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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Political Parry and Obama's very noisy silence on Israel/Palestine

I was intrigued to see a blog called Political Parry claiming that, on his recent state visit to the UK: "Obama did not mention Palestine/Israel at all in his speeches, and neither did Cameron. It would have had an effect on their "essential relationship"." I have attempted to post a comment on Political Parry to explain that this is not true - the President and the Prime Minister amply mentioned Israel/Palestine at their joint press conference; Mr Obama also mentioned it in his speech to Parliament. For the record, at the press conference, President Obama said: 
And at a time when so many in the region are casting off the burdens of the past, we agree that the push for a lasting peace that ends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.  I appreciate the Prime Minister’s support for the principles that I laid out last week on borders and security, which can provide a sound basis from which the two sides can negotiate.

Monday, 30 May 2011

NATO and civilian deaths in Afghanistan

As a Liberal Democrat, I support UK Government policy on the war in Afghanistan. British forces are second to none when it comes to their professionalism and their efforts to avoid civilian casualties. Most civilian casualties in Afghanistan are the responsibility not of NATO, but of the very people that NATO is fighting against. Having said all of that, it does worry me that more British media attention is not being given to the issue of Afghan civilians being killed by NATO forces. I appreciate that the killings are unintended and accidental and that NATO is doing all it can to avoid them, but I still think that there should be more British public awareness of just how many people are being killed in this way. 

If we are to fight wars, then we have to debate all of the implications of those wars, including the killing of civilians by a coalition that includes our forces. This is especially the case if we are to take the moral high ground when civilians are killed in other conflicts to which we are not a party. 

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Is anyone surprised?

Is anyone really surprised by the 'news' that Britain is "training Saudi forces used to crush Arab Spring", as The Observer puts it? Who did people think was training these forces? The Tooth Fairy? Father Christmas? The Woodcraft Folk? The country in question being the very Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we British ourselves created in 1932. Saudi-British relations have always been close, with the Saudi British Society doing a great deal to keep them so. Amnesty International offers arresting reading for anyone interested in the state of Anglo-Saudi relations, given the Saudis' appalling human rights record. So why do we train Saudi forces? Because we have certain interests in common with Saudi Arabia, as well as being critical of their human rights record, so in the world of realpolitik, we co-operate with them on certain matters, security included. I'm not sure that I see any rational alternative to such co-operation, under this British government or any other. 

Saudi forces have indeed been brutally suppressing protesters in Bahrain - does anyone think that they would not still have done this if we had not trained them? David Cameron has been roundly attacked for recently hosting the Crown Prince of Bahrain at Downing Street, although Number 10 says that Mr Cameron used the meeting to press the Crown Prince to embrace "reform not repression", and I can guardedly respect that (by the way, Bahrain's Crown Prince does have a very positive record when it comes to supporting the Israeli/Palestinian peace process).

The balance between engaging with unsavoury regimes and criticising them is always a difficult one to strike. That is a challenge with which the Liberal Democrats amply engaged in opposition, and, now that the party is in government, we find that, lo and behold, it is not a challenge that disappears or is easily met. This government, like any other British government, balances its concern for human rights with the UK's security needs and the preservation of British interests overseas. As a great supporter of the Coalition Government and its approach to foreign policy, I do not claim to have easy answers to the questions that I am raising in this post. Is it lame to say that, when it comes to human rights in this difficult context, the Foreign Office is doing the best it can to strike the right balance? Especially with a Lib Dem Minister, Jeremy Browne, responsible there for human rights, doing his impressive best to take a nuanced approach to these difficult, complicated issues.

The situation in Bahrain stinks, of course. But again, why should this come as a surprise? It's been going on for years. One has to support all constructive efforts to improve the situation for the people who live there, while recognising that this is going to take a long time and might well get worse before it gets better, a stark assessment that will come as scant comfort for the people concerned. Crucially, the presence in Bahrain of Saudi troops (and troops from the United Arab Emirates) must be seen in the context of the increasingly complicated, evolving relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

It is also crucial to consider Iran in any evaluation of what is happening in Bahrain. Iran's strategic ambitions must not be ignored. And you can't accuse the EU, including the UK and our current government, of ignoring Iran, given the sanctions that have just been announced. If you look at this video, and go in by about eleven minutes and fifteen seconds, you can see what Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has to say about Iran, and I applaud his excellent record on this.

I was fascinated, incidentally, to read this Chatham House article by Shashank Joshi about the risk of 'threat inflation' when it comes to Iran. The article pulls no punches in warning about the huge threats posed by Iran and its strategic ambitions, while also warning against the delusion of seeing a hidden Iranian hand behind every development in the Middle East. The article raises some complicated questions, as it concludes: 
None of this is to deny that Iran is likely, willing, and probably able to foment some degree of violence inside Bahrain and its anxious neighbours, if it was determined to do so. It is prudent to warn off Iran, given its history of intervention and impetuous diplomacy.
But what is more likely to render aggrieved Shia groups receptive to Iranian meddling: peaceful dialogue and meaningful reform, or bitter sectarian accusations and crushing violence?
The Saudi-led effort to vilify essentially moderate demonstrators will, in the long-term, radicalise these groups, harden confessional fault-lines, and thereby produce the very Iranian backlash on which these policies are conditioned.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Gaza: new thinking on this total mess

There's a great tradition of big things happening in the Middle East in the middle of the Liberal Democrat party conference, nicely timed to disrupt the best laid conference plans of Lib Dem Friends of Israel. Good to think that there's nothing much likely to happen in the region this September, then...Well do I remember being sat writing this piece in 2007, when I saw this news story on the BBC website, about Israel declaring "the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity" in response to the continued rocket attacks by Palestinian militants there." Although I very much doubt that this news made any difference to Conference's debate that day on the Middle East.

Friday, 27 May 2011

A welcome blast of liberalism from Liberal MEPs

Also in the JC, a nice little piece about Sarah Ludford MEP, a Vice-President of Lib Dem Friends of Israel, having scuppered attempts to block a new pharmaceutical trade agreement between Israel and the EU. Lives depend on maximum international co-operation on pharmaceuticals, so credit to Sarah Ludford and other Liberal MEPs for sorting this out.

Noises off from Left and Right - but can the centre hold?

So a group of prominent people on Israel's Left have called on EU leaders (the UK included) to recognise a Palestinian state if one is declared unilaterally at the UN in September. While several figures on the Right have condemned Binyamin Netanyahu for his declared willingness to make "painful compromises" for peace. I suggest that we expand the UK's Bank Holiday Weekend to Israel and invite both groups to take a few days off together somewhere quiet, while someone else gets on with the messy business of compromise, negotiations and give-and-take. But who? Neither Tzipi Livni nor Ehud Barak seems to be about to grasp the bull by the horns, and as for the Palestinians...The Palestinians have some good leaders and some new leaders. Unfortunately, the good leaders aren't new, and the new leaders aren't good. It is hard to feel inspired by the current situation, including President Abbas. Although I was pleased to see a (for me) unexpectedly positive Jewish Chronicle leader column about President Obama's "bold" efforts to achieve peace, the contents of which I largely agree with. 

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

US/UK policy on Israel/Palestine today

Speaking purely for myself, as a Liberal Democrat friend of Israel who obviously supports the Coalition Government, I have heard nothing from that government today with which I disagree. Quite the contrary. Certainly nothing that contradicts this speech by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at Lib Dem Friends of Israel's lunch in November. The Americans and British are profoundly right to be seeking to move forward on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, however much one can get into discussing the detail of how best to achieve that.

President Obama and David Cameron have given their joint press conference, and the President is now addressing Parliament (actually, he's just finished). Much was said at the press conference (including in the Q&A) about Israel and the Palestinians, and I don't have a transcript or video of all of that. What I do have is Mr Cameron's opening remarks. And, speaking for myself, and not on behalf of anyone else, I broadly agree with him - for the simple reason that I agree with anyone who is obviously adopting a sensible, constructive approach to the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, which Mr Cameron clearly is. Of course there many details to be argued over, but who can disagree with the Prime Minister when he says: 
...we must reach a conclusion to the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Again, I congratulated the President on his recent speech on the Middle East which was bold, visionary – and set out what is needed in the clearest possible terms:
An end to the terror against Israelis. The restoration of dignity to the Palestinians.
Two states, living side by side, in peace.
Yes, the road has been – and will be – long and arduous.
But the prize is clear.
Conclude the peace process and you don’t just bring security to the region.
You deny extremists of one of their most profound, and enduring, recruiting sergeants, weakening their calling and crippling their cause.
That’s why whatever the difficulties, we must continue to press for a solution.
Actually, I fear that he might be wrong about the "recruiting sergeants" bit; I hope he's right, but I fear he might not be. Sadly, if you look at what motivates extremists around the world, I don't believe that solving the problems of Israel and the Palestinians will stop many people from becoming and remaining terrorists, etc. I understand that I am challenging the conventional wisdom on that, and hopefully, when we finally have a two-state solution, I'll be proven wrong among the terrorists of Pakistan, Dagestan, etc - let's see. 

Meanwhile, President Abbas has said "no" to Netanyahu's latest suggestions. Whatever you think of Mr Netanyahu's premiership, I wish Mr Abbas had been like Sadat, Mandela and Gorbachev and surprised the world. If he'd said yes, he'd have been calling the Israeli Prime Minister's bluff and who knows what good might have come of it? Remember, what Netanyahu was saying is that he (Netanyahu) has said let's have a Palestinian state alongside Israel, so now it's time for Abbas to say let's have a Jewish state (Israel) alongside a Palestinian state. Mr Abbas would have been doing his people an enormous favour if he had agreed to at least explore this in further discussions.

UPDATE Here is the full transcript and video of the Cameron/Obama press conference, highly recommended as a tour d'horizon of the foreign policy scene.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The other end of the telescope - Netanyahu's speech to Congress

Sometimes in politics, it's necessary to look at events through the other end of the telescope. A paradigm shift, some call it. A hundred years ago, my party was led by a Liberal Prime Minister - a Liberal Prime Minister - who opposed votes for women, believed in Britain's imperialist subjugation of millions of people and thought that declaring war on Germany was a good idea. It has to be said that it is no longer Liberal Democrat policy to force-feed suffragettes, enslave India or start World War I. In other words, progressive opinion is sometimes wrong and often undergoes radical shifts over time. With that in mind, here is a transcript of Benjamin Netanyahu's speech today to Congress

I've already made it clear that I hold no special brief for Mr Netanyahu; I wish that Israel had a thriving liberal party and a liberal prime minister, but it doesn't, it has Mr Netanyahu, so if anything is to be achieved today, it's him who has to achieve it. It's not that I 'agree' with everything that he said, there is much that I could have wanted him to say quite differently (although it must be said that he is a very good speaker and clearly has a very good speechwriter). I don't have a video of the full speech (it came over much better on TV than on the page), so let's go with the transcript. 

What I am suggesting is that, as an imaginative exercise, people clear their minds of their pre-conceived opinions, read this speech and consider whether or not Mr Netanyahu might not have a point in some of his broad strategic arguments? His arguments will be quite different from those that are most familiar to many people reading this, and that's why I'm urging people to consider them afresh. No more than that. Here, incidentally, is the moment when Mr Netanyahu dealt most effectively with a heckler, and this clip is definitely worth a look. 

Is it possible, moving forward, that something can be achieved on the basis of these words from this speech: 
So now here is the question.  You have to ask it.  If the benefits of peace with the Palestinians are so clear, why has peace eluded us?   Because all six Israeli Prime Ministers since the signing of Oslo accords agreed to establish a Palestinian state. Myself included.  So why has peace not been achieved?  Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it. 
You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state. This is what this conflict is about.  In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes.  The Palestinians said no.  In recent years, the Palestinians twice refused generous offers by Israeli Prime Ministers, to establish a Palestinian state on virtually all the territory won by Israel in the Six Day War. 
They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.  And I regret to say this: They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists.  And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.
My friends, this must come to an end.  President Abbas must do what I have done.  I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn’t easy for me, and I said… "I will accept a Palestinian state." It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say… "I will accept a Jewish state."   
Those six words will change history. They will make clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end.  That they are not building a state to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it.  They will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace.  With such a partner, the people of Israel will be prepared to make a far reaching compromise. I will be prepared to make a far reaching compromise. 
Incidentally, we are free in Britain to read this speech if we choose to do so - I wish I could say the same for hundreds of millions of Arab people living under dictatorial regimes across the Middle East. As Mr Netanyahu also said today (and some of you won't like it, but it happens to be true):
Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights. I want you to stop for a second and think about that.  Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of one-percent are truly free, and they're all citizens of Israel!

Binyamin Netanyahu's one-liner

What was that wonderful line of Harold Wilson's? He arrived to speak at a Labour Party Conference, took the stage to rapturous applause, and said: "Thank you, my friends, for what the BBC will doubtless call a reserved and unfriendly welcome," or words to that effect. As I never tire of saying, I am a huge supporter of the BBC and its independence. That said, I was still amused and bemused to read the BBC headline "Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu defiant on 1967 borders", given that Mr Netanyahu's words on borders were one line - yes, one line - out of a lengthy speech. "Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu calls peace a vital interest" would have been an equally accurate, equally inaccurate headline. And who says that he was being 'defiant'? What, in this context, does 'defiant' actually mean? 

As always with these things, I urge people to read or watch the whole speech, if they wish to have an informed opinion on what Mr Netanyahu actually said. Interesting to see also that he was heckled. I'm not a huge fan of political heckling. If everybody shouts, how can anybody hear? It's surely possible to have a vigorous debate on Israel/Palestine that involves one person speaking at a time. How can one hear if one doesn't sometimes listen? I was also particularly struck by the following passage from the speech:
Events in the region are opening people's eyes to a simple truth: The problems of the region are not rooted in Israel. The remarkable scenes we're witnessing in town squares across the Middle East and North Africa are occurring for a simple reason: People want freedom. They want progress. They want a better life.
For many of the peoples of the region, the 20th century skipped them by. And now 21st century technology is telling them what they missed out on. You remember that desperate food vendor in Tunis? Why did he set himself on fire? Not because of Israel. He set himself on fire because of decades of indignity, decades of intolerable corruption. 
And the millions who poured into the streets of Tehran, Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa, Benghazi, Damascus, they're not thinking about Israel. They're thinking of freedom. They're yearning for opportunity. They're yearning for hope for themselves and for their children. So it's time to stop blaming Israel for all the region's problems.
Let me stress one thing. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a vital interest for us. It would be the realization of a powerful and eternal dream. But it is not a panacea for the endemic problems of the Middle East. It will not give women in some Arab countries the right to drive a car. It will not prevent churches from being bombed. It will not keep journalists out of jail.
What will change this? One word: Democracy - real, genuine democracy. And by democracy, I don't just mean elections. I mean freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, the rights for women, for gays, for minorities, for everyone. What the people of Israel want is for the people of the Middle East to have what you have in America, what we have in Israel - democracy. 
On that point, I think he is right. A glance at the headlines from the Middle East is a reminder of the range of issues facing the whole region, most of which have nothing to do with Israel. Listen, he's a conservative and I'm a liberal, so I doubt I'd necessarily vote for him if I was an Israeli citizen (and I supremely doubt that he'd have voted for me in Hendon if he was a British citizen, so we're even). But Israel only has one Prime Minister, and he's it, so one might as well listen to him if one's interested in the possibility of anything being achieved, especially as all eyes now turn to his speech later today to Congress.

Whatever Israel's friends variously think of President Obama and his relations with Mr Netanyahu, had you noticed that Palestinian President Abbas has declared himself "deeply disappointed with Obama"? The world's reporting that Obama's made this enormously important policy shift on the Middle East peace process, and President Abbas is "deeply disappointed"...If he is the best the Palestinians can do, then it is hard to feel very inspired. Fortunately, President Abbas is not the best that the Palestinians can do; the best that the Palestinians can do is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is responsible for so much of the progress that the Palestinians have made in the West Bank in recent years. It is therefore dreadful news that he has had a heart attack and it has to be hoped that he makes a full recovery.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Obama brings the Middle East to London

So, President Obama has arrived in Europe, leaving Mr Netanyahu in Washington, but if anyone thinks that the President hasn't brought the Middle East with him on this trip to London and other capitals, think again: The New York Times reports that when the President addresses Parliament on Wednesday, he "will elaborate, aides say, on the ideas he introduced last Thursday in his speech on the Arab Spring and the future of the Middle East". Talking of Parliament, I was fascinated to read this piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz about the House of Lords' recent discussion of "the detention and sentencing conditions for Palestinian minors by the Israeli military". Haaretz has also carried this scorching assessment of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's approach to the strategic challenges facing Israel. It remains a fascinating newspaper for those of us with an interest in that part of the world.

Henry Kissinger backs Obama on borders

It turns out that Henry Kissinger - another person who can hardly be labelled a liberal peacenik - strongly endorsed President Obama's approach to the question of Israel's borders on the Today Programme on Saturday; his comments on Israel/Palestine can be heard roughly three minutes, twenty seconds in and are well worth listening to. 

UK fury at US missile sales to Israel - sensational diplomatic cable

I was astonished to just read the following cable from the UK Prime Minister to the US President:
On returning from a very pleasant day's shooting at Bolton Abbey, I have just received the information that you have decided to supply Hawk missiles to the Israelis and that the decision will be conveyed to them tomorrow. This follows two years of close co-operation during which we decided that it would be unwise to supply these weapons to the Israelis...[The US Secretary of State] gave a most categorical assurance to [the British Ambassador] that your Government would consult us...To be informed on Saturday afternoon that your Government are going to make an offer to supply on Sunday is really not consultation. I cannot believe that you were privy to this disgraceful piece of trickery. For myself I must say frankly that I can hardly find words to express my sense of disgust and despair. Nor do I see how you and I are to conduct the great affairs of the world on this basis...I have instructed our officials to let me have a list of all the understandings in different parts of the world which we have entered into together. It certainly makes it necessary to reconsider our whole position on this and allied matters.
Readers will now be wondering how on Earth I obtained the Prime Minister's cable; I got it from Charles Williams' thoroughly entertaining biography of Harold Macmillan, Macmillan having sent this cable to President Kennedy in August 1962. The following day, Macmillan further cabled the President to say:
Since I sent my indignant message to you yesterday Lord Hood [Minister in the British Embassy in Washington] has telegraphed to say that he has had a talk with [the US Secretary of State] which puts a different complexion on this affair, and that what you are going to say to the Israelis today is not mainly to do with missiles, but with refugees...Meanwhile, this message is just to tell you how glad I am that my serious concern was all based upon a muddle between the various diplomatic messages. However, if you are dealing with Highlanders you must expect them to flare into a temper if they think they have a grievance. 
I'm guessing that David Cameron's cables to President Obama might be a little different in tone from those sent to Kennedy by Macmillan.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

President Obama's speech to AIPAC

Here is the full text of what the President has just said. It's always good to read such things in full. To the Right, I have to say: if this is an anti-Israel speech, what would a pro-Israel speech look like? 

Poll on President Obama and the pre-1967 borders

By the way, you'll see elsewhere on this page that I'm inviting people to vote in a poll on the question: "Is President Obama right to suggest that Israel's pre-1967 borders can form the starting point for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians?" So far, a whopping one person has voted, and 100% of that one person has voted Yes. Why not vote yourself?

UPDATE Fifty-one people voted in the end, of whom 28 voted No, and 23 voted Yes...Thanks to everyone who voted.

The Observer, the Post and those pre-1967 borders

A lot of Lib Dems read The Observer, and so will have read this piece in today's paper about the Obama/Netanyahu talks. Rather than pedantically picking holes in that article, as I easily could, I instead urge everyone to also read this interesting piece from The Washington Post, including a fascinating CBS News video about the talks (it is after all Washington, and not London, in which this is all happening). Watching Andrew Marr's BBC interview with President Obama, it is becoming clear what the President actually means when he talks about the pre-1967 borders. Let's look at the transcript. In the interview, the President said: 
...the basis for negotiations will involve looking at the 1967 border, recognising that conditions on the ground have changed, and there are going to need to be swaps to accommodate the interests of both sides. That's on the one hand.
On the other hand, and this was an equally important part of the speech, Israel's going to have to feel confident about its security on the West Bank. And that the security element is going to be important to the Israelis. They will not be able to move forward unless they feel that they themselves can defend their territory, particularly given what they've seen happen in Gaza, and the rockets that have been fired by Hezbollah.
So our argument is let's get started on a conversation about territory and about security. That doesn't resolve all the issues. You still end up having the problem of Jerusalem, and you still end up having the problem of refugees. But if we make progress on what two states would look like, and the, a, reality sets in among the parties this is how it's going to end up, then it becomes easier for both sides to make difficult concessions to resolve those two other issues.
As a friend of Israel, writing here in a personal capacity and not on behalf of any organisation, I very much understand where the President is coming from, while I remain utterly aware of the security challenges faced by Israel; I write as someone who actually supported Israel's 2009 Gaza War, which I viewed as a regrettable necessity, however much I hate war. 

Israel has previously offered to make huge concessions based  on the principle that the pre-1967 borders will be a starting point for discussions. The pre-1967 borders were created in the midst of war in 1948 and were never actually recognised, prior to 1967, by Israel's neighbours. The Green Line, demarcating those borders, apparently runs through people's living rooms. It was never a fixed, arbitrary line created by negotiations. Exact adherence to it as the border between Israel and a Palestinian state would be silly and nobody (including President Obama) is proposing that. 

If there is to be a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, then the West Bank's border with Israel will obviously be a starting point for discussions about where Israel ends and the Palestinian state begins. There will have to be land swaps, and security guarantees (including with regards to the Jordan Valley) before such a border can be agreed. It would indeed be unworkable for President Obama to propose going back to the pre-1967 borders without further discussion of where those borders begin and end. But that is not what the President is actually proposing. The next few days are going to be interesting in the extreme.   

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Matthew Parris - amusing and insightful piece on the Middle East talkerati

The glorious sunshine in London is a reminder that there really are sometimes better things for the likes of me to do than blog away eternally on the problems of the Middle East. My near namesake Matthew Parris wrote this wonderful Times piece in 2009 and I often return to it; I recommend it to you today. Not that I obviously won't be returning to the Middle East on this blog in the future, probably very soon and probably quite often, but I do very much see what Mr Parris means, as he wrote:

A weight lifted from my mind this week. I had been looking at awful pictures and reports of mayhem in Gaza, and agonising over the outpouring of commentary from apologists for one side or the other. On finishing William Sieghart's cracking column in sympathy with Hamas, I blamed Israel. On finishing Daniel Finkelstein's reasoned defence of Israel, I blamed Hamas. Hearing David Aaronovitch's argument that we move beyond blame, I inclined to this too.
But yesterday something snapped. Do I, I asked, have to have an opinion at all? The whole world is having opinions, and it doesn't seem to be helping.
Then, very faintly through the moral fog, something began to dawn. If we all decided not to think about the Middle East any more, would that actually make things there any worse? There's now a whole industry of Arab-Israeli-ologists; the conflict supports the careers of thousands of journalists, broadcasters and photographers, not to say Tony Blair's. Duos, troikas and quartets of European leaders, US emissaries, Anglican peacemakers and the like fly back and forth, issuing solemn statements... and I wonder whether the prodigious capital invested in the proposition that a story is desperately important may be subliminally egging both actors and audience to ramp it up further?
Is this dispute getting like the Corn Laws, or the Disestablishment of the Church of England, or the violent dispute in Gulliver's Travels over which end of the egg to crack - a bitter impasse whose potency future generations may struggle to explain? Objectively, how high does this conflict, in fact, stand in the grisly league table of world horrors? Would it be much worse if we weren't looking? Here's my personal new year resolution: to contribute by silence towards a larger silence.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Netanyahu peace plan?

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is due to address Congress on Tuesday.  According to intriguing newspaper reports: "The draft of Netanyahu's speech to Congress is ready, and it includes a brilliant idea. On Tuesday, that flash of brilliance will make headlines...(and) will rise or fall on some 30 words. If they are uttered sincerely, with determination and strength, they are likely to be a turning point. If they are muttered vaguely, they will accomplish nothing..." It has even been suggested that the timing of President Obama's speech yesterday was influenced by a desire to pre-empt whatever Mr Netanyahu is planning to say on Tuesday. Mr Netanyahu himself attempted to pre-empt President Obama with this speech on Monday, the full significance of which deserves to be understood. All one can do now is await Tuesday's speech with the greatest of interest.

Livni, Obama, Netanyahu and the talkerati

Has anybody noticed that Israel's opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, appears to have called for Binyamin Netanyahu to resign as Israel's Prime Minister because of his response to yesterday's speech by President Obama? Ms Livni, who leads what is actually the largest single party in Israel's Parliament, said: "An American president that supports the two-state vision is representing Israeli interests and is not anti-Israel." This is an extremely interesting intervention. 

Anyway, someone on Sky News yesterday said that the talkerati would have a lot to say about President Obama's Middle East speech. I've never heard of the talkerati before and I love that. The talkerati. I fear that if there is one thing worse than being a member of the talkerati, it is not being a member, but aspiring to be one. Let's not go there. So President Obama made a very important speech (which, incidentally, began with the glorious words: "Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you very much. Thank you. Please, have a seat") on the Middle East and North Africa yesterday. If you read it in full (and you really should, if you want to have an informed opinion on it), you will discover that most of it was not about Israel/Palestine, and actually the most interesting bits were about the wider region and its economic development, including an important role for the EU (which means an important role for the UK).

Everyone's talking about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's response to the speech (and far fewer people are talking about the equally interesting Syrian reaction, but that's another story). All eyes now turn to Mr Netanyahu's trip to Washington, about which this New York Times piece is very interesting (including providing a corrective to anyone who thinks that the UK doesn't matter in all of this). 

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Macmillan's past really is another country

I am reading Charles Williams superb biography of Harold Macmillan. Which I actually got because I'd been meaning to buy the DR Thorpe one and picked Williams' book up by accident, and I'm very glad I did. It's a superb book and a reminder of how very different the recent past was. I don't think that I like Macmillan as a man as much as I thought I did before reading this book. I had thought that as he was a great anti-Thatcher rebel and the author of The Middle Way, he might be my kind of Tory (not that I'm supposed to have a kind of Tory, as they're all irredeemable and we're only working with them as an act of necessity, in the national interest, ahead of the great day when we shall win a General Election and form a Liberal Government without them). It is hard, however, not to admire him and to warm to him as his years pass. It is impossible to dislike a man who said, at a time when Margaret Thatcher had five Jews in her Cabinet: "The thing about Margaret's Cabinet is that it includes more Old Estonians than it does Old Etonians." Oh, I know Macmillan shouldn't have said that, but interestingly, when the chips were down for Macmillan, as Anthony Julius writes in Trials of the Diaspora:
In his biography of the philosopher A.J. Ayer, Ben Rogers tells of a provision in Eton's governing statute requiring fathers of Collegers (the school's scholars) to be British by birth. Hearing of this in 1960, Ayer, an Old Etonian, wrote to the headmaster asking when and why this particular provision had been added. The answer given was 1945, in order to ensure that the College did not admit 'too many boys who, though themselves British subjects, were alien in outlook and difficult to assimilate into the intimate life of college'. The fear was that the 'over-maturity' of 'sons of Southern Europeans and Middle Easterners' might 'exert a most undesirable influence' on British boys. Ayer replied that this had 'the flavour of anti-Semitism'. Following a private meeting, at which it was conceded that the provision had been aimed primarily at Jews (because they were 'too clever' or 'clever in the wrong way'), it was agreed that the provision would be repealed within a year, and that in return Ayer would not 'go public' on the matter. But the year passed and nothing happened. Then, by chance, Ayer ran into a senior Conservative Party politician and raised it with him. He in turn raised it with the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan. An Old Colleger himself, Macmillan wrote to the School complaining of the anti-Semitic tone of the statute. Within a month, it was repealed.

AIPAC and antisemitism

I've said it before and I'll say it again - it is not antisemitic to criticise the State of Israel. Israel is a country, and any country can obviously be criticised without the critic necessarily being accused of racial or religious prejudice. So, not all critics of Israel are antisemites. But all antisemites are critics of Israel, and so some critics of Israel are antisemites. By way of comparison, I can criticise Saudi Arabia without being a racist or an Islamophobe - but if my criticisms did smack of anti-Arab racism or Islamophobia, then people would be entitled to call me on that. Those who say: "You can't say anything about Israel without being accused of antisemitism" remind me of those saloon bar bores who say: "You can't say anything about immigration without being accused of racism". 

Talking of adverts - see this one about Hamas

Following my post about a pro-peace advert in Israeli newspapers, news reaches me of another advert that ought to concern anyone who cares about Israel and the Palestinians: this one, published in some American newspapers, telling the truth about Hamas. Until Hamas fundamentally reforms, and becomes a very different organisation, it will not have anything meaningful to contribute towards peace. It will remain to Palestinian politics what the Ku Klux Klan is to American politics. Just consider the dreadful way in which Hamas treats Palestinian people living under its rule in Gaza. Hamas has to change - and change radically - if it is achieve anything positive for the Palestinian cause. At the moment, it is a deeply unpleasant and reactionary organisation, which does not believe in peace.

Israelis call for a Palestinian state

This advert has appeared in Israeli newspapers, calling for the recognition of "a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders". This impassioned call for peace has been signed by some very senior retired Israeli soldiers - tough veterans who have served their country in war - so the Right cannot dismiss this as some softy peacenik initiative. The Right can say what they like about people like me, but they can hardly accuse the likes of Brigadier-General Menachem Aviram (a former Commander of Israel's Paratroopers Brigade) of not loving his country. The signatories also include Professor Naomi Chazan, who spoke to such great effect at Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel's fringe meeting at last year's party conference. Do I believe that these people have the monopoly of wisdom? No. Do I believe that there is any sane alternative to a negotiated peace? No. Do I believe that such a negotiated peace can easily be achieved? Absolutely not. But the only way to achieve something is to at least try to achieve it, and at least these people are trying. And credit to them for that.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Ken Clarke and privacy law

I've just read the full transcript of the Justice Secretary's interview on BBC 5 Live. Whenever there's a political row about something that somebody has said, it is vital to always read the full transcript, if you want to understand the whole story. Nobody (including Kenneth Clarke) doubts that rape is a very serious, horrible crime that must result in a criminal conviction whenever it is committed. The debate is about how best to use the criminal justice system to achieve that aim. I am not an expert on the criminal justice system. I actually don't know, technically, whether or not the measures outlined in the Green Paper will succeed in cutting crime. I hope they will, and I don't oppose them, but I don't know. Neither do you, unless you've read the Green Paper (I haven't read it). I'm glad that Mr Clarke has now said: "My view is all rape is a serious crime and if I have given the impression that is not my view then that is wrong, a wrong choice of words." 

Anyway, something else: this row has overshadowed the news that Ken Clarke has just made an important announcement about something else that I am again not an expert on: privacy law. Instinctively, I agree with him that you and I are not entitled to "know about the sex lives of footballers". The key word there being 'entitled'. There's a difference between the public interest and something that the public finds interesting. What most depresses me is how many people want to buy newspapers that are full of stories about other people's private lives. I hate it when I buy a grown-up newspaper that is reporting serious news, and it's surrounded on the news stand by papers that seem to think that a celebrity's sex life is the most important news in the world today. It saddens me that so many people want to read that stuff. If fewer people wanted to read it, it would be much less of an issue. In many other countries, newspapers of that type are far less influential and are taken far less seriously. Whatever the complexities of reforming the law on privacy, I do wish fewer people wanted to know about other people's private lives in the first place. 

Monday, 16 May 2011

Simon Hughes and the road to reconciliation

So I was at this event yesterday and a guy from Peace Now gave me a flyer for an event organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues, on imagining a shared vision for Israel/Palestine in 2031, to be chaired by the Lib Dem co-chair of this all-party group, Simon Hughes. The Group hopes that "by focusing on the rising generation's vision of the world in which they want to live, fresh thinking might emerge that could help create a future for Israel/Palestine where violent conflict no longer dominates." Eight Israeli, Palestinian and Anglo-Jewish young people are involved; the first meeting will feature an Israeli journalist, an Israeli student, a past president of Oxford University Jewish Society and a potential new British immigrant to Israel. This really has to be applauded. Things like this will not, on their own, bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But they are at least a step in the right direction and at least somebody is trying. 

"Taxi for Mr Coleman!"

It's traditional for hecklers to call out that a cab has arrived for a struggling stand-up comedian who's in the middle of 'dying' on stage, to signal that it's time for him to 'get off'. One man who sadly isn't funny is Cllr Brian Coleman, the Conservative London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden. I have never had a personal axe to grind against Brian, having always got on perfectly well with him when we have bumped into each other on the local political scene. But this is now getting ridiculous; in fact, it got more than ridiculous some time ago. It is simply astonishing to read news of Mr Coleman's expenses claims as Chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA). Does Brian not realise that most working people only get a taxi paid for by their employer in extreme circumstances, not as a matter of routine? 

This follows a bizarre story in February about Mr Coleman attending an extravagant lunch to mark the retirement of a fire officer - as if the rest of us ever get our leaving do's paid for by our employer, in this instance at the taxpayer's expense! And his mother was there in her capacity as "the Chairman's Lady" - why on Earth does a modern committee like LFEPA have an official role for "the Chairman's Lady"? What is this - a fire authority in 2011, or a dinner-dance in Walmington-on-Sea circa 1943? This has all got to change. I am not surprised that Boris Johnson has condemned Brian Coleman's expenses and something must be done. But then if people choose to vote Conservative and re-elect Brian Coleman despite all this, then they have only themselves to blame.

UPDATE: My Lib Dem colleague Mark Park has also posted about this matter to great effect.

The full story from Israel/Palestine

I came in last night and looked at the news on the BBC's red button. I was saddened to read, reported as the second biggest story, that twelve Palestinians had that day been killed by Israeli forces. It is obviously very sad that these people have died, and right that it is reported, alongside stories such as this one about seven people being killed on the same day in Syria. However, the long list of red button news stories, with the Palestinian deaths reported as the world's second biggest story, did not include, at all, the news of a suspected Palestinian terrorist attack in Tel Aviv yesterday, in which one person was killed. Surely an Israeli death in Tel Aviv is as much news as Palestinian deaths on Israel's borders? Right now, although the BBC website has covered this killing in Tel Aviv, it has not put it on its Middle East News page (which leads with "Palestinians hold funerals for protests' victims"). Do some deaths (and some funerals) matter more than others?

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Nick Clegg and the truth about refugees

A poll by the Refugee Council shows that 44% of British people think that more than 100,000 asylum seekers were granted refugee status in the UK in 2009 - the correct figure is actually 4,175. Hmm, slight difference between 4,175 people and more than 100,000 people. That shows the ignorance that frequently shrouds the British public debate on asylum and refugees. Ignorance deserves to be dispelled. So I was very pleased, as the grandson of refugees who came to this country as asylum seekers, to see Nick Clegg's speech to the Refugee Council the other day, in which he said: "A country like the UK should be aiming for nothing less than the most compassionate, efficient, dignified asylum system in the world." Can anyone imagine a Conservative Deputy Prime Minister making a speech like this? I can't. The Coalition Government is making a real effort to make the asylum system both more humane and more efficient and this is a classic example of the Liberal Democrats making a difference in government.

How did the world survive?

Some of you may have noticed the world falling off its axis yesterday, as people absorbed the shock of Blogger being off-line for maintenance. How did the world cope without the important insights offered round the clock by bloggers like myself? I can only imagine that people were crying in the streets. Reminds me of when I was running 4-Tel and somebody joked that we should go on strike and I said: "Yes, we must strike! We must cut the world off from its supply of ancillary teletext. Then they'll listen." Also got me thinking again about this piece.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Albert Einstein's arrival at Heathrow

I had a great-great-great-great grandfather who had a grandson...whose name was Albert Einstein. My Mum remembers her grandmother, who had known Einstein well in childhood, flying off to visit him in America. I do not take this connection terribly seriously, as the only quality that I have 'inherited' from Albert Einstein would appear to be his hair...Anyway, I'm always interested to read new stories about him, including this one about the unearthing of the immigration documents from his arrival at Heathrow in 1933.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Bob Russell and a question of "obscenity"

I agree with the Lib Dem MP Bob Russell on many things (and not just because he signed my Downing Street petition against Territorial Army cuts), but I am not sure about his question at Prime Minister's Questions today. Mr Russell asked: "If we’re all in this together what is (David Cameron) going to do about the obscenity of a thousand multi-millionaires boosting their personal wealth by 18 per cent in the last year?" This is presumably a reference to the Sunday Times Rich List. There is nothing 'obscene' about some multi-millionaires increasing their wealth at a time of economic recovery. There is no contradiction between having good public services, progressive taxation and a strategy to greatly reduce poverty, and having a dynamic economy in which some people become multi-millionaires. It is great news if some people want to start businesses and become multi-millionaires and the more people who do this, the better for the British economy. 

Such successful economic activity can be accompanied by things like the Pupil Premium (targeting funds at the schools attended by the children from the poorest homes), increased spending on the NHS and a cut in the taxes of the lowest-paid (the last of which Bob did acknowledge in his question). As Nick Clegg said in a speech today that I genuinely think was very good (I know people are cynical when grassroots party members say things like that about speeches by the party leader, but I really believe that this is a particularly good speech and well worth a read):
As a liberal party, we are unique in being equally committed to a dynamic economy and a fair society.
We know that only a successful economy can create the jobs and opportunities for real fairness.
But we also know that free economies do not magically produce fair societies. The Government has a moral responsibility to create the conditions for real fairness – real opportunities for ordinary people. 

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Palestinian refugees suffering in Syria

I was saddened to read the BBC's report of UNRWA being unable to reach suffering Palestinians living in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, including people who urgently need medical supplies including insulin. Although, sadly, none of this is a surprise for anyone who knows much about Syria. Why, after living in Syria for so many decades (including being born there in many cases) are half a million Palestinian refugees still living in camps, instead of being allowed to become Syrian citizens if they want to? My grandparents came to Britain as refugees and were allowed to become naturalised British citizens, rather than being confined to barracks with their British-born children and grandchildren, forbidden to naturalise. Why, when all of the world's other refugees are helped by the UNHCR, which works to resettle them and rebuild their lives, does the UN have a special agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees (including people who were not refugees themselves, but are the children and grandchildren of refugees), which maintains these people's refugee status, instead of helping them to end it? Could it be because, as a former UNRWA official, Sir Alexander Galloway, said as long ago as 1952:
The Arab States do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don't give a damn whether the refugees live or die.
Remember Black September and King Hussein's slaughter of thousands of Palestinians in Jordan? Here is one interesting contribution to the complicated debate about the Palestinian refugee problem and its origins: read it,  read other things and make your own mind up.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Start the Week's Mitterrand howler

Today's Start the Week on Radio 4 involved a lengthy discussion of the legacy of President Francois Mitterrand. Denis MacShane said that the French president is both head of state and head of government, unlike in the United States where the two are separate. Ouch! France has a president and a prime minister (the latter of whom is head of government), while the American President is head of state and government. This was not just a  slip of the tongue, either, as there was then a few minutes' discussion about the supposed powers of the French presidency, predicated on MacShane's mistaken comments. So, on a heavyweight BBC discussion programme, there was a discussion for several minutes based on a false premise, with Andrew Marr saying nothing to correct matters. Forgive my pedantry, but that is just sloppy. Especially in the context of Francois Mitterrand, who, as as a Socialist president, engaged in "cohabitation" with a centre-right government led by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac - that being one of the most important aspects of his legacy, and a clear reminder that the French president is not all-powerful. Ah well. Never mind...

Sunday, 8 May 2011

London demonstration against Assad

I am pleased to see that there has been a London demonstration calling for the removal of President Assad. People like me often complain that some demonstrators care only about things done by Israel, and not about things done by other countries in the Middle East, and that's a double standard. Well, now some people have come out to say precisely what they think about the appalling atrocities being committed by the Assad regime in Syria. And credit to them for that.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Just been on Any Answers?

I called into the BBC's Any Answers? programme to say something about the local elections...If you want to hear what I said, I'm about ten minutes, ten seconds in.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Nick Clegg's message to Lib Dem party members

An email has been sent to party members by Nick Clegg, being quite open about the party's situation, but also being positive about what comes next. I am struck by the reference to the Coalition having implemented 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto, compared to only 60% of the Tory manifesto. Let's shout this from the rooftops. The email  reads:

I wanted to get in touch immediately to thank everyone who has worked so hard in the elections. This was always going to be a challenging time. For the first time in most of our memories we were fighting as a party of Government – and a government dealing with the economic mess Labour left us in.
But there is no getting away from the fact that this has been a bad set of results - both the election results for the Liberal Democrats and the referendum outcome. I am certainly deeply disappointed. I know many of you are too. I am especially disappointed that so many hardworking and dedicated councillors, MSPs, AMs and campaigners have lost their seats.
I think it is clear that we need to do more to show people in the party and beyond what we are doing in Government and, perhaps more importantly, why. Because we are achieving a great deal. The BBC estimates that we are implementing 75% of the policies of in our manifesto, compared to just 60% of the Conservative manifesto.
Of course, as Liberal Democrats, we are all bitterly disappointed that the referendum on the Alternative Vote has been lost. We will always remain passionate supporters of reform. But we must respect the will of the British people. This time, we were unable to convince them of the merits of this particular change.
We've taken a knock. But I know from experience how resilient we are as a party. For my entire life, people have sought to write off the Liberal Democrats but we've always defied the critics and bounced back. We'll do so again. We'll get back up, we'll dust ourselves down and we'll get on with what we have to do. We have gone into a Coalition Government in the interests of the country. We have a mountain to climb to bring back prosperity, jobs and hope to Britain. But it is a job we've started and it is a job we will finish. 

Notting my name

There's always one. The media always want someone, always falsely elevated (to make the story sound good) to the status of a senior Liberal Democrat, to say something negative when the chips are down and they can't find a genuinely senior figure to say it. This time round, it's our candidate for directly elected Sheriff of Nottingham, or whoever he is. Where's Robin Hood when we need him? I'm sure he's a good chap and a fine Liberal Democrat and he can say what he likes. It just amuses me to see someone who the Standard tells me is (or rather was) the leader of a group of six opposition councillors reported as if he is a person of such major significance. He doesn't speak for me, or for any other Liberal Democrats of my acquaintance.

So, a year on from polling day in last year's General Election (and that was a day and a half), here we are. Here we are. It's obviously very disappointing that so many Lib Dem candidates have been beaten, including many councillors who were doubtless very good and thus might have deserved to hold their seats. It's obviously disappointing that the No Campaign appears to have won the AV referendum. There's no point wriggling out of either of those facts, although I could say a great deal more about the electoral arithmetic of both. We lost the elections and we seem to have lost the referendum.

Why, therefore, do I remain so cheerful politically? Well, one reason is that the BNP has only won two council seats this time, which is down 11 on last time - good. Eleven out of thirteen of them thrown out by the electors - that's democracy. Anyway, more broadly, I am very sorry for Liberal Democrat colleagues who have lost, but I still see this Coalition Government as a great improvement on the government of Gordon Brown. I still see it as being good for Britain and good for the Liberal Democrats that we are in government. I remain convinced that, between now and May 2015, people can be persuaded of the merits of what has been achieved by the Liberal Democrats in government. Yes, we have compromised - and, eventually, before the next election, that can become a source of praise for my party, rather than a source of vitriol. Compromise is a good thing. We've actually delivered a lot of the things that were in our manifesto (not that many people actually read manifestos); the thing about not raising tuition fees wasn't actually in the manifesto, for what it's worth, plus (despite the headline rise in fees) the Coalition has actually introduced a better, fairer system of student finance than existed under Labour.

The polls currently indicate another hung Parliament, if there was a General Election today. That could mean another coalition. If the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition delivers the goods on cutting the deficit and renewing the economy, could the public decide that they would like it to continue for a second term? Could they then decide that they will vote Conservative or Liberal Democrat in different constituencies in pursuit of such a goal? Could the Lib Dems thus find themselves strengthened and remaining in government after the next General Election? I don't know. And nor do you. One hears, by the way, that yesterday, the Lib Dem vote held up strongly in those constituencies in which the Lib Dems actually have MPs, including Nick Clegg's seat of Sheffield Hallam (despite the loss of councillors in Sheffield over all). So there could be the same number of Lib Dem MPs in another hung Parliament at the next General Election, which, remember, is not expected for another four years. 

The Tory Lord Fowler was on the radio earlier saying not to read too much into local elections, as "we've all been where the Liberal Democrats are now". These things come and these things go. The reality remains very simple: the Coalition Government is tackling Labour's fantasy economics. Public spending is not falling. Labour was planning to increase it, but with borrowed money that did not really exist - and it is that projected increase that is being cut back, to get rid of the structural deficit. Harsh medicine indeed, but necessary, as Labour's fantasy economics was a disaster for millions of people in this country. 

When I first became politically aware in about 1985 (OK, I was fourteen!), Mrs Thatcher was running third in the polls and my party was running first. Two years later, she won a landslide General Election victory and my party came third with 22 MPs out of 650. The only thing that's predictable about politics is its unpredicability.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Poll on AV - and have you voted yet?

You'll see elsewhere on this screen that I've put a poll up asking how you're voting in the AV referendum, if you want to click on that. The polls close at 10pm. If you've lost the polling card that came in the post, it doesn't matter - you can vote without it if you go to the polling station. If you're registered to vote in elections, then you're registered to vote in this referendum. If you don't know where the polling station is, your council can tell you if you ring them up, and you can find out how to contact them if you enter your post code on this website. Now, obviously, I am confidently hoping that the Yes Campaign might win. But I was wondering, what happens if millions of people vote and there is a tie? Presumably the legislation stipulates what then has to happen. Does Jenny Watson from the Electoral Commission toss a coin? Does the Queen cast the deciding ballot? I think we should be told.

The secret of voting in local elections

Ed Miliband is quite wrong to urge people to use the local council elections to cast a protest vote against those central government policies with which Labour disagrees. If you do that, it'll be as if you've ordered an Indian meal in a Chinese restaurant. Local council elections are about who your local councillors are, and which party controls the council. It really is as simple as that. If you are voting in a local council election today, then ask yourself: Which of these candidates do I want to represent me on my local council? Given the powers that the council has, and the services that it is responsible for providing, which party (implementing which local policies) do I want running the council? Am I pleased with the way in which the council is currently run, or would I prefer things to be done differently, perhaps by another party? Churchill said that voters get the politicians they deserve. Anyone who votes on national issues in a local election will most certainly get the politicians they deserve, and more fool them - hence the need to focus instead on who you want as your councillors, who you want running the council and what you want their policies to be on the things they actually have control over.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

President Carter and Mark Regev - read, listen and decide

Many people reading this will find little to object to in President Carter's Washington Post article about the Fatah/Hamas unity deal. For me, this article demonstrates not only the benevolence, optimism and fairness that got President Carter elected in 1976, but also the wishful thinking and blindness to ugly realities that got him thrown out by the same voters four years later. I urge people to read President Carter's piece and then to listen to Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev on the BBC's PM programme (24 minutes, 25 seconds in) explaining (in an interview, in which he is fairly grilled) what has to happen if this unity deal is to help peace and not hinder it. I want there to be a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians - do you? If you do, then spend a few minutes reading President Carter's article and listening to Mark Regev on the radio, and then make up your own mind what you think about this latest development. The one thing that can be said with any certainty is that it is complicated - anyone who tells you otherwise is to be treated with great scepticism.

Ed Miliband on the case for AV

Ed Miliband's office has written an article in his name in the Standard neatly setting out why people should vote Yes to AV. This is a simple re-statement of the arguments for voting Yes, all the better for not overstating the case. Very simply, I think that the Alternative Vote is a better system than is First Past the Post, which is why I urge people to vote Yes to AV.

When I stood in Hendon last year, Matthew Offord was elected as the Conservative MP with 42.3% of the vote, just ahead of Labour's Andrew Dismore on 42.1%. Under the current system, that was it, Matthew Offord was elected - given that 57.7% of people had just voted against him, how do we know that he was actually the favoured choice of the majority? Under AV, voters' later preferences would have been used to find out who people would have preferred if asked to choose only between Matthew Offord and Andrew Dismore, the big two when the votes were counted. That is far more democratic, as either Mr Offord or Mr Dismore would then have been clearly chosen in preference to the other as Hendon's local MP. As it is, Matthew Offord wasn't clearly chosen as the local MP, because most people voted for someone else.

So that's one good reason to vote Yes to AV. Another is that it is a much more honest system, because it removes the need for a certain kind of tactical voting. Lots of people told me in Hendon that they would like to vote Liberal Democrat, but didn't feel able to, for fear of "letting the Tories in" or "letting Labour in". In other words, they felt unable to vote for the party that they actually supported, in case they split the anti-Labour vote or the anti-Tory vote and  so let in the party that they most disliked.

That's awful - in a democracy, people should feel able to vote for the party that they most want to win, rather than having to vote for some other party to keep someone else out. Under AV, those voters in Hendon could have voted Lib Dem if they supported my party, while still expressing a preference between the Tories and Labour, which would have been counted once I'd still come third and been eliminated. So nobody would have had to vote against anybody, but just vote for what they believe in, while still expressing a choice between the Conservatives and Labour. It's not a complicated system and it is an improvement on First Past the Post.

Three thoughts

  1. So Ian Tomlinson was "five times over the drink-drive limit". I didn't know that there was a drink-drive limit for walking in the street. Next time I am walking on the pavement, will I be arrested for walking without a driving licence and without valid car insurance?
  2. It is easy to be cynical about Daniel Barenboim and his concert in Gaza. But at least he's a person of good will and at least he's trying, even if peace won't be created by initiatives like this, it will be created by the hard people on all sides eventually being able to do deals (cf. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness). And it is interesting to read this report of events in Gaza, including the claim that "a journalist said he and his colleagues were harassed and beaten by the Hamas policemen when they were trying to cover a concert by Argentinean-Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim."
  3. And so it turns out that 58% of delays on First Capital Connect's (FCC) trains are the responsibility of Network Rail, and not of FCC. FCC are responsible for 28% of the delays, with other operators accounting for 13%. Another reason not to get into a blame game with FCC about delays on their lines. When I dealt with them over the problems on their Thameslink route, they were willing to listen and I believe that the service has since improved. Certainly, the FCC route that I use to and from New Barnet is very good most of the time. Those who called for FCC to lose the Thameslink franchise may wish to reflect on these figures.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Nick Clegg's Observer interview

I enjoyed reading this honest, fair-minded piece by Andrew Rawnsley, in which Nick Clegg makes a good case for the Coalition Government. This piece pretty much sums up what I think re:- where the Lib Dems are now: providing a government that is much better than Brown's Labour administration was, delivering many of the policies in our manifesto and producing results that will continue to become more apparent as the years go by. I'm constantly amazed to meet people who already seem to know the outcome of the 2015 General Election, despite its being four years away - it's all still very much to play for, if, by 2015, the Liberal Democrats have succeeded in selling the party's achievements in this Coalition Government.

Paddy Ashdown on the case for AV

This short video is a quick summary by Paddy Ashdown of the arguments for voting Yes to AV. It's  a simple re-statement of the Yes Campaign's chosen arguments, for anyone who is still making up their minds.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

EU migrants add £5bn to UK GDP

Yet more evidence that the UK gains from being part of the world's largest economy, the EU - a report showing the huge contribution to the British economy made by people from the EU's new member countries in 2004-2009. Surely pause for thought for anyone who imagines that the UK would benefit from leaving the EU. And let's remember the huge number of British citizens who live in other EU countries. We benefit enormously from being part of this.

Is there anybody out there?

No, I don't mean is there anybody out there reading this blog...In California, the Alien Telescope Array has had its funding cut by 90%. A generation ago, America believed in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and that tells you something about the country's confidence in the 1980s. Now it's decided that it's not worth the money - and that tells you that a certain mood of American optimism has arguably passed. These things are cyclical, so I suspect that it will be morning again in America at some point. But not for now.