UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Libya - looking to the future

Just back from France, where I took a bit of a break from the news, only catching the odd snippet of what was going on in Libya. We had sattelite TV, but I pretty much restricted myself to enjoying the denouement to England's 4-0 thrashing of India. Only the sixth series whitewash in Test cricket history, you know.

So, Cameron and Sarkozy prevail. The rebels, who looked for a time unlikely to be able to make an impact against the superior firepower of Gaddafi's forces, swept to Tripoli after more and more ordinary Libyans realised the game was up, and support for Gaddafi collapsed.

There's been no rush to claim "mission accomplished" from NATO or Western leaders. Cameron has rightly said that this is an end, but also a beginning.

Libya's reconstruction will be a difficult process, but one which holds much promise. Libya has the natural resources to deliver prosperity. Over the next few months, great care needs to be taken to deliver a political process to deliver the stability that will help Libya realise its potential.

The National Transitional Council will now need to earn legitimacy. Libyans will need to think harder, and be given the chance to decide, the future they really want. They wanted Gaddafi gone, but what do they want instead? There's a need for reconciliation, which will be difficult. There will be Gaddafi loyalists who need to be given the chance to be part of Libya's future, a culture of revenge and retribution will only prolong Libya's trauma. The NTC has set out a sensible process for that to happen. Similarly, Libyan institutions that exist, however disfunctional now, must be carefully reformed and renewed, not disbanded.

As for Gaddafi himself, we need to take care. Algeria may give him shelter, but its regime risks becoming the next North African regime to fall if it puts itself on the wrong side of history. NATO must act within its mandate, to protect civilians and not to go for the Colonel. It will surely be in Libya's own interests if Gaddafi is dealt with fairly and properly by the International Criminal Court.

He must be found and justice must be done. The moral high ground must be defended.

Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama can afford to be quietly satisfied. But we can't afford to take our eye off the ball. The UN's representative to Libya, Ian Martin, has set out the scale of the challenge; "there's essentially no living memory of elections, there's no electoral machinery, there's no electoral commission, no history of political parties, no independent civil society, independent media are only beginning to emerge in the east in recent times. That's going to be quite a challenge, sort of organisationally, and it's clear that the NTC wish the UN to play a major role in that process."

Look what happened in Afghanistan when the West armedthe rebel mujahideen to fight an - at the time - expedient war against a greater evil. We, and they, won - and we left a vacuum which allowed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to grow new threats.

We need to keep up our focus, getting the right balance between not interfering or muddying the Libyan's ownership of the process, but influencing and supporting the transitional process to ensure that the new Libya is a safe and stable one.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The big society broken record

My latest post on the riots has been published on Lib Dem Voices this morning.

You can read the full article here.

It's my second posting on Lib Dem Voices, here's my little space on their website.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The broken society runs amok

At points in last night's London riots, it seemed as if society itself was disintegrating before our eyes. Feral youths running amok in their thousands, outwitting police, torching homes and livelihoods, the violence spreading from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. The police seemed powerless to intervene in a battle where one side was breaking all the rules, and the other was bound to uphold those rules.

The Met were damned if they did and damned if they didn't, caught between rioters getting hurt at their hands and the risk of losing control.

Amid the chaos were heartbreaking tales of family, community businesses up in smoke and a lady, who by day earns an ungrumbling honest wage of merely nine pounds an hour, woken terrified to find masked rioter in her bedroom.

In the end, it was as much the Met's tactics as sheer force of numbers that saw things spiral out of control. They rightly didn’t want to provoke, but the lack of provocation sparked a wave of violence where word of mouth (or BlackBerry) strengthened the bored resolve of those who realised they could do whatever they liked. As the first CCTV images emerge from the Met today, they should suspend their reality no more. A lot of young people will go to prison.

With London alight, the Prime Minister did the right thing and returned to London. The recall of Parliament on Thursday will be an important occasion. We won't be able to fix or understand the causes of these riots quickly. But it will allow the elected representatives of an appalled British public to stand against the feral self-destruction of communities and to begin to explore the root causes.

Already last night, dangerous conclusions were being drawn - mentioning tuition fees or bankers bonuses in this context seemed like simplistic, knee-jerk partisanship (don't do it Ken, if you want to beat Boris).

Thursday's debate shouldn't be a time to score cheap political points. This has happened on everyone's watch - as much on a coalition government imposing austerity as on a Labour party that saw the gap between richest and poorest widen. Thursday will be a time to think deeply about how we heal the deep wounds that will be inflicted on these communities. How we put right the mistrust, suspicion and resentment that these riots - of which we must hope we have seen the worst - will have caused. Above all, that will need people to talk to each other, not score points off each other.

Britain has come a long way since the Brixton riots. But we need to stop sweeping under the carpet the reality that there is a deep social underclass that - rightly or wrongly - feels that it has no stake in society. They were able to trash our high streets, because they felt no part in that society. It will require a radical rethink of rights and responsibilities across our society - amongst parents, police, politicians and community leaders - to put that right.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Black August

July saw a Westmister piranha feeding frenzy over phone hacking. It ended in anti-climax, with an unenlightening select committee appearance from the Murdochs and a wonderfully timed Commons statement from David Cameron. The PM arrived in the Commons just as the story had hit its peak of intrigue and was coming back down again. Even Ed Miliband had run out of blows to land on the Prime Minister, resorting to the tortuous detail of who knew what when over Coulson.

The hacking scandal has finally run dry. For now. Or at least until the Guardian's journos come back from their summer hols.

Hyperbole and hyperactivity over hacking in the media meant we heard little about a famine in East Africa; a full-blown financial crisis in Greece; deepening crises in Spain, Italy; and - most worryingly of all - the United States on the brink of debt default.

Barack Obama has succeeded in persuading Republicans to raise the US debt ceiling, avoiding a potentially disastrous default on its debt that would have triggered a fresh global economic crisis. But Obama couldn’t avoid America's dirty financial laundry being aired all over Washington and the world.

With the eurozone threatening to break up, with the contagion spreading into the much larger economies of Italy and Spain, and America on the verge of default, the markets are fearing that sovereign states, not just corporations, could go the same way as Lehman Brothers and become insolvent. The twin concerns of US and European debt default, and sluggish growth across America and Europe is fuelling fears of a double-dip recession.

Europe may be on holiday, but it won't be long before Europe will need to dig into its pocket again to boost Spain and Italy, to avoid two of the bigger beasts of the eurozone going under. Both are borrowing money at unsustainable rates, heading into Grecian territory. Something's going to have to give to avoid further trouble in the eurozone, just weeks after the Greek bailout deal was secured.

The markets rallied today, but it's clear that the world economy is going through another critical wobble… and the markets.

Back in the UK, a Tory consensus is building around cutting the 50p rate of tax for the highest earners by 5p, ostensibly to show that Britain is "open for business". Whilst Treasury figures show this could only cost around £750m, I can’t see how this is a priority. The UK economy is growing by the smallest of margins, we are on course to miss growth targets of 1.7%.

A tax cut on the richest earners seems a total irrelevance. The priorities are to boost demand, consumer confidence and consumer spending; and to help create the private sector jobs that are needed to absorb those being laid off in the public sector. Putting more money in the pockets of those on lower incomes, who will - we find out today - face massively increase gas and electricity bills, with EON announcing hikes of up to 18%. A cut in the rate of VAT would do more to boost the economy, by reviving the troubled High Street where the big names have been tumbling out of business over recent months.

So, forget about phone hacking (the multitude of enquiries won't report for years anyway)…it's all going to be about the economy this autumn. Saving the eurozone from breaking up and a subsequent collapse in market confidence. And finding a Plan A.2 for the UK economy to improve our worrying growth figures.