Faint columns of twisty smoke on the horizon. Dry dirt and dust whipped into clouds by the commotion in the street. Baking rooftops stretching for as far as the eye can see in the hot sunlight. Your guide ranting in impassioned Arabic, the immense weight and colour of the rich past hanging in the air around you. You can feel it stirring, something new and meaningful adding to it. Chants and songs of freedom from the crowds below, being marched into action and reality. A sense of being at the eye of a storm of change that will define generations. Then loud voices, angry noise and pounding footsteps on the stairs. Bangs as doors crash open; guns and uniforms glistening. An adrenalin fuelled fear as your face is shoved to the gritty floor.
During recent events in Egypt, articles with these sorts of ingredients and phrases were cropping up on the front pages of newspapers every day. Somehow journalists and writers managed to weave their own extraordinary experiences into some sort of comment on events and the news from the ground. Personally I can’t imagine anything more exciting and fulfilling than to be at the heart of such a historical event; effortlessly writing incredibly, simply by saying what your eyes see happening all around you. To work in such a fascinating country at a time of such dramatic upheaval and change is satisfying enough and probably would have overwhelmed me. But consider the implications of the outcome of the protests in Egypt and the ongoing rebellion in the Middle East, and the unfolding story of history becomes even more intoxicating, inspirational and important.
The opening months of 2011 are proving to be nothing short of momentous. I do not need to use hyperbole. Seemingly permanent regimes, which were unquestionably entrenched through power and fear, have crumbled and sprouted glaring weaknesses. As if this weren’t enthusing enough, the forces that have brought about such changes have been new, modern and democratic. People taking to the streets, tired with repression and the state of their economies, have brought about reform and the toppling of infamous regimes. Mass meetings were organized and propelled by tools alien to historians and political analysts, like Facebook and Twitter. Despite distrust of the West, fuelled by its support of the dictators being ousted, most demonstrators called for democratic systems similar to our own that could transform the way the world works together. The true power of politics has been restored.
Egypt is the most high profile case so far but the disruption is ongoing. At the moment it’s Libya in turmoil. We are living through a new age of productive and successful political action. The scenes in Egypt put student protests in this country from the tail end of last year in the shade, but all the demonstrations are part of a global trend. In the continuing difficulties lingering from the economic crisis, we are once again witnessing the interconnectivity of the modern world. And in a rare time of genuine history in a world which had seemingly seen everything, the need for a new form of diplomacy once again emerges.
It was frankly embarrassing for Britain and the US to have such an ever shifting, vague stance on the Egyptian crisis as it unfolded. Of course the dangers and difficulties were plain. We could not tolerate another radical Islamic country, another Iran in a volatile region, particularly in the place of a moderate tourist destination with a stable relationship with Israel. But it was rapidly clear that President Mubarak’s situation was untenable. As soon as this became obvious it became self-defeating to continue to offer even the slightest veil of support for him. Especially when even before the crisis, particularly with Liberals in government, Britain should have been adopting a more comprehensible, pro-democracy/anti-dictatorship stance. Eventually Nick Clegg refreshingly admitted that events in Egypt were “exciting”. Of course they were, this was a whole new kind of revolution; 21st century and democratic, not 20th and Communist.
Britain may no longer be a big player on the world stage, but it once was. As a result of the actions of the British Empire in the past, British governments shall always have a strong duty to nations it has had a considerable hand in shaping. William Hague therefore, as Foreign Secretary, should always have been supportive of the wishes of the Egyptian people. For too long democracies in the West, cajoled by America, have tolerated regimes that abuse civil rights in favour of “stability”. The events of early 2011 have proved that perfect stability is a myth. Any leadership is prone to volatility and violence. Therefore it’s time governments started to stand truly by the philosophies and politics they claim to espouse, and have faith in the people of other nations to make the right choices. There’s a long way to go in Egypt, but so far the people have proved they want democracy, not just a new controlling leadership in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Debate continues to rage about the best way to deploy the foreign office in the 21st century; what is Britain’s global role? In the past I’ve argued it should be combating climate change and this remains important. But now, given the changing tides, it’s time we started ending support for corrupt governments and supporting the spread of democratic values in a hands-off way. With influence shifting east to China and India, a process of democratisation in the Middle East could prove crucial to the direction of the next century, given the treasure trove of natural resources and energy stored there. A spirit of cooperation, empathy and understanding is needed to face the numerous oncoming challenges and hurdles. Democracy and the UN can help with this.
Other developments in diplomacy mean that we in the West do not merely have to talk the talk of peace either. There are new methods of direct action to punish inflammatory behaviour and enforce calm. Recently details emerged of the Stuxnet computer virus attack on Iran’s nuclear programme, which set it back years. It was a major boost for President Obama’s approach, which has come under fire for its lack of action. Obama can continue to seem reasonable, as he’s always offered the chance of negotiation to Iran. But despite the attack not being officially linked to any government, it’s obvious certain governments sanctioned it. This sort of non-deadly cyber warfare could be the far preferable stick in future diplomatic disputes, as opposed to the nuclear weapons of the Cold War era. Of course not all cyber warfare is so harmless; certain attacks on infrastructure have the potential to reduce societies to chaos and cause scores of deaths. But that’s just a further reason to develop our capabilities, both defensively and offensively, and deploy them in conjunction with our diplomatic aims. Trashing each other’s technical hardware is a far nicer scenario than devastating our cities and if nothing else it will give the West a genuine moral high ground for a change.
As Egypt and other countries begin a transition to fairer governance, it’s innovative methods like these we should use as a last resort to hinder and halt dangerous elements plotting to seize control, as opposed to rash deployments of armed forces. In this new era of history and diplomacy it’s vital we respect the people of other nations and keep them onside. For they now know where the real power lies; with themselves.
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Last week’s Strategic Defence and Comprehensive Spending Reviews brought out the best and worst of the British political system. In particular the format of Prime Minister’s Questions, with two opposing teams hurling groans at one another, was shown to be both redundant and formulaic on the one hand and sensible and necessary on the other. In the majority of recent encounters in the chamber, the Prime Minister David Cameron has used the inexperience of his new opponent Ed Miliband to derail any challenges before they can gather steam. He stands there, shaking his head at the indignation swelling from the Labour benches, moaning about the shambolic economic legacy they left behind. Rather than accept any alternative method to the path chosen by his coalition, he puffs out his chest and talks patronisingly as a wise old figure, one that has been there and done it. “You cannot attack a plan without a plan” he tells Miliband, is something he learnt from his time in Opposition. Miliband must be desperate to slam the Prime Minister for his sheer cheek and hypocrisy. After all it must be obvious to anyone that Miliband and his new Labour front bench will need time to devise an alternative to Cameron’s cuts, just as he and George Osborne took time to decide where the axe would fall hardest. And given the way Cameron did a drastic u-turn on economic policy after the banking crisis, guided by ideology and the opportunity for massive political gain, it must pain Miliband to watch the Prime Minister get away with his own allegations now. But sensibly, rather than lose his cool, Miliband has stuck to a reasoned, calm approach to PMQs that should quietly serve him well if he can keep it up.
It’s been difficult for Miliband to land any decisive blows, given that Cameron’s catch all defence of the deficit still seems to hold sway with voters. But Cameron must know that he will not be able to pass the buck forever, and soon it will be the policies of his own government being judged and assessed. He must hope, for example, that circumstances do not change and Britain does not need to fight a conventional war within the next ten years. The decision to go ahead with the construction of two aircraft carriers was made inevitable due to the costs of cancellation bizarrely exceeding the build itself, but surely it would have made sense to provide these carriers with strike capability, if they had to be built? As usual Cameron blamed Labour’s legacy of overspend and for the most part the defence budget was balanced in a way the Opposition could not disagree with. The vital parts of the military’s capability, such as those operational in Afghanistan, were protected and excess necessarily trimmed. Provision was made for the emergence of new threats such as terrorism and cyber warfare, and strengths like our Special Forces were recognised and reinforced with additional funding. In fact the only real disagreement Miliband had with the SDR was the fact that it was rushed and made more about cutting than equipping the nation to protect itself. This led to a largely pointless session in which Miliband reasserted this main theme.
Of course Miliband was right not to challenge strategic advice for the sake of it, and I am not saying he should have. However there were certainly other approaches that could have been taken to the review and some will regard it as an opportunity dangerously missed. Why, for example, did the majority of the defence budget still deal with threats deemed extremely unlikely, and a far smaller portion dedicated to combating new, ever present dangers? The intelligence services did receive a funding boost but many will say that the real threats are still not properly dealt with, in favour of costly projections of power such as carriers and troop numbers. Critics will argue that in a time of austerity the money safeguarded for outdated areas of defence, which aim to maintain Britain’s world power status but fail, would be better spent on public services and assets the country has that could broadcast our influence globally in other ways. The big decision on Trident was essentially postponed. Millions of voters would happily see Britain’s nuclear deterrent decommissioned, especially when the equivalent cost of schools or hospitals is drawn in stark comparison. Despite all the political talk of fairness doing the rounds at the moment, the views of millions will go unheard. And it’s very hard to believe in the so called fairness being dished out when it is controlled by establishment figures from a wealthy, elite background and they are failing to deal with the looming problems of the future.
There was of course far more fundamental disagreement between the coalition and Labour over the Comprehensive Spending Review. It’s practically impossible to get a firm handle on all of the cuts, as they are so widespread. It’s clear though that some will lead to greater unfairness and inequality, and Labour should rightly fight them. However lame an excuse it is though the Prime Minister has a point about Labour’s lack of an alternative plan. So far the only thing Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson have come up with is a promise for more taxation on the banks, which is good but would need to be carefully implemented, and an archaic stimulus package for growth. The emphasis on growth is right but too vague and will need to be contrasted favourably with the coalition’s overreliance on a private sector driven recovery. The growth should also be modern and sustainable, so to hear Johnson talking about road building projects sounds like something from Germany or America in the depression hit 30s.
It seems that all the major parties are happy to surrender the green agenda in the current climate. Miliband, once Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has done absolutely nothing since becoming leader to demonstrate a commitment to the challenge and a disheartening impression that green issues were always simply a means to end for him is developing. Cameron will no doubt continue to call his government the “greenest ever”. Whilst he may have cancelled the third runway at Heathrow, and he may not be proposing outdated road building programmes, he is providing little actual public investment for much needed green power sources. Plans for a barrier on the Severn estuary, which could have potentially generated 5% of Britain’s energy needs for zero carbon output, were dropped in the spending review. The efficiency of the technology was questionable, but it’s the sort of ambitious project that someone ought to be championing. Labour kicked up a little fuss, despite it fitting their ideals of investment for sustainable jobs and growth.
At the moment there is a sole Green voice in Parliament, that of party leader Caroline Lucas, speaking up on these issues. Of course this does not accurately reflect the extent of support for the Green party at the last election. Under a truly representative voting system the Greens would have more MPs based on the last set of results. But should the system be made more fair then without a doubt more still would vote for not just the Greens but whichever fringe party they genuinely thought to have the best policies and that cared about the right issues. Given the crisis of confidence in British politics recently, I can think of no better breath of fresh air and accountability than a more democratic, modern system of election. Next May we’ll have the chance to vote for real votes. And with any luck the defenders of the establishment will fail and the next time decisions as important as those made in the CSR are carried out, thousands of previously silent people will have a genuine voice.
I passionately believe that without fairer votes honesty cannot be restored to politics. And not only honesty but the ability to inspire. Votes that count will inspire people to use politics as the vehicle for real, progressive, needed change. I’m saying YES to the Alternative Vote and I hope you’ll join me.
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