Parliament: more global, less local (part 4)

In the first three parts of this series (1, 2, 3), I have suggested reforms to make the British parliamentary system better equipped for what could be an especially turbulent period in our history. I proposed: greater devolution; a slimmer, punchier House of Commons; and a House of Lords with a mix of elected, co-opted and politically-appointed members.

Now: some thoughts on elections, which are – as things stand – the epitome of everything people hate about the public sector (inconvenient, confusing, dingy, etc). With a little redesign, we could make them so much more entertaining, user friendly, and festive: fit for the modern media age.

Consider. We live in the age of live. The online revolution has destroyed many business models, but it is driving the value of one-off events through the roof. Rock stars release albums to promote their live shows (ten years ago, it was the other way round). Sky’s business model is based on the capture of live sport, especially football.

Master manipulator, Derren Brown, understands this better than anyone. His recent series was structured deliberately as a series of events – designed to provoke and gel together a stream of frenzied media and online coverage.

To be sure, a British general election is gripping, but almost inspite of itself. We’ll soon be having the first British general election of the Twitter era, but as always the results will dribble in the middle of the night (thus ‘were you still up for Portillo?’).

That didn’t matter a jot in the print era – and television has learned to make the most of the bad timing. But it’s surely wrong for the new media age. When we next go the polls, most of the British public will be asleep when we get to the climax.

So I suggest:

  • A Democracy Day every two and a half years – with a general election in June and a mid-term in November.
  • All elections – Westminster, devolved government, councils, European parliament, referenda, etc – will be held on one of these days (by-elections would be the only exception).
  • Voting would be as easy as possible, with polls open throughout the week before, and voting could be made compulsory (with a ‘none of the above’ option, of course).
  • Democracy Day would be a public holiday – with polls closing at 6 o’clock.
  • Sunderland would then do its usual party trick and gets its result out within the hour. The rest of the action would then unfold across prime time; even in the closest years, the result would be clear before the nation went to bed.
  • The TV audience would be huge; Twitter and its ilk would go berserk (think of all the local coverage from counts); while election parties and victory rallies could happen at a sensible time.

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A classic viral moment


This video interview shows Derick Ashong, an Obama supporter, getting approached by a (presumably pro-Clinton) interviewer outside Obama and Clinton’s third debate in February last year.  Here’s how the New York Times described what happened next:

“So why are you for Obama?” he asked. It was clear from his approach that he expected a dimwitted answer, an expectation that he was about to talk to another acolyte smitten by Senator Obama’s rock star persona.

But, as it turned out, Mr. Ashong, who was raised in Ghana and elsewhere, was glad to be asked. For almost six minutes — about a century in broadcast television years — Mr. Ashong, who has an immigrant’s love of democracy and the furrowed brow of a Brookings fellow, held forth on universal health care, single-payer approaches and public-private partnerships.

“A lot of these H.M.O.’s are publicly traded companies anyway, but I don’t think we want to create a market for health care per se, like we don’t want to create a futures market in health care,” he said. And so on.

Cute stuff. Highly informative. But not the kind of political discourse that generally captures a wider audience.

But here’s the weird part. On Feb. 2, the interview of Mr. Ashong was posted on a YouTube channel called “The Latest Controversy,” where supporters of both Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Obama are asked very aggressively to justify their choice of candidates. The video blew up, drawing more than 850,000 views. And after that huge response to his policy analysis, Mr. Ashong decided to double down and explain the emotional component of his support for Obama in a follow-up video that was posted Feb. 11 and received 300,000 views.

Taken together, that means a guy who was looking to (anonymously) show a little love for a candidate was able to look into the camera for more than 13 minutes combined and draw in more than a million clicks with an impassioned but reasoned pitch.

Ashong will be in the UK next month, and speaking at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues.  Details: 6.30pm on 26 February in the Grand Committee Room in Parliament. More from the NYT piece after the jump. Continue reading

Kaiser Wilhelm II adds his two pfennig-worth to UK National Security Strategy horizon scanning

A few days ago, I did a post on the UK government’s current horizon scanning exercise – part of the process leading up to its second National Security Strategy – in which I suggested that “the really stand-out risk that barely got a mention in the events I attended was the possibility that serious erosion of states’ capacity and legitimacy [will undermine] their ability to respond to all the global trends that we were discussing”. 

As regular readers will know, that observation comes straight out of the writings of ‘fourth generation warfare’ theorists like William Lind, Martin van Creveld and John Robb.  But what may come as more of a surprise is the interesting revelation that Kaiser Wilhelm II made a similar point yesterday in his birthday conversation with Lind*:

“My generation of kings and emperors were fixated on the age-old contest between dynasties. Would the houses of Hapsburg and Hohenzollern defeat those of Romanoff and Savoy or the other way around? We could not see the paradigm shift welling up all around us, the onward rush of democracy and equality and socialism and all the rest of that garbage. What we needed was an alliance of all monarchies against democracy. Instead we wiped each other out, putting the levellers in charge everywhere, to the world’s ruin.”

“Does that hold any lessons for our time?”, I asked.

“From Olympus, the picture could not be more clear,” His Majesty replied. “As we were mesmerized by dynastic quarrels, so your politicians cannot see beyond the state. They think only of states in conflict. Will America be threatened by China? Should India go to war with Pakistan? Is Iran a danger to Israel? They cannot see that states are now all in the same, sinking boat, just as all the dynasties were in 1914.”

“What should states then do?”, I enquired.

“Form an alliance of all states against non-state forces, what you call the Fourth Generation,” the Kaiser answered. “The hour is late, and the state system itself has grown fragile. That is the lesson of America’s quixotic war in Iraq. You destroyed the state there, and now no one can recreate it. That is what will happen almost everywhere when states fight other states. But none of your leaders can see it, because they, too, are time-blinded. It is the human condition.”

* Since you ask: in addition to being one of the top experts around on counter-insurgency and fourth generation warfare, William Lind is also an ardent Prussian monarchist.  Consequently, he marks the birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm II (“my reporting senior and lawful sovereign”) with a column each year in which he records a conversation with that leader’s ghost.  Previous editions are highly recommended – e.g. here and here.

1978 versus 2008

Here in Britain, one Christmas present arrives a few days late each year: the declassification of Cabinet papers that are then made available to the National Archive under the ‘Thirty Year Rule‘.  This year, the newly released documents are from 1978: the twilight period of Labour’s ill-fated Callaghan administration, famous for the ‘winter of discontent‘, when a torrent of industrial action meant that the rubbish went uncollected and the dead unburied.

You might suppose that it’s not the sort of anniversary that Gordon Brown will really want to be reminded of, not least given the obvious link back to Margaret Thatcher’s hugely successful election slogan of the time – ‘Labour isn’t working’ – and the fact that Callaghan’s administration had to go cap in hand to the IMF for a bailout.

But superficial similarities aside, the crucial difference between late 70s Britain and late 00s Britain is that during the former, the pendulum had swung all the way to the ‘state’ or ‘public’ end of the spectrum – whereas today, we find it right over at the ‘market’ or ‘private’ end.  Robert Skidelsky, writing in Prospect this month, refers to Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s The Cycles of American History, which describes this cyclical dynamic in detail:

[Schlesinger] defined a political economy cycle as “a continuing shift in national involvement between public purpose and private interest.” The swing he identified was between “liberal” (what we would call social democratic) and “conservative” epochs. The idea of the “crisis” is central. Liberal periods succumb to the corruption of power, as idealists yield to time-servers, and conservative arguments against rent-seeking excesses win the day. But the conservative era then succumbs to a corruption of money, as financiers and businessmen use the freedom of de-regulation to rip off the public. A crisis of under-regulated markets presages the return to a liberal era.

As Skidelsky summarises, the 1870s saw the pendulum start to swing towards collectivism on the back of a global depression triggered by a collapse in food prices. Most industrialised countries began to raise tariffs; social protection systems were rapidly rolled out (although not in the US).  The great depression of 1929-32 accelerated the process as Keynesian economics became orthodox.  But by the 1970s, the pendulum was about to swing the other way, as governments pursued “free trade abroad and social democracy at home”:

The crisis of liberalism, or social democracy, unfolded with stagflation and ungovernability in the 1970s. It broadly fits Schlesinger’s notion of the “corruption of power.” The Keynesian/social democratic policymakers succumbed to hubris, an intellectual corruption which convinced them that they possessed the knowledge and the tools to manage and control the economy and society from the top. This was the malady against which Hayek inveighed in his classic The Road to Serfdom (1944). The attempt in the 1970s to control inflation by wage and price controls led directly to a “crisis of governability,” as trade unions, particularly in Britain, refused to accept them.

Large state subsidies to producer groups, both public and private, fed the typical corruptions of behaviour identified by the new right: rent-seeking, moral hazard, free-riding. Palpable evidence of government failure obliterated memories of market failure. The new generation of economists abandoned Keynes and, with the help of sophisticated mathematics, reinvented the classical economics of the self-correcting market. Battered by the crises of the 1970s, governments caved in to the “inevitability” of free market forces. The swing-back became worldwide with the collapse of communism.

But today, Skidelsky notes, the crisis is that of conservatism:

The financial crisis has brought to a head a growing dissatisfaction with the corruption of money. Neo-conservatism has sought to justify fabulous rewards to a financial plutocracy while median incomes stagnate or even fall; in the name of efficiency it has promoted the off-shoring of millions of jobs, the undermining of national communities, and the rape of nature. Such a system needs to be fabulously successful to command allegiance. Spectacular failure is bound to discredit it.

The situation we are in now thus puts into question the speed and direction of progress. Will there be a pause for thought, or will we continue much as before after a cascade of minor adjustments? The answer lies in the intellectual and moral sphere. Is economics capable of rethinking its core principles? What institutions, policies and rules are needed to make markets “well behaved”? Do we have the moral resources to challenge the dominance of money without reverting to the selfish nationalisms of the 1930s?

There’s no doubt that these are the right questions to be asking (David and I sketched out a first attempt to marshal some thoughts on this area in a paper we published just before the G20 summit in November). As Skidelsky notes, we could do worse than to aim for Keynes’s basic stance:

In terms of our pendulum analogy, he was someone who instinctively sought an equipoise: not in the timeless equilibrium of classical economics, but in a balance in political economy between freedom and control, national and international wellbeing, efficiency and morality. He was an Aristotelian, who believed that vices are virtues carried to excess. This is a good philosophy for today.

Democracy in Thailand – response to comments

This is a response to some thoughtful reactions to my earlier post on democracy in Thailand, and to arguments made in last week’s Economist about the situation there.

My arguments are no vindication of the PAD, whose reckless actions I find condemnable and ultimately counter-productive and whose proposals (including the 70% vote) are misguided. My intention was to provide some background on the current political situation, background that I found lacking in my main news sources. And to challenge the simplistic notion that what we are seeing is a rejection of democracy by rich urban elites who feel threatened by a democratic government that cares for and represents the poor. There are many valid reasons why ordinary citizens from all walks of life united against an elected government: their primary motive was not to defeat democracy, rather to fight its abuses.

The portrayal of the current political crisis as a battle of rich urban elites versus a majority of poor rural folk united behind the popular Mr. Thaksin is inaccurate and unhelpful. Poor farmers in the north like Mr. Thaksin. Poor city-folk in Bangkok don’t. Poor Muslims in the south hate him. While Mr. Thaksin’s party gained the most seats in parliament, more people voted against him than voted for him. He doesn’t have the kind of broad-based popular mandate that many commentators credit him with.

Conversely the PAD are not a homogenous group. As last week’s Economist put it: “the PAD is a motley bunch, united only in its fanatical hatred of Mr. Thaksin”. It is Mr. Thaksin’s abuses of power that they are outraged about, not his policies to help the poor. People did not take to the streets in protest when Mr. Thaksin first announced and implemented his “populist” policies. Neither were there street protests when his crack-down on drugs led to extrajudicial killings of hundreds (thousands?) of supposed drug traffickers many in dubious circumstances. Neither did they take to the streets when he botched up the relative peace in the south. Thais have a high tolerance for politicians’ professional shortcomings.

But what many Thais could not stomach was Mr. Thaksin’s reckless bending of the system to suit his own personal needs. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Thaksin used some cunning structures to avoid paying tax on the sale of Shin Corp to Temasek. He also had changed a law to aid in this sale. That was what brought people into the streets in protest, and led to the formation of the PAD.

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The people of Sark “reap what they sow” – democracy in action

The Barclay twins – billionaire owners of the UK’s Telegraph newspapers and various other interests – are famously reclusive. So in the early 1990s, they bought the island of Brecqhou, which can be seen in the picture below from its (not much larger – it’s three miles long) neighbour Sark.

On Brecqhou, they built a huge castle, said to be the largest built in the 20th century, and at a cost of £60m or so. Sark’s inhabitants weren’t happy:

Round-the-clock construction is said to have polluted the pristine skies of the island, which has nary a streetlight, with a sodium glow. And size is its main architectural achievement; from the air it has been mistaken for a prison, and indeed the construction crew is said to have called it Alcatraz. One islander said of the brothers, “They have the taste of Saddam Hussein.”

In 1996, the Barclay brothers tried to declare Brecqhou’s independence. They took no services from Sark and travelled to and from their island by helicopter. They were said to resent visits from Sark’s police (when, say, a worker on their estate met an accidental death). They may also have been looking to more fully protect their financial affairs from scrutiny.

When their plans were frustrated, they began to lobby for replacement of Sark’s political system – often described as the last remants of feudalism in the Western world. Thus began a long legal battle, with the brothers fighting for what they describe as “modern democratic principles and the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Meanwhile, they embarked on a buying spree, which saw them took control of large swathes of Sark itself. According to the FT, they bought hotels, shops, golf courses – and were said to be pushing for an end to the ban on cars (and helicopters) on the island. 

Finally yesterday, Sark’s 474 voters headed to the polls for the island’s first ever democratic election (even Afghanistan didn’t have to wait so long). You can see what the islanders made of it here. The Telegraph’s Chief Reporter, Gordon Rayner was sent to cover this momentous event. The owners of his paper, he reported, had endorsed a slate of ‘reform’ candidates. They’d better get the result they wanted or there’d be trouble:

The Barclays, proprietors of Telegraph Media Group, feel so strongly about the future of Sark that they have threatened to withdraw their multi-million pound investments in the island if pro-reform candidates do not hold sway in the new parliament.

The Barclays have invested in hotels, property and agricultural land on Sark, employing around 140 people either directly or indirectly.

But all did not go according to plan. After each of the intricate ballot papers was read out aloud, in a session lasting ten hours or so, it became clear that the Barclay’s candidates had been heavily defeated – the ‘establishment’ had gained a clear majority of seats.

So how have the Barclays reacted? Well it seems they have done just what they threatened to do – immediately close down all their businesses, throwing about a sixth of the population out of work (the island has no welfare state). The twins’ lawyer told the BBC that:

The people of Sark are reaping what they sowed the day before. They only have themselves to blame. They could have co-operated with Barclays Investment but they chose to obstruct it. It was clear the Barclays were clear on their commitment to the island with support – they got no support at all.

Sark doesn’t appear to want or appreciate the Barclays’ investment and so it doesn’t have it. The island cannot at the same time treat the Barclay family in the way that it has and expect them to continue investing large sums of money into its economy.

Sark is going back to where it was before the Barclay brothers were there.

I just heard from a BBC reporter who was not expecting his hotel to be open when he got back to it. Sark’s voters have not come up with the ‘right’ democratic answer. And they’ll be punished, it seems…

Update: Another sympathetic quote from Gordon Dawes – the Barclay twins’ lawyer:

I find it very hard, particularly at this time of year, not to wonder about the old saying to do with turkeys and whether or not they would vote for Christmas; well it seems we have our answer. I am genuinely saddened. The people of Sark have spoken.

Apparently the Barclays produced a newsletter characterising one of their opponents as a “feudal talibanist” and another as having a “socialist streak”. Can’t think why that didn’t go down well with Sark’s electorate…

What does a Hollow State look like?

According to John Robb a Hollow State has:

The trappings of a modern nation-state but it lacks any of the legitimacy, services, and control of its historical counter-part. It is merely a shell that has some influence over the spoils of the economy. The real power rests in the hands of corporations and criminal/guerrilla groups that vie with each other for control of sectors of wealth production. For the individual living within this state, life goes on, but it is debased in a myriad of ways.

A good example of a Hollow State is Zimbabwe where the Government under Mugabe no longer has legitimacy. Government systems are either in a state of collapse (witness the looting of food carried out by the Army) or are non existent (the health system). State infrastructure is broken (water) and the population has to rely on other sources, from charities or private citizens.

Zimbabwe has been spiralling out of control for years, and it’s only recently that the international community has had sufficient leverage over the Mugabe regime to bring about change, but the results have been limited. The failure by the international community to intervene both early on and with force (not necessarily hard power) has allowed Mugabe to operate with only a few (in some cases meaningless) constraints.

The widely reported cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe seems to have motivated the international community to speak out once again. Today Gordon Brown argued that:

“This is now an international rather than a national emergency. International because disease crosses borders. International because the systems of government in Zimbabwe are now broken. There is no state capable or willing of protecting its people. International because – not least in the week of the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights – we must stand together to defend human rights and democracy, to say firmly to Mugabe that enough is enough.”

But let’s be realistic. We can ramp up the rhetoric to the nth degree but without firm action, under a UN mandate, Mugabe and his horrifc regime isn’t going to disappear. Unless an individual or organisation takes the initiative this tragedy will continue to unfold.

Update: The arguments for not doing anything with Mugabe are numerous. Two arguments stand out: first the lack of an international mandate; second, a deficeincy in our collective moral responsibility. But I notice in today’s Observer online that the Archbishop of York is calling for President Robert Mugabe to be toppled from power and face trial for crimes against humanity. Could this be the moral outcry that creates the environment for a Chapter 7 intervention?