The fire of protest spreads

A spark of pro-democracy protest – almost unnoticed in parts of ‘The West’ – appeared in Tunisia last month and has now turned into a fire of potentially historic proportions reaching across North Africa into the Middle East. The great Arab democratic revolt overthrew the governments of Tunisia and Egypt and now threatens the established regimes of Bahrain, Yemen and Libya while doubtless causing anxious glances from other states in the region, perhaps most notably Iran.

It’s impossible to say how this will end and how much blood will continue to be spilled by totalitarian regimes such as Gaddafi’s in Libya, but this passage of history bears a striking resemblance to the collapse of Soviet Communism in Europe in the last months of the 1980s. In that case a similar domino effect was witnessed as the supressed and impoverished people of each Eastern European state felt able to draw strength and confidence from neighbouring states who had risen up against the old order. Europe changed forever in the space of a few short months. It was a fascinating period of twentieth century history, and it was a privilege to be alive during such a time of immense change.

There is a similar feel to events in the Arab world at the moment, although the factors causing change are quite different from those which were at play in Europe twenty-two years ago. On the face of it, nationalism appears to be less of a factor in the Arab uprisings as Middle Eastern peoples have always had less regard for lines on a map than their European counterparts. In addition the Cold War backdrop of a chessboard for the Superpowers doesn’t apply in the Arab nations, at least not to the extent that it did in post-War Germany and the nations surrounding it.

The common factors, of course, are repression and economic suffering. A class of people have found the strength to articulate their strong view that their economic hardship should no longer be taken for granted and that they should have the democratic freedom to do what they can to put that right. I applaud the courage of those who live in political systems I can barely imagine who have taken to the streets to give voice to, in some cases, hundreds of years of simmering resentment. I hope that the Arab states can find their solutions, free if at all possible from Western interference, and that people will not have to keep dying in the pursuit of democracy. History is being written across North Africa and the Middle East, and it’s probably about time too.

Jim Clark

While putting together yesterday’s post about Ferrari, I started trawling through some old clips of the great racers of the fifties and sixties. Such an exercise inevitably leads you to, in my opinion, the greatest driver of them all: Jim Clark. Had Clark been racing in the modern era there’s every chance he would have racked up a frightening selection of pole positions, fastest laps, race wins and Championships. Instead, in a time of almost non-existent safety precautions in motor racing, he was tragically killed at the old Hockenheim circuit in 1968.

Here is a clip of him in action in 1963. Note the open-faced helmet and the lack of safety barriers and run-off areas on the circuit. But most of all, note the gloriously smooth car control. I would have loved to have seen him in action.

The Final Leaders’ Debate

Birmingham was the scene for last night’s third and final Party Leaders’ Debate and completes a trilogy which has the potential to change the way British politics works forever. Whoever wins the election, whatever House of Commons permutation the voters throw up, things will probably never be quite the same again.

There were no gaffes, no surprises, no game-changing performances and no clear winner last night – it’s almost as if the leaders had all finally learned how the format works. The opening statements were all solid, with carefully chosen turns of phrase, and both Brown and Cameron have clearly learned the Clegg trick of directly addressing the viewers at home. It was also a surprisingly strong examination of policy.

In many respects Nick Clegg had the most to lose last night (remarkable when you consider the complexion of this campaign prior to the first debate). His dominant performance in Manchester a fortnight ago turned the 2010 Election on its head, leading to astonishing poll ratings for the Liberal Democrats which have broadly placed them ahead of Labour ever since. Clegg put in another impressive turn last night, even managing to perform strongly on immigration, an area that might not be considered to be a Lib Dem strong point. It was also notable that, throughout the debate, he seemed to listen more readily than the other two – Cameron and Brown gave the impression of simply waiting for their turn to speak.

David Cameron, who yesterday welcomed an endorsement from The Economist, came into this confrontation on the back of a poor performance in the first debate and only a marginal improvement in the second. Conservative commentators have spent the last two weeks predicting that he would pull a rabbit out of the hat when the pressure was on – instead he turned in another ordinary performance. He was never likely to fare well on economic policy, but he also managed to look dishonest and ill-briefed on immigration, a topic he might have expected to do well on. The spin in today’s Tory press is predictably of a positive nature, but another average performance last night merely highlights the surprising lack of impact the heavily marketed Cameron has had on this campaign. The Conservative operation threatens to be more than slightly jittery for the next seven days.

Gordon Brown, attempting to put the media feeding frenzy of ‘Bigotgate’ behind him, must have viewed this debate as a chance to concentrate on what he considers to be his strongest area: the economy. I think he put in his best debate performance, speaking confidently on his favourite subject. In his opening statement he made a smart move by admitting (referring to the incident in Rochdale) that he doesn’t always get things right, and throughout the debate he also deployed a good tactic of painting the Tories as the party of the 1930s. The problem is, the message is almost always lost in Brown’s delivery – no matter how hard he tries, television is not his medium.

Over the sequence of televised debates it’s clear that Nick Clegg has made the strongest impact of all the party leaders. Whether Labour and the Tories can shore up their vote share, which has dipped so dramatically over the campaign, is still unknown at this point. But what seems obvious is that Clegg, the clear winner over the three debates, is set to lead the Liberal Democrats to their best result since the party’s formation in the 1980s. This could still prove to be the greatest ‘change’ of all to Britain’s old-fashioned ways of doing politics.

Iraq – Labour’s War

with thanks to "The Unsuitablog"

(Image from "The Unsuitablog")

Credit where credit’s due, I suppose. Gordon Brown did at least call the Chilcot Inquiry. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, a diversionary tactic in the wake of a pasting in the European and Local Elections of June 2009, and an attempted leadership coup by Hazel Blears and James Purnell (last year’s Hoon & Hewitt).

It is a mark of Gordon Brown’s continuing allergy to any kind of good luck that, in doing the right thing and establishing the inquiry, all he will really do is succeed in bringing Iraq back to the forefront of voters’ minds with a General Election only a matter of weeks away – particularly since he will now be the star turn of the inquiry alongside his predecessor, Tony Blair.

The 2005 Election was, in many parts of the country, largely defined by the Iraq War. Five years ago Labour was able to withstand this. The vagaries of Britain’s bizarre electoral system and the continuing dysfunction in a Conservative Party led by Michael Howard meant that Blair was able to ‘win’ the election on 36% of a 61% turnout. 2010 will be a quite different kettle of fish, not least because, for over a year now, the opinion polls have barely shifted from the 40/30/20 split that just about favours the Tories.

Of course, the Tories shouldn’t be let off the hook over Iraq – they happily voted alongside the government when the decision was taken to invade. Would a Conservative government have gone to war alongside the Americans? Of course it would, and the Tories’ sabre-rattling tendency was very much in evidence during the build-up to the war. In office their unquestioning Atlanticism would certainly have delivered the same result, and if anything George W Bush would have found in the Conservatives a whole government of kindred spirits rather than simply a rogue Prime Minister who slavishly did his bidding.

The only consistent and meaningful opposition to the war came from Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats, but the electoral system offers no reward for simply being right. Labour looks incapable of any meaningful revival anyway, and it would seem that all the Tories need to do is sit tight and repeat the refrain “we were lied to” every time the subject of the war is raised. Sadly, given the near-total lack of media scrutiny of the Conservative policy agenda, they’ll probably get away with it.

When the dust has settled from the Chilcot Inquiry it shouldn’t be forgotten that Iraq was Labour’s War. Yes, Tony Blair will rightly take the bulk of the flak, but the Labour Party had the numbers and the personalities to call the whole thing off. Instead the vast bulk of the parliamentary Labour Party dutifully filed through the ‘Aye” lobby, Robin Cook’s was the only Cabinet resignation and Gordon Brown, at the time still regarded as Britain’s most powerful post-war Chancellor, happily signed the cheques.

When The Wall Came Down

Berlin Wall

Berlin, November 1989

Twenty years ago this Remembrance Week the Berlin Wall came down. It was a defining moment for a generation; an historical bookmark as significant to its time as the 9/11 attack has been to the early years of this century, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy was to the 1960s. Indeed, it was the Berlin Wall that provided the context to Kennedy’s famous 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech delivered in the German capital just months before his death. It was also the powerful physical symptom of the political and diplomatic failings of the victorious Allies in the wake of the 1918 Armistice, also commemorated this week.

First erected by the Soviets in 1961, the Wall surrounded an enclave of the former Western Allies’ post-war zones in Berlin, in the heart of Communist East Germany. It quickly became the symbol of the Cold War split between East and West. Looking back, it seems extraordinary that this kind of physical segregation took place in modern, industrialised Europe but at the time such division was all an entire generation had ever known.

1960s Berlin

When the Wall came down I was an eighteen year old History student, and I remember that dark period in Europe’s modern history very well. It seemed that we had all grown up under the threat of a devastating nuclear conflict between the Russians and the Americans, and as budding historians we could see that the roots of the Cold War could be traced back to the disastrous legacy of the First World War.

‘The Great War’ had changed everything. The old Imperial powers of Europe had bankrupted themselves paying for the relentless four-year slaughter of their young men in the trenches and, while Western Europe fell into the arms of America’s new-found economic might, Russia overthrew the absolute rule of the Tsars and (after the shortest of flirtations with democracy) replaced it with the absolute rule of the Bolsheviks.

The effect on Germany was even more profound. After the Armistice the victorious powers forced the Treaty of Versailles onto an exhausted nation. It was a Treaty which not only sought to bankrupt Germany through reparations, it also set out to humiliate its people through the so-called ‘War Guilt Clauses’ which tore away the last shreds of their national pride. The now exiled Kaiser Wilhelm said of this draconian humiliation: “After the war to end all war we have the peace to end all peace” and so it was that Germany was made angry and desperate enough to turn to Hitler.

The Second World War, Hitler’s genocidal war of revenge, left a destroyed Europe ripe for the taking and cemented the position of America and the Soviet Union as the two great ‘superpowers’ in world affairs. Perhaps the inevitable consequence of this new rivalry was the formation of the ‘Iron Curtain’ of which Winston Churchill spoke in 1946, and nothing symbolised this more starkly than the Berlin Wall.


1989 was an exciting year to be alive, especially if you were a history student. Soviet-style Communism was being swept away right across Europe and those images of the collapse of the Wall were met with joy all over the world as they marked the change we never thought we’d see. Twenty years on I’m reminded of the importance of those events, and it somehow seems fitting that the fall of the Berlin Wall is being commemorated in the same week as we remember the men and women who have been lost in all the conflicts since The Great War. Remembrance isn’t about glorying in war, or celebrating past victories. For me it’s about remembering that there is always a human cost and far-reaching historic consequences of the judgements of our leaders. It’s about trying to learn the lessons of history so that all those lives weren’t lost in vain.

So remember those men and women; remember why they were sent to lay down their lives; and remember that we have been given the chance to learn from history, to avoid the mistakes that, generations later, cause walls to be built and nations to be divided.