Western Gazette 275 years on 17 Nov 2012

Western Gazette 275 years on


1737 was a turbulent year. An earthquake near Japan set a Tsunami wave 200 feet high sweeping across the Pacific. A tropical cyclone in Bengal killed 300,000 people. The world’s first opera house was opened in Naples. Benjamin created the first police force in the US. Thomas Paine, the man who inspired both the French and American Revolutions with his ground breaking book “The Rights of Man”, was born. And what is claimed to be the world’s first daily English language newspaper, the Belfast Newsletter was founded.


Never comfortable with being behind the times, our local community saw its first local newspaper appear that year too. It was published by a Sherborne printer called Robert Goadsby and was called The Sherborne Mercury. Later it became The Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury – and later still The Western Flying Post (don’t you just love that title? – you can almost hear the post horn sounding as it’s delivered to Yeovil on the local coach galloping down Babylon Hill). Today it has become our own local and much loved (and just very occasionally, not) Western Gazette, whose 275th birthday is this year.


Two Hundred and seventy five years! That’s a quarter of the time since the Norman invasion! There are very few newspapers who can trace their lineage back that far – and I suspect even fewer who can boast an equivalent record when it comes to keeping people informed about what is happening in their own community.


We have many things to be proud of in South Somerset and West Dorset. Our incomparable countryside; our strong communities; our remarkable people; our tough and resilient industries. But one of those local assets of which we should be proudest is a local newspaper which has, for so long, made such a remarkable contribution to our local life.


305 words

The Daily Mirror 4 March 2014

The Daily Mirror 4 March 2014

The Ukraine crisis is one of those rare occasions when the West should follow the immortal advice of Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army: “Don’t panic!”.


We so love to frighten ourselves rigid by the Russian bear that we are missing the key point.


Russia is not a strong state it is a weak one. Its population is plummeting – the life expectancy of the average Russian is just a little over 60. They cannot to populate their own space let alone undertake sustained military adventures outside it. Their system of Government depends upon corruption, not the rule of law. They failed to invest their oil wealth in modernising their industry, and now have a rust bucket economy. If a Chinese businessman makes a million he invests it in China. If a Russian oligarch makes a million he gets it out of Russia as fast as he can – usually into property in London. When Mr Putin invaded Georgia it looked as though he had won. But in the end that was a catastrophe for Russia. They lost massive international support and, as Western intelligence knows, exposed their army as inefficient and out of date both in technology and tactics.


At the heart of the Ukraine crisis lies a clash of cultures. We in the West understand that today the destiny of nations depends on the will of their people. But Mr Putin thinks he is still in the nineteenth century when big-powers subjugated small ones if they were considered within their “sphere of influence”. That was what got us into the mess of 1914 – and again 1939. When Mr Putin threatens to invade Ukraine if Ukrainians of Russian origin are in danger, he is precisely repeating Hitler’s Sudetenland argument for invading Czechoslovakia.


So, we used military force then, should we use it now?


No. This time there is a better way


Yesterday the Russian stock market collapsed. The economic, diplomatic and political pain which Russia would suffer if the West now acts decisively, strongly and with unity, could be unbearable.


I remember negotiating with the Russians in Bosnia – the plainer they get the message, the better they understand it.


So here’s what should happen.


Firstly, the West must speak with a single voice. Mr Hague was in Kiev yesterday. But the key voice Russia has to hear is that of Chancellor Merkel – for Germany has always been closest to Russia.


Secondly if diplomacy is our game, then it must be muscular diplomacy aimed at isolating Russia until she changes course – starting with boycotting the coming G8 meeting in Socchi.


Thirdly we should have a sliding scale of economic sanctions – starting with Western investment and moving on to targeted individual sanctions on travel and assets. Freezing the foreign assets of Putin supporting oligarchs would be a good place to start.


Russia failed to win the argument with the Ukrainian people. Now it’s trying to win the argument with force. That is not a measure of strength, but of weakness. There has to be a cost for this illegality. But it is better exacted through economic and diplomatic means than military ones.

Ukraine The Independent 8 Feb 2015

Ukraine The Independent 8 Feb 2015

 The Chinese philosopher Sun Tze said “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”


In the Ukraine crisis, Putin is playing strategy. We are playing tactics.


The West lost the greatest strategic opportunity of recent times when we reacted to the collapse of the Soviet Union, not with a long term plan to bring Russia in from the cold, but by treating Russia to a blast of Washington triumphalism and superiority. Instead of opening the doors to a strategic partnership to Moscow, we sent young men still wet behind the ears from Harvard business school to privatize their industries, and teach them the Western way of doing things. The result was a bonanza of corruption, the humiliation of the Yeltsin years and a clumsy attempt to enlarge our “Cold war victory” by seeking to expand NATO and Europe right up to the Russian border. There was always going to be a consequence of this folly and its name is Vladimir Putin.


The problem with Russia now is not its strength, but its weakness. The massive energy revenues of the good times were not invested in modernizing Russia, but either squandered at home or shipped abroad by the Oligarchs to buy yachts and London properties. The Russian economy now staggers under the effect of falling oil prices and Western sanctions. The population is plummeting. Male life expectancy, at 64, places Putin’s state amongst the lowest 50 countries in the world for population regeneration. The empty spaces of Putin’s eastern territories now increasingly depend economically, not on Russians, but on a gathering invasion of Chinese small businessman and traders. Add to all of this, Russia’s own home-grown struggle with Sunni Jihadism in the Islamic republics of Chechnya and Dagestan and it is little wonder that many in Moscow worry about the long term integrity of the Russian Federation.


And that’s the problem. A strong self-confident Russia would be easier to deal with. But for a weak one – and especially a weak one led by a muscular leader – the distractions of military adventurism are irresistible.


So now we face a very dangerous crisis. That this is, in part, of our own making provides an explanation for how we got here, but not a signpost for what we should do next. For Putin has chosen to challenge, not just the sovereignty of Ukraine, but the very basis on which the peace of Europe has been founded these last fifty years. When the Second World War ended, Europe determined that it would end a thousand years of warfare driven by the assertion that large powers have the right to subjugate the freedoms (even the existence) of smaller nations, if they believed them to be within their spheres of influence. Instead Europe’s peace would in future be based on the principles of co-operation, peaceful co-existence and the right of all nations, large and small to determine their future based exclusively on the will of their people. By denying that right to Ukraine on the grounds that it is Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin asks us to abandon those principles. We cannot do so.


So what should we do?


Our greatest lever still lies in economic means rather than military ones. The sanctions are having an effect. It may even be that Putin is bringing things to a head military in an attempt to foreshorten the economic pain. So the first strand of our strategy should be patiently to stay the course of economic sanctions.


The second is to continue what the West, through Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have begun. Keep pushing for a peace based in a cease-fire and greater autonomy for eastern Ukraine.

Does this mean no direct military response? Unless NATO is threatened directly, it does.


Does it mean no military diplomacy? Not it doesn’t. The right reaction to Russian arming of the Ukrainian rebels is to make it clear that we are prepared to do the same for the Ukrainian Government. But not now, not quickly and not all at once. What we need is more a process, than an event. Start small, slow and un-aggressively – with communications and intelligence equipment for example. Expand by steps when we have to.


All these actions are necessary, but they are not sufficient. We still lack a broader diplomatic strategy. Yet one stares us in the face, if only we could see it.


The West is not succeeding against ISIL in the Middle East. The US led coalition is too small, too Sunni and lacks international legitimacy. This is one area where our problems are Russia’s problems too – we may be threatened by Jihadis returning from the battlefield. But Russia is part of the battlefield. ISIL will not be beaten by Western bombs and guns alone. But they can be beaten by a much wider international coalition including Turkey, Iran and – why not? – Russia too. This would add real diplomatic and military firepower to our cause. And offer Russia a partnership over an issue that threatens them arguably even more than us.


As we should have learnt by now, it is always unwise to paint Russia into a corner – even one of its own making. So balancing a hard line on Ukraine with an offer of partnership against the Jihadi threat, makes solid sense – and perhaps even the start of a strategic approach to the Ukraine crisis, rather than a purely tactical one.


Tuition fees Yorkshire Post 12 December 2010


Tuition fees Yorkshire Post 12 December 2010


There is a cartoon by the most famous World War I cartoonist, Bruce Bairsnworthy , which shows two British Tommies, covered in mud and grime, holding onto their helmets while sheltering in a shell crater. The hole is full of water and there explosions on all sides and shells falling all round. One Tommy turns to the other and says “If you know of a better ‘ole – get to it!”


The two Parties in our coalition Government must feel a little like that as the House of Lords today does what the Commons did last week and debate the issue of tuition fees the second week.


Things are very tough – especially for my colleagues in the Lib Dem. But there ain’t no better ‘ole to be in. Everywhere else is worse than where they are now.


There are two central questions which need to be answered in this debate.


The first is one primarily it seems for the Liberal Democrats. Why have we changed (some people, especially some students, would use a stronger word such as “betrayed”) the policy we stood on in the Election? I have to say this is a little unfair, since every Party has changed the tuition fees policy they stood on at the Election. The Tories went into the election opposed to tuition fees and are now in favour because of the economic crisis. The Lib Dems did the same and now find they have to change because of the coalition. And Labour went into the last election in favour of fees and now oppose them because of the opportunities this offers to bet up on the Government.


But then politics isn’t fair, so it’s the Lib Dems who have to answer for their u turn, not the others. I think this is probably so because our MP’s and Leader were seen signing those pledges and the point is somehow made that if its in the manifesto, that’s one thing, but a personal pledge is something different – something special. I think this is a bit Jesuitical. If its in your manifesto and someone asks you to sign a pledge saying the same thing, how can you say no. Whether it was right for it to be in the Lib Dem manifesto, of course is a different point – but then apply that to the other Parties who have also done u turns, in the same way. I don’t see people protesting about Labour’s “betrayal” but if breaking your word is the sin that’s getting people upset then surely this should apply to them, too?


The second point to make is that Labour abandoned their manifesto support for tuition fees, not because they needed to reach a compromise with another party in order to provide the country with strong government at a time of crisis. Labour didn’t want to work with anyone else if they couldn’t govern alone. They preferred to run from their responsibility to clean up the mess they had created. No, they changed their election stance on tuition fees, not for reasons of national interest, but for reasons of opportunism.


The promise Lib Dems made at the election was “If we become the Government, we will get rid of tuition fees”. But we are not the government. We have a coalition Government. And that means two Parties working together in the national interest. And that means compromising with each there. In a Coalition neither Party gets everything it wants. They both have the chance to put into operation some of the policies they like and some they don’t. How could it be otherwise? Both can honour some of their promises, but at the price of giving up others.


And if that’s not a price you are prepared to pay, then forget partnership politics. Forget, too a strong Government with a clear majority at a time of economic crisis. Forget a lot of other things as well. Like economic stability; low interest and mortgage rates; public expenditure choices made by an accountable Government, rather than unaccountable markets. And jobs – lots and lots of jobs.


The truth is that thanks to the mess the last Government made, we don’t have any choice now. We have to take drastic action to start living within our means. And that includes our Universities too. Every other public service is getting a cut of 25%. If they don’t bear their share, the pain for everyone else will have to be greater.


That leaves us with a choice. Either cuts which will ruin our Universities for ever, or ask students who will benefit in later life to pay something back when they do.


I am clear which f those two choices is in the nations interest.


Which leave the final question.


Are the Government’s proposals for tuition fees fair.


I do not condemn people who demonstrate in support of their views. I’ve done a bit of that myself in my time. And I suspect that demonstrating students condemn the violence we have seen quite as much as everyone else. Nevertheless I do wonder whether all those demonstrating on the streets of our cities (and no doubt we will see them outside Parliament again tonight) know the actual details of what they are demonstrating against.


And if they do, then I have to ask why didn’t they demonstrate against Labour’s tuition fee scheme that we have at present? Because the new ones are far, far better. Like the current scheme, no-one will have to pay up front to go to university. They only pay afterwards IF their salary is more than £21,000 a year (£6,000 above the £15,000 which is the repayment threshold at the moment). And even then when they do pay, they will pay less – about a half less – than they do at present. And unlike at present the richest will pay most and the poorest least, which is not the case at the moment. And part time students, who pay now will not pay at all. And those from the very poorest families will get up to two years without any fee charges.


I understand about the issue of debt. And I don’t like it either. And I know its tough. But then, if we are going to get out of the mess we are in, it’s going to be tough on us all. And students, who have more to gain than most by pulling this country out of the dangerous place we are in now can’t be an exception to that.


I agree, this ‘ole ain’t comfortable. But I don’t know of a better – or a fairer – one to go to.



Student fees article Heffer Column Daily Telegraph 7 Dec 2010

Student fees article Heffer Column Daily Telegraph 7 Dec 2010


A Liberal MP, elected in the Liberal landslide of 1906, which also changed the face of British politics, wrote


“The people in between

Looked underdone and harassed

And out of place and mean

And horribly embarrassed.”


Hilaire Belloc was probably not describing the eternal difficulties of trying to occupy the center ground in British politics. But if he had been, he couldn’t have done it better, as my Lib Dem colleagues are finding to their discomfort.


Having said we believe in partnership politics we Liberal Democrats now have to show it can work. And in the process, wrestle with the fact that this is terra nova for us all. We are all having to invent new ways of doing things. We are all stumbling a bit in the dark.


This is difficult enough for those inside the coalition. Much more so for those reporting on it from outside, or trying to change the Government’s mind by exercising their democratic rights on the streets.


This is not going to be a smooth process or an easy one. There are going to be tough passages and inelegant moments. And, as on tuition fees at the moment, it is not always going to be a pretty sight. It was Bismarck who said “those who love sausages and respect the law, should take care not to watch either of them being made”. It turns out to apply – and in spades – to coalition politics, too.


Being the leader of a party in coalition is arguably the most difficult job in politics; you have to succeed in two key tasks ; holding the coalition together – and holding your party together at the same time. And this job is even more difficult if you happen to be the leader of the smaller party – then you get blamed for everything, as Nick Clegg is finding, as his opponents ordure is dumped upon his head (or, more literally, put through his letter box). It’s all becoming a bit French, with the Prime Minister taking the place of the French President hovering above the grubby scene with elegance and detachment. And the poor Deputy Prime Minister, like the French PM, taking the can for everything.


I think the last Liberal leader to have his effigy burnt in Whitehall, was Gladstone at the time of the murder of General Gordon. But I remember, myself being the target of quite a lot of abuse, albeit of a politer kind, when I argued that the right of abode should be given to Hong Kong passport holders; that a penny should be put on income tax for education; that we had to vote with a hated Conservative Government for the Maastricht Treaty and our European principles; that there should be intervention in the Bosnian war. So I know a little (a very little in comparison) what it is like.


I think Nick Clegg is dealing with the present situation with wisdom, skill, courage and an almost unbelievable degree of grace under fire.


He has recognised that, when it comes to holding his party together on this most difficult of issues, the process is as important as the outcome. He has listened (almost too much) to the views of his colleagues and, while stating his preference for voting for the student fee proposal, has kept the process open, even against derision and disbelief, until he is satisfied all the voices have been heard. The phrase “we agree to disagree” may have neither weight nor traction for those in our commentariat who like their politics instant, brutal and preferably bloody. But it is nevertheless one of the key phrases that lies at the heart of the British democratic tradition. And it is what the new politics of partnership has to learn if it is to have any chance of success.


I do not believe it likely that all Liberal Democrats will vote in the same lobby on student fees on Thursday. But then, I never have. Perhaps I wish it were otherwise. But I knew it never would be. And, however much they pretend to shock and scandal at their supposed discovery of this obvious fact, anyone worth their salt as a commentator on British politics should have known that, too.


Nick Clegg’s task has not been to seek to impose his will on his colleagues by coercion, as some seem to demand. That would never have worked. These are Liberal Democrats, who think for themselves, thank God. His achievement has been to bring them through this, united as a team, even if they cannot be united in the lobbies. To disagree without rancour.


Now, be honest, when, in our recent politics, did you see that before?


I admire him for this. I am pretty sure I couldn’t have done it half as well. And that’s good news for the Coalition, for the new politics of partnership and for strong government at a time of crisis.


There are some in and out of the Westminster village – and some more on the streets of our cities – who believe that the Liberal Democrats are the weakest link in this coalition, and think that, if they force us out, they can bring it all down. We aren’t and they won’t.


Whatever happens on Thursday, I don’t believe our Party unity will be weaker – it may, indeed even be stronger. That’s Nick Clegg’s achievement. And it’s a very big one.


The dividend for this will not be felt this month, next year, or even in the next two or three years. It will be felt at the next election. If by then, we have held our nerve, stuck to our guns and delivered good government at time of crisis, then British politics will have been changed for ever and the Lib Dems will be beneficiaries, not losers.


As for the substance of Thursday’s vote, that seems pretty simple to me.


The Lib Dems promised at the election, that if there was a Liberal Democrat Government we would get rid of tuition fees. But there isn’t a Liberal Democrat Government. So we had to negotiate an agreement with another Party. And its that agreement, subsequently endorsed by both the Parliamentary Party and the Party Conference, which we now have to honour.


We really would be a laughing stock – and deserve to be – if, having signed that agreement and internally endorsed it, we now run away from it.


All the more so given the merits of the policy itself.


There are three groups of stakeholders here: universities, taxpayers and graduates.


Universities will be better off; with revenues secured, our newer universities can plan ahead, confident of survival, while our elite universities will be stronger to compete in the global market place.


Taxpayers will be better off – as private payment increases, so the burden on the public purse decreases.


And graduates will be better off – particularly those on low earnings. With the threshold at which repayments start increased by £6,000, low earners will repay less, while those from the poorest households – those eligible for free school meals – will be assisted by our pupil premium and then get up to two years at university without any fees at all.


Sounds a pretty good deal to me.


Though, of course, as always, I respect the positions of my colleagues who don’t agree. But, Hilaire Belloc’s spirit please note, I do not intend to look “horribly embarrassed” about it.






The Ukraine Crisis – 3 March 2014


The Ukraine Crisis

The Ukraine crisis is one of those rare occasions in international affairs when the West should follow the immortal advice of Corporal Jones in dad’s Army: “Don’t panic!”.


We so love to frighten ourselves rigid by the Russian bear that we are missing the key point here.


Russia is not a strong state it is a weak one. Its population is plummeting – the life expectancy of the average Russian male is just a little over 60. They cannot effectively populate their own space let alone involve themselves in serious military adventures outside it. Having failed to invest their oil revenues in modernising their industry, they have a rust bucket economy. If a Chinese businessman makes a billion he invests it in China. If a Russian oligarch makes a million he gets it out of Russia as fast as he can – usually into property in London. When Mr Putin invaded Georgia it looked as though he had won. But it turned out in the end to be a catastrophe for Russia. They lost massive support world wide and, as Western intelligence sources know, exposed their armed forces as inefficient and out of date both in technology and tactics.


At the heart of the Ukraine crisis lies a clash of cultures. We in the West have long understood that the destiny of nations today depends on the will of their people. Mr Putin has persuaded the Russian people that they are still in the nineteenth century when big-powers had the right to subjugate small ones if they are considered to be within their “sphere of influence”. That was what got us into the mess of 1914 – and again 1939. Indeed when Mr Putin says that he is entitled to invade Ukraine if Ukrainian citizens of Russian ethnicity are in danger, he is precisely repeating Hitler’s Sudetenland argument for invading Czechoslovakia.


So, we used military force then, should we use it now?


No. This time that is not the best way


It is true that if the West will not use military force, Putin gets his way. In the short term, maybe. But not in the long.


Yesterday the Russian stock market collapsed. The economic, diplomatic and political damage which Russia could suffer if the now if the West acts decisively, strongly and with unity could be devastating.


So here is what should happen.


Firstly, the West needs to speak with a single voice. Mr Hague is in Kiev – fine but he should not be speaking for Britain but on behalf of the whole Western community. When it comes to speaking to Europe the key voice however is that of Chancellor Merkel – for Germany has always been closest to Russia.


Secondly our diplomatic policy should be to isolate Russia, starting with boycotting the coming G8 meeting in Socchi.


Thirdly we should have a sliding scale of economic sanctions – starting with closing of investment into Russia as far as we are able and moving on, if necessary to travel bans on the key players, including in the Crimea.


Russia utterly failed to win the argument with the Ukrainian people and so had to resort to the argument of force. That is a measure of her strength, but of her weakness. There has to be a cost for such an outrageous breach of international law. But that cost can better be exacted through economic, political and diplomatic means than military ones

The Citizen and the State Social research Institute & IPSOS MORI 22 Nov 2014

By Paddy Ashdown

Re-balancing the State in favour of the citizen


I have a radical thought and it is the following: the days of the classic nation state are over. We have to find a new balance between the power of the citizen and the power of the state. Hidden behind the economic crisis – the protests in Spain, France, Greece and all over the world – is a crisis that is ultimately more dangerous. It is the crisis of democracy itself.

The problem can best be expressed like this. We now what must be done to solve this economic crisis. But we do not know how to get the support of our people to do what must be done.

Everywhere in the world, the centre ground is in retreat and the demagogues are on the march. You can see it in Greece, France and Holland. You can see it in the rise of the Tea Party in the United States to the electoral gains made by UKIP in Britain. We are suffering from two simultaneous crises. One economic and on of confidence in our political system and above all in our political elites.

We need only to go back less than one hundred years to find another age dominated by the same ingredients and we do not need to be reminded what it led to. Whilst it is both tempting and justifiable to blame those who run the establishment – the politicians, the media and the bankers – it is not sufficient. Even if all the above behaved like paragons, we would still have a dangerously dysfunctional political system.

The classic Bagehot and Dicey nation state – the systemic model for our politics and government – is breaking down. It has become dysfunctional, out of date and no longer fit for purpose. It is indeed being torn apart before our eyes by two opposing forces.

One is the gathering of power which now lies in the global space, beyond the borders of the nation state; powers strong enough to affect the lives of citizens, alter the course of governments and make a mockery of electoral promises. But in this article, I will focus on the second force that is tearing at the current fabric of the State from the opposite dierection – from below.

Let’s consider the way ordinary citizens live their lives today. They are individually empowered. Individually able to shape their choices without intervention of officials, able to adopt what passtimes or practices they wish, and choose their acquaintances without constraints of geography and locality. They are empowerd by daily choice in the market, but disempowered in the poitical sytem which gvies them a false choice every four year and then ignores them in between.

Consider this disjuncture between the way ordinary people in advanced democracies live and the way they are governed. The market is in touch, listen and is attentive to their needs. But their government is a distant institution most of them know almost nothing about. It explains its decisions in language they do not understand; itis ignorant of – or worse actively ignores – their views; it, is out of touch, and seems to care chiefly for itself. In the day to day business of living – in the market, on the internet, in private life- the citizen is powerful. But in the day to day business of our politics they are more and more powerless.

This gulf is now so structurally deep that it cannot be bridged by little things like reforming Members’ Expenses, improving Government’s communication, simplifying voting, stopping bankers from being greedy or journalists from being irresponsible. All these are necessary but not sufficient.

The crisis of trust in politics will not be solved by tinkering at the top and making the establishment behave better. It can only be resolved by re-connecting the citizen with power. If we are to make our democracy work again, there has to be a substantial re-distribution of the powers of the nation state.

Pooling sovereignty with others on the international level is necessary to deliver what we want for our citizens. But we must go further and pass power downwards to create intermediary institutions between the citizen and the state; which brings power closer to the citizen, gives them a stake in the governance of their lives, provides them with closer contact, more involvement, greater control.

This is not about shrinking the state as many in the Conservative would wish. It is about re-balancing the state in favour of the individual. That is one of the crucial differences between us. This is, of course, not a new Liberal idea; it’s an old one. But it’s now more relevant than ever – more necessary than ever.

Why should our national Government interfere so much in our personal lives? Surely, it should be looking after things that are genuinely national – our defence, our foreign affairs, our macro-economic policies, our national planning and transport policies. Westminster did far less, it would do it far better.


The truth of the matter is that the great black hole of Westminster has sucked into itself so much of the power that ought to lie elsewhere, that it has made itself dysfunctional. It simply cannot efficiently manage the power it has accrued for itself. Which is one of the reasons why it makes more mistakes and is trusted less and less by those it serves

So, when it comes to those services which touch on the lives of ordinary citizens – health, education, welfare, social services – why should these not be delivered, within a national framework of universal entitlements and by institutions much closer to the citizens?

The Great Reform Act of 1832 is credited with saving Britain from the revolutions which soaked Europe in blood in 1848. Perhaps the time has come for another Great Reform Act – one that doesn’t merely shuffle the papers of local democracy and localism, but actually hand down power.

The problem with the Government’s localism agenda is that it merely shifts power from Whitehall to the Town Hall – we will never regenerate our democracy by simply transferring power from one bureaucracy, to another. Local Government will have to recognise that it is only one of the local structures through which the citizen has engagement and control.

We must think about creating a much wider network of systems of the sort which you can find in Switzerland and the United States, which put citizen’s choice back in charge of the services they depend on, such as health and education. And if this leads to differences in delivery between one area and another, so what? You cannot believe in local determination and object to people choosing to be different.

The argument over private and public ownership of services is a good example of re-distribution of power. Over the last forty years or so, ordinary citizens have been ripped off, abused and exploited by bad public institutions, as much if not more so than exploitative private ones. The fault lies almost always with lack of transparency, bad leadership and rotten structures rather than the public ownership versus private ownership argument. The key question is not, as we like to think, public or private. It is how is the citizen and the public interest best served. And that can be determined by asking three questions:


  1. Is the process completely transparent for all to see – from the drawing up of the contract to the delivery of the service?
  2. Does the citizen have choice, or is it a monopoly?
  3. How is quality measured?


Surely, if we are in favour of a mixed economy, we should also be in favour of a mixed system of public service delivery too. The more mixed the better. This means more imagination, brave experimentation and an eye for implementing best practice.

Whilst more forward looking commercial institutions are taking the ideas of openness and public deliberation seriously, why do so very few public one? Why are we killing off, for instance alternative ownership and control structures based on mutualism, when we should be promoting them?

I believe we are facing a most dangerous conjunction. An economic crisis against a background of a frightening collapse of trust in politics, government and maybe even in democracy itself. Tinkering at the edges; putting our house in order and improving behaviour at the top will not solve this.

If we won’t find the courage to give the citizen more stake in the decisions which affect their lives, there may be worse ahead.





Syria The Times 30 May 2012

Syria The Times  30 May 2012


The slaughter of the innocents in Syria is, of course, horrific, barbaric, shocking, terrifying medieval, bestial — choose your own adjective; they’ve all been used – some many times over. In our attempts to camouflage impotence we are now devaluing hyperbole.


I do not complain about this. It is what we expect from our elected Western leaders. They have to represent populations who still remain, for all our diminished power, the world’s centre of righteous moral indignation — the natural habitat of the Something Must Be Done brigade, stretching (as it does these days) from the concerned public citizen, to Mr John Humphrys on the BBC’s Today programme.


None of this is wrong, none of it misplaced and none of it inappropriate. It is necessary to be outraged and concerned.


But it is not sufficient. With the West’s moral force in tatters after the blunders of Iraq and Afghanistan and military budgets so shrunk that we can no longer enforce our global morality at the point of a bayonet, we have to learn to be, not just concerned, but canny too if we are to get our way.


I thought we had learnt that lesson in Libya. But Syria suggests that we have not.


In Libya we in the West seemed to understand how the world had changed. Why the old glad confident days when we could, as in Iraq, treat the UN Security Council with cavalier disregard, were over (and a good thing too, some would say – though not I suspect in the beleaguered towns of Homs and Houla). That in future, international action meant a Security Council resolution, with all that entails for the enhanced power of Russian and Chinese vetoes. That the best way to avoid this was not for the West to front up the action, but to support and assist others (in Libya’s case the Arabs) to do so . The effect of making action in Libya an Arab call, not a Western one made it much more difficult for the Russians to say no — and in the end they didn’t.


Western diplomacy should have learnt lessons from this. First, that more than ever before, the crucial diplomatic battlefield is the UN Security Council. If you can’t make it happen there, you can’t make it happen.


Second, making it happen there is not always best served by the West out in front brandishing the sword of a morality and making demands for regime change which Russia and China can easily mis-represent as just a modern version of old imperialism.


Finally, we in the West should have learnt from Libya that to get things done means creating coalitions beyond the cosy circle of the Atlantic club.


Instead of building on those lessons we seem sadly, and stupidly, to have reverted to type in Syria. Instead of quietly standing back and letting the Arabs and the regional powers lead the call for action, Western leaders from Hilary Clinton through to newly arrived Président Francois Hollande, just could not resist donning the armour of moral outrage and leading the charge. Instead of making it more difficult for Russia to say “no”, they have made it easier. And overlooked the central role that Turkey could have played as a regional leader in putting together a coalition for action which the West could have found it easy to back and Russians much more difficult to oppose.

In today’s much more balanced “post-Western hegemony” world, we have to see intervention less as an event —like the invasion of Iraq — and much more as a process, like the one which led to the successes of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma.

Given the necessity of stopping Russia from using its veto, why on earth have Western leaders been shouting through megaphones about regime change? We know that Bashar Assad is just about the only friend Russia has left in the Middle East. Calling for him to go only helps them shelter behind the one scrap of clothing they have left to cover their dignity — that this is not driven by humanitarianism but by Western imperialism.


Of course any sensible person realises Assad must go. Gaddafi had to, too. But in Libya, we were careful not (quite) to say so. To demand Assad’s removal in lights is bad politics and clumsy diplomacy, not least with Kofi Annan’s mission on the ground trying to broker a cease-fire.


It now seems almost certain that the Annan mission is over. So the West should take a step back and leave space for a regional coalition, perhaps led by Turkey, to call for UNSC action. And what they propose should be framed initially, not around political actions, but exclusively around humanitarianism ones — the opening of a secure humanitarian corridor to Turkey perhaps, or the formation of a humanitarian relief mission to the besieged cities sanctioned by a UN Security Council Resolution and made up, not of Western nations but of Arab and regional ones.


A single mighty event that can bring a sudden end to tyranny, as in Bosnia, is now beyond us in Syria. But beginning a process driven by the region not the West that will take us there over time, is not.


The truth is that nowadays Western good intentions and deep concern are not sufficient. We have to learn to be canny too. And we haven’t been. The cowering innocents in Houla have been left to pay the price for a Security Council deadlock which, played differently, arguably may not have had to happen.


Post Syria debate The Times 31 August 2

Post Syria debate The Times 31 August 2013


So what do we do now?


The short term answers are easy. The long term ones pose real challenges for our country.


Parliament has spoken and – who can doubt it – reflected the current mood of the British people. Thiers is the sovereign voice and it must be respected – and it will be. There are strange paradoxes here. It is possible to be both proud of a Parliament that said no to the Executive on a matter like military action. But sad; even – dare I say it – a little ashamed at the decision it took.


Of course there a reasons for this. The left over-poisons of the Iraq war; the toxic effect of public distrust in our politics. Mishandling by the Government. President Obama’s unwise attempt rush to action. A Labour Opposition who used their parliamentary duty to ask questions, as an excuse to avoid making decisions.


These are reasons why we are we are. But they are not excuses.


They do not diminish the damage done to our country’s standing in the world – or the effect this will have on how we face the problem of conflict in a naughty world. We have made it more difficult for Obama to act. Maybe even now, he won’t. Then Great Britain, which led in international law and engagement, will lead a retreat from these ideals, towards a new mood of growing isolationism.


Cut it how you will, the bottom line is this. Parliament was asked to join an international coalition led by a US Democrat President, whose aim, a firm response to a flagrant breach of international law, was supported by most European nations and many Middle Eastern ones. And Parliament said no.


The subtext, is perhaps as disturbing as the headline. The Parliamentary Division figures show the darker figures lurking below Labour’s clever strategising. The Government lost because of 30 Tories (and I regret 9 Liberal Democrats). Among the former, many if not most want Britain to leave Europe at any cost. So those who propose Britain’s splendid isolation from our European neighbours have now crucially diminished our standing with our closest Atlantic friends. Alone at last – God help us!


There is a dangerous mood of isolationism running in our country. George Osborne is right. As a nation we must make a clear decision whether this is the path we want, or not. Maybe I am just a hoary old voice from the past. Maybe Thursday is the start of a new Britain, as the Tory isolationist right, Labour’s pacifist left and some further flung voices claim.


If it is to be so, then let it be so because we have chosen it. Not sleep walked into it.


There are big questions here. Why then would we need the world’s fourth most expensive defence forces? As Parliament debated a UKIP poster van cruised outside with the slogan “Keep out of Syria! Oppose Defence cuts!”. Do they really not see the connection? Meanwhile inside the marshalled ranks of superannuated Generals and Admirals followed each other in orderly procession to warn us that action couldn’t mean taking risks. Churchill said if you bring a bunch of Generals together, all you get is the sum of their fears. Quite so.


And what, in this brave new world will Labour do? Having placed in question their proud tradition of internationalism for a convenient mix of genuine concern and political opportunism, will they now join the madding crowd rushing for the exit, or help lead the way back to saner ground? Labour’s answer to this question is of profound importance, not just to them, but to the whole future of progressive politics in our country. Criticise the Government as one may, we now know the convictions of Messrs Cameron and Clegg – the latter driven by a passionate internationalism. We cannot say the same for Mr Milliband.


Parliament on Thursday proved it would be no-ones poodle – good. But if it were now to lead a Gadarene rush towards isolationism, that would be very bad indeed.




Syria The Independent 1 October 2015

Syria The Independent 1 October 2015

Vladimir Putin is giving us a master class on the penalties of a foreign policy based only on high explosive.


We are picking up the tragic human costs of war in Syria, but are now almost powerless to stop the conflict, or influence it in any way. We may want Assad go, but cannot make it happen. We may want ISIL stopped, but two years of bombing have made little if any progress towards their defeat. We bluster in the UN, Washington and London about willing the ends, but we have nothing left but bombs to will the means. The levers to make things happen in Syria now lie in Moscow and Tehran – all we are left with is a bomb release button at thirty thousand feet.


This is a diplomatic failure of inglorious proportions. Historic proportions too, since the result will inevitably be another ratchet down in the West’s influence, already grievously diminished by our failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.


One would have thought that we would have learnt the lessons of those defeats. But, still – sadly – stupidly – when the West sees a problem in the world its first instinct is to bomb it.


There are four reasons why we have landed in this baleful position in Syria.


We have forgotten the dictum of Clausewitz – war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. We always remember the war, but forget the diplomacy. As we now see in Syria, war only makes sense within a diplomatic strategy – and we didn’t have one. Post “shock and awe” we tried to create order in Iraq by purely military means, failing to engage the neighbours and refusing to address the burning coal at the heart of the Middle East conflagration – Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. And so we lost. We it again in Afghanistan, making enemies of the neighbours, instead of allies – and lost again. And in Libya we bombed our way to “victory” but forgot to create the regional coalition to bring order and reconstruction afterwards.


To choose only bombing again in Syria, without first getting Russia on board, was to invite folly being turned into humiliation. For Putin, with a military presence on the ground, could always up our ante and leave us looking foolish. Which he just has and we now do.


Our obsession with military options and blindness to diplomatic ones, also led to a myopic failure to see that what we were dealing with was not a conflict in Syria, but a growing Sunni/Shia war in which Syria was just a front line. The danger was that the West and Russia would be drawn into a regional conflict, us on the side of the Sunni and they on the side of the Shia – which is exactly where we have now ended up – with all its terrifying implications.


The great Foreign Secretaries, Canning and Castlereagh would have known what to do. They would immediately – I mean three years ago – have started building counterbalances with Tehran, Ankara and yes Moscow too (despite Ukraine). There would have been sacrifices of course – an earlier and perhaps less congenial deal with Tehran; an uncomfortable acceptance that, though we share no values with Russia we do share a common interest in Syrian peace and defeating Sunni jihadism too; a deal with Turkey would have been tough, because of Kurdish separatism. None of this would have been easy – but all of it could have led to an outcome where now, three years later we would have influence in what is happening in Syria, rather than just planes flying over it.


To choose as our first purpose in Syria, the removal of Assad was folly, since we had no means to make it happen. While Russia and Tehran backed Assad, bragging about removing him was never going to be more than empty words. If, as initially in Libya, we had made our aim, humanitarian rather than regime change, then success in the first would have led to the second – as with Gadhafi. If in the end, as now we would need Russian help, then demanding the removal of their only friend in the region, betrays clumsiness and lack of strategic foresight in equal measure.


Finally, the moment that ISIL moved into Syria we should have realised that our game was up. We could either (perhaps) get rid of ISIL or we could (perhaps) get rid of Assad, but we could not get rid of both simultaneously. We should have seen that choice two years ago instead of embarrassingly stumbling across it now. Then we could have had room for manoeuvre and perhaps a little leverage to extract concessions. Now, forced to choose with Russian fighters already in the air attacking ISIL, we have none.


So what next?


We are not the movers of events, we are being moved by them. Our options are limited. But there are, maybe, ways to wrest back some initiative. We should be holding Russia to account for Assad’s barrel bomb excesses. We will have, for the sake of our own face to leave Assad’s future hanging in a fog of diplomatic ambiguity. But we could and should move fast and purposefully to anchor Russian offers of help with ISIL within a wider formal coalition which brings in Tehran and Ankara. British aircraft joining the action over Syria as part of that wider coalition, might make better sense than it does now. In these more fluid diplomatic circumstances there could be a role for protection zones – or, perhaps most interestingly, for – not a no-fly-zone – but a no-bombing-zone.


For three years now the Syrian tragedy has remained stuck in a blood soaked quagmire, as thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have fled in terror. Things are perhaps moving in Syria – though this confers little credit and no comfort on the West. There are diplomatic opportunities now and humanitarian ones too. We should not compound three years of failure, by failing to seize the moment, even if it is not of our making.