Blogroll: Lustig's Letter

I read blogs, as well as write one. The 'blogroll' on this site reproduces some posts from some of the people I enjoy reading. There are currently 11 posts from the blog 'Lustig's Letter.'

Disclaimer: Reproducing an article here need not necessarily imply agreement or endorsement!

Subscribe to Lustig's Letter feed
TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF THE WORLD Robin Lustighttp://www.blogger.com/profile/00578195216460807588noreply@blogger.comBlogger479125
Updated: 1 hour 32 min ago

A President unhinged, a world endangered

Fri, 17/02/2017 - 09:09
All foreign leaders who meet the US President these days have to ask themselves just one, deeply worrying question: does this man have a clue what he's talking about?
Or, to put it another way: Does he have the mental capacity to do the job he was elected to do?
I have witnessed a lot of press conferences during my 45-plus years as a reporter, but never, ever, have I witnessed anything to compare with President Trump's performance yesterday.
The Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch, summed it up perfectly: 'President Donald Trump defended as highly effective his tenure so far in the White House, which has been marked by legal fights, West Wing power struggles, confrontations with US allies, the withdrawal of one of his cabinet nominees and the firing of his national security adviser after he misled administration officials about his contacts with Russia.'
(Within hours, the man he had picked as his new national security adviser was reported to have turned the job down, apparently having described the prospect of joining an administration that Mr Trump insists is a finely-tuned machine as a 'shit sandwich'.)
This is the man who was reported last summer to have asked a foreign policy expert not once but three times: 'If we have them [nuclear weapons], why can't we use them?'
The man who was reported last week to have phoned his now ex-national security adviser at three o'clock in the morning to ask if a strong dollar or a weak dollar was better for the US economy.
The man who was reported this week -- again by the Wall Street Journal -- to be regarded with such deep suspicion by his own intelligence services that they have decided not to pass on everything they know because they don't trust him. 
And the man who, with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing next to him, answered a reporter's question about the rise in anti-Semitic attacks since his inauguration with the words: 'Well, I just want to say that we are, you know, very honoured by the victory that we had — 316 electoral college votes ... As far as people, Jewish people, so many friends; a daughter who happens to be here right now; a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren. I think that you’re going to see a lot different United States of America over the next three, four or eight years. I think a lot of good things are happening. And you’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love. OK? Thank you.'
A day later, he was asked the same question again, and after calling the question unfair and insulting, these were his exact words: 'Here's the story, folks. Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism. The least racist person ... I hate the charge. I find it repulsive. I hate even the question.'
There is nothing new about suggesting that Donald Trump might not have the ideal temperament to be the head of state of the most powerful nation on the planet. What is new is the growing sense that he might not have the mental capacity. In the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, the highly respected commentator Elizabeth Drew writes: 'Trump’s possible mental deficiencies are ... a troubling question: serious medical professionals suspect he has narcissistic personality disorder, and also oncoming dementia, judging from his limited vocabulary. (If one compares his earlier appearances on YouTube, for example a 1988 interview with Larry King, it appears that Trump used to speak more fluently and coherently than he does now, especially in some of his recent rambling presentations.)'
The fact that Mr Trump is determined to wage war on the media -- except those that are uncritical of him -- is not the most serious of his many shortcomings. What must, surely, be far more worrying to every sentient being in Washington and around the world is that he appears to have only the most tenuous grip on reality.
He insists that he won the biggest election victory since Ronald Reagan, and when he is told to his face that he didn't, he sulks like a schoolchild: 'Well, I was given that information.'
I was in good company as my jaw hit the floor as I watched him in full flow at his press conference, reduced at one point to insisting (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that he was not 'ranting and raving'. The veteran Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames, who just happens to be Winston Churchill's grandson, commented on Twitter: 'The President in full rant tonight. It seems he's acting heedless of grown up advice ... God knows what will happen with the big stuff.'
Which, of course, is why this is all so serious. In Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang, calculations are being made: how can we test this most unpredictable and unhinged of US presidents? Long-range missiles are being test fired, a Russian spy ship is spotted 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut, and in the Black Sea, Russian fighter jets are photographed buzzing a US warship.
At his joint press conference with the Israeli prime minister, President Trump off-handedly ripped up one of the US's most hallowed foreign policy principles: that the only solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is to create an independent Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.
These were his exact words: 'I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but honestly, if Bibi [Netanyahu] and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.' In other words, 'one-state, two-state, what do I care?'
It so happens that I agree with the president that the so-called two-state solution is no longer feasible. As I wrote in my recently-published memoir, after fifty years of illegal Israeli settlement-building on occupied Palestinian territory 'any attempt to create an independent Palestinian state would end up looking not so much like a patchwork quilt as like a succession of ink blots left behind by a careless colonial conqueror.'
But I wish I felt that Mr Trump had any idea what he was talking about. And I wish I didn't have a deep nagging fear that his reckless insouciance may well lead the Palestinians to conclude that the man in the White House needs to be taught a lesson about the reality of the conflict.
Last November, just a few days after his election victory, I wrote: 'The election of Donald Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place ... What scares me most about [him] is not only that he is a deeply unpleasant man with deeply unpleasant views but also that he is grotesquely, frighteningly incompetent and woefully unprepared for the task ahead ... For the next four years, the world will scarcely dare to breathe as we learn to live with a dangerous and unpredictable president in the White House.'
Four years? I'm not sure we can survive four years. Members of the US Congress now have a heavy responsibility resting on their shoulders; let's hope they understand where their duty lies.

Their duty to their country, and to the rest of the world. To rescue all of us before the 45th President of the United States of America has a chance to do any more harm.
Categories: Current Affairs

Will the law stretch from Srebrenica to Saydnaya?

Fri, 10/02/2017 - 09:10
Let us pretend that Brexit isn't happening. Let us also pretend that the name Trump means nothing to you. And then let us focus on a tiny shaft of sunlight that cuts through the global gloom and serves to remind us that wrongs need not always last for ever.
Eight former Bosnian Serb police officers went on trial in Belgrade this week, charged with taking part in the massacre of at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. It was the worst atrocity committed in Europe since the end of the Second World War -- and now, more than 20 years later, at least some of those alleged to have been responsible are facing justice.
Whatever the eventual verdicts, they will not bring back the dead. Just as the Nuremberg trials in 1945 and 1946 did not bring back any of the six million victims of the Holocaust. But justice serves a purpose, even after two decades. For survivors, and for the relatives of those who died, it means being able to look at the killers and say to them: 'What you did will not go unpunished.'
The military commander of the Bosnian Serbs, Ratko Mladić, is currently awaiting a verdict at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Last year, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader, Radovan Karadžić, was sentenced to 40 years in jail after being convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. They have both faced justice, just as those eight former police officers are facing justice now in Belgrade.
I wonder if anyone in Damascus has noticed. Are there perhaps a few senior military officers, police officers -- who knows, perhaps people even closer to Bashar al-Assad -- wondering if one day, they, too, might find themselves facing justice?
According to Amnesty International, in one of the most shocking reports it has ever published, as many as 13,000 people have been hanged in a Syrian military prison over a five-year period since the start of the anti-government protests in 2011. Saydnaya prison is less than twenty miles from Damascus, and Amnesty says it believes that the abuses committed there 'have been authorised at the very highest levels of the Syrian government.'
The details in the Amnesty report are horrific. I do not intend to repeat them here, but you can read the report for yourself by clicking here. How credible are the accounts? Amnesty says it interviewed thirty-one former prisoners, four former prison officials or guards, three former judges, three doctors, four lawyers, and twenty-two people whose family members were believed to be detained at Saydnaya. To me, that sounds credible enough.
So here's what I'm getting at. One day -- perhaps in twenty years' time, or perhaps much sooner than that -- some of the people responsible for the obscenities taking place at Saydnaya will stand trial. Just as senior Nazis did at Nuremberg, and senior Khmer Rouge officials did in Cambodia.
Neither President Assad, nor anyone in his circle, can lie in their beds at night confident that they will never face justice. Their current protectors in Moscow and Tehran have their own interests to protect, and would quite happily throw Assad to the wolves if they considered it to be in their own national interests.
Dictatorships never last for ever. Slobodan Milošević and his henchmen discovered that, as did Pol Pot and his band of Khmer Rouge murderers, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, and countless others. Some despots die a natural death (Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong-il), others are overthrown and face trial for their crimes.
And that's where the law comes in. It might seem a bit of a stretch to link Brexit and Trump with the atrocities of Srebrenica and Saydnaya -- but all are, or should be, challengeable in the law courts. Whether it's Gina Miller and her successful challenge to Theresa May's decision to bypass parliament on the way to triggering Article 50, or the US 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the case against Donald Trump's proposed immigration ban, or the Belgrade trial of the former Bosnian Serb police officers -- as long as there are independent courts and courageous lawyers, there is hope for the victims of untrammelled executive power. (Which is why, of course, on both sides of the Atlantic, governments attack them.)
A final thought -- even incorrigible liberals like me need to remind ourselves sometimes that however miserable we might feel about Brexit or Trump, we face nothing a fraction as terrifying as what the Muslims of Srebrenica faced in 1995, or what the people of Syria have been facing for the past six years.

It helps to keep a sense of proportion. 
Categories: Current Affairs

Lost in Washington: political backbones

Fri, 03/02/2017 - 08:42


                   Special offer: Your own signed copy, plus ebook, for £20. Click here.



What a bunch of spineless cowards they are.
A year ago, just about every senior US Republican was calling Donald Trump unhinged, dangerous and unfit to be president. Now they either look the other way or make lame excuses as he demonstrates daily how right they were.
Backbones? Who needs 'em? They know they were right all along, yet they stay silent. With a few, heroic exceptions, they are demonstrating a disgraceful lack of any sense that they owe it to their country to bring the Trump disaster to a speedy end.
(Section 4 of the 25th amendment to the US constitution reads:  'Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments, or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.')
For now, Washington watches in horror as the president, ostensibly marking Black History Month, pays tribute to Frederick Douglass, who, he said, 'is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognised more and more, I notice.'
Er, what? Frederick Douglass died in 1895 and just happens to be probably the best-known African-American social reformer of the nineteenth century, a former slave who played a massively influential role in the abolitionist movement. President Trump, it seems, has never heard of him.
His ignorance, like his arrogance, is terrifying. He says that the countries from which he has now banned all immigrants -- at least temporarily for now -- pose a major threat to the security of the US.
Evidence? None. Not a single citizen of Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen has carried out a single fatal terrorist attack on US soil. Nor has a single Syrian refugee killed a single US citizen on US soil.
This isn't policy based on facts, fake or otherwise. This is policy based on bigotry.
It is true that the countries singled out by Trump do harbour some terrorists -- indeed, according to one US immigration expert, six Iranians, six Sudanese, two Somalis, two Iraqis, and one Yemeni have been convicted of attempting or carrying out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 1975. Seventeen people over the past forty-two years. No wonder the leader of the most powerful nation on earth is quivering in fear.
On the other hand, the couple who killed 14 people in an attack in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015, were both of Pakistani origin (although one of them had been born in the US). So is Pakistan on the ban list? It is not.
Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people on the Fort Hood military base in 2009, was born in the US to Palestinian parents who had immigrated from the West Bank. So are Palestinians on the ban list? They are not.
The brothers who bombed the Boston marathon in 2013 were of Chechen origin. So is Russia (Chechnya is part of Russia) on the ban list? It is not.
And of course, the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Lebanon. So are those countries on the ban list? They are not.
I apologise. I should choose my words more carefully, because we're told that what President Trump announced last weekend wasn't really a ban at all. According to his spokesman Sean Spicer: 'A ban would mean people can’t get in, and we’ve clearly seen hundreds of thousands of people come into our country from other countries.'
So who was the idiot who said: 'If the ban were announced with a one-week notice, the "bad" would rush into our country during that week'?
Oops. It was President Trump. Who doesn't seem to know that no one from any of the countries on his ban-that-isn't-a-ban list is allowed in to the US without going through rigorous checks. Refugees usually have to wait for well over a year before all the checks are completed.
Never mind. At least we now know who exactly is covered by this ban-that-is-not-a-ban. Mo Farah can rejoin his family in Oregon, because according to the UK Foreign Office, unless you're trying to get into the US directly from one of the seven named countries, you've got nothing to worry about. It doesn't matter where you were born, or even whether you have dual nationality.
So, for example, if you're a British-born jihadi, just back from Raqaa, as long as MI5 haven't spotted you, you can jump on a plane at Heathrow and jet off to New York without a care in the world. If, on the other hand, you're an eminent Iraqi physician, hoping to take up the professorship you have been offered at Harvard medical school, sorry, no chance.
It all makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Carefully thought out, meticulously implemented. And you can tell that it's not aimed just at Muslims because it affects everyone from the named countries. Well, everyone except Christians, of course. And Jews, because if you're an Iraqi or Yemeni Jew with an Israeli passport, you'll be fine as well.
Hmm.
The former mayor of New York and Trump uber-loyalist Rudy Giuliani says he's the one who came up with the plan after Trump asked him to find a legal way to implement a ban -- or not-a-ban -- on Muslim immigrants. Simples, said Giuliani. 'We focused on ... the areas of the world that create danger for us, which is a factual basis, not a religious basis. Perfectly legal, perfectly sensible ... It's not based on religion. It's based on places where there is substantial evidence that people are sending terrorists into our country.'
'Substantial evidence?' 'Factual basis'? Presumably that's why nearly a thousand -- a thousand! -- State department officials and diplomats have signed a letter opposing the measure. Experts, eh? What do they know?
I hope Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil who is Donald Trump's secretary of state, takes a hard look at the madhouse he has entered and decides he wants no part of it. I hope defence secretary James Matiss, a former general in the US Marine Corps, does the same. These men are not deranged ideologues, blinded by bigotry. They should quit now, and explain why.
Their consciences -- and those of hundreds more Republican politicians and officials across the US -- can bring this nightmare to an end. Just as in Brexitland, the consciences of Tory MPs who know that Theresa May is leading the UK towards a precipice could also end a British nightmare.
I have in mind the Tory MPs who claim to think 'The people have spoken' means 'I surrender.' The Tory MPs who, if they lose an election, rush to tear up their party membership and flock to join the Labour party. 'The people have elected a Labour government. We must now support the Labour government.' I don't think so.
And the Labour MPs like Margaret Beckett, a former foreign secretary, no less, who told the Commons that she was voting for the government's Brexit bill, even though 'I still fear that its consequences, both for our economy and our society, are potentially catastrophic.'

Washington isn't the only town where backbones are in short supply.
Categories: Current Affairs

The President and the Prime Minister: a transcript

Fri, 27/01/2017 - 09:12



                   Special offer: Your own signed copy, plus ebook, for £20. Click here.



The Oval Office. The White House.
THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, DONALD J TRUMP: Hi, prime minister. Great to see ya. Glad you could stop by. Did you notice your friend Winston as you came in? Great guy. The best. Knew how to win. My kind of guy. Yours too, huh? Terrific guy ... But he never got the kind of crowds I get ... did you see the inauguration? Biggest ever. No question. You could see it from the moon. They said it on Fox. Great news channel - do you get Fox in England? It's the best -- I can introduce you to Rupert, you'd love him. He's terrific.
THE PRIME MINISTER OF THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND, THERESA MAY: Mr President, it's a real honour to be the first foreign ...
TRUMP: Yeah, you're the first foreign head of state to come visit. To me, you're my Maggie. Wow, she was somethin', wasn't she? The best. We're gonna do great things together, you and me. How d'ya like the curtains, by the way? Real gold, cost a fortune. Most expensive curtains in the world. I had the old ones torn down -- they were terrible. The Obamas put them up. No taste. Really, I'm tellin' ya, the worst taste ever.
MAY: Mr President, I'm not actually the head of state; that's the Queen.
TRUMP: Sure. The Queen. Lovely lady. The best. My Mom loved the Queen. But she's pretty old now, ain't she? You need to think about getting a new one. I could do you a deal on my daughter. What d'ya think? Have you seen her? Ivanka? I mean, ain't she somethin'? She'd be a great Queen of England. Of course, she's married now -- Jared, lovely guy, smart as hell -- but if she wasn't, well, I wouldn't mind ... But if you need any help with those Europeans, get Jared to have a word. Smart guy, believe me.
MAY: That's very kind, Mr President. I was hoping we could talk ...
TRUMP: Yeah, I know. Europe. What a bunch of losers. LOSERS! Your friend Nigel was telling me. Unbelievable. You were really smart to kick 'em out. And that other English fella who was here -- Michael somethin'? Your deputy. Funny-looking fella. But smart, really smart. Wrote down everythin' I said and put it in all the papers. Did you see it? Every newspaper in the world. You're lucky to have him. Terrific guy.
MAY: I was hoping we could perhaps discuss a trade ...
TRUMP: No question. I'm the best on trade. The best president for trade in the history of the world. You want to buy our stuff -- American stuff, made by Americans, none of that Mexican or Chinese crap -- I can get you a great deal. I mean, look at our cars. Best in the world. Who needs those Jaguars or whatevers? You want to sell Jaguars in America, you tell 'em: build a factory in America. I'm tellin' ya: we sell three billion dollars’ worth of cars to England, and then you sell eight billion dollars’ worth to us. How crazy is that? It's gonna stop, believe me. Day One. It's gonna stop. You heard about my wall, huh? It's going to be a beautiful wall, you'll see, everyone agrees with me on this. I'm tellin' ya, you should build a wall along your border with France. Keep out all those illegals. I mean, no one knows who they are, right? Muslims, Iraqis, Afghanistanis -- who knows who the hell they are?
MAY: If I may, Mr President, I was somewhat concerned to read ...
TRUMP: Don't believe what you read, Teri. It is Teri, right? Crooked journalists peddling their fake news -- believe me, we're after them. People keep saying to me: 'Mr President, lock 'em up.' And we're working on it, trust me. Like Steve said -- you've met Steve, right? Great guy, really, terrific -- like he said, the media should keep their mouth shut.   I'm gettin' all these calls -- more calls than any president in history -- and what they're all sayin' -- millions of 'em, believe me, it was on Fox --is 'Donald, you're the greatest president in the history of America, we're goin' to put you on Mount Rushmore' -- do you have Mount Rushmore in England? -- 'but you're goin' to have to lock up all those lyin' press people.' So, hey, I believe in the will of the people -- hell, I was elected by the biggest majority in the history of the world, even though the election was rigged. Horrible, really horrible, what they did. Millions of people not voting for me. We're gonna change that. From now on, you vote for Trump, or you don't vote. Starting right now.
MAY: But torture, Mr President...
TRUMP: You bet. It works, you know that, right? Sure you do, everyone knows it. I read somewhere you guys used it with the IRA. And you beat 'em, right? So like I say, torture works. You guys understand this stuff. I saw this show on Fox where they said England was great on all those rendition flights, and black holes or whatever? So yeah, don't worry, Teri, we're with you on torture. Absolutely. One hundred per cent.
MAY: I think perhaps ...
TRUMP: Look, I need you to do somethin' for me. I've got this great golf course in Scotland -- beautiful golf course, the best, and I love Scotland. My Mom was from Scotland, but listen, this weird-looking woman they've got running the place -- Nicole somethin'? -- I mean what is it with her? I need her to put a stop to these windmill things they keep talkin' about. Terrible idea, the worst. Can't you just grab her by the ... well, wherever -- and get her to deal with it? Listen, I'll do you a deal. I'm great at deals, I'm sure you've heard, the best. You deal with Nicole or whatever, and I can sort out your little ol' Downing Street place. I mean, you gotta admit, it's horrible. It's old, and it's so small. I've seen pictures. I'll knock it down, build you a fantastic gold-plated Trump Tower, the biggest ever, and you can have the penthouse suite. I'll put in a casino too: the Trump Downing Street Casino. You and Denis -- it is Denis, isn't it? -- you'll love it. Trust me.
MAY: Mr President, it's been a pleasure.
WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN (later): The president had an excellent discussion with the prime minister of England, who congratulated him on being the best president the world has ever seen and attracting the biggest inauguration crowd in the history of the universe. Ever.
DOWNING STREET SPOKESMAN: The prime minister was delighted with her meeting with the president, who assured her that the US greatly values its historic ties with the United Kingdom. They had a broad-ranging discussion covering several major issues, and the prime minister took the opportunity to emphasise the UK's determination to work closely with the US in the coming years.


Categories: Current Affairs

More important than Trump -- or Brexit

Fri, 20/01/2017 - 09:01
 If you're troubled by Trump, or bovvered by Brexit, I have good news for you: there is something far, far more serious for you to be worrying about.
Last year was the hottest year on record. So was the year before. And the year before that. Sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record have been since the beginning of this century. And according to Gavin Schmidt,director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, about ninety per cent of the earth's warming was due to rising greenhouse gas emissions.
That means us. (Plus about 6 billion tonnes a year of intestinal gases from cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens -- which we breed so that we can eat them. So it's us again ...)
But there are some teensy weensy bits of good news. Did you know that all the electric passenger trains in the Netherlands are now powered by wind-generated energy? Or that on four consecutive days last month, all of Scotland's power demands -- yes, all of them -- were met by output from wind turbines? (It was over Christmas, when presumably Scottish ovens were blasting away to roast all those turkeys, so it's even more impressive.)
And then in tramps Trump. George Monbiot, The Guardian's doomster-in-chief, says the new US president will spell disaster for our planet: 'He could not have made it clearer, through his public statements, the Republican platform and his appointments, that he intends to the greatest extent possible to shut down funding for both climate science and clean energy, rip up the Paris agreement, sustain fossil fuel subsidies and annul the laws that protect people and the rest of the world from the impacts of dirty energy.'
On the other hand, American businesses are learning that there are big bucks to be made in going green, and not even Donald Trump will stop them investing in technologies that look as if they could make money for them. Even the oil-mad state of Texas understands which way the wind is blowing -- literally -- and is leading the way in wind-generated power.
And some scientists think the incoming Trump administration may turn out to be more renewable-friendly than it might appear at first sight. Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University told the BBC: 'It is clear that they actually accept a great deal more of the science of human influence on climate than they are prepared to let on. They are acknowledging there is a link, there is a potential problem and that's already more than enough to justify continuing the relatively modest goals of both the Paris agreement and Clean Power Plan.'
Even Mr Trump himself has moderated his stance (apparently). During the election campaign, he called climate change a hoax and said he would cancel the US's endorsement of the Paris climate agreement. Since the election, however, he has said he has an 'open mind' about Paris and accepts that there is 'some connectivity' between human actions and climate change. Who knows? Perhaps he means it.
Both the new US president and Theresa May say they believe in investing serious government money to improve their nations' infrastructure. Flood defences might be a good place to start, coupled with much more imaginative tax incentives to encourage technological innovation in energy generation.
I was asked the other day to name my favourite building in London. I chose Blackfriars station, partly because it sits on a bridge across the River Thames, and I love the idea of waiting for a train while gazing over the river. But mainly because its roof is made entirely of photovoltaic panels, which generate up to half the energy used by the station.
It's what the future should look like -- otherwise we risk having no future at all.
By the way, my memoir, Is Anything Happening?, was published this week, and should now be available in all good bookshops. Signed (or unsigned) copies are available direct from the publisher by clicking here.

  
Categories: Current Affairs

When the BBC gets it very, very wrong

Thu, 19/01/2017 - 09:00


                                                      To pre-order, click here.


This is the fourth and final extract from my memoir that I'm posting ahead of today's publication. As of tomorrow, it should be available either from your local bookshop or online.


The BBC excels at many things: world-class TV drama, innovative en­tertainment formats (Dr Who, Top Gear, Strictly Come Dancing, Bake-Off), wildlife documentaries and much, much more. Its programmes – Test Match Special, BBC Proms, The Archers, EastEnders – enrich the nation in a way that no other institution can dream of. In 2012, when the think tank Chatham House commissioned a survey to find out which institutions voters thought best served the UK’s national inter­est, the BBC came second, with just the armed forces ahead of it.
            But it is also in a league of its own when it comes to corporate melt­downs, and I had the great misfortune to be granted a ringside seat at far too many of these ghastly displays of managerial incompetence. All institutions get things wrong, but what the BBC wins gold medals in is getting things wrong when it gets something wrong.
            Exhibit One: the Hutton Report into the death of the government scientist David Kelly in 2003 after he was named as the source for a BBC report that said the government had ‘sexed up’ a dossier about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Lord Hutton was an appeal court judge and former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland who had been appointed to investigate the circumstances surrounding Dr Kel­ly’s apparent suicide – and he came down spectacularly hard on the BBC while largely exonerating the government.
            My conclusion, more than a decade later? When two alpha male elephants (in this case, Alastair Campbell and Greg Dyke) clash in the jungle, a lot of lesser creatures get hurt. Both men were spoiling for a fight – Campbell believed that the BBC’s journalists had been consistently hostile to [Tony] Blair and his support for the US-led invasion of Iraq, and Dyke was determined to show Campbell that the BBC was not prepared to be intimidated. His mistake – and it was a serious one – was to fight the battle on the ground of [Andrew] Gilligan’s reporting.
            Exhibit Two: Sachsgate, when the actor and comedian Russell Brand and the radio and TV presenter Jonathan Ross lost their senses and broadcast on Radio 2 a series of voicemail messages that they had left for the then 78-year-old actor Andrew Sachs (best known as the Spanish waiter Manuel, in Fawlty Towers). On one of the messages, Ross could be heard saying: ‘He [Brand] fucked your granddaughter.’ Although the programme had been pre-recorded, no one who heard it ahead of transmission thought it presented any problems.
            Interestingly, after it was broadcast, there were no immediate com­plaints. But when, a week later, the Mail on Sunday drew attention to what had been said, the complaints came flooding in. Russell Brand resigned, as did the much-respected head of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, and Ross was suspended without pay for twelve weeks. The BBC went into one of its meltdowns and eventually issued an apology, calling the voicemail messages ‘grossly offensive’ and a ‘serious breach of editorial standards’.
            But it all went on much too long. The BBC’s response to the furore, artificially fanned though it might have been, was far too late in coming. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Culture Secretary had all had their say by the time the corporation had got its act together, once again leaving the impression that too many well-paid executives were spending too long trying to duck their responsibilities.                        When the director-general, Mark Thompson, agreed to be inter­viewed on The World Tonight, I questioned him as robustly as I would have done had I not been working for him. When it was over, he smiled wanly at me across the studio desk and commented: ‘You guys really enjoy this sort of thing, don’t you?’
            He was wrong. I hated it when the BBC fell short. But what use is a BBC interviewer who is not prepared to ask tough questions of his own bosses?
            Exhibit Three: the Savile crisis. Yet again, the BBC went into meltdown after its shambolic decision-making processes proved to be utterly inadequate. There is no need to rake over the sordid details: an investigation by Newsnight into allegations that Jimmy Savile was a serial child abuser was halted, apparently because the programme’s editor was unconvinced by the available evidence, and then, in the midst of a gruesomely public inquest into his decision, the same pro­gramme broadcast similar allegations against another public figure, only for those allegations to turn out to be totally unfounded.
            It was a catalogue of ineptitude that would have shamed the most shambolic student newspaper. For an institution that likes to think of itself as the world’s most respected broadcaster, it was an unparalleled disaster. What made it particularly toxic was that although Newsnight’s Savile investigation was axed, two tribute programmes went ahead after his death, despite misgivings about Savile’s ‘dark side’ having been expressed in internal BBC emails. It still seems to me that the real scandal was that executives who had worked closely with Savile over many years, and who were well aware of the suspicions over his sexual behaviour, authorised the transmission of those programmes.
            I find that much harder to excuse than an editorial misjudgement over the strength or otherwise of a complex journalistic investigation. No editor’s judgement is infallible, and as I had worked closely with the Newsnight editor, Peter Rippon, during his time at the World Service, I was convinced that he had made his decision, rightly or wrongly, in good faith.
            Perhaps I have a weakness for thinking the best of people – except when I am interviewing them, naturally – but after more than two decades at the BBC, I came to the conclusion that with very few excep­tions, it is run by good, intelligent people with all the right instincts. Sometimes they are asked to do jobs for which they are ill-suited and sometimes they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Greg Dyke was not temperamentally suited to run a major national institu­tion, and George Entwistle was engulfed by crisis before he had had a chance to find his way around. Both men made mistakes, and they paid the price.

            It does not make them villains.

If you missed the earlier extracts, they are here, and here, and here.
Categories: Current Affairs

The murder of my grandmother

Wed, 18/01/2017 - 09:49


                                                     To pre-order, click here.


This is the the third of four extracts that I'm posting this week ahead of the publication on Thursday of my memoir, Is Anything Happening?

The main reason I wanted to visit Lithuania [in 2014] was that my maternal grandmother, Ilse, had been murdered there by a Nazi death squad in 1941. It was only in the early 2000s that my mother found out what had happened: she knew that her mother had been arrested [in Breslau] in November 1941 and deported with thousands of other Jews, but she never made any further inquiries because she was terrified of learning that she had died in a gas chamber.
            All she knew was what she had been told in a letter from a non-Jew­ish aunt who had stayed in Breslau throughout the war and who wrote to her in 1946:
            'Your mother was picked up by two Gestapo men on the morning of 21 November. The bell rang, she opened the door, still in her dress­ing gown, and then she had to get dressed in their presence … Herr Metzner, the chemist, who had rented your dining room, immediately called on me to tell me the terrible news … They were told they were going to Kovno [Kaunas] … We tried to find out what was going to happen to all these people, and where they were going to be sent, but we couldn’t find out anything. Once they had gone, there was never any sign of life from them again. However cruel it was that your mother had to be included in this first transport, at least she and the others with her were unaware that they were being taken to their deaths.'
            Over the next three years, there were to be sixteen further deportations of Breslau’s Jews, most of them to the concentration camp at There­sienstadt, in Czechoslovakia, where they perished. The deportees were told they were to be part of ‘resettlement’ or ‘work duty’ programmes; among them was the grandmother of a friend of my father’s, the cel­list Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived both Auschwitz and Belsen. (Anita and my father had shared the same cello teacher in Berlin, al­though she was originally from Breslau and had returned there before her grandmother was arrested.)
            'A Gestapo man sat at a table reading out names, and the people who were called had to walk past the table to the other side of the yard. When he called ‘Lasker’, my grandmother walked past the table, but not without stopping in front of the Gestapo man. She looked him straight in the face, and said very loudly: ‘Frau Lasker to you.’ I thought he would hit her there and then, but not a bit of it. He just said simply: ‘Frau Lasker’. I was extremely proud of her.'
            I would love to think that my own grandmother displayed similar fortitude.
            The Nazis had invaded Lithuania in June 1941, and over the next six months, they murdered nearly all of the country’s 200,000 Jews. In Kaunas, a nineteenth-century fort that had been used as the city’s prison became the site of the mass murder of Jews, under the command of a Swiss-born SS colonel, Karl Jäger. (He escaped capture at the end of the war and was arrested only in 1959. He had been living in Germany under an assumed name and committed suicide in jail while awaiting trial.)
            The Ninth Fort at Kaunas is now a grim, Soviet-era memorial and museum to the 30,000 people who were killed there. I took with me on my visit some of the last letters that my grandmother had written to my mother in the months before her death. They were all carefully written, probably not only because my grandmother feared that they would be read by Nazi censors but also because she may well have wanted to put on as brave a face as she could when writing to her only child.
            March 1941: ‘Unfortunately things are not going the way I had hoped. I have to be extremely patient, but I am not losing courage. I am still hoping that one fine day, we shall all meet again.’
            June 1941: ‘My journey to Uncle Ulle [her brother living in Chica­go] seems to be impossible. Everything is upside down at the moment – all the work and all the money that has been spent seems to have been in vain.’
            September 1941, shortly after her forty-fourth birthday: ‘My mood was below zero. I hope next year I will feel happier.’
            It was a glorious summer’s day when I visited Kaunas, and it took an immense effort of imagination, as I stood on the edge of a field dotted with wild flowers, to conjure up an image of what it must have been like in November 1941 as thousands of terrified people were herded towards mass graves and shot.
            Journalists get used to reporting atrocities dispassionately, and on my visit to the Ninth Fort, I slip into my journalist’s coat of armour all too easily. I compose images in the viewfinder of my camera, I record interviews and make notes. But then I stop and force myself to take off the armour. ‘Ilse,’ I say, as I stand at the edge of the killing field, ‘I was here today. You are not forgotten.’


If you missed the previous two extracts, they are here and here.       
Categories: Current Affairs

Meeting the greatest man in the world

Tue, 17/01/2017 - 09:05


                                                            To pre-order, click here.


This is the second of four extracts that I'm posting this week ahead of the publication on Thursday of my memoir.


Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I often sensed a degree of semi-concealed menace when I encountered world leaders. Behind the eyes, there seemed to be an unspoken warning: ‘Don’t forget who I am. Don’t mess with me.’ The trick was to remember the advice supposedly given to a newly elected MP, terrified at the prospect of facing the baying mob on the other side of the House of Commons.
            ‘Imagine them in their pyjamas.’
            And, of course, as a journalist with a job to do, remember what that job is: to ask the questions that need to be asked, and insist, where possible, on a proper answer.
            Even Nelson Mandela conveyed some of that ‘Don’t mess with me’ aura. Yes, he had charm by the bucket-load, but he knew who he was, and what he represented, and he certainly did not like being messed around or kept waiting. Which, unfortunately, was exactly what happened when I flew to Johannesburg in August 2001 to record an hour-long programme with him and his wife, Graça Machel.


            For some reason, it had been decided to record the programme in London rather than in Johannesburg. That meant establishing a satellite link – and satellite links are notoriously unreliable. Mandela’s time was precious – he was already eighty-three years old and in poor health, and for an hour-long programme we had been allocated … one hour.
            He and his wife arrived precisely on time, introductions were made, they sat down, microphones were attached, and: ‘Shall we start?’ ‘Not yet,’ came the voice in my earpiece. ‘We haven’t got the link yet.’
            Believe me, making small talk with the most admired man on the planet is seriously nerve-racking. Fortunately, I had recently met his former comrade-in-arms Denis Goldberg, who had been one of his co-defendants at the Rivonia trial in 1964. (Goldberg was the only white defendant in the trial and had been the first to be released from jail, in 1985.) I was therefore able to tell Mandela a bit about Goldberg’s life in London, where we were near neighbours. 
            He was gracious and understanding, but I knew that the minutes were ticking by, and I dreaded him getting up at the end of our allotted slot, leaving us with an embarrassing hole to fill. When we finally got going, I decided to plough on regardless, blithely ignoring our supposed stop time, until his much-feared personal assistant Zelda la Grange stepped in to make clear that our luck had run out.
            We were still several minutes short, and I never found out how the BBC managed to fill the resulting hole in the schedule. In my experi­ence, there are some questions that it is better not to ask.
            Was I nervous when I met these global titans? Of course I was. Was I intimidated or cowed? No, because I believe that interviewers are automatically equipped with a special suit of protective armour. It is invisible externally, but it exists inside their heads. This special suit enables the interviewer to break all the usual rules of social in­tercourse: you are allowed to ask rude questions, you are allowed to interrupt, and you are allowed to be a major pain in the backside. You are invincible in your suit of armour.
            If I could choose whom to interview, I would always prefer writers and historians over politicians. The writers are usually articulate and have interesting things to say about the world we live in, and the historians are often able to make sense of it all by referring back to what has happened in the past.
            So, for example, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah. I interviewed her after she had given a lecture in London about the nov­elist’s craft, which she defined as turning facts into truth, so I thought it would be interesting to contrast the way that novelists tell stories with the way journalists do.
            ‘If you and I were to witness the same event,’ I asked her, ‘and then each of us wrote about it, how would our accounts differ?’ She looked across the studio desk and smiled.
            ‘People would be moved by what I wrote; they would be informed by what you wrote.’

            I still think a lot about that distinction, and I still envy the novelist’s ability to convert facts into truth.

The most dangerous place in the world: if you missed yesterday's extract, click here.
Categories: Current Affairs

The most dangerous place in the world ...

Mon, 16/01/2017 - 09:01


                                                           To pre-order, click here.


This is the first of four extracts that I'll be posting this week, leading up to the publication of my memoir on Thursday. 

The most terrifying country that I have ever visited is a place that you have never heard of and that you will never find on a map. It is called Hostalia, and it exists only in the imagination of the people who provide hostile environment training for journalists heading into war zones. On each occasion that I was there, I was kidnapped, held up at gunpoint and stranded in a minefield. And all that in country­side within fifty miles of London.
            ‘Hostile environment’ is a useful euphemism for a place where you might get killed. Once, shortly after hostile environment training was introduced at the BBC, I overheard a discussion about whether a particular reporter, unusually well-spoken and well-bred, might be a suitable candidate to send on a course. ‘Her?’ someone snorted. ‘Her idea of a hostile environment is a boring dinner party.’
            By the time I arrived at the BBC, I already had some idea what a hostile environment looked like, having reported extensively from Lebanon during its fifteen-year civil war. But following the death in Croatia of my talented young World Tonight colleague John Schofield, I was hardly going to kick up a fuss about being reminded that bullets can be dangerous.
            Hostile environment training is specifically designed to be frighten­ing – and it is. I know of one reporter who came back from his course so traumatised that he decided he would never ever volunteer for duty in a war zone. He was worried that it would count against him, and I tried to reassure him that it would not. Not even the BBC expects everyone to be prepared to risk their life in the service of the licence fee-payer.
            The trainers on these courses are usually former soldiers, and they do not have a very high opinion of university-educated journalists whom they have probably seen poncing about in body armour in front of the TV cameras. So they enjoy their work and, quite right­ly, make no allowances. Nevertheless, I was occasionally left feeling uneasy at what sometimes verged on sadism as they relished their make-believe roles as drunken gunmen at roadblocks. They could be horribly convincing.
            So much so that one woman had to be withdrawn from a course that I was on after a ‘gunman’ had reduced her to tears as he taunted her about the fate of her children. ‘What kind of a mother are you? Why did you come here? How will your children cope after we have killed you? Don’t you care about them?’
            Was it realistic? Unfortunately, it was. Was it necessary? I am not so sure.
            I am in the back of a Land Rover with three colleagues, bumping along a mud track somewhere deep in the countryside of Hostalia. Suddenly, a group of masked gunmen appear from the side of the track, blocking our way and shouting angrily. ‘Stop. Out. Now.’ We scramble out and they push us to the ground.
            ‘Hands behind your heads. No talking.’ We do as we are told.
            ‘You. Get up.’ They kick at the youngest woman member of our team. ‘Over here.’ And they shove her roughly to one side.
            ‘Who is the leader?’
            We are prepared for this: How to Negotiate Checkpoints, Lesson One, includes a whole section on why you should always designate a team leader. Gunmen can get twitchy if they do not know who is in charge. I am the oldest, and most experienced, member of our group, so I have drawn the short straw. It is the only time that presenters are allowed to think of themselves as team leaders, and I regard it as an honour that I could well do without.
            ‘Why are you here? Who sent you? You are spies. We will shoot you.’
            ‘No,’ I say in my best BBC voice. ‘We are not spies. We are report­ers. Press. And if you do not want us here, we will turn round and go back. I am sorry if we have entered a forbidden area.’
            We go on like this for a few minutes, he shouting, and me trying to sound suitably apologetic. There is no point standing on your dignity when you are surrounded by men with guns. So I act humble.
            Then the mood changes suddenly.
            ‘You can go. But she stays.’
            He points at our colleague, standing to one side. ‘She is young. Pretty. She will have a good time with us. Party time.’
            I look him in the eye: ‘Could we have a word in private?’
            We step to one side and I make my pitch. ‘I can see that you are an honourable man. A soldier. I know that you would never leave your sister with strangers. I cannot leave my colleague; it is against our honour, too. But I understand that we have inconvenienced you, so we are prepared to compensate you.’
            I pull a fat bundle of (fake) dollar bills from my pocket – always carry dollar bills in Hostalia and be ready to give them away – and I thrust them into his hand.
            ‘Here. I know you will not accept it for yourself, but give it to your men. They will thank you.’ I calculate that he will, of course, keep the cash for himself, but by suggesting that it is for his men, I avoid the danger (I hope) that he will accuse me of impugning his honour.
            ‘All right. You can go. All of you. Now.’
            And so the roleplay ends. Would it have worked for real? Probably not, and thank goodness I never get the chance to find out.

            But that night, in the bar, I am crowned King of the Checkpoints. And all the ex-soldiers have a good laugh.
Tomorrow: meeting the greatest man in the world

Categories: Current Affairs

Darkness descends: the inauguration of President Trump

Fri, 13/01/2017 - 09:48
Horror, fear, anger, disgust, and shame were just some of the emotions I experienced as I watched Donald Trump's appalling press conference on Wednesday.
If you didn't see it, you cannot begin to imagine how truly terrifying it was. And next Friday, Mr Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. It will be recorded in history as one of Western democracy's darkest hours.
As you listen to him take the oath of office -- 'I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States' -- you would do well to remember some of the other things he has said.
'When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything ... Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.' -- September 2005.
'If she [Hillary Clinton] gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.' - 9 August, 2016 (The Second Amendment to the US constitution is the one that enshrines the right 'to keep and bear arms.')
'I'd like to punch him in the face.' - 22 February 2016, referring to a protester at a Trump rally in Las Vegas.
'I don’t like to analyse myself because I might not like what I see.' - Talking to his biographer Michael D'Antonio, in 2014.
Donald Trump is a mean-minded, lying, misogynistic fraud with what appears to be a serious personality disorder. From his stream of public utterances, he seems not to have a generous bone in his body, and to be motivated solely by a combination of hate, greed and extreme narcissism.
His biographer asked him once to name someone whom he respected. 'For the most part,' Trump replied, 'you can’t respect people because most people aren’t worthy of respect.'
It is Trump's misfortune that the man he replaces in the White House brought more grace and dignity to the office of president than any other incumbent in living memory. Barack Obama and his family spent eight years in the glare of the Washington spotlight without even the faintest whiff of scandal or dishonourable behaviour. Donald Trump will move in on day one with a sackload of unsavoury baggage that far outweighs what the Obamas are leaving with.
To put it crudely, whatever you think of his politics or his record, Barack Obama is a far, far better man than Trump will ever be.
So as he takes the oath of office next Friday, remember what his spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway said about him just a few days ago: that we should go by what is in his heart rather than what comes out of his mouth.
It's not easy to know what lies in a man's heart, but nor is it any easier to go by what comes out of this man's mouth.
 'I respect the government of Mexico. I respect the people of Mexico. I love the people of Mexico. I have many people from Mexico working for me. They're phenomenal people. The government of Mexico is terrific.' - Press conference, 11 January 2017.
'The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.' - Press statement, 6 July 2015.
'I got to know him [Vladimir Putin] very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates, and we did very well that night.' - 10 November 2015.
'I don't know that I'm going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there's a good chance I won't.' - Press conference, 11 January 2017.
'Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.' - Trump's son, Donald Jr, at a real estate conference in 2008.
'I have no loans with Russia at all ... I have no deals, I have no loans and I have no dealings.' - Trump at his press conference, 11 January 2017.
Mr Trump also said: 'If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That's called an asset, not a liability.'  Perhaps no one has told him that in the world of intelligence-gathering, an asset is someone who provides information, or is in other ways useful, to a foreign power, sometimes because they fear being blackmailed.
We shall see whether Trump or Putin is the bigger liar. It'll be a tough call: remember 'There are no Russian troops in Ukraine'? But if they were rival bullies in a school yard, I know which of them I'd put my money on to emerge victorious from their first head-to-head. And it's not the one who said he doesn't need daily intelligence briefings because 'You know, I’m, like, a smart person.'
As I listened to the president-elect launch his jaw-dropping attack on his own intelligence agencies -- 'I think it was disgraceful ... disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. I think it's a disgrace ... that's something that Nazi Germany would have done' -- I imagined Vladimir Putin sitting in the Kremlin, looking like Blofeld, the James Bond villain, stroking a white cat and cackling with delight.
It doesn't really matter whether or not the more lurid allegations are true -- the net effect of their publication is to unbalance, in all senses of the word, an already dangerously unbalanced president-elect. It's bad for the US, and it's bad for the rest of the world. Hardliners from Beijing to Ankara, and from Tehran to Jerusalem, are rubbing their hands with glee as they await the next emotional outburst from the Trump Twitter account. Tensions will rise, sabres will be rattled, and someone, somewhere will do something rash.
Anyone who hopes to see tensions reduced rather than raised will now be looking to members of the US Congress as they contemplate their country's future at the mercy of Donald Trump. And they may recall that what did for Richard Nixon back in the 1970s was a combination of courageous members of Congress, determined reporters, and a legal system that stretched all the way to the Oval Office.
Oh yes, and a deputy director of the FBI by the name of Mark Felt who acted as the Watergate 'Deep Throat', the Washington Post's secret source without whose help President Nixon would never have been brought down.
Mr Trump may well rue the day that he declared war on his own intelligence community.  
And now for the good news: starting on Monday, and for four days only, I shall be posting daily extracts from my memoir, Is Anything Happening?, which is being published on Thursday. I hope you'll enjoy reading them and that they will encourage you to buy the book. If you'd like to pre-order a copy, you can do so either at your local bookshop, or online, or direct from the publishers by clicking here.






Categories: Current Affairs

We're up Brexit creek without a paddle

Fri, 06/01/2017 - 09:06
It's a good thing that I am still relatively fluent in diplo-speak, so I can translate for you the incendiary parting missive to his colleagues from the UK's former ambassador to the European Union, Sir Ivan Rogers.
There are three key passages: 'Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall ... Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen ... I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking.'
All of which translates nice and simply into a single, pithy statement: 'We're up the creek without a paddle.'
It is now six months since the Brexit referendum, and nearly a year since the date of the vote was announced. For the government still to have no exit strategy is nothing less than culpable negligence. Imagine what would have had happened if it had failed to plan for the aftermath of a military invasion in the same way as it failed to plan for a pro-Leave referendum result -- David Cameron would have found himself hauled up to face Sir John Chilcot faster than you could say 'Brexit means Brexit'.
So we are where we are. In March, Mrs May will write to Brussels and tell them formally that the UK intends to leave the EU. She will then -- presumably -- suggest that some kind of negotiating process should get under way. She will propose -- we must assume -- a framework for a future relationship between them and us.
It will, of course, be written in diplo-speak, but in translation it will read: 'What Her Majesty's Government envisages is that the UK shall have its cake and eat it.' To which the response will be, again in translation: 'You must be 'avin' a larf.'
Just before Christmas, the FT's foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman suggested that the esoteric debate between the relative merits of a 'hard Brexit' and a 'soft Brexit' may well turn out to be a waste of everyone's breath: what is just as likely, he wrote, is a 'train crash Brexit'. I fear that Ivan Rogers's departure from Brussels makes that even more likely than it was three weeks ago. 
So let's look at what a train crash Brexit might mean. After all, in this context, train crash does not necessarily mean train crash. What it does mean is that if, two years after Mrs May's Dear Jean-Claude letter there is no deal, the UK's trading relationship with the rest of the world, including the EU, will be under World Trade Organisation rules.
For example, cars manufactured in the UK and exported to the EU would be subject to a 10% import tariff. Not great news for Honda, Nissan or Toyota. Exports of services to the EU (which make up more than a third of the UK's total exports to the EU, worth more than £80 billion a year) would be subject to the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). According to a briefing paper from the independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact, based on a paper prepared by the House of Commons library: 'If the UK does trade under the GATS agreement, then our market access will be far more limited than it is currently.'
As for the UK's farmers, according to a report this week by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, about 95% of UK sheep exports go to the EU, and if Britain and the EU were to impose mutual customs duties, the UK could be exposed to tariffs of more than 30%.
So that's what a Brexit train crash might look like. No wonder Boris Johnson and David Davis are starting to talk nervously of compromises and transitional arrangements. And even Andrea Leadsom(remember her?) told farmers on Wednesday that she wanted to 'pay tribute to the many workers from Europe who contribute so much to our farming industry and rural communities.'  Gosh. Foreign migrants contributing to rural communities. Who woulda thunk it?
Business leaders across the EU are entitled to look despairingly at the mess we've made for ourselves. They want to be able to trade with us, but they know only too well what kind of pressures their own governments are facing. Be nice to the Brits? How will that go down among increasingly nationalistic voters in France, Germany and the Netherlands?
You might have thought that now, of all times, the prime minister needs all the friends she can get. So you may also think that it wasn't the brightest of ideas to allow her attack dogs to declare war on her top Whitehall mandarins, the very same people on whom she will be totally dependent to get her out of the mess into which voters have cast her.
It may also not have been such a great idea to turn her back on decades of EU foreign policy to schmooze up to Donald Trump over the UN security council's condemnation of Israel's illegal settlements. If he's the one leader she has chosen as her new best friend, her reputation as a woman of cool calculation and carefully-calibrated judgements will be seriously at risk.
Theresa May, Friend to the Demon Tweeter. I mean, really?
For the past six months, we've been living through a phony Brexit. Just as during the first months of the Second World War, it's tempting to wonder what all the fuss was about. The economy's been doing much better than the experts had forecast (huh, what do they know?), so maybe it won't be so bad after all.
To which the only realistic response, I'm afraid, is: Dream on. A year from now, unless something very unexpected has happened, foreign businesses operating in the UK are going to have to start making some tough decisions. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, is fine as a holding policy -- but at some point, preparing for the worst will mean acting accordingly.
'Sorry, folks, we've waited as long as we can, but we've got a business to run.' Good news for Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin -- bad news for the UK.

I do have one piece of good news, however: my memoir, called Is Anything Happening?, is due to be published by Biteback later this month. You can pre-order a copy, either in hardback or as an e-book, by clicking here

Categories: Current Affairs