Saturday, November 30, 2013


Alan Posener grumbles about the German electoral system.
Since the SPD, the Left and the Greens already hold a majority in parliament, the temptation for Gabriel to break with Merkel in, say, two years to form a "red-red-green" coalition with himself as chancellor could become irresistible. And then Germany will be in real trouble. As I said, in other countries you get more or less the government you voted for. Not here.
Er ... well if they have a majority in Parliament in a proportional system, then a majority did vote for them. More people voted for the CDU than for any single one of these parties by a long way, but aggregate their votes and they represent the choices of more people.

This lamentation rehashes the fashionable pessimism of the wealthy. Raising the minimum wage is derided as a sop to anti-capitalist feeling, whilst he moans that, "Germany is over-reliant on industry and underperforms in services". (This when German industry has given us Bosch and Volkswagen and services gave us the banking crisis and tax avoidance*. Each to his own I suppose).

The heart of the article is annoyance that the right did not win outright, so he longs for a system that might have made it possible. And here there are two broad choices. The first sees elections as a way of producing a single party government composed of the largest single minority, the other as one that ensures that a government is made up of parties that can aggregate a majority of electoral choices. Germany, and most other democracies, have the latter, sometimes hedged round with conditions and judgements about acceptability to keep out anti-democratic parties. Britain has the former, though that too can produce coalition as we now know only too well. And as we also know, the nature of that coalition depends on how supine the minority partners are.

*And yes I know that is unfair, but it is a good line. Tough.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


There was something heart-warming about hearing the words, "ner, we dern't have Cerke, sorry, we only have Pepsi." It meant I was back in Hull, if only briefly for football, feeling guilty about not having the time to contact friends before we rushed back after the match. What is more, I was supporting the opposition.

It was my first visit since the announcement of the City of Culture award, a perfect occasion for football fans' love of ridicule. Hull City supporters sang, "You're only here for the culture", Palace fans replied with, "City of Culture, you're having a laugh". They stood no chance. The City crowd sang back, "We're cultured and we know we are", followed by a chorus of, "We're only here for the concert". The Palace fans laughed and gave them a round of applause, totally outshone by one of the charms of this strangely loveable place; self-deprecating pride.

I am glad they won the award. It is deserved. After years of being stereotyped as somewhere that represents the worst of everything, a poor, Northern backwater, Hull is being celebrated for all the good things that flourish in, well, poor, Northern backwaters. If you, like me, think that the worst of Britain is the twee, gentrified places and the deadening suburbs, you will appreciate Hull.

All promotional videos are corny, but I still liked the one below. Much marketing of towns and cities is based on the theme of, 'it's not like that really', almost apologising for them. They like to pretend that working class places are really middle class at heart. Hull didn't go for that line. Well, it couldn't do that with a straight face. It is sanitised, of course, but it made a virtue of being down-to-earth; celebrating the poetry of ordinariness in a place that is anything but ordinary.

Most people who go there, whatever their initial impressions, know one thing. Hull grows on you. And I will be back very soon to see my pals before I head off to Greece for Christmas. It always feels good, even if circumstances took me away. And sometimes I feel an ache that I don't live there any more.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


The world is too strange to be sinister

Here we go again

"They are pressing us to adopt policies that are crazy"
Yes, the Troika of lenders are back in Greece.
"There is no way the economy can stabilise if they keep pushing us to cut more and more," said Prof Gikas Hardouvelis, who was in charge of economic policy under the previous, technocratic government. "In my view, the economy is about to stabilise and it could easily be undone if they keep insisting on more measures," he added.
 The killer statistic that measures the success of austerity in reducing debt is this one:
Greece's debt-to-GDP level would reach about 179% this year compared with 120% when the country received its first bailout in May 2010.
 I wonder if the Troika use the same appointment methods as the Co-op Bank.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Doing nothing

There are two unlikely political coalitions in foreign affairs. The first is between neo-conservatives and the anti-totalitarian left. Though differing widely on social issues and political economy, they found a commonality in their opposition to tyrannical governments and support for popular demands for democracy. In addition, they saw the rise of far-right, ultra-violent theocracy as a major danger.

The second was also a marriage of convenience. Traditional conservatives wanted stability at any cost. Change, particularly revolutionary change, was an anathema. Foreign entanglements were none of our business. Isolationist tendencies and cautious diplomacy towards limited ends were their hallmark. They found allies on the left too. From anti-militarists to anti-imperialists, their policy mainstay was to avoid war at any cost. Jihadi movements were seen to be either a temporary aberration, a product of western actions, or, horrifyingly, an anti-imperialist ally. And with Syria, it is this coalition that is in the political ascendency.

The first group has been pushed to the margins. This is because the change they advocated through intervention has not proved straightforward, a lack of patience that ignores the gains and highlights the difficulties, and a failure to think about the consequences of non-intervention. Stability sometimes has a terrible price tag for the people it is inflicted on. The interventionist coalition's relegation has led to an abandonment of commitments, a scaling down of involvement and an acceptance of the rule of barbarism abroad, whilst abstaining from any 'quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing'. Yes, we have been here before.

This combination of stability at any cost and the avoidance of war at any cost has produced paralysis in the face of the Syrian tragedy. Ironically, it has also led people who are quick to preach revolution at home to run a mile when confronted with a real one abroad. And Syria is a real revolution. Excuses are trotted out and very strange alliances forged. Amongst all the arguments and speculation we rarely see consideration of the consequences of inaction. What on earth would Iraq be like with Saddam still in power? What horrors would the Taliban still be visiting on the Afghan people? Would this be stability? Would it be peace? In Syria, we now know.

The left/conservative coalition have wriggled out of every commitment and let the Assad regime, armed by Russia and supplied with fighters by Hezbollah, inflict grotesque violence on the Syrian people for the crime of demanding change in an oppressive police state. And at the point when protest turned to uprising, there was a choice. Support the revolution or let it run its course unaided. With UN action blocked by counter-revolutionary states, the west chose the latter with Obama leading from behind once more.

Revolutions are messy affairs. Whatever their early ideals, they can result in unseemly power struggles and the settling of old scores. There can be unintended consequences and they can unleash further repression instead of liberation. To back them is a gamble. But when there is a popular rebellion against such an unambiguously evil regime, how can you refrain from some sort of solidarity when the consequences of standing by were being made perfectly clear by the regime's tanks, planes, torturers and death squads? Yet there was one more twist to the plot. Jihadists have filled the space opened up by non-intervention. Apologists for the Assad regime and the anti-intervention coalition could not believe their luck. They had their reason now, a 'there are no good sides' argument. Incredibly, it takes an essay on a pacifist organisation's web site, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, to point out that this is not true. The good side are the Syrian people and their autonomous self-organisation. They deserve solidarity as they persist in the face of murder.

In the meantime, the FSA, the closest to a secular, democratic opposition force, are begging for support as they face a war on two fronts against a murderous state supported by Hezbollah and mainly foreign militias allied to Al Qaeda. So far, none has been forthcoming. The fear of an islamist victory in Syria is the reason given to deny support to the only non-islamist force.

And the legacy that the abstention of the democratic world is leaving behind is suspicion, hatred and a deep sense of betrayal. The loudest voices calling for intervention are Syrian. But as they are met with mumbled sophistries, Syria slowly dies. And the consequences of inaction are made clear in these two pieces. First, Terry Glavin follows up his four part reportage from the refugee camps in Jordan by concluding that:
From the Mediterranean Sea at Latakia to Anbar province in the Iraqi desert, the vast swath of the Middle East where Syria used to be is now just a patchwork of jihadist mini-emirates, regime-held enclaves, warlord fiefdoms and small pockets of democratic resistance under the control of the Free Syrian Army. This is the “worst-case scenario” we’ve been hearing about for the past two years... 
Syria is gone.
Sara Assaf is more chilling
Today I can't help thinking that if the whole world let us down and if the only way left to stand against Assad is empowering those jihadists, well then yes, what other choice do we really have? Today I understand why many across the Arab world share this same sentiment. Today I grasp why Sunni terrorism is prospering so quickly to fight Shiite terrorism. The atrocious images stemming daily from Syria are simply fueling a sense of injustice stronger sometimes than any voice of reason. The West has in parallel failed to effectively support the moderate forces across this region. Extremism and radicalism are thus gaining momentum over tolerance and moderation. The "guy next door" who suddenly disappears – only for his parents to know days later that he's fighting inside Syria – is becoming more and more of a common story here. The Sunni mainstreamer who used to cheer moderate leader Saad Hariri and who now follows a jihadist sheikh is also a pattern we see more of in Lebanon.  
To the West I say: Expect a whole new breed of terrorists in the decades to come. Because of your inaction, and somewhat complicity, terrorism is blossoming inside Syria and the whole region. And it won't remain "inside" for long.
Seen in this light, the caution of Western foreign policy appears reckless in the extreme.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Different worlds

I suppose I live in two places. I spend much more time in Greece since my retirement. After a brief trip for some warm autumn weather and wrestling with Greek bureaucracy, I got back to the chill of Manchester. Living these lives is rather like having two coats. One is sumptuous, warm and attractive. It fits well, even if it rubs in places. The other is old, shabby and lets in the cold. But it has these useful little pockets and is so familiar that I can't quite bring myself to throw it away. This week I have been dressed scruffily. Never more so than in enjoying the Rugby League World Cup.

The success of the tournament has been ensured by a surprising outbreak of sanity by the organisers. The matches have been played at the right venues at the right times and at the right price. It has been marketed well and there has been much community involvement with amateur choirs singing at all events and local schools participating in pre-match events. Big crowds have resulted. I was at a full house in Leigh to watch terrifying South Sea Island tackling as Tonga took on the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands may even have won their first ever World Cup game if it had not been for two strange mistakes - playing the ball facing the wrong way and throwing the ball away over the line.

Then to Salford's new, poorly situated stadium, wearing my Swinton shirt of course, to watch the USA lose to Scotland. What a lovely unpretentious sport it is. And that was brought home by the sad death of Steve Prescott. He would have been remembered simply as a good player if it had not been for cancer. The diagnosis spurred him on to defying his prognosis and plunging into formidable acts of fundraising, setting up his own Steve Prescott Foundation. There will be tributes at every game and all of them will be wholehearted.

Urban Northern England seems a long way from Pelion in rural Greece, but it has its own charms. I suppose two coats suit me at the moment until one finally wears out.