This week, I had planned to feature a lot of stuff relating to the UK Election, but it’s proved very difficult to find any useful or enlightening comment, so you’re going to have to put up with my take on where things are.
Here is The Guardian’s guide to the English party manifestoes. In one way, the Conservative manifesto is perhaps the most interesting to an American audience, since it shows the gulf between parties of the right on either side of the Atlantic. Apart from Brexit and the hardline immigration stance, the Tories’ proposals mostly look like blue doggery — and in some of the areas relating to workers’ rights, even blue dogs might find them too progressive for their liking.
But it also includes the dementia tax, which could yet turn out to be the worst electoral blunder any party has made over here in forty years. The actual proposal is to remove the cap that Cameron put on the costs of needing full-time care towards the end of life, which are particularly heavy over time for those who are generally healthy but have little connection to the real world any more. Within 48 hours of publishing the original proposal, May was backtracking and revising — thus destroying her self-depiction as “strong and stable”, qualities which she was touting as her outstanding fitness to achieve a beneficial Brexit deal. This issue is now the number one thing that voters associate with the Tories, and it’s chiefly responsible for their slide in such polling as we have had.
But we have had woefully little polling. Everyone was wrong-footed by the snap election call, so the pollsters have not had the infrastructure in place in advance.
It is undoubtedly true that Labour have eaten into the Tory lead, UKIP have collapsed and the Lib Dems have flatlined. And everyone has gone into headless-chicken mode over the YouGov poll which showed Labour within 5 points. We desperately need more polling to see whether YouGov are a wild outlier or are really on to something.
Labour are the clear winners (so far, anyway) in terms of performance against expectations. They have run a far less chaotic campaign than one anticipated, with an astounding lack of gaffes. (With one possible exception, with which I shall deal in a later section.)
Corbyn has been very good. Given that we were expecting “poor”, that amounts to a fantastic performance from his point of view.
What Corbyn is very good at is campaigning, because while you’re on the stump, you rarely have to deal with hostility, especially if your campaign managers make sure that you speak mostly to friendly audiences. What he’s bad at is conflict: that makes him a poor parliamentarian, an unsympathetic interviewee, and a rotten party CEO. Those mean that he would likely be a poor prime minister — as Trump has found, government is a lot more difficult than trotting out campaigning points.
He’s not the greatest public speaker ever. He tends to wonkery and doesn’t bandy about high-flown rhetoric or snappy slogans in a loud voice, but argues a fairly convincing case. Those with long memories may recall a certain US Presidential candidate who won a considerable majority of the popular vote but didn’t accede to the presidency owing to some quirks of the electoral system. One reason it’s working is that his main opponent is cut from the same cloth and sounds terrible when being stridently aggressive.
The issue which has had the most traction for Labour is free college. (Where have we heard that before, I wonder?) That and some other things will need paying for, so they’re proposing some fairly steep increases in income tax for those earning more then £80,000 a year — which rather heads off the Tory tabloids’ favorite headline of “Labour’s Tax Bombshell”, especially as the Conservatives apparently can’t promise they won’t be raising the basic rate.
The launch of the manifesto had the pundits sagely talking about Labour’s far left turn, mostly based on the intention to renationalise rail, energy, the Post Office and water.
Rail renationalisation they’ve actually got right. Rail privatisation was a horrible mess, and the plan is simply not to renew train operating franchises as they expire. That is pretty cheap to achieve over time, and would almost certainly result in an improvement to railways.
The other renationalisations, though, would be extremely expensive and it’s not obvious that they do much more than satisfy an ideological preference.
The critical one is energy, because the biggest problem on the energy front is the need for investment in new forms of generation. (A couple of days ago, we hit 25% of the nation’s power supply being supplied by solar for a short period, which ain’t bad.) That means rising consumer bills, which are apparently not very popular for reasons I can only guess at. There is a certain logic to saying that private energy companies’ need for profits inflate those prices, although the immediate need for outlay to buy the current shareholdings would mean that there would be no overall effect in the short term. The longer-term difficulty is that nationalised energy companies would need to get Treasury approval for major investment projects, and the Treasury are much more likely to stifle innovation than encourage it. Privatising energy wasn’t a particularly good idea, but renationalising it seems to me to be a worse idea than leaving things where they now are.
But that’s not an issue which is coming up on the doorsteps, so who cares? Labour are not going to get an overall majority in Parliament, so even if they get to govern, they won’t be able to push through the wilder parts of their manifesto. They can’t get an overall majority because to do so, they’d have to wipe out the SNP and that ain’t going to happen.
So they could get to be in government — just not on their own. If YouGov are accurate and if the trend of Con-Lab swing is maintained, May could lose her majority and we’d be in hung parliament territory. For Labour to form a government in that event, they would need to construct a workable coalition with the SNP, who are basically centrists when not talking about Scottish independence. To do so, of course, Labour would have to backtrack sharply on their previous statements about working with the SNP.
Our version of the traditional October Surprise has been the Manchester bomb. The Tories are already trying to paint Corbyn as soft on terrorism, and he has some form on that, so they don’t have to confect too much to do it. In that context, his speech in which he blamed UK foreign policy for the bombings may have been a gaffe of significance. He’s actually right. As Patrick Cockburn says:
Jeremy Corbyn is correct in saying that there is a strong connection between the terrorist threat in Britain and the wars Britain has fought abroad, notably in Iraq and Libya. The fact that these wars motivate and strengthen terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and Isis has long been obvious to British intelligence officers, though strenuously denied by governments.
(I’m going to quote another Cockburn piece more extensively in a minute; the above piece goes into exhaustive detail about British foreign policy mistakes and is of less general interest.)
But the problem with making that speech at this particular point in the campaign is that his opponents, particularly those in the press, confuse explanation with justification. You don’t have to approve of terrorists blowing themselves up just because you say you know why they do it, but that isn’t a consideration that the liars of the Daily Mail are liable to have. This is where Corbyn’s previous support for Palestinian violence against Israel becomes a distinct hindrance to rational discussion of the actual issue. It remains to be seen how this plays out.
Much will depend on results in the battleground areas and whether there is any significant tactical voting. A few Tories are vulnerable to Lib Dems, and a number of Tories are vulnerable to Labour if the Lib Dem voters switch to them, so micro-results might defy a national pattern.
However, as I write late on Saturday evening, news comes in of polls to be published tomorrow showing the Tories with a 12 point lead, so any optimisim you were feeling earlier was probably pointless.
Back to Patrick Cockburn, as we swing to talking about POUTS*.
President Trump leaves the Middle East today, having done his bit to make the region even more divided and mired in conflict than it was before.
At the same moment that Donald Trump was condemning the suicide bomber in Manchester as “an evil loser in life”, he was adding to the chaos in which al-Qaeda and Isis have taken root and flourished.
It may be a long distance between the massacre in Manchester and the wars in the Middle East, but the connection is there.
He blamed “terrorism” almost exclusively on Iran and, by implication, on the Shia minority in the region, while al-Qaeda notoriously developed in the Sunni heartlands and its beliefs and practises primarily stem from Wahhabism, the sectarian and regressive variant of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia.
The only feasible way to eliminate organisations capable of carrying out these attacks is to end the seven wars – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and north east Nigeria – that cross-infect each other and produce the anarchic conditions in which Isis and al-Qaeda and their clones can grow.
But to end these wars, there needs to be political compromise between main players like Iran and Saudi Arabia and Trump’s belligerent rhetoric makes this almost impossible to achieve.
On his return to the US, his attention is going to be fully focused on his own political survival, not leaving much time for new departures, good or bad, in the Middle East and elsewhere. His administration is certainly wounded, but that has not stopped doing as much harm as he could in the Middle East in a short space of time.
I quoted Cockburn on the Saudis last week, but here’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown with a more impassioned take:
Iran is seriously mistrusted by Israel and America. North Korea protects its nuclear secrets and is ruled by an erratic, vicious man. Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions alarm democratic nations. The newest peril, Isis, the wild child of Islamists, has shocked the whole world. But top of this list should be Saudi Arabia – degenerate, malignant, pitiless, powerful and as dangerous as any of those listed above.
The state systematically transmits its sick form of Islam across the globe, instigates and funds hatreds, while crushing human freedoms and aspiration. But the West genuflects to its rulers. Last week Saudi Arabia was appointed chair of the UN Human Rights Council, a choice welcomed by Washington. Mark Toner, a spokesperson for the State Department, said: “We talk about human rights concerns with them. As to this leadership role, we hope that it is an occasion for them to look into human rights around the world and also within their own borders.”
The jaw simply drops. Saudi Arabia executes one person every two days.
So, what does our ruling establishment do to stop the invisible hand of this Satan? Zilch. The Royal Family, successive governments, parliamentarians, a good number of institutions and people with clout collectively suck up to the Saudi ruling clan. I have not seen any incisive TV investigation of this regime. We know it is up to no good, but evidence is suppressed. Some writers have tried to break this conspiracy of obsequiousness. Craig Unger’s book, House of Bush, House of Saud was published in 2004. It established beyond reasonable doubt that Saudi Arabia was the nerve-centre of international terrorism. And that the Bush family was unduly close to the regime. Many of us believed the revelations were even more explosive than those by the journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who exposed the lies told by Richard Nixon.
Extremism is a serious problem. Westernised, liberal Muslims do try to influence feverish, hostile young Muslim minds, but we are largely powerless. Our leaders will not confront Saudi Arabia, the source of Islamist brainwashing and infection. They won’t because of oil and the profits made by arms sales. Political cowards and immoral profiteers are the traitors, the real threat to national security, patriotism and cohesion. How do they answer the charge?
So far, at least, by denying.
Now let’s have a few reviews of the POUTS tour, beginning with Thomas Gutschke in the Frankfurter Allgemeine:
Donald Trump went traveling for nine days: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Europe. The record, very briefly, in the president’s Twitter slang: great, amazing, bad. Great were the Saudis, from buying weapons to waving and dancing with sabers. Also the Israelis, real friends, and a great Holocaust memorial. The Pope, well, so-so. After all, a splendid palace, beautiful robes, but all very stiff. Really annoying then these guys from Europe. Talk all day about world trade, climate protection and refugees, but do not pay their bills. In the lead, the Germans – really bad.
Trump may have felt roughly like this on his first trip abroad as a president, during which he was not allowed to play golf even one. In the gold-glittering air-conditioning of Saudi Arabia, he could still feel as if he were at home in the Trump Tower . His taste, his sense of business, his sense of family. And everywhere his portrait on the walls. In Europe no one cheered him. Instead, exhortations, tormented faces, endless work sessions. A strange world. The only thing he had in common with them: the others also found him strange.
Trump saw all the subjects through tiny American glasses, not the diversity of his grand country, but the simplicity of an angry electorate. World problems, such as migration and climate protection, were of interest to him from the point of view of what they meant for American jobs. Common values - what do they cost? Has an American President ever been so pompous and yet thought so small ? Add to this his bizarre behavior. It is not a minor aberration, if he just pushes the Montenegrin Prime Minister out of the way just because he wants to be in the front row. It is an expression of disrespect for allies; Montenegro is the 29th member of the alliance.
The Europeans should be clear after this week that they must pursue their values and interests independently of America. In trade, the European Union is already a world power that no one can dictate rules to. It can even benefit from Trump’s protectionist course. In the end, Brussels is negotiating parallel free trade agreements, including Japan, Australia and Mexico, with twenty countries. In climate protection, the situation is more difficult. But the big developed countries have seen that they must take action from pure self-interest. Alliances without America are possible. There is a long way to go ahead of Europe. But at least this is an opportunity to weld the continent together.
In La Repubblica, Federico Rampini somewhat disagrees with the end of that:
[Irtalian PM] Paolo Gentiloni has quite the sense of humor. He described Donald Trump as “talkative and curious,” after sabotaging the G7 . But the Italian premier is right. If one cut you off and you’re a man, do not get out of the car with the baseball bat to break the window. If you’re driving a Fiat 500 and he is in a truck, the retaliation game is beyond you. That Trump is a wrestler and a boor, the Americans have known for some time. In the electoral campaign it came to the point of mimicking a disabled journalist to humiliate him in public. On another occasion (from much earlier) he talked of grabbing women by the intimate parts. Gentiloni went softly in comparison.
But those who are Europeans at the end of the Taormina summit are also naive talking of a “six against one” result. As if global governance could start from there: isolate America as it stays in opposition, and continue doing the same without her. Go where? Meanwhile, the representation of the “six against one” is false because on many things Theresa May seeks a preferential axis with Washington. Not to mention Shinzo Abe who has other problems (China, North Korea). But above all, the mirage of the “Six against one” presupposes a compact, decision-making, solidarity and working Union. From terrorism to migration, not to mention austerity and economic growth, Trump is by no means the only one wanting to stop marching to a better future.
The newly-elected President Macron certainly put himself about a bit at NATO and Taormina, clearly also keen to make an impression. Here’s Eric Jozsef’s view of proceedings:
Facing the Ionian Sea, on the heights of Taormina, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have not seen the same weather report. The discussion on climate was “very difficult” and ultimately “not at all satisfactory”: thus the German Chancellor on Saturday afternoon , at the end of the G7. And added, taking off the diplomatic gloves: “we have a six-to-one situation . ” Understand six against Donald Trump. This is confirmed by the G7 final document, which takes note of the division: “The United States of America is engaged in a process of reviewing its policy on climate change and the Paris Agreement and is not able to participate in the consensus on these subjects “
Conversely, Emmanuel Macron, a newcomer to this type of international spectacular, like Donald Trump, wanted to see “progress” at this summit: “A few weeks ago we thought that The United States would leave the framework of the Paris agreements and that no discussion would be possible “ . Not only has this not been the case, indicated the head of state, but he wants to believe that the American leader could be sensitive “to the arguments highlighted by the other six member states . “ Namely the importance for the image of the United States in the world to stay in the agreement but also for the sake of the energy transition for their own economy. “ During the meetings, it was pointed out that if the G7 countries did not act in this direction, it will be the emerging countries, China and India in the lead,” said a diplomat. “I think Donald Trump is pragmatic, I hope he confirms his commitment” on the Paris agreements, finally said Emmanuel Macron while leaving Taormina.
Emmanuel Macron assured that during the meetings Donald Trump had been listening. He is “someone open, who wants to do well” guaranteed the French president while advisers to Angela Merkel let it be known that they had been not only surprised by his lack of knowledge of his files but also by the lack of experience of his advisers. By posing as a privileged partner of Angela Merkel but also as an interlocutor of the Donald Trump, the “neophyte” Emmanuel Macron visibly attempted in Taormina to place himself in the center of the picture.
Not surprising, that last one. Macron has longer than anyone else at the G7 before he has to try and get re-elected. All the others, from May in 11 days time, through Merkel in the autumn to POUTS himself if he gets that far are facing elections before he does, so he’s making an early bid to be the next leader of the free world.
Earlier in the week was the NATO Summit, unhappily reviewed by Jan Techau:
Eagerly the diplomats had tried on both sides to seal the visit against too nasty surprises. In Nato, it was planned to make a monthly statement of what was to be said and announced. With the inauguration of the new headquarters of the alliance, which had not yet been completed, one had even invented a solemn occasion to build a solid framework from which one could not easily break out. And even in the EU, it was assumed that it would be difficult, but that Trumps transitional time would be over now, and that he slowly get to know the topics and understand what’s what..
But all were caught cold. Neither Trump nor some of his closest advisers had understood the basics of European-American trade relations. Instead came a morally charged tirade against Germany and its foreign trade surplus. There is enough truth in this criticism to take it seriously, but the economic retaliation trumpeted byTrump comes from the economic-political arsenal of the past. Yes, Germany is investing too little. On the other hand, Americans love German products. The lower attractiveness of American products will not alter the penal duties against Germany.
To all the misfortunes in the discussions that Trump had with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels , there was also a serious contrast in the assessment of Russia. As time has gone on, Trump has become the world’s leading Russia apologist, who has played down and praised the aggressive policy of the Kremlin. This is in line with the news from Washington, where nearly every day new hair-raising entanglements of Trump’s election and government officials with Russian intelligence and ideologues come to light. The strategic reality of a Russian policy that erodes liberal Western societies from within and destroys transatlantic cohesion is ignored.
In the US-led alliance, Trump used the symbolism of the ceremony, which was ornamented with debris from the World Trade Center and remnants of the Berlin Wall, to give an embarrassing lecture on the NATO members’ contributions to Europeans . The reason for the event, namely, to affirm the value of the Article 5 clause of mutual assistance, was omitted. The Allies, all dependent on America’s protective hand, are still waiting for a word of reassurance from this President. It is not enough for such words to come only from the vice president, the foreign minister or the defense minister. What matters is where the boss is. As long as one remains in doubt about his attitude, the whole Alliance remains nervous.
But I’ll finish with David Usborne, theorising that POUTS’s bad behavior is because too many Americans don’t like him.
The more things go kaflooey for Donald Trump at home, the trickier and less malleable he becomes for the rest of the world. This equation was surely apparent to anyone in his path in Brussels and Taormina last week – including the Prime Minister of Montenegro, who was physically repositioned by Trump at his most oafish as he barged to the front for a “family photo” at Nato.
Had anyone been hoping for a less testy Trump they were surely disappointed. At Nato, he might have recognised the sacrifices of nations much smaller than his fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan instead of delivering a scolding to virtually every other member nation allegedly for stiffing the American taxpayer in their contributions to the Alliance. He might also have refrained from calling the Germans “very bad” for being very good at selling their cars in America.
But for Trump to be in a better mood, we need be nicer to him. Melania could start by not snatching her hand away from his. There were moments during his trip when it seemed as if the other leaders had stage-managed events to make him look foolish on tape. I am suspicious of Emmanuel Macron, the President of France; the way he walked straight for Trump at Nato and swerved at the last minute to greet Angela Merkel instead: not subtle.
With his shoulder pads and cockatiel hair, Trump does not look short on confidence. He is the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth. But we all see signs of a man chronically uncertain of how the rest of us perceive him. A confident Trump wouldn’t obsess over every cruel joke about him on Saturday Night Live. A confident Trump wouldn’t feel compelled to snipe petulantly at his every foe on Twitter. A confident Trump wouldn’t Sellotape his tie to his shirt.
To get things done in Washington, presidents need to have political strength, even when their party controls both chambers of Congress. Trump has less and less of that vital commodity. And part of the reason, of course, is the swiftly expanding investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and what collusion there may have been between Moscow and his campaign. Add to that concern that Trump himself may have crossed a legal line asking heads of investigative agencies, including James Comey, the now sacked FBI director, to slow-march their probes.
This is the Trump who came to Belgium and Italy. Were things going better at home, he might not have felt compelled to stand outside Nato and speak not really to the leaders around him or the world at large but rather to his base at home. The verbal beating he gave the allies was for their benefit, never mind statesmanship. If he is still refusing to commit to the Paris Treaty on climate change it is because he has to be more worried about his base than about the planet.
On Friday John Boehner, a former House speaker and once the most powerful Republican in town, averred that Trump had had some success on foreign affairs but that “everything else he’s done has been a complete disaster”. Few would disagree with the second part of that statement.
Well, he’ll be back in the US shortly. You’re welcome to him.