Outlaw government

As the war in Ukraine looks set to grind on through months of attrition, a scenario which, as we’ve previously noted, Vladimir Putin probably won’t be too unhappy with, domestic attention is already turning back towards more local matters. After the revelation last week that Chancellor Rishi Sunak much prefers taxing the poor to paying any himself (not to mention the fact that he has so little faith in the economy he is nominally in charge of that he maintains a personal plan B involving a US Green Card), Westminster has today been shaken by the news that Sunak, and his boss, PM Boris Johnson, have each been fined for attending illegal social gatherings during lockdown.

The liberal press is naturally calling for both to go, though there is a definite air of resignation around the editorials, as if the entreaties are made for the sake of form, rather than in any expectation that Johnson and Sunak will do the decent thing, either of their own volition or at the behest of their party. Mendacity is so baked into our political system that the idea that a Prime Minister who breaks a law that he himself has promulgated, then brazenly lies to Parliament about it, should see these transgressions as a resigning matter seems like an echo of a distant, more honourable past.

In anticipation of today’s events Johnson’s allies have been spreading the message that his misdeeds were of a nature so trivial that he cannot be expected to quit, especially at this time of national and international crisis. This argument might be more plausible if the current administration displayed any signs of competence, but, as shown by their shambolic response to an energy price spike that threatens to plunge millions into poverty, Johnson and his cabinet would probably do the country a favour by spending from now until the next election drinking in the garden of Number 10, well away from the levers of power.

Fog of war

Of the many things I find unsettling about modern life, one of the more perplexing is the fact that, despite having a multitude of news sources literally at my fingertips, I often find myself unsure that I have anything other than a superficial appreciation of what is actually going on in the world, let alone why it is happening, or what I should think about it. I don’t know if things really have become more complicated in the last 20 years or so, or if it merely seems that way because of the cacophony of instant opinion that assails us at all hours these days; it certainly doesn’t help that my critical faculties are not what they once were. Whatever the cause, I have largely resigned myself to being in a more or less constant state of disconcertion, which, I tell myself, is really a manifestation of Socratic Wisdom.

This is all very well when it relates to matters that are fairly insignificant, like ephemeral cultural trends, but occasionally something comes along that is obviously more consequential, and that I feel sure my younger self would have had a strong and settled opinion about. In such cases it seems dishonourable to avoid clearly speaking one’s mind, though I can’t shake the feeling that the more critical the issue, the more important it is to acknowledge the extent of one’s ignorance.

So, what are we to make of the war in Ukraine, as the conflict enters its fourth week? Some things at least are clear; the war is an unmitigated and completely avoidable tragedy, the responsibility for which lies entirely with the Russian government, and the only reasonable demand that can be made is for a return to the status quo ante bellum. It gets murkier however, when one tries to understand how such a disaster came about, or what might happen next.

First, the causes. The Russian narrative – that the war is a defensive operation, provoked by fascist aggression against the inhabitants of the Donbass – is so obviously preposterous that it can only be construed as a signal that Moscow sees Ukraine as so far inside its sphere of influence that there is no need to offer even a semi-plausible explanation for the action. However the tone of the dominant western narrative, which implies that Vladimir Putin has simply lost his mind and launched the invasion on a whim, seems equally unsatisfactory. I think that Putin has a clear motivation – to re-establish Russia’s status as an undisputed Great Power – and a rational strategy to achieve this, by demonstrating that his forces can operate freely within the former Soviet borders, while withstanding the economic response of the West. Whether this strategy will succeed is another question of course, but it can’t be dismissed as madness.

As to what will happen next, well that’s where the uncertainty really kicks in. Without knowing exactly what Putin’s immediate goals are, it’s hard to see where he might be willing to compromise. Western media analysis has been rather dismissive of Russian performance on the battlefield, but it seems likely that, unless there is increased NATO involvement, the Russians will eventually wear the defenders down. I think they will avoid a direct assault on Kyiv, and focus on an effective blockade of the southern ports. The Ukrainian army may be able to slow this down, but does not seem to have the capacity for the sort of offensive that would be needed to expel the invaders. Putin may be calculating that, if the war drags on, the willingness of European governments to bear the direct and indirect costs of the conflict, and the associated sanctions, will begin to fray, and the Ukrainians will be compelled to agree an armistice on Russian terms.

That outcome, which would involve months more of death and destruction, is actually the optimistic scenario, as it assumes that the war does not escalate beyond the borders of Ukraine. The Kyiv government has been talking of the conflict as a clash between European liberal civilisation and totalitarian despotism, which I think is an overstatement, as Putin’s actions are in line with a long tradition of Great Power politics, albeit elevated to an extreme degree of ruthlessness. Kyiv’s position is understandable in the circumstances, but, equally understandably, European leaders have merely paid lip-service to the idea, while ruling out a direct confrontation with Russia. The temptation to whip up anti-Russian sentiment as a distraction from domestic problems may prove irresistible to some though, especially in this country, and since there is always the chance of misunderstanding when such rhetoric is flying around, the situation could become very dangerous, very quickly.

So that’s my brief analysis, for what it’s worth. I feel a little calmer for having thought about it, and better able to focus on doing what I can, which is to contribute to the relief effort. There is nothing good about war, but if the events in Ukraine remind us even a little of our common humanity, then perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing.

War in Ukraine

I had been thinking, or perhaps hoping, that the Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine was an elaborate feint, intended to provide cover for a smaller-scale operation, such as a partial occupation of the Donbass, but today’s events seem to indicate that Vladimir Putin has a bigger objective in his sights, though exactly what that is is still unclear. An invasion of the entire country would surely be significantly more trouble than it was worth, so Putin may be content to inflict a heavy defeat on the Ukrainian army before withdrawing to the newly-declared republics in the east, perhaps retaining territory along the Sea of Azov to secure a land corridor to Crimea.

Of course the war is unlikely to play out exactly the way that Putin intends, and there is always the risk of unintended escalation, but one does not get the impression that there is any appetite in the West for a general continental war, so the actual violence will probably be confined within the borders of Ukraine. The diplomatic and economic effects of the crisis will spread more widely though, and the long-term consequences of a full-scale renewal of the Cold War are unlikely to be benign. I’m clinging to the hope that, contrary to recent appearances, Putin is in fact a rational actor who has some sort of strategic plan, and that things won’t get too out of hand, but that belief may prove hard to sustain in the days ahead.

Ukrainian tensions

Two issues have been dominating the news in this neck of the woods recently; the first, of little interest beyond these shores, is the continued unravelling of the Johnson government, the second, rather more globally important, is the prospect of a general continental war breaking out as a result of the crisis in Ukraine.

It had been looking like both of these stories were petering out over the last week or so, as Johnson moved to shore up his position with a somewhat reckless scaling down of pandemic-related restrictions, while President Putin’s military posturing appeared to have produced diplomatic results sufficiently impressive to allow him to avoid the risks of a hot conflict.

I think Boris has done enough to see him through the immediate storm, though the looming cost of living crisis may yet sink him as the year goes on, but the Ukrainian situation has taken an unexpectedly alarming turn, as western governments, led by the US, have ramped up talk of an imminent invasion, making it harder for Putin to back off without at least some sort of offensive action.

I’m hoping that this latest development is a finely-calibrated move by the Biden administration to limit Russian diplomatic gains, rather than an attempt to goad Putin into a military adventure in the expectation that it will be as disastrous for Russia as the invasion of Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union back in the 80s. That conflict, kindled by the CIA, may have achieved its Cold War aim in hastening the fall of the USSR, but it was an unmitigated catastrophe for the Afghan people, who, along with the rest of the world, are still living with its consequences 40 years on. A repeat, this time in the heart of Europe, doesn’t bear thinking about.

It is hard to believe that even the most belligerent elements on either side would be willing to roll the dice on such a scale, but, then again, history is littered with examples of comparable misjudgements, and events rarely follow the plan once the shooting starts. I guess we’ll just have to hold our breath, and hope that we’re soon back to a time where a clown in Downing Street is the biggest thing we have to worry about.

Dishonourable member

I watched the film Munich – The Edge of War at the weekend. Although it has had some good reviews I was rather unimpressed; for a supposed thriller the pace is painfully slow, and the central premise – that bourgeois liberal democracy, personified by Neville Chamberlain, defeated fascism by revealing Hitler’s lack of honour – is somewhat fantastical, to say the least.

Interestingly, today’s liberal press and opposition seem to be adopting a similar approach in their efforts to topple Boris Johnson, with equally uninspiring results. While it would obviously be ridiculous to equate Boris with Adolph, the common theme is the liberals’ complete inability to understand that their opponents are no longer playing by the rules of the game. Loudly denouncing Johnson’s transgressions, then waiting for him to do the decent thing, doesn’t look like a winning strategy. Relying on the Conservative Party to depose him is an equally forlorn hope, as Tory MPs seem increasingly willing to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile whatever high-minded ideals they might profess with their desire to remain in power (see also: Donald Trump, the GOP).

As ever, liberals shy away from the conclusion that the behaviour of the likes of Johnson implies; that the problem lies not with one or another disreputable politician, but with the system itself.

I guess it’s possible that Johnson may eventually push his luck too far, and precipitate a Tory revolt, or perhaps he will grow weary of all the drama and quit. If so, his successor may placate bourgeois sensibilities by displaying a more refined sense of decorum, but fundamentally things will remain the same. Capitalism produces the inequalities in wealth and power that allow the ruling class to live in a different world from the masses, and as long as that state of affairs persists then nothing will really change.

Bye bye Boris?

If one reads the liberal press, as of course I do, one could be forgiven for believing that the departure of Boris Johnson from the office of Prime Minister is both inevitable and imminent. He has, the argument goes, so flagrantly disregarded parliamentary conventions that he is honour bound to resign, and if for some reason he fails to see this, then his party will surely move against him, to maintain the integrity of our political system.

Perhaps that is what will happen, but I can’t help thinking that this position rests on the belief that Johnson, and the Conservative Party that put him into power, are still playing the game by the old rules, an assumption that is not entirely backed up by recent experience. As we have seen over the last four years in the US, where liberal expectations that the Republicans world eventually recoil from the excesses of Trumpism have been repeatedly disappointed, in today’s world the right is much more interested in hanging on to power than in observing the niceties of bourgeois democracy.

So I think Boris might yet brazen it out, in the short term at least, and if his MPs do topple him in the coming days it may have more to do with cold political calculation than any sense of decency. It seems unlikely that any moves will be made before the Gray report is published later this week, so we look set for a few more days of uncertainty before the situation even starts to move towards resolution.

Then perhaps we can start worrying about the really important things

Party on Boris

Just when one thinks British politics can become no more ridiculous, our current government manages to plumb new depths of farce. The best spin that can be put on Boris Johnson’s transparently mendacious explanation for his attendance at a lockdown-busting party in his own garden is that it is an ambitious attempt to gaslight the entire nation; inviting us to accept that he thought the crowd of people standing around drinking was just a normal work day at Number 10 is such an obvious lie that no rational person could possibly expect it to be believed, therefore we must conclude he is actually telling the truth.

If Johnson was hoping that this daring manoeuvre would disorientate the opposition then he has been woefully disappointed, as critics from every point of the political spectrum have lined up to solemnly contrast his callous frivolity with the noble sacrifices made by the population during the pandemic. Seldom can an easier target have been presented, and, most worryingly for Johnson, the condemnation is resonating far beyond Westminster, shaking the confidence of many Tory MPs, and fuelling talk of a leadership challenge.

So, slightly unexpectedly, we are presented with our first opportunity of the year to make a political prediction; will Boris still be Prime Minister at the end of this month?

I’m going to say yes, since serious candidates to replace him, like Rishi Sunak, are likely to be reluctant to take over at the top just when the country is facing a particularly rough patch, as the pandemic, Brexit, and spiralling energy prices combine to produce a cost of living crisis. Better to let Johnson take the flak for a bit longer, then make a move when the worst has passed. If Boris makes it to the end of the week then I think he’ll last until the summer at least, but he may not get the chance to host any more Christmas parties in Downing Street.

2021: The year in review – Part 2: Blogging

After a relatively productive 2020 our posting rate fell off a bit this year, but we did manage to at least touch upon a few of the main political and cultural developments of the last twelve months.

Foremost among these was the continuing dislocation of the seemingly-endless covid-19 pandemic. Any optimism generated by the production of a vaccine has started to ebb away, as viral mutation has brought us to the brink of another dispiriting winter lockdown, sorely testing the population’s willingness to endure further restrictions. The government’s typically confused response has done little to inspire confidence that the situation will be under control any time soon. I guess at some point in the future we’re all going to be either immune or dead; perhaps we’ll get back to normality then.

For a while at the start of the year it looked like US politics might get quite interesting, but, once the smoke had cleared after the Capitol riot, things settled into a familiar routine; the competent but dull centerism of Joe Biden being frustrated by the characteristic obstructionism of an ever rightward-shifting GOP. Meanwhile the momentum for progressive change that had built up under the Trump administration has all but disappeared, as the left shifts its attention to looming defensive struggles around voting rights and reproductive autonomy.

Here in the UK, the last couple of months have seen problems mounting for Boris Johnson, as various scandals and electoral setbacks have given the lie to the notion that he was able to defy the normal rules of politics with his trademark bluster and charm. Bourgeois liberals, who had been in a state of demoralisation since the Brexit catastrophe, have greeted this development with joy, declaring confidently that it signifies a return to sensible moderation, and discouraging any talk of left alternatives, lest the electorate is frightened back into the arms of the Tories. I think this is exactly the wrong lesson to learn from the recent history of British politics; the reason Johnson has been able to make inroads into traditionally Labour-supporting areas is because the left has been too tentative in promoting a progressive vision, rather than over-confident. Pursuing a supposed centre ground just allows the right to set the agenda, dragging the country further into reaction. There are some signs of a left revival, especially in the devolved nations, but hope is still a scarce commodity.

Anyway, here are our top ten posts of 2021, by traffic:

  1. Red star shines on
  2. World Cup predictions revisited
  3. The Linden Principle
  4. Euro predictions
  5. Euro 2016 forecast
  6. Premature relaxation
  7. Fly me to the moon
  8. L’Italia è vittoriosa
  9. 02022020
  10. There is no land beyond the Volga

I’ve given up trying to analyse why some old posts suddenly become popular again, and I’m a bit disappointed that only one from this year made the cut, but at least a few of the vintage pieces are good ones.

Here are my favourite posts of the year:

Our global reach shrank a little this year, but we still managed to attract visitors from 40 countries; here are the top ten:

  1. United Kingdom
  2. United States
  3. China
  4. Japan
  5. Canada
  6. India
  7. Malaysia
  8. New Zealand
  9. Vietnam
  10. Germany

After a year when it sometimes seemed we were stuck in some sort of temporal loop, I have a feeling that 2022 might deliver some significant change, so there should be plenty of topics to comment upon; we’ll see if I manage to be a bit more productive. Whatever happens, I hope all our readers have a happy, safe, and prosperous New Year.

Viral déjà vu revisited

I may find the unchanging nature of Second Life strangely comforting, but the fact that events in the real world seem to be stuck on infinite repeat is rather more unsettling. Almost exactly a year ago we were dealing with the disappointment of Christmas being cancelled due to the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus, and, well, here we are again.

Of course the outlook is not quite as gloomy as it was last December; the reasonably high rate of vaccination in the UK population does give some cause for optimism. Set against that however is the ever more obvious incompetence of the government, presided over by the increasingly ridiculous figure of Boris Johnson, lurching from scandal to scandal, his authority so diminished that he struggles to win the support of his own party for the measures necessary to head off the resurgent pandemic. In another echo of the recent past, a hazardous by-election this week, in what should be a safe Tory seat, seems likely to precipitate a fresh crisis for Johnson, potentially rendering him powerless at just the time the country needs decisive leadership.

It could be worse I guess; Brexit might be going badly

Wild west

It’s been far too long since I was last in the US; my last trip was all the way back in the 20th century. I had made a vague arrangement to visit a couple of old friends in California in the summer of 2020, but events obviously overtook those plans, so we tentatively rescheduled for next year.

I’ve had all my vaccinations, so I should be clear to travel, but I have to say I’m having some second thoughts, now that it seems to be legal for for heavily-armed white supremacists to roam the country, shooting leftists at will.

Of course any of my non-white comrades reading this will be rolling their eyes at the thought of an old, white, middle-class male like me being concerned about falling victim to the sort of state-sponsored violence that is just everyday reality for oppressed communities in the US, so I guess I will get over myself and brave the journey to the Pacific coast. I mean, what else would I have to be worried about?

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