What about the Juncker vote then?

As ever in politics, there are several ways to look at a single event, depending on your point of view, and cynicism. Mr Cameron, First Lord of the Treasury, recently lost his battle to prevent Mr Juncker, the former Luxembourg Prime Minister, becoming President of the European Commission. Lost. Defeated. Humiliated.

But this need not be the case. If one squints, or looks at things with the aid of a mirror, one can see triumph. Mr Cameron sees triumph – or at the very least a victory for principle, integrity and determination. ‘My colleagues on the European Council know that I am deadly serious about EU reform,’ he said, ‘but I keep my word that, if I say I am not going to back down, I won’t.’

Since Mr Juncker is an arch-federalist (he is, isn’t he; that’s what we are told?), and the recent EU parliamentary elections have delivered a blow to the federalists, he deduces that what the Commission needs right now, like a hole in the head, is a federalist to prove the sceptics right: that the EU is not going to change course for anyone, least of all for the electorates of Europe.

Listen to the Labour Party leader and you will hear how Mr Cameron lost the vote 26 to 2 (which he did), how he and Britain are isolated in Europe and how this has been an ‘utter humiliation’, how he is pandering to the right-wing of his party, and how he is, by extension, the wrong person to be Prime Minister right now. The person most suited to the office of PM is, we must presume, Mr Miliband himself, despite the polls casting one or two doubts. According to a recent YouGov poll, 19 percent think he would make the best PM while 37 percent favour Cameron. But what sort of politician would he be without a certain degree of masochistic optimism?

I suppose this comes down to the key activity of politics – presentation. To Cameron this is, if not an outright success, a successful demonstration of his will to lead the EU in a direction more acceptable to its peoples; and to Miliband this is, of course, a failure. What is so utterly infuriating about the whole affair, and politics in general, is that there is an element of truth in both claims. Wouldn’t it be great if one could switch off one’s nuance receptors and see things only in black and white?


The Ukrainian authorities are acting criminally, but the protesters are not helping

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Most of us will have noticed that the Ukrainians are presently lighting up their capital city of Kiev. We hope the worst is over, but there is no sign yet of a political breakthrough, let alone a resolution to those deeper divisions underpinning Ukraine’s present predicament. These events are sad and shocking. Sad because over forty people have so far been killed and shocking because Ukraine is just the other side of Poland and we had thought this sort of violence in Europe had ended with the Yugoslav wars. Shocking also because the pictures look decidedly apocalyptic.

The Wall Street Journal has some corkers: blazing fires throwing menacing shadows across the night; rubble and litter obliterating former roads and plazas; broken household items, including beds, piled up into barricades; emblematic flag-waving, silhouetted by burning tyres and other incendiaries; massed ranks of paramilitary police; hooded, brick-wielding protesters. There is also an image of the obligatory child with flowers attached to her head – though we might wonder what sort of parent takes their child to such a protest.

These events bear all the hallmarks of righteous 21st Century protest: superficially characterised as pro-democracy and anti-corruption on one side, and the opposites of those things on the other. But it’s not really as simple as that – never is.

How, therefore, should we view these events? Is it a case of legitimate protest being cruelly and unacceptably oppressed by an illegitimate government? Or a case of legitimate, though badly handled, attempts by the elected government to maintain law and order in the face of insurrection? Or is it a mash-up of the two? As ever, it’s probably a mix of everything.

But the natural response is to side with the ‘people’ and look for a bogeyman. President Viktor Yanukovych fits the bill. Not only is he tainted by the charge of electoral fraud, from his campaign to become president in 2004, but he is now also being criticised for looking to the East for political patronage rather than to the West. To some this is heresy. Indeed, it was his rejection, in the latter half of 2013, of closer association with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia that kicked the whole thing off.

Siding with Russia, especially with President Putin, is not the action of someone trying to win friends in the West. He is reported to have been speaking to Putin on the phone while this latest bout was in full swing – though only for a short period, one presumes. The Sochi Winter Olympics might be centre stage right now, but they are taking place before a backdrop of government corruption, gay persecution, media suppression and international shenanigans over Syria. Some regimes, it is thought, are just bad, and Western liberals would not shed tears if they fell.

A similar sentiment influenced the West’s response to President Assad of Syria. In that wretched country a popular protest for more democracy and liberty soon turned into a full-blown civil war. Thousands of people have been killed, and many more forced into refugee camps in neighbouring countries; towns and cities have been devastated. It is hard not to see Assad as anything other than a murderous tyrant, and I don’t propose to excuse any of his or his regime’s actions; but, right or wrong, the Syrian war began as a fight between the legitimate government – however obnoxious – and popular protest.

We might also look at what happened elsewhere in the so-called Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt. In 2012 protests began in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in much the same manner as those in Ukraine: namely, some people demonstrating against what they perceived to be an arbitrary president doing what they didn’t want him to do. And we know where that led. As undesirable as President Morsi and his pals in the Muslim Brotherhood might have been, they were democratically elected and thus legitimately entitled to exercise power. The people were not. Yet the protests led to (even agitated for) a military coup and the deposition of the first elected president of Egypt – elections took place before that, but were generally considered shams. This is not quite what the democrats had in mind.

Examples of history, while not blueprints for the future, should not be ignored. Both Egypt and Syria show how popular revolutions can have consequences that are both unintended and undesirable. There are other warnings: The French and Bolshevik revolutions were instigated in the name of the people, but produced obnoxious outcomes. It is true that there have been revolutions generally considered to be both benign and beneficial: not least our own Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the European revolutions of 1989 against Communism. But the situation in Ukraine does not compare.

Even though the government in Ukraine is dealing with the situation horrendously, and is resorting to violence that gives every impression of being barbarous and criminal; and even though Putin’s influence is decidedly malign, it is hard to see how the protesters can justify their own actions. Their own violence, though provoked, is counter-productive and provoking their own deaths. Protest is legitimate, but there are moral and practical limits to how far people can take protest: and that, one might argue, falls short of the use of barricades, bricks, petrol bombs and even guns. They are destroying things too, and, while it is for them to decide how far they go in pursuit of their aims, one cannot help wondering if there wasn’t a better way. Parliament is still sitting, after all, and they were never at the stage where insurrection was the only option left to them.

There’s another image that should give us pause for thought. There’s a photo of another female – though this time an adult – with some sort of floral arrangement wrapped around what looks like a skiing helmet. She’s come prepared, obviously. But rather than attending the protest for peaceful purposes, she is photographed distributing bricks to similarly clad females. Violence in defence of life and property is one thing, but this is not a defensive posture, especially when you add Molotov cocktails to the mix. This is not the kind of peaceful protest advocated by Mahatma Ghandi.

Protesters, no matter the morality of their cause, should understand that when they take up arms against the state, they should expect the state to hit back. And that’s precisely what has happened, to devastating and tragic effect. The state has bigger sticks, guns and bombs. Syria perfectly demonstrated this little maxim.

The tragedy, though, is not just that people have been killed; it is that things might get so much worse. The best outcome would be for the protesters to go home and for fresh elections to be held, as the protesters indeed ask. But the government does not seem to want to do that just yet. And who can blame them: they have the authority of the ballot box; the protesters do not. What is democracy if determined protesters can depose a government and effectively nullify legitimate election results? It is a tragedy that it is taking these deaths to negate the government’s legitimacy.

But we are where we are and restraint will be key to a satisfactory outcome. Not just from the government, but also from those who are stretching the meaning of legitimate protest – ten of those who have been killed were police officers. Violence and disorder hide a multitude of other sins, and it is the people who will suffer most. If this spreads, if this turns to civil war, it is ordinary people who will pay the heaviest price. External forces also need to show restraint. While certain European leaders moot sanctions, the Russians suggest a coup is in progress. This is not helpful.

And as we remember the centenary of the First World War, we should perhaps draw a lesson from what can happen when local disputes are allowed to escalate into full-scale international conflagrations. The last thing we need right now is for Russia and the EU to lock horns; rather they need to put Ukraine and the Ukrainian people first, and do whatever is necessary to quell the growing discontent.

Has there ever been a more preposterous appeal against conviction than by the murderer of Lee Rigby?

It seems that Michael Adebolajo, one of the two men found guilty of the murder of Lee Rigby, is appealing against his conviction. The average person, with an average comprehension of the concept of guilt, might think this a little odd, but we have come to expect such appeals as a standard part of our criminal justice system.

It’s hard not to remember Lee Rigby. He is the soldier of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who was murdered on the streets of Woolwich in May 2013. The case was horrific, as the images and news reports of the murder testified at the time. One might say it was barbaric, but we tend to resist such words for their other connotations – though it was barbaric; there is no disputing the truth of that statement.

We know that Adebolajo is guilty for two reasons. Firstly, there was the evidence we all got to see thanks to witnesses capturing the incident on their smartphones and then passing them on to various media outlets for transmission. Citizen journalism, I think it’s called. The images were enough to show pretty conclusive guilt, but when added to the admission and preposterous rhetoric of these Islamists – ‘soldier of Allah’ and the like – the evidence is damning.

Secondly, and most importantly, the jury sitting in the Old Bailey found him guilty. That is how we measure criminal guilt – innocent until proven guilty and all that. Magna Carta is our primary reference for jury trials, and Adebolajo was found guilty ‘by lawful judgement of his peers’ and by ‘the law of the land.’ Thus he is guilty. Any other system is arbitrary in nature, so we should be thankful that we have this tradition and that the jury was allowed to make its free decision on the guilt of these men.

But there is a problem. In fact, there are several problems. Although the guilty verdict was made in December 2013, neither of the killers has yet been sentenced. This is, as the presiding High Court judge, Sir Nigel Sweeney, tells us, because he is waiting for another Appeal Court ruling. There it is: a criminal, who has not received sentence because of an appeal, is lodging his own appeal against his conviction. As Shakespeare might have said: ‘The course of true justice never did run smooth.’ On this occasion, we await the result of the EU’s challenge to the British approach to whole-life sentences. Another knotty little issue!

A second problem is that Adebolajo is appealing at all. We have a system of appeal to protect the innocent from injustice. We like our jury system, but occasionally juries get it wrong, or new evidence comes forward after the original trial, or lawyers abuse accepted legal procedure. And yet it is hard to see on what grounds either of these two murderers might appeal against their convictions. It seems that appealing is simply the thing that happens after a conviction, even in the most clear-cut of cases.

Considering the evidence, the most likely outcome is for the appeal to be rejected at the first hearing. But it will be interesting to see what the lawyers come up with. If it’s good, then the public might just wear it, but if it’s just another spurious and legalistic game, then anger and cynicism might just be the outcome.

Is intervention in Syria really an option? If so, what prospect success?

If you remember when Gorbachev called time on the Soviet Union, you might also remember thinking a new era of peace and harmony was just beginning. Not only were we not going to have nuclear bombs dropped on our heads, but we were also not going to have to spend so much of our money on armies. In other words, a reduction in the threat would enable a reduction in defence spending, otherwise known as the peace dividend. Do you remember?

I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. Our record since then hasn’t been that great. There’s been the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Macedonia, Afghanistan and Iraq; and more recently Libya and Mali. Our proclivity for war – or its various manifestations: conflict, intervention, counter-insurgency, anti-terror, humanitarian assistance, international justice and more – far from abating, seems as strong as ever.

As it turned out, only half of the peace-dividend bargain was true: governments found ways to reduce defence spending. The other half, the idea that the threat of conflict had also reduced, was not true. And we – by that I mean the West – seem as ready as ever to opt for the military solution.

And now Syria. The rhetoric is hotting up, albeit gradually. It really should not surprise us if we ended up intervening in some way there, too – notwithstanding the very real likelihood that clandestine activity is already well underway. France, citing the use of chemical weapons, has called for international action, though it’s not entirely clear what that should be; Israel has already bombed a convoy thought to be carrying surface-to-air missiles; the USA has mentioned something about red lines; and the FCO has welcomed the lifting of the EU arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.

The point here, however, is not to argue we should never intervene. Rather, it’s to question the manner of our intervention. Those examples I listed above all had their justifications, most of them extremely good: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was unacceptable; the humanitarian descent in the Former Yugoslavia was real; the UN was on the verge of defeat in Sierra Leone, or had it already been routed, I can’t quite remember; terrorists really were prepping themselves for Jihad in Afghanistan; and weapons of mass destruction in… Well, that’s a little more complex!

Anyway, by my crude reckoning, less than fifty percent of those interventions proved a long-term success. Not a very good return. The Gulf War was only the first episode in the longer-running Saddam show. What future problems might have been avoided if we had removed him from power in 1991, as was justified by his unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state? There’s something for the counter-factual historians to consider. Afghanistan is still unresolved after more than a decade, and we really don’t know what will happen when we leave. And the so-called Arab Spring is not really my idea of spring.

Most people understand the imperfection of military intervention: that results cannot be guaranteed, and that military activity is a messy business. Indeed, these facts, proven time and time again throughout history, bring to mind one of the key conditions we use for justifying military intervention: that ‘there must be serious prospect of success.’

Well, that’s obvious, you say. But it’s worth asking what this actually means and why this condition is thought to be so important in Just War doctrine. Full deconstruction of the point probably deserves a thesis of its own, but the gist is this: war always causes suffering, so if you must go to war then make sure you know what success looks like and how you are going to get there; anything else leads to protracted conflict, which in turn leads to more suffering.

States entering into war must therefore make every preparation for success. Which means not stinting on either the capability of the force being deployed or the determination with which operations are conducted. The Gulf War is an exemplar of proper preparation. General Schwatzkopf pushed the ‘overwhelming force’ approach, having learnt the lesson from Vietnam. American involvement in South East Asia was too incremental; not enough decisive action. The planners did not really know what success looked like, and they certainly did not know how to get there. The result we all know.

At first, General Schwartzkopf was criticised for being over-cautious, profligate with military force (money) and perhaps too aggressive. But he was vindicated. The war was decisive and it was short, the ground campaign lasting only four days. Suffering was loaded mostly onto the aggressor, and the innocent were spared as much as possible.

Where criticism is, however, justified is in what followed. After the Gulf War we immediately entered a new conflict centred on containment, no-fly zones, sanctions and a massive US military footprint in the region. There was justification behind this new engagement, but there was no clear understanding of what success looked like. The spectacle was not unlike a lumbering giant poking a massive wasps nest with a stick. Conditions were perfect for those naturally hostile to the West to portray foreign forces in the Middle East as imperialist aggressors. Although Islamist hostility existed before, and would have existed had western troops not been in the Middle East, their presence, with no end in sight, made it much easier for extremists to whip up hatred.

Overwhelming force does, of course, sound unsophisticated to some ears – mainly ears that will be nowhere near the action. But war is a binary business: life and death, victory and defeat. The more time spent in between these two states, the more suffering there will be. That is the reason why prospect of success is so important: it reduces the likelihood of a long, drawn-out conflict, thus minimising long, drawn-out suffering.

And what is happening in Syria? At first, analysts thought the conflict could last weeks or perhaps months. But we are now about two years in, and the suffering has become long and drawn out, and neither is there much indication that the end is in sight. UN figures indicate 80,000 deaths so far, and over a million refugees displaced from Syria; and many more internally displaced within the country.  Conflict with no serious prospect of success is every bit as terrible as short and sharp conflict, and in many respects far worse. The refugee crisis and the storing up of generational grievances will scar the region for decades to come.

Any intervention we might make in the crisis, other than genuine humanitarian aid, must be set against an identifiable measure of success. Doing something because, well, we’ve got to do something, is not really good enough. Prolonging a civil war, no matter how brutal it might be, with half-hearted intervention merely prolongs the suffering.

This is one of the many dilemmas politicians are facing over Syria. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s almost impossible, which goes a long way to explain why many people do not want to start arming the opposition. The fear is not just that weapons might end up in the hands of Islamists, but that the conflict will simply be prolonged. But grappling with such dilemmas is why we have politicians.

Perhaps, all things considered, the thing to do here is to follow the old maxim: that sometimes the best course of action is to take no action at all. If not, and we decide to intervene, then the implication is clear: to achieve success, we must pick a side and prosecute the war with everything we have so as to achieve success. The only question remaining is: which side to pick.

Moses, the EU, the Labour Party and Conservative loonies

It’s a little-known fact that, shortly before Moses staggered down Mount Sinai under the weight of those two stone tablets, he dropped and broke a third; and, rather than admit he was a clumsy oaf, pretended God only gave him two. You didn’t know? Well, don’t worry, neither did I until about thirty seconds ago, so it doesn’t reflect too badly on you. Anyway, written on the third tablet, and now forgotten in all but the most select of academic circles, were the words: ‘Thou shalt not appear sane whilst speaking of the European Union. (By ‘Thou,’ I mean Conservatives)’ – God’s words precisely!

And so, from that day to this, it’s been a dead cert that, whenever Conservatives start talking about the European Union, they also start frothing and writhing like lunatics. And, because we’re not as progressive and civilised and capable of rational debate as we like to think we are, the insults are never far behind: ‘God! They’re right loonies, aren’t they?’ – That sort of thing.

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever seen the news, even if by mistake while searching for one of those life-affirming programmes like EastEnders or Big Brother. We don’t even need to know about the other commandments, it’s just a well-known fact that, when Conservatives come into contact with the EU, the ensuing tumult is a bit like when a little boy comes into contact with soap and water.

What may surprise you, however, is to hear Conservatives calling other Conservatives loonies. But, as this is only an allegation, and I believe the plaintiff is thinking about suing, I’m going to put it on record that I don’t believe a single libelous word of it – unless, that is, someone proves otherwise in a court of law.

Yet all this froth obscures the true divisions within the Conservative party. Some Conservatives say the EU is great and that we would be mad to leave, others say it’s pretty great but not perfect and just needs a bit of reform, and others say the EU is a leopard with unchangeable spots and we must leave it to munch away on its own carcass (starting at the peripheries).

Of course, a certain type of Tory critic loves all this. They really do think the argument makes the Conservatives look loony; that it proves how right they were about them all along; and that the public will conclude that they should never ever ever vote Tory ever ever again, because if they do, well, they’ll be loony, too – only they wouldn’t use such derogatory language.

In part, this implies that the EU is a significant issue only while Conservatives talk about it. Stop talking about it and the issue goes away, or better still solves itself. You can understand why Conservatives have been reluctant to open up old wounds, scarred as they were by Margaret Thatcher’s removal from office, Maastricht, ERM expulsion and being branded xenophobic for even mentioning the subject let alone discoursing on it in anything other than glowing terms.

But this is all nonsense, as I think I’ve said before. The reason the EU is such a messy issue is not because the Conservatives (and now Ukipers) bang on about it all the time (which they don’t), but because it’s an issue of existential importance, cutting across issues of sovereignty, democracy, economic prosperity and culture that are most certainly of pressing importance.

The irony is that this was all clear last time the issue became really messy, when John Major was negotiating with his friends over Maastricht. The weakening of democracy, the dangers of a single currency and the increase of EU political authority were all evident during those Maastricht negotiations. It’s just that the political establishment chose to ignore the dangers at the time.

The problem for the Conservatives is not so much that talking about the EU is always going to be difficult for them (although it probably is); the problem is that they are not yet prepared to admit that the EU is an issue they need to tackle head on rather than skirt around. Avoiding the fundamental implications of the project, as previously defined in the Maastricht Treaty and now the Lisbon Treaty, merely delayed the proper debate they needed to have.

Labour has more or less resolved its position: the party is for it, right or wrong; that is their united view, and the public knows it and can vote accordingly. The Conservatives have still to make up their minds. Some are for it, some are against it and some just want it reformed. The difficulty comes from not seeking to reconcile these differences. Until they do this, the party will continue to look confused, divided and untrustworthy, which is electoral kryptonite.

The EU is like all other great political issues: at some point it must be discussed properly

Commentators are already disputing the Prime Minister’s wisdom in saying what he’s just said about the EU. But at least he has spoken. For too long Conservatives seem to have been in thrall to the idea that the EU is only a problem because they keep talking about it. Peter Oborne says the sensible and wise policy until now has been to ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ There is another refrain much loved by some: ‘Banging on about Europe.’ If the Conservatives could just avoid the issue or kick it into the long grass then the problem would disappear.

This view established itself around the time of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. So harrowing was the experience for John Major that the party leadership took away this one salutary (so they thought) lesson – that the best way to deal with the European issue was to ignore it. A score of ‘rebels’ voted against the government and from then on the party was caught in a fear of being split.

The scars of Maastricht are still evident. It is one of the reasons David Cameron has been so reluctant to talk about it. Focus-group ninjas told us the public was turned off by the issue, mostly because it made politicians look a bit frothy around the mouth. Had it not been for the growing distress of the eurozone, the advent of a new generation of Conservatives unashamed of their scepticism, and worries over UKIP, it’s not clear that the PM would have given his speech at all. Circumstances, perhaps, rather than inclination forced his hand.

But what if the real problem is something else – something opposite to be precise? What if the real source of Conservative stress over Europe is that they spend too much time trying not to talk about it or trying to pretend it isn’t one of the most pressing and significant issues of the age. One can see the attraction – a problem avoided is a problem solved. But this is simply burying one’s head in the sand in the hope that danger can’t see you.

Such thinking is not new. Politicians frequently pretend problems don’t really exist. Take mass immigration. If there is a problem with mass immigration, so the intimation goes, it is in talking about it, because its mere discussion is inflammatory. Nothing to do with numbers or pressure on resources or anything like that. The irony is that because politicians are afraid of the issue, certain elements of the press dominate the discussion with their own distorting views, from all wings of the media. Same with the deficit. Admittedly, the Conservatives spend a lot of time talking about Labour’s economic mess, but on this one it’s Labour who is guilty of pretending an issue is not an issue even though they know full well it is.

Europe is a headache for the Conservatives because too many seem to believe they can ignore the central question, which is whether they are for it or against it. John Major’s Maastricht opt out on the Social Chapter was seen as a victory, but it was nothing of the sort. All it took was an incoming Labour government and a wave of a pen and all that negotiation was made defunct. He ended up displeasing both the europhiles and the sceptics. Lancing a boil is messy whenever you do it, but at least it’s been dealt with.

His mistake was to pretend there was a pain-free solution to the split in opinion. There was none. Issues have to be dealt with, not fudged. That is the point of them. The debate in the Conservative party should have taken place there and then. Either the party was in favour of UK participation in the EU, accepting its desire for monetary and political union, or it was not. If for it, all demands, once we’d had our say, should have been accepted; if against it, we should have blocked the treaty or withdrawn ourselves from the club and negotiated our future relationship in the manner of all other countries of the world.

This, I’m afraid, is a battle still to be played out and David Cameron has set the thing in motion. Either the growing ranks of sceptical Conservatives must mellow and accept the EU, or the PM must change his mind and put the Conservative party at the forefront of rejection of the EU.

The issue must be faced and a decision made, in or out. The chances of the PM negotiating a new relationship for the UK from within the EU are extremely low, and that’s assuming he will win the next election and be in a position to negotiate. Even if he does get something, it will simply have the effect of making the EU even more of an organisational mess than it already is, what with current moves to create some sort of fiscal union to go with the monetary and the foreign and everything else.

There will also remain the little matter of diminishing democracy, which the PM has already identified. Slowly but steadily, despite protestations that the project is enhancing democracy, it is being diminished, and we really don’t know what the fall out will be when the divergent peoples of Europe finally realise that they are not in charge of their countries or their lives as they thought they were after the Second World War and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.