Friday 28 March 2014

Warning: Do not be young

More than 30 years ago, the soon-to-be Labour party leader Neil Kinnock warned voters not to fall ill, and not to grow old, if Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party were returned to power in the 1983 general election.
It is usually forgotten that in that same speech -- one of the most memorable of post-war British politics -- he also warned voters not to be young. It's a warning that Ed Miliband might well consider reviving in the run-up to the next election.
It's time to turn Wordsworth on his head -- in 2014 Britain it is not "very heaven" to be young; rather, it is the precise opposite. If you were careless enough to have been born in the eighties, nineties or noughties, well, tough. The likelihood is that you're going to end up worse off than your parents.
According to a BBC report this week, the amount of money being spent on young people's services in England over the past two years has been slashed by an extraordinary 36 per cent. In the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest in the country, the figure was 65 per cent. In Tameside, Stoke-on-Trent and Warrington, it was more than 70 per cent.
Ask inner city teachers what that means to young people who may already be struggling with family trauma, poverty and drug abuse. Ask social workers what it means not to be able to offer help to teenagers whose homes are places of danger, not of safety, and who are at serious risk of violence both at home and on the streets.
But of course few policy-makers do ask teachers or social workers. When ministers blithely talk of "several more years of austerity", they mean more cuts in spending which is meant to benefit those who need help most. They most definitely do not mean higher taxes for those earning obscene million pound salaries. When David Cameron and George Osborne solemnly assure us that "we are all in this together", they are vividly demonstating that satire still has a place in British politics.
And if you think I exaggerate, what other explanation can there be for the prime minister's apparent belief that what the country needs now is lower inheritance tax rates? According to the Financial Times, 94 per cent of people who died in 2010-11 left behind an estate that wasn't subject to the tax anyway -- but implementing a £1 million threshold, which is what Mr Cameron seems to have in mind, would cost the Treasury more than £3 billion. Peanuts it ain't.
In the words of the FT: "Ratcheting up the IHT threshold to £1m cannot be justified at present. Making this promise is good pre-election Conservative politics. Implementing it in these austere times would be socially unjust."
"Good pre-election Conservative politics." There's the key. Because it is pre-election politics that's driving government policy now -- just look at Mr Osborne's wizard wheeze of freeing up personal pension pots to enable older voters to spend their pensions how the hell they like.  These are ideas that have little to do with what's good for the country, but everything to do with what's good for the Conservative party.
Am I the only person who thinks there's something seriously wrong with having the minister who's in charge of economic policy, the chancellor of the exchequer, also in charge of the Tory party's election strategy? Might he not, just occasionally, be a tiny bit confused about exactly whose interests he's meant to be looking after? Even more so, if the Westminster gossip is to be believed, when he's also quietly preparing a campaign to be the next leader of his party.
 This government has been more than generous to older voters (I know, I should be suitably grateful). Older voters vote, of course: 76 per cent of them in the last election, compared to a mere 44 per cent of 18-24 year-olds. No surprise, then, that an election strategist might whisper in the ear of the chancellor of the exchequer, ie in his own ear: Be sure to be nice to the wrinklies.
Vulnerable teenagers tend not to turn up at MPs' surgeries to complain. Newspaper commentators and television pundits tend not to send their children to the schools where the most vulnerable children go. In other words, the young people who are having their safety net whipped away are largely unseen and unheard.
"Why should I vote?" asks the disaffected teenager. "What have politicians ever done for me?"
"Why should we help disaffected teenagers?" asks the steely-eyed election strategist. "They don't vote, anyway."
But they do have opinions. And every few years, they express them -- not at the ballot box but in the streets. This summer will mark the third anniversary of the urban riots that swept through many English towns and cities in 2011. I wish I believed that the angry young people who went on the rampage then have any less reason to be angry now.
I profoundly disagree with those who say that rioting is a legitimate form of political expression -- putting lives at risk and destroying other people's homes can never be justified. But I disagree equally profoundly with a political class that says young people don't matter because they don't vote.
They do matter. They're the future.

Friday 21 March 2014

Europe on the brink

Western leaders who’ll be meeting for emergency talks in Europe next week have an unusually important judgement call to make: do they believe President Putin when he says he intends to go no further in Ukraine?
It may well be the most important decision facing Western policy-makers since they gave the green light to the reunification of Germany in 1990. Europe’s future hangs in the balance.
If they decide that President Putin is likely to be satisfied with having reabsorbed Crimea back into the bosom of mother Russia, well, that’s something the West can live with. Crimea is not a strategic Western interest, even if the principle of territorial integrity (one state does not gobble up bits of another state) has been flagrantly breached.
If, on the other hand, they suspect that the Russian president does intend to bite off another bit of Ukraine – the eastern part where most people are Russian-speakers and where many feel a closer affinity to Moscow than to Brussels – that will be a step too far.
And it’s at that point that we would enter uncharted waters. No one envisages going to war with Russia, although it’s worth reminding ourselves that if Mr Putin were to move against any of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), all of which are members of both the EU and NATO, then there’d be no alternative to war. An attack on one NATO member state is regarded as an attack on them all, and a military response would be all but inevitable.
That’s how serious this is. So far, there has been no sign that Russia does intend to up the ante, although the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s justification that it was defending its Russian compatriots does create a dangerous precedent.
(By the way, if you can't find the Moldovan region of Trans-Dniestr on a map, now may be the time to look for it. Some analysts are already highlighting it as a potential next flash-point.)
As for the Baltic states, what would Mr Putin do if ethnic Russians in Riga or Vilnius were suddenly to "ask" for protection? Could he blithely ignore them, having gone to the aid of ethnic Russians in Crimea? Has he perhaps embarked on a course without fully having considered where it might take him?
It’s easy to assume that he’s having things all his own way and that the annexation of Crimea was part of a carefully calibrated strategy. Maybe it was, but it may also have been a tactical response to a crisis in Kiev that from Moscow looked like being seriously damaging to Russian interests.
Imagine what the world looks like as you stare out of a Kremlin window. The US is worn down by wars of attrition in Afghanistan and Iraq – and the EU has barely emerged from a financial and economic crisis that threatened to tear it apart. This, surely, is the moment to reassert your right to defend your own backyard: no more NATO encroachment up to your borders, no more EU blandishments to tempt your neighbours.
Since 1989, Moscow has watched helplessly as the Baltic states, plus Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the former east Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia have all moved out of the Soviet/Russian orbit and into the EU/NATO camp. It has been, in the eyes of Mr Putin, a massive humiliation -- and the West's forays into military adventurism (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya) have simply rubbed salt in the wounds.
Now, President Putin has decided that enough is enough. He's under growing political pressure at home as the Russian economy splutters, so what better time to wrap the Kremlin in the nationalist flag and unite Russian voters in support of their compatriots in neighbouring states? In the words of the former British ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer: "Putin and his cabal of close advisers are moved by a poisonous combination of grievance and ultra-nationalism."
That's why, he says, "there is no possibility that any combination of economic sanctions and visa restrictions currently under consideration in the West will check the Kremlin. Crimea is gone for good."
On the other hand, Russia's economic weakness may turn out to be the West's strongest card. That, at least, is the thinking that underlies the current taste for imposing sanctions. It was, after all, economic weakness that played a significant role in the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire -- and it may turn out to be an equally significant factor again. Two credit rating agencies have already downgraded Russia post-Crimea, and that does mean a real added cost to Russian borrowing on international markets.
The response so far from Western leaders to President Putin's Crimea-grab has been, in effect, to shout loudly while wielding a stick so small as to be almost invisible. They must do better next week. By all means keeping turning the sanctions screw, but more importantly, lay out unambiguously the nature of the NATO mutual defence commitment as it applies to the Baltic states.
Mr Putin may well be thinking that just as the US could get away with doing pretty much whatever it liked in the first 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, now it's Russia's turn again. He must be disabused of that notion as quickly as possible -- for our sakes as well as for Ukraine's. A world in which one superpower can operate overseas unchecked is a highly dangerous one. Surely that's one lesson we should have learned by now.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

The LSE, the BBC, and North Korea: my response

Last April, when the BBC found itself embroiled in a row over its use of a visit to North Korea by students from the London School of Economics as cover for a Panorama team to slip in to the country, I wrote a piece in the Guardian defending its use of subterfuge.

Now the Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust has found in favour of a complaint by the LSE and the father of one of the students involved. Its key ruling was: "The BBC failed to consider a number of important issues and risks, and failed to deal with them appropriately. In particular, the provision of information to the students who took part in the trip was insufficient and inadequate, and meant the daughter of the complainant did not possess the knowledge necessary to give informed consent."

So was I wrong to defend the BBC? The corporation has apologised for the lapses in procedure identified by the editorial standards committee. Should I do the same?

In the Guardian, I wrote: "If the BBC is right in claiming that the students knew what was going on then surely it has no case to answer." Note the word "if".

It was alleged at the time that the Panorama team had joined the LSE group "without the knowledge or consent" of the students." My response was: "Not the way the BBC tells it. So far, it seems most of the students feel they were informed of the risks and were happy to go ahead." Again, note that I was basing my assessment on the version of events as provided by the BBC.

It now seems that what BBC executives were saying at the time was not entirely in accordance with the facts. The committee concluded that "there was some evidence that BBC staff had made statements about the trip to North Korea in the immediate aftermath of the trip that were subsequently shown not to have been entirely correct."

Confusion? Obfuscation? Cover-up? Probably a bit of all three. I still maintain that journalists are justified occasionally in using subterfuge to get to places where otherwise they might not gain access and that as I said at the time, the LSE was justified in feeling put out that they hadn't been told more about what the Panorama team were up to, but wrong to demand that the programme should be scrapped.

As for an apology, yes, I apologise for relying too heavily on what BBC executives were saying at the time, but my basic point remains: the LSE made far too much of a fuss and failed to recognise the value of journalistic access to closed societies like North Korea.