Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Palestinian Authority

The Arab news channel Al Jazeera has got hold of 1,600 documents, some dating back to 2005 and others very recent, which deal with the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

These clearly show that the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, even though it does not have a proper democratic mandate, has been offering Israel far greater concessions on Jerusalem than it is willing to admit.

For its part, Israel has so far resolutely refused to show its hand, presumably hoping to extract even more concessions from a Palestinian Authority that has abused its terms of trust with its people and seems intent on remaining in power while evading pressure to call a general election.

This is a disgraceful state of affairs.

It deserves to be condemned by the international community, which should be insisting that a proper representation of the Palestinian people – including those who live in Gaza  – can only come about through the free choice of its electorate; and that an election needs to be held as soon as possible.

The Palestinian leader Abu Mazen, who showed some promise when he took over from Yasser Arafat, seems on the face of it to have either lost control of the situation, or else to have been badly let down by his lieutenants. Whatever the case, under his stewardship corruption remains rife and internal strife shows no sign of abating.

The sooner he hands in his credentials, the better.

The concept of democracy as upheld by the West might not always be allowed in the Middle East, but it is the only solution that will bring about peace in the region. Both sides in the conflict ought to be seeking a permanent resolution and should stop using expediency as a means to complicate matters.

Without goodwill on both sides, no realistic outcome is ever going to emerge to bring the stability that everyone claims to be seeking – but first of all the Palestinian Authority as it stands needs to be disbanded.

It has failed miserably to serve with dignity those it represents, and to display a sense of purpose worthy of its people.

Special Relationship? What Special Relationship?

President Obama has certainly caused an affront in certain British diplomatic and public quarters with his recent remark, made during a televised meeting with President Sarkozy, that the United States ‘doesn’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people’.

Well that puts Britain in its place, has been the general reaction; downgraded to third position at best, after Germany.

But shouldn’t we be offering Obama a vote of thanks for introducing a dose of realism into what has become, and perhaps always was, a mythical concept, turned to or ignored according to the expediency of a moment in history? The thought raises some hard questions.

The common cultural roots on which the Special Relationship was presumably based are now more at variance than ever before. Apart from anything else, the citizens of each country have a hard job trying to understand the politics of the other.

Ultimately sentiment has never provided a strong enough binding force to hold things together in the spheres of politics or finance. Has the Special Relationship in fact ever been anything more than some sort of consolation prize to Britain for the decline and loss of its empire?

Its origins go back earlier than the twentieth century, but it took on a particular resonance at the end of the Second World War, after the unprecedented collaboration between America and Britain to defeat the Axis powers in Western Europe as the Soviet Union rolled in from the East.

Winston Churchill understood America, having had an American mother, and he and President Roosevelt cut flamboyant figures along with Marshal Stalin at the Treaty of Yalta.

Earlier in the war, however, during the darkest hours of Dunkirk and the blitz, Britain and America had hardly been standing shoulder to shoulder. The isolationist and temporarily powerful America First Committee worked hard to convince public opinion that the United States should stay out of hostilities in Europe at all costs.

Only after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 did the isolationists lose all credibility. Pearl Harbor was, in effect, the catalyst that rallied Britain and America in a common cause.

With the strengthened voices of the interventionists behind him, Roosevelt was then able to offer Britain aid in ways he could not have done earlier, but he died in 1945, to be succeeded by Harry S Truman, who ended the war with Japan by using atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Britain had made its contribution to the atomic programme, though the Soviet Union also became a beneficiary through its spy networks in the West, and set the scene for the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, with both sides rivalling each other in developing technology and stockpiling missiles. America’s front line of surveillance inevitably went all the way to the new Soviet bloc and Britain became just part of the larger picture.

In the first election in Britain after the Second World War, Churchill had been rejected by an electorate that did not trust him to deliver the Welfare State it felt was its due after the years of suffering and privation, and Clement Attlee’s Labour administration came to power with a mandate for social change.

Britain and America fought side by side again in the Korean War in the early 1950s, though this was under the auspices of the United Nations, which in those days was receiving the full backing of the United States as a forum for the new pattern of world powers. The unique relationship between Britain and America was probably best summed up by Truman’s secretary of state Dean Rusk when he famously said that of course it existed, but ‘unique did not mean affectionate. We had fought England as an enemy as often as we had fought by her side as an ally’.

By the Suez crisis of 1956, Eisenhower was US President and Anthony Eden Prime Minister in London, but Eden’s health was already faltering and there was a general condemnation of the ‘Suez adventure’, with John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, speaking in especially harsh terms. In 1957 Eden resigned and Macmillan succeeded him as Prime Minister.

When Macmillan tried to develop a détente with the Soviet Union in 1960, Eisenhower thwarted it ruthlessly, creating in Macmillan a disenchantment with America, though the ‘special’ feelings revived for him after John F. Kennedy arrived in the White House and he found he had a basis of trust with the younger man, whom he admired.

Even so there was a potential moment of profound rift in 1962 when Kennedy and his secretary of defense Robert McNamara made a unilateral attempt to cut Britain out of any role in the nuclear deterrent strategy.  To Macmillan’s fury, the veteran US statesman Dean Acheson used this juncture to make the speech in which he declared that Great Britain had ‘lost an empire and not yet found a role’, the role on which it was depending, including the Special Relationship, being ‘about played out’.

The next pairing of leaders in the 1960s, between Lyndon B. Johnson and Harold Wilson, was mostly marked by differences and distancing. If Britain really wanted the Special Relationship, hectored Robert McNamara, then it must ‘pay the blood price’ and send troops to Vietnam. Wilson resolutely refused and only sent military advisers, pursuing a policy of scaling back on Britain’s world role.

When it came to Nixon and Heath in the 1970s, Heath had his focus far more on the EEC and the importance of Britain’s entry into the community, which Nixon was only interested in if it opened up the European market to American exports. A further low ebb in the relationship came during the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 when Nixon put US forces on nuclear alert without informing Heath and Nixon’s secretary of state Henry Kissinger misled the British ambassador. Heath only learned about the alert when he read it in the press.

Much was made of the Special Relationship in 1976, however, with Britain seeing the American bicentennial as a golden opportunity for its promotion. There was a year of cultural exchanges and exhibitions, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan presenting a US delegation with a gold-embossed reproduction of Magna Carta, and the Queen making a state visit to the States, though the then President, Gerald Ford, never visited the UK .

The outcome in the aftermath was little more than lip service being paid to the Special Relationship under the succeeding presidency of Jimmy Carter. The next upsurge of enthusiasm came in the 1980s with the meeting of President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and their discovering they were ‘soul mates’.

Margaret Thatcher had a definite input into American thinking in those years, and her opinions on Gorbachev in Russia and his sincerity in seeking the end of the Cold War were listened to. The Special Relationship had never been seen to be on such good form since the days of Churchill and Roosevelt, but it was a matter of an extraordinary chemistry between two individuals in positions of power.

Once Bill Clinton was in the White House and John Major at 10 Downing Street there was no such meeting of minds. Indeed there were reports of them not being on speaking terms even at the dinner table. Matters eased over the approach to the war in Bosnia, but were thrown into disarray again when Clinton refused to block a visit by Gerry Adams to the US, the American Irish population being one of the main sources of funds for the IRA (another romantic dream in reverse).

The next sea change came with the election of Tony Blair at the head of his New Labour administration, which Clinton welcomed. When George W. Bush then succeeded to the White House, Bush and Blair became a team, especially in the wake of the 9/11 outrage.

A dangerous trait the two men had in common was the certainty of having the wind of destiny in their sails, with God behind it.

They were united in their conviction that the new forces of global aggression, which seemed to be arising out of an extreme branch of fundamentalist Islam, must be taken on by preemptive military action. Their target contradictorily became Saddam Hussein, who, for all his faults of tyranny and brutality, was no friend of Islamic radicals. Indeed, in establishing his power base through his Ba’ath party, he was keenly encouraged by the West, which saw in him the possibility of a strong leader with a stabilising influence.

The next consequence, as we all know, was the invasion of Iraq on a dubious legal basis, the sidelining of the United Nations and disastrous consequences in the indiscriminate costs of human life. Ironically the voice of the French President of the time, Jacques Chirac, seemed to be the only one speaking sense in questioning this adventure.

The costs to Blair’s reputation have certainly been severe. It seemed he was dancing indiscriminately to Bush’s tune, justifying himself with glib and superficial thinking and statements to match.  In reality, and without putting a gloss on it, his relationship with Bush had all the appearance of that of a master and slave and was demeaning to observe.

If the Iraq War is the latest major achievement to come out of the Special Relationship, then that is surely enough to make us question its validity.  The ongoing Chilcot inquiry may have no mandate to hold anyone to account, and have its access to essential documents hindered, but the inferences emerging can do Blair’s credibility no favours in posterity. In particular, the assertion by the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith that, in the run-up to the war, Blair misled parliament over the legality of invading Iraq without a UN resolution, is highly explosive.

As we move into the present situation with the Special Relationship, Gordon Brown and Barack Obama did not seem to hit it off during their brief acquaintance, and David Cameron hardly got off on the right foot (or showed he had absorbed any history lessons) with his reference to how America had stood by Britain in its darkest hour during the Blitz. This was not exactly true.  It is yet another romantic fantasy designed to bolster our relationship with the United States.

There were plenty in America who were prepared to write off Britain then, and plenty who would do so today in a globalised economy. Surely the healthiest thing for Britain would be to forget the chimera of a Special Relationship and follow its own path.

Britain’s influence should aim to be more global, with a greater emphasis on Europe and the Far East, where its knowledge is far superior to that of the Americans.

The so-called Special Relationship has been nothing more than a matter of expediency according to the mood of the day. Let’s be real and reject the notion that, because of a common language, a close relationship inevitably follows. In today’s world, where self-interest and greed are the defining factors, we need something more substantial to link us together than mere superfluous rhetoric.

Turmoil in the Middle East

The whole Arab World is in turmoil, and this is the beginning of worse things to come.

Militant Muslims against the Copts in Egypt, one of Christendom’s oldest civilisations, Christians in fear for their lives in Iraq, thanks to Blair’s invasion of the country, an uprising in Tunisia with continued bloodshed, and a serious political crisis in the Lebanon that threatens the fragile coalition among the various political factions.

Not to mention the Arab-Israeli conflict, which seems to be a permanent fixture and shows no sign of reaching a resolution.

What a dangerous and unjust world we live in.

BP in Bed with Russia

Are we surprised that BP is now in bed with Russia?

Cast your mind back to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and President Obama’s vindictive reaction to the tragedy. To the cynics, and there are many of them, the so-called special relationship with Britain when mostly needed seemed to have evaporated.

BP found itself isolated as some kind of pariah and, at one time, its survival was in doubt.

Who can therefore blame BP for linking with Russia to beat the elements?

A Not So Special Relationship

The question of whether we as a nation have a special relationship with the USA keeps cropping up from time to time.

More so this week when President Obama declared that France is their closest ally, which downgrades Britain to at best third place, after Germany.

I have always believed that no special relationship existed. It was simply a myth that realistically cannot withstand the historical facts.

The sooner we come to terms with this, the better.

Politically, we would then have more clout and in this new, independent role gain the respect of the Free World.

Goebbels and His Women

Apart from his rabid anti-Semitism, Joseph Goebbels was well known for his pursuit of women, but the astonishing scale of his sexual conquests has only just been chronicled in a major new biography of him by Professor Peter Longerich of the University of London, recently published in Germany.

Crippled by polio, with a club foot, diminutive and unattractive, this senior figure in the Nazi hierarchy seemed as unlikely a lothario as he was far from being an ideal specimen of Aryan manhood.

Nevertheless, he began to record his sexual feelings from the age of about sixteen when he felt drawn to older women, though his career as a seducer only got going a couple of years later when he was  student.

Professor Longerich has been through thousands of sheets of manuscript where the liaisons were recorded. Goebbels dropped one mistress when he was horrified to discover she had Jewish ancestry. Later he was warned off another by Hitler, displeased by the fact that she was a ‘racially inferior’ Slav in the eyes of the Third Reich.

Apart from this it was open season where any of the other attractive women he encountered were concerned.

Goebbels’s marriage to Magda did nothing to slow his pace. They were united in their adoration of the Führer. She tolerated her husband’s adventures, believing she was the one he would always return to as she got on with raising their family of six children – whom she would poison herself at the fall of Berlin, before being shot by her husband prior to his own suicide.

The appointment of Goebbels as Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda put him in total control of the press, media and arts in Germany, including the important film industry, and the position gave him fresh opportunities. He came to be nicknamed variously the ‘Poison Dwarf’ and the ‘Ram’.

Many beautiful stars and starlets fell for his approaches, no doubt hoping for career favours, but there was one striking, handsome and talented young woman in whom he met his match: Leni Riefenstahl.

Leni herself told me of how Goebbels was priapically driven and had multiple affairs; how he was someone she detested, but had to collaborate with when making her documentary masterworks, The Triumph of the Will, about the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, and Olympia, about the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Those two films gave her an unassailable status in Nazi Germany, even though she was never a party member and always insisted she was more interested in the aesthetics than the politics.

But Hitler became concerned at the visible froideur that existed between her and his minister.

One day, she said, the Führer approached her and asked her to be Goebbels’s escort to the opera. It was important for public relations, he insisted, that they be seen amicably together in public.

During the performance Goebbels suddenly thrust his hand up her skirt and put it on her inner thigh. Deeply shocked and outraged, she responded by slapping him round the face.

I can therefore believe everything that Professor Longerich writes.

For further reference and insights, see The Sieve of Time, the memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl, which Quartet published in 1992.

They make fascinating reading.

What’s Wrong with the Book Trade?

For years and years, as far back as I can remember, the book trade seems to have been on a path where it progressively loses its sparkle with the passage of time.

If we go back far enough we have W. H. Smith as the mighty purveyor of books on a grand scale. They are still with us, but as a mere shadow of how they were in their days of glory. No one seriously interested in books today would dream of going into a Smith’s branch for a quiet browse.

Then we had ventures like Better Books and Dillons, whose branches catered expertly for the locations in which they were placed, and from 1982, arising directly out of the decline of W. H. Smith, we had the establishment of Waterstone’s. The founder, Tim Waterstone, had previously worked for Smith’s. With the backing of some City financiers, he went on a rampage, targetting prime high street sites for his branches in towns and cities across the UK, buying up or crowding out much of the competition in the process.

The whole enterprise was regarded by many as a bright new dawn for book retailing in this country, but underlying the dream there were heavy costs. W. H. Smith naturally saw this vast expansion as a threat, and in 1992, when troubles from over-extension were coming home to roost, Tim Waterstone managed to offload the chain on to Smith’s and step back gracefully as a millionaire with his reputation intact as a book trade guru.

The union of W. H. Smith with Waterstone’s did not last long, and in 1998 the parent company sold the book chain on to the HMV group for £300 million and started the next phase of a chequered history. As tendencies to flounder over policies continued, Tim Waterstone made an attempt in 2006 to buy back the company for £260 million, but the deal came unstuck before it could be concluded.

Among attempts to restore Waterstone’s fortunes and efficiency has been the controversial ‘Hub’, a centralised system of supply from a giant warehouse to provide all the varied branches with preselected stock and deal with unsold returns. The downside has been a removal of discretion from individual managers in the ways they run their branches to cater for local interest or demand.

Unsurprisingly, the homogenising effect of this has led to expressions of customer discontent, and those who want to order books from outside the tramlines find they can obtain them far more quickly and efficiently on the internet from Amazon.

This time last year, following the collapse of the Borders book chain, the spotlight turned on the future of HMV and Waterstone’s. By the end of the financial year in April 2010, HMV was reporting a ‘disappointing year’ for Waterstone’s, with a profits slump of 70 per cent according to the Bookseller.

Latest reports evidently show, however, that the book chain managed to reduce its downward trend in sales to only 0.4 per cent in the difficult run up to the New Year of 2011.

What this indicates in practice remains to be seen, but full attention has now turned to HMV itself, where a drastic fall-off in sales has led to them issuing a warning that these could cause it to breach ‘key lending agreements with its banks’.

The severe weather has been named as a culprit, but this is hardly the whole story. The  way people buy their music and movies has also been changing and the messy presentation of many HMV stores could hardly be described as attractive to customers.

As a result, HMV is facing a desperate scramble to cut costs by £10 million, among the first targets being the group’s retail outlets, of which HMV has 285 and Waterstone’s 315. It has already been announced that 60 of these will be closed, 20 of them being Waterstone’s branches.

While Waterstone’s has performed better than HMV over Christmas 2010, the fact cannot be avoided that the group’s full-year profits are likely to be ‘at the lower end of expectation’. However large or unmanageable the crisis may turn out to be, Waterstone’s and HMV are irretrievably in it together and rumours of the break-up of the group will inevitably be rife.

Whether the history of Waterstone’s would have been any different had Tim Waterstone remained at the helm is something we can never know. There are those who see him as a possible saviour in the wings, with ambitions to buy back the company that carries his name if he ever has the chance.

The concept of Waterstone’s raises questions, however, on how good it has been for the book trade in the long run. There is nothing more myth-making than a high flyer who presents a very successful image (as with some of our bankers), and rewards are handed out on the back of failure.

Unfortunately this has grown into a dangerous trend, a matter of expediency that apparently runs through all aspects of our society at a high level today. It is the same whether we are talking about politicians or bankers, administrators or businessmen; gigantic bonuses continue to be paid out in the wake of disaster and the House of Lords beckons to launder away earlier embarrassments.

None of it can be good for democracy.

The talent for striking a profitable deal on the basis of assets that are not quite representative of what is being sold is much admired, but the outcome for Waterstone’s is that it has become a poisoned chalice for whoever happens to own it.

Those costly high street prime site rents have become a major burden. Tim Waterstone’s legacy has not worked in the way others anticipated. The sole winner in the Waterstone’s saga to date seems to be Tim Waterstone, who has shown himself to have the gift of the gab to charm the bankers where others would be given a chillier reception.

There is a great sea change facing the book industry. It has never been able to shake off its notoriety for inefficiency and a lack of dynamic following its years of stagnation in a captive market.

Rapid changes have occurred in that market, to cater, on the one hand, for a mass-market readership and a lowering of standards on the other. The new celebrity cult has mesmerised the industry in ways that can only be ephemeral; the internet has dramatically altered the old competitive basis, and in some cases revolutionised the way books are perceived and sold.

What will the consequences be if the ultimate scenario occurs and Waterstone’s, the last of the megalithic book chains, goes down in ruins?

Dare we hope that, amid the rubble, there will spring up green shoots of recovery to return the book trade to the human scale and individual quality that it always had at its best, in a form adaptable to the circumstances of the twenty-first century?