Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Adiós, Adolfo Suárez: the story of a man who had the courage to change

You may have heard the news that Adolfo Suárez, first post-Franco prime minister of Spain, died on Sunday. You may not have even noticed; it wasn't big news in the outside world.

But for those, like my wife and her family, who have not had the privilege of living all their lives in a fluffy democracy, it bears thinking about the difference between our politicians of today and those statesman who have lived through more troubled times, like the British governments of the 40s and early 50s. Next to them, we are all pygmies; it is sometimes difficult to make the case that anyone nowadays does anything of real political importance.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Viva YouTube: you have done what the United Nations could not

You can see here (thanks to @paulrbrennan) that last week YouTube realised that the dreadful RT.com (Russia Today) - global mouthpiece for the Putin regime - was  publishing propaganda that was, essentially, a cocktail of untruths. To their great credit, they shut down their channel, as they would anything else demonstrably "misleading".

How sad, then, that other, more weighty organisations in international affairs cannot do the same. The UN, for example, seems compelled to treat the Russian side of the Crimea story as if it were a reasonable counter-view to that taken by the rest of the world's press.

For example, that there were no Russian troops there - even though they spoke with Russian accents and gave all the impression of being so - and the militants were actually from a local, hastily-assembled Crimean militia. In other words, that the Russian narrative was anything other than a tissue of lies.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Labour must change the language it uses to talk about business and economics

How "neoliberalism" seen by the left: an example
Today Britain’s political focus turns, as it always does sooner or later, to the economy. It is the last Budget which will come in time to make much of a difference for the election, an election for which all parties now start to gradually gather together their support from various quarters and interest groups.

Osborne will set out his pre-election stall and Miliband will respond. We have yet to see just how he will respond, but it seems pretty likely that it will be along the lines of his op-ed in yesterday’s Guardian.

Reading it, thankfully, Miliband seems to have learned his lesson from the awful “predators and producers” speech of the party’s 2012 conference and is now more careful with his wording. But if you want to really understand what a politician is thinking on a particular subject, you should look to their advisers on that subject; those who may unguardedly say what their bosses cannot. More of that later.

Now, one notable absence – or, more unkindly, gaping hole – in the 2010 election campaign was any noticeable support from the business community. A stony silence replaced the modest set of endorsers for the party’s business policies who had previously spoken in support of the party. And that was in the days of Prime Minister Brown, whose administration certainly had a more business-friendly character than the party’s current

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Letter from Moscow (ii): goodbye, Crimea

Last Thursday I took the metro to Belorusskaya, to get the Sheremetyevo airport train out of Moscow. Perhaps not for the last time in my life but probably the last for a while, at least.

During the last six months I have met, befriended and drunk too much vodka with some warm, sensible and decent Russian people. Their thoughts, worries and interests in life are, predictably, remarkably like mine. Unlike their parents’ generation, we wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, watch the same films.

But the major difference between us is that I can come back to my “safe European home”, free of bullying from the state in which I live, and write pieces like this; they need to keep their eyes down and stay out of politics, if they know what’s good for them. I should add that those who come to work for a multi-national are automatically screened by the security services, as part of the selection process. I kid you not.

Might it just be, I idly wondered as I sat in that train, that I might look back at the time of my little foreign assignment as what historians will call the last gasp of a relatively free and open Russia in between the First and Second Cold Wars? We shall see.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The pro-Palestine mob and free speech at the University of Ireland

My good colleague Alan Johnson (@shachtman) went to speak in a debate about Israel in Galway and this is what happened:

I'm afraid similar things are happening in various campuses at the moment, thanks to the BDS campaign (sanctions against Israel) and a resurgence of the far left.

Now, this is not (obviously) to say that Palestinians should not try to secure British and Irish supporters for their perfectly legitimate, and even noble, cause of self-determination.

I don't agree with everything that Israel does, as I have noted here before. But if you as a reasonable person were choosing between the two sides, which one would you choose? The reasoning debater or the bully?

Yet again, we are forced to conclude that the principal barrier to a sensible debate on Palestine is the terrible quality of its often-thuggish advocates (you may also remember this delightful video of one of this gentleman's fellow thugs: Carole Swords, Chair of Tower Hamlets Respect Party).

And as for universities such as NUI Galway, shame on you for letting this happen on your campus. I know I'm old fashioned, but shouldn't you perhaps be trying to protect free speech and encourage debate amongst young, impressionable minds?

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Viktor Orbán, bought and sold

Regular readers of the Centre Left will be familiar with the unpleasant president of Hungary, happily chipping away at the constitution as he muzzles the press and turns a blind eye to rampant anti-Semitism.
However, if you wanted the clincher as to the direction his luckless country has taken under his leadership, the first few months of 2014 have surely provided it.
In January, Hungary did a $14bn nuclear energy deal with Russia on nuclear technology. Although it is clearly unlikely to have the bomb any time soon, the notable thing is that Orban, who spent the first four years of his presidency in decidedly anti-Putin mode, has started to see which side his bread is buttered. Last month he visited Moscow for a well –publicised bilateral with his new best friend, the Russian president.
Oddly, the deal bore more than a passing resemblance that Putin struck with the Ukraine’s Yanukovych, shortly prior to his overthrow by those unhappy with their country’s government being bought.
And so, a few short weeks later, who should be the only EU leader who remains quiet about the Ukraine invasion? Or, when he does speak, says that it is not Hungary’s problem?
Why, that of one of only three EU countries which borders it.
Step forward, Viktor Orbán: as Nye Bevan might have put it, a man fresh from having his mouth stuffed with gold.
In fact, my good colleagues at Harry’s Place note that a journalist on a government-sponsored network was dropping heavy hints that, not only it was (again!) those tiresome Jews selling out Hungary to the EU and America, but better: perhaps Hungary might take advantage of the chaos in the Ukraine to put in a bid for the Carpathian region, in the event that Russia might decide to offer Orbán some of the spoils of a future invasion. I kid you not.
I can thoroughly recommend to Mr Orbán the brilliant film “Mephisto”, based on Klaus Mann’s Faustian tale of Weimar Germany and directed by his Hungarian countryman István Szabó. It shows how a man, slowly learning to accept the unacceptable, loses his soul to the Nazis.
While it is admittedly not clear whether Orbán has ever had one to lose, it certainly is clear that he will no longer challenge anything which Moscow does, no matter how awful.
What is deeply disturbing is that he leads not a tin-pot Asian dictatorship but a supposed democracy, sitting well inside the territory of the European Union.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The boy Miliband done good

In a sense, nothing changed over the weekend: there was virtually no doubt that, once a proposal of such import was made “privately” to the NEC – and therefore instantly leaked to the whole world – that ducks were already in a neat row and nods had already been duly given. In dark, smoke-filled rooms, of course (it wouldn’t be the same without them).

But the securing of the party’s reform package – namely, the change from bulk to individual relationships with the party for union members, fair and representative leadership elections and a primary for London – was undoubtedly a great thing.

Finally – finally – Miliband has left his mark indelibly on his party. Even should he turn out next year to have been a mere one-term leader, the changes he has made will have an extremely long-lasting impact (assuming, that is, that such things cannot be undone later: either owing to an untimely 2015 leadership election, as noted
here; or the use of the NEC veto clause on the London primary, as Progress’ Robert Philpot observantly pointed out last week).

Sunday, 2 March 2014

After Sochi (part ii)

A month ago, I wrote that Vladimir Putin would most likely wait until the end of the Sochi Olympics and then act in the Ukraine, which is essentially what has now happened.

After a rubber-stamping of approval by the Russian parliament, Putin has moved Russian troops into the Crimea region, where a new president has been installed, according to the 
BBC's Daniel Sandfordunder a Russian guard and who has "asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for help to ensure peace".

Just like, I imagine, the Soviets were invited into Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1967, to "keep the peace".

To the surprise of no-one, President Obama, for his part, has so far taken the decisively uncompromising action of telling Russia that its action will hurt its "standing in the international community".

As my good comrade John Blake put it, "that'll learn him". Because that "don't cross the red line" strategy worked so well in Syria.

I also wonder if Mr Obama is familiar of the history of Czechoslovakia between 1938 and 1939. In the face of Western indifference, German occupation of the Sudetenland was, of course, subsequently followed by the occupation of the whole country. 

While Putin may or may not choose not to go that far, the goal of installation of a compliantly pro-Russia government in the Ukraine, in place of the current one, may turn out to be an agreeable alternative for him. Meanwhile, every one of the democratic former Soviet republics which border Russia is looking to the West for protection, with increasing desperation.

Mr Obama, please wake up. Your house is on fire.

UPDATE 12:57: If you need any confirmation of how wrong Obama has got things so far, check out this 2012 video of him berating Mitt Romney for taking Russia as America's biggest threat: "The Cold War's been over for 20 yrs". 

Doesn't sound so silly now, does it?

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The labour movement should drop any illusions it has about Venezuelan socialism

With hundreds of thousands on the streets demonstrating against the government last weekend, ongoing economic crisis, shortages of practically everything and government thugs beating and killing opposition demonstrators, it seems odd that we even have to ask the question.

But on the British left, we sometimes exhibit a pathological support for figures on the anti-establishment side of the argument, as long as they (a) make some kind of vague claim to be ‘socialist’ and (b) stand vocally against The Great Evil, namely the government of the United States. The Maduro regime in Venezuela ticks both boxes.

Last year we looked at Hugo Chávez’ threadbare legacy. In the year since his death, his chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, has proved himself to be a rather extraordinary president. Extraordinary in the sense that, if you thought Chávez had managed his country poorly, Maduro’s skill has been consistently to do it worse.

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