The Scottish Independence Referendum lived up to all of the expected drama. As an exercise in mass political involvement, it may be unparalleled for the next 20 years. As a test of democratic robustness, it passed with flying colours. There may be criticism from the ‘Yes’ camp of BBC coverage and the media ganging up them but no blood was spilled, nobody died and while there are massive fault lines now after the result, the structures of civil society held. Yet while the Union stood firm-ish, it was never a sure thing; likely, but never definite.
The ‘Yes’ side can be justifiably proud of their result; they went well beyond the SNP core vote and their 45% outcome leaves them to believe they are within the ‘one more push’ territory to achieve an Independent Scotland. While many on the ‘No’ side were highly critical of some of their opponents ‘show us your patriotism’ school of nationalism, the overall picture is of a movement that mobilised the non-political and disaffected as well as the usual activist suspects. The involvement of the Scottish Greens meant that ‘Yes’ wasn’t dominated by one political party. It was a disappointing but massive result for the Independence side.
What of the prospective Father of the Nation himself, Alex Salmond? His leadership over the past two years demonstrated both his strengths and weaknesses. His strength was in being able to take the sheer strain of an ultra-marathon US-style campaign and inspire his side to within striking distance of his goal. His weakness was perhaps the weakness of all referendum leaders; he polarised the debate, painting his opponents and himself into a corner. All those on the ‘No’ side were portrayed as propagandists for Westminster rule. Salmond refused to entertain any (justifiable) doubts about a ‘Yes’ vote; if he’d said that Scotland might face short-term recession it would have been more intellectually honest. Instead, there was a refrain saying that any new settlement would be a land of milk and honey. Scotia Nova may well have prospered economically but no-one could know for sure. If Salmond had conceded that there were risks with independence, he may have pushed the ‘Yes’ vote even closer to victory. In the end, enough people just didn’t believe or trust his version of near future events. As such, it will be fascinating to watch the tactics and approach of the next SNP leader; will Nicola Sturgeon (the favourite for succession) reach out to voters and minds that Salmond was simply unable to reach? His legacy depends on what happens over the next two years; will Westminster honour or backslide on ‘The Vow’ and will it leave an opening for another go for independence in the next ten years?
Then there was the epic role of Gordon Brown. Derided and loathed by most of the Tory Press and widely seen as a failed Prime Minister, he came out fighting and delivered a week of storming performances that probably provided a knock out for the ‘No’ side. He is still hugely respected in Scotland and, the key word, trusted. His promise that the would be ‘Devo-Max’ (more or less) if the Scots supported him, swung votes and he has now staked his reputation on sticking to his word. He has said he will not take a future senior role in Scottish politics; many will try to persuade him to change his mind. He offers the strongest bulwark against a resurgent and reinvigorated SNP.
Boris Johnson has not exactly stunned the Westminster village by announcing his intention to run for parliament in 2015. Cameron has issued an enthusiastic, if ‘what else could he say?’ welcome for this. With less than a year to go before the next British General Election. Johnson has chosen his moment to strike. What is Boris playing at? What’s he up to then?
Apart from George Osborne and Teresa May, up steps Boris Johnson as Blonde Ambition himself, back to fulfil his destiny as leader until the next election and then, cripes, Prime Minister himself! As Private Eye might say; ‘there’s a turn up for the books, eh readers?!’
The man has style. He has successfully mixed right wing, Thatcherite free market mercantilism along with social liberalism and some nudges to the Left. He is, as politicians go, incredibly well known and popular. London should really be a Labour city; he has bucked the trend and won two mayoral elections in a row.
But nobody knows who’s going to win in 2015, let alone 2019 or 2020. Boris is in the frame now though and on past form, it would be foolhardy to bet against the irresistible rise of Boris Johnson.
Israel has a right to exist. It has a right to defend itself. It does not have a right to commit war crimes. What has happened in the recent ‘mowing the lawn’ operation contravenes all international law and humanitarian instincts. What is so devastating for American critics of Netanyahu and Likud in particular is that any criticism of Israel is wilfully misinterpreted as criticism of the Jewish People and therefore Anti-Semitism. These are insidious McCarthy-ite tactics and have been adopted by the Israeli Right since 1967; any attack on Israel’s policy is an attack on the Jews. This is patently absurd. If one is to criticise British or American Government, does that make one anti-British or anti-American? Or, if you’re critical of the Saudi Arabian regime, does that mean you’re anti-Muslim or anti-Arab? Or does is mean that by being critical of one side, you are uncritically supportive of the other? No, no, and no. The true Internationalist tries to uphold a system of universal human rights. But there’s also a recognition that we have a duty to interrogate any narratives that invert and subvert the truth. The ongoing occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands is a running sore in the Middle East. A two-state solution will ultimately have to be found, one that gives both sides security. This may not be possible for decades; but it helps nobody to argue that Israel is entitled to do whatever the state chooses to do, From this we get the old saw; might is right. This solves nothing.
Putin – what can you do about him? The man’s a barbarian and by unleashing the forces of Hell in the Crimea, has shown himself to be a pathetic excuse for a World Leader. For those who argue that he has provided a counterweight to American power, let’s look at the record then, shall we? He has turned Russia into a land where trying to uphold freedom of the press can lead to you being shot in the back of the head at the bottom of a stairwell. He has overseen a culture where homosexuals fear for their safety and have to run a daily risk of being beaten up or worse. He has presided over a security service that thinks nothing of poisoning a whistle-blower in a foreign capital. He has ridden roughshod over any notions of Russia becoming a democratic state by any Liberal, Western definition of the word democracy. He has hounded some Oligarchs who have opposed him and his crony state while favouring others. His country is pitied and feared rather than admired and he has chosen might over right as a governing principle. ‘Europe’ will look weak yet again for what united response can they take? All the major players have interests with the Russians. Joe Biden got it right – Vladimir Putin has no soul. The Russian people are right up there with the Palestinians as being the longest suffering on this Earth; pity the nation indeed.
So what further sanctions can the EU impose? The talk is of targeting more oligarchs with travel bans and as stated before, this isn’t as ineffectual as it sounds. Rich people like to enjoy their lifestyles in all their opulence; bans on trips to Paris, London and Rome can have a real effect. There’s nothing plutocrats hate more than being denied the pleasures of their probably ill-gotten gains and such flight bans hit these guys emotionally as well as in their wallet. Diplomatic sanctions, or the extension of already applied ones, is the other probable option on the table. Your country wants to take part in a scientific conference? Too bad, change your policy in the Crimea. You want to sign a new trade deal with Germany? Tough luck, change your policies. There are choices that the EU can make – now is their chance to stand up and be counted by issuing a unified response. Let’s see what they can do.
Clinton fears Warren Rapport
There is a growing campaign to get Elizabeth Warren to run for President in 2016. There are several good reasons to support the call that the first-time senator should stand. She is an extremely smart and able candidate. There would be no other pick with better knowledge of and ideas of how to tackle excesses of the financial system in the US. In the Occupy phrase, Warren not only speaks for the 99% but can identify with them as well; she speaks good ‘genuine’. This in itself may be a huge factor in getting her into the Race; she is not Hilary Clinton. The former Secretary of State is still the odds-on favourite for Democrats nomination but the most recent gaffe about Bill and herself being ‘flat-broke’ after leaving the White House did her no favours with many in the Democratic Party. Warren may not have the foreign affairs experience or the sheer size of political and financial network that HRC has but she has captivated progressives with her calling out of Wall Street and demands that Big Business and Big Finance get their houses in order. As has been argued elsewhere, even if Warren runs and fails, she can drag the Democrats sufficiently over to the Left to make a real change to their electoral platform. With the Republicans showing every sign of not having learned anything from their two successive Presidential defeats, either woman is likely to face a Republican candidate captive of that Party’s unelectable right wing beliefs.
Then there’s the possibility of Joe Biden throwing his hat in the ring. Biden’s not the buffoon of popular lore anymore. Would most Americans have confidence in their Vice-President to assume the awesome responsibilities of the top job if something terrible should happen to his Boss? Yes, they would and imagine a President Palin or Ryan and you’ll see that many would welcome Joe at the top. He has, despite attempts to paint him otherwise, a popular, non-Beltway persona. He may at this stage in his career be the ultimate political insider. That doesn’t mean he would be unable to reach out to the fabled US ‘middle-class’ and speak their language. His perspective has been unique; a heart-beat away from the Presidency since 2009, Biden has been close enough to know what the top role entails. He is wily, has a good sense of strategy and will be looking at the numbers to see how a Biden 2016 campaign could do. There’s an interesting two years ahead for Presidential politics watchers.
Miliband’s Own Goal
Oh Ed, Ed, Ed. Why did you do it? Hold up a copy of the Sun Newspaper and stick it on Twitter for the World at Large to share in the cringe. This was a massive media fail on a few levels. Firstly, Miliband should have known better – he should have known that this desperate gesture to restore some credit with the Murdoch Empire would insult all of Liverpool and anyone who was affected by the Hillsborough disaster. It failed on the level of dissing Ed’s biggest achievement as Leader so far; his going after Murdoch specifically and standing up to Press Bully-Boy tactics specifically. People who were rooting for him just couldn’t believe he’d be so dumb. But Ed Miliband’s action (a mistake and we all make mistakes) probably came about after talking to his Advisors. Tom Watson MP has called for the firing of these advisors and he has a point; while ultimately the call was Ed’s, this was the last link in the chain of some very poor strategic and public relations advice. Miliband is still on course to be Prime Minister and he may turn out to be a very good one, but unforced errors like this one need to be guarded against lest Labour throw it away at the 2105 General Election. Ed Miliband may be part of the much mentioned Political Metropolitan Elite, but his instincts, beliefs and principles are in chime with Labour values. Millions of people are relying on them not to self-destruct. Great intellect alone will not win elections, as Gordon Brown found out in 2010; you need to get the basics in order before you look for votes.
ISIS – Terrorism Crosses Rubicon
ISIS – doesn’t sound like a particularly threatening name, does it? But this is a truly barbaric group that makes the Taliban look like moderates. Public executions, crucifixions, a return to what they call the ‘caliphate’. Their advance in Iraq is like a nightmare unfolding. Pity the Iraqis who are powerless to stop their advance. The response of the Left must not be predictable on this one; which would they rather – limited military support from the US with drones and missiles to back the Iraqi government or to sit back and let the terror-makers advance of Baghdad? Foreign Policy ‘Realists’ and the ‘Stop the War’ Left may be united on the issue of non-intervention in this instance; however, this is precisely the set of circumstances where limited intervention is justified. Obama is nothing if not astute; he will be weighing up his options such as co-operation with Iran, a vista thatwould have been unthinkable under his predecessor. There are no easy solutions in war but this one looks less complicated than most. Isis needs to be smashed; they are an evil organisation. There may well be a swifter reaction than usual from the West on this one; the clock is ticking and the Iraqi government, for all their many faults, has the sort of legitimacy that an entail of evolution like ISIS can never have. President Obama needs to act before he becomes a lame-duck; his instincts are such that many trust he will do the right thing. The long-suffering people of Iraq will be hoping he does the right thing too.
Europe’s Wrong Pick
Jean-Claude Juncker is not a name that comes tripping of the tongue. But it is a name that personifies all that the British Press dislikes about the European project and much of what the Progressive Left should be campaigning against too. Not only is he the consummate Christian Democrat ‘Eurocrat’ Insider, but his track record as being a Prime Minister of the worst offender of a Tax Haven in the EU, i.e. Luxembourg, makes him a most unsuitable candidate to be President of the European Commission. Although the Christian Democrats and other European Parliament groupings nominally ran as ‘slates’, i.e. it was announced in advance that the largest grouping would nominate the President and there were head-to-head debates on the issue, a miniscule percentage of voters would have taken this into account when they were casting their votes. ‘Europe’ has been good for many of the member nation-states but the perception of an unaccountable and imposed elite is a real one. Juncker’s nomination may be copper-fastened due to Britain’s opposition to his appointment; Cameron is now seen as a drag on the work of the Union. The Tories are seen as Little Englanders, and captives of the British Electorate and Press who, in the event that they remain in power after the next election, may preside over Britain leaving the EU. The skirmish over Jean-Claude Juncker would look quaint in comparison to a withdrawal from the EU. Cameron may not even be allowed to save face on this one; the Christian Democrats have had enough of his carry on. Luxembourg could give Britain a bloody nose.
The Rise of the Right
The rise of the Extreme Right is the most shocking aspect to the recent European Parliamentary election results. The National Front topping the poll in France is a stark warning that neo-fascism is like a virus; the support for Golden Dawn in Greece is a reminder that raw fascism is alive and well in some parts of Europe. While a whopping majority of the new European Parliament is made up of the political Centre (Left and Right), there is a spectre in the parliament; fascism in tooth and claw, is an ideology and movement that most of us thought should have died with Hitler in the bunker. Instead, fear has been exploited by siren voices; can we look to history for a response?
Politicians from the Hard Left to the Conservative Right have a good record in opposing fascism head-on. The BNP vote collapsed in England when Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats united in their contempt and opposition to these opponents of the democratic system. When people stand up to be counted, they can defeat dark forces; a renewed purpose and commitment by democrats in the European Parliament can lead to a further exposure of light to the dark. This is something we should all be able to agree on. There is no excuse in a democracy for voting for a fascist or neo-fascist parties but there are reasons. It is up to all democrats to re-double their efforts to tackle the causes of, in the old-Marxist terminology, ‘alienation’. Have no truck with their spokespeople or politicians but do seek to root out the root causes of the ugliest part of the body politic.
Nick Clegg, if he were religiously inclined, would be thinking that he can not please his maker. He has taken his party back into government for the first time in decades. He was the media darling of the 2010 General Election. How cruel a sport is politics though. Now, he has both Left and Right against him; he had pretty much lost the Left of the Liberal Democrats once he and the Orange Bookers signed up for austerity. The Red Tops, Telegraph and Spectator are no fans either – he, just like his party, has suffered a third party squeeze. The 2015 Election is likely to be disastrous for the Liberal Democrats – he could go down as the man who oversaw the building up and destruction of the Liberals in the space of five years.
Is there a way back? It may well be all too late for Clegg now – it is really difficult, if not impossible, to change a voter’s mind; once their mind is made up, that’s it. Nick Clegg gambled and lost by taking on Nigel Farage in the LBC debates. His best hope now is that there will be pockets of resistance for his party throughout the land come 2015. It is a slim hope.
Is there validity in an election that in some countries attracts less than 30% of the electorate to actually go out and vote? What does Europe need – more or less integration? Are we EU passport holders ‘good’ Europeans or do most people within the Union consider themselves French, Spanish, Italian first? What does it even mean to be ‘European’? The following are a few general observations.
Sometimes it is easier to define things by what they are not. The EU, unlike America or Canada, allows for 20 days minimum statutory annual leave. Our North Atlantic neighbours can only dream of such ‘leisure’. Our concept of the work-life balance is largely different to that of the US and Canada.
Human Rights; no member of the European Union is allowed to have the Death Penalty. This is a huge difference in how the EU views human rights and how much of the rest of the World sees the concept.
Social Security is another example of where it is probably better to be a ‘European’ than from elsewhere. There is still, even during the ravages of austerity, a social contract and commitment that most States will try to provide a decent safety net for their citizens.
Of course there are problems and issues for the EU as a whole, principally how to create and preserve jobs and living standards. But like the Romans in Monty Python, we might ask ‘what has Europe ever done for us?’ and been pleasantly surprised.
There are huge issues around EU membership and national autonomy in the age of austerity; it is up to the electorate to decide how to address these questions.
What Price Freedom? Iceland and the Euro
Iceland is a country split down the middle on whether to join the Euro or not. There are huge merits to joining and having access to an enormous economic market. This is not the best route to go down though. Iceland is a nation with self-sufficiency in energy, abundant natural beauty, an incredible folk and literary tradition and a people used to living on the edge, both physically and metaphorically. They have a social security system that is the envy of much of the World. In short, this is civilised country that has survived terrible times recently and at once stage looked as though it was going down the tubes. But this is a state that can prosper within the freedom of having their own currency. They would be ill-advised to go down the Euro application route; once in, you can never leave. The European single currency had great long term potential but has been a disaster for the peripheral smaller nations; it has acted as a break on economic growth and a totem for austerity. Iceland should avoid the siren calls from Brussels and the Bankers. Better to have ultimate control of your own destiny than be a tiny, irrelevant region in an economic megalith. There’s no shame in being a small nation; Iceland should hold onto her independence, her fishing rights and her own fiscal independence. In finance and international assistance, the cure can often be worse than the disease. The Euro can cause more damage than it will fix; Iceland should stay out.
US Acting Tough on Crimea as Europe Fails the Test
Yet more sanctions have been announced by the US and the EU in an attempt to punish Vladamir Putin’s transgressions in he Crimea. While the EU and the UK have been dragging their feet, the US has come out strong. The Obama administration has taken a tough line; the US knows it can’t go to war on the issue and WWIII is still unlikely but they can inflict real pain on Putin’s cronies. Travel bans and financial controls on individuals may sound like small beer but chosen smartly, they can be very effective. By targeting the oligarch’s directly, the US is putting direct pressure on Putin’s friends and supporter; these are the men who like to travel the World in Executive Class and enjoy the fruits of their gains. Some will be extremely annoyed with Putin for having brought this down upon them. They will see the Crimea as ludicrous and dangerous adventure that is costing them the benefits of their riches. Putin may be popular at home, but if the Americans can turn enough of his inner circle against him, there may, emphasis on the word may, be real change at the top of the Kremlin. This is probably the limit of what the US can do overtly; no doubt there is covert support being given to Ukranian democrats and this is carries its own risks for the White House. The truth is that Putin is there until his henchmen turn against him and start to move on his position; the old phrase about Samoza becomes more relevant, ‘he may be a sonofabitch but at least he’s our sonofabitch’. The Russian President may be bucking the political truism that all political careers end in failure; that doesn’t mean the West should sit back and do nothing. There is reluctance is Europe to hit the Russians hard but the Americans are leading the way on this one. Putin is a bully; sometimes bullies get away with it but there’s always the chance they’ll be found out. Obama and Putin’s political relationship is at an all time low; a great foreign policy legacy for the US President would be to get the Russians out of Crimea or at the very least, have Putin not do the same thing again in other neighboring states.
UKIP Growth – Reflection of Alienation?
The Local and European elections are invariably a referendum on the Government of the day. The upcoming vote in Britain will be one to watch for several reasons. Will the Liberal Democrats suffer the usual fate of minor coalition parties worldwide, i.e. becoming a scapegoat for voter discontent? Nick Clegg will need all his considerable ability to soak up flak once the ballots have been counted. For Labour, this is a real opportunity for Ed Miliband; will he win enough seats to show that a left-ward tilt won’t hurt the party? If he doesn’t do as well as expected, the last of the Blairites will be out in force, briefing anonymously that the electorate isn’t ready for all that lefty policy stuff; in fact they want a party that tilts to the Centre with some slight nods to the Left, but no real radical reform. They’ll also be saying – again – that the wrong Miliband won the leadership election; as though we haven’t heard that one before. Labour can spin whatever result they get as a good one. Ed Balls has said ‘most people haven’t seen any recovery at all'; if there’s still a ‘feel bad’ factor abroad, Labour should be able to capitalise on it. Not so easy for David Cameron and the Tories. This election could confirm how an overall majority is a really difficult ask for the former Bullingdon Boy. The Boris must run bandwagon will start hurtling down the hill if the Conservatives disappoint. Cameron support could be quite shallow if his MPs think they’re going to lose seats at the next general election or even hold the line seat-wise; however, he will more than likely lead them into the 2015 General Election. The real winners, and it’ll be hard for opponents to spin against them, look like being Nigel Farage and UKIP. Farage and his ‘Little England’ views chime with an electorate frustrated and disillusioned with the professional political class and the EU. UKIP could well beat Labour in terms of popular votes in the European elections. There’s no chance of Farage going away quietly; how the Big Two-and-One Half Parties treat with UKIP will shape a lot of the ground for the 2015 campaign
‘When the stock market drops 10 points in some cities, it constitutes a tragedy. Someone who dies is not news, but lowering income by 10 points is a tragedy! In this way people are thrown aside as if they were trash’.
The above quote comes not from a left-wing social commentator, academic or activist but from the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis is a game-changing Pope. Where Benedict was framed as an austere and conservative man, Francis is seen as a return to the roots of the Church and a Pontiff able to take on the challenges of communicating the gospel in the 21st Century. He is feted by the liberal media in the US and seen as a shot in the arm for more traditional Catholics too by making the Vatican more relevant to the Catholic and secular World. His words are marked more closely by the international Press than most politicians. He holds a unique position of being a spiritual leader in a digital age; his authority comes from the College of Cardinals and from God. Even if you believe neither are valid authorities, you have to recognise that he speaks for millions of Catholics all over the Globe. He is, as he would surely like his flock to see him, a modern man for a modern age. There are huge expectations that he will continue in his role as an inspirational messenger.
He is still very much a Catholic when it comes to doctrine.There has been no rowing back on the Church’s views on abortion; pro-choice advocates may find this to be a fundamental where there is little chance of change of stance from Rome. There is no great chance of the Pope approving of divorce, contraception or gay marriage either. You can probably forget about changes to clerical celibacy in the short term. And as for women priests…But it is the manner of his opposition to views that many Catholics no longer hold that endears him to many in the secular community. He does not judge; rather, he applies – and here’s the dangerous phrase, but one that Christians of all stripes will be familiar with – the maxim of disapproving of the sin and not the sinner. However, many ‘sinners’ would object to such a term as condescending, to put it at it’s mildest. Tolerance or prejudice? It all depends on where you’re coming from.
He has inherited a Church reeling from years of abuse scandals. He looks to be tackling the crisis head-on. Francis has pledged to tackle the corruption in the Vatican itself. He has been vocal in his condemnation of the Mafia, not an easy thing in Italy and not a simple matter when the Church and the corrupt P2 Masonic Lodge had very close links in the 1970s. He will be keen to take on Benedict’s plea to try and reform the Curia and drive out the corruption that the previous Pope spoke of. Institutional reform represents a major challenge for Francis; he has already shown that he is up for that challenge.
Liberation Theology, suppressed by John Paul, could be making a come back though. Francis is no Pope Benedict. While all previous pontiffs spoke out against materialism and in favour of the poor, Francis has been particularly vocal about the need for social justice. He has already defined himself as a Priest of the People, uninterested in the vast trappings of power that come with the chair in St Peter’s. He has been spotted doing walk-abouts at night, confessing to a regular cleric and has maintained a public image of the evangelical by his actions. The message is that this is becoming a Church where it is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. To be a true voice for the poor would be an incredibly strong legacy for any Pontiff.
Barack Obama and Pope Francis would have had much to discuss at their recent meeting.The Vatican has been resolute in opposition to the Death Penalty in the US and Obama’s pro-choice beliefs would be at total odds with the Pope. But the need for social justice, for some form of redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and the obligation for Statesmen to work for peace will have been areas of concern and interest to both leaders. The US President noted that he ‘was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him [Francis] about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded’. Pope Francis may not have any armies but he is still a hugely influential figure; his work as Pontiff is only starting – who knows where the journey will end?