Fascism goes prime time

This evening, Nick Griffin, the leader of Britain’s neofascist British National Party, makes his debut on the BBC’s flagship panel discussion show, Question Time.  A former Cabinet Minister (and longtime anti-apartheid campaigner), Peter Hain, is leading the charge against providing Griffin with such a platform.  Others (including me) think that in a society based on free speech, the best approach to the BNP is to shine a bright light on it and expose its shameful policies for what they are – but worry that the format, presenter and panellists on tonight’s show will provide the party with a platform without managing to dissect and rebut its policies effectively.

Either way, the one must-read I’ve seen this week on emerging fascism comes from John Michael Greer on the other side of the Atlantic. Greer expresses fury at “the insistence, so often heard from radicals of the left and right alike, that America is a fascist state”.  None of the wingnuts who make these wild claims really need fear being dragged out of their beds at night to ‘disappear’ into a mass grave, he observes – “and for today’s smug and pampered American radicals to wrap themselves in the mantle of victims of fascism, while relying on civil rights no fascist system grants its citizens, displays a profound disrespect for those who have actually suffered under totalitarian regimes”.

Imagine, he suggests, what fascism might really look like in America.  Imagine:

that sometime in the next year or so you start hearing media reports about a rising new figure in American politics. He’s young and charismatic, a military veteran who won the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery under fire, and heads a vigorous new third party that looks as though it might just be able to break the stranglehold of the established parties on the political system. Some of his ideas come straight from the fringes, and he’s been reported to have said very negative things about Arabs and Islam, but he’s nearly the only person in American public life willing to talk frankly about the difficulties Americans are facing in an era of economic collapse, and his party platform embodies many of the most innovative ideas of the left and right. Like him or not, he offers the one convincing alternative to business as usual in an increasingly troubled and corrupt system.

Would you vote for him?

He continues,

One of the problems with the continual use of fascism as a bogeyman by political extremists is that it becomes far too easy to forget how promising fascism looked in the 1920s and 1930s to many good people disgusted with the failings of their democratic governments.

But what really stands out in his piece is the observation that “such a figure could as easily emerge from the left as from the right” – perhaps even, he suggests, from communities like the peak oil or anti-globalisation scenes, which are rapidly losing faith in the capacity of mainstream politics to achieve results. Continue reading

On the web: the EU’s global influence, Obama’s leadership, and inside the financial crisis…

- With Czech ratification of the Lisbon Treaty now looking increasingly likely, attention shifts to the implications for the EU’s global influence. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the current External Relations commissioner, offers some thoughts on the future EU foreign policy setup here. Hugo Brady, meanwhile, identifies some of the qualities needed in a new President of the European Council – “the job appears”, he suggests, “to require its holder to be a walking paradox: charismatic but modest, highly effective but non-intimidating, a consensus builder but also a decision-maker”. Pascal Lamy, he argues, might just fit the bill.

- In the London Review of Books, David Bromwich explores President Obama’s tendency toward the conciliatory gesture and major pronouncement, assessing the consequences for delivering meaningful outcomes. “[H]is pattern has been the grand exordium delivered at centre stage”, Bromwich argues, “followed by months of silence”.  Writing in the WSJ, meanwhile, Bret Stephens offers a critical perspective on the President’s commitment to human rights.

- Elsewhere, Dani Rodrik rails against those raising the spectre of protectionism, suggesting that “the world economy remains as open as it was before the crisis struck” and that the “international trade regime has passed its greatest test since the Great Depression with flying colours”. The Economist, meanwhile, provides an analysis of the falling dollar, while Jean Pisani-Ferry and Adam Posen assess the limitations of the Euro as an alternate global currency.

- Finally, behind the scenes of the financial crisis, and based on in-depth interviews throughout, Todd Purdum chronicles Hank Paulson’s time in office. Reuters has an extract from Andrew Ross Sorkin’s new book offering another take on the former US Treasury Secretary’s actions during the crisis. Daniel Yergin, meanwhile, examines the importance of finding a narrative for the crisis – crucial, he suggests, not only in understanding what happened but also offering a “framework for organising thinking for the future”.

Parliament: more global, less local (part 3)

Prompted by Bracknell’s open primary, I argued in part 1 and part 2 of this series that:

National politics is increasingly dominated by complex international issues, but today’s MPs are usually selected based on their views on local issues.

Local government should be given more powers (to tax as well as to spend), enabling MPs to be more nationally and globally focused.

We should slim down the House of Commons, probably by as much as half, with fewer MPs given more power, pay, and a greater media profile.

So… on to the Lords. I am in favour of radical reform to the upper house, with a design that is as different as possible from the Commons, and a structure that aims to inject relevant expertise into British political life.

The Commons – my proposed reform notwithstanding – will still be geographically based, with MPs representing their constituents in Westminster. The new Lords, in contrast, would not have local roots, but be a nationally-based chamber.

One – simple – option would be for a wholly elected upper house, with members drawn from national lists. I don’t favour this approach. The Lords would end up too much like the Commons – but with added political hackery (due to the need to smarm ones way to the top of a party’s slate of candidates).

Governments would also be robbed of a mechanism that allows them to bring expertise onto the front benches – often at short notice. Some think this is undemocratic. I think it is an essential adjustment to a system based purely on elections.

(David Cameron seems to agree, recently recruiting Sir Richard Dannatt to the Tory front bench to help the Conservatives ‘rebuild the military covenant’ with Britain’s armed forces.)

So here’s an alternative plan. It’s a mixed model – a fudge even. But aren’t compromises an integral part of the British constitutional tradition?

Again, as with the Commons, we’d hack the Upper Chamber down to size. The precise number can be argued over, but I favour 160 or so (around half the size of a remodelled Commons, and comfortably bigger than the US Senate which manages with only 100 members).

I’d split the Upper Chamber into three parts:

50% directly-elected members. I’ll go into more detail on length of terms in part 4 (yes, there’s more!), but if elections were held on a rolling basis, a relatively small list would be up for the vote each time round. Voters would be able to pick named individuals, rather than party slates, putting independents and party grandées on a level playing field.

25% appointed by political parties. Parties would use these seats mainly to draw talent from outside the Commons onto their front benches. I’d be quite happy for them to chop and change these members as they wished – allowing them maximum flexibility to govern or act as an effective opposition.

25% co-opted by the Upper Chamber itself. Purists won’t approve, but I’d give the new Lords the power to co-opt members for fixed terms. The system would mirror the upper house’s committee structure – with committees nominating individuals with expertise relevant to their areas of work, for approval by a full vote. The upper house would thus be provided with a mechanism to improve its overall relevance and quality.

So what to call the new Chamber? I’d suggest… the House of Lords, with members still given a life peerage. Becoming a Lord should be a big deal – an important job while actively serving, a lasting mark of respect thereafter… (Part 4 – on elections, tomorrow.)

NYT – Pls get the basics right on climate

Again, the preposterous idea that countries are holding back from offering cuts in emissions ahead of the Copenhagen climate talks, as they wait for the US Senate to consider domestic legislation. This time in the New York Times:

Among the chief barriers to a comprehensive deal in Copenhagen is Congress’s inability to enact climate and energy legislation that sets binding targets on greenhouse gases in the United States. Without such a commitment, other nations are loath to make their own pledges.

The EU (the world’s largest economy) has already agreed a 20% cut by 2020 on 1990 levels, and has said it will go to 30% if its partners make comparable efforts. Japan (the 4th biggest economy) has offered a 25% cut. As usual, the United States is the stand out. Its per capita emissions are double Europe and Japan’s – but it is yet to put any numbers on the table.

It is true, as the NYT reports, that most countries now agree that a deal will not be concluded at Copenhagen – but this is because the Senate has failed to get its act together – not because other countries are ‘loath’ to act.

Message to the NYT: stop bending the truth trying to make your lily-livered liberal readers feel better about themselves.

Parliament: more global, less local (part 2)

In a post yesterday, I discussed the failure of either Iain Dale or Rory Stewart to get selected for the Bracknell parliamentary seat, arguing that we need to create incentives for our MPs to focus more on global issues, and less on the hyper-local bread-and-butter of constituency politics.

(Local GP, Phillip Lee, who won the Conservative Party’s open primary was roughly handled – but I want to underline this is not an attack on him personally, more criticism of a system that favours a ‘local, local, local’ candidate, rather than ones with international experience.)

There’s never been a better moment to reform Parliament – with the expenses scandal continuing to fester. Probably the status quo will prevail, but if it doesn’t, here’s how we should prepare our political system for what looks like being a very rocky period for globalisation.

First, we need to get serious about subsidiarity. Resilient societies devolve powers down to the lowest possible levels, but the British system is still highly centralised. As a result, MPs spend far too much time dealing with issues that should be handled by local councillors. Re-draw the lines and we can improve both local and national government.

At the moments, councils spend a lot, but central government raises much of the cash (a disastrous mismatch). National taxes should be cut. Local taxes raised. And national spending on local government made purely redistributive – aimed at areas with a low tax base but high social need (according to an algorithm that is tweaked to reflect the priorities of the government of the day).

We should then tackle reform of the House of Commons. With MPs  workload pared back, we’d be able to drastically cut the size of the lower chamber– aiming for fewer MPs, with bigger constituencies, higher media profile, and a much stronger committee structure to allow them to hold government to account.

At the moment, we have 645 MPs – that’s roughly one for every 100,000. By contrast, the US has only 435 members of Congress – one for every 700,000 citizens. We need a bigger lower house than the US, of course, as it’s where most members of government are drawn from.

But I’d happily have half as many MPs as at present (and wouldn’t mind paying them double what they get now, too). Backbench MPs, in particular, would have a far greater opportunity to gain national, and even international, profile. The job would become much more attractive to those who could make use of the platform Parliament provided them with.

Next, we need to grasp the nettle of House of Lords reform. More on that in part 3 of this series.

The Pentagon’s new spiritual fitness programme


How does the army of a liberal, multi-cultural and often secular society develop in its soldiers the spiritual resilience to cope with war, to face trauma, death and bereavement, and to fight opponents who have the advantage of a strong and common religious faith?

That’s the question the Pentagon has been grappling with, as it tries to cope with the record numbers of veterans returning from the front line of Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, drug problems and other emotional disorders. In October, it came up with a response, called the ‘Comprehensive Soldier Fitness’ programme, which will aim to strengthen the emotional, psychological and, yes, spiritual resilience of each of the 1.1 million soldiers serving in the US army.

The programme is being organised and rolled out by Brigadier-General Rhonda Cornum, who was kind enough to give me an interview. She told me:

The US Army has never provided training to soldiers for their emotional and psychological strength. We thought that being in the Army, and adhering to the Army’s values of ‘mission first’, ‘never quit’, ‘never leave a fallen comrade’ and so on, would lead to emotional and psychological strength simply emerging. But after eight years of war, with much of the Army going to the front-line every other year, we’re very stressed. So we realised we would probably be better served if we had a preventative programme for psychological and emotional strengthening, rather than a reactive one that only began after someone had developed a problem.

Brigadier-General Cornum is herself an example of emotional resilience. She was captured and tortured during the first Iraq War, but seemed to have come through the experience with her powers of agency strengthened rather than traumatised. She says: “When you’re a POW, your captors control pretty much everything about your life: when you get up, when you go to sleep, what you eat, if you eat. I realised the only thing I had left that I could control was how I thought. I had absolute control over that, and was not going to let them take that too.”

In other words, she approached a situation in which she had minimum control not from the perspective of being a passive victim, but from the perspective that this adverse situation was actually an opportunity to exercise her agency, to assert her autonomy.

She says:

There are people who are just naturally resilient, who look at problems as challenges to be overcome. Some people even see adversity as opportunities to excel. I recognised that I had those skills, and others didn’t. What we have learnt since then, mainly thanks to the work of Penn University’s psychology department, is that these thinking skills that lead to resilience can be taught. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the new programme: teach resilience.

Continue reading

Parliament: more global, less local (part 1)

Over the weekend, the Conservative Party held an open primary in Bracknell – the second time (I think) they have selected a candidate for the general election in this way.

The final three candidates were:

Iain Dale – doyen of the Conservative blogosphere.

Rory Stewart – an ex-diplomat who wrote a book about walking across Afghanistan in 2002 and the governed part of occupied Iraq .

Phillip Lee – a local GP.

I would have voted for either Dale or Stewart. Parliament badly needs people like Dale, who understand social media. Prospective MPs with direct experience of the two wars we’re fighting (especially the much-neglected civilian dimension) are at even more of a premium.

Bracknell, however, chose Lee, who ran on the platform “Local,  Local, Local”. Primary voters were, I imagine, won over by his commitment to “making both the town and the surrounding villages better places to live in the future.” No coincidence, I think, that a local GP also won the Totnes open primary in August.

Let’s be clear – I am absolutely ignorant of Phillip Lee’s qualities. He may end up a fine Foreign Secretary, or a future Prime Minister, as well as being a dedicated constituency MP. But I am worried by the incentives that led him to stand on, and triumph with, such as local platform.

Look at his policy ideas presented to the primary and and you’ll find impressive, almost obsessive, detail on acute healthcare in East Berkshire. In contrast, on those ‘national issues that I know concern constituents’, there’s nothing more than a few bromides.

Lee wants the UK to pay off its national debt; reduce public spending; cut the state down to size; and get tough on Europe; while also delivering better education and health, and spending more on kit for the armed forces.

This is the wrong way round, I think. He’s running for a national parliament, not a local one. And if elected, he will arrive in Westminster at a time when the British political agenda is increasingly dominated not by local events, but by a morass of complex, interlocking global risks (discussed in more detail here).

In the first decade of this century, his prospective constituents have seen their lives shaped largely by global events, with three international emergencies (9/11 and the wars that followed, the energy and food price spike of 2008, and the worst economic crisis since the thirties) shredding cosy assumptions about the stability of contemporary globalization.

The next decade will be no different. Whether or not Bracknell is a ‘better place to live’ in 2020 will be influenced by what happens in Karachi, Lagos or Washington, as much if not more than it is by what happens in Berkshire itself.

So how do we increase the chance that MPs with global vision and experience will compete for, and win, Parliamentary seats? How do we select more politicians like Vince Cable (immensely popular less for what he does in Twickenham than for his grip on the world’s economic woes)?

Some thoughts on this in part two, tomorrow.

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