Archive | January, 2013

The European Union and Cameron’s cynical move

30 Jan

By Chris Hansell

Photo by the World Economic Forum, via Flickr

Photo by the World Economic Forum, via Flickr

Four years is a long time in politics. Whether this passed through David Cameron’s mind before he made his speech in London last week is worth pondering.

By calling a referendum on EU membership Mr Cameron has solved some problems and created some new ones. Let’s set the scene.

In the short term the Prime Minister has put a lid on the fizzing disorder of Tory backbenchers and possibly the voter creep toward UKIP. The Telegraph excitedly observed that Mr Cameron’s EU speech has put both Labour and the Lib Dems in an awkward position.

But cementing his position with his party in the immediate future will mean the Prime Minister will have fewer cards to play later.

The chances of getting real concessions out of Europe are low. Harold Wilson, a more talented statesman than Cameron, was unable to get any substantial gains from the EEC during his renegotiation in the 1970s.

Euro sceptics, in and out of the Conservative party, will only be onside for a short time. Mr Cameron said awkwardly yesterday that ‘yes’ he will be supporting the campaign to keep Britain in. Nigel Farage is right to say ‘it is UKIP which will be leading the campaign for independence’.

Now, having laid everything out in a roundabout way, allow me to get to the reason I began writing this.

The Prime Minister’s decision is a political one. Cameron is pro Europe. Everybody with a nugget of sense knows it’s political. The newspapers have even printed this fact.

This depresses me more than anything else that came out of last Wednesday’s speech. The public get yet another reminder that politics is not about convictions but about party manoeuvring.

The Telegraph reports that several labour figures think ‘Mr Cameron’s move will ultimately force the (Labour) party’s hand to offer a vote’ without pointing out the political cynicism of such a strategy.

The Guardian even published a piece by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell outlining why Cameron’s strategy was flawed. Mr Powell is quite right in asserting that as a result of the speech the Prime Minister has wound up ‘snookering himself’. But I would add to this another flaw: decisions this big should not be made for party-political advantage. This is not what a democracy looks like.

As demagogues go Cameron and the class of 2013 do not come across as especially talented at politicking. Comparisons between Cameron and Harold Wilson found their way into almost every newspaper on Thursday, but I have already touched on the problem with this comparison. Wilson was a far more gifted tactician than our Prime Minister.

In terms of general election victories Wilson outscores Cameron four to none. As Peter Oborne details Wilson demonstrated astute political judgement in 1974 to keep Britain in Europe. Cameron on the other hand has yet to show this kind of skill at any point since he became Tory leader in 2005.

With U-turns abound (pasty tax anyone?) and rhetoric designed more to damage political opponents than to explain sincere policy today’s politicians are pretender statesmen.

In the words of the menacing Malcolm Tucker our political class ‘has given up on morality’. They aim for popularity alone, which they achieve through image rather than substance.

The Daily Mail’s Angela Epstein described Cameron’s speech on Question TIme as ‘the first clang of the bell that says the election campaign starts now’.

Today’s politicians are certainly in an election campaign right now but it is not one that has only just begun. In 2013 politics is one long campaign for re-election, and it has drained the people we elect of all substance. All that is left is a thirst to stay in power.

Is the climate beginning to change?

19 Jan
What will be the consequences of pollution in the years ahead?

What will be the consequences of pollution in the years ahead?

By Chris Hansell

Last June I went to China. Arriving in Beijing I spent the first day exploring the city and visiting its more famous haunts. We had just come from a very hot Australia (I’m not boasting – I spent eight months working at a supermarket to pay for the trip, which only lasted around sixty days).

After so diligently plastering every inch of exposed skin with sun cream while down under, I made the foolish decision of going out in the Chinese capital without my factor 50. What could go wrong?  I couldn’t see the sun for all the clouds. After a month of searing sun to be somewhere overcast reminded me of home. That was definitely cloud, wasn’t it?

It was mid-afternoon before I realised the skin on the back of my neck was crisping.

So when I read last week that levels of pollution in Beijing were so bad that residents were being told to stay indoors I could not muster up much in the way of surprise. My only real disbelief was in why this story wasn’t higher up the news agenda.

It might be safe to say that environmentalism has fallen out of fashion from its heights of popularity several years ago. An economic catastrophe caused by banks has left us without much time to think about becoming more responsible with our planet, which would be sad if it wasn’t alarming.

The draft version of the US national Climate assessment recently had some unsettling things to say about the state of the climate. Floods, heavy rain and even wildfires headline a changing climate across the US.

The language of the report is not what you would expect to find in a report that will land on the desk of the US president in the next year or so. Before the end of the draft report’s first page the scientists involved in the study lay out two uncompromising points: ‘these changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity’. The second point is this: ‘the sum total of this evidence tells an unambiguous story: the planet is warming.’

It is going to be near impossible to read this report as anything other than a validation of climate change as a real danger (barring some dramatic rewriting). Perhaps scientists are finally tired of fair weather words from politicians and news channels. And who can blame them?

The bushfires raging in Australia in early January have led the Australian Climate Commission to link climate change directly to their summer heat wave. In the UK flooding seems to have become so commonplace it now seems unspectacular. Up in Alaska the melting permafrost concerns American scientists enough that the climate assessment says there is a serious risk to infrastructure.

The solution offered by the UN’s annual Climate Change Conference in Doha in November, attended by representatives from nearly every country on the planet, was to give everyone eight more years to reach Kyoto targets. This extension may be in jeopardy if Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan decide not to agree to it.

Without the involvement of these heavily industrial nations the new agreement would cover less than 15% of global carbon emissions.  The Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997. A new agreement to tackle climate change will not come into effect until at least 2020, almost a quarter century after its predecessor.

Scientists can’t make the world combat climate change; they can only tell us what will happen if we do nothing. The rest of us, including politicians, need to pull our fingers out.

Some other links you might want to check out:

Tim Ballantine's Blog

A desperate attempt to understand the world, using only misconceptions and non-sequiturs

Completely Unravelled

The messiness of life

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