Cities: a matter of life and death

‘….we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London.’ (Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary, addressing the House of Commons, 1943)

We prize our buildings. We fight to save buildings we love. There are preservation orders on old buildings, but likewise on the best examples of Brutalism. But further afield we lose whole cities. We bomb whole cities. Think of the souks of Aleppo. Or Raqqa: its obliteration a necessary price for ousting IS. And the Russian and Syrian bombardment of Idlib.

Had Obama brought the USA in against Assad, would old Damascus have survived assault?

I’ve been reading about a new American approach to command and control: ‘Joint All-domain Command and Control, or JADC2’, a network that links ‘every sensor and every shooter’ wherever they might be. It’s been tested with fighter jets, ground-based artillery, surface-to-air missiles and ‘hunter-killer’ drones. Is it re-assuring to know that it could ‘inform a commander that a building to be destroyed could first be emptied by an ability to activate its fire-alarm or sprinklers’? (The Economist)

My starting-point for this post was the fabric of cities, and by far the greater evil is the taking out of populations. But people and buildings and centuries of history are all intertwined. Fabric and culture are, in war, every bit as dispensable as populations. 

World War Two took obliteration to whole new levels. Coventry, and the London Blitz. Retaliation when it came was brutal, born it was argued of military necessity. Think of Dresden, and above all Hiroshima. Military necessity – or war crime?

Revenge also played a part. I’ve a been looking at newspaper cuttings, saved by my father, from World War 2. A headline from the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post of January 21st, 1943 struck me.

‘M.P.s CALL FOR THE BOMBING OF ROME. Anthony Eden addressed the House of Commons: ‘….we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London. [Mussolini enthused about bombing London, but no Italian bombers got anywhere near London as far as I’m aware], and we should do so to the best of our ability, and as heavily as possible if the course of the war should render such action convenient and helpful.’

The report continues: ‘The House was full at the time and an enthusiastic cheer came from the crowded benches.’

From the Manchester Guardian of April 1st, 1944 – curious it is this date, but it was no April Fool. The press cutting was kept because Orde Wingate, leader of the British Forces in Burma, had been killed. Below and to the left of the Wingate report is the headline: ‘BITTEREST AIR FIGHT OF THE WAR. R.A.F.’s Three-Hour Battle in Great Attack on Nuremberg.’ 94 aircraft were reported as lost. Of about 1000 in total – that was the number of bombers involved in earlier attacks of Leipzig and Berlin.

How much of classical Rome would have survived? Would we have had a firestorm, as wiped out Dresden? As for Nuremberg, this was the old city of Albrecht Durer, and the Meistersingers.

It has always been thus. Carthage was taken off the map by the Romans after the Punic Wars. Was this genocide? Jerusalem was destroyed by first by Babylonian forces and then the Romans. There are too many examples.

In the last few months we’ve had Armenians fleeing cities ahead of Azerbaijani forces. Turkey and Russia, which could have intervened, chose not to.

Looking to the future, awareness is everything. I trust we never again have, in the West or anywhere, I trust anywhere, the imperatives, or the blood lust, which lead to destruction of whole cities and whole peoples. Never again the enthusiasm shown in the House of Commons for bombing Rome. Or indeed Dresden … but that wasn’t put before the Commons as far as I’m aware. Or Hiroshima before Congress. Democratic accountability is a casualty of wartime.

I’m avoiding retrospective judgements. The truth is powerful enough on its own. But could there not now be a new and universal commitment, encompassing Americans, Europeans, Chinese, and the wider Muslim world, to spare all centres of population?

Maybe in the age of JADC2 and drone warfare, which has its own horrors, military strategists might find this easier. Maybe.

Representative democracy – the best form of government yet devised

I’m following up on my last post (on Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Papers) with another on broadly the same subject – representative democracy.

It is fundamental to our future.

Hamilton had a nascent Congress in mind, we have the House of Commons. Always a problem, now more than ever, is how ordinary folk connect with elected, representative assemblies. Not least in our own time, when the House of Commons is widely seen as both distant and corrupt. And ineffective.

What we need, put simply, is connected representation, where people feel they are actually represented, and not taken for granted.

Deliberative democracy, in the form of citizens’ assemblies, chosen rather than elected, is often suggested as a way of feeding in a wider range of opinions, and involving people more directly.

Assemblies have a role, but only within existing structures, and I’m thinking specifically of local government. Devolving power to regions and councils. Encouraging local participation. Improving links between councillors and councils and local MPs how best might they work in tandem, and not as separate entities. Power exercised upwards as well as downwards.

That’s where our primary focus should be.

But let’s first look at how deliberative assemblies might work. To quote the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) on the subject:

Much like a jury in a court case. You might have between twenty and a hundred people representing a cross section sample of the population. They spend three or four days hearing prepared evidence from all sides on a specific topic – it could be anything from abortion reform to public spending priorities. This is followed by questioning, investigation and debate. The group then comes up with recommendations, usually based on consensus.

I’m a big supporter of the RSA. But I’m cautious in this case. Just as parliament is swayed by factions, so too will be assemblies.  The criteria by which members of such assemblies will be selected will cause division, before they even meet. And strong personalities will as ever emerge and dominate. There may be a requirement to debate at a parliamentary level, but none to enact.

The one recent example of a positive outcome from a deliberative assembly was the Irish constitutional convention, which recommended action on same-sex marriage, abortion and blasphemy. These were then enacted following referenda and legislation.

See ‘Pot-luck democracy’, in the Prospect December 2019 issue, which highlights the assembly, or ‘fixed council’, which is being trialled in Ostbelgien, a Belgian province.

Assemblies do have a role, and let’s trial then further. But the danger is they could be a distraction. We must look elsewhere if we want to achieve a significant re-engagement of the public with everyday politics.

Better to focus on how the wider population can best feed into existing structures.

And that means focusing on local government. One of Margaret Thatcher’s legacies is a switch of authority and finance away from local to central government. The respect in which local government is held, and the calibre of people drawn to it, have suffered significantly as a result. City mayors and the Northern Powerhouse are much quoted as ways forward, but real democratic progress requires a much greater devolution of power, with local people taking ownership of education, health and social care and transport in ways that are impossible now.

The pathways that link local and central government will need to be much closer. Local councils should be a useful training ground for politicians with aspirations at a parliamentary level. And closer links to local authorities would, almost literally, bring MPs with, maybe, delusions of grandeur down to earth.

When local people bring issues which are best handled at a local level to MPs’ surgeries, that shouldn’t be a problem. MPs and councils would be used to working in tandem. And MPs in turn would be available to discuss the impact of national issues at a local level.

With local and central government more closely linked it might well be easier to accept and understand the benefits of supranational authority. We need to be key players, on the inside, rather than lobbyists, on the outside. A narrow definition of sovereignty is categorically not in our interest.

A European parliament with local electorates fully engaged should function as a direct means of holding the councils and committees of Europe to account.  That has always been the idea – but in the UK especially strident voices in the press have made this all but impossible.

There’s the rub. How do you make the case for representative democracy at all levels when populism is so stridently funded?

First and foremost – argue the cause. In any and all public forums. Not for the old and tired status quo. But for an active and engaged system of connected representation. One where people feel they are actually represented, and not taken for granted.

I’ve not spelt out any detail here. The purpose of this post is simply to put the argument for our existing system(s) of government. We have the most remarkable instrument of government ever designed anywhere on earth in Westminster, and a parallel structure at a local level which likewise has evolved over centuries.

Energising those structures is where our focus should lie.

How many more crisis votes will there be?

More votes last night. Arguing as ever on the wrong territory.

The argument should not be, in any sane polity, ‘should we be part of the EU’, but what form that participation should take. Any organisation pulling together states with disparate backgrounds but shared interests will always be, in one regard or another, close to crisis, but likewise, always be looking to reform and develop itself. The EU is an ongoing project.

The UK is aiming to put ourselves outside that process. Without any other body with whom we could engage, which could act as a substitute. Not the old Commonwealth, or (God forbid) the USA. And at a time when ‘a new pattern in world commerce is becoming clearer’ (The Economist).

A key aspect of the slowdown (‘cross-border investment, trade, bank loans and supply chains have all be shrinking or stagnating relative to world GDP’) over the last ten years in globalisation is the increasing focus on more regionally focused trade, as wages rise and market size increases in developing countries. (‘Supply chains are focusing closer to home.’) Containerisation brought about a radical reduction in transportation costs, but that was effectively a one-off. Distance adds cost, and takes out of the equation just-in-time availability. Brexit is intended to take us in the diametrically opposite direction, trading with more distant, less reliable partners, over long distances with slower supply chains, and at the same time putting up barriers and souring relationships with our local hitherto partners.

And so to yesterday’s series of votes in the House of Commons, where attempts to delay the Brexit process to allow parliament more time to discuss alternative options, to avoid a hard Brexit, were all voted down, and instead a Tory amendment passed, backing a renegotiated version of the agreement with the EU – a renegotiation of the Northern Ireland backstop, which the EU has made it abundantly clear it is not willing to renegotiate.

It is hoped – assumed – imagined – that the EU will cave in, wishing to avoid the damage that a hard Brexit would cause to the EU as well as the UK. Having seen that there is a majority in the UK parliament for some kind of an agreement, the EU would find a way to circumvent the Irish border issue. There is a reported lack of unanimity among the leaders of individual countries: true or not I can’t say. But if the continuance of an open border is crucial to the EU and specifically to Ireland, I (and the mass ranks of commentators out there) can’t see how there can be any agreement which fails to guarantee absolutely that an open border will remain in place indefinitely. There is a patent absurdity here.

I may be wrong – maybe the EU will find a way to trim and compromise, with a show of politeness, and withholding their scorn in any public utterances. One way or the other, we will be back again in the House of Commons in two weeks’ time, for more votes. The assumption must be that the May agreement would again be voted on,  unchanged, in its current unamended form, and again be thrown out. Or May will pre-empt that by proposing some kind of Customs Union, backing down from one of her original red lines, those hostages to fortune she put up so foolishly shortly after she became prime minister.

She is meeting today with Jeremy Corbyn, who now says he is prepared to talk with her. Maybe he wants to explore how and when such a change of policy on the government’s part might occur, and in what circumstances the Labour Party, and Labour MPs, might support it. He will know now that he is not likely to bring the government down. When it comes to the crunch Tory MPs, even the moderates such as Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry, will always rally to the flag.

Being a Tory MP, which requires a certain mindset, local constituency alliances, and a habitual and habituated tolerance of local opinion, instils loyalties which will survive crisis and sometimes override what common sense dictates. (Labour loyalties also run deep, but aren’t so tribal.)

That’s my take on current events, on what will come out of last night’s more ordered than usual chaos.

I’ll be away in the Southern Hemisphere, far from the madding crowd, when the next vote, or series of votes, come around. There will probably be a snow-capped volcano on the other side of the lake when I draw back the curtain the morning after. They are always the best kind.

Will parliament claw back control?

Two days from Tuesday’s crucial vote ….

It’s curious how the argument has become the legislature against the executive, parliament against Theresa May’s government’s Brexit agreement with the EU. I’m not a fan of historical parallels, but I’m reminded of Parliament before and during the time of the Civil War, clawing control away the monarchy, ensuring that the executive would be beholden to the legislature. The 1689 Bill of Rights enshrined this in statute. Only the government could originate legislation – but why put forward a bill if it was unlikely to get through parliament?

Three-line whips, control over the parliamentary timetable and the sheer bludgeoning effect of government have tilted the balance toward government in recent times. Time in the eyes of many for a re-balancing.

Why are we in this situation? Because of the natural tendency of the executive to arrogate power to itself. The referendum has brought arguments over what has been effectively a transfer of power to a head. The government has arrogated to itself a new power to be the guardian of ‘the will of the people’. While Charles 1st wasn’t too good at bringing ordinary folk over to his side, we’ve already a good few examples in other countries in our own time of noisy politicians with big ideas asserting the power of government, in the name of a people, of tradition, of race or nation, over a legislature.

I’ll say again what I’ve said before – we are a parliamentary democracy. It’s taken us almost eight hundred years, if we go back to Magna Carta, to reach this point. Ultimately the legislature has to call the tune – not a government arguing that a third-party, ‘the people’, ‘the will of the people’, has a prior claim. The will of the people – it may reflect, as the Brexit vote did, a groundswell of opinion, but fashioned too easily by others, not least the media, for their own ends.

And opinion can change. From one year to the next. All decisions of government need reversibility. That has to apply to referenda if they’re to have any legitimacy. Every government operating through parliament knows that it has not only to get its legislative programme through – it knows also that it will be held accountable, and everything could indeed be reversed, come the next election.

Government vs parliament. There has to be, in the name of good government, only one winner. And last Friday, yes, we do have to thank Mr Speaker for entering the lists, and allowIng a vote on an amendment which breaks with recent precedent and allows the House of Commons a much greater role in determining the parliamentary timetable.

We wait on Tuesday’s vote …

The politics of aid

The press, parliament and the aid agencies

Press and parliament have had a field day damning the aid agencies for their handling of sexual misconduct among their employees – for allowing (that one word is weighted) the exploitation of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

No-one, least of all the agencies (whatever committees of MPs might report), would downplay the issue. But there is another side. As Kevin Watkins (of Save The Children) wrote in the Guardian a story that started out ‘as a report on predatory behaviour by some Oxfam staff in Haiti has transmuted into a crisis of trust, an attack on aid, and a threat to humanitarian action’.

Why does it matter, he asks:

‘That question matters for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. Agencies like Save the Children are a link in the chain between UK public money and the women and children whose lives have been torn apart by humanitarian emergencies. UK aid and public donations mean that we can provide life-saving maternal and child health services for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. They enable us to deliver education to Syrian refugees, immunisation to children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and protection to unaccompanied children in South Sudan.’

Last Monday (30th July) a parliamentary committee released a report, which the BBC summed up as follows:

‘The aid sector is guilty of “complacency verging on complicity” over an “endemic” sex abuse scandal, a damning report from MPs has said. Stephen Twigg, chairman of the international development committee, said charities were “more concerned to protect their own reputation”.’

John Humphrys’ interview on the Today programme on Monday morning, just after report was published, gave only a complainant’s story. I believe her story, but the advantage in such interviews, when you have the interviewer’s support, is all with the attack. There’s no place for the defence. Humphry’s, and the BBC’s, approach in such matters is tied to the 24-hours news culture. As it was (and is) with the MPs’ expenses scandal, climate change and Brexit. Reithian values of ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ should be demanded of the headlines and the opening stories as well as the back story.

The BBC still does the back story very well. And I’m not suggesting we should hold back on our anger with aid agencies who fail to address one of the big issues of our time. But they are the ones with the difficult job. Reporting, whether a House of Commons’ committee, or the BBC, comes easy. They don’t have to face the consequences of their actions.

I don’t believe for a moment that the sector is ‘complicit’, or ‘more concerned to protect their own reputation’. They have the hardest job in the world, working with least privileged, in often terrible circumstances. There are sexual offenders wherever adults work with the young or the defenceless or the underprivileged. In children’s homes, in the Catholic church, in aid agencies.

The ‘back story’, the real story in this case, is put well by Kevin Watkins in the same piece in the Guardian: ‘An epidemic has affected institutions across our society… [an] epidemic rooted in the unequal power relationships that enable powerful and predatory men to exploit women and children through bullying, sexual harassment and outright violence. The only antidote is a culture of zero tolerance, backed by rules, recruitment practices, and leadership.’

‘Development agencies cannot get this wrong,’ he continues.  ‘We are dealing with some of the world’s most vulnerable people.’

The news I want to hear is how each agency is handling this issue, not just in terms of codes of conduct or investigations, but in practical terms, on the ground. I will give Kevin Watkins the last word:

‘In Save the Children, we have been working to strengthen our screening systems to keep predators and bullies out of the organisation … How do we stop humanitarian aid workers who violate our values moving from one organisation to another?’

We don’t need the hyperbole, we need people like Kevin Watkins reporting back, keeping us in the loop.