Thursday, August 29, 2013

F***ing C***s

By the way, before we all get carried away with how Ed Miliband, the great statesman, has heroically defied David Cameron's rush to war, showing his great principles along the way, I think that there might be a little more to the story. It's pretty unusual for a no. 10 spokesman to be quite as blunt as this when briefing the press:
No 10 and the Foreign Office think Ed Miliband is a fucking c**t and a copper-bottomed shit. The French hate him now and he’s got no chance of building an alliance with the US Democratic Party.
What's the cause of this vituperation? I'd have thought that was fairly obvious. The question of what to do about Syria is a bloody awful one. Cameron has been talking to Obama about what to do, and what Britain can do to assist the US, for weeks. The most plausible explanation for no. 10's fury at Miliband is that Cameron kept Miliband well informed of this process, and received assurances that Labour would support, or at least not oppose, any Government motion clearing the way for limited airstrikes on chemical weapons facilities etc.

That's why Cameron recalled Parliament - and doubtless informed Obama that Britain would support the US. Because he had received assurances that Labour would not cause the motion to fall. That's also why Miliband was talking as recently as last night of abstaining from the motion - presumably itself a row-back from previous talk of supporting it.

And then, he changed his mind. At best, this is shabby. At worst it is shabby and weak. Either way, it's clear why no 10 was so enraged.


Like Alex Massie, I supported the Iraq War long after most people had decided it was a bad idea. Partly out of a sense of necessary consistency: I was in favour of the war before it started (on the grounds both that it was more likely than not that Saddam had or was trying to get hold of WMD, and that he was a destabilising regional force whose removal would be both relatively straightforward, and good for peace in the region); I ought therefore to remain supportive when things went tits-up.

I think Alex says all that needs to be said about how well this position stands up to historical scrutiny.
And there was something else too, something which gave the argument greater urgency: this was to be the great cause of our time, the great project that justified the expenditure of blood and gold in pursuit of a noble, historic, objective. This would be the anti-piracy or anti-slavery movement of our time.

So it has been a chastening decade. It did not work out like that and all that youthful certainty seems like reckless hubris now. But there is no point or advantage in denying how it seemed at the time.

Where are we on Syria then? The best analysis here comes, oddly perhaps, from The Onion. In an impressively dark satire, 'Assad' sets out the options for Western intervention: bombing, missile strikes on specific chemical weapons locations, no-fly zones, doing nothing, or a full-scale invasion. Most of them are unappealing and some of them are impossible. There's nothing we can do: but nor can we do nothing

Obviously, at a time like this everyone becomes an expert in both foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular - there's nothing like a foreign policy flashpoint for waking up the armchair strategists. Not me though. I haven't a clue what the West should do, if indeed it should do anything at all. Whereas with Iraq there was a clear objective (remove Saddam, even if this wasn't exactly spelled out at the time) and clear means to achieve that objective, I don't see that either applies to Syria. Do we want the rebels to 'win'? If we do, can we achieve that? If we don't, what do we want?

I just wish I thought someone knew the answer to these questions.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Imperial Relics

Simon Jenkins has a slightly odd piece in the Guardian arguing that as the days of Empire are over, residual imperial relics should be returned to their rightful owners - specifically Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.
Britain's security does not need these places. It does not depend on coaling stations in the Atlantic. France survives without any longer owning Senegal and Pondicherry, and Portugal without São Tomé and Goa.
So, France and Portugal have decolonised? Well, only if you don't count French Guiana, Martinique, Guadaloupe, Reunion, Mayotte and a handful of French territories in the Pacific. Or Madeira and the Azores. All of these places are the relics of imperial pasts - just like the residual British overseas territories.

Of course those living in these colonies have a right to be considered, but such rights have never overridden political reality. Nor has Britain claimed so, at least when circumstance dictated. The residents of Hong Kong and Diego Garcia were not consulted, let alone granted "self-determination", when Britain wanted to dump them in the dustbin of history.
Diego Garcia is mentioned quite a bit in the context of the Falklands and Gibraltar, but here's the thing: I thought that we were supposed to be ashamed of what the UK did there? That's certainly the view at the Guardian - that deciding the sovereignty of an overseas possession without consulting the population is a bad thing. Presumably this doesn't apply if the inhabitants are sufficiently white.

Gibraltar's status as a tax haven has brought it surging wealth, fuelling Spain's rage at so much money pouring untaxed through what it regards as its own territory.
So Spain wants it because it's rich (although, if it's only rich because it's a tax haven then making it part of metropolitan Spain would presumably remove the sole reason for its riches). But on what basis does it regard it as Spanish territory? Geographical propinquity? That surely hardly cuts it for a country that has its own enclaves in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. Historical possession then? But Gibraltar has been British for longer than it was Spanish. The state of Spain came into being following the Reconquista in about 1495, and Gibraltar was only incorporated into Spain in 1501. In 1704 the British captured Gibraltar, its de facto occupation transmuted into de jure possession by the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Gibraltar, then, was Spanish for 200 years and has since been British for 300.

Such colonies claim to be "more British than the British", except that they pay no UK tax and act as tax havens for funds from Britain. Gibraltar has made a particular specialism of internet gambling. Colonies claim allegiance to the crown, but not to its exchequer, or its financial police.
Well, no. They're not part of the UK and so they don't pay UK tax. That's the way that the British Empire worked. Is Simon Jenkins really arguing that Britain should be exerting more imperial power over its colonies? I thought the Age of Empires was over?

While they deny the logic of history and geography, neither Gibraltar nor the Falklands will ever be truly "safe". One day these hangovers will somehow merge into their hinterlands and cease to be grit in the shoe of international relations.
Yeah, 'somehow'. One of the developments that finally put the kybosh on the Imperial era was the advent of self-determination. Until that goes, or until the Falkland Islanders want to become Argentinian and the Gibraltarians want to become Spanish, they'll be staying British.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Respect for the opposition...

Cor, these Aussies don't half whinge when they're losing. There's an Aussie broadcaster claiming that England are cheating by using silicone tape on their bats, an odd accusation, since the majority of 'missed' Hotspot nicks (i.e. ones that Snicko has later picked up) have been off Aussie batsmen - Smith, Warner, Clarke. The England batsman (Trott, Pietersen) have been given out lbw even though Hotspot did pick up the nick.

Even more bizarre than that is an article by Shane Warne which moans that England players have been 'smug' in their press interviews, and haven't been treating the opposition with enough respect. The example Warne uses is that Graeme Swann denied that England had had a bad couple of days, and said "We will just go out and bat now on this flat Old Trafford wicket.” If this is the sort of arrogant, smug behaviour that gets Shane's back up, then I can only surmise that Liz Hurley has wiped his memory, as well as whitenening his teeth and smoothing his forehead.
I was always respectful to both [the game and the opposition] and felt grateful for the opportunity to have the chance to play international cricket and especially respectful and humble to the opposition.
One of the things that really characterised the Australian side between 1992 and 2007 was their humility, good manners and respect for their opposition. To back up Shane's argument, here's a picture of him being especially respectful and humble.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Lets all go to Bayreuth!

Martin Kettle writes disparagingly in today's Guardian that British MPs are philistines compared to German ones. Specifically, Angela Merkel and other prominent German politicians flock to the Bayreuth festival:
Their presence was a political affirmation that in Germany the arts matter. It was, in its way, a sign of a healthy civic society. But its equivalent simply would not happen in Britain...There are, of course, exceptions – honourable mention to Labour's Nick Brown, a devoted Bayreuth pilgrim. In general, though, it is a sign of a failed society and a failed culture.
 I've noted before the strange (though perfectly understandable) tendency of Guardian journos not to bother reading their own paper, but given that Kettle is a Wagner enthusiast, you'd have thought he remembered this story:

Chancellor George Osborne, culture minister Ed Vaizey and education secretary Michael Gove apparently bunked off work in September to attend performances, beginning at 4pm, of the Ring at the Royal Opera House, as guests of Tony Hall.
Or there was the time Michael Gove (again) wrote a column about his latest trip to... Bayreuth for the festival. Or the reference (again in the Guardian) of the "entire Tory cabinet" in the stalls for a production of the Ring Cycle. Or Michael Portillo's pretty long held and well established love of opera in general (I once shared a table with Portillo at the ROH) and Wagner in particular (guess what Martin? Portillo used to go to Bayreuth every year when he was in Government).

Kettle's argument is, in fact, decidedly odd. Wagner is very much a minority taste in Britain (hell, opera is a minority taste, and Wagner a minority of that minority). Probably the single demographic most over-represented with Wagnerians is Conservative politicians (and bloggers, obviously). And far from being seen as a sign of a healthy civic society, what is the reaction of the left (well, the BBC, but the terms are more or less synonymous here) to Tories at the opera?

Take the visit by Messrs Gove, Osborne and Ed Vaizey to the Royal Opera House in London the other week, to listen to Wagner. This was a story not because of their Germanic musical tastes, but because it fuelled a perception of top Tories swanning around at an elitist cultural event - well beyond the pockets of the toiling masses.
 Kettle has written a piece bemoaning the cultural philistinism of the political classes, but has chosen a more or less unimprovable example of the philistinism of the media when confronted with precisely the sort of culturally aware politicians he calls for.