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.