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.