Excuses, Excuses

Once again I must return to this blog with excuses of why I have been so inactive.  Since making the last post a month ago I began the lengthy process of moving home which has unfortunately taken up most of the time I could have used for blogging.  Additionally, my Mum and I took a week out to make a trip to Paris.  There’s a lot to be said about both of these experiences and I hope to write something semi-insightful about them in the coming weeks.  There’s also lots of world news, politics and book-related stuff to catch up on, which I’ll make my best effort to do from henceforth!

To prove this isn’t an elaborate lie, here’s a picture of me in front of the Eiffel Tower!

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2014 European Parliament Election Analysis

I’ve decided to mark my dramatic return to the blogosphere with a couple of election analyses for both the European Parliament election and the UK local elections (coming in a later post) held in the last week.  The media in Britain has been awash with stories about a political ‘earthquake’ that has seen the emergence of a four-party system with the rise of UKIP.  Yet, from the way it’s being reported, you would think that the entire European project has been brought to its knees.  This is not the case.  The media, particularly the BBC, has failed to adequately report the Europe-wide picture beyond picking select examples of countries which have seen a dramatic rise in Euroscepticism.  There has been a growth in Eurosceptic feeling across Europe but, to be clear, the countries which have seen UKIP-style breakthroughs are in the minority.  I’m far from an expert in European politics but I will try to present the general picture as the dust settles across Europe and fill in the gaps that the mainstream media has missed.  I will also aim to take a balanced look at UKIP’s electoral victory and argue that why the results show that the major British parties would be wrong to seek to ‘out-UKIP UKIP’ on issues regarding Europe and immigration.

I’ll analyse the results from a progressively larger scale, beginning with Scotland and Wales, passing through the UK and ending at the European Parliament itself.

Scotland
The European Parliament election in Scotland has inevitably been analysed through the prism of the upcoming referendum on independence, it being the last electoral test for the political parties before September.  It would be inaccurate to pin the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP)’s electoral fortunes to support for a Yes vote, given that many SNP voters do not favour independence while several supporters of independence come from other parties.  Furthermore, the turnout of 33.5% is well below the approximately 80% expected for the referendum.  More accurate would be to view the election as a test of the SNP’s popularity after seven years in power.  Here are the results:

2014 European Parliament Scotland

From a result like this it is difficult at first glance to ascertain which party has ‘won’.  If we’re going simply by vote share then it proves to be yet another instance of the SNP topping the polls, yet I doubt that’s how senior strategists shall be interpreting it.  Since the Liberal Democrats entered into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, the SNP have consistently been taking significant shares of the vote from the Liberal Democrats in both elections and the polls, but that hasn’t happened here.  Where did the Lib Dem vote go?  You could argue that it’s gone to UKIP, however notice also the 7.04% lost by the ‘others’ – which in 2009 were primarily composed of anti-EU parties like No2EU, or the more extreme British National Party.  I’d imagine this would account for around half the UKIP vote.  Therefore the unavoidable truth arises that the former Lib Dem vote seems to have gone to Labour rather than the SNP.  That said, there is the not insignificant counterargument that the SNP has managed to remain in the top position of what is traditionally an anti-establishment election seven years into power.  This is a record neither Labour nor the Conservatives in the rest of the UK can claim within the last twenty years, nor most governments in Europe (Angela Merkel springs to mind as one of the other few exceptions).  The result may have been disappointing for the SNP, especially as polls suggested they might attain the mid 30%s, but it’s far from disastrous.

Perhaps a slightly more clear cut image emerges if we look at seats won.  The only change here is that the Liberal Democrats lost their only seat to UKIP, who saw David Coburn elected as not only their first MEP in Scotland but their first representative anywhere.  Both the SNP and the Greens had been hoping to snap up this third seat, and the fact it’s ended up going to UKIP – a party opposed to many of the SNP’s and Green’s values – will be a disappointment to both.  The Scottish Greens can take small consolation that their vote has increased for the four European election in a row, with 8.06% providing them their highest result ever in a national election.  We must also not overstate the scale of UKIP’s victory in Scotland.  Not only did UKIP receive the lowest vote share in Scotland of any of the UK’s electoral ‘regions’, but also the lowest growth of their vote share anywhere in the UK.  Given the national context, the big shock isn’t that UKIP finally broke into Scotland but actually that they still only managed to achieve fourth place.  Scotland is no longer immune to UKIP but it still remains well behind the rest of the UK in its support of the party.

In terms of the wider implications, it’s interesting to look at how these results might reflect Scotland’s views towards Europe – if we are to assume that the election results can tell us anything this detailed, of course.  70% of Scottish voters voted for pro-European parties (which can rise to 77% if we evenly split the Tories into pro-Europe and Eurosceptic positions).  This contrasts with the UK as a whole where the figure is only around 43%.  This will be welcome to supporters of independence, who can use these figures to argue that Scotland is less Eurosceptic than the rest of the country and that there is less demand here for a renegotiated relationship.  A less welcome figure would be the fact that the pro-independence parties, the SNP and the Greens, only achieved 37% of the vote between them, though in an election dominated by debate over the country’s place in Europe rather than independence it’s hard to view these results as any reliable indicator of voting intention come September, especially given the low turnout.

Wales
Wales is a very small ‘region’ for the European Parliament, electing only 4 MEPs.  If the four main parties manage to achieve very roughly similar levels of the vote then they will all gain a seat and, because of the way the system works (it’s fairly simple – you can see a guide here) there’s quite a large margin of votes which would produce the same result.  This is what we saw happen in this election.

2014 European Parliament Wales

As you can see, despite there being a rather dramatic trend to UKIP and a less so but still significant trend to Labour, the seat distribution is unchanged.  This does betray one problem of the European electoral system: the D’Hondt system of electing MEPs, although marginally favouring larger parties, will generally give a proportional seat distribution; however when there’s only four seats to distribute it’s impossible to do so in a way that’s completely fair.  The regional system the UK uses is essential in ensuring that parties which don’t contest ever seat get represented, otherwise Plaid Cymru would win no seats, the SNP be severely unrepresented while the national parties would be over-repesented.  I can’t see a solution to this other than increase the number of seats for each country – which would make the European Parliament a complete mess – but this should be kept in mind.  This will be a welcome result for Labour, which suffered a terrible defeat in its traditional stronghold in 2009, though it’s still failed to make up all the ground lost.  It’s more bad news for the Liberal Democrats, who have gone from being an already minor force in Wales to virtual wipe-out.  The result also confirms UKIP’s position as a major party in Wales.  UKIP has grown in Wales during the last decade but it’s always been a step behind the rest of the country, whereas now their vote share is almost directly in line with the national average.  But perhaps the greatest relief is for Plaid Cymru, which managed to hold onto the seat by the skin of their teeth after numerous polls suggested they’d lose it to Labour.  Nevertheless, this result is more evidence that Plaid Cymru is failing to tap into discontent with the major parties in the way the SNP has achieved up in Scotland.

If we then take our European lens to this result, we see that 51.9% of Welsh voters voted for pro-European parties (around 60% once the Conservatives are split) – not as high as in Scotland, but still above the national average of 43% and a clear majority.  Once more, this fact brings to light the limitations of the UKIP ‘earthquake’.

Northern Ireland
I won’t pretend to have anything resembling an adequate knowledge of Northern Irish politics (I don’t think any outsiders truly understand what goes on over there!) so I’ll just make up a pretty table and give some basic observations.

2014 European Parliament Northern Ireland

There don’t seem to be many big changes here.  Sinn Féin and the DUP have both reasserted themselves as the major parties of Irish republicanism and unionism respectively, at the expense of the UUP and the SDLP.  UKIP have failed to make particular inroads into Northern Ireland, presumably because there’s not the gap in political nationalism it’s managing to fill in much of England and Wales.  The overall nationalist vote was 38.5% (-3.7), the unionist vote 50.9% (+1.9) and the ‘other’ vote 10.5% (+1.7).  The unionists achieved a majority, though the politically neutral parties have also managed to make gains.  Given demographic trends I doubt the population is becoming more unionist in ideology, so I suspect any other trends are quirks of turnout and represent no real change in political feeling within Northern Ireland.  Once again, the problem of seat distribution is raised, given that unionist parties took 67% of the seats compared to just 33% for the nationalists, but I also can’t think of what would be an easy solution to this.

United Kingdom (excluding Northern Ireland)
Watching region after region declare spectacular gains and victories for UKIP would either have been an exhilarating or thoroughly depressing experience depending on your perspective.  There is no doubt that UKIP won the election, this being the first time neither Labour or the Conservatives won the most votes in a national election since 1910.

2014 European Parliament UK

In some ways, these results aren’t particularly surprising.  Both the coalition parties took the standard ‘anti-government’ hit to their vote, with the Liberal Democrats bearing the overwhelming brunt of this as usual.  The official opposition, Labour, picked up a strong anti-government vote.  UKIP soared ahead as polls predicted.  Yet it’s being portrayed by the media as a UKIP landslide, labelling every single other party’s performance as a defeat.  This isn’t entire untrue; as previously mentioned, this is the worst result for the major parties in a century, achieving less than half of all votes between them (though, despite the media narrative, their combined share actually increased by over 6 percentage points).  This is an unprecedented result for UKIP and leaves them in very strong stead for the general election.  The Liberal Democrats have been wiped out, barely clinging onto 1 MEP of 11; Nick Clegg’s position as party leader appeared tenuous at best the following morning and, while he seems to have partially secured his position since, there continues to be dissent within the party over the viability of his leadership.  Despite a strong improvement on their 2009 result Labour had hoped to do much better, beaten into second place and only slightly above the Tories.  This prompted panicking among Labour commentators and, I’m afraid, has increased pressure for the party to take an even harsher line on immigration in a foolish bid to ‘out-UKIP UKIP.’  The Greens will welcome their extra seat, and enjoy the prestige which comes of having triple the number of MEPs as the Liberal Democrats, but the drop is national vote share will surely be a disappointment.  Despite losing votes, David Cameron seems to be in the best position of all major party leaders.  If he can count on much of the UKIP vote returning to the Conservatives next year, this result indicates the party has a decent run at winning next year’s general election.

The parties will respond to this in different ways.  The Greens and the Liberal Democrats, assuming the latter doesn’t suffer a coup in the next year, will probably stick to their pro-EU, pro-immigration messages, and rightfully so.  The Conservatives have already made attempts to placate UKIP voters by offering an in-out referendum which, despite apparently failing to stem the rise of UKIP, will probably be the route they continue down.   Labour, in contrast, appears poised to take a much more UKIPesque line on various issues.  In the last couple of decades Labour seems to have become a party intent upon chasing the centre-ground rather than leading public opinion, and if it assesses that anti-immigration feeling is the current centre-ground I would fully expect the party to adopt such policies.  This would be a mistake.  I know you’re not supposed to agree with Tony Blair these days but he hit the nail on the head when arguing Labour should confront UKIP, not pander to it (while also correctly diagnosing the Lib Dems’ problems as being unrelated to their stance on Europe but instead a result of their lurch to the right within the coalition, something Labour strategists seem to have forgotten).

Here’s why.  Across the UK, 43% of voters supported pro-EU parties (55% when the Conservatives are split) compared to the 31% which is avowedly anti-EU (44% once the Conservatives are split).  Opinion seems to be divided in half across the country, though the pro-EU vote still has an edge over the Eurosceptics.  It is not true that a vast majority of the British public support withdrawal, and Labour should realise this.  Rather than join the side of the Eurosceptics, Labour should seek to dominate the pro-EU ground.  If it doesn’t, it should expect to see much more of its vote slip away to parties which do offer a counter to UKIP’s policies – most likely to the Greens. Over half of the UKIP vote came from former Tories, compared to just 20% from Labour; it would be foolish to seek votes from a group whose natural persuasion is not Labour.  Furthermore, this result cannot claim to be a fair representation of opinion in the UK with merely 34.19% turning out to vote – only just over half of the people who tend to vote in general elections.  Chances are, the majority of people who have strong anti-Europe, anti-immigration views would have turned out to vote for UKIP, but there’s still that whole 75% of voters who didn’t feel strongly enough to vote at all.  This is the group Labour should be targeting.  No matter how hard they try, they’ll never be able to take a stronger line on Europe and immigration than UKIP, but they can appeal to the majority of people who currently see no purpose in voting.

There is no doubt that the European Parliament has proved to be an anti-establishment vote in the UK, but that’s evident more from the dismal turnout than UKIP’s electoral gains.

European Parliament
It disappoints me that the greater picture of the European Parliament election hasn’t been adequately represented in British media.  The mainstream media, especially the BBC, have been intent on painting it as a great revolt against the EU, pointing to examples of countries which had a strong rise of anti-establishment parties such as the Front National in France and Syriza in Greece.  We hear less of Germany, where the ruling Christian Democratic Union dominated the election and kept the only significant Eurosceptic party down at 7%, or of Sweden where the Social Democrats and Greens, both pro-European, together came close to taking a majority of the seats.  Nor do we hear about the success of Europhile parties in eastern Europe, where attitudes towards the EU tend to be much more positive.  Here’s the overall result of the European Parliament election:

2014 European Parliament

Majority = 376 seats.

It’s impossible to deny that there has been a shift away from the four major pro-European parties, collectively losing 89 seats.  Many of these seats have gone to parties like UKIP and the National Front, though it’s worth pointing out that the group UKIP sits in only gained 7 seats (which is much less of an ‘earthquake’ than much of the media would have you believe).  This anti-establishment backlash has most greatly harmed the EPP and, to a lesser extent, the Liberals; the Socialists and Greens have more or less held their ground.  Although the EU will undoubtedly come under pressure from national leaders who faced domestic defeats, including David Cameron and Francois Hollande, it must be acknowledged that 69% of the European electorate voted for parties in groups with a positive attitude to the EU.  Yes, this is down from 80% in 2009, but given the scale of Europe’s successive economic crises in the last five years it’s remarkable the drop wasn’t greater.  The European people have not voted against the EU.

Therefore, the EU mustn’t let Eurosceptic national leaders seek to portray this result as a mandate for unravelling the European project.  This is already happening with the debate around who will be the next President of the European Commission (effectively, the European Commission).  A candidate for this position must be nominated by the Council of Europe, which comprises the 28 heads of government across the EU states,  which must then be approved by the European Parliament.  As of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty the Council of Europe have been instructed to take into account the democratic will of the people, as represented by the elections to Parliament, in selecting their nomination.  It is unclear exactly what this means, but as each political group selects their own candidate to be the new President (unless they decide to be awkward) I think the assumption is that the group with the most votes ought to have its candidate be elected.  In this case, then, the next President should be the EPP’s Jean-Clause Juncker.  However I see David Cameron already seeking to prevent him from achieving the Council’s nomination on the grounds that his policies are too  supportive of greater expansion for the EU.  I believe Francois Hollande has taken a similar position.  The collective leadership of the Council should not acquiesce to these leaders reeling from their own domestic humiliations when the democratic will of the European people is for a pro-European President, of which Juncker received the greatest mandate.

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Okay, reaching 3,000 words is usually a good place to stop.  I’ll finish with another disclaimer that I’m not an expert on anything I’ve written about; these are simply my responses to both the election result and the way it’s been portrayed in the media.

Joining the Electorate (plus 2014 election predictions)

Earlier today I voted for the first time in my life, for the European Parliament election.  It’s an event I’ve been looking ahead to for several years now.  In a strange way, it was like some rite of passage that finally confirmed me as an adult in the view of society.  I felt very powerful emerging from the voting booth with the ballot paper, as though I held the political future of the country in my hand.  I knew that my vote only counted for 0.0000066% of the overall result (add an extra 0 if you include Europe) but for a political geek this is one of the highpoints of political engagement.  Waiting until Sunday for the results is going to be painful indeed.

Until then, I will have to satisfy myself by making predictions for the result.  Or rather, as accurately predicting the election is nearly impossible, most of the time I can only say what won’t happen.  So please don’t hold me to this if I get anything spectacularly wrong!

Scotland
I’ll start with Scotland, as it’s the part of the EU I know in most depth.  The general trend of opinion polls has had the Scottish National Party in the lead by varying margins but typically passing the 30% threshold, tailed fairly closely by Labour though I find it hard to envisage Labour actually taking a lead.  If it did that would certainly be an interesting moment for the independence campaign, proving to be the first non-Westminster defeat for the SNP in twelve years.  The Conservatives have been wavering at the 12-15% margin, with UKIP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats each rolling beneath 10% competing for fourth place  – though recent polls have shown it being a tighter race between the Greens and UKIP, as Scottish voters seem poised to continue punishing the Liberal Democrats for their record in government.  

In terms of seats, it gets rather interesting.  Right now the SNP and Labour have two seats while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have one each.  Votes are distributed proportionally using the D’Hondt method, a practice that in theory should produce proportional seat results.  Scotland, however, only has six seats to distribute, too small a number to divide in an exactly proportional away.  Going by the polls, the SNP and Labour will easily keep hold of their two seats and the Liberal Democrats will almost certainly lose theirs.  That leaves two seats up for grabs.  There’s a strong possibility, though by no means a given, that the SNP might pick up a third seat.  I would be surprised if the Conservatives lose theirs, but there is the slight chance of a UKIP surge taking their votes and grabbing the seat by a narrow margin.  Alternatively, if the SNP don’t pick up a third seat and the Conservatives manage to keep theirs, the final seat could be a direct competition between UKIP and the Greens.  I really can’t say which way this would go – the Greens have a deeper level of support in Scotland, but if turnout is as low as predicted then things could be tight indeed, given the tendency of UKIP supporters to be more likely to vote (not entirely sure how what works, but it seems to be widely accepted).

United Kingdom
I’m not knowledgeable enough about the local workings of each region so I can’t offer much comment on seat predictions, but this will be an interesting election to watch for national shares.  UKIP have form for performing well in European Elections, coming second in the last election of 2009 with 16.5% of the vote.  The main source of discussion for this election (bar Scotland) is on how well UKIP will do; they’ve been consistently reaching the high twenties, even frequently passing 30% in opinion polls.  Considering the Conservatives ‘won’ the 2009 election with just 27.7% of the vote, this is nothing short of staggering.  With Europe being UKIP’s main source of policy it’s not surprising that their vote will be inflated above their performance in other elections and in comparison to other parties, but even with that in mind this is an impressive level to reach.  There’s no reason why they shouldn’t reach this result in the actual election.  Whether they will actually surpass Labour’s vote, also predicted to rise dramatically, and reach first place is more uncertain.  More polls have shown UKIP ahead than Labour.  I think the turnout could prove to be vital – Labour tend to benefit from high turnouts, UKIP low turnouts.  Could the thunderstorms across the south of England be in UKIP’s favour?  Time will tell.  If Labour are robbed of first place by UKIP, expect some severe discontent within the party as it prepares to fight next year’s general election.

Although the Conservatives have undoubtedly been relegated to third place, which must be quite a humiliation, their vote share hasn’t actually fallen that much in polls, consistently reaching around 20%.  That’s only a fall of about seven percentage points, and is still above what both Labour and UKIP achieved in 2009.  Despite this fact, I don’t envisage Sunday being a happy day in Tory HQ when the results come in.  They can rest assured, however, that the tone in LibDem HQ will be considerably worse.  The Liberal Democrats have never performed well in European elections, gaining only 13.8% in 2009, but polls now suggest they will struggle to even reach 10%.  There’s a real risk to the party that it could be beaten by the Greens into fifth place.  I reckon the Greens may, in fact, be the dark horse of this election.  The party has been experiencing a bit of an unreported surge recently, over doubling its polling share for the next general election and frequently surprassing the Liberal Democrats in Europe.  I’ve heard suggestions that the Greens might struggle to keep their two seats even with a rise in their vote – it depends where their votes are distributed.  It’s also possible they could pick up a seat or two elsewhere.  As with Labour, expect much discontent within the Liberal Democrats over the question of nothing less than if they’ll ever be electable again.

Europe
I know even less than politics across Europe as a whole than I do the UK so this will be a very short section.  Polls have suggested the European People’s Party and the European Socialists and Democrats (which includes Labour) will by vying for both places, though the EPP appears to have a slight advantage, though its plurality would be largely reduced.  In the wider picture of the European Union’s existential doubt this probably won’t have significant repercussions considering both groupings broadly support the European project.  The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and the Greens-European Free Alliance have both shown small reductions in support but nothing catastrophic.  The European Conservatives and Reformists may well suffer the most of all European groupings, predicted by polls to lose a quarter of their seats.  This will be a result of the poor performance of the British Conservatives, the main party in this grouping.  The European United Left-Nordic Green Alliance group will probably do quite well, as will the Europe of Freedom and Democracy grouping, supported by UKIP, though polls have shown conflicting results regarding the extent of this improvement.  The biggest shock to the European Parliament could be the growth of the number of MEPs not represented by any grouping, known as ‘non-inscrits’.  Worryingly, far-right parties verging on neo-Nazism, such as the National Front in France and Golden Dawn in Greece, are likely to do very well as a result of continuing poor economic conditions across Europe and a perceived lack of legitimacy of the EU.  As many as 1/7 seats could go to these non-inscrit parties.  They are unlikely to hold a balance of power and the other groupings will most likely be able to work around them, but it will pose significant implications for the future of the European project.

All in all, I await the results on Sunday with great interest.  I could be completely wrong with these predictions, or perhaps I shall be vindicated.  I look forward to finding out.  Exciting times lie ahead!

Review: My 2013 Predictions

Last year I wrote a list of predictions for what I expected to occur across the world stage in 2013.  I’ve been looking through it over the year, pleased with some predictions, while despairing as other world events swept passed my expectations.  Here I’ll review each prediction, one by one, and tally up my score to see whether I should become a professional psychic or not.

UK Predictions

  1. Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    Prince George (‘of Cambridge’) was born on the 22nd July 2013 in good health.  The BBC and other broadcasters had around the clock coverage; he was on virtually every newspaper front page; and we republicans did indeed grumble.
  2. The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
    Economically the coalition government has continued to assault the country with austerity upon austerity.  Just this month, chancellor George Osborne announced another billion pound cuts from government departments.  The economy does seem to be improving, at long last, however Labour leader Ed Miliband is rightfully bringing to attention a ‘cost of living crisis’ (perhaps because he has few other policies worth discussing).
    In terms of party politics, there doesn’t seem to be the separation of identities between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats I’d expected.  The Liberal Democrats have been highlighting their key policies of this government, such as raising the income tax threshold for low earners and pushing free school meals.  Yet, if anything, they’ve seemed to me to be moving further to the right.  When Nick Clegg stood in for David Cameron during a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, he sounded more and more like a Tory with each passing question.

 World Predictions

  1. The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    Correct!  In January, following an Islamic rebel advance upon the south of the country, when it looked as though the capital Bamako itself might be under threat, France began a military campaign against the rebels on 11th January.  In one of the more successful Western interventions of recent times, the rebels were driven out of most major settlements in the north by February and had returned to government control.  Violence is persisting but the government remains in control with the help of French and African Union peacekeepers.  Elections came soon afterwards, during which Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, former Prime Minister from 1994-2000, became the President.
  2. The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    Uh, no.  No.  And no again.  News stories coming out of Syria during 2013 and have been getting more and more depressing, with no prospect of change coming soon.  The Assad regime did not fall; in fact, it looks stronger than at any other point during the course of the war.  In May, Lebanese Shia armed group Hezbollah entered the war on the regime’s side.  Its fighters flooded across the border and helped the government seize control of the strategic city of al-Qusayr and the surrounding countryside.  The rebels have also made gains, however more and more militias have been swearing allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda linked Islamic fundamentalist organisation which has been making advancements against more moderate rebels in what’s described as a ‘civil war within a civil war’.  The death toll continues to mount: in September France estimated 120,000 people to have died, while the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights currently puts it at 160,000.
    In terms of international support, Western powers have continued to supply non-lethal equipment to the rebels, while in June US President Obama announced military aid would be supplied to the rebels, although it’s unclear how much ever arrived.  Recent developments concerning the rise of Islamists have caused even this aid to be suspended.
    Meanwhile, Russian support of the regime has only strengthened.  This became clear following the increased reports of chemical weapon use across the country.   Both sides blamed each other, of course, but after particularly horrific attacks in the Ghouta area of Damascus the international community seemed to demand action.  It looked as though Western nations – primarily the USA, UK and France – were preparing to launch military strikes against Syria to send a message to Assad.  However, when the UK Parliament voted against action and Obama looked close to defeat in Congress, this never came to be.  At the last minute, Russian President Putin came to the aid of both President Assad and Obama by proposing an operation to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.  Despite difficulties accessing all the chemical weapons depots, some in contested areas of the country, the process of destroying them seems to be going successfully.  This has had the effect of restoring legitimacy to the Syrian regime, which is seen as an equal partner in these negotiations, and the West effectively giving up on Syria.
  3. Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    In hindsight, it’s probably a bad idea to predict anything won’t be dramatic.  Alongside the aforementioned Syria crisis,  he’s had to put up with threats of war from North Korea, the failure of his proposed gun law reform, the shutdown of the US government after political gridlock in Congress, a botched roll-out of his key ‘Obamacare’ policy and, perhaps worst of all for Obama, massive leaks about the level of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of US and international citizens by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which has brought international condemnation and affected relations with countries including Brazil and Germany.  He’s probably very glad for a new start next year.
  4. A war will not start over Iran.
    Correct!  There’s actual much cause for optimism over out future relations with Iran.  Everything seemed to change with the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani in June.  Though far from a radical – he’d never have been allowed to run otherwise – the fact that so many Iranian voters opted for the least conservative candidate has sent a clear message to the ruling elites that they want change.  Perhaps this is why Rouhani has been given something of a free reign to pursue his policies.  He held a phone call with President Obama in September, the first time the presidents of either country have spoken directly since the 1979 revolution which brought the current Iranian regime to power.  Then came a historic agreement in which Iran finally agreed to curb its nuclear activities in return for the easing of sanctions.  There’s much progress to be made, but also reason to be optimistic.
  5. Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    Correct.  Merkel achieved her best ever result in September, gaining 41.5% of the vote and nearly achieving a majority in the Bundestag, ensuring her a third term as chancellor.  After months of difficult talks, her Christian Democratic Union agreed to enter into a ‘grand coalition’ with the opposition Social Democratic Party.  Merkel certainly seems to be bucking the trend of European leaders being brought down by the financial crisis – she’s in a stronger position than ever.
  6. Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    Um.  Not really.  Kind of?  Well, Libya has avoided descending into complete anarchy, but there are still many incidents of armed militias operating outwith the control of the government, the most frightening case being when Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from a hotel, although he was safely returned.  A timetable for national elections still hasn’t been established, but it’s hoped that Libya can have its first post-revolutionary government by the end of next year.  So really, I suppose, it’s too early to say on this one.
  7. Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    Hahaha, oh, how wrong is it possible to be?  Unfortunately not.  To save me repeating the dramatic events of the 3rd July, you can read the post I wrote about it at the time.  Since the coup, things have only got worse.  Protests have continued from both sides, pulling Egypt down into further instability.  This culminated in a horrific massacre where dozens of protesters were killed by security forces.  The ruling military regime has since strengthened its hold on power, imposing curfews and recently branding the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi’s party, a ‘terrorist organisation’.  The country is appearing more and more to be under the grip of a General new to the scene, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, currently appointed as Deputy Prime Minister.  Elections are expected for next year, which Sisi is widely predicted to run for.  In short, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Egypt.
  8. Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    Well, technically, Berlusconi was elected to the Italian Senate, but if we assume I meant elected as Prime Minister then I got this correct.  Italy’s election this year left no party in a position of power, meaning multiple parties had to come together to form government, including his People of Freedom party.  However, the Prime Minister of this unstable government turned out to be Enrica Letta of the Democratic Party.  Berlusconi himself has been involved in continuing scandal after scandal, being recently convicted of tax-fraud and sentenced to four years in prison (none of which he’ll actually serve due to his age), and barred from political office for six years.  Subsequently, he was expelled from the Italian Senate.  I wouldn’t underestimate Berlusconi, but I can’t imagine his career recovering from this.
  9. The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    Pretty much.  I haven’t been following this in too much detail, but I’m aware of various talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government being on, off, on again, off again, and so on.  Really not much seems to be happening in the run up to NATO’s withdrawal next year.
  10. I expect more crises from North Korea.
    Yup.  There was that strange period last April when North Korea threatened war against South Korea, Japan and the USA which I referred to earlier – I don’t think anyone knows what that was really about.  Needless to say, that came to nothing and North Korea soon quietened down again.  I imagine it was an attempt by Kim Jong-un to create a warlike atmosphere within the country to further entrench his rule – nothing increases loyalty like giving people a common enemy.  Then, even more shockingly, earlier this month Kim had his very own uncle executed as part of a wider purge.  I wrote about it here.  Nothing which has yet threatened to spiral out of control from the perspective of the West, but erratic and worrying behaviour nonetheless.
  11. Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    Pretty much.  I largely covered this earlier.
  12. This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    Unfortunately, Mugabe is still President of his long-suffering nation.  My reasons behind this prediction were Mugabe’s age, having turned 89 this year, and the fact an election was due to be held earlier this year.  However his health seems to be as strong as ever, while the election this year re-elected him in very fraudulent conditions indeed.
  13. There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    I’d consider events in Egypt earlier this year to be a coup, so got that one right.  I think Mali could count as having become more democratic, having achieved mostly free and fair elections after a year of chaos.  I can’t think of any other standout examples, which is a shame, but Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2014 report (due to be published fairly soon) might shine a light on this.
  14. Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    This is really impossible to say.  Again, I await the Freedom in the World 2014 with great interest.  I’m going to take the lack of any particular evidence to the contrary as evidence that Burma at least isn’t backsliding.  Aung San Suu Kyi did recently announced that her National League for Democracy plans to contest the 2015 general election – widely hoped to be Burma’s first free election – even if the constitution isn’t amended to allow her to run for the Presidency.  Which seems to be a good sign.  Hopefully.  I really don’t know.  I think I’ll give myself this one…
  15. Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    Nope – President Chavez of Venezuela died of cancer on the 5th March, later to be succeeded by his Vice-President, Nicolas Maduro, who seems to be carrying on his divisive legacy.
  16. Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    Despite continued advances by Somalian and African Union forces against Al-Shabab, they’re far from having been cleared from the country and still control much territory, particularly in rural areas.  So wrong on that one.
  17. More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    This was unfortunately a pretty safe bet.  As I wrote earlier the death toll in Syria continues to mount; there have been continued protests and unrest in Sudan, though not coming to much; Egypt has had what were tipped to be the ‘largest protests in history’ which deposed President Morsi; April was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008; Libya’s been having increased issues with militias, as I indicated earlier; and Lebanon has had increased bombings, assassinations and clashes as the Syrian Civil War continues to spill over.
  18. Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    Yes.  She was ousted earlier than I expected, having her position as leader of the Labor party usurped by Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister.  The Labor party was then met with disaster in the September election, losing 17 seats and its tentative majority to Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, ending 6 years of Labor Party rule.
  19. Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    To be honest, his dictatorship was rather consolidated anyway by the end of 2012, but it certainly hasn’t weakened.  He’s continued pressing forward in policies such as the ‘anti-gay laws’, infringing the rights of LGBT people.  Things have become more interesting in the last month in the run-up to next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi: Putin granted an amnesty to many high-profile political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the remaining two members of Pussy Riot and the ‘Arctic 30’.  Perhaps this is a big to improve Russia’s standing among the international community.  He must have been shaken by two bomb attacks in the last couple of days in Volgograd, which might be part of a continuing campaign by Cechen rebels.  But nevertheless, his authority in Russia seems pretty powerful.
  20. The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    Yeah, I’ll give myself that one.  There have been many discoveries on Mars, including pretty strong evidence that it once had running water.  That’s more interesting than I expected, but I don’t suppose it’s something the majority of people noticed or continue to think about.
  21. Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.
    Yes!  Sorry, that explanation mark makes me sound more enthused about this than I am.  See more here.

Overall, I seem to have actually fared better than I expected, having been more or less correct on 65% of the issues!  Tomorrow I’ll publish my list of predictions for 2014 – watch this space.

Military Action in a Democracy

Recent events in the UK, USA and potentially France regarding military action have raised interesting questions about how militaries operate within democracies.  Last week we saw the surprising defeat of David Cameron’s attempts to gain parliamentary legitimacy for military strikes against the Syrian government – his already watered-down bill being rejected by a majority of 13 votes.  Both Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond have said that military action against Syria is now off the agenda, and that we shan’t be joining the USA in any potential strikes.  Interestingly, the votes weren’t even about the actual strikes, merely the timescale, but the defeat seems to have been interpreted as an altogether rejection of the plans.  Opinions on this particular issue aside, I’m convinced that this result was a victory for the democratic system.  Polls have repeatedly shown that the British public is against any military action, which the parliamentary vote reflected.  We’ve since had President Obama announce that Congress will have a vote on the issue*

What’s remarkable is that, to the best of my knowledge, leaders have nearly always been able to go to war without much opposition from parliament.  Before the First World War Britain was admittedly gripped by jingoistic fervour and the idea that wars had little consequence for us, therefore resulting in conflicts in South Africa and the Crimea going ahead without resistance.  But even after the First World War, we entered the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War without parliament stopping them.  While it’s important to make the distinction which many seem to be forgetting that David Cameron never intended to go to war over Syria, just launch strikes, parliament effectively blocking military action in such a way still seems unprecedented.  This really is a testament to just how war-weary a nation we’ve become.  I read a brilliant quote recently but unfortunately can’t remember the source, which went something like “Such processes must be alien to the Syrian military system“, which sums up precisely why I feel so privileged to live in a democracy.

The British Prime Minister and the French and American Presidents all have the power to authorise initial military action without parliamentary approval, although, unless events unfolded very favourably indeed, it would be tantamount to political suicide for any of these leaders to bypass the wishes of parliament.  So the interesting question is raised: should parliament have the legal power to authorise military action planned by the government?  There’s a strong democratic argument in favour, in that power is with the elected representatives, not one solitary leader, and that forcing debates through parliament encourages all sides of an issue to be heard and considered.  Then again, if parliament was necessary for military action to be used, we’d be helpless within a crisis without passing emergency legislation.  Take the situation in the USA, where any military action taken would occur at least three weeks after the chemical attacks of Gouta.  That’s not a problem here, where it is wise to gather as much evidence as possible before taking action, but it would be a clear problem in other scenarios.  All things considered, I think the best system might be for the elected leader to continue having the power to make decisions regarding war and peace, but parliament should have the power to block such action before it is taken – and the opportunity to do so.  Effectively, the system we have now except more ground into law.

Somewhat relevant is one of my favourite political theories: the Democratic Peace Theory.  In short, this cites statistical evidence of the fact that democracies are far less likely to wage war with one another than authoritarian states.  This could be due to the accountability of democratic militaries, or the democratic culture of achieving aims through negotiation, or the current link between democracy and globalised trade.  It’s one of the main reasons that Western policymakers are so keen to promote democracy abroad, as the theory suggests that once worldwide democracy is achieved, limited world peace might even be a possibility.  You can look at how peaceful Europe has become since becoming a democratic entity as partial evidence of this.  Anyhow, I’ve interpreted recent parliamentary procedures as more evidence of the theory working.

*Because, you know, when faced with an impossible, complex decision, who better than Congress to solve it?

August 2013: Course of the Syrian Civil War

I’ve been planning since June this year to write a piece summarising developments in and the overall course of the Syrian Civil War.   However, as the conflict seems ever more hopeless and it becomes clearer that I have no authority at all to comment on it, I’ve been putting off writing anything.  Now though, as this shameful failure of international cooperation has returned dramatically to the news, I feel compelled to write something.

Because other journalists and bloggers have discussed the pros and cons of Western military intervention in Syria, I shan’t go into too much detail here but instead will link to these articles at the end.  To summarise: last Wednesday, 21st July, evidence emerged of a horrific massacre in the East of Damascus in which hundreds of civilians were killed, seemingly by chemical weapons.  This led to a flurry of accusations: the Syrian government and rebels blamed each other, of course, while international powers took predictable stances – The USA, UK, France, Israel, Turkey and the Gulf States have accused the government of carrying out the massacre, while Russia and Iran have suggested the rebels might be responsible.  I clearly couldn’t comment, but the government being behind the chemical attack initially seems more likely; while the rebels had the motive of causing a backlash against the government while UN chemical weapon investigators had just entered the country, they very probably lacked the capability to do so.  They occurred during the context of a government offensive into rebel-held areas, which you can make of what you will.  That the rebels were behind it can’t be ruled out either.

The weapons inspectors have since Monday been investigating the site of the attacks – the rebels, it should be noted, agreed far sooner than the government.  US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the government of:

“Refus[ing] to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide”

Since the attacks, there has been a clamour from among certain Western governments to act.  The USA has moved warships into the Mediterranean, while Kerry’s speech appeared to be setting the stage for military intervention of some form.  UK Prime Minister David Cameron appears to share the USA’s view that military action should be taken.  The most likely option will be remote missile strikes against Syrian military targets, as a ‘punishment’ of sorts for the use of chemical weapons, aimed at deterring the Assad regime of using them any further as well as sending a signal to the tyrants of the future that their use will not be tolerated.  Looking at it this way, I hesitantly agree with this strategy – although it seems strange that chemical weapons, as horrific as they are, appear worse to the international community than the shooting of children on streets, bombardment of civilian districts, the imprisoning, torturing and executing of anyone suspected of supporting the opposing side; the list of crimes go on and on.  That said, I’m glad a ‘red line’ can be drawn somewhere.

There certainly isn’t an appetite for military intervention.  The ghost of Iraq is still present in the UK and USA, and while a full military invasion is thankfully not on the table even something as seemingly non-committal as missile strikes are very unpopular, with the UK population twice as likely to oppose them.  There’s a similar hesitancy within parliament.  Parliament has been recalled early from recess for the fourth time this government.  While Cameron has the final word on deploying the British armed forces, it would be seen as very politically dangerous to do so without parliament’s consent.  Labour has said it will not support military action until the UN inspectors have published their report, and it seems the Liberal Democrats could be hesitant also.  Events have been moving and it’s all quite confusing, but I think there will be two votes: one tomorrow on a motion calling for a ‘strong humanitarian response’, and one next week once the report is available on the possibility of military action.  This could have the effect of slowing down momentum for a response but I agree with Labour that we should wait for the UN report before making any decisions.

It’s also worth noting that military action would probably be illegal without UN Security Council backing – almost certain to be blocked by Russia and China.  This is just another example of how flawed and outdated an institution it is, in need of heavy reform.

By Futuretrillionaire [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s the situation regarding any potential military not-quite-intervention.  On the ground in Syria, the government appears to have been consolidating its position.  While still besieged and embattled – someone earlier on the BBC made the ridiculous argument that Syria today might be in a stronger military position than Iraq in 2003, seeming to forget that the government can’t even control its own claimed territory, let alone go to war with the most powerful alliance in the history of the world – it has been making gains.  Most significantly, Hezbollah entered the fray earlier this year and helped the Syrian army capture the town of al-Qusayr and nearby villages along the Lebanese border, assuring a strategic route for the government between Damascus and its strongholds along the coast.

Small exchanges of territory have since occured, largely in the government’s favour although this week the rebels captured the town of Khanasir to the south of Aleppo which has effectively cut off government forces in and around Aleppo from the rest of the country.  In Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, the rebels roughly control the east while the government controls the west.  Losing Aleppo would be a major blow to the Assad regime and perhaps even put the war onto even footing.  Meanwhile, a disturbing ‘civil war within a civil war’ seems to be occurring, as moderate and radical elements of the rebellion turn against each another.  This began when a Free Syrian Army leader was assassinated by rebels linked to al-Qaeda.  Radical Islamist elements – including the expanding al-Nusra Front – appear now to be leading the rebellion and control significant territories to the north and east of the country.  It’s these divisions which have made the West back away from plans to arm the rebels, an option I have also become more wary of.  There have also been clashes between these rebels and Kurdish militias, which has been responsible for a mass exodus of refugees into Iraq.

Gosh, this has been depressing to write.  Again, I really am not qualified to talk about the deteriorating situation in Syria, but I think it’s important we in the West understand what is going on before we make any decisions to involve ourselves.  For the average person, there’s really not a lot we can do to help ease Syria’s suffering.  I’d suggest lobbying MPs and the government but it’s not lack of will holding them back, rather a lack of credible options and divisions within the UN Security Council.  The Red Cross have set up a Syria Appeal for donations to help provide supplies for the growing number of refugees, which seems to be all we can do to improve the situation, unfortunately.

Links:

Learning Languages in the UK

Bonjour!  Je m’appelle Mathieu.  J’apprends le francais, mais c’est difficule parce que j’habite dans Grande-Bretagne.

…And that’s about as much as I can eek out from my limited knowledge of French.  Some of that was even possibly wrong.  What I tried to say was: “Hello!  I am called Mathew.  I am learning French, but this is difficult because I live in Britain.”  That’s poorly expressed, but my point was that our education system in this country leaves us at a disadvantage for learning languages because we start so late.  I first began learning French in school at the age of 10, years later than children learn a second language in other countries, and continued until achieving a standard grade at the age of 15.  It stopped being compulsory when I was 13, giving me a mere four years of compulsory tuition.  Two of these years, in primary school, consisted of just one hour a week.

Is it any wonder that our country is so monolingual?  This was particularly driven home during various pen-pal projects set up – across Norway, Sweden, France and Italy, if memory serves – when they would boast of fluency in their native language, English, and also a third language.  We always conversed in English, of course, but how I envied them.

If I’m so desperate to learn another language why did I drop French at school, you might ask?  I could have continued it to Higher level and even Advanced Higher level, with the opportunity for a school trip to Nice.  In retrospect I regret not continuing with it but at the time it had become so much of a chore.  Because we’d started so late and so slowly, by the time we really began gaining momentum our natural ability to pick up languages had been compromised.  I read once that this ability declines rapidly after the age of 11 or so.

Also, I really didn’t enjoy the pressures placed upon us by the constant preparation for exams.  Learning languages should be a fun, fulfilling process, and while our exceptionally motivational teacher did make the class more bearable than it might otherwise have been, the system really made me tire of the subject.  Assignments consisted of learning pages of speeches or questions/answers I didn’t understand – something which would be dull even in English; of straining to catch words on old tapes then being marked 25% again and again; of racing the clock to get enough words translated to make sense of a document.  It’s a wonder I ever managed to scrape a ‘1’ (Standard Grade equivalent to an ‘A’).

Since dropping the subject I have discovered the website Duolingo, which has rekindled my desire to learn French.  In the last 6 months I’ve been hacking my way through it, kept interested by its fun, game-like nature while immersing myself in the language through repetition which never becomes dull.  Things are making sense now, connections forging, which I never realised while studying the language at school.  I can now conjugate verbs and ask questions with ease, for instance, and I’m sure once I progress onto complicated tenses I’ll have similar epiphanies.  It really is a wonderful website.  To compliment this new régimen, I’ve been reading articles on Le Monde‘s website – a remarkably good source of news in general, and available in print within the UK – and watching live streaming of France 24.  Every now and then I’ll absorb the meaning of a phrase without needing to translate it, which is a wonderful feeling.

In summary, I do think that learning languages earlier, perhaps from the age of 7 or 8 – and far more frequently than one lesson a week – should be included in the curriculum for primary schools.  As it is now, my own experiences have convinced me that unless you’re given this early advantage, school really isn’t the most conducive environment to learning languages.

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