Friday 30 March 2018

To let the punishment fit the crime

A St Andrews academic Clara Ponsati is facing extradition to Spain. The Vice Chancellor of the university has come to her defence, as have many other people in Scotland, on the grounds that Ponsati is being “targeted for her political beliefs” by the Spanish government.

Ponsati is not alone in facing extradition to Spain. Former Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont is in custody in Germany on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds in connection with what Spain considers to be an illegal referendum held on October 1st 2017 and a later unilateral declaration of Catalan independence. Ponsati and others who were members of Puigdemont’s government face similar charges. Not every country has the same laws, of course, but the offence that the Germans consider is closest to this in German law is high treason.

Is it the case that Puigdemont, Ponsati and others are being persecuted for their political beliefs? If that were the case why were they not arrested some years ago when their political belief in the independence of Catalonia was made clear and public? It is not illegal in Spain to believe in this. Nor indeed is it illegal in most countries to campaign for the independence of a part of a nation state. I could campaign for the independence of Burgundy, Saxony or Kansas and I will be left alone. I can believe fervently in the justice of independence for all of these places no-one will send an international arrest warrant. I might get into trouble if I campaigned for independence for a region of Saudi Arabia or China, but in most countries I can believe what I please about regional independence.

The issue with regard to Ponsati is not what she believes, but rather what she did. An international arrest warrant has been sent not because she believes in independence for Catalonia, but rather because she tried to achieve this independence illegally. What this means is that she broke the law in Spain.

But surely what Ponsati did was no different to what Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond did in Scotland. In some ways this is true. The SNP gained power in the Scottish Parliament and said they wished to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. This referendum was held. If they had won, they would have set about turning Scotland into an independent, sovereign nation state. What’s the difference between what the SNP did and what happened last year in Catalonia?

The difference is this. The SNP had permission to hold a referendum on independence. The SNP came to an agreement with the UK called the Edinburgh Agreement which made the independence referendum of 2014 legal and binding on both sides. Each agreed to respect the result as a decisive expression of the wishes of people in Scotland. There wasn’t an illegal referendum in Scotland and there wasn’t an act of rebellion because UK gave permission for the referendum and made it legal both in Scotland and the UK. If the SNP had won, Scotland would by now be a sovereign independent nation state recognised the world over.

Why did the Catalans hold an illegal referendum? The reason is that Spain would not give permission to hold a legal one. Ought Spain to have given permission? This is a matter we can debate endlessly. There are legitimate differences of opinion. In our political tradition we have generally considered that the parts of the UK have the right to leave if they express the political will to do so. But this view is not shared by most of the world. It is hard to think of a member of the EU that would allow a region to have a vote on independence. Likewise the USA would certainly not allow a state to have such a vote. So whether we agree with Spain or not it is worth reflecting that Spain is not alone.

After Catalonia made its unilateral declaration of independence how many nation states around the world recognised it? The answer is zero. The only places which tentatively gave support to this declaration were Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Flanders, Corsica, Sardinia, and Scotland. What do these places have in common? Well the first two are places that obtained “independence” illegally by means of Russian tanks and the rest are parts of sovereign nation states with significant independence movements.

But not a single internationally recognised sovereign nation state supported Catalonia even though around the world many of us were shocked to see the Spanish police we battering people for voting. Why was there such a lack of international support for Catalan independence?  The reason is clear. It is because the Catalan regional government was acting illegally. Its unilateral declaration of independence was an act of rebellion. No-one in the rest of the world wants to encourage such behaviour. Nearly every nation state in the world sees maintaining territorial integrity as its number one priority.

But don’t the Catalans have the right to vote for independence if they want to? It is commonly thought by independence supporters in Scotland that there is a right to hold a vote on independence whenever they want. But this is not the case. While the SNP’s Fiona Hyslop argued that “the people of Catalonia must have the ability to determine their own future” she was apparently unaware that the so called right to self-determination does not apply to places like Catalonia nor indeed to Scotland. This is why the UN sought "solutions within the framework of the Spanish constitution and through established political and legal channel" rather than pointing out that Spain was in breach of international law for not giving the Catalans their right to secession. 

Places like Catalonia and Scotland, being part of a fully functioning democracies already have self-determination. They have national and regional elections by which they can already express their political views. There is not in international law a right to have a vote on independence. If there were then most of the democracies in the world including all of the EU, USA and Japan would be in breach of international law. If Catalonia was merely fulfilling its right to self-determination in law and Spain was acting illegally in thwarting this right, why is it that the whole world took Spain’s side with only a few regional assemblies and rogue secessionists backing the Catalans? It's rather odd than only these few places should correctly understand international law, while the whole of the rest of the world including the UN does not. 

The sovereign nation state in international law has the right to defend itself and defend its territorial integrity. It is for this reason above all that we support Ukraine as opposed to its breakaway regions of Crimea, Donetsk People's Republic and the Lugansk People's Republic. They too unilaterally declared themselves to be independent from Ukraine on the basis of illegal referendums. They too received next to no recognition.  Even if Russian troops had not been involved in achieving these declarations of independence and even if 100% of the populations of these regions had wished to leave Ukraine, it still would have been within the right of Ukraine to say “No” you will remain part of Ukraine and the sovereignty of the Ukrainian Government will forever extend over you.

But what are Catalan independence supporters supposed to do? If Spain always says “No” to a referendum on Catalan independence how are they to reach their goal of independence? They have no choice but to hold an illegal referendum, simply because Spain won’t grant them a legal one.  Rebellion indeed is the only option when a nation state refuses independence. Many of today’s nation states obtained independence in this way. If the rebellion succeeds the new state is recognised. In this case the leaders, such as George Washington, are heroes. There is a right to rebellion, but there is clearly also a risk. If you fail, then you are liable to be prosecuted, sometimes rather severely.

It is above all for this reason that a touch more gratitude might be expected from Scottish nationalists for the fact that they were allowed to hold a legal referendum. The UK didn’t have to give in to SNP demands. They don’t now. If Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon had decided to hold a referendum anyway, they too might have had to face the consequence of acting illegally. All the Catalans wanted was the chance that Scotland had in 2014, but I have heard rather few Scottish nationalists praising British democracy as opposed to that in Spain.

Clara Ponsati may well have acted illegally, but we can also sympathise with her predicament. She had no legal route to independence and therefore chose to act illegally. She failed. Catalonia is not independent and probably will not in the foreseeable future become independent. There has been some violence in Spain. The cause of this can justly be ascribed to the Catalan government acting illegally and the Spanish government attempting to enforce the law in an unnecessarily heavy handed manner. If the independence vote in Catalonia was illegal why not let the Catalans vote freely and then simply ignore the result because it was illegitimate? But while any violence is regrettable we must be grateful that it has not, as yet been too severe.

Still it is worth he Spanish authorities learning the lesson of their overreaction. If they have any sense with not create martyrs, like the British did in Ireland in 1916. Better by far if we’d led all rebels depart in peace. Better if we’d acted decades earlier so that they had felt no need to rebel in the first place.

There is no threat now to the integrity of Spain, so be gentle with those who felt forced to act illegally. The dearest wish of Ponsati was by means of Catalan independence to not live in Spain. Perhaps the punishment that would most fit the crime would be to fulfill her wish and say that she may indeed continue not to live in Spain and will be left alone so long as she continues to do so.

Saturday 24 March 2018

The EU wants our coat too

I have been finding contemporary politics dull and uninspiring. It is above all for this reason that I’ve been struggling to write about recent events. We know that at some point there will be another election struggle between a rather daft, but reinvigorated Labour Party and a worn out Tory Party in desperate need of new ideas and a new leader, but it won’t be yet and may not be for years.  The SNP have the most support in Scotland, but that support is not enough for the one thing that they want. While a year or so ago Nicola Sturgeon didn’t go a day without threatening this or that, she appears to have calmed down, or perhaps it is merely that in Edinburgh there

sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

But whatever she is doing, it is probably not worth provoking her or her “running dogs of Scottish nationalism”. It can be good fun to remind the Nats that it looks awfully as if there moment has passed, but why remind when they already know. Better by far just to ignore them as much as possible. Let them sleep, let them lie. What was that about Brexit guaranteeing Scottish independence? Whether that was a pie or a sleeping dog it wasn’t the greatest prediction in the history of Scottish politics.

 Who would have thought that the process of leaving the EU would take longer and appear more difficult that winning the First World War? But then at least we were more or less united between 1914 and 1918 and few indeed were the Brits who thought it was a good idea to hope that we lost and our opponent won. We nearly did lose in the days following March 21st 1918, but strangely while we have “remembrance” we have no memory at all and no knowledge whatsoever of the most important events that challenge the clichés of mud, trenches and static warfare.

Like some other impatient Brexiteers I would have simply announced to the EU in 2016 that we had already left. I would have unilaterally lowered all tariffs to zero and invited everyone around the world to treat our goods in the same way. I would then have lowered business taxes so that they were the lowest in Europe and repealed each and every bit of EU bureaucracy that hindered business. I would have told the EU that we would not be paying one penny more in order to trade with them “freely”, on the grounds that paying for free trade is a contradiction because it’s precisely thereby not free.  I would have used the billions saved to compensate, in a roundabout way if necessary, our businesses for any losses incurred by leaving the EU and whatever was left over I would have spent on a fleet of destroyers to patrol our territorial waters. I would have reminded our European friends that they would remain friends if and only if they treated us in a friendly fashion. Otherwise they need not expect us to share any intelligence nor if they were invaded from the East need they expect any help. We fought two World Wars when we didn’t have to, as in neither instance were we directly threatened. We spent a vast amount of money and lives liberating continental Europe and got precious little in return, not even thanks.

If we had done this we would at least have avoided the deadly dull and rather humiliating spectacle of these tortuous negotiations just so that we can continue to trade more or less freely with people who at times appear to want to punish us. We may have fallen far since 1918, but surely we haven’t fallen quite that far.

But Theresa May didn’t have the numbers for my swashbuckling Brexiteer fantasy in 2016. Her party was divided, not merely between Leavers and Remainers, but more importantly far too few of her MPs were even really free marketeers who believe in cutting public spending, lowering taxes and living within our means. There just aren’t enough Conservatives in the Conservative Party to force through the radical sort of change that might have happened if we had had the guts to do it.

The election of 2017 made the UK safe from Scottish nationalism. The dangerous moment was if the SNP could have achieved independence before the UK left the EU. If the EU had cooperated and bent their own rules, an independent Scotland could have joined the EU in the transition period from leaving the UK. But thankfully this moment has now passed. Once the UK has left the EU, then SNP Remainers have to become Rejoiners. This would mean giving up whatever powers the Scottish Parliament gains from Brexit, it would mean giving up control over our territorial waters and it would mean joining Schengen and the Euro. The EU membership fee would also be rather higher given that we would no longer get back Mrs Thatcher’s rebate. None of this looks terribly attractive, not least because if Scotland were in Schengen while England was not it’s very hard to see how a hard border could be avoided. The Republic of Ireland is not in Schengen. Moreover if the UK is out of the EU while Scotland was in it, the nightmare scenario of being in a different trading bloc to your greatest trading partner becomes very real. The UK’s internal single market is much more important to Scotland than the EU’s single market. You can’t after all be part of an internal market if the relationship between England and Scotland becomes a relationship between independent nation states rather than parts of a single nation state. The clue is in the word “internal”.

Brexit clarified minds in Scotland and those who could think through the issues rapidly came to the conclusion that Scottish independence was no longer attractive or even tenable. Scots are not stupid and for this reason support for the SNP fell and will continue to fall.

So the election in 2017 was worth it.  We will look in time on the years 2016 and 2017 as the years that saw Scottish nationalism reach its peak and then go into decline. But the price we paid for this was that Theresa May lost her majority. This meant that Brexiteers had to take a long view.

Theresa May’s weakness and the fact that Parliament and her own party are divided has been exploited relentlessly and ruthlessly by our opponents in the EU. Their task has been to give Britain the worst possible deal. The consequences of this are that Brexit will cost us a lot more than it needed to and we will have to make more concessions to the EU than was necessary. All of these things will be damaging to the UK’s national interest. The money we give to the EU in the coming years might have been spent on defence or the health service or in cutting the deficit. Instead we will continue to spend billions in order to trade “freely” with the EU. This is the consequence of the Remain rear-guard. Instead of being united we were divided and the EU exploited this to give us worst deal they could. It’s thanks to Tony Blair, John Major and everyone who ever banged on about a second referendum that our fishermen won’t yet get control of our waters.

What do you call someone who acts so as to damage the UK national interest? Do you call them a friend? It’s not a game. The lives of British citizens, e.g. fishermen, will be worse, because the deal we are getting at least in the short term is not as good as it could be. The people responsible for this, whether in the EU or in the UK, have not been treating the UK in a friendly fashion. Many of them want our position after Brexit to be financially as bad as possible. Some of them want to advance their own long term aims at the expense of ours. The whole way in which certain EU countries have negotiated has been hostile. France wants to take UK jobs. Spain wants to make life difficult for Gibraltar in order it hopes to force Gibraltar to become a part of Spain. The Republic of Ireland wants to use Brexit to weaken the bonds between the UK and Northern Ireland, because it too hopes that UK territory will eventually become part of its own territory.

We have been remarkably patient in the face of this hostility and irredentism. The impatient, like me, would have walked away long ago, but that no doubt would have been a mistake. Let us focus instead on the prize ahead.

With luck we are going to achieve what we set out to achieve. We are going to be able to trade more or less freely with the EU and eventually we are not going to have to pay the price, whether that price was in terms of money or in terms of political union. What people thought was impossible, we will achieve, i.e. truly free trade, with no subscription fee. We will get to this stage moreover without going through the shock of radically changing economic direction. Let us achieve the free-marketeer, low tax, low regulation dream gradually. We will in time get control of our waters. Moreover despite provocation from those who hate us, we have stayed friendly. This in the end has proved worth it. Surprisingly enough the EU is beginning to value the UK’s contribution to security and intelligence. We have achieved a more united response to Mr Putin than he probably thought we would. It looks like Mrs May’s Brexit strategy has been worth it.

So it is better by far if we just ignore the latest manifestation of Irish nationalism. It attempted to damage our national interest in the years between 1939 and 1945 even if that meant the sinking of ships which in part were bringing the food necessary to fill Irish stomachs. It tried to bomb us into submitting to its will, while its diplomats who had the same aim pretended that the bombing had nothing whatsoever to do with their aim. Now it wants to use our desire to maintain an open border between our two independent sovereign nation states to bring its goal that little bit closer. I’m sorry, but no matter what it costs us we will always defend the people of Northern Ireland and their choice to be British.

But as always the cloak of British security extends over Ireland and will continue to do so. I doubt Mr Putin is much interested in neutrality. We protect the rights of small nations like Belgium and extent the hand of friendship even when they bite it. For some people after all a cloak isn’t enough. They want your coat too. Well we will even give them that.

Let us promise then that we will keep the international border between Northern Ireland and the Republic open. We will make no checks whatsoever either on people or on goods. The whole of the UK including Northern Ireland will neither be in the EU Customs Union nor the Single Market. We are united and we will let no-one try to divide us. But if this leads to any sort of tariff or charge, we will choose not to collect it. Let Irish trade be free, it will benefit all of us. But if the Republic of Ireland is forced by its membership of the EU to charge tariffs or to regulate the movement of people, let them erect a hard border on their side of the line, not ours. But in that case don’t blame us. We are independent sovereign nation states. We must respect our equal right to act independently. The trouble with nationalists whether Irish or Scottish is that they never wish to face up to the consequences of independence.

Saturday 17 March 2018

A terrible act requires a determined response

There isn’t that much in Russia that works, they have practically no exports except oil, gas and commodities, which in part is the reason their economy has been in steep decline lately, but there are still some things they do well. The FSB, or KGB mark II is still very good indeed. The military despite sometimes using obsolete, clunky weaponry can still perform as they have ably demonstrated recently in both Ukraine and Syria. Perhaps the biggest strength of the Russians is that while they themselves believe in truth, they are willing to lie without any scruples whatsoever. We on the other hand have all sorts of scruples, but no longer believe in truth.

The experience of World War II taught the Russian military and security services the benefits of deception. While the Western Allies too deceived the Germans about exactly where in France we would invade, somehow in the decades since we have forgotten the lesson. The KGB won the Cold War. They were able far more often to gain our important secrets than we theirs. This was in part because Western intellectuals and politicians (some in quite high places now) were willing to betray their country because they sympathised with Soviet ideology (socialism).  

The Russian military didn’t really lose the Cold War. It could have prevented the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union with remarkably few machine gun bullets. It was Gorbachev’s failure to defend the Motherland, i.e. the historic Russian Empire plus buffer states that led to the worst loss of Russian territory in history. What had taken centuries to gather, still worse what had been Rus’ from the beginning, Ukraine and Belarus were lost. It was as if the Russian heart had been ripped out.

But the Russian military retained its traditions from World War II. Its training remained just as brutal and the way it fought just as cruel and effective. It does not find itself limited by concern for civilian casualties, nor does it need to fear that a Syrian will be able to sue a Russian soldier in the Moscow courts. No Russian soldier will be convicted for doing something excessive. Rather he will receive a medal for it. This is why a Russian regiment is always liable to defeat a NATO regiment, for the simple reason that it will not have to fight with one hand tied behind its back and it will be willing to take casualties.

There is something excessive about Russian history. The pity is that it is so little known outside Russia. No wonder we struggle to understand our opponent. They know our history. They know our literature far better than we know theirs. They can speak our language, while most people in the West think Russian amounts to mirror writing (Я, И, etc). When I first read the story of how Russia developed from its tiny beginnings in Kiev to stretching across most of the Eurasian landmass I was struck most by the cruelty. Two princes are bumped off because they got in the way, another is blinded. The most terrible thing that Ivan does is to himself when he kills his own son and heir in a fit of temper and then regrets it. The most saintly Tsar Alexandr may well have been involved in the assassination of his father. The cruelty also done to the Russians by invading forces (Mongols, French, Germans, Poles) was such that the Russians always found a way somehow to take revenge and in their taking revenge they found a way to be excessive.

It is this tendency to excess that explains best I think the use of Polonium to kill Litvenenko and Novichok to attempt to kill Skripal and his daughter. It just isn’t necessary to use such exotic methods. It’s excessive. It’s an attempt to say we can do what we want. We can do anything. Therefore fear us. It’s like putting a horse’s head in someone’s bed. Just like in the film, it works.

The Russians know that while they believe in truth and only tell one truth in their media, we in the West must be unbiased to the extent that we think everything is a matter of opinion. This enables them to lie with impunity. No matter how unlikely the lie, the BBC will report that the Russians say that they have no troops in Crimea, no troops in the Donbass and no Russian planes have killed any civilians whatsoever in Syria. This will all be reported impartially. Some people here, especially those who hate the West, will give the Russians the benefit of the doubt. After all who really knows the truth? Perhaps the CIA or Mosad brought down the Twin Towers, maybe they faked the moon landings.  

If you tell a lie consistently enough and your opponent doesn’t really believe in truth anyway no wonder you convince some of them and make everyone else doubt. Just like being excessive, this is a strategy that works.

The only way to defend against someone who lies is to know the truth and believe the truth. This is the key first stage in how we must learn to respond to our opponent. The problem is that we are going to have to reverse decades of misinformation from our universities that there is no such thing as truth.

In the West intellectuals typically believe that morality is no longer a matter of truth, but rather opinion. Who am I to judge? Everything is permitted.

Prince Charles wants to be defender of faith, i.e. all faiths rather than defender of the faith. The word “the” here makes all the difference, for in defending all faiths he is saying none of them are true, but rather all of them are just matters of opinion.

Even the most basic of truths have become a matter of subjectivity and relativism. No longer is someone’s sex something fixed and unchangeable. This is the view held in Russia and most of the world throughout human history. Instead in the West someone’s sex is a matter of opinion, something I can decide and choose based not on the facts but on how I feel.

In academia everything becomes plural. No longer do we have history, but rather histories. No longer does the BBC describe civilisation, but rather civilisations. Who are we to judge? Who are we to have confidence in Western Civilisation or think that anything good at all came out of it. Rather all must win prizes, all must be relative and all must be equal. No wonder we are unwilling to defend that which we no longer even value.

We have lost all sense of what we discovered, invented and composed. We ceased to defend our continent and our island. No wonder we are losing to someone (Putin) who believes in the truth, but is willing to lie. We made his job easy, because we have nothing left to defend, not even the truth.

What must we do? We must begin to defend our values. We must realise that these values are not so vague that they can apply to anyone from anywhere. Rather our values come from our history and have developed because our people were changed by that history. We are the children of Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. Britain is as it is because of British people and the British history that made them this way. We are not the same as everyone else in the world who did not have that history. It is time that we began to defend that which is truly ours rather than some vague thing that is really no-one’s.

We must find objective truth and defend it from lies. Our media and politicians must not be impartial about lies. Say that it is a lie and then treat it with the contempt it deserves.

We must cease to be balanced about defending how we live. Democracy and free markets are better than tyranny, fake democracy, the crony capitalism of corrupt oligarchs and any form of the socialist experiment that has already been shown to have failed. This is not an opinion. Free markets, the rule of law and democracy are the condition for the possibility of prosperity and opportunity for all. This is a truth we must defend and hope to spread worldwide.

We must understand our opponent. Russia is more dangerous now than at any time except when it was ruled by Stalin. It is more desperate and the people in charge more ruthless. They know no boundaries. It is very difficult to predict how next they might lash out.

We need to spend more on the armed forces. NATO needs to be able to defend our territory against a conventional attack. At the moment we could not protect Eastern Europe except by using nuclear weapons. We need to deter the Russians from any further adventures.

Many UK universities, including mine, have wonderful Russian collections, but no-one can read them. Foolishly we closed down the Russian departments when, after the Cold War, we thought they were no longer needed. You cannot understand Russia, without knowing the language. They have a different mentality that only becomes clearer with conversation. Russian is a subject worth studying and more useful today than many. 

We need to deter Russian aggression, but we also need to work towards peace. We do not want forever to have Russia as an opponent. They are too dangerous. Don’t underestimate the Russian military or security services. They are willing to fight without rules and in ways that are unexpected (see e.g. the failure to surrender after losing Moscow in 1812). This was the key to their past victories and would form the basis for future ones.

We must treat Russia now as we treated the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Both sides then knew that there were limits. We accepted that that there were things we could not change, such as the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They knew there were lines they could not cross. Eventually with patience on the part of both sides this developed into détente and finally into something approaching peace. We must start again and work for the same goal. But if we have the good fortune to make peace again, don't let's squander it as we did in the years after 1991.