Friday 27 February 2015

Politics 101: be clear, be brief, shut up

This has not exactly been a good week for politicians -- so I've decided to make the first ever Lustig Politician of the Week award.

And it goes -- fanfare, please -- to the former deputy prime minister of Australia, Anthony Albanese. He issued a press release on Thursday in response to the news that the man in charge of Sydney airport plans to retire. I'll quote it in its entirety: "Good."

Yup, that was it. Just the one word. The merits of the case are of no consequence -- the award is made in recognition of Mr Albanese's profound understanding of the theory of communication. When you have something to say, say it, and then shut up.

(Thanks are due, incidentally, to John McTernan, the former Blair adviser and ex-director of communications for the former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard.  He tweeted a link to Mr Albanese's admirable statement, thus ensuring that it achieved the global recognition it so richly deserved.)

So here's the point: Green party leader Natalie Bennett (not to be confused with the Israeli right-wing politician Naftali Bennett), former foreign secretaries Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, shadow chancellor Ed Balls -- all took to the air waves over the past few days and dug themselves into unnecessarily deep holes.

If only they had taken a leaf out of Anthony Albanese's book. Be clear, be brief, then stop. When Natalie Bennett found herself in trouble during her excruciating interview with Nick Ferrari on LBC, unable to come up with the figures he was pressing her for, she should simply have ducked.

"Ferrari: So how much would it cost to build the 500,000 new homes that you're promising? And where will the money come from?

"Bennett: I'm not going to go into precise figures now, Nick, but I can assure you we've done the sums and we'll announce the detail in due course."

Similarly if Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw had said a lot less after being hit with those deeply embarrassing cash-for-access allegations, they might have been able to come up with a somewhat better response than: "What me, guv? I've done nuffink wrong, honest … "

As for Mr Balls, when Iain Dale starts talking to you about your sex life -- yes, it was a good week for LBC -- it's best to say nothing at all. Claiming to be a "long slow burn" in bed is definitely not a good idea. (I'm glad I'm not the hapless reporter who's bound to be sent out to get a reaction from Yvette Cooper, aka Mrs E Balls.)

Yes, I enjoy poking fun at politicians. It's good for them and keeps them on their toes. But I also acknowledge that we need them -- honest, capable men and women who are prepared to put in long hours getting on with the kind of mind-numbingly tedious, detailed business of politics that would drive the rest of us to distraction.

Having just watched Michael Cockerell's fascinating four-part BBC television series Inside the Commons, I am more appalled than ever at the cack-handed way they're expected to do their jobs. The Palace of Westminster is falling to bits; MPs are constantly constrained by petty-fogging procedural traditions that would turn any sane person into a Guy Fawkes; and the chances for an average backbencher to do anything meaningful are close to zero.

Cockerell called the House of Commons "the most magnificent and maddening institution in Britain." I think he was too kind: if I had my way, they'd start again from scratch. Build a new parliament building, fit for purpose, appropriate for the 21st century. And for God's sake, get rid of all those flunkeys in their frock coats and whiskers.

How on earth is anyone expected to take politicians seriously when they spend their working days in what looks like a cross between a half-forgotten museum of antiquities and Disneyworld?

Oh yes, and pay them more. Their current salary of £67,000 a year (and I am well aware that they are also entitled to a range of allowances and expenses) does not compare favourably with, for example, the average salary of a secondary school head teacher (£73,000) or an NHS hospital consultant (between £75,000 and £100,000).

Finally, could whoever chooses parliamentary candidates please try much, much harder to find people from a wider variety of backgrounds and life experiences? We need far more MPs like Alan Johnson, John Prescott, Mo Mowlam, David Davis and John Major. And far fewer like … well, you can fill in the names yourself.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

MPs behaving badly

Last April, after the resignation of the then culture secretary Maria Miller, who'd got herself into some expenses trouble, I proposed a five-point test for MPs in trouble. In a spirit of helpfulness, I''m republishing them today.

1. Always apply the Private Eye test: would you be happy if what you're about to do appeared in Private Eye? If the answer is No, don't do it. Simples.

2. If allegations are made against you and it's a fair cop, say so, explain if you must, then quit. Quickly.

3. If the allegations aren't true, say so, resign if you have a front-bench job, and say you hope to be back after you've been cleared.

4. If you're a minister and your department is responsible for an almighty cock-up, admit it, apologise, and resign. You enjoy the perks when the going is good; this is the price you pay. Does anyone still remember Lord Carrington, who resigned as foreign secretary in 1982 after Argentina invaded the Falklands? It was hardly his fault, but he took responsibility.

5. And one last piece of advice for prime ministers: if a member of your Cabinet is in serious trouble, don't think you can tough it out. You can't, and you'll be damaged goods when you lose.

The late, great political columnist Alan Watkins, from whom I learned everything I needed to know about politics, first as an avid reader of his columns and then as a colleague, used to say: "Politics is a rough old trade." And so it is. No politician should ever even dream of complaining "It's not fair."

Friday 20 February 2015

Russia: the enemy?

It's been exactly a year since President Putin started moving in to Ukraine -- yet we're still scratching our heads and asking what exactly he's up to.

My fear is that by the time we've worked it out, it'll be too late. Mouthful by mouthful, he and his proxies have been gobbling up sizeable chunks of the country -- and the rest of us still seem not to want to believe the evidence of our own eyes.

For good reason, to be sure. No sane person wants to go to war against Russia -- the Cold War was quite bad enough. But when pro-Russian fighters seize control of yet another strategic Ukrainian city (Debaltseve fell on Wednesday), and when Russian warplanes stray yet again close to the edge of UK air space, the questions about Mr Putin's intentions become ever more urgent.

I somehow doubt that Mr Putin cares very much what the UK defence secretary Michael Fallon says about him. (Come to that, I doubt the Russian president has even heard of him.) So when Mr Fallon was quoted in Thursday's newspapers as warning that he is a “real and present danger” to NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, he won't have lost any sleep.

I suspect, however, that the Russian president may care rather more what Ursula von der Leyen thinks (and if you haven't heard of her, she's Mr Fallon's German counterpart). So when she talks of "redefining" Germany's relationship with Moscow in response to the Ukraine crisis, the men in the Kremlin may be well advised to stop and ponder for a moment or two.

Germany, after all, has long been Moscow's closest EU economic partner -- the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who joined the board of the Russian energy giant Gazprom after stepping down in 2005, has been described as a personal friend of Mr Putin and once described him as a “ flawless democrat”. His successor, Angela Merkel, is far less well disposed these days, and by all accounts is becoming less and less well disposed with every passing week.

One of the biggest problems is that the EU and NATO have been foolishly ignoring what Moscow perceives to be its strategic interests ever since 1989. Because the first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, was not taken seriously, the West merrily signed up all of the former Soviet satellite states in central and eastern Europe, without pausing for a moment to wonder what it might look like from the Kremlin.

So now Poland, Hungary, the Czech republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, plus the three Baltic states, are all members of NATO, as are Albania, Slovenia and Croatia. With the exception of Albania, they are all also members of the EU. It's not quite tanks on the Kremlin's lawn, but it's not far off.

And let's be honest: the West also did everything it could to encourage the emergence of a pro-Brussels government in Kiev, backing the protesters on the streets with about as much understanding of the underlying tensions as it did during the short-lived Arab spring.

Back in April 2008, at a NATO summit in Bucharest (held, brazenly, in ex-President Ceaușescu's absurdly grandiose Palace of the People), there was urgent discussion about whether Ukraine and Georgia should be recognised as applicant members of the alliance. President Bush was very much in favour; the UK, France and Germany were less keen.

I remember suggesting at the time to the then UK foreign secretary David Miliband that the decision not to accept the two former Soviet republics as applicant states was a victory of sorts for Mr Putin. But for the Kremlin, even talking about the possibility of them joining NATO was a direct threat to Russian interests -- and within months, Russia and Georgia were at war. With Moscow's support, two breakaway Georgian regions, Abhkazia and South Ossetia, promptly declared themselves independent.

Perhaps it might help if NATO and the EU were to say to Moscow something similar to what the UK government said to the IRA back in 1990. As a way of trying to advance the northern Ireland peace process, Britain formally declared that it had no "selfish strategic or economic interest" in northern Ireland, and that the wishes of its people were paramount. Could Brussels say the same about Ukraine?

Or perhaps it's already too late for that. President Putin seems to have decided that neither the US nor Europe has the political will to stop him in Ukraine. So far, he's been proved right. If he starts threatening the Baltic states, however, it will be a very different story.

Under his autocratic rule, Russia has been transformed from what the West once fondly hoped would be a "partner for peace" into a strategic adversary. The danger now is that it will move one notch further: from adversary to enemy. 

Friday 13 February 2015

Some questions for the über rich

How I wish I could sit down in front of a microphone with one of HSBC's "ultra wealthy" Swiss banking clients. How I'd love an opportunity to discuss with them the way they look after their money -- and dodge paying taxes.

Perhaps you remember Leona Helmsley, an American business tycoon who served 19 months in jail for tax evasion. A former housekeeper testified at her trial that she had heard Helmsley say: "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." She seems to have plenty of followers among the holders of Swiss HSBC bank accounts.

"Unfair," will be their response. "We do pay taxes. Lots and lots of taxes. We just don't pay more than we have to." I'll leave it to the regulators, the police and the courts to decide if any laws have been broken -- what I'd like to talk to them about are questions of ethics, responsibility, and their place in society. (I'll leave the smelly politics of it all for another day.)

But first, let's deal with a description of these very rich people that seems to be gaining much currency these days (pardon the pun). They are, apparently, no longer to be called stinking rich: no, they are "wealth creators". The hedge fund managers, the heirs to industrial fortunes -- exactly whose wealth do they claim to be creating? I'd rather we call them "wealth preservers" -- their own wealth, that is, not anyone else's.

Is this the politics of envy? Of course it isn't. It's the politics of justice, of fairness, of -- dare I say it -- "we're all in this together." It's the politics of wanting to live in a society in which everyone has a stake, and everyone pays what they should to make it function fairly and for the benefit of all.

So here's what I want to know. Who do these people think pays for the roads their limousines glide along, the bridges that take them across rivers, the flood defences that keep their riverside homes dry, and the military forces that protect our shores? Of course, the little people's taxes.

I'm assuming they don't send their children to State-run schools, or make use of the NHS. But who do they think educated the staff that they employ: their chauffeurs, gardeners, and housekeepers? And who pays for the education of their children, and their medical treatment? Ah yes, the little people's taxes.

And here's another thing I want to know. What do they actually do with all their money? If they have £10 million to squirrel away, why not pay 40, 45, or even 50 per cent tax on it? They'd still have plenty left, wouldn't they? Or would they really not manage to make ends meet?

What they do, they insist, is neither illegal nor immoral. It is merely "tax efficient". It is exactly what the rest of us do when we buy an ISA, or if we're self-employed, claim tax relief on legitimate business expenses.

Except it's not the same at all. They hire expensive accountants to advise them how to pay as little tax as they can get away. HSBC bent over backwards to make sure they were able to take advantage of every last loophole to keep their cash out of sight of the taxman. To them, tax is an unacceptable imposition, rather than an essential part of a society in which all members pay into a common pot, depending on how much they can afford.

So I'd really like to know how HSBC's richest clients would describe their own personal responsibility to those with whom they share this planet. "Oh, but we give a huge amount to charity, we set up philanthropic foundations, we even donate to political parties." So why on earth don't they pay their taxes at a rate that reflects their true wealth, rather than what they can get away with?

When a retired accountant withdrew £50,000 in cash from HSBC in a single year, did he have even a twinge of conscience? When a perfume heiress with £15 million in Swiss accounts took out a total of £60,000 in banknotes, did she stop even for a second to ask herself if this was, well, proper?

I'd love to know. I'd also love to know what Stephen Green, former chairman and chief executive of HSBC, and also an ordained minister in the Church of England, makes of that famous line in the Gospels: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's …"

As far as I'm aware, Christ did not add the words: "Unless you can get away with not paying."

Friday 6 February 2015

In the name of morality

Two of the grimmest places I have ever visited are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek killing fields in Cambodia, dedicated to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge. They have been much in my mind this week.

So, too, has the Paneriai forest outside Vilnius, in Lithuania, which I visited last summer, where 100,000 Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1944. I also visited Kaunas, where my grandmother was one of tens of thousands of people shot by SS death squads in 1941. Massacres, genocide, horrors beyond imagination. Which brings us to the equally unimaginable horror of IS, or ISIS, or ISIL, in Syria and Iraq.

Whatever you call them, their brutality is so shocking that it leaves us struggling to find the words with which to express our revulsion. Unlike the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge -- or other mass killers like Stalin or Mao -- they are so proud of their cruelty that they film it and broadcast it, for all to see.

I hope to God you didn't watch the video of the immolation of the Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh, which his killers published this week. To watch it, or to republish it, is to do exactly what they wanted you to do. So thank you, Fox News, for plumbing new depths of idiocy by putting the video, in its entirety, on their website. (Still, from the people who brought you the "Muslims only" city of Birmingham, we should expect no better.)

I am not suggesting that IS have slaughtered as many people as those responsible for the massacres of 1940s Europe or 1970s Cambodia. My point is not to draw an arithmetical parallel, but to ask this question: at what point does our knowledge of such cruelty and such suffering compel us, in the name of morality, to take action to stop it?

Debate still rages about whether 70 years ago the Allies should have bombed the railway lines that led to the Nazi death camps. In Rwanda, we did nothing as an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in just a few weeks; but in Bosnia and Kosovo we did send in troops to put an end to mass killing and ethnic cleansing. We can act, sometimes; and we do act. Sometimes.

Is this one of those times? The House of Commons defence select committee certainly thinks so. In a highly critical report published yesterday, the committee said: "We are surprised and deeply concerned that the UK is not doing more."

(At the time of the MPs' visit to Iraq last December, "the entire UK military presence in Iraq, outside the Kurdish regions, amounted to three individuals. By comparison the Australians have offered up to 400 troops, the Spanish 300 troops, and Italy 280.")

Their report concludes: "We are not calling for combat troops, still less for an attempt to repeat the counter-insurgency and state-building agendas of Iraq in 2007. Any contemporary intervention must be far more focused and incremental. But this is not a reason for the UK to lurch from over-intervention to complete isolation."

And there you have it. The appalling mistakes of the Iraq invasion have now burrowed so deeply into the political pysche that policy-makers tend to recoil instinctively from any suggestion of renewed military intervention in the region. As we saw when MPs refused to authorise action in Syria in August 2013 -- not necessarily, by the way, the wrong decision -- they are much more than twice shy having been bitten in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

We need to liaise closely with Jordan, which borders not only both Syria and Iraq, but also Saudi Arabia and Israel. How's that for a tricky neighbourhood? With a population of around 6.5 million, it's also now home to well over a million Syrian refugees. (Multiply that by 10 to get some idea of what that would mean in the UK. 10 million refugees? Hmm …)

King Abdullah's late father, King Hussein, was known to British diplomats as the PLK -- the plucky little king. It was both patronising and admiring, but Jordan does have exceptionally close ties to the UK and has, against considerable odds, managed somehow to juggle the demands of all its neighbours. It's one of only two Arab states (the other one is Egypt) to have signed a peace treaty with Israel.

(By the way, here's a little known fact for you: in 1996, three years before he became king, Abdullah appeared as an extra in an episode of Star Trek.)

Now, after the brutal murder of its captured pilot, Jordan says it intends to step up its air strikes against IS targets and to defeat "this terrorist organisation [that] is not only fighting us, but also fighting Islam and its pure values." Its warplanes have already been in action again in both Syria and Iraq.

It will be neither quick nor easy. But for a Sunni Muslim nation to take a leading role in the international fight against IS would be no bad thing. (The Hashemites who rule Jordan claim direct descent from the prophet Mohammad.) The most useful role for the UK and other foreign powers would be to assist, with logistical, training and intelligence support, the efforts of Jordanian, Iraqi and Kurdish forces to defeat IS.

Not only because it is a brutal, murderous sect threatening vital UK interests by infecting British-born fighters and others with the virus of its perverted ideology (according to the Commons defence committee, IS "provides safe haven to an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters …") but equally because it is bringing misery to tens of thousands of people in both Iraq and Syria who now live in areas controlled by the sect.

It can be done, and it should be done. None of us will be able honestly to say to future generations: "But we didn't know."