than 40 years is likely to take place – thousands of party representatives will gather in Pyongyang and, just maybe, approve the naming of the country’s next leader.

The expectation is that the name to emerge will be Kim Jong Un, the 30-ish son of the current leader Kim Jong Il, who is said to be in frail health after reportedly suffering a stroke two years ago.

At about the same time, the South Korean leader, Lee Myung-bak, will be on an official visit to Russia to meet President Medvedev. And you can guess what will be high on their agenda: the suspected torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, last March, and the killing of 46 of its crew (you may remember that I wrote about it here last May).

The Korean peninsula remains one of the most dangerous potential flash-points on the planet. North Korea, to the horror of its neighbours, now has a rudimentary nuclear weapons programme; and its rigidly authoritarian and secretive regime has kept its people in poverty and isolation for more than half a century. A change of leadership is bound to add to regional nervousness.

And there are still serious questions to be asked about the mysterious explosion that sank the Cheonan. An international investigation team, made up mainly of South Koreans, but including experts from the US, Britain, Australia and Sweden, concluded that the corvette had been holed “as the result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea.

“The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine,” its report says. “There is no other plausible explanation.”

Pretty unambiguous, you might think. But another investigation was carried out by a Russian team – and although its findings haven’t been made public, a detailed report of its conclusions published in a South Korean newspaper leaves no doubt that the Russians came to a very different conclusion.

Their report suggests that the Cheonan had run aground while sailing in shallow water and that its propeller got caught up in a fishing net and triggered an underwater mine. According to the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, it says: “Prior to the sinking, the Cheonan came into contact with the ocean floor on the right side, and there is a very strong likelihood that the propeller wings were damaged as a net became entangled with the right propeller and shaft.”

The international investigation team reported that they’d also found a torpedo fragment on the seabed with what they took to be North Korean markings. But there is disagreement about how conclusive that evidence is – some analysts suggest the torpedo fragment could have been lying in the water for quite some time.

And then, last week, into this combustible mix stepped former US president Jimmy Carter, on what turned out to be a successful mission to obtain the release of a US citizen, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was serving an eight-year prison sentence in North Korea for having entered the country illegally.

It followed a similar mission a year ago by former President Bill Clinton to obtain the release of two imprisoned US journalists – and led to an elegantly-barbed Twitter post from the US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley: “Americans should heed our travel warning and avoid North Korea. We only have a handful of former Presidents.”

Talks about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme are stalemated again. After the sinking of the Cheonan, a new, tougher sanctions package was imposed on Pyongyang. But was the Carter mission a sign that both Washington and the North Koreans are putting out feelers? The former US ambassador Donald Gregg suggested last week that there may be “an emerging realisation within the Obama administration that its current stance toward the North, featuring sanctions and hostility, is having little positive impact, and that a return to some form of dialogue with Pyongyang needs to be considered.”

You may think the Korean peninsula is a long way away and needn’t much concern us. But at least when you see next week’s headlines, you’ll know a bit more of the background.