[REPOST] Self-determination is overrated

Secession is a conditional right not an absolute one

An assumption that I’ve seen come up a number of times in the debate around Scottish Independence is that Scotland or any other potential nation has a right to cecede.  While I agree that as a practical matter, Scotland probably can decide to quit the UK and deserves to have that decision respected, that is not a specific example of a general right. I explained why in a post from 2014 written in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

…[l]eaving aside the difficulty of conducting a free and fair election in a region under military occupation, even if a majority of the population in the Crimea legitimately did wish to join Russia this would not in and of itself be enough to legitimate the annexation. For good reasons international law balances the right of a people to self-determination with respect for the territorial integrity of nations.

History furnishes another of good examples of where self-determination was clearly a noxious doctrine. Perhaps most notably the South’s bid for independence during the American Civil War was justified in terms of self-determination. However, virtually everyone would now accept this demand was trumped by concerns for the territorial integrity of the US and the human rights of slaves.

One of the best expositions of the legal issues involved in questions of self determination comes from an opinion delivered in 1996 by the Canadian Supreme Court.* It was asked to deliver a judgement on whether Quebec could unilaterally secede from Canada by voting to do so in a referendum. They argued that international law gave them no such right:

“[A] right to secession only arises under the principle of self-determination of people at international law where “a people” is governed as part of a colonial empire; where “a people” is subject to alien subjugation, domination or exploitation; and possibly where “a people” is denied any meaningful exercise of its right to self-determination within the state of which it forms a part.  In other circumstances, peoples are expected to achieve self-determination within the framework of their existing state.  A state whose government represents the whole of the people or peoples resident within its territory, on a basis of equality and without discrimination, and respects the principles of self‑determination in its internal arrangements, is entitled to maintain its territorial integrity under international law and to have that territorial integrity recognized by other states.  Quebec does not meet the threshold of a colonial people or an oppressed people, nor can it be suggested that Quebecers have been denied meaningful access to government to pursue their political, economic, cultural and social development.  In the circumstances, the “National Assembly, the legislature or the government of Quebec” do not enjoy a right at international law to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally.”

To see why this is almost certainly the right- as opposed to merely the legally correct – position consider the Supreme Court’s Judgement on what allowing unilateral secession would do to the principles underlying the Canadian constitution:

“Quebec could not, despite a clear referendum result, purport to invoke a right of self-determination to dictate the terms of a proposed secession to the other parties to the federation.  The democratic vote, by however strong a majority, would have no legal effect on its own and could not push aside the principles of federalism and the rule of law, the rights of individuals and minorities, or the operation of democracy in the other provinces or in Canada as a whole.  Democratic rights under the Constitution cannot be divorced from constitutional obligations.  Nor, however, can the reverse proposition be accepted: the continued existence and operation of the Canadian constitutional order could not be indifferent to a clear expression of a clear majority of Quebecers that they no longer wish to remain in Canada.  The other provinces and the federal government would have no basis to deny the right of the government of Quebec to pursue secession should a clear majority of the people of Quebec choose that goal, so long as in doing so, Quebec respects the rights of others.  The negotiations that followed such a vote would address the potential act of secession as well as its possible terms should in fact secession proceed.  There would be no conclusions predetermined by law on any issue.  Negotiations would need to address the interests of the other provinces, the federal government and Quebec and indeed the rights of all Canadians both within and outside Quebec, and specifically the rights of minorities.”

This could be applied to the Crimea in a number of ways. In particular, we should be concerned about what happens to minority populations like the ethnic Ukrainians and Tartars if the province is annexed to Russia.

However, these matters are relevant far beyond the Crimea. For example, they raise questions about the validity of claims for independence by wealthy regions (such as Northern Italy or Catalonia) who resent supporting their poorer compatriots. Therefore, I have sympathy for Madrid’s refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the proposed referendum in Catalonia.

And while I believe that a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum should be respected, the path to independence would still require negotiation. This means that statements from the SNP about what will happen after independence need to be treated with caution. They cannot dictate the terms on which it will happen and London will have its own objectives in any negotiations.

Self-determination is just one value and it is not (and should not) be some kind of trump card. It has value when it makes democracy possible. However, it is not a valid way for groups to avoid the impact of democratic decisions that have gone against them.

Hat tip: http://opiniojuris.org/2014/03/10/ukraine-insta-symposium-crimea-ukraine-russia-self-determination-intervention-international-law/

Besides the point I made above, I’m unsure how relevant this is to a second Scottish independence referendum. To borrow a phrase from Canada’s Supreme Court justices, I don’t think Britain’s “constitutional order could not be indifferent to a clear expression of a clear majority” of Scots that they wished to leave the UK. And there is no compelling rationale I can see for not respecting their wishes. Scotland is not Crimea, the Confederacy, or even Catalonia.

It does, I suppose, put Theresa May’s decision to delay any referendum until after Brexit  in a more favourable light. If the UK can theoretically block independence altogether, then it stands to reason that it can reasonably have a say in the timing of a referendum to affect it. However, I feel the case here is weak, not least because it seems to deny Scotland the remote possibility of maintaining continuous EU membership.

The folly of English Remainers backing Scottish Independence

Remainers and Scottish Nationalists may have a common enemy in Theresa May’s government. That shouldn’t make us friends.

A few years back, I was an intern at a solicitors firm.* At one point, I was sent to court to help the barrister representing one of our clients in a child protection case. It was a few days. The client was severally depressed and several of her children had already been taken into care on account of her neglect. But she kept having children, and social services was now preemptively applying for them to be taken away from her as soon as they were born. The tragedy was that she wasn’t a bad person and really did want to be a good mother. She just couldn’t manage her own life well enough to care for a child. At the conclusion of the hearing, the barrister clearly sensed that a small proportion of her heartbreak had worn off on me, and took me out for coffee. During the course of it, he made a valiant effort to convince me that family law was not always this bad, which wound up achieving the exact opposite. For example, one of his observations was that “contentious divorce cases are really nasty. They become like knife fights. By the end, both sides are usually bleeding badly”.

Unfortunately, British politics has brought the questions of divorce in the past few days. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has announced that the SNP will be seeking another independence referendum in the near future.

I regarded the prospect with alarm the last time it was put to vote and was relieved to see my nation survive. It was, therefore, much to my surprise that I found my facebook and twitter feeds filling up with comments from English friends looking to be divorced. They typically said something like: ‘I would have voted no last time, but after Brexit, I feel the Scots should now take their chance to stay in the EU’. Others have gone further and toyed with the idea of a united Ireland, or even an independent London.

At a certain level, I sympathise with this position. Brexit will hurt Scotland, like it will the rest of the UK. And Theresa May, has casually disregarded the views of the almost majority that didn’t want Brexit. Like Cameron before her, when it comes to Europe she prioritises unity in the Conservative Party over unity in the country. I can, therefore, understand a lack of emotional investment in that country on the part of remainers, both in Scotland and beyond.

However, I cannot really empathise. Despite my horror at Brexit, I find the prospect of the dismemberment of my country even worse.

That is partly an expat’s sentimentality for a distant homeland. Leaving Britain for a time has revealed to me quite how British I am. I delight in the delight Koreans and Americans  take in: our accents, our books and TV shows, and in the proudly shown selfies taken in front of our Houses of Parliament. Strikingly, in East Asia the Union Jack has become an omnipresent fashion symbol. It is plastered on clothes, pencil cases and motor bikes. And  each time I see it I smile a little. Or rather, I did. Since Sturgeon’s announcement the sight of my flag has been a melancholy one, for I know the nation it represents will likely only exist for a year or two more.

I do, of course, understand that many feel the same way about other nations. And it is similar emotions about Scotland that turn many Scots into nationalists. However, it is the English remainers that I find inexplicable. How have they concluded that the disaster of a rupture in the European Union is ameliorated, rather than compounded, by also rupturing the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

In the process of repudiating the Brexiteer’s delusions, this group of remainers seems set to replicate them. The process of taking the UK out of the EU is showing that a divorce is never a simple as one would hope: there will be assets to divide, arrangements to be made, and new partners to be located. Which is painful enough if both sides approach it in a practical, good faith manner. But it is the nature of divorces, as my barrister aquintance observed, to turn nasty. They can transform from a search for compromise into a battle for victory. And in the event that happens Scotland and the UK would have plenty of ways to make each other bleed.

If the attempt to extract the UK from a glorified free trade area it has belonged to for 40 years is complicated, imagine trying to break apart two countries that for ten times as long have been part of the same state. The level of integration within the UK massively exceeds that within the EU. You would have to deal with, for example, how to divide up one of the world’s most powerful armed forces, the control of physical territory, and with fiscal transfers an order of mangnitude greater than the UK’s contribution to the EU budget. The morass that Scottish independence could swiftly become far exceeds the potential challenges of Brexit.

Hence when I hear Scottish nationalists asserting that Scotland joining the EU will be a mere formality, or that there will be no border checks between Scotland and England, I also hear the echo of Brexiteer’s glibly saying that the EU will give the UK a deal because they need to sell us prosecco, or that there will be no hard border between the UK and Ireland.

Anger at one act of self-destructive nationalism should not make us into cheerleaders for another. Voting to leave the EU was a mistake, but the price the United Kingdom pays for it should not be death.

 

 

*For non-UK readers: both barristers and solicitors are types of lawyers

 

Why Luddism Protects Democracy

Two pieces of technology allow voters to cast their ballots reliably and securely. They are both hundreds of years old and begin with the letter ‘p’

The story goes that during the space race the Americans spent millions of dollars on pens that would work in zero gravity, whilst the Russians gave their astronauts pencils. This is actually an urban legend: both of the rival superpowers started out using pencils before concluding they were a fire hazard and switching to some form of specially designed pen. But true or not the merit that tale has been on my mind because I’ve been mulling the merits of the humble pencil.

The catalyst for this is Jill Stein. Having shown precious little interest in stopping Donald Trump before the election, the Green Party presidential candidate has raised large amounts of money to petition for recounts that aim to show that he did not in fact win a number of swing states. Which if nothing else prompted one of my favourite tweets of the entire election season:

The basis for Stein’s action seems to be the claim by some tech experts and election lawyers that in a number of swing states Clinton performed worse in counties that used electronic voting than those that stuck with physical ballots.

This notion is lent credence by the fact that during the election campaign someone – probably linked to the Russian intelligence services – was carrying out hacks designed to hurt the Clinton campaign. There is no reason to rule out the possibility they would have continued once polling day itself came around.

While all of this is true, it almost certainly doesn’t indicate fraud. When two journalists at FiveThirtyEight,  and , looked at the gap between Clinton’s vote in counties with different voting methods they found that the disparity was likely the result of demographics rather than manipulation. You would expect the counties that used electronic voting to lean Trump anyway as they were whiter and populated by fewer graduates. In addition, the states in question are all in the midwest and Trump seems to have gained ground across that region and not only in states like that still use paper ballots exclusively. In short, there does not appear to be a mystery for which the manipulation of electronic voting systems might be an explanation.

Whilst it may not have happened this time, the use of electronic voting machines leaves American elections vulnerable to fraud. As this video by the tech journalist Tom Scott illustrates, it is practically impossible to secure such machines.

This is not to say that an election conducted with paper ballots can never be fraudulently swayed. Being involved in British politics gave me direct experience of that. During the first election campaign I ever played a decent sized role in, my side spent a lot of time trying to work out if our Labour opponents were casting fraudulent postal votes. We believed – and the police appeared to agree – this had happened in the previous election. But there was no repeat. In the intervening period, a new law had been introduced requiring voters to include a signature and D.O.B on both their application to vote by post and a form that was posted back along with the ballot. This simple step proved sufficient to mostly end abuse of this voting method. And even at its height postal vote fraud in the UK – to my knowledge – only affected local elections. Even under a system lax enough to draw criticism from international democracy watchdogs, getting hold of enough physical ballot papers to influence a parliamentary election without getting caught proved too difficult for potential fraudsters. Imagine, therefore, how difficult it would be to manipulate an election in American states that have a population in the millions.

Once you dispense with physical ballots and record votes only as data, these logistical impediments to fraud fall away. As Scott says:

once you have electronic voting, it can take as much effort to change a million votes as it does one.

But the problem with electronic voting is not only that it makes fraud possible. It also makes it impossible to disprove fraud. You cannot do a recount because there is nothing to recount. The kind of exercise that Bialik and Arthur conducted depends on their being counties and states that don’t use electronic voting in order to compare with the places that do. And even then, the two authors are forced to admit:

It’s possible nonetheless that the election was hacked, in the sense that anything is possible. (And the best hackers are experts in erasing their tracks.) Maybe hackers knew which control variables we’d look at and manipulated the vote in a way that it would look like it was caused by race, education and population driving different voting preferences. Maybe hackers didn’t manipulate the share of votes in individual counties, but rather the turnout, increasing the number of votes in counties likely to favor one candidate or another.

In this context, there is no justification for the use of electronic voting. It may get you results faster but that’s not worth it if the result at the end may have been tampered with. Even if it hasn’t been then the possibility that it might have been is corrosive of trust in the democratic process and a threat to the peaceful transfer of power.

So please Americans go back to paper and pencils. Not only is that more secure but also more reliable. Maintaining a system based around some of the most common items in the world is easy compared to maintaining machines. If a pencil breaks, you do not need an engineer to fix it. If you run out of them, then someone with no training on their first day at work is quite capable of going to Staples and buying some replacements. And because pencils and paper cost next to nothing they can be replaced as and when needed. By contrast, buying new machines is expensive so many electoral authorities put it off. Do this long enough and you wind up in the situation of Pennsylvania which on November 8th 2016 was still using touch screens:

….from the ’80s made by…companies that don’t exist anymore.

That led to fears that even if the machines weren’t hacked they might simply make errors that resulted in them recording votes incorrectly.

In addition, there’s no need to teach voters how to use pencil and paper, hence there is less chance of ‘a hanging chad‘ style fiasco.

A number of states have wound up with the weird compromise of having voters cast their ballots using machines that then produce a paper copy of the ballot. Which – to borrow a phrase from Scott – makes the voting machine into nothing more than “the world’s most expensive pencil”.

If they wish to speed up the counting process, election authorities could always bring in machines to count ballots. This is less problematic than using them to record results because there remains a physical ballot paper that can be recounted by hand if there’s a question about the machine’s accuracy.

That exception aside Luddism is the best option when it comes to election. The ubiquity of pencils and paper speaks to their versatility. There is no need to invent any special technology to enable people to vote: a perfectly good tool for the job has been around for at least 500 years.

 

You might also be interested in:

I’ve written before about why I think the dangers of voter impersonation are dramatically overstated both in the US and the UK.

The best things I’ve read recently (19/11/2016)

Men’s day comes to parliament with hilarious results, China’s selective refugee policy and some worrying rumours about Dr Who

Men of the Commons leave Men’s Day debate to the women by John Crace (the Guardian)

Conservative Paul Beresford was also keen to stand up for men, though he began by insisting he was a feminist because he had a wife and daughters. “Men tend to find themselves at the very top or the very bottom of the ladder,” he observed, a point rather contradicted by his own mediocrity. “We’re encouraging women to be scientists and company directors, so we must do more to help men be hairdressers and tea ladies,” he went on to say, before adding: “I think of the male suicide rate every time I hold the door open for a lady.” As non sequiturs go, that takes some beating.

The upper Han: who is Chinese? (the Economist)

China’s Han-centred worldview extends to refugees. In a series of conflicts since 2009 between ethnic militias and government forces in Myanmar the Chinese government has consistently done more to help the thousands escaping into China from Kokang in Myanmar, where 90% of the population is Han, than it has to aid those leaving Kachin, who are not Han. Non-Chinese seem just as beguiled by the purity of Han China as the government in Beijing. Governments and NGOs never suggest that China take refugees from trouble spots elsewhere in the world. The only large influx China has accepted since 1949 were also Han: some 300,000 Vietnamese fled across the border in 1978-79, fearing persecution for being “Chinese”. China has almost completely closed its doors to any others. Aside from the group from Vietnam, China has only 583 refugees on its books. The country has more billionaires.

Doctor Who Casting Rumors Have Us Scratching Our Heads by Kyle Anderson (Nerdist)

According to The Mirror‘s source:

“BBC management wants a return to the format from the David Tennant era, when you had a dashing male lead and young female companion.

“Merchandising has dropped off sharply in recent years and there is a strong desire to boost the show’s popularity among kids.”

Now, I have a lot of opinions about this, and most of them are to call this utter hogwash. Want some bullet points? Great!

  • The show hasn’t been on for a full calendar year. You want to wonder why merchandising has dropped? Maybe because there’s no show to get people excited about new adventures and new monsters to turn into toys.
  • I haven’t seen nearly the amount of toys and merchandise surrounding the Capaldi era as I did with the deluge surrounding Matt Smith.
  • Also, Matt Smith’s tenure culminated in the 50th Anniversary, when global interest in the show was at an all time high.
  • Pearl Mackie hasn’t even fucking been on the show yet! How can you already say they she’s not going to connect with kids if all of we’ve seen of her is a two minute teaser?
  • The idea of a “return to the format from the David Tennant-era” is incredibly short-sighted and regressive. If there’s one thing the show doesn’t need, it’s a formula that has become so passe.
  • Whether or not Capaldi (who is 58) will vacate the role following series 10, the one thing the BBC absolutely cannot do is have more of the same regarding casting choices. There badly needs to be a shakeup in terms of who plays the Doctor–i.e., not a white guy–and while the source doesn’t say “white” regarding the dashing Tennant-esque Doctor, it shows a clear desire not to think outside the box one iota. When HASN’T there been a dashing Doctor and a young female companion?

Podcast(s) of the week

There are two this week. Ezra Klein’s interview with Ron Brownstein about the psephology of Trump’s victory is fascinating and definitely worth your time. So is the World in Words on the young Arabs in Dubai who speak English better than what is supposedly their mother tongue.

Video of the week

Tweet of the week

The perils of partial pacifism: the sad story of the Stop the War Coalition

 

saadallah_after_the_explosion

The aftermath of a bomb attack in Allepo 

Attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/81399520@N00/8049978198

 

What does it mean to stop a war that started years ago? That is the dilemma currently facing the Stop the War coalition.

I first came across the organisation way back in 2003. I was a tree amongst the forest of anti-Iraq war protestors in Hyde Park. In that context, ‘stop the war’ had a very clear and direct meaning. The ‘war’ was the one that would shortly commence in Iraq. Conscious decisions were being taken in Western capitals to start it, and if they were reversed then it would have been stopped. However, the further removed from that moment we become, the less evident the coalition’s purpose becomes. As this guest post by my friend Robert Knapp demonstrates, nowhere are anti-war slogans less adequate than Syria. And the resulting strain is revealing troubling things about Stop the War’s underlying ideology:

The civil war in Syria has been raging since 2011. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions more have been displaced with the impact spreading into the neighbouring states of Iraq (with the rise of IS), Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Tragically at the time of writing, the war shows no sign of abating. It has been exacerbated by many foreign actors.  At present, A US led coalition is conducting a wide ranging air campaign against the so called Islamic State; while the government of Bashar Al-Assad, backed by Iranian militias and Russian airpower, is continuing its attempts to crush the remaining rebel groups in the besieged city of Aleppo. Regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf states are also deeply involved and implicated. With peace talks progressing nowhere and the horrors of war only seeming to increase, the need for a peaceful solution and the accompanying calls for an end to the conflict only seem more critical. In this context, we should welcome those who oppose the war; support refugee resettlement programs; contribute to aid projects and search for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Despite this I find the behaviour of the Stop the War Coalition (SWC) regarding the Syrian Civil War unconscionably partial and inadequate.  They are almost entirely concerned with decrying Western influence, and particularly the collateral damage inflicted by Western airstrikes against the so called Islamic State. They have remained largely silent on the devastating casualties caused by Russian and Syria air strikes. This has been particularly clear in recent weeks following the devastating bombardment of the besieged city of Aleppo.

This inconsistency has been noted by many, including the foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who called on the group to protest outside the Russian Embassy. In response, the SWC’s chairman, Andrew Murray wrote that: ‘We stretch out our hands to all those in Russia, the USA, Turkey, Iran and France opposing their own governments military interference in Syria, none of which have brought anything other than more suffering and loss of life for the Syrian people.’ However, he explained that the SWC would not be organising any protests themselves other than those against the actions of the British government.*

While a British organisation focusing on the British government might seem like a reasonable stance, it not actually one the SWC adheres to. Their constitution states that the SWC’s chief aim is: ‘to stop the war(s) currently declared by the United States and its allies against ‘terrorism’. It also regularly targets Israel, France, Saudi Arabia and other Western countries. This a perfectly reasonable thing for an anti-war organisation to do but it doesn’t not fit with the SWC’s claim that their scope is limited to their own country and that consequently they must leave the protesting of Russia’s military actions to Russian peace organisation.

This is part of a broader pattern whereby anti-war movements in the West focus on Western actions to the exclusion of wars more generally. Whenever the UK, US and their allies have entered into armed conflicts since September 11th 2001, that has always led to mass protests, rallies and media campaigns organised by groups like the SWC. Russian invasions of Georgia and the Crimea during produced no such reaction. Nor has its connivance with the Syrian government and its Iranian allies to crush the moderate opposition to Assad’s regime. At best these acts of aggression were greeted with silence and at worst they have been excused.

Syria’s Civil War has emerged as the prime example of this hypocrisy. Since November last year Russia has been contributing substantial artillery, Special Forces and, above all, air power elements to support the Syrian government in their attempts to crush the main non-IS rebel movements in the country despite claiming that they are geared towards the fight against Islamic State. In recent months this highly successful intervention has returned to the top of the news bulletins because of the scale of air strikes targeting Aleppo. This has particularly focused upon the number of hospitals targeted and the devastating air strike on an aid convoy which evidence points towards being carried out by either Syrian or Russian aircraft. At the same time a separate air campaign has been being conducted by a US led coalition against the forces of Islamic State in eastern Syria and Iraq.

The SWC has been insistently protesting this latter campaign, largely on the grounds that it has inflicted large civilian casualties. They have mostly remained silent on Russian actions except when to compare them to the horrors Western air strikes. Due to this one might assume that Russian bombs were not killing Syrian civilians or at least leading to fewer civilian casualties than American ones. In fact, the opposite is true.  The Guardian has reported on the tracking of casualties by the organisation Airwars which shows that:

‘Over 3,600 civilian deaths [have been] caused by Russian bombing raids since they joined the Syrian conflict just over a year ago, a number Woods (Chris Woods, the director of Airwars) described as an “absolute minimum”.

In contrast, the coalition has caused nearly 900 civilian deaths over 26 months of bombing, 19 acknowledged by the coalition itself and another 858 recorded by monitoring groups. “That means the Russians’ death rate probably outpaces the coalition by a rate of eight to one,” Woods said. 

He added that the toll from Russian airstrikes may rise because the group’s analysts, who comb through each reported case of a civilian death to verify the attacks, were struggling to keep up with the pace of attacks.

“We are running a huge backlog of cases because the Russians are alleged to have killed so many civilians.” 

As these figures clearly show Western air strikes have been substantially less brutal and harmful to civilians than those conducted by the Russian armed forces. While every civilian death is always a tragedy, a distinction needs to be made between the horrific accidents the United States, Britain and their allies make and the Russian air force’s: deliberate targeting of hospitals; destruction of aid convoys; obfuscation and denials of any civilian casualties being inflicted at all and follow up strikes targeting rescue teams trying to help the wounded of previous strikes. To be concerned only with Western air strikes and not Russian ones is perverse and an indicator of a worldview that not only assumes the West is always the villain but does not allow anyone anti-western to be villainous.

As Jonathan Freedland has written:

‘Pity the luckless children of Aleppo. If only the bombs raining down on them, killing their parents, maiming their friends, destroying their hospitals – if only those bombs were British or, better still, American. Then the streets of London would be jammed with protestors demanding an end to their agony. Trafalgar Square would ring loud with speeches from Tariq Ali, Ken Loach and Monsignor Bruce Kent. Whitehall would be a sea of placards, insisting that war crimes were being committed and that these crimes were Not in Our Name. Grosvenor Square would be packed with noisy protestors outside the US embassy, urging that Barack Obama be put on trial in The Hague. The protestors would wear Theresa May masks and paint their hands red. And they would be doing it all because, they’d say, they could not bear to see another child killed in Aleppo.

But that is not the good fortune of the luckless children of that benighted city. Their fate is to be terrorised by the wrong kind of bombs, the ones dropped by Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. As such, they do not qualify for the activist sympathy of the movement that calls itself the Stop the War Coalition. Indeed, it’s deputy chair, Chris Nineham, told the Today programme that his organisation would not be organising or joining any protests outside the Russian embassy because that would merely fuel the “hysteria and the jingoism” currently being whipped up against Moscow. Stop the War would instead, explained Nineham in a moment of refreshing candour, be devoting its energies to its prime goal – “opposing the west”.’

Pacifism has a long and honourable tradition stretching back to the Buddha and Christ, that takes in the Conscientious Objectors to World War One and the protestors against the Vietnam War. To campaign for the end of war and conflict is commendable but that is not what the SWC does. It seems to be much more concerned with opposing the West than with the horror of conflict itself, even if many of its members do hold that highly laudable aim. It revels in castigating Western military operations while ignoring or making apologies for the actions of non-Western powers carrying out much worse actions. It is very rare for Boris Johnson and Jonathan Freedland to be in agreement but they are right to call out the Stop the War coalition for its rank hypocrisy on this issue. The world needs a just and principled peace movement but it is clear the Stop the War coalition cannot be part of it.

 

*Editors note: Andrew Murray is a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain who has previously defended Stalin and expressed solidarity with North Korea.

What if Theresa May had lost her seat in 2005

20160713172905theresa_may_uk_home_office_cropped

“Hey, I’ve arrived at Twyford” I said into the first mobile phone I ever owned. This being 2005 it was, inevitably, a Nokia 3510. “Oh OK” came the reply from Simon, the Liberal Democrat organiser for Maidenhead constituency, followed by a pause. “But I thought we’d agreed to meet at Maidenhead station” he continued. “Oh shit, yes we did” I replied.

And so began my career as a Liberal Democrat activist. I did eventually get to Maidenhead and start knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. I was campaigning on behalf of Kathy Newbound, a popular local councillor in the traditional mould of Lib Dem community activists. The Party had a come a credible second in the seat in the 2001 General Election and had gained further ground in the local elections that followed.

And it was alluring for another reason: the MP our victory would unseat was high profile. At that point she was Shadow Secretary of State for Families but she had previously been the Chairman of the Conservative Party. In which role, she had made herself notorious for telling the Tories they were perceived as ‘the nasty party’. Despite that what most people knew her for was her flamboyant taste in footwear.

The Liberal Democrat effort to defeat Theresa May was part of what became known as the ‘decapitation strategy‘. It is remembered as an outright failure. Virtually all the senior Tories it targeted dug in and built up the personal votes in their constituencies. At the same time CCHQ employed some of the most sophisticated campaigning British politics had yet seen. For example, they used data purchased from marketing firms to find voters susceptible to messages about the further reaches of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. So owners of land rovers got direct mail about the Lib Dem plans for a tax on 4x4s. At a time when the Liberal Democrats still had to rely on dropping the same leaflet through every door on a street, this was devastating stuff. Michael Howard’s majority barely fell and remained well over 10,000. David Davis’ went from under 2,000 to over 5,000. And Theresa May’s basically doubled.

Nonetheless, the strategy was not quite a total failure. Shadow Education Secretary Tim Collins was defeated by one Tim Farron. So it’s not totally implausible that Mrs May might have lost her seat back in 2005. If that had happened how would Britain now be different?

We could ask if there are features of her tenure as Home Secretary that are unique to her as an individual and which another Conservative would not have replicated?

But the more interesting question is who would now be Prime Minister? Without the rocks of Mrs May’s childlessness to run aground on, would Andrea Leadsom have triumphed? Would the void have been filled by another Remain supporting cabinet minister? Would Gove or Johnson have been able to satisfy their palpable craving for the top job? Or would Mrs May simply have re-entered parliament in 2010 either for Maidenhead or another constituency, and then continued her path to the premiership?

Absent the final option, my read is that British politics would now be pretty different. Mrs May’s peculiar combination of having supported remain but not too loudly, having been in Mr Cameron’s cabinet but not being close to him, of being culturally aligned  with the Party’s grassroots and having a reputation for being tough on immigration allowed her to contain the divides within the Conservatives. I do not see anyone else with a similar combination and I suspect that without her the Party would now be fighting itself in a positively Labour like fashion.

Reflections on a by-election in Witney

This is essentially my ‘hot take’ on the Witney by-election. At time of writing it’s almost 10pm here in South Korea. So I’m prioritising speed over things like finding links to support my assertions, redrafting and proofreading. If that leads to problems, please point it out in the comments and I will try to rectify them.

1: The Liberal Democrats can go on the offensive again

The 2015 General Election showed the incumbency advantage enjoyed by Lib Dems to be hugely overrated. However, for the duration of the coalition it was basically all we had going for us. From 2010 onwards, all our attempts to break into new territory or appeal to new groups of voters floundered. We could only seriously compete in (some of) our existing seats.

That dynamic seems to have shifted. It must be a mathematical certainty that the bulk of people who voted Lib Dem yesterday didn’t do so in 2015. That supports the pattern that we’ve seen in a string of spectacular local council by-election wins.

It’s important not to get carried away here. What we are describing is mostly potential rather than actual. The Party still has basically the same poll ratings it had in our annus horribilis of 2015. And I’m not sure whether affluent rural and suburban remain voting Tory areas are a great platform for a broader resurgence. If Labour gets its act together we could still be stuffed. But at least for now our potential to decline exists alongside the tantalising possibility of growth.

Or put another way in the ecosystem that is British politics, the Liberal Democrats are now predators as well as prey.

2: It’s going to take a miracle to stop a Hard Brexit

The implosion of the Labour Party has turned Britain into a version of one of those American congressional districts gerrymandered to make it an impregnable Republican fortress that as a result has a really hardline congressman more worried about pleasing the handful of ideologues who vote in primaries than in the opinions of the broader electorate.

The events that followed the Brexit vote would not lead you to suspect that Leave had only squeaked a victory by less than the margin of error of a standard opinion poll. It seems that the only view the government seems interested in are those of the most ardent outers and it will do that by delivering a maximalist version of Brexit. This fact will doubtless distress the 48% who voted to remain and presumably at least some of the leavers who were told quite explicitly that they could ‘have their cake and eat it’. But broad swathes of the country being opposed to the direction the government is going in does not matter to Theresa May. As long as there is no credible threat to Conservative rule from another party, all she has to do to maintain her premiership is keep her own deeply eurosceptic party happy.

A win in Witney might have shaken that sense of invulnerability. I am, of course, not criticising anyone involved in the campaign for not securing that an outright victory. Getting to a strong second from basically nowhere is an incredible achievement that was at the very limits of what could realistically be achieved. But that’s kind of the point: we’re running out of plausible ways to prevent our country blundering out of the Single Market.

3: Cosmopolitanism is the opium of the elites?

The past few years have been taxing for the left-wing parties. A key reason for that is they’ve tended to rely on combining their traditional base amongst the unionised working class with strong support from middle class professionals. The increasing prominence of issues of culture and identity has frayed and in some cases broken this alignment because the two halves of it generally have very different views on the merits of an open society.

A commonly articulated response to this problem is that social democratic parties need to pursue a more resolutely left-wing economic agenda. This will supposedly increase the salience of the traditional left-right dichotomy and consequently downplay the problematic open-closed one.

I doubt this will work. I see little evidence that the working class voters who are the audience for this socialist sound and fury will fall for this misdirection. I find the notion that their cultural grievances are just sublimated economic anxiety unconvincing and I suspect they would find it a tad patronising. The Sanders and Corbyn movements have tried this approach and yet appear to draw the vast bulk of their support from the middle class left.

Rather than accentuating economic issues to appeal to a shrinking working class, it would probably be wiser to accentuate cultural ones and appeal to the growing populations of graduates and minorities. This is what seems to be the coalition that will allow the Democrats to win the White House for a third time in a row. It is the affluent suburbs of big cities where Clinton seems to be making the biggest gains against Trump. Witney is essentially what one of those areas looks like in a British context. The successes enjoyed first by Remain and then the Lib Dems in the seat indicate that achieving something similar in British politics is not impossible.

So perhaps the trick to making left-wing politics work in the 21st century is using social liberalism to get wealthy professionals to vote against their short run economic self-interest. Sort of like the Marxist concept of false consciousness but turned on its head.

Not saying that will be an easy trick to pull off but it seems like a more promising avenue to explore than hoping postwar socialism will suddenly start working again.