June 13th, 2008


The coming UK by-election

A shout out to Iain Weaver who has listed previous examples of British MP's resigning their seats on points of principle - or, more strictly speaking, MPs who resigned their seats in order to fight the subsequent forced by-election. He leaves out the interesting case also of George Lansbury in 1912.

There is almost no history of this for the Dáil - nine TDs resigned in sympathy with the so-called "army mutiny" in 1924, but none of them fought the seven subsequent by-elections. Kevin Boland also resigned from the Dáil in 1970 in the wake of the arms crisis, but did not fight the subsequent by-election either (he did have a go in the next general election but lost). Purist Republican theorists of course insist that the entire 1918 election in Ireland should be retrospectively given the status of a plebiscite, but nobody seems to have argued this at the time.

I have to say that it doesn't impress me all that much as a political move. Referendums, as we are seeing in Ireland at the moment, are referendums, and elections are elections; and if Parliament takes a decision that people disagree with, a by-election result in one seat won't change that (and historically did not do so in 1986 or in 1912). The fact that I happen to agree with Davis on the substance (as I would have done in 1912, but did not in 1986) doesn't change the fact that this is essentially a stunt which will do nothing to change the legislation (which may yet be blocked in the House of Lords or in the courts); the only winner will be Davis personally. Sure, he'll get some nice publicity for embarrassing the government; but I would much rather have the focus on their coalition with the DUP.

Lisbon commentary

The Bertelsmann Stiftung are first off the mark of the major European think-tanks to publish an analysis of what happens next after the Irish referendum result. (Here, in German only though they say they will have an English version available on Monday.) They describe the possible options for the EU as four in number:
  1. Ireland to get declarations from the other 26 member states which will satisfy a sufficient number of 'No' voters, then repeat the referendum (which as they point out is the easiest option for everyone except the Irish government, and therefore won't happen)
  2. Start negotiating again from scratch (which they then go on to rather confusingly combine with an EU-wide referendum to ratify the outcome)
  3. Keep the current Nice Treaty in place, with minimal changes (which they seem to think could include the EU foreign service)
  4. A two-speed Europe with those who want to go for deeper integration forming a core (but who are they?)
They also describe as unthinkable the possibility of Ireland being kicked out of the EU, or out of any new Treaty arrangements, which I guess is a relief.

Myself, I think that it is important to distinguish between two different "what next?" questions. I see the logic of proceeding with the ratification process elsewhere - if nothing else, it will reveal what other flaws there are in the Lisbon Treaty as currently on the table. The constitutional court cases pending in Germany and the Czech Republic may be as crucial in this as the Irish referendum.

The immediate "what next?" is how to proceed with the institutional appointments after 2009, when the current arrangements for the European Commission expire and when Croatia is due to finish its membership negotiations, with a view to joining in early 2011. It's pretty clear that the loss of the Irish Commissioner was indeed a factor in the 'No' vote, so I imagine that that, plus perhaps some fairly minimal re-jigging of the voting weights, may be factored into the Croatian accession treaty (since accession treaties do not require referenda). The permanent President of the Council and the new-look EU foreign minister are both now impossible to see happening as soon as next year. (In other words, I agree with option 3 as put forward by Bertelsmann.)

The less immediate "what next" is to ask what people actually want from the EU, rather than what the EU wants its people to vote for (in other words, I also agree with Bertelsmann's option 2, except that they do not go far enough). I nailed my colours to the mast here two years ago, proposing that a consultative assembly be convened with a certain amount of jury-type random selection of EU citizens, to decide (in paraphrase of Douglas Adams) what the question actually is. (I explain a bit more here and here.) Of course there's no guarantee that even the outcome of such a process would be able to gain popular support at referendum; but perhaps the outcome would be of a nature that did not need to go through such a process. One can never tell.
doctor who

June Books 16-20) Five Sixths of the Key to Time

I wrote up both Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin and the Leela novelisations some time back, and Doctor Who and the Ribos Operation is one of the Ian Marter novels, so that brings me to the rest of the Season 16 Key To Time sequence. The first of these is an unofficial fan novelisation; the other four are by the inevitable Terrance Dicks. None of them, I'm afraid, is particularly outstanding.

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The biggest disappointment of this run is that Mary Tamm's elegant, smart Romana doesn't come across as especially interesting on the printed page. This is no doubt due to a combination of factors - the general phenomenon where the brainy companions seem to come across less well in novelisations than the screamy ones, the fact that we're now in the period when Terrance Dicks was churning the books out at a rate of one a month or so, and perhaps the very visual presence of Mary Tamm - it seems to me a bigger contrast between impact on screen and on paper than for any character since the First Doctor.

Anyway, on to Romana II now. (And I am past the two-thirds mark for this insane project.)

Office moving

I've been in my current office since starting in my current job at the start of last year. We decided six months ago to move from serviced to unfurnished offices, and the decisive point has now been reached: I signed the new lease today for a new place in the International Press Centre on boulevard Charlemagne, behind the Berlaymont and just as conveniently located for most purposes.

Modern communication raised its head rather amusingly today, when a bloke who is thinking of renting my current office called me up by Skype, and I gave him a virtual tour of the place via webcam. (I should add that this was arranged via the agent, though it was my idea.) He seemed happy enough with it. It is rather extraordinary to sit in Belgium and have a conversation like that with someone who is in Brazil. But that is the 21st century, I guess.

June Books 21) A History of the Arab Peoples

21) A History of the Arab Peoples, by Albert Hourani (with afterword by Malise Ruthven)

I've been working through my backlog of unread history books this year. This one is a bit unusual in that I am not and never have been professionally engaged on the areas in question (actually not quite true - Hourani has a half page on the Western Sahara, but it is marred by inaccuracy). It's an interesting survey - I have been reading a bit about the origins of Islam (both Rogerson's books and this piece by Patricia Crone) but Hourani's book starts from there and takes the narrative up to the late 80s. (The 2002 afterword, by someone else, suffers from not saying enough about Iraq.)

What I most liked about the book was the emphasis on social and economic as well as political history - and that is a big admission for me, because normally I only like the political history bits. Hourani modestly claims that in this he is following the example of the great Ibn Khaldūn, but I'm sure he brings an extra six centuries of historiography to bear as well (I am sorry to say that I have read only extracts of Ibn Khaldūn; I see the Muqaddimah is on-line here though.) By concentrating on philosophy and culture he makes a good implicit case that currents of Islamic thought had a greater direct impact on local politics than perhaps the equivalents for Christianity.

Which links neatly to my only grounds of dissatisfaction with the book; which are (rather unreasonably of me, since he covers a pretty large chunk of the world) that it doesn't look widely enough. Iran and Persia are barely mentioned; likewise India, the Balkans and Cyprus, all of which are important interfaces between Islam and other faiths. Turkey proper, because of the longevity of the Ottoman Empire, gets a bit more coverage, as does Al-Andalus, but sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, Central Asia and Afghanistan are basically invisible. OK, the book is technically about Arabs rather than Muslims, but it concentrates so much on Islam (and correspondingly less on Arab Christians, except in Lebanon) that I felt the non-Arab Muslims got rather short shrift.

Anyway, well worth reading.