Issue 21; 2015 09 24; contents

24 September 2015: Issue 21

Week in Brief





The EU – Decline and Fall by Neil Tidmarsh

Is the refugee crisis the beginning of the end for the EU?What the Middle East has to face

Schism by John Watson

Can the Archbishop save the day?

Sex, Drugs and Memory Loss by J.R.Thomas

A touch of scandle doesn’t always go down so badly.


Power to the people? by John Watson

The danger of direct popular power

Be like a spider by Chin Chin

Creepy crawlies and Windows 10

The only lesson of History…… that we learn nothing from history by J.R.Thomas

The migration following the first world war puts the present problems into perspective.


The Beaux ‘Stratagem  (OlivierTheatre, London SE1) – Neil Tidmarsh


“A spot of painting”

Solution to last week’s crossword “Plain Vanilla”

Earlier Editions

Issue 16: 20 August 2015

Issue 17: 27 August 2015

Issue 18: 03 September 2015

Issue 19: 10 September 2015

Issue 20: 17 September 2015

Issue 22: Crossword – The darker side of life – printable

1 October 2015

Crossword by Boffles

The darker side of  life

SS22 grid


    1  Stopper said to be liked by football managers (4)

    3  Killer who had nothing to do with up-market auctioneers (8)

    9  Britain fought over it and De Quincey ate it (5)

  10  Serbian paramilitary thug (5)

  11  Falsehood (3)

  12  Jeffrey Archer and Chris Huhne for example (2-4)

  14  Common aim of hostage takers (6)

  16  Cake making royal pretender? (6)

  18  Genocide location (6)

  20  ‘Our thing’ but found in the USA and Italy rather than here (5)

  23  Spanish terrorist group (3)

  24  No seaside fun on this beach (5)

  25  Even 19dn had to drink this kind of coffee at the end of WW2 (6)

  26  The Devil makes work for these hands (4)



    1  Common household crime (8)

    2  You do not want this around your neck (5)

    4  Descriptive of 2dn (6)

    5  Lucky to escape death at the hands of his father (5)

    6  A conman hopes his victims will be (5,2)

    7  Destroyer with a volcanic temper? (4)

    8  His only crime is to bring some cheer into the life of lonely ladies (6)

  13  Responsible for a massacre on a romantic day (2,6)

  15  2dn frequently employed here or just outside its walls (7)

  17  Bandit but not a native American (6)

  19  National Socialists of an unpleasant kind (5)

  20  An MP famously claimed the expenses of cleaning his (4)

  21  Nowadays the internet often used for this crime (5)

  22  High-flying member of 19 dn who did a lot of time in Spandau (4)

Issue 22: 2015 10 01: Flossing and Trains

01 October 2015

Flossing and Trains

By Chin Chin

There is nothing intrinsically disgusting about using toothpicks. In fact not so long ago they would have been placed on the dining table so that those who encountered a particularly chewy piece of meat could remedy any consequences before they turned to tackle the dessert. But essential though they may once have been in the best society, there are places where they and their successors – flossing tools – are distinctly out of place. One of those is at the car-hire desk at a busy airport.

Picture the scene. It has been a tiring flight and the hour is late. A long drive awaits once you have secured your hire car and got on your way. The queue for rentals isn’t particularly long but there is only one man on the desk and, although he may be doing his best, the documentation for each customer seems to take an age to complete. Also, loyalty customers go straight to the front so sometimes the queue gets longer rather than shorter. Still, you are British and we have a way with queues; uncomplainingly, you wait in line.

It is at this point that you become aware of a restlessness behind you. The man showing his impatience is of foreign extraction and, to be honest rather than charitable, is stocky with an aggressive but furtive air and pig-like bristles. He paces up and down. He prowls to the front of the queue and then back to his place. Now he does it again. Perhaps he is trying to emulate the “Troops of Midian” who prowl and prowl around in the hymn. For a second you recall the next line which begins with the exhortation: “Christian, up and smite them” and it occurs to you that muscular Christianity has something going for it after all. He prowls again. You grit your teeth.

It is at this stage that you notice something sinister. When he walks he cups his hands round his mouth. To begin with this seemed like an involuntary gesture, and your original irritation became tempered with sympathy. After all it is a good effort if he can drive a car with an affliction of that sort. Then you realise that it is quite deliberate and that as he paces up and down he is simultaneously working his way through his teeth with some floss-holding device. It sets your own teeth on edge.

Pressed to explain why, you would be in some difficulty. After all, it is not a direct threat. The man may be twitchy and impatient but the likelihood of his trying to murder those ahead of him in the queue with a flossing tool is really quite small. It is true that, at the court of the Borgias, many met their ends by being stabbed in the back, but that sort of thing is comparatively rare in the high security environment of an international airport.

No, it isn’t the fear of being stabbed which is so worrying; rather the risk of being sprayed. Suppose that in his agitation this pig-like creature flosses too hard. The stick bends under the pressure as he tries to extract something lodged between his molars. He pushes. He grunts. He strains. Ping! Out it comes at about the same speed as a ball leaving a tennis racket. Unfortunately you are only a foot or two away so there would be no time to duck or indeed to hit it back with your passport. How might it end up? A new spot on the tie? A blot on the shirt which you have carefully preserved pristine through successive airline meals? Something that will have to be removed from your eye by a surgeon? Who knows, and yet here he comes again prowling up the right hand-side of the queue, grunting impatiently, his flossing tool hard at work in his mouth.

If it is basic good manners to allow others space, that still begs the question of how much that space should be. The answer is sufficient space to keep them clear of one’s own activities. For the flosser, that was probably 10 to 15 yards (he had particularly muscular thumbs). For the person who talks too loudly, on the other hand, the space must be in proportion to the decibels.

I was once on a train to Scotland. Actually that isn’t quite right because, the train having broken down near Berwick on Tweed, it wasn’t really a train “to” anywhere any more. Instead we had five hours to admire the rain falling in the damp fields and to wait for rescue. At a table behind me there was a man with an over-loud voice and his parents. He was a railway buff and he kept the entire carriage well-informed as to what going on.

“They’ll be bringing out the maroons soon” he announced suddenly, awakening a lively interest until it turned out that the maroons were not a form of emergency ration kept in the restaurant car but rather some sort of signal to be set out on the track to warn other trains of our presence.

“Ah” he said after a minute or two’s pause. “As the electricity has gone, they’ll have to get a diesel down from Edinburgh to tow us in. Our engine will need to go to the repair shop at Newcastle. The one built in 1994 after the fire which…”

Now, like most men and boys, I like trains and the first bits of information were quite interesting. But after quarter of an hour or so, I’d had quite enough and after half an hour I was wondering if I could make a tissue into earplugs. Still the voice grated on, just a bit too loud for anyone in the carriage to be able to ignore it, or read, or go to sleep, or do anything else.

In the end we were rescued; not by the train restarting or by an angry passenger throttling the train-spotter or anything predictable of that sort. No, we were rescued by a small can of coca cola which our noisy neighbour had thoughtlessly shaken before pulling the tab to open it. “Fizz” it went, “fizz, fizz,” as it sprayed its sweet sticky contents over the train-spotter and his family. There was plenty of noise after that, lots of swearing and muttering as they tried to clean themselves up with wipes but, even though it was quite loud, I have to say that it didn’t annoy me one bit.

I put my head back sleepily and even as my eyes closed I was conscious that I was planning a letter – a fulsome letter of gratitude and affection to the chairman of the Coca Cola company.

Issue 22: 2015 10 01: Yeay Puppiiees!!

01 October 2015

Yeay Puppiiiees!!

The joys of family and new dog ownership.

by Serena Sinclair

Our family has always owned dogs. They are most definitely part of the family. The family living at home is now, however, sadly depleted, with children supposedly grown up and scattered. Well, they were for some years. It seems that I may have at least one of them back for a while as he reviews his life, work and relationships. What, I hear you ask, does this have to do with dogs? Well, my other half has a very large, lovely deerhound. He also used to have the most intelligent dog I have ever met, a collie who went simply by the name of Dog. Dog was fifteen and going strong when some idiot, driving too fast through country lanes, ran into him and killed him. Dear Hound (there is a great book of this name by the children’s author Jill Murphy, by the way) was left alone. That was two years ago and we have been threatening to get a companion for him for all that time. At first it was too soon; then there was the problem of suitability. The new companion had to be smaller than the deerhound (well, would you want two hairy dogs the size of small donkeys in your house?!) and yet large enough or feisty and robust enough to be able to play with a very large but gentle hound. We hoped the hound would agree with our choice. What on earth should we choose though?

Whippets were suggested, and as one of our neighbours has whippets we knew that the combination worked. The problem was that I am not that keen on whippets. They are lovely dogs, but they lack that ‘cuddleability’ factor which I, personally, look for in a dog (so does the deerhound of course, majestic and handsome as he is). They are usually skinny and long legged. I am not, which may of course be part of the problem. What about a Bedlington terrier crossed with a whippet? This is an extremely appealing combination and does have a lot going for it. However, good litters are not always easy to find and there was too much going on in our lives to want to scour the countryside for the right breeders. Some Vizsla puppies came up for sale locally, but the breeder wanted £1,000 each for them. This seemed a bit excessive, even though they are purebred dogs and not mongrels masquerading as ‘designer’ breeds, of which there do seem to be an awful lot around today. Still, yesterday’s mongrel, possibly today’s purebred, so today’s mongrel may well be tomorrow’s Kennel Club dog. How long before the Cockapoos and Labradoodles are being shown at Crufts?

Which brings us neatly to my newly acquired ‘Patadors’ or ‘Labradales’. I put them in the plural deliberately, as I have ended up, rather unintentionally, with two of them. One is supposed to belong to afore-mentioned son – except that he is still extricating himself from life abroad. Ours is male, to be the companion to Dear Hound. His is female, because… well, just because there were six bitches and only one male in the litter. We heard about them through the village grapevine and they are a cross between a cross (Labrador/Patterdale) and a working Labrador. Patterdales you may not have heard of, but they are very feisty little working terriers, bred in the Fells for on-foot fox hunting. Quite how they cross-breed with Labradors I am not really sure, as I would have thought there was a bit of a size issue, but, like most terriers, they clearly have aspirations.

We used to have a Patterdale. She was black with a rough, wiry coat and the wildest temperament I have ever encountered in a domestic dog (although at the end of a day’s hunting she would love to curl up on your lap). I wouldn’t even like to calculate the number of replacement guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens we had to buy for neighbours – not to mention the bottles of whisky! I guessed that maybe a cross between a Patterdale and a Labrador might, if one were to get the best of each rather than the worst, result in dogs that were not as overly anxious to please as Labs, but somewhat more controllable than Patterdales; that do not have the Lab tendency to run to fat, nor the terrier tendency to an over-inflated ego. Time will tell…

In the meantime, I have spent the last ten days being completely besotted and totally distracted by two really gorgeous, affectionate, playful little short-haired black puppies who seem to adore each other – and me. They are, of course, not yet house-trained, although that is coming along pretty well considering it is hard to know, unless you catch one of them ‘in flagrante’, who is responsible for that small yellowish puddle on the kitchen floor. They do sit before their food is put down in front of them and they seem to understand ‘Off!’ (the flowerbed mainly, but it might also be the Dear Hound’s food bowl) and ‘Bed!’ as well. I am slightly disappointed to see that they have the Lab tendency to greed, gobbling down their moistened puppy food as if they hadn’t eaten for days and the next meal might never come, rather than understanding that it is produced pretty regularly every three or four hours. At the moment I am attributing this behaviour to having had to fight with six other puppies every mealtime and hoping that there will come a day when they attain Dear Hound’s laid back attitude to his food – it is frequently sniffed, then ignored for hours or until some human food titbits are added which make it worth eating. The last few days of sunshine have been an absolute blessing as I am not sure they would have been quite as keen to go outside and expend massive amounts of energy racing round and round and round (and underneath and between) my least favourite dull, boring cotoneasters and laurels had it been as cold, wet and miserable as much of August and the earlier part of September. I have also had the added bonus of a family visit – my youngest daughter came back from Uni for a few days, not to see me of course, but to see puppies. Her WhatsApp message ran ‘Yeay Puppiiiees!!! See you at the weekend.’


Issue 22: 2015 10 01: The Bonfire of the Vanities

01 October 2015

The Bonfire of the Vanities

By John Watson

“German Manufacturers Break Rules.” What a great headline. Has Germany finally moved on in evolutionary terms? Have the laws of Darwin finally made it across the Rhine? Will they be making jokes next, funny ones even? It is a little sad that just when the Germans learn the pleasure of breaking the rules, rule breaking – at least by business – should be going out of fashion.

The trouble is that many of the things which we thought had been achieved over the last twenty years seem to be coming unravelled either because they turn out not to be affordable or because they were just bubbles in the first place. The abolition of boom and bust – Pop!  – a triumph announced a little too early. Britain’s enviable system of final salary pension schemes – Pop! – unaffordable as lives get longer and annuity rates drop. The financial services sector, the driver of the British economy – Pop! – much of the growth generated by mis-selling and dangerous risk taking. Renewable energy – Pop! – now being abandoned as too expensive and collapsing as tax breaks are withdrawn. Now it’s the extraordinarily improved performance and environmental efficiency of motor cars – Pop! – greatly exaggerated by a fiddling of the figures, and clearly not just in Germany.

It is easy to write the narrative to fit one’s own political prejudices. Aha! say those on the left, it’s the fault of the wicked capitalist system with corners being cut and figures being massaged in the pursuit of profit. Take that out of the equation and all would be well. Unfortunately for that argument, it is not just the bastions of capitalism which are in disarray. What about the national health service, its administrative sclerosis causing it to fall steadily further behind ever increasing demand? What about the police, caught napping on the job in relation to paedophilia and now trying to make up for it by throwing suspicion around like confetti? What about the politicians, hands in the till over expenses, or the journalists, hacking their way into private calls? What about the BBC, that most politically correct of organisations, discovering that what lurked under the surface made political correctness irrelevant?

The apologists for the right don’t have it too easy, either. Markets have turned out to be manipulated rather than free. The regulators who were charged with overseeing them have veered from dilatory to over-enthusiastic. Recent experience with lightly regulated capitalism has not been good, and as the authorities struggle to salvage their reputations with public displays of toughness they will stifle much of the economic activity which they should be protecting.

It is all a little depressing but we have been here before. Look at the 17th century Dutch Vanitas paintings (their name drawn from the passage in Ecclesiastes whose Latin translates in the Authorised Version to “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” – the word “vanity” here indicating futility rather than pride) and what do you see? Bubbles bursting, tapers burning out, flowers fading, skulls, an evening sky, all earthly glory fading and you realise that the painter lived in a society which had seen its disappointments too. Perhaps then, watching what we thought were bankable achievements crumble is just a part of the human condition and perhaps society goes through a cycle of alternating hubris and nemesis of which we are currently near the bottom and which we shouldn’t take too seriously. That certainly seems to have been the view of Rudyard Kipling who included in his iconic poem “If” the words :

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;”

We need to keep it in proportion, too. Much of what has been achieved still stands. The health service is overstretched because of the longevity associated with a healthier population. People eat too much because there is food there to eat. Leisure time is misused because it is widely available. Cars may not be as efficient as we had thought but they are a great deal better than they were twenty years ago. And for those achievements which turn out to be hollow, we should turn to what Kipling says later in his description of what becomes a man:

“Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.”

So let’s keep the blame-storming in proportion. Let us eschew those who try to use all failure as a recruiting ground for their own preconceptions. Let us rebuild, drawing on the best tools we can lay our hands on from whichever part of the political spectrum they come. Above all we need to recognise that our efforts will fail, that our towers, however well we think we have constructed them, will fall down- like the banks, the motor industry, the press, the politicians and the BBC. That is how it is and that is how it should be. Since we are in poetical mode today, perhaps a quote from Robert Browning:

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”


Issue 22;2015 10 1: The Glorious First

1 October 2015

The Glorious First

by J R Thomas

Every year the newspapers run amusing and sometimes serious articles on the Glorious 12th, the 12th August, when every gentleman and increasingly, many gentlewomen, head to the northern hills in the hope of multiple encounters with a rare bird, the red grouse. As we discussed a few weeks ago – indeed, as close to the Glorious 12th as we could get – the red grouse is not as rare as it used to be, thanks to the wonders of modern keepering and medicated grit. But the grouse is still an expensive bird to pursue, so even among tweedy types with shotguns it remains a minority interest.

But for many country types, including many who live in cities and towns, there is a more glorious day, the Glorious first of October. Today, in fact, assuming you are reading the Shaw Sheet on publication day. For this is the first day of the pheasant shooting season, which runs to the 1st February, excluding Sundays and Christmas Day. The pheasant might be described as the poor man’s grouse, but most shooters would wince at that suggestion. At around £35 per bird if you wish to join a shooting party, as against £60 or so for grouse, they are cheaper, but not cheap. And it is no good popping along with seven mates and hoping to shoot ten or so; the estate owner or farmer who has taken the trouble to sort out some shooting will want you to take a hundred as a minimum, preferably two or three hundred. Not though, as some City and overseas types are reputed to arrange, five hundred, or even eight hundred. That is just vulgar and not sporting at all.

Pheasants are certainly much more widely available than grouse, as they like to live in hedges or on the edges of lowland woodland, preferably deciduous and with some wet ground around. Boggy places are perfect for them but they will also take their country dry, low or high (not moorland though), arable or grassland, provided that there is some shelter to keep off the winter chill and to hide in during the autumnal invasion of folks with guns and dogs. As most of rural Britain meets this general description, they thrive all over the UK. Indeed, there cannot be a county in which it is not possible to meet, or even shoot, a pheasant. Greater Manchester or West Midlands, maybe, but we are talking proper old fashioned pre Walkerisation counties here.

The pheasant is reputed to have arrived with the Romans, and certainly it can still be found in the rolling hills of Umbria. They are very adaptable birds and have settled in many countries but it is in the British Isles and the north east of the USA – New England – that they are especially to be found in large quantities. This is not just because, along with many rich foreigners, they find the conditions friendly and benign. In fact, a pheasant, if asked to complete a survey by someone with a clipboard, would probably report that it found local conditions anything but friendly and benign, what with the constant pursuit by hawks, foxes, egg eaters, rats; and then in the autumn by the over-excited tweedy types.

They live there in such numbers because the pattern of land ownership enables professional organised shoots to be run, if not profitably then at least at a level which enables the landowner to fool himself that one day he might make some surplus cash from it. (Shoot owners have a common characteristic with farmers, in that they constantly complain at poor returns but for some reason keep on doing it.) What a pheasant shoot needs is quite a lot of land, preferably at least eight hundred acres, though some enthusiasts manage to enjoy themselves on as little as a hundred. But for a serious shoot, and one aiming at a surplus, a fair expanse is needed and the ideal is to have a great estate. Most of the great estates have serious shooting activities on their land; the growth in the popularity of shooting over the last thirty years and the increasing willingness of enthusiasts to devote largish amounts of income to it, has been a boon to landowners and larger farmers.  It not only gives them a sporting rent, the shoots are often leased to a professional shoot captain, but also an opportunity to run bed and breakfasts in the stately pile and lunches and dinners for the sporty types.  It means part-time employment for estate staff and pensioners, trade for local inns and restaurants. And increasingly, diversity in the offerings in the local farm shops and butchers to whom the unfortunate deceased birds can be sold.

Like grouse, there is a bit of etiquette involved, mainly on the dress front (plus-fours, flat cap, Barbour jacket, or similar) for those who wish to be asked back. Not shooting one’s fellow guests or the host’s employees is also considered polite. We are dealing with a miniature replica of the English class system here. At the top is the landowner, who may or may not, probably not, appear on the day. He prefers to shoot with his chums generally, who with luck will also own shoots and can entertain each other. The landowner thus does not need to shoot over his own land much. He can instead get in the middle classes, who arrive fired with a mixture of envy that wishes they were, and relief that is glad they are not, great aristocrats with rolling estates. For one day they can dress up, eat breakfast in the castle dining room and lunch in the Temple of Diana, and pretend that this is the life. An essential role in this is played by the working classes without whom shooting, like life, is more or less impossible.

Pheasants are idle birds, and left to their own devices they, like many of the landowners whose property they grace, would spend their days strutting about, eating, admiring the view, creating a bit of trouble with their neighbours, and chasing lady pheasants. So they have to be persuaded to fly. And modern shooting lore insists the pheasants fly high; the higher the better. This makes them much more difficult to shoot. This may seem a little odd to the bystander of this already odd-seeming set of rituals, but remember, most shooters are taking part in this vastly inconvenient, wet, bizarrely-dressed, expensive sport to show off. The more impressive the shooting skill, the better. To get the birds to fly at all, and especially at great height, requires an army of energetic locals, many with disputable dogs, who spend all day walking round the land, making noises (clicking with sticks is regarded as the most professional), waving flags made of old fertiliser sacks, and muttering into short wave radios (this is nothing to do with incentivising the pheasants, it is to draw sniggering attention to the poor shooting skills of the guests). And then spend half an hour looking for birds that have dropped in rivers, in trees, in brambles, and quite often, have dropped only in the shooter’s overheated imagination.

But when all is said and done, everybody tends to get along and have some pleasure and exercise, pheasants are good to eat and usually more healthily reared than battery chicken, some extra employment is provided in areas that need it, and otherwise redundant large houses are put to appreciative use. Best of all, large number of Range Rovers that otherwise prowl Chelsea in a state of high frustration, get to wander about the countryside and have the mud to prove it.

Issue 22:2015 10 01:Speaker Cornered

01 October 2015

Speaker Cornered – the latest twist in the fight for the Republican Nomination

by J.R.Thomas

How the commentators all laughed at the idea that Donald Trump could possibly take his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination seriously, let alone that anybody else would. Light entertainment, they all said. A monstrous ego, having its four-yearly outing. A warm-up for the main event when Jeb Bush will appear, a successful governor of Florida, a Bush for our times, to be cheered by the masses; and onwards to acclamation and coronation at Cleveland next summer. And then a Bush/Clinton contest for the fall.

That is looking increasingly unlikely. Mrs Clinton continues to struggle to capture hearts or minds on the blue side of the beach; and on the red side, the plethora of eager Republicans continue to tussle and bicker; Bush, Rubio, Carson, Fiorina, rising and falling like little waves on the shore. Meanwhile, out at sea, grows the gathering swell of Mr Trump, ready to crash magnificently onto the beach and sweep every familiar feature away.

Mr Trump, it should be recalled, is one of sixteen contenders to represent the “Grand Old Party” (Scott Walker having withdrawn on funding grounds). His position in the polls is around 24% to 28%, with each of the other fifteen struggling to attempt to emerge as a clear challenger. Mr Bush has been up to 13%, Mr Carson up to 23% (that was before he started talking about policy and religion, which has done his ratings no good at all). The rising star is Ms Fiorina who has a pleasing feistiness and willingness to think out loud. But until some of the candidates withdraw, whether as a result of backroom deals promising cabinet or ambassadorial roles, or because the money runs out, nobody seems likely to build up a big enough base to challenge The Donald.

Mr Trump knows this; and he knows that at some point he will face a much smaller field, and that an anti-Trump candidate will start to build momentum. Whether or not he originally thought that his candidature might conceivably succeed, he is taking it seriously now, and the gaffes have receded, the wisecracks moderated, the policy pronouncements have become much more considered. His latest statement is on tax policy, and stresses that he will lower the tax burden on the middle classes, whilst making sure that the super-rich and Wall Street bear their proper share. Under his proposals, around fifty million Americans would pay no Federal taxes at all. This is not quite as dramatic as it sounds – some forty three million don’t at the moment – but, when coupled with promises to close the gaps in the system through which the very rich can slip to pay very little income tax at all and to cut corporate taxes to encourage American corporations to bring their overseas profits back on shore, it sounds sensible and feasible. It is also good populist stuff of course and enables Mr T to go on positioning himself as the peoples’ hero in a generally Corbynite way, whilst not compromising his rightist and generally all- American capitalist approach.

Meanwhile, the party whose standard he is so anxious to seize continues to in-fight to a remarkable extent. The latest flaring of the bitterness which seems to pervade the GOP is the sudden resignation of the Speaker, leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, one of the most senior (and respected) Republicans in Washington, and second in line to the Presidency between elections. Boehner seems to have been forced out as the right wing of the Republicans rose in ideological purity against his tendencies to compromise and negotiate, and against his liberal views on many social issues – particularly abortion, immigration, and same sex marriage. Certainly, that was Boehmer’s interpretation, his resignation speech a bitter, by his standards, attack on the forces bearing down on him from the right, criticizing what he called “false prophet” politicians who promise things that they cannot possibly deliver. Even if most voters think that that is probably just part of a politician’s job, it has certainly been seen as a dig at the right of the ex-Speaker’s own party and Tea Party elements, more rapier-like from having come from one who is regarded as a gentle and courteous moderate.

Now the heat is on Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the Senate, and a similar character to Boehner, with not dissimilar views and a tendency to want to broker deals. If the right succeeds in forcing him out too, it might be a victory for the Tea Party tendency, but it will make the party look increasingly ideologically driven.

Most political parties in democracies are of course coalitions of some sort, groups of people of vaguely (sometimes very vaguely) aligned values and beliefs, whose dislike for each other is outweighed by a greater dislike for the other lot. The USA, more than most democracies, is a prime example of this coalitionist approach, and both Democrat and Republican Parties are very broad spectrums of opinion. But from time to time the disparate groups which make up the parties seem to be more eager to do each other down than to win elections. It is happening to Labour in the UK and, for some time, the Republicans have been suffering from it as well. That in part reflects the slightly odd system whereby the parties, when not occupying the White House, usually have no high-profile national leader. Leaders get chosen for each Presidential contest in the gladiatorial way now being undertaken. If they fail, then the loser is thrown overboard and the party sails on, effectively rudderless, until the time comes to have another go. This is why Mr Trump, a man of no previous strong political affiliations, and certainly with no time for the usual grinding routine of being nice to party workers and building long term allegiances and favours, can suddenly appear with a reasonable chance of becoming President. Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower were also candidates who came from practically no political background or allegiance, who had held no previous political office, and whose first serious political role was to be President.  It is not a bad system in many ways – it remains true that anybody can emerge to become President, but it does mean that the parties lack the glue that a national leader might provide whilst out of office.

At the moment, of course, the GOP has control of both the House and the Senate even whilst conducting a long term and unresolved debate as to exactly what it might believe in in the early twenty first century, or what policies might flow from such beliefs. From mid western farmers to Wall Street bankers, from Christian Fundamentalists to cultists in Montana, from Confederalist aching hearts in South Carolina to the descendants of the founding fathers in Rhode Island, from the Tea Party to the Libertarian Party, they all shelter under the GOP umbrella. And when it comes to fighting elections, the voters tend to vote against those they don’t want rather than for those they do, so maybe it all barely matters.

But the one time it might well matter is in a Presidential election. The ideological differences between Mrs Clinton, Mr Sanders and Mr Biden, if he runs, are not great. But the Republicans have a candidate for whatever your box of opinions might be. Those sixteen have to be whittled down to one by next July. If it is (it won’t be, but for example) Rand Paul for the libertarian wing of the party, will Marc Rubio of the liberal wing really campaign for him, endorse him? Would the outsider Mr Carson throw his north eastern big city supporters behind the patrician Latino-Floridian, Mr Bush?

What the party needs to move toward is a winner, a winner who can unite the party on a common and agreed platform where everybody feels they will get something and not lose too much, where all voices will be heard and respected. Maybe Ms Fiorina is the natural choice; centrist, modernist but not frighteningly so, a woman at a time when the time has come for a female President, an outsider at a time when people reject the old politics and politicians, from no faction, a unifying healing force. But then, maybe so is Mr Trump. Could The Donald, newly moderate and thoughtful, also become the Great Unifier of the GOP?


1 October 2015

Syria: A dilemma for Obama, or for Putin?

by Neil Tidmarsh

This week, President Putin appealed to the United Nations on behalf of President Assad of Syria. How should President Obama and the West respond to that appeal?

Before we consider that question, it’s worth reminding ourselves who is fighting who in Syria. Essentially, the civil war is being fought between President Assad’s government and various Syrian rebel groups. These groups range from ‘moderates’ who are fighting for the kind of democratic and free society envisaged by the Arab Spring, to Islamic militants who are fighting Assad’s Shia regime to establish Syria as a Sunni Islamic state. This domestic struggle is complicated by two international participants: Isis, who are prepared to take on all comers – government and rebels – to incorporate Syria into its Sunni Caliphate; and the Kurds, who are defending their homeland which spans the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey, and are fighting for independence.

Assad’s state has shrunk to a core strip in the west, running north and south along the Mediterranean and the border with Lebanon. He would have been defeated some time ago had he not had the military support of his fellow Shias – Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah – and of his ally Russia. The rebels opposing him have the support of the Sunni states: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies. With this support, both sides have proved to be too strong to lose but too weak to win. Hence the protracted but deadly stalemate that has sent so many refugees fleeing the country.

The USA and its Western allies have consistently condemned Assad’s regime but have been reluctant to take an active part in the civil war. Their support of the groups which have been fighting his political tyranny and military barbarity has been largely moral; Obama and his European allies have always insisted that no solution is possible while Assad remains in power, but they haven’t struck against him, in spite of the urgings of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Their military involvement in Syria has been aimed at Isis. This scrupulousness is one of the reasons for the failure of the Pentagon’s hugely expensive campaign to arm and train moderate rebel groups to fight Isis; the priority of almost all rebel groups is to defeat Assad rather than Isis.

Now President Putin is beefing up Russia’s military support of Assad and insisting that Assad’s government and its shrunken state is the only hope for stability in the region and for the defeat of Isis.

The USA and the West now face a dilemma. Putin’s suggestion that Isis will never be defeated in Syria while the country is divided by civil war has a lot of credibility. Given that, and the increasing problem of refugees, it might make sense to grasp whatever chance for peace there is, even if it means negotiating with Assad or at least his government and coming to an agreement with it. Then all sides could turn their undivided attention to Isis, the rebuilding of the country could begin, and the refugee flight would come to a halt. The West’s moral scrupulousness has so far proved pretty ineffective; Putin’s committed and dedicated realpolitic is beginning to look decisive and effective; so it must be very tempting to follow his lead.

But is there really a conflict here between moral scruples and political realities? Scruples might argue against joining with a power which the West has condemned for annexing the Crimea and for supporting separatists in the Ukraine; it might argue against dealing with a dictator who kills innocent civilians by the hundred by dropping barrel bombs on market-places and hospitals: but does political reality really argue in favour of it? If Obama did join negotiations with Syria and agree peace terms with Assad and/or his government, would that really bring peace to the region?

Almost certainly not. A compromise with the Assad government is highly unlikely to ever bring peace, because Obama and the European leaders aren’t the only parties insisting on Assad and his government’s departure before peace can be a possibility. All the rebel groups and their backers insist on it, too. Could Obama and Putin force a peace agreement on them? Unlikely. Even if they could and did, conflict would continue. The civil war wouldn’t end, and it might even mutate into unforeseen new configurations which would further destabilise the region and escalate the fighting. Those fighting Assad, even the moderates, would never forgive anyone who compromised with Assad. It would be seen as a betrayal, and it would drive them to extremes, even into the arms of Isis.

The Russians have two aims in Syria: bolstering the regime of their ally, Assad; and retaining and enlarging their influence in the region. Neither of those aims is likely to contribute towards peace and stability in the region. If they do, then so much the better, and full credit to Putin. But in the meantime, both moral considerations and political realities suggest that it would be best to stand aside. Nevertheless, Obama and Putin must continue to communicate about Syria; Putin knows that his client is on the life-support machine and the cost of keeping him breathing is likely to be very high – sooner or later he will decide that it is too high, and then he will have interesting proposals to put to Obama. But in the meantime there is no reason why the USA and Europe should join Russia in what may well prove to be a very uncomfortable bed of the Kremlin’s making. The dilemma about what to do with Assad remains Putin’s.

The struggle against Isis can continue separately, and if Russia has a contribution to offer then they are free and welcome to make it.

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