UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

No... but a new start please

Unless voter turn out has a very unexpected effect on today's voting reform referendum, we should hear at some point tomorrow that the "No" campaign has prevailed and that voting reform in the UK has been put on hold for a long time indeed.

There's a small, slim chance that low turnout could help the "Yes" campaign. Whilst it's easier to persuade people against AV and stick with status quo, it's also harder to mobilise voters to come out and vote against something than it is to mobilise keen voting reform enthusiasts to take their once in a generation opportunity. But, ultimately, not enough people care about the intricacies of their voting system to make such a mobilisation of popular support likely.

So, it will be a "No". If it is, the "Yes" campaigners should listen to the voters, not sulk away to lick their wounds. You cannot fight a campaign to improve our democracy and then not listen to the democratic will of the people.

Nick Clegg's words tomorrow will be important. He may try and blame the coalition's unpopularity, that it was a "referendum on difficult decisions taken in the national interest". I expect him to say a lot about respecting a democratic result. Being not a fan of AV himself, having called it a "nasty little compromise" he may well blame it on the wrong form of proportional representation being put to the test.

Whatever he says, he must say it carefully. I don't believe those who will say that this is voting reform put to bed for a generation. With a strong likelihood of another hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party, I think there is a good chance of there being another voting reform referendum - held in happier times, when talking about voting reform doesn't seem irrelevant to people's daily lives - within the next decade.

What will begin tomorrow is a new kind of coalition. Chris Huhne has used the AV campaign to mark himself out as a Cabinet rebel and a potential future leader. Both him and Vince Cable could trigger a coalition crisis if they judge that the coalition is all pain and no gain for the Lib Dems.

But Nick Clegg should stay the course. Lib Dems quitting the coalition would seem petulant and self-obsessed. We didn't get our voting reform, so we leave? Or we want a significant portion of our manifesto implemented (not all of it, coalition compromises don't allow that), and we need to be grown up members of government, taking the tough decisions to do that.

Five years is a long time. The Lib Dems - and I mean the likes of Cable and Huhne - need to remember that they should strive to demonstrate that coalitions work... that the Lib Dems have made a valuable Lib Dem contribution in government.

That demands patience and maturity from the would-be rebels. And the start of a new phase for Clegg in which he stamps out an unmistakably Lib Dem identity at the heart of government. Not propping up the Tories. But Lib Dems, in government, getting things done, getting things that Lib Dem voters at the last election wanted to see done.

Breaking up the coalition, not losing the AV vote, is what will really end the voting reform debate for a generation.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Game changer: for Pakistan and Osama Bin Laden

The death of Osama Bin Laden, the world's most wanted man, is a game changer. Not in the fight against Al-Qaeda, as such - but in the United States and the West's relationship with one of its most troublesome and important allies: Pakistan.

Bin Laden's death is an important step in weakening the loose, vague network that we like to put in a box called "Al-Qaeda", but in truth was moulded by Osama Bin Laden's propaganda and charisma into a complex global Islamist extremist network, active from Luton to Lahore and far beyond. His death is a significant but not decisive blow to a network that only exists as a convenient shorthand to help us understand some of the threats that the West faces from global Islamist extremism.

In many ways, the real story and the real history being made today is for Pakistan's relationship with the West. For decades, Pakistan has played a double game. Conniving with the CIA in secretly funding the mujahideen's anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and continuing to fund Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan long after the Soviets had been overthrown and the CIA had withdrawn its own support, it's never quite been clear where Pakistan's loyalities and commitment to rooting out terror have lain.

In 2001, President Musharraf responded to George Bush's "with us or against us" call, and decided to side with the US. In reality, even then, elements in the Pakistani intelligence agencies continued to support attacks on NATO forces inside Afghanistan. This alongside nurturing the Kashmiri terrorists, Lashkar-e-Taiba who went on to murder hundreds in Mumbai as late as 2008.

And now, nearly ten years after 9/11, President Obama has the election winning gift of announcing that US forces have finally killed Osama Bin Laden. In Pakistan. Not in a freezing cold cave in the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in a walled, luxury compound just 40 miles from the capital Islamabad. A compound eight times larger than any other in the city, with two high perimeter walls and within that walls up to four metres thick. A compound less than a kilometre from Pakistan's equivalent of Sandhurst. A garrison town, a hillside resort - a far cry from the desolate caves of Tora Bora where Bin Laden first fled in 2001.

This is a desperate embarrassment for Pakistan. The CIA's relations with Pakistan's intelligence agencies are at an all time low, following the major diplomatic row caused by CIA contractor Raymond Davis and his subsequent release after shooting dead two Pakistani's in Lahore.

That Bin Laden should be found in apparent luxury, close to the Pakistani capital - and for the operation to be carried out by the United States unilaterally without informing Pakistani intelligence, raises serious questions about exactly what Pakistan has been doing with Osama bin Laden these last few years. It seems beyond comprehension that an intelligence outfit as sophisticated as Pakistan's ISI would not have been able to wise up to the fact that Bin Laden was so close, so comfortable, so safe.

Today's real history lies in the fact that Pakistan's bluff has been called. That the CIA's most significant triumph in the war on terror has come when its relations with Pakistan's intelligence agencies are at such a low confirms that the US is more effective when it operates without Pakistani co-operation that it does with it. It confirms that the Pakistanis have been a hindrance rather than a help in the hunt for Bin Laden. It does not yet confirm that the Pakistanis have actively sheltered Bin Laden. But the cirumstances of his death hardly suggest a wholehearted effort on behalf of Pakistan in finding him.

David Cameron got into real trouble last summer, when he suggested that Pakistan "looks both ways on terrorism". But today's events, as both Afghanistan and India have been quick to claim vindication of their scepticism, suggest this might be true.

Cameron's remarks prompted outrage in Pakistan from both government and its people. The outrage was worse for appearing as though the UK was now parroting Indian and American suspicion of Pakistan. But - in the end - Cameron's comments (echoed by many US diplomats) were always as shadowy as the rogue elements in Pakistan's intelligence agencies that they denounced.

No longer. The United States has pulled off a significant coup in its relations with the intelligence agency - in reality a state within a state - it worked with to create today's problems in Afghanistan and that it needs to be reformed to solve Afghanistan. Elements within Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency have never quite given up their sponsorship for terrorism - whether it's insurgents in Afghanistan, Kashmiri terrorists or sheltering Osama Bin Laden.

But today, they have been caught red-handed - in the most blatant way possible - of at best inefficiency and at worst outright connivance with the world's most wanted terrorist.

Al Qaeda may be weakened following Osama Bin Laden's death. But the real game changer may well be in shocking Pakistan's intelligence agencies to stop their double dealing for good. And that may have as much impact on the so-called "war on terror" as any weakening of Al-Qaeda.