David Cameron has good taste, as he is a big fan of The Smiths. Unfortunately for him, Morissey and Johnny Marr are no fan of the British PM. This yesterday became the subject of debate in the House of Commons, when a Labour MP asked questions about the raise of tuition fees.
It’s on: despite a cyberattack on their website just hours ago, WikiLeaks has published more than 250,000 classified diplomatic cables from American embassies around the globe. In major newspapers, there’s now talk about a worldwide diplomatic crisis.
What’s in it is, well, huge and encompassing, with lots and lots of information on countless international matters.
The United States was catapulted into a worldwide diplomatic crisis today, with the leaking to the Guardian and other international media of more than 250,000 classified cables from its embassies, many sent as recently as February this year.
At the start of a series of daily extracts from the US embassy cables – many of which are designated “secret” – the Guardian can disclose that Arab leaders are privately urging an air strike on Iran and that US officials have been instructed to spy on the UN’s leadership.
These two revelations alone would be likely to reverberate around the world. But the secret dispatches which were obtained by WikiLeaks, the whistlebowers’ website, also reveal Washington’s evaluation of many other highly sensitive international issues.
These include a major shift in relations between China and North Korea, Pakistan’s growing instability and details of clandestine US efforts to combat al-Qaida in Yemen.
Among scores of other disclosures that are likely to cause uproar, the cables detail:
• Grave fears in Washington and London over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme
• Alleged links between the Russian government and organised crime.
• Devastating criticism of the UK’s military operations in Afghanistan.
• Claims of inappropriate behaviour by a member of the British royal family.
The US has particularly intimate dealings with Britain, and some of the dispatches from the London embassy in Grosvenor Square will make uncomfortable reading in Whitehall and Westminster. They range from serious political criticisms of David Cameron to requests for specific intelligence about individual MPs.
The cache of cables contains specific allegations of corruption and against foreign leaders, as well as harsh criticism by US embassy staff of their host governments, from tiny islands in the Caribbean to China and Russia.
The material includes a reference to Vladimir Putin as an “alpha-dog”, Hamid Karzai as being “driven by paranoia” and Angela Merkel allegedly “avoids risk and is rarely creative”. There is also a comparison between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler.
The cables name countries involved in financing terror groups, and describe a near “environmental disaster” last year over a rogue shipment of enriched uranium. They disclose technical details of secret US-Russian nuclear missile negotiations in Geneva, and include a profile of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who they say is accompanied everywhere by a “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse.
The electronic archive of embassy dispatches from around the world was allegedly downloaded by a US soldier earlier this year and passed to WikiLeaks. Assange made them available to the Guardian and four other newspapers: the New York Times, Der Spiegel in Germany, Le Monde in France and El País in Spain. All five plan to publish extracts from the most significant cables, but have decided neither to “dump” the entire dataset into the public domain, nor to publish names that would endanger innocent individuals. WikiLeaks says that, contrary to the state department’s fears, it also initially intends to post only limited cable extracts, and to redact identities.
The cables published today reveal how the US uses its embassies as part of a global espionage network, with diplomats tasked to obtain not just information from the people they meet, but personal details, such as frequent flyer numbers, credit card details and even DNA material.
Classified “human intelligence directives” issued in the name of Hillary Clinton or her predecessor, Condoleeza Rice, instruct officials to gather information on military installations, weapons markings, vehicle details of political leaders as well as iris scans, fingerprints and DNA.
The most controversial target was the leadership of the United Nations. That directive requested the specification of telecoms and IT systems used by top UN officials and their staff and details of “private VIP networks used for official communication, to include upgrades, security measures, passwords, personal encryption keys”.
They are classified at various levels up to “SECRET NOFORN” [no foreigners]. More than 11,000 are marked secret, while around 9,000 of the cables are marked noforn. The embassies which sent most cables were Ankara, Baghdad, Amman, Kuwait and Tokyo.
Some nice movies are coming up. I’m still waiting for Black Swan to be released in the Netherlands; and here’s the trailer of The King’s Speech. In it, Colin Forth plays King George VI, the monarch of Britain during WWII, who was hampered by stuttering. I kind of like Colin Firth, and the Salon review below is also promising.
I went to “The King’s Speech” completely prepared to dig in and resist it: a British period piece, suffused with imperial nostalgia, about a member of the royal family nobly battling a disability. Trustworthy people told me they loved it, but I knew better. Could such a movie be anything but sentimental claptrap, a prettified picture of a long-gone era when kings behaved like kings and commoners knew their place, shamelessly crafted to lure Oscar voters?
Maybe not. There’s nothing I can tell you about “The King’s Speech” that contradicts that description, except that resistance is futile. It’s a warm, richly funny and highly enjoyable human story that takes an intriguing sideways glance at a crucial period in 20th-century history. Its star performance, and probably the best reason to see it, comes from Colin Firth as the monumentally awkward Prince Albert, or Bertie, who became King George VI unexpectedly in 1936 after his older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicated to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
There is an element of rose-tinted nostalgia, perhaps, in Hooper’s loving and precise evocation of imperial Britain between the wars. But even more than that, there’s an appreciation for its peculiarity and fragility: The clipped, fruity BBC accents, the top-hat crowds at “industrial exhibitions” and horse races, the late-Victorian sense that the British monarchy, even with its wings clipped, is the very center of the universe — all of that is about to give way to a new order. George VI not only had to deliver a crucial 1939 speech telling his people that they were going to war with Germany (that scene provides the film with a half-manufactured climax), he also presided over the rapid dissolution of his great-grandmother Victoria’s empire. He would be the last English monarch to also be designated emperor of India and king of Ireland; by the time his daughter became Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, there was a new, nuclear-armed Yankee sheriff in town and Britain had become a second-rate power at best.
Hooper’s direction is straightforward and unshowy, pretty much in the mode of high-end British TV. This is a picture full of old-fashioned audience satisfaction, and one that should garner numerous awards nominations for its cast.
Boris Johnson, my favourite television comedian (and Mayor of London), has a scathing column in The Telegraph, already a week old but still relevant, on the legacy of George W. Bush. And note: this is a prominent politician of the Conservative Party in Great Britain.
Johnson, with his flamboyant Oxford demeanour, is, I believe, not always taken seriously, but with this piece he decidedly redeems himself, in my view.
It is not yet clear whether George W Bush is planning to cross the Atlantic to flog us his memoirs, but if I were his PR people I would urge caution. As book tours go, this one would be an absolute corker. It is not just that every European capital would be brought to a standstill, as book-signings turned into anti-war riots. The real trouble — from the Bush point of view — is that he might never see Texas again.
One moment he might be holding forth to a great perspiring tent at Hay-on-Wye. The next moment, click, some embarrassed member of the Welsh constabulary could walk on stage, place some handcuffs on the former leader of the Free World, and take him away to be charged. Of course, we are told this scenario is unlikely. Dubya is the former leader of a friendly power, with whom this country is determined to have good relations. But that is what torture-authorising Augusto Pinochet thought. And unlike Pinochet, Mr Bush is making no bones about what he has done.
Unless the 43rd president of the United States has been grievously misrepresented, he has admitted to authorising and sponsoring the use of torture. Asked whether he approved of “waterboarding” in three specific cases, he told his interviewer that “damn right” he did, and that this practice had saved lives in America and Britain. It is hard to overstate the enormity of this admission.
“Waterboarding” is a disgusting practice by which the victim is deliberately made to think that he is drowning. It is not some cunning new psych-ops technique conceived by the CIA. It has been used in the dungeons of dictators for centuries. It is not compatible either with the US constitution or the UN convention against torture. It is deemed to be torture in this country, and above all there is no evidence whatever that it has ever succeeded in doing what Mr Bush claimed. It does not work.
It does not produce much valuable information — and therefore it does not save lives. Of course we are all tempted, from time to time, by the utilitarian argument. We might become reluctant supporters of “extreme interrogation techniques” if we could really persuade ourselves that half an hour of waterboarding could really save a hundred lives — or indeed a single life. In reality, no such calculus is possible. When people are tortured, they will generally say anything to bring the agony to an end — which is why any such evidence is inadmissible in court.
All the policy has achieved is to degrade America in the eyes of the world, and to allow America’s enemies to utter great whoops of vindication.
[If] your end is the spread of freedom and the rule of law, you cannot hope to achieve that end by means that are patently vile and illegal.
How could America complain to the Burmese generals about the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, when a president authorised torture? How can we talk about human rights in Beijing, when our number one ally and friend seems to be defending this kind of behaviour? I can’t think of any other American president, in my lifetime, who would have spoken in this way. Mr Bush should have remembered the words of the great Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who said in 1863 that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty”. Damn right.
If you ever only see one documentary about drugs, let it be this one. The acclaimed BBC series Horizon episode “Is alcohol worse than ecstasy?” examines the dangers of the 20 drugs most commonly used in the United Kingdom.
It does this based upon a qualification by a group of scientists, composed of Britain’s leading drug experts and members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). This group in 2007 published an article in The Lancet (to be found here), in which a rational scale for assessing the danger of drugs was developed. This scale took the form of a list, in which the 20 drugs were ranked according to potential harm.
In Great Britain, regulatory policy regarding drugs consists of a classification along three categories: Class A (most dangerous), Class B and Class C (least dangerous). Alcohol and tobacco are not included in the categorization. This approach, on the face of it, seems better than the Dutch system of ranking substances either as “hard drugs” or as “soft drugs”, as it allows for more nuance. There are, however, a number of problems with the British system. The system was invented in 1971, whereas a substance like ecstasy was added to it in 1977 – way before it was used the way it is today. This leads to a rather weird categorization: while lsd, mushrooms and ecstasy are ranked alongside heroin and crack in Class A, dangerous stuff like ketamin is ranked alongside sleeping pills in Class C.
The research group therefore wanted to develop a new method for assessing the danger of drugs. They did this by employing three criteria. The first of these is personal harm; what a drug does to you if you take it in. The second one is addictiveness; how fast you get hooked to it. The third one is societal harm; how much damage it can do to those around you and society at large.
Based on these criteria, and after consultation with other experts, the researchers assembled their list of twenty drugs, in order of harmfulness. And the results are remarkable. While, unsurprisingly, heroin and cocaine top the list as the most dangerous drugs, other results are counterintuitive (that is, if you base everything you know on media reports): alcohol and tobacco, for instance, turn out to be far more harmful than lsd and ecstasy, while marihuana is not the innocent drug it is often proclaimed to be.
Here’s the list (with some interesting graphs alongside it, click to enlarge):
4. Street methadone
16. Anabolic steroids
19. Alkyl nitrates
So the place of ecstasy on this list, as the documentary has it, “massively conflicts with its reputation”.
Another report, this time by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs itself (from 2009, to be found here), based on a 12-month study of 4,000 research articles, addressed this particular issue. Ecstasy is a substance that has been the victim of a relentless media campaign. The report even addresses this: during the 1990s in Scotland, for example, every instance of a fatality involving ecstasy was widely reported on, while only a fraction of (far more frequent) fatalities with other drugs were reported on. Similar observations regarding media publicity can be made regarding Australia (see this report) and the Netherlands (see this report by the political party D66).
According to the researchers, however, ecstasy’s bad reputation is unwarranted. First of all, ecstasy is not physically addictive (it can, of course, like any drug, be psychologically addictive). Second, ecstasy is not harmful to society (ecstasy turns users into empathic softies, whereas alcohol and cocaine can make users prone to violence; the number of hospitalizations of ecstasy users is negligible, and nearly always due to combining it with other drugs; and just compare it to the million-wide addiction to alcohol and tobacco). The true danger is personal harm. Metastudies (pdf) reveal, however, that personal dangers predominantly arise in cases of chronic and excessive use.
All researchers in the BBC documentary make clear that media reporting about ecstasy has been biased and overblown. Quote:
It’s not a drug that’s hazard free, by any means. But having said that, many thousands of people in the UK have tried it, and a good proportion of those people derived pleasure and a good experience from it. So I’m not going to sit here and say that it’s a very dangerous drug.
The position of ecstasy near the bottom of the list was defended by Prof Nutt, who said that apart from some tragic isolated cases ecstasy is relatively safe. Despite about a third of young people having tried the drug and around half a million users every weekend, it causes fewer than 10 deaths a year. One person a day is killed by acute alcohol poisoning and thousands more from chronic use.
Thus, the researchers and experts of the ACMD in their 2009 report made the policy recommendation to the British government that the ABC-classification scheme needed revision: ecstasy needed to be downgraded to Class C, while alcohol, tobacco and marihuana needed to be included and upgraded to Class B and A. In addition, Prof. David Nutt, chair of the ACMD, wrote a paper for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies of King’s College, London (to be found here), arguing along the same lines.
The researchers’ conclusions, however, did not match the political considerations of their employers. Hours before publication of the ACMD report, the Home Office sent a letter rejecting beforehand two of three policy recommendations. When David Nutt published his paper, moreover, he was immediately sacked by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary.
This, however, led to a great deal of protest, as the ACMD in response threatened with mass resignation. The Guardian(here’s more):
The government was at the centre of a furious backlash from leading scientists last night following its sacking of Britain’s top drugs adviser.
The decision by the home secretary, Alan Johnson, to call on Professor David Nutt to resign as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has thrown the future of the respected independent body into severe doubt. There were claims last night that many of those who sit on the 31-strong council – which advises ministers on what evidence there is of harm caused by drugs – may resign en masse, raising serious doubts about how ministers will justify policy decisions.
Several were this weekend seeking urgent reassurances from the government that it will not try to control their agenda and will allow them to speak out before they decide whether to quit. One is said to have already resigned.
That’s a lot of intro, but here’s the BBC documentary. While informative in its entirety, the remarkable conclusions are, of course, that ecstasy is not nearly the dangerous drug it is portrayed to be; and that alcohol, were it invented today, would immediately be listed a Class A drug. I think that’s something to think about.
For some reason, images of Britain and London always work well in post-apocalyptic or otherwise futuristic imaginings (see, for example, the movies 1984, Richard III, 48 Days Later, V for Vendetta, and Children of Men).
The series london futures, currently on display at the Museum of London, imagines the impact of climate change related events on the city of London.
Climate change is central to London’s future. It will affect every aspect of the city, from buildings and public spaces to the way Londoners live and work.
What impact will climate change have?
A display of 14 arresting images will be on display at the Museum of London from 1 October 2010 to 6 March 2011. Like ‘Postcards From The Future’, familiar views of the capital have been digitally transformed by illustrators Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones.
The display brings home the full impact of global warming, food scarcity, rising sea levels and how all Londoners will need to innovate and adapt to survive. Examples of the striking images that will be on show include Parliament Square put to work as a rice paddy, ice skating down the Thames, Buckingham Palace surrounded by a sea of shanty housing and the Gherkin occupied by thousands of eco-refugees highlight the shocking realities we could face.
The result is a number of forceful pictures:
The climate refugee crisis reaches epic proportions. The vast shanty town that stretches across London’s centre leaves historic buildings marooned, including Buckingham Palace.
The Royal family is surrounded in their London home. Everybody is on the move and the flooded city centre is now uninhabitable and empty – apart from the thousands of shanty-dwellers. But should empty buildings and land be opened up to climate refugees?
Traditional rituals have altered beyond recognition, along with the climate. Here, on Horse Guards Parade, horses have been replaced by camels – animals that can withstand the heat of the parade ground. The change was controversial but the London Tourist Board argued strongly in favour. Tourism remains important for London’s economy.
From a North American (or even in Australia, my current home away from home) Cohen’s patience and near silence while the right-wing negotiations proceed is jarring. Instead one would expect Cohen to take every opportunity to rail against Wilders’ potential involvement in governing as well as against the other potential coalition partners for allowing Wilders to even get near such an opportunity. Cohen could easily have added pressure to the already splintering CDA. And his incentive seems to be clear enough: if the current right-wing talks had failed to deliver a coalition agreement, the next iteration of negotiations would likely have included Cohen’s PvdA front and centre.
Harper also had some comments on minority governments and coalitions, given that Cameron is the head of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
“Losers don’t get to form coalitions,” Harper said, in a shot apparently aimed at Canadian opposition parties…
“And of course this coalition in Britain, I would note, doesn’t contain a party dedicated to the break up of the country. And these were, as you know, the two problems in Canada, the proposition by my opposition was to form a coalition with the purpose of excluding the party that won the election and for the purpose of including a party dedicated to the break up of the country,” Harper said.
The British situation has some “instructive lessons for Canada,” he added.
Harper made the most of the opportunity to misrepresent not just the Westminster system and responsible government, but also a nearly formed coalition set on ending his grasp on power shortly after the last Canadian election. Without getting into all the gory details (see link below for more info), the key point is this: Harper in facing down a potential coalition consisting of the centrist Liberals and social democrat New Democratic Party that relied on the separatist Bloc Quebecois in much the same manner that Rutte and Verhagen will rely on the Islamaphobe Wilders, launched into all sorts of invective to (effectively) turn public opinion against the coalition effort.
A fiery Harper, in turn, accused Dion of “playing the biggest political game in Canadian history,” saying the [then] Liberal leader would recklessly attempt to govern the country amid a global economic crisis under threat of veto by “socialists and separatists.”
The over the top rhetoric hit its peak when Harper’s Conservative Party sent out Member of Parliament Daryl Kramp to the mic to address the proposed coalition’s effort to unseat the government and gain an opportunity from the Governor General to govern in its place:
“This is over the top now. This is a coup d’état. It makes us look like a banana republic. The only difference here is there’s no blood, thank goodness.”
To those paying attention, like prominent Canadian pundit Paul Wells, Harper has already made clear that nearly two years later he intends to continue to campaign on much the same lines:
On Sept. 14 in a wedding hall in Edwards, Ont., Harper said, “Friends, next time the choice will be either a Parliament where we Conservatives have the majority of seats, or one where the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois have the majority of seats.”
Pay no attention to the opposition’s current silence on the matter, he said. “Regardless of what they tell you during an election, they will form a coalition the day after that election is over. Last time they waited—and they found out that that meant they couldn’t get away with it without having another election.” He said the opposition could never campaign on an explicit promise to form a coalition. “They would have been slaughtered.”
I’ve noticed this line of argument repeatedly from Harper over nearly two years, and written about it often on my blog.
His speech last Tuesday at the Canadian Club of Ottawa was expected to be about the Canadian economy. Instead, it turned into a highly partisan rant about an “Ignatieff-NDP-Bloc Québécois Coalition” that will take over and bankrupt the country unless the Conservatives are elected to a majority.
Flaherty used the word ‘economy’ eight times in the speech. He referred to the coalition 14 times.
The speech, less than 24 hours after Parliament reopened for the fall sitting, ended any premise of civility and co-operation between the government and opposition and automatically had the election-speculation meters running.
While I would have been much more happy had the negotiations for the forthcoming right-wing Dutch government fall apart, and I have no particular sympathy for CDA, I do have a great appreciation for Cohen’s willingness and ability to reinforce the perception of Netherlands’s more consensual politics by not taking up the opportunity to vilify his opponents for the sake of grabbing power. And to be clear, this is not a call for the end of politics (what would I do with that half of my waking hours?!?!). But, there is much to be said for a more mature brand of politics than that currently practiced by governments and opposition alike in Canada, the United States or Australia.
Now hopefully the Netherlands’ seemingly inevitable new right-wing government will self-implode before they cause too much damage…
Of course challenges to my argument are most welccome!
For the first time in history, the Australian outcome means that every key ‘Westminster model’ country in the world now has a hung Parliament.These are the former British empire countries that according to decades of political science orthodoxy are supposed to produce strong, single party government. Following Duverger’s Law their allegedly ‘majoritarian’ electoral systems (first past the post and AV) will typically produce reinforced majorities for one of the top two parties.
But now the table below shows that four of the five key countries have coalition governments in balanced parliaments where no party has a majority. The one exception is Canada, where the Parliament has been hung since 2004, across three general elections. But somehow Canadian politicians have still not got the knack of constructing a coalition government.
These developments do not mean that the whole of the ‘Westminster model’ concept should be ditched quite yet though. Although Duverger’s Law is clearly dead, and the idea of using a voting system to artificially create Parliamentary majorities is on its deathbed. But in all five these countries, the executive is still in a powerful position relative to the legislature. This is especially true on budgeting issues, as a new book from Joachim Wehner clearly demonstrates.
Yet although‘Westminster model’ countries continue to share a powerful institutional heritage, it seems doubtful that the electoral aspects of the model can ever be the same again. For the UK’s forthcoming referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote, this recognition that the world as a whole is changing towards more complex and multi-party politics may sway some more voters and politicians towards backing reform.
In the United Kingdom, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron does what Barack Obama doesn’t have the spine for: launch an investigation into the complicity of British intelligence officers in the abuse and torture of terror suspects.
David Cameron today ordered an unprecedented inquiry into evidence and allegations of British complicity in the torture and abuse of terror suspects.
But he immediately moved to ensure the courts would no longer be able to disclose damning evidence which, he implied, could jeopardise intelligence sharing with the US.
Honouring a promise while in opposition that he would set up a judge-led inquiry into mounting evidence, emerging mainly from court hearings, the prime minister told the Commons he had asked Sir Peter Gibson – a former appeal court judge who privately monitors the activities of the intelligence agencies – to “look at whether Britain was implicated in the improper treatment of detainees held by other countries that may have occurred in the aftermath of 9/11″.
He said that while there was no evidence that any British officer was “directly engaged in torture” in the aftermath of 9/11 there were “questions over the degree to which British officers were working with foreign security services who were treating detainees in ways they should not have done”.
Though he did not point directly to a particular case, he made clear he was referring to evidence disclosed by the high court that MI5 knew about the abuse of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident held incognito in Pakistan in 2002 before being secretly rendered to jails in Morocco, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on our intelligence services and allegations made about the treatment of detainees.
For the past few years, the reputation of our security services has been overshadowed by allegations about their involvement in the treatment of detainees held by other countries.
Some of these detainees allege they were mistreated by those countries.
Other allegations have also been made about the UK’s involvement in the rendition of detainees in the aftermath of 9/11.
Our services are paralysed by paperwork as they try to defend themselves in lengthy court cases with uncertain rules.
Our reputation as a country that believes in human rights, justice, fairness and the rule of law – indeed for much of what the Services exist to protect – risks being tarnished.
Public confidence is being eroded with people doubting the ability of our Services to protect us and questioning the rules under which they operate. And terrorists and extremists are able to exploit these allegations for their own propaganda.
Mr. Speaker, while there is no evidence that any British officer was directly engaged in torture in the aftermath of 9/11 there are questions over the degree to which British officers were working with foreign security services who were treating detainees in ways they should not have done.
About a dozen cases have been brought in court about the actions of UK personnel including, for example, that since 9/11 they may have witnessed mistreatment such as the use of hoods and shackles.
This has led to accusations that Britain may have been complicit in the mistreatment of detainees.
The longer these questions remain unanswered, the bigger the stain on our reputation as a country that believes in freedom, fairness and human rights grows.
We need to restore Britain’s moral leadership in the world.
Is it really possible that a government, against the trend in all Western societies, in particular Britain and the Netherlands, actually cuts back on the expansion of the surveillance state? Will CCTV be partially ended, biometric passports be scrapped, limits put on the extent to which government can spy on people digitally? Will civil liberties be safeguarded? Also, will electoral reform that will update the outdated British voting system really take place? I also have to say that I admire the rule of law, public-minded discourse in which in particular Nick Clegg casts these plans, as can be seen in the citations below.
It all sounds too good to be true (for a liberal in the European sense, which I guess I am) and I think one has to be really careful. I, for one, am not an expert on the details of the British surveillance state, and have no idea about the depth of these plans; moreover, I don’t know how accurate this NYT reporting is. But most importantly, if the evolution of the Obama administration teaches us anything, it is that particularly in the area of the expansion of state power vs. civil liberties, electoral promises are easily made while more easily violated. Obama, in this sense, has been a grave disappointment. I don’t know what the reasons for this are, but my guess is that once candidates take power, they find that the powers they wield are actually quite convenient. Maybe they feel that they might put them to “good use”. Either way, we’ll see in a year or so to which extent the Tory-LibDem government has actually kept their promises.
I hope they will. And concerning the Netherlands, I hope that a possible Purple government (consisting of liberals, Social Democrats and possibly Greens) might also make advances in these areas, after eight years of Christian Democrat/Social Democrat expansion of state power.
Defying those who said it might be paralyzed by internal divisions, Britain’s new coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on Wednesday unveiled the most ambitious plan in decades for upending the highly centralized and often intrusive way the country is governed.
The plan, as laid out by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, would roll back a proliferation of “nanny state” laws, non-elected administrative bodies and surveillance systems — many of them a product of Labour’s 13 years in power — that critics say have curbed individual freedoms and enlarged state powers to a degree unrivaled by most other democratic societies.
Vowing that the coalition would end “the culture of spying on its citizens,” Mr. Clegg said it would “tear through the statute book,” scrapping a nationwide system of identity cards on which the Labour government spent huge sums, and abandoning a new generation of “biometric” passports that would hold a vastly expanded archive of personal data. In addition, he said, there would be new restrictions on the government’s right to intercept and hold personal Internet and e-mail traffic and to store DNA data from people not convicted of any crime.
Mr. Clegg said the changes would also place new curbs on tens of thousands of closed-circuit television cameras in public places — a field in which, critics say, Britain is a world leader. Those critics, have complained that despite the cameras — which the police use to trace the movement of suspects and victims through shopping centers, city streets, hospitals, gas stations and other public places — there has been little impact on crime rates over the years.
The plan would also create a fully elected House of Lords, scrapping heredity and political favor as a passport to power, and commit to a referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons. Under the proposed “alternative vote” system, candidates would have to gain 50 percent or more of the vote in their constituencies to secure election, effectively shaking up the politics of “safe” parliamentary seats that has given many M.P.’s what amounts to lifetime employment.
Over all, Mr. Clegg billed the overhaul package as the “most significant program of empowerment by a British government” since the Great Reform Act of 1832, which extended the franchise beyond the landed classes. It was, he said, nothing less than “a power revolution,” and “a fundamental resettlement of the relationship between state and citizen that puts you in charge.”
Yes, the election results of the Liberal Democrats were a disappointment, even when taking into account that in a system of proportional representation they would have double the seats that they have now.
As UK Polling Report’s Anthony Wells notes, the Lib Dems are now in second place in 242 seats, up from 188 at the last election. And the party is now within 10 per cent of the winning party in 45 seats, up from 31 in 2005. By contrast, Labour is now in third place in 232 constituencies, up from 151 at the last election. There are large parts of the country, most notably Scotland and inner city London, where the Tories were pushed into third place in 1997 and have struggled to win ever since. Some in Labour must now fear that they face the same fate.
Didn’t know this, but a number of Members of the House of Lords is maintaining a collaborative blog aptly named Lords of the Blog. It’s pretty accessible and sometimes fun to read as well. According to the “About” section:
Lords of the Blog is a collaborative blog written by Members of the House of Lords for the purposes of public engagement.
The aim of the blog is to help educate, raise awareness and engage with the public on a range of issues relating to the role and business of the House of Lords.
Contributors are, among others, Lord Norton of of Louth, Baroness D’Souza, Lord Lipsey, Baroness Young of Hornsey and Lord Hylton.
As documented yesterday, in this historic British election the most interesting part has started now. With a hung Parliament and several options to form a government, there really seems to be a constitutional impasse: while on the one hand Gordon Brown seems to have the constitutional right to stay on and try and form a government, David Cameron according to some has the moral right as the election winner to demand the keys to Downing Street 10.
A political historian can tell you that in times of constitutional fluidity, political structures are being created by actors as they go along. And in politics, this all amounts to theatre. Let’s put it like this: in an environment in which the rules are uncertain (as we have now in the UK), the rules are being created by political actors, but whose rules are accepted depends on the amount of legitimacy an actor has. And since legitimacy only exists in the eyes of others (in this case, the public, being informed by the press), actors have to make public acts, create public theatre, to gain leverage. It is about whose story, whose spin is being accepted.
This is what happens now. As David Cameron announces that he will make a statement at 2.30pm, presumably in order to demand the keys to Downing Street 10, Gordon Brown immediately moves forward, acts as a Prime Minister, lets the other parties free to engage talks, openly promises electoral reform to the LibDems and stresses the grave economic problems of today. You have to admire Labour for being so candid, for making moves so openly.
• Brown is adopting the “give them enough rope” strategy. He said he accepted Nick Clegg’s view that David Cameron should be allowed to form a government first. But he suggested that it was all going to end in tears. He said he would let Clegg talk to Cameron, but he implied that the talks would fail – and that Labour would then be in a position to open more substantive talks with the Lib Dems.
• He indicated that he has moved his position on electoral reform. Before the election Brown said that he was converted to the alternative vote (AV), a system that is not fully proportional. The Lib Dems want to go much further. Brown has just said that the public should decide in a referendum what system they want. I took that as a hint that he is open to full PR.
• Brown stressed the need for the government to respond to the economic crisis facing Europe. He has always argued that he has more economic expertise than any other leader and he seemed to be talking up the crisis to reinforce his claim to stay in office.
So now all eyes are on Cameron, whose speech is due in twenty minutes time. He will undoubtedly claim legitimacy and have a spin of his own; and the great question is whose story will be accepted. This, in turn, will create precedent and shape the political system for years to come.
- Update: In a, in my view, pretty weak speech, David Cameron first comes up with the option to form a minority Conservative government, and then talks a great deal about a “comprehensive offer” to the LibDems. This offer includes all kinds of things, except electoral reform. In this area, Cameron proposes an “all-party inquiry committee”. Well, if I was Nick Clegg, I’d be thinking twice. This is pretty meager. What’s up next is, I think, Tory-LibDem talks, which will probably not lead to an agreement, vindicating Gordon Brown’s predictions.
If the election outcome in the United Kingdom tomorrow is a hung Parliament – one in which no party enjoys an overall majority – and if Labour comes in third in terms of number of votes, yet has the most seats in Parliament, then it is constitutionally unclear who should become Prime Minister.
In many ways, these elections might become the most interesting after the votes have been counted.
There is one precedent: in 1974 the outcome was a hung Parliament as well, and then Conservative PM Edward Heath stayed on to form a government. And at that time the Tories had less seats than Labour. Translated to modern times, that means that Gordon Brown would stay on despite having lost big, and try and form a government with the Liberal Democrats. In fact, this might even happen if Labour has less seats than the Tories.
The Tories, however, are now attacking this constitutional convention, which has recently been reaffirmed by Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet secretary. According to The Independent, David Cameron is going to declare victory even if he fails to win an overall majority:
David Cameron is set to claim victory if Labour comes third in Thursday’s election even if he fails to win an overall majority.
His plan, revealed in an interview with The Independent, raises the prospect of a constitutional wrangle in which the Conservatives and Labour fight for the right to form a minority government if neither wins outright.
But, in his first comments on what he might do if Thursday’s election is inconclusive, Mr Cameron challenged the Whitehall convention that says that, if Britain votes for a hung parliament, the existing Prime Minister gets the first chance to form a government, even if his party has fewer seats or votes than its main rival. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, recently reaffirmed that this remains the position.This rule has fuelled speculation that Mr Brown could hang on and try to forge a deal with the Liberal Democrats even if the Tories win more votes and seats than Labour but fall short of an overall majority – the position reflected by the most recent opinion polls.
In 1974, Edward Heath remained in Downing Street even though his Conservative Party won fewer seats than Labour. However, talks with the Liberal Party failed to reach agreement and he resigned as Prime Minister.
Mr Cameron said: “There is convention and there is practice and they are not always quite the same thing.” He added: “In 1974 it was clear the Conservatives had lost and therefore they were out of office.”
Sources in all three parties agree it will “depend on the numbers” but admit there are grey areas which could draw Sir Gus – and ultimately the Queen – into the controversy.
And according to Next Left, the Tory battle plan that is emerging is for Cameron to declare victory, stoke up the rightwing press and demand the keys to Downing Street 10 – even if it might been a constitutional crisis with the Queen involved:
• Declare victory anyway. • Have the party’s media allies strain every sinew to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. • Insist on being given the keys to number 10 without having to talk substantively to any other party first – to avoid a coalition or any substantive policy concessions. • Make a partisan challenge to the civil service in seeking to overturn any existing constitutional convention or practice that might conceivably get in the way, or even slow this down a little. • Threaten to drag the Monarchy into political controversy for partisan advantage, by challenging the conventions designed precisely to avoid this. • Hold out against electoral reform, whatever the election result. • Threaten apocalyptic political and financial meltdown if anybody disagrees.
So, the shit might hit the fan starting tomorrow. See more on #torycoup on Twitter.
It appears almost certain that Gordon Brown will lead the Labour Party to a historically bad result in the upcoming election. It’s possible that Labour will stay in government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but that will almost certainly require Brown’s resignation as leader. Under the circumstances, it’s worth pointing out that whatever Brown’s flaws and despite the very real problems with the Labour government (Iraq, e.g.) he’s largely being punished for an economic crisis he didn’t cause, couldn’t have stopped, and has actually handled quite well. The global financial meltdown was not unique to Britain and the United Kingdom’s status as a country that’s unusually exposed to the ups-and-downs of the financial industry is extremely longstanding. The country has mostly been suffering from bad luck.
And thanks to the combination of the fact that Brown, as Chancellor, kept the UK out of the Euro and as Prime Minister has presided over substantial stimulus the British economy is actually weathering the recession pretty well. The latest news is that the manufacturing sector is surging forward and recovery is under way. Conditions aren’t great—they’re actually quite bad—but the situation is much better than what you see in other European countries.
The FT, in the course of endorsing David Cameron, concedes that “As a crisis manager, Gordon Brown has been a better premier than his critics claim” and simply doesn’t say anything about the substance of the Tories’ opposition to stimulus, a policy that had it been adopted would have sank the economy. The Economist does take this issue head-on and concludes that the Tories “were wrong to oppose the economic stimulus after the banking crash” but endorses them anyway.
Forgetting the forgettable, there are three parties we can choose from. They represent, so far as I can see, the Same, Another Same and something New and Untried. There are powerful, in my opinion, reasons for believing either that the last thing we need now is discontinuity or for believing that we need fundamental change. In other words, I can see why we might want to plough on through the debt crisis that faces us with a reliable, if unexciting administration and I can also see why we might want absolutely to alter direction and experiment with new ways of hammering out consensus, compromise and pragmatic reform. What is harder to envisage is a new driver in the same car, a change that satisfies tribal loyalties but actually achieves nothing.
Mr Cameron warns portentously that a coalition might lead to instability, economic jeopardy and “more of the old politics”. Perversely, he also rejects the need to change the current voting system, which has, he says, the merit of delivering clear results. Except this time it might not. What then? Mr Cameron’s view is that the system would work fine, if only everyone voted Conservative. This is sophistry draped in hypocrisy.
There are as many causes for regret as there are for celebration in Labour’s record. Tony Blair made peace in Northern Ireland, but he also made war in Iraq. Under Labour, violent crime has fallen substantially, but jails are full and fail to rehabilitate their inmates. In response to terrorism, crime and anti-social behaviour Labour has bought security at an intolerable cost in liberty. In place of community, we have CCTV.
The vital context for this election is the twin crises in our economy and our politics. On both issues most credit accrues to the Liberal Democrats. Their Treasury spokesman Vince Cable was prescient in warning of an unsustainable debt bubble; Nick Clegg pushed for greater openness about expenses long before the scandal erupted.
The Lib Dems have in recent years developed a habit of getting things right. They were first of the big three to embrace environmentalism, first to kick back against the assault on civil liberties, alone in opposing the Iraq war.
Nick Clegg’s party offers the prospect of political renewal that David Cameron used merely as camouflage.
The Guardian endorses the Liberal Democrats and the cause of proportional representation:
Citizens have votes. Newspapers do not. However, if the Guardian had a vote in the 2010 general election it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats.
After the campaign that the Liberal Democrats have waged over this past month, for which considerable personal credit goes to Nick Clegg, the election presents the British people with a huge opportunity:the reform of the electoral system itself. Though Labour has enjoyed a deathbed conversion to aspects of the cause of reform, it is the Liberal Democrats who have most consistently argued that cause in the round and who, after the exhaustion of the old politics, reflect and lead an overwhelming national mood for real change.
Proportional representation – while not a panacea – would at last give this country what it has lacked for so long: a parliament that is a true mirror of this pluralist nation, not an increasingly unrepresentative two-party distortion of it. The Guardian has supported proportional representation for more than a century. In all that time there has never been a better opportunity than now to put this subject firmly among the nation’s priorities. Only the Liberal Democrats grasp this fully, and only they can be trusted to keep up the pressure to deliver, though others in all parties, large and small, do and should support the cause.
Surveying the wider agenda and the experience of the past decade, however, there is little doubt that in many areas of policy and tone, the Liberal Democrats have for some time most closely matched our own priorities and instincts. On political and constitutional change, they articulate and represent the change which is now so widely wanted. Oncivil liberty and criminal justice, they have remained true to liberal values and human rights in ways that the other parties, Labour more than the Tories in some respects, have not. They are less tied to reactionary and sectional class interests than either of the other parties.
The Liberal Democrats were green before the other parties and remain so. Their commitment to education is bred in the bone. So is their comfort with a European project which, for all its flaws, remains central to this country’s destiny. They are willing to contemplate a British defence policy without Trident renewal. They were right about Iraq, the biggest foreign policy judgment call of the past half-century, when Labour and the Tories were both catastrophically and stupidly wrong. They have resisted the rush to the overmighty centralised state when others have not. At key moments, when tough issues of press freedom have been at stake, they have been the first to rally in support. Above all, they believe in and stand for full, not semi-skimmed, electoral reform.