Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The Great and the Good

While Britain chose Churchill (despite the Daily Mail's annual lament that an implausible percentage of the population think he was the nodding dog off the adverts), and Russians (as announced yesterday) opted for Braveheart-esque folk hero Alexander Nevsky, the various global versions of the BBC's Great Britons have turned up some interesting results.

As you might expect, France picked De Gaulle, Germans chose Adenauer (after having been expressly forbidden to nominate Nazis) and South Africa voted for Mandela, but the Portuguese version was won overwhelmingly, and rather disturbingly, by former military dictator Antonio Salazar. Spain's version was servile, selecting the current king above Cervantes and Columbus, and voting both his wife and son into the top 10 for good measure.

As a sign that the public can't always be trusted, Romanians voted Vlad the Impaler into 12th, 2 places behind adolescent gymnast Nadia Comaneci. New Zealand predictably struggled to find 100 people to fill the list, topped by Ernest Rutherford. Russell Crowe ranked 100th, beaten by a pioneer of bungy jumping, a safe sex campaigner and the man who invented jogging.

The last word on these fascinating and bizarre personality contests: In the results for The Greatest American, Thomas Jefferson came 12th. 6 places above him - George W. Bush.

Name of Russia

Sorry to any readers left cold by yet more Russia-centric coverage, but the results of the Name of Russia poll (essentially a transported version of the BBC's Great Britons) are worth a look, either here in a well-written Guardian report, or here in the original.

The results are interesting less for the winner (medieval prince Alexander Nevsky, a safe choice) than for the strength of passion and number of agendas involved. In the end, Nevsky pipped Tsarist reformer Piotr Stolypin to the post, with Stalin coming a close third. However, the poll became more controversial than a Strictly Come Dancing phone vote with a nameless Blue Peter kitten thrown in, as the government, the Communists and even the Orthodox Church weighed in.

The various machinations surrounding the poll provide a fascinating portrait of the various forces at work in modern Russia. Putin's support for Stolypin was emphasised quietly but firmly (an uncharacteristically frank aide admitted that since Stolypin wasn't certain to win, Putin could not afford to support him more openly). Stalin had a commanding lead until the programme's own producer launched an 'anyone-but-Josef' campaign. The Man of Steel's performance here was quite likely due to his rehabilitation under Putin as a strong leader who did only what was necessary, and the fact that viewers could vote as many times as they liked, which the Communists seized upon.

The various figures were each presented to the public by various Russian luminaries, including a former general and 1991 Communist coup plotter for Stalin, a film director and personal friend of Putin for Stolypin, and for Nevsky - no less than the leader of the Orthodox Church in Russia. The British equivalent was Jeremy Clarkson.

Since this was a TV vote as well as a Russian election of sorts, it was bound to be dogged by allegations of vote-rigging (a victory for the rather bland Nevsky, after all, sends out a message that is rather better for business than a Stalinist triumph). It also opened the way for the delicious spectacle of disgruntled communists bemoaning a lack of democracy: "[The result prompts] the same level of trust as in the central electoral commission", one party spokesman said.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Putinophobia - it's racist, apparently

Few things irritate me more than when legitimate criticism of the Russia's undemocratic and threatening government is silenced as Russophobia, but I think the most infuriating example has to be found in this Guardian comment piece.

According to Anna Matveeva, any stereotype about Russia is racist, no matter how justified. Mentioning corruption is taboo apparently, as is writing a novel where the oligarch population of London (who, of course, are famously untainted by any impropriety) come out less than favourably.

Perhaps she also disapproves of references to cold weather - she certainly mentions one (feeble and unfunny) joke about Russians not having a sense of humour. Replace 'Russian' with 'German' and I wonder if Matveeva would object.

However, there is a more sinister side to this piece. Criticising the Russian government is racist, too. The "embittered idealism" of "Western liberals" disappointed by such trifles as state repression has led them to argue for Russia's castration, apparently.

According to Matveeva, a visiting fellow at the LSE, no less, even covering the war for South Ossetia is discriminatory, a chance to poke fun at the backward Russkies. By that logic, no one would care if Turkey invaded Armenia, just like no one did when it was just Britain and Northern Ireland. This argument is either deeply cynical or unimaginably blinkered.

I'm not a 'Russophobe'. I don't fear Russians. I have some close Russian friends, I have chosen to devote four years of my life to studying Russian culture, and I will be living there for several months next year. What I am frightened of is an unaccountable and repressive government that is deeply implicated in the torture and murder of its own citizens.

There is nothing racist in the fact that in Russia I often have to keep my voice down when near the police, to avoid marking myself out as foreign, and thus a prime target for a shakedown, or that I feel sorry for Russian friends studying hard for degrees made almost worthless by the festering sore of corruption.

Just type in 'buy a degree' on any Russian search engine, and you can find charts listing the going rates for bribes at Russia's most presitigious universities. There is every reason to chastise the Russian government for its unwillingness to tackle these embarassing and dangerous problems.Being angered by this, and by the unaccountable political system that tolerates it, isn't racist or Russophobic - it's human.

Dawn of the Dull

- It's the end of the world, not that anyone would really notice the difference

Survivors
BBC One
James Ellingworth


Throughout human history, the apocalypse has generally been imagined to be a fairly exciting event. From Medieval paintings of judgement day, full of devils leering over cauldrons of boiling oil, to the visceral 28 Days Later, the one thing depictions of the end of the world haven't tended to lack is drama.
Viewed in terms of this tradition, Survivors is worth watching, for the simple reason that they've managed to make the apocalypse look, quite frankly, a bit boring.
Firstly, the disaster itself. Everyone just gets the flu, goes a bit clammy, and keels over politely, doing their best not to get in anyone's way. It's all very British. Some people are immune to this pandemic, and they don't die. And that's that. No zombies, explosions or chases – in fact, no drama of any description. Mad Max it ain't.
The survivors of the title stand about a bit to a soundtrack of mournful piano, looking a bit confused. Their blank stares mostly seem to reflect their surprise that they don't really have anything to do, especially now that the dead haven't got back up and started on their expected high-protein human brain diet.
The first episode's ten-minute ending scene (stretched out with yet more dirge-like piano) basically boils down to: “I want some milk in my tea, but all the milk's going off now and everyone I know is dead. I'd still like some milk, though. I've heard it comes out of cows, we could get one of those.”
Survivors' vision of Armageddon isn't only bland, it's surprisingly female-friendly. What plot there is concerns a mother searching for her lost son, and the obligatory rugged male leads are neutered by silly roles. One just wants to settle down, another is a playboy who becomes a father figure to a young boy, and the 'criminal psychopath' character is played by a fugitive from the multi-coloured high-camp dross that is Hotel Babylon. Enough to snuff out any lingering embers of credibility.
Survivors, therefore, is for anyone who wants to watch the world end with minimal fuss, some emotional bonding and mournful piano chords. It is in fact, so unique, that I can think of only one conceivable use for it.
If ever your granny asks to see 28 Days Later, show her this. There's no nasty eye-gouging, it's marginally less exciting than overcooked peas, and you can even enjoy a nice scone as you vegetate to the ever-present sound of that mournful bloody piano.

Bands Bjorn Again

- James Ellingworth hasn't written the greatest story in the world; this is just a tribute.

I'd like to begin with a short message for the faux world-weary trilby-wearers of Razorlight. At a recent sold-out gig at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange by the Complete Stone Roses tribute band, the management were desperate to sell tickets for Razorlight the next day. Now that's just embarrassing. So Razorlight, please stop now. It'll be better for everyone that way. Right, that's that sorted.
Tribute bands are the methadone of music – filling the gap in the user's life where the full-strength hit should be. And it's a big business. Just look at Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana, who can pack arenas full of screaming ten-year-olds, despite essentially being a tribute to herself.
There are thousands of tribute bands out there, with names ranging from Abba-apeing housewives' favourites Bjorn Again, through the Antarctic Monkeys (billed as “the UK's hottest tribute”) to the frankly rubbish-sounding Oasis wannabes Definitely Mightbe . There are even tribute bands to fictional groups such as Spinal Tap and The Commitments, which prompts all sorts of philosophical questions.
You can even invent your own, given 30 seconds and a stereotype. How about Kneecap, a Northern Irish take on the post-modernism of Elbow? Or Rabbie Williams, Stoke's finest given a Scots twist? Or even Gaye Marvin, making “sexual healing” fabulous?
Some tribute bands have even reached a certain level of respectability, even credibility. The Complete Stone Roses, for example, have played festivals, and even had the real band's bassist, Mani, play alongside them as a 'special guest'. However, there does come a point where the line separating faithful imitation from actually thinking you're the band in question begins to blur. When the Complete Stone Roses played Edinburgh recently, in between the stonkingly-rendered big , numbers, they inserted about 30 minutes worth of obscure early material that left the audience cold, a sign perhaps of the confusing situation tributes can find themselves in if they start to be appreciated for what remains someone else's work.
There are also those acts that pay their tribute in an altogether more creative, some would say bizarre, way. The Red Hot Chili Pipers add bagpipes to Californian rock, while Dread Zeppelin are probably the only people in the world ever to think that what Robert Plant's vocals needed was reggae delivery from an Elvis impersonator.
But finally, spare a thought for the poor deluded souls who are destined to fail, who imitate the wrong band and then wonder why no-one turns up. Yes, I give you Razorlike, “the UK's only Razorlight tribute”. One word: why?

A sheepish apology

Sorry for the unforgivably long absence. Various things have kept me away from blogging over the past month, one of the main ones being work at Student, where I am now News Editor. The website is now back online, and really starting to generate debate, which is excellent. Over the next few days, I'll try to make up for my absence with a glut of published and unpublished pieces. Enjoy...

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Rather Nifty Election Predictor

Thanks to Alex Massie at The Debatable Land for this one from the LA Times: my prediction of how the election will go. Feel free to mock this tomorrow, depending on the results.

Why the McCain-Palin Ticket Deserves to Lose

A short rant for election day:

The Republican ticket deserves to lose quite simply because it has made the promotion of ignorance and mistrust of knowledge into a central tenet of the campaign. What we've seen, in all the talk of "pro-America areas", all the scenes of election rallies a step away from angry mobs, and especially in the vacuous mantra of "small-town values", has been a simple message: We don't trust those who know 'too much'.
The cynical selection of Sarah Palin epitomises this idea that the best way to make tough decisions is on gut feeling, and that the correct reaction to anything unfamiliar is mistrust, fear and aggression. 'Small-town values' are precisely that - drawn from a small place, based on a smaller set of influences. Lack of knowledge of the urban way of life is not a virtue, it is a dangerous lack of inexperience - worse still is to dismiss out-of-hand that there may be even the possibility of values in places other than those you know.
In the Palin depiction, Obama, as a man of the city, an intellectual and, more subtly, a black man, does not fit the standards of the 'small town' of the mind, cut off from the electoral issues.
The most depressing aspect of the campaign is that John McCain quite clearly does not subscribe to this. He is an urbane man, even in some ways an intellectual. His choice of Palin was thus utterly and unforgivably cyncial - an insult to the electorate and his base by suggesting he does not consider them worthy to understand anything higher than fear-mongering and crude demonisation of an opponent. In any sensible case, as Tina Fey has shown, a vice-presidential candidate with the inability to construct a normal English sentence would be ridiculous. It takes either an ignorant, gullible or cynical presidential candidate to present this as a virtue, a 'small-town value.'

Monday, 3 November 2008

Comment Piece on the Financial Crisis

Just to finish's today's bumper round-up, here's a rather elderly (but hopefully venerable) comment leader on the financial meltdown. There's a wonderful illustration to go with this, and I'll see if I can at least get a link to it.


The long path to sobriety [ran as 'Blame the players, not the game', Student 14.10.08]


That great intellectual of our times, President George W. Bush, described the current financial crisis in the following enlightening terms: “Wall Street got drunk, and now it’s got a hangover.”
The usual Bushism, you might think. However, while Bush may be a man guilty of regularly using misguided ideology to fill the gap where competence should be, perhaps this contribution bears further inspection.
Admittedly, it does conjure up some rather interesting images: the pasty-faced chief executive of HBOS, waking and opening his bleary and bloodshot eyes to discover he somehow got into bed with badger-haired chancellor Alistair Darling. Meanwhile, a scowling Gordon Brown mutters to himself as he cleans up the mess littering the hallway from someone else’s party.
But take Bush’s point seriously, and there really is no other way to describe an industry in which many of the major players go bust as a result of a heady cocktail of vast pay packets focused solely on incentivising ever greater risk-taking, and where bankers trade packages of debt so complex that none of them understand what they’re buying and selling, nor even how much of it they own.
The result was a toxic game of pass-the-parcel. As the ‘Masters of the universe’ unravelled their respective investments, confidence dropped ever further until the current panic set in, leaving nothing and no-one safe.
In the modern world every aspect of finance is interconnected, and the credit crunch’s victims have come in unexpected places. Only last week, it was revealed that councils across the UK had been investing their money in Icelandic banks – fine, until these went bust, leaving Kent County Council, to take just one example, with an embarrassing £50m shortfall.So you might imagine this to be a strange time for me to argue the case for the defence: that the bankers, the fat cats, can and do benefit society. But I’ll try.
Firstly, what we’re seeing isn’t the great collapse of capitalism, as various prophets of doom have suggested. The simple reason is that almost nobody wants that. People all over the world prefer the system they know and grew up with, governments too (even nominally communist China), as opposed to taking a wild gamble on an unknown, and quite possibly impossible, alternative.
The simple truth is that the whole banking system is based on mutual benefit – that’s what trade is. At least that’s the case when the deals involved are transparent. That is what a good financial system is supposed to allow to flourish.
The problem here isn’t the idea, it’s the implementation. A transparent financial system allows companies to compete on an equal footing, which encourages businesses to be efficient, transparent in their turn, and to satisfy customers. This is quite clearly a good thing.In this case, however, the banks thought they could find a short cut to fulfilling their own interests in the way they incentivised their employees, the much-maligned traders. They paid out big bonuses, obscenely large bonuses, for traders who made big bucks in the short term, and for a while the gamble paid off.
In the hunt for quick profit, which for them meant a better kitchen, in a grander house, with a faster car parked outside, traders explored and invented new ways of trading debts, in packages so complex that they didn’t have a clue what they were trading, just that it made a profit. The system became murkier, more confusing, and thus riskier. This suited the individual traders, but not their employers, and by extension, not wider society.
All it took was the gradual realisation that most of these deals were based around mortgages given to people who should never have been offered deals in the first place, for the simple reason that they couldn’t pay. Suddenly, these financial emperors had no clothes, and the system was in crisis.
However, the fault here lies not with the financial system, but with the bosses, individuals who got their sums wrong, the chosen few, hand-picked for their expertise. They implemented structures that benefited their employees in the short-term, not their companies.
The system will take time to recover. Injured banks mean that companies are unable to work as efficiently, that they have to set their sights lower. But the financiers will rebuild, and they’ll learn their lessons about how employees can be better handled, and banks better run. Government too has its part to play. Too loose a rein for the banks hurts everyone. Greater controls on recklessly high pay and bonuses for traders should be introduced, as should measures to prevent the same sorts of panicked stampedes occurring again.
The path to sobriety is long, and painful. Just ask America’s most famous recovered alcoholic, President George Walker Bush.

Feature on Corruption in Russian Universities

A little feature co-written with Zhanna Titova. Sadly not yet up on the web edition.


Grease me up Vlad [Student, 28.10.08]

James Ellingworth and Zhanna Titova shed light on Russia's corrupt education system


If you thought the university was ripping you off, would you go to the police? One student at Tyumen State Agricultural Institute in Russia did, and made national news. The reason? He'd bribed his lecturer, but the pass mark he'd expected in return hadn't materialised.
The above story was only newsworthy because of the student's idiocy in reporting the matter to the police, not because of the corruption involved. Sadly, that's all too common in many, if not most, of the country's universities.
As the row over tuition fees looks set to ignite once again, perhaps it's time for a step back and a look at the privileged position our money buys us, and how our degrees, comparatively at least, offer one thing more prized than any other in global education – they can be trusted.
We've all received those junk emails that promise a 'college degree' online with no work involved. And we all know that they're scams and that any certificate they might send you would be worthless. But with a simple search for 'buy a degree' on Yandex – the Russian-speaking world's answer to Google – you can find what is effectively a shopping list for corrupt degrees, detailing the bribes required to get in, get extra tuition, and pass exams.
Places at the most prestigious institutions, such as the elite Moscow State International Relations Institute, start at about $30,000 worth of 'favours'. $10,000 buys you a place at Moscow State Law Academy, although medics must feel left out – their course requires just $2,000. One principal at a top Russian university was recently arrested for selling law degrees – despite the fact that her university doesn't teach the subject.
Lera, a friend, describes her university experience: “A lot of my classmates from school paid $5-6,000 to get into university. And they keep paying to get good marks. But they just don't want to study, to go to the university day by day, they just go at the end of the semester...and pay a teacher or a dean and have good results.”
Russia is a country that I feel passionately about, and it's hard talking to friends worried that the degree they are working for will be worthless because of bribery. Russia, like a lot of countries with corruption problems, has a lot of potential and aims to compete with the EU, India and China. But corruption there is destroying the value of Russian degrees, for those who pay just as much as those who deserve their grades. Talented students who can afford to choose to study abroad, leaving the vast majority of ordinary Russians with no way to get a plausible qualification – there are now only two Russian universities in the world top 400, hardly indicating future prosperity.
The situation has got so bad that a lot of companies in Russia (and in other countries where the problem is just as bad, such as Ukraine) often list universities they will not accept students from when they advertise for graduate trainees. Their degrees are simply so doubtful as to be worthless.
Having a good degree that you worked hard for is valuable. But if everyone who has one had to work hard for theirs too, it's priceless. As soon as even one person is able to buy their way to a degree, every student's degree is cast into doubt. The British system's greatest asset is respectability – something that cannot be bought for the simple reason that it only exists when people don't buy their way in, but instead deserve the product.
For this reason, news of the various recent controversies over international students in Britain and the increased fees they bring is so worrying. Allegations of universities bending the rules for students paying several times the fees of a British student, true or not, put the reputation of everyone's degrees under just a little bit more suspicion.
While I'm not suggesting that a few dodgy favours for high-rolling foreign students – as some reports have alleged – will put the British system into the state Russian education is in, any hint that UK universities are motivated more by the money a student brings than the potential for learning, can only be damaging. Given the risks involved at a time when British universities are trying to challenge on the world stage, corruption is something we simply can't afford.

Cranks: Part 2

The second group of cranks who've invaded our website is altogether more disturbing. Those who believe the world to be only a few thousand years old can at least be laughed off (it would certainly have been news to the ancient Egyptians).

An influx of racists is slightly less funny. A couple of Student's articles on the BNP recruiting via Facebook and withdrawing from a council by-election seem to have been picked up on some rather unsavoury forums. I won't repeat the comments here.

While I don't necessarily agree with the tone of the Facebook article - any reasonable belief in free speech extends to precisely those views you find repulsive, and no direct incitement to hatred seems to have been found - I detest the clear BNP attempt to create a simulated gorundswell of support by deluging the site with comments.

A friend who did an internship at Parliament over the summer tells me that BNP central office is rumoured to have a 'rapid response' cadre of computer specialists who spend their days in a darkened room surfing for any mention of their organisation, and then cover it in propaganda.

Cranks: Part 1

Following the recent relaunch of the excellent Student website, it's become apparent how various groups will cluster around critical articles like moths to a flame.

Firstly, my recent comment piece on the stupidity of teaching creationism or its artfully nuanced subsidiary, intelligent design, in schools (apologies for the appallingly misspelt header).

Within 24 hours of the piece going up on the site it attracted three different creationists, keen to show me the error of my ways. Pride of place goes to this effort:

"Evolution is a false conclusion of the fossil record of death (not of “life”), and words can not describe the idiocy of the scientific community that continues to support such a theory, and advocating the teaching of such in public schools. There is no such evidence to support the conclusion. It is supported because it is the most convenient avenue the atheists can use to advance their agenda."

Nice combination of conspiracy theory with the assertion that anything that is dead cannot count as evidence, which rules out all archaeology, as well as anyone ever conducting an autopsy.

An apology, some cranks and some new material

Firstly, sorry for the lack of posts recently. I've been having a relatively hectic time over the last few weeks. There's been some upheaval at Student - we now have two new editors, and I've moved up to News Editor, which will make all my free time magically vanish.

I've also been trying to sort out where I'll be working on my year abroad. Strangely enough, getting an internship in Moscow has proved to be the easier end of the bargain (although accommodation is still in the balance), and I'm now struggling to find something in Germany.

Rest assured, I'll soon be back to form. For today I'll give you a quick discussion of how easy it is for a student newspaper to bring all sorts of assorted nutters from out of the woodwork, as well as a feature on university corruption in Russia that ran recently.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Herald Awards Pieces no.3 - Edward Lucas Interview

The final piece from the Herald Awards, and my personal favourite. Another full-page profile interview, this time with Edward Lucas of The Economist, published in March of this year.

A New Cold War?
-Edward Lucas, Economist journalist and author, discusses Russia's recent elections and alleged threat to democracy with James Ellingworth

Edward Lucas, the Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for current-affairs weekly The Economist, and – if you believe him – now a veteran of two Cold Wars. He is also the proud holder of the first visa issued by the post-Soviet split Lithuanian government in 1990. Lucas' outspoken attacks on the regime of Vladimir Putin have recently caused controversy through his book The New Cold War.
In a world in which 'Politkovskaya' and 'Litvinenko' have become improbable household names, following their murky yet high-profile assassinations, and an increasingly assertive foreign policy fuelled by an oil and gas boom, the international spotlight has returned to Russia, after years in the geopolitical background. Edward Lucas has garnered a reputation as a hawkish commentator on the subject, describing Putin’s Russia in an uncompromising and, some would say, aggressively ideological manner.
I meet him following a talk in Oxford to promote the book. As the conversation develops, I am struck by the contrast between his slight, sallow-complexioned figure and the anecdotes of bravery he reels off of travelling in places such as the Pankisi Gorge: “a bit of Georgia that was very lawless where no Westerners ever went”, when it was under the control of Chechen gunmen.
He also has a habit of understating events that almost anyone else would see as extreme, even terrifying. For example, his time in the Pankisi Gorge was “quite interesting” and “the Soviet frontier into occupied Lithuania without a Soviet visa and then being deported from the Soviet Union as a result” was “quite fun too.” Either a career spent chasing stories in the remoter corners of Europe has inured him to their drama, or, more likely, Lucas has an overwhelming natural modesty about his accomplishments.
One area in which he certainly does not mince his words, however, is his condemnation of the current Russian regime. In the introduction to “The New Cold War”, which has faced widespread accusations of scaremongering, including a scathing condemnation from Condoleezza Rice as “hyperbolic nonsense”, Lucas aggressively defines his subject:
“The direct menace that Russia now poses, not only to its own citizens, but also to outsiders. Twenty years after Mikhail Gorbachev started dismantling communism, Russia is reverting to Soviet behaviour at home and abroad, and in its contemptuous disregard for Western norms.”
Lucas begins our conversation by summarising his views on Russia today: ““I’ve spent the last twenty years dealing with Eastern Europe and I’ve become increasingly alarmed at the mixture of repression at home and xenophobia abroad. It’s sad for Russians if things are bad inside Russia, but it’s scary for us if Russia is bullying its neighbours, and both in the Baltics and the Caucasus and to some extent in Central Europe, we’re seeing a much more aggressive tone to Russian foreign policy.”
“I’m also worried about the way in which Russia has penetrated Western Europe in terms of political and economic power, of which the most glaring example is Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, becoming head of a Russian gas pipeline consortium.”
He defines his New Cold War in comparison to the previous semi-conflict, conceding the current situation’s limited nature when compared to the “global, ideological and military” Cold War of the 20th century.
“I think the New Cold War is very different, it’s not a military confrontation, at least not yet, it’s a much more subtle ideological confrontation, and it’s mainly, although not wholly, limited to Eastern Europe. I’m calling it the New Cold War because I want people to wake up to what’s happening and to join me in highlighting the danger that Russia poses, which is quite substantial and has been overlooked because we’ve been so worried about other things, such as terrorism and Iraq and so on.”
This description is delivered in Lucas’s impeccable RP, the product of an upbringing as the son of an Oxford don. He is multilingual, with an array of languages including Russian, Estonian and Polish – the last developed during university study in then-Communist Krakow. He feels a strong affinity for what he refers to as the “former captive nations” of Eastern Europe, freed from Soviet hegemony when communism collapsed, and the recent scenes of many diplomatic incidents that form his view of the new Cold War.
He refuses to be drawn on whether he sees himself as fighting in the current confrontation, understandable given the supposed impartiality of his profession. He is, however, prepared to discuss his earlier role: “I was certainly a footsoldier in the last Cold War. I lived behind the Iron Curtain and did my best to subvert the system of Communist totalitarianism, and the day that the ‘Evil Empire’ collapsed was the happiest day of my life, in political terms at least.”
Speaking before the recent Russian presidential election, he correctly predicts the result, in which Dimitri Medvedev was elected as Putin’s successor by a margin that would be unprecedented in most European countries.
He uses the election as an example of what he sees as a culture of secrecy that has grown since Putin, an ex-KGB officer, entered the Kremlin. “The point about the election is that it’s both predictable and mystifying. It’s predictable because we know who’s going to win it and it’s mystifying because we don’t know what it means. That’s very different from, say, America, where it’s totally unpredictable who’s going to win, but pretty clear what the differences will be if they do.”
“Certainly Medvedev doesn’t use the very abrasive rhetoric that Putin and some of the people around him have used, and he’s explicitly distanced himself from the use of the term “sovereign democracy”, which is a nascent ideology that’s been growing over the past few years. So there’s at least a chance but I would be very cautious about believing that, and I would want to see some quite substantial proof before my basically sceptical posture changed.
“I think it’s more likely that Medvedev is a plausible front-man for the chekisti, the former secret police people who will continue to run Russia, largely in their own interests and with a nasty dose of nationalist ideology thrown in.”
When asked if he sees any hope for the demise of the authoritarian structure he envisages, he replies: “[The regime] is not just corrupt and authoritarian, it’s also incompetent. Oil and gas production is flat or falling, they are not using the tremendous windfall of the past few years to modernise Russian public services or infrastructure, so there’s a lot of shortcomings which are being disguised by the lavish use of state propaganda, particularly on television.”
“I hope eventually a Russian middle class will emerge, which will be frustrated by the lack of political freedom and also dismayed by the continuing backwardness of their country, and will want something better, but I think that’s not going to happen soon.”
Lucas reserves especial condemnation for those he sees as facilitating the international actions of Putin’s, and now Medvedev’s, Russia. He portrays a system of double standards in Western behaviour in dealing with criminals with stolen goods and financiers with recently nationalised Russian “stolen companies”.
Companies such as the state gas giant Gazprom are listed on the London stock exchange and using their muscle to buy into European markets, but their growth is often shadowy and seen as dubiously legal. For example, Gazprom acquired many of its most valuable gas fields after the state auction of another company, Yukos, that was forces into bankruptcy after court proceedings often accused of being politically motivated.
In his earlier talk, Lucas drew another analogy with the 20th century: “During the Cold War, we had a fifth column, which was Communist trade unionists, and that was quite manageable. Now the fifth columnists aren’t wearing boiler suits, they’re wearing pinstripes and working in the City of London.”
The image of city high-flyers as traitors to the cause seems somewhat extreme, but the point is persuasive if as Lucas says, Russian state companies have been behaving illegally.
I put the case to him that, as many senior Russian politicians have claimed, political stability may be more valuable to Russia that a stronger democracy. In reply, he compares the current situation to the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, which were democratic, but famously unstable and chaotic, bordering sometimes on anarchy.
“Although the 1990s were bad, I don’t think that Putin has addressed the real shortcomings. The real shortcomings were not political instability, which I think is a symptom of political pluralism, actually, but corruption. That’s got worse under Putin, not better, and there was lawless behaviour by the state, and that’s got worse under Putin, not better, and there was increasingly unpleasant foreign policy, and that’s got worse under Putin, not better.”
This emphatic denial of what Putin, and many Russians, regard as the triumph of his presidency, showcases perfectly Lucas’s stand on the issue. He sees the situation idealistically, in terms of values, highest of which are representative democracy and due process. The theme continues when I ask Lucas how he believes the increasing confrontation between Russia and Western Europe should be fought:
“It doesn’t have to be uniformly confrontational, but we need clarity in the sphere of values. We need to say: ‘We believe in political freedom, the rule of law and multilateralism. We negotiate as the European Union, we believe that signatures on documents mean things, and we believe political choices have to be contestable.’”
“Now, how that works out in practice varies hugely. Italy does it one way, Britain does it another, and so on. You can’t be a member of a club unless you sign up to the rules and the principles of the club, and to some extent Europe is a club.”
This image, of Russia barred from the European ‘club’, summarises perfectly both Lucas’s stand on the issue, and his strongly confrontational and controversial approach. Whether he admits it or not, this slight, well-spoken man is fighting the New Cold War, in his books and columns. But to win, first he has to prove that it exists.

Edward Lucas is an excellent writer, a thoroughly decent person, and a shrewd analyst. I agree with him that there is an economic, political, and now (by proxy) a military conflict between the Russian government and much of the West. I also agree that however imperfect the system in various Western countries may be, it is infinitely better than the 'managed democracy' (actually closer to political gangsterism at home and abroad) that Putin and the other ex-KGB siloviki (his circle) favour. Where I disagree with Lucas is on how this should be tackled. He has become increasingly hawkish on the issue - he recently advocated stoking separatism in Russia's regions, which would be a bloodbath and alienate half the globe - but I understand his frustration at the lack of concerted action from truly democratic nations.

More on Russia - a country I love passionately - to follow.

Herald Awards Pieces no.2 - Comment Piece on Student Politics

While this piece, another of the three successfully entered at this year's Herald Awards, is very university-centric, it's worth including for completeness.

The Case for Apathy
Student, 02.03.08
Spring, when the cut and thrust of student politics is in full swing, the printers make a pretty profit from all the flyers littering George Square, and the vast majority of students pay no attention whatsoever.
The fact is that student politics, particularly the ridiculous version seen at the EUSA elections, is all too often irrelevant, repetitive, and just plain dull. Student politicians have had no real effect on the national political landscape in the last twenty years, and increasingly are failing to make an impact on their own campuses.
The process has become devalued due to this lack of influence, the fact that most involved are there for personal gain in terms of their own future employability, and the lack of impact that EUSA has on students’ everyday lives.
This year, one enterprising student has gone so far as too put his EUSA vote up for auction on Ebay. The seller asks for a “miscellaneous T-shirted individual” to “do the dirty deed” by meeting outside the library for a surreptitious bribe. There are no bids so far. Perhaps the leafleteers are missing a trick – given how few students actually bother to vote, the 50p asking price for user felixtrench’s support could be a bargain.
Due to the low turnout, (a total of 4750 votes in last year’s presidential election – about one in five of the electorate), the results of the elections typically come down to the candidate best able to mobilise their friends and the members of whichever political grouping they hail from.
This ends up with the EUSA leadership becoming those best able to preach to the converted, whether these be Labour, Conservative or People & Planet – none too surprisingly, the political homes of the three frontrunners in this year’s presidential contest.
The EUSA elections have become little more than a process to allocate CV-boosting job titles to the leading party political acolytes, who win or lose largely on the strength of their facebook networks. Like it or not, the single strongest force in this election is not a controversial cause, a divisive policy or even a charismatic EUSA take on Barack Obama with accompanying screaming hordes in Potterrow, but the deafening silence from the student body.
It doesn’t take much effort to work out why. Just one look at the completely uninspiring choice should be enough. The manifestoes contain policies that are a mix of small tinkerings with the status quo, promises that are outside the remit of the job on offer and vague pronouncements of things nobody could disagree with.
The depressingly dull and indistinct set are only the most visible symptom of a deeper malaise at EUSA. One look at the list of candidates shows the shockingly high number of positions with a sole candidate returned unopposed, or in a good number of cases, no candidates whatsoever. Further proof, if any was needed, that student politics is not about serving the voters in the daily grind, but getting a flashy CV to impress party headquarters.
At this point, you are perhaps expecting me to call for greater student involvement, so that we as the electorate are given candidates that truly reflect our views. But I won’t. Quite frankly, it is perfectly fine to be apathetic about the apathy. The simple fact is that student politics will never regain the prominence it once had. Let the trainee politicians fight amongst themselves, since the results will be broadly similar anyway.
By and large, engagement in politics is a good thing, making any process more democratic. But when the body involved has as little influence on everyday life as EUSA does, the argument for greater student involvement falls. EUSA’s main role seems to be to attend meetings and conferences to pass on policy shaped by the university’s political pressure groups, with little discernable effect. How many times in the next few years will a sabbatical [note: elected EUSA representative] be sent to ask the university if, pretty please, they wouldn’t mind cutting all ties to the Royal Bank of Scotland?
The association’s other aspects, as academic representative and bar owner, can even be seen as arguments against the current democratic system. Surely, class reps are more useful than an elected system with one sole candidate standing to represent the field of history, classics and archaeology, despite six seats being available. The £100,000 annual loss made by EUSA on entertainments speaks volumes about the short-termism inherent in the system, with each candidate out to make a quick, gimmicky splash, with no need to consider the long term.
In short, the current system is devalued, dull and often useless, but worth tolerating, since someone has to manage things, such as they are. It might as well be someone keen. But that’s still no reason to feel you have to vote.
**********************************
In case, like most Edinburgh students, you don’t know the presidential candidates, here is a brief summary in the handbags-at-ten-paces style of EUSA-less. If this isn’t enough to drive you to apathy, then you are truly a hopeless idealist.
First prize for banality must surely go to Nick Ward, for “Think forward, vote for Ward.” This is, quite frankly, the archetypal vapid political slogan. Every time this writer sees it, he is reminded of the following parody of a speech from The Simpsons: “We must move forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!” Actually, that might well have been a more inspiring choice for the flyers.
The alternatives? Harry Cole, a man who began his campaign back in November with a bitchy blog, and recently shot himself in the foot monumentally by owning up to it. He favours “real action” instead of “gesture environmentalism”. This action amounts to some energy-saving light bulbs and a recycling bin outside Potterrow for flyers. If this is real action, the gestures of the past must really have been lightweight.
Adam Ramsay, a man who never knowingly misses a photo opportunity, has chosen to paint himself as the Messiah in his Bible-length manifesto, claiming responsibility for everything and anything up to scrapping the graduate endowment, which until now this author thought was something to do with Alex Salmond. He also claims to have had “near-death encounters with a bear, lightning, a rattlesnake and a waterfall.” Whether or not he is the Terminator is unknown, but his promised price cuts would seem to be enough to allow each student to host their own version of The Apprentice.
And Gabe Arafa? A man so dedicated to serving Edinburgh students that he seemingly forgot to run until the last minute.
March 5th-6th 2008. Don’t make your vote count.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Herald Awards Pieces no.1 - Norman Tebbit Interview

The next three pieces are articles originally published in the Student newspaper, and successfully entered in the category of Best Features Writer at the Herald Scottish Student Press Awards 2008. There is an absolutely excellent picture that goes with this piece, and I will try my best to get hold of a copy.

Champing at Teb-bit - Student, 22.01.08
-James Ellingworth sits down with erstwhile Thatcherite enforcer Norman Tebbit for a healthy dose of controversy, Cameron and cricket

Facing him across the restaurant table where I am conducting my interview, I am struck by Norman Tebbit’s lack of the frailty that might be expected of a man who will be 77 years of age in March. Instead, he exudes the toughness and tenacity that earned him a reputation as Margaret Thatcher’s enforcer, and as a proponent of unfashionable and, to many, unpalatable views ever since.
Baron Tebbit of Chingford, as he is officially known, is a surprisingly warm interviewee, his strongly held views fleshed out with a raft of diversions and anecdotes. But there is steel there too, which explains his steadfast commitment to a set of strongly-held principles and political ideals. This has made the former fighter pilot a force to be reckoned with for many politicians, and not only those of the opposition parties. He also has a proven record of rousing the Conservative Right against their leaders, his emphatic style having troubled John Major, and more recently David Cameron.
It is then perhaps surprising that at the start of our interview he seems keen to portray himself as a political visionary, rather than the right-wing reactionary of popular belief. “I’ve never been in the mainstream for much of my life. The only time I was in the mainstream really was while I was in Margaret Thatcher’s government. The rest of the time I’ve been expressing views which were unfashionable, and I think I’ve had a habit of being perhaps a few years ahead of opinion.”
One of the issues he picks out here is his desire in the 1970s to reform trade union law and privatise industry, which “in those days...was not orthodox thinking, even in Conservative circles”. He eventually achieved this goal in his time as Employment Secretary under Thatcher, passing a law which helped to break the power of the unions and which he describes as his greatest achievement.
Despite this, it is his famous (or infamous, depending on your view) ‘cricket test’ that has become his lasting hallmark in the public consciousness. His claim that immigrants’ support for the England cricket team over their original homeland indicated how integrated they were into British society divided public opinion almost uniquely. When asked if he believes the test, which led to accusations of racism, has now been vindicated, Tebbit replies: “It has been indeed.”
“I think that, for example, Nasser Hussain would feel that too. He was, of course, jeered and booed by young Indians (he pauses and corrects this to “young British people of Asian descent”) when he was playing as captain of England, and I think they should have been cheering the fact that they were living in a country where someone from their homeland could rise to be captain of England, which is a pretty considerable feat.”
He adds: “The cricket test was always intended to say: ‘How well integrated are you into the country you’ve come to? Do you want to be part of this country or do you still look back over your shoulder to the country from which you’ve come?”
In many ways, Lord Tebbit’s language echoes an earlier, more direct, political era before the rise of modern political correctness. The implicit claim in his remarks that those descended from immigrants should show gratitude to the country in which they live is certainly not the type of message you hear from mainstream politicians. But, speaking to him, the impression is that he no longer cares about popularity. His concern is to state his beliefs openly and honestly, however controversial. The fact that a large proportion object to them, if it was ever much of a concern in the first place, troubles him no longer.
The one area where he has had most recent success is his vocal opposition to the European Union (he is patron of the campaign group “Better Off Out”). Quoting right-wing Conservative Enoch Powell, he remarks “’There cannot be a European democracy, because there is not a European demos [Greek for people].’He continues: “I just don’t think that the Brits fit...I think we would be better off to allow those Europeans who want to be in a federal state with a single exchequer and a single currency and a single defence force to do so, to form their United, not Kingdom, but a United Republic of West Europe, and for us to have a treaty relation with them. It doesn’t mean we’d cut ourselves off from Europe, I’d be very much against that, but we’d have a different relationship and we’d be fundamentally self-governing again.”
The theme of Lord Tebbit’s unease with the way Britain has changed, and is changing, is a constant one. In his speech to the Politics Society, he described political correctness having created a state resembling “1984 as if written by Enid Blyton” and regularly reiterates that Britain in the EU is no longer “self-governing”. It is a matter of debate whether this is due to genuine change for the worse, or his feeling out of place in a world where many of his beliefs are no longer common currency.
Lord Tebbit has also often been far from enthusiastic with David Cameron’s brand of “compassionate conservatism”. In our interview, he warns against Cameron portraying himself as the heir to Blair, claiming that Gordon Brown could use this to take the mantle of “heir to Thatcher”. “After all, Blair was a commodity that was past its sell-by-date. I think he’s generally recognised now to have been an extremely tacky and damaging Prime Minister to this country.”
On the subject of “compassionate conservatism”, he remarks that “It’s a question of whether the love is tough love or whether it’s stupidly soft love.”
When asked whether the Eton background of so many of David Cameron’s circle is a positive or negative influence, he responds: “I think both. I think that it’s a positive role in that they’ve had a very good education. I think a negative role in that they haven’t been quite as exposed to the world out there as some of the rest of us and that people find it more difficult to identify with them.”
I ask him whether they are likely to be the best men for the job, or if he thinks Cameron has been choosing friends rather than the most skilled candidates. He laughs, and comments that “We are pack animals and we tend to socialise with our own members of the pack... I think it is a danger for him, but it is also, I think, a measure of the fact that the Tory party has narrowed a bit in recent years.”
On the subject of university, he is against current levels of student debt, and, somewhat unusually for a man who is against state involvement in private matters, proposes “a system whereby the primary costs of tuition at university were paid out of the taxpayer’s funds but the universities themselves would be primarily funded by their own resources or resources that have been granted to them by government on a long-term basis, not on an annual basis.”
“In the same way I think that all schools should be independent entirely. They should be charitable companies, in essence, and that all kids should have, pinned to their lapel, a voucher to pay their fees at those schools.” He continues by illustrating how these government “vouchers” would give schools more money for accepting poorer and ethnic minority pupils, with the aim of creating a more equal education system.
On this issue and many others, Lord Tebbit is, and always has been, determined to state his views, however controversial. His is a refreshing honesty in modern politics, however divisive his beliefs. He is a conservative in the truest sense of the word, sceptical of change, and a true character of the sort rarely found in the blurred political landscape of tie-less figures with immaculately manicured images. On the basis of interest value alone, Lord Tebbit is likely to remain in the public eye for some time to come.

The published title of the piece, Champing at Teb-bit, is bloody awful (and not mine). However, since joining the staff and starting copy-editing, I have discovered how tempting a bad pun can be.

A Short Introduction to Myself and the Blog

I am a student journalist writing for a variety of publications. I have no fixed party affiliation, and see myself as a social and economic liberal, pro-EU but opposed absolutely to the way in which it is currently run. I try to vote forn whichever party best embodies by values - although that's rather difficult to discern, given the current muddled situation.

The blog will showcase various musings and comment pieces on current affairs, both published pieces and any other scribblings that my fevered brain comes up with.

If you feel the need to praise my work, I certainly won't object. If you feel that something I've written is flawed, or if you quite like a debate, that's fine too.