I realised some time ago that I should really go to the north of England to see Hadrian’s wall. A few weeks back I did this with two good friends. We walked along the wall on a blustery day and visited a museum that contained copies of small tablets the Romans used to convey messages about the organisation of their occupation, but also included invitations to parties. It really is quite moving to think that the Romans built this wall almost 2,000 years ago to mark the northern edges of the Empire, and the clear traces are still there.
Empires come and go. That is the history of all of them, but each in turn becomes hubristic and usually overextends itself militarily and then declines. The debate now is how fast the American Empire is declining. Clearly America is declining and China is rising but these big historical changes take a very long time to play through and simple projections are not inevitable. Surely we can learn from history and rebuild a multilateral system based on international law and a decent life for all people, otherwise the nightmare is that we may relive the conditions that created the First World War – the decline of the Ottoman empire and the rise of Germany with all the terrible trouble that the mishandling of this change led the world into.
Iran framework agreement
I very much hope that the outline agreement between the major powers of the world and Iran will be carried into reality. Israel and the Republican right in the US are deeply hostile and will do all they can to derail the agreement. The hypocrisy of Israel and its supporters is astonishing. Israel has very strong nuclear armaments and has never signed the non-proliferation treaty. Iran does not have nuclear weapons and has signed the non-proliferation treaty and subjected itself to inspection. I intensely dislike nuclear armaments and can see no reason why the UK should have them, but I can see why Iran should seriously consider it. If Iran had nuclear weapons then neither Israel nor the US would attack it. Iran says it does not want nuclear weapons but wants to exercise its rights under the non-proliferation treaty to have civil nuclear power. But it has hidden things from inspectors in the past and it is rational for Iran to want to be nuclear-capable. Those who oppose an agreement with Iran want a US military attack on Iran. They are the same crazy neo-conservatives that drove the US into the attack on Iraq in 2003 which has helped to destabilise the whole Middle East.
So all sane people should support the Iran framework agreement and its implementation.
We are now getting close to be UK election and all the signs are that no party will have an overall majority. The most likely outcome is that Ed Miliband will become prime minister and the Scottish National Party will hold a considerable number of seats. Obviously a party that wants to break up the UK cannot enter into coalition, but if they have substantial representation in a parliament with no overall majority, they will have considerable influence. In my view this could help to ensure that Ed Miliband’s government brings austerity to an end, takes action to reduce the growth of inequality, and maybe even commits to upholding international law in the Middle East. Perhaps this is too much to hope for but it is a possibility.
The change of government in Nigeria is very important. Nigeria’s oil riches are so great that if they were decently shared, the people of Nigeria could have a much better life. This is the first time since independence and the end of military government that an incumbent government has lost an election. It also showed people from north and south voting together for a change, not being trapped into religious blocks. The people voted for an end to gross corruption. Let us hope their wishes are fulfilled.
Netanyahu the extremist warmonger got back with 30 seats out of 120, the largest block in the Israeli Parliament. There are of course factions even worse than Netanyahu in parliament, so he has easily assembled a right-wing government. It would be natural for all people who love peace and justice to be depressed by this. But in fact it is a good thing. Netanyahu was so worried that he might lose the election that he showed his true colours, and the true colours of all preceding Israeli governments – which is to pretend they want peace but actually focus on expanding the borders of Israel, breaching international law and constantly ethnically cleansing and oppressing the Palestinian people. Netanyahu let the cat out of the bag, and it is helpful to make it more difficult for the US and the EU to pretend that Israel supports a two-state solution.
I worked very closely with President Kagame from 1997 to 2003 and despite the constant stream of allegations made against him and his government, I found he always told me the truth and was dedicated to the development of his people. He was also committed to overcoming the division between Tutsi and Hutu that has caused such terrible harm to the people of Rwanda. There is now an active debate in Rwanda about whether the Constitution should be changed so that President Kagame could stand for a third seven-year term in 2017. I very much hope that he declines this offer. He has achieved great things in Rwanda. The progress in the reduction of poverty is very impressive. But building a new country involves building institutions, not making individuals indispensable. I really hope that he steps down at the end of his term. This is surely the best thing he can do for Rwanda and his legacy and will leave him in a position to make it a great contribution to Africa’s development as a successful former president.
I spoke at three meetings in the last few weeks: a seminar on Afghanistan at Sussex University; a Dicey conference in Oxford for bright young 17- and 18-year-olds where I was asked to discuss How important is morality in shaping British foreign policy; and a meeting in Kettering to support the recently formed Palestine Solidarity Campaign. They all cause me to conclude that British foreign policy, which is completely dominated by following the US wherever it goes, is not supported by the overwhelming majority of the population of the UK.
The Afghan seminar reinforced the question of how the invasion of 2001 and the UN-supervised process establishing a new constitution, which created so much hope for the people of Afghanistan, ended in such a mess of death and destruction. I am now reading When More Is Less by Astri Suhrke. I recommend the book. It is really important that we learn the lessons and get to the truth.
I also spoke at a meeting to celebrate International Women’s Day at Keele University and was privileged to hear Elif Safak speak. She is a popular Turkish novelist who writes in English and Turkish. Since then I have read The Bastard of Istanbul which is a very readable novel focused on the question of the Armenian genocide in Turkish memory. Someone tried to take her to court for supposedly insulting Turkishness by raising the question of the genocide but the case was dismissed. I recommend the novel.
I also attended a seminar at Birmingham University about managing the public sector. Shortly after this there was a big debate in the UK media about why such a high proportion of newly trained teachers drop out of the profession after a short period in teaching. My view is that the massive centralised controls, targets and paperwork that has become the fashion in the UK to drive public sector reform since the Blair years, is a disaster that takes up lots of time, takes away creativity and pride in working in the public sector, and demoralises staff. We were asked at the seminar what areas we would recommend for research. I strongly recommended research exposing the disaster of this model of public sector reform.
- Snakebites kill 5 million people a year, mostly in Africa (FT Jonathan Moules 6 April 2015)
- The Trussell Trust, which runs the UK’s largest food bank network, says 41,000 people went to food banks in 2009/10 compared with 913,000 last year (Paul Donovan The Tablet 21/03/15)
- In 2013/14 the UK paid £9.3 billion to private landlords to subsidise tenants’ rent, more than one third of the total spent on housing benefit. Private-sector tenants live in the country’s poorest-quality accommodation and have the highest housing costs with rents taking an average of 40% gross income ( FT 12/1/15)
- Four times as much public money goes to the wealthiest 20% of Americans in mortgage interest deductions than is spent on social housing for the poorest fifth ( Economist Jan 31 – Feb 6)
- Financial services contribute one fifth of UK’s annual economic output (FT 10/2 Harriet Agnew)
- 34 countries currently classified by the World Bank as Low-Income Countries are home to 850 million people. Their combined GDP is less than Switzerland with a population of 8 million. Half live in extreme poverty on less then 81p per day.
- The US imprisons a greater percentage of black males than South Africa in the waning days of apartheid – 4,749 per hundred thousand. But other groups suffer too. White Americans are incarcerated at more than four times the rate of Germans. Hispanics form the biggest group of prisoners in the federal system. A third of all women and girls imprisoned in the world are in the US (Gary Silverman reviewing Caught: The Prison State And The Lockdown Of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk FT 1/2/15)
- In 1920 the top of 1% of income distribution took 15 to 20% of total income in developed countries. In the next 50 years the share of the top 1% fell almost everywhere by half to 7 to 10% of total income. The relative decline of the top 1% was more dramatic. During that half-century, public spending on health, education and especially social benefits increased; taxation went up and was more progressive. From 1970 the egalitarian trend came to an end. In the US inequality has soared: the top 1% now command relatively more than they did in the 1920s (FT John Kay)