Mafia State?

From periodically peering into Russian affairs through the British press one could be forgiven for understanding Putin’s Russia as a ‘police state’.

That’s inaccurate, says Luke Harding in Mafia State. It’s a crime state. 

Luke Harding is The Guardian‘s senior international correspondent. He’s recently been hopping in and out of Assad’s anarchic Syria, but made his name as its Russia correspondent between 2007 and 2011. Famously, after peeving the Kremlin a bit too much he became the first Western correspondent since the Cold War to be expelled from Russia. Frustrated, irritated and exacerbated he did the only thing he could do – tell everyone about it.

Harding gives the FSB – the Russian Federation’s successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB – a tough rap. It is a law unto itself. Its agents – some 200,000 strong by Harding’s reckoning – are immune from any sort of prosecution. They are the clients of multiple powerful interests, of which the Kremlin is just one. Scary stuff.

Earlier last month Harding visited Oxford to talk to the Oxford Media Society, which I help out with. A few of us were lucky enough to have dinner with him beforehand. (Disclosure: Luke insisted on paying for all our meals at Quod – so I was already a big fan of the guy) He then gave a humorous and spirited talk that was nonetheless intensely serious in character.

Some of the FSB stunts Harding fell victim to do seem “fairly innocuous”, he explained. But really they’re not. A pornographic sex manual was left on the bedside table in the marital bedroom; a page on achieving orgasm had been bookmarked. Hilarious, if spooky.

Less funny: Harding returned to his 10th floor flat one day to find a large window, that had been double-locked when he left, swung wide open above the courtyard far below. That window was by his young son’s bed – the unambiguous message: an accident might just happen. Similarly, having since moved to a suburban dacha, the family returned home one winter’s day to find their boiler had been inexplicably disconnected. In -20 degrees Celsius, that is no laughing matter.

Mafia State is less than 300 pages. But in that space it successfully marries a chilling – if charming – personal account with an angry inditement of the monolithic kleptocracy that Putin has fashioned.

I enjoyed the book for three reasons. First, it’s a good book: as the New Statesman and LRB attest. Second, I liked the author. The passion with which the book has been written was conveyed all the more forcefully to me having learnt what Harding was about. And third, I’m overwhelmingly sympathetic to his conclusions. I’ve heard a lot from professional Russia-watchers who, whilst knowing their subject much better than I do, seem to quick too equivocate and explain, even justify, the Russian system. ‘Russia has never known democracy’ they say, ‘autocracy is in its DNA’.

[It’s a fair point. Russia’s brief flirtation with democratic institutions and an open economy in the 1990s ended in disaster. Putin brought stability and a degree of shared prosperity to the country; his clique of KGB strongmen seemingly delivered what democracy could not. If there’s one important omission in Harding’s book then this is it: how does he answer the claim that Putin’s authority derives from the recovery from those turbulent years?]

But Harding doesn’t equivocate, he doesn’t empathise and he doesn’t attribute any noble purpose to the Russian regime. Putin and his clan are in it, chiefly, for their own profit. The WikiLeaks cables indicate that Putin has personally accumulated billions in assets; the burgeoning bureaucracy of the Russian state has similarly enriched itself. Putin has established authority through channeling oil&gas revenues into social projects, all the while creaming off most of the profit for the plethora of powerful interests that keeps the whole show on the road.

And in any case Harding reckons that that authority is crumbling. The condescension with which Putin treated the Russian people in the casual May job-switch with Medvedev, returning to the Kremlin after 4 years basically running it from the White House, was obvious for all to see. It has sparked the first set of mass anti-Putin protests since 2000. Increasingly the smart money is on Putin being ejected from the Kremlin in some way before his two-terms expire in 2024. I wouldn’t bet on it.

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Review: Peep Show Series 8 (first half)

Reproduced from Cherwell

Like all the greatest rock stars, the best British comedic dramas have historically died young: Fawlty TowersThe Office; even Monty Python’s Flying Circus properly lasted only three series. Peep Show fully deserves to number among these classics, but, now bucking the trend, is in its eighth series. With the show, and its characters, now almost a decade older than when it all began, you could be forgiven for expecting a certain level of classiness or maturity: Mark (David Mitchell, who Cherwell interviewed earlier this year), after all, now has a child and has asked his long-term girlfriend Dobbie (Isy Suttie) to move in, turfing Jez (Robert Webb) out.

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But, thank goodness, nothing has become sacred: even last rites. Mark seethes as Dobbie tends to the sickly Gerard (Jim Howick). One evening Mark manages to persuade her not to rush to his bedside – “But Dobs, it’s the Apprentice tonight, I think there’s going to be someone we both really hate” – and, hilariously, Gerard kicks the bucket. Corrigan remains a master of the acutely awkward observation, the cynical retort and the withering put-down; and what a relief it is that while the material feels so fresh, the central conventions of the show have survived intact: it is comforting to see Jeremy’s inane reasoning (“I’d make a great therapist. Look at all the pussy I bag”) and Mark’s sardonic wisecracks (“Is that a quote from Freud or Jung?”) continuing to manifest in their characteristically outrageous fashion.

Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, the writers of Peep Show, deserve medals for crafting a script that manages to place authentic, pitch-perfect, toe-curling awkwardness into poetry: “I never stone alone; I’m just high on pie”, is how Mark declines a spliff. A useful one to remember. All that said, the format is predictable. Jeremy says and does stupid things; Mark pursues eminently sensible goals, but typically fouls up just as badly as Jeremy. Jeremy remains an infant in a grown man’s body: a perennial failure with occasional flashes of jealousy. Hearing that Mark has published a book (albeit with the suspiciously named ‘British London’) Jeremy panics: “What next? He’s found a director for his film? A builder for his cathedral?” Mark loves to berate Jeremy for his failings, but in reality is consumed by a similarly bitter pettiness; acutely conscious of his own under-achievement, Mark patronises Jeremy and jealously curtails even Dobby’s career ambitions.

You sort of know how this is going to unravel just by skim-reading the subtext. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. Peep Show revels gloriously in drudgery; even its most colourful characters lack charisma, instead generating in their comic interactions a remarkable anti-charisma, which itself forms the gravitational centre of the show’s charm and intrigue. Mark and Jeremy can always be trusted to get over their mutual loathing because, after all, the only thing animating the lives of the ‘El Dude’ brothers is each other. The fruits of that relationship, not just the gags, are surely the reason the show has lasted so long. The viewer remains as wedded to the central relationship as Mark and Jeremy are to each other: we remain oddly charmed by how totally aware they are of the other’s naivety and haplessness, while apparently blissfully ignorant of their own. And how deeply they know each other’s quirks: Episode 2’s depiction of Jeremy discovering Mark executing the ‘Velvet Spoon Routine’ (avoiding the obligation of making him a cup of tea) is a highlight.

“I hate living with him, but I never really want it to end,” Jeremy describes living with Mark. In a similar way, I’m not quite sure why I keep watching Peep Show. Its pulling power is akin to popping bubble wrap: it all seems slightly mundane and a little pathetic but somehow instils a deep affection in me. Series 8 has moved to Sunday night from the usual Friday slot, a shrewd move I think: the essence of Peep Show chimes much better with the Sunday night mood: dour, reflective, lazy, mercurial. Series 8 has got off to a cracking start. The next episode sees Jeremy move out of the flat and in with the steadfastly drugged-up Super Hans. Perhaps they should move this one back to Friday.

Why Labour’s opposition to benefit cuts is politically shrewd

Osborne is doing what he does best: playing politics.

The 1% benefits increase over 3 years (a real terms cut) is a classic piece of manoevring by the Chancellor. Splashed across the tabloids the 1% figure echos the Tory (and Coaltion) message: Tough But Fair.

Even though less than half of those affected will be the unemployed (the cap also covers working tax credits) the move has been framed unambiguously in the language of workers vs. shirkers. ‘The injustice!’ says Cameron&Co. ‘of waking at the crack of dawn to go to work, and seeing the curtains of your [unemployed] neighbours shut.’

If the Tories can successfully frame the welfare debate in terms of workers vs. shirkers, then they have won. If the Tory-Labour battle becomes characterised by who has the toughest attitude to the feckless poor, then the Tories will always win. They strike a far more authentic tone.

Labour can only turn welfare into a ‘win’ issue if they frame the debate differently; if they adopt the lanuage of poverty, squalor and indignity, and rescuing the unemployed and low-income hoseholds from that. Workers vs. shirkers doesn’t allow for that, and so they must reject it outright.

They will probably fail to inject a new understanding of welfare into the public consciousness. The one abiding success of the Coalition has been its ability to persuade the public of the need of austerity, explained in the homely language of ‘tightening our belts’ or ‘paying down the debts on the national credit card’. In that context the softer approach to welfare spending that Labour will advocate can easily be caricatured as state largesse.

On the other hand, by adopting language that describes benefit cuts as cruel, vindictive or ignorant – or all three – Labour at least stands a chance or immunising the public to the crude workers/shirkers rhetoric.

To the extent that you might agree with all that, Miliband’s decision not to oppose 1% is politically shrewd, perversely it being the only way for Labour to escape the label as the ‘shirkers’ party’.

Fair Observer: The PCC Elections and the re-birth of localism

Fair Observer  in my understanding models itself on ‘The Economist’, certainly in terms of tone and content. It’s a pretty low profile web outfit, but I was attracted to writing for it for three reasons: (1) Atul, its Editor and a former Oxford PPE-ist, was kind enough to contact me during the PoshGirls scandal, not to goad, but to offer some words of support. I appreciated that. (2) the content was generally very high quality, the sort of stuff I’d aspire to write and (3) its claim to have global nous seems genuine; Fair Observer has contributors from 5 continents and in all walks of life. I was attracted by the project Atul is attempting to pioneer, even if I think he’ll have a tough time establishing a market niche.

Reproduced from Fair Observer

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With the creation of new Police and Crime Commissioners last year, along with recent inaugural elections, the British government’s attempt to politicise the post of the Chief of Police appears to have come at a wrong time.

The PCC Elections are emblematic of the Coalition’s attempt to push power and democracy downwards and outwards. But will democratising the police refresh the flabby institution, making it more accountable and responsive to the community it serves, or will it turn the police into a political football, having a corrosive effect on the quality of the service?

Defenders of PCCs say that policing is already a political issue. How could it not be? If politics is about how we best live together, the importance of both individual and collective security will form a central part of public discourse. Political parties have disagreed about policing ever since Robert Peel established the world’s first professionalised force in 1829. The function of the new PCCs, the government argues, is not to ‘politicise policing’ as their Labour critic claim, but to push the politics down from a national to municipal level.

And if this exercise in decentralising one function of Britain’s leviathanic state can be shown to work, it may prove to be simply a harbinger of further devolution from London to the localities.

Why Westminster Rules

Among the club of liberal democratic states Britain remains its most centralised member. The legacy bequeathed by earlier generations was born of noble intentions. During the Second World War the country unified – and centralised – to kill Germans. So why couldn’t it do the same to lift people out of poverty and squalor? These pressures, manifested in Labour’s landslide 1945 election victory, led to the creation of a comprehensive welfare state – its proudest achievement: the National Health Service. Aneurin Bevan, the Minister for Health who pioneered the NHS, famously ordered that should a bedpan pall in some provincial hospital ward, its echo would reverberate around Whitehall. The Atlee government believed first in social justice, but they were quintessential centralisers, asserting not just the primacy of public over private but of national over local. Both features would become central to British national life.

The Thatcher government challenged the first of these with its programme of liberalisation and denationalisation. It left the second untouched however, leaving swathes of the public sector unreformed, inefficient and out of date. The Labour government of Tony Blair began to force change through the public sector, introducing market incentives into healthcare and freeing schools from the deadpan hand of the education authorities. It bowed to nationalist sentiment and devolved power from Parliament to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and indeed, to Greater London, now the fiefdom of Boris Johnson. For the first time the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – the haughty principle that what is decreed in Westminster shall be – was formally repudiated. But as the conflict in Iraq escalated, Blair’s authority evaporated and his reforming allies were marginalised. The ascendancy of Gordon Brown to the Premiership in 2007 ended further attempts at reform, a victory for the vested interests in the public sector that had supported Brown’s rise.

Giving people a say

Whilst David Cameron’s government has been less than successful in reviving Britain’s fledgling economy, it has breathed new life into the public sector. Of special noteworthiness, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has made thousands of state schools ‘independent’ within the public sector, giving them powers to emulate their outstanding rivals in the private sector. More radically he has permitted local parent groups to set up hundreds of ‘free schools’, allowed to teach to their own curriculum. Projects like Toby Young’s ‘West London Free School’ in Ealing, which emphasises a ‘classical curriculum’, promise to shake-up the British class system in a way not attempted since the advent of comprehensive (non-selective) education five decades ago, ironically pioneered by Toby’s father, the late Lord Young.

‘Giving people a say’ is the mantra of this government. And in education at least they have been faithful in executing it. But what happens when the people don’t really fancy a ‘say’ in how their services are run?

The government intended the PCC elections to capture the interest of local people, and to attract candidates prominent in their local area. That plainly hasn’t happened. Few serious and successful local figures have been willing to take the plunge into what remains an ill-defined role, the powers of which are wholly ambiguous. Moreover the public has been largely unwilling to invest time into learning about the non-party candidates. The information conferred by a ‘Conservative’, ‘Labour’ or ‘Liberal Democrat’ candidate has therefore been all that the public are willing or able to take in, strongly prejudicing their choice against candidates they might otherwise warm to.

More politics = better politics?

The tension, ultimately, is between the general public’s two conflicting instincts: (1) for a greater say in how they are governed and (2) an unprecedented loathing of the political class. The second of these feelings is currently the strongest. In light of the scandal over British MP’s expenses claims, as well as crises in journalism and finance, the whole British Establishment has been thrown into disrepute.

This cynicism has already undermined for a generation attempts to empower urban towns and cities. In May eleven of England’s largest cities were granted referenda on whether they wanted directly-elected mayors. With the exception of Bristol and Salford, part of Greater Manchester, they refused. So it is unsurprising that turnout in the PCC elections was next to abysmal: 18% nationally with many of those spoiling their ballots. The message, it seems, is unambiguous: the public simply does not want more politicians.

That is why Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher who has spent the autumn in Britain, has provoked derision at his call for more politics, not less. Despite its scepticism the public should listen to his argument. Sandel describes healthy societies as those in which people of different incomes and cultures rub along together, in which they share a similar understanding of what their welfare consists in. In Britain communities are divided between regions as well as within them. It means that a banker living in Chelsea, West London, has more in common with, say, a landlord in Edinburgh – not to mention his kinship with another banker in Hong Kong – than he does with his near-neighbour. This is no way to cultivate a sense of place and local identity. Yet far from encouraging that, the British state as constituted governs its citizens in such a way that alienates groups from one another.

If the effect of Police and Crime Commissioners is merely to add a new layer to the political class then another nail in the coffin of localism will have been struck. If, on the other hand, people see policing as a means to put right what is wrong in the community, then the PCCs could, in time, become a vital catalyst in rebuilding what has been lost since 1945: an identification with, and pride in, local bodies. Ultimately, the dubious mandate of the newly-elected PCCs will be forgotten if they make a success of it. It only takes a small number of charismatic, reforming characters to imbue the role with the significance it surely merits. When a previous Labour government introduced a mayoralty to London in 2000, it took a couple of election cycles and two sparring candidates – Ken and Boris – to embed the mayoralty firmly in the public consciousness. The government could not have picked a worst time to expand the political class, but having done so the public will eventually come to thank them for it.

Cherwell: The top 10 best things about going home

A hastily-written, slightly humorous and entirely serious list of the wonderful joys of escaping Oxford life. Reproduced from Cherwell

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10. Clean bed sheets! That fateful decision in 7th week to hold off on the laundry ‘since I’ll be home next week anyway’ will by 8th week be inflicting nasty repercussions. Your clothes smell. Your sheets smell. And you smell. Turning those socks inside out just won’t do the trick.

9. No early morning fire alarms. Unless there’s a fire.

8. The local café doesn’t serve anything with soya milk. They’ve never even heard of it. The coffee is strong and the sandwiches actually have filling. You don’t leave feeling peckish. Pret A Manger this is not.

7. Fighting against your younger siblings over what to watch on TV is much easier than attempting to prize the remote off the rugby players in the JCR staring gormlessly at the female presenter on Sky Sports News.

6. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are whenever you want them.

5. You feel clever again. Never mind that you scraped a 2.2 in collections and spent most of term amalgamating Wikipedia articles and SparkNotes into your essays. To friends and family back home, you’re seriously smart. People listen up when you air an opinion during Question Time and when a situation demands mental arithmetic, all eyes land of you expectantly.

4. Getting away from friends. You miss people, right? Well not really, not for the first couple of weeks at least. In fact it’s a relief to get away. Thrown together immediately and intimately, by 8th week your neighbour is starting to irritate you with his bathroom habits and the guy/gal you had flirted with meaninglessly is starting to hang around like a bad smell. Home = solitude.

3. Your cup of tea doesn’t taste like pond water. The North-West has famously soft water, making for a smashing brew, but regardless of where ‘home’ is, the water has got to be better than the cloudy, chemically-molested rubbish that the taps chunder out in Oxford.

2. Books hanging around on windowsills and table tops include: Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, Bear Grylls’ Born Survivor and an overly worn copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. NOT Nicomachean EthicsThe Faerie Queene or the Oxford Handbook of Quantitative Methods.

1. You can sleep during the day without hating yourself afterwards. Back home spontaneous naps are entirely legit. If you wake up and still feel a bit drowsy then you can sleep some more without having to check the time. Bliss.

Book Review: Dancing on the Frontier

This is a review of a travel book, reproduced from Cherwell, written by my friend Nico Hobhouse about his year-long journey in China. 

 

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Devising a travel novel that people actually want to read is tough. It’s clearly necessary to communicate the great and the good; the bad and the ugly, sure. However a discourse that is solely descriptive, even in beautiful prose, can get tedious. ‘What I did on my holidays’ is nice enough for an article, but downright dull for a book. Nico Hobhouse, a second-year Classicist at Trinity, is therefore wise in his attempt to marry colourful description with spirited polemic in his self-published book Dancing on the Frontier: Travels by Land through China and Tibet.

Dullness is absolutely not Hobhouse’s problem. Some randy passages hit you like a bus, especially since they come from nowhere. Fresh from describing a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, Chapter 11 takes a sudden and inexplicably lewd turn: “Down one narrow alley I spotted two donkeys rutting. The female seemed less eager and pulled away. The male trotted after her, his member still primed to go…The poor jenny was having a rough day.” These entertaining but stand-alone remarks are far from atypical. More than once the reader is thrown off the scent of what he thinks is an emerging theme by a slightly wacky observation.

The paragraphs are short and fairly punchy; it is an easy read (mostly: I confess to having to look up ‘somnolent’) though the images Hobhouse evokes are nonetheless vivid and varied. However the overall effect is diminished by numerous typos and an episodic structure that leaves the passages disjointed. And once in a while the language is a bit clumsy: in one instance he suggests that the ‘lack of [political] openess in China…is as alive as ever.’ Can an absense of something be alive? Probably not. It’s one of the areas in which self-publishing – otherwise a fantastic blessing for first-time authors – falls down.

The typical passage – which provides an original story followed by a fascinating insight – works well. There is a well-scripted section about his experience of the visceral antipathy felt by otherwise sophisticated Chinese urbanites against the Japanese. Staying in Nanjing, the sight of a brutal massacre at the hands of Imperial Japan in 1937, Hobhouse movingly describes the sensation of Western guilt as “more powerful that disgust at what I saw. I felt ashamed that I had not known about the incident before I had come to China. The scale and horror of the massacre were comparable to the Holocaust and yet I had never really cared back home in England.”

Occasionally though the formula breaks down; the weakest parts of the book generally crop up when it does. Anecdotal, albeit unusual, tit bits are used to draw predictable and not especially profound conclusions: “I saw two toads copulating – a reminder that early spring was approaching – and reflected that nature was losing out in a big way to China’s urbanisation.” Ew. Is this really what Hobhouse, observing the amphibian fornication, thought at the time? Or is he indulging in a bit of post hoc analysis that matches up his travelling experiences to the well-established assertions commonly bandied about in The Economist?

By contrast the strongest sections occur when he is more modest in his ambition. Sharing a minibus, with an elderly monk, trundling through Tibet Hobhouse recounts the monk’s contradictory behaviour. “The senior of the two took out some prayer beads…[A]fter chanting for a long time he took a few swigs from his bottle of water. When he had finished, to my astonishment, he casually tossed the empty bottle out of the window. He had a fake Tissot wristwatch…and a mobile phone on which he took my photo.” The reader does not need to be explicitly told what Hobhouse is implying: that the monk’s contradictions betray a disconcerting truth about modern China. The effect is immensely satisfying.

One final groan: Hobhouse clearly takes his liberalism seriously. From Bautou to Beijing, Shanghai to Lhasa, he strikes up an argument about the virtues of Western democracy vs. authoritarian capitalism with just about every poor chap he meets. Each time he presents the dispute fairly crudely, though given the fact that he had to conduct these Socratic dialogues in Mandarin we can forgive him for that. The issue is rather that when it comes to the book he keeps banging on about it without saying anything new each time. Travelling alone, off the beaten track, meeting bucolic village folk who had perhaps never spoken to a white man before, Hobhouse’s account really should have been stronger in explaining how China understands itself, as well as the world it will shortly dominate.

Yet the final result is really quite impressive. Hobhouse has taken a year of his life that is tough to characterise in any one definitive way, and has turned it into a thoroughly readable, thoughtful and playful journal. Were he to write a second travel book, as I am told he is planning to, I suspect he would avoid most of the mistakes made in Dancing on the Frontier. Through it Hobhouse has nonetheless cultivated an authentic tone and an inquiring style that will serve him well into the future.

‘Dancing on the Frontier’ is published by Xlibris. A paper copy can be purchased through Amazon or alternatively as an eBook through W.H.Smith