So far, 2016 has been an eventful year, we have had a Holyrood election, an EU referendum and a change of Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the US presidential campaign, which was making headlines long before any of these events took place, continues. The process of whittling down the candidates, always long and drawn out, seems to have taken an eternity on this occasion.
Last week, at long last, there was the Republican National Convention which though overshadowed somewhat by a controversial speech by his wife, saw Donald Trump confirmed as their presidential candidate. This week, it is the turn of the Democratic National Convention, which should see former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially installed as theirs. Of course, the process hasn’t actually taken any longer than it normally does, it is just that thanks to Donald Trump’s considerable gifts as a self-publicist, and Bernie Sanders insistence on fighting to the last, it has featured rather more prominently in our headlines than in the past.
Up until now, these headlines have been dominated by real estate magnate, Mr Trump, to the point where, in the early stages, the battle for the Democratic nomination was all but forgotten by the British media. We are all too familiar with Mr Trump, he has been making lots of noise for years. Here in Scotland the noise has been mostly to do with golf courses and offshore wind farms.
Initially, it was easy to write off Mr Trump’s chances, he was too brash, too ignorant, and too politically inexperienced to stand any real chance of making it onto the Republican ticket, wasn’t he? Apparently not. We should remember that not so long ago, many regarded George W. Bush as too ignorant, and he never lost a presidential election, unlike his father.
Mr Trump has deliberately played to people’s fears, insecurities and prejudices, in much the same way as Vote Leave did in the EU referendum. I believed, going into the referendum, that the majority would be repelled by the naked racism, ignorance and stupidity and so it would prove, if not with the majority of Republican voters, then at least with American voters at large. I was wrong about the referendum and as such, I am no longer confident that Hillary Clinton can see off the man with the comb over.
Part of the problem is that Hillary Clinton fails to inspire in the way that her husband did in 1992 or President Obama did, when he won in 2008, derailing Mrs Clinton’s run in the process. Indeed, Hillary Clinton seems to receive far more hostility than adoration. Her experience as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State should give her a clear advantage, yet they are used to demonstrate that in contrast to Trump, she is a figure of the establishment and of the status quo.
Hillary Clinton is very much a longstanding heavyweight of the Democratic Party and has been widely endorsed by senior figures. Bernie Sanders, her fierce rival for the nomination was unequivocal when he said "Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States,". In contrast, Donald Trump is an interloper who has hijacked the Republican Party. The GOP’s hierarchy is noticeably less enthusiastic about being saddled with Trump, despite his popularity with the rank and file.
Defeated nominee Ted Cruz failed to endorse Mr Trump and was roundly booed for it. Mr Cruz and others like him continue to fail to grasp how and why Trump has been successful. As former President Jimmy Carter has said, Trump has "tapped a waiting reservoir there of inherent racism." and as we have seen to our detriment here in the UK, that is a very effective reservoir to exploit. I cannot recall, in my lifetime, another presidential candidate who has been quite so repugnant as Donald Trump. Building walls and banning Muslims should preclude Mr Trump for the White House, yet he appears to have one foot firmly in the door.
Whatever Hillary Clinton’s faults, she is not Donald Trump. She is well versed in the workings of the office of President of the United States and of wider American politics. As First Lady Michelle Obama put it “When you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well informed,".
The inference is clear, Hillary Clinton is steady, measured and well informed, Donald Trump is not. She may not be loved and adored, but Mrs Clinton is, if you like, the lesser of two evils, and she has until November 8th to convince America of that, thereby preventing the horror of a Trump presidency.
In the end, it comes as no great surprise that the House of Commons opted to renew Britain’s nuclear ‘deterrent’, at a cost of untold billions, and surely to the detriment of her conventional capabilities. We’ve known for many years, that the hawks far outnumber the doves. The arguments for and against, are of course well rehearsed, we’ve heard them all before, countless times. It was never likely, that the 472 MP’s who voted in favour of retaining the Trident nuclear weapons system, would be swayed by the impassioned oratory of those who would vote against it.
Whichever way you look at it, the case for retaining Trident is superficial at best. It simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. We’re told, gravely, that Trident is essential to act as bulwark against the UK’s ‘enemies’, for example, the belligerent Russians, and the lunatic, pariah state of North Korea. Are we really expected to believe, that if the UK did not possess the nuclear option, Russia would be more likely to carry out an attack on these shores? Please, don’t insult our intelligence. It seems to me, that Vladimir ‘Mad Vlad’ Putin serves as a convenient bogyman, for when the West are lacking a Bin Laden, or a Saddam Hussein, on which to train their guns.
The Government tells us, that a failure to renew Trident, would be a dereliction of it’s duty to protect it’s citizens. Are Isis at all deterred by the UK’s nuclear arsenal? Not in the least. Trident is the very epitome of a white elephant; useless, expensive to maintain and difficult to dispose of. I would have thought that squandering billions, on an obsolete anachronism, when a fraction of the funds could be channelled to more fruitful forms of terror prevention, is the real dereliction of duty.
Whilst I fully understand the unions responsibility to protect the livelihoods of their members, their position on Trident remains, in my view, little short of morally reprehensible. Building and maintaining weapons of mass destruction, with the justification that it provides jobs, really is sad stuff. I’m sorry, but the ends, don’t justify the means if the means can inflict unimaginable loss of life, on innocent men, women and children. And who of us really believes that the Tory Government is primarily concerned with protecting people’s jobs? For them, the fact that keeping Trident secures jobs is an added bonus, nothing more.
All but one of Scotland’s 59 MP’s voted against the renewal of Trident. Yet Scotland is where the UK’s nuclear submarines will continue to be based. It seems that England’s parliamentarians are happy to retain Trident, just as long as they’re kept on someone else’s turf. As with Brexit, there are those who will insist that the decision to continue with nuclear weapons was taken by the UK as one, and that Scotland will just have to live with it. They are still unable and unwilling to accept that Scotland has a legitimate voice. Another nail in the union’s coffin? Probably.
In reality, Trident has little to do with deterrents and national security, and a great deal to do with prestige, standing and fear of it diminishing. Those who would have it, that ‘Great’ Britain, is a still a world power, a force to be reckoned with, are absolutely terrified of losing their place at the ‘top table’. Britain couldn’t possibly be without nuclear arms, certainly not whilst the bloody French still have them, never mind India, the former jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Last year, George Osborne proclaimed, that Britain had gotten it’s ‘mojo’ back. MP’s have voted to ensure things stay that way. Trident: Britain's nuclear Viagra.
In the end, we were spared a wholly unnecessary, and in the present circumstances, wholly unacceptable protracted leadership contest. The ruthless, unforgiving Tory party machine chewed up and spat out the various leadership hopefuls, producing a new leader and prime minister in comfortably under three weeks. Dave’s swansong was shorter lived than he’d intended, just like his final term in office.
Instead of what could have been a gentle reshuffling of the pack, Theresa May opted to get her ‘safe pair of hands’ dirty, and set about a wholesale clear out and reordering of the pack. No one would dispute, that the principal casualties of Mrs May’s cull are George Osborne and Michael ‘Mick the Knife’ Gove. Osborne’s banishment to the backbenches was all but inevitable, he and Dave were very much the double act, and it always seemed unlikely that one would remain standing if the other fell. As for Gove, he can be said to have reaped what he sowed, you might say poetic justice has been served upon the now former Justice Secretary.
Undoubtedly, the trump card to emerge from the reshuffling of the deck, has been the instalment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. What at first seems a bizarre move by Mrs May, could in fact be a masterstroke. In accepting the lofty position at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Boris the buffoon is forced to own Brexit, along with fellow Brexiteers David Davis, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom, all of who’s new departments are inextricably linked to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. If it all goes horribly wrong, and it probably will, those who helped bring about Brexit will be largely responsible. In other words, if the Brexiteers want to see their unrealistic expectations met, it’s up to them to deliver it. Osborne and Gove could well be better off out of it.
What does all of this mean for Scotland? The Prime Minister had barely finished the first sentence of her first address out side 10 Downing Street before she ominously declared: “the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party. And that word unionist is very important to me.”. Her decision to place the union so prominently in her inaugural speech can be viewed in one of two ways. Either, Mrs May was throwing down the gauntlet to Nicola Sturgeon, or she was offering an olive branch, demonstrating that she is willing to do whatever it takes to preserve the union, even if that means thinking outside the box, as Sturgeon would prefer.
If newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond’s words are anything to go by, the signs are not great. It seems Mr Hammond cannot envisage a situation where Scotland’s relationship with the EU differs from that of the rest of the UK. I would suggest that Mrs May and Mr Hammond need to to start using their imaginations, assuming they have any, and quickly. Mrs May digs her leopard print heels in at her peril. David Cameron who professed to be a defender of the union, has done great damage in the time since the 2014 referendum. The ill thought out farce that is EVEL, a woefully watered down ‘vow’ and the EU referendum result itself, could yet prove to be the UK’s undoing. If Theresa May wishes to preserve her “precious, precious” union, she would do well to right those wrongs.
The Prime Minister may wish to consider reordering the UK with the same zeal and pragmatism she brought to her Cabinet reshuffle. Ideally, this would involve the setting up of a Constitutional Convention, to carefully consider a radical overhaul of the UK’s present arrangements which are far, far less than inadequate. Serious thought needs to be given, not just to replacing the House of Lords with an elected Senate, but to bringing about a federal United Kingdom with an English parliament quite distinct from that of the UK.
A federal UK would have to recognise England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as equals, if this ‘family of nations’ is to have any real meaning or hope of survival. I would hope that it goes without saying, that the primary concern of a Constitutional Convention should be to ensure that whatever arrangements are settled upon, are enshrined in a written constitution. That the UK, in the 21st century, does not have one, simply beggars belief. The argument that Britain is steeped in tradition, and that our time honoured traditions make for a great democracy, might have held water a hundred years ago, now, it is plainly risible.
Significantly, Theresa May is expected to visit Scotland tomorrow, less than three full days into her premiership. She is due to meet the First Minister, with a view to laying out the role of the Scottish Government in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. The tone May and Sturgeon strike at the meeting, could well come to define the future of the United Kingdom. Tomorrow we’ll know if that tone is fractious or conciliatory.
Angela Eagle appeared close to tears, when explaining her decision to quit Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet on the BBC. When claiming, "I’ve had to think very carefully about it, it’s been an agonising decision”, Ms Eagle made a better fist of seeming genuine, than the oily, corrupted hobbit, Michael Gove did, when he simpered, “I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”.
Now, nearly two weeks, or many multiples of 72 hours later, her crocodile tears have dried, and she finally feels able to announce that she will challenge Mr Corbyn for the Labour Party leadership. Except, she didn’t, not exactly. What she actually did, was to announce that on Monday, she will announce her candidature. An announcement about an announcement, as it were. I suppose, it should come as no great surprise, that Ms Eagle’s latest statement proved to be every bit as dithering as that which has gone before. First, we were told on June 30th, that Ms Eagle had secured the support of the 51 MP’s and MEP’s required to make her bid, and that she was expected to announce that very day. No announcement was forthcoming.
Next, we were informed that Ms Eagle had decided to delay her announcement as there was “a belief by some people in the party close to Jeremy that he is going to go”. Only Mr Corbyn didn’t go. Instead, he ploughed on, defiantly cobbling together a new shadow cabinet, made up of the willing few. On July 3rd, Ms Eagle repeated her call for Mr Corbyn to go, insisting that "He's losing confidence in the party. And let's face it the country's in a crisis and we need strong opposition.", apparently, the mutineers were graciously giving Mr Corbyn the opportunity to make a dignified exit. How very magnanimous of them. Yet still, Mr Corbyn would not budge.
Earlier that same day, union baron Len McCluskey, had weighed in, “The trade unions can broker a peace- with Jeremy as our leader and the genuine concerns of the PLP, we can bring people together,”, he was wrong, they couldn’t. Yesterday, Mr Corbyn, we were gravely informed, could faced a leadership challenge within 72 hours, today, Ms Eagle confirmed that. The further delay, in declaring her candidature proper, is presumably to give Jeremy Corbyn one final chance to throw in the towel.
We are to believe, that the 172 Labour MP’s who signed the motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, did so out of belief that under his leadership, Labour is simply not seen as an effective opposition, far less a credible alternative to the Tory government. Mr Corbyn, they claim, has not and cannot provide the strong leadership necessary. If not Mr Corbyn, then who? Ms Eagle? I think not, her ham-fisted attempts at fronting a coup, have betrayed a lack of conviction. Owen Smith? Sorry, who? Hilary Benn, a would be political heavyweight, who is in fact a political pygmy, particularly in comparison to his own father, has already ruled himself out. Mr Benn it seems, is willing to load the gun, but stops short of pulling the trigger. Could Tony Blair facsimile, David Miliband be the man to rescue the Labour Party from itself? It’s not impossible.
Come Monday, we will know for sure if the will be a Labour leadership contest, another delay would leave the Blairites looking even more inept than they do already, if that were at all possible. As yet, it is unclear as to whether or not Jeremy Corbyn as incumbent leader, is entitled to appear on the ballot paper automatically. If not, It looks as though he would struggle to muster the necessary numbers. If Mr Corbyn is prevented from standing, it would be an affront to the party members who elected him and travesty of democracy.
Finally, after seven long years, and a substantial sum of taxpayers money, the long awaited Chilcot report into the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has been published. Such is the length and depth of the report, seen by some as Gordon Brown's revenge on his erstwhile nemesis, Tony Blair, that the time and money spent on it, now seem entirely justified. Contrary to what many feared, Chilcot's findings are far from being an establishment whitewash. Instead, the report has confirmed, with forensic detail by all accounts, what those who opposed the invasion, already knew, or suspected. The UK, failed to exhaust all peaceful options, intelligence was flawed, the threat from Saddam overstated, the military ill-prepared and ill-equipped and post-invasion planning "wholly inadequate". Moreover, the legal basis for the invasion was reached in a manner, "far from satisfactory" and the “UK was, in fact, undermining the security council’s authority,”
What the report does not do, it was never meant to, is to conclude whether or not the invasion of Iraq was legal. Nor does it explicitly say, that there was any deliberate attempt to deceive Parliament or the public, merely that the threat posed by Saddam was exaggerated. That Chilcot does not redress these issues, does little to dampen his damning indictment of the villain of the piece, the aforementioned Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. Mr Blair was quick to respond, saying, in what was a lengthy rebuttal, that the report should “lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit”. Not so, I fear.
Mr Blair has said he accepts that “people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action”, and admitted “I may be completely wrong“, but denied that he was deluded, insisting that "I don't believe this struggle was in vain." Indeed, Mr Blair has been repeatedly at pains to insist “we acted out of good motives and I did what I did out of good faith”. Of the questionable intelligence reports offered up to support the alleged threat of WMD’s, Mr Blair said "It wasn't that I wanted to believe it. I did believe it”. He went on to acknowledge that "It would have been far better to have challenged them more clearly". Despite this, it could be construed that the lack of scrutiny given to intelligence reports, the willingness to accept them so readily, demonstrates an eagerness on the part of Tony Blair, to press on with the invasion.
The Chilcot report also makes clear that Tony Blair can no longer rely on the excuse, that he couldn’t possibly have foreseen the difficulties that arose in the aftermath of the invasion, saying "We do not agree that hindsight is required. The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuits of its interests, regional instability and al-Qaeda activity in Iraq were each explicitly identified before the invasion,". None of this, all too predictably, seems to have shaken Mr Blair’s belief, that what he did was morally sound. Astonishingly, Mr Blair is of the opinion that “it was better to remove Saddam Hussein” and has stated that “I do not believe this is the cause of the terrorism we see today whether in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world.”. Mr Blair claims he is not delusional, yet he seems to deny the universal truth, that all actions have consequences.
It may well be, that Tony Blair made the decisions he did, as part of a cynical attempt at self-aggrandisment, tragically mistaken that a willingness to wage war, is the hallmark of a great statesman. If that is the case, then he is a criminal. On the other hand, perhaps, it is true, that Tony Blair took the United Kingdom into a catastrophic war, with the very best of intentions. Perhaps he did, and still does, firmly believe that what he did was the right thing to do, in the interests of world peace. If that is the case, he is delusional. Dangerous, in fact.
Regardless of whether Mr Blair is criminal, or delusional, the Chilcot report highlights the fact that there is little to prevent a prime minister, hell bent on a particular course of action, from taking it. Mr Blair circumvented his cabinet, obliterating the idea that the prime minister is primus inter pares. He has said "A decision had to be taken and it was for me to take as prime minister.”, this speaks volumes as to where he thinks power lies. There is nothing that clearly sets out the powers of the prime minister, nothing, in theory, that he cannot do. The same can be said of parliament. Only a fully written constitution can rectify this ludicrous state of affairs. Until then, there is no impediment to any future megalomaniac incumbent of Ten Downing Street, taking the country on another reckless ego trip.
Tony Blair’s true motivations for invading Iraq, will only ever really be known to himself. There are those who will remain convinced, that he deliberately deceived Parliament, that the invasion was illegal and that Mr Blair should be tried for war crimes. Will that happen? I doubt it. Nor do I believe, that calls for the former Prime Minister to be impeached under some archaic procedure, will gain any meaningful traction. Apart from anything else, parliament is about to be bogged down in a quagmire of post-Brexit legislation, needed to unravel forty years of EU influenced law. Crucially, there simply isn’t the will on the part of a majority of MP’s to go down such a route, these are after all, the same MP’s who voted to bomb Syria. Personally, I believed from the very outset, that the invasion of Iraq was supposed to be Tony Blair’s Falklands. The Chilcot report and Mr Blair’s response to it, have done little or nothing to alter that view.
How is it, that a lame duck prime minister, who has plunged the United Kingdom into deep crisis, can say to the besieged leader of the opposition “for heaven's sake man, go!”, with a straight face, without a hint of irony, let alone without being condemned as a hypocrite? Does no one find it utterly bizarre, that the Labour leadership crisis is being portrayed by the media, as a party on the brink of oblivion, whilst the process of changing prime minister fails to elicit anything like the same level of hysteria? Yes, there is talk, in the media, of Machiavellian machinations being played out in the Tory Party, yet none of the protagonists is being hounded to death, in the way that Jeremy Corbyn is. Surely, this public school, playground spat, which has escalated to become a national catastrophe, should be viewed, at the very least, with every bit as much disdain, as the Labour Party’s self immolation.
Ever since David Cameron let it be known, he would not seek a third term as Prime Minister, there has been speculation as to who might succeed him. Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, the other half of what has been, until now, a highly successful double act, was seen by many, as the logical choice to replace his longtime political tag team partner at 10 Downing Street. There is, after all, little distance travelled, between numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street. Gordon Brown and Sir John Major both made the transition from one, directly to the other. However, the return of Boris Johnson, in May of 2015, as a Member of Parliament, made it clear, if it were ever in doubt, that Mr Osborne would face stiff competition for the Tory Party leadership, when the time came. Who would have thought, when David Cameron, perhaps prophetically, said in early 2015, “the Conservative Party has got some great people coming up - the Theresa Mays, and the George Osbornes, and the Boris Johnsons. “, that two of the contenders would be felled, before they had even stepped into the ring?
Whilst he might have fleetingly considered it, I doubt very much, that when Mr Cameron called the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, he believed it might well bring about the end of his premiership, little over a year after securing the first Tory majority government in nearly 20 years. Nor do I believe, that when in answer, to what he thought prime ministers feared most, Harold MacMillan is said to have replied “events, dear boy, events”, he was thinking of events that occurred as a direct result of his own decisions. Yet, that is exactly what has done for David Cameron, events, of his very own making. Mr Cameron may be the architect of his own downfall, but it cannot be overstated, just how serious, the predicament in which he has placed the UK is. In times of great uncertainty, where strong leadership, and a steady hand are required, the Tories offer up inertia. A void. To make matters worse, they seem in no hurry to fill the void, instead, blithely bumbling about their own Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, as the Tories reshuffle their deck, everyone else, ordinary people, businesses, the EU and the wider world, are expected to wait patiently, wondering if the King might be about to be replaced by a Joker.
The Joker in question, originally thought to have been Boris Johnson, instead turns out to be Michael Gove. Wee, sleekit, slithering snake in the grass, Michael Gove. Michael Gove who told us on more than one occasion “There are lots of other folk, including in the cabinet, who could easily be prime minister. I’m not one of them. I could not be prime minister. I’m not equipped to be prime minister. I don’t want to be prime minister.”, who of us, I wonder, believed him? Is it really plausible, that having known Boris Johnson for all these years, Michael Gove has only now come to the belated realisation that he is unfit for the highest political office in the land? I think not. Despite his protestations that he is standing reluctantly, out of a profound sense of duty to the nation, specifically, those who voted for Brexit, I would hope that most Tory MP’s, and the wider party membership, if it comes to it, can see him for what he is. Treacherous. There are no two ways about it, treacherous is what Gove is, Machiavellian is perhaps a stretch too far, if he’d been half as clever as he clearly thinks he is, he wouldn’t now be so clearly exposed. If there is any sense of justice among Tory MP’s, Mr Gove will be shown to have overplayed his hand. There are already signs, that many of those Tory MP’s who favour a Brexiteer as the next prime minister, are leaning towards Andrea Leadsom as their preferred candidate.
It seems, that however things play out come the first ballot on Tuesday, the contest will be decided by the wider Tory Party membership. Theresa May, strong favourite to win since Osborne and Johnson dropped out, speaking on ITV’s Peston on Sunday, appeared to rule out a ‘coronation’, saying "I believe there should be a proper contest. I think there should be a proper contest and obviously I hope I'm one of the candidates that will go forward to the membership. What that means, is that the rest of us, the country at large, are left in limbo, until such times as the Tory Party deigns to bestow a new leader upon us. Not to worry, until that happens, we can amuse ourselves with the Shakespearean tragedy that is the Labour leadership debacle.