Tag Archives: politics

Two-party systems are killing politics

The two-party system that has been the bedrock of both British and American democracy for centuries is beginning to burst at the seams. Socioeconomic stagnation and technological developments have made the concept of a big tent party virtually unworkable. It is ridiculous that one party is the most natural political home for both Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, but that is the world we live in.

Of the four major parties across the two countries, two are in open civil war and the other two are one electoral setback from it. As Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn energise party bases and horrify their colleagues, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton have only the promise of governance to hold together their quarrelsome parties. Brexit and the influence of corporate America, respectively, are proving nearly insurmountable obstacles to unity.

In the era of smartphones and social media, it is no longer possible for the same beast to show multiple faces. Parties, and politicians, must stay on message. One does not have the luxury of saying one thing at a meeting of party activists, another at a rally in the North, another at a rally in the South and another at a donor’s event. If the appearances are not officially recorded and up on a campaign’s Twitter feed in minutes, they will be unofficially recorded and shared. Not only that, but the internet era has allowed a diversity of views to flourish, one that is poorly reflected on the ground.

As Hillary Clinton noted, in some rather ironically leaked remarks, it is much more difficult now to have one policy in public and another in private. I think this should be read less as outright dishonesty, more a recognition of the above. What was once a delicate balancing game between activists, diverse groups of voters and donors has been blown apart. Instead of speaking with many voices, the party speaks with one or risks “disunity” and “infighting”.

When each party speaks with one voice and there are only two parties that really matter, this means that in terms of electoral politics, there are two voices for the whole country. This is not enough. It leads to people feeling like their voices aren’t being heard. It leads to an obsessive focus on control of the party structure (as with the disenfranchised British left’s Corbynite rebellion and the corresponding centre-left pushback), and this often comes at the expense of communicating clearly with the wider public.

The stark ideological divides produced by two-party politics mean that bipartisan cooperation is usually lauded. Even that has its pitfalls. Politicians are, almost by definition, members of the elite; one person’s “bipartisan cooperation” is another’s “elite collusion”. When you have a bugbear that is fairly common, but nobody within a sniff of power holds it, it’s hard not to feel pushed unfairly to the side. That bugbear can all-too-easily become a make-or-break issue if left to fester too long.

The route out of this is easier in the UK, which has a long tradition of minority parties achieving modest success. A coalition of centre-through-left parties could run together on this issue. They might even receive some backing from UKIP on it, too – their 4 million votes to one seat is a travesty that could turn electoral reform from a niche concern to a vote-winner. In the US, it’s harder to see a way out, but who knows what novelties the post-Trump soul search will throw up.

For the record, I’d prefer a single transferable vote system. 6 constituencies would be fused into one with 6 members, who would be elected through a system of preference voting. The mechanics are a little fiddly, but the demands on the voter are not: list the order of your preferences. It produces a more proportional result, while retaining the local aspect of a constituency MP.

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Britain and CIA torture programs: silence is deafening

So the CIA have admitted what everyone knew: they tortured people. Diane Feinstein believes that history will judge the US for facing up to their mistakes, although I think it’s more likely that history will judge them for torturing people. News reports on ITV and Channel 4 on the evening of the release of the report talked of a program going rogue, that it was a runaway train that even the head of the operation wanted off. If this is the case – that the head of the operation knew what was going down – then the question is why was it not stopped? Britain’s role in all this is unclear (meaning that our government’s dirty hands are all over it).

British officials and former PMs can wring hands, deny direct involvement and hide behind the fact that our country’s name has been redacted, but if we think that this is good enough, we are kidding ourselves. The silence of our dear Prime Minister David Cameron is deafening; the silence of former-PM Tony Blair even more so. Blair’s reaction was a “no comment”, while Cameron says that the torture claims have “been dealt with a from a British perspective”. Cameron pointed to a report by a retired UK judge into Great Britain’s role in the US’s sickening torture program as evidence that we had dealt with it. On the contrary, far from indicating that Britain was on top of things, the 119-page report raised 27 issues for further questioning.

The first paragraph of the section on further questions is illuminating:

The documents received by the Inquiry indicate that in some instances UK intelligence officers were aware of inappropriate interrogation techniques and mistreatment or allegations of mistreatment of some detainees by liaison partners from other countries. Many of these instances were reported to Agency Head Offices. The Inquiry would have wished to examine whether that reporting was adequate and, in particular, whether the Agency Head Offices then responded adequately or, in some cases, at all. There is an issue as to whether the Agencies raised allegations of mistreatment of detainees with liaison partners with sufficient vigour, and as to the adequacy of assurances sought by the Agencies. In some cases, documents indicate that the Agencies continued to engage with liaison partners in relation to individual detainees where treatment issues may have justified withdrawal or the seeking of appropriate assurances. The Inquiry would have wished to investigate whether the legality of the detainees’ detention abroad and the Agencies’ own methods of questioning were subject to sufficient scrutiny and consideration.

In short, UK agents knew of torture, and reported this to their bosses, who then also knew about torture. The heads of UK intelligence then did basically nothing in response to the torture, not even raising the issue with the US. On top of this, they continued to work with the US, including in cases they knew torture was being used. Further to these concerns, there may also be instances of torture by UK agents, but the inquiry basically wasn’t allowed to investigate them. Exactly how this represents “dealing with” the allegations is beyond me. In fact, it is essentially concrete proof, given that nobody responsible for this is in jail, that the system is utterly incapable of dealing with this.

The 27 issues that the “the Inquiry would have wished to investigate” are damning in themselves. Here are the 8 that specifically concern interrogation, the subject of the recent US reports.

  1. Did UK intelligence officers have knowledge of inappropriate interrogation techniques or detention conditions applied by personnel of other countries in some cases? In those cases was there adequate reporting back from theatres/stations and an adequate response from Agency Head Offices?
  1. Was there reluctance in some cases to raise detainee issues either at all, or sufficiently robustly, with liaison partners?
  1. Did the Agencies inappropriately continue to engage with liaison partners in the cases of individual detainees after treatment issues of concern had been identified?
  1. Was adequate consideration given to obtaining assurances from liaison partners and to the need for any assurances to be specific and credible?
  1. Was the Agencies’ own questioning of detainees appropriate having regard to the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition on coercion, threats, unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment?
  1. Was sufficient consideration given to the legality of detainees’ detention, including to whether the detention was incommunicado?
  1. Did engagement by the Agencies with liaison partners, in circumstances where there was some co-ordination on interviewing approaches/techniques, always remain within appropriate bounds?
  1. Was sufficient attention given to record keeping in relation to engagement with detainees?

These are not questions that, in a situation that was “dealt with”, would remain unanswered. The very fact that these questions are being asked by an official inquiry suggests that there is at least some level of guilt borne by the UK intelligence services; the report does not specify guilt, but with regards to what governments say about themselves, it is necessary to read between the lines. I would suggest that none of the questions have entirely satisfactory answers, and that where torture is concerned, anything but a perfectly clean slate – no ifs, buts and technicalities – is a disgusting crime against humanity.

Tony Blair, who was ultimately in charge when all of this happened, will not even be asked to say whether he knew what was going on. He will not even have to stand up in front of the public and lie to save his own skin. In a just world, Blair would be put on trial and forced to at least make a statement on what he knew. At least that way he would, if guilty, have to perjure himself and face legal trouble down the line for his complicity in such acts. It is not a just world, however. Blair, like those who were imprisoned and abused by the Americans, will not face a trial. Unlike them, however, he is presumed innocent in the face of a fair amount of evidence otherwise, while the victims of his actions have been presumed guilty and subjected to unimaginable horrors.

The report by Sir Peter Gibson is available here

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White terrorism and clashing narratives

The prosecutor in the case of Ryan McGee has “accepted that he is not a terrorist”. This is slightly strange, given that he was, at the time, on trial for a terror offence and has since been convicted. McGee, a serving soldier, had got himself a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook and produced a nailbomb, designed to inflict horrific injuries on anybody caught up in it. As well as this, he had a large stockpile of dangerous chemicals, a homemade pressure plate and live ammunition. Quite the arsenal. For all this, McGee has received a sentence of two years.

McGee did not just have the means to commit terror offences, he also had the motive. While his barrister insists that he is not a racist, it is pretty clear that at one time he was, and very possibly still is. This BBC article doesn’t even mentioned the word “racism” or “racist” once, preferring to use euphemisms like “obsessed with far-right politics”, even when there are photos of McGee wearing an EDL hoodie and, I kid you not, posing in a KKK costume in front of a confederate flag. His journal contained stories about “millions of immigrants” flooding the UK and he allegedly vowed “to drag every last immigrant into the fires of hell with me”. He also went on an EDL march and even watched videos of people being executed under a swastika, but I guess there’s no reason to jump the gun and call him a racist.

I’m not entirely clear what more he could have done to prove that he was a racist, apart from perhaps saying “I’m a racist”. Still, his barrister says he’s not a racist, and that since joining the army he’s renounced much of his far-right ideology. Furthermore, The barrister has added that, in the army, his “two best friends” were from a “different ethnic background” (no joke), so I guess he gets the benefit of the doubt on that one.

The justice system has pretty much made up its mind that McGee isn’t a terrorist, as the prosecutor “accepted that rifleman McGee was not a terrorist or intended to help a terrorist group”. What exactly one has to do to actually be a terrorist while white and right-wing is anyone’s guess. Bar actually setting off the device that he was caught red-handed with and admitted to making, it seems McGee is more or less immune from being a terrorist. The judge may have had good reason to suspect that McGee never really intended to set off the device, though this isn’t mentioned. Perhaps he meticulously plans all of his murderous plots in his weird racist diary, and this nail bomb wasn’t mentioned.

Let’s assume, however, that there was some good reason to believe that McGee never intended to use all that weaponry on people with different colour skin than him. The fact still remains that it’s very hard to imagine, in this climate of fear and stigmatisation, that a troubled young Muslim man would be shown the same level of compassion, were he in possession of similar weaponry and had an equivalent web history. An example of the compassion shown by the British establishment is that the army have been putting McGee up while he’s on trial, which is nice of them. He gets to stay in some barracks with a curfew, which is probably very different from the treatment one might face if accused of the same offence while Muslim; it is definitely hard to imagine the British army happily keeping an accused jihadist on-site.

I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that, before ascertaining via a trial whether or not McGee intended to use his weaponry, it might have been a good idea to keep him detained. The weaponry and virulently racist and violent writings and web history certainly indicate that there was at least reason to suspect that McGee might be a serious danger to others. If detention without trial and other hardline measures are needed for suspected Muslim terrorists, why not suspected white terrorists? The implicit message is that some lives matter more than others.

Again, even if the court reached a sensible decision here, it’s almost impossible to envisage a similar conclusion being reached with a young Muslim man who had kept a bomb in his bedroom. The news article reporting that he was guilty of terror offences would probably not sidestep actually calling him a terrorist and the prosecutor would probably not accept that he was “not a terrorist”. Even if the man in question had renounced violence and moved towards peaceful prayer with his religion, I find it very hard to believe that a judge would accept this claim.

When senior politicians call for the presumption of guilt, not innocence, for those returning from Syria, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are applying, in what is sadly a perfectly legal manner, a far greater level of contextual analysis and compassionate understanding to white terror suspects than we are to Muslim terror suspects. McGee’s upbringing and naivety were taken into account, his claims not to intend to use his weapons apparently taken in good faith by the justice system. While this may be possible, I just cannot imagine the same level of care being applied to a case that aligns more closely with the security paradigm of a radical Islamist threat.

When the media, justice system and other public institutions treat these cases so differently based on who is involved, it is clear we have a problem. If the British state wants its “war on terror” to look less like the stigmatisation of a minority to score cheap political points, it should probably start treating terror offences from home grown white racists more seriously, and start treating those Muslims accused of terror offences like human beings. Otherwise, it’s quite hard not to view the government’s behaviour as pretty open discrimination. Similarly, the way the media handles these cases really has to improve, though I can understand that this case is extremely bad to reconcile with their “Muslims are bad, soldiers are heroes” narrative.

If we were to apply that same level of contextual analysis to the actions of suspected terrorists who are Muslim, we might realise that this differential treatment is only going to make things worse. Anyone who grew up in the UK and wants to attack it must have serious issues with some aspects of the UK, and just blaming radical preachers is way too simplistic. When courts treat far-right white terror suspects so much better than Muslim terror suspects of colour, it isn’t hard to see how someone could begin to hate this system.

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“I take full responsibility” and other ramblings on British politics.

Politicians in the UK are not a popular bunch. From expenses to plebgate, the British political class seems to lurch from one crisis to the next, deploying the same pre-fabricated scandal response package with each successive mishap. Overall, this creates an environment in which politicians are so toxic that nobody has any interest in defending them. Personally, I have some sympathy. I often struggle to get my point across and avoid saying something potentially hurtful one-on-one to people I have known for years; trying to do the same thing for sixty million people – most of whom you have never met – is a monstrously difficult and utterly thankless task.

All-in-all, this is a situation that suits nobody. It harms democracy, in that even good intentions are often taken as bad simply because nobody has any trust for the messenger. If you appear to be concealing something, that naturally invites speculation regarding exactly what you are concealing and why. Put into an atmosphere of general mistrust, this invites wild and negative speculation about true motives and intentions, and raises suspicion not just about what the politician in question has said in the past and says in the future, but the past and future comments of all politicians. The inability or unwillingness of the political class to deal with these problems is, frankly, infuriating.

You wouldn’t tolerate it in a five-year-old

At times, politicians being interviewed come across as though they were a five-year-old being quizzed about some instance of naughty behaviour. If you ask a five-year-old whether their room is tidy and they answer “my room has maintained a good level of tidiness over the past three weeks” (supposing, in this alternate universe, that most five-year-olds are media trained), you know full well that they haven’t tidied their room. Not only is it barely fooling anybody, but it’s insulting everybody who sees past the fairly shallow ruse. Avoiding answering fairly simple questions is really not that clever, yet by employing this very basic technique, politicians communicate several things.

Firstly, they communicate that they aren’t willing to answer the question. If this is the case, they should probably just say. If they’re worried about the soundbite, they should realise that a journalist determined to put a spin on an interview will probably be able to do so by selectively quoting them. For people watching the interview, however, a simple “I’m not answering that” is less cloyingly awkward than some contrived misdirection. Secondly, and somewhat by definition, they communicate that they think the technique they are employing will actually work. When people see through it, which they will at least some of the time, they will rightly feel like they are being taken for idiots. Thirdly, they implicitly communicate that, to some degree, they don’t consider the question worthy of answering, which is dangerous when some people will feel that the question deserves a response.

People are lied to all the time by all manner of people. As such, we get really rather good at spotting dishonesty. From kids, to colleagues, to partners, people are almost unnervingly good at identifying duplicity, even in those we have never met. In addition to this, dishonesty is an almost universally disliked quality. Nobody likes those who are trying to deceive them, and when the default form of political communication is oddly contrived deceit, this is a huge problem for the credibility of the system as a whole. By contrast, people are actually very used to disagreeing with others, and the vast majority of people basically accept this as an unavoidable fact of daily life. In my view, politicians ought to stop being so afraid of disagreeing with people; I find myself far more amenable to a straight-talking Conservative MP than someone like Peter Mandleson, a Labour politician who seems to find speaking honestly about as easy as fish find walking.

Fake apologies

It’s not just the blatant avoidance of difficult questions that politicians share with youngsters. They also have a remarkable propensity to issue the kind of thoroughly insincere apology normally seen when a five-year-old is forced, by an adult, to apologise to another child following some kind of dispute. We’ve probably all been there, on both sides of the insincere apology, and probably also witnessed it as a third party. It’s not convincing, and there’s an air of pointlessness about the whole ceremony.

Public apologies in the UK have a weird sense of ritual to them. Firstly, the scandal will break. The party in question will say nothing for a few days, before appearing at a press conference and pretending that the events in question were the result of some strange and temporary madness and completely at odds with their actual attitudes and behaviour. Then, they will utter a curious idiomatic expression: “I take full responsibility”, which can have a number of different meanings. Occasionally, someone will actually take full responsibility for their actions. A far more common usage, however, translates roughly as “I will pretend to be responsible for this until people stop talking about it, after which I will carry on exactly as before and suffer almost no personal consequences”. Highlighting the ubiquity and meaninglessness of the phrase, one of the suggested options on Google when searching for “I take full responsibility” is “I take full responsibility meaning”.

The phrase seems to have acquired, in the minds of those who say it, some kind of scandal-washing magic powers. However, its repeated use not only makes the phrase itself somewhat farcical, but really calls into question the attitudes of those saying it. If you say that you take full responsibility for something and do not appear to either suffer any personal consequences or meaningfully institute changes, it does somewhat imply that you don’t really consider it to be that important. It would be far better, in the long run, if people only apologised for things they actually feel responsible for and plan to do something about. Otherwise, the only realistic conclusion is that they just don’t care.

PMQs: a credibility-destroying farce

Prime minister’s question time is one of the most well-known and least-liked parts of Britain’s democratic process. With the infantile, sneering put-downs, the unfathomable shouting and jeering and general school playground atmosphere, PMQs is where what is left of a politician’s credibility goes to die. It is, at times, basically unwatchable, as grown men and women attempt to drown out those speaking, while the speaker of the chamber looks like a supply teacher on the last day of term. It is a thoroughly undignified process that, to my mind, serves no identifiable purpose and does considerable harm to the image of politics and thus the democratic process itself.

Politicians must understand that when they shout down another politician, they are not just jokingly putting down someone who they can patch things up with over a (subsidised) drink at the House of Commons bar later on. What they are also doing is shouting down all the people who hold the view being shouted over, and showing contempt for that opinion. When someone agrees with a view being expressed, how are they supposed to react when another politician won’t even let a speaker finish uninterrupted? It’s unreasonable to expect all politicians to agree with you, and virtually nobody does, but it is not too much to ask that they at least respect other politicians, and more importantly those whose views they represent, and let them finish their sentences.

A sea change is needed

A common theme running through all this is that politicians need to be less afraid and more honest. They must simply accept that, in a country of sixty million people, they simply cannot make everybody happy, nor should they expect to. When they do upset people, however they should react as they would to a friend or colleague; either apologise genuinely and sincerely, highlighting what they think they did wrong or, alternatively, stand their ground, defending and explaining their actions. When the response to every single criticism is to offer an elaborate yet meaningless apology, the politicians look spineless and the system looks farcical. A sea change is needed in the way politicians communicate with the public. Instead of viewing the public with contempt and trying to avoid question and deflect criticism, politicians need to communicate in a way that makes it look like they consider the opinions of their electorate as worthy of respect.

Of course the public and the media play a role in this ridiculous circus, demanding apologies, twisting words and generally buying into the entire soap opera. However, changing the way the public and the media treat politicians is, much to their disappointment, beyond the scope of party strategists. All they can realistically change is the way their own party interact with the media and the public, and major political parties must accept (genuinely) that they bear a lot of responsibility for the toxicity of the British political system. It is a system in which someone like Ed Miliband is ruthlessly mocked for sounding a bit weird, and doesn’t feel like he can stand up and tell people doing the mocking that they’re childish bullies. He is then criticised for not knowing how much milk costs and can’t just admit that he doesn’t really do his own grocery shopping because, as the leader of the opposition, he has more important things to be doing, all the while issuing bizarre statements about how he “feels respect for white vans” or something like that.

Politicians, who clearly don’t always believe in their own apologies, look cowardly and dishonest. They appear afraid of speaking their minds. It is this that really drives the popularity of Nigel Farage. He has views, and he sticks to them. I don’t for a second doubt that Nigel Farage wants to reduce immigration, nor do I think there is any possibility of him apologising for this desire. It is this brand of honesty (or at least partial) that forms a large part of Farage’s appeal. Instead of trying to outdo Farage on immigration and Euroscepticism and continuing to lend him unnecessary political capital, the Westminster parties should try to start communicating like him, instead of acting out of fear and repeating the same meaningless clichés time after time after time.

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