Thursday, February 15, 2024

Some old thoughts on the Israel/Palestine situation…

It’s said that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it, and whilst it would be difficult to compare the current crisis in Gaza with previous ones, if only because of the scale of the resulting deaths, those who have observed events there over decades will have shuddered at the prospect of an Israeli response of the type we have seen since 7 October.

But I am reminded that I wrote the following fifteen years ago…

To be blunt, most of those who entirely support the rights of the Israeli people to live in peace and security within recognised borders within our Party are rightfully uncomfortable with the results of the Israeli campaign. Most people will have no objection to Israel defending itself against attack, as long as that response is proportionate. However, the deaths of innocent civilians in large numbers is not something that many people can endorse with a clear conscience, and I would be disappointed if there was a Liberal Democrat who could find it in themselves to do so. 
However, you are entirely right in one sense. Whilst my point about the use of conventional warfare methodology against terrorists said exactly what I intended to say, I could, and probably should, have expanded on that point. So I will. 
In recent years, we have seen a move away from wars of nation against nation towards more random attacks by small, ideology-driven groups of fanatics against predominantly civilian targets. The campaign by Hamas against Israel is, to a great extent, an example of just such a conflict.  
Hamas 'fighters' launch hit and run attacks, and are extraordinarily difficult to confront and defeat by the use of aircraft and artillery in an area such as Gaza. Their willingness to use densely populated areas and public buildings as a base for rocket launches means that any counter-attack using conventional methods will simply lead to collateral losses that are unaccepted to a viewing public easily swayed by pictures of injured or dying women and children. As integrated into their communities as they are, if Israeli forces attack, they can melt back into the populace and disappear, waiting for the next opportunity to probe at possible Israeli vulnerabilities. 
Lest we forget, we are talking about an organisation that has cynically played upon the heartstrings of the world's media. Accusations that Hamas have prevented the injured from being evacuated in order to generate more martyrs demonstrate that all that matters is the ability to generate undeserved sympathy whilst blackening the reputation of the Israeli people in the eyes of neutrals beyond the region. 
But enough of the context. What are my thoughts on how to proceed? Any successful attempt to combat terrorism is based on an effort to deny oxygen to terrorist movements, to cut off the flow of new recruits, to isolate them from the communities they purport to fight for and, finally, to persuade communities that these people present a risk to their peace and security. 
Such a campaign comes in three parts, political, moral and military. In the first instance, it is necessary to stop the bloodshed. Given the imbalance of casualties, it is perfectly legitimate to take obvious steps to achieve quick gains - one presumes that preventing the deaths of innocent civilians is a legitimate aim - and if cutting off the flow of armaments to Israel is one means of doing so, then I'm comfortable with that. If it requires a guarantee from the United States to defend Israel whilst the next stage proceeds, so be it. A ceasefire secured, action is then required to build a meaningful civil society in the West Bank and Gaza. It means investment in infrastructure, in building a politically neutral military and police force, in developing independent media and genuine political parties founded on ideas and not hatred. By building up the Palestinian economy, citizens will develop an interest in maintaining peace. Here, I plead the example of Northern Ireland, where investment flourished and wealth increased accordingly after the bombing stopped. 
Alongside this, work must be done to root out the terrorists. This is, perhaps, an opportunity for the Arab League to demonstrate their commitment to a two-state solution. Whilst a working civil society is being created, those within the community who seek peace need support to overcome those who believe in the bomb and the bullet. Whereas a wholly military answer is unlikely to succeed, an effective police action is far more likely to work. I believe that a contingent from other Arab nations could do the job effectively, if they are genuine in their willingness to find solutions. The European Union, if it can get its act together (and here I am less optimistic), can also play a major role. 
The reward for compliance? More investment, both for Israel and Palestine. In the long run, both sides will be better off, better able to protect and nurture their citizens and, perhaps one day, normalise relations and work together for the good of all. Alright, that last bit might be a bit naive, but it does at least indicate that there is hope for a positive outcome. In return, the Israelis can address those issues which have so inflamed Arab opinion. Illegal settlements can be dismantled, the wall demolished where it lies in disputed territory - there can be no objection to a nation building a wall on its own border. 
Establishing genuine peace requires a different mindset on the part of the two sides in this dispute. An eye for an eye has, so far, left both sides blind, and yet there are so many in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities who yearn for peace and a better life for their children. The regional powers and the United Nations have an opportunity to achieve something that has evaded us all for sixty years, and if preventing the Israelis, albeit temporarily, from shooting themselves in the foot is the price, then perhaps it is a price worth paying. Otherwise, we will, all of us, continue to suffer the costs of international terrorism and instability in a region that influences us all.

It is rather depressing that this might still represent some, perhaps many, elements of a potential way forward, although the prospects of US intervention are probably weaker than they have been in times past. On the other hand, a regional peacekeeping force might have greater credibility than it did given (at least until recently) improved relationships with neighbouring Arab nations, including key power brokers.

That Liberal Democrats are calling for an immediate bilateral ceasefire strikes me as something that is right both in humanitarian and political terms, even if our voice is unlikely to be heard by those with the ability to directly influence events. We’re fortunate to have, as our Foreign Affairs spokesperson, someone with a meaningful perspective on Gaza and who has been remarkably measured in her comments given the personal impact on members of her family.

It will be a long road to recover from the catastrophe that was 7 October and the events that followed. The people of Gaza and Israel will have their lives clouded by it for years and years to come, with lost ones to mourn, the wounded to live with physical and mental scars. But the rest of the world will need to find ways of encouraging a long-term peace in the region, which will include investments in essential infrastructure in Gaza, pressure on political leaders to adhere to international law, encouragement of steps likely to aid reconciliation and efforts to support mutual security moving forwards.

I am not an optimist in terms of the Israel/Palestine situation. There are too many people on both sides in key positions who appear to see no benefit in compromise - at least, no benefit until their side is in a dominant position over the other. And the fear and distrust that has been struck into so many ordinary people in both Gaza and Israel will be difficult to shake.

But the effort must be made, for if the international community is unable to influence events positively, it augurs ill for the future.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Is it really popular if you have to tell people it is?

It is perhaps a sign that a number of senior figures in the Conservative Party are looking towards a future out of office where their particular world view defines where it goes from here. And today’s launch of “Popular Conservatism” suggests that, if you are enthused by the idea of a sensible conservative political force, you may have to wait a while for one to emerge from the expected electoral wreckage.

A group led by Liz Truss, managed by Mark Littlewood and with Lee Anderson and Jacob Rees-Mogg as key figures is likely to be pretty disruptive as the Conservative Party seeks to recover in the next Parliament. It does strike me though as having some built-in self-destructive tendencies though.

Firstly, the whole low-tax, small state libertarian schtick, much beloved by Liz and Mark, and based on the idea that allowing people to spend their own is better than having the state do it for them. It’s superficially beguiling - who likes paying tax, after all? - but given Mark’s record of claiming that the public support the notion without telling them how he proposes to do it (answer - a whole bunch of things that a large majority of people would be horrified by), and Liz’s utter incomprehension about markets, you can hardly expect honesty in terms of the choices to be made.

But how do you marry libertarianism with the “Red Wall interventionist” stance of Lee Anderson and the moral hypocrisy of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Anglo-Catholicism?

Now, I do see some emerging themes - opposing the “nanny state” in the form of a smoking ban, for example, is consistent with support for personal freedoms. And whilst I don’t take a particularly strong view on Rishi Sunak’s approach, it does seem an unlikely policy from a Conservative Party. But modern-day Conservatives do have a very erratic approach to personal liberty based, it seems, on their personal prejudices. They’re currently against the right to protest, the right to organise, and free and fair elections. You might, and I would, suggest that their support for freedom extends as far as that which they approve of and no further.

So, when Mark talks about “transferring power to families, communities, businesses and individuals”, he might be talking about balancing the needs of those different groups, but he’s more likely to be calling for a minimalist state where no group has protection from the predations of others. In other words, don’t be poor, don’t be vulnerable, don’t be a minority, for might is right, weakness is to be punished.

But, if he’s serious, he and his friends are going to have to undue vast swathes of Conservative legislation designed to limit our freedoms and to make it difficult for us to choose who rules over us. And he’s not going to do that, partly because his friends ultimately won’t let him, but also because freedom requires transparency, and his record at the Institute of Economic Affairs demonstrates his lack of commitment to that.

For me though, the biggest thing that stands in the way of this new ginger group is the word “popular”. Having one of the country’s least successful and most ridiculed politicians at its head isn’t a great start but, if you have to explain to people that what you are calling for is popular, that suggests that you’re simply trying to convince yourself that you have support beyond your narrow circle of friends.

I wish them luck though, for if they succeed, the Conservative Party could be out of power for a generation…

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Civil Service reform: another Minister speaks

I’ll be honest. When I hear that a Government Minister has made a speech on Civil Service reform and modernisation, in my heart I expect not to like what they’ve got to say. More often than not, I don’t. There’s a tendency for politicians to see us bureaucrats as being an obstacle to change, a barrier between the world they want and where we are now. Accordingly, reform and modernisation are a shorthand for giving the Civil Service a bloody good kicking.

Don’t get me wrong. As a bloodied veteran of the public sector trenches, I would be the last to suggest that all is well. But, living the experience every day for more than thirty-seven years gives you a perspective that politicians seldom see. They’re, for obvious reasons, several steps removed from the reality of service delivery, the daily battle to achieve not the targets set necessarily, but to do your best and achieve something tangible that is for the public good.

So, John Glen’s recent speech to the Institute for Government, just ten weeks after he became the Minister for Civil Service Reform, was always going to grab my attention.

And, actually, it wasn’t a bad speech. Yes, he talked about reducing numbers - hardly novel, or a surprise for that matter - but there was a sense that he perhaps understands some of the changes that are needed. His speech revolved around three key themes -embedding technology, embracing simplicity, and enabling people’s potential. 

There can be no doubt that we need to use technology more effectively and I’ve seen much new technology introduced over the course of my career, some of it better than others. But AI is, according to Mr Glen, a potential game changer. Admittedly, for a dinosaur like myself, the impact is likely to be minor but, if it can make it easier for our customers (a word that I still vaguely struggle with in this context) to comply or to get what they need, then it can only be a good thing.

That might also allow for a smaller Civil Service and, whilst you never want to see jobs lost unduly, we will never be a group that attracts mass public support. If the public want fewer bureaucrats and administrators, that’s what they should get, so long as the potential consequences are broadly understood and accepted. Alternatively, it might free people up to do the jobs that currently aren’t done and might benefit from attention.

I’m slightly more cynical about “embracing simplicity”, in that much, if not all, of the complexity is the result of Government intervention, passing more laws. Now I’m not saying that Government shouldn’t be doing that, but the consequence of more complex legislation is that it becomes harder to administer. But, coming back to how technology can be our friend, enabling more and more people to get the information they need without the need for human intervention should be a good thing.

As for “enabling people’s potential”, there does appear to be a little wishful thinking going on. To suggest that sinews are being strained in order to make pay rates in certain key roles become competitive might imply that salaries have been too low for too long. And I cannot bring myself to believe that Ministers really want to make Civil Service salaries properly competitive, especially after everything that has been said by Government ministers in the recent past.

The rest of it was a bit “motherhood and apple pie”, talking about making it easier to get rid of poor performers and improving management skills. And there was the mandatory warning about staff working from home. I've already addressed this - it's about where people are most effective, and about management that addresses poor performance and has the right data to judge - but it's clear that the Government aren't going to let up on this.

Of course, the probability that Mr Glen is going to be around long enough to actually have any impact appears to be vanishingly small. I wonder what the Labour Party is thinking...