Sunday, 28 September 2014

This Not What Democracy Looks Like

Thousand of peaceful demonstrators in Hong Kong gathered to protest Beijing's failure to allow meaningful democratic elections in the territory are scattered with tear-gas, whilst Chinese state television reportedly tries to explain the events as a mass celebration of the national holiday. Words fail.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

So the results are in, the ballots counted, the results accepted, and the Union preserved by a healthy, if not totally overwhelming margin of nearly 11%. A region voted on its independence without - Moscow take note - the requirement of thousands of Kalashnikov-wielding thugs invading and declaring a suspiciously massive majority for one side.

The cause of Scottish independence has obviously seen a set-back here, though they'll long talk about their 1.6 million votes for an independent Scotland, and anyway thrive on historical remembrances of what might have been going right back to 1707 if not earlier. Unionists like myself cannot rest too easy since 45% of voters voting against the Union indicates that many Scots do not agree that preserving the Union is in their interest - there's certainly work to be done.

Regionalists in the rest of the UK are now beginning to take note of the new powers promised to Scotland. I personally think this will be flash in the pan - other experiments in devolution in England outside of London have been met with outright apathy (particularly the experiment in elections for crime commissioners, which cannot even raise a 20% turnout). The idea that Scottish-style politics will energise the rest of the UK is an odd one when you consider the low turnouts typically seen in Holyrood elections.

For myself, though, playing  very, very small part in keeping the Union together has been a revelation. The next likely referendum in the UK will be those on EU membership, promised if there is a Conservative government elected in the next parliament (though the Conservatives are committed at the moment to staying in), and I intend to help out in them too.

[Picture: Scottish independence referendum results - red is "No", green is "yes". By Wiki user Sceptre]

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

My (Unwritten) Constitutional Patriotism

I attended the Unity Rally in London on Monday, where I took the above picture. Geldof spoke well, and movingly, about the opportunities he found in the UK that he could not find in Ireland, and how it seemed crazy to him, as an Irishman, given the things that drove Ireland to independence, that Scotland should seek it over matters so much more minor and temporary. "If I were Scottish, I might ask myself 'why not?'" he said, "But I'm Irish, so I ask 'Why?'".

 I have to say the last two weeks have left me surer than ever that I am, first and foremost, British, and a Unionist. Some authors on the left have spoken of this kind of sentiment as somehow "fake" or as a kind of evil nationalism (normally whilst ignoring or dismissing the genuine nationalism of the SNP). I can only speak for myself, but I see it as something closer to what the Germans call "constitutional patriotism", but in country with no written constitution. It would be a great shame if this is the last 24 hours in which I can claim it to be so.

  [You can read the BBC report on the rally here. I'm standing to the right of the guy with the sign in the bottom-most picture]

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Say No To A Vote From The Gut.

Scottish voters are due to vote, as is their democratic right, on independence in ten days time. The arguments on the virtues of the SNP's independence plans have been argued and re-argued. By now, if you're not convinced that independence along the lines that Alex Salmond is proposing makes little or no sense, that it will result in economic turmoil, in a country using another's with no say in how its run, in a Scottish exit from the EU, in bad blood, and the end of the most successful union-state, there's little that can be said to change your mind.

The heavy negative impact of independence was why the clear lead the 'No' camp had up until last week made sense, and why the progress 'Yes' has made in recent days in the polls is so bizarre and shocking. My feelings on the issue are much the same as Will Hutton's here:
Without imaginative and creative statecraft, the polls now suggest Scotland could secede from a 300-year union, sundering genuine bonds of love, splitting families and wrenching all the interconnectedness forged from our shared history.

Absurdly, there will be two countries on the same small island that have so much in common. If Britain can't find a way of sticking together, it is the death of the liberal enlightenment before the atavistic forces of nationalism and ethnicity – a dark omen for the 21st century. Britain will cease as an idea. We will all be diminished.

Hutton is right about the character of the feelings pushing some Scottish voters towards voting for independence when arguments based on the facts weigh so heavily against it. He's also right about what the cost would be. I personally will never be able to think of my family in Scotland as foreign, or Scotland as another country, and for me interposing a border between us would be a monstrous act.

There's still hope, of course, that this is all just a blip, that cooler heads will prevail, and that the Scottish people will decisively say 'No' on the 18th of September in the same way they were planning to up until last week. It should also be pointed out that there will be Scottish elections in May 2016, and that whilst Alex Salmond has set a deadline of March 2016, he has no more right to demand such a deadline than he does to demand the currency union that British political leaders have decisively rejected. A win for Unionist parties in 2016 could therefore theoretically render a 'Yes' a dead letter - but this is a slender reed to grasp.

I hope that in time Britain can look back on this much as Canada looks back on the Quebec vote of 1995, where independence also took the lead in some polling before a razor-thin vote against it, and where now the prospect of a split is further away than ever after BQ (the main pro-independence party) was soundly defeated in the last election..

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Xi As The Undoer Of Deng, Continued

I read a very interesting piece over at the Peking Review on Xi's apparent rejection of Deng's low-profile foreign policy, in contrast to the assertive policy of the Mao era:
A phrase that is making the rounds among China watchers is “tao guang yang hui.” I will not attempt to explain the concept: any brief explanation would hide too many nuances, and nuances are important here. I just watched an online debate amongst some of my more scholarly friends, and the battle was about different interpreteations of of the phrase.

One interpretation of the phrase is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “keep a low profile and bide your time, while also getting something accomplished.” Given the noises China has been making in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Indian frontier, and Hong Kong, it appears to some that China has abandoned the tao guang yang hui strategy altogether.
The piece echos a sentiment also expressed in response to the PRC government's announcement that Hong Kong was to be denied meaningful democracy: that the modern-day PRC government under the leadership of Xi Jinping had rejected the pragmatism of the Deng era.
Distrust of the Chinese Communist Party runs deep in Hong Kong, a city built largely by refugees from famine and party-sponsored political violence in mainland China. Deng Xiaoping understood this, and deftly worked around it.

His formula for recovering Hong Kong from Britain in 1997—One Country, Two Systems—was an acknowledgment that the party's credibility in Hong Kong was low and that if it simply moved in and took over it would destroy public confidence and likely wreck the economy. Hence, Hong Kong was allowed to keep its British-style law courts and administration. And it was promised democratic elections for its future leaders.

Today's Chinese leadership shows far less willingness to embrace such political pragmatism, or to employ subtlety and compromise in its dealings with the territory.
For anyone who cared to look, the signs that Xi Jinping would strike a much more strident tone than the technocratic Hu/Wen team, or the mildly reformist governing style of Jiang Zemin, were there even before he assumed power. The turning point for me was the crack-down of 2011, when controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested, as well as many others. Back then I wrote:
It is easy to see where the impetus for this crack-down is coming from. We may be more than a year away from the beginning of Xi Jinping's reign, but it is hard not to see the same crude artlessness in these arrests that Xi has betrayed in many of his public pronouncements.

I hope I'm wrong, but I cannot rid myself of the idea that Xi's rule is going to be disastrous for both the CCP and China. It is hard not to think that we are seeing the end of the balancing act that the CCP has so successfully conducted these past 32 years, and the beginning of an unashamed totalitarianism which few in the CCP ranks want, even if their new leader apparently does. The relatively subtle touch introduced by Deng in 1979 risks being undone, if not the economic reforms of that year and later.
Everything we've seen this year, both internally in the "anti-corruption" campaign that seems to only find corruption amongst Xi Jinping's political enemies, and externally in the assertive tone of China's new foreign policy, supports this analysis.