Friday 29 May 2015

Dear Mr Cameron: beware Murphy's Law

It took exactly 50 words for the Queen to set Britain on course for a moment in history that will define it for the forseeable future.

This is what she said: "My government will renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union and pursue reform of the European Union for the benefit of all member states. Alongside this, early legislation will be introduced to provide for an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union before the end of 2017."

It took another 22 words for her to fudge the future of the United Kingdom: "My government will also bring forward legislation to secure a strong and lasting constitutional settlement, devolving wide-ranging powers to Scotland and Wales." Enough fudge there, methinks, to feed a palaceful of courtiers for several years.

So let's focus on the first union, the European one. In or out? A simple enough question, perhaps, but one that will dominate all political life until it is over and done with.  For David Cameron, the stakes could hardly be higher: his place in history, the future of his party, and the future of the country. No pressure, then.

When he unveiled his EU strategy in what became known as his Bloomberg speech in January 2013, I suggested that of the five most likely scenarios it was possible to imagine, all but one ended with his resignation. Scenario 4 went like this: "Cameron wins the election with an overall majority in the Commons, persuades the EU to negotiate a few more opt-outs for the UK, but not enough to satisfy his back-benchers. He says he'll urge voters to back the deal anyway, but more than 100 of his MPs refuse to follow him. The party splits and he resigns."

(Scenario 5 was: "As above, but the newly-negotiated deal is so good that it satisfies even Bill Cash. All Tory MPs line up behind him to vote Yes in the referendum, and the deal is overwhelmingly approved by voters. Cameron emerges triumphant and walks across the surface of the River Thames in celebration.")

We now know that Mr Cameron intends to resign anyway, whatever the outcome of the vote, before the next election. So the EU referendum, whether it's next year or the year after, is likely to be his last significant political act.

The sighs of exasperation at Britain's continuing ambivalence over its EU membership can be heard all the way from Lisbon in the west to Bucharest in the east. It's not as if our EU partners don't have other things to worry about, above all the still unresolved matter of Greece's slow slide towards bankruptcy.

So Mr Cameron will struggle to engage other leaders' full attention. They know he's committed to the referendum, and they know he'll need something to show for his pledge to deliver real reforms, especially on welfare benefits for citizens from other EU states. They want Britain to remain in the EU -- although frankly I wonder why, sometimes -- but more than anything, they want the "Britain problem" to go away.

A recent article in the New York Times referred to Britain's "reduced involvement — and seeming loss of stature — on the global stage". If the UK leaves the EU, it will look to the rest of the world as if we have finally turned our back on several centuries of global activism, both in our empire-building days and since.

If that is what a majority of British voters want, so be it. I'm sure we'd survive somehow. The people of Norway, for example, do not necessarily lead impoverished lives just because they have remained outside the EU and have no pretensions to be a global power. (Nor, it has to be said, do they rely as we do on being the preferred base of operations for a wide variety of multi-national corporations and a magnet for foreign investors.)

Mr Cameron insists that he wants the UK to stay in the EU. In which case, he would do well to read and memorise the advice offered by Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform. First, do not over-bid. Second, start making the case for membership, even at the cost of upsetting some of your own party's anti-EU headbangers. Third, start taking some initiatives in the EU rather than always sitting on the sidelines. Fourth, build alliances. And fifth, try to be a bit more European in the way you go about things: "British politicians tend to forget that their rambunctious style of domestic politics – involving confrontation, bluntness and a win-or-lose psychology – goes down badly in Brussels."

All of which is very much to the point. See, for example, the warning from the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius: “I find this process quite dangerous … The British population has got used to being repeatedly told: ‘Europe is a bad thing’, and the day they are asked to decide, the risk is that they will say: Well, you told us: ‘Europe is a bad thing’.”

David Cameron should also bear in mind Murphy's Law -- "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong" -- even if it is not yet enshrined in an EU treaty. If Greece crashes messily out of the eurozone, if a Commons majority of 12 gets whittled away to single figures, if George Osborne's new dose of welfare cuts goes down badly -- well, all bets are off.

Referendums have a nasty habit of becoming at least in part a judgement on a government's popularity. I can't help wondering what the chances are of Mr Cameron's lot still being flavour of the month by referendum time.

Friday 22 May 2015

Palmyra: a lament

What matters most: the loss of 200,000 lives or the threatened destruction of some ancient ruins?

The answer should be obvious, I know -- and yet …

Perhaps it's because I have visited the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, and have marvelled at the breath-taking beauty of its historic ruins, shimmering as the sun set over the desert.

Perhaps it's because I know they are irreplaceable, that once they have been destroyed, they will never be seen again -- even as of course I acknowledge that the same is true of every single Syrian life lost in the past four years of bloodshed.

The threatened loss of a world heritage site brings its own unique brand of sadness. If we have visited the site, or even if we have seen only the pictures, we can identify with it in a way we cannot with those hundreds of thousands of individuals who have died in conflict.

So we mourn what we can identify with, more than with what we can't.  Part of me knows that the ruins are merely stone, and that they have already been partially destroyed or mutilated many times in their 2,000-year history. And yet if they are bulldozed to the ground in the coming days, I shall shed a tear for their loss.

Much of what those who care about ancient sites most value is precisely what the IS, or Islamic State, fanatics most despise. We value what links us to the past, what demonstrates to us that long before our own culture was born, there were already architects, artists and poets, stonemasons and carpenters, who created sublime works of lasting beauty. And yes, that there were also religions and deities before those to which we ourselves may subscribe.

That thought is anathema to IS, who seek to obliterate any suggestion that there could have been anything of value in the world before the birth of their own culture and their own religion.

But there's more to their orgy of destruction than that: I suspect that another reason why they enjoy destroying what they know we value is that they know it hurts us so deeply and that we are powerless to stop them.

It is as if a group of fanatics were to seize Rome and threaten to flatten the Colosseum, or take control of Cairo and blow up the pyramids at Giza. Imagine how we would grieve if someone destroyed the great buildings and bridges along the Grand Canal in Venice.

Each archeological treasure is testament to thousands of years of human endeavour to transcend the merely mundane. Whether it's the ancient ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, or the massive Mayan structures at Teotihuacán in Mexico, they remind us that the search for beauty and meaning, for an understanding of our place in the firmament, is not just of our time but of all time.

They are also, of course, as is Palmyra, testament to wealth and power. All new conquerors seek to destroy what they find and to replace it with their own monuments to their own immortality. This, they say, is who we are, and how we can obliterate those whom we defeated. Where now are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or the Great Library of Alexandria?

In that respect, IS are just the latest conquerors in a much-conquered land. And if their past behaviour is anything to go by, they will behave in exactly the same way.

So what, I hear you cry, can we do about it? My answer, I fear, is that we can do very little. We can no more protect the ancient ruins of Palmyra than we can the hundreds of thousands of terrified, traumatised human beings whose lives have been destroyed in this brutal war.

And if you think foreign military intervention in Syria on the side of the rebels might have prevented the advance of IS, I would simply urge you to look at what's happening next door in Iraq. There, 12 long years after the US-led invasion, IS fighters have now seized the key city of Ramadi, buoyed at least in part by Sunni ex-Saddam loyalists threatened by the Iranian-backed Shia administration in Baghdad.

Perhaps, though, we can at least reflect on the tragic irony that while we mourn the likely loss of a unique historic treasure in Palmyra, the governments of the EU, including our own, are refusing even to discuss a way to offer shelter to those Syrians and others who have managed to escape the hell which is now their homeland.

Instead, there is talk of destroying the boats into which they have crammed, hoping to reach safe haven in Europe, and of "sending them back to where they came from".

Last year, according to the UN refugee agency, nearly a third of the migrants who risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean came originally from Syria.

Send them back? To Palmyra?

Friday 15 May 2015

A very political prince

I have a suggestion for Prince Charles: why not register yourself as a professional political lobbyist? You could set up your own company: HRH Political Consultants.

You clearly enjoy writing to ministers, trying to influence policy, and backing the causes you favour. On the evidence of the handful of your letters that were finally published this week after a 10-year legal battle by The Guardian, it's not immediately obvious how successful you are -- but there's no doubting your diligence.

I can well understand how frustrating it is, having to wait until you're an old man before being allowed to do the job you were born to do. And given how strongly you feel about so many things -- the plight of hill farmers, bovine TB, military helicopters, historic huts in the Antarctic, alternative medicines and the fate of the albatross -- well, yes, it must be tempting to pick up a pen and scribble a few lines to the relevant government minister.

There's just one problem: it's not your job. You live a life of comfort and immense privilege, in part paid for by tax-payers, to do just one thing.


OK, you can open some new hospitals, admire brave new ventures, run a charity or two, make a few anodyne speeches, attend foreign potentates' funerals. That's the job description, and I agree, it sounds like hell.

Say nothing controversial, do nothing controversial. If you're in training to be a figurehead, take note of what figureheads do. ("Figurehead: a carved wooden decoration …")

Think how much more interesting it would be to be a full-time lobbyist. True, you'd have to give up being a prince -- or a king, come to that -- but hey, we all have to make choices in life.

What is most troubling is not your views, nor that you decided to express them in long -- and frankly sometimes quite tedious -- letters. What's troubling is that you don't see that there's a problem.

As The Times wrote in an editorial: "It is constitutionally improper for the heir to the throne to exert pressure on the democratically elected government. By the simple fact of his position, a letter from the prince is not just a letter, but a form of pressure."

And let's be honest, you know that perfectly well. Why else would you have written the letters? Why would you have written to Tessa Jowell ("Dear Tessa … Yours affectionately …") that you'd promised the prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, that you would raise the issue of those Antarctic huts, even though you knew full well that it was already under discussion between the two governments?

Why else would you have leant on Tony Blair ("I apologise for the length of this letter!") on the subject of the EU directive on herbal medicines? You're neither a trained scientist nor a trained doctor (you did history and French at A level and got a 2:2 in history at Cambridge), yet for some inexplicable reason you clearly thought the prime minister of the day should take seriously your views on the appropriate regulation of alternative medicines.

You also have strong views on how children should be educated -- in February 2005, you wrote to the newly appointed education secretary Ruth Kelly: "I remain convinced that the current approaches to teaching and learning need to be challenged."  Well, fine, but why should your thoughts on education be of any conceivable interest to ministers?

Five years ago, when David Cameron was still a mere leader of the opposition, he warned that political lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen". Earlier this year, in a report called Lifting the Lid on Lobbying, the campaign group Transparency International said: "UK citizens currently have little opportunity to understand who is lobbying whom, how, for what purpose and with what funds."

We will almost certainly never have another chance to see what else Prince Charles has been writing to ministers about, nor indeed what he chooses to lobby them about once he becomes king. Shamefully, the government is determined to change the law to ensure that his secret lobbying is never again exposed to public scrutiny.

Even the Daily Mail, which would not normally agree with The Guardian about anything, thinks we have a right to know whose arm he is twisting and about what: "The Prince sought to use his position to influence public policy. So surely the public had the right to know what he was up to. May the Mail humbly suggest that if he doesn’t want the public to know about his meddling, he shouldn’t do it?"

All lobbying, whether by princes or paupers (not that paupers usually get much opportunity to lobby), should be subject to public scrutiny. It's the only way we can be sure that nothing improper is going on.  

Friday 8 May 2015

A new era, a new country

You have woken up this morning in a new country. It is a country divided as never before, with two major political parties facing existential crises after a brutal election night.

I am writing at dawn on Friday morning, in the expectation that by the time you read these words, one party leader, Nick Clegg, will be preparing his resignation statement, and another, Ed Miliband, likely to be standing down very soon.

It is a measure, though, of the magnitude of the overnight political earthquake that the futures of the Liberal Democrats and of the Labour party are not the main story today. It is perfectly possible that when you cast your vote yesterday, it was in the last election to be held in the UK in its current form.

The most urgent task facing David Cameron this weekend, having won an unexpectedly comfortable number of seats in the Commons, is to come up with something to re-engage Westminster with the people of Scotland. They may have voted against independence last September; yesterday the pro-independence SNP pretty much swept the board and consigned Labour in Scotland to a pitiful irrelevance.

The first UK election I reported on was in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher swept into Downing Street. It felt like a moment of history; we knew she would change the country. But yesterday’s election was of an entirely different order: because of the rise of the SNP, and of UKIP in many different parts of England, the future of the UK is now in question as never before.

For the Liberal Democrats, the results weren’t as bad as they had feared – they were much, much worse. Having volunteered their support to the Conservatives five years ago in a coalition, they have now been squeezed to within an inch of their lives. It will take them many years to recover from the beating they received yesterday.

For Labour, a long, deep, painful rethink is called for. At the time of writing, they have lost as many seats to the Tories as they have won from them – that is a truly appalling result after five years of Tory-imposed austerity and its impact on people’s living standards. The inquest will have to go beyond the usual “What went wrong?” that follows any defeat – it starts with “Who are we?” and “What do we stand for?” and then moves on to “How do we regain the trust of the British people?”

Ed Miliband thought he had created a coherent political philosophy that would appeal to large numbers of British voters. He was wrong. He was unable to meet the threat of the SNP north of the border, just as he was unable to stop UKIP eating away in Labour heartlands south of the border. It will be no easy task to develop a strategy that meets both those challenges.

David Cameron is about to be severely tested. He flunked his response to the Scottish independence referendum last year by appearing to care more about the future of England than he did about Scotland. In the small hours of this morning, he spoke again about “one nation and one United Kingdom” and about governing for all the people. We shall see – Boris Johnson, now back in the Commons and snapping at his heels, has already suggested that the Tories will have to make “some kind of federal offer” to the people of Scotland to meet at least some of their aspirations. It is going to be a difficult and uncomfortable period.

And then, of course, there’s the EU. Mr Cameron has pledged a renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership followed by an in-out referendum. It is not entirely fanciful to imagine that by the time of the next election, Scotland will have split away from the UK, and the UK, or what remains of it, will have left the European Union.

Today, the Tories may feel as if they have won a wonderful victory. The truth is that they are in for a very difficult time. They have few allies in the new House of Commons and the massed phalanx of their opponents will be ready to exploit every opportunity to trip them up or stop them in their tracks.

My guess is that many people will soon be recalling almost with fondness the relative stability of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Labour, presumably under a new leader, and the SNP, heralded by Alex Salmond as the Scottish lion that roared, will be in no mood to accommodate the Tories’ plans for more public spending cuts and a continued squeeze on welfare programmes. Mr Cameron may wish to consult John Major on the joys of governing on a knife-edge.

Be grateful, though, at least for this: there will be no constitutional crisis, no weeks of haggling to cobble together a new coalition. The Tories won. Just.

Friday 1 May 2015

The Big Tory Lie about Labour and the SNP

Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who said: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

It might have been Lenin, who is often quoted as saying (although I can find no reliable source): "A lie told often enough becomes the truth."  Who would have thought that, deep down, when he's not being all pumped up with new-found passion, David Cameron might well be a secret Leninist?

His claim, repeated ad absurdum, that a minority Labour government would be held hostage by the SNP is, I'm afraid, nothing less than a Great Big Lie. The truth is that the Lie could only become Truth if the Tories wish it so. And that is not something that Mr Cameron will ever admit to you 

(He was at it again during last night's BBC Question Time programme, during which, out of nowhere, he suddenly referred to Ed Miliband "potentially propped up by the SNP.")

Yes, I know, shock, horror, politicians tell lies during election campaigns. Lies like they'll increase spending, reduce borrowing, and not put up any taxes, while simultaneously equipping pigs with magic wings to enable them to fly over every polling station in the land next Thursday.

But back to Labour and the SNP. The Tories would have you believe that a minority Miliband government would be forced to abandon its fiscal responsibility programme, scrap Trident, and rain goodies galore upon the heads of Scottish voters, all in return for SNP votes in the House of Commons.

The SNP are perfectly happy for you to believe this nonsense as well -- because it enables them to say to Scottish Labour voters: "Don't worry, you can switch your vote to us to give those pesky southerners a bloody nose, but you'll still get a Labour government, and we'll make sure it's the sort of Labour government you want, with no more of that wishy-washy Blairite stuff we had to put up with before."

It. Is. A. Lie. And I can demonstrate why by asking you to consider the following two scenarios.

Scenario A: A minority Labour government proposes a budget that includes cuts to public spending that the SNP don't like. They threaten to vote against the finance bill unless Miliband backs down. What do the Tories do? Vote against a budget that includes precisely the sort of spending cuts they would have introduced, or vote for them, with Labour, and neutralise the SNP threat?

Scenario B: A minority Labour government proposes a package of defence spending that includes a commitment to a like-for-like Trident replacement programme. The SNP are committed to vote against such a proposal and intend to do so. What do the Tories do? Vote against a bill that they thoroughly approve of, or vote for it and neutralise the SNP threat?

It's obvious enough, isn't it? On each and every occasion that the SNP try to threaten to bring down a minority Labour government, it will be within the Tories' power to prevent them. They don't even have to vote with Labour if that sticks too much in their gullet -- abstentions will suffice. That's why I believe that the SNP will not in reality be able to hold a minority Labour government hostage unless the Tories let them. If you were feeling mischievous, you could call it a de facto grand coalition in all but name.

The only reason why the Tories might want to help the SNP is if they believed they could muster a Commons majority instead of Labour. But if that had been the case, they would already have done so, since Mr Cameron, as the incumbent next Friday morning, will get first crack at forming a new administration.

There is also, of course, the small matter of the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon having committed her party to kicking the Tories out of Downing Street. It might be a tad tricky for her to explain to her supporters a Commons vote which could, in theory, usher the Tories back in again. That's why, somewhat earlier than most commentators, I was already suggesting two weeks ago that Miliband had called the SNP's bluff.

It's important, by the way, to look extremely carefully at the formula he uses: "I am not going to have a Labour government if it means deals or coalitions with the Scottish National Party." Note the exact words: "deals or coalitions". He is not ruling out discussions, consultations, or taking into consideration SNP views when framing legislation.

And there is a clear reason for Labour adopting this stance: to try to convince Labour voters in Scotland that the only way they can be sure of getting Mr Miliband into Number 10 is by voting for his party, not Nicola Sturgeon's lot.

Last night's Question Time audience, together with many commentators, still seemed to think he's being disingenuous or worse. Of course, he'll have to do a deal, they say, otherwise he won't be prime minister. Some of his critics on the left think he is recklessly throwing away his best chance of forming a government.

In my view, they're wrong, for the reasons I've set out. By this time next week, we'll know more. Or not, as the case may be.