Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for April, 2015

May 7th 2015: another step on the road to Scottish independence?

Last September’s Scottish independence referendum was meant to give a definitive answer to the Scottish Question.

At least that was the hope of opponents of an independent Scotland.

If anyone needed proof, the campaign for the UK general election has shown that was a false hope with the Scottish National Party set to become the third largest party at Westminster and hold the balance of power there.

Not only that, but the way the main UK parties have fought the campaign in Scotland and the possible outcomes of the election will edge the country further on down the road to independence.

Over the past few weeks, the Conservatives have portrayed the SNP – and by implication their voters – as thieves in order to try to appeal to English resentment of their supposed subsidy of Scotland.

As for Labour, in order to blunt Tory accusations that a Prime Mininster Miliband would be in the SNP’s pocket, it says it would not do any deals with the Nationalists even if they do hold the balance at Westminister.

Insulting people or implying their votes can be disregarded if they are cast for the ‘wrong’ party is likely to alienate even many who voted “No” last autumn.

With next Thursday’s election highly unlikely to yield any party an overall majority, its messy aftermath will also bolster the factors making Scotland’s eventual independence more likely, whoever ends up in Downing St – be it Ed Miliband or David Cameron.

If Labour emerge as the largest party – the bookies’ current favourite scernario – it will almost certainly need the support of SNP MPs to survive in office.

So far Mr Miliband has ruled out any deals, largely to try neutralise Conservative accusations that he would be a hostage to the Scottish Nationalists.

He has rejected offers to join forces to keep David Cameron out of Downing Street from SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who has proved a formidable campaigner and debater and – given she is an incumbent First Minister – has impressed by increasing her already considerable personal popularity ratings.

But if the choice lies between taking office and making concessions to the SNP, will Ed Miliband really risk passing on the opportunity to be Prime Minister and give Mr Cameron a chance to form a government?

Some commentators have argued SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has weakened her leverage over Labour by ruling out supporting David Cameron.

However, if Mr Miliband refused any concessions, he would risk losing even more support in Scotland and he knows that to have a hope of winning a majority at Westminster ever again his party needs to win back its former voters there – especially in its old heartland in and around Glasgow.

As Scotland’s biggest city Glasgow – and its surrounding towns – has been the key to the tilt towards independence and the SNP’s current popularity there should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Scottish politics.

The Party has gradually been eroding Labour’s hold on the city for many years and last September it was one of the few areas where a majority voted for independence.

Many Labour voters were disgusted their party joined with the Conservatives to oppose independence and are in no mood to forgive so they have moved over to the SNP, which not only advocates independence, but is also a left of centre party opposing cuts to health and welfare spending – seemingly more sincerely than Labour.

This fundamental shift in the political landscape could take on the proportions of continental drift if a large cohort of SNP MPs is returned to Westminster and the main parties refuse to talk to them.

It is very possible Scottish voters would conclude that despite the plans to give greater powers to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, their votes are looked on as worth less than those of people in the rest of the UK.

So how does this help moves to independence given Ms Sturgeon has said this election is not about getting a mandate for a second referendum?

One course would be to continue the momentum set since 1999 of the gradual accretion of more powers for the Scottish Parliament which – according to proposals agreed by all parties after the referendum – is about to gain more say over tax and spending.

If Holyrood were to end up with de facto control over all domestic affairs and show it could manage just fine, it would take away a lot of the risk that deterred many from opting for independence last September.

At that point, the SNP could turn to the Scottish people and say: “we run our own affairs anyway, so why not take the next step and become formally independent?” It is this approach I suspect has been the SNP’s long-term strategy all along.

The other possible route to independence could open up if the Conservatives are in a position to form another coalition or minority government and it is not Ed Miliband moving into No 10, but David Cameron staying put.

This means there will be a referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU in 2017 – or even sooner if Mr Cameron has to do a deal with UKIP to stay in power.

If the result of this vote were to be to leave, but a majority of Scots had elected to stay in, the SNP is likely to argue that justifies another referendum on Scottish independence.

Nicola Sturgeon has already called on the other parties to agree that any decision to leave the EU would need to be endorsed by a majority in all four constituent nations of the UK. The Conservatives are not likely to agree to that, but would also find it hard to oppose another vote on independence if a majority of Scots had opted to stay in the EU.

Scotland has been the bright spot in a generally dull election campaign, but the result is going to be another thing altogether – we are in for a fascinating ride over the next few weeks.

The deals and decisions made – and not made – are very likely to carry us closer to the dissolution of the UK.

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A foreign free election – or is it?

You don’t win many votes for foreign policy.

In keeping with this thought the main parties had largely avoided talking about it so far in the campaign and been criticised as a result – until Ed Miliband’s speech at Chatham House yesterday.

But then he was taking advantage of another political adage.

You can lose votes for foreign policy.

Following the hundreds of deaths of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, the Labour leader clearly decided it was a good moment to attack David Cameron for the ill-thought out intervention in the north African state that helped overthrow Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 and then the subsequent failure to support efforts to prevent the country collapsing into the state of anarchy the people smugglers and migrants are taking advantage of now.

As Mr Miliband tacitly acknowledged in his speech, Labour knows how foreign policy can lose you votes when he referred to learning the lessons from the 2003 Iraq invasion more than once.

He knows many of the votes his party lost to the Liberal Democrats in 2005 and 2010 were because of Iraq.

To be fair to him, Ed Miliband did more than take a pop at David Cameron’s record.

He made a reasonable fist of his speech – he pointed out the world is not a stable place at the moment and there are a variety of problems that the world’s fifth largest economy with – despite spending cuts – some of its more capable diplomatic and military services should be doing more to help tackle.

His analysis of the complex challenges facing the world ticked most of the right boxes – and he is to be praised for emphasising the threat posed by climate change and the opportunity to do something about it at the next UN climate summit in Paris in December.

But if he does replace Mr Cameron in No 10, will he follow through on his promises?

Would a Labour government re-engage with Britain’s EU partners to make the reforms many agree are needed in the revive the Union?

Would a Prime Minister Miliband increase defence spending to meet the 2% of GDP the country committed to at the last NATO summit? He hinted strongly yesterday that his party would spend more on defence without actually saying he would.

Miliband defended his opposition to military intervention against Syria which led to the government’s defeat in parliament – a vote many commentators – reading too much into it – saw as a symptom of Britain’s increasing isolationism.

He says military action is sometimes necessary, but should be a last resort and be undertaken in alliance with others, including regional powers.

But whether the voters agree is another matter.

It is notable that when the last British troops left Afghanistan after a 13 year mission last October it was a headline for a few hours and there was very little fanfare.

Neither of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were very successful in their own terms and many British people don’t seem to think the casualties suffered were worth what was achieved.

While it is true that foreign policy is not something that attracts mass interest and is often the reserve of the few, the appeal of a party like UKIP seems to derive partly from a weariness with – and wariness of – international involvement.

And also to say foreign policy has been largely absent from the campaign is only true if you define it narrowly.

Several foreign policy issues are playing a prominent part.

After all, UKIP’s raison d’etre is getting out of the EU – a more significant foreign policy move for the UK is difficult to imagine – and the Conservatives are promising an in-out referendum on membership if they win.

Immigration is a concern to many voters – all the parties talk about the need to control it – whether they are basically for or against it. And though immigration is usually categorised as domestic policy area, it cannot be seen in isolation from foreign policy.

One of the reasons migration to and from Britain is quite high is that recent governments – both the last Labour administration and the current coalition – have said they want Britain to be a global hub – not just for business, but for education, culture and diplomacy too.

Another issue that has come up in the campaign and featured in the TV debates is overseas aid – a fundamental plank of foreign policy.

UKIP are calling for the aid budget to be cut and the money spent at home, but this is an area where David Cameron is not guilty of Ed Miliband’s charge of being small-minded and inward-looking as his government protected foreign aid from cuts and he is committed to the 0.7% of GDP spending target if he is returned to power.

So foreign policy is part of the warp and weft of the campaign, but what was largely lacking until yesterday’s speech was an attempt to join up the dots and spell out a role for Britain in the world.

Will David Cameron take up the challenge to give voters the Conservatives’ overall vision for foreign policy?

Dying for the mistakes of others?

More than 400 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent days.

That sentence gives pause for thought and it should.

With the arrival of spring and better weather, 10,000 people have attempted to get into the EU by making the relatively short – but still perilous – crossing from Libya to Italy in recent days.

But they are often sent across in rickety, unseaworthy vessels by unscrupulous people smugglers who abandon them knowing the Italian navy and coastguard, following established humanitarian practice, will try to save them – if they are spotted in time.

Many come from countries torn by conflict like Syria, Libya and Yemen, or ruled by repressive regimes, like Eritrea.

That is the push factor.

But they are not all asylum seekers and there is the pull factor too.

Most can earn more money in Europe than at home and then they can help support their families back home in Africa and the Middle East.

EU governments are not short of advice on the need to use aid and trade to help develop the economies of their near neighbours to take away the incentive to migrate.

There have been a series of agreements and initiatives since the Barcelona Process was launched in 1996, but so far they have failed to staunch the flow of people.

The continuing differences in income between EU and African and Middle Eastern countries would be enough to ensure people still wanted to make the journey.

But the instability and conflict that followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 has added to the incentive by making life in several countries much worse.

And EU governments have compounded both the push and the pull with actions that ended up both encouraging and enabling more migrants to make the attempt to get in.

Despite having drawn the conclusion in the 1990s that supporting economic development in the MENA region was a long-term solution to cutting the number of migrants, in the 2000s the EU diverted scarce resources and political attention to its eastward expansion and then the Eastern Partnership initiative with, among others, Ukraine, that has ended in the struggle for influence with Russia.

Also, before 2011, the EU supported regimes in countries like Tunisia and Egypt whose repression helped trigger the uprisings of the Arab Spring which spread and ended in the civil war in Syria which has led 3 million people to flee the country as refugees – not to mention the 6 million internally displaced.

In Libya, several EU countries led by Britain and France, intervened militarily in the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi and helped overthrow him, but then they failed to provide the necessary political and economic support which might have preventing the country collapsing into the anarchy the people smugglers are now exploiting to use the country to funnel migrants across the Mediterranean.

So as things stand, EU countries are in a bind partly of their own making.

The migrants keep coming and popular resentment of immigrants in an economically stagnant Europe keeps growing and is fanned by populist parties like the FN in France and UKIP in Britain which attract support away from established parties by calling for a tougher line on immigration and cuts in foreign aid.

Assuming governments still have the will, this means the political room to enable a long-term answer to the problem – supporting economic development in neighbouring countries – is shrinking.

And the attempt by EU governments to discourage migrants last year by scaling down the effort to rescue boats in trouble has proved no deterrent to would-be migrants.

In the short term, it is likely that media coverage and UN criticism of the rising death toll will force those governments to return to helping the Italians rescue more migrants – which is the humane thing to do, but does nothing to help reach a lasting solution.

Beware of Greeks …

A recent re-watching of the movie ‘Troy” got me thinking about the stand off over debt between the modern Greeks and the EU.

The film portrays the Greeks as a vainglorious bunch who have to resort to deceit to take and sack Troy.

Whether or not this is a misreading of Homer, I was left asking myself why, if the Trojans are so guilty of hubris and fated to get their comeuppance, the Greeks needed to employ tricks to win.

But maybe that is the way the Greeks are themselves fated to be portrayed.

Some commentary this week has characterised Greek Prime Minister Tsipras’s trip to Moscow as a ploy to put pressure on the rest of the EU to be more receptive to demands to renegotiate his country’s bailout.

The timing of the visit around Orthodox Easter was a gesture to the historic links between Greece and Russia and an unwelcome reminder to Germany in particular that Athens could prove awkward for the EU beyond wanting to ease its debt burden at Berlin’s expense.

But, however justified Mr Tsipras may be in undertaking his Russian visit or calling for Germany to pay reparations for its World War Two occupation of Greece, he may be underestimating the long pedigree of distrust with which his country is perceived going back to the story of Troy and long pedigree of the adage “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.

Greece’s EU partners are in no mood to give the Syriza-led government in Athens a win in the debt talks because they have much to lose – whether they are creditor governments like Germany or debtor governments like Spain’s which has implemented deep spending cuts and faces a similarly popular anti-austerity party, Podemos, in elections later this year.

By extension, is it going too far – as this piece does – to suggest that it is in the interest of the supporters of austerity that Syriza fail, and be seen to fail, to deliver on its promise to the Greek electorate, so voters elsewhere don’t follow their example?

If this is so, it isn’t the first time Greece has been held up as a negative example to keep others in line.

In the Italian historian Claudio Pavone’s epic account of the 1943-45 partisan war against the German occupation and its client fascist republican regime in northern Italy, Una guerra civile, he argues the Greek experience was used effectively as a negative example to the Italian resistance.

In Greece, the communist-led resistance against German occupation mutated into a civil war after the Nazi withdrawal in 1944 and fighting broke out between the communists and British forces backing the new government in Athens.

In Italy, the Communists were also a leading force in the resistance, but despite their admiration for their Greek comrades, they didn’t come to blows with the British, Americans and the forces of the new royalist Italian government who were advancing north to push the Germans out of Italy. One of things that held them back was the prospect of civil war “a la Grecque” being used as an effective deterrent by the more right-wing resistance groups.

And the deterrence of the Greek experience seems to retain its potency today.

The brinkmanship being employed by Mr Tsipras and his Syriza colleagues doesn’t seem to be working as the rest of the Eurozone has remained united – and is indulging in brinkmanship of its own, giving Athens six days to come up with acceptable proposals for an extension of funding.

Financial leverage has been added to diplomatic pressure with the European Central Bank restricting the ability of Greece to raise emergency cash while international investors and wealthy Greeks withdraw their money.

In a few short months, things have moved from a position under the previous conservative New Democracy government, which was being praised for restoring confidence in the Greek economy, to the current financial crisis facing the left-wing Syriza administration.

So it looks like the odds are stacked against Athens in the coming days as it plays a hand weakened not only by the mismanagement of Greece’s finances in recent years, but also the historically and culturally ingrained distrust of its European partners.

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