Archive | July, 2006

>Czech Republic: a minority government somewhere over the rainbow?

>Hands of political poker continue to be played in Prague. Embattled ODS leader Miroslav Topolánek has now shifted position telling an interviewer that a single party ODS coalition supported (or at least ‘tolerated’) by all non-communist parties is now an option (MfD 29 July).This comes very close to the ‘semi-political’ ODS-led minority government the Social Democrats (ČSSD) are proposing, although they want a formal support agreement only with themselves – ČSSD’s key strategic goal has been to detach ODS from its smaller allies (the Christian Democrats and Greens) making for a weaker, more controllable minority government and in the longer terms the prospect that some support from the two minor parties (both internally divided) may come the Social Democrats’ way.

Topolánek defined the worst options as (in order) 1. a minority Social Democrat government supported by the Communists; 2. a minority ODS government with ‘rainbow’ support; and 3. a interim caretaker government leading to early elections. Many in ODS, however, may prefer option 3 to option 2.

Difficult to avoid the impression that ODS is progressively shifting to accommodate the Social Democrats – in his MfD interview Topolánek pointedly remarks in passing that “Václav Klaus knows that no else in ODS has a mandate to agree to form a government” suggesting that the President would dearly love to bypass him (which constitutionally he could do – there is no requirement to pick a party leader or even an MP). The ODS congress, he added, would not talk place before the forthcoming Senate elections

>Leeds University: Giving racism the golden boot?

>I was interested to read that Dr Frank Ellis, the Leeds University lecturer in Russian suspended after protests over his view that for black people were biologically intellectually inferior to other groups has finally departed the university. He gets an early retirement deal including an additional year’s salary and part payment of his legal bills. The Yorkshire Post termed this as ‘golden handshake’, although golden boot might be a better term and a cynic might just call it a payoff. The university management, I would imagine, were itching to get rid of someone who was a one man bad publicity machine but preferred to avoid some of the difficult legal issues – and further negative media coverage – likely to be generated by a dismissal and then a likely industrial tribunal

Lecturers, after all, have a contractual right to express and defend controversial opinions. On the other hand, there is the legal requirement upon universities not only to avoid discrimination and since 2002 – to actively promote good race relations. Even if he didn’t have any black students Ellis’s reported views that women were intellectually less able than men raised questions about how equal his treatment of his students might be.

In political terms,of course, the affair raises all the usual well rehearsed arguments about freedom of speech. As student readers of John Stuart Mill know even the most offensive, illogical or intemperate view can be seen as having a certain usefulness in making us defend and think through our opinions. Suppressing extreme views merely creates the machinery to suppress more valuable views. Moreover, as David Cesarani eloquently argued in relation to the David Irving case, Mill’s classical liberal view of the public sphere as a kind market in ideas, where rational debate uses the daft and dangerous for its own ends, then filters them out, is not credible in the post-Holocaust, internet age.

My interest, however, is more in the light thrown on the further shores of the political right as well as a puzzled interest in the oddness of the man. I was briefly taught by in the final year of my Russian degree on 1991-2. A former Army interpreter in Germany Ellis was then seen a new broom in a department that hadn’t hired new staff for a while. His penchant for setting passages from the Soviet-Jewish writer Vassily Grossman for translation in fact led me read Grossman’s Life and Fate – the last book I borrowed from Leeds University Library (Ellis later also wrote a well received book on Grossma as well as another mainstream academic book on the Russian internet). However, even the short time he was there during my final year his odd demeanour and inclination to tell Action Man-ish tales of military parachute jumps gone wrong made him something of a minor figure of fun. Fellow students quickly nicknamed him Frankly Ridiculous.

Perhaps unsurprisingly as probationary lecturer, Ellis didn’t broadcast his political views at the time. All I can remember was a rather odd remark about how men should be tougher than women. He hit the headlines only in 2000 by attending a conference of the American Renaissance, an organization which acts as a clearing house for various far-right and extreme paleo-conservative groups with an interest in race and eugenics.

His politics are to say the least well down the black end of blue. In his various media appearances he invariably described himself as to ‘unrepentant Powellite’, an honest God traditional conservative persecuted for speaking out against the strictures of political correctness. However, closer examination of the article he wrote for Leeds Student newspaper that triggered his exit – thoughtfully reproduced by his friends at American Renaissance – show an obsession with socio-biology including as well as a missionary zeal to promote The Bell Curve and de rigeur references to Jensen and Eysenck that is more National Front than Enoch Powell.

As studies of Powellism – for example, Anna Marie Smith’s excellent Race and Sexuality in the Discourse of the British New Right – show Powell like all intelligent racists sought to exclude ethnic minorities using arguments based on history and identity; ‘common sense’ and what his constituents had supposedly said or written to him, rather than pseudo-scientific arguments about IQ and biology, easily challenged and unpicked. Indeed as Prof Roger Griffin’s work shows the smartest intellectual protagonist of ethnic inequality and overtly fascist anti-democratic values, such as France’s Nouvelle Droite have long since taken a ‘cultural turn’

IQ and intelligence are easily identifiable as social and cultural constructs, as are notions of ethnicity and ethnic groups. The effects of nature and nurture (culture, society) are almost impossible to disentangle. Looking at an individual, their ethnicity – assuming, of course, that we can meaningfully assess it – tells us nothing about any abilities of any kind whatever aggregate statistical curves might say. More fundamentally, why would we want to study the distribution of ‘intelligence’ across ethnic groups? For Murray in the Bell Curve the reason seems to have been to show that the US’s (disproportionately African-American) underclass was a ‘natural’ phenomenon, making welfare programmes and other forms of state intervention unnecessary

Ellis’s agenda is harder to discern, but anyone who has dipped into Michael Billig’s classic study of the 1970s NF Fascists! will recognize the intellectual landscape of Ellis’s rambling vituperative text. His references to pseudo-academic journals of ‘scientific’ institutes of the US far right he has published in and green ink letters fired off to public figures denouncing multi-culturalism show someone deeply embroiled in a political subculture somewhere between neo-fascism and traditionalist social-authoritarian Salisbury Review Toryism. Only the anti-Semitism of the neo-fascist right – also, interestingly a feature of Russian nationalism and the Stalinism experienced by Grossman – is missing.

Ellis has also been a regular contributor to Right Now! magazine mentioned in a previous post, although here he seems to fall into line with more Spectactor-ish culturalist arguments about ‘Eurabia’ and ‘Londonistan’ whose real target is liberals and liberalism (more prominently articulated by Melanie Phillips). Bizarrely in the plugs for Ellis’s less academic political tracts on the magazine’s website also get a bit of anti-communist hyperbole warning of the ‘Sovietization of the United Kingdom’. All very 1975.

And, yes, all frankly ridiculous.

>Total deadlock in Prague: Klaus versus ODS?

>Negotiations over a new minority government in Prague have seemingly reached the point of collapse. Outgoing Social Democrat PM Jiří Paroubek seems finally finally to have shut the door on any deal to tolerate a minority Green/centre-right administration. Meanwhile, Lidové noviny (27 July) reported tense relations between President Klaus and ODS. The President reportedly wanted a caretaker government of experts backed by the two main parties to take office led by some technocratic banker or ex-politician for 2-3 years if there was no agreement on a minority government by the first week of August. Now we seem to be in that situation. Ostensibly the reason for this move would be the need for political stability to prepare the Czech Republic for the entry to Schengen zone in 2008.

LN quotes unnamed ODS politicians as speculating, however, that Klaus may also be thinking of his chances of re-election as President next year by giving Social Democrat MPs some reason to consider voting for him (as some did in 2003). However, the right’s gains in June’s parliamentary elections suggest that Klaus could win the Presidency in the third and final round of voting (a simple majority of MPs and Senators -141 votes – will suffice ) without needing to fish for votes among Social Democrats and Greens, provided that ODS and the Christian Democrats win 11 of the Senate seats 27 coming up for re-election this autumn (MfD 6 June 2006). Together the Christian Democrats and Civic Democrats now have 145 MPs and/or Senators. The Communists are unlikely to vote for Klaus again in 2007, having achieved what they wanted last time by helping dish moderate and modernizing Social Democratic PM Vladimir Špidla by sending Klaus to Prague Caste.

Although Klaus has indeed become a more independent, not to say ideosyncratic, political figure since stepping down as ODS leader in 2002, I suspect he is more concerned that Paroubek may somehow bulldoze his way back into office and is pragmatically opting for the lesser evil. Ironically, given ODS vigorous opposition to such non-political technocratic fixes – seen in its view of the caretaker Tošovský government of 1997-8 on which Klaus’s reported proposals seem to be modelled – it is possible that some ODS parliamentarians might turn against their founder and withhold votes for him in 2007. The Klaus aura seems to be wearing thin even for the Czech right these days. In response the President tells today’s LN by email, that the caretaker government was one of only four options and not the one he favoured or anticipated – a less than categoric rebuttal,

>Beach politics

> Spent the morning with the kids on Shoreham beach. A rather odd hybrid kind of place: a shingle beach with some sandy patches with a rather bleached Mediterranean look because of the heat set between 1960s flats, expensive looking villas and bungalows set behind a rather stagnant looking lagoon (a few with English flags still out), Port Slade power station just visible on the skyline to the East and the Downs and the Adur valley in the background. Politically this equates to a safe Tory seat with a high UKIP vote and a sizeable left-liberal vote split evenly between Labour and Lib Dems.Between making sand castles and collecting seaweed, I intermittently thought over the importance of the collapse of the liberal ex-dissident Civic Movement party in 1992 for Czech politics (its ignominious collapse was a filip for the Right).

>Co Čech, to simulant… Czech computer programmers get to grips with the electoral arithmetic

> As the deadlocked government talks proceed in Prague with the stakes – in Czech terms, at least – rising every higher, the ever popular themes of early elections and electoral reform rear their heads once again. A small cottage industry seems to have developed among the many computer programmers in the Czech Republic seems to be the writing of election simulation software. Most date from 1999-2001 when reforming the voting system was last a really politically hot potato . Jan Adamec, for example, has a widely used Czech election simulation program downloadable as freeware, which also has 2002 results in it, but it can, I think, be used to play around with the 2006 figures in a rough and ready way and do some speculative mathmatics on what early elections and electoral reform might bring this time round. It’s a little fiddly to install, but does the job.

Mr Adamec also has Bridge and interior design programs, but I gave these a miss. I wonder if he can design one for political poker. Does Jiří Paroubek have an ace up his sleeve, as a nervous President Klaus fears, or is he bluffing…

>1980s origins of Tory modernizers: libertarians and the SDP

> The Sunday Supplement mini-documentary that follows Radio 4’s the Westminster Hour carried an interesting aside of the origins of the Tories current modernizing project of social and economic liberalism in the politics of the 1980s in the Federation of Conservative Student (FCS), previously taken over by a libertarian faction wishing to legalize hard drugs, hard porn, open borders and the right to bear arms. They were best remembered aping the political style of the far left and juvenile politically incorrect antics supporting the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan Mujahadeen, neither exactly well known for their social liberalism or commitment to the rule of law, although the both exercised a right to bear arms

Another Sunday Supplement series charted the similar passage of refugees from the short-lived Social Democratic Party (SDP), such as Danny Finkelstein into the modernizing wing of a declining Thatcherite Tory party, coming from the opposite political direction, although united by interest in marketization and a shared discomfort with the poshness and paternalism of traditional Toryism. Despite the libertarians stress on their ‘intellectual robustness’ their politics seemed to echo a half-baked reading of Nozick and the SDP came across as the more serious, if more boring, political outfit. Other SDP refugees, made careers in the Liberal Democrats and New Labour.

Interestingly, the FCS also supplied some of the most determined opponents of the Tories ongoing modernizationthrough its lesser known authoritarian faction. This represents a political pedigree running through the Monday Club and projects such as Right Now! magazine, which supplied an aggressive platform for eugencist and paleo-conservative views usually considered beyond the pale in British politics.

>Political deadlock in Prague: Social Democrats play their cards right

> The deadlocked negotiations in Prague after June’s inconclusive elections seem to be approaching some kind of end game. A minority coalition of Civic Democrats, Christian Democrats and Greens with an ecologically tinged programmes of tax flattening and welfarereform was quickly agreed, but required the ‘toleration’ of the Social Democrats – now set to be the largest opposition party – order to take office. However, having polled much better than expected in the election, the Social Democrats under tough and truculent outgoing PM Jiří Paroubek, feltlike the real winners. They floated the idea of a caretaker government of experts or a weaker minority government of 1-2 (not three) parties. The idea here was to split the Greens, already publicly divided during the election campaign, giving the Social Democrats (ČSSD) enough extra votes to make a minority Social Democrat-led government propped up by the votes of the Communists (too hardline and nostalgic for one-party rule to be fully ‘coalitionable’) a viable proposition.

When that was turned down they started to discuss if and how the Social Democrats would let the right and the Greens take office. Naturally, any deal was also to be accompanied by a dilution of the coalition’s draft government programme and concessions to the Social Democrats in the allocation parliamentary committee chairmanships and the post of Speaker of the lower house (essentially a party political post in the CR, not a wholly neutral one as in the UK). egotiations so far have got nowhere, despite the centre-right/Green coalition trying quite hard to cut a deal. Successive attempts to elect a speaker and parliamentary officers have also failed preventing the lower house of parliament from doing any business

ODS leader Topolánek has increasingly appeared at loss for political options, floating wild suggestions about a national plebiscite to elect an additional MP to break the log jam and offering the Social Democrats a place in his coalition government, knowing that – given the unhappy experience of the 1998-2002 ‘Opposition Agreement’ which enabled the Social Democrats to operate a minority government with the agreement of ODS – the Social Democrats would not accept it.

Then Social Democrat leader Paroubek finally appeared to slam the door on any prospect of a minority three-party Green/centre-coalition taking office, although a deal to allow a Social Democrat to be elected as speaker is still the subject of intense negotiation. This has become the focus of the political struggle as, if two attempts to form a government fail then the third and final attempt before the dissolution of parliament and early election, then it is the Speaker of the lower house (not the President) who chooses the PM designate charged with froming a government. A Social Democrat speaker, unlike President Klaus, would naturally turn to Paroubek, who might then pull an ace from up his sleeve in the form of a defector or two from the Greens. Indeed, it is rumoured, such a deal might already have secretly done. The Czech constitution, I should say, requires an incoming government to win a vote of confidence in the lower house.

Paroubek’s tough and determined playing of a weak, but not hopeless, hand has won widespread admiration in his own party, adding to his reputation as a political bulldozer and further reinforcing his dominant position. The ČSSD leadership has just given him more power by giving him direct control of the party’s organizational apparatus . Topolánek, by contrast, never the most secure of leaders, is under fire from those in his own party, who always preferred some kind of arrangement with the Social Democrats. The mayor of Prague, Pavel Bém – tipped by the press as a replacement for Topolánek in the event of a bad election result– has just come out for some kind of rerun of the Opposition Agreement as the least bad option.

Topolánek seems to lack the guile and strategic flair to cope with Paroubek. His logical next move would seem to be to up the ante and stick out for early elections, perhaps agreeing some kind of joint electoral list with his two prospective coalition partners as a one-off Alliance for Reform or some such name. This would overcome the bias against smaller parties given the relatively small sized regional election districts used in the CR since 2002. The Social Democrats politically could not ally with the Communists.

No doubt Topolánek now regrets the prominent part he played as leader of the ODS group in the Senate in passing the electoral reform law in 2000, that made the Czech electoral system less proportional that it once was. Under the old system –using six not fourteen electoral districts – he would already be PM heading a stable majority coalition government holding 104 out of 200 seats and legislating for flat taxation, rather than slowly being outmanoeuvred by the wily, hardman of Czech politics, Paroubek.

>Post-communist transformation: did the cat get the cream?

> Over the past few days I have been reading and re-reading my daughter’s current favourite, Puss in Boots, to her

All great political discourses, they say, have an archetypical mythical structure also found in the most basic of narratives such as fairy tales. As the Czech sociologist Jiří Kabele has argued this is also true, indeed particularly true, of discourses of political transformation, which have been a feature of modern Czech political history as regimes have shifted abruptly – most recentlyin 1989. The favourite political tales since have been the Transition to Democracy, Return to Europe, the Tightening of Belts and the Magic of the Market, although as historians such as Jiří Rak and anthropologists such as the late Ladislav Holy have noted. like all good fairy stories, these ‘new’ post-communist tales tend to recycle and remake older narratives dating back to the Czech liberal nationalism of the 19th century.

I couldn’t, however, for the life of me work out the subtext of Puss in Boots, however,. You could read it as a fable of meritocratic social mobility– the cat’s guile gets the miller’s son the top job; or a kind of historic compromise between the popular classes and the monarchy – kings are never overthrown in fairy tales, are they? – rather like that made with some of the more palatable elites of communist regime in and after 1989 for the sake of peaceful transition; or you could see it as a metaphor of the little people (and animals) resisting an authoritarian regime; or an echo of the trickster capitalism of self-made ‘business’ men like Viktor Kožený making fortunes out of nothing because of the perception of wealth.

Happily, in the Czech (and Central European) context Viktor and other similar Czech captains of industry like Puss were basically contented with a bit of cream and didn’t swallow the whole kingdom in the manner of post-Soviet oligarchs. No wonder Russian fairy tales are grimmer.

>Just call me Aldous Husák – my life as a social engineer

>I’m a sucker for political simulation games, so I couldn’t resist signing up for the off-the-wall Nation States site run by science fiction author Max Barry, which lets you create your own utopia/dystopia based on a sign-up questionnaire about your values and a weekly policy choice questions as various issues like strikes, taxation, the rights of nudists arise. I had wanted to create a socially progressive liberal enclave with a dash of paternalistic social control (OK, I felt, on this occasion as provided by my good self), but have accidently engineered a society which is something between normalization Czechoslovakia and Brave New World.

I’m currently trying to pursue a liberal economic policy, so I can go from being Aldous Husák to Aldous Hayek.

>The Shia crescent

I read a short and illuminating article in the Times a few days ago about the balance of power in the Middle East and the politics of the ‘Shia crescent’. I hadn’t realized that Hezbollah was so much more politically formidable than Hamas, despite its politically weaker position in Lebanon, which still has all characteristic confessional and ethnic divides that made it a pretty unstable convocational democracy in the 1960s and 1970s. Iran also emerges as surprisingly powerful and well placed in the post-Saddam context. Developing nuclear capability is clearly an obvious option for them as neither the EU’s ‘soft power’ nor the US’s hard powers seem capable of intervening effectively. Perhaps post-Turkish enlargement the EU’s neighbourhood policy might just reach there, but that seems likely to be 20 years too late if it happens at all. Nationalism is a great solvent for an upcoming power, as I guess the China also shows. Coincidentally, I also received an email plug for book on Hezbollah from I B Tauris, – obviously an entrepreneurial academic publisher – now selling in paperback for a tenner.