Historic – just not historic enough

I was wrong.

I imagined it would go to five sets, but declined to predict a winner.

Instead the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles Final was decided in just four sets. And Roger Federer claimed the title for the seventh time. It can’t be easy to take on such a dominant player, but Andy Murray gave a commendable performance.

Federer is an unparalleled tennis genius, but what a worthy loser we have in Murray! In the nicest possible way, how wonderful to see some emotion, and tears, in his post-match tribute to Federer and the fans.

Now, sadly, the British player will be known again as Scottish until he next shows great promise. Despite making history with his appearance in this Wimbledon final, even winning the first set, it will not be enough to silence the disappointed British fans.

We should be more supportive.

The last time a British man played in the singles final was in 1938. He was Bunny Austin, who also played Charlie Chaplin socially. The last time a British man won the singles final was in 1936. He was Fred Perry, who played in long trousers as was customary at the time.

Until yesterday, 1936 was the last time a British man won any Wimbledon title in a men-only contest. We must celebrate the moment Jonathan Marray and Frederik Neilsen (Denmark) claimed the 2012 Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Doubles trophyafter a 76 year British drought. That victory has been glossed over by the media in the excitement over today’s match.

Of course, we should not forget that a British woman, Virginia Wade, claimed the Ladies’ trophy in 1977 and Andy Murray’s older brother Jamie won the Mixed Doubles trophy in 2007 with his Serbian partner Jelena Janković.

It was three sets to one, but today’s match was remarkably close. I thought it would be, but I was unprepared to predict a Murray victory. However, he’s still young, perhaps he’s still to reach his peak. He will win a Grand Slam one day and I hope we will see him again in a Wimbledon final.

In the meantime, bring on the Olympics!

HMS Dauntless: A peace-keeping deterrent in the South Atlantic

I reckon few Britons know this (and for that matter, probably few Argentines). The Falkland Islands are not ‘just off the Argentine coast’. At the closest point, they are 185 nautical miles (or 213 statute miles) from Isla de los Estados, just off the south east tip of Argentina. They are about 250 miles (nautical) from the mainland coast.

Argentina accepts the principle that in international maritime law, territorial waters stretch to 12 miles offshore. That’s a key point  in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The 162 signatories include Argentina and the United Kingdom.

The Falkland Islands
185 nautical miles separate Argentina and ‘Islas Malvinas’

So – at the closest point – the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, lie 15 times beyond Argentina’s territorial waters. The distance is such that a sailor bound from one territory to the other would not see land for 80% of the journey. The Falklands are as far from Argentina as London is from Paris or Amsterdam. They are twice as far as Cuba is from mainland Florida.

At that distance, the Falkland Islands obviously lie beyond Argentina’s territorial waters. But the UN treaty also spells out the definition of a country’s exclusive economic zone. That’s up to 200 miles offshore. The Falkland Islands are just within that radius.

It’s quite understandable that Argentina should want to exploit resources (such as oil and fish) inside its EEZ. But then the United Kingdom wants to do the same.

Both countries claim sovereignty over the islands. International recognition is varied, and the United Nations is neutral on the issue. But Argentina’s difficulty is that the Union Flag flies over the islands. And, since the war in 1982, no British government dare let them go.

The prospect of oil near the Falklands has been envisaged for several decades, but the first successful strike wasn’t until 2010. The islands have long been of great symbolic significance to both the UK and Argentina, but now there is a significant economic interest too. That is more than can be said for Northern Ireland, in which a previous British government said it had “no selfish economic or strategic interest” (Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, November 1990). I know of no revision to this.

As with Northern Ireland, the deciding principle should be that of self-determination: the right of the Falkland Islanders to decide their own future. That principle is enshrined in the United Nation’s founding charter, and it represents the United Kingdom’s strongest argument.

The Falkland Islands have never had a native people. The people who live there now – mainly descendants of the plantation – are the only stakeholders to the question of self-determination. Overwhelmingly, they consider themselves British, and we should respect that.

But there is an awkward stalemate. Argentina suffered a military defeat in 1982. It surrendered its occupation, but not the question of sovereignty. Now despite (indeed because of) its presence in the region, the United Kingdom is losing influence in South America, where other nations back Argentina’s claim.

As oil investors are tempted into the region, they will want the question of sovereignty resolved. It would be a risky venture to invest in Falkland oil without assurances about the stability of the contracts. It is in the interests of Argentina to play up those risks.

I believe there is no near-term prospect of a deal with Argentina; certainly not on the essential question of sovereignty. Without a deal, the United Kingdom must be ultra-steadfast on its defence of the islands. As Argentina revisits its ambitions, it’s no surprise the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Dauntless has been sent to the region. The British government described that deployment as ‘routine’. But if Buenos Aires is concerned about the ‘militarisation’ of the South Atlantic, at least it has got the message.

The UK is not about to go  to war with Argentina. Perhaps – as a deterrent – HMS Dauntless will help keep the peace.

When is E-Day?

Much has been said about when the general election might be. Well-informed tongues began wagging ahead of the Labour conference in 2007, Gordon Brown’s first as Prime Minister. Should he call a snap election to consolidate his authority? As leader of the underdogs, David Cameron’s challenge was to frighten the PM and force a rethink. He was helped by some clever politicking by his Shadow Chancellor. In the end, there was no election and it became clear Mr Brown would aim to see out the mandate won by Tony Blair in 2005.

Today is four years on. Each of the previous two elections were held after four years (or thereabouts). Both of Margaret Thatcher’s re-elections were held after four years, but John Major held off until the five year mark on both occasions.

When might Mr Brown see fit to go to the country? My view is that the election will take place on 6th May 2010, one year tomorrow. The argument for this precise date is put succinctly and effectively by James Forsyth in the Spectator last week. Basically, we know the local elections will be held that day and he doesn’t think it will happen before then or afterwards.

6th May 2010 is (a day) more than five years. It surprised me to learn recently that the general election could take place more than five years after the previous one. But apparently so; it happened most recently in 1997. Parliament is elected for a five year term, after which the timetable for the next general election is set in motion automatically.

In practice, the Prime Minister normally requests a dissolution from the Monarch before this point, but it’s not necessary. An election next year could happen as late as 3rd June, or two weeks later if the Queen dies after she’s summoned a new parliament. But as James Forsyth explains, 6th May would seem to be the most likely date. 

Westminster
The Mother of Parliaments

Mr Brown has faced much flak for his failure to go to the country early to secure a personal mandate. He was criticised, partly because probably he would have won; but the philosophical reason is arguably more important. Had he sought the consent of the British people to govern, he could more easily point his critics to this and move on.

He also lacks a mandate from his party. His elevation to the premiership was something of an appointment by inevitability. Labour MPs knew Mr Brown would be their next  leader, so the vast majority of them pledged their support. Two challengers emerged, Michael Meacher and John McDonnell, but neither could secure enough support (45 MPs) to force Mr Brown to face a wider vote.

So Mr Brown has neither a mandate from his party nor from the British people. His only real democratic authority comes from his constituency in Scotland. This reality harms him when he faces other challenges to his authority. So if he is replaced any time soon, would his successor call a snap election? I don’t think so.

All parties are ready for an election at any time. At least they should be. Even the party of government should be ready for when its leader decides it’s time to go to the country. Only the Prime Minister knows when he will do that, but his chief lieutenants must have a campaign plan ready at all times.

So, along with the others, Mr Cameron’s party is ready, Mr Clegg’s party is ready, and Mr Brown’s party is ready. But if Mr Brown is deposed, his party would no longer be ready to fight.

A new commander would need time to marshal his forces. He (or she) would need to draw up his own battle plan. A personal leadership vision would not be enough. A manifesto for government and an effective campaign to sell this message to the voters would take time to draw up. And in the midst of a crisis, the voters may not forgive any prime minister who decided to focus on electioneering instead of governing. The voters know the election will come soon enough. I believe they would rather wait for it, particularly if a key leader was unknown to them.

For Gordon Brown, it was different. He had ten years to prepare for the premiership, and the voters knew who he was. So he could have called a snap election. His replacement would be a fool to do so, particularly if the opinion polls remain stable.

The county council and European elections are on 4th June. This will be a key test. A good day for Labour will possibly settle the leadership question for now. But a bad day will increase the pressure on the Prime Minister. If he steps down, it will happen in June. A new leader would not be in place until, probably, August. At the earliest, a snap election could take place in September. But I suggest this will not happen.

I believe that, at the best of times, a new leader would want to wait at least three months before calling the election; perhaps even six months in the current economic climate. By that logic, an election would not take place before April. In that case, he might as well wait until 6th May, if only for the prospect of better weather. I believe the governing party benefits from a sunny day and Labour, in particular, benefits from a decent turnout.

But what is the likelihood of Mr Brown being turfed out now? I think it is slim. There is plenty of speculation about the leadership, but the next leader of the party will not want to begin a term in opposition after a crushing electoral defeat. Better to allow Mr Brown to take the hit. The circumstances of a stable overall majority for Labour are difficult to envisage; any victory is likely to be akin to John Major’s 21-seat majority of 1992 which had dwindled to precisely zero by 1997.

Who would want to take the helm during this storm? A caretaker, just for now, is a possibility. After all, if the skipper has lost command of his vessel, his crew must either step up or face doom. But if a caretaker is needed, Gordon Brown might as well stay on. For this purpose, he’s probably as good as anyone. The pretenders will recognise this soon. Expect them to close ranks almost immediately; certainly before the elections on 4th June. Watch the rats abandon ship in the year ahead (to a range of parties and some as independents), but Captain Brown will remain on the bridge.

A week is a long time in politics.
(Harold Wilson)

One might suppose that a year is somewhat longer. We will have to see that year out to understand what history reveals. But my prediction is this: the three main party leaders will all fight the next general election and the campaign will culminate on 6th May next year. One year tomorrow.