Sunday, 27 October 2013

Do we need the European Court of Human Rights?

The European Court of Human Rights has a talent for making decisions that rub against popular opinion. It recently decided that murderers and rapists who serve a prison sentence in Her Majesty's Prisons should be given the right to vote. Apart from the practical dilemma this poses to any electoral committee (how to grant prisoners the vote without skewing electoral balances in those constituencies where the prisons are), the main objection to the Court's decision has always been that it explicitly overruled a parliamentary vote. In other words, judges of the European Court did not take into consideration the existing and approved law of the land but decided to make law themselves.

Time to convert this into a secondary school? The ECHR at Strassbourg

This is when critics of the Court are often reminded that any type of 'international court' that is placed above national jurisdictions acts as a last resort for people who fail to get their right through the national judicial systems. The argument goes that without institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights or the International Court of Justice at Den Haag, there would be no right of redress for people who have been victims to persecutions, injustices at the hands of governments or systematic violations of human rights.

Yet, the analogy between the Court of Justice at Den Haag and the ECHR is flawed. The International Court of Justice only acts in those cases where national judicial systems cannot act. The main example would be the case of Liberia where the newly elected government granted the ICJ the right to try its former president Charles Taylor because the national judiciary was not in a position to organise an effective and fair trial following the upheaval of the civil war and the deep political polarisation in the country.

The European Court of Human Rights however receives its legitimacy from the Convention of Human Rights, which has become UK law only recently. It thus depends on an act of parliament and as such it must defer to that parliament's decision in its own work. The judges at the ECHR however seem to have scant regard to national law as its latest decision about the release of ETA prisoners in Spain demonstrates.

It may be time to call time on the legal vandalism of the ECHR. Europe can surely manage without it.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Doris Lessing's short stories

I recently stumbled over a collection of stories by Doris Lessing and started to read them. They hail from a different era, and unfortunately, I only had a German translation. Yet some of them made for fascinating reading. Lessing mostly wrote about the cultural conflicts between the indigenous population, the Afrikaans and British people who came to the South of Africa during the colonial period. This mix of colonialism, European settlement and racial oppression resulted in explosive relationships, with many of fault-lines criss-crossing each other.

Her story 'Little Tembi' is probably the best example of this unpredictable clash of cultures. In Lessing's stories it is never the casual violence against the indigenous population that is the centre piece (although it exists), it is more the conflict of expectations that is informed by ideas of racial and cultural superiority. Within the story, a white British couple help a black family to save their child from illness and certain death. As the child grows, the couple encourage a pseudo-familial relationship with the boy yet profoundly misunderstand the expectations this raises. In the context of significantly skewed political and economic power, this must eventually lead to disaster and it can only be one person who pays the price. However, it is the white couple's confusion and befuddlement over what has happened that makes it a great story. Lessing ends the story with the couple's irritation about the black boy's behaviour: 'What, on earth, did he actually want?'

Lessing is strongest when she writes about these triangulated dynamics between blacks, settlers and British colonisers and the differentiated expectations of honour, power and riches of the newcomers while harbouring a keen sense of misplacement. She is weakest however, when she tries to tell ordinary stories that move away from this explosive mix. Her story 'Old John's place' is supremely boring and pointless, and one of the reason is that Lessing's voice remains one of an outside observer, prone to make sweeping generalisations. In a sense, she never manages to get into the minds of her own protagonists. It seems that psychological character studies are simply not her strength whilst fast paced narratives suit her style of writing best.

Her writing is also a bit clunky at times and I am not sure whether this is a result of poor translation or whether it has something to do with the particular English spoken in the South of Africa during the 1950s. There is a stiffness to her dialogues sometimes that had largely disappeared from American literature by that time.

However, even after such a long time, her stories are worth a read, teaching us about a world that may have disappeared but still resonates in some people's memories.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The futility of writing prose under socialism

The New Yorker recently published a feature on the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura. His speciality are crime stories, a genre that gives him sufficient cover to explore some of the contortions of the socialist political and economic demise of Cuba without treading too forcefully on the Communist Party’s shoes. 

Reading the piece, I was reminded of the various writers in East Germany who equally managed to carve out a niche during the Socialist regime. Their writing resembled a constant balancing act between what they would like to say and what could be printed. The benchmarks and definitions of the permissible were also constantly shifting due to the latest fad of Communist Party dogma. 

The most striking resemblance between writing in the dying days of the Cuban communist regime and writing in East Germany of the latter years was however not the writer’s agility to find and define creative space for their prose to flourish but the extent to which their writing depended on the very restrictions they railed against. Much of the writing of East German novelists flourished in a climate of high politicisation, where every word took on a double meaning. Telling a story about a fishmonger was not just a story about a fishmonger (or a butcher, as Havel so memorably said), but a tale of moral rectitude or ethical failure clothed in events of a seemingly ordinary life. 

Under the conditions of censorship in socialist regimes (institutionalised through the writer’s guilt or through the ‘ministry of truth’, i.e. a government agency), every time a writer would break wind to the right side was taken as a sign of incredible intransigence or political opposition by the readers. Where the ordinary could not be said without adopting a hidden meaning, public discourse tended to create a double speak, which required considerable interpretative faculties to decipher. 

The fascinating result was a rhetorical dance on a highly strung rope. For the writers, this increased the stakes enormously. One misstep or literary miscalculation could mean literary exile. Whilst the ability to say the unspeakable through seemingly innocuous prose would lead to immeasurable reward: a communion with the readers who knew what the writer actually meant, and a license to be printed at home. 

This pas de deux of prose writing, one may have thought, created high art. But actually it was completely context dependent. The disappearance of practically all East German prose from the German literary canon is a testament to its conditionality. What remained of its highly crafted intentional duplicity was flat and stale prose, laughable at best to anybody who now reads again the books of Hermann Kant or Christa Wolf. Whereas East German prose writing had a duplicity may have been entertaining or even daring back then, now it simply strikes one as poor craftsmanship, or of embarrassing quality. 

In the end, socialism, in its desire to exert total control over any artistic expression, not only killed public discourse, it also ensured that it left no literary legacy that’s worthy of our attention. That may perhaps its gravest failure, to make its prose that was supposed to capture the experiences of its people a brittle product that disintegrated as soon as the air of freedom gushed in. 

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The curious case of Glenn Greenwald

As the story about Edward Snowden and government snooping struggles to capture the imagination of ordinary people, the chattering classes are getting more agitated by the day. One person at the centre of the NSA scandal is Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist living in Rio.

Greenwald has been instrumental in ferrying some of the stolen material from Edward Snowden to media outlets in the West. He is on the payroll of the Guardian but does not live in the UK (he once remarked cryptically he is lucky not to have been to England).

Greenwald's pieces in the Guardian are published with some regularity which is probably due to the fact that he has a contract stipulating regular contributions, yet his writing bears little resemblance to balanced journalism or the search for truth. He is reported to easily take personal offense, to be quite thin-skinned and not very tolerant of opinions other than his own. Of late, his pieces have offered little data or information on the NSA programme, perhaps a result that the latest trawl of data was intercepted by the British border agency at Heathrow, an event which triggered a furious outburst from Greenwald saying that 'they [England] will be sorry for what they did [intercept and seize the stolen material]'.

His interview on Newsnight showed an highly opinionated person, who sometimes shoots down even compatriots in the cause with friendly fire.

Yet, apart from these character traits, what makes Greenwald a curious case in the journalistic landscape is his writing. For a journalist, his pieces are remarkably low in information and high in polemic. For his most recent piece in the Guardian, he extracted a single line from a colleague who wrote in the Independent, twisted the meaning of this line and tried to sully his colleague's reputation by calling him a 'career journalist' and member of the 'establishment' (you can read Blackhurst's piece here and Greenwald's recent piece here).

What emerges is a strange picture of an American journalist writing for a UK reputable daily newspaper in a tone that befits American ideological trench warfare rather than the intelligent, nuanced debate that is characteristic of much of the UK media landscape. In a sense, Greenwald's pieces are instances of advocacy or campaign journalism rather than journalism proper. The sad result of this is that the debate on the NSA is becoming ever more polarised with the moderate and reasonable voices being crowded out by those who prefer to shout.

Monday, 14 October 2013

On political capital

As the Labour party is desperately looking for a winning strategy in the 2015 general election, its leader recently purged the shadow cabinet of old Blairites, those former cabinet members who were in the reformist or Blair's camp as opposed to those (like Ed Miliband himself) who were in Gordon Brown's camp.

The viciousness of the internecine fights between the Blairites and Brownites under Tony Blair's government is hardly forgotten and the publication of the memoirs of Gordon Brown's right hand man for the dirty stuff is a recent reminder of how electorally toxic the former chancellor's influence was in British politics.

However, the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, is a protege of Brown and he has slowly yet ruthlessly ensured that Brown's minions have won the day. His latest reshuffle has catapulted Brownites into all leading cabinet positions, such as Rachel Reeves (dubbed 'boring snoring' by the press) into the welfare portfolio, whilst prominent Blairites such as Jim Murphy had to bite the dust.

The most interesting appointment however is Tristram Hunt replacing the Blairite Stephen Twigg. Twigg was the butt of many jokes in the press over the last couple of years, mainly because he struggled to define Labour policy in education, the department he covered as shadow education secretary. His was a difficult job since Michael Gove introduced radical 'ueber-Blairite' reforms in the first two years when becoming education secretary, by widening the academy programme which had started under Blair to primary schools and promoting so-called free schools.

The dilemma for Twigg was that Gove only put rocket boosters under what was in effect Blairite policy, and Twigg (and the Labour Party) had previously endorsed it. Being in opposition however changes the game and now Twigg found himself in a position to have to oppose something he originally advocated. Frustratingly, Twigg also found that the goal posts had shifted with Ed Miliband becoming party leader. Miliband had become leader with the votes of the trade unions and he now had to pay them back. This meant that education policy had to appease the teaching unions (who were steadfastly opposed to any reforms, Blairite or otherwise), and his leader bore down on him to comply.

Policy paralysis ensued for Twigg. He couldn't do as he wanted, and wouldn't have done as Miliband urged him to. He found is ignominious end two weeks ago. Being kicked out of his shadow job is one thing. However watching his successor to do exactly what he wanted but couldn't do is another.

The irony wont be lost on Twigg that only two days after his appointment to shadow education secretary, Twigg's successor, Tristram Hunt, a posh boy with a Cambridge PhD, executed a perfect policy u-turn. He announced that, henceforth, it would be Labour party policy to support free schools (independent of local authorities).

The morale of the story? To be radical in policy development, you cannot have the whiff of being a reformer. What you need to have is the reputation of a loyal supporter of your leader and somebody who always toes the party line. If that's the case, then you have political capital to burn.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The market failure of tar sands extraction

As fossil fuels are becoming rarer, some of the more controversial methods of extracting them from the earth are advancing. This move is driven by two factors. One is the rising need for fossil fuels in the developing world and the lag of alternative energy sources behind conventional fuels. The increase in energy prices is thus making is feasible to look for fossil fuels in ever more remote areas of the world. Deep sea extraction of oil is one of the consequences. One source of oil however is fairly close to the surface yet used to be prohibitively expensive due to its enormous amount of water and chemicals it needs, as well as its poor cost-benefit ratio: tar sands

The Canadian province of Alberta is rich in tar sands, so much so that it is estimated that there is more oil in the Canadian province than in Saudi Arabia. The problem is not that it is deep underground. In fact, tar sands are mined in open cast mines. The difficulty with tar sands is that the oil is not liquid but semi-solid and tied in with other minerals. To separate the oil from the sands is a costly and energy intensive process. So much so that the final tally of energy gained from tar sands is only 5 times to that put into extracting it. 

But tar sand extraction also incurs huge environmental costs since the sands are extracted in surface mining. The pictures of open cast tar sand mining are reminiscent of open cast coal mining which has contributed to the devastation of huge swathes of the Central European landscape. Yet there is an additional factor that makes tar sands problematic. Separating oil from the other elements requires a toxic cocktail of chemicals which are then slushed out into huge open air ‘lakes’. Presently, returning water from these lakes into natural water supplies takes about 40 years, process that is called 'tailing' and has only occurred once in Canada. 

Tar sand extraction in Alberta

Yet, as fossil fuel prices rise, tar sand extraction becomes ever more feasible, so much so that President Obama is considering a proposal for a pipeline from Alberta to the US refineries in the South to meet the energy needs of the US. 

Independent research has shown that tar sand extraction in Alberta has devastating costs for people living in the area (the area affected is currently about 485 sq km, the Alberta government plans to expand the extraction area to the size of France in the next couple of years). Cancer rates amongst native Canadian, the Inuit, are seven times higher as normal, and fish from the delta contain three times as high an amount of toxic chemical (mercury and cadmium). The Albertan government disputes these findings but refuses to appoint independent researchers to verify them. 

So, what’s the solution? Tar sand extraction is driven by rising energy prices which makes this type of extraction financially viable. High energy prices will stay with us for the foreseeable future, so hopes that the development of cheap alternative energy sources will put an end to this practice are motivated by wishful thinking at best. 

The only way out of this dilemma seems to be radical change of thinking about the costs of energy production. At present, energy companies engaged in tar sands extraction can claim huge subsidies. This makes tar sand extraction a highly profitable enterprise, almost twice as profitable as conventional oil drilling. But this is only part of the story. 

Companies can also offset many of the costs of oil extraction to the local communities by discounting so-called externalities. What does this mean? The immediate costs of production are part of the price of the final product, such as investment in machinery to extract and transport the product. The long term costs of extraction activities are however not calculated into the price. Increased health costs for cancer care amongst native Canadians in the area are shouldered by the state government. And the long term environmental costs are not even considered (beavers have virtually disappeared in the delta and water sources are contaminated). As long as extraction companies can disregard theses externalities, energy prices of oil from tar sands will not reflect the real costs of its production. 

In effect, tar sand extraction prices are a result of a distortion in the energy market. Production companies obtain huge subsidies from the government, discount the real costs and risks of tar sand extraction while the public foots the environmental costs and health care bill. Readjusting the market price for tar sands to properly reflect its externalities may be a first step to solve this environmental and moral dilemma. 

Labour's search for a winning formula

After the party conferences, political commentators in Britain have taken stock and assessed the fortunes of the political parties. Whilst most agree that all three main parties have had a good conference season (the UKIP conference quickly degenerated into a clown’s show), there has been a major shift in the tone of the public debate. And it is Labour that is at the heart of this shift. 

Labour’s leader Ed Miliband promised to ‘freeze energy bills’ for everyone for 20 months if Labour would come to power. What looks like a policy straight from the Communist Manifesto at first, indicates some major movement in the Labour Party itself, and not of the expected kind. 

At first glance, this may have heralded a move to the loony left, as some Conservatives would have it. I do believe a freeze in energy bills is non-sensical at best, but interestingly, it may mean much more for internal Labour party politics. What many observers overlook is that this may be Miliband’s desperate attempt to free himself from the suffocating embrace of Ed Ball’s formula. The shadow chancellor has banked Labour’s political future on one scenario, the failure of austerity (in fact, the difference between Labour’s and the Coalitions budget plans amounts to less than .6 percent). Balls thought that as the economic recovery was nowhere in sight by the next election, voters would punish the Coalition government for budget cuts. 

This was always a highly risky strategy. In effect, it meant that Labour had few policies and chanced everything on a particular turn of events. If things went differently, it was left without convincing arguments. And this is exactly what appears to come true. The IMF has upgraded its growth forecast for Britain to 1.4% this year which means that Britain is now the fastest growing economy of the G7. 

Cue Ed Miliband who has now (sensibly) tried to shift the main emphasis of Labour’s policies from resistance to austerity to the ‘cost of living’. This resonates with voters much more than the slightly arcane discussions about austerity and is something that might still continue well into the next parliament. 

So, in the end, Miliband’s change of topic is a smart move. It opens up new territory for Labour strategies, and releases its leader from the deadly embrace of a fatal misjudgment by his shadow chancellor. Soon, Miliband may be strong enough to put his new authority to the test and send Balls packing. Until he does so, the Labour party is hamstrung by Balls’ failed economic analysis and his history as Gordon Brown’s underling. To win elections, Miliband knows he has to change this.