Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Swiss are sometimes accused of being smug. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the country’s mood at the moment. This afternoon I spoke to the Avenir Suisse think-tank in Zurich about the political fall-out from the global economic crisis. And I found the audience distinctly worried by an outside world that looks increasingly threatening.

At the moment, the Swiss feel like they are being pushed around by the rest of the world. The economic crisis has led to a renewed war on banking secrecy. The American authorities pursuit of UBS forced the the Swiss banking giant to cough up the names of over 4,000 clients last August, or risk losing their banking license in the US. The Americans are, in fact, after 50,000 names. One member of the audience said that the UBS-US deal effectively marked the end of Swiss banking secrecy – although some thought that a bit overdone. The Swiss comfort themselves that their country has other powerful industries – pharmaceuticals, luxury goods, watches, high-end tourism, insurance. But they are obviously worried by a threat to the banks that have become so closely associated with their nation. Some Swiss seem to feel that the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland was a humiliating effort to appease the American government. Read more

Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times asks what President Obama did to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Read more

Is the Nobel Peace Prize, the most pointless of the lot? It is certainly the most controversial. The very idea of a peace prize, named after a man who invented dynamite and made his fortune as an arms salesman, Alfred Nobel, is slightly paradoxical. Perhaps Nobel wanted a peace prize as a way of atoning for his career as a “merchant of death”? Critics of the prize, which is awarded on Friday, say that it has unintentionally stayed true to the spirit of Nobel, by consistently rewarding a series of morally-dubious characters

Henry Kissinger is, of course, among the most controversial of laureates. The then US secretary of state received the prize in 1973 for his efforts to end the Vietnam war – jointly with Le Duc Tho, the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, who refused to accept the prize. Kissinger’s rightwing critics point out that the Vietnam war restarted a couple of years later and ended with victory for the North. His more numerous leftwing critics point to his role in the bombing of Cambodia between 1969 and 1973 – that (inadvertently it must be said) laid the groundwork for the ascent to power of the Khmer Rouge. Of the Prize, Mr Kissinger said: “More than the achievement of peace, it symbolises the quest for peace.” Lucky that, otherwise he might have to give it back. Read more

I was interested to read Andrew Ward’s report today, suggesting that Latvia is under renewed pressure to devalue its currency. I must admit that I have not been following Baltic affairs with huge attention, since my visit to Lithuania and Latvia last July. But, even then, it was always clear that autumn was going to be the crunch time for the Latvians.

Yet another austerity package has to be forced through – involving painful cuts in government spending and public-sector wages. And this is happening just at the time when unemployment benefits will start running out for many of the people who lost their jobs at the beginning of the year. Also, with winter coming in, heating bills are about to rise sharply. Read more

George Osborne, the Tories’s shadow chancellor, is in the sights of Gordon Brown and the Labour government. Young, (he’s not yet forty), affluent, inexperienced and smooth he looks like a tempting target – particularly in the middle of a deep recession. If Labour can paint Osborne as remote, callow and out-of-touch with ordinary people, they might yet score some hits. They have already found a useful, if infantile, nickname for him – “Boy George”, after an androgynous pop star of the 1980s.

So Osborne’s speech to the Tory Party conference earlier today was a crucial moment. I was in the hall – and I thought he did well. The stance he took was of the firm “truth-teller”, levelling with the British people about the tough choices ahead. But he managed to package this with some crowd-pleasing measures – such as a promise that all government ministers will take a pay cut, and that no public servant will be paid more than the prime minister (about £175,000 a year, if I recall right.) That proposal might cause a few gulps at the BBC, whose director-general is paid over £800,000 a year. His promise to cut a third off the costs of running Whitehall, went down well – although I would guess it will be almost impossible to achieve. Read more

I am in Manchester at the last Conservative Party conference before the next British general election. The Tories should be jubilant because they are all but certain to win and return to power, after thirteen years in the wilderness. There is certainly a buzz about the place. But the party is trying to avoid any hint of triumphalism. Champagne has been banned from the conference hotel, to avoid television pictures of champagne-swilling toffs, celebrating prematurely in the midst of a recession. My colleague Phillip Stephens attempted to buy a bottle of champagne at bar at the Midland Hotel (purely in the interests of research) and was turned away. Frankly, he was lucky not to be handcuffed.

While most conference-goers are understandably focussing on the British political battle, people from all over the world are drifting through Manchester this week, to get a sense of Britain’s government-in-waiting. Last night I went to a dinner with Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister of Russia, and now a leading figure in the opposition. I was fascinated to hear what Nemtsov had to say about the Putin-Medvedev relationship. American officials I have spoken to are very intriuged by what they see as a nascent power struggle between the Russian president and prime minister. They point to Medvedev’s recent published critiques of lawlessness in Russian society and interviews with the independent press, as a sign that he is pushing back against Putin. The Americans even think that Medvedev might run against Putin for the presidency in 2012. Read more

Ingram Pinn illustration

At last! Ireland has passed the Lisbon treaty and now the European Union can move forward with its plan for world domination. Within months, the EU is likely to appoint a president and a foreign minister. Tony Blair is limbering up for a
run at the top job. A clutch of Swedish, Dutch and Belgian candidates are jostling for the post of foreign minister. Read more

After a little fumbling with the envelope, the head of the International Olympic Committee has just announced the venue for the 2016 Olympics – Rio de Janeiro. It all seems a confirmation of the mood of the moment – Brazil is deeply fashionable and on the way up; and the shine has come off Barack Obama, who turned up in person to lobby for Chicago – only to see his home town eliminated early.

Poor Obama, he really didn’t deserve this. I bet he now regrets going all the way to Copenhagen to lobby for Chicago. His great trump-card was meant to be his global popularity. But the International Olympic Committee had no trouble in brushing him aside. I’m afraid this is all going to play into the gathering conservative narrative in the US of Obamas a naive dupe, who grovels in front of foreigners – and gets nothing back in return. It seems to be setback after setback for the US president at the moment – health-care, Iran, the Afghanistan mess, unemployment up at nearly 10%. Read more

By Richard McGregor, the FT’s former Beijing bureau chief

Most commentaries about modern China these days stress how far the country and the state has moved on from the totalitarian rule of Mao Zedong. The parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China through the centre of Beijing today is a reminder of the opposite, and largely overlooked, trend – just how communist the Chinese state still is. Read more

On Friday, the Irish are going to vote one more time on the European Union’s benighted Lisbon Treaty. Together with a clutch of Irish and European politicians, I spoke last night at a forum on the treaty at the Historical Society at Trinity College, Dublin. The HistSoc is said to be the oldest undergraduate student society in the world, and was founded by Edmund Burke in the mid eighteenth-century.

I wonder what Burke would have made of the Lisbon Treaty? I suspect he would have disapproved of a top-down effort to re-mould national political cultures that have developed organically over centuries. On the other hand, he certainly would have disliked the resort to referenda, since he was the arch exponent of representative government. Read more