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Playing chicken with Putin

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BY MATTHEW PAUL

WELL, that’s Putin told. Sounding more than ever like a primary school headmistress who has found a drawing pin on her chair, Theresa May told the House of Commons on Tuesday that the poisoning of Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was “an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom” and announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats / spies to show how annoyed we all are.

Ten times more lethal than VX and a hundred times deadlier than Sarin, the Novichok family of nerve agents – one of which was used in the attempt on Sergei Skripal’s life – are nasty stuff. The poison smeared on the door handles of Skripal’s BMW was developed in Russia, its production is way outside the capacity of a talented amateur, and its use was tantamount to a calling card from the Russian state.

May’s ability to respond alone is limited. Passing effective economic sanctions against Russian business interests in London – after the manner of America’s Magnitsky Act – would be the embodiment of a punishment that, in the words of headmistresses past “is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you”. The stern tone and substantive timidity of May’s response demonstrates just how few options we have in any confrontation with Russia. In any game of chicken with a nutter, the odds are pretty good that the nutter is going to win.

However strong the evidence against Moscow, it will never be enough for some folk. In particular, the Lenin-capped loon and his horrid deputy Seamus Milne proved that their ability to surprise and disgust their own party has not been wholly erased by last summer’s election result. While not quite suggesting that it was a false flag attack by MI5 or Israel, Corbyn cast doubt on the intelligence that pointed to Russian responsibility, and said everything he could to get Putin off the hook, to audible hissing from his back benches.

His front bench have already broken ranks. Shadow Defence Secretary and Llanelli MP Nia Griffith strongly supported the Prime Minister’s response. She said it was clear Moscow was behind the attack, saying this was the view of the shadow cabinet as a whole. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry accepted that the Kremlin was responsible and gave her support for all the measures taken by the UK Government.

The Russian government has reacted with a predictable display of confected indignation to the diplomatic sanctions. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said claims that Russia was behind the assassination attempt were “absolutely boorish” and “unacceptable”. Another spokesman called the accusations insane. Moscow made it clear we would not be waiting long for a response.

Mostly, though, Vlad is laughing it off. The Russian embassy in London, which seems to devote the greater part of its resources to trolling Her Majesty’s Government on the internet, tweeted out a picture of a thermometer at -23. “The temperature of 🇷🇺 🇬🇧relations drops to -23, but we are not afraid of cold weather!” In their last few days in London, the embassy staff May has expelled will probably be going around Kensington smearing Vaseline on car door handles for the lolz.

The Skripal assassination attempt –which in due course is likely to prove successful– is scarcely out of character for Russia. In 2006, the Duma (Russia’s parliament) specifically authorised the liquidation of terrorists and ‘enemies’ overseas. Showing this wasn’t just hot air, the Russian state murdered Alexander Litvinenko in London with a fatal dose of polonium-210. One of Litvinenko’s assassins, Andrey Lugovoy, is now himself a member of the Duma. Russia has repeatedly refused requests for his extradition on a charge of murder.

In 2010, when Skripal and other spies were released from custody in Russia and swapped for –amongst others– the delightful Anna Chapman, President Putin promised that these traitors “would choke on their 30 pieces of silver”. It looks as though he was as good as his word.

Russia is behaving with absolute disregard for international law, and does so with almost complete impunity. Little individual wet jobs like Skripal and Litvinenko, annoying though they may be for their host countries, are Russian state malevolence in miniature. On a larger stage, Russia has invaded and annexed sovereign territory of neighbouring states, indiscriminately bombed civilians in Syria to prop up Assad’s blood-soaked regime, and lent separatist thugs in Ukraine anti-aircraft BUK rockets, with which they shot down a Malaysian airliner.

Putin’s army of trolls delights in hacking elections and spreading disinformation. The Kremlin’s aim is to sow confusion amongst democracies, and to assert Russia’s position as a world power to rival the USA and China. When dealing with little countries like the UK, Putin is confident that there is no diplomatic or military game of chicken that he can’t win.

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Damaged pipe found to be the cause of the Afon Lliedi disappearance

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A DAMAGED sewer pipe is now thought to have halted the flow of the Afon Lliedi in the Llanerch area of Llanelli on 16 August.

Natural Resources Wales officers have been on site continuously in shift pattern monitoring the dam and the pumps they had installed to pump water around the hole and back into the river channel downstream.

Coal Authority officers attended the incident early on Tuesday (Aug 17) morning and found that the hole was not a sinkhole as had previously been suspected.

After receiving confirmation that the site was stable, NRW officers investigated and found that a damaged pipe was at the base of the hole that was taking the water flow. After working with Welsh Water colleagues, it was confirmed that the pipe is a sewer pipe.

Ioan Williams, NRW Duty Tactical Manager for South West Wales said: “By pumping the river flow downstream and beyond the hole, our officers on site have been able to restore a good level of flow to the Lliedi. I’m very grateful to them for their quick and effective work.

“We will carry out a fish assessment of the river see if further fish have died due to a lack of water flow. We know that approximately 50 fish had died before we installed the dam and pumping equipment, and we expect that our actions have limited further damage to fish and other aquatic life in the Lliedi.

“Although unusual, a pipe such as this could well be capable of removing a large majority of river flow when the river is in low flow as was the Lliedi. Once the repair is in place, we will monitor water levels in the river.”

Discussions are ongoing between NRW, Welsh Water and Carmarthenshire County Council on the best way to repair and protect the damaged pipe and on when the closed bridge can be reopened. Once repaired, the dam and pumping equipment will be dismantled which will allow the natural flow of the river to resume.

The pumps and lights are expected to be operating overnight and are due to be removed on Wednesday 18 August.

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A question of power

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by Matthew Paul

For anyone who stood as a candidate for ChangeUK in 2019, and watched over the course of the six-week European Parliament election campaign as mild enthusiasm on the part of the British public cooled into vague embarrassment before crystallising into disgust, it’s nice to see the Remoaners on the rebound. Brexit is back in the news, and causing big trouble for Boris Johnson.

“But Brexit”, you exclaim, “is done! Didn’t we have a General Election to sort that out? Didn’t our MPs vote for an oven-ready deal, back on 20th December last year?”

They did, but if the deal was supposed to be oven-ready, Boris left the plastic bag full of giblets inside and it is causing a terrible stink. Those unpalatable entrails are the ongoing and irreconcilable tensions between wanting our own laws and trade arrangements, and  maintaining an open border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

The United Kingdom is one single market; Wales cannot exclude or impose tariffs on goods from Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, and vice versa. This was the case for nearly three hundred years before the UK joined the EEC in 1973; when it did join, UK citizens swapped one single market of (then) 56 million for a single market that grew to ten times that size. The advantages of this, to our exporting economy, were obvious. 

Leaving that wider single market creates a problem, which is also obvious. There is a land border between the UK and Ireland, which international law (the Good Friday Agreement) says must remain open. If the UK uses its freedom from EU tyranny to strike new trade deals and to remove ‘foreign laws’ around food safety and product standards –which was the whole point of Brexit– it compromises the integrity of European product standards by allowing chlorinated chicken etc etc to pass, unchecked and untaxed, into the EU.

There is no reason why the EU should put up with this, and throughout Brexit talks the Commission made it clear that retaining an open border in Ireland is non-negotiable. There is only one straightforward alternative: a customs border in the Irish Sea between the island of Ireland and Great Britain. In June 2018, Theresa May was leaning in that direction, but this proposed solution –breaking up the territorial integrity of the UK to protect the integrity of the EU single market– was so detestable to the Spartans of the ERG that they passed a law specifically to stop May from doing it.

Fast forward to December 2019, and the same Spartans, cowed by Boris’ ruthless public execution of the 21 Remainers who rebelled against his Government’s Brexit policy, followed the PM like sheep through the Ayes lobby to endorse his oven-ready deal with an Irish Sea border as its defining characteristic. Boris said at the time that this would not create paperwork for businesses exporting goods from NI to the rest of the UK. He lied: the deal dictates that the UK keeps the NI/ ROI border open, implements the EU customs code in Northern Ireland, and obliges exporters to fill in declarations on goods going between NI and the rest of the UK.

Perhaps Boris just thought no-one would notice, even though everyone did. Perhaps he thought the EU would quietly back down on imposing the customs code. If this was the Government’s plan, it reinforces the impression that the Government is incapable of planning past lunchtime. The EU continued to insist stoutly on the terms of the deal being honoured. Finding himself well down in the game, Boris kicked over the card table. He presented the House of Commons with the Internal Market Bill, section 45 of which gives the Government power simply to ignore or override the Northern Ireland Protocol, to allow seamless trade and consistent regulation between all constituent parts of the UK. 

M’learned friends, blanching at the idea of tearing up treaties, were the first to cry foul. The government’s top lawyer, Sir Jonathan Jones, walked out of his job in despair. On Wednesday Lord Keen –the Government’s law officer for Scotland– resigned too, rather than adopt the intellectual contortions necessary to support the Bill. Even Robert Buckland, the likeable if impressionable Lord Chancellor, who previously mounted a sorry-faced hostage-video defence of Boris’s prorogation of Parliament and would be about as likely as the woolsack he sits on to rebel against Government policy, is shuffling uncomfortably. It’s not just the Remoaners, either; unless dark Lord of the Sith Michael Howard, and former Attorney-General and basso-profondo Brexithorn Sir Geoffrey Cox are now to be classed as Remoaners. 

Some of the pearl-clutching over the sanctity of international law is misplaced. As De Gaulle observed, “Les traités, voyez-vous, sont comme les jeunes filles et les roses: ça dure ce que ça dure.” The EU regards any emanation of international law that questions the acquis Communautaire with withering contempt, and owes zillions of dollars in WTO fines for breaching international law with state aid to Airbus. 

It comes down to a question of power, to a clear-headed assessment of whether or not you are going to win, and to whether the prize to be gained offsets the reputational damage of reneging on international obligations. Tearing up a treaty signed only months before is crass and looks weak. Kicking over the card table when you’re losing isn’t a great move if the other player then shoots you dead.

If the Government really wants to scare people about the effects of the Coronavirus, it could do worse than loop videos of Boris in December compared to Boris now. The hoo-ha over the Internal Market Bill is one more unforced mistake; the thickening miasma of incompetence and bad judgement is weakening this Government like a nasty dose of the Covid. On Tuesday, Boris fiddled with his phone through PMQs while Ed Miliband –Ed Miliband!– cut the hopelessly depleted Prime Minister to bits in front of a drolly amused House; Boris put up less resistance than a bacon sandwich.

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Opinion: The Big Question Facing Kier Starmer – Jonathan Edwards

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In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis the election victory of Sir Kier Starmer as Labour Leader didn’t achieve the column inches one would normally expect.  As is customary, I would like to wish Kier well in his role.  I can not claim to know him as a person having only conversed on a few occasions, however I have respect for his debating ability, his considered tone and his eye for detail.  I consider him a serious politician.

The challenges he faces are enormous of course.   Labour have now lost four Westminster elections on the bounce.  His decision making must quickly shift from efforts to unify his party to the far more important task of presenting a credible challenge to the Conservative party at the next Westminster election.

Labour has a defining choice to make, and this decision will have far reaching consequences for all political parties operating in the British State.  On the one hand, Labour could revert to its usual tribal inward-looking tendencies.  However, essentially this would mean writing off the next election as a part of a wider rebuilding strategy aimed at the 2029 election.  A stark admission as it would mean Labour having been out of power at Westminster level for twenty years at best.

Alternatively, Kier Starmer could acknowledge that Labour on their own will not be able to challenge the Tories for power at the next Westminster election.  This path would then require Starmer reaching out to all the other opposition parties in Westminster apart from the DUP.  I am talking about more than just coordination of parliamentary activity in Westminster.  In a first past the post electoral system we are talking about the need for non-aggression pacts, and a joint programme of government.  I would go as far as to suggest that the government itself would need to be a unity administration delivering on the agreed programme.

Parliamentary boundary changes makes the task even more pressing.  Whatever one thinks of his opportunistic politics, Boris Johnson has succeeded in unifying the right of the political spectrum.   However, the centre and left have a host of parties vying for support.  In a political system based for two horse races, the end result is brutal as we saw in December.

What sort of programme could Plaid Cymru, SNP, Green, Liberals, SDLP, Alliance and Labour unite around?  There would be little difficulty in agreeing a progressive economic and social policy platform.  A proportional voting system would be a must to enable all parties to compete equally in subsequent elections.  The big challenge for me seems to be the constitutional question when it comes to Scotland and Wales.   For Plaid Cymru and the SNP there would need to be a commitment for a fully Confederal system leaving only foreign affairs, defence, and macro-economic policy reserved – the sort of settlement promised by Cameron and Brown on the eve of the Scottish independence poll.  This should be supported with House of Lords reform into an elected Senate of the Nations of the British State.   Both Wales and Scotland would also require the statutory right to hold independence referenda at time of their own choosing.  This should be uncontroversial as it is the policy of the Labour Welsh Government.

This is the very simple choice facing the new leader of the Labour party.  Does he want to be Prime Minister, or effectively a plumber performing a re-patching job on a tired and insular party.

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