Sunday, April 13, 2014

Commenting on news items

This blog seems to have very tolerant readers. I can understand them not complaining about the paucity of posts - a blessing in disguise to many - but not even mentioning the Brexit Prize and why have I not said anything about it is tolerance beyond what I can really expect. The reason is quite simple: I have not had time to read the winning three entries and do not feel qualified to comment on them until I do so, which will happen very soon.

In the meantime, I noticed a couple of items in the media, which made me snort with disgust and then laugh. The first was, naturally enough, Ed Miliband's sudden conversion to Judaism from the previous secular atheism and his announcement that he was hoping to become Britain's first Jewish Prime Minister. That would be the Ed Miliband who made some claims recently about the Labour Party being the party of One Nation, referring back specifically to Benjamin Disraeli who, as it happens, never used that phrase and was not interested in the concept.

What does he think Disraeli was? Clearly Mr Miliband has not ambitions to become a historically knowledgeable Prime Minister. (As it happens, I do not think he will become a Prime Minister of any kind but that is a separate issue.)

There is a good deal of discussion about whether Disraeli really was Jewish, having been baptized at the age of 12 and having been a practising Anglican in his adulthood. Well, yes, he was as Jewish as the completely secular atheist Ed Miliband, that is through his race and family. Furthermore, Judaism continued to be important to Disraeli, while Miliband has never referred to it until now. Does he really think this nonsense will win him the election?

The other item was Michael Rosen's Open Letter to the new Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, who, incidentally, will be the first Cabinet Member of Asian background. In it Mr Rosen casts doubt on Mr Javid's qualifications because, forsooth, he has not worked in culture but in banking for most of his life. So what does he know of culture? Well, the same might have been asked of T. S. Eliot who worked for some years in Lloyds Bank and, indeed, of a number of other writers and artists.

Guido Fawkes also points out that Rosen himself, apparently, thinks that he, a poet of moderate calibre (that is my view not Guido's) is entitled to have opinions about banking and pronounce them pompously in public.

My own view is that we do not need a Culture Secretary or a Department of State devoted to culture (or sport or media) and, therefore, that job is completely redundant. But if we are going to have somebody there it is much better to have someone who does not "work in culture" as Michael Rosen describes himself. The sign of a democracy, after all, is that civilians control all our the armed forces.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Happy 90th Birthday to Doris Day

One of my favourite singers and actresses here at the beginning of one of my favourite musicals.

Happy Birthday to one of the greatest.

That debate

I have a confession to make: I did not watch either of the Nick v. Nigel debates. Well, really, I couldn't, not having a TV set and having better things to do with my time. Yes, indeed, that patch of paint just was not going to dry without me watching it. Nor have I, as yet, read what the Boss had to say about the second debate on EUReferendum but I gather indirectly that he was rude about both participants. That, I am sure, will surprise those readers of this blog who have not read his analysis. I also gather that it is only the Farage supporters who have attacked him in return. The Cleggies don't care or don't read EURef.

It has not escaped my attention, though, that Mr Farage is deemed to  have won the debate with popular opinion going 2 to 1 in his favour. I have not seen the figures as to how many people actually watched either of the outings, especially the second one. Nor has it escaped my attention that there are calls for Mr Farage to be included in whatever TV extravaganza there will be in 2015 during the election campaign and for the Conservatives to do a deal with him rather than Mr Clegg.

To both of which Mr Cameron can reply with one argument: as long as UKIP has no MPs doing a deal with them is a meaningless concept and why should their leader be part of that TV debate, rather than the Greens (one MP) or George Galloway (himself an MP).

All that is, however, in the future. For the moment I remain underwhelmed for two reasons. One is that I have yet to see any evidence that anybody outside the Westminster bubble, which includes the media and political bloggers (guilty, as charged!), apart from a few political geeks and the entire membership of UKIP, cared enough to watch and express opinions.

Secondly, I happen to remember all those TV debates in 2010 that Nick Clegg was deemed to win hands down. (How David Cameron and whoever was the leader of the Labour Party must be laughing now!) There was, if you recall, much talk of a Lib-Dim surge on the back of that stellar performance, the only question being being whether they would come second or actually first.

We all know what happened. As I said at the time:
For, sadly, the Lib-Dims increased their share of the vote by a measly 1 per cent, lost five seats, did not take several seats they were confidently expected to do and did very badly in the local elections (not that it makes any difference). Their reward: places in the Cabinet and the Deputy Premiership for their incompetent leader.
I have said it before and, no doubt, shall say it again: until UKIP comes starts winning seats in the House of Commons or, at least, come close, they will remain marginal and all the brouhaha about their performance will remain irrelevant, no matter how many pictures, articles or blog postings there are about Nigel Farage, who, I gather, is about to celebrate his 50th birthday at the Ritz. No, astonishingly enough, I was not invited.

Friday, March 28, 2014

That Brexit Prize

The IEA has announced the six finalists in the Brexit Prize and, sad to say, neither of the two for whom I was rooting is on it. The two were, naturally, the Boss and Jim Bennett, the godfather of Anglospherism, which, presumably, does not figure in the chosen short list, Rory Broomfield being more interested in the Commonwealth though his partner in crime, Iain Murray, is, so far as I know, an Anglospherist.

We need not despair: the Boss has blogged on the subject and here is his (and EUReferendum's) full submission. I have read it: it is now your turn. Enjoy yourselves.

As soon as I know where I can find Jim Bennett's submission, I shall post a link to that, too.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

За Вашу и Нашу Свободу - For Your Freedom and Ours

There are many problems with this blog (what blog, I hear you say, you call this occasional bit of flimsy posting a blog?) but the one thing I have never worried or felt uncertain about is the title, as I wrote in the very first posting. I was reminded again about its essential rightness on Monday when I attended an event of great interest at the Legatum Institute.

We watched They Chose Freedom, a film written and produced by the journalist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, who, as I have pointed out before, has written some of the most interesting and sensible articles about the situation in Ukraine and Russia in the last few months. The film follows, in four parts, the history of the Soviet dissident movement from its tentative beginnings in the 1950s to its supposed triumph in 1991 when the USSR collapsed at least partly because of the constant undermining of it by the dissidents with support from the West.

A crucial episode in that history took place in 1968: three days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia eight protesters,Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremliuga, Pavel Litvinov, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Viktor Fainberg, and Tatiana Baeva, decided to show the world or, at least, their own masters that there were some people in the Soviet Union who did not support the "fraternal assistance" so generously given to the people of Czechoslovakia. With a courage that few of us can even begin to understand they made some posters and went to the Red Square where they sat down at what the film kept referring to as the Place of Skulls that is Lobnoye Mesto, the place of past executions, and unfurled them for all to see.

The demonstration did not last long: they were surrounded by KGB men, badly beaten, and marched off to the Lubyanka. The subsequent trial created a sensation abroad; some were sentenced to hard labour, some to internal exile and two, Gorbanevskaya and Fainberg, were incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, the first of many dissidents to whom this was going to happen.

One of the posters,held by Pavel Litvinov, also interviewed in the film, had those words on it: За Вашу и Нашу Свободу (For Your Freedom and Ours). An important moment in the fight for freedom in the Soviet Union, the Communist world and Russia.

Despite the film consisting largely of interviews with a few short news reels inserted here and there, it was fascinating to all, those who could remember and those who have merely heard about the long struggle.

Then we came to the last section, sadly and predictably entitled History Repeats Itself?. Is history repeating itself in Russia? Well, not precisely, not even as a farce, thought an analysis of that will require several long postings but it is undoubtedly true that the high hopes of the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the lowering of the Red Flag and raising of the Russian tricolour, of the defeat of the 1991 coup, were soured in very short order. One reason, I have told some of my Russian oppositionist friends in London, why it is difficult to get people in Britain to support their events and demonstrations is the widespread feeling that there is no point in it: whatever happens Russia will end up with a nasty dictatorship that is oppressive, aggressive and economically illiterate. Thankfully for all concerned, Putin is no Stalin but then the Russia of today with its economic problems, its low birthrate and ever lower life expectancy as well as the high level of emigration is not the Soviet Union either, merely its echo, dangerous because it is so angry in its powerlessness.

The discussion afterwards with Vladimir Kara-Murza and Vladimir Bukovsky was considerably less interesting than the film though it revolved round the present situation. What hope is there for Russia was the gist of much of the discussion and the responses were various with the two speakers sometimes agreeing but more often contradicting each other or even themselves.

Some things are clear. It is no longer eight people but 50,000 who come out to demonstrate against Russian aggression as we saw in Moscow over Ukraine and Crimea; people are ready to come out in their thousands to demonstrate against what they see, rightly, as fraud in elections; oppositionists appear to be winning against the apparently mighty Putin government, who, in return, snarls and constrains ever more what is left of the independent media. And yet, there is a feeling that this is not going anywhere.

The fourth part of the film mourned the fact that while in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Czechoslovakia, there was a real regime change and dissident leaders came to power (sadly both Lech Wałesa and Václav Havel turned out to be of considerably less use as political leaders than as dissidents), in Russia the same apparatchiks took over with, as the film did not mention, a number of the old security services and their families becoming the first beneficiaries of privatization. A few dissidents were allowed to sit in the new parliament or accompany Boris Yeltsin on his trips abroad where he garnered the West's applause. Not to put too fine a point on it, the dissidents were had and a number of those interviewed in the film said so.

There are many reasons why post-Communist history developed differently in different countries (yet more postings are needed) but one opinion is ever more frequently voiced and it upsets some Russians. In particular, it upsets Vladimir Kara-Murza. Russians, one hears it over and over again, do not have democracy in their DNA. Mr Kara-Murza considers that insulting as well he might. How can a culture that produced the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky not have democracy in its DNA, he asked rhetorically. It is, of course, irrelevant comments like that, which make one feel that, regardless of DNA, there is no real understanding of what democracy might be in Russia and among Russians. (To be absolutely fair, that problem arises in countries that have had some form of democracy for many years as well.)

What, one might ask, has the existence of great writers who flourished under an authoritarian system and who, for different reasons, had no time at all for democracy, to do with that political system and whether the people have it in their DNA or not. So far as I know nobody asked it, being far too polite.

Mr Kara-Murza's other argument was slightly more weighty. Look at the three more or less free elections Russia has had, in 1906, in 1917 and in 1991. The results, according to him, proved that Russians, when given a chance, vote against tyranny. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper, to quote Evelyn Waugh's great novel, Scoop. Who, one has to ask, is it who makes sure that Russians get so few chances to have anything resembling a free election?

Of the three elections cited, it was only the first one, in 1906 that could be said to have inaugurated a period of rapid development in that country, in political and economic terms, but that was only partially because of the Duma elections that did, indeed, result in a victory by the liberal Cadet party. There were many reasons why that happened, not least the fact that some socialist parties boycotted the whole process. In any case, subsequent Dumas were elected under greater government control. Nevertheless, the period 1906 to 1914 did see a growth in freedom in Russia, not just in the Duma but in local government (zemstvos), newspapers and publishing, the existence of political parties and a rapid development in privately held and controlled business. Prime Minister Stolypin's reforms tried to change the whole concept of land ownership, which, had the process been allowed to run its course, would have changed Russia for ever. In other words, elections matter less than many other factors and it is these factors that were missing both in 1917 and in 1991; they are missing still, though a great part of the economy is now in private hands.

The 1917 elections took place after the Bolshevik coup and were, therefore, hardly free, what with Cadet politicians being murdered and meetings broken up. Nevertheless, it is true that the Bolsheviks did not win, the Socialist Revolutionaries did by a large percentage. Mr Kara-Murza did not mention this as he would have had to explain that, as a matter of fact, the SRs were not exactly great believers in democracy or freedom either. In any case, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved by the Bolsheviks after a day and a half and that was the end of that for more than seven decades.

That leaves us with the 1991 Presidential election, one that many of us remember. Standing as an Independent, Boris Yeltsin won by a large percentage (though if one added up the votes cast for all the various Communist candidates, that percentage became somewhat smaller). It was, indeed, a vote against a Communist system and for a man who, though himself a former Communist apparatchik, seemed to stand up against that system, to represent the great Russian future.

As we know, the great hopes of the Yeltsin era shrivelled to nothing. There are many possible "what ifs" we can ask. What if Boris Nikolayevich had been a stronger person? What if the price of gas and oil, which was very low throughout those years, had been as high as they became under Putin, thus enabling Yeltsin or the people around him to sort out the Russian economy  in the nineties? What if the speedy privatization, strongly insisted on by a number of Western advisers and implemented by a Russian politicians like Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais had not turned into a grab-as-you-can catastrophe but had been conducted in an orderly and legitimate fashion? What if so many of the so-called "democrats", that is supporters of Gaidar and others had not been seen as having their eyes on the main chance as well? And so on. The fact is, that many of those questions do lead us into the difficult territory of Russian attitudes to matters such as private property, legal protection for it and freedom under the law.

Somewhere in Vladimir Bukovsky's book about his life as a dissident, To Build a Castle, he discourses on the theme of why has it been so difficult to build a more or less free society in Russia. After all, he says, we Russians understand the concept of rights as well as anyone else. [I quote from memory.] Even when I read that book, soon after its publication, I thought "yes, so you do, and that has been proved on various occasions, but do you understand the concept of duty". Certainly the dissidents understood it very clearly and, one imagines, so do the present-day oppositionists as well as the people who go out on those demonstrations again and again, their duty to their conscience, to their country and, as Pavel Litvinov's poster proved, to other people.

We need to go beyond that, though, and ask ourselves whether there are any political ideas coming out of the oppositionist movement. There was a great deal of discussion of whether Putin has an ideology or merely some kind of a vague world view that he can offer to people inside or outside the country. There was no discussion of whether any of the oppositionist leaders have anything of the kind. I was going to ask about it but put my hand up too late as the Moderator decided to wind up the formal proceedings.

This was the problem with the dissidents, by and large. They knew very clearly what they were against but few had any ideas of what they wanted in its place. The ideas that did float around were contradictory and often rather weak. The one exception was presented by the Andrei Sakharov, who outlined some very cogent ideas that, if put into place, might well have placed Russia on a path to a democratic state with a strong legal structure. This, together with the dissidents' inability to form functional political parties, contributed to the unfortunate developments in Russia after 1991.

The problems is that I cannot see anything coming out of the oppositionist movement (in so far as there is one) that goes beyond the negative: largely demands for honesty in politics and economics and a destruction of the corrupt autocratic regime. Nothing wrong with that and we, in the West, are duty-bound to support those demands and those movements. But, suppose the regime collapsed as the Soviet one did? Which people, which organizations, which ideas would come to the fore?

Well, there are the National Bolsheviks in their various guises, all under the leadership of Eduard Limonov, who may be said to have some coherent ideas but as these consist of bits of those ideologies that destroyed millions of people in the twentieth century, they are not going to get a great deal of support even in Russia where political ideas are scarce. (At least one hopes so.) Apart from them, the only person who is slowly building up a sequence of ideas and actions, seems to be Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the man Putin was going to destroy a decade or so ago but who has clearly triumphed over the President. Will he become the new Alexander Herzen? As his appearances in Ukraine (where he spoke in Russian, incidentally, and was greeted with huge ovations) show, he is certainly one who understands the slogan "For Your Freedom And Ours".

ADDENDUM: Readers might find a couple of old postings interesting: this one about the Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya and this one at my old blogging home about a discussion on the subject of Samizdat at the Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tony Benn 1925 -2014

There is and will be in the next few days a great deal written about Tony Benn, a politician whom I still recall as something of a laughing stock as he went from one "radical" idea to another and also something of a danger though not for long. So I need not spend too much time either excoriating or praising him (mostly for living to a ripe old age and smoking a pipe, as I notice).

One person who would probably not agree with my slightly curmudgeonly comment is Paul Lay, editor of History Today, who has written an interesting blog on the subject, placing Benn a little tenuously in the Leveller tradition of English radical thinking. As Mr Lay points out, a good deal of more recent left-wing thinking in England comes from those, deeply conservative roots, rather than the later ideas promulgated by the French Revolution. As it happens, Tony Benn did not turn to the Levellers till after he had gone through his "technological" stage, when he tried to change a great deal in this country in his zealous support for Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology.

Full disclosure: not only do I know that church in Burford well, but I also attended some of the early commemorative meetings though I do not actually recall seeing Tony Benn there. Perhaps, he started attending later, after I had left Oxford.

That said, there are a couple more things to be said about Mr Benn who does seem to have produced in his mellow and benign old age an image of what we all think (well, some of us think) a politician should be for he was never actually a statesman.

Firstly, his one great achievement and that is his successful battle to allow hereditary peers to renounce their titles and so continue in the House of Commons. The Peerage Act 1963, however, had a slightly ironic consequence: whatever Anthony Wedgwood Benn (for he did not become Tony Benn till somewhat later in his more "working class" phase) had intended for himself, it was the 14th Earl Home, who used the new legislation to reject his peerage in October 1963 and to become the Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister as Sir Alec Douglas-Home who really benefited. I very much doubt Wedgwood Benn had foreseen that or was particularly pleased by that.

And so to Tony Benn's consistent and ideologically pure euroscepticism that began long before the word was invented. There can be no doubt about its sincerity or that he was motivated to a great extent by a love for Parliament and parliamentary democracy. He was also motivated by a fear that, once in the EEC, Britain would never become the socialist country he wanted it to be. That, together with his rather intimidating way of speaking (he was the original swivel-eyed loon before he became the benign elder statesman) meant that the BBC used him freely to scare people. It worked. Benn's participation in the NO campaign in the referendum of 1975 contributed to its heavy defeat.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A few additional comments

Is it not extraordinary how many people who would not be able to tell the difference between Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv, let alone place them on the map, have now become experts on Ukrainian matters? It takes all my time just to avoid having discussions with them as these can lead nowhere.

Rumours about what is going on in Crimea abound with the Kremlin insisting the troops moved in to protect Russian civilians though no evidence of any attacks has been offered. Plus there was this:
Russia's military has given Ukrainian forces in Crimea until dawn on Tuesday to surrender or face an assault, Ukrainian defence sources have said.

The head of Russia's Black Sea Fleet Aleksander Vitko set the deadline and also threatened two warships, Ukrainian officials said.

However, Interfax news agency later quoted a fleet spokesman who denied that any ultimatum had been issued.
Whom to believe? I suppose we shall know by tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile, here are a few links worthy following up. An interesting analysis by Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian history and security. Having written before that he did not think Putin would take the Crimea because that would not be in his interests, he is now wondering whether the man has actually gone too far to draw back.
What, one might ask, is Moscow’s endgame? What does it want, and how likely is it to get it. The more it radicalises Kyiv, the less likely it is to get some wider political settlement. Instead, it might be forced to take Crimea if for no other reason than that it has to be seen to accomplish something, even if this is a pyrrhic victory, one which will only hurt Russia.

Here, after all, is the perverse and twisted irony of the situation. Strictly from a coldly logical position (and I am not advocating this, I should add), in many ways it is in Kyiv’s interests for Moscow to steal Crimea, and turn it into some pseudo-state or new part of the Russian Federation. Ukraine loses a sunny peninsula, but also a distinct drain on the state’s coffers (the Crimean economy is not great, and the region receives net subsidies from the centre). It sheds the most troublesome and Russophile of its regions, one which has been a turbulent locus of trouble for Kyiv for most of post-Soviet Ukraine’s history. It also gets concrete proof of the threat it faces from Russian bullying and probably accelerated and solicitous assistance from the US, EU, NATO, etc. It also validates every Ukrainian fear about Russia.
The question "what is Moscow's endgame" has been asked with increasing bewilderment by many people who actually do know where all those Ukrainian cities are.

Vladimir Kara-Murza's piece is a few days old but is still worth reading though I suspect there is a certain amount of wishful thinking there. Also a reminder by Timothy Snyder, who has been writing the best informed articles on the subject, that rearranging borders, hardly an unknown event in history, is fraught with difficulties, not least because other people might get the same idea. In this case, China might decide something not dissimilar in Siberia.

So what else is happening? The UN Security Council is meeting as we speak and NATO intends to have another meeting tomorrow. The EU is sending various threats though the UK for one has announced that it has no intention of breaking business relations with Russia and, presumably, of denying various visas to people who had voted to give the President the right to send troops into Ukraine.

The market has reacted though, as Russia is not the Soviet Union and is not outside world economy and the market forces. The rouble has hit a new low and the value of stocks and shares on the Moscow stock exchange has plummeted. Again.

As it happens, there is another player on the scene, one with historic connection to Crimea and that is Turkey. Various members of the Turkish government have been calling for the continued existence of a united Ukraine and for a restoration of stability. According to the Foreign Ministry, Turkey will do everything possible to ensure that Crimea remains in Ukraine. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has visited Kyiv, and has held meetings with the acting President, various other politicians and Former Chairman of The Crimean Tatars National Assembly and Ukrainian Deputy Mustafa Abdulcemil Kirimoglu. Apparently, it was a closed meeting so anything could have been decided. Will Turkey suddenly emerge as the protector of the Crimean Tatars?