Because you’re worth it

Exciting news from Oslo, where the Nobel Committee has announced that they’re following Time magazine’s very serious and widely respected example, and are awarding this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to You.

Congratulations. Doubtless the official declaration will have a little mirrored panel on the front, so you can see yourself as you receive it.

Update: As later reports make clear, the prize goes to the EU.


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Right on for the deadness

The Tory leader’s speech to his annual conference has just finished.
The audience creak to their feet for a shorter-than-usual ovation.
In the background, “Move On Up!” pumps out of the public address.
Curtis Mayfield, being dead, can’t sue.


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For your consideration

So there was an election in Venezuela at the weekend.
Much excitement beforehand, particularly in the American press, at the possibility of an opposition victory.

Chávez won, on a huge turnout, by a margin of ten points.

It’s a good moment to recommend one of the best political documentaries of the last few years: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Google, hard at work not being evil, lets us watch the whole thing online.
Click the play button below. If in the coming days you notice a difference in the ads they serve you, that’ll be why. ¡Hasta la victoria siempre, muchachos!
And here’s hoping the various parts of the opposition carry on with their detoxification. Venezuelan voters need a genuine alternative. Some are serious about offering it. Others, unfortunately, far less so.

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Separatism and European crisis

In the weekend NY Times there’s an article by Steven Erlanger about the apparent resurgence of regional separatism in Europe. It’s not exactly a bad piece. It talks to the right people, and makes some good points. But Erlanger tries to stitch these elements together to make a wider case, and I’m not buying. Let me see if I can explain why.

He starts with a warning about a “renewed wave of separatism in the European Union”, for which he has a two part explanation. Firstly, the eurozone crisis is delegitimising national governments. Secondly, the risks entailed by a push for regional independence are lessened by the EU providing a supportive framework based on shared sovereignty.

The situation in Catalonia today shows that there’s a lot of truth in that first point. On his excellent blog Paul Mason, the economics editor for BBC Newsnight, quotes a man in the Barcelona street: “The situation has evidently changed a lot. It’s no longer about what people are feeling in their hearts, it’s what they feel in their pockets too. And the feeling is that they would be a lot better off if they were not a part of Spain.”

But that’s not the whole truth. A highup in the Catalan leadership tells Mason:

“One cause of it is the crisis, but the crisis just gave the last push. It’s the addition of obstacles, one on top of the other by Madrid, over the past two years. Political obstacles – and obstacles to identity, which really says to us there is no option to have Catalonia as we imagine it inside the Spanish state.”

Not just the past two years, either. In another blogpost, Mason traces today’s problems back to the 1930’s and the Civil War. Clearly the eurozone crisis has everyone at each other’s throats. But it’s an exacerbating factor in a long history of separatist resentment. To focus on the euro crisis as the source of a new wave of separatism is a strong claim, and a wrong one.

That conclusion goes double for Scotland, which is only indirectly affected by the problems of euroland. Indeed, the crisis has created a series of nasty dilemmas for the Scottish Nationalist government. Would Scotland, as a new member state, be obliged to join the euro as required in the EU treaties? The leadership says no. But that would mean staying with sterling, and suffering the same structural liabilities as the euro members, who use a currency over whose monetary policy they have no control.

Similarly, Erlanger’s second claim that the EU encourages separatism because it “lowers the stakes for regions to push for independence” isn’t as solid as it seems. Erlanger quotes the Blairite foreign policy thinktanker Mark Leonard:

“The whole development of European integration has lowered the stakes for separation, because the entities that emerge know they don’t have to be fully autonomous and free-standing … They know they’ll have access to a market of 500 million people and some of the protections of the E.U.”

But the piece contains plenty of evidence otherwise. As Erlanger writes, “the crisis has also presented a real conundrum for regional leaders, because it has undermined the attraction of the European Union”. And this is a real change from the old pre-crisis days. Once upon a time the EU was indeed a strong force for regionalism. The European Commission assessed structural fund spending on a regional basis, and backed a range of dull-but-important initiatives like Interreg. To quote again from the Erlanger article:

Traditionally, the European Union has been popular with the leaders of these regions, said Josef Janning, director of studies at the European Policy Center. “They see strengthening the power of Brussels as diminishing and relativizing national governments, a process accelerated by the single market in Europe.”

The past, though, is another country.

“But now,” Mr. Janning went on to say, “comes the crisis,” which presents a dilemma for the regions, because it also means a reconcentration of power by national capitals trying to cut the national budget. “Now eyes are again on Madrid and Rome and Paris and Berlin,” he said, “so regional opportunities are squeezed, and the affluent [ – Catalans among them – ] are made to pay.”

It now seems almost inevitable that Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy will be forced to take a bailout on terms dictated from the centre. Spain’s budget will be backed up with European money only on strict conditions. Further austerity will be required, and will be enforced from Brussels and Frankfurt. Regional authorities will quickly lose the habit of looking to the EU for relief, assuming that habit’s not already been comprehensively broken by the hard experience of the last four years.

Likewise in Scotland, the longstanding lovein between regional activists and the EU has steadily soured. Scotland is less eurosceptic than the rest of Britain, but even so the latest polls show a majority of Scots voting to leave the EU if given the choice in a referendum. According to Josef Janning, “these regional entities and leaders need to be on the right side of public sentiment and feel close to public opinion and regional identity. So now they’re torn.”

What to conclude from all of this?
I’ve got my own two points to make.

One, that today’s regional separatist movements have long and tangled roots that draw on deep resentments. They ebb and flow to their own historical logic.
And two, that the crisis has wrought chaos. It’s now pushing Europe’s institutional settlement in many different directions at once. At the highest levels there are moves for further integration, most obviously on financial matters. At the same time the nation states are being forced to take the lead in imposing crisis measures. And below them, in those areas where there are long-established problems of consent and legitimacy, regional grievances are gathering. It’s a volatile mixture, and you’d need to be brave or foolish to predict how it plays out from here.

Maybe I’ll get brave enough, or foolish enough, in a future post.

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Mark Zuckerberg gets teabagged

A surprising ad campaign is airing on British TV at the moment. Here’s a piece of unsolicited investment advice: if anyone out there owns Facebook stock, this has to count as a pretty clear sell signal.

Tetley Tea is an iconic brand in the UK, and they do plenty of customer research to make sure things stay that way. They’re not attempting to target some self-conscious niche here. Tetley is bang in the middle of the mass market, stacked high on the shelves of every supermarket in the country. While the focus in this ad is on single women, overall their marketing is aimed at the general public in the most general sense.

And the message here is that Facebook is impersonal, intrusive and creepy. It is infested with terrible people you want to avoid; Facebook friends are nothing of the kind; and if you want to keep in touch with your actual friends you’re better off using email.

It’s something the cool kids have been telling each other for a while, of course (minus the email part). Let’s see if this is the first sign that a more widespread conventional wisdom is starting to congeal.

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Bitch got a dancing horse

It’s a couple of days since the Great Etch-A-Sketch Debate of 2012, in which Mitt Romney briskly trundled his way onto the middle ground like a panzer division crossing the steppes.
Portrait of Mitt Romney as Governor of MassachusettsBy chance I happened across Romney’s official portrait from his time as Massachusetts governor. I’ve tweaked it a bit here as you can see. But Vanity Fair has the original, along with a chatty run through its political significance. As they point out, on the desk beside him is a bound copy of his healthcare reform. It is, as Politico/Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith puts it, “rather strong evidence that Romney considered the law his crowning policy achievement”. In many ways the portrait’s not so different from this painting of Samuel Adams (the Founding Father and a predecessor of Romney’s in the Massachusetts governor’s mansion) proudly pointing at a copy of the state’s constitution.

This is the achievement that Romney has spent the last five years running away from, in a bid to convince his party base that he was “severely conservative” when last trusted with public office. And all of a sudden, this was the achievement he showily embraced in his pitch to clueless swing voters on Wednesday night. In case you were in any doubt, whatever the issue, whatever your view, Mitt Romney wants you to know he agrees with you, and he’s going to look you in the eye and tell you so, with the slickness of a consultant and the eager sincerity of a Mormon missionary.

Looking at the portrait up close (here’s a blowup) the wall behind him caught my eye. There’s a painting-in-a-painting there.
Vanity Fair reckons it’s a Winslow Homer.
Actually – and perfectly for Romney – it’s a Lie.

[And here’s proof from the portrait painter himself.
By the way, the title of this post comes from a helpful list written by Snoop Lion, formerly known as LL Cool J, probably, at some point.]

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“A screaming comes across the sty.”              

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October 5, 2012 · 3:05 pm