Archive | August, 2006

>Woolly thinking: myself and other Hanleys

I was too tired to read the political coverage in today’s Times on the train, so instead I delved into some of its human interest stories. A psychological quiz dividing people into wolves (competitive, like winning, hating losing) and sheep (embarrassed at winning, not bothered by losing) produces an inconclusive result. – I am a sort of sheep in wolf’s clothing. Meanwhile a UCL website showing geographical distribution of surnames across the UK in 1881 and 1998 shows Hanleys to be concentrated in the North West of England and West of Scotland (see graphic). 97% are English with a significant (3%) minority – like my good self – of Irish descent (hence the concentration in the West of Scotland, I guess). No Czech Hanleys, but one Hungarian in 1998 according to the stats.

>Czech politics: Christian Democrat leader ousted, government talks back to square one (again)

>The prospect of a Social Democrat – Christian Democrat minority government backed by the Communists, as expected, has proved a (less than) 24 hour wonder. The volte face by Christian Democrat leader Miroslav Kalousek, who led the party into the June election as a probable partner in a centre-right coalition with the usual lading of anti-communist rhetoric and warnings of the dire consequences Social Democrat-Christian Democrat collaboration, provoked a wave of protest among Christian Democrat regional leaders. Kalousek, previously known as a tough and realistic operator who displaced Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda partly because he was too close to the centre-left, fell on his sword and resigned. This was followed a couple of days later by the party’s deputy leaders (including Svoboda) in a clearing-of-the-decks exercise. The natural predominance in Czech politics of historic parties with social market visions, which should logically corral (neo-)liberal forces into a bloc of around a third of the electorate, has thus once failed to operate – due largely to Kalousek’s ill thought out move, which appeared (as it was probably was) a thinly disguised attempt to hang onto to power. Now for the first time in quite a few years a figure from the party’s Catholic Moravian heartland – probably the governor of the South Moravia regional government seems likely to take over- question marks hang over the party’s future direction but a radical opening to the Czech secular majority does not seem on the cards.

Meanwhile, although a minority ODS government faces a confidence vote on Friday, no deals seem to have been done and we are back at square one as far as forming a government is concerned.

>Czech politics: Christian Democrats to consider coalition with Social Democrats despite Communist backing

>Sensational political news from Prague – not a phrase you are likely to see in print very often –reported in LN’s online edition. After the collapse of talks between the Civic Democrats (ODS) and the Social Democrats (ČSSD) over the possible toleration of a minority caretaker ODS government by ČSSD – the outcome we were all expecting – after June’s deadlocked election we now have an astonishing volte face by the Christian Democrats, which once again throws everything up in the air.

Having at first signed up for a (now officially defunct) minority coalition government with ODS and the Greens, the Christian Democrats now say they may consider entering a minority Social Democrat-led government supported from outside by the hardline Czech Communists, a complete reversal of the party’s established stance of not co-operating (even indirectly) with KSČM in government. The price of their support? A more proportional form of PR in electoral system to keep a small niche party like them in business.

If a Social Democrat-Christian Democrat government tolerated or supported by the Communists takes office outgoing (and incoming?) Social Democrat PM Jiří Paroubek will have pulled off an amazing political feat in bulldozing the seeming triumphant ODS aside. There would also be some far reaching consequences. It would, I think, mean the end of ODS leader Miroslav Topolánek – seemingly distracted by personal problems – and considerable bloodletting on the ‘civic’ (liberal, pro-market) right, which will be faced by a bloc of pro-social market historic parties with only the Greens for company. The move seems to be political suicide for the Christian Democrats – it could conceivably split the party and alienate parts of its core Catholic constituency to such an extent that no amount of electoral jiggery pokery could save them.

There is, however, one obstacle. Assuming that PM designate Topolánek fails to form a government President Klaus still has one more opportunity to nominate a PM before the third (and final) chance goes to the Speaker of the lower house (currently a Social Democrat) who would nominate Paroubek. Or will Klaus prove as pragmatic as Christian Democrat leader Miroslav Kalousek and throw his own party (but perhaps its MPs support for his re-election as President?) overboard? Watch this space.

>A frightening Prospect – the new anti-immigration politics of Britain’s progressive left

>Hanging around waiting to meet someone at Stansted airport – surprisingly normal now despite all the recent security alerts – I browse through a copy of Prospect, a readable middle-brow magazine of the liberal-left now so outrageously priced that I no longer buy it. I quickly alight on a short comment piece by Bob Rowthorn entitled ‘Numbers matters’ articulating the line recently taken up by Polly Toynbee (see previous post) that modernizing social democrats can and should oppose immigration because the country is too ethnically and culturally diverse to be able maintain social cohesion and social standards. What is striking in Rowthorn’s short piece is that while it devotes great attention to numbers – the population is likely to rise to around 65-80 million mid-century, mainly due to migration – it glosses over the underlying point we are supposed to simply take as readin a sentence , that more migration = less social cohesion. Rowthorn, ‘a leading left-wing economist’ (in case you were confused) and Cambridge professor expands on the argument in an earlier piece in Prospect, suggesting as did Polly Toynbee, that migrants drive down social standards, that we have hidden unemployed of our own etc.

Reading back through its internet archive, I see that Prospect is replete with such pieces Indeed, it seems to have be the house magazine for the new anti-immigration modernizing left. Liberal-left anti-immigration discourse which seems to be an outgrowth of Euston Manifesto style critiques of multi-culturalism, the ‘defensive anti-racism’ of the old left and UK political Islam and its battering ram concept, ‘Islamophobia’ . Kennan Malik writes well on the rise of political Islam and the apparent failures of the left. This seems to have been kicked off ina set of anti-multi-culturalist, ‘civic’ argument by its editor David Goodhart in 2004. In a lengthy (reprinted in the Guardian), he argues, that in the UK we are too diverse enough/too diverse, lack common values and a common identity and have reached the limits of sustainable diversity. Goodhart also cites the ‘progressive’s dilemma’ pointed out to him by liberal conservative David Willetts: the more diverse a society, the lower its level of solidarity and collective provision, as we (citizens) will only be happy for high taxes and see high social transfers to those we feel are (to borrow the BNP slogan) ‘people like us’.

I was familiar with bits of the Goodhart argument from various causally read pieces of over the past 2-3 years, reading through more carefully, I was nonplussed not so say I am disturbed. Despite the exemplary left- liberal/social democrat pedigrees of those writing, the underlying arguments seem crude, crudely welfare chauvinist. Quite why rising numbers mean the sustainable limit of cultural diversity has been reached now (as opposed to say in 1960s and 1970s or at some future point) is – stock comments about water resources and house building in the South East apart – never adequately explained. The US is has huge rates of migration, huge ethnic diversity and functions well. The Prospect writers are not of the old left, so they should perhaps not be too discomforted by the prospect of a move to US style economics and social policy going with US style diversity. Indeed didn’t Thatcherism already create a liberal economy? And isn’t embracing a competitive economy market forces trademark of the modernizing left? I suppose their answer is that we don’t do the civic patriotism of the US that well, but what in that case have all the endless debates about Britishness been for? Can we take it has read that Britishness has had it and we will have to make do with Englishness? There number of English flags visible across the commuter belt post-World Cup from the train is striking? Why is France, whose civic republican model co-existed with migration debates driven for years by the Front National suddenly a model?

Ultimately, the Prospect/ Rowthorn/Rowthorn/Toynbee arguments seem a morbid set of culturally pessimistic arguments barely indistinguishable from those of the UKIP and Monday Club right. Like them more a wail of frustration that society is already too diverse for comfort and we cannot turn the clock back and create a Swedish style welfare state with Swedish levels of ethnic homogeneity. Not having any real answer to the problems of citizenship, national identity and position of some ethnic and religious minorities it diagnoses – often very acutely – the Prospect stable of writers have continued politically cross dressing in the discarded clothes of the right. The new anti-immigration politics of the left – in which Poles, Romanians, Somalis, and Kurds are all equally part of the problem – is probably also a convenient way for these writers to avoid facing some of more intractable issues around values and identities among existing British citizens. Saying ‘Shut the door’ (or even shutting the door) won’t resolve these one iota.

David Goodhart’s latest response – that of a Blairite ‘Third Way’ ‘progressive nationalism’ – to glue together a ‘cosmopolitan minority’ of liberals and the
nationalistic, collectivist working class grassroots of Labour voters through a concept of national citizenship, putting Britain and Britons first (another old National Front slogan – they do seem to just slip in to summing up Goodhart’s thinking rather easily). Frankly, if I – I guess as part of the ‘cosmopolitan minority’ – was inadvertently part of this ‘progressive coalition’ I would want to leave.

The anti-immigration liberal-left will, I suspect, not establish a clear Third Way, but like George Orwell’s pigs one way or another, end up indistinguishable from those on the conservative right they historically opposed – largely, I think, because of a fixation with national identity, national citizenship and the national state. The concept of national citizenship might be meaningful for say, the Czech Republic, but seems sadly irrelevant for a post-Imperial already multi-cultural (or as the Goodhart would have it ’Balkanized’) UK, even if voters may not have caught up with this yet.

>Czech politics: ODS leader’s relationship with fellow MP led wife to mount Senate challenge

>Lidové noviny (17 August) citing various Czech tabloid newspapers reports strongly suggests that Civic Democrat leader Miroslav Topolánek has been having an affair with fellow ODS MP Lucie Talmanová (pictured left), recently elected one of the Czech parliament’s deputy speakers as something of a surprise candidate for ODS. Topolánek and his wife are reportedy in the process of separating. In this light the decision of his wife Pavla Topolánková to run for the Czech Senate against his party makes rather more sense– as an act of personal revenge by a woman who has tried, albeit sometimes rather maladroitly, to influence her husband’s political career (staging photocalls, offering advice) and also seems to have political ambitions of her own (‘…to be President or a Senator…’ as she said in a previously little noticed interview). Admittedly the longrunning negotiations over forming a government overran the deadline for candidates to the Senate to file nominations. Lidové noviny’s commentary today that she is a ‘third rate Hillary’ doomed to lose her election bid is politically accurate if rather harsh.

In interviews with todays’s press (LN, MfD) Talmanová herself (pictured above) denies that she andTopolánek were having an affair and despite the predictable questions about how much she spends on clothes comes across as dignified and serious. Her political profile has risen hugely, but given the fairly vicious sexism of the Czech media, her career may be badly damaged.

On the whole, I think the story will still weaken Topolánek politically too….

>Czech politics: Civic Democrat leader’s wife to stand for opposing party

>You have to feel a little sorry for Czech Civic Democrat leader (ODS) Miroslav Topolánek. As if winning an election with a record vote and then having to negotiate a minority government and agree your ministerial choices with the opposition Social Democrats isn’t bad enough, now even his wife is against him – at least politically. Pavla Topolánková – depicted as a Barbara Bush or Nora Major style Hausfrau during this spring’s election campaign – is to stand for the Czech Senate for the new instant Politika 21 party created by independent Euro MP and ex-newsreader, Jana Bobosíková. “As I didn’t get an offer from ODS, I decided to stand for Politka 21” Mrs T is reported as saying

The party, which is contesting about half a dozen Senate seats has a few
other non-political candidates, has a populist anti-political programme of abolishing the Senate, direct presidential elections, cutting down the number of MPs and investigating their property, slashing bureaucracy and resisting the demands of the Sudeten Germans and the Catholic Church. The programme is essentially that of the Independent Democrats group founded by ex-TV magnate Vladimír Želežný for Bobosíková was elected to the European Parliament in 2004. Hapless ODS senatorMilan Balabán will have to face Mrs T. in her (and Mr. T’s) home city of Ostrava.

The Czech Republic certainly needs more women in top level politics and also needs to stop the often scurrilous targeting of the prominent women politicians it does have There is also no reason why couples shouldn’t both be involved in politics, even for opposed parties – former Social Democrat Education Minister Petra Buzková was married to Josef Kotrba, a leading free market economist and member of the right-wing Civic Democratic Alliance. In political terms, however, Topolánek, who presents the image of a bluff conventional Czech borec, is likely to come out with his already shaky authority further weakened. When he is toppled as ODS leader, will he be spending more time with his family, I wonder?

>Warfare, welfare and politics by other means

>BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight reports from Beruit suggest that the widespread destruction of infrastructure and weakening of state structures will increase Hezbollah support, because they will be best placed to supply reconstruction assistance and welfare. Someone should do some research about the use of welfare and educational structures as means of building political power.

Some, for example, have seen a parallel between Islamicist movements’ strategy of building up social and education institutions – a common pattern across the Arab world – and the ‘new evolutionist’ strategy of bypassing the communist Party-state used (or at least theorized) by n dissidents in East Europe in 1980s. There, however, the parallels probably end. Sinn Fein’s strategy of building up republican advice centres and nationalist community organizations in West Belfast during 1980s is perhaps another point of reference. There are also echoes of the traditional European mass political parties of 19th century (Social Democrats, Christian Socials) ‘encapsulating’ their chosen social constituencies in a web of affiliated and cultural organizations

>Bit of culture, bit of politics…

>US academic Andrew Roberts, Assistant Professor of Political Science at North Western University in Chicago (not be confused with the right-wing British historian of the same name) not only writes some very decent political science analyses of democracy and policy reform in CEE, but has also written an excellent book on Czech popular culture, in fact, a usable and entertaining guide to all peculiarities of Czech life from pub menus and nursery rhymes to political terminology. Similar material by Roberts can be found in a couple of (infrequently updated) blogs, one a spin off from the book, one a feature on Seldom Asked Questions about the Czech Republic.

Most hard pressed British social scientists, alas, tend to be too buried by administration and teaching or caught too tightly in the jaws of the Research Assessment Exercise categorizations to show such breadth…

>Václav Klaus and Richard Cobden

>In today’s FT Samuel Brittan, the mercurial veteran neo-liberal – ‘classical liberal’ as he prefers to style himself – writes a sceptical review of the British Moment the manifesto for ‘democratic geo-politics’ on now familiar wavelength of the Euston Manifesto of the new breed of muscular liberals endorsing involvement in Iraq and beyond. In the same piece Brittan also reviews a pamphlet opposing the new liberal imperialism, which takes a hostile obviously Tory, realist perspective (both pamphelts interestingly were published the same right-wing think tank, the Institute for Social Affairs).

Brittan sympathizes with scepticial assessment of democratic geo-politics/liberal imperialism of the second, but not its dismissal of universal liberal rights. We need, he argues, a Cobdenite liberalism framed in the spirit of the mid-19th century anti-Corn Law, anti-imperialist free trader, Richard Cobden – sceptical about state power both in the domestic socio- economic policy and the international geo-political arena. The Cato Institute, do this an up-to-date version of this, he says in another (critical) review (of Irwin Steltzer’s Neoconservatism)

So, is Václav Klaus, Central Europe’s most outspoken liberal opponent of the Iraq War and liberal imperialism a Cobden-ite? As a defender of the right small nations in Europe in a recognizable C19th way – for Austria-Hungary, just read European Union – it’s tempting to think so. And indeed Klaus has fairly dismissive things to say about US neo-cons, who are too big spending and convinced of America’s special mission rehape the wolrd (aka its ‘extended interests’). And the Cato Institute did publish an English langauge collection of Klaus’s writings back in 1997.

But as I read Klaus– and God knows, for academic reasons I do read enough of him – VK tends to is more culturalist than Cobdenite, tending to suggest (usually in his more out-of-the-way writings) that non-European cultures are not really capable of sustaining free institutions, but perhaps assuming that free trade and other forms of economic co-operation can solder any gaps between civilizations. The messianistic desire to remake the world with big guns and big ideas, he suggests, must be resisted with a good dose of hard-headed Czech pragmatism (provincialism, say his critics). and a good dose of self-interest and good look at the map. If we are free, prosperous and sleep safely in our beds, he implies, that is enough.

Many Europeans I suspect, are, in this sense ultimately Czechs at heart – perhaps even in Britain, where liberal imperialism tends to perculate through the national psyche in strange and unexpected ways, drip, drip, dripping its way subsconsciously into such varied progressive projects as New Labour or the Europhile thinktanks pressing for EU waking tall(er) in the world with a well organized foreign and security policy stamped “Made in Britain” on the back. But that’s another story….

>Christopher Hitchens on Trotsky

>Fireworks in a recent discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives programme. Invitee Christopher Hitchens chose as his ‘great life’ that of Leon Trotsky. Although no longer a man of the left apparently, Hitchens wanted Trotsky as his great life and wanted to discourse effusively about him in plumy tones pretty much from the perspective of his student days in the International Socialists.

Presenter and ex-Tory MP Matthew Parris and historian Robert Service did not, however, let him get with this, quickly raising the issue of Trotsky’s endorsement of state terror and his chilling view of men as violent apes without tails, a remark that de Maistre would have been proud of. Quite true, said Hitchens and terror was well, sort of necessary in the circumstances etc – a tired old far left defence, both morally and politically dubious, although I wasn’t clear if at and at what point his endorsement of Bolshevik regime want and whether he thought the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising a turning point or not.

When Hitchens sought to avoid addressing Trotsky’s contradictory attitude towards the Soviet regime and the question of what a Trotsky-led USSR of 1920s been like (bureaucratic and repressive, but with slower industrial development, a small private section, a smaller gulag and decent literary criticism, I suspect) Hitchens waffled about the importance of a programme and certain political generation etc. Why then, they, asked why he had chosen to speak on Trotsky at all if his personal qualities and views were of no real interest? Here Hitchens lost his cool and seemed about to walk out. However, they then they then cut the tape and finished the programme with a short, uncomfortable edited-in final exchange.

Interestingly, given his pro-intervention stance on Iraq Hitchens briefly mentioned the Trotskyist pedigree of leading US neo-cons, but didn’t unfortunately discuss the linkage between enthusiasm for world socialist revolution and the neo-cons later enthusiasm for that other great project of historical optimism: global democratic revolution. Does it inform his own view? Sadly no one asked.

Robert Service’s forthcoming biography of Trotsky is certainly to be looked forward to, although Isaac Deutscher’s beautifully written three volume classic will be a hard act to follow.