As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world.
But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough.
This blog is about the new ideas that can change our world and how a 'new multilateralism' can tackle the global challenges of our age.
Change the World, Reports from the Fabian new year conference

Sunday, March 30, 2008

How (not) to get a British Obama

The Obama effect is being claimed by both sides of the debate about whether political parties should introduce all black shortlists for some parliamentary seats.

Harriet Harman has commissioned the pressure group Operation Black Vote to report on how the scheme would work. The report has not been published, but an accurate summary of the main proposals
was published in The Observer last month. Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote told The Observer that:

Unless we take positive action measures we are not going to have a representative democracy for more than 75 years. It's not that we don't have Obamas, but we don't have the mechanisms for them to see the light of day.'

In a commentary in this week's New Statesman, I argued against the proposals as a regressive step, arguing that "ethnic faces for ethnic voters" would be a big step backwards - and the opposite of the Obama effect.

The Independent reported reaction from several MPs, and the criticism from several Asian MPs has been picked up by the Times of India.

Sunny Hundal on Comment is Free and Kanishk Tharoor on OurKingdom agree with me about the dangers of this approach.

Simon Woolley of the Operation Black Vote makes the case for all black shortlists on Comment is Free. In the Independent, Diane Abbott believes that critics are being 'both silly and selfish' and seeking to kick away the ladder from everybody else, and is reluctant to believe that anybody could have a different view. I don't think the claim that it would take 75 years to achieve fair representation stands up, and had a short letter published in response.

Clearly, it is a debate which will continue. Two thoughts about the reaction:

The claim that the division is between Afro-Caribbean and Asian MPs is not the whole story. The reaction does suggest that is one factor. But two of the most senior Asian MPs Keith Vaz and Virendra Sharma back all-black shortlists, while Chuka Umunna, recently selected in Streatham, is a sceptic. So this could equally be seen as a generational division. Those born before 1970 are more likely to be in favour; those born afterwards to be against. And MPs with high numbers of black and Asian voters are more likely to be in favour; those in seats which are predominantly white are opposed.

And, while Labour's black and Asian MPs are almost equally divided, this should not be a debate about minorities, among minorities.

I think we need to look at ethnicity, gender and class cohesively, and will be doing more work on this.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Five years on: the death of liberal internationalism?

There has been an avalanche of commentary and analysis on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war. Back in 2003, I was working for The Observer, which very controversially supported the war, primarily on liberal humanitarian intervention grounds against Saddam's regime.

A thoughtful five years on editorial last Sunday is probably as close as the paper is going to come to admitting that this was a mistake.

Terrible miscalculations were made in the preparation for war and a catalogue of blunders made in its prosecution. As an
intervention, whether for moral or strategic goals, it failed. The consequences are grave, and not just for Iraq.

The 2003 decision to back the war of recently departed Observer editor Roger Alton is lambasted in Nick Davies' Flat Earth News. However, Davies charge which is essentially that Alton turned the Observer into a pro-war propaganda sheet, simply ignores both the way in which both its reporting and commentary gave a great deal of space was also given to anti-war analysis and arguments, with columnists including Mary Riddell and Will Hutton arguing just as stridently against the war as David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen were arguing for it, while external critics including Terry Jones, Dilip Hiro and John Pilger also wrote scathingly about Blair and Bush for the paper. (It is interesting that Nick Cohen became the fiercest critic of left opponents of the war, many people forget that he took that position himself against the Afghanistan war, and argued against the Iraq war, before he was for it).

I am looking back on that now because that debate which raged inside the Observer reflected the way in which liberal-left thinking about foreign policy and intervention had shifted after 1989, largely in response to Bosnia and Rwanda.

The Observer on Sunday asked:

It is a blow to the idea of 'liberal intervention'. But does that blow have to be fatal?

For me, this is a central question. Can we learn from the mistakes of the Iraq war without forgetting the lessons of Bosnia and Rwanda?

Richard Norton-Taylor, as part of his extensive series reviewing the Iraq legacy for the Guardian, notes the retreat from intervention and asks if

Would there have been a consensus to intervene in the humanitarian disaster of Darfur, had Iraq not been invaded?

At the Fabian conference, John Kampfner accurately diagnosed liberal internationalism as at its weakest point for two decades. Andrew Grice makes a similar point in his column reviewing the Iraq inheritance this morning:

The other casualty of Iraq is the noble cause of liberal interventionism against evil regimes. Supporters expressed the hope this week that events in Iraq would not make it less likely to happen in future. I hope they are right, but fear they are wrong.

Still, a rescue, however difficult, is also necessary.

I argue in a Comment is Free commentary that a any rescue must also involved recasting liberal internationalism.

Rescuing liberal internationalism requires what Blair never offered: a much clearer analysis of where it should differ deeply from the neocon project.

This should be a central project for creating the 'after Bush' agenda we need.

Learning the lessons would create a different, humbler agenda. But if we have to accept that the neocon embrace has killed off liberal internationalism for good then it will prove impossible to replace Bush's unilateralism with the "new multilateralism" we need.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama in Philadelphia

This is Obama's time of greatest peril in the primary race. Though he trails heavily in the last big contest in Philadelphia, Obama is all but uncatchable in pledged delegates and should be able to hold on to his popular vote lead too. The nomination is definitely his to lose. But that means a month, without a run of electoral contests to punctuate the campaign, where the overriding question is his viability as a General Election nominee.

Hillary Clinton has (only) performed well when the underdog. Twice - before New Hampshire, and before Texas - voters decided against crowning Obama, instead keeping the contest going. Now, the last hope of the Clinton campaign is an Obama implosion, sufficient to give super-delegates cause to put the nomination back in play at the convention. And Obama has had to address the issues - the Rezko relationship and Reverend Jeremiah Wright's 'God damn America' comments (video) - which could derail the candidacy, or (perhaps just as damaging) turn him into just another politician.

So today's Philadelphia speech (which is well worth watching in full: video; full text) mattered a great deal. Obama's response to a potential campaign crisis is being called bold and unconventional. Yet it was also entirely predictable. Obama could do no other. And that helps to explain why he got it so right.

It was good for Obama to be able to deepen the campaign message beyond the 'change' and 'hope' slogans; and to make sure his audience understood that the aspiration to a post-racial politics and society will be much more complicated than wishing it were so, but no less noble an ambition for that.

Obama's candidacy has been too much, too often discussed through the prism of race. That is inevitable. I have done it myself. But this has led to something of a tendency to patronise and underestimate Obama: because he will symbolise change, he can not hope to do more than that. Perhaps, that would be how it ended: that his Presidential campaign would prove the high point, of hopes promised but never fulfilled. But let us hold on to the possibility too that he could make much more use of the bully pulpit than that.

I can flinch at his appeal to 'unity'. Despite its rhetorical flight, Obama's breakthrough 2004 convention speech flirts a little too much with the anti-political zeitgeist for my tastes. Yet I am increasingly convinced that Obama is doing something more nuanced and more complicated and - crucially - that he will be able to engage his audience of this. Today's speech was strongest on the need to build coalitions for social justice - and, moreover, coalitions which recognise that grievances can be real, and yet still compete with others which may have no less validity.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans - the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family

.... In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.

Progressive politics has space to breathe only when it can bind these together so that coalitions for change defeat a battle of competitive grievances. Ever since the passage of the civil rights act, dividers have had better tunes than uniters. Obama is often accused of naivety. But there is a central strategic logic to an argument about how to call time on the politics of Nixon's piano strategy, of Lee Atwater and Willie Horton, of Dubya and Karl Rove. Progressives have been consistently outmanouvered by the mobilisation of white grievance politics.

I think Obama would, if President, be more likely than any President since LBJ to start a national debate about class disadvantage and the American dream. (Though the post-LBJ competition is not so strong). The interaction between class and race was a key theme of today's speech, albeit in a minor key.

Again, it is worth acknowledging that this language that pledges that "It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams" could be empty or substantive. The least conventional part of today's speech was Obama's explanation of Wright's anger. I can't imagine his campaign advisers were so keen on this, yet it added a depth and truth which the conventional politics of distancing and moving on would not have done.

For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

What Obama again demonstrates here is that he has an unusual ability to empathise with those with whom he does not agree. (Normally, that extends to conservatives; today, more riskily, to his left). This talent offers the opportunity to offer his audience a defence of democratic politics itself and the opportunity to participate in it. The quest for consensus is not simply for consensus' sake. There was an excellent description of this in a response to George Packer's New Yorker blog.

His instincts are not confrontational, but rather dialogic. It’s not so much that he seeks consensus (although he does) as that he seeks to instill a commitment and desire for some solution to, or resolution of, a problem which the group now “owns.” Perhaps more significantly, Obama tries to get people to recognize that they will not succeed in achieving all of their policy goals, that not all solutions or resolutions will satisfy everyone, and that we can accept solutions with which we strongly disagree, so long as we are heard and respected in the political process.

The Wright-Obama contrast also animates Shelby Steele's analysis of 'challenger' and 'bargainer' strategies on race. Yet Steele has got Obama wrong. Steele wrote (again) in today's Washington Post that:

No matter his ultimate political fate, there is already enough pathos in Barack Obama to make him a cautionary tale. His public persona thrives on a manipulation of whites (bargaining), and his private sense of racial identity demands both self-betrayal and duplicity. His is the story of a man who flew so high, yet neglected to become himself.

But this charge of opportunism, of cynicism, is misplaced. Obama is himself. Reading Obama's Dreams of My Father, published thirteen years ago, I was struck by the authenticity of his personal journey, how he reconciles himself to his family history, to being black and mixed race, how he is attracted by a range of different ways of dealing or not dealing with race, and how he comes to forge a sense of self and a set of views which are very directly reflected in his campaign message over a decade later.

That rootednesss lies behind the most impressive thing about this rookie campaign: how Obama has consistently turned every challenge and attack into a chance to reaffirm, to strengthen the core, consistent message of his campaign.

It was because today's speech rang true in its claim to be bigger than the politics of a presidential campaign that it will probably turn out to be good political strategy and tactics too. (Contrast Bill Clinton's 1992 challenge to Sister Souljah: he was right, and it was good politics, but how transparently tactically driven that was).

I've been consistently stressing that that this race isn't over. (Before Ohio and Texas, I was prepared to offer Obama the garlands of having won the campaign; but not the nomination).

But I feel ready to stick my neck out now. In two or three days time, I expect the conventional wisdom will be that this Philadelphia speech was the moment when it became clear that Obama had clinched the nomination. And - this time, just for once in this campaign year - I think the commentariat are going to turn out to be right.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Why Brown's Iraq inquiry pledge - to me! - matters

I very much welcome Gordon Brown's commitment to an inquiry " to learn all possible lessons from the military action in Iraq and its aftermath" - even aside from the unusual experience of this very welcome political development coming in correspondence between myself and the Prime Minister. (Naturally, one also expects that other Cabinet ministers will take note. We were very pleased with last week's budget commitments on child poverty and will be thinking about where else we should now be pressing for progress).

On Iraq, the Prime Minister's spokesman says "that there is nothing new in the letter to the Fabian Society". I am not particularly concerned about a Westminster village debate about how much we have learnt from the letter. If an inquiry has been the government's intention all along, then I very much welcome the fact that this is now clearly on the public record and in the Prime Minister's own words too.

For me, the most positive aspect of Brown's letter are that it adds to the sense that he is planning and ambitious and rather different foreign policy for the 'World after Bush' - a pursuit to which this blog is dedicated.

But the letter has also naturally been the subject of considerable political and media interest today because of that clear, personal commitment by the Prime Minister on behalf of his government. The Independent's powerful front-page coverage of the Brown letter helps to take forward the newspaper's own sustained campaign for an inquiry. It is striking too that The Times and the Evening Standard, two papers which were editorially supportive of the government's decision to go to war, also report that Brown's letter marks a significant development of policy. That is also reflected in reaction from Labour backbenchers and the opposition parties, with Nick Clegg and William Hague stepping up pressure on the issue.

The Times reports that:

Since succeeding Mr Blair last summer Mr Brown has stopped short of calling outright for an inquiry. Last September he said the time would come to discuss whether one should be held. His letter to Sunder Katwala, the Fabian Society’s general secretary, suggests he has accepted that one should be conducted.

The Evening Standard says that

There have been hints before of an inquiry but this was the first confirmation from No 10.

I wrote my letter to the Prime Minister mainly to make the case as to why an inquiry is important, and why the fifth anniversary offered the government the right context to announce this. But, as I told The Independent, the letter was also motivated by the fact that I wasn't clear what the government's policy on an inquiry was, despite trying to follow these issues clearly. I am not omniscient about these issues, but I was not aware of any public statement from the current Prime Minister or current Foreign Secretary setting that out since the Brown administration took office in June.

Those of us trying to read between the lines of various statements as to what the final decision would be were coming to different conclusions. For example, David Miliband's comments rejecting an inquiry when interviewed by Fabian Review in December were reported as marking a significant cooling of the government's attitude towards an inquiry.

"I am obsessed with the next five years in Iraq, not the last five years in Iraq. And I think that the best 'inquiry' is putting the best brains to think about how to make sure the next five years in Iraq get that combination of political reconstruction, economic reconstruction and security improvement that are so essential."

Certainly, his words then were much more sceptical than both Margaret Beckett and Des Browne had been before the transition, in seeming to accept that an inquiry in due course would make sense. But as I - blogged at the time -

I think is too early to say "Government rules out inquiry into Iraq conflict". I don't see that Miliband has given a definite indication of future government policy ... The case for an inquiry will continue, within and outside government.

And, despite that scepticism. Miliband did, in his keynote speech to the Fabian Change the World conference, make a significant argument about the need to 'learn the lessons' from Iraq and Afghanistan.

'democratic institutions need to be built from the bottom up not just the top down; and military victories are never a solution in themselves; they need the backing of economic and social reconstruction'

By contrast, Tony Blair was, for the most part, strongly opposed to an inquiry. Competing quotes can be found on both sides. The authentic Blair view is, I would suggest, is the claim that "We have had inquiry after inquiry we do not need to go back over this again and again." It was only well into injury time towards the end of Blair's Premiership that Ministers began to suggest they were open to an inquiry - and again there was something of a guessing game as to whether this had been inspired by the Prime Minister in waiting, or might rather have been a case of other Ministers seeking to anticipate

It is certainly true that the Brown letter does not go into any detail as to the nature of an inquiry or its timing. However, it would be more than pushing my luck to complain about that, and I hope that the government will set out more details of its plans as soon as possible. (More formally, I expect, but I would like to place on record that the Fabian letterbox remains very much open).

Now, I hope somebody at Number 10 is also paying attention to the very cogent case made in Saturday's Guardian against the extension of detention without trial.

UPDATE: Andy Grice of the Independent also blogs about the Brown letter, pointing out that Brown had not previously said any more than that "there will be a time to discuss the question" of an inquiry. So the Prime Minister's support for an inquiry is new.

Iraq: the Prime Minister replies ...

A reply to my letter to Gordon Brown last month on the case for a public inquiry.

11th March 2008

Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London SW1 2AA

Sunder Katwala
Fabian Society
11 Dartmouth Street

Dear Sunder

Thank you for your letter of 11 February about Iraq. I agree with you that there is a need to learn all possible lessons from the military action in Iraq and its aftermath. This Government has already acknowledged that there will come a time when it is appropriate to hold an inquiry. But whilst the whole effort of the Government and the armed forces is directed towards supporting the people and Government of Iraq as they forge a future based on reconciliation, democracy, prosperity and security, we believe that is not now.

We are making real progress in Iraq. The transfer of all four provinces in southern Iraq to the Iraqi authorities is ample evidence of the sterling work done by UK forces and our coalition partners. But the work is not complete. Our troops will remain in Iraq to train and support the Iraqi army, whilst our diplomatic missions will continue to work with the Government of Iraq to use the space created by the improved security environment to make real progress on political reconciliation and economic development.

Despite the progress being made on the security, economic and political fronts in Iraq, the situation remains fragile and could easily be reversed. At this critical time it is therefore vital that the Government does not divert attention from supporting Iraq’s development as a secure and stable country. Since October 2006, Parliament, when debating the need for an inquiry, has twice supported the Government on this point.

I have put reform of international institutions at the core of the UK’s foreign policy strategy. I want international institutions to be relevant to the twenty first century challenges, and credible and modern in the way they approach them. They need to command international engagement and be responsive to the needs of member states, civil society and peoples. The UK wants a Security Council that is more representative, but no less effective in tackling threats to international peace and security. I also support changes to the World Bank , the International Monetary Fund and the G8 that reflect the rise of India and Asia. As I said in New Delhi in January “we can and must do more to make our global institutions more representative”.

The first change we must consider is reform of our international rules on institutions to reflect the urgency of tackling climate change and global poverty. I will continue to explore with EU partners how we can take forward this agenda together.

Yours sincerely


Gordon Brown

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why Brown should rethink on 42 days

I am a signatory to a letter in today's Guardian calling on the government to withdraw its proposal to enable detention of terrorism suspects without charge for up to 42 days.

Some will see those of us who have signed the letter as liberal-left 'usual suspects'. (As the letter was coordinated by Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy, so at least we can claim to be liberal-lefties who are 'out and proud'). Some, like myself, are pretty strong supporters of the Labour government in general (while challenging it on a range of issues) and I would judge the centre of gravity among the signatories as 'critically engaged' with the Brown government, though others probably represent strands of liberal-left opinion which is pretty disengaged from and despairing of Labour.

It is worth noting too that the signatories include those like Ed Husain and Martin Bright who have both tended to criticise the government for being too accomodating of Islamism, and who have challenged others on the liberal-left with being too inclined to underestimate this threat, but who can share the common ground of arguing that undermining civil liberties would be counter-productive for an effective anti-terror strategy.

The Guardian also reports today that the government may cut a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. I hope that the low politics of buying their votes "in return for delaying the devolution of policing and criminal justice in Northern Ireland" are not on the table. That is too reminiscient of John Major's European policy, and would just highlight the central problem of the parliamentary and public politics: that many of the government's own supporters are not convinced of the case for change, still less is there a broader consensus for these measures.

As the letter points out,

It has become clear, as this debate has proceeded, that there is no consensus on the case for an extension of detention powers. Rather, it has resulted in a broad consensus among independent and expert opinion outside government that no convincing case has been made.

I find it difficult to think of many people who have been convinced by the government's arguments, beyond those on the government payroll. (While some of those on the payroll, such as Admiral West, have needed persuasion too). There is certainly extensive backbench concern about the merits of the measure, reinforced by a very effective Liberty lobbying campaign, although MPs are always more likely to seek a compromise than to rebel in the voting lobbies in the end. (The Guardian also reports also states that the government is delaying the Commons vote from March 28th, although earlier reports had suggested that the vote would probably take place at committee stage in April or May).

As the letter notes in quoting Brown's speech on liberty last Autumn, there have been some welcome, positive shifts on the language and strategy to counter terrorism since the summer.

But "if the rules of the game have not changed", and there is a commitment to a democratically legitimate response to the threat of terrorism, then the right move is to reopen the search for consensus, rather than trying to force through this measure in its absence.

As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.