Saturday, January 30, 2010

For all my years of experience of dealing with the media, nothing could have prepared me for a grilling by FERN BRITTON.

If it wasn't so unspeakably maddening, it truly would be comical. Step back for a moment from the narrative about Blair's peerless communication skills ensuring that there will never be a chink in his armour on Iraq, and the conclusion that he had in fact already skewered himself weeks ago would be inescapable. By conceding that he would still have wanted to remove Saddam from power even if he had known there were no WMDs, Blair had unambiguously demonstrated that much of the case for war was built on a conscious deception. How was that statement, for instance, even remotely consistent with his firm undertaking weeks before the war that "even now" Saddam could stay in power if he disarmed? It wasn't, and it was clear from his performance yesterday (for that, of course, was precisely what it was) that he knew that perfectly well. So no way out of that one, then? Oh, don't be silly - this is a) Blair, and b) the Chilcot Inquiry we're talking about. All that it took to get off the hook was a sheepish grin, and a suggestion that he's simply far too much of a novice to be expected to handle fiendish lines of questioning from heavyweight political interviewers like...Fern Britton. As ever, the brazenness is beyond breathtaking.

Listening to hours of Blair testimony is a bit like watching the Conservative party conference - eventually you find yourself being sucked into a parallel universe where black really is white. Some other choice examples from yesterday -

'If you want to deal with WMDs, you start with a regime that's used them before.' Well no, actually, what you do is you start with a regime that's actually got them. Like North Korea, perhaps, or even Israel, both of which have nuclear weapons, as opposed to Iraq which had...well, nothing.

'What was a surprise was that al-Qaeda and Iran got involved in Iraq.' Well, perhaps it wouldn't have been quite so much of a surprise if you had listened to the countless voices warning that, far from tackling international terrorism, the invasion of Iraq would actually fuel it. Blair might counter that nobody could have known any of that was going to happen, it was all just pure speculation. Well, quite. In that sense it was rather like the pure speculation that Iraq had an 'extensive and growing' WMD programme with which it planned to threaten its neighbours - speculation that was solely based, let's not forget, on 'sporadic and patchy' intelligence. So what was the difference between one lot of speculation in early 2003 and the other lot? Faith. Conviction. To coin a phrase, he simply 'knew it was right'. Even, apparently, the categorical proof we now have that it was wrong still doesn't mean it wasn't right. Now that's real faith.

'The really interesting question is the Iraq 2010 question - what would have happened if we had allowed Saddam and his sons to remain in power?' From a man who has just acknowledged that terrorists and malign Iranian influence ended up in Iraq as a direct result of the invasion (and yet in a way that was apparently completely unforseeable), it really is beyond satire to base the case for war entirely on his own 'foresight' of the unspeakably terrible things that would have happened otherwise. Blair even informed the committee in grave tones that important 'lessons' for the future needed to be learned from the way in which Iraq became a terrorist base. Perhaps chief among those lessons ought to be that this outcome (the real "2010 Iraq" outcome) could have been easily avoided by not invading Iraq, and that such a devastatingly simple avoidance strategy might have been rather wise with the benefit of hindsight?

'What made Saddam different from other dictators is that he was responsible for the deaths of a million people.' But to get to that figure, you have to include all the casualties of the Iran-Iraq war, on the basis that Saddam was responsible for every single one of those deaths because he started the war by launching an unprovoked invasion. That really is exceptionally dangerous ground for Blair to be treading on given the circumstances, and once again, extraordinarily brazen. And that's before you even recall the fact that the west seemed to be rather supportive of Saddam's bloodthirsty adventures in Iran at the time.

'Some people thought there would be a humanitarian disaster in Iraq. We avoided that, actually.' Is this guy for real?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Angus Reid : SNP close the gap on Labour

The Scottish subsample for the latest UK-wide Angus Reid poll makes somewhat healthier reading for the SNP, with the party narrowing Labour's lead from fifteen points earlier in the month to nine now. Here are the full figures -

Labour 35% (-1)
SNP 26% (+5)
Conservatives 19% (+3)
Liberal Democrats 14% (-4)
Others 6% (-4)

While the Conservatives leapfrog the Liberal Democrats to return to third place, this is nevertheless another dismal sub-20 showing for them, with little over three months to go until the probable general election date.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goldsmith's broad range of one-sided soundings

Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to watch Lord Goldsmith's evidence to the Iraq inquiry live, but after catching some of the snippets on the news a couple of questions are nagging away at me. Goldsmith claimed his biggest problem in arriving at his final legal opinion was the creative ambiguity of UN Resolution 1441, the wording of which meant very different things to the different countries that had voted it through. His moment of clarity seemingly arrived after speaking at length to US lawyers, and pondering on whether the US would really have allowed a resolution to be passed that gave the UN (and by extension France, Russia and China) a veto on war. But couldn't it just as easily be asked - would the French and Russians really have allowed through a resolution that in their view gave the US legal authority to attack Iraq without referral back to the UN? Of course they wouldn't, and in a sense this is a circular argument - if Goldsmith's starting proposition was that resolution 1441 was made deliberately ambiguous to suit everyone, it should hardly have been a surprise to him that US lawyers thought they had got precisely what they wanted out of it. What may be a surprise to others is that an Attorney-General who claims to have taken soundings from all quarters did not apparently see fit to make an equivalent trip to France or Russia to hear the interpretation of lawyers there.

Which leads me neatly on to my second question. Goldsmith claims to have been put under no pressure to change his original opinion that the invasion would be unlawful by Tony Blair or anyone else in the government. But in precisely what sense did the terribly helpful arrangement for Goldsmith of an itinerary of meetings with handpicked pro-war 'experts' in the United States apparently not constitute any 'pressure' at all?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Murphy's respectful strategy

Interesting to read on Brian Taylor's blog that at the meeting of the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster today Jim Murphy carefully referred to Alex Salmond's administration as the 'Scottish Government', while members of the committee for the most part insisted on sticking to the admittedly legally still correct (but utterly absurd) name 'Scottish Executive'. What intrigues me about this is that it was at a meeting of the very same committee just a matter of weeks before becoming Secretary of State for Scotland that Murphy rather gratuitously went out of his way to 'correct' an SNP member who had dared to utter the words 'Scottish government'. And yet just weeks later Secretary of State Murphy was archly explaining why it was so terribly important to use the word 'government'- mutual respect between administrations, don't you know.

A sinner repenteth is naturally always a joy, but this truly was a Damascene conversion by any standards. And as ever the really interesting question is why such a dramatic change of heart? Call me a cynic, but I'm guessing the word 'strategy' might just have loomed as large in his thinking - dare I say even a touch larger - than the word 'respect'.

Lady Hermon is not for turning

Ronald Reagan famously summed up his change of political allegiance in the following terms - "I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the party left me". Well, all I can say is thank heavens it did - it's hard to see how an American political system comprised of two far-right parties would be any healthier than the actual current position of one far-right party and a centre-right alternative. But his choice of words could hardly be more apt for the situation the UUP member of parliament for North Down, Lady Sylvia Hermon, now finds herself in. In her time at Westminster, she has become noted for her disdain for the Conservative party, a stance which has left her in an utterly impossible position now that UUP candidates will be required to stand on a joint ticket with the Tories, and accept the Tory whip if elected. In a nutshell, if she defended her seat for her current party, she would find herself instantly transformed into a Conservative MP.

Chekov, the NI blogger I referred to in my previous post who is as zealous in promoting the new Tory-UUP link-up as he is in his irrational feelings towards the SNP, has repeatedly been utterly scathing about Lady Hermon's apparent plans to stand as an independent against the Tories, which she appears to be moving towards a final decision over. His main complaint is that she hasn't given any other reason for her decision other than 'not being a Tory'. In truth, I'd have said that was an admirably succinct summary of feelings that any reasonable person ought to be able to understand and respect. Lady Hermon was elected an MP for a party that was ideologically mixed, containing self-identified social democrats who openly stated that they would opt for Labour over the Tories if they lived in mainland Britain. Of course there was a clear centre-right majority in the party, but the glue that bound the party together was unionism, not conservatism. Now, there may be many things to be said for the UUP essentially subsuming itself into another party and giving NI voters the opportunity to vote Conservative, but lambasting principled UUP politicians for simply realising that the party has left them stranded (and drawing the obvious conclusion) is rather unseemly to say the least. But then, Chekov is seemingly confused enough to feel that he as a self-described 'liberal' has found his natural home in the Tory party, so perhaps we should see his refusal to accept that 'not being a Conservative' is a good enough reason not to join the Conservative party in that (rather peculiar) context.

By all accounts, Hermon is a very popular constituency representative and would stand every chance of defeating her Tory opponent in May - which would be ironic, given that North Down is the one seat that the Tories have come even vaguely close to winning in Northern Ireland since their previous arrangement with the UUP broke down over Sunningdale in 1973.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Brit Nat blogger attacks 'identity politics'

Our old favourite Chekov is at it again - despite the pivotal stage the political process in Northern Ireland has reached, the UUP/Tory blogger has chosen this moment to return to Nat-bashing of the Scottish variety, leaping on a report commissioned by the Scotland Office that purports to show that Scotland has received a £76 billion 'devolution dividend'. Chekov characterises the SNP's response to the report in the following terms -

"If you believe the government’s figures then you are ‘doing Scotland down’, hence you are not a good Scotsman. It’s the type of reductionist, identity based politics we’re accustomed to in Northern Ireland."

Actually, the principal way I would describe anyone who believes the Scotland Office figures is "credulous". But Chekov is not a Scotsman, and yet I have no hesitation in saying that he most certainly is doing Scotland down. How else can you characterise the sneering tone he employs upon encountering any suggestion that Scotland could stand on its own two feet economically - "sense of entitlement to dwindling oilfields", "saved from collapse by the British taxpayer"?

The bottom line is that if you have to rely on undermining Scotland's confidence in its own economic self-sufficiency to quite that scathing degree, it's an implicit acknowledgement that the alternative arguments for the union are wearing a bit thin. Chekov seems to instinctively register this point at the end of his post, when he goes through the motions of essentially saying "other pro-union arguments are also available" -

"Of course economics only form part of the pro-Union case. The Conservative reaction to this story is the most pertinent, from a unionist perspective - “People know Scotland is better off socially, culturally, financially and politically as part of Britain”."

Well, if the Tory reaction is the most 'pertinent', it's certainly not the one that's actually resonating among the Scottish electorate. Scotland-as-part-of-Britain is socially, culturally, politically and financially superior to Scotland-as-a-nation...and this from a man who claims to disdain identity politics? Perhaps this would be an appropriate night of the year to invite the gloriously un-self-aware British Nationalist Chekov to ponder the immortal words -

"Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion."

I think it's an observation I've made before, but Chekov on the subject of Scottish politics is essentially AM2 without the laughs.