Saturday, 26 March 2011

On the fantastic anti-cuts march in London

I've just got home from the anti-cuts rally London. The atmosphere was electric and there was a sense of people being in solidarity with one another, whether or not they agreed entirely with the minutiae of their fellow marchers' politics. I personally do not believe that many of the slogans on placards, such as 'Stop All Cuts' are realistic or credible, and I found it offensive to see the front of one hard-left newspaper with a mocked-up picture of David Cameron in a guillotine about to be, how can I put it.....cut! Such nastiness is not funny, it's very unpleasant, it allows our political opponents do portray us as extremist and it detracts from the main point. When extreme Tories called for the hanging of Nelson Mandela, we rightly criticised them...enough said.

Despite this, the overwhelming feeling I took away was that we on the march were all agreed that the scale of the cuts has been too big and at they have been carried out in a sometimes callous and often haphazard manner by people who simply do not understand the concept of public service nor the fear that many vulnerable people feel when vital services are threatened.

The march was family-friendly and despite seeing a posse of six or so masked men clearly intent on trouble at Embankment Tube station (perhaps they turned up later at Piccadilly Circus...), the vast, vast majority of marchers enjoyed what can only be described as a carnival atmosphere as we slowly snaked our way from Waterloo, along the South Bank, onto the Embankment before we reached the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall.

Snaking our way along the South Bank - both sides of the river were packed...

There was a slightly surreal sight at the Palace of Westminster, when Communist hammer and sickle flags fluttered aloft - not something I ever thought I'd see, and quite unsettling.  See below:

We didn't make it as far as Hyde Park in time for the rally and speeches, it having taken us about 3 hours to travel about half a mile. There was a sense of people power, even if this might sound trite. There is something invigorating about being part of a large group of people who share a common purpose, and there is something vital about a the sheer volume of people on the streets for a few hours. The right to peaceful protest is a very important one and the hundreds of thousands of us who marched made our point in a calm, generous-spirited way.

Everyone can see that the Arab Spring is displaying that people power can have a huge effect. Of course our government cannot be compared in any way to those of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.  However, many do feel that our government does lack the legitimacy of many of its predecessors.  Neither of the Coalition partners won an outright majority.  They might be able to claim a mandate to take steps to reduce the deficit faster than Labour.  But they do not have a mandate for the unprecedented scale of the reforms they are ushering in across our public services and even in the NHS.  Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher would have baulked at this government's reform plans even though they possessed huge Parliamentary majorities. Today's protesters were of course not seeking revolution or anything near it.  But a government cannot govern effectively if people begin to feel that they are exceeding their mandate or acting in an unnecessarily ideological manner.  These reforms go to the heart of the social fabric of Britain.  It would have seemed polite for any government seeking to recast the British state to have first sought a mandate by setting out their plans in their General Election manifesto.  We are, after all, constantly being told by the new Coalition that transparency and honesty are the Government's touchstones.

It cannot be denied that protests have their effect.  They are an expression of popular will and whether or not the Government of the day accedes to their demands, the reverberations are felt eventually.  Cause and effect.  Just as the breakneck pace of the Government's reforms left many in the country shell-shocked, so there was an inevitable reaction and today's demonstration was the biggest of these to date.  In a democracy, there must and is always an effect when people protest in such numbers.  In the case of Iraq, the Blair Government, which I supported, chose not to take the advice of the marchers.  But the damage was done and forever more the prevailing view of much of the public (although not mine) is that the government rode roughshod over the views of a million protesters.  In the case of the poll tax riots, the Government initially ignored the protesters, but ultimately the policy was doomed and was changed.  Many have said that Margaret Thatcher's ultimate demise was sealed when she pushed through this doomed policy against better advice.  This government cannot afford to be seen to be trampling on public servants - many of whom are actually Tory and Lib Dem voters.

The student tuition fees demonstrations, the ferocity of which took the body politic by surprise, did not yield a policy U-turn but they caused internal convulsions within the Liberal Democrats, a protest party being protested against. 

Finally, the Government did enact an abrupt U-turn over the plan to sell-off the forests.  Perhaps this was due to the socioeconomic backgrounds of a majority of the protesters.  Caroline Spelman's admirable humility in apologising on behalf of the Government was more significant than many perhaps realise.  In emphasising that this is a 'listening government' they have made a rod for their own back.  The efficacy of their hearing aid might well be intermittent.

The key question following on from today is are they going to listen to the 450,000 people who marched on London?  Listen they must, for this is just the beginning of the popular, peaceful campaign against the speed and extent of the Government's cuts programme.  The majoriy of the cuts have not yet taken effect.  We are about to learn whether the British population has fully accepted the Coalition's mantra that "there is no alternative".

Below are some of the photos I took today:

First up are some of the more amusing placards:

'BRING BACK HUNTING' with a Lib Dem dove in the crosshairs.  A little harsh, I think...

Andrew Lansley as Ronald McDonald and the NHS re-branded.  I think you get the point...

Here is what I can only describe as a 'money monster' with a head made of dollars. 

A huge cheer went up amongst the thousands on the road on the Embankment as we walked past what looked like a delegation from CND, with Bruce Kent, the campaign's wonderful elder-statesman cheering on the crowd:

Huge crowd on the Embankment...

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Times publish my letter calling for Citizens' QE to pay for house-building

Published in print and online here.


Sir, George Osborne’s support for first-time buyers is welcome. Yet he is investing a tiny sum in comparison with the multibillion-pound support package put in place for the banks, whose actions precipitated the financial crisis. What is to stop the Government printing enough money to build enough houses to support, say, a million jobs or more? Printing money is, after all, what the Bank of England is doing to prop up the financial sector, in the guise of quantitative easing.

John Slinger
Rugby, Warks

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Times publishes my letter on weakness of West over Libya

Published online here (£).

Gaddafi predicted that “the West only rarely has the stomach to act militarily to protect the vulnerable”


What message does it send about the international community’s support for those Libyans fighting for an end to tyrannical misrule, when as their tormentor masses his troops before what will surely be an onslaught to snuff out the revolution, world leaders are still debating the legalities at the United Nations (report, Mar 16)? This would be like witnessing a rape and instead of intervening, telephoning a lawyer to check whether stepping in would be “legal”.

Gaddafi rightly predicted, as did countless illegitimate dictators in recent decades, that the West only rarely has the stomach to act militarily to protect the vulnerable.  Its default position is voluble outrage matched by inadequate or belated action, or indeed total inaction (as in Rwanda).

This is a shocking indictment of the weakness of all civilised countries and international institutions and will serve, yet again, to teach despots that they can literally get away with murder.

John Slinger
Rugby, Warks

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Letter to The Times (not published) re Ken Macdonald QC's allegation in his Libya article that the Blair Government lied on Iraq


Ken Macdonald is right to suggest that the "scars of Iraq" must not prevent our intervening in Libya.  However, he then reopens these very scars, saying of the previous government's Iraq policy that "this is what happens when a government is caught out lying and we would do well to learn the lesson" (Don't let the scars of Iraq deny justice in Libya, The Times, 16/03/11).  Each independent inquiry into the Blair government's actions  has concluded that they did not lie.  Given he is a former Director of Public Prosecutions, he should not make such a grave charge unless he can prove it.   To do otherwise weakens the otherwise excellent case he makes for revisiting the kind of liberal intervention which Tony Blair espoused and which, sadly, proved the exception to the rule in Western foreign policy-making.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Letter to The Times (not published) on endgame in Libya and the shaming of the West

The Editor
The Times


What message does it send about the international community's support for those Libyans fighting for an end to tyrannical misrule, when as their tormentor masses his troops before what will surely be an onslaught to snub out the revolution, world leaders are still debating the legalities at the UN. This would be like witnessing a rape and instead of intervening, telephoning a lawyer to check whether stepping in would be 'legal'. Gaddafi rightly predicted, as did countless illegitimate dictators in recent decades, that the West only rarely has the stomach to act militarily to protect the vulnerable. Its default position is voluble outrage matched by inadequate or belated action or indeed total inaction (as in Rwanda). This is a shocking indictment of the weakness of all civilised countries and international institutions and will serve, yet again, to teach despots that they can literally get away with murder.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Friday, 11 March 2011

Letter to The Times (not published) on Libya and need for West to act not just talk tough

The Editor
The Times


Any failure on the part of the West to intervene militarily in the event that Gaddafi launches a much anticipated counter-attack against the rebels would be shameful but would merely be an extension of the international community's default policy of voluble outrage backed by practical inaction and dereliction of duty - Iraq and Afghanistan notwithstanding. Those who would walk on by while the vulnerable are slaughtered by a superior military force should be reminded repeatedly of the consequences of this stance in recent years. The numbers of civilian deaths are as follows: 800,000 in Rwanda; Bosnia 100,000; several hundreds of thousands in Saddam Hussein's Iraq; Sudan 300,000; and several million on DR Congo alone.

The often made claim that Iraq and Afghanistan constrains the West's options should be dismissed as indulgent navel-gazing at a time when principled action is required. Gaddafi is rightly concluding, as did other despots in recent decades, that the West rarely has the stomach to protect the innocent.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Labour must have a robust rather than comfortable foreign policy

Ed Miliband has taken another tentative step at redefining Labour's foreign policy with an article in The Observer on Sunday.  His article can be summarised as: the Government is wrong to prioritise trade or narrow British interests (arms sales are often bad); Labour should support democracy movements; however, any such support must be “practical” but not military, for the neocons taught us that democracy cannot be imposed “at the point of a gun”.   In conclusion, “soft power [such as the World Service and British Council] will often be a better way to achieve hard results”. 

Miliband’s article is heavy on sentiment and light on practicality.    He does not set out how his views can be applied to the reality of an unstable, dangerous world in which the democratic and human rights of civilians are routinely trampled on.  The Labour leader quickly needs to move beyond posturing if he is to be taken seriously as an alternative Prime Minister capable and and willing to tackle international crises not merely opine about them. 

Here’s why.  It is understandable, possibly even necessary for Miliband to succumb to the urge to repeatedly lance the boil of Iraq by jabbing at “neocons” and their attempts to “impose” democracy.  He’s right to want to bring opponents of the Iraq war back into the Labour fold.  But in so doing he must not let his foreign policy be dragged back into Labour’s comfort zone, not least because we are in the midst of popular, democratic uprisings in the Middle East which may yet require the kind of military posturing that such people so abhor.  To win back former Labour voters on the anti-Iraq ticket will be a pyrrhic victory if the majority of the country comes to view him as weak, isolationist and naive in the field of foreign policy.

The huge popular opposition to the Iraq war has some perverse effects.  In Libya today, there is a very real possibility that Colonel Gaddafi will seek to foment a bloodbath precisely because he knows that to do so will probably decrease not increase the likelihood of Western military intervention.  He knows that the riskier such intervention becomes for our troops, the more our leaders baulk at deploying them for fear of enraging the anti-war brigade.  It is a mixture of realpolitik, barbarism and madness, but it has a whiff of the cruel logic developed by numerous dictators and genocidal maniacs who have long observed that the international community’s record on intervening to prevent human rights abuses or prevent genocide has been woefully inadequate, verging on criminally negligent. 

Our recent past is littered with evidence of this negligence, paid for by the vulnerable and innocent.  The Serbs ravaged Bosnia Herzegovina under the watchful eye of the EU and UN peacekeepers before the bloodshed belatedly shocked the US into forcing the West to take robust military action to prevent the slaughter.  A previous Labour leader, Tony Blair, learnt from the mistakes of the preceding Tory government, and spearheaded robust military action to prevent Kosovo going the way of Bosnia.  Rwanda showed that despite the UN's Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the international community would indeed sit back and watch as 800,000 civilians were massacred by little more than a hate-filled, machete-wielding mob.  The more recent genocide in Sudan showed that the Genocide Convention was not worth the paper on which it was written, for signatories are obliged to act to prevent genocide once they admit it is happening.  The then US Secretary of State Colin Powell did describe events as genocide, but still the crimes were met with inaction.

We must remember that Tony Blair's interventionism and was the exception to the rule in British foreign policy-making.  Blair's policy of liberal intervention, outlined first in his Chicago speech of 1999, made the case for a more robust approach to failed states where the human rights lives of civilians were being trampled on by vicious and illegitimate leaders.  In the speech, he said in reference to Kosovo:

We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. We must not rest until it is reversed. We have learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work. If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later.

If the world would not even intervene militarily in Rwanda, it is hardly surprising that a fascist dictator such as Saddam Hussein assumed that he could continue to unashamedly defy numerous UN Security Council.  He even managed to turn the UN 'Oil For Food' sanctions regime into a stick with which to beat the West, by spending money supposedly destined for medicine and food on building palaces while blaming the resulting civilian hardships on us.  The political consequences for Western leaders who chose to back George Bush's plan to liberate Iraq have been dire and the intervention itself provoked a phenomenal backlash in Western countries.  It is hardly surprising then that dictators such as Gaddifi might conclude that the West has no stomach for a fight, even when the protection of civilian life, rather than any grand geopolitical aim is the sole motivating factor.  We should hope he is profoundly mistaken, but with Western governments already backtracking from even a no-fly zone, it seems Gaddafi may be prove to have been shrewd in his analysis of our weakness.

Blair made this point in Chicago a full 12 years ago:

One of the reasons why it is now so important to win the conflict is to ensure that others do not make the same mistake in the future. That in itself will be a major step to ensuring that the next decade and the next century will not be as difficult as the past. If NATO fails in Kosovo, the next dictator to be threatened with military force may well not believe our resolve to carry the threat through.

Labour must not now disown this doctrine in the interests of short-term internal political expediency.  We must reiterate that we would be prepared to intervene in situations where there are failed states. Labour must not revert to its comfort zone or seek merely to appease the left. It must set out a credible foreign policy. An ‘ethical foreign policy’ Mk II is long overdue but it must be ethical and robust rather than merely comfortable.

It will be a long process, but one we must not shy away from because of the polarisation and acrimony caused by Iraq. We must remain in solidarity with oppressed people and be prepared, in extremis, to do what is practical to relieve their suffering - up to and including military action. We have a responsibility to protect.  We have a responsibility to drive forward changes at the EU and UN level to ensure that the 'responsibility to protect' is not merely enshrined in law but is practicable. Just as with those left wingers who went to Spain to fight Franco, we must not assume that the morally upstanding position of someone from the left is always to oppose war. If the situation in Libya deteriorates and Libyans call out for us to intervene militarily, their calls must not fall on deaf ears in Britain, especially not in the Labour movement.  This may place Ed Miliband and indeed David Cameron in an uncomfortable position. But doing the right thing in international relations is often uncomfortable, and often politically costly, as Tony Blair found out.  Strong political leaders must nonetheless do what is right, not what is necessarily popular or politically expedient.



Letter to The Times (unpublished) on influence of Arab Spring on UK domestic politics

The Editor
The Times


I would add to Bill Emmott's conclusions (The Times, 28 February, 'Libyan tremors will be felt as far away as China') that we may feel some of the aftershocks on these shores. We have witnessed 'people power' not just in the Middle East but closer to home, where demonstrations against tuition fees and the selling-off of our forests brought about the humiliation of a political party and a swift policy U-turn respectively. In both cases people power affected the political process. This could be the calm before the storm as the Government is yet to enact the most contentious and damaging aspects of its radical and increasingly ideological reform programme and spending cuts. Blair and Thatcher struggled to achieve far less despite possessing hefty Parliamentary majorities. The Coalition's policies were not in either party's manifesto and neither Cameron nor Clegg won an outright majority . With lack of legitimacy a key driver of the Arab awakening, the Government ought to prepare itself for more people power in the years to come.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger