Friday 29 November 2013

Boris Johnson: still a nasty piece of work?

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is not -- despite his carefully cultivated Bumble the Clown image -- a stupid man. So we must assume that he knew exactly what he was doing when he delivered his typically rumbustious "greed is good" speech in memory of Margaret Thatcher a couple of nights ago.

And what he was doing was giving the Conservative party -- the party of which he is a leading member and was once an MP -- a great big almighty shove towards electoral defeat in two years' time.

"Vote Conservative, the party of the greedy Gordon Gekkos." The Labour party posters write themselves, don't they? I hope Ed Miliband has written him a thank you note.

But why, pray, would Boris Johnson, the man who so desperately, so painfully, wants to be the next Conservative party leader, try to ensure that his fellow Tories are voted out of office in 2015?

The answer, dear friends, is in the question. The only hope -- I repeat, the only hope -- that Mr Johnson has of taking over from David Cameron is if the Tories lose next time round. Because if they win, Mr Cameron goes on and on, and his faithful lieutenant George Osborne is in pole position to inherit the crown when the time comes.

Cynical, moi? Guilty as charged. Ambition makes monsters of men, and Boris has ambition by the bucketload. For him to win the prize he covets, Cameron must lose. That's how politics works.

The word that springs to mind -- and not only because this week marked the start of the Jewish Hannukah festival -- is chutzpah. It means cheek, audacity, sheer bloody effrontery. Mr Johnson has it in spades.

Not just because he happily stabs the prime minister in the front, but because he somehow thinks it's all right to heap praise on the hedge fund managers and other City types who live their lives motivated by greed -- without once, not once, not even in a throwaway line, mentioning the responsibility they bear for the melt-down of 2008-9 and the misery they inflicted, and are still inflicting, on millions of their fellow citizens.

I read about Boris Johnson's speech in yesterday morning's newspapers. I also read this, in The Guardian: "Local council funding for 'quality of life' services such as leisure centres, libraries and playgrounds will largely disappear in the next three years as authorities focus their depleted resources on crisis interventions for the poorest people, a study says …

"Only a rump of services used predominantly by the poorest and most vulnerable residents, such as child protection and elderly care, will remain, warns the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) report … Children's centres, youth services, arts and culture activities, neighbourhood wardens and street cleaning are already being cut back, while social care services for elderly people are being restricted to those with the most critical needs, it says."

What's the connection? Well, as you may remember, when the banks went belly-up, due in large part to an excess of Johnson-approved greed, the government bailed them out. It cost, to coin a phrase, loadsamoney. Public spending was slashed, and that included what the Treasury hands over to local authorities. We were all in this together. Remember?

So, not to put too fine a point on it, good old Johnsonian greed in the City is magically transmogrified into shut down leisure centres, libraries and drop-in centres.

The Boris vision is that what local councils can no longer afford, mega-rich business tycoons will pick up the tab for, in a spirit of what he calls "prodigious philanthropy". To quote the man himself: "I hope that … the Gordon Gekkos of London are conspicuous not just for their greed – valid motivator though greed may be for economic progress – as for what they give and do for the rest of the population, many of whom have experienced real falls in their incomes over the last five years."

So it's not that he doesn't realise that the "rest of the population" have taken a hit; it's simply that he thinks we're not greedy enough. Or, given that he also thinks that inequality is a fact of life, predicated at least in part on the widely discredited notion of IQ, just not bright enough.

I'm reminded of my former colleague Eddie Mair's challenge to him on TV a few months back: "You're a nasty piece of work, aren't you?"

Sunday 24 November 2013

Iran deal - Syria sacrificed?

In the "Like it" column, you can put the governments of Iran, the US, Russia and Europe.

In the "Don't Like it" column, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the anti-Assad opposition in Syria.

If the Iran nuclear deal, finalised in Geneva in the small hours of this morning, sticks, the tectonic plates in the Middle East will have shifted. And whether you welcome that or fear it depends entirely on where you're sitting.

Let's take the "like it" column first. The Geneva negotiators believe they have found a way to reduce tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme in such a way as to enable both sides to claim victory. There is now, they say, much less of a chance that Iran could develop a nuclear bomb, something that Tehran insists it never intended to do anyway.

The Iranians get an immediate partial unfreezing of some of its sanctions-hit assets -- a key element in President Rouhani's election platform -- and the prospect of further unfreezing in the months to come if further talks bear fruit.

Win-win. Everybody happy. Except, of course, the anti-Obama camp in Washington and the anti-Rouhani camp in Tehran.

And all those listed in the "don't like it" column. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Nethanyahu, doesn't trust the Iranians (never has, never will) to keep their word. He's convinced that whatever it may say in Geneva, Iran still intends to develop the bomb, and to threaten Israel's decades-long pre-eminence as the Middle East's only nuclear-capable state.

Going on past experience, I'd expect Netanyahu to take some kind of unilateral military action (probably against Iranian-backed elements in Gaza, Lebanon or Syria) to demonstrate that Israel is still determined to protect what it regards as its essential security interests. From Tel Aviv, anything that could be seen as good for Iran must be bad for Israel.

The view from Riyadh is oddly similar. The Saudi royals hate the idea of Washington finding a new interlocutor in the region -- and they especially hate the idea that it should be the Shia clerics in Tehran with whom the Americans can now do business.

For decades, the Saudis (together with the Egyptians) have been Washington's go-to people in the Middle East -- and strengthening Iran's position on the world stage is absolutely the last thing they wanted. One of the biggest fears over the Iran nuclear programme has long been that if Tehran really did develop a nuclear weapon, the Saudis would feel compelled to do the same.

Which brings us to poor Syria. Iran has been by far Bashar al-Assad's most important ally since the start of the uprising against him. If Iran is stronger today than it was yesterday, so is Assad. If Washington and Tehran can do business on the nuclear issue, so, perhaps, they can on Syria. And if they do, you can be sure of one thing: Assad will stay in power, at least in the short term.

So as temperatures continue to drop in the Syrian winter, and as tens of thousands more terrified refugees seek shelter and sanctuary wherever they can find it, the fighting will continue. An emboldened Iran may well step up its weapons supplies to Damascus, just as the Saudis and Qataris will be tempted to do the same for their favoured rebel groups.

Russia? I imagine Vladimir Putin is a very happy bunny this weekend. His seizing of the initiative over Syria's chemical weapons arsenal paid handsome dividends and successfully diverted the world's attention away from the Syrian bloodbath. His allies in Damascus and Tehran look more secure; the political dividend for Barack Obama is relatively slight.

Bottom line: if the deal sticks, something huge has changed in the Middle East. The balance of power has shifted. Whether you welcome that, or fear it, will depend on what you think of President Rouhani and how much of a moderate he really is.

It reminds me of the hopes -- and fears -- when Mikhail Gorbachov came to power in Moscow in 1985. That, unexpectedly, led to the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet empire. Once again, we live in interesting times.

Friday 22 November 2013

Why all the fuss about Dr Who?

Is there anyone else out there? Or am I the only living being in the entire galaxy who’s been left totally unmoved by the current outbreak of Dr Who-steria?
It’s a good thing I never became a judge.
Counsel for the defence: “Your honour, my client has a cast-iron alibi – he can prove he was at home watching Dr Who at the precise time that the offence was committed.”
Judge Lustig: “Dr Who?”
Counsel: “That’s right, m’Lud.”
Judge Lustig: “Mr Carruthers, I asked you a question. Kindly answer it – Dr Who?”
Counsel: “Indeed, m’Lud.”
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against the good Time Lord (or is it Time Lords? I’ve never been able to work out if he's the only one left, or whether there's still a whole sub-species of time-travelling, age-defying humanoids, endlessly renewing themselves at the whim of drama commissioners and actors’ agents).
It’s just that I don’t get it (him). Or science fiction in general, come to that. I can admire the special effects – even though I’m probably the only person on earth who enjoys the wit of the scripts more than the whizz-bangs. But how can anyone enjoy all that sci-fi hokum more than, say, Borgen?
(Yes, Borgen is in Danish. Yet I swear I understand more of it than I do of the time-bending, sense-denying gobbledegook of Dr Who. Perhaps sub-titles would help?)
My misfortune, not the doctor’s, I readily admit. He’s well able to continue his chaotic journey through the time-space continuum without me. Unto infinity – and beyond. Which would, of course, be a scientific impossibility for anyone other than a Time Lord. Maybe it’s a boy thing: do any women become adoring fans (apart from those who develop an unhealthy crush on Matt Smith, David Tennant or whoever)?
So I’m puzzled. What exactly is the attraction? Perhaps my lack of understanding is because as a child, I was brought up in a TV-less home – my parents believed that children should read books instead of staring at cathode ray television screens – so I never learnt the joy of hiding behind the sofa, scared out of my wits.
And my own children grew up in that sad, grey era known as the 1990s, during which the Doctor was absent from TV, so I even missed him second time round. Our home, you could say, has always been a Dr Who-less zone.
Mind you, growing up as a TV-deprived child did teach me a lesson that has served me exceptionally well in my adult life. Playground conversations at school invariably revolved around whatever had been on television the previous evening, so I had to develop a talent for talking knowledgably about things I had no knowledge of. You cannot imagine how useful that was when I became a radio news presenter.
But back to Dr Who. I delight in his success and popularity, which generates huge bundles of cash for the BBC, which it can then use to make programmes that otherwise it couldn’t afford. The same is true of Top Gear, which raises the intriguing question of how much more cash could be generated if Jeremy Clarkson were to be cast as the next incarnation of the Doctor. Not such a bad idea, in fact …
I’ve come to the conclusion that television is a habit best acquired at a tender age – a bit like brushing your teeth or changing your socks. Unlike most people, if I find myself at a loose end of an evening (not a frequent occurrence, alas), I rarely switch on the telebox. With so many newspapers and magazines unread, why would I?
Yes, of course, I do watch sometimes. And now that, for the first time in decades, I am sometimes at home in the evenings, I have come to enjoy such delights as (whisper) Great British Bake-Off and University Challenge. (And if my family tell you that I love Strictly Come Dancing, you mustn’t believe them. Really, you mustn’t. Even though it’s true.)
But I’ve never watched X Factor. Or I’m A Celebrity. Or any of the other programmes that exist only to humiliate people or make fools of them.
David Attenborough, yes, of course. And anything written by Armando Iannucci. Or starring Judi Dench. Downton Abbey? Well, maybe occasionally. And Homeland, and just about anything in Danish or Swedish on BBC4. And yes, I will probably watch the special Dr Who 50th anniversary show – just to see what all the fuss is about, you understand.
By the way, the first of my reports from Peru and Mexico are due to be broadcast next Wednesday and Thursday on The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4.

Friday 15 November 2013

A Mexican moment?

When I was last in Mexico four years ago, it was a country on the brink of collapse. The US economic crisis had thrown thousands of Mexican migrant labourers out of work; a flu epidemic had dried up the flow of tourists to its magnificent beach resorts; and the government’s war against powerful drugs gangs was making some parts of the country among the most violent anywhere in the world.

I’ve just been back, and on the surface at least, much has changed. The economy is booming, thanks to a steady flow of major foreign investors opening up new plants, and a growing middle class with money to spend. And the government of President Enrique Pena Neto says it has drastically reduced the level of drugs-related murders.

So the question being asked is: Is this the Mexican moment? Is the country about to emerge as a strong, stable economic power, ideally placed just to the south of the US to feed the demands of the biggest market in the world?

At a huge new industrial park in the centre of the country, with more than 75 factories employing 12,000 people, they are confident that the answer is Yes. More than half of the companies that have opened up are Japanese, most of them making components for the major Japanese car manufacturers – Nissan, Toyota, Honda – that are expanding their Mexican operations to take advantage of the country’s low labour costs.

Within the next year or so, it’s estimated that rising wage levels in China will make average wages in Mexico even more attractive to foreign investors. Add low wage costs to geographic proximity to the US and a government that says it welcomes foreign investment, and you get a mix of ingredients that could propel Mexico into a bright economic future.

But it’s not a certainty. For one thing, some of the promises that the government made when it was elected nearly a year ago -- to introduce a wide range of reforms and to change the constitution to allow foreign investors to move into the country’s energy market – are running into trouble. There have been massive protests against some of its proposals, and some analysts say the government’s reform programme may already be running out of steam.

For another thing, parts of the country still suffer from grotesquely high levels of violence because of the powerful drugs gangs, or cartels, that control the distribution of cocaine and other drugs through Mexico into the US. The new government has promised a new approach to dealing with the cartels, but most Mexicans I spoke to said they hadn’t noticed much difference.

A businessman from the state of Michoacan told me he has to pay monthly extortion payments to the gangs to be able to stay in business. He no longer dares to spend more than a few days a month in his home state for fear of being kidnapped. A friend’s son was abducted, and when his father could raise only half the ransom demanded, the kidnappers dumped half his son’s body outside his front door. The note read: “You paid half what we asked for, so here’s half your son.”

For decades, millions of Mexicans crossed the border into the US, some legally, but most of them illegally, looking for work. Now with the US economy sluggish and the Mexican economy booming, the traffic has reversed direction. More migrants are heading south into Mexico than north into the US.

And with Europe also in the doldrums, young entrepreneurs from countries like France and Spain are also moving to Mexico. One of them, Guillaume Pace from France, told me how he decided to open an advertising agency in Mexico City because there are so many more opportunities than back home. As soon as he meets the residency requirements, he intends to apply for Mexican citizenship.

So it’s a mixed picture. The economy has been doing well, but there are questions over the future of the government’s economic liberalisation programme. The murder rate is down, but the number of kidnappings has rocketed. The middle class is growing, but in rural areas, people say they have seen none of the benefits of recent economic growth.

A Mexican moment? Perhaps. In the words of one analyst I spoke to: “Next year could either be the moment when Mexico really takes off – or it could be when everything comes unstuck.”

We hope to broadcast our reports from Mexico and Peru later this month, on both The World Tonight and the BBC World Service. I’ll also try to post some of the wonderful pictures taken by my friend and colleague, the multi-talented producer-photographer Beth McLeod.

Friday 8 November 2013

A letter from Peru

-->I've been in Peru for the past few days gathering material for a series of reports that we hope will be ready for broadcast on The World Tonight and on BBC World Service later this month.
Why Peru? Two main reasons: first, because it has recently re-emerged as the world’s number one producer of cocaine, a title it lost 20 years ago to neighbouring Colombia. And second, because it also happens to boast one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, thanks in large part to its reserves of gold and copper, much in demand by China, soon to be the world’s biggest economy.
Yesterday, I found myself trekking through thick jungle to reach a well-hidden, illegal plantation of coca leaves. In theory, the farmer’s coca crop had been destroyed as part of the government’s eradication campaign – in fact, deep in the jungle, far from prying eyes, the coca is still there, providing what farmers say is an essential income to enable them to feed their families.
Peru has reduced the amount of land being used to grow the coca plants from which cocaine is made. But it hasn’t reduced it by as much, or as fast, as Colombia has. That’s why it’s now back at the top of the coca league table.
I did meet some farmers who have successfully switched from coca production to other crops such as coffee, cocoa beans and bananas. But it takes time for the new plants to become established and productive, and even when they’re mature, the profits are smaller – and the effort much larger – than if the farmer had simply carried on with the coca, which just happens to be a remarkably easy crop to grow and harvest.
In the central Peruvian town of Tingo Maria, I was able to buy a small bag of coca leaves perfectly openly from a woman sitting on a street corner with a huge sack of leaves in front of her. The leaves have been grown here for generations, used as a stimulant and as a medicine. It is no easy task for the government to end a traditional way of life that brings substantial profit for minimal effort.
As for the economy, its impressive growth is not related to the coca trade but rather to China’s apparently insatiable appetite for the mineral wealth that lies beneath Peru’s soil. As China’s economic growth has slowed, however, so has Peru’s, and now the government says it is determined to encourage domestic demand and the industrialisation of the national economy to enable it to become less dependant on the vagaries of global commodity prices and China’s continued growth.
In the Gamarra district of the Peruvian capital, Lima, which is the centre of the country’s garment industry, I met Justina Janto Lopez, who runs a thriving business making 100-dollar evening dresses for customers in the emerging middle class. She started from nothing, now has 30 employees and six shops, and exports her clothes throughout the region. She’s exactly the kind of wealth-creator the government wants to encourage.
The bustling streets of Gamarra are one sign of a booming economy. Another is the growth in sales of beer, as Peruvians move away from the lethally dangerous home-brewed spirits that they used to drink and are now switching to beer.
It’s not difficult to find the illegal stuff – I simply walked into a shop in the dusty working-class suburb of Huaycan and asked for it – but shopkeepers insist that they much prefer to sell beer. Quite apart from anything else, it means fewer fights among drunk customers.
Conclusions? Peru is doing what it can to deal with its cocaine issue, but it knows it has to do more. And it’s confident that its economy is on the right path for sustainable growth, whatever happens to the price of gold and copper. Millions of Peruvians who have started to enjoy the life style that goes with a growing economy hope the government is right.