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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Travel can broaden the mind

It never ceases to amaze me how much travelling members of both Houses of Parliament do. Whenever there is a debate about foreign parts in the House of Lords, there are numerous peers who have just come back from those parts or parts not too far from there. Sometimes this means they actually know a little more about the parts they have come back from, sometimes they seem to have a memory of comfortable flights and nothing much more. In this they reflect the situation in the country at large and, particularly, the media.

On February 26 the Grand Committee discussed the European Union Association Agreements for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and, as one would expect, various speakers have recently come back from various places.

Lord Bowness had
just come back from the meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, where discussion about the situation in Ukraine dominated proceedings. However, deep concerns were also expressed about Russia’s intentions in respect of Moldova and Georgia—and the Baltic states, which are outside the area we are discussing.
The Earl of Sandwich
was in Georgia last July, just after the association agreement was signed, and I cannot underestimate the euphoria that there was, but of course I was among Ministers and people negotiating the agreement.
Interestingly, he noticed one big problem:
The Georgian Orthodox Church is not exactly of the same mind and I think it may lead them all downhill.
In fact, the Earl seems to have done his homework, which one has to admire, especially when one recalls that peers are paid no more than expenses and only when they are in the Chamber not when they are doing extra reading or research. (I have no idea who paid for his trip to Georgia.)
I note from the Explanatory Memorandum that the impact is very modest on the UK economy. The figure of £0.6 million is quoted. Perhaps the Minister could reassure me that this really is the bottom end of the range and that Georgia, if the situation remains stable, can expect a gradual improvement. I would also like to be reassured that there has been no further development on the Russian front in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is not a stable Government—there has already been a change of Minister since we were there—but I am very pleased to read in press reports of the solidarity there is between Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. They were, for example, at the celebration of the centenary events of the Maidan in Kiev. The Georgian President was invited, and I know that there has been a lot of exchange. I do not think that these association agreements need disturb the Russians unduly. We have moved on from last year and must all expect greater prosperity to follow from them.
Lord Balfe is a delegate to the Council of Europe, which necessitates some travelling back and forth and has long experience of the European Parliament, which may not be as useful as all that, which brings me to Baroness Ludford.

The noble lady, a stalwart europhiliac, an MEP of some years and a woman who can get hysterical on the subject of "climate change" made the following slightly surprising statement:
My Lords, I also thank my noble friend the Minister for her helpful introduction and explanation of the situation. I spent many years making EU law, but perhaps not so much time implementing it, and therefore I am not familiar with this process. Before moving on to other things, perhaps I could ask about the draft Explanatory Memorandum. It explains that one of the effects of the order, declaring that the agreement is to be regarded as an EU treaty under the ECA 1972, is that certain rights and obligations under the agreement automatically become law in the United Kingdom and then subordinate legislation can be made to give effect to the provisions of the agreement. I am not clear which rights and obligations automatically become law. It may be that the noble Baroness can take me aside at some point and explain how all this works, and that will clear my confusion.
She was, indeed, enlightened on the subject by Baroness Anelay in her responses to comments:
My noble friend Lady Ludford asked specifically about the procedural aspect, referring in particular to the Explanatory Memorandum, and which obligations are implemented and how. The European Communities Act 1972 provides the mechanism for implementing in UK law our obligations under an EU treaty, which is what the agreements become under these orders. That is the way in which the provisions of the agreement are given direct effect in UK law. Not every provision in the agreement would need to be the subject of legislation, but where we need legislation, which some parts may do, the order gives provision to that effect in UK law. This is about providing that kind of consistency.
For all of that, it is a little puzzling that the noble lady had spent all those years making EU law and has absolutely no idea how it affects member states and how it is implemented.

Monday, March 16, 2015

More about that common foreign policy

One of the most remarkable aspects of the entire Russian/Ukrainian/anyone else who is on the Russian border crisis has been the irrelevance of the EU as an entity. Undoubtedly that is why there are these strenuous efforts being made on both sides of the argument to talk up its role either as the initiator of one particular stage of the crisis (is that hysterical laughter I hear from the Kremlin?) or as the obvious solution to it (and that is definitely the sound of bemused silence).

So, assuming that for once the EU has some kind of an idea of what its policy is (a tall assumption) do we actually have countries falling into line with it? Well, no, since you ask, we don't.

There is the bizarre behaviour of the  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who is playing some kind of a convoluted game with Russia, the rest of the EU and his own people, relying, on assumes on that well-known Hungarian ability to come out ahead in a revolving door even if one went in behind someone. This may be a heresy but I have to admit that I am not sure that always works.

Then there is Greece that every now and then threatens to subvert the sanctions on the grounds that they do not like what the EU is doing to a fellow Orthodox country or because the Germans owe them reparations or because they are just feeling bloody-minded. None of these threats have actually come to anything yet.

Italy is making unhappy noises and, in connection with that let me point to an interesting piece of information in the recent House of Lords Report on the EU and Russia (ch. 2 para. 19):
The exposure of UK banks to Russia is fairly low at $14.2 billion, below that of France ($47.7 billion), Italy ($27.7 billion) and Germany ($17.7 billion), all of which have much smaller banking sectors.
Though there has been "a marked decrease in the exposure of European banks to Russia between the third quarter of 2013 and the second quarter of 2014", these are worrying figures for France and Italy.

We also have a problem with Cyprus. This was discussed in the House of Lords on March 10 when Lord Sharkey asked HMG
what discussions they have had with the Governments of the Republic of Cyprus and other European Union member states about the proposal to establish a Russian military base on Cyprus.
Well, indeed. An interesting problem in view of the EU trying to keep all its little soldiers in one box. Could it be that the member states do not think their interests are quite unanimous?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns replied:
My Lords, we have been and remain in regular discussion with the Republic of Cyprus about security and defence matters, and have been briefed on the agreement signed in Moscow. The Cypriot Government have assured us that these agreements represent a continuation of existing arrangements. We continually stress to our EU partners the need for EU unity in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Lord Sharkey's follow-up question was a little more pointed though, as a matter of courtesy, he ought to have thanked the Minister for her reply:
The fact is that, in return for debt relief, Cyprus has formalised an agreement to let Russian warships use its ports. There is also talk of use of an airbase at Paphos, which is 40 miles from our base at Akrotiri. President Putin has said that this deal should not cause any worries anywhere. Does the Minister agree with President Putin or does she agree with the United States State Department’s comment on the Cyprus deal that now is not the time to be doing business as normal with Russia?
Not quite, said the Minister:
My Lords, I have made it clear in this House before that it cannot be business as usual with Russia while it maintains its position over Ukraine, where it has illegally annexed the Crimea and intervened in another state’s sovereign lands. My noble friend refers to a situation in the Republic of Cyprus that I do not recognise. When speaking to Russian media, President Anastasiades explicitly ruled out the use of Limassol port for military purposes. Foreign Minister Kasoulides also said to the press, after the February EU Foreign Affairs Committee meeting in Brussels, that there was no question of Russian air or naval military bases on the soil of Cyprus. It is a continuation of existing agreements.
Subsequent comments referred to other countries that are falling out of line with no solution to the problem being proposed.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A good scene from a not so good film

It occurs to me that I have not had anything in my series of anti-Communist films for a little while. This one may be cheating a little not because the theme is not anti-Communist but because the film manged to get rid of that theme. You would not think that was possible with something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but they did it.

Both the book and the TV series (as well as a more recent radio series, I believe) dealt with the theme of Communist perfidy and treason in a reasonably straightforward fashion though the plot is anything but straightforward. Of all John le Carré's books this is morally the clearest and considerably better than the rest of the lamentable "Karla trilogy". On our side rough men might do bad things so that the rest of us sleep soundly but our side is infinitely preferable to theirs and traitors are contemptible.

Somehow, this message gets lost in the film, which seems to excise the Cold War from its plot and concentrates on personal matters, ignoring the different characters of the "three of them and Alleline" (a phrase that is never mentioned), making a huge mountain of the very slight homosexual theme in the book and changing the characters and stories of both Peter Gwillym and Jim Prideaux to an extraordinary degree without adding anything to the plot.

No, I did not like it, despite Gary Oldman's brilliant performance of Alec Guinness at the centre. The film was a huge wasted opportunity and at some later stage in this series we shall have to have a look at the now classic TV series.

There is, however, one magnificent scene in it: the Christmas party at the Circus, slightly spoilt by what somebody I know called a knee-trembler at the end but that does kind of fit in with the plot, Still, the rest of it is enjoyable.



    

Friday, March 13, 2015

All right, I shall have my say as well

I did my commenting about the latest Nigel Farage saga on the BBC Russia Service where I managed to add that I did not consider UKIP to be a right-wing party. Look at what they are proposing, I argued, it's pure socialism (an evil word in the Russian Service as one can imagine).

Still, probably, I ought to write a few words on the subject on this blog as well. For someone who has been involved in eurosceptic politics for over twenty (coming up to twenty-five) years and was co-founder of UKIP this is all very depressing and annoying. UKIP may be past salvation (though I would prefer to think that no political organization is ever) but what idiocy of this kind does to the whole eurosceptic movement and our chances in the referendum (when and if) does not bear contemplating.

Farage, the Dear Leader, insists that he made no racist comments and did not suggest that people should be encouraged to hire white people as against black or brown. To be fair, Channel 4 does not say he did. What they say is that he pronounced on the subject of the Race Relations legislation, throwing out the idea that it is now out of date and due for the scrap heap. It is hard to say how this came about. Was he asked a question? Did he volunteer the information? Was he talking, as it would appear from the story, about the original legislation of the mid-sixties or the more recent Equality legislation of 2010, which was an EU requirement and has caused a number of problems though not about race? I suppose, we shall have to wait for the airing of the programme to find out.

On the assumption the the report is more or less accurate and he was talking about the legislation of the sixties then one can say only that his statement that it is out of date is debatable. It may be, it may not be and, perhaps, it should be debated. But to imagine that it is somehow an issue of great importance to voters is fatuous. Those for whom this matters more than anything else have already decided to vote for UKIP or BNP or not to vote and they do not matter. People who are hesitating as to which way to vote are not going to be swayed by arguments about the Race Relations legislation of fifty years ago.

UKIP seems to be convinced that what they choose to call political correctness (a flexible concept in political discourse) is seen as a terribly oppressive burden by many people in this country who are just waiting for the chance to vote for a party that proudly opposes it. So far, they have been wrong on the subject and I suspect they will go on being wrong as they overestimate its importance or burden for most people.

Despite the grumbling, often from the usual suspects, about "political correctness gone wrong" I do not think open racism is a popular concept with the overwhelming majority of this country's population.

One of the points the interviewer made was that the fuss Farage's comments provoked show that politicians on both sides of the spectrum are afraid of him and his party. True, I said, but look at it another way. This will be a make or break election for UKIP and, especially, for Nigel Farage. The party has done well in the last couple of years and has had an enormous amount of publicity. True, the only two seats they have are those that were held by their previous representatives as Conservatives but, nevertheless, they are two seats in Westminster and there are all those seats in the Toy Parliament (though I must admit I cannot remember how many, what with all the comings and goings). For all of that, their support in the opinion polls has been steadily at 15 per cent and sometimes down to 13 per cent. That may not bring in any Westminster seats. Farage is clearly trying to up the game by making what he considers to be provocative statements. Will it work? We shall not know the answer till May 7.

Going on to the substantial part of the comments, it seems yet another anti-immigration sally, all I can say that there is a certain lack of logic there. On the one hand, our Nige has proclaimed that he wants legislation that will make it possible for firms to hire whom they want. Well and good. We all want that though the notion that left to themselves firms will always hire the best, regardless of race, gender or nationality is not entirely accurate. But I digress.

On the other hand, the Dear Leader and his party want the government to pass some legislation (ahem, even when we are out of the EU it will not be the government that will be passing legislation but Parliament) that will make firms discriminate in favour of British-born workers (an odd definition by itself) and, perhaps, make it illegal for them to advertise and hire foreign workers as long as there are unemployed British-born ones whether, one assumes, they are qualified to do the job in question or not.

Logical, this ain't. I return to my starting point. The damage this does to the eurosceptic arguments is unbelievably high.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

How much expertise did we have in the past?

The latest report from the House of Lords European Union Committee, The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine, has, quite justifiably, had a great deal of media attention. I wish more of those reports did - they tend to be very well researched and clearly argued. This one caught the media's attention because it was dealing with political events that are unfolding in an urgent manner and because it, again justifiably, criticized very strongly, indeed, the government, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Foreign Ministries of other EU member states and the EU itself, particularly the European External Action Service (EEAS). The immediate response from the FCO, which bleatingly tried to explain that nobody could have predicted anything merely proved that the report was accurate in its assessment of that institution.

There are various aspects to the report, which will need to be analyzed but, to start with, I should like to focus on something that has been repeated many times in the last few years as Russia morphed from a relatively friendly power (that was a long time ago) to an unfriendly and, more recently, completely hostile one: and that is that we, Britain as well as other EU member states no longer have the analytical capacity to understand what is going on there and to predict possible actions on that country's part.

In fact, Paragraph 62 states:
Sir Tony Brenton believed that UK diplomacy was "pretty good", but that it had "suffered because of a loss of language skills, particularly in the Foreign Office." This had had a direct effect on the capacity of the FCO to respond to recent events. There was "quite lot of complaint in Whitehall after the annexation of Crimea that the Foreign Office had not been able to give the sort of advice that was needed at the time."
Speaking as someone who used to teach Russian at the FCO I find that particularly shocking. Does he really mean that there are no longer people in that hallowed institution who can speak and read Russian and/or Ukrainian?

Sir Tony Brenton KCMG is, incidentally,former British Ambassador to Russia and Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and Mr John Lough, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, and I should dearly love to know how good his Russian is or was but I may be biased as I do not think I ever taught him.

There is a deal of truth in the assumption that knowledge has disappeared but not totally. There have been many non-government institutions in the last few years whose analysts have produced useful papers, articles and even the odd book, which predicted various scenarios not too dissimilar from the one we are watching now. Why exactly were these papers etc not read by our boffins in the FCO or the EEAS?

We know that the BBC Russian Service has been eviscerated and that has deprived the country of much knowledge but also of the capacity to respond to Russian propaganda. Certainly, attention both in the FCO and the various security services veered away from Russia as another threat seemed more urgent though how anyone could think since the 2008 war in Georgia that Russia was not a problem on the international scene is beyond my capacity to understand.

What I want to look at is the myth because that is what it is, in my opinion, that in the past we had this astonishing network of people in academia, in the foreign and diplomatic service, in the media who really understood what was going on in the Soviet Union and the Communist countries, could predict certain scenarios and plan for them.

Sadly, this is not my recollection and when I point this out to those who complain about the present state of affairs, they often agree with me. What I remember is academics who, with very few exceptions, asserted that the difference between the Soviet system and a western-style democracy was one of degree rather than anything more fundamental. How many times did I read or hear the comment that people do turn up for various meetings and take part in them and that proves that there is a democratic process of a kind going on. These were people who held and continued to hold academic posts.

The FCO and its minions as well as the well paid academics failed to predict many things, starting with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (my father was one of the very few who insisted that the Soviet Union could not and would not allow the so-called Communism with a human face to survive) all the way to the collapse of the Soviet Union, though it was becoming ever more probable as things disintegrated under Gorbachev's attempts to reinvigorate the system.

I am pleased to say that a highly regarded witness would probably agree with me, as is clear from Paragraph 57, which then goes on to suggest that things have got worse:
Mr Klaus recalled that there had been a historic asymmetry, whereby former communist countries "knew the West much more than you knew the East", and that this asymmetry remained. His Excellency Dr Revaz Gachechiladze, Georgian Ambassador to the UK, also noted that there was "not a good understanding of Russia in the West". Turning to recent events, Mr Lukyanov recalled that on the day of the Crimean referendum, when the question had already been announced, he continued to receive disbelieving calls from European diplomats saying: "'It cannot happen. It is just a bluff'." He warned us that with "this level of analysis, I am afraid that more surprises are to come, and not only from Russia." Dr Casier agreed that there was a "huge need for more knowledge about the local situation both in Russia and in the Eastern Partnership countries." This was where "we have to build much stronger analytical capacity." Dr Casier pointed out that President Yanukovych's decision not to sign the Association Agreement (AA) "had been the subject of speculation in the Ukrainian press long before he announced his decision, but took the EU by total surprise."
While I am not sure about that asymmetry former President Klaus talks about (the Communist countries got many things wrong as well) I certainly recall the willful blindness of the West.

Randomly, I recall arguments with young ambitious academics who insisted that the way forward was to make friends with various Soviet representatives here, listen to them in a friendly fashion and use their statements as material. Some of these had been students of the great Professor Leonard Schapiro and were openly exultant in the fact that they took a very different stance and attitude from his. (The fact that he knew what he was talking about did not bother them - the man was a back number and his students, who took that very different route, were taking over.)

I recall a very public spat (in the columns of the Times Literary Supplement, no less) with a very eminent Oxford academic whose name, for the moment and with gritted teeth, I am going to keep quiet who was arguing that the Communist system under Gorbachev was evolving  into something resembling an open, democratic society. One of my several arguments against that was that the Soviet Union was the only one of the more or less developed countries that refused to allow hostile critics into the country. Not so, argued my opponent, they do sometimes refuse entry to people who might have family connections in the present or the past but otherwise they are very open.

Of course, people with family connections may well speak the language well and can find their way around the place and the system without any official help, which may be the reason why they were not allowed in, a problem that did not bother the eminent academic in the slightest. Nor did he seem perturbed by the fact that he could research and study only carefully vetted material.

One more recollection. During my time of teaching Russian in the FCO one of my tasks was to help people who had been seconded to the Cabinet Office but were about to be sent to the USSR to revive their knowledge of the language. Although this was taking place in 1990 - 1991 there was no suggestion that anyone in the FCO was thinking about the possibility that the Soviet Union would not last.

In February 1991, as some readers will recall, John Major visited the Soviet Union and had meetings with President Gorbachev, Lithuania President Landsbergis but not Yeltsin who had, by this time "elected chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), in spite of the fact that Gorbachev personally pleaded with the Russian deputies not to select Yeltsin". In effect he was the President of Russia and as the Soviet Union was on its last legs, he was going to head the largest and most important of the successor states.

Why, I asked one of my students, fresh from his stint with the Cabinet Office, in our Russian discussion of politics and related matters, did Mr Major not meet Boris Yeltsin? I was told that there had been a great deal of heart searching in the FCO and it was decided by all those highly intelligent and knowledgeable experts that it would be better if there was no official meeting between the two.

As I wrote in my obituary of President Yeltsin on my erstwhile blogging home:
In March 1989 Yeltsin was elected to the Soviet Parliament and in 1990 he became Chairman of the Russian Parliament, the Republic’s effective President, the first one to be elected.

You would think that by this stage it would have become clear to the experts in the West that the Soviet Union was probably doomed. Not so but far from it. While many of us, interested in the country, realized this, the solid cohort of Foreign Office experts and academic sovietologists continued to extol Gorbachev as the country’s hope. Yeltsin was apparently dismissed from too many calculations even though he obviously represented the future with Gorbachev unable to keep up with him.
I rest my case.

The report is correct in that the situation is now probably worse than it was during the Cold War as, it would appear, that the skills the FCO and other institutions look for have little to do with knowledge, learning or analytical skills. It is also true that for years, far longer than was justified, there has been an official view that Russia was not really a problem and even if it was not quite as friendly as we thought it would be, it was not really all that unfriendly though the evidence was mounting. What I find hard to accept is the view of some wonderful past situation when this was all completely different.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Just how much say do we have?

A move away from the common foreign policy to the common  agricultural one, known to us all as CAP. Do we want to be part of it as we undoubtedly have to be if we stay in the European Union? That one is a little hard to defend as it is so obvious that we have minimal say in the decisions made and no control over the regulations that are then imposed on our farmers but, I have no doubt, there will be those who will shriek with horror at the very suggestion that we no longer participate in this structure, despite the fact that they cannot name a single benefit or a single instance of British influence.

On February 26 the House of Lords had a short debate (what used to be known as an Unstarred Question but we have abandoned such traditional labels) on this very subject. Lord Willoughby de Broke asked HMG "what is their assessment of the effect of European Union regulation on British agriculture".

As there are several peers still in the House who know about agriculture and some who even understand the intricacies of the CAP the debate was quite interesting and I thoroughly recommend it to readers of this blog. But here are a few meaty quotes from Lord Willoughby's speech, to keep everyone going:
I declare my interest as a member of that disgruntled group of farmers. I farm in Warwickshire and I am disgruntled because during my time in the Lords I have served on the committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who is in his place, and have spoken in many debates, including debates in 1991, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2004 and 2008. I think that in nearly all those debates there were calls for reform of the common agricultural policy. I think that both Front Benches in this House have always agreed with the idea of reforming the common agricultural policy. However, what has happened after all those fine words? Where are we now? Has anything changed? Has the common agricultural policy become less bureaucratic, less centralised and less corrupt? No, it has not. Has it made farmers any more prosperous? No, it has not. Actually, things have got worse, as I will explain.

The beef and sheep sectors are suffering under overregulation, passports and identification schemes, many of which are unnecessary and certainly very burdensome and time-consuming for stock farmers. Arable farmers are regularly stripped of their ability to grow profitable, healthy and viable crops at a time when they are being enjoined to feed an ever increasing population, but the rules from Brussels make it more and more difficult to do that. I take the example of winter wheat. One of the big enemies of winter wheat is the black-grass weed. Over the last couple of years, the most effective black-grass herbicides have been gradually withdrawn against the advice of our own very independent and expert Advisory Committee on Pesticides and that of the previous government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington. However, their advice does not really count. What counts is what goes on in Brussels. The ayatollahs in Brussels decide what we are going to do and we have almost no say there any more. The rules are decided by the agricultural bosses in Brussels in the Commission and are subject to qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, where we are regularly outvoted.

As the Minister will remember, the humiliating position of having no say in what goes on in agriculture in this country was underlined last summer when the Commission, spurred on by demonstrators dressed up as bumble-bees, suspended the use of neonicotinoid seed dressings for oilseed rape and other brassicas. Yet again, our Advisory Committee on Pesticides was against this, as to their credit were the Government and the Minister. Yet again, we are being forced to enforce a policy with which we do not agree.

The rule of unintended consequences will now kick in. Large acreages of oilseed rape have been damaged. The percentages are arguable, but these acreages have certainly suffered. According to Home Grown Cereals Authority estimates, about 40,000 acres of oilseed rape last autumn had to be destroyed, abandoned or re-drilled. The consequence of that is that as oilseed rape is a major food for bees and pollinators, there will be less food for them: there will be less oilseed rape. Now that neonics are banned, farmers will use airborne sprays. They have to be put on at flowering time. This initiative by the Commission will definitely damage bees more than was the case when we had neonicotinoid seed dressings—but welcome to the EU, and have a nice day.
The point is one that we make over and over again but it has not sunk in yet even after all these decades: it really does not matter what farmers in this country might want (and having worked with them in a previous reincarnation I can certainly affirm that many of the demands are completely unreasonable and often made by one sector at the expense of another one) or what our own elected politicians might proclaim. There is no possibility of getting our way in the structure as it stands.

The rest of the debate and the Minister's reply is quite salutary. Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Dormer, for the Liberal-Democrats, decided to use her speech for the purpose of attacking UKIP's agricultural policy, which, according to her, veered from the slightly batty to the blatantly obvious.
One effect of the tabling of this debate was to make me look at UKIP’s agricultural policies. I was most surprised to see that number one on its agricultural policy list is to impose stronger controls on bush meat. Controlling bush meat, with all its health implications, is clearly very important, but that is not really a British agricultural issue. It is not in competition with beef or lamb. To mix my metaphors, it is a total red herring. That is an issue for the Home Office and border controls. The second top policy of UKIP is to support the trial culling of badgers for the control of bovine TB if veterinary opinion substantiates it. That is not original. It is common to all sides of the House so there is nothing to disagree with there. The third is that UKIP supports the principle of science before emotion on any agricultural topic. Who does not?
Actually, as it became obvious, the EU does not necessarily, still preferring the precautionary policy, much touted by various NGOs who, as we know, are paid for by tax money.

Then there were several examples of CAP regulations that were actually not that bad or even quite good, which is not to be denied. Even a stopped clock, as we know, is right twice a day. The question is not that but exactly how much rubbish do we have to accept in order to have some reasonable decisions, which, presumably, could be made in this country.

Some hope has been expressed in the wake of statements made by Commissioner Hogan, by Lord Caithness among others:
There has been an encouraging start by Commissioner Hogan, however, who has said many of the right things. I hope that he is more in the MacSharry mould than his predecessor. In his keynote address to the NFU conference in Birmingham two days ago, Commissioner Hogan said that he had made simplification a top priority for his work programme in 2015. He went on to say that he had launched a comprehensive screening exercise of the entire CAP to identify which sections may need simplifying. He went on to say that more than 200 Commission regulations implemented the common market organisation will be reviewed and simplified. If 200 are being looked at, what is happening to the others? Why are they not being looked at? In what timescale will this happen? How will we hold the commissioner’s feet to the fire? He has said the right things; how will we make him perform?
The fact is that every incoming Commissioner makes simplification his (or her) priority and every new Commission and new Presidency intends to cut back red tape and deregulate, possibly even decentralize within limits allowed by the acquis communautaire, which means not at all. It is a little odd that people should still find statements and speeches of that kind hopeful.

However, the really interesting speech is the one by the Minister, Lord De Mauley. It is very rational and full of good intentions as well as of a list of British attempts to achieve something, change something or prevent something within the CAP. What it is a little short on is actual achievements. I am afraid, Lord Willoughby de Broke's point is proved by the Minister who may well agree but cannot openly say so.