Two Month Report Card – First Thoughts On Theresa May’s Premiership

After an assured and confident start, Theresa May’s government shows welcome signs of moving boldly, if not always in the right direction

To date, this blog has not wasted undue time speculating about Theresa May’s premiership and assessing her early performance – not least because we are only just starting to emerge from summer silly season, and there has not been much yet to judge.

But as somebody who would never have wanted a flinty-eyed authoritarian like Theresa May to become leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the UK, I must admit that so far I am cautiously impressed.

The relative silence from Number 10 Downing Street over the summer break was refreshing, and the fact that we were not bombarded with press releases, superficial policy announcements and a load of government spin showed the best side of Theresa May – the no nonsense, hardworking operator.

Such rows and dramas as did break out – like the childish playground spat between Liam Fox and Boris Johnson over responsibility for promoting Britain’s commercial interests – were slapped down quickly, while similar turf wars and petty rivalries between SpAds were frequently allowed to fester and spiral into damaging newsworthy wars under David Cameron.

Of course, the worst Big Government, security state instincts of Theresa May are never far from the surface, and soon this blog will likely be riding to battle against the government’s Investigatory Powers Act, due to return before Parliament soon.

And on the most important issue of Brexit, there is still no sense that ministers have even truly begun to wrap their heads around the complexity of what is to come, let alone have an appreciation of the key challenges and opportunities. Theresa May has made a rod for her own back by stating her commitment to significant up-front immigration reductions as a key part of the package, which only makes the vital interim EFTA/EEA transitory option (with controls on immigration in the line of the Liechtenstein model) that much harder to achieve.

And yet there is also good news on Brexit, not least the willingness of our allies in Canada, New Zealand and Australia to lend us the services of their skilled trade negotiators as Britain struggles to regain core competencies in areas of national sovereignty which we allowed to wither and atrophy during our EU imprisonment. Also somewhat heartening is the seeming enthusiasm and energy which the government is throwing into pursuing various assorted “trade deals”.

While the devil will be in the scope and the details, this newfound diplomatic vigour is encouraging to witness, and only emphasises why David Cameron and George Osborne had to go after fighting against Brexit and losing the referendum. This is no time for surly, sulking brooders more keen to prove their Brexit doomsday scenarios true than to faithfully serve the nation to be anywhere near the levers of government. Senior civil servants should take note.

The confident appearance at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, also marked a welcome break from the past. Gordon Brown’s desperate, fawning approval-seeking, so unbecoming to the leader of an indispensable nation, and David Cameron’s oleaginous Davos Man act, the coping mechanism of somebody who never really understood what it is to be a statesman, were both beneath Britain. By contrast, Theresa May looked every bit the equal of Barack Obama at their joint press conference, neither Blairite poodle nor Brownite starry-eyed fan. For a country which has too often punched beneath its weight diplomatically (thanks in no small part to our absorption within the EU) it is encouraging to see that Theresa May seems to be taking her marching orders from the British people seriously.

But these are only first impressions. The complexities of Brexit have yet to bite (those daily articles either celebrating the Brexit success or gleefully validating the apocalypse are mindless puff pieces from a Westminster media class which has no interest in getting enmeshed in the details, or learning from those in the know). The migrant crisis remains unresolved. ISIS and the threat of radical Islamist terror remain pointedly undefeated. Domestic policy needs to be given new direction and urgency – preferably, given the Labour Party’s ongoing implosion, in the opposite direction to the Cameron/Osborne march to the political centre.

Looking ahead, this blog hopes and expects to see Jeremy Hunt let off the leash and given authority to tear some much-deserved chunks out of the arrogant BMA and the junior doctors’ dispute which has been a grubby pay dispute and not a high-minded defence of Our Blessed NHS (genuflect) all along.

Sensible measures on tax reform would be welcome too – though the words “daring” and “bold” hardly come to mind when picturing Philip Hammond, it would be good to see the scope of Theresa May’s ambition extending not just to make Britain’s tax regime attractive to foreign investors, but also to rewarding and encouraging individuals and small businesses. The 45% top rate of tax, a partial remnant of the stench of Gordon Brown’s premiership, must certainly go, but we also hope to see something more ambitious than mere tinkering around the edges of the tax code.

A renewed commitment to national defence and the Armed Forces would also turn the page on David Cameron’s willingness to see the UK lose core capabilities. The NATO target of 2% of GDP to be spent on defence should be treated like a minimum requirement, not an aspiration or a triumph to be crowed about. For a seafaring island nation, the Royal Navy is worryingly undermanned, and may struggle to operate even one of its new aircraft carriers, let alone both. Unlike other European powers, our maritime patrol and coastguard capabilities are virtually nonexistent. These and other issues should be remedied.

One would like to add robust support for freedom of speech and civil liberties to this list, and an end to persecution of people at the hands of the criminal justice system merely for the beliefs they hold or the ideas that they express – but let us not kid ourselves. There is no sign yet that a popular rebellion against the state’s efforts to criminalise thought and speech is anywhere near gaining traction. In fact, even many of those who spend half their time praising free speech (when it suits their own purposes) are happy to turn around, play the wounded victim and demand that others are held to account for expressing speech which they dislike.

A nasty authoritarian streak runs through Britain, and by no means only at the level of the political elite. Go to any pub or hipster coffee shop and you’ll hear people of all backgrounds and demographics expressing outrage at something and suggesting that it should therefore be banned by the government. And while Theresa May’s Conservative government is almost certainly likely to be a disappointment on the issues of free speech and civil liberties, they will be no more of a disappointment than many of the British people themselves.

So here we are, nearly two months into Theresa May’s premiership and there are unexpected causes for optimism and good cheer in a number of areas. There are also, inevitably, areas where May’s instincts and political convictions mean that she must be watched like a hawk and opposed where necessary. But over two months since the historic EU referendum and nearly two months into a most unexpected new premiership, Britain does seem to be walking a little taller and more confidently in the world.

Long may it continue.

 

Theresa May - Philip Hammond - G20 - China

Top Image: International Business Times

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Chinese State Visit: This Fawning Spectacle Is No Nixon In China Moment

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are hardly role models. But unlike David Cameron and George Osborne, at least they had the self-respect to meet the Chinese leader on equal terms

Iain Martin thinks that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain marks the beginning of the downfall of George Osborne, who has assiduously courted and flattered his way back into the Chinese government’s good graces:

Of course we have to trade with China, and it is going to be especially vital for the City of London, but do we have to be quite so shameless and pathetic about it? Osborne is the architect of the UK’s China policy, and has made sure that everyone knows it. Now, the optics of this state visit, as viewed on television news, look increasingly like a national humiliation.

It’s hard to disagree with that assessment, and to feel a mounting sense of shame at Britain’s determinedly mercantilist foreign policy. It may reap financial and political rewards, but craven spectacles such as this gravely undermine Britain’s role as a world leader.

It is all the more galling because it is so unnecessary. No disrespect intended to Spain’s westward neighbour, but Britain is not Portugal. We are not, thankfully, some middle-ranking economic and military power. Our armed forces may be worryingly pared back and our workforce’s productivity frustratingly low, but Britain is still one of the few indispensable nations. Though we have been introspective and full of self doubt of late, our fundamentals – world leading firms, popular culture, arts and music, legal system and democracy – are among the most popular and most envied in the world.

None of this is to say that we should not have welcomed Xi Jinping to Britain – we are right to do so. It is absolutely in our interests to forge and maintain good diplomatic relations with China. But we should not allow ourselves to be seduced or intimidated by China’s new economic and geopolitical clout. Continued Chinese growth – and the ongoing stability of their autocratic, dictatorial regime – depends on maintaining friendly relationships with key countries like Britain. Neither country can much afford to freeze the other out for the long term.

The problem is not the Chinese – it’s us. It is the attitude of some of our politicians and their friends in the media, who seem too eager to buy into the pessimistic narrative of British decline and waning relevance. Listening to some of them, one would almost think that we were back in the dark, pre-Thatcher days of the 1970s all over again.

Back in 1972, when Britain truly was floundering in the economic doldrums, riven by industrial strife and a failed post-war consensus while the United States grappled with problems of their own, President Richard Nixon travelled to Beijing to “reset” America’s relations with China in far more tense and unpredictable circumstances than those which bring Xi Jinping to London this week.

As a general rule, it’s best to avoid the examples set by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. But on this one particular  occasion, our political and media class might take a useful lesson in terms of how they conduct themselves.

Richard Nixon - Zhou Enlai - Nixon In China

Xi Jinping - State Visit - Britain

Music: “Cheers” chorus from the opera “Nixon in China” by John Adams

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The June Fourth Incident

Tiananmen Square Protest June 4 Lego

 

In the West, knowledge of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in Beijing is so commonplace that 25 years later, even an allusion in Lego is instantly recognisable, conjuring memories of the time, the place, the victims and the perpetrators.

In ‘modern’ China, it could not be more different.

So successful have the Chinese censors and curators of false history been that reportedly only 15 out of 100 university students in Beijing have any knowledge of the event or recognise the iconic “tank man” image from that bloody day. The fact that the day is referred to and known in China as “Internet maintenance day” says everything that one needs to know about how this feat has been accomplished.

In Britain, America and elsewhere in the West there are certainly momentous issues to be debated, elections to be fought and leaders to be held to account. This is important work. But on the twenty-fifth anniversary of a day when hundreds of people were brazenly murdered by their government in the open air for the crime of engaging in political speech, let us be thankful for the relative safety in which our debates take place, and ever vigilant that we do not squander, barter away or tolerate the curtailment of our precious right to free speech.

Andrew Sullivan has curated a good selection of commentary and reflections on the Tiananmen Square protests anniversary here.

 

Image: Tiananmen Square, Mike Stimpson

Is Microsoft Voluntarily Censoring The Internet?

There was once a debate about whether large Western multinational corporations – particularly the newly rising high tech companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook – should do business in countries such as China, where governments are openly hostile to the concept of free speech, a free media and unregulated access to information for their citizens.

That debate was settled some time ago, the winners being those who advocated expanding into China and then perhaps doing a little bit of agitating or talking up the virtues of freedom when time and decorum allowed. And though there has been precious little lobbying of the government in favour of free speech by those multinationals, the investment in China has, by and large, been a good thing.

Having long ago lost the argument that it is not their place to participate in Chinese government efforts to filter and censor the web when operating in China itself, everyone was bobbing along quite merrily in a morally dubious equilibrium, where the big tech companies would parade their wholesome, consumer-oriented credentials around in front of anyone who would listen or take down quotes, while also co-operating with Chinese censorship requirements and allowing the NSA ready back-door access to personal information held on their servers.

Enter Microsoft.

It is now believed that in addition to complying with the Chinese government’s demands that search engine query results originating from mainland China are filtered and censored, Microsoft’s also-ran search engine, Bing, has been applying those same censorship algorithms to searches in the Chinese language originating from anywhere on the planet. In other words, Microsoft, either in their zealousness to please the Chinese regime or out of sheer laziness and unwillingness to maintain two separate protocols, has apparently been applying Chinese-style censorship to internet searches not just where the Chinese government has geographical jurisdiction but anywhere in the world, whenever the user happens to be searching in Chinese.

chinese-authorities-force-businesses-to-help-censor-the-web-pg

The Telegraph reports:

According to research by Greatfire.org, an anti-censorship campaign blog, Microsoft’s Bing search engine filters Chinese-language results around the world, in the same way as it does in mainland China

Searches for potentially controversial terms such as “Dalai Lama” produce very different results when they are carried out in Chinese than they do in English, even if both searches are carried out on US soil, Greatfire said.

Its claims are likely to raise questions about whether Beijing is trying to extend its censorship regime to the Chinese populations of other countries, and whether Microsoft is making inappropriate concessions.

This is inappropriate to say the very least. The Chinese government’s policy of filtering the internet for its citizens so as to effectively pretend that certain viewpoints, ideologies or historical events are not real is bad enough, as is the fact that Western technology companies have complied with it in order to gain access to Chinese markets while demanding and extracting no concessions or easing of restrictions in exchange. But this allegation, if correct, suggests that corporate malfeasance has been taken to a much more worrying level.

One of the great advantages of globalisation and the free movement of people is that people from different countries can be exposed to different ideas, practices and ways of working. Even though the internet is restricted in mainland China, Chinese citizens could access the full, uncensored internet when traveling abroad, just as they could read the free press. In turn, exposure of Chinese citizens to new and contradictory ideas from outside could ultimately increase pressure on the government to relax their draconian policies.

Basing internet censorship on language rather than geography, as Microsoft appears to be doing, completely destroys this premise and removes the potential for this to happen. As the Telegraph rightly indicates, it would appear that Microsoft is aiding and abetting efforts by the Chinese government to extend their control over expatriate Chinese populations in other countries. In countries such as Britain this may merely be an odious and shameful act, but in other countries such as America, where the right to freedom of expression is constitutionally enshrined, a plausible legal argument could potentially be made that Microsoft is committing a First Amendment violation and breaking the law.

This revelation also contrasts Microsoft very negatively with Google, whose own search engine results for sensitive topics prime for Chinese censorship remain similar whether the search is conducted in English or Chinese, when outside of the Chinese mainland:

Users searching for “Dalai Lama” in Chinese were offered a link to information about a documentary produced by CCTV, the Chinese state-owned broadcaster, before any other search results of results linked to two entries on Baidu Baike, a heavily-censored online encyclopedia. Yahoo, whose search engine is powered by Bing, produced the same results.

By contrast, Google produces broadly similar results for web searches conducted in the US, regardless of whether the terms are searched for in Chinese or English.

But it is Greatfire, the online transparency and pressure group, who pose the ultimate question to Microsoft:

But whose law is dictating the manipulation of search results for Americans who are using Bing in the United States? Or French who are using Bing in France?

It is one thing to prostrate oneself to the laws and whims of a foreign government when negotiating terms to do business in that country. But if incompetence or monetary greed has led Microsoft to start applying Chinese censorship laws to citizens of other countries, then they have a big case to answer.

Where else are Chinese web censorship algorithms lurking?
Where else are Chinese web censorship algorithms lurking?

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, may only be one week into his tenure in the top job, but this is a potential crisis of image and trust that needs to  be nipped in the bud and resolved – yesterday.

Microsoft has gone silent in response to the allegations from Greatfire so far. When the firm eventually comes up with an official story and breaks the silence, it will be very interesting indeed to hear their excuses.

American Businessman and Leading Blogger Shown On Chinese State Television in Mao-Like Confession

Jonathan Turley writes an excellent expose and analysis of the terrible forced confession and public shaming of Charles Xue, an American businessman and influential blogger. These public shaming rituals are so difficult to watch, not only because of the tremendous pity one feels for the person involved, but because it makes ones blood boil to think of the abuse of state power taking place. Tea Partiers and others who see tyranny and despotism behind every move that President Obama makes would do well to look at this case and remind themselves what true tyranny and absence of the rule of law looks like. If our occasional polemics on blogs, radio and television were directed against the Chinese leadership rather than the American or British political class, many of us would also be sitting in a prison cell. Though it may not help Xue at all, we can at least take some small measure of comfort from the fact that China’s rising middle class, with their ever greater accustomisation to a high standard of living and their increasing exposure to other cultures, will not tolerate the government’s paranoid meddling in their lives indefinitely.

JONATHAN TURLEY

Charles Xue appears to confess 'involvement in prostitution'130px-Mao_Zedong_portraitChina appears to be returning to the Cultural Revolution with public confessions of dissidents as a warning to all those who would challenge the ruling party. Chinese viewers were exposed to a truly sad and transparent confession of American businessman and leading Chinese blogger, Charles Xue. The Chinese recognize the Internet as the greatest threat to the totalitarian regime. Xue was therefore rolled out to degrade himself before the Chinese people — begging forgiveness for forgetting his place in objecting to such things as contaminated water. He admits to feeling like the “emperor of the Internet” and apologizes for spreading rumors against the ruling party leaders.

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