Thursday 24 March 2016

Paris, Brussels: same questions, same answers

When history repeats itself, as it did in Brussels this week, commentators have little choice but to do likewise. So what follows is what I wrote after the Paris attacks last November. The sad truth is that nothing has changed.

Why do we insist on ignoring what stares us in the face? The suicidal fanatics who threaten to kill us in the name of their perverted brand of Islam are not refugees from Syria, or deranged zealots from the mountains of Pakistan: they are, with only very few exceptions, men and women who were born in our hospitals, educated in our schools and who grew up in our cities.

The men who carried out the attacks in London in 2005 were born and raised in Leeds, Bradford, and Huddersfield. The men alleged to have carried out the Paris attacks last week were born and raised in Belgium and France. The men who murdered Lee Rigby two years ago were both born in London to Christian parents from Nigeria. 

Many of the attackers were already known to the police. Some had records as petty criminals. Others had clear links to identifiable terrorist groups. So as we still struggle to comprehend the crime that was committed in Paris last Friday night, perhaps we should start by examining what is going on under our noses.

That means asking difficult questions about why some young men growing up in Europe feel so alienated from the society in which they live that they want to destroy both it and themselves. In particular, it means thinking about the way our leaders use words like "we" and "they".  The scholar Ian Buruma put it admirably: "We know that a dangerous minority of young people are attracted by reasons to die. What is needed badly is a superior reason to live."

It might also be useful to acknowledge the past. In the words of the Harvard professor Stephen Walt: "Decades of misguided U.S. and European policies have left many people in the Arab and Islamic world deeply angry at and resentful toward the West. Those policies include the West’s cozy coddling of various Arab dictators, its blind support for Israel’s brutal policies toward the Palestinians, and its own willingness to wage air campaigns, employ sanctions, or invade Middle Eastern countries whenever it thinks doing so suits its short-term interest."

But this is at best a partial explanation, because it fails to address the very obvious fact that the jihadi phenomenon is also a real threat to people and places far beyond the shores of Europe and the US. The simply stated goal of the killers is to force everyone, wherever they live, to bow to their will. 

Ask the people of Bangladesh, Egypt, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan (have we really forgotten the attack in Peshawar less than a year ago, when 130 schoolchildren were massacred?), Russia, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen, all of whom have suffered grievously at the hands of jihadi zealots. And ask the people of Raqqa in Syria what it is like to live under the rule of these brutal fanatics.

So what can we do to confront the danger? Here is my 10-point plan:

1. Improve the way our intelligence services process the information that is already available to them. (I am not convinced that they need extra powers, although see 4. below.) They seem to be pretty good at identifying potential threats; they are not so good at keeping a close eye on them. Five of the Paris suspects are thought to have fought for IS in Syria before returning to Europe, so why were they still able to plan and carry out their attacks?

If that means increasing the intelligence services' budgets so that they can take on more staff, then let's increase their budgets. The more data they collect, the harder it will be to sift what matters from what doesn't. If it were up to me, I would abandon both the British and the French nuclear weapons programmes and concentrate resources on defence against today's threats, not those of 50 years ago.

2. Have a long, frank talk to the security authorities in Belgium, which is emerging as the weakest link in Europe's anti-terrorism campaign. According to the Brussels-based analyst Bilal Benyaich: "Brussels is a black hole in Europe’s anti-radicalisation policy. It is easier for people with bad intentions — be they criminal, mafia, or terrorist — to live life under the radar here than in any other major European city."

3. Keep a much closer eye on what is going on in Europe's jails. Prisons and the internet are the two key drivers in what is known as "radicalisation", the process by which vulnerable, confused young men can be turned into suicidal killers.

4. Look again at the way encrypted social media and instant messaging technology can be exploited by terrorist groups. I am deeply reluctant to allow the State any further access to our private communications, but we need to be clear-headed: if fanatics are planning massacres undetected because the authorities can't decrypt their communications, we need to deal with that.

5. Similarly, the EU should suspend the Schengen open-borders regime that enabled the Paris killers to cross back and forth between France and Belgium without anyone noticing. It will be a huge nuisance to millions of travellers, as well as damaging to EU trade, but I suspect the families of those who were killed in Paris will regard it as a price worth paying if it helps to prevent future attacks.

6. The UK should join any EU or NATO military action aimed at weakening the IS in Syria and Iraq. That means principally cutting off its supply lines and access to revenues from illicit oil sales (currently running at an estimated $1.5 million per day), something that should have been done months ago.

7. Put pressure on Turkey to stop attacking Kurdish units who are fighting IS on the ground and tighten up its border controls to stop the flow of personnel and supplies to IS units in Syria. Remind President Erdogan that France is a fellow-NATO member and deserves full support from Ankara.

8. Make it crystal clear to the rulers and clerics of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that they need to dissociate themselves in both word and deed from the groups responsible for bringing so much misery to so many people. The growth of IS is in part a result of the proxy war for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it has profound security implications for the rest of the world.

9. Intensify diplomatic efforts together with Russia and Iran to forge a ceasefire in Syria leading to a transition to a post-Assad future. The downing of the Russian plane in Egypt last month means the prospects for diplomatic progress are now better than for a very long time.

10. Resolve not to fall into the jihadis' trap. They want to create an unbridgeable rift between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between their brand of Islam and all others, including Shi'ism. We should do the opposite: build bridges, strengthen ties, create alliances.

The French journalist Nicolas Hénin, who spent 10 months as an IS hostage in Syria, described his captors as "street kids drunk on ideology and power". "Everything convinces them that they are on the right path and, specifically, that there is a kind of apocalyptic process under way that will lead to a confrontation between an army of Muslims from all over the world and others, the crusaders, the Romans. They see everything as moving us down that road."

He also wrote: "They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia … Central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned towards finding supporting evidence."

Our goal, surely, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, must be to prove them wrong.

Friday 18 March 2016

This shoddy, shabby, shambolic budget

Did I miss something? Or is George Osborne already prime minister?

Because if he isn't, why did he announce on Wednesday that he intends to turn all schools in England into academies by 2020?  Is 'setting schools free from local education bureaucracy' (otherwise known as denying them local authority support and removing any last vestige of local accountability) now part of a chancellor's job description?

He says education reform is essential to improving the UK's productivity record. In which case perhaps he should be looking at ways to recruit -- and retain -- more good teachers, and ensure decent funding for all the nation's schools. There's no magic about academies: some are good, some are bad, just like any other schools. Taking them away from local authorities and transferring ultimate responsibility for them to central government, while entrusting the running of them to charitable trusts and commercial sponsors, will not automatically deliver better-educated children.

Perhaps Mr Osborne should have paid more attention to the man who used to run one of the government's pin-up academies, Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, east London. Sir Michael Wilshaw is now the chief inspector of schools in England and just last week, he said this about some of the Trusts which are now running academies:

'There has been much criticism in the past of local authorities failing to take swift action with struggling schools. Given the impetus of the academies programme to bring about rapid improvement, it is of great concern that we are not seeing this in … [some] multi-academy trusts and that, in some cases, we have even seen decline.'

It was hardly a vote of confidence in an idea that has so far failed to prove that it can deliver on its promises. In the words of Laura McInerney, editor of Schools Week magazine: 'Perhaps the saddest thing about Osborne’s policy is that it doesn’t do anything to help the very real concerns in schools about the difficulty of hiring teachers and seriously squeezed budgets. Spectacle over substance: politicians fall for it every time.'

You've heard of pre-election budgets; this was a pre-referendum budget. It was, therefore, also a damp squib budget, designed mainly to disguise the fact that Osborne's economic strategy isn't working. So why couldn't he wait till after the referendum is out of the way and then do what needs to be done for the sake of the country, rather than for the sake of his political ambitions? According to Martin Wolf of the Financial Times: 'Nothing that the chancellor of the exchequer announced in the Budget is of great relevance to the economic or fiscal health of the country. Indeed, on balance, the UK would have been just as well off without it.'

So why freeze fuel duty while oil prices are at rock bottom and I can now buy petrol at 99p a litre? Why is that more important than trying to ensure adequate financial support for people with disabilities? It's so patently unjust that even some Tory MPs are finding it hard to stomach.

[UPDATE: The cuts to disability benefits have now been abandoned, and Iain Duncan Smith has walked off in a huff. It seems he regarded the cuts, and the U-turn, as one humiliation too many.] 

Why did Mr Osborne fiddle with tax rates so that, once again, the better off become even better off and the worst off get nothing?  According to Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies: 'The biggest gainers were those towards the top of the income distribution, with most towards the bottom broadly unaffected.' Politics is about priorities, and Mr Osborne's are clear to see.

I have listened to far too many budget speeches over the years, and one of the things I have learned to watch out for is what isn't included as well as what is. So why, in a budget that the chancellor boasted was 'for the next generation', was there not a single, solitary mention of the need for new incentives to encourage investment in green technologies? (I did a word search for the word 'green' in his speech: it appeared just once, in the sentence 'We are giving the green light to High Speed 3 between Manchester and Leeds.')

According to Richard Black of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit: 'The £730 million announced for renewable energy should mean we’ll continue building offshore wind farms at about the current rate, but it’s equally notable that there’s nothing new for onshore wind, biomass and solar – or, indeed, for measures to cut energy waste, which we know is the energy investment that Britons support most.' (Full disclosure: I am a member of the ECIU's advisory board.)

The chancellor had probably already written his speech by the time the latest global climate data were released by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showing that last month was the hottest February in 137 years of record keeping, and the 10th consecutive month to set a new record. Still, bequeathing a habitable planet to our grandchildren obviously pales into insignificance besides the importance of that referendum vote in June.

It was a shoddy budget from a shabby chancellor. And judging by his past performance, he'll have got all his numbers wrong as well. Remember J.K. Galbraith: 'The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.'

Friday 11 March 2016

Refugees: there is a better way

Turkey is holding the EU to ransom. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knows that Europe's leaders will do almost anything to stop more refugees arriving on their shores -- so he is demanding a sky-high price for his (apparent) cooperation.

It is not a pretty sight, nor is the virtual capitulation of EU leaders to his demands. Their cynicism and their cowardice is shameful -- not only because it will do little if anything to alleviate the despair of the refugees who are risking their lives to find sanctuary, but also because it will encourage President Erdoğan to continue down the path from democracy to dictatorship.

Europe's leaders -- and the US -- are turning a blind eye to his renewed campaign against the Kurds (even though Kurdish fighters are the West's allies in Syria), apparently not caring that denying the Kurds their rights of free expression and self-determination seems to matter much more to him than bringing peace to Syria.

After the wave of popular uprisings that swept through much of the Arab world in 2011, I reported from Turkey on whether that country might serve as a democratic model for some of its post-autocratic Arab neighbours. After all, Mr Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party had been in power for nearly 10 years, winning three successive elections, each time with an increased share of the vote. Proof that democracy and Islamism can co-exist?

Not at all, said TV broadcaster Banu Guven, who lost her job after objecting to a ban on interviews with leading Kurdish campaigners. She told me then that there was already growing pressure on the media, even intimidation, leading to more and more self-censorship. And it's got a lot worse since then.

President Erdoğan has much in common with another strongman leader who is waging war in Syria: Vladimir Putin of Russia. The two men may be at each other's throats, and there is a real risk of them going to war, but on one thing they can agree: Europe's leaders are so weak and divided that it is absurdly easy to run rings round them.

It's all very well announcing that Europe's borders have been sealed and that a deal has been struck to return refugees from Greece to Turkey. Desperate people will find desperate solutions: if Turkey to Greece is no longer an option, what about Libya to Italy, or Morocco to Spain?

There are well over two million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and that country does deserve credit for offering them at least the opportunity to live free from the fear of being blasted to bits by one of President Assad's barrel bombs or one of President Putin's missiles. What Turkey will not offer them is a chance to make a future life for themselves on Turkish territory, hence the steady stream of refugees heading for Europe.

But now NATO warships, including a Royal Navy amphibious landing ship, are going to try to intercept them and turn them back. I can't help thinking that NATO forces would be far better employed using their considerable expertise in logistics and supplies to build and equip proper refugee camps in Greece where refugees could live safely, free from cold and hunger, with a chance to be screened and assessed for eventual settlement elsewhere, or to wait until it is safe to return home.

It is not so difficult to imagine a much better way to handle the crisis: first, accept that refugees will not stop coming to Europe, no matter how many barbed wire fences are built or how many warships are sent to patrol the eastern Mediterranean. Then build camps in Greece to house them -- that's what the military are good at -- and get the UN refugee agency UNHCR to run them and organise assessment programmes. Other agencies can take responsibility for the welfare of children (UNICEF and Save the Children), the provision of clean water (Oxfam) and medical care (Médecins Sans Frontières).  

Refugees themselves can be employed to build, run and maintain the camps, and to work as teachers. Many are highly qualified, so why not use those qualifications and put them to good use? Joint enterprises with Greek entrepreneurs could be established, providing hundreds of new jobs for unemployed young Greeks as well as for refugees.

But wouldn't Greece inevitably become a refugee dumping ground? That's not how I see it -- I see it as a way of treating refugees as if they are sentient, capable and resilient human beings, with skills as well as needs. And I also see it as a way of saying to the people of Greece, who have demonstrated the most remarkable humanity at a time of national crisis, that the arrival of refugees on their shores need not be only a negative experience.

Of course, there is a risk that the refugee camps will become semi-permanent fixtures. But is that necessarily so much worse than continuing to try in vain to stem the flow and relying on ineffective crisis management as Europe's xenophobes gain in strength? Refugees want above all to be safe, and to have some hope that they can build a new and better life for themselves and their children, either in a new home or back in their old home once the conflict is over. Europe's voters want their governments to show that they are on top of the crisis, not paralysed into inaction.

There are currently more than 20 camps in Turkey for Syrian refugees, housing more than 215,000 people. In Jordan, the mega-camps at Azraq and Zaatari house well over 110,000 people. Is it really too much to ask the EU to demonstrate the same degree of basic humanity as Syria's immediate neighbours?

Friday 4 March 2016

We live in the age of the ignorant

This is not a good time to be in the punditry business. It's as well to recognise the fact: none of us has a clue what's going on.

Donald Trump? How did that happen?

Europe's unprecedented migration crisis? Who saw that coming?

And of course no one, apart from Samantha, thought that David Cameron was going to win last year's general election.

All of which, frankly, makes me a little bit scared. If the people who are meant to understand what's going on around us plainly don't, then where does that leave us? Thrashing around in the dark, trying to find the door marked Exit?

Perhaps there's nothing new about this. I was reminded a couple of days ago of how the New York Times reported on a new political figure who was making his mark in Germany back in November 1922: 'Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler's anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organisation is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.'

Which sounds uncannily similar to what some commentators have been saying about Mr Trump's apparently unstoppable campaign to be nominated as the Republican party's candidate for the US presidency in November. I just hope they're not as wrong  as the New York Times was about Mr Hitler 94 years ago.

So why are we all at sea? While acknowledging that I'm as likely to be wrong about this as everyone else is about everything else, here are some suggestions. First, because since the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Communism in Russia and eastern Europe, and the development of a global economic system with the free movement of capital, none of the old assumptions about political and economic balances work any more.

Second, because since the near collapse of the global banking system in 2007-8, our confidence in the people who are notionally running the global economy has been shattered. We live in daily fear of it happening again. And third, because when people who are already scared see unprecedented numbers of foreigners heading for their shores (or in the case of Germany in the 1920s and 30s, are told that an alien presence in their midst are to blame) they become seriously frightened and latch on to anyone who claims to be strong enough and brave enough to do something about it.

It's a shame that more people don't take Italian politics seriously. Because if you want to understand Trump ('a phony and a fraud', according to Mitt Romney, who was the Republicans' candidate four years ago), you need look only at Silvio Berlusconi: a billionaire tycoon who effortlessly filled a political vacuum when the old elite crumbled into irrelevance. Like Trump, Berlusconi was a braggart, a liar, and a demagogue. In office, however, he achieved virtually nothing, except to fend off a never-ending procession of legal cases against him. The Italian economy stagnated and unemployment soared. The saviour of the nation ended up saving precisely nothing. American voters, take note …

Like Trump, Berlusconi was mocked mercilessly by his country's intelligentsia. How could Italy, a country that produced Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo and Puccini, end up being governed by a former crooner with dyed hair, endless facelifts, and an apparently uncontrollable libido? But mockery is never an effective response to fear -- or to anger, when voters decide that they have had enough of ineffective political leaders who have taken them to the brink of financial ruin. And while it is easy to dismiss as deluded those who rally to the demagogues' banners, it is hard to argue that the traditional ruling classes have a proven record of superior wisdom.

So when Europe's chatterati tut into their prosecco (yes, I've done it, too) at the stupidity of the American voters who are flocking to support Trump, they need to look closer to home, at what the American publication Businessweek calls the 'Euro-Trumps'. They are the ones, in nearly every country of the EU, whose emergence 'has been driven by the growing importance of immigration as a political issue, nurtured by a feeling that the European Union has become unresponsive to the will of the people … nationalist politicians [who] have been pushed into prominence by the long economic stagnation that’s followed the 2008 financial crisis.'

What is interesting -- and deeply worrying -- about the Euro-Trumps, and it applies equally to The Donald himself, is that they are not necessarily extreme conservatives or neo-liberals. Those of them who bother to spell out their economic policies sound much more, and I'm sorry about the inevitable historical resonance, like nationalist socialists. As Roger Cohen put it in the New York Times: 'Europe knows how democracies collapse, after lost wars, in times of fear and anger and economic hardship, when the pouting demagogue appears with his pageantry and promises ... As Europe knows, democracies do die. Often, they are the midwives of their own demise. Once lost, the cost of recovery is high.'

As it happens, and despite all of the above, I do not believe that all is for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds (with apologies to Candide).  Crime rates have been falling dramatically in all the world's richest countries over the last couple of decades (although no one is quite sure why); global literacy rates are at record levels; and child and maternal mortality rates have fallen sharply. Polio has been totally eradicated in all but three countries -- Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan -- and over the past 15 years, deaths from malaria have fallen by nearly half. For many hundreds of millions of people all around the globe, life is better now than it has ever been.

Even so, politics in both the US and Europe is getting ugly. So here's another suggestion: let's put teachers and doctors in charge. They could hardly do any worse than the current lot.