A tale of two cities: a million on the streets against Renzi and his millionaires

More than a million people flooded into the streets of Rome on Saturday to protest against the neoliberal labour market “reforms” being pushed through by Matteo Renzi’s government.

At the same time much of the leadership of the governing Democratic Party (currently in coalition with the tiny new Centre Right, a split from Berlusconi’s party) were at a Blair style love-in with big business in Florence known as La Leopolda (after the old railway station, now converted into a conference venue, in which it is happens).

Most of the PD’s leaders, but not all. A significant minority were on the streets in Rome as they aligned themselves with the CGIL union confederation (the largest and most left wing of the big three confederations, and traditionally linked to the Democratic Party, as it was its predecessor organisations, the PDS and the PCI before it).

The split was open and obvious and as the day went on, ever more bitter as a war of words was fought out through the media between the partisans on each side.

It is a split that can only deepen if, as seems likely, CGIL presses ahead with the struggle struggle against the Jobs Act, with more action including a possible general strike.

‘Jobs Act': an assault on workers, and Italian
The demonstration had been called by CGIL in response to the so-called “Jobs Act” (it is known by this English name, mainly due to Renzi’s adolescent obsession with seeming cool by peppering everything with English). This law seeks to reverse rights won by workers four decades ago.

In particular it will make it easier to sack people currently protected by Article 18 of the Workers’ Charter (Statuto dei Lavoratori) of 1970. The article makes it difficult to make workers redundant in enterprises employing more than fifteen people (though this has already been reduced by reforms under Martio Monti’s government).

Reform of the labour market and a battle over Article 18 probably wasn’t what Renzi had planned to do this Autumn,  the traditional season for labour militancy, but he has now chosen to take up the battle.

It could have been his Clause 4 moment, in which he defeats the old guard of the PD clearing the way for its transformation into a thoroughly neoliberal party, the voice of the left and union militants silenced.

As such it is a high risk strategy, for if the unions take up the challenge, as they are promising to, the battle will be fought out not in conferences and committee rooms, but on the streets and in the workplaces.

His would not be the first government in Italy to fall at the first hurdle. Workers resistance has seen off other assaults on the Workers’ Charter.

He has however in large part been forced into this battle by the negative reaction from Europe to the constitutional changes also being pushed through. But when the EU ganged up with the European Central Bank and the markets to oust Berlusconi, demanding reform, it wasn’t really tinkering with the constitution, no matter how flawed it is, that they had in mind.

A breaking of union power and the sweeping away of the gains of the Hot Autumn was what they wanted, and which none of the country’s governments of the last twenty years have been able to bring about. The Workers’ Charter is the most symbolic centre piece of these gains.

The passage of the Jobs Act at the start of October through the Senate was torrid, with Five Star (M5S) throwing coins at the seats of the government Senators, and there being general uproar.

Renzi had to make it an issue of confidence in his government to dampen opposition in his party’s ranks and get it through. Many of the law’s provisions are vague, being left to the government to work out in the future (a particular point of anger for the M5S), but he managed to get it through 165 votes to 111.

The Streets against Renzi
It was in opposition to the “Jobs Act” and the rightward course of the government that CGIL called the demonstration in Rome.

Despite its huge size it was not as large as some previous union backed demonstrations, but then this was due to the failure of the other union federations, CSIL and UIL (previously linked, respectively to the now defunct Christian Democratic and Socialist parties), to take action. If CGIL pushes ahead they may well be forced to join.

The slogans from the platform and the street were in particular aimed at Renzi, widely seen as a cuckoo in the nest of the left.

The key note speech of the day was made by Susanna Camusso, the most left wing leader CGIL has had for a while, and who barely disguises her hatred for Renzi whom she has compared to Thatcher.

She called for increased taxes on the rich and investment in public services. She said that this was the start of a struggle which would not be short and would continue – including if necessary a general strike.

Previous CGIL opposition to the PD driven policies has has been restrained by the leadership of that party, something which may now lessen given its divisions.

La Leopolda: Renzi and his courtiers
At the same time as the unions were marching though Rome, in Florence the fifth annual event know as “La Leopolda” was taking place.

A cross between a conference and an awards ceremony it was what is often known grandiloquently as a “summit” in English.

Inspired by Steven Jobs’ Messianic annual appearance in Cupertino (an Apple laptop open in front of Renzi, just in case you didn’t get it) this love-in between the Blairite wing of the PD and big business is primarily a media event. The workings are meant to be “open table discussions” but how any actual work can be done in such a media throng is open to question.

The cast of players in this pageant is the same sort of people who populated the court of Blair: figures in high finance, big business, the media and show business.

A more refined crowd than the Berlusconi’s hangers on (a motley collection of show girls, prostitutes, drug dealers and pimps) they are also more dangerous to the workers of Italy. These people are a significant cross-section of the ruling class.

First held in 2009 by Renzi and his co-thinkers, the so-called rottamotori (“demolishers”), a coterie of up-and-coming politicians of the PD, it is not a party event but one organized outside the democratic structures of the party, by a Foundation linked to Renzi and financed by big business.

Most prominent among these, and star of the show whenever he appears, is Davide Serra, a hedge fund manager, and long time backer of Renzi.

He made one of his visitations this weekend to announce that he would join the PD, and had applied tellingly, for membership to its London branch. This is of course, where he actually lives, and has done since the mid-nineties when he started working for UBS. The start of a career in high finance (or gambling as it might also be called) he next joined Morgan Stanley and then established his own hedge fund in 2005.

He followed up his adherence to the party under its new leaders by saying that he would be willing to finance the party as well.

Serra also took the opportunity to say that he thought Renzi’s labour reforms should be more “aggressive” and that the right to strike by public sector employees should be restricted.

Serra has financed Renzi, and his Foundation for a number of years. Funding previous Leopolda events he became a figure of public controversy when the leader of the PD’s old guard, Pier Luigi Bersani attacked Renzi for his backing by “the Cayman” (a type of crocodile) in the party primaries.

Renzi lost the primaries to Bersani who became the PD’s candidate for Prime Minister for the 2013 general election.

Serra then switched his support to Mario Monti, the neoliberal technocrat drafted in to become an unelected Prime Minister following the markets’ ousting of Silvio Berlusconi.

Despite his lack of an electoral mandate Monti brought in austerity, swinging cuts and labour market reforms.

The voters had their revenge though: Monti and his liberal electoral alliance, Civic Choice bombed in the general election

Monti’s failure was the failure of radical neoliberalism to find any real support in Italian society. Given Berlusconi’s notoriety, and failure to achieve anything in government, the likes of Serra turned to the Democrats.

The only viable vehicle for a thorough neoliberal restructuring of society is now the PD. It has to be transformed in the same way as Blair transformed the Labour Party.

This is the mission of Renzi and his fellow “demolishers”.

And so Davide Serra, hedge fund owner and émigré, who believes in cutting public spending, pensions and workers rights is joining a party the core of which is still the old Italian Communist Party, the largest Communist party in the Western world.

Blair may have got away with such a hijack in the late 1990s, but in the age of austerity such worship of wealth and “success” may not go down so well with 12% unemployment and plummeting living standards.

The Democrats divide
A substantial minority of the PD leadership chose not to attend Renzi’s court in Florence and instead joined the march in Rome.

The usual suspects of the non-PD left were there: Bertinotti, Vendola, Ferrando, as were the trade union leaders such as Landini, the head of FIOM and Sergio Cofferati, former head of CGIL.

They were joined by much more mainstream figures such as Gianni Cuperlo, who came second in the PD leadership race, and Pietro Fassino.

This is not the first time that the PD has divided like this, the referendum of 2003 on workers’ rights caused similar divisions, but that was when Berlusconi was in power.

That so many of the party’s leading figures snubbed Renzi and joined the union opposition to the Jobs Act is a sure sign of trouble.

That the split was not just your usual PD factionalism is seen from the more unexpected faces.

Among them was “Pippo” (Giuseppe) Civati, the young and good looking deputy from Lombardy who had been a leading rottamotore and one of the founders of  Leopolda in 2009.

He came third in the party leadership race but seems to have been moving steadily to the left since then.

Some of the sternest criticism of the day though directed at the Renziani came from Rosy Bindi, clashing on television with Debora Serracchiani, President of the region of Friuli and a Renziani DOC. That the split is not as business as usual is shown by Bindi’s presence in the awkward squad.

She is no ex-communist revanchist. A former leader of Azione Cattolica and the Christian Democratic party, she found her way into the PD via the Populari (one of the DC successor parties) and the Margherita (Daisy) coalition of Christain Democrats and Liberals, the same route as Renzi.

Bindi struck out at Renzi calling La Leopolda “embarrassing” stating that she was strongly opposed to the way that an unofficial meeting of some of the party leadership was happening, financed by business, and inevitably influencing government policy. She added that if it was possible to meet with Davide Serra but not workers representatives, then Leopolda was “the first demonstration of the post-PD” adding that the Renziani had a “another project”.

The leaders of the party have good reason to fear Renzi.

It was recently revealed that the party’s membership is in free-fall dropping from 500,000 to just 100,000 in little more than a year. As an organised force it is disappearing from whole parts of the country. Even where it remains inactivity and passivity is the order of the day.

For Renzi this is not a problem. He crows endlessly about the 40% the party got in the Euro elections in May. His vision of the party is that of La Leopolda, media driven, centred on personalities and financed by big business. The model is the US parties. As Pippo Civati has commented La Lepolda, of which he was an instigator, can be mistaken for a Republican convention.

For the former activists of “The Firm” (as the old Communist Party’s leaders sometimes called it, strangely echoing the British Royal Family) which within living memory had a million members and in some parts of the country, an office in every district, see Renzi as destroying the thing they have devoted their entire lives to.

They also see in the Renzi project an entirely different one from the reformist traditions of the Party. The strongest Blairite medicine, but without the sugar of public spending increases.

They also see the party as heading towards oblivion. Renzi’s current popularity cannot last. A downturn in the party’s electoral fortunes could lead the party to crash and burn as the Christian Democrats did following the scandals of the early nineties, the Rifondazione did after joining the Prodi government, or more recently as did Pasok in Greece.

Berlusconi’s return
In order to outflank Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) Renzi revived the political career of Silvio Berlusconi negotiating with him personally.

At a meeting at the PD headquarters in Via Nazareno in January he did a deal, the contents of which have never been revealed.

In theory the “Pact of Nazareno” was ostensibly about constitutional reform, repealing the current electoral law (the so-called Porcellum, or Pig Law), which led to parliamentary gridlock following the general election and replacing it with one known as the Italicum, changing the composition of the Senate.

It is suspected that their pact contained more.

Certainly it has had the effect of carving out M5S and sidelining Angelino Alfano’s party New Centre Right, made up of the “traitors” who broke away from Berlusconi, and the PD’s actual coalition partner in government.

There has also been a strange convergence between Renzi and Berlusconi on other issues as both try to seize the liberal moral high ground. This week Berlusconi adoped a softer line on ius soli (the right of the children of immigrants to become Italian citizens at present denied to them until they reach the age of 18). He also accepted civil unions for lesbians and gays (but not marriage) which was a leap considering his previous attitudes towards homosexuality.

His decision to stand again for his revived Forza Italia party may be hubris, and his FI may be bumping along on 15% but he has proved himself indestructible, so many scandals has he been through.

Both Grillo and Berlusconi, though their parties are languishing on 20% and 15% respectively, could expect to benefit from an end to Renzi’s honeymoon period.

Uncertainty to the Democrats’ left
To the PD’s left another possible winner is Nicchi Vendola’s Left Ecology Freedom party (SEL).

The party was founded in 2009 when the right of the PRC (Party of Communist Refoundation better known as Rifondazione Comunista) which wanted to continue an alliance with the Democrats, broke away from the new leadership which wanted a return to the movements after their debacle in government.

The PRC had lost all its seats on parliament in 2009 and it and SEL went into the 2013 general election as part of different alliances. SEL joined with the PD and as a result of being part of the Italia Bene Comune coalition won 37 seats despite only getting 3.2% of the vote. The PRC formed the Civil Revolution alliance with the greens and anti-corruption campaigners and and took 2.25% but won no deputies.

Following the post election gridlock and the PD’s decision to form a government with Alfano’s New Centre Right, SEL quit their alliance with the PD (but kept their MPs!).

The party then seemed to move to the left fighting this year’s Euro elections in alliance with the PRC as the Another Europe With Tsipras list. People on the left started to talk about the Tsipras list as the possible start of an Italian Syriza.

However the results for SEL were disappointing as despite three MEPs being elected none were from SEL.

The divide in SEL between those who wanted to ally themselves with the PD, and those who would deal with their former comrades in the PRC remains.

The divisions within the PD and the growing possibility that the party will break apart are likely to reawaken dreams of an alliance with PD freed of the Renziani usurpers, thus healing the breach created by the split of the old PCI into PRC and PDS in 1991.

Even if the PD remains united, not unlikely given the serial failure of the party’s left to reject neoliberalism, the right of SEL are likely to be transfixed by the PD’s internal ructions, hoping that may lead to yet another realignment of the centre-left.

Slump deepening
All this of course takes place against a background of an economy that is smaller now than in 2000, let alone in 2008, and where people barely remember what economic growth is. Unemployment stands at 12% (probably an underestimate) and youth unemployment at 44% (probably an overestimate).

The austerity policies embraced by the political establishment from Bersani rightwards seem destined to make what is already a grossly unequal society more unequal. It also threatens to destroy what there is of a welfare state, developed later than in Northern Europe and never as extensive. Sucking yet more demand out of an economy already running on empty could be disastrous.

Italy of all European countries is the one said to be most at risk of deflation.

If Italy, the third largest economy in the Euro zone, goes into a deflationary spiral of constantly declining wages, prices and demand the effects on the rest of the continent could be profound.

Italy has known many political crises before, but the present imbroglio, in the conditions of a deepening slump, make almost any outcome possible. It is urgent that a principled and dynamic left emerges, one that is capable of relating to the widespread sense of disaffection.

Thsi articel was first published on Counterfire on 31 October 2014

 

Will there be an independent Kurdistan?

People are now seriously talking about the break up of Iraq. Nobody (other than the Israelis, which should in itself be a warning) openly favors this, but what was just a possibility is increasingly looking like a probability.

Whilst the west of the country has come under the control of the so-called Islamic State, this is recognized by no one and may yet prove to be ephemeral.

The self-declared Islamic State may not last any longer than the Taliban’s Emirate in Afghanistan. The emergence of an independent Kurdish state by the Kurdish Regional Government’s secession from Iraq could have more profound consequences for the region.

The Kurds have struggled for decades for self determination in each of the four states they are split between: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

The independence for the first time of a Kurdish state would raise the hopes of millions of Kurds, be a major change to the geopolitics of the region and constitute a challenge to the integrity of the existing states.

Would this be a step forward for the Kurdish people though? Will it bring freedom closer?

Who are the Kurds?
Nations do not simply exist, they are created. This truth is more obvious in the Middle East as the nations and states are so new, and many have never managed to actually cohere, their invention a failure.

The valley of Mesopotamia and its mighty rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, is one of the cradles of civilization. To its north and East though it is bounded by great mountain ranges, the Zagros mountains, the Caucuses and the Anatolian plateau. The high peaks, deep valleys and plateaus have provided a home and a refuge to a kaleidoscope of communities speaking a variety of languages (Kurdish, Turkish, Turkoman, Armenian, Farsi, Azeri, Arabic) and following different religious confessions (Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Muslim Sufi orders, different varieties of Christianity, Yazidim, Zoroastrianism).

One of these peoples is the Kurds. Possibly descending from the ancient Medes, their language is Indo-European and related to the other Iranian languages, Farsi, Pashto and Tajik. This group of languages is fundamentally different from those of their neighbours, Turkish and Arabic, but share many words in common.

What is often referred to as “Kurdish” is not a single language however, it is a group of closely related languages. The most spoken is Kurmanji which predominates in Turkey and Sorani which is spoken in Iraq. They not mutually comprehensible and are written in different scripts (Latin and Arabic respectively)

The Kurds also follow a variety of religions. Most are Sunni Muslims with about a third following Shia Islam in Iran and Iraq. In Turkey there is also an Alevi minority, followers of a particularly liberal form of Shiaism (they are doubly oppressed being both non-Turkish and non-Sunni). In Iraq there are also Yazidi and Christian Kurds.

With a history of struggle against national oppression both nationalism and leftist ideas have a strong presence with many being atheists. In general even believing Kurds are secular in political outlook. Islamism has generally not gained much traction.

Until it’s fall nearly a hundred years ago, most Kurds lived within the Ottoman Empire, and on the whole it left them alone to live their lives much as their ancestors had done.

Sometimes there were wars between the competing Ottoman and Persian Empires on their border, and feuds and tribal disputes were frequent, but in general the peoples and religions of the region lived in peace together.

The end of the Ottoman Empire
The coming of ideas of nationalism and the European assault on the Ottoman empire would bring this to an end as various groups of intellectuals demanded states for their ‘nations’ and states tried to create homogenous nations out of disparate and variegated populations.

The result was strife and death, the nadir of which was the Armenian genocide committed by the leaders of the Ottoman state in an attempt to create a more homogenous, Turkish, nation.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War (it had allied itself with Germany) led to its carving up. All but Anatolia and a slither of Europe including the capital Constantinople was divided into British and French spheres of influence. Each then invented states. France created Lebanon and Syria, Britain created Jordan and Iraq and gave them Kings as figureheads, the sons of the Hashemite Sharif as compensation prize for losing Mecca to the al-Saud family (the Hashemites rule Jordan to this day).

The new state of Turkey was created by the officer corps of the defeated Ottoman army who overthrow the Sultan, declared a republic and started on a program to turn their new state into a European style nation state.

The new state was to have a single language, Turkish, which was created by purging Ottoman of Arabic and Persian words and replacing its Arabic script with the Roman alphabet.

Paradoxically for a supposedly secular state, a single religion, Sunni Islam was also imposed as the state took control of Mosques. Imams became civil servants and sermons were now written by a Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Other identities and languages were repressed. Non-Muslim groups such as Greeks and Armenians were expelled. The Kurds remained but their identity was denied: they were now referred to as “Mountain Turks”. The state never had the resources to change the language and culture of the millions of Kurds in the mountainous east, but it could repress their public expression. Kurdish was banned from the state, media and education. For a time even it’s spoken use was banned and the letters Q and X needed to write Kurdish but not Turkish were banned from keyboards.

New nations, new nationalisms
Turkish nationalism soon had its imitators elsewhere.

In Iran Reza Shah Pahlavi, a cavalry officer, seized power and declared himself the Shah (king) and tried to “modernise” the country in a similar fashion, but was rather less successful.

In Iraq the pro-British monarchy was overthrown in 1958 and a republic declared. there followed a series of regimes, nearly all of which were Arab nationalist. What place the Kurds would have in this new Arab nation was a moot point.

Everywhere the Kurds were repressed, everywhere they remained disunited.

Nations do not create states usually; it is states that create nations.

Without a state of their own to shape and nurture a Kurdish national consciousness, despite nationalist movements, and given the economic underdevelopment of their region, among the Kurds’ other identities the connected pre-modern social groups have tended to predominate.

This has meant the history of The Kurdish movement everywhere has been tortuous.

Mustafa Barzani and the KDP
The seminal, movement was the KDP, an organization that has shape-shifted continuously through allies and ideologies.

The one constant has been the domination by the Barzani clan. Founded in 1946 by Mustafa Barzani, one of the paramount chiefs of the region, it rested on the power of his clan and it’s allied tribes. So you have the irony of a supposedly left wing party that was led by a semi-feudal landowner.

When the King was overthrown in 1958 Barzani allied with the country’s new leader Colonel Qassim, who saw the Kurds as a counterweight to the pro-Egyptian Pan-Arabists. However in the febrile atmosphere of the Iraqi revolution this caused clashes with the rising communists and eventually Qassim himself.

His regime was overthrown by a Baathist coup in 1963 and thousands of Communists were massacred.

A short-lived Baathist regime was replaced by one headed by another soldier, Abdul Salam Arif, with whom Mustafa did a personal deal, but one which did not include autonomy for the Kurds.

Feeling secure that Baghdad would not interfere in the Kurds’ ‘internal’ affairs Barzani set about securing the KDP for the Barzanis and the Kurdish region for the KDP.

The party’s long-dead leftism was finally buried as Barzani and the feudal big wigs united to purge the more leftist urban intellectuals from the party. This task he gave to his son, Idris, and in 1964 the internal opposition was smashed, it’s leaders Jalal Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmed were forced to flee into exile in Iran.

Relations with Baghdad were souring though and soon the Iraqi military were marching north again.

There followed four years of on-off war in which Barzani allied itself with the Iranians whilst the dissident Talabani-Ibrahim faction re-established itself in Iraq with Baghdad’s covert aid, a balance to Barzani. The fighting stopped though when Arif was killed in a helicopter crash, only to be replaced by his brother, who himself was ousted in a coup in 1969.

A brief return to fighting in 1969 was then followed by yet another rapprochement. An agreement for Kurdish autonomy was reached and the Kurds were given some government ministries and the rebel Talabani faction rejoined the KDP. Barzani control of the Kurdish region was reasserted.

It didn’t last though, the Arab nationalism of the new Baathist regime soon reasserted itself and its renewed push for centralised government was in reality inimical to both the Kurdish desire for self rule and Barzani’s desire for clan rule.

So the KDP looked to Iran for aid against the menaces from Baghdad and allied itself with the Shah of Iran’s pro-American regime, taking arms from it but also allowing it to extend its influence over the border. It also offered to make concessions in the northern oil fields to US oil companies, a right which Baghdad claimed for itself.

The US however was playing its own game the object of which was to bring Iraq, leaning towards the Soviet Union, back into line. In this the Kurds were just a pawn.

The US was using the Iranians to use the Kurds to put pressure on Baghdad.

Mustafa Barzani felt secure in control of the region with his Peshmerga militia and the backing of the Iranians, the main regional power. But the situation could not outlast a shift in the local balance of power.

Iraq got the message and swung back towards Washington. The Kurds usefulness had come to an end and the Iranians withdrew their support.

When in 1975 the Iraqis launched an offensive northwards, not for the first or last time, the Peshmerga crumpled and the Kurds suffered a devastating defeat. Barzani fled into exile never to return. Barzani domination of the KDP however continued and his son Massoud inherited its leadership.

The dissidents left for a second time and that year Talabani founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Its leadership was more urban and intellectual, and more ideologically leftist, but much of its support was still tribally based.

Revolution and war
In 1979 Saddam Hussein seized power and created a regime that was massively more determined to “Arabise” the country than its predecessor.

Stridently nationalistic, it had a narrow Sunni Arab vision for the Iraq nation it wished to create. Shias and Kurds were to be crushed and a campaign to expunge the Kurdish identity begun.

Saddam also quickly plunged the country into war with Iran.

The Shah’s regime had fallen in early 1979 brought down by a mass revolutionary movement. Both the US and the Saudis encouraged Iraq to attack hoping to bring down the seemingly vulnerable new regime in Tehran.

In Baghdad they had their own motives for war. They thought that the Iraqi army could score a quick and easy victory against a nation in chaos, thus establishing its leadership in the Arab world by defeating the old enemy, the Persians.

The war though dragged on for eight long years, much fighting going on in the middle of Kurdistan, divided between the two countries.

Just as the Young Turks had used the chaos of the First World War to create a more ethnically homogenous Anatolia so Saddam launched the Anfal campaign in Kurdistan.

Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forcibly moved from their verdant homeland to the deserts of the south and their old towns and villages were repopulated with Arabs from elsewhere in Iraq. The legacy of this policy is still being fought out.

The Anfal campaign saw thousands or villages destroyed and hundreds of thousands forcibly resettled. It would end in chemical weapons attacks on Kurdish villages reaching a deadly climax at the town of Hallabja in 1988 when 4,000 were killed by nerve gas.

There was an international outcry, but Saddam’s regime was protected by its backers, Saudi Arabia and the US.

The use of chemical weapons has not been repeated since that period, but it has cast a long shadow over the Kurds – every advance by Saddam’s forces after Hallabja was met with the mass flight of civilians, terrified of a repeat.

First Iraq war to self-rule
The Iran-Iraq war ended in an uneasy truce in 1988 and the fall of neither regime. The Kurds were shut out.

Saddam overstretched himself invading Kuwait. Attacking Iran was one thing, invading a Gulf state was another. The US now tired of its creation decided to bring him into line and there followed the First Iraq War.

It was an easy victory for the Americans and Saddam’s defeat sparked a massive uprising in both the Kurdish north and Shia south. For a moment Saddam’s regime tottered. The US then stood back whilst Saddam’s elite Republican guard crushed the insurgents.

There was a flood of Kurdish refugees terrified of gas attacks into Turkey only reversed when the US imposed a “no-fly zone” banning Iraqi aircraft from the north.

This had an unintended consequence though. Without air cover the much weakened Iraqi army could not reconquer and hold the Kurdish region.

So as Saddam’s forces retreated the KDP and PUK reentered the country creating a de facto Kurdish self-rule area.

They held the first free elections for a Kurdish parliament. However the continuing strength of pre-modern social forms meant that voting happened mostly on tribal lines.

The KDP emerged as dominant in the west and north, the PUK in the south and east. They carved up the region between themselves and so rather than one Kurdish state, what emerged was two micro-states, each effectively with their own government. Each took control of smuggling routes and rationing structure created by the sanctions, and created systems of patronage and clientelism based in large part on tribal lines.

Inevitably though they clashed, and just as inevitably they turned to outsiders for allies. The neighbouring powers lost no time in grabbing this opportunity. In the two year civil war that erupted the PUK called on Iranian help (despite the fact that Iran had been repressing its own Kurds over the border) and even more extraordinarily the KDP called in Saddam’s help and Iraqi forces again rumbled north.

The civil war was eventually brought to an end by US mediation but the nature of the Kurdish mini-state remained. Still divided it was a US protectorate run by tribal leaders with a veneer of democracy.

Following the US invasion in 2003 the Kurds were able to gain recognition form Baghdad for their autonomy. The Barzani-Talabani carve up continued though, with each side retaining real power in their half of the region. They also divided up the top posts: Barzani became head of the regional government whilst Talabani became the President of Iraq, a position he held until July of this year.

Limited change
For all the faults of the KRG we cannot ignore the fact that the KRG was for the Kurds who lived there, a big improvement on anything that went before. They were freed from decades of oppression. Government, higher education, culture, were now conducted in the language of the people, Sorani.

The Iraqi Kurdish statelet has been an example to the other restive Kurdish peoples of the region, particularly Turkey’s more numerous Kurds.

However the creation of the KRG did not destabilize the region. Its effect was muted.

This is for a number of reasons, prime amongst them has been the nature of the project of the leaders of the KRG and their relationship with outside powers, in particular the federal government in Baghdad, the Turkish government in Ankara and above all the US.

The leadership of the KRG parties have never had the project of a single united Kurdish state. Their struggle has always been for control of Iraqi Kurdistan and in particular its state machine and natural resources. These have then generally been diverted into the patron client relationships of the KDP and PUK. This has also been an instrumental exercise. It is about the use of its resources to perpetuate existing structures in society. One of the main causes of the Kurds’ tragic history has been about inter-tribal and clan rivalries.

In this they are different from the PKK whose program was for the creation of a single Kurdish state but also for the transformation of Kurdish society rejecting the clan leaders and their patriarchal domination. The prominent role of women in the PKK stands out not only from the rest of the region but even also among its left.

Their analysis that ascribed the Kurds’ many setbacks to the machinations of “feudal” Aghas (tribal chiefs), is in large part correct.

In Iraq the chiefs played a more important role in society, and faced a relatively weaker (if concomitantly fiercer state). Until the revolution Iraq was a corrupt monarchy controlled in practice by the British (with the US increasingly influential during its last two decades.) They had no plan to industrialize or modernize society. They just wanted to drill the oil and keep the natives down.

To this end they acted to perpetuate the backwardness of society and so strengthened traditional elites, such as chiefs – who were cheap to buy off. Most would show loyalty to any state that protected their traditional privileges in a rapidly changing world.

So the British legalised and strengthened the rule of the tribal chieftains and customary tribal law, reversing the modernizing trends under the Ottomans toward a law-governed state and a standardised system of justice.

The chieftains in Kurdistan, and across the country, were given legal title to the land (previously held collectively by the tribe) thus creating a new class of landowners, many were then also “elected” to parliament, a purely ornamental decoration on the British colonial regime.

They constituted a conservative landed class whose fate was tied to the monarchy.

Thus when the Kurdish nationalist movement emerged in Iraq after the Second World War it quickly came to be dominated by the traditional tribal leaders and landowners, the Barzanis being their most prominent representatives.

A different history in the Turkish Republic
The PKK emerged out of a quite different society. The challenges facing Turkey’s Kurds have in many ways been greater than those facing their brethren in Iraq.

Whereas in Iraq the tribal chiefs had been strengthened by British rule   in Turkey the new Republican regime was intent on breaking them.

Following Kurdish revolts (which were, it must be noted mainly articulated through sectarian and linguistic identities) in the 1920s and 1930s the Republic turned decisively towards becoming a “nationalizing” state and unleashed massive oppression in the south east.

Kurdish society was decapitated as chiefs and local religious leaders were forcibly removed to the west of the country. They were allowed to return in the 1950s, and were courted by later regimes, but they never regained the power they once had.

Still the economic underdevelopment of the south east and the high level of Turkish state repression meant that a Kurdish movement emerged later in Turkey than it did elsewhere.

When one did emerge in the 1970s it did so not in the Kurdish region but in the economically developed West of the country. It also emerged out of the then rising left.

The PKK was founded in 1978 by Kurds, grouped around Abdullah Ocalan, who had been members of Turkish left groups but who wanted to create a Kurdish revolutionary organisation. They followed the same urban guerilla strategy as the rest of the left.

The Turkish left was broken by the military coup of 1980 which also dramatically increased repression against the Kurds. The PKK turned towards the idea of a rural based “People’s War” in Kurdistan to create a single unified Kurdish state and launched military operations from bases in Iraq and Syria in 1984.

Different Kurdistans
By the start of the 1990s they had become a formidable force and the Turkish state had all but lost control of the South East.

Its relationship with the Kurdish mini-state in Iraq was difficult though and they were often at odds.

The KRG did little to aid the struggle of their fellow Kurds across the border. In fact it sometimes cooperated with the Turkish state against them. This is unsurprising given the nature of KRG’s project: the preservation of the KRG as a client state of the US.

The traditional elites in Iraqi Kurdistan, still dominated by the likes of the Barzanis and Talabanis, were also hostile to PKK’s program to transform Kurdish society.

All the local states are in reality hostile to the idea of an autonomous Kurdish state entity. All fear their own Kurdish minorities.

The survival of the KRG has been primarily dependent on the patronage of the US. Without that the other states would have conspired with each other, and sections of the Kurdish leadership, to bring it down, as they had done on a number of previous occasions.

Turkey was, as it has been for the previous seventy years, relentlessly hostile to any idea of a Kurdish state. But it was willing to deal with it and acknowledge its existence so long as it cooperated against the PKK.

This started to change towards in the early 2000s.

In 1999 Turkey dealt what it thought was a death blow to the PKK, forcing Syria to withdraw support and depriving it of its bases there, and capturing its leader Abdullah Ocalan.

No surrender
Though this did prove to be a great setback, and effectively brought to an end any idea of military victory against Turkey, the Kurds proved to be resilient. Their resistance did not collapse.

However the guerilla road was obviously over.  All hope of military victory was gone and Ocalan was in a Turkish prison. The PKK and the Turkish movement began to re-orientate itself.

The PKK’s struggle and the war had created a Kurdish national consciousness and a movement where one had not previously existed.

The military’s response to the insurgency was a scorched earth policy. More than 5,000 Kurdish villages had been deliberately destroyed by the Turkish military, their inhabitants driven out. This had unintended consequences though. Millions of Kurdish people shifted in nearly two decades of war, and they shifted from poverty stricken east to the booming  cities of the western Turkey. The Kurds were transformed from country folk to city dwellers in a generation as people moved en masse to cities such as Diyarbakir and Istanbul, now probably the city with the largest Kurdish population in the world. Turkey was made more Kurdish by the war.

In the new world created by the Kurdish war the goal of an independent single Kurdistan, even if it was obtainable, made less sense than it had. The Kurdish movement turned towards demanding democratic freedoms and national rights within Turkey and the other countries in which Kurds lived.

This resulted in moves towards a peace process that would have to wait for a change in the Turkish government to make progress, and then only very little.

The decline of Kemalism
In Turkey following the military’s “victories” against the PKK in 1999 people started to admit that no such military victory was actually possible. Still the pursuit of illogical and self-defeating policies had been the modus operandi of the Kemalist state for decades. There was no reason that it would stop its unwinnable war against the PKK.

In fact it had many reasons to carry it on, not least the perpetuation of the military’s domination of society and the state’s effective insulation form any real democratic accountability.

The Kemalist elite however were about to be rolled back decisively by forces from within Turkish society itself.

Islamist parties had been growing in popularity from the early 1990s and a brief year-long government under the veteran Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan ended in 1999 with the so called “e-coup” and the party’s subsequent banning.

In 2002 its successor, a more moderately Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) led by Mayor of Istanbul, Tayyip Erdogan, was swept to power in elections.

It promised change and challenged the secular elite who had dominated the country since the foundation of the Republic.

AK Parti was and is quite nationalistic, but their nationalism was of a different sort to the narrow ethnic nationalism of the old guard. The AK Parti leaders also realized that the Kurdish problem was unsolvable without concessions and that continuation of the war only strengthened the “Deep State” with which it was also at odds.

The first set of reforms they pushed through were aimed at getting the country into the EU. They soon hit the problem that Europe simply didn’t want them.

So as Europe slammed the door in Turkey’s face it turned eastward towards its former empire: a policy that has come to be known as “Neo-Ottomanism”. The idea of rapprochement with the Islamic world, and the possibility of achieving leadership there, was understandably attractive to the AK Parti and its followers.

It would draw Turkey politically into a region in which it was already in fact a major power. It had simply not been flexing its muscles.

There was also an economic logic as a rapidly growing economy needed both energy resources, and markets beyond Europe – no longer the power house it was, and soon to be in deep recession.

Rapprochement with Irbil
The most difficult question Turkey faced though was relations with the KRG. Previous governments would have preferred it to just go away. Of course it hadn’t and instead they treated it like a pariah with it whom they would cooperate as necessary against the PKK.

In 2008 a dramatic turn happened. Foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu visited the region’s capital Irbil, a trip soon followed by that of Prime Minister himself Erdogan.

Even more surprising still (and the sudden détente was shocking to many in Turkey) was the rapid growth of cooperation between the two capitals.

Numerous trade and other deals have been done. Iraqi Kurdistan is now the second biggest market for Turkish goods after Germany. More than 4,000 trucks cross the border daily. Half the foreign companies registered in the KRG are Turkish. Both Irbil and Dohul have new airports, built by Turkish companies. Flights now go daily from Irbil to Turkey, taking off from one of the world’s the longest runways. Turkish companies, both state and private are plowing money into Kurdish oilfields, which are turning out to hold a lot more oil than previously thought.

Iraqi Kurdistan
Turkey has decided that its interests best lie with a stable and friendly KRG. It might not want Iraq to come apart, but neither does it want an unstable border.

What it does want is a state that will cooperate with it.

The new cooperation managed to survive the outbreak of civil war in Syria and the emergence of a de facto Kurdish autonomous region.

The Kurdish movement there is dominated by the PYD, the local affiliate of the PKK, The KDP’s franchise in the region being an also-ran. Both Ankara and Irbil  have a common interest in holding a line against the PKK and the KDP intervened in 2012 encouraging a power sharing agreement between the Kurdish parties.

But it is in energy that the KRG and Turkey’s interest coalesce the most.

Turkey’s rapidly urbanizing and industrial economy is hungry for energy. Much of it currently coming from Iraq and Russia.

Its cooperation with the KRG has increased greatly with Turkish companies signing big contracts with Irbil, which Baghdad has maintained are illegal as only the Federal government has the right to do this.

This did has not prevent the secret construction of a pipeline to take oil directly form Kurdistan to Turkey – bypassing Iraqi control – which can carry half a million barrels a day. In the future Kurdish leaders envisage some 2 million barrels a day flowing through it to Turkey.

Just as Ankara’s relations with the KRG have improved those with Baghdad have worsened. Their relationship has been reduced to a slanging match at points.

A particular bone of contention is Ankara’s direct relationship with Irbil which Baghdad sees as an infringement of their national sovereignty.

Whatever happens Irbil will want to continue its cooperate with Turkey. The survival of the state, for that is what it now is, even if one legally within the borders of Iraq, depends on it.

It will have to continue to control the PKK, an organisation it has always been at odds with, but also to hold it as a card, to entirely force the PKK out of KRG territory would be to throw it away in its game with Ankara.

The KRG parties’ ability to do so will always be circumscribed by the fact that the population is probably more nationalistic than the leaders, and have sympathy for their fellow Kurds over the border. They will at points also have to aid the PKK, for instance as it is now doing in Kobane. The motives of Barzani and Talabani are always to be questioned though. Their record is, after all, littered with opportunistic maneuvers.

The rise of Isis
The sudden uprising Sunni uprising in Iraq in mid 2014 threw all the cards in the air.

Iraq suddenly looked like a state on the verge of collapse, about to join Syria on the failed state list.

A giant power vacuum has opened up in the heart of the region which is threatening to pull all down into it.

Still recent events do seem to have strengthened the hands of Iraqi Kurds.

In Iraq and Syria the only forces that seem able to stop Isis’s advance is the Kurds’. The Peshmerga performance though has not been impressive, and it has required the intervention of the more disciplined and experienced PKK at points, most noticeably rescuing the Sinjar Yazidis. Their performance has been rather better than that of the Iraqi army which has been abysmal.

The collapse of the Iraqi army in the wake of the Isis capture of Mosul also handed to the KRG the long coveted city of Kirkuk.

One of Iraq’s largest cities and in the middle of  some of the most important oil fields in the region, it has a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans. Claimed by the Kurds as theirs it has also been long disputed, being a particular flash point in the Iraqi revolution of 1958-63.

A referendum in the region was supposed to settle its fate, but this has been continually put off, and is an important point of dispute between Baghdad and Irbil.

As the Iraqi army fled in the face of the Isis advance KRG forces moved in. This does not mean the matter is done and dusted, but possession as they say is nine-tenths of the law.

End of Iraq?
The loss of control of Iraq’s western provinces to insurgency and the strengthening of the KRG has raised the prospect of Independence. Barzani raised the idea of a referendum (which would if it happened surely be a formality) in June.

The Kurds themselves are divided over this with the PUK, being closer to Iran, less keen on pressing the issue. The PUK though is a much diminished force, having been beaten into third place in Kurdish elections earlier this year.

Iran like all the country’s neighbours, and the US oppose the idea of Kurdish independence, not least for the effect it might have on their own Kurdish populations. Tellingly Israel Israel backs an independent Iraqi Kurdistan but opposes a united Kurdistan.

All for now formally support the idea of keeping Iraq together. This is particularly true of the Iranians who have no reason to see a country now dominated by a Shia leadership closely allied with themselves break up into other states, particularly Sunni ones.

Thus everyone has encouraged the formation of a national unity government. Talabani has stepped down as President, to be replaced by another PUK man.

Whether this arrangement will last is open to question.

A further IS offensive could split the two apart as each tries to save itself and let the other sink. There was precious little cooperation between the two during the recent fighting.

Independence may be on the back burner for the minute, but could reappear. The Iraqi Kurds may just be biding their time, improving their viability as a state and building alliances.

Their ability to become independent depends a number of things.

One is the protection of the US; they do not imagine they could secede against their express wishes. They also need to keep Turkey on side, their main outlet to the world.

The other thing they need in terms of statehood, at least in that corner of the world, is an army. This is something they at present lack. The peshmerga are a militia, lightly armed and lacking in heavy equipment such as tanks and artillery, let alone aircraft.

They are able to sustain guerrilla war, but have always been defeated by conventional armed forces. They have never prevailed against the Iraqi army, not in 1975 not in 1991.

When the West talk about “arming the Kurds” to fight Isis what they mean is “arming the KRG”.

They do not intend to send arms to the PKK, who have been shouldering the bulk of the fighting, and proved to be far and away the most effective force in doing so.

In the process of aiding the KRG militarily they are more or less overtly building a Kurdish army.

What would be the effect of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan? Would it be a stepping stone to an united Kurdish state?

There is no such guarantee. The statelet that would emerge would be dependent on military aid and the patronage of the US.

Conclusion
It remains to be seen if Iraqi Kurdistan will demand independence.

The record of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership would not suggest that they will do anything to advance the interest of Kurds anywhere else.

They will do anything they can to preserve their own statelet and do any deal to do so.

Their most important ally, and the ultimate guarantor, the one that will give them the most room to maneuver, is and will be the US.

The likelihood is that a new Kurdish state rather than being a spark that will set the region ablaze, will be the US’s second most loyal ally in the region.

This article was first published on Counterfire on 1 November 2014

The English Question: Democracy or jingoism?

As was predicted the Scottish Referendum, despite not breaking the dam of the UK state has stirred the stagnant waters of British political life.

It has shocked the system and bounced the British political elite into making promises of further devolution that they may not be able to keep, and can only keep by seriously disturbing the constitutional balance of the UK.

This may sound like a dull subject, but a year ago most people south of the border (and there were few enough that had any opinions at all on this) were predicting the independence referendum would be a damp squib.

It would not be the first time that the question of the redistribution of constitutional power in the UK upset the applecart. Three times promises to grant Ireland Home Rule within the UK (devolution, not independence) up-ended the British political system. In 1883 it split the ruling Liberal Party, in 1912 it almost led to civil war in Ireland, and indeed a few years later the country did explode in violence.

Scotland is not Ireland, but as the sheer panic of our rulers in the last few weeks has made clear, it does represent a major problem for the system.

Tam Dalyell’s last laugh

The granting of extra powers will reopen for the Tories the West Lothian Question, raised in the 1970s by Tam Dalyell, the MP for the eponymous seat. The question asks why Scottish MPs can vote on English affairs but English MPs cannot vote on Scottish affairs (which incidentally makes them politically unaccountable for voting for policies that their electors do not have to suffer the consequences of, such as privatisation and deregulation which they loyally voted for under Blair).

The West Lothian question has been quietly ignored since devolution, not really much disturbing even most Tories. But it is being revived by a Tory party furious at Cameron’s panicked promises of Devo Max.

Its revival now is entirely instrumental, not having anything to do with the fairness or not of the current arrangements. It is being raised in order divert attention from the obvious democratic deficit in our society, and provide an alternative to real democratic reform

The referendum has shown up the decline of democracy in British society, and in particular the hyper-centralisation of power in Westminster, and the foisting on people of a whole series of neoliberal policies, effecting every aspect of life, that they never voted for.

It is also a reaction to the government’s austerity program: something which the Tories argued for in 2010, and was decisivedly rejected by the electorate, but is being implemented regardless. Another clear example of the undemocratic nature of our state and society.

Everybody in British society knows that there is a yawning democratic deficit: that decisions are made elsewhere, by people we can’t really influence. This is the basis of the appeal of Ukip, it’s just that they locate the shadowy elite that dominate our lives in Brussels. Obvious nonsense, but that is point, the object is to direct blame away from the corporate and financial interests who dominate our country.

An English Parliament – a Rump Parliament

The Tories know that it is now game on, that the edifice of the pseudo democracy that they have erected is wobbling, and they are coming out fighting.

Their battle cry for a new settlement for England is an English Parliament.

Of course no one is actually saying that England should have a new Parliament as Scotland has, or even an Assembly like Wales.

What they actually mean is that only English MPs voting on English affairs, which, given the balance of population in the UK (85% live in England), is most of the work of government.

A more undemocratic, jingoist lash-up can hardly be imagined.

An English parliament would serve the Tories four ways:

1) It is a way to whip up English nationalism, always the core the British nationalism, ethnically exclusive and tied to memories of Empire.

2) It would shift the balance of power in parliament towards the Tories. The question of the role of Scottish MPs in forming a UK government has been controversial on the left in the referendum campaign, for there is a difference between taking the Scots out of the equation and Wales and Northern Ireland out too. Even if in 2005 Labour would have had a majority of 43 in England, in the last General election the Tories would have had a majority of thirty in England, freeing their hand to do what they like. We are also now in a period when both Labour and the Tories have difficulty gaining a majority. Every seat matters.

3) An English Parliament would preserve the undemocratic nature of parliament and rule from Westminster. An English Parliament would be even more dominated by the big three parties than the current arrangement.

An English parliament would just be a rump House of Commons still elected by First Past the Post. It would still use an electoral system invented in the late Medieval period to elect a body which meets in a neo-Gothic palace presided over by men in tights in turn presided over by men in gowns. What a  step forward!

4) An English parliament would also preserve the balance of power in England, the most hyper-centralized country in the Western world. Local government would remain a shell, power concentrated in government departments and the quangos and big privatised services.

The calls from an ‘English Parliament” should be vehemently opposed, as an attempt to preserve the most undemocratic features of the status quo.

Democratise England

We should demand the opposite, the democratisation of our state.

For the referendum and the riot of democracy seen in Scotland has opened the question of the undemocratic nature of government in this country, the legacy of a monarchical-aristocratic state that absorbed the demands of the capitalist class, and then made concessions (if few) to the working class.

The latter have now been withdrawn and the political system has been reduced to a closed shop entirely dominated by corporate interests. All power has been drawn again to the top of the state, and the main parties, where they intersect with corporate world. All other levels of government have been deprived of power. Without the lifeblood of the struggle for power, the ability to change things, grassroots politics has withered and died. Much of the civil society activity that does go on is dominated by grant chasing from quangos and corporate cash, and civil society has to follow their agenda.

Devolution in England

Anther cry is going up in England: the call to restore local democracy, for devolution in England.

This is an idea that really frightens the Conservatives, who ridiculously warn about Balkanisation, or even the in Norman Tebbit’s case the threat of Sharia Law.

The shrillness of their denunciations is indicative of their worry. It has nothing to do with efficiency or sense, every other major European government has extensively devolved regional and local government. The United States, which they admire so much, gives most every day aspects of government to the states (which also shows that it is not a panacea in itself).

But most people in this country, even many Tories and Ukip voters, have views to the left of the three many parties

Outside the straightjacket of Westminster’s out of touch political machines, away from corporate lobbyists and the narrow options of First Past The Post, politics tends to plough a different furrow.

Neoliberalism has thrived in the decades or political torpor. It desires a population of passive consumers; a society of social actors is inimical to it.

Having real policies to discuss and debate, would revive local politics and political participation.  It would let people have control of their local education systems and health services again.

The lesson is that away from the centre, the political power of neoliberalism is reduced. This is why British governments have ruthlessly centralised for three decades. This is why Thatcher destroyed local government in the 1980s and New Labour centralised public services in the 2000s, and why today an austerity-driven offensive against devolution is being waged across Europe.

Democracy now

Three decades of neoliberalism have eaten away at democracy in every aspect of our society. Union power and the democracy that enabled in the workplace was destroyed. The state has become ever more centralised, more secretive and more of its functiones have been hived off to the corporate world.

We need to start taking that power back. The debate over power in the state has suddenly gone live again. We need to democratise the state in all its aspects, but for now the battle lines are clear: we want democracy restored not jingoism revived.

Breaking the spell: Scotland’s democratic revolt

The spell that has held official British politics as if frozen for thirty years is being broken. Like Narnia, a political winter has been upon us, the victims of neoliberalism turned to stone. But, in Scotland at least, people are again waking up and moving.

The Establishment’s shock at this palpable. People are on the streets, campaigning, challenging the status quo.

This is what general elections used to be like, but is clearly not to the taste of the political class. Accusations of intimidation are flying. Somebody shouted at a politician, another had a rough reception, the imperial emissaries of MPs, advisers, PR flaks and flunkies might not be welcomed on the streets and are mocked. That people might challenge our masters, that they may be impassioned angry – this is all treated as strange and unacceptable.

Cutting people’s wages, or taking their jobs and benefits away from them. That’s all fine. People are supposed to passively accept that.

The referendum has politically mobilized people who have been voiceless for decades and are now coming out to speak for themselves. The spell has been broken. The political winter is ending.

Crisis

The UK is about to enter a period of constitutional and political turmoil unseen since the “Edwardian Crisis” of a hundred years ago.

The precipitating factor has been the independence referendum, but the combustible material has been building up for years: discontent with austerity and ever-growing inequality, a declining faith in the political system and the parties that is turning to outright hostility and a broad feeling that we no longer live in a democracy.

In England, this discontent has so far been most successfully channeled by the right, and in particular Ukip. They have, of course, had the help of the media, and the right of the Tory party, who are happy to have a stick to beat their own leaders with for failing to be right-wing enough.

However the Scottish referendum has changed the script.

Given the opportunity to have a national discussion about the sort of society people want to live in, and being able to have it outside of the boundaries of the two-and-a-half-party system in Westminster, a large part of the Scottish people are demanding a different vision of society to that which dominates political discourse in England.

Scotland is not different

Not that this is because Scotland is inherently more left-wing than England, or that somehow Scots are more progressive or more collectivist. Historically this hasn’t been true, and Scottish society still has very conservative tendencies within it, often expressed through the Scottish Labour Party.

The things people want to defend, such as the NHS, and the changes people would like to see brought about are exactly the same across the UK. The difference in Scotland is only that these ideas have had a political expression.

There is UK-wide support for policies far, far to the left of the Westminster consensus. For example, a Yougov poll earlier this year found that 68% of the public say the energy companies should be run in the public sector, which includes 52% of Conservative voters and 74% of Ukip voters.

66% support nationalising the railway companies while only 23% think they should be run privately. Renationalisation is backed by 52% of Conservatives and 72% of Ukip supporters.

On the NHS, 84% of the public say the health service should be run in the public sector. Only 13% of Conservative voters say that it should be run by private companies

More surprisingly the public split 45%-43% in favour of rent controls and fully 35% of people think the government should be able to control food prices.

People’s views on inequality are also not what might be expected. Another poll by Yougov showed that 65% of people support introducing a mansion tax, more (49%) of Tory voters support this than oppose it (41 %) and half (50%) of Britons say they would support a wealth tax being introduced,

Given his party’s policies on tax Nigel Farage might also be surprised to learn that 57% of Ukip voters support a 50p tax rate top earners, almost the same as the national figure at 61%.80% of Ukip supporters saying tackling the gap between rich and poor should be more of a government priority than cutting taxes or the benefits bill an ICM poll found. In fact contrary to media myth the pay gap is now greater of greater concern to Ukip supporters than immigration, the benefits bill or the EU.

So on these issues Tory and Ukip voters are to the left of the Labour Party!

The reality is that on many of the most basic issues about the way the state should work, the way it should be financed, the political priorities of government and the distribution of wealth in society, the majority of people’s views are well out of kilter from the political parties.

In fact, it would be fair to say these views have no expression in the political system at all.

It is little wonder that politicians would rather obsess about immigration and Europe. Ukip has turned concern about these issues into a political program that distracts from even their voters own major concerns.

They have in part been successful because they have been able to play on people’s disenchantment with the “political elite” and an obvious democratic deficit. Ukip has an explanation for this, and like all populist parties have an elite to blame: the EU and their local agents, an aloof cosmopolitan elite, of which Cameron and Osborne are meant to be prime examples.

Neoliberalism: incompatible with democracy

Ukip has moulded and shaped from the right a common feeling in our society: that democracy is disappearing, that ordinary people are being excluded and left voiceless. This is undoubtedly true: our democracy has been on the decline for three decades. This is unsurprising. Neoliberalism is incomparable with democracy.

The neoliberal assault on the economic system has been accompanied by an assault on democracy. Local government has been neutered and stripped of its powers, the state has been ruthlessly centralized, as have the parties that aspire to run it. Many areas of the state have been hived off and privatized, their workings hidden behind walls of commercial secrecy, and these same companies protect themselves from scrutiny by funding the major political parties.

As a result participation and interest in politics has withered; party grass roots activity has collapsed. In the past, when democracy became an unwanted encumbrance it has been liquidated with bayonets and jackboots. This time its murder has been quieter, slower, less noticeable. Rather than a death being brought about by a sudden lunge and a poisonous bite, democracy has had the life slowly squeezed out of as if by an anaconda.

Most political decisions are now taken at the summit of the state where government and the party leaderships (both those in power and those who wish to be) meet with corporate power and (in particular in this country), high finance. This process was been greatly facilitated in this country by our First Past The Post electoral system which effectively ossifies the party system and makes it near impossible for new parties to achieve representation.

Unions, once the most powerful institutions in civil society, have long been tamed, their power in the workplace, and their ability to project it into society and the political system greatly circumscribed. They have little influence even in Labour, the party they founded.

The vast majority of the population have found themselves excluded from politics by the decline of the state’s representative institutions and the lack of any party to represent their views. They have in large part reacted by political passivity, the perfect outcome for the continuation of neoliberalism.

Break in Scotland

This whole neoliberal system of power has in this country worked well for two decades. Since the Poll Tax revolt of 1989-1990, it has managed to avoid any major challenge to the status quo. There have been other outbursts, such as the anti-war movement, which though fantastically successful at delegitimising Britain’s imperial adventures, did not create a vehicle for broader domestic dissidence.

The Scottish referendum has blown a whole in the whole edifice of power, it has torn down at least a corner of its façade.

It has become a very direct and clear manifestation of the fact that most people want to live in very different kind of society to the one the political elite tells us we all want.

It has raised the question of democracy in society, challenging the highly centralised and oligarchic nature of rule from Westminster.

It has also revealed more clearly than ever, at least to the Scots, the network of vested interests that sustains the political establishment, and the way in which  they are wiling to mobilise their power in the most undemocratic way when challenged. Scottish Labour may win the referendum but will destroy itself in the process. It could become the second Social Democratic party in Europe to suffer the same fate as the Greek Pasok party – decimating its own base of support.

Democratic upsurge

It is significant that the break has come in Scotland, and as a result of one of the New Labour’s few democratising measures: devolution.

It must be remembered Scottish devolution was brought about not by the democratic tendencies of the Labour Party. That Party that has been one of the key forces for the centralisation of the British state since at least the 1930s. Rather devolution was brought about as a result of movement in Scotland for it, and the desire of Labour to divert this away from support the SNP.

Labour wanted to preserve the UK state as is, not democratise it. When it came to choosing an electoral system for the new Scottish Parliament, they rejected FPTP (a system they still advocated for Westminster) and introduced a proportional system, but only in order to prevent the SNP obtaining a majority and calling a referendum on independence. How the mighty of the Scotttish Labour Party must now be looking on their work and weeping!

Wales too has seen a shift to the left as a result of (even more limited) devolution of power. The third devolved area was London, which at first elected a mayor far to the left of Labour, Ken Livingstone, but the lack powers and undemocratic nature of the Mayor’s office and Assembly meant that there has been no democratic renaissance in London. Instead the last election turned into a ridiculous beauty contest in which a far-right Tory won in a Labour-voting city on the basis of bonhomie.

Devolution to succession?

It is impossible to imagine the referendum, and the forces it has unleashed in society, without the creation of the Scottish Parliament. The devolution of power downwards, away from the political-corporate apex of power in Whitehall to a level at which people might be able to influence things, joined with breaking of the two party monopoly, has led to a regeneration of politics north of the border, and an associated shift to left of mainstream political discourse unimaginable in England.

It is now coming to a crescendo. Revolt against austerity and the role of governments in shaping an increasingly unequal society has found its expression through the question of state power: whether Scotland becomes independent.  Independence has become a class demand. This is seen in the way in which Yes supporters repeatedly talk to reporters about “the working class” and a desire for “equality” and “social justice”. Opposition to independence is also clearly a class movement, the better-off and the upper classes at the forefront of the No campaign, which could not have looked more Establishment if it had been openly run by the Tory party.

And the Yes movement is clearly, in the main, working class in composition. The demands which it expresses or classic class demands for the defence of the NHS or against austerity, even if it is not based on, or driven by what we might consider to be the traditional bodies of the Labour movement. These have, we may note, almost all taken a Unionist line.

It has also created, in the Radical Independence Campaign, the germ of a rival leadership to the SNP, and an organizational structure with roots in the working class.

Whatever the result of the referendum the political landscaped has just been dramatically changed – certainly in Scotland.

The call for democracy

The call for democracy – that people might again influence government in order to bring about the sort of society they want, and not the sort they are told they should want – is central. This is the vector through which a class rebellion is being expressed, just as it has been in movements across Europe.

This should not surprise us. Just as neoliberalism and democracy are incompatible, democracy and socialism are essential to each other. Socialists should always fight for the maximum of democracy in the state and society, and have always been at the forefront of the fight for democratic change, from Marx to the Bolsheviks to the revolution in Egypt more recently. The working class needs the light and air of democracy to breath and live.

Democratic explosion in Scotland will have echoes in England. We must use it to end the spell of eternal winter here as well.

Ukraine: the West’s cynical role

The West support dictatorships around the world. Putin is no friend of democracy, but the campaign of demonisation against Russia is cynical propaganda that could lead to war

 

What started as a protest about an agreement between Ukraine and the EU has turned into the most serious threat to peace in Europe since the break-up of Yugoslavia, and possibly since the Second World War.

Western expansionism has been the main factor creating this crisis. Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the western powers, led by the US, have been pushing towards the borders of Russia by expanding the EU and Nato. Twelve Eastern European countries have joined Nato since 1991. Russia, inevitably, is trying to maintain its influence in the region.

The motives of all sides are imperialistic, but the balance of power must be remembered: the US is creating an ally in the Ukraine; it’s not as if Russia is meddling in Mexico. This is not a power struggle between two global blocs, as witnessed during the Cold War era. The global hegemon is challenging a regional power, albeit a large one.

EU deal with strings attached

Interference by outside powers in the Ukraine is threatening to tear the country apart, as linguistic and cultural differences are turned into issues for which people are willing to die, and kill.

The spark was Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to suspend negotiations with the EU. This caused demonstrations in the capital against the government. Though considered pro-Russian in reality Yanukovich tried to balance between Russia and the west.

However, the country’s economic problems made this impossible in the long run: Ukraine is broke and needs cash to avoid default. The European deal came with little cash and many strings, and threatened ruin for the country’s heavily industrialised east.

Russia, on the other hand, offered $15 billion with no visible strings attached. Yanukovich plumped for Moscow. This infuriated the opposition and opened up a divide between the mainly Ukrainian-speaking west and centre and the mostly Russian-speaking east and south.

The nature of the demonstrations began to polarise the country as they took on an increasingly nationalistic and anti-Russian flavour. Attempted clamp downs led to radicalisation, mainly to the right, as the influence of the fascist Svoboda party grew and a violent street-fighting “Right Sector” emerged.

Escalation

Whilst the demonstrations had a high level of popular support in some parts of the country, they were politically dominated by the right-wing opposition, who were co-operating closely with the US State Department.

At the end of January, violence on the streets rapidly escalated. An EU brokered deal between Yanukovich and opposition leaders foundered as dozens were killed in the space of two days. The president fled the capital and a new government emerged, facilitated by the US, led by the right-wing opposition parties with negligible support in the east and south of the country.

The new interim government includes seven fascists and neo-Nazis. This is ignored by the Western powers whilst Putin is dubbed a ‘new Hitler’.

Putin’s strategy for the reassertion of Russia in what it considers its own backyard lies in tatters. The revolts not only brought to power parties hostile to Moscow, they also wrecked plans for a single market for the former Soviet states. It was inevitable that Putin’s regime would try and kick back. Crimea is easily detachable: its population is overwhelmingly Russian-speaking, it is the base of the Russian Black Sea fleet and the peninsula is geographically distinct.

The main enemy is at home

Though strong voices on both sides want to avoid violence, fearful of further escalation, potentially destructive forces are now in play. A new phase in big power rivalry has opened up, making the world a much more dangerous place.

The losers of any further descent into nationalism and jingoism will be ordinary people in both Ukraine and Russia. Socialists in this situation must oppose their own ruling classes’ role, their expansionism and sabre rattling.

The West support dictatorships around the world. Putin is no friend of democracy, but the campaign of demonisation against Russia is cynical propaganda that could lead to war.

The other side of the Euro elections

Talking up the defeat of mainstream parties, the mainstream media justifies the move rightwards. But there is another side, writes Alastair Stephens

Much of the media seem to have made up their minds a long time ago about the story of the Euro elections: a right-wing landslide of Euroscepticism washing across the continent, sweeping all before it, and in particular besting the left.

The BBC’s comment that “Eurosceptic and far-right parties have seized ground in elections to the European parliament, in what France’s PM called a “political earthquake”’ was typical of this school of thought.

A detailed look at the results of the elections, however, does not necessarily bear this narrative out.

That is not to say that nothing happened, or that it’s all just business as usual. There has been wide-scale rejection of the establishment parties, and some electoral upheavals. But this has been uneven across the continent. In particular, it has more pronounced in the bailout countries than the northern core of Germany and Scandinavia.

The most immediate example of a right-wing Eurosceptic party winning is of course Britain. Even here, though, the narrative of the “right-wing tide” does not explain everything. The main losers were the Tories rather than Labour, who of course also won the contemporaneous local elections.

Still, the commentariat weren’t going to let that stop them from projecting the right-wing insurgency story onto the whole of Europe. That there is popular fear of European integration and a rise of public concern about immigration is a line they have been pushing for some time.

It is the same explanation they are now putting as mass rejection of establishment parties across Europe. A move to the left is not something they are about to report. You only have to imagine the headline “Left-wing backlash against austerity sweeps the continent” to realise how unlikely you are to come across reports like this in our current media landscape.

The French shock

The media figurehead for the right-wing backlash is Marine Le Pen.

The situation in France is very worrying. The National Front came first, but with just 10% of registered voters expressing their support. Their first place is, as such, a reflection of the decline of the establishment parties as it is of the success of fascism in France.

Virtually every other party lost out. The Socialists continued their abysmal set of results, but the right wing UMP also lost votes, as did the Greens. Those parties that have implemented government austerity were punished.

Melenchon’s Left Front managed to maintain its vote, whilst the far left continued their electoral decline.

The Italian anomaly

The other, less report, big shock of the night was the centre-left landslide in Italy.

The situation in Italy is odd. The Italian Prime Minister is just 39 and is not, and has never been, a member of parliament. But then the other two main party leaders are not in Parliament, either. One is Silvio Berlusconi, kicked out for corruption, and currently doing community service in an old people’s home. The other leader is Beppe Grillo, a ranting comedian. All unusual by any normal standards. The Italian crisis occurring against the background of the European economic crisis, but with features very peculiar to itself.

The Euro election and the concurrent local and regional elections were a landslide for the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which took 40% of the vote. They also came top of the poll in every region of the country including the strongholds of the right in the North East and North West (including the rich regions of Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto). These were their best ever results in the local and regional elections. The PD again conquered Piedmont and swept through areas they had not won for years.

The right did badly, and in particular Berlusconi’s relaunched Forza Italia slumped to just 16%.

Grillo’s Five Star Movement (5SM) suffered what La Repubblica described as “an unbelievable, unexpected and devastating flop”. Having predicted victory, 5SM finished 20 points behind the PD. Grillo is now probably regretting his prediction that they would win and saying that if they didn’t he would “go home”. The defeat it has created is a first class crisis for Five Star.

The radical left, however, had a success after years of bad results and infighting. An alliance was created in January following an appeal published in Il Manifesto by seven veteran leftists, calling for a joint list in support of the candidacy of Alexis Tsipras for the European Commission. (Each of the main groups in the European Parliament had put forward candidates for the post.)

Running as joint list entitled “Another Europe – with Tsipras”, it brought together most of the parties to the left of the PD, including Nicchi Vendola’s SEL and Rifondazione Comunista, along with social movements. It elected three MEPs, the radical left’s best result in years. The campaign reinvigorated the left, and there is now talk of an Italian Syriza.

Though a clear victory for the left in general, the Italian result was full of ambiguity. The Democrats are fiercely pro-European, and are carrying out austerity in government. But Renzi is a Blair-like figure (the early Blair rather than the later warmonger), and is also pushing liberal measures such as the promotion of younger people, women and ethnic minorities – a shock to the Italian body politic, still dominated by elderly white men.

Rejection of Austerity

Whilst the result in Italy may represent a clear, if ambiguous, victory for the left, elsewhere the message was quite obvious. Parties supporting and implementing austerity were punished.

The clearest example of this is Greece, where Syriza topped the poll beating the conservative New Democracy by four points. The poor showing for ND’s coalition partner, the formerly dominant social democratic party Pasok (now running as the “Olive Tree”), will weaken the government yet further. Pasok scraped 8% of the vote, down from 40% five years ago.

Syriza also won in the regional elections in Attica, which contains Athens and 30% of the population of Greece.

The result was an extraordinary victory considering the propaganda war which Greece’s and Europe’s ruling classes have mounted against the party. After the victory Alexis Tsipras said that “Tomorrow Europe will be talking about Syriza. The Europeans celebrate the defeat of austerity in the country that the European leadership chose as the guinea-pig of the crisis.”

He couldn’t have predicted that the British media would ignore Syriza’s victory to talk about the growth of the vote for Golden Dawn, up to 9%.  This is of course of great concern, but they are still far behind Syriza.

In Spain, rejection of austerity meant both that both the governing conservative Popular Party and the opposition Socialist Party lose votes. The Socialists were of course swept from power in 2011 after inflicting a massive program of austerity on the country that saw unemployment rise to Europe’s highest level at 25%. The two parties used to take 80% of the vote between them. On Sunday they took just 60%. The biggest winners were the radical left.

A new left party to emerge out of the Indigñados movement called Podemos (“We Can”) took 8%, despite only having existed for three months.  The United Left, based on the Communist Party, saw its vote go up six points to 10%, its best result since the 1990s. The far right had no impact in the election at all.

So in Spain the picture is of no far right, big losses for austerity parties and 18% for the anti-austerity left. Not the picture reported here. In neighbouring Portugal, the ruling conservative party lost votes to the Socialists.

In our neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, the ruling Fine Gael was beaten by Fianna Fail. Fine Gael, traditionally a liberal party of business was always going to be less affected by austerity than its smaller partner in coalition, the Labour Party. They slumped to just 6%, a tremendous reversal compared to the general election in 2011 when they took 20% and for the first time beat Fianna Fail into third place.

They achieved that historic peak in a backlash against austerity. Following this by implementing austerity and attacking their own voters has proved disastrous for them.

The space they have left has been filled by Sinn Fein, which sits with the radical left GUE-NGL group in the European Parliament. They took 17%, a big step up from the 7% of the vote in the 2011 general election.

Another success for the left was the victory in a parliamentary by-election for Dublin West of the Socialist Party candidate Ruth Coppinger who now joins the five other radical left members of the Dàil.

A right wing north?

In Germany, the conservative CDU had its worst ever result in European elections, and the Social Democrats made up some lost ground, but the surprise of the night was the Alternative for Germany, a conservative anti-single currency party which took 7%. The vote for Die Linke, the Left Party, fell marginally to 7.39%, but was otherwise consistent. The German Greens, who a significantly to the right of their UK counterparts, saw their vote fall by 1.4% to 10.7%.

Whilst the far right Danish People’s party topped the poll in Denmark, the Geert Wilder’s Islamophobic, far right Freedom Party in the Netherlands slipped compared to previous elections.

In Sweden, the Green Party beat the main conservative party, the Moderates, into third place with Socials Democrats coming top.

A different story in the East

The former Eastern bloc countries, having very different party systems as a result of their different history, have also in general continued in their own political cycles, not unrelated to the world economic crisis, but different from the rest of Europe. Here nationalism remains dominant.

The politics of Poland, by far the largest of the new EU members, have remained fairly stable partly as a result of its economic growth, which continued through the global slump.

The situation is different in Hungary where the ruling Fidesz have continued on an increasingly nationalist line. The fascist Jobbik have maintained their growth but without a major breakthrough.

The problem in both countries, as across much of Eastern Europe, is the lack of a genuine left. Where there should be one there is usually a former Communist Party mostly supported by elderly nostalgics.

Forecast: continued instability across the continent

As the Great Recession struck commentators were fond of telling us that this would mean defeat for the left as people turned to a selfish and hard-nosed right. Indeed, recent years have been hard. However, the discontent caused by years of hardship, and continuing demands for sacrifice with precious little reward, is now bubbling to the surface.

Different parties are channelling this in different places. But it is not true that this represents yet another step to the right. In many places it is the left that is again reviving. Across the board though it does represent a major crisis for the establishment parties, of both left and right, who have united for three decades in their pursuit of neoliberalism. They now face long term decline and increased political instability as a result.

New carriers, new wars

The new aircraft carriers are designed for large scale war – with Britain acting as the junior partner of the US argues Alastair Stephens

The recent launch of HMS Queen Elizabeth, by the eponymous monarch, is a very public expression of what was already an open secret: that the UK intends (most likely as the junior partner of the US) to attack other countries.

The ship, the first of two, is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy and is the first real aircraft carrier the Navy has had since the decommisioning of HMS Ark Royal in 1978,  a ship that’s construction had started during the Second World War.

Force Projection

The launch was accompanied by the usual chaff about its multi-purpose abilities; humanitarian relief operations came up a lot. This is of course what is technically referred to as “complete bollocks”.

Aircraft carriers are about one thing: force projection. This is how policy wonks refer to a state’s ability to conduct large scale military operations (i.e. launch attacks) in distant countries.

Even the world’s most powerful army is no use if it cannot be deployed. Aircraft carriers can do this. They give a state the ability to attack from the air, and support ground operations (troops), anywhere in the world.

Strike force

Carriers never travel alone. They are the central and essential element of a battle fleet which normally consist of a number of other warships, including missile cruisers, destroyers and submarines. These can then also be accompanied by the military forces needed for the ground war: troop ships, landing ships, supply ships, hospital ships etc.

The battle group protects the carrier against sea attack and the carrier’s planes, in addition to launching strikes against the land, protect the fleet from air attack. and all of them protect the ground forces.

A full strike amphibious strike force involves tens of thousands of personel and hundreds of planes. It is one of the most potent military forces ever deployed in the history of humanity

The carrier is the key element of a mobile army that can make war anywhere in the world irrespective of whether neighboring states will give support. Even if they do, a carrier group is still necessary. Land bases take time to build, and they and their supply lines are vulnerable to attack.

A carrier group is almost invulnerable. It is invulnerable because virtually no other countries in the world have the equivalent naval firepower.

The carrier club

Graph

Funnily enough the US has eleven such “Carrier Strike Groups” giving it the ability to conduct large scale operations (war) against multiple targets across the globe simultaneously.

At the centre of each group is a carrier such as the USS Admiral Nimitz, which with its crew of 5,000 is a floating city, entirely devoted to war (Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth looks puny in comparison, with its crew of just 1,600).

The only two other navies to possess the ability to strike outside their home region (or have a “blue water navy” in the jargon) are unsurprisingly Britain and France, the two global powers which the US replaced.

 At present only France has a carrier of the sort the US has.

The western foes du jour, Russia and China, come far behind in this league.

Russia effectively abandoned any pretension to a global naval presence with the end of the Soviet Union. It currently has one Soviet era carrier in service, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Its sister ship the Varyag was never completed. Its hull was sold to the Chinese and relaunched as the Liaoning two years ago.

A handful of other navies have carriers, mostly of the smaller type, just a third of the size of the American behemoths. Some are second hand carriers bought from old powers by Brazil and India, who wish to become regional powers. Two other European states to have carriers, Italy and Spain. These are just faded status symbols of third-rate powers.

Obscene cost

One of the reasons that we know that the new British carriers are not just for show is their obscene cost. Originally budgeted for £3 billion for the pair they are now expected to cost over £6.2 billion pounds. The two between them will carry 70 Lockheed F-35 warplanes planes, a snip at £90 million a piece. And that is all before their annual running costs.

The expenditure anytime would be obscene. That this money is so freely paid out in a time of austerity exposes the falsity of the need for austerity. The cutting is selective. It is also noticeable that this massive state project built by the private sector is twice over budget and is two years late, to very little comment.

Still, it is unlikely they would spend so much money out of a defence budget that already has a large number of commitments, unless they were planning to use these carriers.

Consensus for war

Map

The other reason we know that they intend to use these new weapons platforms is the political consensus for foreign intervention that has existed between the three main parties for some two decades now.

This is not something new, these carriers were ordered as a result of a Strategic Defence Review carried out by the new Labour government in 1998. This was to set defence procurement policy for the next two decades and declared that the British military must be prepared and able to carry out large scale military interventions on the scale of the first Iraq war in 1991, a war it had proved to be ill-prepared for. It shouldn’t be forgotten that this was three years before 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’.

The Secretary of State for Defence at the time, George Robertson, later went on to be head of Nato.

The recent back track on Syria is unlikely to be little more than a brief diversion. The Labour party remains dominated by the followers of Blair who backed the war in Iraq, and though some of them may now suffer form “buyer’s remorse”, this is for the most part expressed in terms of the way the war was fought, or the lack of WMD, rather than the principle of British Imperial power being used to invade other countries to sort them out. Others remain entirely unrepentant.

The doctrine of liberal interventionism remains alive and well in the upper echelons of the Labour establishment.

Loyal ally

The likelihood of the carriers being used is high. They will undoubtedly be used in medium scale actions such as the British intervention in Sierra Leone, or the French action in West Africa.

They are, it must be said, a little over-specced for such “police actions”, and not having super-carriers has not prevented Britain from conducting these types of operations.

What the new carriers are designed for is large scale war, and the only conceivable way that Britain will be doing this within the foreseeable future is as the junior partner of the US.

In our currently unstable world, it is only a matter of time before the new carriers are deployed in a war as the centres of two new Carrier Strike Groups, making war alongside their senior partner, the US Navy.

War or Peace in Ukraine?

This was written before the Ukrainian Presidential elections in May but I forgot to publish it. I think it is fairly close to what has actually happened since, especially in the light of recent events in eastern Ukraine.

NATO’s top commander in Europe General Breedlove’s recently stated that he though Vladimir Putin had obtained his objectives without invasion is probably correct.

Russia’s recent moves in the Ukraine were after were not part of a greater long term plan of military expansionism, but a short term reaction to a sudden and unexpected set back: the overthrow by force of the leader of key neighbouring state.

Now Putin wants to deescalate the situation and is looking to get out of a dangerous standoff.

Civil war is in practically no one’s interest. It would be many times bloodier than anything else to happen in Europe since the Second World War. It could destabilize the entire continent and suck in all the main powers. As the weakest of these his regime might be first to crack.

War is not in Putin’s interest.

The people with the most interest in the current war hysteria are  those currently ruling in Kiev. Tymoshenkos and her cronies, Turchynov and Yatseniuk, and the fascists of Svoboda and the Right Sector.

They need the Russian threat to justify their regime and drag politics further towards the nationalist right.

The unexpected rulers

Time is not on their side however. Presidential elections are scheduled to happen on 25 May, and if the polls are correct (and they so far have been fairly consistent) Ukraine’s current leaders are likely to be turfed out of office.

It must be remembered that the leaders of the Maidan movement are from the nationalist right of Ukrainian politics. Since independence in 1991 they have generally not held power, and when they have done it has tended to slip through their fingers quickly.

They were propelled into power in February on the back of a mass movement in Kiev, but one which enjoyed the political protection of Washington and Berlin. Without this it is likely that they would have been swept form the streets before it reached that stage.

Nowhere else in Europe has the occupation of a city centre that has gone on so long, or been this violent, been tolerated.

Even then their sudden rise to total power was unexpected and unplanned for. As the Nuland phone call shows they were willing to power-share with Yanukovich. It was the Right Sector, which precipitated (with the unwitting help of the brutal and inefficient Berkut) the uprising that ousted the President.

Nationalist Right face defeat

Ukrainian politics are set to return to its default setting: rule by a coterie of technocrats and oligarchs and their occasional front men.

All the polls suggest that the Presidential election on 25 May it will be a landslide for Petro Poroshenko, the “Chocolate King” Oligarch (and incidentally arch-rival  of Julia Tymoshenko).

Since the race began he has consistently polled over 30%. His closest contender is Tymoshenko who is trailing far behind on less than 10%.

The other leaders of EuroMaidan are nowhere.

The popular but vacuous Klitschko has sensibly withdrawn to run for Mayor of Kiev and thrown his weight behind Poroshenko (probably making an implacable foe of Tymoshenko in the process).

The leader of the fascist Svoboda party, Oleh Tyahnybok, is polling just 1.4% and Dmytro Yarosh of the Right Sector is running second to last on 0.7%.

These figures are considerable step backwards for them. Tymoshenko received 25% of the first round vote in the presidential elections of 2010.

The leader of the fascist Svoboda party, Oleh Tyagnybok, only got 1.4% in those polls. However his party took 10% in parliamentary elections in two years later. The latest polls suggest he is returning to the electoral margins.

The nationalist right have never managed to achieve an electoral majority in Ukraine, and are now doing worse than in previous elections.

Their upcoming electoral debacle may be a result of a public reaction against their politics now that they have had full exposure and the fact that since their accession to power (no matter who else might also be to blame the country has gone to the edge of civil war).

Return to default

Poroshenko is a return to the default of Ukrainian politics.

He as an oligarch who “made” his money in confectionaries but diversified into a whole host of other concerns.

Like most Ukrainian oligarchs, he also has a foot in politics, and right at the top. He is an establishment figure who has switched allegiances at various points.

He was one of the first oligarchs to back Yushchenko in the Orange Revolution of 2006 which prevented the protege of the incumbent president Kuchma from coming to power in a rigged election.

He then served in government under the resulting Orange Bloc administration (and became a deadly rival of Tymoshenko, who also quickly fell out with Yushchenko).

After the disintegration of the Orange Bloc in mutual recriminations Poroshchenko then moved to back backed Viktor Yanukovich and his Party of the Regions.

Yanukovich made a come back in the following election and beat his discredited Orange foes. Poroshchenko then served in his government also.

He is from the same technocratic/oligarchic centre of Ukrainian politics from which Kuchma, Yushenko and Yanukovich all spawned, and which has dominated politics, no matter what their label or despite their squabbles since independence in 1991.

Neither the Ukrainian nationalist right, with its base of support in the Ukrainian speaking West or the Soviet nostalgic left, with their base of support in the East, have ever been able to break out of their core vote, despite how divisive elections can seem.

It is the centre that is now asserting itself.

Wild cards

That does not mean that peace and stability are about to be restored

Both the mass demonstrations in Kiev and the rising in the east has been driven by the dire economic state of the country, the economic crisis and the mass disillusionment in the political system.

These multiple and interlocking crises have not gone away, and in fact have been deepened. The country in which identities have been more multiple and complicated, has been polarized to a much greater than ever into people who identify as Ukrainian speakers or Russian speakers, no matter what language use or ethnicity they may previously have claimed.

The wild cards in the immediate future are the right, and in particular the fascists and the movement in the East.

Further killing in the East by the far right, or another Odessa, could start a spiral of ethnic identification and conflict that could be difficult to stop.

The other wild card is the movement in the east.

This was not just pop-up movement directed from Moscow. It is a movement of rebellion which Moscow has sought to influence, as have other political forces, mainly influenced by Russian nationalist and Soviet nostalgic ideas, and not necessarily under Moscow’s control.

It has also started to encourage strike action, in what is still a highly industrialized area dominated by coal and steel, raising economic demands. These are bringing workers into conflict with the real authors of the Ukrainian crisis, and the people who have thus far dodged the bullet: the oligarchs.

Workers vs Oligarchs?

This movement if it grows can both start to really challenge the status quo in Ukraine, which is not about whether the country leans to the east, or the west, but whether its wealth and resources are controlled by a tiny group of people who are richer than Croesus lording it over the poor and exploited system, and whether these people also control the political system.

To do this though it will have to free itself politically from both Ukrainian and Russian extremists.

This is not just a pipe dream.

The 1989 – 1991 miners of the Donbass were at the forefront of both workers struggles and for democracy in the last years of the Soviet Union.

Despite not having no history of strike action in 1989 the Donbass miners, along with miners in Russia staged huge strikes for improvements in wages and conditions. They then set up the first independent unions. By 1991 they were leading mass strikes for democracy.

This nascent workers movement was  however destroyed by the economic disasters of the 1990s.

Far from over

Whether the situation can be stabilised is open to question. It the short term it is likely as both Ukrainian oligarchs and Russia’s rulers want stability. However Ukraine has now become a new fault line in an increasingly unstable world situation.

 

 

 

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