IMAGE: Trump’s descent

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How appropriate that Donald Trump began his campaign on a descending escalator.

As a visual metaphor it said everything necessary. The watching public didn’t have long to wait until he had unleashed his ignorant, calculated vitriol.

“When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best. […] They are sending people that have lots of problems. They are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime and their rapists, and some are good people, and I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting.”

Donald Trump, June 16 2015

The ensuing campaign has been exhaustively documented – ad nauseam – elsewhere. Hillary Clinton maybe not the best candidate for US president there has been. Yet the essential choice that Americans face is between a democrat and an anti-democrat.

My other-side-of-the-pond perspective: Trump has profited from the polity’s tolerance of a sustained attack on the fundamentals of representative democracy. Democratic debate should – must – be able to tolerate all views. Trump’s spoutings do not qualify as views though: they are anti-views. The man has to date: still not said he will respect the outcome of the election; has threatened to jail his opponents, and he has attacked unceasingly the media, the only link most people have to the goings-on of politics.

So am I advocating silencing Donald Trump and his anti-views, thereby violating his 1st amendment rights? Not at all. He should be free, like any number of other conspiracy obsessed types, to express his views. He just shouldn’t be able to use them as a platform for an electoral campaign. If you sign up to play the game, you agree to play by the rules.

Politics without rules, where those who have the available means do whatever they will, has a name. Fascism.

 

High Court Derision

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David Cameron is the one who has caused this constitutional crisis, not the judiciary.

The decision handed down by the High Court today could not have been clearer. In four short sentences of the ruling summary the judges lay waste to the government’s position. “The court does not accept the argument put forward by the government. There is nothing in the 1972 Act [the 1972 European Communities Act] to support it,” they say.

The outcome was wholly predictable. The outrage at the ruling from the Mail, the Express, Douglas Carswell and others is due one of two possibilities. Either they are fundamentally ignorant of the constitution or, more likely, they are trying to provide a smokescreen to deflect away from the devastating blow that has been dealt to Theresa May’s always-untenable position on invoking Article 50 without the involvement of parliament.

In the immediate aftermath it has been plainly put that ‘Remainers’ will use the decision to derail the Brexit process. Insinuation like this makes one fundamental assumption which is entirely false: that a Brexit process exists at all.

When David Cameron’s government drafted and passed the legislation that brought about the 23rd June referendum he massively bottled it. He could have made the referendum binding, instead of advisory as was the case. It could have been an opportunity to put before parliament the various options for leaving, the possible material and constitutional impacts of a vote to leave. It would have been an opportunity to have a genuine, informed debate, with parliament playing its constitutional role of leading debate and providing for representation of the diverse constituencies of the country’s opinion.

Instead Cameron calculated that he would win the referendum, and that therefore the point was moot. We are all living with the legacy of Cameron’s self-serving, short-sighted political arrogance.

More importantly, in failing to meaningfully involve parliament Cameron set the clock ticking on today’s judgement. Though out of office because of his own cowardice, Cameron – along with May – has been served a basic political lesson by the judges. They are doing their job of interpreting the laws as set out by parliament, playing their own constitutional role. The point was so straightforward it is among the first A-Level poltics students learn. “The most fundamental rule of the UK’s constitution is that parliament is sovereign,” they wrote, as if it needed re-stating. This decision was written by Cameron, it has only been delivered by the judges. The tabloids are merely trying to shoot messengers.

One final word from the judges. “The court is not concerned with and does not express any views about the merits of leaving the European Union: that is a political question.” Anyone looking for someone to blame for the self-inflicted, needless and almost certainly paralysing constitutional crisis we’re in the midst of should look no further than those who do make decisions on political questions – and who in this desperate episode have been found so badly wanting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Russia, Putin and the West

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“A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Such was Churchill’s assessment of Russia and its interactions with the outside world in 1939. The immediate context of his pronouncement was the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact, one of the most outlandish and surprising agreements on world history. Perhaps little has changed since then- Russia’s actions today seem still to stretch the boundaries of normal understanding. Yet as unfathomable as they may seem then and now Churchill added, as a rider: “perhaps there is a key.”

The riddle

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has committed a long list of serious misdemeanours in recent times. There was the Litvenienko poisoning, the invasion of Ukraine, supplying or firing the missile that downed MH-17bombing an aid convoy in Syria, the possibility that they were behind the RNC hack. Just in the last few days Russian warships have sailed through the channel prompting a dire warning from Mi5 director-general Andrew Parker. What is Putin, and by extension Russia, up to?

The comparison of Russia to the archetypal angry, cornered bear is a good one. Russia, ever since it became an major power several hundred years ago, has seemed threatening to the  other great powers of the world. By dint of its scale, as well as its vast human and natural resources Russia was feared as the bear that may awaken at any moment, and crush its neighbours. To Europe of the early twentieth century the Russian army was a ‘steamroller’, slow and unsophisticated, but potentially overwhelmingly powerful.

wp_ss_20161102_0002-2The apparent strength that outside countries perceive in Russia belies the weakness, paranoia and chronic inferiority the country’s leaders have always felt. In the post-Second World War world the USSR under Joseph Stalin was seen to be an ideologically driven, imperial power in-waiting, bent on world domination. It was this assessment, made in George Kennan’s infamous ‘Long Telegram’ that set wheels of the half-century long Cold War in motion.  Stalin and the USSR were in no way justified for their heinous annexations of the eastern bloc states, but the motivation for the control they were placed under was much more to do with consolidating hard-won territorial gains, and providing a buffer against what Stalin perceived, in turn, as American imperial ambitions in Europe.

There is much more continuity than change in global geopolitics. Russia remains a paranoid state, perpetrating acts of aggression in order to mask weakness and home and achieve whatever strategic advantages it feels it can obtain. Russia is seen from the Western perspective as a single, unified country, whereas it is instead a congolomoration of constantly embattled nations and ethnicities, few of whom have ever felt great loyalty to the leaders in St Petersberg or Moscow. Not only are there very real internal enemies for the Russian leadership to contend with, the country has the longest land and sea border of any country in the world. It is surrounded by many countries, all of whom are potential enemies, many of whom have fought Russia in the past. Chess is the national game; Russian foreign policy is like playing simultaneous chess against multiple, better equipped opponents.

The key

What was Churchill’s ‘key’? Russian national interest. Currently that means understanding Putin’s personal interests.

The irony of increasing displays of Russia strength is that they are direct proportion to the country’s actual weakness. Vladimir Putin is a dictator who rules of an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt government. He manages to get around the country’s apparently democratic system by a constitutional sleight of hand – he serves two terms as President and then swaps out for a term with his gym-buddy, current Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.krugnan-russia-graph

Since the early 2000s Putin’s stongman deal with the Russian population has been a simple one. The political instability of the immediate post-Communist, Yeltsin era would be banished along with political freedoms. Higher living standards were to be the price for the curtailment of people’s freedoms. The relative prosperity that Putin managed to achieve was due to exploitation of the country’ natural energy resources especially in a world of an – apparently – inexorably rising oil price.

Russia was a petro-state, whose economy was massively skewed towards this monolithic industry. In the present context of sharply falling oil prices the bargain with the people is off, and increased living standards have been replaced by a less positive pay-off. Putin now looks to bolster Russian national pride through foreign adventures and stoking fears about external threats. Only last week 40 million people were involved in a nuclear defence drill, with images of people in hazmat suits broadcast on Russian news channels. The self-preservation instincts of Putin, and those around him, are the present-day key to understanding the actions of Russia in the world.

Coda

For a an understanding of the way that Russia is subject to economic, demographic and geopolitical shifts you could do worse than watching Parag Khanna’s TED talk on a ‘mapping the future of countries’. The Russia relevant part is from around the 9 minute mark.

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Lastly a disclaimer, and an extended chess metaphor.

Criticising Putin and/or the foreign policy actions of the Russian state is not to take the side of his erstwhile opponents. Or indeed vice versa.

What is the prognosis for geopolitical affairs in relation to Russia increasingly belligerent global stance? The difficulty for anyone trying to push back against the war crimes, the invasions and the sabre rattling is that Russia is extremely focussed and long-practiced at this game of chess. Playing on Russia’s terms is no way to victory. Morally Putin’s approach is indefensible. But in terms of realpolitik, he has his pieces well-developed and is goading his opponents to sacrifice position and material in an attempt to overcome him. A patient and consistent approach is what is needed, because Putin – despite the apparent strength of his outward position – has his back ranks badly exposed and these cannot sustain a prolonged and systematic inspection.

IMAGE: Calais Camp Demolition

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Last week the French government began the long-expected demolition of the migrant camp universally known as ‘the jungle’.

Conditions in the camp were appalling. With little or no official help the people living in the camp were reliant on assistance from charities. The ground was waterlogged when it rained and make-shift shacks were all that stood between the inhabitants and the elements outside.

So the ending of these conditions might be a good thing then. Well, it’s not.

For all the appalling problems the inhabitants faced – being preyed upon by the criminal gangs of people-smugglers for example – they at least had somewhere to be. Unaccompanied child refugees, overwhelmingly from the hell that is the Syrian conflict, could be kept half an eye on, even receive rudimentary schooling. With the camp’s demolition all that is gone. Children with nowhere to go, and no-one to turn to are being turned away and forced, presumably, to sleep rough. No-one actually knows.

The inhabitants of the camp have been demonised as people who are desperate to get to the UK at any cost. The insinuation, or outright accusation, has frequently been levelled that they are trying to do so because Britain is a soft-touch when it comes to state benefits and this acts as a kind of a magnet for the desperate.

Hopefully it should be clear that this is utterly false. The size of the Calais encampment is dwarfed by the overall scale of the refugee crisis which has been developing these past years. around 60,000,000 people have been displaced as a result of several ongoing conflicts – Syria being chief amongst them. By September of this year alone the International Organization for Migration said that 351,314 people have crossed the Mediterranean. The numbers trying to reach the UK is small, on any reckoning.

The jungle is a result of policy failure by European states, which could easily have been avoided. Some people are so determined to make it to the UK because they have family settled here already and are trying to unite with them. Having lost everything in the crucible of war, clinging on to family is very understandably the only motivation to keep going that some refugees have. And yet the doors to them are barred.

Consider this, from a House of Lords select committee report on the crisis:

“collectively, Member States [of the EU] are fundamentally failing to comply with their obligations under EU and international law to receive and protect children.”

Our government’s actions have cynically contributed to breaking up the most vulnerable families that are currently alive. There isn’t an excuse for this, and the relevant ministers have known full well what they are doing. They just don’t think there would be a political price to pay.

For a final insight into the real-life consequences of the camp’s destruction here is a stream of tweets send by @HelpRefugeesUK:

@HelpRefugeesUK We are sad to report that both the women and children’s bus and Balo children’s centre have burned down. It seems no one is injured. [October 25th 2016]
@HelpRefugeesUK It is unacceptable children were not placed in safe accommodation before the demolition. Forced to witness the destruction of yet another home. [October 25th]
@HelpRefugeesUK Many women and children in Calais camp despite fires. They must be offered safe accommodation immediately [4pm October 26th]
 @HelpRefugeesUK Children refused entry to the safety of the container camp and forced to sleep outside. This is not the protection promised. #dubsnow [21.43pm 26 October]
 @HelpRefugeesUK Many #children & #minors waiting outside the registration warehouse in #calais this morning. The warehouse is closed & no officials on site. [07.33am 27 October]
Go to http://www.helprefugees.org.uk/ for more information.

 

IMAGE: The road to re-take Mosul

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The long-planned battle to re-take the Iraqi city of Mosul is underway.

Iraqi forces, fightijng with the Kurish peshmerga, are advancing towards the city which was taken so dramatically inn 2014 by IS forces.

The likely eventual return of the city to its people will be welcome, but the battle will also cause yet more people to be displaced, as they flee the fighting.

Caption and image credit