HS2: A rail too far?

Regional inequality is one of the perennial political questions. It is up there with tax avoidance as something where everyone agrees that something must change, but no one can quite agree what. A classic example is the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, a nebulous term giving the highly misleading impression that something was happening when in reality it was invented purely to try and woo Northern voters

One of the few initiatives to try and deliver some actual change is HS2. This theoretically has the potential to increase the mobility of the workforce causing all manner of positive spill-over effects leading to a new age of economic growth up and down the country.

Already, however, the programme has run into all the cliché problems of a large government-spending project: late[1], both needlessly expensive compared to similar tracks around the world[2] and over-budget[3], and a massive pain in the proverbial for anyone vaguely near it (which is everyone).

To some extent, I can live with all of this.  Good things are often expensive and complex and just because something is inconvenient does not mean that we should not do it, provided it adds real value, both to the country and the communities that it services. The trouble is, it doesn’t, at all.

Now, I am not doubting that we do need to improve our current ageing transport network. But why on earth are we investing in technology that the rest of the world has had for decades? Surely if the point is to drive growth and innovation we should be investing in the next generation of technology. This better late than never mindset is damaging for this country. Japan is making massive leaps forward in the development of mag-lev technology, and there is no reason why we can’t too. This would give us a real competitive advantage over the world, something especially important as we move into the forthcoming BREXIT age.

There is also another, more fundamental criticism of the project.  If the design is to promote growth in the regions, why does the line go to London? Surely if we want to promote growth in the north we should focus on local infrastructure improvements, enabling local businesses to thrive.  The London centric plan gives the impression that growth only comes from the capital and that this must be where the growth takes place. Not only is that patronising in the extreme to everyone not in London, but it also risks a widening of regional inequality.  Cutting the time to get to London will simply lead to a further brain drain from the regions making it increasingly hard for novel, market-beating companies to be born. All it will achieve is to extend the London commuter belt, driving up house prices and placing pressure on local infrastructure.

A far better solution is to focus on connecting the great northern and midlands cities. There is no reason that Manchester or Newcastle cannot be the drivers of growth in the UK and we must encourage that, not drain them of their brightest talent.

 

 

 

 

[1] Ames, C. (2016) ‘HS2 running behind schedule and over budget, NAO warns’ Accessed: 16 December 2017. Available at: https://www.transport-network.co.uk/HS2-running-behind-schedule-and-over-budget-NAO-warns/13003

[2] Williams M. (2017)  ‘FactCheck Q&A: How does HS2 compare to other bullet trains?’ Accessed: 16 December 2017. Available at: https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-qa-how-does-hs2-compare-to-other-bullet-trains

[3] Handley, L. (2017) ‘what is HS2 and how much will it cost?’ Accessed: 18 December 2017 Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2017/apr/28/what-is-hs2-and-how-much-will-it-cost

Assessing President Trump’s next move on North Korea

“I would let Pyongyang know in no uncertain terms that it can either get out of the nuclear arms race or expect a rebuke”.[1]  These words, spoken by Donald Trump in 2000, seem to have become the guiding tenet of his foreign policy towards North Korea; yet the scale and final nature of such a rebuke remains to be seen.

President Trump’s shaky relationship with his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson has called into question the consistency of U.S. diplomatic efforts. Trump’s hardline approach has seemed to compromise and undermine the avenues of diplomacy, making very hard work for the State Department. Yet recent rumours of the Secretary’s imminent removal have been brushed aside and Tillerson’s latest overtures suggest that the U.S. approach could now be becoming more united.  Speaking at the UN Headquarters in New York, Tillerson omitted a line on U.S. openness to talks “without pre-conditions”[2] as well as directly rebutting the North Korean representative[3]; far from the traditional role of the Secretary of State.

So, is diplomacy off the table? With the U.S. apparently holding back and North Korea not being visibly receptive or amenable to talks in the current climate; China is brought into the diplomatic equation, but really only as an extension of Trump’s display of force. America is currently exploring the potential of secondary sanctions, i.e. going after Chinese companies doing business with North Korea[4]; a very direct and bold way of forcing China to intervene. A direct and ‘no-nonsense’ approach to dealing with North Korea has been Trump’s mantra since the election and recent events have only seemed to confirm this. So what explains this approach and perhaps more importantly, if talking has finished, will his rhetoric be converted to action?

Perhaps two historical examples can shed some light on Trump’s grandstanding. In 1968, North Korea seized the U.S. Navy ship Pueblo which led to a prolonged hostage situation and a perceived humiliation when the American president apologised to the North Koreans.[5] This idea of weakness and preventing such vulnerability was very prevalent in President Gerald Ford’s foreign policy, especially when North Korean troops murdered two U.S. Army officers in 1976. Ford ordered a U.S. infantry company, helicopters and B-52 bombers towards the demilitarised zone in Korea[6]; a bold stroke that seemingly diffused a larger conflict.

These examples plucked from the turbulent history of relations between these two countries perhaps reveal the importance of political posturing and grandstanding. If Ford’s actions were on the news today, we’d surely all be anxiously watching intently the hands of the doomsday clock. Yet, the show of force, not its execution was what provoked the required response in 1976. Therefore, rather than viewing Trump’s belligerent stance as a manifestation of his personality, perhaps we should look beyond that and delve into the patterns of past presidential behaviour. As we await the long-talked about rebuke, perhaps current U.S. bravado and escalation can in fact be perceived as the end in itself, a clear and unmistakable message for North Korea. Will President Trump’s direct and forceful approach provide the desired response this time around….time will tell.

[1] “Trump on the Issues”. www.cfr.org https://www.cfr.org/interactives/campaign2016/donald-trump/on-north-korea [Accessed 17 December 2017]

[2] Borger, J. “Rex Tillerson scales back offer of opening dialogue with North Korea”. www.theguardian.com https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/15/rex-tillerson-scales-back-offer-of-opening-dialogue-with-north-korea [Accessed 17 December 2017]

[3] Cohen, Z & Gaouette, N. “Tillerson confronts North Korea at UN” www.edition.cnn.com http://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/15/politics/tillerson-un-north-korea/index.html [Accessed 18 December 2017]

[4] Korte, G. “Trump promises new North Korea sanctions after latest missile test” www.usatoday.com https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/11/29/trump-promises-new-north-korea-sanctions-after-latest-missile-test/904978001/ [Accessed 18 December 2017]

[5] Lerner, M. ‘A Failure of Perception: Lyndon Johnson, North Korean Ideology, and the Pueblo  Incident’. Diplomatic History, 25 (4), (2001), pp. 647‐675.

[6] Reimann, M. “The U.S. and North Korea almost went to war over a single poplar tree in the demilitarised zone”. www.timeline.com https://timeline.com/north-korea-poplar-tree-bcee4d72332f [Accessed 18 December 2017]

All in all, You’re just another brick in the West Bank Wall

Like him or loathe him, Roger Waters has always been a man of passion, his music has always carried a social message. From the dark side of capitalism on “Money”, to criticising the greed and selfishness of the ruling elite in “Pigs (three different ones)”, to singing “Picture a leader with no fucking brains”, a line from his latest album. Why should we be surprised that this man is going to be outspoken? His current tour, the “US + Them” tour features images of President Trump in Warhol-like colours depicting him with lipsticks and breasts, words like “racist”, “sexist” and “ignorant” punctuate the images whilst the song “Pigs (three different ones)” plays.
In recent months both Nick Cave and Radiohead have played concerts in Tel Aviv. These artists received scathing criticism from Mr. Waters, citing that they should respect a cultural boycott of Israel; after all, “this isn’t about music, it’s about human rights.”
In an 2011 Op-Ed piece for The Guardian, Roger Waters discusses his experiences whilst visiting Palestine and how this influenced his decision to support the Boycott, Divesment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. It was in this Op-Ed that Waters stated;
In my view, the abhorrent and draconian control that Israel wields over the besieged Palestinians in Gaza and the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), coupled with its denial of the rights of refugees to return to their homes in Israel, demands that fair-minded people around the world support the Palestinians in their civil, nonviolent resistance.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Waters asked that his fellow artists to join him in the cultural boycott of Israel. Nick Cave and Radiohead both ignored the call and performed their shows, prompting further criticism and scorn from the veteran rocker.
What followed next however, I feel is unusual. German television and radio stations have pulled out of airing live performances of the “Us + Them” tour when it visits the state next year, citing that the move was made in light of anti-Semitic accusations against Waters.
The question really is, can you criticise the state of Israel without being anti-Semitic? After all, Roger Waters was criticising the government of Israel and their policies, not the people of Israel, nor the Jewish faith.
Given 20th Century history, it might be that these German broadcasters are taking an overly cautious approach. However, if we look at the experiences of everyday Palestinians, the government of Israel becomes a legitimate target of criticism.
The Huffington Post compiled a list of 10 things that the Palestinian people have to endure on a daily basis; on this list there are things such as living under Israeli military presence, not being to control supplies and goods into the territory, not being able to control the water supply and not having access to life saving health care. The reason they don’t have control over these things, the Israeli occupation.
A Palestinian citizen, Alfred Khoury, describes the ordeal of passing through a checkpoint on his daily commute to work.

“It’s so depressing. We feel like animals. But these days not even animals get treated like this. It’s humiliating. Every day I’m here by 4:30am to make sure I’m in my office by 8:30am.”
“We don’t live like human beings” laments 26 year old Firas.

Human rights are essential to any legitimate government. Every government should be held accountable for its actions and therefore open to criticism. Certainly in todays society of digital media and the internet, every government should know that its actions are being recorded and scrutinised. Governments implement policies and sometimes policies are bad.
Of course the situation revolving around Israel and Palestine is complex, its why the problem has not been solved in the past 50 years, nor is it likely to be solved any time soon.
What we need to realise is that criticising a government is not the same as criticising the existence of a state, or ironically, denying a people its homeland.

Growth of Shiite Iran Leads Israel To Embrace Unexpected Allies

Growth of Shiite Iran Leads Israel To Embrace Unexpected Allies

The emerging alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia against their common enemy – Iran came to light since Israel’s IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eizenkot gave few interviews to the independent Saudi newspaper Elaph last month (Jerusalem Post, 2 Dec 2017; Jerusalem Post, 16 Nov 2017). In the middle of November, he stated that there are many shared interests between the two countries and admitted that Israel has offered to share intelligence about Iran with Riyadh and other moderate Arab states:

“We are ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence information to confront Iran. … There are many shared interests between us and Saudi Arabia.” (As cited in Jerusalem Post, 16 Nov 2017).

Riyadh has not publicly confided in the mending diplomatic fences though. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told Egypt’s CBC television:

“There are no relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. There is the Arab peace initiative, which shows the road map to reach peace and establish normal [ties] between Israel and Arab states.” (Jerusalem Post, 2 Dec 2017).

Despite this denial, there are few reasons to suggest that Saudi Arabia is interested in the alliance not less than Israel.

Growing Power of Iran

The war against the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq strengthened Iran’s positions. The alliance of predominantly Shiite Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian forces together with Russia defeated IS Sunnites. Iranian military advisers successfully commanded some units of the Iraqi Shiite army and effectively influenced the outcome of the war. This brought a powerful position in the region to Iran. As of today, Iran allies with Assad’s regime in Iraq and Syria. In Yemen – a neighborough country with Saudi Arabia, Iran supports the Shiite Houthi rebels. And in Lebanon, it backs the Shiite Hezbollah (GPF, 29 Nov 2017).

All three: Assad’s regime, Houthis and Hezbollah are enemies to both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Why is the new geopolitical situation insecure for Israel and Saudi Arabia?

According to the analytical magazine Geopolitical Futures, Israel was fairly safe while radical Sunnite and Shiite forces were fighting with each other in Syria. However, they may now turn their focus on Israel again (GPF, 1 Dec 2017). Though, from the two options, Assad is less evil for Israel than ISIS but still an enemy. Take also into account that ISIS forces are dispersed but not completely defeated. What is worse for Israelis and Saudis is that Hezbollah, backed by both Iran and Assad, has strengthened its positions. (GPF, 1 Dec 2017).

In this context, warming relations of Israel with Saudi Arabia look very well-minded. However, yet the situation in the region is not as insecure for Israel as it may seem. Hezbollah is an enemy but Israel used to deal with Hezbollah for many years. Iran’s military achievements threaten Israel more than during the war in Syria. Nevertheless, it is not to Tehran’s benefit to confronting with Israel right now because this would lead to the renewal of sanctions imposed on Iran by the West (GPF 1 Dec 2017).

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the relations between Sunni Saudis and Shiite Iranians have been hostile since the Iranian revolution (GPF 1 Dec 2017). Now, the struggle for the regional power between Riyadh and Tehran has intensified (Jerusalem Post 29 Nov 2017). Saudi Arabia is Iran’s regional rival but the decline of oil price has weakened the economic and political stability of Riyadh. And hence, the ability to protect itself from Iran (GPF 1 Dec 2017).

Thus, Saudi Arabia reckons on getting a strong player in the region to stand up Shiites. Therefore, it needs Israel in confronting growing power of Iran.

However, the alliance is beneficial for Israel as well. By establishing a dialogue with Arabic countries, Israel is legitimising its legal status in the Arab world.

It is not for nothing that Israel has recently changed its attitude to some former adversaries, stating that there is no more Arab coalition against Israel but those who are for and against peace.

For example, in June 2017, former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated that

“We and the Arabs, the same Arabs who organized in a coalition in the Six-Day War to try to destroy the Jewish state, today find themselves in the same boat with us … The Sunni Arab countries, apart from Qatar, are largely in the same boat with us since we all see a nuclear Iran as the number one threat against all of us.” (Jewish Press 5 June 2017)

In the new geopolitical context, Israel is trying to get partners among non-extremist states, even though they are former adversaries. Just because Israel regards that former discords are less endangering than current extremism.

Israel could stand alone day-to-day terrorist attacks and few wars with neighbours in the past. However, may a broad-scale terrorism or a marginal aggression from a coalition of adversaries happen, Israel needs allies. This became especially relevant with a possibility of an escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Third Intifada) following Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

The question is how much can both Saudi Arabia and Israel, busy with their own problems, help each other, may the conflict either with Iran or other their adversaries happen? They need to look for more allies. However, U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli capital has narrowed down the choice of prospective candidates.

References

Geopolitical Futures [online], Iran Reshapes the Middle East (29 November 2017), available at: https://geopoliticalfutures.com/iran-reshapes-middle-east/ [accessed: 03/12/2017]

Geopolitical Futures [online], A Complex Dynamic Between Israel and Iran (1 December 2017), available at: https://geopoliticalfutures.com/complex-dynamic-israel-iran/ [accessed: 04/12/2017]

Jerusalem Post [online], IDF Chief of Staff: Israel willing to share intelligence with Saudis by Anna Anronheim (16 November, 2017), available at: http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/IDF-Chief-of-Staff-Israel-willing-to-share-intelligence-with-Saudis-514438 [accessed: 03/12/2017]

Jerusalem Post [online], Saudi Arabia vs Iran (29 November, 2017), available at: http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/Saudi-Arabia-vs-Iran-515511 [accessed: 04/12/2017]

Jerusalem Post [online], Inside The Prospective Israel-Saudi Arabia Rapprochement (2 December 2017), available at: http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Inside-The-Prospective-Israel-Saudi-Arabia-Rapprochement-515801 [accessed: 03/12/2017]

Jewish Post [online], Ya’alon: No More Arab Coalition Against Us, Also Containment Is Victory (5 June 2017), available at: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/eye-on-palestine/yaalon-no-more-arab-coalition-against-us-also-containment-is-victory/2017/06/05/ [accessed: 05/12/2017]

Donald Trump recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

On Wednesday this week, after much speculation President Donald Trump formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Additionally, the President signaled his intention to move the US embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, although the President did sign a waiver delaying this move for six months.

This announcement has caused a flaring of violence between Israeli and Palestinian forces. Clashes have erupted in the occupied West Bank and over the Israeli-Gaza border, where one Palestinian was killed. The policy shift from the President has been welcomed by Israel, but has been condemned by the Arab world and also Western allies of the United States.

Officially this has been the position of the United States since the 1995 Jerusalem Act which states “Jerusalem should be recognised as the capital of Israel.” The law also required the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem, but conceded the move could be put off for six months at a time as long as the President  informed Congress that such a suspension would be necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States. Every six months since 1995 successive Presidents have opted against moving its embassy, until now.

So why is this decision so controversial? Jerusalem is a place of great religious and historical significance. Firstly, it holds a special status for each of the three Abrahamic religions of the world. Therefore any policy decision about Jerusalem will cause a reaction amongst each of these three religions. Secondly, both Israel and Palestine recognise Jerusalem as their capital. This will be seen as moving a step closer to cementing Israeli sovereignty over the city. Lastly, when in July 1980, Israel passed a law declaring Jerusalem as its united capital following the Six-Day War in 1967 this was condemned by the United Nations Security Council. There are complex religious, regional and diplomatic issues to be considered.

Undoubtedly this will make any peace deal between Israel and Palestine significantly harder and thus further reduce the prospect for peace in the region. The decision will also enhance tensions in the region. Next week Jordan and Turkey will lead a meeting discussing the Arab-Islamic response to the Jerusalem decision. Hamas have also called for a Palestinian uprising and a ‘day of rage’ to highlight the anger that exists and in Indonesia and Malaysia, Muslims have also protested outside US embassies.

In a region plagued by violence and war, this is a diplomatically foolish decision. The aim of the United States should be to secure peace in the region. This move will not help this aim. Without question, the issue of Jerusalem is one of the hardest in modern diplomacy. This, however is not the correct answer.

Britain remains divided over Brexit

On Monday, Theresa May will to travel to Brussels for lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier. Prior to this meeting, the UK will have present proposals on the Brexit Bill, the Northern Irish border and citizens rights. These proposals will then be debated and discussed by the EU27 who will decide whether “sufficient progress” has been made to move talks onto the next stage.

Regardless of how these talks develop and how the proposals are received, it appears unlikely it will impact significantly change public opinion in this country which remains firmly divided on Brexit and whether to hold another referendum. As parliament continues to debate legislation, public opinion on Brexit and the European Union has remained relatively static.

Polling from Opinium shows Remain would have a 1% lead should the EU referendum be held today. However, that remains well within the margin of error. Furthermore, the polling shows that 91% of Remainers and 88% of Leavers would stick to their 2016 vote. Lastly, only 35% of the public are in favour of a deal on the terms of the referendum against 53% who are opposed to a referendum on the terms of a deal.

This shows that despite a perception that Brexit talks have been handled badly to date and that according to YouGov, those that believe the Brexit vote was the wrong decision have a four point lead over those who believe it was the right decision, there remains no overwhelming desire for a second referendum on Britain’s membership or even a referendum on the terms of the deal.

Voters are liable to change their mind and may yet do so but presently there is no clear evidence that this is happening. The General Election (albeit a few months ago now) offered a test of whether British voters wanted to change their mind on Brexit. There was no clear evidence that they did. The noises about reversing and stopping Brexit are coming from the same voices. These are voices which are being driven by their own opinions rather than by the weight of public support and it will always be the latter that politicians will be concerned about.

As the Government prepare and plan their next move, it is clear as it has been since the 24th June 2016, the UK will leave the European Union. The only real question is whether the UK leaves with a deal or without a deal. Sorry, Remoaners we really are leaving!