U-Turning – No Bad Thing?

Politics has always been a dirty game. Political capital is based on power over competitors and support from the electorate, achieved seemingly by any means necessary. More often than not, the net result is that political discourse descends into pointing out the failures of an opponent, without presenting a reasoned, superior alternative.

The failings of an opponent can take many forms. Many are not even political in nature, but are focused on the youthful mistakes of student life, or the failings of human relationships to which we are all vulnerable. These are the most base of attacks. Others potential mistakes to exploit range widely, from matters that barely impact on the political processes of this country, to issues that could sway parliamentary voting.

One of the most shameful methods of gaining the upper hand over ones opponent, however, is to exploit occasions when that opponent admits they made a mistake. All too often, when a party is forced to change direction, or realises a policy lacks popular support they are mocked for u-turning by opponents and the media alike. Generally this happens to the party in government, as they have greater scope for testing policies, however opposition parties by no means escape the problem. Regardless of who is involved, we seem to take the view that U-turns are a bad thing – a sign that party leadership or policy is weak.

Of course, if a party is forced to back down on a key policy, it may indeed be a sign that said policy was flawed, or that the party is in turmoil, and cannot command a majority in parliament. It is a significant sign of weakness. Yet that does not mean it ought to be exploited in a bid to score points towards the next election.

There are two reasons for this. First and foremost, as citizens of a healthy, free democracy, we should all seek to live up to a certain British stereotype – sportsmanship. We should strive to be gracious in victory and accepting in defeat. It is simply good manners not to kick a man when he is down. If the policy of one’s opponent has been defeated or proven to fail in operation, that serves as tacit support for one’s own view-point. It is entirely legitimate to advocate for the alternative, extolling its virtues to the public and to the opponent, however this can be done without resorting to mockery. Indeed, where a full u-turn has occurred, not only has the opposition view been weighed, measured and found wanting, those who previously supported it have actively moved to support the alternative. These twin victories should be enough for any man, without harping on about the past failings of the opposition. Politics should illuminate the way forward, rather than casting light on the past.

Furthermore, there is good reason for civil society to view u-turns in a positive light. If a government policy has been dramatically reversed, especially due to public and opposition pressure, this indicates that the government is listening to external voices, considering them, and responding in a measured, informed way. A government which is willing to perform a volte-face is surely one which should be praised for listening to the electorate and rising above partisan politics to act for the common weal. Admissions of mistakes should be praised by a public which wants accountable leadership.

At least, that is what should happen, but alas the reality is frequently very different. U-turns are routinely condemned by the opposition, the media and the general public alike. Rather than being treated as a sign that government is responsive to the needs of the electorate, and is willing to admit its mistakes, it is instead an indicator of a party which is not fit to govern, or doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the way, our priorities became deeply skewed.

Which leads me to the recent debate on Tax Credits. This is an issue where the government has faced a severe challenge. Civil society groups and opposition MPs have called on the government to reconsider their position, especially regarding the rate of change. The government has initially refused, but the House of Lords’ amendment calling for further consultation will leave the government with no other option but to reconsider its policy, hopefully in the context of extended consultation. The opposition could be smug about it, and they may still be so, depending on what steps the government takes next, but as of yet this has not been the case. For now, the opposition deserves congratulation for their pledge that they will support the government, should they change their policy. They are acting generously and putting aside partisan interests in favour of the common weal. This is how politics should be.


[A]Moral Rearmament?

[A]Moral Rearmament?

Next week, I will be attending a round table event, hosted by the non-proliferation think tank, BASIC, to consider the government’s upcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review.  To get in the mood for that, here are some thoughts on nuclear rearmament, in the context of the 2010 SDSR.

If you had asked me, six months ago, if I would ever defend the renewal of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, I would probably have laughed. Many of you will know that I have, in the past, written about my opposition to trident, first and foremost from an ethical standpoint, and that view has not changed. I continue to contend that any use of nuclear weapons would almost certainly be immoral, even if it is not technically in breach of current legal articles controlling nuclear weapons.

However, In the last few months, as I have continued to try to get an interesting research focussed job, I have read more and more, and this has led me to take a more open standpoint, at least regarding what I don’t know.

As I have said before, the decision to use a nuclear weapon would almost certainly be a war crime. The international Court of Justice has given an advisory opinion which, whilst not legally binding, basically requires a country to be threatened with destruction in order to justify the use of such weapons. In that context, the net result of using WMDs is simply that even more people will die, and the planet may be sucked into a global nuclear war from which the only cockroaches and sharks emerge.

However, the foundation of nuclear deterrence is that the mere possession of weapons deters attack. As long as the deterrent works, we should never actually need to use it. Now, I lack the experience and access to intelligence briefings necessary to judge whether the net effect of possessing nuclear weapons is to increase our security, as it petrifies other states into behaving, or to decrease our stability, by making other states feel threatened, fostering arms races and international distrust. Indeed, external observers cannot know if the deterrent is working. Several recent commentators have alluded to 9/11 and 7/7 as evidence for the failure of the nuclear deterrent, yet this is absurd. Setting aside the fact the nuclear deterrent is not designed to deal with terrorist threats, the attacks prevented by the deterrent will not be common knowledge, because they will not have happened.

Nor is the matter a straightforward one of assessing the net response of other states to the binary alternatives of renewal or disarmament; any decision regarding trident renewal has wide ramifications to our foreign policy, much of which is founded on bilateral and multilateral agreements that have the nuclear deterrent at their core. Many longstanding international partnerships, including the Special Relationship with the cousins and our position in NATO are founded on implicit obligations of defence, with the nuclear burden balanced across the Atlantic. Any unilateral disarmament decision would at the very least strain these relationships, if not shatter them, with vast consequences for UK foreign policy. Nor should we privilege our own security over that of other states – if our deterrent benefits the security of any threatened state, this must be accounted for

These factors have all contributed to the decisions of various panels of experts, ranging from government bodies to respected disarmament organisations (notably BASIC), that renewing Trident is the choice which will do most for both our security and global stability. But that does not close the issue. Renewal is not a simple yes/no question. If we are to renew trident, it is important that we do so in a way which seeks a more stable, peaceful world, which honours our Non-Proliferation Treaty commitment to pursue disarmament ‘in good faith’, and which is not morally bankrupt.

So, how can we pursue renewal whilst seeking disarmament?

First, it is important to note that renewing our deterrent means that we continue to have a substantial voice on the world stage, which we can use in a morally responsible way. It means that we maintain a position which allows us to negotiate with other nuclear states as equals. Since the end of the cold war, global warhead stockpiles have fallen from around 50,000 to around 15,000, and there has been some success in proliferation prevention, notably in Iran and Libya. Whilst progress is slow, there is a very real risk that unilateral disarmament by the United Kingdom would be counterproductive to the process. Unilateral disarmament might be successful in prompting other states to do likewise, but it would be an all or nothing move, which could fail and cost the disarmament community a significant advocate.

Disarmament might also cost us our permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This is not simply a matter of status and homeland security. In the face of an increasingly belligerent and unpredictable Russia, and given the long history of distrust between Russia and the US, it is important that the intermediate states of the Security Council (i.e. the UK and France) continue to play a role in balancing the superpowers and preventing a return to Cold War politics. Renewal allows us to advocate for balance and take the lead in a responsibly managed, gradual decline in global nuclear power without risking all our chips on one hand.

Most significantly, the nature and scale of renewal can be used as part of multilateral arms reduction and non-proliferation agreements. As of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the government plans that the new submarines, when introduced, will each carry 40 operational warheads, from a maximum stock of 120 operational warheads (with at most 60 more warheads stockpiled). These warhead numbers are a reduction from current levels and initial plans, and the SDSR also tightened UK declaratory policy, confirming that ‘the UK will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT [unless in breach of the treaty]’. These are commendable steps on the ‘glide path’ to disarmament, howeverthe concessions were made in isolation, without regard to global disarmament. This, it seems to me, was a missed opportunity, and a failure in our moral duty and legal obligations, as nuclear recognised party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue disarmament ‘in good faith’ both at home and around the world.

However, we do have substantial scope for further scaling back of the renewed nuclear deterrent as we move forward. In the 2010 SDSR, the government sought, where possible, to delay spending on renewal, meaning that many parts of the deterrent will not be confirmed for well over a decade. We could, therefore, commit to reducing the number of submarines to only three if other states committed to eliminating tactical nuclear weapons (i.e. nuclear bombs), and maintaining only ballistic missiles, which are inherently less aggressive.

Other positive steps could include relaxing the need for a Continuous At Sea Deterrent (one submarine always on patrol) – which could be reinstated were the global outlook to change significantly, but which sets a tone of positive intention – establishing a “no first strike” declaratory policy, reducing the number of warheads and missiles, or eliminating the ‘Moscow criterion’ for the level of deterrence (that the UK should have sufficient numbers of missiles and warheads to reliably penetrate the missile defences around Moscow). Any such moves should be made in a responsible way, a part of wider non-proliferation agreements. The reductions laid out in the 2010 SDSR failed to do this, as they were focused on cutting spending and growing the political capital of the Conservative led coalition, rather than on securing similar reductions from other nuclear powers. This was a missed opportunity which should not be repeated. The nuclear issue should not be allowed to be a means of political point scoring – it is simply too important!

In 2011, the USA and Russia agreed to New START, an arms reduction treaty that lowers mutually agreed limits on the numbers of missiles and bombers (delivery methods) as well as the number of warheads, both deployed and in storage. Russia and the US alone have nuclear warhead stockpiles in the thousands, so it makes sense for the superpowers to collaborate on arms reduction. This leaves the UK, France, India, Pakistan, China, Israel and North Korea, and it would make sense for these states to engage in multilateral arms reduction. Setting aside North Korea, which has removed itself from international forums as far as possible, and which has only ~10 warheads, these states have broadly similar arsenals, ranging from 80 warheads (Israel) to 300 warheads (France). It would therefore be a natural grouping with which to begin a new multilateral process of arms reduction.

The security and foreign relations ramifications of abandoning a nuclear deterrent have led the government to commit to renewal. Much of the opposition agrees. What we must therefore do is pursue renewal in a way which is conducive to stability, peace, and arms reduction by all nuclear powers (something unilateral disarmament would cost us). Let’s ensure that, in another forty years, there is no need to discuss renewal, as the deterrent has ceased to exist through multilateral processes.

A Night at the Ballet

A Night at the Ballet

Those of you who know me well will be aware that I have always had rather middle-aged taste – be it in music, clothes, or parties. I much prefer a pub where you can chat to a club, I listen to radio 4, and I like to be in bed by 10:30 on a school night. So, it may come as a surprise that until recently I’d never been to the ballet (or at least, not to my memory – I might have been taken to the Nutcracker as a child, but it didn’t have a huge impact on me).

Last week, as part of my ongoing indoctrination into the London circle – that middle-class behemoth of OxBridge graduates, dinner parties and over-priced cooking utensils – I went to see Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Ballet’s revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography (first staged fifty years ago), has had excellent reviews, and I was very excited.

I will start by saying that I was not disappointed. It was beautiful, fundamentally. The bulk of the score would not have felt out of place in a film like Brief Encounter (which famously featured the Second Symphony of Prokofiev’s contemporary, Rachmaninoff), and was perfect for the first flushes of Romeo and Juliet’s romance. Likewise the Dance of the Knights (Montagues and Capulets), could comfortably have been used as entrance music for a rhythmic Darth Vader, and did amazing things to the atmosphere.

Everyone involved in the production should be hugely proud. Sets, whilst simple, where effective and costumes were well balanced between renaissance finery and minimalism allowing for the huge range of movements needed by the dancers. The Orchestra was excellent, and the dancers… The dancers were in another world.

But despite all this, I remain unconvinced.

Time for a confession. Though I know Romeo and Juliet as a play first and foremost, the only complete version I have seen is the Baz Luhrmann film (I know, I am working on it). Both Luhrmann and Prokofiev provide soundtracks (though they are almost as far removed from one another as is possible). The huge difference is, of course, that where Luhrmann maintain’s Shakespeare’s script, the Royal Ballet entirely strips away all language, replacing it with MacMillan’s choreography.

Words have always done things to me – certain hymns and poems hit me. Parts of stories stay with me – phrases, quotes, snatches of songs. At its most basic, language is an artistic medium no different from music, dance or sculpture, but words seem to have a particular value in developing stories. Words drive character development, they give shades of nuance and ambiguity to actions and places. In contrast, the ballet, though amazing, struggled to provide this detailed narrative. Characters like Paris were driven to the periphery; Friar Laurence lost his place as a voice of reason and caution.

And yet, many things came across brilliantly: the bustle of the Verona market, Juliet’s shy response to the first advances of Paris, Lord Capulet and Tybalt arguing over whether to politely welcome Romeo to the party or forcibly eject him, Romeo’s unwillingness to fight Tybalt once related to him through marriage. It is astounding what can be done through choreography.

I am sure I would be far less aware of the limitations of the production if I weren’t comparing it to a play – they are of course, entirely different mediums. I am fine reading and watching different versions of the King Arthur legend, but Shakespeare is definitive. I cant help thinking of one as an adaptation of the other, and an adaptation which fails to provide the same depth to the story.

And more than that, some things simply don’t come across as well in dance as in dialogue. Aggression, in particular, suffers when set to music. Don’t get me wrong, the fights were beautiful, but real, impassioned conflict is not, and the opening fight between Montague and Capulet suffered for this. Similarly, deaths were too overblown (the exception being Paris’ death, which seemed overly abrupt), undermining their emotional impact and making them almost a parody.

Then again, the various responses to deaths provide some of the most stunning moments in the work. The devastation wrought by death was inescapable, be it that of Romeo to the death of Mercutio and later (apparently) Juliet, or Lady Capulet to both her daughter and her close kinsman, Tybalt.

Even in those most emotionally fraught moments, however (and despite a score from one of the great composers of the last century), I didn’t tear up. I suppose part of that is unfamiliarity with the medium. I need to know it better to appreciate the emotions being conveyed, so I will just have to go again, ideally to something I cant compare to a different medium (Swan Lake is on the cards for next year). Still, I can’t help thinking that, while the ballet is abstractly beautiful, if I had to chose to between plays and ballet for the rest of my days, I would come down on the side of the words. Thankfully, that’s not a choice I have to make.

Nuclear Ambiguity

Jeremy Corbyn is doing remarkable things for politics in the UK. He is engaging people who have previously felt they had no stake in the system, he is proposing dramatically different policies to those of all the major parties in recent years, and he is doing so in what appears to be an honest, straightforward way. However his statement that he would not use the nuclear deterrent poses a substantial problem, both to security and to parliamentary process.

As private citizens, we have a duty to make informed choices about our representation. I know that I favour disarmament, and I’m doubt I could ever make the decision to use nuclear weapons; in almost every conceivable situation use would be a war crime, and would be likely to result in far more death and destruction. However, I have no plans to become Prime Minister. I do not have to walk the fine line which Mr Corbyn must walk as leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, and a possible future PM. I believe that, on this issue, Mr Corbyn has fallen off the tightrope.

The basic theory of nuclear deterrence is that threat of a hugely destructive second strike (or even first strike, in some limited circumstances) will prevent other nuclear powers attacking or threatening the UK. Our declaratory policy is such that we are committed to not using nuclear weapons against powers without WMDs. So the deterrent is only designed for a very limited set of situations. Crucially, in order for this deterrent to be effective, the threat must be convincing. This requires both the capability and willingness to use the weapons, and that willingness lies solely in the hands of the Prime Minister.

In that context, as long as the deterrent does its job, the Prime Minister, whoever that is, will never actually *need* to use such weapons. A plausible threat should do the job. Jeremy Corbyn’s statement, however, has made it clear to the world that, if he is ever elected, regardless of the technological capabilities, the United Kingdom will not have a nuclear deterrent. Now, I am all for Mr Corbyn coming out in favour of disarmament, but what he has done goes one step further than simply outlining his views. It would be entirely possible to make his opposition to Trident clear, in a way which lays the framework for a debate in the Labour Party and the United Kingdom as a whole, but which leaves his willingness to use the deterrent ambiguous. He could be personally committed to never using the deterrent, even in the very limited set of situations laid out by the UK’s declaratory policy, whilst still leaving an effective deterrent.

Instead, Mr Corbyn has declared that, for whatever time he might spend as PM, we will not have a deterrent, regardless of the security landscape. North Korea could take a break from reality and launch nuclear weapons against a commonwealth state like Malaysia and we would not respond. Russia could destroy the English speaking world and we would not take counter-measures. Argentina could nuke the Falklands and we would have to let them. These are of course extreme, implausible situations but they serve to illustrate a point. A blanket refusal to ever countenance the use of Nuclear Weapons is unhelpful for as long as the wider world, our allies and dependents, expect us to play a role as a nuclear power in their defence.

His statement also undermines parliamentary process and the will of the electorate. At present, it is far from clear whether the Labour Party as a whole, let alone the population of the United Kingdom, favours renewal of the deterrent. It is simply a debate which we have not had, because successive major parties have all stood in favour of it. As an avowed anti-nuclear campaigner, Jeremy Corbyn could have played a key role in allowing his party to have an informed debate. Instead, however, he has declared his stance before the party has formulated theirs.

Whilst this can be seen as example of the open, honest politics Jeremy Corbyn favours, the upshot of his comments is to undermine the freedom of the party to reach a decision. Everything else he said in the relevant BBC interview was setting out a clear argument in favour of disarmament, and one that should be listened to, however his categorical comments undercut those arguments. Even if the party as a whole comes out in support of the nuclear deterrent, Jeremy Corbyn will not use it, meaning that he could, potentially, ignore the will of his party.

Sometimes, it is useful to leave certain things unsaid.

A New Kind of Politics?

One of the most admirable moves made by Jeremy Corbyn, since his election as labour leader, has been his call for a new kind of politics. A politics free from theatricality, an open honest forum for debate. A politics of politics not of personality.

This goal has been lauded widely, most notably with regards to Prime Minister’s Questions, where there does appear to be some appetite for a more measured tone (though how short-lived this may prove is unclear). Yet, it seems quite possible that, while talking the talk, those of us who try to actively participate in politics may fail to walk the walk.

I have been as guilty of this as anyone else. On Friday 8th May, I said things to friends of mine who are Conservative which were not only unfair, but unfounded. I questioned their morals, I suggested they did not act in a way which is compassionate and compatible with human flourishing.

Yet people across the political spectrum act as they do because they believe it serves the common good. The left worries about the poor and disadvantaged being left behind, the right worries about those who work hard being penalised for success. Every party can appeal to legitimate economic theory to support their policies. It is simply not fair to suggest that the right is selfish and money grabbing, that the left is seeking to destroy traditional values, that the SNP is a one issue party.

But despite this truth, across the media and public life, people act as though this is the case, from Russell Brand denouncing the political class as treacherous and deceitful, to the Daily Mail branding Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policy as a “war on the middle class”. Across the board, the tone is not one of cooperation in the best interests of the nation and the world, but of distrust and even hatred.

The Left in particular is keen to stress the way in which the establishment seeks to undermine campaigns for change, and yet it is just as guilty of such attacks. One political forum I both follow and contribute to, has provided an example of this. Over the course of one day they have posted both the following to their facebook page.

We’re taking Manchester back this weekend, the message is simple: Torys [sic] are not welcome here. Their savage attacks on the working classes have hit northern cities the most, the people of Manchester have never welcomed their party conference but the fact they continue to hold it there is a shocking indictment of how blasé they feel about what they’re doing. Next stop Piccadilly station to unwelcome them into their week of hell


“Ahead of the Conservative Party Conference, I urge all activists (Labour or not) to focus solely on policy and not to take part in any personal attacks. As I said in my speech at the Labour Party Conference:

“…I want to repeat what I said at the start of the leadership election. I do not believe in personal abuse of any sort.

Treat people with respect. Treat people as you wish to be treated yourself. Listen to their views, agree or disagree but have that debate. There is going to be no rudeness from me. Maya Angelou said: ‘You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.’

I want a kinder politics, a more caring society. Don’t let them reduce you to believing in anything less.

So I say to all activists, whether Labour or not, cut out the personal attacks and let’s get on with bringing values back into politics.”

– Jeremy Corbyn

Yes, urban centres in the North have been hit hardest by the cuts of the last five years, but that does not diminish the fact that the governments of the last two years have acted in what they believe to be the national interest. To declare an entire party ‘not welcome’ is tantamount to declaring the half of the electorate your enemy. Threatening to give delegates a ‘week of hell’ is the exact opposite to treating people with respect as part of a ‘kinder politics’ or a ‘more caring society’.

So to everyone out there I say this: discuss, argue, protest, write to your MPs – participate – but discuss policies, argue issues, protest legislation, write to your MPs about local concerns. Be constructive not destructive. If you think Conservative policy is damaging, outline an alternative. If you think Labour economics are mad, explain why.

I am currently working through the West Wing, and have just got to a particularly famous story line, bridging Season 4 and 5, in which a national crisis leads to exemplary bi-partisan politics. I for one don’t want to have to wait for such a crisis to help us work together for the common good.

To quote Jed Bartlett, “[let’s] raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy”.