Friday, 26 September 2008


Why the EU needs to be clear in offering membership to Turkey

As any trainee barrister knows it is possible to defend someone without agreeing with them. So it must be for the west and Turkey, but here the roles are more interactive; the west can influence the behaviour of Turkey and should recognise when support is necessary.

The European Union has the greatest opportunity to influence Turkey and arguably the most to gain. There are some encouraging signs. This summer the self-imposed constitutional guardians, the generals of Turkey’s army and the true constitutional guardians, the courts, attempted to outlaw the democratically elected AKP the EU was clear that this was unacceptable, and indeed the party was not outlawed (although a fine was imposed).

In Turkey there have been many such attempts to remove or suppress a party for supposed anti-secular crimes. Banning or chastising a democratically-elected party is not unthinkable, but clearly there need to be clear evidence that the party in question seeks to overturn fundamental rights. The evidence to suggest this is true of the AKP has been tenuous at best.

In fact, the current regime in Turkey has made many positive steps for the country. A pro-European country that is a NATO member state which has recently banned the death penalty and in 2002 dramatically improved rights for women. It has even begun to make efforts with Armenia, a reconciliation that should be made as quickly as possible. When Nicholas Sarkozy, president of France, makes it clear that Turkey’s entry to the EU is not acceptable then it appears more likely this is about the religion of many of Turkey’s citizens rather than any geographical qualm with Turkey’s location.

This is not only foolish of the west and in particular the EU, but hypocritical and unethical. It is arguable that many of the EU’s greatest influences on countries have been prior to ascension - for evidence of this look at the efforts by Boris Tadić, President of Serbia to co-operate with the EU as his country seeks membership. By offering a genuine path to EU membership for Turkey the EU has the ability to provide support for the legal and social institutions that we hope protect citizens. Turkey, however, is already in many ways in a good position: it is a country that is secular by constitution, has a clear commitment to law and order and, despite the actions of the military, democratic. These are many of the things we would hope to see in other countries that surround Turkey.

The AKP is an Islamic party. This need not be a problem. The AKP has not proposed removing the secular requirement of the constitution, nor enforcing any state religion. We cannot believe in freedom of religion and then be upset when those who are elected profess belief. It is what they do with this belief that matters. We should believe that all people should live under democracy, but this will not work if when a party is elected we tell them they picked the wrong people; not unless the party is wilfully abusive of its citizens’ inalienable rights.

Like all parties, the AKP has made mistakes. Some are more forgiveable than others, but there are times when it plays into the hands of those who would seek to ban it. Comparatively minor offences such as censoring websites or art certainly lend credence to those who fear the AKP is not wholly committed to Turkey's secular principles and are a disappointing, reactionary course of action from a regime which should know better.

More serious incidents include playing host to Sudan's wretched leader, heavy-handed quelling of protests and increasing concerns about corruption. The situation in Kurdistan is more complex, and the PKK are far from saints, but the Kurds deserve more than a glib paragraph-closing comment, so we'll return to them in a later post.

Here we come back to the need to defend without necessary agreement. We can and should support the people of Turkey’s choice. We do not have to agree with every decision their government makes, and where appropriate we should not be afraid to say so. It is not hypocritical to support a government’s right to govern, but strongly disagree with a policy choice. So it must be for some of the poor decisions made by the country demonstrated above.

Rather than close the door on Turkey, the EU must detail the steps that will lead to its future membership. Not only will this afford the greatest influence, it will also underline that our commitment is to fair, democratic and just countries, and that this is not conditional on the ethnicity of those involved, nor the party they choose to elect.

Friday, 19 September 2008

The (un)fairness of the other US election

You might not have come across much mention of it in the British media, but there are actually congressional elections in the United States in November too. Many of our American friends will be going to the polls in congressional districts where there is no chance that anyone but the incumbent, or at least the incumbent party, will be elected.

This, of course, happens across the democratic world. Tom Clarke MP (Labour) of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill is a rather lucky man with his 19,500 majority, although who knows if even he will keep his seat at the next election given recent polls.

In the UK parliamentary seats are drawn up by the thoroughly independent Boundary Committee and Commissions for the constituent nations. In the US congressional districts are the domain of each state and many state legislatures reserve the right to draw the boundaries themselves.

This has caused huge contentions such as that in Texas in 2003, which actually caused Democratic legislators to flee the state to avoid having to vote on the issue. The Republican-controlled legislature passed the redistricting plan and, despite being disputed at the Supreme Court, it remained largely intact. So we now have districts which look like this.

It seems to me that Texas' redistricting was based purely on a desire to maximise the Republicans' congressional delegation from that state. But in other cases, bizarrely shaped districts have been drawn up to ensure a minority candidate would stand a chance of being elected. This is surely a noble desire, but should we approve of it?

Illinois' 4th congressional district, which is known as the 'ear muff' district due to its shape, Florida's 3rd congressional district, and Virginia's 3rd, for instance were all drawn up to be majority-minority districts; in fact the US Justice Department insists that states do this where there are substantial minority populations.

This does mean that representatives from ethnic minorities are elected, and perhaps such gerrymandering is needed to ensure that they do. But that is a pretty sad state of affairs.

If identity politics is so strong, if people will only vote for a candidate with the same colour skin as them, despite their politics, we should worry. I would have thought America had progressed past such division, but maybe I'm wrong. But if African-Americans will only vote for African-Americans and white-Americans will only vote for someone equally white, and the democratic system must account for those prejudices, that is a huge admission of failure of race relations.

Even if this is so, should a democratic system all but endorse such racial prejudice by taking account of it so heavily? Or is the system doing its best to combat prejudice by making sure minorities can be elected, despite the best efforts of the white majority?

While we don't intend to make it a habit to reserve judgement on this blog, in this particular case, you won't find answers from me, but we would be delighted to hear what our reader(s) think(s) about this contentious issue. In any case, surely we can all get together in believing that an independent commission should draw up the districts, as happens in certain states already e.g. Washington, Arizona and Hawaii, even if a racial element is included in their brief.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Why do we approve this message?

A message from both of us.

What's the point?

To write about things that interest and excite us, especially politics from around the world.

We have a feeling we might return to some important themes; ones which all progressive rationalists should embrace:

Human rights, secularism, rationalism, internationalism, democracy, social justice, free speech, free inquiry, truth and thought. And the odd knob gag, natch.

Not everything written on this blog will be germane or news-driven. We started writing for this organ in September 2008 and so we missed out on quite a lot of interesting stuff which has gone before. We've got some ground to cover. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. Why confine ourselves soley to the now? If we want to talk about Mr Berlusconi's corrupt government in Italy we will, whether he's in the news or not. If we want to defend Danish cartoonists against a bizarre and too common alliance of religious fascists and western liberals we will (and we will), despite that it's out of the news. And the beginnings of the universe might excite at least one of us.

Plus, there's an interesting election going on somewhere or other, we've heard.

We might find that no one is interested in our ramblings but we intend to plough on regardless, if for no other reason that to encourage ourselves to read, learn, understand and think. Plus there is something quite existential about writing a blog that no one reads.

The opinions here may be ill-informed, ill-thought-out and idiotic. If so they are our own and do not reflect on which ever organisaion or individual in whose employ we happen to be. They probably do not approve our message.

Friday, 5 September 2008


It's fair to say that predicting any event that will occur a year hence is pretty hard, but as an avid (and I should say delighted) reader of The Economist it's hard not to think that their US Election coverage has lacked something in the foresight department.

Three particular examples come to mind. Firstly, there was Mr Obama. The Economist was pretty sure last year that the victim of the right-wing conspiracy herself would be president. 'Can Hillary be stopped?', they asked last September. 'It's looking less likely by the day' was their summary, and they concluded with

Inevitable is too strong a word. But Mrs Clinton looks much more like a president-in-the-making than any of her opponents, Republican or Democratic.

The next month we were informed "All told, she looks likely to translate this into both the Democratic nomination and a victory in November 2008." It took until December for them to start to have doubts, and until February for them to firmly switch.

The more obvious bit of crystal-ball gazing that has been left wanting is who would be standing against the junior senator for Illinois. The newspaper looks spot on with its Clinton predictions when compared to their July 2007 line 'John McCain's campaign nears its end'. He had been upgraded to don't buy by August when he was declared 'Desperate, but not quite over', although this story does end on a positive: 'Mr McCain could yet make a comeback.'

Surely the paper can't be too harshly criticised for getting it wrong on McCain - events did certainly seem to be transpiring against him in 2007, and his financial problems were widely reported. What is more worthy of criticism is their continual comments that the Senator was harming his campaign by supporting the surge in Iraq. For a war (and, in the surge, a plan) that the paper supported, it was short-sighted to imply that only be distancing himself from the surge he would win. This has been proved very wrong, and although she is of course lying, Sarah Palin showed that believing the war is winnable is an asset when she criticised Mr Obama for never using the word 'victory' in his speeches, except when referring to his own campaign.

This brings us on to Mrs Palin. Again the paper is found wanting when predicting the vice-president - suggesting the flexibly-opinioned Mitt Romney, a 'youthful-looking 60-year-old with plenty of executive experience'. Palin is not mentioned in an article in June which suggests several names. Mrs Palin is only mentioned in a few articles, and never in relation to the vice-presidency until the choice has been announced.

So what to take from this? We mustn't be too unkind to the newspaper; its competitors have fared little better. However, a paper that defines itself through its clarity of thought, depth of knowledge and pervasive editorial slant should perhaps be held to higher expectations.