Election sidelight

The gutter press (well, the Daily Telegraph: so the gutter in question is presumably attached firmly to the eaves of a rather nice vicarage somewhere in Buckinghamshire) has made much of the fact that Gordon Brown is an “unelected prime minister” – i.e. he hasn’t yet fought and won a general election as party leader. The fact that he’s attempting to do so now should have answered that point – it hasn’t – but it’s interesting to note that this isn’t exactly a rarity in British politics. Continue reading

The tragic emigres

I’ve just finished Smiley’s People, the third and probably the best of John Le Carre’s Karla trilogy. It’s a great read, but here’s an interesting point: the book opens with the murder of a retired British agent, an Estonian called Vladimir. Le Carre goes to great lengths to portray Vladimir as the hopeless partisan of a hopeless cause – deserted and ultimately let fall by his erstwhile British case officer, and leading a group of ageing, ineffectual campaigners for the utterly lost and tragicomic cause of Estonian independence.

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No law beyond the twelve mile limit

This morning the BBC had news that the MV Arctic Sea may have been hijacked in the Baltic and sailed through the Straits of Dover before vanishing. There is probably less to this than meets the eye – for all the speculation of pirates and illegal arms transfers, this looks like a commercial dispute being solved using Russian traditional law and custom. But it raises a more general point.

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Becoming one of us

Sitting in the other day on a citizenship ceremony – a few dozen people from all round the world (Sierra Leone, Poland, Turkey, Bangladesh, Somalia, Cambodia, Nepal and the rest) becoming British citizens, with a fairly low level of ceremony. Holst on the dodgy CD player and the deputy mayor of the town.

Most of the deputy mayor’s speech involved the town’s history, in particular with regard to immigrants – off on the wrong foot with the Vikings, who pillaged, but then doing rather better with Huguenots and so we come to the present day. Very little said about Britain itself – and there would, I imagine, have been even less at a similar ceremony in Scotland or Wales.

Should there have been? I don’t want to go down the road of nos ancetres les Gaulois , let alone some sort of tea tray and Toby jug version of Britain’s history, with Dover Castle, Spitfires and the Great Reform Act all buzzing round the old ladies cycling off to drink warm beer in church. But is there, still, a place for some sort of common national myth? Is national even the right level – or would new citizens and native born ones be better off with local patriotism instead? I’d bet there are more people who are proud to be Londoners than are proud to be British. How does this compare with other countries?

I’m not even going to suggest a common European myth. The mind boggles. But people become citizens for a reason, and it’s not just because they long for the chance to sit in a British jury box – the people I saw seemed to regard their citizenship as a prize worth the gaining. Maybe the British common myth is doing fine among its newest believers, at any rate, without any encouragement.

The issue’s also been on my mind because of the introduction of points-based tests for immigration, which has attracted some criticism. (Its merger with the Tesco Clubcard loyalty scheme is probably only a matter of time.) It’s basically just a formalisation of what pretty much every country does for aspiring immigrants and to be honest I don’t have a problem with it – except that it seems fairly inflexible. How quickly will it adapt to changes in the labour market? At present it’s set up to favour high-skilled high-earners. If you want to adjust overall levels, you can change the threshold score, and a specialist committee will apparently tweak the system to react to any specific shortfalls in the labour market.

This second part is the problematic one. It’s going to be interesting to see the pressures put on this committee when they have to decide whether there aren’t enough bricklayers because a) there’s a genuine shortage so you need to allow in more immigrants or b) employers aren’t paying enough so all the British ones have gone off to work somewhere else in the EU.

Maybe there’s a market solution? Allow employers to buy additional points for their valued immigrant employees, allowing them to stay in the country (and reducing the incentive to employ cheap labour)?

On being the right shape

Obsessing over strategic geography has a rather… twentieth century feel to it. Few now worry about the control of the Suez Canal, or the rights of warships to traverse the Bosphorus; far-flung scraps of land once valued as coaling stations and choke points are now important chiefly as tax havens and political distractions, and the various growths of Railway Imperialism have largely decayed back into the soil on which they were imposed. But there are a couple of areas that still pursue this approach to life. One, of course, is the subject of pipeline politics, amply discussed by m’colleagues, for example, here. Or here. Or here.

The other doesn’t get quite so much attention: Continue reading

What now?

The Royal Marines have hauled down their flag in Basra; this doesn’t mark the end of the British presence in Iraq, but more the beginning of the end, or, even more accurately, the end of the beginning of the end of the end. Most of them will be out by July, leaving only a small contingent to train the Iraqi army and add tone to what would otherwise be a mere vulgar brawl. The Romanians, the only other major European troop contingent still in Iraq (about 300 strong), will be gone by July too. By August, the only European soldiers left will be trainers – either British, Romanian, or the handfuls of others operating under the Nato training mission.

Though most of the summitry going on this week in London and elsewhere will be focussing on economics, the final end (more or less) of European involvement in Iraq is a good time to ask which direction the continent’s various militaries should be taking. Continue reading

Culminating point

After spending a bit of time recently in the various battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders, this topic has been much on my mind. It’s one of those simple but non-obvious military ideas that explains a lot more than you’d expect. Basically, the culminating point is the furthest that the attacker can go while still remaining superior to the defender. From the attacker’s point of view, you need to plan to reach your objective before you hit the culminating point, while the defender wants to do one of two things: bring the culminating point forward or move the objective backward, in order to be able to counterattack against an inferior attacker.

Which is all very dry and rather tricky to follow. Continue reading