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The G7 meeting focused attention on many challenges facing the world, but it did not address the most dangerous threat of them all, which is the transformation of the Republican Party in the US into a fascist movement.

When Donald Trump was in the White House there was much debate about whether or not he could be called a fascist in the full sense of the word, and not merely as a political insult. His presidency showed many of the characteristics of a fascist dictatorship, except the crucial one of automatic re-election.

But Trump or Trump-like leaders may not have to face this democratic impediment in future. It was only this year that the final building blocks have been put in place by Republicans as they replicate the structure of fascist movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Two strategies, though never entirely absent from Republican behaviour in the past, have become far more central to their approach. One is a greater willingness to use or tolerate violence against their opponents, something that became notorious during the invasion of the Capitol by pro-Trump rioters on 6 January.

The other change among Republicans is much less commented on, but is more sinister and significant. This is the systematic Republican takeover of the electoral machinery that oversees elections and makes sure that they are fair. Minor officials in charge of them have suddenly become vital to the future of American democracy. Remember that it was only the refusal of these functionaries to cave in to Trump’s threats and blandishments that stopped him stealing the presidential election last November.

Many of them will be unable to perform the same duty in future elections. The Republican Party across the country is replacing or intimidating them so they are giving up their jobs or are being forced from their posts. In Pennsylvania, a state which played a crucial role in Trump’s defeat, a third of county election officials have changed as have numerous others in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Their places are frequently being taken by conspiracy theory zealots who will have the power to nullify election results that are not to their liking. A survey by the Brennan Center for Justice shows that one in three local election officials say that they are being subjected to harassment and other pressures.

Speeding up this exodus are Republican state legislatures that have passed laws mandating heavy fines – $10,000 in Iowa, $25,000 in Florida – for election supervisors who make minor technical mistakes. Republican officials who refused to say that Trump won the election are being removed by their party. The Republicans should be able to do in 2022 and 2024 what they failed to do in 2020, which is to nullify election results at will so the true outcome of a poll can be ignored. Put simply, the will of the people will no longer count for anything.

Authoritarian regimes across the world have found that it is much easier and more certain to announce the election result they would like than to go to all the trouble of suppressing votes and gerrymandering constituencies. Once control of the electoral machinery is obtained then democracy poses no threat to those in power. Fascist leaders may use democratic processes to obtain office, but once there, their instinct is to pull up the ladder and let nobody else climb up it.

Nullification of elections is only the latest step in the Republican Party’s strange voyage towards becoming a genuine fascist party. Other steps have a much longer history, notably the moment half a century ago when President Nixon adopted his “Southern Strategy” whereby the Republicans capitalised on the Civil Rights acts to make a political takeover of the American South. The old slave states became the strongholds of the Republican Party which had once freed the slaves and defeated the Confederacy.

It is worth listing the chief characteristics of fascist movements in order to assess how far they are now shared by the Republicans. Exploitation of ethnic, religious and cultural hatreds is probably the most universal feature of fascism. Others include a demagogic leader with a cult of personality who makes messianic but vague promises to deliver a golden future; appeals to law-and-order but a practical contempt for legality; the use, manipulation and ultimate marginalisation of democratic procedures; a willingness to use physical force; demonising the educated elite – and the media in particular; shady relations with plutocrats seeking profit from regime change.

One by one these boxes have been ticked by the Republicans until the list is complete. The Tea Party movement was an important staging post on the road to Trumpism. Trump himself possesses all the classic features of a fascist leader, though he was somewhat hemmed in by the institutional and political divisions of power. Yet these impediments will be less in future as local legislatures, courts, electoral machinery and Congress itself are colonised by Trumpian Republicans. This erosion of democracy has a precedent, given that Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 were denied the presidency though each won a majority of the popular vote, but it is becoming all pervasive

American fascism differs from its European, Middle Eastern and Latin American variants because of the history of America, with its legacy of slavery, and the Civil War still remaining as a great divider. Slavery was abolished, the Confederacy lost the war, but in many respects the civil war never ended.

The civil rights legislation of the 1960s provoked a white counteroffensive that still goes on. Opposition to racial equality has never ceased. The key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which declared that changes in state election laws must have federal approval, was invalidated by Republican appointed judges on the Supreme Court in 2013. “Our country has changed,” said chief Justice John G Roberts in a majority opinion, which declared that racial minorities no longer faced barriers to voting in states with a history of discrimination. The absurdity of this was immediately demonstrated as Texas introduced a previously blocked voter ID law.

Voter suppression has ballooned ever since, but never more than this year. Some 14 Republican controlled states have passed 24 laws criminalising, politicising and interfering in elections to their own advantage.

What explains the descent of the Republican Party into fascism? Racial division explains much. The division of American culture along the same geographical lines as the civil war explains more. Add to this the frightening dislocation imposed on white working- and middle-class Americans by technological change and globalisation. Powerful forces are let loose similar to those that once propelled the rise of European fascism and is now doing the same in America.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: 2020 Election, Donald Trump, Republican Party 

Israel and Hamas have ended their 11-day “war”, but even before the shooting stopped it had transformed the political landscape. The Israel/Palestinian confrontation has shifted away from focusing solely on Gaza to multiple fronts – Jerusalem, the West Bank, Israel itself– and an upsurge in any one of them could start a new round of violence.

Events in Jerusalem ignited the present crisis and there is every chance that they will do so again. Far-right Israeli groups are intent on tightening their grip on the city and eliminating the Palestinian presence wherever they can. “The political temperature will stay high, simmering just below boiling point” says Daniel Levy, a former Israeli diplomat and president of the US/Middle East Project. “Another flare-up in Jerusalem would make it boil over.”

Israeli leaders had hoped that the cantonisation of the Palestinians – three million on the West Bank, two million each in Israel and Gaza, 300,000 in Jerusalem – would fragment them politically as well as geographically. For a time, this strategy appeared to work, but over the last two weeks the crisis in one Palestinian canton has swiftly spread to the three others.

Israeli police efforts to evict Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem and their use of stun grenades and teargas in al-Aqsa mosque led to Hamas firing rocket barrages from Gaza. This in turn provoked protests by Palestinians in Israel on a larger scale than anything seen since the second intifada 20 years ago. On the West Bank, protesters poured into the streets in every town and the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority was mocked and marginalised.

For all the empty talk about one- and two-state solutions to the Israel/Palestine problem, the outcome of the fourth war centred on Gaza proves that the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is a single political unit. What affects one part of it affects all the rest.

The latest Gaza war showed that Israel does not have a viable military or political strategy for fighting or engaging with the Palestinians. Israeli generals and officials claim to have degraded the military infrastructure of Hamas, killed some of its commanders and destroyed part of its tunnel system. Israel was certainly surprised by Hamas firing 3,700 rockets into Israel, despite being isolated in Gaza for 15 years.

Even if Hamas proved to have a little more military muscle than expected, though, there is no doubting Israel’s superiority over the ill-equipped paramilitary force it faces in Gaza. But this superiority stubbornly refuses to produce victory or rather that Israel knows what such a victory would look like. It cannot realistically expect to eliminate Hamas and carry out regime change in Gaza without reoccupation, which would provoke even stronger Palestinian resistance. Keeping the Palestinians there under a state of permanent siege, the status quo for the last 15 years, has just been shown not to work.

Claims of Israeli military success as justification for agreeing to a ceasefire are a smokescreen concealing Israeli failure to gain any real advantage from a bombardment that killed 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, but did little else. Israeli commentators are franker and better informed about this lack of success than their western counterparts. The editor-in-chief of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Aluf Benn, calls the conflict just ended “Israel’s most failed and pointless Gaza operation ever”.

He says that all the PR of the Israeli army cannot “cover up the truth: the military has no idea how to paralyse Hamas’s forces and throw it off balance. Destroying its tunnels with powerful bombs revealed Israel’s strategic capabilities without causing any substantive damage to the enemy’s fighting abilities.”

Many states have faced similar frustration when fighting a so-called asymmetric war against a militarily inferior but undefeatable opponent. This happened to Britain in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998. The sensible response of a government that fails to get its way by physical force is to seek political engagement with the other side to work out a compromise.

But this is precisely what the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political partners cannot do. For almost a quarter of a century, his strategy since he was first elected Israeli leader in 1997 has been to argue that Israel can have a permanent peace without compromising with the Palestinians. This view, dominant from the centre left to the hard right, held that the Palestinians had been decisively defeated and there was no need to concede anything to them. With President Donald Trump giving total support to this maximalist position during his four years in the White House, many Israelis were persuaded that Netanyahu had been right.

Gaza looked as if it had been successfully sealed off, the West Bank broken up into Palestinian Bantustans and expanding Israeli settlements, Jerusalem was encircled from without and increasingly de-Palestinianised from within, while the Palestinians in Israel remained an embittered but impotent minority. Arab states were normalising relations with Israel and the Palestinian Question no longer figured on the international agenda.

It was all a mirage. The latest war in Gaza may look like the three previous ones in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014, but it is far more important because the Netanyahu/Trump policy has collapsed and there is nothing much to put in its place. The old Israel/Palestinian crisis is back and is more envenomed and widespread than before. An ominous new feature of it is Palestinians in Israel taking to the streets to demand equality and an end to discrimination. Israeli settlers from the West Bank have been coming back to Israel to lead anti-Palestinian demonstrations within mixed Jewish/Palestinian towns and cities.

Such developments do not mean that the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians has abruptly skewed in favour of the latter. On the contrary, one of the problems in convincing Israelis at every level that they should engage with the Palestinians is that they do not believe they need to. Hamas may have been energised and the Palestinian Authority further discredited by the latest conflict war, but there is an overall vacuum of Palestinian leadership and organisation. This is not quite such a crippling disadvantage as it might appear since Palestinian political movements have a long tradition of prioritising their grip on power over everything else.

The ceasefire that came into force between Israel and Hamas early on Friday morning ushers in a period of enhanced instability. Daniel Levy sees Israel as being in a state of permanent crisis because it has no military solution to Gaza/Hamas while its right-wing leaders are blocked off by ideological fixations from seeking to open up diplomatic and political options.

The idea of weakening the Palestinians by fragmenting them has turned out to be counterproductive. Israeli leaders will now have to cope with four different variants of the Israel/Palestinian crisis, each of which may, like the coronavirus, become the dominant strain and detonate a new explosion.

 

When I first visited Israel in 1976 after spending three years in Northern Ireland working on my second degree, I was struck by the similarities between the situations in the two countries.

It is therefore entirely appropriate that on the same day that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis was exploding this week, an inquest in Belfast was reporting on a mass killing by the British Army in Belfast half a century earlier.

This was what became known as the Ballymurphy Massacre which took place between 9 and 11 August 1971, when 10 Catholics were shot and killed in the working-class district of Ballymurphy in west Belfast. The British government and army claimed for years that the dead were IRA gunmen or had been throwing petrol bombs. But the inquest determined this week that all the dead were innocent civilians – and the army’s actions were “unjustified”. Boris Johnson has apologised unreservedly for the killings.

An important parallel between Northern Ireland then and Israel/Gaza today is that, in both cases, grossly excessive military force was and is used to try to solve political problems that it only succeeds in exacerbating. In the case of the Ballymurphy shootings, which took place during the introduction of internment without trial, the British government managed only to delegitimise itself, to spread hatred against itself and to act as the recruiting sergeant for the Provisional IRA.

As in Northern Ireland half a century ago, the Israeli security services keep announcing that they are winning famous victories and killing enemy commanders, as if local leaders of the rag-tag paramilitary forces of Hamas and Islamic Jihad were irreplaceable military technicians. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that Hamas and Islamic Jihad “will pay a heavy price for their belligerence.” No doubt they will, but the heaviest price will be paid by civilians in Gaza, like in the last such conflict in 2014 when 2,000 Palestinians and 73 Israelis were killed in a ‘war’ lasting 67 days.

In some respects, not much has changed since then, but that in itself is significant because Donald Trump was the most pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian president ever to occupy the White House. He and his son-in-law Jared Kushner enthusiastically endorsed Netanyahu’s thesis that Israel can achieve a lasting peace while at the same time keeping the Palestinians in a permanently subordinate position as a defeated people.

That was never going to work, but the speed with which it has unravelled over the last week, and within months of Trump leaving office, is still surprising. The ‘Palestinian question’, what one British diplomat used to call “the poison of Palestine”, is back on the international agenda, as unresolved and explosive as it has been for the last hundred years.

Perhaps the biggest effect of the hype and spin of the Trump era was to breed self-destructive hubris among Israelis at all levels of authority. Israeli officials felt free to expand settlements on the West Bank, evict Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem, and order the police to throw stun grenades and use tear gas around the Al-Aqsa mosque.

In one respect, the crisis is already more intense and wide-ranging than in past ‘wars’ centred on Gaza in 2008/9 and in 2014. The new element is the involvement of the two million Israeli Arabs/Palestinians who make up 20 per cent of the Israeli population. In mixed towns and cities like Lod, Jaffa, Acre and Haifa, synagogues and mosques, shops and cars, have been attacked and individuals beaten. In Lod, for instance, where the rioting has been most intense and is right next to Ben Gurion airport, the population is made up of 47,000 Israeli Jews and 23,00 Israeli Arabs/Palestinians.

The similarity between Israel and Northern Ireland goes beyond an exaggerated and counter-productive use of military superiority to solve a political problem. At the most fundamental level, both countries contain two hostile communities of roughly equal size living intertwined in a small place.

In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants each number about one million, while in the more politically fragmented area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea live 14 million people, seven million of them Israeli Jews and seven million Palestinians. The area may be divided by fortified walls and frontiers, but it is essentially a single political unit, as the spread of violence from Jerusalem to Gaza to Israel and to the West Bank has demonstrated in the last few days.

In Northern Ireland in 1971, the British government made the disastrous mistake of using the British Army to prop up what was sometimes called “the Orange State”. This meant that Catholics would have to accept a second-class status in a state run by Protestants, something that – regardless of their acceptance or rejection of physical force – the Catholics were never going to do.

The determination of the Catholic community not to roll over should have been obvious from day one of The Troubles, but it took the British government thirty years to take this on board. When it finally did so the outcome was the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which shared power between two communities with very different identities, culture and loyalties.

It would be nice to think that the same process might one day happen in when it comes to Israel and Palestinians, but there are differences as well as similarities between the two situations. Compromise in Northern Ireland required a certain balance of power between the two communities and a recognition by all, particularly by the British government and by Irish Republicans, that neither side was going to win a complete victory.

Holding back any such compromise between Israel and the Palestinians is that the balance of power appears to be overwhelmingly in favour of Israelis. They do not feel the need to compromise because they have total military superiority and the support of the United States and other powerful nations.

Palestinian weaknesses, several of them self-inflicted, include very poor leadership and political organisation. Hamas can fire lots of rockets into Israel in a show of defiance, but this is politically counter-productive since it enables Israel to frame its actions as defensive and part of a war on terror. The Palestinian National Authority based in Ramallah hasn’t held an election for 15 years, with the latest attempt being postponed indefinitely last month — and is now deeply compromised as a representative of its people.

The best strategy for the Palestinians should be to use their great numbers in a peaceful mass campaign demanding civil right and an end to discriminatory restrictions.

The Palestinians do hold a card of the highest value, which is that Israel will not have won until the Palestinians declare that they have lost. The events of last week showed that this is not going to happen. Israel wins trick after trick at the political and military card table but can never be declared the winner because it is playing a game that does not end.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Gaza, Israel/Palestine 

During the first Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union injustice and human rights increasingly became a central issue. This ought to have been a positive development, but it was devalued by partisan use and the issue turned into an instrument of propaganda.

The essence of such propaganda is not lies or even exaggeration, but selectivity. To give one example, the focus was kept on very real Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe and away from the savage rule of Western-backed dictators in South America. The political weaponisation of human rights was crude and hypocritical, but it was extremely effective.

As we enter a second Cold War against China and Russia, there are lessons to be learned from the first, since much the same propaganda mechanisms are once again hard at work. Western governments and media unrelentingly criticise China for the persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, but there is scarcely a mention of the repression of Kashmiri Muslims in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Diplomatic and media outrage is expressed when Russia and the Syrian government bomb civilians in Idlib in Syria, but the bombing of civilians during the Western-backed, Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, remains at the bottom of the news agenda.

Governmental and journalistic propagandists – for journalists who take this selective approach to oppression are no better than propagandists – can see that they are open to the charge of hypocrisy. People ask them how come that the mass incarceration, disappearances and torture suffered by the Kashmiris is so different from similar draconian punishments inflicted on the Uighurs?

This is a very reasonable question, but propagandists have developed two lines of defence against it. The first is to claim that whoever asks “what about Kashmir or Yemen” is fostering “whataboutism”, culpably diverting attention from crimes committed against the Uighurs and Syrian civilians. The nonsensical assumption here is that denouncing atrocities and oppression in once country precludes one from denouncing them in another.

The real purpose of this gambit from the point of view of those waging information wars is to impose a convenient silence over wrongdoings by our side while focusing exclusively on theirs.

The second line of defence, used to avoid comparison between the crimes committed by ourselves and our friends and those of our enemies, is to demonise the latter so thoroughly that no equivalence between the two is allowed. Such demonisation – sometimes called “monsterisation” – is so effective because it denies the other side a hearing and means that they are automatically disbelieved. In the 1990s, I used to write with copious evidence that UN sanctions against Iraq were killing thousands of children every month. But nobody paid any attention because sanctions were supposedly directed against Saddam Hussein – though they did him no harm – and he was known to be the epitome of evil. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified by claiming that Saddam possessed WMD and anybody who suggested that the evidence for this was dubious could be smeared as a secret sympathiser with the Iraqi dictator.

Simple-minded as these PR tactics might be, but they have been repeatedly shown to be highly effective. One reason why they work is that people would like to imagine that conflicts are struggles between white hats and black hats, angels and demons. Another reason is that this delusion is fostered enthusiastically by parts of the media, who generally goes along with a government-inspired news agenda.

With President Joe Biden seeking to rebuild the international image of the US as the home of freedom and democracy in the wake of the Donald Trump presidency, we are back to these classic information strategies. For America to bounce back unsullied in the eyes of the world, it is essential to portray Trump, with his embrace of autocrats and denunciation of everybody he disliked as a terrorist, as an aberration in American history.

Yet much of the planet’s population will have watched the film of Derek Chauvin slowly asphyxiate George Floyd and may not look at America in quite the same light as before, despite the guilty verdict in Minneapolis this week.

Asked about the impact of that verdict internationally, the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that America needed “to promote and defend justice at home” if it was to credibly claim to be doing the same abroad. But he dismissed as “whataboutism” and unacceptable “moral equivalence” the suggestion that US protests about the jailing and mistreatment of Alexei Navalny in Russia and China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, was being undermined by the fact that the US holds 2.4 million of its citizens in prison, one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

Contrary to what Sullivan and other establishment figures say about refusing to compare the US with Russia and China, “whataboutism” and “moral equivalency” can be strong forces for good. They influence great powers, though not as much as they should, into cleaning up their act out of pure self-interest, thus enabling them to criticise their rivals without appearing too openly hypocritical.

This happened during the first Cold War, when the belief that the Soviet Union was successfully using America racial discrimination to discredit the US as a protagonist of democracy, played an important role in persuading decision-makers in Washington that civil rights for blacks was in the government’s best interests.

Once “whataboutism” and “equivalence” become the norm in media reporting, then the US government will have a powerful motive to try to end the militarisation of America’s police forces, which shot dead 1,004 people in 2019. This also holds true for how the police handle race.

Cold War competition between global powers has many harmful consequences, but it can also have benign ones. One forgotten consequence of the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, the first space satellite in 1957, is that it led to a spectacular surge in US government spending on scientific and general education.

For the most part, however, the first Cold War was an arid exchange of accusations in which human rights became a weapon in informational warfare. Can anything be done to prevent the same thing happening as the second Cold War gets underway?

It would be naïve to imagine that governments will not go on maligning their enemies and giving themselves a free pass unless propelled to do better by public opinion. And this will only happen by going beyond selective reporting of human rights abuses and demonising all opponents of their national governments as pariahs.

 
There are six staging posts on the road to a kleptocracy – Britain is further down it than you might imagine

I used to meet businessmen in the Middle East who were in a state of high anxiety about their chances of winning a government contract. They were naturally reluctant to spell out the details, but they hinted that their chief worry was whether or not the official they had bribed to get them a contract would, in the event, be willing or able to do so. They took it for granted that I knew that nobody successfully did business with the governments in question without paying off somebody inside it.

I was in Iraq and Afghanistan when the government system in both countries was saturated with corruption. Britain may not yet be at the same place, but it is much further down the road to kleptocracy than most people imagine. For all the finger wagging about the current scandals, the words and phrases used to describe them – chumocracy, revolving doors, cronyism, conflicts of interest, sleaze – all understate the seriousness and corrosiveness of what has been going on.

In reality, individuals and companies only employ politicians and civil servants, paying them a lot of money, because they expect to make very much larger sums themselves. There is “hard” corruption, aimed at winning a particular contract, and “soft”, generally legal, corruption aimed at winning the support of those at the top to further the general ends of those paying them.

The mechanics of corruption have much in common the world over, though the sophistication of the means used to conceal it or explain it away differs widely. In this, as in so many other things, British exceptionalism is less than is often taken for granted – indeed a presumption of honesty makes life easier for the seriously dishonest.

My knowledge of corruption is mostly drawn from the Middle East, but a list of what I see as the six main staging posts on the road to kleptocracy has increasingly strong parallels in Britain.

1. Corruption is turbocharged when companies become convinced that they cannot successfully do business with the government without having facilitators at the decision-making level inside it. If they do not not find their own insiders, they cannot hope to compete. The quickest way of acquiring such influence is to pay for it. This is likely to be cash down in Baghdad or Kabul. In Britain, the reward may be in the shape of a future high-paying job, share options or some such benefit.

An ominous example of how things are increasingly done in Britain – though there is no suggestion of illegality – was outlined by the National Audit Office report last year into the government’s PPE procurement. It revealed that there had been a semi-secret VIP fast lane for those in touch with “government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords, senior NHS staff and other health professionals”. The report said that companies in the VIP lane stood a one-in-ten chance of winning a contract as compared to less than one in 100 for those outside it.

The reality of this “insider” fast lane had little to do with professional expertise and was much closer to the way of doing business in the Middle East. The New York Times analysed a large segment of roughly 1,200 UK central government contracts relating to the Covid-19 epidemic worth $22bn (£16bn) that had been made public. It found that about half, worth $11bn (£8bn), “went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy. Meanwhile, smaller firms without political clout got nowhere.”

2. The amount of money involved is a very important factor in the spread of corruption. Reportage on the present scandal in Britain fails to make this point sufficiently clear. This is not small-time sleaze like parliamentary expenses. People inside and outside of government may be playing for tens or hundreds of millions of pounds, which leads them to take risks that they would otherwise avoid. It is when such “life-changing” money is on offer that corruption seeps upwards. I remember a minister in Baghdad who had been happy in London if he could borrow £50 from his friends, but after a few years in office owned a mansion with three swimming pools in Amman.

3. Crises produce great opportunities for corruption whether they come in the shape of a war or a pandemic. Special fast lanes, that would otherwise look deeply dodgy, can be justified as a sort of patriotic measure to meet a national emergency. Normal checks and safeguards can be put to one side as “bureaucratic red tape” strangling the national effort – and when vast sums of money are spent and nothing is delivered this is explained away as regrettable but inevitable in the circumstances. Unfortunately, precedents set in times of crisis tend to stick around and determine future behaviour.

4. Those promoting corruption will, if they are sensible, want to spread the money around within the political elite. This means that lots of people feel vulnerable and unenthusiastic about far-reaching investigations with strong legal powers that might focus on them. Pay-offs to political parties are also a good method of evading pursuit and blocking reform.

5. The limited chance of being caught and punished is another significant driver of corruption. The best way of doing this is to ensure that what you do is technically legal, rather than dodgy or criminal, though it might appear so to the public. If such corruption is unpunished, others will soon be saying to themselves: “everybody is doing it, so why not me?”

6. Contracts handed to companies and individuals who have themselves no means of providing the goods and services paid for by the government have a special role in the decline of standards. Those receiving them become brokers and hand on the contract for a fee; this may happen multiple times. Shady sub-contracting is a trouble-free way of turning strong political connections into unearned profits.

There is one factor that makes life in Britain easier for the corrupt than in Kabul or Baghdad. Here people are still shocked when senior politicians and civil servants line their pockets. In much of the Middle East, ordinary citizens would be surprised if they did not and act on that assumption.

Naive trust in the probity of British institutions opens the door to corruption particularly wide. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Metropolitan Police in London was not only corrupt, but parts of it operated like a criminal enterprise. For a long time its victims were disbelieved and the perpetrators given a free pass until brought down by repeated scandals. The reforming Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Robert Mark, famously said that “a good police force is one that catches more crooks than it employs”.

With some adaption, this would be a good motto for anybody seeking to reform the top reaches of public life in Britain.

 

The government is back to its well-tried Inspector Clouseau mode with a public inquiry intended to discredit accusations of institutional racism that has done the exact opposite. This bit of self-inflicted foot-shooting came soon after half-baked efforts to suppress a protest on Clapham Common that guaranteed it worldwide publicity.

The twin debacles have significant features in common. Governments easily persuade themselves that they are dealing with a small group of opponents who can easily be intimidated or marginalised. Frustrated when this fails to happen, the state overreacts, relies increasingly on abusive rhetoric or the threat or use of force, and thereby acts as the unwitting recruiting sergeant for whatever cause it is trying to undermine or eliminate.

Official inquiries in Britain have long been successfully used as a tranquilising dart fired at public opinion when it is outraged over some piece of injustice or failure of government. To be credible, the inquiry needs to be led by high-quality people who often produce critical reports – thus avoiding accusations of a stitch-up – but they do this long after the news agenda has moved on. Political pressure on the government will have ebbed, so reports that urge action in practice replace such action. Remember, if you can, the magisterial Chilcot report on the Iraq war that was finally published in 2016 and was soon forgotten?

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, published this week, broke all these rules and proved ludicrously counterproductive, fuelling the controversy it was supposed to lay to rest. Its partisan membership was so extreme that their report has a crackpot feel to it – even having a good word for Caribbean slavery as a progressive institution – and it has appeared in the middle of the trial of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.

From the government’s point of view, this may be a minor blip as its benefits from the vaccine rollout, but it may also be indicative of the toxic direction of British politics. In its anti-woke enthusiasm, the report has enraged and energised campaigners against racism. It is filled with absurdities such as the belief that high education achievement by minorities shows that they do not face discrimination. Yet the history of anti-black racism and antisemitism in the US and Europe shows that those who are discriminated against know that they must acquire a high level of expertise in order to overcome discrimination. Their very success may fuel greater ethnic and sectarian hostility among those they compete against for jobs.

The paradox of the race report is that it may have done more to make racism in Britain a live political issue than any number of much superior inquiries in the past whose recommendations were praised for a day or two and then ignored and forgotten. Racism is back on the news agenda to a degree that Black Lives Matter campaigners could never have hoped to achieve.

The same warped thinking inspires home secretary Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that drastically increases police powers to control or ban demonstrations and punish organisers and participants. This misses a fundamental point about the impact or lack of impact of protests anywhere in the world.

They have some influence as a show of strength by people holding common beliefs, such as the gigantic marches in London by Remainers opposed to Brexit between 2016 and 2019. These marches showed that there were millions of people who wanted the UK to stay in the EU, but we knew that already from the outcome of the referendum.

At the end of the day, all those marches and the organisation that went into it had little positive effect. In my experience, marches that go off without incident are boring to participate in, boring to watch and boring for the media, so they get limited news coverage.

Yet protest marches and demonstrations are one of the propulsion units of history, destroying governments and bringing down regimes that believed they had a firm grip on power. The common feature in the protesters’ success is that they provoke, intentionally or unintentionally, a violent overreaction by the authorities. The most striking example of this in the UK was the civil rights march in Derry in Northern Ireland on 5 October 1968, which was attacked by the Protestant-dominated police in front of the television cameras and thus began the unravelling of the Northern Ireland state.

The lesson from this should have been fairly obvious, but in 1972 the authorities had the imbecilic idea of policing an anti-internment march, again in Derry, with paratroopers who shot dead 13 civilians on Bloody Sunday and permanently delegitimised the British state in the eyes of the Catholic population.

I have always been mystified by why governments overreact, using violence against peaceful protesters that do not seriously threaten them, when it is so obviously in their interests not to do so. Two contradictory motives are usually at work. One is an underestimation of the protesters as an atypical minority who can be safely quashed without the wider community objecting. The other – and authoritarian regimes are particularly prone to this – is an overestimation of the danger posed to the leadership by mass protests on the streets, which they try to suppress with extreme violence

I witnessed a grotesque example of overreaction by the security forces generating just such a powerful protest movement in Baghdad in October 2019. I had talked to the organisers of some scantily attended protests demanding jobs and opposing government corruption who were gloomy about their prospects of achieving anything. But as I sat in my hotel room near the protest site in the city centre, I heard the pop-pop of gunfire that turned out to be the security forces opening fire on a peaceful crowd and killing 18 people. Within days, protests were convulsing the whole of Iraq.

Sometimes repression succeeds and the government kills or frightens enough people to drive them off the streets, as the army is trying to do in Myanmar. But once a government goes down this road, there is no retreat and its very existence is in play.

In Britain there have always been effective mechanisms for reducing the political temperature and deflating criticism of the government through prestigious inquiries and mass protests, neither of which achieve very much.

The Boris Johnson government may regret devaluing these well-established instruments of control. If the new law on protests is enforced, it will spark frequent confrontations between protesters and the police. If it is not, then the government will feel that it is being challenged and made to look weak, provoking a self-destructive overreaction.

 
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Britain, Racism 

Asked what he would do if the British army invaded Germany, Bismarck said that he would tell the police to arrest them. In the wake of the latest British defence review, cutting the size of the conventional armed forces, many contemporary world leaders may respond with similar derision to any future threat of British military intervention.

The former chief of defence staff, Lord Richards, says that after these cuts, “we could not do a Gulf War One or Two”. The Falklands, if lost, could not be recaptured, and the ability to launch any significant military intervention overseas will be minimal. This may be no bad thing, but only if the government understands the gap between its much-advertised “global Britain” and the modest reality.

The claim is that Britain should, in future, have a “smart” army, downsized to 72,500 soldiers but choc-a-bloc with expensive weaponry to make it more lethal. There will be plenty of money for high-tech drones, cyber wars, satellites designed to control space, while the stockpile of nuclear warheads is to be increased by 40 per cent.

The missiles, aircraft carrier and killer satellites are all there to give the impression that Britain is a power with global reach. But at the core of British foreign and defence policy remains the need to impress on the United States that Britain is an ally worth having and to piggy-back on American political and military might. This is scarcely surprising since the alliance with the US has been at the heart of British policy since 1940, was reinforced by the Suez Crisis, and has lasted so long because it is a sensible piece of realpolitik.

The biggest problem with relying on the US is that it is by no means clear that the Trump presidency was an aberration and that America will not be permanently absorbed by political civil war at home. The narrow Democrat majority in Congress and Republican voter suppression legislation in Texas and Georgia suggest that this struggle will go on.

A weakness in the British defence review is that it shares the American delusion that vastly expensive military procurement translates into enhanced military strength. This is despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary provided by the post-9/11 wars, fought directly or indirectly over the last 20 years by the US and Britain in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

The claim by military planners that we should look to the wars of the future, rather than the wars of the past, should be treated with suspicion. Such self-inflicted blindness to recent history is convenient because what Britain, echoing America, is proposing to do has failed before. Despite their supposed technological wizardry and the expenditure of vast sums, the US and Britain never found an answer to the mix of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), booby traps, suicide bombers and snipers that they faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The pretence that technical innovation is key to military success was always contradicted by the facts on the ground. I remember an American combat engineer outside Ramadi in Iraq telling me that the US army had refused to let him see a textbook on mines and boobytraps used in the Vietnam war because this might suggest that the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts had a lot in common when it came to battlefield tactics. The soldier complained that he had had to buy a copy of the manual on the black market.

Military conflicts which Britain and the US fought over the last 20 years have all been messy, guerrilla-type conflicts. Crucial to success in all cases was accurate political and military intelligence and that was invariably what was lacking. A British military intelligence officer in Basra in Iraq in about 2004 told me that he kept vainly trying to persuade his superiors that the British force had no allies or friends in a city of one million people which it could not control.

Similar self-destructive ignorance was a feature of the war in Afghanistan. In 2001/2, I followed the Taliban retreating south from Kabul and it was clear that they had not been militarily defeated. They could come back at any moment, as indeed they did a few years later, much to the discomfiture of the British army that had just arrived in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

It was not only the generals who were culpably misinformed. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul, wrote in his memoirs that the worst mistake made by the foreign office in the previous 30 years was the invasion of Iraq, and the second worst was “its enthusiastic endorsement of Britain’s half-baked effort to occupy Helmand in 2006”. Most of the 400 British soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan were to die in the province.

There was nothing secret about the reasons for the failure of the direct military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and indirect ones in Libya and Syria. They were criticised in detail in highly informed governmental and parliamentary reports that today’s political and military leaders have probably never read. The Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s role in Iraq unmasked an extraordinarily level of official ignorance before and after the invasion. It found that “between 2003 and 2009, the UK’s most consistent strategic objective in relation to Iraq was to reduce the level of its deployed forces”. In other words, the British wanted to scuttle, but without offending the Americans too much.

But surely this is all ancient history? The defence review published this week says that we are in a brave new military world, in which scientific gadgetry is displacing conventional forces. This is supposedly being done to face an enhanced risk of attack from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, which sounds exactly like the sort of “threat inflation” that was such a feature of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Recall, to cite one of many instances, how there was an entirely imaginary “missile gap” in favour of Moscow in the 1950s when, in fact, the advantage was all the other way.

Given that an all-out war with Russia and China is unlikely, it is suggested that armed confrontation will instead be with their proxies and allies in a “grey zone”. In this arena, highly trained special forces will be needed to help our own allies and proxies. The new name merely disguises the fact that we have been in the “grey zone” for a long time in Libya, Syria and Yemen and have not done too well there. The sole achievement has been to keep these so-called “endless wars” on the boil, preventing winners and losers emerging, and reducing these countries to wastelands.

The truth – which British and American defence chiefs reject in order to justify gargantuan military budgets – is that the nature of warfare has changed far less than they pretend. “Political and strategic preparations must go hand in hand,” wrote Sir Eyre Crowe, a famed foreign office permanent secretary before the First World War, in words that are still relevant. Failure of such harmony must lead either to military disaster or political retreat.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, American Military, Britain 

Great dollops of hypocrisy invariably accompany expressions of concern by outside powers for the wellbeing of the Syrian people. But even by these low standards, a new record for self-serving dishonesty is being set by the Caesar Civilian Protection Act, the new US law imposing the harshest sanctions in the world on Syria and bringing millions of Syrians to the brink of famine.

Supposedly aimed at safeguarding ordinary Syrians from violent repression by President Bashar al-Assad, the law is given a humanitarian garnish by naming it after the Syrian military photographer who filmed and smuggled out of the country pictures of thousands of Syrians killed by the government. But instead of protecting Syrians, as it claims, the Caesar Act is a measure of collective punishment that is impoverishing people in government and opposition-held areas alike.

Bad though the situation in Syria was after 10 years of warfare and a long-standing economic embargo, the crisis has got much worse in the nine months since the law was implemented on 17 June last year. It has raised the number of Syrians who are close to starvation to 12.4 million, or 60 per cent of the population, according to the UN.

Already, more than half a million children under the age of five are suffering from stunting as the result of chronic malnutrition. As the Syrian currency collapsed and prices rose by 230 per cent over the last year, Syrian families could no longer afford to buy basic foodstuffs such as bread, rice, lentils, oil and sugar.

“The war of hunger … scares me more than the war of guns,” says Ghassan Massoud, the Syrian actor famous for playing Saladin in the 2005 Ridley Scott film Kingdom of Heaven. A politically neutral and popular figure in Syria, Massoud is quoted as saying that government employees are earning 50,000 Syrian pounds ($13/£9) a month when they need 800,000 Syrian pounds to survive. “I am a vegetarian but I do not accept that a citizen is not able to eat meat because a kilo costs 20,000 Syrian pounds.”

The Caesar Act threatens sanctions on any person or company that does business with Syria and thereby imposes a tight economic siege on the country. Introduced just as the Covid-19 epidemic made its first onset in Syria last summer and soon after the implosion of the Lebanese economy to which Syria is closely linked, the law has proved the final devastating blow to Syrians who were already ground down by a decade of destruction.

It was supposedly aimed at Assad and his regime, but there was never any reason to believe that it would destabilise them or compel them to ease repression. Since they hold power, they are well placed to control diminished resources. As with the 13 years of UN sanctions directed against Saddam Hussein between 1990 and 2003, the victims were not the dictator and his family but the civilian population. Iraqi society was shattered, with results that are still with us, and the same is now happening in Syria.

“Sanctions and other measures that are meant to penalise repressive rulers usually wind up hurting ordinary people the most,” concludes the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

I wrote in the 1990s that sanctions were killing more Iraqis than Saddam, but the defenders of the embargo would claim that its critics were aiding the Iraqi leader and, if there really was significant civilian suffering, it was all his fault. The same discredited arguments are now used today to justify the Caesar Act, though it hits people living in the 30 per cent of Syria outside Assad’s rule just as much as it harms them in the 70 per cent under his control.

A university teacher in government-held Latakia on the Mediterranean coast says that she is trying to survive on a salary worth the equivalent of $18 a month. She is eating less and depends on fruit and vegetables from relatives who are farmers. In Damascus, people say that Covid-19 spreads easily because they do not have the money to buy both food and masks.

In rebel-held Idlib, where people face both bombing and Covid-19, one woman said that she thought that 95 per cent of people were worse off because of the pan-Syrian economic collapse. Even in former Kurdish areas now occupied by the Turkish army, the inhabitants are paying to be smuggled across the border into Turkey where they can get jobs that pay them a living wage.

The newscasts and overviews of the Syrian conflict broadcast or published this week on the 10th anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011 make little mention of the Caesar Act and the merciless consequences of sanctions. This is par for the course because embargoes do not kill dramatically or publicly like bombs and bullets – and they can even be portrayed, as they are in the present instance, as a non-violent measure designed to help civilians.

Syria is locked into a toxic stalemate in which the main players are outside powers who consult only their own interests whatever their tear-stained protestations to the contrary. Looked at from a strictly military point of view, Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has won the war and controls most populated areas. The Kurds, backed by the US, hold a large chunk of northeast Syria, but they have been ethnically cleansed from two enclaves by Turkey. The Turks protect several million Arab civilians opposed to Assad crammed into part of Idlib province close to the Turkish border.

The US and its allies may denounce Assad but it is a long time since they thought it feasible, or necessarily in their interests, to overthrow him. They fear that if he did fall, Syria might collapse into Libyan-type chaos and be taken over by jihadis. But since they also want to deny Assad, Russia and Iran a complete victory, they are content to see the present grim situation long continue.

An argument in favour of sanctions is that they would ultimately force Assad to make concessions and bring an end to the war. But they have had precisely the opposite impact according to the UAE, which is likely to play a central role in any negotiations to bring about a permanent peace. Earlier this month, the foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan declared that “to keep the Caesar Act as it is today makes this path [towards resolving the crisis] more difficult”.

President Biden does not want to be sucked further into the Syrian morass and is unlikely to take the initiative. Much of the US foreign policy establishment think that the US made a mistake after 9/11 in focusing on wars in the Middle East when it should have been confronting China.

Allowing Syria to fester while enforcing an economic siege embodied in the Caesar Act means that millions of Syrians are sinking ever deeper into misery and despair. A state of “no peace, no war”, in which there are no final winners and losers, is attractive to foreign powers, but Syria at present is like a rickety house of cards that may collapse at any moment.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Syria, Syrian Civil War 

As Britain enters a post-pandemic era, its struggle with Covid-19 reveals a country that is a complicated mix of strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, Britain has developed, manufactured and distributed effective vaccines quicker than any other nation. On the other, it has constructed the biggest gravy train in British history, one that pays consultants as much as £6,624 a day to run the failed NHS Test and Trace system at a cost of £37bn over two years.

It is important to know why there are these two very different responses of Britain to the crisis, the one that’s a stunning success and the other a scandalous failure. The Covid-19 epidemic, as in a war, tells us much about the British state and society and what “makes them tick” – or, in some cases, not tick.

A bit of Britain that demonstrably does not “tick” is described in a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee issued this week, skewering the multiple failures of the grotesquely expensive NHS T&T. Established in May 2020 and headed by Baroness Dido Harding, it was intended to break the transmission of Covid-19 by identifying infected people and their contacts at speed and getting them to isolate. The evidence is that it comprehensively failed to achieve any of these aims.

The report was described as “damning” in its conclusions by much of the media, but the reality is even more serious. It portrays what is condemned by Lord Macpherson, the former permanent secretary at the Treasury, as “the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time”.

More is at stake here than waste and ineptitude, because the competition between what might be called “Vaccine Britain” and “Gravy Train Britain” is by no means over and either might become the future dominant strain in British political and commercial life.

Government ministers evidently hope that people will not pay much attention to the giant fiasco of NHS T&T because they are so relieved to be vaccinated. They even claim, in the teeth of evidence cited by the parliamentary committee and the National Audit Office (NAO), that the programme has been a great success, citing figures issued by NHS T&T to get it off the hook, showing the vast number of people tested.

Its announcements remind me of the figures for the soaring output of coal and steel that used to be publicised in the Soviet Union to show that the economy was in rude health. Testing alone means nothing in terms of stopping the transmission of coronavirus unless the results come back quickly enough, as they have regularly failed to do, for those testing positive to limit their social contacts.

People are then supposed to self-isolate, but the NAO estimated that the proportion doing so ranges between 10 per cent to 59 per cent. A study by King’s College London showed last year that 70 per cent of people said they would self-isolate if necessary, but only 18 per cent actually did so.

It was always absurd to imagine that an unknown voice calling by phone – a method normally used for selling double-glazing and home insurance – would persuade people to upend their lives by quarantining for 10 days or more. The most deprived with the least secure jobs often avoid testing because they cannot afford to isolate. A pilot study in Liverpool overseen by the British Army showed that people from the most deprived areas were half as likely to get tested, though “the more deprived group was twice as likely to test positive”.

This failure to test many of the people most likely to be infected with Covid-19 is combined with an inability to trace those known to have contracted the illness to make sure that they are self-isolating.

But some argue – and the government is keen they should do so – that this is all becoming irrelevant as mass vaccination rolls out. But assumptions of victory over the virus are premature because, as the lockdown and vaccination reduces the numbers of those infected, it is necessary to identify and isolate the remaining coronavirus hotspots, as has been done in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, China, Vietnam and South Korea. But to this day it is dubious if NHS T&T is able to do this despite spending upwards of £22bn in the last year.

The nature of that failure has implications, not just for ending the epidemic, but for the future of the British state and society. Lord Macpherson says that when it comes to the T&T programme, “the extraordinary thing is that nobody in the government seems surprised or shocked.” In other words, we may be looking at a new norm in which the state becomes host to myriad parasites seeking to milk it of money.

The government excuses itself by claiming that, if mistakes were made, this is explained by the need to cope with a fast-escalating crisis. One would have thought that in such a case, the government would look first to public health veterans who had previously handled Aids and other epidemics, but, on the contrary, it signed expensive non-competitive contracts with consultants and companies with no public health experience.

The programme currently employs 2,500 consultants, each with an estimated average daily pay of £1,100, according to the parliamentary committee, which adds that there is still a “lack of general public health expertise at senior levels of NHS T&T”.

I know a bit about this type of approach to business, but only because I spent many years reporting on the oil states of the Middle East, where any company wanting to win a contract knows that it must have friends at court. A few years ago, I drove through a knee-high mixture of raw sewage and flood water in Baghdad, though $7.4bn had supposedly been spent on its new drainage system – which turned out not to exist.

Is the same necessity to have an inside track going to become normal in Britain, as it has long been in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Gulf states? An analysis of epidemic related contracts by The New York Times last year suggests that this might be the case since it revealed that out of nearly $22bn spent, “about $11bn went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy”.

Government defenders say that NHS T&T is atypical, but, in reality, it is the culmination of decades of outsourcing and the hollowing out of central and local government, while downgrading the role of expertise and experience. Success in developing and rolling out the vaccine depended, on the contrary, on direction by expert and experienced people, inside and outside government.

As Boris Johnson and his ministers claim credit for the vaccination campaign, NHS T&T is the dead elephant in the room, whose stench grows by the day.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Britain, Coronavirus 

Most nationalist movements wait until they have achieved independence before having a civil war over who runs the country. But Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have jumped the gun by opening hostilities while Scottish self-determination is still well over the horizon.

Could it remain an unattainable goal thanks to the open warfare between the past and present leaders of the Scottish National Party? The feud has broken the sense of inexorable progress towards Scottish independence propelled by the political skills of the SNP leadership and aided by the British government’s repeated blunders.

The British media loves a good dog fight and the melodrama of the Sturgeon/Salmond battle has swiftly promoted Scottish politics to the top of the news agenda in a way unseen since the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

The ill-concealed unionist sympathies of sections of the press have ensured a pro-Salmond bias and antipathy to Sturgeon, leading her actions to be compared by some to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. “What did she know and when did she know it?” asked one commentator with relish. A breach of the “ministerial code”, though recently carried out with impunity by Priti Patel under Boris Johnson, is spoken of in awed tones as if it were a capital offence.

Much of this venom is driven by a desperate effort to damage the SNP before the May election for the Holyrood parliament in which, at the time of writing, the SNP is set to win a narrow majority. It would interpret this as giving it a popular mandate for demanding a second referendum on independence. Since the popularity and competence of Sturgeon is the SNP’s biggest asset at the polls, anything damaging to her – even if it does not destroy her politically – could stall the advance towards a pro-independence vote.

Trivial or exaggerated many of the allegations of misconduct against her may be, but to explain them to the Scottish parliament she has had to admit to serial incompetence by her administration at every level.

Suppose that the secret purpose of this process was the political assassination of Salmond, then the assassins were comically inept. Suppose, far more likely, that the purpose was simply to deal with allegations of sexual harassment against him without fear or favour, then the blundering is equally culpable.

Salmond’s claim of a far-reaching conspiracy against him is difficult to take seriously because there is no obvious motive for such a plot. He posed no threat to Sturgeon’s leadership since she is very popular in Scotland and he is not, according to the polls. A conspiracy would have had to recruit as co-conspirators the great armada of people and institutions that have played a part in the affair. The allegation that the Scottish political, judicial and civil service elite is such a close-knit group that they automatically act in concert, and there is no separation of powers, is contradicted by their stumbling and incoherent performance.

A better explanation for why Salmond was targeted simultaneously by so many – a concerted attack that he sees as proof of a deep-laid conspiracy – is that they were all running scared of sexual harassment accusations and over-eager to avoid being seen as protectors of a friend and colleague.

They would have been all the more prone to avoid this risk and make a rush to judgement as the MeToo movement got under way in 2017, heightening awareness of powerful men acting as sexual predators. Salmond, it must be pointed out, has been cleared of all 12 charges against him.

This is the heart of Sturgeon’s defence of her actions, telling the parliamentary committee that “I refused to follow the age-old pattern of letting a powerful man use his status and connections to get what he wants.” She claims that Salmond became so angry because he expected her, as his long-time political partner, to get him off the hook. In her evidence this week, Sturgeon repeatedly expressed sweet sorrow at the failings of an old friend, but kept returning to the original allegations against him.

Sturgeon may survive the attack on her, but how much damage will be done to Scottish nationalism, which has shallower and more recent roots than Irish nationalism? It was only six and a half years ago that the independence referendum unexpectedly legitimised Scottish self-determination as a credible option for Scots, even though they voted it down.

The SNP had an unprecedented winning streak in gaining public support, as England and Wales voted narrowly for Brexit and Scotland voted strongly against. The Boris Johnson government is deeply disliked north of the border and its floundering response to the Covid-19 epidemic last year compared badly with Sturgeon’s image of cool competence.

Nationalist movements past and present are usually good at surviving scandals. Recent examples of this include President Donald Trump and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. They have been able to do this by wrapping the national flag around them and denouncing their critics as unpatriotic. This gambit becomes even easier during the epidemic, because leaders like Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock can claim that supposed wrongdoings are a diversion when they are devoting all their efforts to fighting the deadly virus.

Sometimes national leaders fall because of scandals but nationalist movements do not. In 1890, the Irish Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell – “the uncrowned king of Ireland” – was cited as a co-respondent in the divorce case of Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea, with whom he had been living for 10 years and by whom he had three children. The scandal ended his leadership of his party, which split amid furious and long-lasting disputes, but the movement towards Irish independence continued.

Sturgeon does not have the same dominance of Scottish politics as Parnell once did in Ireland, but she is far and away the SNP’s greatest electoral asset. Her eight-hour grilling before the Scottish parliament showed her to be as formidable a politician as ever. Yet her own account of the missteps made by her government shows how bereft it is of capable leaders who might replace her. No wonder that unionists in Scotland and the government in London are slavering over their best chance of wounding her politically just when she appeared to be on the verge of decisively winning the Holyrood election in May.

Her problem is that she does not only need previous SNP voters to stick with her, which the polls show that they are likely to do. She needs a slice of Scottish voters – primarily the large number who voted “no” in the referendum of 2014 but “no” also to the UK leaving the EU in 2016 – to change their minds in favour of an independent Scotland.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Europe, Scotland 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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