The Editor writes:
Question put to a commentator by a news presenter (from Al Jazeera) on the occasion of the recent conference in Istanbul, that devoted a large part of its attention to the state, and the states, of the Middle East. (This journalist is plainly among the sharper minds of a profession that anyway has fewer numbskulls than eg the average modern university and I was dismayed to hear the question:) ‘How do you push through reforms when so high a proportion of those at the conference are dictators?’
Well Jane, a pretty relevant first response is ‘What are the reforms most needed in the countries you are thinking of?’ To this my own answers would be, in no particular order, a clean water supply; freedom from aerial and artillery bombing; enough food to keep life going; a justice system where cases depend on the law not the personal views of the judges or their bosses; laws with some resemblance to common humanity; good health care; adequate support for people who one way or another cannot manage what is needed on their own (eg most unmarried mothers, the blind); freedom from oppression by bureaucracy; equal treatment for all the population including minorities; education without fees; an honest police force; freedom of non-violent expression; decent prison conditions for those who do get checked in there; and (why not?) serious action against pollution.
(NB Quite apart from the countries Jane was thinking of; there is hardly a country in the world that does not need to up its performance sharply in at least several – and yes, I do mean ‘several’ – of these aspects, and just in case I am not being fully clear this statement of mine is intended to cover a good few of the preening western nations that enjoy passing judgement).
I didn’t include well-run elections, nor a return to democracy . That is because my second-order response to Jane’s question is that it is dictators above all who are best placed to actually put such reforms in place. Whether they have the will to do so is obviously another matter, but what better encouragement in this direction could they find beyond the prospect of preserving their hold on power by doing so? Empirical evidence is thin on the ground but strongly supportive where it exists. At this point we run up against the next question, namely whether your run-of-the-mill autocrat has the political nous to realise this is his very best bet. So rather than seeing the UN waste so much of its resources on politically correct schemes to enable political groups to get back to the squabbling, violence, corruption and inequity which are part of all normal democratic systems, let’s see it using bribery, blackmail, legal chicanery, market manipulation, threats and any other means that seem cost-effective to establish realistic, but obviously secretive, training schemes – which might very suitably be called ‘Tito courses’ – aimed at getting even the dimmest dictator to understand how his (or her, in the rarest of cases) own interests (and incidentally those of the population at large) – can be best served by instituting reforms.
While we can’t expect many dictators to openly acknowledge their attendance at such courses, let alone to be photographed waving certificates and tossing mortar boards in the air to celebrate attainment of the necessary standard, it could and should be possible for quiet well-furnished rooms to be provided in New York, Geneva and other branch offices of the UN for current students to meet tutors from time to time and perhaps exchange views with one another on tactics, acceptable and unacceptable personality cults, and helpful tax havens. Among many other agreeable appurtenances these rooms would have honours boards, not to be visible to the general public of course, bearing the names of successful graduates world-wide, the number of years they were able to stay in power after first signing up for the course, number of major internationally recognised prizes (Nobel Peace, Ibrahim etc) and also in the case of the minority who choose to leave office the name of the western universities of which they subsequently became the honoured presidents.
Monty Skew writes:
Brexit brings along another chance to test again what seems to many of us the most efficient strategy for deciding which side is, if not actually right – which is after all rare – at least somewhat closer to making sense in the sorts of public discussion that get labelled by news media as ‘the (latest) great debate’. In this case we have to deal with the ‘Go-ers’ and the ‘Stay-ers’ or if that sounds a bit too much like a piece of racing jargon, we could call them the ‘Out-siders’ and the ‘In-siders’ (and the connotations of those terms might in fact be rather appropriate). The strategy comes in two stages and if you’re lucky the first may be enough. For this you must listen carefully to the opposing arguments on each side. After a reasonable lapse of time pondering the implications and prerequisites, perhaps some thirty seconds or so, you may well find your intuition has gradually led you to feel the arguments on one side are such that no sane person could be advancing them. (This naturally leads some commentators to commend the other side.) If however this first procedure leaves both cases equally balanced, or as it may be unbalanced, then you need to take the more laborious step of considering the people putting up the arguments on each side, and many will agree, whatever their personal interests, that with Brexit we have a very clear answer, given that wealthy companies, both multinational and native, are not only as a sector strongly committed to the Insiders but also form an overwhelmingly large component of their campaign. When you take those two points together with the self-evident truth that these companies are in business to make money for themselves, not to do good for the British community at large, one is put in mind of a group of wolves coming across Little Red Riding Hood as she sets off on her journey and helpfully telling her there is another way to her grandmother’s cottage, an altogether easier and prettier way, through the Winding Wood, and they’ll gladly go with her as they happen to be going that way themselves.
The government has asked us, in common with all media channels, to report this official summary of British government policy with respect to potential immigration by those lacking proper qualifications:
‘Britain has a long and honourable record of aid to populations in distress throughout the world, and at the present time the government is fully prepared to do whatever is necessary to ease the lot of those, no matter what their national and ethnic backgrounds, who may be suffering from the effects of war in their country. At the same time it is important to realise that the resources of this nation are not unlimited, and it is not reasonable to expect its people to view with equanimity an influx of migrants with no meaningful ties to the country taking advantage of its generosity and threatening to degrade the agreeable middle-class lifestyle which has been achieved with so much effort and hard work over the years, and which must continue to be safeguarded by the policies of the present government.
ps to my faithful friends from way back – Hi! Look, you really should call round some time. (Positively no unpleasing reception planned.) First, I think you would be pleasantly surprised, and second as I think I said before I could do with some intelligent conversation.