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By Gideon Rachman
Some years ago, I made a futile attempt to persuade a Chinese diplomat that Taiwan should be allowed to declare independence – if that is what its people want. “If Scotland voted to be a separate nation,” I argued, “England would not stop it.” The diplomat smiled sceptically, like a man recognising a particularly crude falsehood. “I know that’s not true,” he said. “England would never accept Scottish independence. It would invade.”
Will Scotland go it alone?
The referendum on Scottish independence takes place in seven months and if the Scots vote to go it alone, they will break up a union which has existed for over 300 years. On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron made an impassioned plea to Scots: “We want you to stay.” But Mr Cameron’s intervention has been treated by the Scottish Nationalists as a sign of panic from the government in London.
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.
How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters, by Daniel Hannan, Head of Zeus, RRP£20, 400 pages
Old Links and New Ties: Power and Persuasion in an Age of Networks, by David Howell, IB Taurus, RRP£12.99/RRP$29.99, 256 pages
Influencing Tomorrow: Future Challenges for British Foreign Policy, edited by Douglas Alexander and Ian Kearns, Guardian Books, RRP£12.99, 224 pages
Across the back of Daniel Hannan’s How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters is a curious endorsement from Boris Johnson. The blurb starts conventionally enough, hailing the book as a “magnificent achievement”, before adding that Daniel Hannan “bestrides the Atlantic like a majestic combination of Winston Churchill and Piers Morgan”. Reading that, one might almost conclude that the mayor of London was taking the piss.
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.