Friday 15 December 2017

Look who's taking back control

For democrats on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, this has been a good week. And Lord knows, we haven’t had many of those over the past few months.

When I say democrats, by the way, I mean both democrats with a small d and Democrats with a capital D. So let’s take them one by one.

First, the small d democrats at Westminster who still believe in the old-fashioned theory that parliament’s job is to hold the executive to account. Thanks to eleven principled Conservative rebels, that is exactly what the House of Commons did on Wednesday night, when MPs defeated the government on its Brexit bill.

Irony of ironies, it was the threat of Tory rebellions that spooked David Cameron into his in-out referendum promise in the first place – and now it’s a Tory rebellion that throws a spanner in the works as Theresa May tries to fudge her way out of the mess he gaily left behind.

(I was tempted to say the rebels had thrown a Spaniard in the works, which is the name of a book of nonsense published by John Lennon in 1965, but in the context of Brexit, it doesn’t seem entirely appropriate.)

The fact that the former attorney-general Dominic Grieve, who was the architect of the amendment that defeated Mrs May, and who is by common consent one of the most decent MPs at Westminster, has now been receiving death threats tells us something truly unpleasant about the more extremist elements who have bubbled up out of the Brexit mud.

And yes, I include the Daily Mail, whose front page on Thursday, adorned with mug shots of all eleven Tory rebels and the headline ‘Proud of yourselves?’, was shameful even by that paper’s own shameful standards.

Mrs May told EU leaders in Brussels that despite her Commons defeat, she is ‘still in control’. I call that Fake News – because it’s parliament that’s in control, which is exactly as it should be. Not that this week’s vote will make much real difference to the eventual outcome, but it has at least served to remind this panicky, weak government that we do still live in a parliamentary democracy, in which parliament is sovereign.

You might even say that it has taken back control – which is, of course, exactly what the Leave campaigners insisted they wanted all along.

So what about the capital D Democrats on the other side of the Pond? It may not be easy if you do not share my obsessive interest in US politics to fathom the seismic nature of this week’s Senate election in Alabama, so here’s a reminder from yesteryear: this is the state where the ‘segregation for ever’ former governor, George Wallace, won a massive sixty-five per cent of the vote when he ran for President in 1968.

The election this week of Doug Jones was the first time for twenty-five years that the state has elected a Democratic Party senator, and it was, according to the Washington Post, a ‘stunning set-back for the Republican party’.

What it means is that it will be even more difficult for Donald Trump to get any of his legislative proposals through the US Senate, which is now split between 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats. It also means that Democrats – and democrats – have seen that it is perfectly possible to defeat bigotry, ignorance and the ugliest form of extreme demagoguery.

(The Republican candidate Roy Moore believes homosexuality should be illegal and that ‘abortion, sodomy and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ He is also alleged to have sexually assaulted several young women and a 14-year-old girl, allegations that he has denied.)

I admit it’s not all good news. The appalling Mr Moore may have lost the election, but he still won 48.4% of the vote. The Democrat Doug Jones won only because 95% of Alabama’s African-American voters backed him, compared to a mere 27% of whites.

For me, the lesson is simply this: whether it’s Donald Trump or the hardest of hard Brexiteers, nothing is inevitable. They can be defeated, by honest men and women casting their votes according to their conscience. Of course, there will be more setbacks, for both democrats and Democrats, but the worst mistake they could make is to give in to despair.

Mr Trump will not be in the White House for ever, and the Johnson-Gove Tendency in the Tory party will not run rampant for ever. Democratic checks and balances were put in place for a reason – and this week we saw them in action.

Friday 8 December 2017

Jerusalem: the dogs that didn't bark

I wonder how many Palestinians are familiar with the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze.

Detective: 'Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?' Holmes: 'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.' Detective: 'The dog did nothing in the night-time.' Holmes: 'That was the curious incident.'

Bear with me. After President Trump's reckless announcement on Wednesday that the US now recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (and that -- one day, some time in the far distant future -- it will move its embassy there), what was the curious incident?

Observe the reaction from the rulers of the the Arab world's most powerful nations. Did they rise up in fury? Did they threaten to cut off relations with Washington and cancel all their arms contracts?

No, they did not. Like the dog in the night-time, they did (virtually) nothing. Of course, they went through the motions: President Sisi of Egypt warned against 'complicating the situation in the region by introducing measures that would undermine chances for peace in the Middle East.'

King Salman of Saudi Arabia called the move 'a flagrant provocation of Muslims, all over the world.' But the country's real ruler, the king's son, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, remained silent. Given that he is now best buddies with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, his perfect imitation of the night-time dog should come as no surprise.

Not for the first time, the Palestinians have been left high and dry by their Arab neighbours. The New York Times reported a few days ago that when the embattled and enfeebled Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was summoned to Riyadh last month, he was presented by the Saudi crown prince with a proposed plan 'that would be more tilted toward the Israelis than any ever embraced by the American government'.

The Saudis and Israelis, like Mr Trump, view Iran's regional ambitions as far more relvant to their interests than the fate of the Palestinians. In the face of the Middle East's three most militarily powerful nations, what hope is there now for poor Mr Abbas?

But the Arab world's autocratic rulers, whose acquiescence in the US president's foolhardy initiative does not at all reflect the mood of the people they supposedly represent, are not the only dogs that have failed to bark.

Behold the key words in Trump's carefully scripted announcement: 'I have determined that it is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.'

Did you spot the two missing words, two more dogs that didn't bark? According to Israel, Jerusalem is not merely its capital, it is its 'eternal, undivided' capital. There's a big difference -- because, at least in theory, there is nothing in Mr Trump's formulation that precludes the possibility of Jerusalem also, one day, becoming Palestine's capital as well. In Israel's formulation, there is.

So,  a glimmer of hope? Maybe. You may also, if you are in the habit of looking for silver linings, take some comfort from the following passage of his speech: 'We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved ... The United States would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides.'

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of long-established US policy, I agree -- and in any case, I am already on record as having lost any confidence that the two-state solution remains a viable option. What makes a workable deal even less likely is that this supposed master of deal-making has done the one thing that no deal-maker should ever do: he has given one party to the dispute a hugely valuable prize (even if it is largely symbolic) without extracting anything in return.

Why should Israel even contemplate negotiating in good faith if the current occupant of the White House is happy to concede one of their most fundamental demands, free, gratis and for nothing?

The US under President Trump has now abandoned any pretence (and it has largely been a pretence for many years) that it can be an honest broker in the Israel-Palestine conflict -- it has also turned its back on international law, since under the terms of the original UN resolution that paved the way for the establishment of the Israeli state,  Jerusalem was to be given neither to Israel nor to Palestine but was to be administered under a 'special international regime'. (That is why no country -- not one -- has an embassy in Jerusalem.)

There has already been anger on the streets of Palestinian towns and cities, and there may well be more deaths on both sides of the conflict as a direct result of Mr Trump's announcement. I wish I believed that those deaths might trouble his conscience, but perhaps no one has told him that a third of the people who live in Jerusalem happen to be Palestinians.

So why did he do it? First, because he said he would: 'While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.' That will go down well with his core supporters, including evangelical Christians for whom the Jews' right to control Jerusalem is a bedrock belief.

Second, because no one could stop him. Unlike repealing Obamacare, or building a wall to keep out Mexicans, or banning immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, this was easy. Just make the speech, then sit back and enjoy the reaction.

Third, because he prides himself on being unlike any other president before him. Look again at those words: 'They failed to deliver ... I am delivering.' Never mind the consequences, just admire that jutting chin and puffed out chest.

And fourth, because it oh-so-helpfully diverts attention from a piece of news that he really, really does not want us to focus on: that Deutsche Bank has started handing over details of his financial dealings with them to Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor heading the inquiry into alleged Russian interference in last year's presidential election.

Whenever you have difficulty working out why politicians do what they do, it's a good idea to fall back on the first rule of investigative journalism: follow the money.

Friday 1 December 2017

Yet another new low from the White House

How's this for the start of an article in yesterday's New York Times? 'Donald Trump is completely unfit to be president of the United States. That is not an ideological expression. That is an expression of the shock of mounting evidence that he is intellectually deficient, temperamentally unsound and morally bankrupt.' 
The writer was the New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who, as if we needed reminding, went on to detail the US president's serial missteps of just the past few days.

On Monday, he chose to repeat one of his favourite racist slurs -- calling the Democratic party senator Elizabeth Warren 'Pocahontas' because she has claimed native American ancestry -- while, get this, supposedly honouring Navajo veterans of World War Two.

On Tuesday, he was reported to have resurrected -- admittedly behind closed doors -- his old lie about Barack Obama not having been born in the US.

And then on Wednesday came his now notorious tweets (all right, which of his tweets are not notorious?) endorsing three videos promulgated by the British racist organisation Britain First, which was originally set up by former members of the BNP.

Here's how Charles Blow describes the true significance of all this: 'These are not mistakes. These are not coincidences. This is not mere bungling. These are revelations of the soul. This is who Trump is and who he has always been. This is who he was before he entered politics, and who he remains.

'The Trump Doctrine is White Supremacy. Yes, he is also diplomatically inept, overwhelmed by avarice, thoroughly corrupt and a pathological liar, but it is to white supremacy and to hostility for everyone not white that he always returns.'

And if you're still in any doubt at all about what this all means, I call in evidence Nigel Farage. (Now, there's a sentence I never expected to write.) This is what he said: 'I do think these videos are very bad taste and he [Trump] showed poor judgement. Of that I have no doubt at all.'

So now the US president has gone too far even for Nigel Farage, the man who so happily posed for pictures with him immediately after he was elected and who Trump thought would make an excellent UK ambassador in Washington. Truly, another line has been crossed.

This probably comes as no news to you, but surely there can now be no doubt whatsoever: Donald Trump is a racist and a bigot, who lashes out at minorities and whips up racial hatred whenever the mood takes him.

(By the way, if you want the background to the videos that so took Mr Trump's fancy, you should read this.)

It was too much even for Theresa May, who through gritted teeth was forced to acknowledge that Trump was 'wrong' to lend his support to what her Cabinet colleague Sajid Javid, the son of a Pakistani bus driver, rightly called 'a vile, hate-filled racist organisation'. (All credit to him, by the way, for going where Mrs May feared to tread.)

The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who famously called on EU leaders to end their 'whinge-o-rama' after Trump was elected a year ago, called Britain First 'hateful' and said their views were 'not in line with our values'. (Really, Boris? I would never have guessed.) But his statement, shamefully, made no mention of Mr Trump's support for the organisation.

Why don't we just ignore Trump's ravings? Why give him the satisfaction of knowing how deeply offensive his views are to so many people? The answer, in my view, is that to ignore him is implictly to accept that what he says is no longer worthy of condemnation, that it has somehow become the 'new normal'.

It hasn't, and it mustn't.

As for cancelling Mr Trump's invitation to come to the UK on a State visit, I say let him come -- and let him see, if he has the stomach for it, the depths of the revulsion so many Brits feel for his views. After all, if we could survive State visits by President Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania (1978), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (1994) and no fewer than four kings of Saudi Arabia and three Presidents of China since Queen Elizabeth was crowned 64 years ago, I dare say we'll survive Mr Trump.