Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Reform of International Institutions: good or bad for the UK?

A long absence from posting? Culpa and mea, in no particular order. It's the summer, and wifi-less beaches exert a certain attraction even for me.

I have just posted a comment on a recent Spectator article, taking issue with its argument that the UK should fight tooth-and-nail before it relinquishes its systemic advantages in international politics, e.g. UNSC permanent member status, lots of votes on the IMF, that sort of thing.

Korski's lamentable thesis is predicated on an assumed strategic benefit to the UK in maintaining the presently unequal international system. He appears particularly unhappy about proposals to create an EU permanent seat on the UNSC and to afford similar representation to India or Brazil.

This is mistaken on several levels. First, I don't think the UK derives a significant strategic benefit from UNSC membership. This sounds counter-intuitive, and I confess to a little hyperbole. Of course there are tactical advantages inherent in the higher profile and, if you like, geopolitical "dining rights" (to get all Oxbridge on you) that come with P5 status. But in the long-run this can only be a Very Bad Thing for the UK.

Why? Because it's at least 80 years since the UK was a bona fide super-power. Get with the programme people: this is a relatively small island with terrible weather and a good line in irony, not an economic colossus bestride the globe, a la China or the good old US of A. An A Grade self-image is dangerous for a B Grade power and gives the UK ideas above its station and its duties. Far better for it to focus on being a constructive part of a wider, more influential whole (I speak of course of the Borg-like EU - you will be assimilated!). The UK has swallowed the misplaced pride, put aside the delusions of grandeur and done just that in the WTO. It may well be time to emulate this exemplary practice in other spheres.

Second, clinging onto something which you cannot conceivably keep a hold of in the long-term displays poor judgement and no sense of history. Cut your losses and extract the maximum PR boost by appearing to make a voluntary, high-minded gesture, surrender P5 status or - more realistically - register your interest in merging the UK and France seats into a new EU seat. And watch the world collectively blink in surprise and respect. A state that didn't have to give up the seeming influence UNSC seat, voluntarily compromising for the greater good? Impressive skills, Batman.

When your national reality is out of sync with your international status, it's better to face-up to that fact sooner rather than later. Start acting like a responsible, constructive and very modest player in a much bigger game, and begin to reap the benefits of team-work and pragmatic self-awareness. British people are rightly proud to live in this country. It has loads of things going for it. But auto-pilot travel along the well-worn imperial trajectory of Global Significance is not only quaint and somewhat silly, it really undermines UK image internationally.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

How low can they go?

I have been transfixed on my sofa this morning, half attempting to fathom this English game called cricket (just when I think I understand the rules, they introduce 'free strikes' and such like) and half perusing all the virtual column inches on the plight of Gordon Brown's administration.

I feel definitely sorry for the present British Prime Minister. The Labour Party appears finally and comprehensively to have forgotten the lessons learned from John Major's last days, weeks, months and years 'in office but not in power.'

The Local and European election results appear bad for the ruling national party, especially with at most twelve months to run until the next National election. But the open bout of party political regicide is unedifying, especially the low tactic of leaking an email exchange. (Whoever decided to publish this ought to ask what, besides titillation, they intended to achieve.)

Surely the most honest, effective and tribally loyal strategy to oust a political party's leader must be fought privately, within the party, taking the case to each MP, each consituency association, each party apparatchik. These manouevres must be kept within the party or else the integrity of the whole is perforce undermined by the actions of one or another faction.

The fact that so much of this battle has been fought in the open, public spaces of newspapers and television news networks suggests one or both of the following:

  1. The factions have forgotten that their key audience is private not public, party members and not the electorate
  2. That all-too-public in-fighting and navel-gazing at a time when the nation requires strong, concerted political leadership, can only have deservedly deleterious consequences for that party's esteem in the hearts and minds of voters
Our politics are poorly served by this spectacle of self-obsession.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Why Tony Grayling pisses me off

People like Tony Grayling really piss me off. The magisterial presumption of a guy who's never done anything in his life but write about old dead guys becoming a prophet of what governments need to do to keep their people safe in a security environment one rather suspects he's not exactly totally in the loop about, just kinda sorta takes my breath away and makes me forget to punctuate and prune my sentences.

Don't get me wrong. I am not a neo-con, although I do admire the earlier works of Leo Strauss. What I deplore is evidence-blind faith in an area where you really need to know your shit. Philosophy professors telling the FBI how to run law enforcement is like philosophy professors telling brain surgeons which bits of your grey matter to scrape away. Are you comfortable with that? I don't think so.

Anyway, Grayling wrote this and I responded thus:

Grayling mentions Locke's defence of liberty, but not Locke's defence of life, the first in his triad of life, liberty and property. The priority of place Locke gave life is easy to understand: given that life is a necessary prerequisite for the enjoyment of liberty and property, one would think it reasonable for Grayling to support laws necessary to protect our lives even at the expense of some of our liberty.

Precisely how Grayling is in a position to gauge the level of threat, and consequent calibration of policy to meet it, is unclear.

Would he deny he suffers from an evidence-gap, that he indulges in arm-chair philosophising, rather than evidence-based opinion?

His opinion would be worth rather more if he had ever tested his words of wisdom by taking real work in a national security field or at the (very) least, sought to inform himself by conducting serious empirical research interviews with national security officials.

Has he done so?

Something lazy, all too lazy and self-satisfied about his piece.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Sex and morality; government and taxes

I was disturbed by this Sunday Times story when I saw it in someone's shopping basket during the ritual Sunday morning supermarket shop. Racing home I read it on-line - not having bought a newspaper, except for train journeys, for several years - and it prompted the following reflection:
The government is effectively trying to tell parents how to raise children. This will horrify some, reassure others. It's essentially similar to the Great British Smacking Debate. Interventionist, statist liberals will invariably think that the social consequences of allowing unfettered parental freedom are simply too great, and can be measured (crudely) in the number of teenage pregnancies and knife-crimes littering Daily Mail front pages.
Conservative liberals, NIMBY 'my home is my castle' types - with whom I often self-identify - will usually find this a shocking encroachment of their freedom to live as they choose, and raise their children according to their values.
I sympathise with the liberal interventionists on some things, e.g., howsoever much a militant father wants junior to be a fully-fledged toddler-commando, replete with bare-knuckle training and cot-based automatic weapons fire, I think it is legitimate to save children and society from manifestly unsuitable parenting. That's a no-brainer for most people.
Morality and taxation
On this issue, however, I'm with the instinctive knee-jerk liberal brigade. Prescriptive sex education is something you get in religious schools and communities as well as households. The government is effectively saying, 'we know you believe this stuff, but we think you'll fuck your kids up by indoctrinating them with it.' Not the classiest nor the most demonstrably consensual use of conservative tax-payers' tax pounds. It's illegal not to pay tax, and then you find your money used against you and your way of life. That must suck.
As tempting as it must be when you suddenly find yourself with the power to spend other people's money to tell them what to do, I's appreciate it if governments interpreted their role in a morally narrow, neutral and consensual manner. Government should protect us, provide our infrastructure and services, and basically nothing else.
Government as neither Answer nor Problem
A pamphlet like the one reported in the Times, in which the government takes one side of a contested debate between groups of its own citizens, is only going to alienate one group and cause the other to ask for more, and more divisive use of government power to enforce their moral code on others. And the more we all see Government as the Answer or the Problem, the more we fail to see that we ourselves can do a lot to shape our lives and those of our communities.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Why we live in an age of nuclear proliferation

James Forsyth has this prescient little piece on Iran's nuclear ambition. I remember when James and I were contemporaries at Cambridge; this was simply not on the mainstream radar, but the signs were there for anyone to read.

The simple truth is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime has never been an effective mechanism for preventing state-based proliferation of nuclear weapons. To the best of my knowlege, neither we, nor any of the P5, have ever taken seriously our Article VI commitment to nuclear disarmament.

British and American attitudes to nuclear proliferation are shaped from within our respective national contexts of being nuclear powers. If we lacked nuclear weapons but Iran had them, we would be doing our level best to acquire them as fast as possible. Mutatis mutandis, Iran's position is intelligible.

We lack credible policy levers to prevent Iranian nuclear armament. We should, therefore, cut our losses, accept that we live in an age of state-based nuclear proliferation, and focus our policy on convincing Pakistan and Iran that their selfish national interests are aligned with our commitment to ensure that non-state terrorists do not acquire nuclear material.

The world can, and probably must, live with a nuclear Iran. In contrast, I don't think the world is well served by the self-serving but ineffective NPT status quo ante.

The next UK General Election

Becoming increasingly desperate about my lack of readers, I have taken to posting on other, better and better-read bloggers' sites. I posted this in response to Paul Waugh's piece on the jockeying for position ahead of Gordon Brown's exit. Apparently Jack Straw has been ranked first in a recent poll of one thousand would-be voters:

Things won't look brilliantly hopeful regardless of who's in charge. Consider:
First, some stats

Labour won in 2005 on about 35.2% of the popular vote (to the Tories 32.3%). That was how close Blair and Howard were. Labour still won, despite a controversial war, because Blair promised not to stand again, the economy was okay, and the opposition still couldn't persuade the electorate to give them a chance.
Now some analysis

At the next election: the economy will not be as good; the opposition are likely to be more palatable to the electorate; and the Labour party is unlikely to get a big boost by its leader promising not to stand next time around.
And finally, a prediction

Conclusion: the Tories will most probably score more of the popular vote than Labour. Will that mean a Tory majority? I don't know, I'm not sufficiently anoraky to know the ins and outs of the constituency breakdown of the national vote. Answers..?

Rendition, torture and moral hazard

I just posted the below in the comments section of Iain Dale's seminal blog, prompted by a very interesting, thoughtful and enjoyable link to a student radio interview of Hilary Benn:
Thanks Iain for this informative and enjoyable link, and to your readers for several illuminating comments. Your post prompted me to read more into the background of the issue, and I feel I understand it a good deal better.
Why I don't support torture and rendition

I confess to being agnostic on rendition and torture: It would take a lot to convince me that the UK should be complicit, and nothing I have heard has yet persuaded me that we need to compromise our commitment to treat people humanely in order to protect ourselves from attack.
Why I might support it

I cannot, however, confess an unshakeable commitment to the human rights of actual terrorists, in possession of mission-critical intelligence that would save innocent lives. If - and it's unlikely the evidence could be presented in an open forum - I could be shown that methods of torture had a proven track-record of extracting such intelligence in a proportionate way (i.e. with extremely low yield of bad intelligence, extremely low (though not zero) incidence on torturing innocent people, and a strong track record of averting disaster) I must admit I would probably support it.
And why that doesn't make me feel good

I find that admission troubling, and am fully aware of its implications, but hypothetically I'd rather live in a country where my government was willing to make that kind of morally difficult choice, than one in which they exposed us all to greater risk, in the face of clear evidence that they could keep us all safer by victimising a small number of guilty individuals who were intent on ending our lives and bringing down our society.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

PR or first past the post?

The Israeli election generated, amongst other things, these two posts from Alex Massie and Matthew Yglesias respectively. Both Messrs Massie and Yglesias observe pertinently that the precise configuration of an electoral system is less important than the quality of the men and women who make that system a reality. As Alexander Pope versified, 'Of forms of government let fools protest/Whatever is best administered is best.'

Some electoral arrangements are obviously worse than others - would you have liked to count and report opposition results in Saddam Hussein's Iraq? - but usually this has more to do with externalities, i.e. people, than quirks of systems.

For what it's worth, I prefer systems, like the multi-member constituency model, which try to reduce the 'wasted vote' side-effect of the Westminster Model. It must suck to be a Lib Dem in a rock-solid Tory or Labour constituency. Suck more than usual, that is.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

coherence, history and over-simplification

Do read this from last week's Spectator. It's an exceptionally earnest but not desperately convincing little piece by someone described as "the historian Lisa Hilton", perhaps because we might mistake her for another Lisa Hilton who doesn't write about history, or maybe because the description of her as an historian will add weight to her case.

The Historian laments the government's failure to give children "any coherent understanding of the forces which made the world they inhabit". The thrust of the article is that government is dumbing down the teaching of history. I would reply to The Historian that, on the contrary, overt willingness to describe "the forces which made the world they inhabit" as amenable to "coherent understanding" is engaging in the classic over-simplification exercise that has perenially been the preserve of school history teaching. I'd like to see schools teaching children to deal with incoherence: it would be at once more salutary for everyday life and more historically fastidious. But maybe The Historian Lisa Hilton also believes that Whigs were onto something. I feel we should be told. Oh dear, oh dear.