Friday, 30 August 2013

Syria: the case just wasn't a very good one

Well, when we said 'watch this space', we didn't realise that 'this space' would be filled with the most important Parliamentary revolt over foreign policy since Suez - or even since the Norway debate in 1940, which helped to bring down Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's government. The Coalition has been defeated over the most basic and visceral issues of all - peace and war. And now it appears that it is Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition, who makes Britain's foreign policy. Well, well, well.

Nothing like Chamberlain's dramatic fall will happen this time, of course. This was a theoretical motion about joining an action that may never happen (David Cameron - above - has reason to thank Mr Miliband that this was not the substantive and decisive motion, which might have been a different matter). Sure, the Prime Minister has been deeply wounded and, to quote one of Prime Minister Macmillan's enemies over the Profumo scandal, it will never be 'glad, confident morning again'. But he can bounce back with a few breezy announcements. He can say that he listened, and that he will continue to listen. Above all, as the economy continues to pull itself off the floor, he can just wait and watch his poll ratings slowly improve. He'll live to fight another day.

But consider the sheer scale of his defeat. Ed Miliband's speech was, frankly, poor. Maybe about thirty Labour MPs stayed away, or failed to get back from holiday in time. Plenty of Conservative MPs who would have voted against an actual 'war motion', authorising the use of force, held their noses and voted with the Government. What do we think the scale of the Prime Minister's humiliation would have been on Saturday or Tuesday, had he got through last night. What would he have lost by? Forty? Fifty?

The historic ramifications of last night's vote are, on one level, absolutely enormous. This continues to be the most rebellious and disputatious House of Commons of modern times. MPs are more and more independent, more and more stroppy, and more and more outspoken. As the powers of the centre want, patronage dries up (especially when two parties are struggling for their spoils), and devolution and localism make themselves felt, ask yourself this: who should MPs really listen to? Their constituents, who elect them? Or the Government Whips, who call them all sorts of things - both behind their backs, and to their faces? I know who I'd think was paying my wages. And what Members of the House have done is to assert Parliamentary control over the Royal Prerogative - that perennial running sore of eighteenth century politics. It's becoming harder and harder to imagine any government taking Britain into large-scale military action without a Parliamentary vote.

But the vote was also more specific, and it needn't mean that Britain is withdrawing into its shell forever. The debate was about the merits of this case, and no other. On what basis, you might well ask, without a formal UN Resolution?

The UK’s Coalition parties said that the doctrine of a ‘responsibility to protect’, which has been evolving from the concept of humanitarian intervention since about the turn of the century, would have given them this legal and moral cover – or indeed imperative. You can have a look through the relevant legal andphilosophical documents here if you want – and they do indeed dictate that ‘the international community should respond to emerging crises involving the potential for large-scale loss of life and other widespread crimes against humanity’. They talk about ‘timely and decisive response to prevent and halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity’. And that’s absolutely right. But the Government’s rhetoric never really focused on standing between aggressors and defenceless citizens at all. It was all about deterring – and punishing – the Syrian regime. It was a poor message, and that's in part why it went down so badly.

Would sending a few cruise missiles down the chimneys of President Assad’s command and control networks really protect those civilians? There must be grave room for doubt on this count. These types of pinpricks never really deterred Saddam Hussein, and the cruise missiles that President Bill Clinton aimed at Al-Qaeda ‘training camps’ and ‘munitions stores’ in Afghanistan and Sudan during 1998 didn’t exactly cripple or deter that organisation either. President Obama’s idea of intervention seems to be a quick strike, and then a retreat, and the whole thing runs the risk of falling in between two stools: big enough to enrage Iraq and Russia, but nowhere enough to stop the same thing happening again. Well might Assad smile at the foolishness of his enemies, just as President Nasser during the 1956 Suez Crisis once found the French and the British far, far too slow to challenge him with the alacrity and sense of necessity that might have carried world opinion with them.

It’s a pity in a way, for the Syrian regime does need someone with a big stick to stand up to its bullying ways. Last night's horrible footage of the use of incendiary weapons against a school is just one more confirmation of that outstanding fact - as if we needed any. But we’ve never been convinced that this particular operation was ever a good idea. For without a sound legal basis, strong public backing – such as existed to different extents over the Falklands, the first Gulf War and Sierra Leone – at least a measure of Parliamentary unity and above all legitimacy, this one had ‘mistake’ written all over it. That's what the House of Commons thought as well.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Intervention in Syria: the case not proven

Well, I had intended to reflect again on the Ashes series in England - and on how being close to winning doesn't mean that you're actually ever going to win. But events seem to have overtaken us, haven't they? The Prime Minister's wish to join President Obama in military action against Syria, and the Parliamentary imbroglio he's gotten himself into, dominate all the news bulletins. So let's have a look at where we are, and where we might be going.

First things first: it may well be that some sort of military strike on Syria should be carried out. Those of us who banged our heads against brick walls as Serbian militias made fools of the Western powers in Bosnia, and carried out as many atrocities as they liked (particularly at Srebrenica, where they massacred most of the male population) are as scarred by that inaction as most people seem to be over Iraq. For if you're not going to do anything while a despot at one end of the Mediterranean fires off chemical weapons, what's the point of having an army and a navy at all?

Even so, this blog believes that we're not quite there yet. There is not yet cast-iron proof that the regime itself was responsible - if there ever will be. We have time. We have space. We don't have to fight right now - though it may come to that.

The key need now, and historians can help here, is to avoid just lashing out in what that late, great socialist politician Aneurin Bevan once called 'an emotional spasm'. Far be it for 'Public Policy and the Past' to agree with that wise old bird Max Hastings, but the reason defence chiefs are reportedly very, very nervous about an operation against Syria is very clear: what are its objectives? What are its goals? How might we define victory and an end to operations? What if civilian targets get in the way? Above all: where might this all end? The Western powers risk wading into a quagmire from which there might be no escape. Say President Assad looses off some more chemical weapons. Or attacks Israel. Or fires missiles at Britain's sovereign bases on Cyprus. Or that he wins his civil war in the end - with Iranian and Russian help. What do we do then? 

Emotional outrage, well expressed by both Foreign Secretary Hague and Secretary of State Kerry, is totally understandable. Effecting some sort of change - actually making a difference - is much, much harder.

Britain is, in any case, in absolutely no position to do anything rather than provide a bit of political clout to the operation. A Trafalgar-class submarine (above) might loose off a few Cruise missiles (while the Americans fire off hundreds) before returning to base for more. A handful of Tornado fighter-bombers might attack other targets. That's the reality. Following round after round of defence cuts, the UK now has only a teeny, tiny military capability that cannot make much of a difference on the ground anyway. So one might ask: what's the point? To show President Assad that there are outsiders who care about what he does, I suppose. But is that really enough to justify the death and destruction we will be adding to the mix?

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has got himself into a mess on this one. He seems to have believed that Labour would follow him blindly into the division lobbies, but once again Ed Miliband has reacted to a crisis - as he did over the News International phone-hacking scandal - with some finesse. It might now be the Leader of the Opposition, and not the Prime Minister, who gets to decide when and how we fight - some victory for a leader who was being written off just days ago, but now looks to have rescued himself from political oblivion. For now.

The Government will probably get its Parliamentary vote for war in the end. Cruise missiles will probably start landing in Syria at some point next week. But the Prime Minister has imperilled his very career, along with that of his government - and the lives of innocent Syrian civilians, not to mention British servicemen - for a set of objectives that even he can't really enunciate.

Intervention? The case is not yet proven.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Ashes reflections (I): uncertainty is a fact of life

So it's all over, then. England have won cricket's Ashes (above). Again. Convincingly. At a canter, really - though later in the week I'll be mulling over just how close it all was, or whether it really was the landslide that the 3-0 scoreline suggests.

But this series never really lived up to the hype. Partly because it was over as a contest really before it had begun. To some extent because England actually retained the little earn in a gloomy Manchester raincloud. And also because England played a hard-to-like, play-it-safe and attritional brand of cricket.

Another culprit was the Decision Referral System - or DRS for short - which attempts to use thermal, acoustic and TV technology to look at whether a batsman is really out. Teams have a maximum of two unsuccessful appeals to blow in each innings: the intention has always been to eliminate the 'howler', or egregious umpiring error, from the game.

But England and Australia got themselves tied in knots over it. When to refer? Australia started appallingly at this, especially when one of their batsmen got out to perhaps the worst wicket-taking ball ever bowled in an Ashes Test - though they got a bit better later. Was the system accurate? Controversy raged and raged, especially when batsmen were told to walk when everyone else's interpretation of the videotape evidence was that they should still be batting. Were batsmen putting tape on their bats to avoid Hot Spot, the thermal imaging camera, noting that they had hit the ball? Almost certainly not, because that might end up with them being dismissed in some other manner, but the allegations and the cloud of suspicion lingered.

It all added up to the impression that DRS might be better abandoned. Why keep something that was just stirring up more and more rows? It's not as if the rules of the game need any more questioning, or any more doubters laughing behind their hands at don't-know-it-all administrators.

But step back a little bit and there's a little bit of perspective to be had. I know that statistics are artefacts of organised human life, and I'm aware that they can cloud as much as they reveal. But they do tell you something when we're comparing apples with apples, and in the same setting. And the figures here are absolutely clear: using DRS has upped the accuracy of umpiring decisions during the Ashes series of 2013 from about 91 per cent to 97 per cent. It can be improved further, perhaps by adding a real-time function to the 'snickometer', which looks for the tell-tale noise that bat has touched ball on the way through. But it's learing to better decision-making, but just more bad blood. It's important to remember that.

All human life is subject to uncertainties; controversies; debates. It's part of the lifeblood of any workplace, home - or sport.

The Indian cricket authorities have said that their national team will never use the DRS system until it's 'perfect'. But it never will be. Nothing is every perfect. 97 per cent will have to do for now - and 98 per cent or 99 per cent in the future. Let's face it: that's a damn sight more perfect than almost everything else in the world.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Annual leave

Just a note, really, to say that 'Public Policy and the Past' is now taking a bit of annual leave until Monday 26 August. Thanks for your continued readership, and your continued support - the ever-rising readership numbers make it all worth it.

Never fear - the blog will return in a week, with plenty of opinion and argument about macroeconomic policy, the jobs market, Higher Education, personal debt, the housing market and - wait for it - cricket.

See you then!

Friday, 16 August 2013

'Posh Britain', consumerism and inequality

So last weekend was spent at the Wilderness Festival (above) - dubbed 'Poshstock' by the press, for which title it's looked in a constant upper-middle-class battle with the nearby Cornbury Festival.

It was posh. It had saunas and hot tubs. It had nice showers - with hot water. The toilets were spotless. You could pay for an organic composting loo, if you so chose. The food outlets were cut-down versions of fashionable chains such as Moro. At one point I queued up next to the new Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney (I declined to jab my finger in his chest and argue with him about the rights and wrongs of Funding for Lending and Help to Buy, you'll be pleased to hear). At one point Samantha Cameron was rumoured to be on site.

You get the picture.

To be honest, your correspondent is not getting any younger. It was nice to be able to sleep at night. It felt good to take a shower in the morning. The food was nice. There was real ale. There was folk music. I enjoyed it - I'm a little ashamed to say.

But if we zoom back and look at the macroeconomic picture of what I was looking it, it's all a bit more discomforting. Organisers are using price and less obvious social makers to say 'okay, the great unwashed, this is not for you, this event'. That might be an un- or subconscious reflect, but it's there.

The major thing any social observer would have said, looking around at the green wellies and the expensive clothes, would have been: where has all this cash come from? It was £4.50 for a can of Grolsch Lager. Haven't we just been through the worst economic crisis since the 1880s?

Well, we have, but it has touched these people - roughly the top ten per cent of earners - much less deeply than it has everyone else. You can look at some nice graphs on this, if you want. In fact, what's happened since the early 2000s, in a process that was in train long before the acute phase of the crisis opened in 2007. Higher-level and managerial jobs are still being created hand over fist, but mid-ranking administrative roles are being killed off at an alarming rate. During the last analogous economic disaster, in the 1930s, white-collar clerking jobs were two-a-penny, at least in the south - allowing a consumer and housing boom to pull us out of the Depression.

Now there are a lot more pretty wealthy people in managerial roles, and they've got away with some flesh wounds. They're in charge. Now they're spending, and if they want to do it in a field full of hay bails and flowery tablecloths, that's the way it's going to be.

Posh Britain? Get used to it.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Dangerous dogs and bad laws

The idea of being savaged by a dangerous dog is a very frightening one. It has very deep roots in our history and our culture, and it's a wake-at-night-sweating type of nightmare that we all suffer from. Stuck in a burning house? Attacked at night in an alleyway? Yes, it's all pretty grim out there in our imaginations. The Historian himself has his own morbid fears of dog attacks, as regular readers will know. It might not be entirely rational, but it's there, and it's real.

All that makes recent calls for harsher UK laws to prevent horrendous dog attacks entirely understandable. It's often children who are attacked in this way, partly because they're more likely to be playing in the garden, and partly because they're easy prey at dogs' eye levels. Sixteen people have been killed by dogs in the UK since 2005, a doleful list of victims which includes the awful case of fourteen-year-old Jade Anderson, savaged by four different dogs in Wigan. Who could possibly object to new measures to reduce the number of such attacks?

But wait a minute. The main initiative being proposed in Whitehall and Westminster is a potential life sentence for the dogs' owners. A rethink of these laws is indeed long-overdue. Unfortnately, this isn't it, and it is a knee-jerk reaction that can't be dignified with the word 'thought' at all. This from the Government that brought you landlord checks on non-EU citizens' documents (quietly being dropped) and the disastrous Youth Contract debacle that most employers haven't even heard about. But I digress.

This specific proposal is all-too-reminiscent of the absurd and much-flouted, as well as hysterical, Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, which attempted to outlaw entire breeds of dog (pit bulls, for instance). The result? The destruction of dogs - dangerous as they may or may not have been - that had done nothing wrong at all, simply on the basis of their genetics. Breeding programmes that muddied the waters (or the bloodflow) sufficiently to just get round those laws. And no diminution at all in the number of attacks: in fact, there's been a rapid increase in dog bite outpatient consultations.

What might work? Well, compulsory training. Registration. Education programmes. Encouragement, and enlightenment - the carrot, rather than the stick. Better application of the laws we already have - actually charging owners for all sorts of violent behaviour by their pets, rather than just letting them off with a caution or a finger-wagging lecture. The issuing of dog control notices, to nip any problems in the bud before they become really entrenched.

Hey, these sorts of ideas might not be perfect, but they're all we've got. They're much more likely to work than punitive laws that probably won't be enforced, and which are less likely to make any irresponsible dog owners think twice than more gradually attempting to change some of our violent and nasty dog ownership sub-cultures. Life in prison for another being's behaviour? You can only get 14 years for causing death by dangerous driving - a sin of commission that most citizens would probably think of as a worse crime than letting your dog get out of control. How long before we see the first famous martyr of a dog owner, serving many years in prison because a dog the public perceived as an 'acceptable' one (an Alsatian, for instance) acted out of character? It might take many years. But it might not be long - dragging Parliament's sausage-factory legislation into the mire. Again.

You're probably at risk from this over-reaction, as well as from any vicious dogs themselves. For if this unending emphasis on punishment allows public and policymakers to ignore the deep-seated roots of machismo-fuelled violence in our society, if it permits us to look away from the reasons why so many men breed and keep dogs that are better suited to cage fighting than domestic homes, then it does us a disservice. If such legislation undermines public faith in the law, the void will be filled by all sorts of dangerous fantasies and promises. All for a piece of crowd-pleasing headline-making that might, just might, punish the relatively innocent, and probably won't make any difference anyway.

Dangerous dogs? Bad laws can be more pernicious.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Digging beneath the detail of the recovery


Is it the weather? Is it sporting success? Is it the royal baby? It's not clear, but there's something in the atmosphere, in the ether... That the UK has come through one of its most grievous twentieth-century economic challenges, and that it's now on the up. The clouds have started to part a little and, although this was inevitable once everyone started to despair of ever seeing economic spring again (once the last bull became the last bear, in City parlance) it still feels pretty refreshing.

Investment is up. Jobs are being created. There's some beefy quarter two growth - at long, long last. House prices are going up. Car sales are looking pretty healthy. Even wage growth isn't as anaemic as it was.

But dig a little deeper and none of it feels as special as the warm weather and the glow of athletic prowess might make it feel.

Investment may be up overall, and what jargonists call 'Gross Fixed Capital Formation' is heading northwards for the first time in over a year. But business investment is still going down, if by less than previously thought. It's housing that's making all the running (with a bit of plant and equipment purchasing thrown in, to be fair) - of which more in a moment. Job numbers are also increasing, but the numbers of new entrants still chugging into the market mean that the actual rate of unemployment is just stagnating. Growth is going up, but 0.6 per cent per quarter - but 2.5 per cent or thereabouts per year is only trend growth, not the springback using unused capacity that one would expect given that the economy has been doing a good impression of a barren crater for five years. Wage growth is a bit less of a horror story than it has been, it is true, though it is still lagging behind inflation - meaning that real wages are still going down.

And house price rises? Well, as this column has argued again and again, that isn't an unalloyed bonus. If you're young, or you want to trade up without an increase in your income, or you don't own property, it hurts you rather than helps you. In any case, even assuming broadly that most people own their own homes and feel wealthier (thus increasing demand), it's a very uneven picture. Many regions are only now seeing their first quarter of house price growth - and some still haven't seen any increases at all - a fact that only adds to the impression that most of our present growth is pulsing through London and the South East, but failing to reach the rest of the country.

We could still do with some visionary infrastructure projects. Some more spending. And a less crazily restrictive budgetary policy that puts all the onus on the Bank of England's monetary activism.

Without that bold experimentation, we're going to zig-zag our way out of the present hole for some time to come. We're going to get there - slowly. But the only reason things feel springlike right now is just how long, and just how hard, the winter has been.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The Ashes - and the fallacy that big events must have big causes

Just a couple of weeks ago, Australia's touring cricketers (above) were labelled the 'worse Australian side in history' to visit these shores. The worst since the all-conquering side of 1989 played England off the park, one thought - and, to be fair, they were pretty bad. Their first innings capitulation at Lord's, the home of cricket, was absolutely pitiful, embarrasing and an insult to fans who had paid to travel to Britain and then to get into the ground.

But lots of commentators went over the top. They committed a common fallacy among those who aren't historically trained: to say that important events have to have important causes.

So the search was on for 'deep-seated' weaknesses in the Aussie game, which were preventing the formally dominant Australians from developing new players. It must be Australian cricket's over-reliance on its T20 competition, the Big Bash. It must be state-level pitches, which have stopped allowing batsmen to bat and bat (and bat) all day. It had to be the availability and popularity of other sports - Aussie Rules, for instance, or soccer.

Until the Australians fought back magnificently at Old Trafford, and were probably only thwarted by the rain. Then all their problems didn't seem so 'deep-seated' all of a sudden. It was down to particular players - such as their under-performing opening batsman, Shane Watson, a walking wicket if ever there was one at the moment. The unfortunate pre-series punch aimed by one of their players at England's young Joe Root in a nightclub (the less said about this one the better). Tensions inside the squad. The lack of a single gifted player to come in as a spinner to rival England's extraordinarily successful Graeme Swann.

So suddenly it was all about people. All about the moment. All about gumption, or 'stick', or 'dog', or whatever else you want to call it. That's actually more insightful, more likely to be correct - and more helpful to the Australian players themselves, who can do little about tournaments, pitches and rival sports at home.

It all reminds me of that great controversy about the causes of the First World War, which professional academic provocateur A.J.P. Taylor argued was caused by nothing any more exotic than the rail timetables which made it impossible for the German army to hold back in the West when they wanted to swing around and fight Russia as soon as possible. There was more to it than that, of course, and there are indeed usually long-term factors involved. Why were the railways so important to mobilisation in the first place? Why did the German High Command fear and hate the Russians so much? These were and are also pertinent questions.

So the backgrounds, the experiences and the playing history of these Aussie cricketers can't just be ignored. But as they have now so admirably showed, we are not just the captives of 'wider forces' and the 'contexts' of our actions. Some sportsmen and women, some competitors, some politicians and some generals insist on making their own contexts by sheer bloody-minded force of will or skill.

There's a lesson of history for you.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Queen's speech for Armageddon: a terrifying reminder

The news that the Queen (above) had a World War III speech text prepared for her is little surprise. We historians always knew that a high level of planning went on for a nuclear exchange in Europe, though by the early 1980s the concept of 'civil defence' had been so hollowed out in the face of overwhelming force (and public spending cuts) that most people would have been cowering under doors they'd ripped off in the middle of their houses. And most of them would have died, either immediately in the blast, or from radiation poisoning in the doleful days and months to come. It's nice to have the confirmation from the National Archives, though it's a very sobering set of documents.

The publication of the text the monarch would have read out does jog the memory more than a little - and remind us of just how close we came, during that 'second Cold War', to complete disaster. In 1983, the year of the Wintex-Cimex exercise of which the Queen's speech was a part, the Soviet Union briefly hunkered down for catastrophe during a series of NATO wargames codenamed 'Able Archer'. Britons were very, very divided in the early 1980s. It was a time of ideological warfare - which was perhaps even more pronounced over the UK's presence in the front line of nuclear 'deterrence' (or otherwise) as it was on questions of trade union power, economic policy and the like. Now it's ever clearer that we might have gone over the edge.

We didn't of course, but it's a chilling reminder of how important it might be to get these weapons off their hair triggers, make them safer than they are now, and to substantially reduce their number - as President Obama in fact proposes. Britain should probably take its own nuclear stance down a few notches - or get rid of them altogether. For who are they aimed at? Who do they deter? What are they for? Those questions are completely muddied, all the time, by talk of 'unexpected outcomes' or 'future dangers' - but there's little sign that other mid-ranking powers, for instance Canada or Australia, are desperate to get their hands on some nukes.

In any case, and away from such present controversies, the Queen's draft speech for Armageddon brings home to everyone how we'd have been asked to sit calmly in our houses and be vapourised. By a leader who'd then try to escape detection on the royal yacht Britannia, hiding among sea lochs in the North of Scotland and trying to gather up the threads of what remained of the United Kingdom. You should note, however, that Whitehall's planners didn't think everyone would take that lying down: Wintex-Cimex ends with Britain in chaos, as hundreds of thousands of people try to flee to the Welsh Hills or overseas.

We skirted around the edge of total destruction. The final crisis might have seen us torn apart, rather than coming together as the Queen was going to urge.

They were not such encouraging plans, really, were they?