Was the 2008 crash a result of America spending more than it could afford on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan? Might Ukraine be a moment when Putin also faces some harsh realities?
Journalism has been called “the first draft of history”. As the emerging story of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfolds, I’ve been thinking of this page of the “first draft”.
The 2008 financial crash began with problems in the sub-prime mortgage market in the US. One reading of this is that 9/11 shook the US to the core. Had it been in a stronger place, it might have been possible to seek a peaceful solution — borrowing language from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to ask about grievances in the Middle East against the US. IF that had been possible, it might also have unlocked the possibility of an enduring peace in Israel / Palestine.
People are rightly angry about “partygate” — but moves to make it easier to scrap EU protections and “unleash the benefits of Brexit” imply things are more serious than this.
The widespread anger at lockdown-breaking parties at Downing St in May 2020 is justified. But it is also a surprise that anyone is surprised. Johnson’s unsuitability for high office has been obvious (at least) since his time as Foreign Secretary. John Major has described Brexit as “the worst foreign policy mistake of my lifetime”: partygate, serious though it is, pales in comparison beside that.
As “Partygate” comes to its (first) climax there’s the announcment of a “Brexit freedom bill” (to unwind EU-derived law), and the front page of the Daily Express says “Boris vows to ‘unleash the benefits of Brexit’”.
I can’t be the only person who years echoes in that of “unleash the dogs of war” — a corruption of “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” in Shakespear’s Julius Caesar. Not a good omen.
Late in January 2022, Jacob Rees Mogg suggested that a change of Prime Minister would lead to an early General Election. He must know this isn’t true: are we being softened up for one?
Rees Mogg’s remarks have been read as an attempt to stop Tory MPs in former “red wall” seats siding against Boris Johnson, but aren’t these the Tory MPs with the strongest incentive to ensure that their party has a leader who people support?
What he’s reported to have said on Newsnight is:
“It is my view that we’ve moved, for better or worse, to an essentially presidential system and therefore the mandate is personal rather than entirely party [based] and any PM would be very well advised to seek a fresh mandate.”
The end of November 2021 shone a spotlight on some very unsavoury attitudes towards people migrating to the UK, with the government making the situation worse, for political gain, rather than showing the wise leadership that would build a better society.
First there was a story that Dominic Raab had confirmed that the government is exploring ways of processing asylum seekers abroad, with ministers thinking of flying migrants to processing centres within seven days of arriving in the UK. There was a rumour, hotly-denied by the Albanian government, that people would be held in their country.
Civil liberties concerns over Covid Passports are misplaced — and opposing them risks fuelling the anxiety that is creating the space for increasingly authoritarian government behaviour
I’m hearing genuine concern about the increasing authoritarianism of the Johnson government and more complicated concerns about civil liberties and Covid regulations — particularly around the idea of Covid passports. But these are profoundly different. Joining them together is a bad idea, and plays into the government’s hands.
The relaxing of Covid rules, at a time when infection rates are rising, is a rash triumph of political will over reality, which will land badly, particularly for some minority groups.
19 July 2021 — trumpeted as “freedom day” — with Covid regulations coming to an end, saw infections rising and 39,950 new cases. The daily number of new cases hasn’t been that high since the emergency tightening of rules at Christmas (where the surge peaked at 68,053 on 8 January). That’s not a good sign. Vaccinations have helped bring numbers down, but the increased infectiousness of the delta variant is pulling the other way. No vaccine is 100% effective, and it’s right to be concerned about parts of society where people are chosing not to be vaccinated.
Denying the seriousness
In the Daily Mail of 17 July, Graham Brady argued that relaxing the rules is about freedom. He likens the people’s reservations about the change to “Stockholm syndrome” — where captives identify with their captors. Choice extracts from the article include:
“After 16 months of being told by the state when we could leave our homes, whether we could see our families, with whom we were allowed to have sex, or what kinds of sports we were permitted to play, many of us are eager to regain the human dignity that comes with the exercise of our own free will.”
Are we losing something in the seeming increase of polarisation in the political world?
As results were coming in from the Georgia run-off, I found myself thinking about polarisation in politics. The shape of Joe Biden’s presidency hung on the small number of voters in Georgia who would, or would not, give the Republicans a Senate majority.
In the end, both Democrat candidates won, though Jon Ossoff came in with just 50.6 per cent of the vote. Logically, this was just the last stage in a close election. Emotionally, the situation charged.
We discovered how charged it was when rioters burst into the Capitol, desperate to stop Biden being confirmed as President-elect. One said: “We are the last hope for the world, at least in my mind and everything I’ve seen. We are free.” Another carried a banner with the word “treason”. More worryingly, a Yougov poll found 45 per cent of Republicans supporting the rioters. Continue reading “Towards a politics that’s not about “winning” and “losing””
I don’t buy the idea that Hitler “magically” cast a spell over the German people. In another time he might have been a failed artist ranting on a street corner, ignored by passers-by. The point is that his words struck a chord. They gave form to a range of not-quite-articulated grievances.
In another blog post I tried out the idea of “quasi-religious” support for Brexit, suggesting that some of the Brexiteer myths got support because they focussed people’s anxieties. An obvious example is immigration. “Immigrants taking out job” and “immigrants scrounging our benefits” don’t work together: an immigrant can’t be both taking our jobs and our benefits. They don’t make economic sense either — as the evidence is that the economic activity of immigrants boosts the economy. But the myth of “immigrants taking our jobs/benefits” might well resonate for people living with lack, who don’t hear their experience reflected in the words of political leaders. The problem is that the words are not on the lips of political leaders because things are more complex than that — which is heard as “politicians don’t care”. I’m mentioning Brexit, but one of the Hitler echoes is that there never was a “Jewish problem”, but it was a shorthand for issues that were more complex. Using that shorthand might have had an emotional appeal, but it did no more than enable immense suffering. Continue reading “The Trump legacy: a reminder from history, and a mammoth task for Biden”
“be careful what you wish for. I thought we were going to get a global market. This was going to be a new opportunity. It hasn’t turned out like this. I would never have voted for Brexit if I knew we were going to lose our jobs”
There’s a tendency to dismiss Tony Blair because of Iraq. Even though the invasion was a mistake, might he have been right to support it? Might people be wrong to dismiss him because of it?
At the time, I didn’t support the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was clearly unsavoury but the evidence made public for his having weapons of mass destruction that posed a real threat to Europe was weak.
My sense at the time was that things would have looked very different if Iraq’s neighbours had been appealing for help.
The best account of the messiness of the situation that I saw lay in some deft editing by John Wilkins of The Tablet. My memory is that he published five articles, in successive issues. Two were from supporters of invasion and two from opponents. His editorial masterstroke was that the fifth article written by an Iraqi Kurd arguing that Saddam Hussein’s killing Iraqi Kurds twenty years earlier had put a duty on the international community to act (and Hussein was eventually executed for the killing of 148 Iraqi Kurds in 1982). The fact that the international community had waited for two decades before acting put a very different light on the “urgent” invasion.
Things would have looked very different if the West had waited and trusted the Iraqi people to change their own government rather than “bring” then democracy. In this sense I thought and think the invasion was wrong.
Timing the Brexit deal so Parliament has no choice between this and the disaster of “no deal” is the latest in a long series of steps that look like a consolidation of power in the Executive. This is dangerous.
The leader article in The Economist for 21 November, “remaking the state”, offered a chilling and credible reading of the present government’s attempt to reform the state — by concentrating power in the Executive through a mix of reducing the power of judges, pushing back against devolution, reforming [sic] the civil service and tipping power from parliament to government. It comments (rightly) that “The Tories are right to advocate constitutional reform, bit their proposals take the country in precisely the wrong direction”.