Britain’s UDI

As a teenager in 1965 I heard Harold Wilson making a broadcast to the white population of Southern Rhodesia, where I grew up. He was an impressive figure, articulate but plain-spoken, with an ability to recognise the fears and prejudices of his audience and address them in adult terms. The tiny settler population had in 1962 elected a Rhodesian Front government which, on 11 November 1965, soon after Wilson made his broadcast, issued the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. White settler rule came to an ignominious end some fifteen years later, on 18 April 1980.

Today, a much larger British population is about to elect a government that will, it seems, give the United Kingdom its own version of UDI. There are self-evident differences between the two processes, but the similarities and parallels throw an unfavourable light on the present state of British politics. Britain’s UDI may have been a long time coming, but the country’s ability to deal with the consequences is no more powerful or sophisticated than that of the tiny settler population of Rhodesia in 1965. More »

First Drafts

First, a bit of good cheer. Election forecasts often get it wrong. On 8 November 2016, the day of the last US presidential election, the Princeton Election Consortium (‘A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004’) gave the probability of Hillary Clinton’s winning – that is, winning the electoral college, not merely the popular vote – as 93 per cent. And the rest is history, or at least the alternative version of it in which Andrew Jackson nearly prevented the civil war, and Frederick Douglass lives on into his third century, doing an ‘amazing job’. Meanwhile, Princeton’s first draft went through the shredder. So, when betting websites have the Conservatives at 1/33 on to win the most seats in the British general election next month – an implied probability of over 97 per cent – wizened heads can nod indulgently and note that whether there be prophecies, they shall fail. More »

Trump v. Comey

James Comey was the acting attorney general of the United States in March 2004 when two emissaries from the Bush White House marched to the hospital bed of the attorney general, John Ashcroft, and asked him to renew the warrantless mass surveillance programme code-named Stellar Wind – a programme whose legality had been questioned by the Office of Legal Counsel. Comey, who is six foot eight, stood between the White House flunkies and the sick man’s bed, and they retreated. Soon after, he informed Bush that if the secret programme were reauthorised over the objections he had seen, he himself and the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, would lead a mass resignation from the justice department. Bush fell back; and a chink opened in the system whose vastness and illegality would eventually be exposed by Edward Snowden. It was one of very few moments in the Bush-Obama years that bore the stamp of civic courage: someone inside government had been willing to sacrifice his career to uphold the constitution. So when, in September 2013, President Obama appointed Comey as the next director of the FBI, the move was generally applauded. More »

Netanyahu and the Media

Binyamin Netanyahu’s relation with, control of and attitude to the media is a central component of his career and ongoing success. Through his years as a furniture salesman, ambassador to the UN and prime minister, Netanyahu has mastered the art of public relations. To stay in power, he has realised that he needs, on the one hand, to have as much control as possible over the media, over what they cover and what they don’t cover; while on the other hand, he needs Israelis to believe that the media are biased against him. More »

En Marche?

Emmanuel Macron’s success in France on Sunday was not the result of a consensual ‘republican front’ behind which voters could rally against Marine Le Pen in round two. In 2002, when her father reached the second round, a wave of anguish was followed by stoical nose-holding, as the many opponents of Jacques Chirac’s presidency trudged to the polls and voted him into office: anything but Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac took 82 per cent of the vote on a turnout of 80 per cent; 5 per cent spoiled their ballots or left them blank. Le Pen Sr knew a republican front when he saw one. He snarled at its huge following and told them to vote with saucepans on their heads: that way they’d look like the fools that they were. More »

Two Degrees of Ivanka Trump

I haven’t talked to my college roommate in a while, but a mutual friend reminded me that her sister had roomed with Ivanka Trump at Georgetown. This would have been before Ivanka transferred to the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, her father’s alma mater, from which – until recently, when someone checked the records – she said she graduated summa cum laude. I wrote to my old roommate immediately. What was Ivanka really like? Had she revealed anything about her family’s Russian banking interests? My old roommate wrote back: ‘Didn’t you mean to write “Happy Birthday”?’ More »

Labour’s Age Problem

Despite Labour’s troubles, recent polling by YouGov showed the party still commands a national lead among the under-40s. Among men it’s by a single point, within the margin of error, but among younger women it rises to 15 points – astonishing given the Tories currently lead by as much as twenty points nationally. That should offer some succour to the team around Jeremy Corbyn, and is likely to confirm the experiences of his supporters in conversations with friends or canvassing for the party. But it is also, in the context of electoral success, relatively meaningless. Older voters decide who wins. More »

A Bit of Neither

An electoral mandate, Theresa May keeps saying, will ‘strengthen her hand’ in the Brexit talks. The bigger her mandate, we’re led to think, the stronger her hand. This is performative affirmation: the oftener it’s said, the truer it becomes. Or does it? On election night, will the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, be nervously eyeing the returns from Billericay, poised to fold if it clocks up a Tory swing? It seems unlikely. More »

In Hénin-Beaumont

In the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday 23 April, Gwendoline, an 18-year-old from Hénin-Beaumont, a small northern town of 26,000 inhabitants, voted for the first time, for Marine Le Pen. Le Pen cast her own ballot in Hénin-Beaumont too. The Front National mayor, Steeve Briois, was elected in one round of voting in 2014.

I met Gwendoline in a windswept railway station parking lot, on 1 May, as we were waiting for a bus to take us to Hénin-Beaumont. Our train had been cancelled. She laughed at how grim her bank holiday Monday had turned out to be – stuck in a car park on her way back from a funeral, with a mock baccalauréat exam to look forward to the next day.

When the bus finally arrived, it took us very slowly across former mining lands, around a slag heap, not far from Oignies, where the last French coalmine closed in 1990. Gwendoline said that everyone in her class who was old enough to vote, voted for Le Pen. There wasn’t much to do in town, she said, maybe go to Auchan, the biggest shopping centre north of Paris, in the next town. ‘It’s Hénin-Beaumont, it’s not marvellous,’ she smiled. More »

The Costs of Divorce

At the heart of this week’s Brexit shenanigans is a fact: Britain pays more into the European Union than it gets back. This is an opinion-free fact. (They do exist.) It takes no account of the wider benefits that membership brings to Britain, the continent and the world. The fact is there whether you believe, as I do, that some form of payment is worth it, or, as those who voted Leave last June do, that any amount is a tyrannical imposition. More »

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