Archive | July, 2006

>Short shrift

>Today’s Evening Argus reports that pupils at Brighton’s Catholic secondary school staged a one hour sit down protest demanding the right to wear shorts (not included in the school’s accepted uniform policy) during the current heatwave. The headteacher called an emergency school assembly and agreed their demand – later rubber stamped by a special meeting of the school governors. Difficult to know whether to despair or be impressed at the democratic culture of our schools.

>England’s California dreaming

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I hate the heat. With the temperature around 33 celsius Southern England is hotter than West Coast California today. We also have a water shortage, urban sprawl, unrelenting development, a political make-up of conservative suburbs and rural area with multi-cultural liberal metropolis at their heart. If London is LA, Brighton, I guess takes role of the San Francisco. In the heat haze, even the local semis with England flags still stubbornly on display weeks after the World Cup and SUVs parked on paved over front gardens look weirdly like US homesteads

The contest for the Mayor of London provides a hint of populist politics with Ken Livingstone a sort of English Schwarzennegger –although maverick party politicians not a celeb – and the Tories have thrown their selection contest open with US style primaries in the offing. On the other hand, we notably lack the mechanism for US citizen initiatives to trigger referenda and decent air conditioning.

Add to this the revival of the English Question and one can see that politics in London and the South East, that most English of English regions, is indeed realigning in unpredictable ways, the Tories under David Cameron having finally worked out that the break-up of the United Kingdom along loosely confederal lines is both to their advantage and can easily be achieved by excluding Scottish MPs at Westminster from votes on home policy issues, which affect only England and Wales because of the devolution of power on most domestic policy in Scotland matters to the Scottish Parliament. The same logic could exclude Northern Irish MPs especially if and when the Northern Ireland Assembly restarts – a little boosting of the Welsh Assembly’s powers and the Westminster parliament becomes on most issues a de facto English Assembly.

As several journalists on the left such as the Guardian’s Jackie Ashley have noted the effect of separating out England as a political unit would, of course, be to shift the political balance to the Tories. So, they argue, although the ‘West Lothian’ question – the democratic deficit implied about Scottish MPs voting on policies than can only affect England and Wales, but not their own constituents – is pretty much irrefutable, why both to open a constitutional whole can of worms simply to hand political cards to the Tories? As readers’ noted in responses, this is a weak argument. Labour can win in England and outpolled the Tories in England in 1997 and 2001 and in 2005 polled only 58, 000 less and still gained a majority of English seats: 286 to 194 for the Tories, 47 Lib Dems and 2 independents. As Channel 4 research shows, in terms of parliamentary votes too the West Lothian effect is totally overstated

A more likely effect of England-only politics then would be to kill off kill of traditional British Social Democracy and entrench some form of New Labour politics able to pitch a cross-class centrist appeal including suburban middle class voters – the famed Mondeo Man encountered by Blair in 1992, who didn’t vote Labour then but did in 1997. This would add to the Californication of the South East, where even now New Labour is patchily organized force outside London, more part of a loose non-Tory bloc vaguely equivalent to the US Democratic Party including liberals and occasionally Greens.

Playing the English card would, of course be a risky move for the Tories. In itself it wouldn’t guarantee power and would also probably lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom – the logic of all (con)federations not held together by authoritarian means with one over-dominant partner. David Cameron might set England, the underrepresented heartland of a defunct Empire, on course towards national autonomy, rather as Boris Yeltsin did with Russia in 1990-1 and still not find himself in hung parliament having to negotiate with the Lib Dems over electoral reform or negotiate some Czech style minority government with no hint of a restored Tory ascendancy even in a rump UK probably consisting – given the anxieties of Ulster Unionists – of England and Northern Ireland – a sort of Serbia and Montenegro of Western Europe

>Eurobarometer 64: Czechs sceptically in favour of political union

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I have been reading the tea leaves of the latest Eurobarometer on the Czech Republic, looking mainly at attitudes to democracy and the EU Constitution.

The Dutch and French referendum votes of May/June 2005 were followed by a marked decline in Czech support for the EU Constitution which, as with other planned integration measures, had previously enjoyed steady majority support broadly in line with that for EU membership itself with which most Czechs are happy or neutral two years in. Eurobarometer glosses over just how marked the turn around in opinion was. Although one poll suggested that a narrow majority still favoured the Constitution, most polls from June and July 2005 recorded majorities against the Constitution with a large number of undecided voters breaking a pattern of Czech public support for the Constitution integration measures broadly in line with levels of support for EU membership itself. Significantly, one pollster, STEM recorded a marked drop in support for the Constitution among ODS voters from 73 per cent in February 2005 to 43 per cent in July 2005 with a corresponding growth in opposition from 27 per cent to 53 per cent suggesting that for the first time bringing the views of Civic Democrat voters had moved into line with party’s ‘euro-realism’

However, Eurobarometer suggested a more complex picture, finding that a large majority of Czech respondents still agreed that an EU Constitution would make the Union more efficient, more transparent and more democratic. Most, however favoured the negotiation of a new constitutional document over continued ratification of the existing Constitutional Treaty or the abandonment of any efforts to agree a constitution and only a narrow majority thought a constitution indispensable. Such views placed Czechs among the most sceptical EU member states. However a large and stable majorities supported the trend towards the European political union in general terms and expressed a willingness to transfer further powers to EU level in the fields such as security, foreign policy or environmental protection, although not in areas such as tax, social policy, healhcare or pensions.

Compared to both the EU25 and the 10 new member states Czechs had a powerful sense that their views carried little weight in the EU and correspondingly little sense of being involved in European events. They only seemingly want to retain control of the bread-and-butter who-gets-what-issues that dominate Czech politics. Paradoxically, although trust in EU institutions in the CR was low, they were still trusted more than most domestic Czech political institutions, indicating a characteristic anti-political cynicism towards politics and the state (even their own national state) not shared by, for example, respondents in the UK.

They also had some rather contradictory views on participation and the democratic deficit – this time in line with the EU average. “Four out of ten Czechs” the Eurobarometer report noted “say they would like to be more involved in European matters, but do not know what to do about it. There is a prevailing view that it is mainly government, including Czech, European and local governments, that should try to involve the public in European matters”. The message: involve us please but in a top-down way such that we don’t have to do anything. Hard to avoid the view that EU citizens get the Union they deserve – and perhaps the Union that they really want, despite the protestation that they would like to be involved.

The Report thus concludes dryly that “only a fifth of the Czech and European public chose as one of the three priorities for the EU bringing it closer to citizens and making them better informed about the EU and its policies and institutions. This finding indicates that the D Plan (Democracy, Dialogue and Discussion) announced by Commission President Barassou in late November 2005 is not awaited with any great anticipation by either the Czech or European publics”

The full length national report seems only available in Czech but an executive summary for the CR and a longer overview of first results are available is in English HERE

>Our Kids: Putin’s future stormtroopers?

> For ‘democratic’ politics truly from another universe one needs to travel to Russia. Yesterday’s Newsnight on BBC2 carried a fascinating report about the Nashi youth movement. ‘Nashi’ means ‘Ours’. More idiomatic translations might be ‘Our people’, ‘Our youth’ – ‘Our kids’ even. The movement was apparently formed in early 2005 from ruins of the overly craven and hence discredited – pro-Putin ‘Walking Together’ Movement reports Radio Liberty and proved sufficiently successful to get 60, 000 on to the streets. Its shirts and flag – perhaps with a certain retro chic – echo the iconography of communist youth movements. Nashi supports Russian state power and pride, clean living and population growth. Apart from holding ‘demographic actions’ encouraging young Russians to meet and have children – its self-styled ‘commissars’ taking training courses to prepare themselves as the future elite, stage parades, run summer camps andoccasionally demonstrate against un-Russian practices, although anti-racist apparently. They are, of course, also are unqualified fans of President Putin, who has met the movement’s leaders on three occasions. Putin’s presidential apparatus– in the person its Deputy Head Surkov –co-ordinate and bankroll the movement.

Despite engaging a certain amount of genuine patriotic activism at grassroots level, the movement – along with other similar youth movements like the Yellow Shirts profiled more a community organization– appears a classic – ifvery interesting – example of what my SSEES colleague Andrew Wilson (in a book of the same name) has termed the ‘virtual politics’ of the post-Soviet world. ‘Virtual politics’ in the FSU involves the top down creation by oligarchical power structures of pseudo-parties to demobilise and split the opposition forces. This can including fake populist challengers, compliant ‘extremists’ to make ‘parties of power’ seem acceptable, youth, Green and women’s parties and manageable ‘opposition’ parties happy to lose elections by some distance. Cash, influence over electoral and party registration procedures and monopolistic control of media outlets are the key to creating such an illusion of democracy – a chess game with a very number of pieces, as Andrew’s book puts it – liberals, Communists and others get lost amid a fog of black PR, spin, kompromat and ‘political technology’. This is the reality of Putin’s ‘managed democracy’, which as the Russian original term upravlaemaya demoktatiya makes clear, is democracy that is being steered, rather than just a rather distant technocratic style of government.

The new youth movements constitute a ‘virtual civil society’. The Putin version of this seems not a million miles away from the elite Western sponsored NGO projects for which this term was coined. Indeed, in a grim reversal of the use of youth movements as foot soldiers against semi-authoritarian regimes in Serbia or Ukraine (also to some extent ‘managed’ processes) they seem to be destined to be shock troops in a future defence of the regime – as the heckling of the British ambassador at the Other Russia conference by other, more radical, Kremlin-friendly youth activists shows

Central European politics for all its slight other worldliness with its elite-dominated but unmanaged party landscapeseems positively boring . Indeed in the fact that it has a party landscape, not a politics of elite networks and ever shifting behind-the-scenes flows of ‘administrative resources’ makes it boring and ordinary

>Anti-federalist Euro-faction formed… in 2009

> So, reports the BBC, the new Tory led anti-federalist faction in the European Parliament at last sees the light of day! It will be called the Movement for European Reform and will consist of the Tories and their loyalist and most acceptable ally, the Czech Civic Democrats (ODS). Except, of course, that it won’t probably ever see the light of day. It will be formed only in 2009 after the next Euro-elections, when the political situation be quite different, and will be more likely to be quietly forgotten. Apart from anything else, the proposed ODS/Tory tandem lacks members for the requisite number of EU states to be officially recognised as a group in the EP. The Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent David Rennie has a well informed blog covering some of the specific ins and outs of whole saga including relations between ODS, PiS and the Tories, which – when one filters out the obsessional anti-EU tub thumping (this is the Telegraph, after all) – also also some interesting thoughts posted as comments.

However, neither ODS nor the Tories seem that interested in the MER. Despite the BBC headlines, the joint declaration by Cameron and ODS leader Topolánek announcing the ‘formation’ of the MEF is almost impossible to find on neither party’s website – although I eventually located a Czech language version, Cameron’s speech on the MER – full of vacuous one liners that doubtless come across better as sound bites – and an ‘explanatory note’ on the group, which stresses its role as a ‘forum’, whose discussion and co-ordination activities will also be open to both EPP members and non-members, so it may in fact exist some vague preparatory form. Such a non-event serves its political purpose, however. Cameron (sort of) fulfils his leadership election promise using Czech reservations as an excuse to in fact not do anything and so doesn’t have to deal with recalcitrant Europhile Tory MEPs opposed to the plan. No ‘nutters’ – whatever happened to the Polish Law and Justice Party? – are brought into the picture and Topolánek can get on with the – still seemingly impossible – task of forming a government in Prague with hands free to deal with europhile parties. The big loser – despite upbeat insistence that all in the ‘euro-realist’ garden is rosy (MFD, 10 July) – is Jan Zahradil, a man not likely to give up on his ‘euro-realist’ ambitions or indeed more personal ones to lead his party, however.

>Widiculous money

> Never let it be said that SSEES graduates don’t have earning potential. However, the £18 million paid by the BBC to SSEES’s most famous alumnus – and holder of an honorary UCL Fellowship– chatshow host Jonathan Ross (BA History, 1987) does seem rather ludicrous. The usual rare-talent, many-punters -willing-to-pay market forces argument sometimes applied to footballers and pop stars – I think Robert Nozick has a classic version – hardly seems to work here. As a public organization, the BBC does not run the same commercial risks as a football club or record company punting large sums on the latest hot property and consumers are ‘paying’ only indirectly by watching Ross’s show free-to-air.

The numbes are impressive. Working out at £6m p.a. JR, it seems, could pay the annual running costs of his alma mater and dent the UCL deficit with one wave of his chequebook. On the other hand, I suppose he has a wife and production company to support. And could you face interviewing Robbie Williams?

>Slovakia: It’s politics, but not as we know it, Jim…

> Colleagues specializing in Slovak politics have been reflecting on the Slovakia’s new populist/nationalist/sort-of-Social Democrat coalition. Most are dispirited and rather shocked without necessarily seeing developments as an automatic re-run of the Mečiar period , despite the structural similarities in the coalition (dominant party with charismatic leader – this time Smer’s Robert Fico – with two much weaker and more radical partners).

Despite the equivocations and divisions of the Slovak Christian Democrats (KDH) over whether they wanted to work with Fico – still tearing the KDH leadership apart according to the Slovak press – it seems that Fico wasn’t that keen on working with them or indeed anyone else in the outgoing centre-right coalition. A majority coalition with the Hungarian minority party and the rump of Mečiar’s HZDS was apparently an option, but Fico’s Smer seem very rapidly to have opted to work with HZDS and the extreme Slovak National Party instead, who are more economically anti-market and probably more controllable as neither has anywhere to go (except into marginal opposition).

As Karen Henderson suggests (Sme 28 June 2006) CEE politics constitutes a kind of parallel universe – there are Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and liberals in familiar kind of settings, but politics is as they say in Star Trek “not as we know it Jim”. For her a Czech style liberal-Social Democrat coalition – burying the hatchet after knocking six bells out of each other in the election – or indeed a German style Christian Democrat/Social Democrat coalition is preferable and still possible if and when HZDS and SNS start misbehaving.

The problem is that in the Czech and German politics Grand Coalitions or left-right power sharing are a pis aller, rather than an option of choice. In Slovakia, there are too many options and Robert Fico seems to have gone for a different one. As she notes in a forthcoming briefing for the Sussex European Institute, parties are divided into three blocs: nationalist-populist camp (SNS, HZDS), a ‘social democratic’ left inclined to a rather brute economic populism (Smer) and a centre-right camp with the usual division between liberals (SDKÚ, ANO, Free Forum) and conservatives/Christian Democrats (KDH). In Czechia the former – represented by the Communists – is less nationalist and (economics aside) less populist – and excluded from the political game. The Social Democrats – despite Paroubek’s admiration for Fico – and some old left concerns about globalization and multi-national capital do not need (or want?) to play at being rampant populists defending the people against the elite (a line more typical of the Czech right and its disparagement of liberal intellectual elites).

Karen also noted Fico’s performance in a first TV interview as PM, where he responded to criticism from the Party of European Socialist by suggesting that he was being targeted by the vested interests of multi-national companies – working though the PES, one presumes. I watched this on the net. It was indeed a rambling performance even by the less than high standards of the region and from the body language and style it was hard not to think of him as a younger Mečiar

As Karen’s newspaper article notes, he does have other coalition options, but the question Tim Haughton asked in 2002 as Fico started his political ascent still seems open. We still don’t know if he is a man to be trusted or feared.

>Starting the week: Islam and ‘democratic geo-politics’

> Andrew Marr’s Start the Week on Radio 4 is as interesting as ever today bringing together disgraced-then-rehabilitated Dutch liberal MP and critic of IslamAyaan Hirshi Ali , someone from the British
thinktank the Henry Jackson Society – supporters a sort of cleaned up neo-con foreign policy shorn of embarrassing associations with Bush and Blair, which they term ‘democratic geo-politics’ – very much on the wavelength of the ‘muscular liberals’ of the Euston Manifesto – and left-wing comedian, provocateur and anti-arms trade campaigner, Mark Thomas, who I had assumed was anti intervention in Iraq and, as far as I remember, a Socialist Alliance and then Respect supporter, although this wasn’t much in evidence on the programme.

The discussion was curiously civilized and restrained – Hirshi Ali argued that Islam was very largely a religious distillation of the cultural practices of Arab tribes. The West she says in her new book should promote the transformation and modernization of Islam through the taking up of enlightenment values. Western governments are too accommodating to such anti-liberal values because of cultural cringe and multi-culturalism.

A similar argument is presented in the Observer by Nick Cohen, who notes the FCO’s incompetent efforts in what is essentially a strategy of co-optation to distinguish ‘moderate’ from ‘extreme’ Muslim figures and organization. Even the ‘moderates’ are pretty conservative and illiberal, in many cases.

Hishi Ali was personally very impressive – perhaps why Mark Thomas did not lay into her as one might have expected. The problem with both her and Cohen’s argument however, is that rational enlightenment argument – especially in the short-medium term – is not going to effect a sudden transformation in the beliefs and values of politically organized Muslims (who may, of course, be unrepresentative) in the UK, or indeed elsewhere. Indeed, the type of ‘muscular’ approach endorsed by Hirshi Ali and Cohen seems likely to have no effect or to energise precisely the forces they want to demobilize– as Karen Armstrong argument that fundamentalisms are a modern, anti-modern backlash suggests.

This was complemented by the HJS’s presentation of arguments from its new manifesto The British Moment, although as Mark Thomas astutely observed why if democratic geo-politics (which seems a codeword for liberal imperialism) is rooted in the British tradition ) name yourself after a figure like Scoop Jackson, who no one has heard of in Britain. The argument that any other title would prevent a non-partisan rallying to the cause, but then why not just call it the Centre for Democratic Geopolitics?

Perhaps there are American funders who want the Society’s the transatlantic link underlined. Here too, I felt awkward issues were not raised. Does ‘democratic geo-politics’ entail the use of external force, as the pairing of the two words suggests? Given the limitations of resources available for democratic geo-politics Marr suggested the Gladstone Society, but wasn’t W E Gladstone sceptic about Empire despite – or because? – of his support for a C19th ethnical foreign policy. The John Stewart Mill Society would be nearer the mark, but perhaps a little too candid, given JSM’s Victorian candour on the subject

>Deadlock in Prague: early elections or a political penalty shootout?

> As Czech politicians prove unable even to elect temporary officers to parliament can start, Civic Democrat boss Miroslav Topolánek comes up with a novel idea to break the deadlock – a national poll to elect a single additional MP (LN 7 July). This, he claims, is a device that has been successfully used in Slovenia. Clearly, the Slovenians do make use of referenda and US style citizen initiatives, but this seems off-the-wall… It is, of course, a less than selfless proposal as the ‘right’ (that now includes the Greens in a Czech context) polled 4% more than the left, but surely a sign of desperation, the political equivalent of a penalty shoot out or flipping a coin. It would require a constitutional change, but then does the other likely way out, shortening the parliamentary tern and holding early elections…

>Terror seems close to home, but far from unusual

> The chances of being caught in a terrorist attack are probably considerably lower than being in a road accident, but I was still glad not to going to work on the first anniversary of 7/7. The previous few days there was a large and rather unnerving police presence in the streets around Euston and Kings Cross. More unnerving is the realisation of just how close to hand the events of 7/7 – as well as those of another seemingly foiled plot for a nightclub bombing like that in Bali – are to home and work.

I used to use Russell Square tube station pretty much every day when I travelled in from Middlesex, but always travelled North from Holborn, not South from Kings Cross. The site of the bus bombing is a stone’s throw from the new SSEES building – I walk close to in on my way to work, but turn off 200m before to take a shortcut down a side street. The no. 30 bus runs down the Euston Road from Kings Cross, but for me it’s too short a walk to be worth waiting for a bus.

Elsewhere – and with curiously little publicity – the trial of some alleged would-be Islamicist terrorists is taking place at the Old Bailey. Two of the accused come from down the road in Crawley. Another maladroitly tried to buy huge quantities of fertilizer a few miles in the other direction at an agricultural supplier in Burgess Hill – intended, say the prosecution, for an IRA-style fertilizer bomb. One was a student at Brunel University, where I used to teach, although he must have enrolled after I moved on and – at a guess – I imagine he was probably studying something vocational, commercial or technical, rather than anything in the humanities or social scientists (Real and would-be Al-Qaeda operatives seem to be mathematicians, engineers and lawyers by education, although the two leading 7/7 bombers failed in their aspirations to get higher education

In this connection, I had to laugh reading the New Statesman’s breathless account of the Aldgate bomber Shazid Tanweer ‘in his own words’, as these words were the personal statement from his UCAS form! Predictably consisted of the same meaningless prefabricated phrases – possibly supplied or edited by teachers – that anyone who regularly does admissions interviews sees with depressing familiarity. Rather than successful respectable young graduate turned terrorist mastermind of media cliché, the NS’s reports of plagiarism, bogus mitigating circumstances and an uncompleted degree suggest a struggling student ill-equipped to deal with university from day and perhaps always a likely drop out. Despite the dead eyes and the dead voice, his video ‘last will and testament’ – like that of Mohammed Sadique Khan – has the same forced, prefabricated quality, which undermines their effect on the listener. My reaction was less to be chilled than to want to blow a raspberry…

There are, of course, more intellectual Islamicist extremists about. I remember that there posters advertising meetings about a global Islamic Caliphate (Kalifah) competing for flyposting space on Brunel’s Uxbridge campus with those of Socialist Worker Student Society and other far left groups, which were pitched in quite a sophisticated language mixing anti-imperialist rhetoric with religious and cultural references that Muslim readers would pick up on – about 20% of Brunel’s student body was estimated to come from a Muslim background.

After 9/11 the posters suddenly disappeared – As I later discovered these were produced by the radical Islamicist group Hizb-ut-Tahir, which claims to be engaged in a form of intellectual Islamic anti-politics based on educational activities in the West, although committed to the revolutionary overthrow of governments in Muslim majority countries. Despite this it is widely seen as an intellectual conveyor belt to more overtly Jihadist groups and the type of internet assisted self-taught do-it yourself terrorism that small groups – I am tempted to use the anarchist phrase ‘affinity groups’ – within a radicalized, alienated sub-cultures can mount. For this reason it is one of the groups that Tony Blair said he would proscribe, but then fell curiously silent about – but how in a reasonably free society can you ban ideas?

As a brief post-script (written on 8 July), I note that Karen Armstrong has an interesting article in The Guardian, where she argues that fundamentalisms are radical, modern – even in their outward rejection of much of the modern world – and quite self-consciously heterodox movements. This she suggests makes he ridiculous to expect established Muslin communities and practitioners of mainstream forms of Islam to police and re-educate extremists, who identify themselves against the establishment. Another problem seems to be the fact that I imagine there is neat division between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’.

If one thinks that great world religion, socialism, which generated a less deadly by perhaps no less fanatic terrorist fringe in the 1970s – complete with the radicalization of nice middle class graduates into cold takers of others’ lives (Dostoevskii’s The Devils
explored the psychology of this a century before, of course – ironically seeing religion as part of the solution) – then there was a continuum from ‘moderate’ parliamentary socialists to militant and alienated ultra-left sub-culture revolutionary outlook, but not violent in practice to the ‘armed struggle’ of the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades.

Like revolutionary Marxism – whose visions of World Revolution seem to share much of the same utopian millennial qualities as Khalifah – I suspect radical Islamism will rise and fall over a few decades, burning itself out over a few decades and retreating to the cultural and intellectual margins as a worn out set of ideas that no longer convince those who would like to believe them.

With some good luck, I hope to be around some time mid-century to see it.