Monday, 2 November 2009

Russian relations remain a conundrum

Britain's relationship with Russia, and previously the Soviet Union, has historically been an extremely tenuous one, but one seen especially in business circles as having much magnitude. Beginning in after the communist revolution, Britain amongst other western nations sent troops to fight against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. This was followed by a thaw in relations slowly through the 30's, at least economically, but remaining suspicion and prejudice. This was of course followed by the Second World War, a period of official camaraderie between the two nations, but with behind the scenes arguments and divisions, united at times only by a common enemy in fascism. And then of course these tensions led to the cold war, when hostility was in its ascendancy. The end of the cold war in 1989, and the collapse of the USSR, has had consequences too numerous to discuss here. Since this point relations of the new Russian Federation and the United Kingdom have been at times tortuous and convoluted. Russian oligarchs have found Britain a nice second home, a place for first-class schooling, shopping and enjoyment, something shown notably by the acquisition of British football clubs. British industry has also wanted to try and get involved in the massively developing Russian energy industry, and British government for that matter has found a requirement to import Russian gas. However in contrast to these growing ties there have been the unforgettable murder of Alexander Litvinenko, murdered by a radioactive element placed in his food at a London sushi bar, with a trail of radioactivity being found on a Russian carrier from Moscow to London and back. The leading suspect of this crime, an ex-FSB agent Andrei Lugovoi, has been kept from extradition safely by the Russians and no outcome is expected. Also many seemingly undemocratic actions have taken place in Russia, again too numerous and complicated to outline here but it is safe to say that democracy is not at its most glorious in the Russian Federation if many accounts are to be believed, something somewhat underlined in Vladimir Putin's domination of the political system. Finally has come the Russian war in South Ossetia, an unjustified and seemingly totalitarian action condemned widely.

So does Britain need to seek better terms with Russia, when such events have taken place and ties have become to fractured to require much tighter visa controls on the Russian oligarchs, and for an end to cooperation with the FSB. I think with Russia's place in the world, as a leading energy giant, even with British attempts to escape dependence due to the Nordic gas pipeline, and with Russian ties to 'rogue states' such as Iran and even North Korea negotiations and settlements have to expected. David Miliband has begun this week to try and begin such settlements, yet it seems little concrete will come out of this Russian visit, the first by a British foreign secretary since in five years. What is important for British relations are that they do not ignore their basic principles of government. Issues of Russian human rights infringements, or the already mentioned lack of democracy in the Russian system, must not be completely overlooked in the search for better international or economic ties with a major power, and one which seems to be increasingly gaining power. Britain can not forget its integrity as a stable democracy and honest power in its dealings with international partners, especially not those in Europe with such power.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Postal strike has dire consequences for Royal Mail

The recently enacted industrial action from postal workers has been an unacceptable and regressive step taken by those trying to force better conditions in sorting offices and on daily postal rounds. Whether or not their demands are justified, and by the evidence given they may well be overworked as compared to years gone by, their decision to strike is one which takes no consideration for its true consequence in terms of their future employment.

Strike action, when taken in a service which actually affects a large number of people, is often met with harsher criticism than strikes in less integral industries. People feel aggrieved that they, the consumer, are forced to be dragged into industrial disputes. This is something particularly relevant to business owners, especially those who in this case may not be able to afford to outsource their postal requirements. So strike action in these important areas must be taken with the most stringent and careful considerations, realising that whether their demands are justified is not the only article of relevance to those effected. This postal strike has been underlined firmly by negativity in most circles, and a lack of interest in its actual objectives. Most newspaper headlines have been more obsessed with the replacement of the striking workers with temporary staff, or even scouts, and with the problems that the action has caused, rather than any reflection on the aims of those involved.

In my opinion this action is ill-judged, at a time of economic recession when people are less likely to immediately feel sympathy for those who have employment, and especially if such workers effect others economically through their actions, something which many small business owners will claim to be the case. The general public consensus does not seem to be in favour, whether because of increasing lack of interest in trade unionism amongst today's public, or because of short-term circumstances, but either way it seems that this decision to strike is not productive. However more damning than a lack of public sympathy is the future business ramifications for the post office. This is an industry seriously suffering from the rise of email, internet social networking and a number of reputable and well-known competitors. The numbers of items sent via Royal Mail has been declining year on year for a while, and strike action is bound to increase this only further. People who may have still been sending letters, or sending parcels via Royal mail, will be tempted to turn to email, or use the another company. This is particularly important in business where in addition to an increasing need to be more respectable in environmental terms an increasingly unreliable post office leads to calls for more internet based transactions and communications. Companies who rely on sending packages, such as mail order catalogue businesses, are also going to be further inclined to move away from Royal Mail. All in all this action will surely lead to a downturn in business for an already somewhat stricken and ailing post office. Its record and reputation was increasingly in decline, and its business was slowly being taken away by other forms of communication or by rivals before this industrial action, i worry for its future after these actions have come to a close and people have to reconsider whether they can really trust Royal Mail, or whether they really need the services being provided.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

EU presidency slips away from Blair

The much talked about position of the European Union presidency will come into being if, but increasingly when, the Czech Republic ratifies the Lisbon treaty. The EU as an institution has a chequered history in many respects, especially in terms of its public representation, and i feel that the decision to have a figurehead is a progressive one, yet one which also holds inherent risks. Many in this country hold the organisation to count for its bureaucratic nature and reputation as a paper-pushing body rather than one which formulates policy or that makes important decisions. I think that this interpretation is overly critical, and that has led to ignorance in British politics, most obviously in the form of the BNP who have abused such stereotypes to gain support for wholly unacceptable means. I do however agree that the EU has much to do to be recognised as a political success, in addition to its obvious progress economically. This leads to the Lisbon treaty and the creation of a European figurehead, someone not only to give the union notoriety and respectability, but also to pressurise constituent countries to come to decisions and be actively involved in 'European politics'. This position, and the political results in inspires, may in many ways be a make or break development for the EU.

Tony Blair has recently been proclaimed as a leading candidate for the position of President, eventually gaining public support from former colleagues, such as Gordon Brown and David Milliband. However with Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel both being regarded as 'unenthusiastic', his chances of success seem to be significantly reduced, with the scant conciliation that Silvio Berlusconi, hardly the most respectable and admired of politicians, is happy to back him in the role. However i feel that Blair failing to land this illustrious and ground-breaking role may well be a major setback for Europe.

While i agree that Blair's Iraq war legacy and the generally held, and probably misplaced, belief that he created a world of politics orbiting around spin and deception are flaws to Blair's claim for the presidency, he holds what no other candidate does: prestige. He has been described as an EU president who could 'stop traffic', he is familiar, i would argue generally well respected in politics, and has undoubted charisma and enthusiasm. Tony Blair has been one of the highest paid speakers in the world since retiring from British politics, and people do not usually pay huge sums of money to hear someone they actively despise talk to them. The idea that Blair has no credibility in politics, or evokes negative sentiment from most people when they reflect on his tenure as Prime Minister is simply untrue. Someone of Blair's standing is exactly what the EU needs, someone who can give the mass of people, who at this moment in time see the organisation as bureaucrats being overly paid for setting the correct curvature of a banana, the impression that it is a worthy and respectable organisation which may, if given time and resources, actually create a more cohesive and effective partnership in Europe. This could lead to the entity as a whole being regarded as a major world force, in a way that since the growth of America from 1945 no European country has managed.

Is Tony Blair the perfect candidate for European president? Quite clearly not, however is Tony Blair the most practical solution to the EU's biggest problem of lacking a sheen of respectability amongst the populace of Europe, in my opinion yes. Other candidates, such as Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch Prime minister, lack real notoriety in world politics, and the European Union presidency has the potential to be one of the most important positions internationally. Tony Blair gives this role its only current chance of allowing the EU to succeed politically, providing the partnership with charisma and respectability in its leadership and encouraging more support from across its member states, and across the world.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

America the Free?

I was lucky enough to encounter American politics first-hand this summer. During a trip to Washington D.C. I was immersed in the heated debate over 'Obamacare', the 44th Presidents attempts at introducing publicly financed national healthcare. However I don't want to get into the merits of this strategy, nor generally the content of US politics. What struck me as particularly interesting, at least in comparison to British politics, was the involvement of the American public, and the reaction to Obama as a president, one which seems to hide darker traits behind its outward veneer of the freedom of protest.

I was in mid town D.C. during a march of the 'Tea Party Patriots', and their associated followers, who numbered, according to police reports, over 2 million. They were adamantly against the introduction of public Healthcare, and some had travelled for over three days to prove this to the incumbent government. I found it very impressive that this number of people could, in literally a few days, arrange a march on Washington, with almost every member carrying some form of placard, or wearing some form of themed t-shirt. They showed to me a passionate enthusiasm for their country, and for its democratic principles, and undermined the levels of democratic involvement in active politics currently evident in Great Britain. However this march also showed me an extreme example of trends which have been hinted at since the inauguration of President Obama, namely the indication that racism is still present in parts of American society.

Some of the sentiments expressed on this march, referring to Obama as the anti-Christ, or depicting him in a Nazi uniform with a Hitler moustache, or as Stalin, were shocking, inappropriate and ignorant. Overlooking the stupidity of comparisons simultaneously with both Hitler and Stalin it is disturbing that an American President, supposedly the pride of Americans as their sovereign, and historically lauded as a figure of democratic greatness and an icon of the 'American Dream', can be highlighted as being anything like the most evil men in history. Despite differing political allegiances it is hard to believe anyone in Britain would seriously compare any mainstream figures of British politics to Hitler, and this opened my eyes to a nastier side of American politics. It could be said that no American president has ever faced such a backlash, and commentators have remarked the vast difference between this administrations reception and that of President Bush's, or even another President who attempted to introduce healthcare, Bill Clinton. Obama has done little different politically to President Clinton in his scheme of nationalised healthcare yet, while I cannot vouch first-hand experience, it seems that a massive gulf has emerged in the extremity of opposition encountered in the respective cases. This radical difference leads to questions over why, and many commentators have highlighted race, depressingly, as an aspect of contention. How can Americans, who have previously condemned anyone insulting the President as treacherous and un-American, relate him to the devil or Hitler? It seemed to me on this march, highlighted to some degree by images as Obama as the Joker from Batman, that many of its participants, largely southerners, felt the underlying urge to insult the President in terms of race, however they had realised that this was no longer acceptable in mainstream politics and as such went as far in other directions as was feasible. Locals who were not on the march confirmed these suspicions, admitting to me that some Americans are struggling to deal with the concept that a black man has the ability to lead the country.

No one can say conclusively whether America is still infected with the spectre of racism, however it seemed undoubted from my personal experience that some Americans, admittedly a minority, are prejudice against Barack Obama for reasons other than his politics. As a result some have resorted to extreme and unacceptable forms of protest, and have begun to generally overlook the historical sanctity of the Presidential office. It goes without saying that race as an issue is unacceptable in any modern democracy, but in a country with such a chequered history surrounding this problem, and such a pride in democratic and egalitarian principles, it is even more shocking.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is a re-occurring topic in British newspapers, and has become a major part of governmental policies due to its far reaching effects upon society. We are reminded of our well developed drinking culture, which has seeped into almost all aspects of everyday life for many Britons, and our less than glorious mantle as 'world-leaders of binge drinking'. Sadly however it is not in contention for the 2012 Olympics, and much more depressingly it has had, and continues to have, an undeniable and extremely destructive impact in terms of health and social order. It is particularly prevalent amongst teenagers and adolescents, with a recent report for Alcohol Concern condemning British youth culture as perceiving alcohol as a 'hallmark of sociability, adulthood and having a good time'. This is hardly a surprising statement, and one which is said easily enough of student culture, where drinking, and often heavy drinking, has become the centrepiece of almost any social occasion. In the short-term this can lead to drink-driving, and its associated dangers, unprotected sex, with its links to an ever increasing teenage pregnancy rate, violence, and anti-social behaviour. These problems, increasing in correlation to increasing levels of drinking in the UK, have each been touted as Britain's major crisis' at one time or another. In the long term young binge drinkers are in ever increasing numbers suffering liver disease before they turn forty, are more likely to suffer mental health problems, have family difficulties and are even at greater risk of dying prematurely, with liver disease being the UK's fifth biggest killer.

It is clear that the problems of binge drinking cannot be ignored, however I believe this government has, since its election in 1997, been overwhelmed by the problem and despite several different tactics, has conclusively failed to deal with binge-drinking. Taxation directly on products has been touted as one solution, but with 1p going onto the price of a pint of beer in the 2009 budget this has not been in anyway effective, and is also somewhat unfair on the majority of drinkers, who generally act responsibly. Another tactic which has been pursued is the need for age verification when buying alcohol or visiting nightclubs. However this has in my opinion led to problems for the aforementioned responsible drinkers, with 'challenge 21' and even 'challenge 25' campaigns forcing those far in excess of the legal drinking age to carry identification or risk being denied access to something they are legally entitled to enjoy. This doesn't seem to have been effective, especially as most teenagers would not struggle to find an older sibling, or more prevalently a greedy newsagent, to provide alcohol despite their age. It also could be argued that forcing under-age drinkers away from pubs and clubs so coercively may well be negative, as without a landlord to stop serving them, or at least bouncers to stop violence, they are left to their own devices when drinking. In addition to this pressure on retailers came legislation to force alcohol companies to advertise responsibly, something which when watching the latest Carlsberg or WKD adverts does not seem to have been successful in stopping advertisers targeting young people. Mixed in with these ineffective tactics has come a change in licensing laws, with 24-hour drinking supposedly helping end trouble at 'kicking out time', but more realistically allowing drinking to continue for longer. Finally has come advertising campaigns promoting safe drinking. Drinkaware, a national campaign aimed to outlining the negative impact of heavy drinking, has entertaining adverts but I feel is somewhat naïve to believe that this kind of approach has any chance of changing the mentality of a vast majority of those involved in binge drinking. Only recently has been announced a new campaign with 100 million pounds of funding, and amongst its aims a concentration on getting those under 25 to 'choose water over alcohol on nights out'. This is jumping in at the deep end rather than a gradual and realistic approach to dealing with this dangerous and potent problem, and I debate whether ideas such as stopping drinks promotions will be particularly effective. It seems the only realistic approach is politically unrealistic: radically changing alcohol prices in shops and pubs. The government who has the confidence to anger the majority of drinkers who drink responsibly to help stop those who do not is not a prospect on the horizon, and even if it was a realistic possibility could it be considered fair, or purely an example of an over-intrusive state?