Author and freelance writer. Sometimes in London more often elsewhere




Persuasive writing


By James Maclaren, Feb 23 2016 06:47PM

In politics as in war the first casualty is truth – well if not in absolute terms a political version of it. Avoiding direct questions, casting scorn on an opponent’s ideas and floating opaque ideas with confidence they won’t be analysed in detail, or if they are the agenda and public attention will have moved on.

One such example of this is the Prime Minister’s passionate exhortation on how vital (note use of the world vital, a term usually reserved for matters of a life threatening nature), the EU is to the United Kingdom’s national security. Immediately upon return from his Brussel’s summit and the unveiling of the new terms (potentially) of Britain’s membership of the EU, top of the list of benefits for which we should be thankful is the safety and security that membership brings with it.

Mr Cameron’s narrative goes that within the framework of the EU we are protected through our ability to share information on potential threats and undertake coordinated timely responses. This is where the disingenuous language begins. In reality no such security framework exists – or at least exists in a way that Mr Cameron would wish us to believe. The comforting idea that all of Europe’s terrorist and criminal data bases are accessible across all the member states is simply not true - no such supranational capability exists. Apart from the fact there is no infrastructure to share such information, worse there is a lack of willingness for partners to share intelligence with their EU partners. In fact most countries do not share information between their own national agencies let alone across borders.

The UK is particularly efficient and much admired for its policing, intelligence gathering and military capabilities. No other European country comes close to this spectrum of capability. The organisations are lean, well-organised and resourced and have excellent protocols for inter-agency cooperation. It’s what we do. If only such a model could be replicated across the EU then Mr Cameron’s words could be taken more seriously.

It is true that border information with the EU as an example of low level data exchange does take place – but so what. The UK exchanges high volumes of similar data (and high level intelligence) with the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Africa and it does so more effectively with those intelligence partners than with its European partners. In Europe ridiculous rivalry, jealousy and desire to avoid exposure of inefficiency trump trans-national cooperation. Where the UK does make progress in policing and intelligence cooperation it does so on the basis of bi-lateral understanding and protocols built up through the building of enduring relationships. There is no reason why a withdrawal from the EU would threaten these arrangements.

But what of the important European security and policing institutions we hear so much about, Europol and Eurojust. In truth they contribute little and act as merely as facilitators, conducting analysis and the encouragement of cooperation. It is difficult to imagine these or any of the EU agencies declining to cooperate with a non-aligned United Kingdom, which almost certainly contributes more intelligence led information to European security than it receives. It’s a further example of a Europe that needs the UK than the UK needs Europe.

By James Maclaren, Feb 3 2016 10:58PM

I like David Cameron. I am sure as with all men he has his faults. But he does a highly demanding job and I believe he does it about as honestly as any political and government system allows anyone to do. I don’t sneer at his modestly privileged upbringing nor feel the need of the Islington Trotskyist to create a snarky narrative on how his background reflects his politics. Anyone can create wealth distribution policies, few people can create the systems upon which they depend.. I am not going to say I told you so, or that he should have asked for more (or less for that matter), or ask mischievously what happened to the manifesto pledges, never mind the table thumping speeches of a couple of years ago. And the poor man has not finished yet. Having put up with the tedium of trying to bend the institutional zealotry of the EU he now has to endure a political dogfight in his own backyard, while lesser men carp and snigger without alternative voice from the opposite benches. So when I say how sorry I am that Cameron’s mission to reform Europe has failed I genuinely mean it. In fact all things considered I have some admiration for his efforts, in a few short months he has actually made some progress.

The problem is it that it is not enough.

Europe is just beyond redemption. How many times do you hear mundane politicians say that they want to be part of a ‘strong reformed Europe’ without ever coming close to articulating what that would actually look like, never mind how to get there. The EU means different things to different people. To the big countries such as Germany and France who still have a global role it’s a way of harnessing markets for their economies and ensuring a security framework exists which prevents historical past mistakes. Federalism is ok provided they are still at the top of the pile. To the middle sized and useful countries like Spain and Italy it provides a set of ways and means to enhanced global standing where we can admire past glory. To the small countries such as the Baltic States it provides a status that they could never otherwise aspire to. It is like a grown-up version of Eurovision where they wave newly woven flags and talk about freedom and democracy, despite for the most part being less than a generation into it.

Europe is important to these countries, it took a few years to gain accession into it and now they are there they are going to exert their influence with all the might that one member state one vote allows them to do. It is like being upgraded unexpectedly and without the right clothes and means into business class; no champagne will be left on the trolley and I will have as many canapes as I can demand. OK that’s a bit ungenerous and there is nothing wrong with some social mobility, the problem is that the construct of the EU does not unify the way the way the EU project should work.

You cannot practise communism and capitalism at the same time. Yet that is what Brussels tries to do. A central unelected bureaucracy interpreting its mandate with independent action while national governments struggle to rationalise the direction of travel with their own set of (usually competing) interests. Certainly Europe has created a wonderful polished bureaucracy capable of turning the thousand mile screwdriver onto most aspects of our lives, but just like the former Soviet Union has proved incapable of turning to meet the major strategic challenges with which we wish it could successfully engage, witness mass migration or Greece and the Euro.

So where does this leave Britain? We just see Europe so differently from our neighbours across the Channel and beyond and they know it. Politically, culturally, historically for the most part we pre-date the European way of organising life. Our legal system is common law and struggles to integrate the civil thinking of Europe, our economic, diplomatic and military systems have a thousand years of global thinking and experience. We can see our language, literature and business practise operating across the globe. Our adversarial political system is actually effective in steering a country while by comparison our civil service is responsive and efficient at managing the detail of the nation’s affairs. It is doubtful whether this outlook is ever going to exist harmoniously with the enthusiastic federalists who through no wider understanding take the centralised control of events and lives for granted. In the same way as the majority of the member states see membership as an enhancement to their national status, Britain is faintly embarrassed by it. Given the diplomatic, military, economic and cultural instruments of power which the United Kingdom can deploy, Europe needs Britain more than Britain needs Europe.

And the Referendum? It will be close. It is regrettable that so much debate focusses on the economic consequences of a departure. Probably, by a whisker it would economically be better to remain, if only for the reason that the administration and reorganisation necessary to leave would be enormous. In fairness the country was asked and answered the question of economic union in 1975. However the idea that Britain could not prosper outside the EU is absurd. Trade with Europe will not stop and comparisons with non-EU countries such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland are ridiculous and scurrilous. They are small nations and economies and the bargaining power of the fifth largest economy in the world is too great for Europe to ignore and Germany does not want to wave goodbye to Mercedes and BMWs second largest external market. Do Japan, Australia, Canada and South Korea need to belong to large trade blocks to determine their economic interest? Of course not.

Sovereignty is a different question and one we were never asked. Recent accessions to the EU knew what they entering and were happy to do so. No one consulted us and this historical constitutional wrong should be put right. Asking Canadians and Australians for visas while handing out child benefit to Romanian and Bulgarian families in Bucharest and Sofia should at least be a decision of the UK Parliament. Attempting to organise collective European foreign policy always seems more PR than substance. Europe has failed to demonstrate a lead on any of the big strategic challenges which have been laid before it. Its nation’s leaders look the other way or wriggle and pronounce without noticeable effect. The danger of fragmentation always looms close; consider Syria and Ukraine. While British foreign policy is not without its critics, by European standards it looks positively sure-footed.

So Mr Cameron, thank you for your effort. But it amounts to organising the deckchairs on the Titanic. The EU is probably beyond reform even if the majority of member states would agree to it. If the vote goes ‘yes’ and the United Kingdom remains in the EU it is likely to be due to fear of change than relief at timely reform.

The author has lived in various areas of Europe including Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and the Baltic States. He regularly travels to eastern Europe and has travelled to and reported on the crisis in Ukraine and the migration into southern Europe.

By James Maclaren, Jan 17 2016 12:56PM

Its difficult to know whether to be confused or just settle for despair with Jeremy Corbyn’s latest defence initiative announced on television. Caught between unions and workers in the defence industry concern for jobs and the ideology of left wing activists, Corbyn included, wanting to pursue unilateral nuclear disarmament, the latest idea is that the United Kingdom could retain its fleet of Trident submarines but remove the missiles and warheads! The straight-faced idea delivered with complete seriousness, apparently as part of a mature debate within the Labour Party on future national defence policy, could only come from a politician and party struggling with reconciliation of its ideological roots and the reality of the strategic security environment in which the United Kingdom must realize its national responsibility to defend its people and interests and meaningfully fulfil its international obligations.

Corbyn announces that his first priority is jobs, understandably so when if his left shifting party is ever to achieve power it will need to gather every blue collar vote it can. However, the absurd idea that a major part of national defence expenditure and the resources and personnel of the Royal Navy are to be used as a job creation scheme will not be lost on the wider population. Once again Corbyn speaks only to a narrow band of left wing activists while attempting to fudge a policy compromise to keep the wider vote together.

I understand Mr Corbyn’s view on the nuclear deterrent. I don’t agree with it but am prepared to respect it. However, mealy fudges like this patronise a large number of informed and knowledgeable people and organisations which take the long term generational view on the need to protect the United Kingdom from the wide range of threats which face us not just now but in decades to come. It is unlikely that such views will be seriously incorporated in the Labour defence policy review and the arguments will be carefully steered and marshalled to reflect Corbyn’s unilateralist supporters and their simplistic understanding of the Country’s defence and security requirements. His initiative nakedly puts internal politics of the Labour Party above the national interest and confirms not only his disinterest in defence, but his deep ignorance of it.

What purpose four 16000 tonne nuclear powered submarines would serve within the armed forces without the role of carrying the nuclear deterrent is unclear. Previous extensive studies and trials by the United States on the re-role of SSBNs using the past generation of Polaris boats proved their ability is highly limited lacking capability to operate in shallower waters and without the agility to manoeuvre and conduct operations such as those undertaken by smaller nuclear attack submarines. If Corbyn were honest he would admit he doesn’t care. Making a mockery of the United Kingdom’s strategic defence policy is less important than handing out meaningless jobs to ship yard workers.

By James Maclaren, Dec 6 2015 04:14PM

There is a great deal of politics going around these days, but not much in the way of policy. It may be the time of the year and it was probably ever thus. However, our obsession with media and its manipulation just seems to make it more obvious. Listening and reading to various frontline and not so frontline politicians try to trip each other by turning each other’s words back on themselves it becomes depressingly infantile. I like Question Time and other political commentary programmes, but what on earth does one have to do for a straight answer! Perhaps the various commentators try too hard to be direct and force the contentious or back the speaker into a political corner. It rarely works and the question asked is usually responded to with a ‘…I think the real issue is…’, then when the thoughts have been collected they move onto the attack usually with a scathing reference to a political opponents opining on the issue in question. All of which leaves the original question unanswered and supreme frustration amongst the audience eager for some straight talking and the commentator whose journalistic reputation rests upon the unease they are able to inflict through their incisive questions.

Look at a recent example. Every politician when pressed for an explanation of what the Government’s strategy is for Syria, immediately begins with a long introduction of the threat posed to our way of life by Daesh. This introduction may move towards a very generic description of a comprehensive approach to the Syria question coordinating diplomatic, economic and social means. What is irritating is that it does not matter where you come from in the political spectrum, we all know understand the threat Daesh poses, so why spend so much time telling us how bad it is and how little time on what the plan is? Presumably it is because they don’t really know what the plan is but they are able to recite the politics. The politics of course centres upon solidarity with allies, the need to be seen to be doing something and generally trying to keep ahead of the agenda.

And that’s the thing of course: politics trumps policy. If the politics merry-go-round is kept going everyone is too dizzy to get off and study the policy. It is not just the politicians by the way, it’s the wider political community; journalists whose energy is always directed towards the next crisis or emergency and do not provide continuity of commentary – look at the news is there still a Greek economic crisis and are the migrants still queuing up on Europe’s southern borders? (they were when I was there last week); the civil servants who direct their energies into the issues and ideas pushed in front of politicians and the zealous activists who agitate and ferment their notions of how the world should be run with limited understanding of the true mechanisms of government and economics.

This is why politicians such as Corbyn and Farage resonant more easily with the general public. They do try to answer the question put before them. You might not like the answer, you might not like the person, but there is a cause of sincerity and personal honesty about their words. Of course does such an approach work alongside actual power? Jeremy Corbyn is finding a tension between sincerely held beliefs and the requirement to generate a credible political alternative to the Government, within an establishment system finely tuned over generations to smoothly operate with only a passing reference to the voter. Nigel Farage leads a political party that must define itself beyond the angry stance on Europe and is not yet mature enough to comprehensively challenge the political establishment it regards so suspiciously.

Setting the words aside we can continue to expect lots and lots of politics but policy?......

By James Maclaren, Nov 26 2015 08:17PM

The momentum towards the United Kingdom joining the ongoing air campaign against Islamic State gathers pace with the Prime Minister's statement to the House of Commons today. Subject to a dramatic twist Cameron's confidence that the Government can win a vote in Parliament and authorise air strikes to take place within weeks seems well placed. With no coherent opposition to articulate a counter argument and with previous waverers anxious not to be seen as 'soft' on terror following the atrocity in Paris it is likely when the vote is called assent will be given and the small force of RAF Tornados based in Cyprus will extend their offensive air area of operations over Syrian territory.

There is no question that IS poses a growing threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Not only does Paris demonstrate that its capability to strike with catastrophic effect is growing, but despite a sustained aerial onslaught to date so is its intent. The political urge for action is now irrisistable and with the United States, Russia, France, Australia and others conducting daily interdiction missions, the lack of a UK contribution is at odds withboth the threat IS poses to us and our role as a leading contributor to global security. But is the political imperative sufficient justification for the opened commitment to conduct protracted operations into Syria. Put simply, will the UK make a difference, what will it achieve, how will we define success and what are the risks.

It is true that the UK does have some niche capabilities, unique in the coalition air forces. The Brimstone missile along with the Raptor intelligence pod provides pinpoint targetting and strike capability. However, this capability on an ageing and small number of aircraft is hardly a game changer. One of the issues is that unlike previous air campaigns such as Operation Desert Storm in Iraq or Operation Allied in Kosovo conventional targetting and strike does not work against an enemy such as IS. There are no armoured concentration areas, main supply routes, command and control centres or logistoc supply areas. In a war against an asymmetric enemy these targets against which air power is at its most potent simply do not exist. How do you bomb a regime back to the fourteenth century when in many respects it is already there. We are bombing smoke and what targetting success there is, is mostly illusory. The tempo of air operations suggests that locating worthwhile targets is problematic. The number of sortoes being flown is puny by comparison to all previous air campaigns. You would expect that for a conflict which has as much at stake for the western world as we are told, then the level of air activity would be relentless. The probable truth is that there are not the targets to strike and add to that the fear of collateral damage (at least until the Russian turned up), the claimed success of the air campaign is more political posturing than credible military engagement.

American commanders continue to talk about 'successful' missions, 'degrading' enemy capability, disruption of enemy command and control. But after 14 months of air campaign the attack on Paris still happened. Prme Minister Cameron says that bombing IS in Syria will make us safer in London. The attacks on Paris would seem to make that unlikely.

The problem of course is that an air campaign in isolation is of limited use with a ground component to challenge IS deep within the terrain it now controls. The hope was for some sort of moderate arab ground coalition to emerge which would manoeuvre against IS supported by western air power. No such coalition has formed or has looked likely to form. It is impossible to find a grouping who frankly the west can trust let alone arm and train. This situation is simply not set to change whichrather suggests that the air campaign with the United Kingdom now as a full and enthusiastic member will go on and on, while the west scrabbles for some form of political arrangement which will hold together long enough to pass for success. In the meantime the cost will go on, the risk of a Paris style attack in London increases further.

We are left with the rationale for air intervention being cohesion of the political alliance. This in turn suggests we bomb because we know of nothing else to do. Far from making the country safer the risk is of an open ended military commitment we have no means of ending. If we are seeking a pragmatic approach to developing a campaign, we may have to consider the unpalatable notion that however odious the Assad regime is perhaps in the short term allowing him to destroy IS in detail provides the best answer to the IS problem. We can hold our noses while he does so, but he possesses the only land force which if allowed to regenerate could drive IS out of the areas it controls.

The irony is that if the vote in the House of Commons two years ago had gone the other way, there may well have been regime change in Syria and instead of conducting operations in a stateless vacuum with any political progress not even on the horizon.

Committing military force is not just about how you use you, but just as importantly when.