Sunday, 9 December 2007

Guido stakes his ground

"The CDU, and the CDU alone, bears the entire responsibility for" the current leftwards drift of Germany's political Zeitgeist, FDP leader Guido Westerwelle has told the Finacial Times. Plans to introduce a minimum wage to the postal industry are a "disaster", destroying jobs and infecting future electoral debate. This minimum wage is perhaps particularly pernicious. But the prospects of pro-market politics in Germany, pace Westerwelle's criticism of the CDU's current popularlism, are far from dimmed, not least thanks to the successes of Westerwelle's own party, the FDP. Painting the CDU as close to the SDP as possible is all part of the FDP's strategy of carving out for itself as much space on the political spectrum as possible. Even Westerwelle acknoleges that "The SPD is vacating the centre much faster than the CDU", and that the latter therefore represent his prefered coalition partner. The trick will be breaking past its post-war high of 12.8% of the vote; opinion polls currently give it 9-10%. If it can manage that, Germany's political Zeitgeist will be firmly back on the right.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

In praise of pluralism

In British politics, it is nothing new to note the rush to the centre of the country's major factions. Labour flanks to the 'right' of the Tories, the Tories flank to the 'left' of Labour, while proposals to scrap taxes are borrowed with abandon. This is obviously far from ideal from the perspective of voter choice. The most votes might well be found in the 'centre', but with seemingly only two (at times three) electable parties fighting over the same political ground, those whose opinions fall beyond this 'centre' find themselves without a realistic chance of representation. In Britain the situation is compounded by the fact that this 'centre' is not even defined by the electorate as a whole, but by those 'swing' voters in 90 or so marginal seats whose choice ultimately determines who governs the country; it is this narrow section of the electorate to which the biggest parties must pander if they are to have any hope of power.

So far so standard in the argument against first-past-the-post electoral systems. But even systems governed under proportional representation (PR) are not immune from the 'magpie' politics practiced in Britain. Take Spain, for example, whose government have just announced 'wealth' tax reforms 'borrowed' from the opposition. Yet the Congreso de los Diputados of the Cortes Generales in Spain, unlike Britain’s House of Commons, is proportionally elected. It makes no sense, therefore, to blame both first-past-the-post and PR for policy convergence in both Britain and Spain. A common explanation must lie beyond their quite different electoral mechanisms.

The crucial shared trait is bi-polarity; the hold which a mere two parties have on the system. Taking 81.6% of the vote and 312 of the 350 seats between them, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the People's Party (PP) dominate Spanish politics, and they are heirs to dominant movements of the left and right which have been the essence of Spain since before the Civil War. Under current conditions, the only real options for voters at election time are a PSOE or a PP government. With no substantial factions on their respective outer flanks, votes are to be won in the 'centre', from each other, and this is where Zapatero has gone to find them with his promise of reform. In Britain, meanwhile, its ‘third’ party, the Liberal Democrats, serves as no check on this phenomenon, since the Lib Dems are widely considered to sit in the 'centre' between the two major parties. Fighting over the ‘centre’ ground thus has the added attraction for the big two of potentially enticing Lib Dem voters as well.

Contrast this with the situation in Germany. There, alongside the two main parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SDP), sit the Greens, the Left Party and the Free Democrats (as well as the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union), each of whom are significant enough to be a threat to the voting base of the big two, and thus serve as a check on their policy platforms. Witness the recent speeches of Angela Merkel and Kurt Beck, leader of the CDU and SDP respectively, who deliberately put clear blue water between their two parties. The seeming paradox is, of course, that despite the greater distance on many issues between the SPD and the CDU, than between Labour and the Conservatives or the PSOE and the PP, a ‘grand’ coalition in Britain or Spain is almost inconceivable. Greater plurality might serve to force parties to mark out their territories, but it also makes compromise necessary, obliging a dilution of the hostility and bitterness which a bi-polar system seems to engender.

But would greater plurality serve to give voters greater choice even under first-past-the-post? It arguably does to some extent in Canada, with four parties represented at the federal level. Yet against this, Duverger's law suggests that in most cases plurality in a first-past-the-post system is a temporary phenomenon. First-past-the-post helps prevent the emergence of fresh political forces, famously hamstringing the Alliance in the 1983 general election, and today stops the Liberal Democrats from becoming a true alternative by forcing them too to contest much the same 'centre ground'. Recent developments in Spain suggest that PR might not be enough on its own to give voters a real choice at election time. But, from the perspective of Britain, it certainly would be a start.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

No change - for now

"The fight back is just beginning" reports the Economist, after Hugo Chavez's proposed amendments to the Venezuelan Constitution were defeated in a national referendum on Sunday.

"Defeat means he is unable to stand again, legally, for the presidency. His aura of invincibility is forever damaged, and the battle for the succession seems bound to begin soon. Survival strategies no longer necessarily involve unquestioning loyalty to the 'comandante'. Fractures may begin to appear in important institutions like the supreme court and parliament."

"For the first time", we are told, "it is possible to envisage life after Mr Chávez." Really? With a mandate until 2013, the outlines of post-Chavez Venezuela are far from settled - and it remains naïve to believe that Chavez will not take another tilt at the constitution before he is obliged to stand down. The idea that we are now witnessing the beginnings of a succession struggle is to take Chavez's own rhetoric at face value. True, the referendum campaign saw the emergence of a reinvigorated opposition and the first signs of popular disillusionment among his Bolivarian base, but Chavez easily retains the upper hand over his rivals. He need but gather in the alienated arms of his movement, and we are no nearer a world without him than we were last week.

It is quite clear by the letter of the law that Chavez is unable to stand again for the presidency. Yet it is also quite clear that this was not his last attempt at constitutional reform: he echoed the combative tenacity of his defeated 1992 coup when he cast the outcome of the referendum as only "for now". He retains a pliant National Assembly, and has the time to re-introduce his proposals at an opportune moment of his own choosing. It would not take much to overturn the result in a future plebiscite; the margin of his defeat was tiny, fewer than 200000 votes out of a registered pool of 16 million, and its explanation lies in the high rates of abstention among his supporters, not a decrease in that support. Venezuelans are still largely in support of the president, but were alarmed at the extent of the power he was trying to amass. A few peripheral concessions tempering the excesses of the proposed reform, say by abandoning proposals which would allow presidents to declare an unlimited state of emergency or to choose provincial and municipal leaders, and there is no reason why in a future referendum he would not secure widespread support for his central objective: the dismantling of term limits and the opportunity to be president for life. Buttressed by extensive exposure on television, he remains a charismatic and popular leader who many Venezuelans genuinely want to remain in power after 2013.

There is thus little reason why a less blatant power grab would not succeed where his current proposals foundered. If it does, the optimistic conclusions of the Economist are to naught. The one undoubted positive to have emerged from the referendum is that Venezuela clearly remains a functioning democracy; a functioning democracy moreover, with an enlivened opposition, rooted in student protest. Having secured their first electoral victory in nine years, we can at least hope that the opposition now has faith in the system, and will not attempt another electoral boycott in the near future (as they did at the last parliamentary poll, which handed Chavez the National Assembly). They might even try and force a presidential recall referendum after 2010 (the mid-point of Chavez’s mandate beyond which such recalls are allowed) as they were able to in 2004. Yet as things stand, Chavez would almost certainly again be returned triumphant, with fervent grass roots support pitted against an opposition which remains divided and discredited by its past. Can it find a coherent platform around which to unite, beyond hostility to the 'comandante'? It might not need to, for it might well be fighting him for a long while yet.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

The PiS and the PO: subtle shifts in Polish politics

Here's a full (and, exclusive to Constitutional Lore, hyperlinked) copy of an article penned for this month's DA International News Review:

In a general election on October 21 Poland voted the free-market Civic Platform (PO) into office, ending a turbulent two year period of government led by the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS). The outcome was widely welcomed across Europe, with hopes for a fresh, constructive approach to foreign relations and domestic reform. The aftermath sees an altered political landscape in Poland, with the PiS forced into opposition and its old coalition partners annihilated after failing to reach the 5% threshold required to secure representation in the Sejm, the Polish lower house. Yet this election was no earthquake. The new government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, sworn into office on November 16, will seek to distance itself from the PiS in terms of style, but much practical policy is set to remain the same. Both parties were born of the rightwing then-governing Solidarity Electoral Action coalition in 2001, and have been tussling ever since to emerge as the dominant party on the Polish centre-right. The PO may have won this electoral battle, but the PiS are still a powerful player on the political scene, and the wider struggle between them remains unresolved.

The PiS-led government was dominated by two men, the twins Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński. As President and Prime Minister respectively, they were inspired by a staunch Catholicism, leading a government which was socially conservative and committed to a relatively generous system of welfare. They focused abroad on a pugnacious defense of Poland’s national interest, and at home on rooting out corruption and the remnants of the old Communist order. Both prongs begat more acrimony than success. The PiS succeeded in alienating many European partners, through crass stunts such as invoking Poland’s war dead as justification for obstructing EU voting reform, and attempting to humiliate Denmark by enumerating its abortions at a ministerial working lunch. Domestic reform and privatization were stalled as the PiS tried to hold its shaky coalition together and focused instead on lustration laws forcing disclosure of communist-era collaboration.

Under the PO the emphasis will shift from righting historical wrongs to achieving concrete improvements in the present. The government has plans to press ahead with privatisation, tax reform and cuts to social spending and direct taxation, and hopes to speed up Poland’s entry to the euro. In Europe, Tusk will benefit from widespread goodwill for simply not being a Kaczyński. He has been busily mending ties with Russia, with a spat over Polish meat imports drawing to a close and greater skepticism over American plans to build missile interceptors on its soil. At a time of growing suspicion between Russia and the EU, Poland might pull off the feat of simultaneously improving relations with both. This is related to a weakening of Poland’s transatlantic relationship, with Tusk hoping to pull Polish troops out of Iraq in 2008.

Yet while it may do so with a little more grace and sophistication than the PiS, a PO-led government will continue to mount a vigorous defense of Polish interests, even when these run counter to those of larger EU powers. It will fight its corner in forthcoming EU debates over measures to counteract climate change and reform agricultural subsidies. With the US missile defense shield still not shelved, and Poles still angry at a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany bypassing eastern Baltic countries, Poland will not lift its veto over an EU-Russia trade agreement just yet. At home, the PO’s reforming zeal will be tempered by slowing rates of economic growth, restrained by their centrist coalition partners, the Polish Peasants Party (which in a previous incarnation sent deputies to the 19th Century Reichsrat in Vienna, no less), and hamstrung by the need to secure the support of the centre-left Democrats and Left party if they are to overcome a presidential veto, which will lie in the hands of Lech Kaczyński until at least 2010. Poland remains a deeply Catholic country led by a pious Prime Minister who took the time to pray with the Archbishop of Gdansk, Tadeusz Gocłowski, in the aftermath of victory.

This election has not, of itself, ushered in a new era in Poland’s politics and closed the door on the PiS’s vision of the centre-right. The Kaczyńskis have proven themselves formidable election winners in the past. They capitalised on Lech’s undoubted popularity as Justice Minister in the outgoing government to secure 44 seats for their new party in the elections of 2001, and the following year Lech was voted President of Warsaw. PiS twice came from behind in opinion polls to best the PO first in general and then presidential elections in 2005, and led going into the final week of campaigning this time around. They only lost after a bumbling performance by Jarosław in televised debate with Tusk, and a hike in turnout among the expatriate community and young professionals, galvanised by the referendum on PiS’s rule which the general election essentially became. The Kaczyńskis will not make the same mistake with a televised debate again, and the PO cannot rely on future high turnouts among their base of support, once anger against the PiS is dimmed by the passage of time and the limitations of the PO’s own programme.

Polish voters are notoriously fickle; since the fall of communism in 1989, no Polish government has ever been re-elected. The current PO-led government faces poor odds to be the first, especially if the economy begins to falter as it now forecasted. Enthusiasm for extensive economic reform might well recede rapidly, and Poland could witness a resurgence of the left, in the doldrums since the Democratic Left Alliance was routed from office in 2005. With Lech still in the presidency, however, able to pose as the protector of the Polish people by picking and choosing which of the PO’s initiatives to veto or allow, it is the PiS, with its own programme of social welfare, who are arguably best placed to capitalise on any increasing hardship.

Donald Tusk and the PO may have only just won a convincing electoral victory, but they face a difficult task if they are to win a second term, or if Tusk is to fulfill his own personal ambitions and become Polish president in 2010. The PO must repair damaged ties with EU partners without giving PiS a pulpit to decry relinquished Polish interests. It must either press ahead with domestic reform and risk a backlash in favor of the stronger social safety-nets which it is committed to dismantle, or vacillate and risk the disillusionment of its own supporters who believed they had voted for change.

When the PiS and the PO emerged as the largest parties in the Sejm in 2005, most pundits expected them to work together in government; now they are all but sworn enemies. While there still remains space on the Polish political spectrum for two big parties on the centre-right, Poland would be unique in Europe if it maintained such a situation for long, particularly as the memory of communism fades further and Polish society opens up under the influence of her prosperous EU partners. The PO, holding the reigns of government, currently has the edge over their more socially conservative brethren. But the governments of Europe, for now relieved at the Kaczyński’s diminished influence on Polish policy, may well in the not too distant future have to deal with a PiS-led government again.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Opening up

Russia is to invite a at most 400 foreign experts, with just 70 from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's election monitoring arm, to observe the forthcoming State Duma elections. As well as thus slashing by 2/3rds the 1,165 observers present at the previous parliamentary poll of 2003, Russia will also itself define the "monitoring modalities" prescribing what the observers can and cannot do. This is major a set-back for those hoping for at least the semblance of an open contest as Russia goes to the polls first on December 2 and then again to elect a new President on March 2 next year.

Clearly, circumscribing election observation is a tactic in need of justification if Vladimir Putin is still to profess himself a "true democrat". According to Alexei Borodavkin, the Russian Permanent Representative to the OSCE, Russia's gripes are threefold. Firstly,
"instead of giving technical assessments of how the elections were held, ODIHR observers often issue political assessments, which sometimes adversely affect the internal political stability of the countries where monitoring is being conducted."
"the monitoring of elections is held mainly in countries east of Vienna. That is, the focus is on post-Soviet countries. Although there are plenty of violations of election rules in countries west of Vienna as well."
"the selection of heads of observer missions is absolutely nontransparent. This is being done behind closed doors by ODIHR itself. Never once throughout the whole history of ODIHR has its observer mission been led by a representative, say, of a CIS country."

The first allegation only has substance in contexts where the idea of the "open" society itself is contested, precisely those locations where external monitoring is at its most neccesary. To get "closed" societies (Russia itself remains "not free" in Freedom House's annual report of global rights and liberties) to at least continue to sign up to ODIHR's ideals, it is vital for the same standards to be applied to all, namely by firmly addressing allegations two and three.

Thankfully, ODHIR already are. Contrary to Borodavkin's assertion, observation missions can indeed be led by CIS nationals, such as Vadim Zhdanovich of the Russian Federation who currently heads the heads the monitoring team of the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Croatia. While election monitoring in the 1990s concentrated wholly on transistion countries, ODHIR has broadened its horizons over the past few years, sending observers to elections in America in 2004 and 2006 and this year to Belgium and Switzerland, to name but a few.

Nevertheless, more could be done, particularly by the member states. The UK, for example, has still to implement Paragraph 8 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document and fully throw open its electoral processes to foreign and non-partisan observation, with current legislation restricting access to polling stations on election day. Resources are obviously short, with monitor expenses met by the sending state. But with painful choices to make in other areas of the open world's relationship with Russia, an issue soluble in part by simply throwing money at it is surely one to be embraced.

The challenge is for supposedly open societies to positively embrace foreign scrutiny. The benefits, like Borodavkin's criticisms, are threefold. Firstly, open societies are of course not above election shenanigans themselves, with, for example, proven electoral fraud in Birmingham, England, in 2004. Secondly, they are nevertheless the standard against which closed societies must be assessed. Finally, and most importantly, the demanding the highest standards from all countries denies closed societies cover when the spotlight of election monitoring is cast upon them. Russia's grounds for limiting foreign observance of its forthcoming elections are weak, but that doesn't mean the open world wouldn't benefit from a more even application of its own rules.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Teutonic seismology

Germany's Social Democrats voted at their party congress last week to begin dismantling the Agenda 2010 structural reforms, pro-market measures which they themselves introduced under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder back in 2003. With proposals to lengthen unemployment benefit for workers over 50; for a national minimum wage; and to halt the partial privatisation of Deutsche Bahn, the congress marked a victory for Party Chairman Kurt Beck over his more reform-minded predecessor-but-one Franz Müntefering, and a decisive leftward shift in the SPD's market orientation. Their partners in government, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, seem unperturbed by this leftwards drift. The death of pro-market policy in Germany? Perhaps for the lifetime of the current government. But the medium term prospects for further reform have if anything received a fillip from the events of the past week.

The explanation for the SPD's about turn is the rise of the Left party, a motley assortment of former Communists and SPD dissidents which broke onto the national scene in 2005, taking 8.7% of the vote at the Federal elections. Faced with this potentially existential threat, the SPD had two choices: remain the reformist party with a social conscience, or retreat and attempt to fight the Left Party on what has come to be its own ground.

Continuing to back their own reforms, which despite creating an estimated 350000 jobs since 2003 remain highly unpopular for eroding a long cherished social safety-net, would risk further desertion from SPD ranks. Abandoning the centre ground to the conservatives, however, carries its own dangers. Angela Merkel is in no hurry to make the case for further reform. She can pick and choose what her party deems the least pernicious and most popular measures from the SPD programme, and define the Christian Democrats as the moderate centrist party of government, in contrast to the intensifying fraternal struggle to their left. This in turn, however, creates political space for the perennially pro-market Free Democrats, who will look to build on the 9.8% share they took in 2005 by picking up the support of former conservative and social democrat voters disillusioned by the backtracking on Agenda 2010. As the SPD scraps it out for the same left-of-centre vote as the Left Party and the Greens, the ever more likely outcome of the next federal election is a victory for the CDU-CSU with the FDP by their side. By shifting leftward, the SPD may well have strengthened the prospects for the furtherance of the reforms they are currently attempting to scale back.

The danger for reformers is that Angela Merkel will draw the wrong lesson from the 2005 elections, when a reformist programme failed to carry her party to outright victory, and thus follow the SPD in a populist leftward drift. The case for the success of Agenda 2010 in a booming economy can and should be successfully made; if not now, when bound by the constraints of a "grand coalition", then in the run up to the next election. SPD maneuverings leave the CDU-CSU easy favourites to secure victory whenever it comes. The onus will be on them, this time, to also secure a mandate for further reform.

Friday, 28 September 2007

The lessons of a "praline divorce"

Will Belgium divide? As it potters on without a government over 100 days since elections on June 10, the Economist for one thinks it should. With the Flemish half of the country edging towards a majority in favour of independence (the idea of Belgium commands much greater support in the Francophone Walloon south), it is at least worth giving them a vote on the matter, assuming, of course, that a government could ever be formed on a platform that promised them one. By not holding a referendum, the country is denied a chance to put the debate to one side and stop it infecting the entire governing process. A vote for unity would re-energise attempts to govern the whole effectively, perhaps precipitating the introduction of a nationwide constituency and thus the creation of parties with pan-Belgian appeal. A vote for separation would free the political energies required to hold together an unhappy union for more productive purposes.

Whatever happens to Belgium, and with thorny issues such as the status of Brussels and the national debt to resolve it is unlikely to dissolve itself just yet, one of the weakest arguments for artificially keeping the country together is the blow to the idea of respecting cultural diversity, and the concomitant encouragement of violent separatism, that division would supposedly represent. Yet there are manifold examples across Europe and the world of diverse peoples harmoniously co-existing, not least because the 'nation' itself is an invention masking a plurality of cultural difference, with Switzerland and its three dominant language groups is perhaps the archetype. Artificially preserving a unified Belgium simply to provide a lesson in bridging the language barrier is to suppose that the peoples of Europe have barely spoken to each other since the second world war, yet here we stand after over half a century of economic co-operation and fifteen years of union.

The primary effect abroad of a peaceful break up, moreover, would not be to bolster violent separatism, but to instead suggest that the surest path to independence lies within the democratic process. The break up of Czechoslovakia, held together as it was for so long by Soviet military power, would, despite its undoubted successes, pale as a model of peaceful dissolution next to the calm divorce of the stablest of countries long at the heart of European integration. For the poorer Walloons to let the Flemish half of the country go would demonstrate a political maturity that many larger, more prosperous peoples seemingly lack. The lesson of a Belgian dissolution for the British, Spanish and Serbian ruling elites, among many others, is that self-confident peoples do not perpetuate unpopular union without good reason. The issue of Scottish, Basque or Kosovan independence dominates the political discourse of each entity to the detriment of secular policy and debate. Belgium's diversity is clearly at the root of its current paralysis. We may or may not have reached the stage where a majority of Flemish back the break up of Belgium. But it is time to give them a say.

Monday, 26 February 2007

Once more unto the breech...

The situation in Iraq is grim, and the British public knows it; Saturday’s CommunicateResearch poll for The Independent showed 72% of voters believing the that coalition cannot win, and 62% favouring troop withdrawal regardless of the situation on the ground. 72% see Iraq descending into civil war once British and American troops leave, but the public seems to have concluded that this is inevitable, and that maintaining the occupation in the medium term can perhaps postpone but not prevent a cataclysmic sectarian conflict.

I beg to differ; while the coalition holds the ring in Iraq, and withdrawal can only escalate the violence, we owe it to the Iraqi people to give stability another chance. But it is obvious why many in Britain have given up on the citizens of Basra and Baghdad: daily death tolls are not the stuff to stiffen resolve. Tony Blair announced last week a drawing down of British forces in Iraq, and his successor as Prime Minister will face ever mounting pressure to finally withdraw the 5500 troops that will still remain. If the British do ‘cut and run’, American President George Bush will find himself isolated both domestically and internationally, and under unendurable pressure to capitulate too. Mesopotamian carnage will be the result.

If the public is ever again to rally in the cause of Iraq, a new, optimistic narrative is needed, one that focuses attention on the real, positive impact the British army can still have. I’m no monarchist, but the monarchy resonates with the British (and indeed American) people like no other institution, and the deployment of the regiment of Prince Harry, again announced last week, could be just the narrative a sustained - and still potentially successful - occupation needs. Tales of royal derring-do could stem and mitigate the torrent of bad news bombarding the public imagination.

But, then again, the war for British hearts and minds may already be lost, and, if those hearts and minds are to be believed, a new war in Iraq will inevitably follow. By deciding that all is lost, the British public is indulging a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Italian health

Italian Premier Romano Prodi’s centre-left administration fails to get Senate backing for its perceived pro-American foreign policy, and the 61st Italian government since World War Two falls. Whatever hue the 62nd government now takes - and President Giorgio Napolitano, after exploring the alternatives, today asked Prodi to stay on as Prime Minister - it will still have to grapple with the problems the previous administration faced: a fractious Italian parliament and the grave economic woes of the country. Italy’s splintered political landscape undoubtedly fuels its current instability and seemingly puts large scale reform beyond reach. Taming such fragmentation is vital, but no satisfactory solution has thus far been found.

Often blamed is the system of almost pure Proportional Representation, introduced by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in September 2005 in a failed attempt to stymie Prodi’s left-wing Union alliance’s electoral chances the following spring. But to blame PR itself for Italy’s current instability would be misleading. Political pluralism is a longstanding product of Italian history, culture and society, not merely the result of recent electoral reform. From 1993 to 2001, Italian elections operated on a largely uninominal basis, yet the radical left had the power to fell the first Prodi government in October 1998, just as they did the second this week.

It is also far from clear that the trend over the last 15 years towards a bipolar system, uniting a broad spectrums on the left and right into loose alliances (The Union and House of Freedoms respectively), has in any way aided stability - Berlusconi’s unprecedented five years in power from 2001-2006 notwithstanding. The House of Freedoms has already begun to unravel after its defeat to the Union in April last year, with the Union of Christian Democrats distancing themselves from their erstwhile partners, while the problems of a leftist alliance which encompasses such a broad swathe of opinion needs no further demonstration after the events of this week. A potentially more natural and stable coalition would see the UDC and other centre-right deputies drawn into coalition with the centre-left in emulation of the Christian Democrat-led governments which dominated the First Republic until the collapse of both the DC and the First Republic itself in the early nineties. DC administrations might have fallen with alarming rapidity, but this is misleading: the DC were a fixture of government for 44 years from 1948 to 1992. Indeed, the major problem of the old - proportional - system was not so much a lack of stability, as a lack of clear choice on the part of the electorate. The trend towards bipolarity has provided such choice, but only provided instead fragile governments beholden to the extremes.

Italy’s plurality cannot simply be written out of existence with a new electoral law instituting a higher election threshold designed to limit the number of parties in parliament. Such a law would serve only to disenfranchise those who vote for minor factions - a hypothetical hard cap requiring parties to secure just 3% of the vote for representation (without the current skewed system favouring coalitions) would have rendered one in six votes meaningless in 2006 - and rather exacerbate the influence of the extremes. Communist Refoundation, a Senator of whose defection caused the administration’s collapse this week, would have passed a threshold of even 5% in 2006, and found their influence with the Union coalition heightened with the exclusion of often more moderate minor parties.

Rather than abandoning PR, which allows parliament to function as a proper forum for a true diversity of Italian opinion and could potentially foster a healthy political debate which is at times lacking in more staid political climes, what is needed to secure stable Italian government is a strengthening of the executive at parliament’s expense. One option would be to bolster the power of the Italian president, who has since the 1948 constitution - a reaction to former dictator Benito Mussolini’s authoritarianism - operated as a mere head of state. An American-style president who had secured a mandate from the people would have the authority to go to parliament and knit together the coalition which best fits their platform, avoiding the artificial pre-election divide of parties in the centre.

Strengthening the executive needn’t imply such a radical break with Italy’s immediate past, however. Sensible proposals were put forward by the House of Freedoms as part of a package of constitutional reforms which were rejected in a referendum in June last year, largely due to opposition to additional measures increasing regional autonomy. The plans sought to bolster the power of the Prime Minister, whose title in Italian would no longer be merely ‘president of the council of ministers’ (Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri), and who could only be ousted by parliament in a majority vote which simultaneously elected a successor. The competencies of each chamber of parliament would for the first time be clarified, ending the necessity of both approving a given law. Such a system would have allowed the Union to neatly sidestep the impasse in the Senate this week. Administrations should be primarily accountable to the lower house, not parliament as a whole.

Italy seems to have developed a knack for surviving in a perpetual state of crisis, but that is no reason for its political class not to act. Its economy is hobbled by a serious lack of competitiveness, and labours beneath commitments to bloated healthcare and social security systems and a national debt which amounts to over 100% of GNP. A weak executive is swamped by a nevertheless potentially healthy political plurality. Any reform requires sacrifice. A more powerful Italian executive would be a stronger position to radically reinvigorate the Italian economy by making hard choices as to where in society such sacrifices should be made. But first smaller parties need persuasion to sacrifice some of their influence in favour of the executive. Rather than threatening their continued representation in a proportional system, a bold Prime Minister, whether Romano Prodi or one of his successors, should guarantee it in a trade-off securing the future vibrancy of both Italian politics and the country as a whole.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

The limits on free speech

Free speech is something I am passionate about; legal limits upon it make me feel distinctly uncomfortable. But there are other limits than the law, and other desirables - such as truth, and one of its corollaries, an avoidance of prejudice - which should temper free speech. But what is prejudice? It is not simply a critique which causes offence. As J. S. Mill argued in On Liberty, “if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful”. Prejudice is an irrational opinion of a collective group.

Racism, homophobia and Islamophobia are all examples of prejudice - there are, to societies’ shame, many more. Prejudice judges all it includes within a particular collective as innately possessing malign characteristics. Prejudice is to move beyond a critique, however harsh, of practice or certain individuals to unsubstantiated labelling of an entire group. It is to make the leap from a phrase such as “Islam is…” - however harshly such a phrase unfolds - to “all Muslims are…” While criticism, however offensive, should be tolerated, prejudice should not.

Nevertheless, merely uttering prejudice should not be illegal, even if acting upon it, in many cases, should. But that does not that mean prejudice should not be rebuked. To move from the general to the particular - without breaking an undertaking not to disclose detailed content of the incendiary ‘Crucification’ issue of Clareification I was briefly at liberty to peruse - disciplinary action by Clare College would serve to so condemn prejudice, if only Clare’s authorities would be open about the issue’s content. Crucification was devoted to religious satire, but in parts satire as critique slipped into satire as prejudice. The former is a vibrant tool of free debate. The latter has no place in a modern Cambridge College.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

The Clareification controversy

Clareification, the student newspaper of Clare College, has a tradition of ridiculing the racism or bigotry it ostensibly portrays though its sheer outrageousness. Even for those schooled in its unique brand of satire, however, last week’s renamed Crucification issue appalled. An attack on Islam and Christianity, it featured both the most controversial of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons and the most vile and unambiguous Islamophobia. It was the material surrounding the former which has found its way into the press, however, suggesting that the Clare authorities are attempting to conceal the general content of the issue behind the controversy of cartoon republication. This may be designed as a damage limitation exercise on their part, but it comes with its own dangers.

On the basis of what was in the public domain, I felt compelled to argue the following for TCS:

“We disagree with what you say, and, although we shall censure it, we shall not punish you for saying it.” This, with apologies to Voltaire, should be the attitude of the Clare College authorities to the guest editor who last week printed one of the notorious Danish Muhammad cartoons in the college publication, Clareification. It is beyond doubt that printing the image was highly inflammatory, and that the sentiments expressed were offensive to many of a religious persuasion. Crude and cruel, the renamed Crucification issue should be thoroughly condemned, and Clare College was right to quickly distance itself from its content. But setting up a Court of Discipline with the prospect of sending down the guest editor will succeed only in stifling student opinion with noxious self-censorship.

Punishing an individual on the grounds of causing offence creates a dangerous precedent. Many people and groups in Cambridge hold and express opinions which are offensive to others. There are undoubtedly those in Cambridge who openly condemn homosexuality on religious grounds, for instance, but, however abhorrent I find such views, I would still not wish to see them sent down. Part of a vibrant Cambridge culture of tolerance and diversity has to be a tolerance of free debate.

Yet the offending issue of Clareification was, in the view of many - including myself - both frightening and unnecessary. Just because we should have right to free expression does not mean we should feel compelled to express everything and anything at any opportunity. There was a time, at the height of the global cartoon controversy, when the national media had good reasons to republish the images. Doing so would have constituted a principled stand for free speech when the right to print the images was being questioned, and was justified as the central component of all the news stories on the furore. But the national media of both Britain and America shirked this responsibility. Cardiff University student newspaper gair rhydd’s publication of one of the cartoons accompanying a balanced article on the controversy resulted in the suspension of its editor and two of its journalists. If even a reasonable use of the images results in such punishment, what hope for the guest editor of Clareification, who was using them in a piece which went out of its way to insult?

The principle at stake is that even if we find someone’s opinions misguided, they should still have the right to express them, and it is for them to decide whether and when to do so. Clare College is rightly alarmed that its publication was used to indulge such incendiary sentiment, but stressing that these were the opinions of an isolated individual, and, in a hopefully largely symbolic and temporary move, cutting Clareification’s funding, should be sufficient expression of its disgust. Disciplining individuals to contain student opinion would be a worryingly reactionary move for a traditionally liberal Cambridge College to make.

From what was reported in the student, local and national papers, it appeared heavy handed for Clare to establish a Court of Discipline with the prospect of sending the guest editor down, which seemed to suggest that the College would no longer tolerate simply the causing of offence. Having since been able to get my hands on one of the few copies of Crucification left after Clare called them all in to be destroyed I can now appreciate the severity with which they are treating the matter - and I pulled the article before TCS went to press. But those without the contacts to get behind Clare’s wall of silence can only guess at where the authorities are coming from, and will draw the appropriate spurious conclusions. The danger of a partial cover-up is that the message sent out will not be the unacceptability of Islamophobia, but that a bastion of student free-thought is calling for timidity in cross-cultural critique. Clare’s ambiguity to save its reputation risks fuelling the misunderstanding and suspicion of cultural difference that only frank discussion can dispel.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Selling reform

TCS on Cash-for-honours:

There is a dilemma at the heart of politics in Britain. Election costs have risen as party memberships have collapsed. The major parties have faced cash-flow crises and are now drowning in debt. If they did indeed attempt to bridge their funding gap by exchanging peerages for cheap loans, they would have been continuing a venerable tradition of honours-related corruption dating back to at least the time of Lloyd George. Can politicians ever be free of the temptation to whore our upper house?

If it is cash the parties need, a realistic reassessment of their finances and obligations might go some way towards assuaging concerns over corruption. Indeed, a major review of party funding, led by a respected former civil servant, Sir Hayden Philips, is soon to publish its findings. Disagreement between the parties has so far delayed a final report, but an interim assessment was released in October and, while the role of the unions bankrolling Labour remains contentious, Philips retains hope of common ground on capping campaign expenditure and increasing state funding. Even if party finances were watertight, however, so long as politicians are empowered to nominate peers a whiff of corruption will remain. Party coffers are not politicians’ only concern, and among those who lent to Labour and were then offered Lordships were Barry Townsley and Sir David Garrard, both of whom had also given money to Tony Blair’s pet education project of city academies. The only way to ensure that peerages are not exploited for party political ends is to abandon nomination. But current Government proposals are to have a partially elected upper house, with 30% of peers nominated by the parties (and vetted by the Appointments Commission, alongside 20% nominated by the Commission itself).

What might an alternative look like? Well, one rarely considered option is to do away with an upper chamber altogether. All the Scandinavian countries, for example, manage without one. But such unicameral countries are often small and homogenous, and abolishing the Lords would mark a dramatic and unpopular break with British tradition. The Lords’ functions in the parliamentary system - scrutinising legislation, holding expert debates and obliging the government to reconsider legislation - retain utility. But what composition of the Lords would be best to fulfil these roles? A wholly elected upper house would have the benefit of democratic purity, but would represent yet another tier of power for career politicians to colonise, and would soon chafe at a mere advisory capacity. Perhaps if Britain operated with a limited state we could afford a governing class wholly detached from wider society. But British government is a leviathan: public expenditure accounts for over 42% of GDP. If civil society isn’t to be suffocated by the state it cannot be delineated from politics - experts need to operate on the inside too. But wholly appointed bodies suffer from a lack of democratic legitimacy, and even a partially appointed organ could potentially generate the uncomfortable situation of elected representatives being outvoted by appointees.

So why not marry nomination and election? Rather than purely political party lists (assuming the Lords to be elected by Proportional Representation) on top of nominees, oblige the parties to nominate candidates to their lists that pass Appointments Commission criteria on merit for their expertise and propriety. Rather than guaranteeing the parties an appointed 20% of the upper house on top of their elected representatives, put these vetted lists to the electorate, and let the parties fight for a share of the house against a list drawn up by the Appointments Commission itself. A Commission list would provide a rare opportunity to vote for independence, integrity and wisdom, restoring much-needed confidence to British politics. Amid general disenchantment with politicians and parties, I dare say such a list would do quite well.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Much to reform

Scandals at the Home Office have ceased to shock. It emerged last month that 540 Britons who committed serious crimes abroad have been free to apply for jobs from which they should have been barred, 147 drugs traffickers have defied travel bans and 322 registered sex offenders have simply disappeared off the official radar, while Home Secretary John Reid predicts problems to get worse. There is a good case that recent scandals may be the result of individual rather than institutional failings. But something is clearly awry, and, at the least, Reid is right to assert that “there must be no sacred cows when it comes to protecting security and justice”. He takes the view that the very structure of his department must be overhauled, proposing a radical dissolution of the Home Office by dividing its powers and responsibilities between two new ministries, one responsible for prisons, probation and criminal justice and the other for counter-terrorism, policing, and immigration. But his plans have been attacked by, among others, his two most recent predecessors as Home Secretary - Charles Clarke and David Blunkett.

Clarke’s main concern, aired yesterday in an interview with Sky News, echoes previous Conservative critiques of Reid’s plans: dividing the Home Office risks exacerbating its main weakness, that of a worrying “lack of co-ordination between its various elements”. The scheme also has obvious implications for the separation of powers between the judiciary and the other branches of government, with the judicial administration of the Department for Constitutional Affairs subsumed within a broader ministry of Justice. But David Blunkett’s worries were of a different order. Alongside illiberal musings that Continental ministries of Justice entailed exaggerated clout for “the judiciary and those most concerned about protecting the perpetrator”, the Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside - Home Secretary from 2001 to 2004 - told ITV that defenestrating the Home Office would have serious implications for democracy in the UK. Within Cabinet, a powerful Home Secretary balances the posts of Prime Minister and Chancellor. Reform risks the “Balkanisation of government”, with multiple ministers inevitably concentrating power in the hands of the top two in Downing Street.

Individually, separated Justice and Security ministries would indeed be weaker than the current Home Office, while British government undoubtedly lacks checks on the power of Numbers 10 and 11. But it would be wrong to maintain a leviathan at the expense of efficient security and justice simply for the sake of balance. The dynamics of cabinet government have always shifted and evolved. Gordon Brown wields unprecedented influence as the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, while it was only in the 1960s and 1970s, with the growing politicisation of its security functions, that the Home Secretary came to challenge the precedence of the other Great Office of State, the Foreign Secretary. Today the current malaise of his department rather undermines the ability of the Home Secretary to impose himself in Cabinet, and it is to rewrite the past for Blunkett to claim he ever approached the power of Brown or Blair.

Several factors have led to a concentration of political power at the centre over the past quarter of a century. Modern politics is largely post-ideological and personality driven, with political parties inextricably intertwined with their leaders in the minds of the electorate. Important too has been the entrenched position of the then governing party, granting its leadership greater freedom and confidence. In the 6 elections from 1983, power has changed party hands only once, with the government enjoying majorities of over 100 for 17 of those 24 years (1983-1992 and again 1997-2005). In the previous six elections (1964-1979) the governing party was re-elected only when it called an early poll, in March 1966 after 17 months and in October 1974 after less than 8, while before 1983 no election had delivered a majority of over 100 since 1945’s Labour landslide. The British political system has long been a tyranny of the Commons, with an emasculated House of Lords and head of state, but we can no longer rely on the Commons itself to provide checks on the centre. Rather than propping up the Home Office beyond its useful lifespan, what are needed are alternative foci outside the lower house. Decentralisation and greater autonomy for local councils would be one effective means of achieving this. A largely elected upper chamber would create alternative leaders with the legitimacy to challenge the Prime Minister. So too would an elected head of state.

David Blunkett is right to fear such a concentration of power in the hands of so few, but John Reid’s plans for the Home Office should be judged only on their ability to improve its efficacy. Rather than looking a ailing department, those hoping for a balanced political system in Britain should seek to pluralize power beyond the Commons.

Monday, 29 January 2007

What it is safe to claim about climate change

This week's TCS exclusive:

The only way to save the planet is to distort the truth.

Sceptical? Good - there is life in democracy yet. But in discussions of global warming fact and fiction frequently blur.

Climate change is the single greatest threat to mankind in the 21st century. But specific weather events can rarely be explicitly linked to climate change; the troposphere is far to complex a system to allow such categorical connections. Nevertheless, those championing action to limit the impact of global warming often invoke specific weather events to buttress their case, and the public doesn’t seem to pay attention unless they do. Can a distinct lack of candour be justified if it serves to help avert global climatic catastrophe?

Scientists and politicians rising to the challenges posed by global warming face a dilemma: humanity has long taken Gaia as a resource to exploit rather than protect, and will only tolerate the inconvenience of saving her if it otherwise stands to suffer itself. The warnings of the scientific community, however, have never been enough. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change felt able to state in 1995 that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate”, and, by 2001, that “most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities”. Yet it took Hurricane Katrina to force the realities of global warming into the American popular consciousness, while current water shortages in Australia were similarly needed to stimulate our antipodean cousins. In making the case for a concerted response to the prospect of severe climatic dislocation, the persuasive effects of specific weather events have proved invaluable. Climate change is an otherwise diffuse, long-term and uneven process; extreme weather allows climatologists to illustrate its catastrophic potential. Shrinking glaciers simply don’t have the propagandistic value of devastated cities.

But is it dishonest to connect climate change with meteorology? Not if the link made is indirect. Climate models do indeed project extreme weather conditions of increased intensity and frequency as the earth heats up. Such was, quite legitimately, the central thrust of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. But we are on dangerous ground if we make the further claim of a direct causal link between recent global warming and specific meteorological disasters, for humanity has long borne crippling droughts, floods and hurricanes. Littering his documentary with references to the 2005 devastation of America’s Gulf Coast, Gore goes on to claim that “what changed in the US with Hurricane Katrina was a feeling that we have entered a period of consequences”. His Oscar-nominated documentary demonstrates the worrying propensity for slippage between claims of direct and indirect connection. Far from an ‘inconvenient truth’, to cite Katrina as evidence of the impact of climate change is a convenient fiction. Concluding that Katrina was the consequence of global warming is blurring the facts to suit a political agenda.

But if doing so creates a mandate to mitigate climate change, perhaps muddying the issue can be defended. Being a stickler for accuracy today will seem a perverse luxury in 50 years time if central London is underwater. Scientists need to keep global warming in the news if politicians are to have a hope of convincing their citizens to make painful sacrifices. As the costs of climate change limitation begin to bite, and as other causes jostle with global warming for politicians’ and the public’s attention, there will be an ever greater temptation to bind all weather related news with climate change. But this would be profoundly disingenuous, and carries unjustifiable dangers. With climate-change sceptics ready to expose any fallacy, increasingly tenuous claims risk undermining the hard science on which global warming rests. Furthermore, human induced global warming may be the first truly global challenge humanity has faced, but it won’t - unless climate change cripples civilisation beyond recognition - be the last. We owe it to future generations not to devalue the notion of expert opinion. Climate change is a subject in which passions run high and immediate action is needed; the exaggeration of high spirits can perhaps at times be excused. But the truth should not be sacrificed along with our cheap flights and 4x4s.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

The environment resuscitated

In the run up to the 2005 general election, the New Statesman led with “how the greens were choked to death” - “why the environment isn’t an election issue”. Lacking vision and leadership, green groups had been compromised and marginalised within Labour’s “big tent” after throwing their lot in with the government in 1997. By 2005, only the Liberal Democrat's had a manifesto presenting green issues as fundamental to their platform - Labour gave the environment only a few paragraphs at the end of its ‘International policy’ and ‘Quality of life’ sections, while for the Conservatives it was buried within ‘Accountability’. But, since then, we have had the Stern Review and a growing acknowledgement of the potential impact of climate change, while the Tories have reinvented themselves as the party of the scribbled tree.

Green issues have accordingly risen in prominence on the major parties’ respective websites. Labour now place ‘Climate change and energy’ fourth on their list of policy areas, while the Lib Dems place the ‘Environment’ fifth. The Tories’ ‘Quality of Life Challenge’, which unlike Labour’s 2005 manifesto namesake is more or less exclusively devoted to environmental concerns, is second in its set of six key policy ‘challenges'. But don’t bank on the environment as a decisive factor in any future general election. As the parties gear up for this years’ polls in Scotland and Wales, the Welsh Conservatives may hope that emphasising ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ gets them greater representation in the Senedd, but by burying their own track record on the environment the Scottish Labour party clearly doesn’t consider it crucial in determining whether they retain control of Holyrood. All parties want to talk tough on the environment, but none are going to feel particularly inclined to ask too many sacrifices of the electorate. The Conservatives at least seem likely to follow the Lib Dems in sweetening the pill of eco-taxes with tax reductions elsewhere. Labour are currently saying the least about climate change, but, after commisioning the Stern Report, expect Gordon Brown to make important announcements once Tony Blair steps down. 2006 was a year of environmental awakening, and it is hard to imagine a repeat of 2005’s electoral indifference to climate change. The main parties have accepted the prospect of global environmental catastrophe. But none yet seem ready to stake out a daring position to lead the electorate where they don't neccesarily want to go.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

The BMA wades in

The British Medical Association has become the latest organisation to propose channelling Afghanistan’s opium into legal pain-relief. With a diamorphine shortage in the UK, the medical experts are demanding greater access to the drug after forced recourse to less-effective alternatives. But as the International Narcotics Control Board reports, there remain substantial global reserves of morphine; as the British government recognises, dwindling stocks of diamorphine stem from a lack of facilities for chemically converting morphine, not from a lack of supply. The BMA is using this bottleneck to make a geopolitical point.

The proposals of the Senlis Council to licence Afghanistan’s opium are becoming increasingly fashionable but remain seriously flawed. Constructing the facilities to produce diamorphine - heroin - in disparate factories across Afghanistan’s badlands, as Senlis proposes, promises to shove the high-value end of the drugs trade into the hands of insurgents. Few Afghans would reap the benefits of poppy licensing, with only 1% of the cultivatable land dedicated to poppy. Other charities in the country, such as Christian Aid, stress long term support such as irrigation for the other 99%. If Afghanistan stabilises, and if a chronic shortage of morphine does emerge, there will come a time when legalising and regulating the opium trade makes sense. The Senlis Council may be making inroads into western liberal opinion, but its proposals, for now, are good for neither Afghanistan nor the world.

Monday, 22 January 2007

The US and the executions

Another short piece for TCS, answering the question as one of a group of panelists, "Should the US have done anything to stop the execution of Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants?":

Capital punishment is wrong in principle. The sordid hanging of Saddam Hussein after a partial trial was not just wrong but abhorrent. But the US was nevertheless right to leave to Iraqi’s the business of punishing their former dictator and his co-defendants.

By executing leaders of the former Baathist regime, the Iraqi administration missed a rare opportunity to take the moral high ground, and sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia have probably widened as a result. But Saddam and his associates were undoubtedly guilty of crimes against humanity and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Shia and Kurds. Many victims and their relatives would have seen a reprieve for Saddam as irresponsibly unjust, and the government calculated that the good will of the previously persecuted was worth the further alienation of the Sunni community. Whether or not we in the West agree with this assessment, it was one for the Iraqi government to make; if Iraq is ever to develop as a functioning state it must be given room for independent policy, and arguably-hypocritical US intervention to stop the executions would have served only to erode the Iraqi government’s fragile legitimacy. Coalition governments ripped Iraq apart by demolishing Saddam’s regime and imposing a new one. Imposing our values as well would have only deepened the chaos.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Freedom of expression in TCS

My considered thoughts on freedom of expression, as summed up for TCS:

It has been a sad week for freedom of expression. Hrant Dink, a prominent journalist convicted last year of insulting Turkish identity in an article about the Armenian genocide of 1915, was shot in Istanbul. Brigitte Zypries, the German minister of justice, announced that Germany would be using its current presidency of the European Union to push for an EU-wide ban on Holocaust denial and the display of Nazi insignia. There is obvious gulf between these two cases, and it might be considered crass to compare the killers of a man who fought for the recognition of a genocide with a government intent on making denial of another genocide a crime. But the death of Hrant Dink is a sickening illustration of the dangers of government enforced versions of the past.

Dink was the editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, which published a series of articles examining the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of Armenians during World War One. One of these contained a line in which prosecutors claimed Dink denigrated the purity of Turkish blood, and in October 2005 he was convicted under article 301 of the Turkish penal code - an article which makes it an offence to insult ‘Turkishness’ - and given a six-month suspended sentence. With the state having declared his guilt, Dink began receiving an increasing volume of threats and feared for his safety, a fear realised on Friday with a bullet to the back of his head.

The intentions of those seeking to criminalise Holocaust denial are admirable. To distort the past and accuse a people who suffered so much of the greatest fraud in history is a loathsome and dangerous act, and it is already illegal to do so in nine EU member states. But by claiming the right to silence contrary opinion the state empowers individuals to do the same, and silence their opponents as Hrant Dink was silenced on Friday. Free debate in Europe will not undermine the factuality of the Holocaust, but across the Bosporus a frank discussion of the events of 1915 might reconcile modern Turkey with a fuller account of its recent past. As part of Turkey’s stalling accession talks, the EU is pushing for legal reform. If it wants article 301 written out of the statute books, member states should argue from a position of enshrined free speech and not hypocrisy, and instead of extending the illegality of Holocaust denial, abandon attempts to cosset the past.


The latest TCS article...

Last Thursday Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell announced that the perennial bug-bear of penny-pinching students everywhere, the television licence-fee, would, as expected, fail to rise in line with the standard rate of inflation over the next decade. Dashing the hopes of the corporation’s director-general Mark Thompson, the unions and even the minister herself, this treasury-imposed cap might well threaten BBC content and jobs. But in no developed country bar Germany does the government spend a higher proportion of GDP on broadcasting, and the BBC will still have over £20 billion to spend over the next six years. In this 21st century world of ever-faster internet and multi-channel television, is there really a case for the BBC’s model of licence-fee-funded public-service broadcasting?

The BBC is easy to criticise but impossible to replace. A blanket licence-fee covering all who own a television effectively subsidises the viewing habits of the more privileged sections of society; a disproportionate number of people who tune in to the BBC are elderly, wealthy and white. Public funding allows it to provide television, radio and web-based content free, squeezing commercial stations and online newspapers. The government will begin considering possible alternatives to the licence fee early next decade, and next time the BBC applies for a renewal of its royal charter in 2016 it may find the case for a subscription based service hard to resist.

But the very fact of its near universality makes the BBC a unique institution. Headline figures of audience share, in which all the terrestrial channels have been in freefall over the past decade, are misleading. Few institutions can claim that over 90% of the UK population uses its services every week. 37% of all British respondents to a Media Centre Poll last year spontaneously mentioned the BBC as their most trusted specific news source, four times as many as its nearest competitor. In an era when national narratives are thin on the ground, a brand which engenders such respect is not to be lightly thrown away. On the international stage, we saw last week how quickly Britain’s national reputation can be tarnished by its broadcasting with the Big Brother racism row, but the BBC remains an unparalleled means of enhancing the country’s standing abroad. Its website, currently ranked as the 15th most popular English language site in the world by online traffic monitor Alexa, is in many ways now taking the baton from its venerable World Service in spreading a British message across the globe.

Both global and domestic media environments will evolve rapidly over the next decade, and the BBC’s place within in them in 2016 is hard to predict. But for now, at least, the license-fee remains the surest way of maintaining the quality and independence of the greatest national institution in Britain. Forking out £135.50 for a television licence, as we will from 1 April, may hurt the pocket, but it is a small price to pay for the BBC as we know it, even if its bosses will complain they wanted more.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Turkey and free speech

"A bullet has been fired at democracy and freedom of expression": the reaction of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the assassination of Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, the prominent editor of Agos, a bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper. Dink’s death further underlines the dangers of government-sponsored versions of the past; if the state claims the right to silence contrary opinion, individuals are empowered to arrogate this right too. Convicted in October 2005 of insulting Turkishness under article 301 of Turkey’s penal code, Dink was of Armenian descent, and wrote fearlessly about the genocide of Armenians which occurred at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, a genocide which is denied by Turkey’s nationalist community. The EU is seeking reform of the Turkish justice system as part of its application for membership, but by having laws against Holocaust denial it is arguing from a position of hypocrisy, while French flirtation with criminalising denial of the Armenian genocide last October served only to inflame and entrench Turkish nationalist opinion. Far better for a free debate on all topics and all sides, and truth will out. Prime Minister Erdogan has been courting the nationalist vote in the run up to elections this year. But if he is really serious about freedom of expression, it is time to dismantle 301.

Friday, 19 January 2007

Holocaust denial

Germany wants to use its current presidency of the EU to outlaw Holocaust denial and the public display of Nazi insignia across Europe. Britain should take the lead in opposing this direct attack on freedom of expression, as it did when similar proposals were successfully blocked in 2005. But any response to the ideas of Brigitte Zypries, the German Justice minister pushing for an EU-wide ban, has to be more than an automatic dismissal, however tempting a simple assertion of a supposedly quintessential British value might be. Undoubted harm is caused by so-called ‘revisionists’ spinning dangerous lies which feed modern anti-Semitism and its associated conspiracy theories, and if we are to oppose the criminalisation of Holocaust denial we have to show that free expression is the greater good. This challenge is to be welcomed, for confidence in our values can only be strengthened when we rise to their defence.

As it happens, such a claim is one important aspect of John Stuart Mill’s seminal championing of freedom of speech and deed, On Liberty. Mill contends that:
“the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”.

How do Mill’s precepts relate to Holocaust denial? Scholars, survivors and witnesses are certain that the Holocaust was a very real, and very terrible, historical event. Why risk exchanging fact for dangerous error by allowing a free debate on the subject? Mill would argue that unless a case against the Holocaust is made, our belief in it will be a “dead dogma, not a living truth.”
“Unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds”.

But do these passages from On Liberty really ring true in the case of Holocaust denial? Pace Mill, allowing extremists and their apologists to set forth their poisonous arguments clouds rather than enhances society’s understanding of the Holocaust by implying unwarranted doubt. A sounder defence of freedom of speech in this instance is more prosaic than Mill’s idealism. It is that denying free speech only gives those who challenge society’s sacred beliefs needless publicity and an artificial moral high ground. In an interesting piece for yesterday’s Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash argues that “well-intentioned bans actually feed the flames they are meant to quench".
“Nine EU member states currently have laws against Holocaust denial: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. That happens to be a list of countries with some of the strongest rightwing xenophobic parties in the EU, from France's National Front and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium to the NPD in Germany and the Greater Romania party. Self-evidently those parties don't exist as a result of Holocaust denial laws. Indeed, the existence of such parties is one of the reasons given for having the laws, but the laws have obviously not prevented their vigorous and dangerous growth. If anything, the bans and resulting court cases have given them a nimbus of persecution, that far-right populists love to exploit.”
Holocaust denial is abhorrent, but that is all the more reason not to make martyrs of Holocaust deniers.

But don’t abandon John Stuart Mill just yet. If he is naïve on the dangers of unchecked prejudice, he is right to assert that free speech is the most effective mechanism for allowing truth to trump error. Europeans, even in the nine EU states where Holocaust denial is a crime, are truely blessed with a vast arena of free expression. Holocaust denial laws chip away only at the very edges of this space. But others elsewhere are less fortunate, and curtailing freedom of speech in Europe sends out the message that it is for the state to decide which version of history to trumpet and protect. A frank discussion of the past is the best hope people in places such as Iran, whose president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has described the Holocaust as a ‘myth’ will ever have of getting at the facts. Europe should demonstrate that the Holocaust is a living truth which doesn’t need to be propped up by law.

Saturday, 13 January 2007


Here's a full (and, exclusive to Constitutional Lore, hyperlinked) copy of an article I penned with Peter Inglesby for this week's TCS.

The international community should allow Afghanistan to legally grow and export opium. Or at least so says the Senlis Council, a European think tank with field offices across the central Asian country. Illicit poppy cultivation already dominates the Afghan economy, and American-led counter-narcotics strategies are only exacerbating Afghanistan’s development crisis. Meanwhile, across the world many of the poorest go without effective pain-relief for want of opiate-based medicines. Licence opium production, argue the policy-wonks at Senlis, and allow Afghan farmers a livelihood easing the world’s pain.

The argument is seductive in its simplicity, and an array of facts can be marshalled to back it up. According to a report of November last year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “the opium sector remains Afghanistan's largest source of export earnings and a major source of incomes in the rural areas”. Afghanistan’s ‘Opium GDP’ amounted to $2.7 billion in 2005/6, equivalent to 27% of the country’s total (drug-inclusive) GDP and 36% of licit GDP. A successful eradication campaign would by 2010 shrink the economy by 8.7%. Yet why eradicate when the Afghan poppy can be put to legal use? The International Narcotics Control Board estimates that developing nations - four fifths of the world’s population - account for just 6% of global morphine consumption. “If the availability of drugs in developing countries is not improved”, argues the INCB’s President, Professor Hamid Ghodse, “lack of access to opioid analgesics will cause massive amounts of unnecessary pain and suffering.” Sadly, legalising and licensing the Afghan opium trade isn’t the panacea Senlis claims it is.

The benchmark transition from illegal to licensed poppy cultivation occurred in Turkey in the 1970s. With American backing, Turkey went from a major source of heroin, feeding 80% of the US market, to one of the largest suppliers of medical opiates. But the situation in Afghanistan today is simply incomparable to that in Turkey 35 years ago. To be sure, Turkish politics was fractured and unstable, but it possessed a modern state capable of the strict regulation and control of its agriculture, industry and exports. The Afghan government’s writ barely runs beyond Kabul. Narco-corruption is endemic and reaches the highest levels of government, and it would be all but impossible to prevent the channelling of legal cultivation into illegal processing and trade. The UN and the Afghan government have come out against the Senlis Council’s idea, as has the INCB itself, fulminating in an annual report “the idea that legalizing opium poppy cultivation would somehow enable the Government to obtain control over the drug trade and exclude the involvement of criminal organizations is simplistic and does not take into account the complex situation in the country.”

Senlis are also wrong in their diagnosis of the global ‘pain crisis’. The INCB reports that for the foreseeable future, such is the “high level of stocks of raw materials held in producer countries, the total supply of opiate raw materials (production and stocks) will be sufficient to cover the expected demand.” Inadequate access to opiate-based pain relief in developing countries is primarily due to the basic nature of their healthcare systems. The world’s pain would not be eased by a sudden new source of licit morphine, and in any case it is far from clear how Senlis propose to establish the pharmaceutical industry needed to produce the “‘Fair Trade’ Brand of Afghan Morphine” they envisage.

But if the Senlis Council’s scheme is currently impractical, it should not be dismissed out of hand. Licensed opium production could at some point in the future form an important facet of the legal Afghan economy and should not be ruled out. It needs to be recognised that the West’s home-grown problems and prejudices, feeding into the opinions of bodies such as the UN or the INCB, clouds its handling of the Afghan situation. To condemn poppy cultivation for the production of pain relieving drugs on the basis that doing so would fuel the trade in illicit opiates is to prioritise Western concerns with drug crime over the economic development of Afghanistan. It would be wrong to argue that Afghan farmers should not be allowed to cultivate poppies simply because the profits accrued might be diverted to fund terrorists and criminals, for to do so would rule out any economically productive activity, clearly ludicrous if Afghanistan is to find its feet as a unified and stable country. Fetishising prohibition can perhaps be compared to US policies on HIV/AIDS, or to some of the knee-jerk pronouncements by those on the anti-capitalist ecological left about climate change. Automatic reactions based on blinkered ideological prejudices are never the way to decide policy or to win an argument. The proposal of the Senlis Council to regulate a legal Afghan opium industry is perhaps an idea whose time has not yet come, but concepts which challenge the cosy consensus of the international community and champion development are surely the best hope of future prosperity that Afghanistan has.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

The 'surge' emerged

United States President George Bush has finally announced a long anticipated 'surge' in American service personnel in Iraq during a televised ‘address to the nation’ last night. The announcement was met with predicable condemnation from the Democratic Party, dismayed at having so little influence over Iraq policy despite fighting and winning Congressional elections on the issue, yet commentators who support the continued presence of coalition forces in Iraq should also have misgivings that the 21,500 extra troops which Bush is sending number considerably fewer than the leading figures behind the new plan, former general Jack Keane and conservative scholar Frederick Kagan, had hoped for and proposed. As a military advisor to the Iraq Study Group, James Carafano, notes, Bush’s policy is essentially a gamble that the tens of thousands of Iraqi troops with which Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki proposes to secure Baghdad will do more than simply make up the numbers.

At stake is not just the future of Iraq, but the future electoral prospects of the Republican Party. As GOP support for the President begins to fissure, many in the leadership are stressing the transitory nature of the boost, yet the strategy set out by Kagan and Keane commits troops to Baghdad for 18 months and then to the province at the heart of the Sunni insurgency, Anbar, for the rest of 2008. Even success in Anbar risks looking like bloody chaos in a year when Bush’s successor on the Republican presidential ticket will have to face an already sceptical electorate. Bush’s policy may yet secure stability in Iraq at the price of Republican victory in America.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

The fall of Eden

Britain’s Prime Minister, discredited by a foreign policy disaster in the Middle East, is manoeuvred into resignation by an ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer who goes on to replace him in the top job. 50 years ago today Sir Anthony Eden left office after a period in power judged by a 2004 MORI survey to have been the least successful of the 20th century. The legacy of a Prime Minister in similar straits, the current incumbent Tony Blair, is perhaps more secure, but then he has had a decade to nurture it rather than a bare twenty months. Blair’s New Year message set out his personal vision of the past decade, citing improving public services, falling crime, and winning the right to host the Olympics in 2012 as among his proudest achievements while in number ten. But in truth, if he is to be remembered for anything other than misadventures in Iraq, it will be for his demonstration that accommodating the market is a prerequisite of sustained power for the British centre-left. Blair used his New Year message to urge his party to stay ‘New Labour’, a warning to Gordon Brown, the Chancellor set to succeed him, not to tinker with the winning formula which has thus far granted Labour an unprecedented three terms of government. Harold Macmillan, the Chancellor who succeeded Eden, went on to increase his party’s majority to over 100 seats at the 1959 general election despite a significant Labour lead in the opinion polls when he took power in 1957. Whether Brown can pull off a similar feat will of course depend on how he handles the legacy of Blair.

Monday, 8 January 2007

Military dawns in the East

The Japan Defence Agency is set to upgrade to a full cabinet-level ministry tomorrow, in an historic dismantling of Japan’s post-war pacifistic constitutional settlement. Following recent Chinese moves to bolster their naval capacity, it seems we are witnessing a renewed desire on the part of East Asian nations to exercise military muscle. Yet despite this, repeats of the 20th century’s Sino-Japanese conflicts look more distant than ever. Both countries' economies are benefiting from increasing integration, and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gone much further than his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi in attempting to normalise relations with his neighbours, visiting both South Korea and China in the first days of his premiership, and pursuing a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ regarding the controversial Yasukuni shrine . Arguably of equal importance for regional security in 2007 are the continuing domestic woes of Taiwan’s pro-independence President Chen Shui-Bian.

East Asian military renewal is not primarily aimed at fighting East Asian wars. It rather marks the beginnings of a global projection of East Asian power not seen since the days of Genghis Khan. As China scours the globe for the natural resources it needs to fuel its roaring economy, there is every sign that those traditional theatres of Great Power competition, the Middle East and Africa, will yet again witness a scramble for influence. The prospect of a newly assertive China rubbing against western interests might be viewed as a crisis. But the components of the Chinese ideogram for ‘crisis’, romanised as wei ji, famously signify ‘opportunity’ as well as ‘danger’. Japan’s moves to modernise its military structures are aimed largely at facilitating future peacekeeping operations, building on its recent involvement in southern Iraq. As it invests ever more capital overseas, China will develop an unprecedented stake in global security, and its 3.25 million men under arms could go long way towards plugging the growing peacekeeping gap. The early 1990s saw a boom in global peacekeeping which hasn’t abated since, and UN officials were last year warning of unsustainable ‘overstretch’. American and Chinese forces have recently taken the encouraging step of conducting joint search and rescue operations, and the sooner China is integrated into the global system of security the better. Peace in the 21st century could well come to rest on Eastern might.