Syria: history in the making but not the learning

Last week’s debate in the House of Commons on Syria will enter the annals of history.  It will be documented in stark contrast to the rather more supine behaviour of parliamentarians over Iraq.  If we’re really lucky, the late Robin Cook will be mentioned as having effectively established the convention that the UK Parliament must sanction military interventions.  And it might even be noted as the pivotal point at which the electoral tide ebbed from Cameron and flowed to Miliband.

Yet, for all the immediate commentary analysing whether this was a great moment for Miliband’s leadership, the role of Douglas Alexander as architect of this triumph of parliament over government attracted less attention. He began the strategy last weekend in the studios of setting out why we might want to pause on military intervention, seeming to pull his party back from early indications of support. That rather tortuous amendment was the work of a master tactician:  it has so many get out of jail free phrases that Labour can continue to dance around supporting military intervention for some time to come. Alexander was back in the studios before the great debate explaining Labour’s position; during the debate, he sat just behind Miliband nodding sagely at every point scored, as well he might, given that he probably had a hand in writing each one; and swaying visibly from exhaustion, he was back on the late night news bulletins reinforcing the meaning of the defeat for Cameron.

Being the pivotal man behind the throne rather suits Alexander, but last week’s performance will have caused his stock to rise.  Which makes him both indispensable in the run up to the 2015 election and potentially dangerous to Miliband in the aftermath.

The Scottish media largely ignored this. It also glossed over another important footnote, which was that the SNP signed up to Labour’s amendment. It doesn’t chime with the narrative of a nation divided, but here was an exemplar of parliamentary groups working together when there is at least a thread of agreement on key points. It showed, albeit in a small way, what can be achieved when tribal loyalties are set aside to consider the bigger picture and suggests that in an independent Scotland, there might be less to divide us than the current debate suggests.

As Depute Editor of Scotland on Sunday, Kenny Farquharson, pointed out on twitter, it’s not clear how comfortable those SNP members to the left of the Westminster SNP group (that will be most of them) will be when they realise that they signed up for a position on Syria which is definitely more hawkish than dove. But everyone realises that if we were to avoid the story becoming the SNP’s abandonment of Syria if a separate, less interventionist stance was taken, this was a necessary evil. That’s the problem with realpolitik: sometimes, gritting teeth is required in the short term, particularly to avoid a doing in our peculiarly parochial press on all things foreign policy.

The headlines garnered by Alistair Darling‘s sophistry at the Better Together Glasgow launch suggests such mature moments are fleeting in the Scottish media. Not one to allow the opportunity of scoring a cheap party political point in the face of an international crisis pass him by, Darling opined that independent Scotland would lack international clout in such matters.  I know, cos I’ve been to some of these meetings and seen the role the UK plays on the global stage.

Those would be the meetings whereby the UK led the charge to limit international regulation of the big banks, thereby ensuring that they contributed significantly to the economic mess much of the developed world is currently mired in. And the ones where the UK stood shoulder to shoulder with our US allies on Iraq, leaning on UN partners to get retrospective backing for unwarranted military intervention.

Anyone can swagger and bully on the world stage. The UK does it rather well. We stride around these grandes salles, often using the megaphone diplomacy our permanent seat on the Security Council allows us to try and impose our way of thinking – which rarely deviates from the US’s – on everyone else.

Marginally more depressing than Darling’s remarks was the lack of a meaningful response from the Scottish Government. His assertion could easily have been countered. Smaller nations like Denmark were indeed waiting to see what the UK might do:  that historic parliamentary vote halted the Danes’ shift towards backing military intervention. But it and others have been rather more focused on the need for humanitarian aid. I’m no currency specialist but Denmark’s 424 million krone contributed since 2012 and a further 100 million krone committed last week seems rather impressive compared to £348 million pledged by the UK to date.

Moreover, small nations are playing a big role in this unfolding crisis. Which country currently has the EU Presidency and therefore a leading role at the table on discussions, negotiations and decision making? That will be Lithuania, a country of just over 3 million people, and whose complex history with Russia will ensure that it takes a thoughtful stance on this issue. Which is why its Foreign Minister was engaged in consultations with counterparts within the EU and without last week, and why it is determined that a “political solution is the only viable way to secure longterm peace and stability in Syria“.

This is what independence and being a wee country in a big, bad world offers. The chance to generate and contribute to consensus and multi-lateral responses instead of strike first, think later interventions. And the opportunity to focus on saving and healing rather than bombing and maiming.

Indeed, the actions of the SNP and Plaid groups in Westminster last week hinted at what can be achieved by small nations supporting larger partners willing to display dove-like tendencies instead of hawk ones.

The machinations of how the Syrian crisis plays out domestically and internationally might be fascinating but while everyone fiddles, innocent civilians burn. The truth is that nearly every country with influence took a head in the sand approach to this unfolding disaster.

For months, we have watched nightly as the civil war intensified and still, we procrastinated. Had the international community acted sooner, the chemical weapons attack might have been avoided. The consequence of indecision by the international community to try and forge a political solution in Syria at the earliest point was always going to be an inevitable creep towards states having to act militarily.

And while everyone tries to work out what that response might be, Syrians suffer. We’ve been here so many times before and each and every time, we fail.

It seems that history teaches us very little at all.



Why Scots’ support for EU membership is going down

One of the most interesting findings (to this burd anyhow) of a recent poll on independence was that fewer Scots now support membership of the EU.  In 2008,  40% of people polled wanted the UK to continue to represent Scotland’s interests in the UK, after independence and a further 40% wanted to be a separate member of the EU – a clear majority then in favour of some way of continuing with EU membership and only 13% wanted to leave the EU altogether.

When the poll was repeated at the end of February, 39% wanted the UK to continue to represent an independent Scotland in the EU but support for “independence in Europe” had fallen to 29%.  Meanwhile, support for leaving the EU altogether had risen to 21%.

The question is why?  What could behind this shift away from one of the cornerstones of the SNP’s approach to independence?

No doubt, the reasons are multifarious and complex.  But a press hostile to the EU and almost non-existent broadcast media coverage of what goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg plays a role.

Take this splash from Monday’s Daily Express.  It forms part of its recently launched campaign to persuade (“get”) Britain to leave (“out of”) the European Union.  “From now on, our energies will be directed to furthering the cause of those who believe Britain is Better Off Out…. After far too many years as the victims of Brussels larceny, bullying, over-regulation and all-round interference, the time has come for the British people to win back their country and restore legitimacy and accountability to their political process.”

Oh boy.  Thus, the headline on Monday screamed:  “Now EU bans plastic bags”.  Only it hasn’t.  Compare and contrast the treatment of the same story in Der Spiegel, which produced the headline – Bagging It: EU Wants to Reduce Plastic Shopping Bag Use.  A very different proposition, I’m sure you’ll agree, so which is right?

Well, the story is that the EU is exploring how to reduce the usage of thin, single usage plastic bags.  A report has been prepared considering a range of options and – funnily enough – it has concluded that the option to ban their use altogether has already been discounted, partly because it would be a “blunt instrument” but essentially because it would conflict with international trade law and internal EU market rules.

Clearly the Express piece is nonsense and highlights the appalling misinformation that some press sources in the UK propagate about the EU to whomever is unfortunate enough to read their blatts.  This is because of their own editorial peccadilloes which are often politically hostile to EU membership or at best, agnostic.  The sort of scare stories which appear in too many newspapers, and have done for some years now, are one reason why support for the EU is falling in Scotland.

Another reason is the lack of coverage at all.  Some might recall some recent wittering by me about a European report into the gender pay gap and the measures being proposed to tackle it.  Yet, it received zilch coverage from the mainstream media.  So I asked a European Parliament official about it.

Not for the lack of trying, was the response.  To coincide with the publication of that report, a debate was hosted by Europe House in London.  About 80 journalists were invited – social affairs correspondents, women’s pages editors, magazine editors – journalists you might have thought would be interested in the gender pay gap in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

Not a single one turned up.  Hence, no coverage.  All they had to do was stagger across London (most of them) and still they couldn’t find the time or inclination.

Increasingly – like many – the European Parliament is turning to social media to get its message out, especially in the UK.  For that same debate, an #EUwomendebate Twitter hashtag was created and used in the run up to the event.  Two Twitter walls were built inside the room of the debate and attendees received wifi passwords, encouraging participants to tweet using the hashtag. Approximately 250 tweets appeared on the wall during the debate, with several people joining the debate online.  The result?  45,000 people reached through Twitter.  Other social media, such as blogging and Facebook, were used as well.

According to the same official:  “this should give us food for thought: the people speaking that day (just ahead of the consultation on quotas for company boards was announced by the European Commission) are the ones with some real power to change things for women but old media is not going to stir unless it’s a sex or money scandal. So if I want to inform women about what is being done for them in Europe (totally one-sidedly, you could argue) I have to go to women citizens journalists directly. Isn’t this a sad state of affairs?”

That consultation is now underway and there is a real chance that the European Parliament will vote for compulsory female quotas in the boardroom.  Which would explain some of the blethers a few months ago from big business about how they are all working hard to improve women’s representation. It was clearly an attempt to head off the prospect of legislative compulsion.  Too late, I hope.  Scotland has nothing to crow about on this issue, as evidenced by the rather excellent detective work by Kenneth Roy at Scottish Review.

This is actually an exciting time for European matters, especially for those of us who care about gender equality.  We should be lobbying our representatives in the European Parliament and responding to this consultation – whether or not we support the proposals for compulsion – but how can we when barely anyone who is PAID to cover this sort of news cannot be bothered to do their job and inform the public?

No doubt, once big business shifts from its torpor and pokes the media, we will get a rash of negative headlines and scare stories on this.  It will be news then and yet another opportunity for the media to improve people’s view of what goes on in Europe will have been lost.  As usual, we will be invited to see the worst side, especially if, like the Express, news outlets take licence with the verity.

And yet, given the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future, it has never been more important for us to understand the workings of the European Union and to receive information about the good it does for Scotland and many people living here.  Shame we cannot rely on the fourth estate to provide it.


The nasty party decides the needy can starve

It is a shocking indictment of the times we live in when a charity which gives out free food highlights a 20% rise in demandFare Share, which redistributes waste and out of date food from manufacturers and retailers to social care charities, so they in turn can pass it on free to people in need, started out initially as an environmental organisation.  Its aim was to try to put to good use a tiny fraction – 1% – of the three million tonnes of perfectly edible food thrown away each year.

But as Britain has hit hard times, it has seen its focus shift to the alleviation of poverty.  More charities are signing up to receive its food services – the number has risen from 600 to 700 in the last year.  These charities are themselves facing unprecedented demand, with one based in Salisbury seeing the number of people it is feeding rise from 41,000 to 61,500.  Ironically, many of these same charities are having to cut their food budgets, to stay afloat thanks to one-third of them facing cuts in government funding.

The reasons for increased demand are linked to current government policy:  more people are now in poverty thanks to unemployment and a time lag between the claiming of benefits and payments actually being received.  Another organisation, the Resolution Foundation think-tank, reckons too that there are more people in work-related poverty, with more than one in five employees not receiving a living wage.

Bad enough that Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies are causing such hardship at home, but it seems they are keen to export such callousness to the continent.

Since 1987, the European Union has operated a “food for free” programme.  Initially, the scheme was set up to alleviate hardship during the harsh winter of 1987-88 and use up Europe’s embarrassing food stockpiles of staples like butter, beef, rice and cereals, kept at taxpayers’ expense in warehouses.  When food stocks dwindled, following reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the programme changed in 1995 to become monetized, in that member states – 19 of the 27 in 2008 – participating in the scheme would be allocated a budget which they would then pass on to designated charities operating in their country to use to purchase food on the open market, that they would then give away for free to those in food poverty.

In 2006, 13 million citizens benefited from the food for free scheme across Europe, including pensioners, homeless people, the working poor, asylum seekers, children in poverty and disabled people.  By last year, this had risen to 18 million and it is estimated that despite the European Union being one of the world’s largest economies, 43 million people are at risk of food poverty

There is no denying the budget has grown – hugely –  from just under 100 million euros in 1988 to over 300 million euros in 2008.  But then so too, has the need.  Enlargement brought in more, poorer states and we all know how financial and economic meltdown has impacted on some previously relatively wealthy European states.  So, throughout 2010, work has been undertaken to reform the scheme again, so that it becomes not just financed by participating countries but now also by the EU itself.  Its contribution would be 75% initially, reducing to 50% from 2013.  But the reform proposal has been stalled, thanks to opposition by six countries.  Including the UK.

The UK does not participate in the scheme – perhaps given what Fare Share revealed this week, it is time it did.  And it would appear that for the ConDems, if charity is not to happen at home, they will be making sure it won’t be happening anywhere else either.  Who cares if folk on our doorsteps are starving?

The European group of Socialists and Democrats has called foul, and rightly so. Its spokesperson on employment and social affairs, Alejandro Cercas, noted wryly:  “The EU has been saving banks and States from their debts, we cannot accept that it turns its back on its poorest citizens who are the most exposed to the effects of the economic crisis.”  Quite.

Readers, it would appear that the Nasty Party is back, only this time it has a sidekick in the Liberal Democrats who claim that their presence in the coalition is keeping it civilised.  The burd dreads to think what might happen if they weren’t there…

And to Conservative delegates gathering in Manchester for their annual conference?  I hope you choke on your champagne.