En Route to Norway?

Despite the May deal (which may be doomed) is the UK bound for a Norway-style EFTA Brexit?
I posted something recently on Facebook about Michael Gove’s appetite for an EFTA-style Brexit for the UK – the Norway model. My understanding is that he has been quietly pushing this idea for a while – most visibly when he declined the role of Brexit Secretary to back and sell the May deal, upon which Cabinet support is lukewarm. I would bet that some members of the Cabinet – both Leavers and Remainers – only ‘support’ the deal (for now) because they calculate it is doomed anyhow.

The EU27 have now signed off on the Withdrawal Agreement – though some may need parliamentary confirmation. Theresa May also requires such approval, in a vote due to take place on 11th December. To me it looks less and less likely she will win that, though she can expect payroll supporters, Conservative loyalists and some Labour rebels to back it. In the days following the publication of the text, I thought momentum might build in its favour, but instead it seems to be going the other way. The Prime Minister is not helped by President Macron’s crowing about his potential leverage in upcoming negotiations over fishing rights.
But also, the EFTA idea seems to be gaining momentum. And if that continues, it will be harder still for Theresa May to secure her votes. I spoke to one Cabinet minister last week who told me he predicts we will stay (somehow) in the Single Market, ie something akin to EFTA. A growing cabal of other Cabinet ministers seem to be coalescing around the idea.

There are problems with EFTA. It would give us little influence over over EU regulations. We would keep freedom of movement (pragmatically good, politically awkward). It might be regarded as Brexit in name only – upsetting both Leavers and Remainers for contrary reasons. But many will regard it as a more tenable compromise than the present proposal. It would complete the divorce with the potential for future divergence on British terms in a manner which limits immediate disruption.

The other major problem with EFTA is that other EFTA countries (Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Leichtenstein) are less than keen to find their overall economic weight matched by a schizophrenic troublemaker perched in the porch wondering whether to come in or out.

But unlike the May deal, no deal and no Brexit, an EFTA arrangement could secure the backing of Parliament. But quite how we get there however is unclear – there are significant obstacles domestic and foreign. But no deal at all is a very real threat. Brexit is the unstoppable train that arrives on 29th March unless – somehow – it is stopped. Some commentators imagine the markets or the £ will crash following the Commons vote, preempting a swift political alignment. Don’t count on it. Political expectations are already priced into the markets.


The last of the Chuckle Brothers…

Unlike his ‘chuckle brother‘ the late Lord Bannside (aka the Rev Dr Ian Paisley), I never met Martin McGuinness. But he was just as significant a player in my early years. And if Paisley deserved my recognition in death, then so too does McGuinness, who served alongside Paisley as Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister.

It is not quite fair to describe the men as two sides of the same coin. I believe Paisley had a “very real, and negative impact on Northern Ireland’s community relations, particularly at the outset of The Troubles, but also in later years… I became convinced that the course of history could have been very different were it not for Paisley’s stirring in the 1960s.”

But Ian Paisley was no killer.

Conversely, McGuinness has acknowledged his IRA membership (and seniority) in the early years of the Troubles. He was convicted of terrorism offences by an Irish court in 1973. Despite claiming to be “very, very proud” of his IRA membership, he claims to have left in 1974, but credible sources believe he was head of its Northern Command throughout the 1980s or at least a member of its seven-man Army Council – ie a director of terrorism. Perhaps Mr McGuinness never pulled the trigger – I doubt we’ll ever know – but many innocent men, women and children died on his orders.

I knew no-one personally who was killed by the IRA, but in 1989 my house was destroyed by a car-bomb parked outside the police station across the road. My family evacuated to safety a short time before and we had to live elsewhere for six months while much of the house was rebuilt. The bomb was planted by IRA volunteers.

No reasonable tribute to Martin McGuinness can ignore this aspect of his career.

But, somehow, his bitter enemy Ian Paisley was able to see past this when they eventually served in office together (briefly in 2007-8). They became close friends, and upon Paisley’s death some years later, McGuinness offered this tribute:

It was quite a leap of character for both men to have enjoyed such an unlikely friendship. Unfortunately, such is the nature of death, we are unable to enjoy Paisley’s reciprocal message. But his wife and children have all paid tribute.

And Ian Paisley Jr, who succeeded his father as the MP for North Antrim, offered this rather balanced assessment of McGuinness’s impact on Northern Irish life.

“He was the Godfather of the Provisional IRA… but it’s not how you start your life that is important, but it’s how you finish your life,” concludes Mr Paisley.

His father’s successor as First Minister, Peter Robinson, penned this reflection of the seven years he shared in office with Mr McGuinness: “Our unique relationship was probably more robust than most friendships and certainly closer, more complicated and formidable than many.” And also: “We had to accept frustration and respect the pace of each other’s support base.”

Life is a journey, and in turning towards peace (without victory, it must be stressed), McGuinness and his Sinn Fein colleague Gerry Adams, led many fellow travellers with them. Their quest (whatever their past) has brought Northern Ireland to a much better place.

It could be said of Mr McGuinness that, by turning away from violence, he demonstrated repentance. That is disputed by many of his opponents who sought something more akin to contrition. He never showed remorse or contrition in public, though to do so might have destroyed his credibility with IRA supporters.

However, or if ever, he atoned for his sins is a matter between him and God.

Still alive…

He is outlived, of course, by Her Majesty The Queen – herself a unionist icon and a symbol of enmity for Irish republicans. Her relative Lord Mountbatten was murdered by the IRA in 1979. Her own scalp would have been quite a coup, but she kept her head and she and McGuinness managed to exchange cordial pleasantries more than once. In this final meeting between them in June last year, she quipped that she was “still alive” when he enquired after her health…

On going viral

Let’s clear something up at the outset.

I haven’t gone viral. I am not responsible for something going viral.

But my Twitter feed has been in meltdown over the past 24 hours, and one of my tweets (to a Professor Robert E Kelly in South Korea) seems to imply that I was somehow responsible for his BBC World News interview (with guest stars) going nuclear.

In truth, it was clear this would go viral regardless. In the right context, clips like this can be re-published without significant risk of copyright infringement. By the time I saw Kelly’s response, it was well on the way. And at the time of writing it has been viewed several tens of millions of times.

Nevertheless, I felt we (the BBC) had a responsibility to seek his consent before adding our own wind to the storm. He and his wife were – understandably – reticent. A colleague of mine, Antony Dore, spoke to them both and managed to persuade them, no doubt helped by the fact the ship (the fleet?) had already sailed. Despite broadcasting the original live interview, I think it’s fair to say we were not amongst the first ships out of port. And in this case, we got it right. We did not require consent, but courtesy is free and having successful relationships with our contributors is critical to what we do.

I had to mute notifications on my Twitter feed. Various of my tweets have been seen hundreds of thousands of times; the one above has made over half a million ‘impressions’. Engagements with my tweets, or (more likely) others I was mentioned in, have run into the tens of thousands. Given the subsequent chaos, Kelly’s curiosity about whether this is the “kinda thing that goes ‘viral’ and gets weird” is just sublime.

I dread to think how it feels to be on the receiving end of that, to be at the heart of the story, to see so much ill-considered social media invective amongst the joy it brought many others. As I see it, Professor Kelly’s children are a credit to him, and while he and his wife must be mortified about what happened, there was something strikingly normal about the whole scenario. My favourite moment was the grand entrance of the baby-on-wheels. Confident, and fast!

My own children are aged four and one, similar to his. I sure could see this playing out in my home, though as my wife takes client calls by Skype it would be my special responsibility to prevent it. Should the worst happen (it won’t), I can’t really imagine it playing out any more calmly. I will take this clip as a warning.

Kelly now has 18,000 more Twitter followers than Friday morning (up 800%). Bizarrely, I now have 400 more followers. Another colleague, Bryony Hopkins, who requested the interview in the first place, also had to mute her Twitter notifications. She witnessed people watching the clip on the tube on her way home from work. And a random neighbour mentioned the clip to me this morning – my walk-on role in the whole saga unknown to him.

One point of irritation to me… there was a widespread assumption that the woman who eventually restored order was a nanny. It was not an assumption I shared, and we soon learned it was the mortified mother. But why did so many of us jump to this conclusion? I won’t spell it out, but perhaps she fitted a stereotype of some kind. The BBC’s Helier Cheung has given this some further analysis here.

Finally, lost in the fray, South Korea lost her president on Friday, impeached by Parliament and confirmed by a court, due to a corruption scandal. Pusan National University’s Professor Robert Kelly is something of an expert on the wider issues. Let’s hear him out. The interviewer: James Menendez.

Decision day approaches

I settled on my EU referendum decision yesterday.
It was genuinely challenging. I have read two books and hundreds of commentaries in pursuit of my answer, whilst engaging in debate here and elsewhere.
Due to the nature of my employment – and a need for impartiality – I have restricted my comments on Facebook and Twitter to address issues of process, tactics and strategy rather than the core arguments for and against our membership of the EU. Suffice to say there has been plenty to say about both official campaigns and other people’s commentary.
Whilst the debate itself has been unedifying, I accept that the interest of many key players is divergent from those of the British people. On both sides, the job of campaigners is to win the referendum. There are no prizes for coming second, however honourable the defeat. So while I despise the campaign methods, I have some sympathy for the motivations.
This is not a decision where we vote for the best debater or the strongest campaign. Instead we must decide what is best for ourselves, or our children, or the UK or indeed Europe as a whole. In this respect the quality of the background debate is almost incidental.
My own decision is personal to me – a product of my worldview, my own personal biases and the research that has brought me here. It pays surprisingly little heed to what the campaigns on either side would like me to focus on.
For those of you yet to decide, good luck.
If you cannot bring yourself to vote one way or the other, please at least turn up and spoil your vote. It sends its own valuable signal. But if you lean one way or the other, even slightly, please vote in that spirit. So many of our brothers and sisters across the nation will be driven by ignorance or spurious motivations. Your voice carries equal weight. Make sure it is heard.

Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism alliance raises more questions than it answers

Saudi Arabia’s 34-nation Islamic military alliance against terrorism includes some nations who learned of their apparent involvement through news reports. Others (such as Uganda and Gabon) are Christian-majority nations. Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and (the world’s most populated Muslim nation) Indonesia aren’t involved.

Iran and Iraq are both Shia-majority nations, unlike the rest of the Islamic world. While that seems to explain their lack of involvement, it doesn’t excuse any arrangement which excludes them, particularly when so much terror in the region is sectarian in nature (Sunni vs Shia).

How Saudi Arabia defines terrorism is critical. Atheism and any views critical of Saudi Arabia’s government or Wahhabi ideology might be classed as terrorism.

Within the territory of the so-called Islamic State, it’s hard to see what Daesh activity might be understood as terrorism. There is considerable overlap in domestic policy between Daesh and Saudi Arabia. It seems to me they are more rivals than enemies. One sees itself as the new caliphate, the other is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

It seems to me that a united Arab response to terrorism in the Middle East would be A Good Thing. Saudi Arabia’s solution raises more questions than it answers and I fear it would pose more fresh problems than it would solve.

The reported members of the alliance: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Palestinians, Qatar, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

A momentous day for Labour

Update (at 1406 on 30 Nov): The Guardian reports that Jeremy Corbyn will give his MPs a free vote on the question of airstrikes over Syria. The commentary I posted below about the wider context stands, though obviously the central question has now been answered. It does give us some insight into Mr Corbyn’s leadership strategy and the extent to which he wishes to hold the party together:

Today Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Cabinet will wrestle with the thorny question of whether to impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs over airstrikes in Syria.

Inevitably Mr Corbyn is against military action (as he has been against wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere). It seems that most of the Shadow Cabinet are in favour of the proposed airstrikes, along with a significant minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

They could hold a free vote, allowing all Labour MPs to vote with their conscience.

Or they could whip the matter. There seems to be some confusion over whether (under Labour rules) a whipping decision lies in the hands of the Leader or the wider Shadow Cabinet.

If that authority lies with the Shadow Cabinet, and they decide to impose a whip in line with the judgement of the Shadow Cabinet (ie in favour of airstrikes), then Mr Corbyn would be placed under the absurd obligation to decide whether to fall in line (against his conscience) or resign from his own Shadow Cabinet. I think it is untenable that they would put Mr Corbyn in this position (elected as he was so recently and with with such a large mandate). Were they to do so, rather than resign, Mr Corbyn would have little option but disband his Shadow Cabinet and start again.

But Mr Corbyn is himself assuming the authority, as leader, on whether to whip his party. If he is able to do so, Shadow Cabinet members must either fall in line or resign. There is potential for multiple resignations if shadow ministers conclude they cannot back the leader who has rebelled against his own party 533 times since 1997.

Given Mr Corbyn’s own voting record, many MPs may feel they are not meaningfully bound by a three-line whip imposed by him.

The Government has a tiny parliamentary majority and there are a number of Conservative rebels – it could easily be defeated by a united opposition. But Labour is not united. There is every chance the Government could win a vote on its motion regardless of whether Labour grants a free vote or not.

Thus far, the Defence Secretary has played down the Government’s prospects of success, while he and others have been working to persuade Labour MPs one by one to support the Government motion. The Prime Minister does not want egg on his face, given fresh memories of his parliamentary knockdown on Syria in 2013.

Depending on how this plays out, this could be one of the most momentous weeks in the modern history of the Labour Party. In my view, the impact on the integrity of the party could be even greater than that of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September. However he proceeds, this will be a key factor in his decision.

Spectre – less than the sum of its parts

I dressed up in black tie (as I always do) and went off to see the latest Bond movie on its opening night. Unable to blag tickets to the premiere, I crammed into the Odeon on Tottenham Court Road with Vanessa and a few other friends and sat back with great hope and expectation.

Here was my preview of Spectre.

Beware – ahead there be spoilers.

I enjoyed the movie, but I didn’t love it. I felt positive after the final credits rolled, but on a little more reflection, I find myself a bit disappointed. I think it’s up there among the better third of Bond movies – while some of the action sequences are brilliant, they are let down by the way they’re pulled together. Sadly, against the consensus of many critics, I feel the final product is less than the sum of its parts.

All ready for 007

All ready for 007

I knew before I stepped into the cinema we would see the return of the gun barrel opener, back in its rightful place for the first time since Pierce Brosnan’s disappointing final outing, Die Another Day. I explained in my preview that its absence in recent movies “was excusable in Casino Royale, less so in Quantum of Solace, and a real let-down at the top of Skyfall.” There is, at least, an editorial reason why it was absent from Casino Royale, as that opens before Bond earns his 00-status.

I recently learned that Sam Mendes intended to include it at the beginning of Skyfall, but…

“…the film starts with Bond walking down a corridor towards camera and lifting a gun. And of course the gun barrel is him walking, stopping and lifting a gun. When I put the two together, it looked ridiculous!”
(Sam Mendes, speaking in 2012)

Maybe so, but if it was so ill-planned at the storyboard stage it should have been reworked.

I can’t fault the way Spectre opens. The gun barrel sequence is there and it gives way to a stunning Dia de los Muertos street party in Mexico City. It’s a five-minute apparently cut-free tracking sequence following Bond and his partner through the crowds as he makes his way towards his first kill. From the collapse of two buildings, including Bond’s comic landing on a sofa to the amazing helicopter aerial stunts and then the credit sequence scored by Sam Smith, it is spot on.

Bond is given a proper dressing down by the brilliant new M, Ralph Fiennes, who takes him off duty (ironically giving him the freedom to get on with his work). Q (Ben Whishaw) helps him ‘disappear’, and off we go!

So far, so good.

The main actors perform well. Bond, M & Q are expertly played. The appearance of Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is all too short. Monica Belluci, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista are all brilliant in their respective roles. It’s great to see a kick-ass henchman as portrayed through Mr Hinx (Bautista) that harks back to an earlier era. I’m less convinced by Max Denbigh in the role of C – too young and a little too obviously shaken when Bond throws a verbal dig.

Bond's final showdown with Mr White

Bond’s final showdown with Mr White

As the main villain, Christope Waltz is excellent, bringing all his Oscar-winning talent to bear. But his character, be it Franz Oberhauser or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is pathetic, psychologically incapable of running a global criminal conglomeration without distracting himself by needling an unwelcome foster brother from his childhood, decades on.

I loved the Spectre boardroom scene – a great way to introduce Oberhauser, and the terrifying Mr Hinx. It neatly brings Oberhauser and Bond face to face (from a distance) for the first time on screen. The Spectre organisation is established as a force to be reckoned with.

But outside the boardroom, it would appear to fall short of its promise.

Towards the end, Oberhauser operates from a small complex of buildings in north Africa inside a meteor crater. It’s a throwback to You Only Live Twice, but a pale imitation of that Blofeld’s volcano lair. I also prefer the Piz Gloria venue in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the oil rig in Diamonds Are Forever. I certainly preferred Raoul Silva’s deserted island in Skyfall.

The journey – by luxury train and a vintage Rolls Royce – was considerably better than the destination, perhaps more so for the viewer than for Bond, given his tussle with Mr Hinx. Though there is a payoff for Bond after the fight.

At the meteor lair, Oberhauser (now revealed as Blofeld) conducts a strange torture scene with Bond as his subject. The objective is ill-explained and the method is faulty. Blofeld operates as the torture technician – can’t he instruct a minion to do this for him? Ultimately, whatever he was trying to do fails and with Bond essentially incapacitated throughout, it makes Blofeld look like a fool – not a good look. And Bond’s escape with Madeleine Swann seems remarkably straightforward.

The final showdown in central London takes place across two locations, with parallel showdowns between Blofeld and Bond at the derelict MI6 headquarters, while M & Q face C at the latter’s new office. It’s good to see M & Q at the heart of the action, as we’ve seen now and again before, most notably in Octopussy, The World is Not Enough and Skyfall. While all the elements are fairly strong, the two scenarios unfolding concurrently don’t work as well as they could. They interlock weakly and the suspense is unnecessarily diluted.

Finally escaping MI6 HQ, Bond (with Swann) bursts onto the Thames in a speedboat and chases Blofeld’s helicopter downriver, somehow shooting it down with his Walther PPK. I don’t doubt that this might be mathematically possible, but it seems improbable and a little too convenient at this stage in the narrative.

He should have been allowed to escape.

Moments later, standing over his injured nemesis, Bond predictably – and rightly – spares his life, reminding us of a line from M much earlier in the film, in which he declares that a licence to kill is also “a licence not to kill”. So instead of being killed off, Blofeld is arrested by M, while Bond walks off into the night with Dr Swann.

In his previous incarnation, Blofeld was such a key figure in the James Bond universe, it would have been a travesty to see him killed off in Spectre. In the past he was played by Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray. They brought such different portrayals to the role it was downright weird.

Spectre the film and Spectre the crime syndicate were both a letdown to me, because they fell so far short of their immense promise. But the film has some decent nostalgic value: an exploding watch, an Aston Martin with a built-in ejector seat, a deadly fight on a posh train, Blofeld’s white cat and – my favourite – the scar on his face, clearly a nod to You Only Live Twice.

Donald Pleasence sets the Blofeld standard in You Only Live Twice (1967)

Donald Pleasence set the Blofeld standard in 1967

I’m keen to see more. The wider Spectre saga can be rescued. It would be implausible for the organisation depicted in Rome to have been brought to its knees so easily, despite Blofeld’s flaws. Let us see the tentacles of a truly powerful Spectre, headed as before by Christoph Waltz as Blofeld. Perhaps the pre-credit sequence could show the super-villain’s prison escape? Or a courtroom breakout at the point of sentencing?

But if Waltz is back as Blofeld, then Craig must come back as Bond. He said he’d “rather slash my wrists” than play Bond a fifth time, but I pray that’s attention-seeking self-indulgence.

Let’s have an encore Mr Craig.