Opinion

John Lloyd

For Europe, it doesn’t get better

John Lloyd
Apr 4, 2012 21:03 UTC

The European crisis isn’t over until the First Lady pays, and the First Lady of Europe, Angela Merkel, cannot pay enough. She needs to erect a large enough firewall to ensure that the European Union’s weaker members do not, again, face financial disaster. That will not happen – which means the euro faces at least defections, and perhaps destruction.

The crisis had seemed to recede somewhat in early 2012, and the headline writers moved on. But it had only seemed to recede, and relaxation was premature. As Hugo Dixon of Reuters’ Breaking Views put it on Monday, “the risk is that, as the short-term funding pressure comes off, governments’ determination to push through unpopular reforms will flag. If that happens, the time that has been bought will be wasted – and, when crisis rears its ugly head again, the authorities won’t have the tools to fight it.”

But the underlying tension remains between high indebtedness in nearly all the EU countries and the need to pare back public spending without suffocating the economies. The flat, or negative, growth lines in the same countries that are indebted are likely to be made worse as demand falls and a malign cycle threatens.

Merkel commands the stage, but she is a constrained commander. She has an electorate and a parliament that has been reluctant to agree to more assistance to those whom many Germans see as architects of their own misfortune, not to be trusted to do anything other than load the burden on to the backs of hard-working Northerners.

In other parts of the Union, signs of strain now manifest themselves daily. In France, the leading candidates – President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist contender François Hollande – have turned inward and, in the words of a sharply worded Economist editorial, while “it is not unusual for politicians to ignore some ugly truths during elections … it is unusual, in recent times in Europe, to ignore them as completely as French politicians are doing.”

After the U.S. fades, wither human rights?

John Lloyd
Mar 27, 2012 18:43 UTC

The shrinking of U.S. power, now pretty much taken for granted and in some quarters relished, may hurt news coverage of human rights and the uncovering of abuses to them. But not necessarily. Journalism is showing itself to be resilient in adversity, and its core tasks – to illuminate the workings of power and to be diverse in its opinions – could prove to be more than “Western” impositions.

When the British Empire withdrew from its global reach after the World War Two, the space was occupied, rapidly and at times eagerly, by the resurgent United States, at the very peak of its relative wealth and influence in the immediate postwar years. What it brought with it was a culture of journalism that was increasingly self-confident in its global mission: not just to describe the world, but to improve it. Some European journalism had that ambition too, but these were nations exhausted by war. The Americans, at the peak of their influence in the postwar years, had the power, wealth, standing and cocksureness to project their vision of what the world should be.

Now, American power too will shrink, and the end of U.S. hegemony (it was never an empire in the classic sense) will mean that there will be a jostling for power, influence, and above all resources by getting-rich-quick mega-states like China, India and Brazil. They will project their view of what the world should be — they have already begun, some (China) more confidently than others (India, Brazil).

The rich versus the seething masses

John Lloyd
Mar 21, 2012 15:58 UTC

In a remarkable column in Italy’s paper of record earlier this week, the columnist Ernesto Galli della Loggia flayed his country’s ruling class. The country is witnessing, he believes “a kind of incontinence and exhibitionism without restraint, a compulsive acquisitiveness,” rife within the highest circles of Italian society. This, mind you, after the departure of the highly acquisitive former Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

“It seems,” he writes, “that in this country, for bankers, for entrepreneurs, for senior officials, for celebrities and for politicians, for those who, in short, count for something, any reward is never enough, any privilege or treat is never too excessive, any show of wealth is never over the top.” The politicians, if not the richest, are still the most degraded, because of their elective positions of trust. The press, the justice system and the frequent leaks of the many wiretaps that Italy’s magistrates order show the snouts of a political class that are too often deep into troughs of money, luxury and privilege, funded either by the Italian taxpayer or by private interests avid for political favor.

Flaying the rich in one form or another is becoming a habit everywhere where freedom reigns in the world and even — more carefully and more dangerously — where it doesn’t, as in Russia and China, where the very rich often have the backing of the state, or sometimes, are the state. It’s happening because the financial crash is making many people poorer, and most people poorer relative to the rich, who still contrive to get richer and richer. The stagnation in middle- and working-class incomes in many parts of the Western world is often turning into real decreases in spending power. Insofar as that goes on — and a fragile improvement in Europe and North America may take hold, and once again raise all boats, or it may not — then privileges, treats and shows of wealth become more and more galling, even to moderates not previously given to envy or militancy.

The Tea Party has drowned

John Lloyd
Mar 14, 2012 15:13 UTC

The Tea Party is over. In the way of parties that end, there are still people around. Those who remain search for a return of the old energy and make unconvincing demonstrations of people having a good time. But the central focus, the excitement, the purpose of the thing is dissipating. That is because the bad stuff that its members and boosters put out — lies, slanders, paranoia, ignorance — is losing what grip it had over the minds of people with minds. What’s left, though, is something else, which will not go away: the identification of moral choices blurred and contemporary indifferences ignored.

The core membership of the Tea Party is composed of people of the Christian faith, many of whom are devout Bible readers. The political scientists Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, who have researched the attitudes of Tea Party members, found that party members were more concerned with putting God into government than with trying to pull government out of people’s lives. They will thus know well the Sermon on the Mount, which is spread across Matthew, chapters 6 and 7, and which contains the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, which art in heaven…”

It also contains a verse (Matthew 7:15), which runs: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” The Tea Party has been rich in false prophets, but it is presently getting something of a comeuppance, in part because of its ravening.

Do we need a referendum on referendums?

John Lloyd
Mar 8, 2012 19:09 UTC

Do we want those whom we elect to represent us, or channel us? To exercise their own judgment, or to be a simple conduit for the views of the majority of their electors?

It’s an old question, and the most famous answer to it, still much treasured by parliamentarians, is the one given by the Anglo-Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke to his electors in Bristol, England in 1774. An opponent vying for Burke’s seat had seemed to promise the Bristol voters (not numerous, in those days) that he would vote as they told him to.

That, said Burke, was wrong. “You choose a member indeed; but when you choose him, he is not a member of Bristol, but a member of parliament.” As that member, he has to determine not just the will of the little electorate of Bristol but that of the nation. “Your representative owes you … his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

God, Richard Dawkins, and the meaning of life

John Lloyd
Feb 28, 2012 20:35 UTC

Two clever men, long past the first flush of youth, took part in a debate on God’s place — or absence — in the meaning and origin of life last week in Oxford. They differed; and to no one’s surprise, each remained unconvinced by the other’s argument at its end. Oxford University has been hosting such encounters for centuries.

So why was the University’s Sheldonian Theatre packed, with two other theaters full of people watching the debate on closed-circuit screens? Why was it covered by the news media? Why had it been sold out within hours? Who still cared about this stuff in a society that — for all that the Church of England is an established religion and the queen is its head — is as secular as any in the democratic world?

Judging by the response of the audience, including this writer, that last question’s answer emerged in the Oxford debate. We realized, as we listened to the moderate, educated English cadences of the debaters, that we care because no matter how indifferent to religion we are, or even how certain that it is a purely human construct rather than a divine revelation, we are made uneasy by its claims and miss its promise of grace and eternity. More practically, we care because many can feel morally adrift without its guidance. In his just-published book, Religion for Atheists, the philosopher Alain de Botton argues that, as he put it in an interview, “religions are full of interesting, challenging, consoling ideas … they do community really well, they’re very good on ethics, they teach us to be good, to be kind.

What if the Israeli doves are wrong?

John Lloyd
Feb 16, 2012 17:58 UTC

Those who know Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, say he likes to test his opinions against robust argument, often at length. This column is an account of one such — imagined — conversation.

Netanyahu tends to see issues through the prism of the Holocaust, and the deep well of anti-Semitism it plumbed. On the part of the Nazis, of course, but also elsewhere in Europe — in Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Hungary, Romania and France. After the war was over and the facts of the Holocaust became known, returning Jews were attacked and killed in the Polish countryside, and Stalin embarked on a murderous anti-Semitic program which — had it not been for his death in 1953 — seemed set to result in at least some major pogroms, if not another mass killing on the scale of the Nazis’. This realization, for anyone Decent, is at least sobering. For a Jew, it raises the specter of an eternal horror that can rarely be wholly dismissed.

Just as Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, viewed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as an Arab Hitler when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, so Netanyahu tends to see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the same reincarnation. That means that the Iranian president is, in the Israeli’s mind, not just a fanatical anti-Semite, but one who will pursue his fanaticism at all costs – including causing great damage to his own people.

Europe’s welfare rock has made it a hard, undemocratic place

John Lloyd
Feb 9, 2012 22:17 UTC

Speak now to an intelligent European politician (having assured him or her that the conversation is off the record) and you will discover a deeply worried representative — and one who leaves you in a similar state. Whether they are in the European parliament or a national legislature, European politicians are now constrained to contemplate their powerlessness. And ours.

Ordinary members of parliaments often feel like that. But ministers, even of small states, who have been elected to represent, propose, plan and legislate, now feel it too, and more acutely. Especially in the countries that remain devoted to the idea that the state should protect its people from the hardships and, in some cases, the vicissitudes of life, people have been accustomed to expect much more in the way of protection. But politicians must now offer less. For many citizens, that provision, coupled with security, was the point of government. But now, as each week brings little respite, ministers, prime ministers and presidents feel powerless.

In part this is because one state, Germany, emasculates all others. It acts — nominally — with France, but the latter’s weakened economy and politically weaker president, Nicolas Sarkozy, makes the duopoly at the apex of the European Union one of the weak providing political cover for the strong more than a true meeting of equals. On Angela Merkel’s decisions, and those of the German parliament, hangs the fate of nations. She has not wished it so: Those who make the parallel between the Nazi savagery of 70 years ago and Germany’s present power indulge in a facile radicalism that owes nothing to observable reality. Yet however reluctantly, she disposes for a continent.

Multiculturalism: A blasphemy or a blessing?

John Lloyd
Jan 31, 2012 14:42 UTC

Multiculturalism is a Western ideal, amounting to a secular faith. Every Western government at least mouths its mantras – that a mix of peoples in one nation is a social good, that it enriches what had been a tediously monolithic culture, that it improves (especially for the Anglo-Saxons) our cuisine, our dress sense and our love lives. Besides, we need these immigrants: In Europe at least, where demographic decline is still the order of the day in most states, where else will the labor come from? Who else replenishes the state pension fund? Even where leaders criticize multiculturalism’s tendency to shield communities from justified criticism – Angela Merkel of Germany and David Cameron of the UK have both spoken out on this – they touch only on its more obvious failings. As a process, they agree it is welcome.

Forgotten, or at least suppressed, in this narrative is religion and the animating force it still gives to many groups. Animating – and also divisive. To believe deeply in a religion had been, in the West as well as elsewhere, to believe deeply in the error of those not of the same faith, and to shun them. It has been one of the remarkable transformations of the past century that in the West, those of religious faith, or none, should accommodate the faiths of others. Indeed, they should even honor them. Those societies where that did not happen — say, until very recently, Ireland — the culture was seen as aberrant.

The reverse is true in many strongly Islamic societies. And that’s causing a problem for the Christians still living in them.

A yacht not fit for a queen

John Lloyd
Jan 25, 2012 21:28 UTC

Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith … is in want of a yacht.

She had one, the Royal Yacht Britannia, which she loved very much. When the Labour government of Tony Blair said it was too expensive and decommissioned it soon after assuming office in 1997, she was seen to weep at the ceremony. Last year, Blair was reported as saying he regretted the decision, pressed upon him by the then-chancellor, Gordon Brown, and inherited from the previous, Conservative administration. It cost £11 million a year to run, and a necessary refit would have cost some £50 million. So it was put out to the nautical equivalent of pasture. It’s now on show at a dock in Leith, the port of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, where it’s in much demand as a venue for “occasions.”

If in want of a yacht, Queen Elizabeth has never lacked for gallant courtiers. Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, earlier this month wrote to the prime minister suggesting that for her Diamond Jubilee, to be celebrated in June this year, she should be promised (the event is too near for her to be “given”) a replacement yacht, to express the love her subjects bear her. After a little to-ing and fro-ing, Gove clarified that he had not meant that the expense – which might be some £80 million to £100 million – should be borne from the public purse, but rather would be raised from her (presumably better-heeled) admirers. The prime minister said he was all for it, on that basis. The deputy prime minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, made a not-too-bad joke, saying the world was divided into the “yachts and the have-yachts.”

  •