Policy

Why I’m in

Tomorrow, the nation votes.

I’m in.

Why?

It seems to me this is a referendum about what kind of Britain we want to have, and believe we have. There is a vision of Britain which is stronger with many friends, which engages with the world around it, which enjoys a major role in the world’s most sought after club. There’s also a vision of Britain beset on all sides, overrun with immigrants, where there is not enough to go round, and if we don’t pull up the draw-bridge quickly, it will be too late.

I am solidly for the first vision. I have never heard of any nation that was weaker for having allies, nor richer for living in isolation, nor kinder for being more afraid.

Most of the arguments of Leave and Remain do little for me. I accept that we are likely to be damaged economically by leaving. However, if leaving were the right thing to do, I would be willing to accept the economic damage. I also accept that we don’t have as much freedom to do anything we want if we’re part of the club. If staying is the right thing to do, I don’t see why that should be a problem. I can’t think of any regulations that we have adopted from Europe that we wouldn’t have adopted on our own account anyway. Food safety, environmental safety, electrical safety and other forms of protection are what good governments do.

There are some arguments which I don’t and can’t accept.

Britain is not overrun with immigrants, although, to be fair, it is entirely populated by people whose ancestors were, at some point, immigrants. Something like 92%-98% of the UK is not built on (it depends what you count). We have a housing problem in London, but London is the place where residents are most likely to see the benefits of an international, multi-cultural society. As you move away from London, we have whole areas of the country which are less populated than they used to be. The reason that we welcome so many people from other countries is that we have far more work that we want done than people willing to do it. That has always been the reason why we have welcomed immigrants. It has not changed.

The British way of life, and British values, are also not being overrun by foreigners—unless we see small-mindedness and fear of the other as part of our way of life. Culture is changing. Maybe it’s changing for the worse (these things are hard to measure), but the big influences on cultural change are not shops selling Polish sausages, but the influence of American television and the all pervasive power of the world wide web. Not that we should ban the world wide web, which was, after all, a British invention, and probably epitomises the best of our values and way of life: free discussion, the freedom to express opinion, the freedom to put forward new ideas and the make the case for them.

It is the freedom to put forward ideas which is most important to me in this debate. At the moment, I can travel anywhere in the European Union and make the case for my politics, my faith, and even my favourite kind of music. I could open up a pancake house in Bruges, or a shop selling Union Jack t-shirts in Madrid. Naturally, people from elsewhere can do the same thing here, but, somehow, they don’t: the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon are not full of traders selling Spanish flags, nor are the empty shops in Evesham being swallowed up by chains of Czech furniture makers. When people do travel to other countries and start to trade, we all benefit. Their natural inclination is not to. Given the choice, it’s something we should encourage.

I’m a committed Christian, and I spent the first third of my career (so far) as a cross-cultural Christian worker in Belgium, what used to be termed (and for all I know, in some circles, still is), a ‘missionary’. We didn’t have pith helmets, mosquito nets or arduous journeys round Cape Horn to get there, nor did we attempt to educate the locals in the British way of life (though, to be absolutely fair, from Hudson Taylor on, that’s not what traditional missionaries did, notwithstanding the Carry-on film stereotypes). I was there before the EU happened, and afterwards. Before, we found that every minor official who didn’t like the case we were making, or us being there at all, had a thousand ways of holding us back—from mislaying our residence permit applications (someone once told me I had not provided the six photos I needed while she was actually holding them in her hand) to demanding that we show our valid performance permits at a police station three kilometres distance. From 1993, after the EU treaty came in, all of that changed. We were free to move as easily as we would have been in Britain.

I am not asking for any special considerations for Christianity. If you are a Brexiter, and you have been arguing as a non-Christian for more protections for Christians, please do not do so on my account. I believe both passionately and rationally that the New Testament faith is persuasive enough to merely need an opportunity of explanation. I don’t need my ‘British’ Christianity (as if Christianity was British anyway) to be protected from anyone.

If you are a Christian, I’ve recently done a debate with Stephen Green, a prominent Brexiter. You can watch it (for free) on YouTube, here.

I’m also a democrat. As it happens, I’m a Liberal Democrat. People have often told me that Europe is somehow weakening our democracy, and we must therefore leave it.  Two things trouble me about this. First, most of these people were adamantly opposed to our attempt to reform British democracy with a referendum during the last parliament. If democracy really was their main issue, they should have supported us. Second, the European Union is already much more democratic than the UK. True, we have an unelected Commission, but the leaders of the Commission are appointed by our elected leaders, and ratified by the parliament. The function of the Commission is essentially the same as our civil service—except that the Commission is tiny in comparison to ours. Its size compares with a mid-sized city council. The Parliament is fully elected, and is much more democratic in its electoral system than ours is. There are no safe-seats—the bane of our democracy—in the EU parliament. The European Council, which is the third part, is made up of our prime minister and the corresponding positions from other countries. All of them are elected, because non-democratic nations cannot join the EU. The Council is the equivalent of our Cabinet, and it is exactly as democratic in the way it is appointed, and more democratic in the way it operates. What Europe doesn’t have is an unelected House of Lords. I have some very good friends in the House of Lords, and they are fine people, and the House does good work, but it is not democratic.

What I struggle with most when people talk about democracy is my feeling that they don’t mean ‘democratic’ at all. They are secretly fearful that all of the Czechs, Germans and Spanish will gang up on us and vote through a plot to ban British produce, or to eject our football fans from their stadiums. But that is how democracy works. The moment you allow democracy, you create the possibility that a lot of other people will vote for something you don’t like. As a Liberal Democrat, I’m well used to this. Even when we got 24% of the vote in 2010, we still got less than 10% of the seats, and were thus powerless in many cases to stop the Tory agenda, though, as you can see now, what we did stop was well worth stopping. The thing is, the alternative to democracy is some kind of dictatorship (by whatever name) or an oligarchy. The people who run society can still do things you don’t like, but you have no recourse, no matter how many of you there are, to stopping them.

The final thing which troubles me that I often hear is that we are somehow opening the doors to Muslim extremism by allowing Turkey into the EU. This is troubling on many levels.

First, the vast majority of Muslims are not extremists, and even most of those who would seem ‘extreme’ to us are not violent. While I was living in Ghent, Belgium, my wife sent my to pick up a copy of the Qu’ran from a local Turkish mosque. The trouble was, it was a mosque of the sect known as the Grey Wolves, the most fanatical Muslim sect in Turkey, and it was in the middle of the first Gulf War. They were absolutely charming to me, gave me a cup of tea, and engaged me (slightly to my alarm) in an utterly reasonable conversation about Saddam Hussein. These were people who believed passionately in what they believed, but they were not remotely advocating violence. The vast majority of Muslims are non-violent. In today’s world, you are  far more likely to die by falling off a ladder than in a terrorist attack. Our fear of terrorism (which terrorism is designed to create, hence the name) has led us to a completely irrational assessment of the risk.

Second, there is absolutely no likelihood of Turkey joining the EU, now, or ever. As long as Greece as a veto, which it will always do, Turkey cannot continue to occupy part of Cyprus and expect EU membership. What’s more, there are some 35 criteria which Turkey has to meet before it can join. These include things such as human rights and democratic government. I doubt that Turkey will ever meet them, but even if it met half of them, as part of its road map to an eventual application, it would be a country completely transformed. What we have failed to do in eight hundred years of  armed conflict will have been achieved purely through peaceful means.

Third, the idea that we should allow unfounded fear of things which might potentially happen in the future is utterly paralysing, and should never play any part in our national decision-making. If we reason from fear, then there is an infinite variety of terrors ahead of us. Nations have gone to war in the past simply out of the fear that their competitors will do the same. The arms-race which led up to the First World War was fuelled by such fears, as was the complex network of military alliances which turned it from a local to a global conflict. The Cold War was half a century of fear—a twilight era to which we should hope never to return.

I am IN, because I see hope, not fear, as the basis for a better future. I believe in times of plenty we should build a longer table, not a higher wall. I believe that the freedom to go wherever we wish and say whatever we wish is far more valuable than freedom from regulation about the size of eggs.

Headed for unaffordability: the scandal of 21st century housing in the UK

Yesterday, we paid off our mortgage. When we (that is, my wife and myself) arrived in the UK in 1996, after about ten years working overseas, we had £60. Through a remarkable combination of circumstances, and the help of my mother as guarantor, we were able to buy our first house, for £53,000 with a 90% mortgage. In 2009, after that house had tripled in value, we were able to move to our dream home in Marlcliff, South Warwickshire. That we were able to pay off the mortgage is down to another remarkable combination of circumstances. We are (and feel) tremendously privileged and thankful to now own our own home. We are all too keenly aware that, for many people, circumstances are less kind.

A report released today indicates that today’s first-time buyers have now spent, on average, £52,900 in rent. Those who start renting now will, on average, spend £64,400 in rent before they buy. If they buy.

House prices are predicted to rise and rise. In December, Estate Agents calculated they would rise by 50% in the next ten years. I read the other day (but can no longer find the reference) that the average house price would rise into the millions. Rental is likely to rise even faster, according to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

Back when I was a student, the belief was common that it was always best to buy, always worst to rent, because ‘property never loses its value’ and ‘rental money is wasted money’. Flooding, subsidence and a couple of house price bubbles later, it is no longer quite as certain. Many people lost money on negative equity, or on homes that became unsaleable. Likewise, people who exercised their ‘right to buy’ in certain parts of the country discovered that house prices went up dramatically everywhere else, but not where they lived.

Nonetheless, ‘getting onto the property ladder’ was and has been the dream, the aspiration and the aim of many newly married (or definitively not married) couples over the last thirty years. Thirty years ago, it was possible to buy a property by combining a couple of student grants and renting out the other rooms (one of my friends and his brother actually did this). Twenty years ago, as we found, a stable parental income as guarantor and help with the deposit could get a nice, four bedroomed house in the most deeply unfashionable part of Birmingham for a couple of ex-charity workers. Ten years ago, those without access to the bank of mum and dad were already struggling. Today, most couples who do buy don’t buy until they are in their 30s. If they pass 40 without buying, they will find that mortgage lenders eye them with the deepest suspicion, unless they already have a very sizeable sum to put into the deal.

That’s couples (of all kinds). What about singles? Not everyone wants to commit their life definitively to another person. Many people who do want to discover, after some time, that somewhere something breaks down, and the life together becomes the life apart. Our society idealises the single state, and yet conditions for singles when it comes to buying a property are worse than they have ever been.

How much is a house really worth? The answer, as the TV show tells us, depends on three factors: location, location and location. London is clearly a very good location (if you own) or a very bad location (if you rent), but the whole of the UK is dramatically overpriced compared to the rest of the Western World. It is not because Britain is overpopulated. Belgium and the Netherlands have dramatically denser populations, and yet don’t suffer the housing pressures and costs that we do. This is one thing that no one can blame on the EU (though I’m sure someone will try).

To a large extent, it is something we have done to ourselves: we all want to live in the most desirable locations. The presence of a good school pushes property prices (pardon the pun) through the roof. For three generations, since the Second World War, we have been willing to pay over the odds to get the house we want, knowing that gradually rising salaries, and the glorious day when we finally pay off the mortgage, will make it all worthwhile.

This is not in any sense a matter of ordinary inflation. Housing is a scarce commodity, and scarcity puts prices up. And so, those with access to bank of mum and dad, or highly paid jobs early in their careers, or legacies, or trust funds, are able to buy straight away. Those without, but in good jobs with stable dual incomes, perhaps putting off kids until later, will pay rather more than the average of £53,000 in rent before they buy. Many others will never get onto the property ladder, and will see other people’s portfolios get fatter and fatter, while their hard-earned cash goes into the hands of landlords (which is not to say that landlords are not facing their own problems as well).

Everyone is behaving—as economists would put it—rationally. No one is behaving maliciously. And yet, the result is that the rich get richer, and inequality in British society grows—not only between the haves and the have-nots, but between south and north, London and everywhere else, the nice parts of town and the less nice.

At the last election, every party promised to sort this situation out, building (as an average among party promises) 200,000 new homes a year. Where are these new homes? This is not a pop at the Conservatives. The Coalition did little better, and the Labour government before it did equally badly. The Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have done little to address it.

Everyone needs somewhere to live. Only about 5% of Britain’s surface area is built on. How can it be so hard?

Of course, everything is much harder than it appears. The nest of problems which sees property prices soar in London and actually sink in other places, which makes it hardest to build where it is most needed, which makes it advantageous for property developers to ‘land bank’ until the prices rise, which pushed up an unsustainable rise in buy-to-let, which for generations distorted the market through an ungraduated stamp-duty (mercifully corrected by the Coalition), which continues to distort the market through an unreformed council-tax banding system which makes property dramatically undertaxed compared to other things—these and ninety-nine other things cannot be unpicked by one sweeping gesture, but must be dealt with one by one.

It is the job of government to do this. We have been distracted by an unnecessary collection of referendums, an entirely fruitless Conservative party internal wrangle over Europe, which we, the public, are now forced to adjudicate, by an obsession with the national debt and the needs of austerity, by an entirely unnecessary and costly reorganisation of the NHS, by a misconstrued attempt to reorganise education which failed to ignite any support from teachers, and by a mean-spirited response to the needs of refugees which casts us as a nation in an extremely (but sadly not uniquely) poor light.

I would love to be able to thump the table at this point and say ‘and what government must now do is…’ But, as I said before, there is no single, sweeping solution. What government must do now is what government should do, always: administer diligently for the benefit of all, not merely for the quarter of the population that actually voted it in. In this matter, diligent administration requires listening to RICS and other industry bodies, actively consulting with local people who, if not brought round, will naturally and not unreasonably oppose the unknown of a new housing estate built right on their doorstep where a coppice with owls currently stands, and redesign its own instruments, including taxation and planning, to make housing as a whole affordable to all—rather than merely building in a proportion of ‘affordable’ homes within estates of luxury accommodation. There is an element of haste in this. The current generation of home-hunters will have to scrimp and save if they want to buy, and quite possibly end up paying more if they decide they can’t. The next generation, if the trends continue, will be camped out in mum and dad’s garage, or occupying abandoned public buildings, or working three jobs and impossible hours, all just to get by. We cannot wait for this problem to solve itself. It has never shown any sign of doing so, and there is now no time left to wait.

Somewhere to live is a fundamental human right. If we, as a nation, cannot structure our housing market so that everyone has a home that they can afford, then, really, what good are we? Shame on us.

One century of genocides: the anniversary that no one wants to celebrate, but no one should forget

One century of genocides: the anniversary that no one wants to celebrate, but no one should forget

I’ve refrained from writing this article for almost the whole of 2015, but now it’s time. Perhaps I should have written it in April, but I was hoping that someone else, better qualified, would write it. Perhaps they did, and I missed it.

On April 24 1915, a massacre of Armenians began which ushered in a century of genocides. The word had at the time not been coined, but when Raphael Lemkin did coin it, in 1943, he specified that this, like the Holocaust, was a genocide. Since Hitler’s genocide, we have seen the Cambodian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the Darfur genocide and the former Yugoslavian genocide. Unlike the Armenian genocide, which has never been formally acknowledged by the United Nations, and which Turkey still maintains was not a genocide, these others each prompted, rightly, International Criminal Tribunals.

One century. Six genocides — not including the actions of Daesh against the Yazidis and other tiny people groups in their own territories. We have also seen similar actions against Kurds, though these have not yet led to international criminal tribunals. In Turkey, it remains a prosecutable offence to claim that the Armenian massacres actually were a genocide. It seems unlikely, therefore, that Turkish actions against Kurds will ever be acknowledged.

I am not here trying to point the finger at Turkey, or Cambodia, Sudan, Rwanda or Germany. Far from it. The kind of thinking that suggests that particular nations or ethnic groups are more guilty of genocide than others, or more prone to be, is exactly the kind of thinking which puts us on the path to genocide. Indeed, in Rwanda, from my memories of reading transcripts of some of the court cases that followed, many people who took part in it said that they felt it was ‘us or them’.  It was human beings who committed genocides, people like us. Some of the Rwandan transcripts made me feel keenly just how much like us they were.

The Armenian genocide should not have come as a surprise to the West. Indeed, Gladstone, in his last public speech, January 1895, urged Britain to take note of the plight of the Armenians. The Sultan demanded an immediate disavowal by the British government, and the Earl of Kimberley, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, responded immediately to assure the Sultan that this was purely a private speech1, and did not reflect Britain’s view. Twenty years later, the genocide began, with many of the practices subsequently used by Adolf Hitler against the Jews.

Hitler was not merely unconsciously echoing what had happened to the Armenians. In August 1922, Hitler wrote:2

“…Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Monument to Soviet soldiers, Armenia

Monument to Soviet soldiers, Armenia

While the world has largely forgotten the Armenian genocide, Armenians have not. In Armenia, the landscape still contains many statues to Soviet soldiers. This surprised me, when I was there. When I asked local people about them, it was clear that they still regarded the USSR as the great deliverers from oppression.

There is, of course, no comparison before or since with Hitler’s genocidal passion. As his letter about the Poles indicates, his hatred was not just for Jews, but for Poles, Soviets, and anyone else who did not fit into his narrow category of worthwhile humanity.

Nonetheless, just like the Armenian genocide, the rest of the world should have seen the Holocaust coming. Mein Kampf, which is being republished, did not in any sense attempt to cover up what he intended. Admittedly its first substantially distributed translation in English — and the one widely available at the time in the USA — had been excised of the parts which would not play well with Anglo-Saxon audiences. Even so, it should not have required a great deal of investment of effort — and remember that resurgent Nazi Germany was already establishing itself as a power in Central Europe, and therefore should have attracted the attention of diplomatic and intelligence linguists — to analyse in the original.

I remember the post-Yugoslavian genocide unfolding in the press and on the news. What astonishes me now is that I, like many others, was far too quick to assume that there was probably right and wrong on both sides, that things would sort themselves out, that it was all terrible, but not a great deal could be done about it from our end.

In retrospect — and having read George Orwell’s review of Mein Kampf, in which he describes popular British responses to Hitler in the 1930s — I recognise now that those are exactly the conditions in which genocide flourishes. We assume that things cannot be as bad as they seem, we prefer the less extreme (and highly propagandist) accounts issued to counter the hard news, we want to let sleeping dogs lie, we worry what the impact of intervention will be, we find out far too late that all the men in a city have been rounded up to be executed, that a new term, in that case ‘ethnic cleansing’, is really no different from the old term. We wring our hands again, and wish that we had acted.

I am not going to apply this directly to Daesh and to Britain’s decision to join the bombing. I disagreed with that decision, as I have written elsewhere, while accepting that I did not have all the facts. We cannot use the possibility of genocide as a blanket excuse or reason to intervene in every foreign emergency.

Nonetheless.

Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, has put forward a theoretical framework of eight stages by which genocide progresses. 3 His analysis follows the pattern: formulation, symbolisation, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, extermination and denial. Some have argued that it does not seem to apply particularly well to all genocides, and it does not seem to help us in predicting where they happen next.

What is perhaps more useful to us is to recognise the failings and lacks of which we ourselves are guilty, in allowing genocides to progress. Since the Kosovan crisis, Western powers have accepted a military dogma known as ‘R2P’ or, Responsibility to Protect. We accept that it is no longer the case that our moral responsibility and authority extends only as far as defending our NATO allies — which is the classic international military and diplomatic position — but that it now goes beyond to protecting those unable to protect themselves. And yet, often, we have not acted.

The eyes of the world are now on Daesh. They should be, but why have we done nothing about DR Congo? The situation in DR Congo is so bad that it could almost be referred to as an ‘Omnicide’, where everyone is attempting to exterminate everyone else.

I don’t want to chart out the stages by which Western nations permit genocide to take place. However, I do want to put forward five ways in which we as individuals in Britain can better help to prevent them.

  1. Engagement with world affairs. Britain is a democracy. Government listens when enough people start lobbying. Mostly, though, we only engage with places we’ve been to or might consider visiting. There was a fair degree of criticism on Facebook when many people (I was one) changed their profile picture to one with a French flag after the Paris massacres. Why had we not done so for other, much larger massacres? It was a valid point, though I still stuck with the French flag. Gladstone engaged with the plight of the Armenians in 1895, but his own supporters and followers did not continue the pressure. If they had, it might never have happened. Whether that would have had a substantial effect on later genocides I cannot say, but it would certainly have been infinitely better if it had not happened. We have better, cheaper and easier access to information about the world than ever before. We need to makes use of it.
  2. Investment in international journalism and broadcasting. The BBC World Service is once again under threat. Why should Britain pay for the world’s radio? In many countries, the BBC is still regarded as the most authoritative way of getting news. When we invest in international journalism, and international broadcasting, we offer a mirror to a wider world, as well as assisting our own engagement. People locally are in a much better position to speak out if they know what is happening. If a genocide is genuinely being contemplated, their own state-sponsored broadcast will already be doing its best to suppress it. Many of the people who participated in the Rwandan genocide said afterwards that they did not realise or understand the full scale of what they were taking part in. Would better journalism and broadcasting have helped? Almost certainly, it would have done to some extent.
  3. Stamp out misinformation on social media. According to recent research by Nielsen4, people are now more likely to believe online opinions than they are traditional news. I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of meme-sharing. Urban myths, of course, will always propagate. Nonetheless, there are particular kinds of myths that work to demonise particular people groups. Alongside the disgraceful memes alleging that all central banks are owned by the Rothschild family (really a coded version of the old ‘Jewish Conspiracy’ myth), we are seeing a growing number of memes demonising refugees and asylum seekers, based on supposedly accurate information. Whenever the information is checked, it almost always turns out to be wildly untrue. That doesn’t matter, though, if the people sharing it do so on the grounds that ‘there must be something in it’. However, it is by exactly these mechanisms (or the pre-internet versions thereof) that sympathy with what was happening in Nazi Germany spread. Britain would probably never have engaged in its own persecution of Jews, mainly because it did not have the same proportions of Jews living here (as a result of earlier persecutions) but antagonism towards Jews, and sympathy with the Nazi view, meant that Britain did too little, too late, until it almost was too late.
    We need to be better committed to fact checking and getting to the bottom of things. Copies of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ were in wide circulation during the 1930s. To many people, they seemed to be genuine, documentary proof of the Jewish Conspiracy. It would not have taken anyone a great deal of thought or research to discover that they were a hoax. However, most of us are all to happy to believe a hoax, if it appears to have a bit of a document behind it, and it suits our prejudices.
  4. Move beyond narrow ‘British Interests’. The job of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to look after Britain’s interests in the wider world. But what are Britain’s interests? The current mood in Britain is that they are narrow notions of things which are good for Britain’s economy, good for our internal security, and good for keeping us at the top table. Ultimately, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will pursue the agenda set by government. Who sets the government? We do. We could argue that only 1/3 of people actually voted in the current government. Even so, everyone involved in politics, journalism or even local church hall debates helps to set the agenda. If MPs, during election time, hear a thousand times that the price of butter is too high, and once that Britain is not doing enough to stop Boko Haram, they will go into the next parliamentary term determined to lower the price of butter. No matter how much more sympathy they have with stopping Boko Haram, this is unlikely to progress beyond signing an Early Day Motion, which is really the same as parliamentary graffiti. Amid all of the online grass-roots pressure groups that have sprung up to demand this or that, I have yet to see one that insists Britain do more to protect the most vulnerable people groups from destruction.
  5. Abandon the right of selfishness. Selfishness is not one of the UN’s fundamental human rights, nor is it enshrined in the Human Rights act. But it might as well be, because, in almost all debates, ‘looking after our own’ is presented as an unassailable and fundamental right. No one even bothers to argue with it. It is a clincher on television, on radio and on the doorsteps. There is, of course, nothing wrong with looking after our own, but that is not what the phrase is used for. Facebook is now flooded with memes demanding that we do more for homeless ex-soldiers, rather than refugees. Before the refugee crisis came up, there was relatively little interest in helping these homeless veterans. ‘Charity begins at home’, the old version of ‘looking after our own’, was never used as an encouragement to be more charitable locally, merely as an excuse not to intervene internationally.
    When we turn back refugees at the border, or make them wait in migrant camps in Calais, or demonise them in the popular press, we send back the most powerful signal to those who persecute them: the West does not care, you may do what you like. Driving people out of a country to die as refugees on the journey was a feature of the Armenian genocide, and also a feature of the Nazi genocide. More Armenians died fleeing persecution than were actually killed in the persecution.
    The moment that we put our own comfort, convenience and prosperity above the needs of those fleeing for their lives, we, too, have become complicit.

My prayer — and I do mean prayer — is that as the 100 years of genocides comes to an end, the genocides themselves will come to an end. I understand that there will always be atrocities. There will always be people angry enough, or selfish enough, or heartless and calculating enough, to commit massacres. Nonetheless, if, for once, we could learn one lesson of history, let it be this: never again.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. See this newspaper article
  2. The letter was presented in evidence at the Nuremburg Tribunal as Exhibit USA-28. A copy is available here. Note that Turkey disputes its authenticity.
  3. Helpfully summarised on Wikipedia.
  4. Report here

Rights, right and might: unravelling the Syria vote

I don’t agree with the decision to bomb Syria, and I probably never will. I do continue to support Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats. At a time when Lib Dems are sharply divided over what the vote should have been, I want to unpack for a moment the democratic mandate for it, and why I believe that, although it was not (in my view) the right decision, those that made it had the right to decide as they did.

In the dialogue Protagoras, the philosopher Socrates explains why he does not believe that there should be ‘sophists’. The sophists he attacks were professional wise men, pundits whose wisdom could be taken as authoritative. His argument was that, while in most cases we call an expert in a particular field, when we make major decisions for the state, the entire assembly decides together, and each person gets to make their speech.

Socrates is describing a Greek city-state where all adult, free men (thus, in fact, quite a small proportion of all adults) form the assembly, and the assembly decides together what should be done.

Our democracy is substantially more complex than that, and for very good reasons. However, the underlying point still stands: in great questions of the state, no one individual, nor group of pundits, is wise enough to answer the questions alone. It is in debate that we find our way forward.

One of the most fundamental requirements for a worthwhile debate is that there is at least the possibility of people changing their minds. If we are not open to persuasion, then we are not part of democratic debate.

However, for those watching from the sidelines — especially for those actively supporting one of the groups within the debate — this means that there is a real possibility that the people we supported, backed and worked to elect will make choices that we disagree with. They may even make choices which seem to us utterly wrong and nonsensical. Nonetheless, without the possibility of this, there is no debate, and there is no democracy.

A debate and a vote on their own is insufficient for a thing to be democratic. There are three tests which should always be applied. First, were the debate and subsequent vote conducted fairly, according to previously agreed processes which do not prejudice the outcome? Second, did the people voting have the authority to do so? Third, was sufficient time for the debate given, and sufficient information to the debaters for the decision reached to be an informed and considered one?

This third point is one which frequently baffles observers of our parliament. The most common way for a private member’s bill to fail is for it to be ‘talked out’ — the debate goes on to the limit of the allotted time, and there is no time left for the vote. In any kind of Board or executive meeting, the chair would have drawn matters to a close so that a vote could take place. In a policy debate at a Liberal Democrat party conference, once the time for the debate was finished, a vote would take place. However, the parliamentary rule is that sufficient time must be given for members to express their views. We can argue (I think sometimes correctly) that this is abused when MPs opposing an otherwise popular motion (or popular with those present and likely to vote) make extended, long-winded and only marginally topical speeches for this purpose. Nonetheless, the alternative, that business could be rushed through and ill-considered decisions made in haste with unexpected consequences, is worse.

The second point was the crux of Liberal Democrat opposition to the second Iraq war. For better or for worse, the recognised international authority to engage in acts of war, except under direct attack by an enemy, is a United Nations mandate. No mandate was ever given for the second Iraq war. Therefore, irrespective of whether, from a utilitarian perspective, the war would result in more lives saved or more lives lost, the British government did not have the legal right to go to war.

This in itself raises all kinds of notions about national sovereignty. However, since Britain has long championed the international rule of law, we are right to ask very serious questions not only about whether we were right to go to war for the second time in Iraq (a question which should have been debated in parliament) but whether we had the right — a question to be settled by legal processes before the decision, not after it.

In the current crisis, there is an emotional response on the second point as well. We (that is, a bit more than 50% of Liberal Democrats who voted in the leadership election) elected Tim Farron, therefore should he not pay more attention to what we think? Of course, we recognise there are divided loyalties on this issue. Six Liberal Democrat MPs voted to extend air strikes into Syria, two did not. Each of those MPs was elected not by the Liberal Democrats (though they were each selected at some point by a majority of local party members) but by their own constituents. Should they therefore not be polling their constituents, and us, to find out what they should do?

No.

There is no realistic way of polling Liberal Democrats. We certainly aren’t going to hand over our membership database to YouGov, and we lack the polling machinery to conduct our own poll, though we do do surveys from time to time. 1 Where polls of Liberal Democrats have been published, they are polls of people who self-identify to the pollsters as Liberal Democrat supporters. Constituency polling is equally fraught, but for different reasons. In the recent and infamous Sun poll, 1/5 Muslims were alleged to have sympathy with Jihadis. However, as Survation, the company who did the polling pointed out, this was a complete misrepresentation of the results of the poll. Further reflection showed that the question was meaningless in that regard, because it did not distinguish between ‘feel in a similar way’ and ‘feel sorry for’.

The only legitimate way to find out what the public really thinks is in a referendum. Referendums are core to Swiss democracy, which resembles much more closely the demokratia of ancient Athens, but generally foreign to British democracy. They fall foul of test number three: sufficient time for the debate, and sufficient information available to the debaters. In the Scotland referendum, the opposing sides presented wildly differing indications of the economic impact of secession. We can have our own view of which side presented the more accurate information, but most voters were forced to make their own minds upon who they chose to believe: actual, established information, authoritatively condensed to the level that an educated and interested lay-person could follow, was not available. This is not particularly a problem with the Scottish referendum, but with referendums in general, and is one of the main reasons for having a representative, parliamentary democracy.

Such things are particularly the case with a decision to go to war. Without considering the impact of secret intelligence, such as was used to draw up the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ of the second Gulf War, parliamentarians have access to a range of political, military and strategic analysis which it is their full time job and duty to digest. Some of this comes out in the public debate, but all of it informs the debate—much of which takes place informally before the parliamentary debate begins.

The reason that a representative, parliamentary democracy is better than a universal, referendum-based democracy, is that we employ the parliamentarians to invest themselves in the proper information so that the debate can be legitimate—and only those involved in the debate (by virtue of being present in the chamber) are given the opportunity to vote.

Not in my name

But this brings us to a problem. If, when we elect an MP, or elect a leader of a party, we are handing over the authority to make a decision which we fundamentally disagree with, what then? The decision to bomb Syria was not one to be taken lightly by anyone. There will be people at either end of the spectrum whose positions are so established that there is little likelihood of them shifting, but, in the centre there was a significant number who could have gone either way—so much so that, last weekend, the government did not believe it had enough votes to win. Among Liberal Democrat supporters, one poll put support for bombing at 46%, though that was a snapshot of one particular time. Are the 54%, or whatever the figure of those opposing was or is, now tarred by that decision? Should people who voted for Tim Farron but are deeply opposed to bombing Syria now consider their membership?

No.

No decision that parliamentarians make is made in our names. They are made in their own names, which is why it is the name of the individual that goes on the ballot paper at a General Election, and only subsequently (and relatively recently) the name of the party for which they are standing.

If Tim Farron had stood on a platform of ‘tough action in the Middle East’, but had garnered votes from people opposed to that kind of rhetoric, they might well need to go through a period of soul-searching. I have previously urged people who voted Conservative, but simply did not believe some of the commitments to further austerity that the Conservatives made, and now regret it, to go through exactly such an exercise. On the other hand, if Tim Farron had stood on a platform of ‘bombing never solved anything’, then there would be legitimate reasons to call for his resignation, or, at least, to trigger a leadership contest.

Neither are the case here. What parliament has collectively chosen to do is a matter for the consciences of each person who cast their vote. It does not make us complicit, unless they promised to do what they have now done before we elected them.

Rights, right and might

I still don’t see how adding Royal Air Force capability to the existing forces bombing Syria improves the situation, nor what realistic and effective strategy we have for dealing with Daesh (ISIS).

To some extent, I don’t expect to. I recently had a conversation with an analyst about the military situation elsewhere. I was staggered, as I always am by these conversations, to learn how little my knowledge of the situation — garnered from what I hold to be an intelligent and informed approach to media reports — tallied with what was really happening. To be fair, and as he told me, all the information was out there, in the public domain, freely available. I had simply not considered the implications of the facts. Equally, I wouldn’t expect our military strategy for Daesh to be made common knowledge, as that would invalidate it as a strategy.

I am persuaded that Parliament — including Tim Farron and five of his Liberal Democrat colleagues — had the democratic right to make the decision they made yesterday. Crucial in this is that there was already a UN mandate, and a proper debate took place. Neither of these were the case for the second Iraq war.

I am not persuaded that they made the right decision—though I accept that either decision would have had far-reaching consequences which could not be known or calculated beforehand.

If the Liberal Democrat MPs had made a decision which I believed they had no right to make, then I would have felt obligated to withdraw my support from them. Because they made a decision which they had a right to make, though not the decision I favoured, I will continue to support them.

We now move on to the critical question, which can only be answered by events. Will the extension of British military might (and Britain is, by many assessments, still the 5th largest military power in the world) save lives or destroy them? Will we properly accept our responsibilities, already laid out in the international protocol on refugees to which we are signatories, to play a full part in sheltering those displaced by this war? Will yesterday’s decision have an impact on our peaceful existence on these islands?

We wait to see.

Show 1 footnote

  1. A properly conducted poll is of a carefully constituted sample, weighted in such a way that it creates a statistically valid indication of the result. A survey is a much broader questionnaire, typically for the Liberal Democrats to all members, reliant on who chooses to respond. Despite the much larger numbers involved, a survey is far more likely to be dependent on response-bias, the artefact of giving more weight to those interested enough to reply.

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