By Gideon Rachman
In theory, David Cameron and Radoslaw Sikorski should get on marvellously. Both the British prime minister and the Polish foreign secretary studied at Oxford and were members of the elite Bullingdon club, which specialises in dressing up, drinking, vomiting and vandalism. Both men have matured into robust conservatives. But last week we witnessed an unedifying dispute between the two politicians, sparked by Mr Cameron’s suggestion that Britain should not be paying child benefit to children living in Poland, even if their parents are working in Britain. In response, Mr Sikorski accused the British of stigmatising Polish immigrants and tweeted (in Polish) a suggestion that Poles in Britain should return home.
“Why do the Brits accept surveillance” asks Jonathan Freedland in the New York Times? Freedland points out that, even after the Edward Snowden revelations, only 19% of British people think that the security services have too much power. By contrast, some 64% think they have the right amount of power or too little. Freedland’s explanation for this striking state of affairs is that the Brits have a more deferential attitude to the state than Americans, reflected in the fact that it is “Her Majesty’s government”. He points out that “Britons remain subjects not citizens.”
This is a clever explanation, but not one that I find particularly convincing. It is true that the British tend to be less hostile to the idea of government than Americans. But that is an attitude that is common in Europe, including in states that are highly suspicious of intelligence agencies, such as Germany.
My alternative theory is that British people basically accept the claim that was made by Britain’s intelligence chiefs when they testified before Parliament last week. The spooks argued that they are working to protect democracy. That claim, which would be met with derision in Germany or by much of liberal America, is broadly accepted in Britain, for reasons that are deeply rooted in British history.
The basic narrative of British history, as taught in schools and broadcast on television, is of a country that has had to ward off a succession of attempted foreign invasions. The role of the intelligence services in protecting the UK is both noted and celebrated. Most obviously, in the second world war, the code-breakers of Bletchley Park – who cracked the German Enigma signals – are regarded as national heroes. But it goes back a lot further than that. Elizabeth I’s spy-master, Francis Walsingham, ran an extensive network of spies that gathered vital intelligence on the Spanish Armada. Read more
After days of severe weather warnings and anticipation, England suffered transport chaos and widespread power cuts this morning after a storm with gusts of up to 99 mph hit southern England.
Though the storm was not severe by international standards, it is the worst to hit the country in a number of years.
Porthleven in Cornwall. (c) Getty Images
This video from the Met Office shows the progress of the storm across the country.
The worst of the weather is now over, with the focus turning to the cleanup.
London’s rail stations were eerily quiet as most major rail companies cancelled all early morning trains.
(c) Claer Barrett
(c) Claer Barrett
Network Rail, like many other companies, took to Twitter to update commuters on problems.
It said that more than 100 trees have been discovered on the rail network across the south east so far today.
As of 10am, many major commuter routes were still closed. Read more
This morning’s article in the FT by David Miliband has caused a stir in Britain. Just a week after Ed Miliband and the Labour Party came out against British military involvement in Syria, David Miliband – Ed’s older brother and defeated rival – has hinted strongly that he would have been in favour. In his piece, he argues that “while international engagement is decreasingly popular in the advanced democracies, a multipolar world makes it increasingly necessary.” David M’s intervention in the debate has been widely portrayed as the latest twist in the ongoing Miliband melodrama. “Brothers At War”, shrieked the Daily Mail headline today. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Edward Snowden seems like a bright chap. So he will probably have noticed the irony of voicing his complaints about persecution by the US legal system from the confines of Moscow airport. There are few governments in the world that abuse the law, for political purposes, with the ruthlessness and cynicism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory on Sunday afternoon was a moment of tennis history. But just behind the sporting drama lay a political drama.
When the television crowd-shots were not focusing adoringly on Murray’s girlfriend, they panned over to the VIP box. Sitting in the front row was Britain’s tennis-playing prime minister, David Cameron – just behind him was Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister.
With a referendum on Scottish independence coming up next year, both political leaders would dearly love to wrap this new sporting hero in the flag – the Scottish saltire in Salmond’s case, the Union Jack in Cameron’s case.
Indeed, as the courtside celebrations broke out, Salmond could briefly be seen unfurling a large Scottish flag – before the BBC panned swiftly away. (That’s B, as in British Broadcasting Corporation.) Read more
Syrian rebels in the southern town of Maaret al-Numan (AFP)
US President Barack Obama’s decision to send arms to the Syrian rebels is clearly an important moment in the country’s civil war. It is a decision that will be welcomed by David Cameron, the British prime minister.
Over the last year, Cameron has been one of the strongest supporters for the idea of sending arms to the rebels in order to level the Syrian battlefield and help bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table. A constant theme in his argument is that there must not be a repeat of the Bosnia conflict in the 1990s, in which thousands died while the west stood aside and did nothing. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
As the world edges towards a peace conference on Syria, three ideas about the west’s role in the conflict are widely accepted. First, that the longer the conflict goes on, the greater the chances of direct or indirect western military intervention. Second, that there is a deep and bitter division between the US and Russia that is making progress much harder. Third, that the Syrian civil war is dominating western thinking on the Middle East. Few people publicly dispute these propositions. And yet they are all distinctly questionable.
'Getting to Gnome you' (Getty)
The Chelsea Flower show, that quintessentially British annual event where celebrities, business leaders, and horticulturalists rub shoulders with royalty, is in full bloom. This year it has generated a number of unusual talking points.
The chatter started with the Gnome controversy. This year the organisers, the Royal Horticultural Society, announced (well ahead of the show so Gnome collecting could begin in earnest) that they were lifting their ban on the love-them-or-hate-them ornaments. A plethora of photoshoots have now been held of the humble figures, displayed liberally around the show. Debate’s raged over whether they were tacky, somewhat lowering the tone of this highly polished event that kicks of the British social ‘season’, or whether it signified a welcome abandonment of snobbery and class discrimination. Read more
I am pleased that my column on Britain and Europe today has attracted lots of hits and comments. But, inevitably, when you try to deal with such a complex subject in 900 words (give or take), there is a lot you have to leave out. And there was one vital part of the subject that I didn’t deal with – and that is the impact of immigration on the British debate on Europe. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Twenty years ago, I was an anti-European. Today, I am a pro-European. The strange thing is that my views have not changed. I have always thought that Britain should stay out of the euro but inside the EU. During the John Major and Tony Blair years, when the euro was the dominant issue, that position made me a eurosceptic. But now the argument has become about whether Britain should leave the EU altogether. The front-line in Britain’s civil war over Europe has moved and, because I have stayed in the same place, I find myself on a different side of the battle-lines.
Britain’s future in the EU
Prime Minister David Cameron thought that his promise to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU, and to hold an in-out referendum on British membership in 2017 had bought him domestic political peace. Instead, many in his own Conservative party are agitating for an even harder-line position, and the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party is soaring in opinion polls. An eventual British exit from the EU is looking increasingly possible. So what’s going on, and what do other Europeans make of it. Quentin Peel in Berlin joins Janan Ganesh and Gideon Rachman in London.
I have just returned from the annual “Polish-British Round Table” in Krakow. This year, the theme was – “Britain and Poland: A Shared Future?” After sitting through several hours of discussions, my conclusion was – “not necessarily”. In fact, it is quite startling how swiftly British and Polish viewpoints have diverged, since Poland joined the EU back in 2004. Read more
Margaret Thatcher and Giulio Andreotti – they didn't always see eye to eye
Tuesday’s FT contained a wonderful obituary of Giulio Andreotti, a man who managed to be prime minister of Italy no fewer than seven times – as well as serving as foreign minister for much of the 1980s. Yet, as the FT obituary notes, Andreotti’s life ended in semi-disgrace, with the former PM preferring to to travel to “those parts of the world where he was still treated with respect: notably Libya, Syria and Iran.”
The Andreotti story is not simply an Italian curiosity. For the former Italian PM was also a pivotal figure in the construction of Europe and in the debates that led to the formation of the European single currency. As such, he crops up quite frequently in Margaret Thatcher‘s autobiography – in ways that cast a revealing light on today’s debates and dilemmas. Read more
The Thatcher legacy
The past week in Britain has been a reminder of the bitterness of the politics of the 1980s as a vehement debate has broken out about the legacy of Margaret Thatcher since her death last week. For Conservatives, she remains a hero who rescued the British economy and helped to win the Cold War. But for the left, she was a villain who provoked social division and wrecked Britain’s relations with the European Union. Chris Giles, economics editor, and Philip Stephens, chief political commentator, join Gideon Rachman to attempt to arrive at a more nuanced verdict on the Iron Lady’s legacy — for Britain and the world.
In the week of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral – and with the euro-crisis bubbling along – it is interesting to take a look back at what Thatcher had to say about the single currency. Much of the commentary since her death has portrayed Thatcher’s views on Europe as irrational and backward-looking. For example, Anne-Marie Slaughter in the FT, wrote that “her attitude to Europe was a throwback to the 19th century”. For good measure, Prof Slaughter adds that Thatcher’s views were “deeply anachronistic and dangerous”. Of course, there was a strong element of emotion in Thatcher’s views of Europe. So what? It is more interesting to note that she also made some quite precise criticisms of the European single currency that look increasingly prescient, as time wears on. Read more
1) ECONOMICS The FT’s chief economics commentator, Martin Wolf, evaluates the impact of Baroness Thatcher on Britain’s economic performance both during her time in power and afterwards.
“For the UK, the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s did mark the first sustained period since the 19th century when GDP per head rose more than in the other large European economies. Unfortunately, the post-crisis economic malaise, the high inequality, the persistent regional imbalances and the over-reliance on an unstable financial sector mar this success.”
2) SOCIETY Hugo Young was a political columnist for the Guardian from 1984 until 2003, and wrote a biography of Margaret Thatcher, One of Us. Two weeks before he died, in 2003, he wrote this piece about Thatcher and her legacy. The Guardian published it on Monday. Young praises Thatcher’s self-confidence, and how little she cared if people liked her – a quality he notes is markedly lacking in today’s politicians. But he worries about the change in British social attitudes that she fostered: Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Margaret Thatcher had an impact on the global scene that is still playing out today. The three most important aspects of her legacy were her impact on globalisation, on the EU and on the cold war. Of the three, only the debates surrounding the cold war are now safely consigned to the past.