Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for October, 2016

London and Edinburgh on collision course

 

The phoney peace is over.

When Theresa May assumed the prime ministership, one of the first trips – not for now a foreign visit – she made was to Edinburgh for talks on Brexit with First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Now it’s Sturgeon’s turn to come to London for talks with Mrs May along with the leaders of the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.

When May went to Scotland it was all smiles and emollience from the new Tory leader –a wise move given Scots had voted to remain in the EU by a much wider margin than England and Wales voted to leave in the referendum a few weeks before.

It was no secret that many supporters of independence would now push for another Scottish referendum to prevent their country being dragged out of the EU against its will.

Twenty six months ago – yes time does fly – at the time of what was known as the Indyref, the supporters of Scotland staying in the Union with England had argued the country could only ensure it stayed in the EU if it remained in the UK

Many at the time, including myself, thought this was a hostage to fortune.

Prime Minister Cameron had already committed to hold the vote on Europe if he won the 2015 UK general election – and – as we’ve now seen – he could not guarantee an EU referendum would see a victory for what would become known as Remain.

The Scottish National Party had also foreseen this possibility and kept their options open on holding a second independence referendum by running for the Scottish parliament elections in May this year on a manifesto reserving the right to call a second referendum in event of a vote to leave the EU.

So when May met Sturgeon in Edinburgh she promised to listen and consult over Brexit, while Sturgeon largely kept her powder dry taking a wait and see approach to how the new UK leader would handle Brexit.

Two months and a Conservative Party conference later, it is clear Theresa May is veering towards a comprehensive break with the EU – hard Brexit – with pledges to restrict immigration and no guarantee of continued preferential access to the single market or possibly even the customs union.

There also seems to have been precious little listening and consultation with the Scottish Government either, despite strong legal arguments that Holyrood needs to consent to the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act.

In response, and probably reluctantly (despite what the London media and Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson might say), Nicola Sturgeon has started the process to legislate for another vote in Scotland on the whether to end the Union with England.

Number 10 sources have made clear May will block this.

The 2014 Scottish vote was legislated for by Westminster following an agreement between David Cameron and then First Minister, Alex Salmond, and clearly Cameron’s successor thinks she can veto another vote by refusing to pass the necessary legislation.

Mrs May might think this would be legally sound, but unless she wantes to boost support for independence in Scotland and provoke a constitutional crisis it wouldn’t be a wise course of action.

And the spin ahead of this week’s meeting in London, with May in danger of sounding patronising, is unlikely to help her convince Scots she really takes their concerns seriously.

The change from the cuddly rhetoric of listening and consulting to the ‘we’ll make the decisions on Brexit’ and dismissal of the SNP’s democratic mandate to consider calling a second referendum also indicate something else Scots are unlikely to miss.

It seems Theresa May doesn’t consider The Union a true union of equals – flying in the face of the rhetoric from London ahead of the Scottish referendum and the history of how the two countries came to form the UK in the eighteenth century.

But one thing is clear – the gloves are off and we seem set on course for a showdown over whether Scotland remains in the EU rather than the UK.

The unionist media in London and Scotland already seem to believe this is coming and have settled upon Scots Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, as the leader of the anti-independence campaign when the next indyref comes.

She is being given extensive coverage, much of it fawning, on the back of leading the Tories to second place in the Scottish election in May.

I’m not sure this is either justified or wise.

Yes, she led the Tories to their best ever result at a Scottish parliament election with 22% of the vote, but only seven of her MSPs were directly elected from constituencies rather than via the proportional vote for the regional lists.

It’s also worth noting she ran by downplaying her Tory credentials and the Conservatives only won one seat in Scotland at the 2015 UK election

Pro-independence supporters are also already exposing Ms Davidson’s Achilles heel – she is the leader in Scotland of the party that called and lost the Brexit vote which, as things stand, will take Scots out of the EU against their will.

On her side, First Minister Sturgeon is also on less than ideal political ground.

She has made clear she would not want to have another independence vote until it was clear she would win it and, at the moment, the limited opinion polling that’s been done since June 23rd doesn’t suggest a big shift has yet occurred since 2014.

It is very possible that once Article 50 is invoked and talks between London and Brussels get under way – probably next spring – the long-term economic damage from leaving the EU will be clearer and it will focus Scottish voters’ minds.

But Article 50 imposes a timetable on Sturgeon not of her choosing.

A second independence referendum would need to be held before the UK leaves the EU to improve the chances Scotland could remain with the minimum disruption.

All of this means tension between London and Edinburgh will intensify and a second indyef becomes a good bet.

Given the demographics of the first vote and the continued vibrancy of the pro-independence movement, it was already likely there would be a second bite of the cherry for supporters of Scottish independence.

Now, the Brexit vote and – as importantly – the way the government in London is approaching the upcoming talks with the rest of the EU are bringing the end of the United Kingdom ever closer.

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Too much Russia on their minds

In recent weeks you could be forgiven for thinking we were back in the early eighties at the height of the Reagan/Thatcher era’s talking up of the threat from Moscow.

The renewed Russian and Syrian assault on rebel-held east Aleppo and the images of destruction getting out and into western media has stimulated what can only be described as Russophobia to reach new heights, stoked as it is by Washington and London with many journalists and commentators in tow.

The charge list against the Kremlin is long and growing all the time.

President Putin is accused of a litany of wrongdoing from war crimes in Syria and Ukraine to attempting to subvert the US presidential election and funding Europe’s anti-EU populist parties.

Then there are the reports of actions that would be routine and barely worthy of comment if they were being done by the US – carrying out military flights close to other countries’ airspace, basing bombers in the Russian Far East to patrol the Pacific or test launching missiles from submarines – which are being given media prominence.

Historians can point to a long pedigree for Russophobia, and in Britain it long predated the 1917 Revolution, the rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

Even though Moscow and London ended up on the same side in the two world wars and during the 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR, Russia was discounted as a weak, declining country of little consequence, the “Russian bear” has generally been portrayed as a rival and a threat in Britain since the imperial rivalry of the nineteenth century – by both politicians and journalists.

Of course, the current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is a journalist who went into politics and perhaps that explains his suggestion last week that people should protest about Syria outside the Russian embassy in London – a suggestion that indicates he still has to learn he’s no longer a practitioner of what one former diplomat joked to me is the journalist’s vice – the exercise of power without responsibility.

In the case of the assault on Aleppo, there is truth in the accusation that the bombing is being carried out without much concern for civilian casualties.

But while it may allow the politicians, like Johnson,  and media commentators to indulge in righteous indignation and – one suspects – to revel a bit in a feeling of moral superiority, it doesn’t make for good policy or a long-term solution to the war in Syria and the growing impasse in relations between the West and Russia.

The former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, allowed his sense outrage to get the better of his judgement when he went on the BBC to call for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Syria – an act which would almost certainly mean going to war with Russia, something no serious western politician has any intention of doing.

Indignation can be constructive.

It can galvanise people to take action to prevent humanitarian abuses or to end armed conflicts where unwitting civilians are caught in the middle.

But selective indignation is counter-productive.

Undermined – as it inevitably is – by hypocrisy and double standards that undermine its moral force.

Be it the British government’s condemnation of Russian action in Syria while remaining relatively quiet about Saudi action in Yemen, or that of supporters of the Stop the War coalition who tend to be muted in criticism of Russia while focusing their ire on the British and Americans over Iraq, Afghanistan and – indeed – Syria.

Or Russia’s condemnation of American and British recognition of Kosovo’s break away from Serbia while subsequently recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s declarations of independence from Georgia.

And that’s before you consider how both sides are capable of sowing disinformation and outright lies to gain advantage.

Remember Russia’s insistence its forces have not been involved in Ukraine or the American refusal to own up for launching a cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Moral suasion requires consistency to carry authority.

The old saying “people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones” isn’t a call to stay silent; but it should be taken as an invocation to avoid hypocrisy if you want your words and actions to carry weight.

Double standards have practical consequences.

As I’ve written elsewhere, they undermine the trust that’s needed between opposing sides if there’s to be much hope of settling the disputes driving conflicts from Ukraine to Syria.

 

 

 

 

An outward looking country – really?

As the government tries to work out what its approach to Brexit will be – and so far its mantra that it won’t give a running commentary seems to be designed as much to hide the lack of substance to its plans as it is to disguise its negotiating strategy – it’s insisting the UK will remain an outward-looking country.

This seems partly designed to counter the impression that may have been given by the vote to leave the EU that the English – and it is primarily the English – are turning their backs to the world.

It also seems designed to reassure investors and businesses and shore up confidence in the economy hit by a 15% devaluation in the pound since the referendum.

That fall may make exports cheaper, but it’s widely predicted to lead to an increase in inflation in an economy that imports more than it exports.

Despite all this, the message about an outward-looking country doesn’t seem to be hitting home.

It’s being drowned out in the inchoate debate – if that is not too strong a word – on what Britain’s post-Brexit place in the world should be.

That’s because there’s another message coming from the upper echelons of the government.

This came through loud and clear in the Prime Minister’s speeches and comments during the Conservative party conference last week.

It was added to by Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s promise to cut immigration and pressure business and universities to reduce the numbers of foreign employees and students, as well as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s pledge to cut the numbers of non-British doctors in the NHS.

They all seemed to be saying the same thing: foreigners are no longer welcome in the UK.

And the message doesn’t seem to be getting through just to prospective immigrants who maybe considering a move to the UK.

People who’ve come to Britain from other EU countries in good faith over the past 43 years are also feeling uneasy now they’re openly being used as a potential Brexit bargaining chip.

International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, was caught on mic advocating this last week.

And Theresa May repeated it – in more veiled terms – at her meeting with her Danish counterpart in Copenhagen on Monday when she said: “I expect to be able to guarantee the legal rights of EU nationals already in the UK, so long as the British nationals living in Europe – countries who are member states – receive the same treatment” (my emphasis).

With all this, it’s tempting to treat the outward-looking country rhetoric as just that – rhetoric

And judging from social media many foreign residents in the UK have taken from all this that they aren’t really welcome any more.

Of course, May, Rudd and Hunt were all in the Remain camp – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – before the referendum, so you can understand if, politically, they feel they need to convince the Tory grassroots and the 52% of voters who backed Leave that they are the people to deliver Brexit.

And paradoxically, it is leading Brexiteers, like Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, who have talked most about the country’s future being an outward-looking one.

But, the rest of the world could be forgiven for missing this when the message from the very top of government is dominated by an expressed intention to keep foreigners out of workplaces, universities and hospitals.

In the face of protests from business, the government has partly rolled back on its proposal that firms report on the numbers of foreigners they employ – they now say firms will have to report them, but the numbers won’t be made public.

If Mrs May and her cabinet colleagues want to dispel the impression they’ve given that post-Brexit Britain is far from being an outward-looking country, they’re going to have to work a bit harder.

They could start by unequivocally guaranteeing that all the people who’ve already come to the UK from other EU countries to live and work are very welcome and there’s no question they could be forced to leave if London doesn’t get what it wants in the upcoming talks.

They also need to bear in mind that 48% of voters opted to remain in the EU on June 23rd and part of why they did so was because they do want to live in an outward-looking country.

 

 

UK development aid: money (literally) well spent

Since taking up her post a few months ago, Britain’s new International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, has been talking up how she’s going to crackdown on waste and fraud in the way her budget is spent.

In her first speech to a Tory party conference as Secretary of State yesterday, she continued in this vein,  promising to “follow the money” to root out waste and corruption.

A laudable ambition which no one can argue with.

But what constitutes “waste” seems to depend quite a bit on your overall view of aid.

Critics of the amount the UK spends on aid – and last year the Department for International Development, DFID, spent just over £10 billion – seem to define waste as spending on things they disapprove of.

Popular tabloids, like the Mail, which has run a campaign to reduce the amount spent on development aid, and the Express, for instance, highlight stories about what they describe as money being squandered on trivial things.

Fraud, on the other hand, is something where it’s easier for everyone to agree on a definition.

So please bear with me, as a look at some statistics tells an interesting story.

Last year, figures recently released by DFID show £1.04 million of spending was lost to fraud.

That works out at 0.0104% of the budget.

Compare that with the rest of government spending.

With a little digging, I turned up fraud figures from 2013/14 financial year which show that of total government spending, 5.5% was lost to dishonest activity.

This was in a year when DFID’s figures show it lost 0.0076% of its spend in this way.

If you compare that to the NHS for the same year, fraud cost the health service 1.97% of its spending, while the proportion for Whitehall as a whole was 3.72%.

Now, one penny lost to fraud is clearly one penny too much.

But these figures suggest DFID does a relatively rigorous job of ensuring its budget is spent honestly – which is even more impressive when you consider most of it is given to international organisations, NGOs and other governments who actually control the day to day spending of the money.

Ask any NGO or international organisation about the detailed monitoring and reporting they are required to do by DFID – a perspective you rarely hear from the critics who highlight misuse of the aid budget.

That said; is aid fraud a growing problem?

The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted from the percentages above that the amount of aid money identified as lost to fraud has gone up over the past two years – in cash terms it has risen from £772,000 to £1,040,000.

On the surface that looks like a growing problem.

But as with many statistics, this needs to be seen in context.

The apparent growth in fraud can be largely put down to more effective detection and reporting of the problem. So, rather than the problem getting worse, it seems DFID is getting better at spotting it – the department says the higher figure is a result of heightened scrutiny by its staff and its counter fraud unit.

Of course, that hasn’t prevented sensational headlines such as “40% leap in foreign aid cash stolen by fraudsters”.

Such reporting helps to reinforce public’s scepticism about spending their taxes on development aid.

This is a pity.

The reality is Britain’s aid budget is among the most transparent and least vulnerable to fraud across government.

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