Friday, 29 April 2011

Of revolutions, royal weddings and referenda

Having managed to get away from the hurly-burly of the hype-mill associated with everything media-oriented for a while my return to the grind brings with it a fresh sense of perspective on what we're looking at.

Just a few months ago a wave of popular disorder disgraced the protest marches which wended their way through Britain's national and provincial capitals, with sporadic outbreaks following all the way down to more recent weeks. Orthodox wisdom credited new communication methods as providing the means for a practical innovation which could help build a new activist political movement - Tehrani flashmobs were cited as examples where an autonomous anti-establishment mood could flourish and bloom despite dictatorial controls and pervasive censorship, which in turn helped stimulate the so-called Arab Spring across that region.

Rather than being instituted by dubious politicians in dusty statutes riddled with dirty caveats freedom of information is instead carrying the masses and is being confirmed as a perennial necessity equivalent to any chartered right.

But the fightback has already begun.

The News of the World phone-hacking scandal and the subsequent furore over super-injunctions should suggest that the failure to provide any sense of standards transformed the cherished liberty to know into a peculiarly British bun fight, one which just coincidentally happened to explode in time for the Easter holidays... with a hot cross (mildly embarrassed) scottie.

Well, at least it heated up just long enough for the debate over changing from crosses to numbered preferences to be pushed completely from the front pages, and again just in time to be relegated by the more traditional tabloid fare of the original uber-celebrities doing what they do best: holding a right royal knees-up.

Whilst our national culture seemingly gets evermore dominated by and saturated with footballers and comedians it can sometimes come as a bit of a surprise that this ingrained ritual is still capable of replacing more practised spontaneity, but it is and it's a sign we're such masters of it in this country that we can swing further faster from one extreme to the other; from satire and shock at 10 o'clock, to satin and silk at 11 o'clock. Who can distinguish between actually massively popular and actively massively promoted any more?

In a sense this question is the same as that facing voters when it comes to how we wish to vote in future.

The difference between Britain and, say, Syria, is a matter of openness.You might get carsick stuck in a tailback as you attempt to reach Stonehenge for dawn at the solstice each year, but your first glimpse of Palmyra through the twilight from the camel caravan will be a once-in-a-lifetime never-to-be-repeated capture-the-goosepimples pilgrimage. Where radicalised Syrians are pitching themselves into a violent existential struggle, us more phlegmatic Britons are trying to muster the energy to get our knickers in a twist over how we'll decide what to get disappointed over next.

It's the same underlying questions of liberty and authority, but it's the completely opposite way of handling the situation; communicating back and forth about it and quantifying opinion to a level where a legitimate mandate can be used to reinforce the effective mandate which state power could (or at least can try to) enforce.

And this is where the role of intermediaries becomes significant. Even having a blog to express an opinion becomes a location which creates a duty to do exactly that. Organised media functions through a veil of connections, and though you shouldn't ever call it propaganda you can be sure someone is still pulling the strings in an attempt to influence you.

I'll admit I'd recently got out of the habit of watching, listening or reading casually to anything which could attach itself to a 'News' category - for the simple reason none of it was new, all of it was highly predictable and where the adverts were less interesting than the real thing I started to get distracted by looking for the bias. All too often the art of influence is as much in what you exclude from comment as what you include, and this creates an ambivalent atmosphere where even if it's a slow news day and you end up blatantly manufacturing gossipy headlines or spinning the same political hook the skill in catching and netting opinion can be found in manipulating running orders and juxtapositions more commonly than in any typically emotive languange. It's hypnotic. It's osmotic. It's pure contextualised understatement which gets you without realising.

'Mere coincidence', they disclaim - so you can bet there won't be many documentaries on how the Charles and Diana spectacular in 1981 distracted patriotic attention from the inner-city race riots and steepling unemployment of that time. And again they'll disclaim that this is 'only proper' since Wills and Kate should be freed from the ever-present spectre of that previous farcical romance to prevent besmirching the occasion ...the undercurrent which dare not speak its name!

This does all create a sort of balance if you think about it. Neither do they shout boastfully about what they are actually doing, nor do they tip any wink to what they hope they can avoid mentioning.

Yet at the same time the mood of the crowd before, during and after will be decisive in shaping attitudes. The intensity of focus on the event will be huge (and it will be because a sunny May morning to do a live OB from St James' is both plum and a peachy pick), but, unfortunately for those in Syria, Libya and elsewhere, unrivalled.

The vast array of sideshows and spin-offs will provide ample opportunity for individual and reflected social self-expression. And this will all be formulated in the ceremonialised format for widespread public discourse - like the biggest village fete you ever saw. With millions on the streets and congregating out in the open, nudging and barging through the crowds you won't be able to hide your hints (and you'll be lucky to hang on to your cocktail sausage on a stick).

Each of the choices, from the guestlist and the seating arrangements to the music and their manners will be pored and agonised over. Will you say she looks just wonderful? or will you weigh up whether you prefer her dress to the 30-year-old ivory and pearl extravaganza? Will you keep your eyes open for and scream at any gaffe, quickly acknowledge any occasion before moving on, or just revel in the spectacle?

And will you remember that the eyes on you make you part of the feedback system and capable of changing minds too?

Whatever you do decide consider how you made your mind up, and while you do, maybe you can spare a second for all those people elsewhere seeking shelter from the tanks and bombs which restrict their ability to speak out.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

On the road to Tripoli and the limits of 'liberal' intervention

Back and forth they go, where they 'll stop nobody knows.

With each swing of the pendulum towns such as Misrata, Ras Lanuf, Brega and Ajdabiya are becoming ever more familiar - helped not least by the caravans of journalists who follow so fast in their own footsteps that they're almost waving at their own shadows.

Reports are that the Libyan anti-Gadaffi faction have recaptured Sirte, again. It is the third time they've held the town, so far. And they will expect soon to be driven back.

So they're not holding the ground, they're engaging in an ongoing cut-and-thrust over the heads and under the feet of the ordinary population who are both the supporters and potential victims of whichever occupier is current.

As the fluid situation is prolonged and drags out with no end in sight so more eyes turn to Libya as symbolic of something deeper.

The Ottoman Turks conquered the country in the...Image via WikipediaThe land is the meeting point of three distinct historical tribal regions - Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and the Fezzan desert confederacy in the south - each of which can trace separate and distinct political cultures back to pre-history and the populations who lived along the ancient trade routes.

So ultimately how this internal confrontation between the three factions plays out reflects a wider political and philosophical battle which will only be decided by the context imposed by the international community.

In many ways for the Security Council to reach agreement on implementation of UN resolution 1973 was a triumph for Britain's David Cameron, however it's vague and general nature is a marked change from previous legal justifications for intervention in essentially internal affairs. Those were clear and clearly broken in equal amounts, a paradox which heralded fears of a renewed imperial age.

Humanitarian intervention in the modern era has undergone a succession of shifts dictated by the global power balance of the times.

As the imperial order collapsed it became clear the established powers could no long justify the capacity to maintain colonies and the ideological superblocs of capitalism and communism stepped into the breach - each arguing they provided a greater common good, but neither attained hegemonic status.

It was only following the emergence of the non-alligned movement in 1961 at the height of the Cold War and the Cuban crisis (coup, corruption, revolution, failed invasion and de-escalation of the nuclear threat) that a progressive way forward became a possibility by re-establishing the principles of self-determination, multi-lateral cooperation, support for human rights and sustainable economic development - and it was this which gradually paved the way for the collapse of the regimes behind the Iron Curtain.

So it is interesting to note the response of the NAM which both condemns the no-fly zone while simultaneously 'silently justifying' it on the basis that internationally-recognised human rights and freedoms are being flouted by Gaddafi.

To critics on both right and left this sounds suspiciously like either a messy compromise or a dirty betrayal, and worse still it suggests a spineless lack of moral leadership on the specific issue of who should be in charge and how government should be organised.

Control is, however, a temporary deceit. For a more profound understanding of the direction of this conflict it's necessary to look beyond the two adversaries to see not just where they are coming from but also what they are really fighting over.

Typically this crisis is mediated for simplification into a battle between the authoritarian militarism of one man and his lineage and the democratic freedoms of the masses, with each side advancing and retreating along the coastal motorway in turn. They say you can't stop the spread of ideas, and it would seem to be borne out by the circumstance, though we have yet to find out whether the ideas that fill the heart to face the tanks or those which fill the tanks to crush hearts and minds will be the ones which prevail. This is the debate which occupies the minds of commentators the world over.

But I beg to differ - except for the violence being committed by both sides I am glad neither is gaining the whip hand with which they would be certain to wreck their revenge with worse reprisals once western and eastern eyes alike are averted. When lives are lost, nobody wins.

The ongoing confusion is forcing the debate to be played out in the open court of public opinion, requiring the eventual victor to concede greater fairness, and implicitly creating a dependence on the widest possible form of participation.

So we return to the fundamental question: what are each side fighting over?

In the political sense they are fighting for protection afforded by a civil order, for economic well-being, for opportunity and jobs.

But in a real sense they are fighting over the roads.

The roads are the physical infrastructure on and along which people, ideas, goods and services are transported. The same ancient routes which were the foundation of Libyan cultures are the cornerstone of modern Libyan society.

Throughout the colonial period to the post-colonial period Africa has traditionally had a poor track-record of cooperation as outside powers discouraged contact between their spheres.

It is only relatively recently that the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the African Development Bank together with the burgeoning African Union and regional communities accepted infrastructural development underpins economic development and trade as the only reliable way to alleviate poverty.

And it is only because the political argument against border restrictions and economic restrictions as a way of aiding mobility, providing choice and combatting corruption has built sufficient political will for greater levels of integration to enable paved roads to be built across the continent.

As the map shows the battle for Libya is being fought along Route 1.


We can only wonder which route it will take next.

If this is to explain anything it is as a criticism of the grand gesture of interventionism: historic routes are the roots of modernity, and it is only by maintaining them to the highest modern standard that civilisation can be prevented from getting stuck in the mire of barbarity - roads are not built overnight, so the relationships which are fostered along them must be continuously cultivated to keep them fresh and relevant.

Instead of aiding Africa to permanently fix political and economic inequality, we should encourage Africa to develop respect for improvements that last. Too often satisfaction at one job done turns to complacency, neglect and corruption: Africans and westerners share the blame for allowing new nations to be born into a vacuum, and now the consequences are catching up with the solutions

Though this is a typically British failing it's not a uniquely British failing. What's not needed is rejection of the temporary occupations which follow military action.What is needed is to head off any need before it happens: integration, not intervention.

And just like the residents along the coast road to Tripoli who see them come and see them go, people in Libya, as everywhere from Afghanistan and Burma to Yemen and Zimbabwe, need to know that their well-being is our security just as our well-being is their security.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Little Ed and the titanic TUC tactics

I find it completely bizarre that the 'March for the Alternative' was held on the Saturday after the budget.

Normally one would think if you are trying to influence events you exert pressure beforehand, not after.

The budget is a standing event in the Westminster calendar and organisers will have prepared their tactics well in advance - they have to seeing as nowadays Police must be informed of any demonstrations and everything down to the babysitter requires booking.

So you'd only hold a march after the budget if the event you're trying to influence was not the budget.

And with other regular marches and demonstrations planned to reenergise the previously demoralised activist base this is something they are obviously trying to build from, not to - they wanted to make a splash and they had to be bold to fit into the news agenda seeing how earthquakes and tsunamis and civil wars and massacres were squeezing space from the headlines.

And nobody can possibly blame little Ed's Labour and his Trades Unions for the violence in Piccadilly after they successfully ponied up to 500,000 people to the capital, can they?

But if you start to consider the organisers deliberately planned to coordinated a massive expression of frustration which could never have any retrospective effect on votes in the Commons which had already taken place then you have to wonder if they couldn't have done more to dampen potential anger, or if they were only interested in stoking it.

Well, you have to applaud Ed Miliband - he certainly doesn't do anything to rouse a crowd!

Or maybe - upon reading Boris Johnson's own analysis of little Ed's speech - you can start to understand that it was intellectually dishonest of him to even take the podium in the first place and the march organisers were twisting his arm to adopt an even more revisionary set of policies which reversed any commitment to cut of the deficit, and they had deceitfully manipulated him into a position where all he could do was drown out his pious mumbling about the dull details of an economic policy which almost completely agrees with the government by juxtaposing it with hollow overblown comparisons to heroic social campaigners.

This is because Labour don't represent any alternative whatsoever, Labour represent the opposition (well, the official one at any rate). What alternatives they do propose amounts to a hodge-podge of hastily hatched disagreements with each individual aspect of policy in turn to allow them to pander to whichever oppositional gallery they're playing to that day - not any coherent programme, as they readily admit, they're 4 years out from the next general election.

I have to say I get angry when I hear little Ed and his rivals assert something is wrong with the coalition policy. It may well be (and there are plenty of specifics which you could identify), but that's not the point - if anything at all is right with the coalition then little Ed's position is wholly delegitimised by his (and that of his shadow chancellor's) position as Gordon Brown's two main henchmen who are responsible for what went wrong.

It doesn't matter whether they were the direct cause of the problems or not, it happened on their watch so they must take responsibility. Until they do they are tarnished bads and unelectable anchors weighing their party down.

They may say the coalition is shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic, but they were pilot and navigator when it hit the iceberg.

They may say the design of the ship was considered state-of-the-art, but they were sailing too far to the north in unseasonal weather conditions under pressure from the line operator in full knowledge of the potential, and with satellite GPS tracking, virtualised sonar, every digital age gizmo and gadget and a whole army of pointy-headed prophets at their disposal - none of which they used and all of whom they denounced for talking out of turn when they spoke up of their own accord.

They may condemn the unpleasant events which surrounded the public appearance, but it was set up for his benefit and if he is happy to be publicly unhappy then he needs to look in the mirror.

He may be married to a reputable musician, but she certainly hasn't taught him to hit the right note or cover-up his tendency to sound tone-deaf - music to my ears he certainly isn't.