Friday 27 January 2012

27 January 2012

When I was at school, long, long ago, I studied a subject called English literature.

And when I was old enough to get my first passport, it was issued on behalf of a country called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The word England, or English, didn't appear anywhere.

How much simpler it would have been if I'd been born in France, or Germany: French literature, French passport; German literature, German passport.

As far as I know, there's no such thing as "British literature", and there's certainly no "United Kingdom literature".

(Of course, English is a language as well as a national and cultural identity -- which is why we can also study American literature, or African literature, written in the same language but from a very different cultural background.)

So do labels matter? I suspect they do, because they help us describe who we are, who we feel ourselves to be. And surely that's an important part of the newly-invigorated debate over Scottish independence.

I've yet to meet a Scot who doesn't bristle indignantly when some ignorant foreigner describes them as "English". To be Scottish, or indeed Welsh or Irish, is, in part, to be not-English -- and perhaps we not-Scots need to recognise that more than we sometimes do.

Incidentally, while we're on the subject of national identities, I'm reminded of how the author and Anglican priest William Inge, who served as dean of St Paul's a century ago, defined what constitutes a nation: it is, he said, "a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbours."

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, is going to great lengths these days to say that he's not an England-hater. Far from it, he says: he wants Scotland to be a good neighbour to England instead of a surly tenant -- and a confident, independent Scotland would help England to become equally confident, equally independent.

For now, all the opinion polls suggest that he has not yet convinced a majority of Scots that going it alone would be in their best interests. If he held an independence referendum tomorrow, he'd probably lose. Indeed, there seem to be more people in England than in Scotland who would be happy to see the two nations cut the ties that bind them.

If we look around the world, we can find other examples of countries that have split up, and we can choose which one to focus on, depending on what point we want to prove.

Czechoslovakia? The "velvet divorce" of 1993 -- Generally speaking, a success.

Ethiopia? The independence of Eritrea, also in 1993 -- Not a success at all, leading to continued conflict over borders and thousands of deaths.

Serbia/Kosovo? The unilateral declaration of Kosovan independence, 2008 -- a highly controversial example, of course, as it was done without the agreement, indeed, against the furious opposition, of Serbia. Not how it would happen if Scotland were to vote for independence.

But here's one aspect of the debate that perhaps hasn't yet received as much attention as it should. If the Scots want to feel more Scottish, and the English want to feel more English, where does that leave the people who insist that they really do feel British, rather than Scottish, English, Welsh, or Irish?

What about the child of immigrants from Cyprus, born here, English as first language, UK passport -- British, yes, but English?

Or the grand-child of immigrants from Jamaica, or India -- British, yes, but English?
(Declaration of interest: I am myself the child of refugees.)

National identity is tricky in a world of mass migration -- but it's going to be a fascinating debate.

Friday 20 January 2012

20 January 2012

Has the month-old Arab League mission to Syria been a dismal failure? Is it time to admit that it has done nothing to protect Syrian civilians, or to pressure President Assad to call a halt to his security forces' crackdown against anti-government protesters?

Facts are hard to come by in Syria, but the UN estimates that some 600 people have been killed in the four weeks since the Arab League observers turned up; the US reckons the rate of killing has actually increased rather than decreased since the mission got under way.

When I was in Cairo last week, I spoke to the Arab League's secretary-general, Nabil el-Araby. He readily admitted that President Assad has flagrantly ignored the agreement he signed with the Arab League -- and he left little doubt that he has made his deep displeasure known in private communications with Damascus.

But he does not accept the claim by some Syrian opposition groups that the mission has done more harm than good. (Nor does he accept that it has become, to use the word favoured by one of his monitors who quit in disgust, a "farce".)

Mr el-Araby says that at the very least, protesters have known that if they come out onto the streets to shout their anti-Assad slogans in the presence of Arab League observers, well, they won't be shot as long as the monitors are watching. What happens after they've gone, of course, may be an entirely different matter.

Think of the Arab League as a mini-EU. It's made up of 22 states (21 now that Syria has been suspended), and they're as different as Kuwait is from Sudan, or Qatar from Egypt. Not one of them enjoys what you might recognise as a truly democratic form of government. (Post-revolution Tunisia is getting close.)

So when it comes to deciding what to do about Syria, it's about as difficult as getting the EU to agree on what to do about the euro. Lebanon, Syria's nervous neighbour, and Iraq, which is close to Syria's main ally, Iran, are both deeply opposed to any firmer action against the country's current rulers. Qatar, at the other extreme, is arguing for Arab military action to end the conflict.

How about referring the whole thing to the UN security council? After all, that's what the Arab League did over Libya, with an urgent request for a no-fly zone to be set up. The request was granted -- and the rest is history.

Never again is the line from Moscow -- and remember, Moscow has a security council veto. In Cairo, Mr el-Araby is in close touch with senior Russian and Chinese diplomats, and he knows better than anyone where their red lines are. So tell him there are demands that he goes back to the security council now and he asks: What's the point, given the known positions of Russia and China?

As long ago as last April, with the Syria protests less than two months old, I wrote: "With no regional pressure for military intervention, and with no Western appetite for any more military adventures, the message for anti-government protesters in Syria seems inescapable: you're on your own."

It may seem remarkable that eight months and several thousand deaths later, the message hasn't changed. But political realities are what they are: and quite apart from anything else, the Russian navy values its warm-water Mediterranean port at Tartous, just as much as the US Fifth Fleet values its home in Bahrain.

In other words, to use an appropriately naval metaphor, neither major power wants to rock the boat where its own strategic interests are at stake.

The likelihood in Syria, then, is that the military stand-off on the ground will be matched by a diplomatic stand-off at the UN. My hunch is that the Arab League will issue a report that's harshly critical of Bashar al-Assad, but will nevertheless agree to extend its observer mission's mandate for another month.

Below the radar, and far from prying eyes, I suspect Western military trainers are hard at work coaching Syrian rebel defectors in camps across the border in Turkey. What the opposition need is to to be able to seize -- and hold -- some sizeable chunks of territory, and to form themselves into something resembling a cohesive political unit along the lines of the National Transitional Council in Libya.

If, over the coming months, the military balance swings the rebels' way on the ground, the diplomatic balance may well follow. But the initiative lies, as it has done all along, with the anti-Assad forces in Syria itself.

13 January 2012

CAIRO -- A year is a very short time in revolutionary politics, so if anyone asks you, a year after the Egyptian revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, what the future holds in store for this country, you can confidently reply: “It’s much too soon to tell.”

Yes, the old dictatorship has gone, but the military are still in control, and democracy has not yet taken hold.

Yes, elections have taken place, but they were to choose members of a new parliament whose powers have yet to be defined.

And yes, there’s now a freedom of expression and a freedom to protest unlike anything that Egypt has seen in decades -- but dissidents are still being thrown in jail and thousands of civilians are being tried in military courts.

The big story from the elections is that the religious, Islamist parties have swept the board. As I write, the final results after a six-week election period have not yet been published -- but in broad terms it looks as if the Freedom and Justice party, representing the Muslim Brotherhood, have won about 40 per cent of the vote, and the al-Nour party, representing the ultra-conservative Salafis who practise an unusually strict form of Islam, have won between 20 and 25 per cent.

That’s enough to worry a lot of secular liberals who have nightmares about Egypt turning into another Iran. Stories have started circulating of Salafi-inspired “morality police” being issued with wooden batons with which to discipline citizens who are considered to be inappropriately dressed.

But until a new constitution has been drawn up, no one can be sure just how much power these new MPs will have. One leading presidential candidate, the former foreign minister Amre Moussa, told me he favours a “French-style” presidency; the Islamist parties, on the other hand, would rather have a more powerful parliament and a less powerful president. (You can hear the interview tonight, Friday, or online or as a podcast.)

As for the military, they’re keeping their counsel these days, after being roundly criticised for suggesting that they expected to play a major role in the drafting of a new constitution. The assumption is that whoever is elected president later this year will need to have at least the tacit support of the Muslim Brotherhood, without whom he probably couldn’t win, and of the military, without whom he couldn’t govern.

Here’s an anecdote from the streets of Cairo, a vignette to illustrate how different the new Egypt is from the old one. A few nights ago, we stumbled across a noisy demonstration, a few hundred students chanting slogans against the military council. We decided to record it; after all, you can never tell when these things might come in useful.

Within moments, having seen our microphone, an angry and smartly-dressed middle-aged man was berating us, in fluent English, about the idiocy of the protesters. Why didn’t they just go home and leave the military to get on with running the country?

Moments later, a second man joined in, again in fluent English, taking the opposite point of view. Tempers rose, and a crowd soon gathered. But there was no trouble, and as soon as we put the microphone away, the crowd drifted off.

Democracy in action? Not quite, perhaps. But in the Egypt that I used to know, a microphone in the street would have been regarded with deep suspicion. No one would have chanted opposition slogans, or voiced political opinions for all to hear.

Egypt is one of the most influential nations in the Arab world, even if it can’t afford to buy the sort of influence that countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar enjoy. The population of Cairo alone is greater than the combined populations of Libya, Lebanon and Jordan.

That means that what happens here will matter far beyond Egypt’s shores. A smooth transition to a genuine democracy would be a powerful example in one of the world’s least stable regions.

Friday 6 January 2012

6 January 2012

If you’re travelling abroad, and someone asks you where you’re from, what do you say? England? Scotland? Britain?

I usually say England (or even London – everyone has heard of London). What I never say is Europe.

Ask an Indian, or a Chinese, where they’re from, do they say Asia? Would a Kenyan, or a Nigerian, say Africa? I doubt it.

On the other hand, the Indians and the Chinese don’t share a common currency; nor is there an Asian Union. We Europeans are different, at least in theory, because there is a common currency, and there is a European Union. Whether we really feel European, though, is a moot point.

According to a provocative article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “the European Union was built on the myth that we are one people with one common destiny.”

The Brussels-based journalist Gareth Harding writes: “The British view of the state's role is very different from the French view. The Greek or Italian concept of law is very different from that of Sweden or Denmark. Latvians have a very different view of Russia from Germans. What an Irishman is prepared to pay in taxes is very different from what a Dane or Belgian will allow.”

He quotes the Dutch writer Geert Mak: “There is no European people … There is not a single language, but dozens of them. The Italians feel very differently about the word ‘state’ than do the Swedes. There are still no truly European political parties, and pan-European newspapers and television stations still lead a marginal existence. And, above all: in Europe there is very little in the way of a shared historical experience.”

You may remember that in one of my newsletters last month, after the drama of the Cameron veto in Brussels, I asked whether the EU has perhaps become “too unwieldy, too stretched as a concept and too unbalanced as an economic entity, to survive the immense stresses to which it is now being subjected?”

Harding’s question is a broader one: he suggests that the current debt crisis, and the doubts about the future of the euro, “encapsulate a broader breakdown of Europe's dreams of a united future.

“Rather than bringing the European Union closer to its citizens, the currency has widened the gap between rulers and ruled. Instead of ushering in a new era of prosperity, the euro has condemned millions of Europeans to decades of penury. And far from bringing together the peoples of Europe, it is on the verge of tearing them apart.”

But there is, of course, another side to the story. Over the past 60 years, most of Europe has experienced an unprecedented era of peace: Germany has invaded none of its neighbours; and no fewer than nine nations that had been subsumed into the Soviet empire are now free of those shackles.

The EU should certainly be given at least some of the credit for that, as it should for the rapid democratisation of what used to be Eastern Europe, and for Serbia’s and Croatia’s achievements in opening up a new chapter after the horrors of the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The prospect of being able to join the EU was a powerful incentive in both Belgrade and Zagreb as they emerged from those bloody conflicts.

But in times of economic hardship, people always look for someone to blame. There are growing signs of anti-foreigner sentiment in many northern EU countries (the “foreigners” include both migrants from north Africa as well as those from eastern Europe), while in Italy and Greece, for example, corrupt or ineffective political elites and bankers seem to bear the brunt of the anger.

Harding may well be over-stating it when he suggests that the current crisis is on the verge of tearing the peoples of Europe apart. But the strains are there for all to see –and they represent a huge challenge to the EU’s leaders as they try to navigate their way through 2012.

I’m going to be in Cairo next week, to take a closer look at the impact of the Arab uprisings. I hope you’ll listen out for our reports next Thursday and Friday.