Saturday, April 25, 2015

Meanwhile ...

Posting has been even less frequent than usual as I am spending time in Budapest and discussions revolve round Hungarian politics, that puts our own problems into perspective. I might write about that when I get back to base. In the meantime, the city is as beautiful as ever, the sun shines, the food, wine and coffee are excellent and this evening I am going to a party at a newly opened hotel. On the rooftop, no less.

However, I did manage to pick up this story from Germany: Deputy chair of German anti-euro party resigns. It seems that the AfD is going the way of small parties all over the world: falling out amongst each other as the party does or does not change directions from the original intentions. (Oh dear, now what does that remind me of?)
The deputy chairman of the German eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) stepped down Thursday (23 April), officially over the leadership's handling of a scandal with one of its members.

In an interview with a German newspaper however, Hans-Olaf Henkel cited worries that “right-wing ideologues” are taking over the party.

Henkel told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the AfD party leadership should clearly state that it will keep course with its original goals - to dissolve the eurozone and keep Germany an EU member - and not become an anti-immigration party.

If there is no such clarification, “then the AfD will fall. That is my firm conviction”, said Henkel, who is an MEP.

During its two-year history, the young political party has been struggling to define itself.

When Henkel was elected to the European Parliament in May 2014, together with six other party members, there was some internal debate over which political group to join.

Henkel ruled out working together with the UK Independence Party, which wants the UK to leave the EU altogether. The seven AfD MEPs became members of the more mildly eurosceptic centre-right ECR group, which features mainly members of the British and Polish conservative parties.
Obviously, I hope that the AfD, which until now struck me as being reasonably sensible though, perhaps, not thinking far enough, will survive and flourish. It is my view and I have stated it often enough, that the survival of the European Union depends entirely on Germany and her attitude. Once the Germans and their leaders decide that the European project is not the right way forward it will be over though the fall-out is likely to be quite frightening unless we prepare.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Changes in Finland

It takes a great deal more knowledge about various aspects of the problem than most commentators have shown to write sensibly about the high tragedy that is going on in the Mediterranean. For the record I do not think it was particularly sensible of Nigel Farage to blame David Cameron not because this is "playing politics with people's lives" but because it was silly and unserious. As to playing politics, he is a politician so he plays politics.

In other words, this blog is for the time being, refraining from comments or analysis except to say that undoubtedly the EU will try to use this ghastly tragedy as a beneficent crisis and attempt to create another single or common policy out of it, though, so far as we know there already are various EU policies that are meant to deal with migration, legal or otherwise; undoubtedly the attempt will bog down in discussions about the policy and how it should benefit the EU until more migrants either appear on our shores or drown off them.

Instead, we turn to the far less dramatic events in Finland that, in the long term, may well have a greater effect on politics across Europe. Sadly, we have had tragedies with migrants before and apart from calls for all sorts of things in the EU and outside it, nothing much has changed.

The Finnish election brought in a new government, or will do just as soon as the coalition can be put together. The winners are the Centre Party, led by businessman and millionaire Juha Sipila.
Sipila's main concern will be to repair the Nordic country's spluttering economy, although the centrist politician told journalists on Sunday evening that “it will be about 10-year project to get Finland in shape again”.

“A combination of cuts, reforms and growth” is needed, he added.
As Tim Worstall points out on the Adam Smith Institute blog,
We think it’s fairly obvious that over the past decade the most successful economy in the eurozone has been that of Germany. And we also think it’s fairly obvious why this has been so, the so-called Hartz IV reforms. Which appears to be very much what the new Finnish likely Prime Minister believes in.
He quotes from an article in the Telegraph
Opposition Centre Party leader Juha Sipila, who advocates a wage freeze and spending cuts to regain Finland’s competitiveness, beat pro-EU and pro-NATO Prime Minister Alexander Stubb after four years of policy stagnation and a bickering coalition.
Not sure how NATO comes into it unless we are talking about the usual attempt by the europhiliacs to assure all and sundry that if you are not enamoured of their project you are clearly against every kind of international co-operation.

As Mr Sipila starts negotiations it will be very difficult for him to ignore the party that came second, the eurosceptic Finns Party (formerly known as True Finns).
[W]hile the populist anti-establishment party, led by Timo Soini, lost one of its seats, other parties lost more. Soini now leads the second-largest party in parliament, with 38 seats.
The party is anti-immigration but what is of greater importance for the immediate future is that it is against any more bail-outs for Greece and in favour, if needs be, of Grexit. As Mr Worstall says, Finnish politics has just become more interesting.

Happy 95th Birthday to Ljubo Sirc

Well, actually it was yesterday but a day here or there matters little when one reaches the grand old age of 95. Of course, people live longer these days and many more reach their nineties but, somehow, one expects them to be people whose lives have been more or less peaceful and only moderately difficult. When we come to Ljubo Sirc one has to say that it was not so but far from it.

Dr Sirc, who, I am proud to say, is a friend, has spent his whole life fighting tyranny and often undergoing serious privations. His Wiki entry sums things up but they bear repeating. Born into a well known and well off liberal family in Slovenia in 1920 (it was then part of Yugoslavia for readers who might justifiably be rather confused by Balkan history) Ljubo joined the anti-Nazi resistance, first in Switzerland then back home. He fought in what became the Yugoslav army in Dalmatia, Croatia and Slovenia until 1945.

Then the Communists took over (with a little bit of help from Western allies and Ljobo has many stories to tell about what happened to people who had also fought the Nazis but were not Communists and were handed over to Tito's mob by those allies). At first Tito announced that the new Yugoslavia would be a democracy, not a "people's democracy" and the idealistic young Sirc believed him. With liberal and social-democrat friends he set up a legal opposition.

In 1947 he and his colleagues as well as friends and family, including his elderly father, were arrested and interrogated with some asperity. I once wrote about the man who "interrogated" Ljubo, Mitja Ribicic, who from being torturer-in-chief went on to great things and was in the late sixties welcomed in Britain as an ally and a friend. (And just to demonstrate that I come from a family of troublemakers, here is a link to the article my father wrote in the Spectator in February 1970 about the fulsome welcome extended to Mitja the Murderer, which caused a certain amount of fluttering in the dovecots.)

Ljubo and the other misguided liberals and social-democrats who had imagined that Tito could even by accident speak the truth were tried in a show trial. He was sentenced to death but this was commuted to twenty years in prison of which he served seven, mostly in solitary confinement, reading and studying. Ironically, it was his gaolers at the highest level who empowered him: his knowledge of English was utilized and he was put to translate British and American economic literature for internal party use.

After his release Ljubo escaped to Italy and after various adventures ended up in Glasgow where he taught at the university for many years while also helping to organize resistance to Communism through political groups that professed liberal ideas. He was one of the people who collected and disseminated information about Communism, especially in Yugoslavia, which was viewed for rather murky reasons as being rather more liberal and pro-Western than the actual Soviet Empire.

In 1983 Dr Sirc, together with Ralph Harris (Lord Harris of High Cross) and Sir Anthony Fisher, founded the Centre for Research into Communist Economies (now Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies) of which he is still the President. A small think-tank with a tiny staff (well, one with a few helpers here and there) it has contributed more than bigger and better funded institutions to changes in Eastern Europe and, in the first place, Russia. Its influence is seen in the developments in many of the post-
Communist countries.

Ljubo also became involved in post-Communist and post-Yugoslav Slovenian politics and his activity was of great importance but he did not manage to revive his political career in the country though, again, his influence has been felt. The truth is that East European countries emerging from Communism did not welcome readily emigres who wanted to come back and take part in their politics. Donald Tusk in Poland is a notable exception.

I am happy to say that Ljubo Sirc continues to be active though these days the activity is less physical but as cerebral as before and has not given up his fight against tyranny and injustice, which involves telling the truth about some unpleasant aspects of the post-Communist regime in his native Slovenia and other countries around it. He also continues to enjoy the support, admiration and affection of his many friends and colleagues.

Happy Birthday, dear Ljubo. Many happy returns.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Hungarian politics is in a bit of a mess

As I plan to go to Hungary quite soon I have been following its politics with more interest than usual and have come to the conclusion that it is a bit of a mess. We have all heard that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been playing up to President Putin a bit, though I suspect his argument is that, given the energy situation, Hungary has no choice.

At the same time he seems not to be one of the very few European leaders who will be gracing the Mausoleum at the May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow. At least, I cannot find him listed anywhere either as one who is going or, come to think of it, as one who has refused to go. Has the man got lost in that famous revolving door?

Meanwhile, his and his party's popularity is waning but, it would appear, the popularity of the opposition Socialist Party, last seen hitting something pretty close rock bottom, is not rising. What we are getting are protest votes.

This seemed like an excellent idea some weeks ago when Prime Minister Orbán's "super majority" was broken by the election of an independent MP in a by-election in Veszprém. The man elected, Zoltán Kész may have been supported by some of the left-wing opponents of the present government but his views are liberal/libertarian, as I know, having met him and talked with him at length. Needless to say, I was delighted he managed to win, and to do so very handsomely if unexpectedly.
The election in Veszprém, a city southwest of Budapest, was won by Zoltán Kész, an independent candidate backed by left-wing parties. When counting of ballots finished late on Sunday night, Mr Kész, a 41-year old teacher, had won 42.66 per cent of votes cast, compared with 33.64 per cent for Lajos Némedi, candidate for the conservative Fidesz party.

Mr Kész’s victory was a surprise. A poll published in January showed him trailing Mr Nemedi — who promised to build an Olympic-sized swimming pool if elected — by 6 percentage points.
Today's news about another by-election, this time in Tapolca, is less encouraging. This time the highly unpleasant right-wing party, Jobbik, managed to win their first direct constituency election though only by the slenderest of majorities. I am not sure why the BBC thinks Tapolca is a key seat but it is of significance that there is now a directly elected Jobbik MP in the Hungarian Parliament. In the past, they were there because of an electoral system that is part first past the post and part list.

Does this mean that the Jobbik really are on their way to form a government in three years' time, as they claim? I really do not think so on present showing. Does this mean that Fidesz will find it necessary to adapt its policies to out-manoeuvre the far-right party? That is not impossible. But what it all does show very clearly that the present situation, with one party with a strong majority and an opposition that cannot present an acceptable alternative is likely to create chaos in a country like Hungary.

Yes, dear readers, it does matter. Remember that their government is also our government as long as we are all in the European Union.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Five years ago

Today is the fifth anniversary of the  crash of the TU-154 in Smolensk, killing all those on board among whom was the President of Poland Lech Kaczynski, his wife and a number of other high-placed military and civilian personnel. They were on their way to take part in a memorial to the victims of Katyn and the crash occurred close to that place. (This blog noted the event at the time.)

There is a good analysis on the BBC Russian Service about the situation with regards to the Smolensk crash at the moment. It is in Russian but if you ask Mr Google nicely he will translate it for you into gobbledygook masquerading as English. Anyway, it will be comprehensible.

On the whole opinion seems to be divided and, as it happens, I was told not so long ago by a Polish lady who lives and works in Britain that many people say that there is something odd about that crash. I pointed out that Russia had nothing to gain from killing Kaczynski who was going to sign an agreement after the Katyn memorial event and, in any case, even if he was not over-popular his death changed nothing. It's not that I cannot imagine the Russian government ordering his murder, I explained but there has to be a reason. The mass murder of Polish officers in 1940 was an eminently rational decision; the bringing down of the TU-154 was not.

For all of that there are many in Poland, particularly supporters of the Law and Justice Party. Others maintain that it was an accident, there being rather a lot of fog at the time. From the very beginning there were rumours that President Kaczynski who was known for high-handed actions and whom pilots disliked intensely insisted on the aeroplane landing where it did despite the dangerous situation.

This week the Polish radio station RMF FM broadcast hitherto unheard recordings from the pilot's cabin that supported that theory with journalists concluding that the President's aides were putting pressure on the pilot to begin his descent to the Smolensk aerodrome, Severny, despite the thick fog. Military prosecutors, on the other hand, pronounced the recording to be unreliable.

Meanwhile the investigation that is being conducted by the Polish military procurator has been extended for another six months. Meanwhile, the country has yet another tragedy to mourn. Anyone would think Polish history was not already full of them.

CORRECTION: I have been told by a journalist friend who has been working on the story that I made a mistake in this account. RMF FM did not broadcast the recordings. Only a "murky and ambiguous" text version was leaked to them, together with some unverified additions. The Polish military prosecutors have insisted that the RFM'a interpretations of the text are inaccurate and taken out of context.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why the hiatus?

Really it is all self-evident. Who could possibly be interested in what seems to me like the silliest election campaign I can recall though that may be just because I have blocked details of previous campaigns out? So silly and pointless has this one been that people are getting excited about Ed Miliband's rather silly and desperate comment about non-doms, especially since the tape of Ed Balls saying in January that such a reform would lose Britain a great deal of money. But, at least, people are saying, this is an issue to discuss rather than endless chewing over opinion polls that tell you nothing or yet more pictures of Nigel Farage looking ever more ridiculous.

I have to admit to not watching the preposterous 7-way debate; I do not think those debates have any significance in the UK system and to have seven party leaders up there made it all look even more of a farce than it was last time. I cannot help wondering whether Cameron insisted on the format for that very purpose. One thing has come out of it: the media and its audience have finally realized the Alex Salmond is not the Leader of the SNP and has not been for a while.

I am not impressed by Tony Blair's sudden intervention. One can see why the Labour Party might have thought that bringing on a leader who had, unusually for them, won three elections but those days are gone and there is little he can say that would appeal to anyone. Interestingly, it is usually the Conservatives who produce the dinosaurs like Ken Clarke or Malcolm Rifkind (ooops, no, maybe not him) and that never works either.

I hear tell (as no doubt do many of this blog's readers) that UKIP has once again abandoned the idea of target seats and decided to concentrate on South Thanet to get the Dear Leader into the Commons or, at the very least, prevent Craig McKinlay from getting there. (Farage and McKinlay go back a long way.) Not sure it will work: it did not in the last election and though the circumstances have changed one thing has not and that is the fact that our Nige is not a vote winner. Whenever I am told that he has the support of the overwhelming majority of this country (yes, indeed, there are people who say that though, to be fair, a good many UKIPers do not) I point to their so far lamentable electoral achievement and, in particular, Farage coming a bad third in what was billed as a two-horse race in 2010.

Things might change this time round but even if they do and even if the Dear Leader gets in that will give UKIP one seat and the only other one they can be certain of is Clacton.

That leaves the question of whether the Conservatives will win an outright majority or whether it will be another hung Parliament. Much to be said for either and all of it is very dull. For what it's worth I think at present that the Conservatives will have a small majority. But, as a previous Conservative Prime Minister once memorably said: "events, dear boy, events".

And that's enough election gumph. My next posting will be considerably more interesting.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

It all matters

Yesterday was rather varied in activity. I was interviewed on the BBC Russian Service about the last PMQ of this Parliament and about PMQs in general. The aim of all these interviews, I suspect, is to explain to the Russian audience (which is not as big as it used to be since the Russian Service was taken off short wave radio and left solely on the internet) about real Parliaments and real constitutionalism. I also suspect that most Russians know that what they have is a shame but the big question is to what extent and to whom that matters.

As far as I was concerned there was one benefit: for the first time in years I actually watched PMQ and very entertaining it was, too. When they are back, I should do it more often. It must be admitted (says she with gritted teeth) that the Boy-King did rather well and the Leader of the Opposition, one Ed Miliband, did not. It also struck me that the Labour MPs were a little subdued in their reaction to the proceedings. Make of that what you will.

Later on I went to the launch of a joint report by the Bow Group and a new Austrian think-tank, Die Österreichische Gesellschaft für Politikanalyse (ÖGP) on the subject of abuse, much of it physical, that Muslim women face in the UK. A Parallel World - Confronting the abuse of many Muslim women in Britain today was written by that doughty campaigner for human rights, Baroness Cox and is very well worth reading (though I should issue a warning about some of the accounts: they can be horrific). The link will lead you to a PDF version. There is also a very useful analysis of the situation with regards to Sharia courts and the Bill that Baroness Cox has been trying to put through Parliament for some years. (And an explanation of the difference between Sharia courts and Beth Din ones, a subject that I read up on when I was doing some research for the Baroness.)

Moving right along, I come to a few articles that were handed out after the launch. I thought they might interest readers of this blog. One was by another highly admirable and awesome (in the true sense of the word) woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, published in the Wall Street Journal last Saturday but, miraculously, freely available on the internet. It seems to be a summary of her latest book that was due out in the States earlier this week.

Her theme: Islam needs a Reformation very badly and it needs it now. Her arguments are, as ever cogent and I was particularly interested in her division of Muslims across the world into three distinct groups:
The first group is the most problematic. These are the fundamentalists who, when they say the Shahada, mean: “We must live by the strict letter of our creed.” They envision a regime based on Shariah, Islamic religious law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version. What is more, they take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else.

I shall call them Medina Muslims, in that they see the forcible imposition of Shariah as their religious duty. They aim not just to obey Muhammad’s teaching but also to emulate his warlike conduct after his move to Medina. Even if they do not themselves engage in violence, they do not hesitate to condone it.

It is Medina Muslims who call Jews and Christians “pigs and monkeys.” It is Medina Muslims who prescribe death for the crime of apostasy, death by stoning for adultery and hanging for homosexuality. It is Medina Muslims who put women in burqas and beat them if they leave their homes alone or if they are improperly veiled.

The second group—and the clear majority throughout the Muslim world—consists of Muslims who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence. I call them Mecca Muslims. Like devout Christians or Jews who attend religious services every day and abide by religious rules in what they eat and wear, Mecca Muslims focus on religious observance. I was born in Somalia and raised as a Mecca Muslim. So were the majority of Muslims from Casablanca to Jakarta.

Yet the Mecca Muslims have a problem: Their religious beliefs exist in an uneasy tension with modernity—the complex of economic, cultural and political innovations that not only reshaped the Western world but also dramatically transformed the developing world as the West exported it. The rational, secular and individualistic values of modernity are fundamentally corrosive of traditional societies, especially hierarchies based on gender, age and inherited status.

Trapped between two worlds of belief and experience, these Muslims are engaged in a daily struggle to adhere to Islam in the context of a society that challenges their values and beliefs at every turn. Many are able to resolve this tension only by withdrawing into self-enclosed (and increasingly self-governing) enclaves. This is called cocooning, a practice whereby Muslim immigrants attempt to wall off outside influences, permitting only an Islamic education for their children and disengaging from the wider non-Muslim community.

It is my hope to engage this second group of Muslims—those closer to Mecca than to Medina—in a dialogue about the meaning and practice of their faith. I recognize that these Muslims are not likely to heed a call for doctrinal reformation from someone they regard as an apostate and infidel. But they may reconsider if I can persuade them to think of me not as an apostate but as a heretic: one of a growing number of people born into Islam who have sought to think critically about the faith we were raised in. It is with this third group—only a few of whom have left Islam altogether—that I would now identify myself.

These are the Muslim dissidents. A few of us have been forced by experience to conclude that we could not continue to be believers; yet we remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future. The majority of dissidents are reforming believers—among them clerics who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.
Not being an Islamic scholar I cannot pronounce on the theological problems she raises but I have listened to a sufficient number of such people to realize that the article simplifies those problems somewhat. It is obvious even to a non-expert that a closer analysis of the Quran and the Haditha are needed for that Reformation to take place; it is also true that such analyses are taking place despite the fact that the people who are carrying them out are in some danger but, so far, the results are little known.

What we, outsiders, need to do and Ms Hirsi Ali says so in her article (also very well worth reading in full and is considerably less stressful than the pamphlet) is to support people who are willing to risk much to spread ideas of freedom and reform in the Muslim world.

And that brings me to the problem we are facing with our own officials and Ministers who have, on the whole, aligned themselves on the wrong side of this debate though there is some indication that they are beginning to realize that.

Two more articles, one published in the Sunday Telegraph on February 22 and a more recent one on Lapidomedia. The latter, by Dominik Lemanski, may well have taken the former, by Andrew Gilligan as the basis with some extra research added.

Andrew Gilligan's article is entitled Islamic 'radicals' at the heart of Whitehall and puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of Baroness Warsi who allowed entryism by people connected with radical Islamic groups into Whitehall and, particularly, the "cross-Government working group on anti-Muslim hatred".
Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim woman to sit in Cabinet, handed official posts to people linked to Islamist groups, including a man involved in an “unpleasant and bullying” campaign to win planning permission for the controversial London “megamosque” proposed by a fundamentalist Islamic sect.

He sits – alongside other radicals or former radicals and their allies – on a “cross-Government working group on anti-Muslim hatred” set up by Lady Warsi and Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister.

Some members of the group are using their seats at the table to urge that Whitehall work with Islamist and extremist-linked bodies, including one described by the Prime Minister as a “political front for the Muslim Brotherhood”. Some are also pressing to lift bans on foreign hate preachers from entering Britain, including Zakir Naik, who has stated that “every Muslim should be a terrorist”.

Fiyaz Mughal, a former member of the working group, told The Telegraph that he had resigned in protest at its activities. “I was deeply concerned about the kinds of groups some of the members had connections with, and some of the groups they were recommending be brought into government,” he said. “It seemed to me to be a form of entryism, by people with no track record in delivering projects.” Mr Mughal is head of Tell Mama, the national organisation for monitoring anti-Muslim attacks.

Another member said: “The working group was Sayeeda [Warsi]’s personal project and she was responsible for the appointments. There was very little transparency about who was put on.”

The working group, set up in 2012, has continued after Lady Warsi’s resignation last summer in protest at the Government’s “morally indefensible” policy on the Gaza crisis. It is based in Eric Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and includes officials from there, the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, the Department for Education, the Foreign Office and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Among its most prominent non-government members is Muddassar Ahmed, a former senior activist in the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), an extremist and anti-Semitic militant body which is banned from many universities as a hate group.

During Mr Ahmed’s time, MPAC campaigned heavily against “Zionist” MPs, in particular Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, and Lorna Fitzsimons, the former Labour MP for Rochdale. She lost her seat after MPAC sent thousands of leaflets to local Muslim voters saying they should sack her because she was “Jewish”. She is not Jewish. MPAC has stated that Muslims are “at war” and that “every Muslim who does not participate in that war is committing a major sin”.
Mr Ahmed maintains that his MPAC days are long over and he had nothing to do with various unpleasant events that his present PR company is supposed to have been connected and one might believe him. Nevertheless, one has to ask why he and people like him were singled out by Baroness Warsi for various appointments. Unfortunately, the evil that men (and women) do lives after them and the people promoted by the Baroness, herself seriously over-promoted as everyone knew all along, are still there and still active.

Dominik Lemanski raises the question whether it is the influence of Baroness Warsi's appointees that has pushed back the most recent decision on the Megamosque in Newham over which the battle has been going for a considerable number of years. Of course, I do not rule out the possibility that the decision has been pushed back for reasons of political pusillanimity.