Sorry, President-Elect Trump, But You Don’t Get To Choose Britain’s Ambassador To The United States

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It was wrong when President Obama sought to interfere in Britain’s EU referendum debate earlier this year, and it is wrong now when President-elect Trump tries to undermine the UK government and install his pal Nigel Farage as a replacement British ambassador

When Barack Obama saw fit to fly to London, stand next to David Cameron at a joint press conference and lecture/threaten the British people that voting to leave the EU would incur not only his personal wrath but also America’s cold shoulder, his behaviour was rightly denounced as an act of arrogant bullying and coercion.

This blog wasted no time in taking President Obama to task for his ignorance and presumption in daring to interfere with our domestic affairs. And UKIP leader and referendum-maker Nigel Farage was also quick to criticise Obama, noting “last time we followed foreign policy advice from a US President was when we went to war in Iraq. We should be wary“, and negatively comparing the American president to Vladimir Putin.

Unfortunately, Nigel Farage does not seem to be consistent when it comes to the principle of staying out of the internal affairs of other countries. Because now his good friend and campaign trail buddy, US president-elect Donald Trump, has made the highly irregular move of suggesting that Farage should become the UK’s ambassador to the United States – even though we currently have an ambassador in place (albeit not a very good one):

The Guardian reports:

The US president-elect, Donald Trump, has suggested that the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, should be the UK’s ambassador to the US.

“Many people would like to see [@Nigel_Farage] represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States,” Trump tweeted on Monday evening. “He would do a great job!”

In a brief call with BBC Breakfast, Farage said he had been awake since 2am UK time when the tweet was first posted.

The Ukip leader said he was flattered by the tweet, calling it “a bolt from the blue” and said he did not see himself as a typical diplomatic figure “but this is not the normal course of events”.

But a Downing Street spokesman said: “There is no vacancy. We already have an excellent ambassador to the US.”

Now Donald Trump is known to tweet strange and provocative things as and when they drift into his head, but the probability of him having penned this particular tweet without having first at least run it past Nigel Farage (and more likely Trump was acting on a specific request as a favour to Farage) is close to zero. So there goes Farage’s principled opposition to meddling in the affairs of a sovereign nation – he likely encouraged the president-elect of the United States to do what he criticised Barack Obama for back in April.

The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon also spots the hypocrisy:

When Barack Obama said he hoped Britain would stay in the EU, Nigel Farage was appalled. An American president, he said, had no right to meddle in British affairs. Britain was quite capable of making her own decisions, thank you very much. The president, in short, should “butt out”.

Today, however, Mr Farage appears rather more relaxed about political interference from across the pond. When Donald Trump told Britain she should make the on-off Ukip leader her ambassador to the US – even though she already has one – Mr Farage was not appalled. He did not say Mr Trump had “behaved disgracefully”, he did not order him to “butt out”, he did not remind him that the British don’t take kindly to being told “what we should do” by foreign powers.

On the contrary, he welcomed Mr Trump’s intervention. “I would do anything,” he said nobly, “to help our national interest.”

Taking back control from Brussels. And then handing it to Washington.

This episode also shows seriously bad judgement on the part of Donald Trump, though this of course is much less surprising. If offending the UK foreign office by airily suggesting on Twitter that the British ambassador should be replaced is the biggest diplomatic howler committed by the incoming Trump administration then we will be able to count ourselves extraordinarily lucky. Even assuming that Trump assembles a moderately experienced team around him by the end of the transition, the incoming president’s penchant for going off-script and acting unilaterally at 2AM is likely to lead to all manner of gaffes and calamities. But still – offending the government of your closest ally by publicly scorning their present ambassador is arrogant and foolish.

Adam Barnett at Left Foot Forward also has a crack at explaining why Nigel Farage becoming Britain’s ambassador to the United States would be a terrible idea:

Nigel Farage would make a great British ambassador to the US, according to Donald Trump, who will make a terrible President of the United States.

As Downing Street helpfully points out, the position is already filled, though they should have added it’s not Trump’s job to appoint foreign diplomats.

Unfortunately, not one of the reasons that Barnett then goes on to list has anything remotely to do with Nigel Farage’s competence or potential suitability for the role of ambassador. Rather, each is a finger-wagging, morally censorious (and often inaccurate) judgement and demand for Farage’s excommunication from any role in public life, the kind of thoughtless attack sadly now typical fare from the authoritarian, illiberal left.

The Spectator’s James Forsyth does a better job of explaining why Nigel Farage should be nobody’s choice for the role of ambassador, and suggests a better way for the British government to leverage Farage’s close relationship with Trump:

Now, obviously, Farage shouldn’t be the UK’s man in Washington. As Farage has admitted, he’s not a natural diplomat and it is hard to imagine Theresa May trusting him in that role. But it would be foolish of the Foreign Office not to pump Farage for information on Trump and his circle. Whatever information Farage has about who actually has influence with the president-elect would be useful for Britain.

The sensible thing to do would be to have Boris Johnson invite Farage down to Chevening for the weekend and over dinner try and talk out of the Ukip leader everything he knows about Trump world. I suspect that Farage would be both sufficiently flattered by the invitation and keen enough to help, that he would happily reveal all he knows about Trump and the people around him.

This sounds a lot more sensible. Nigel Farage should not become our ambassador, not least because he has no discernable diplomatic skills, nor any specific interest in that role (besides a desire to remain in the limelight and close to power). But the British government would be foolish to squander the relationship he has built with the new president-elect altogether.

After all, who is best placed to nurture that relationship? A bunch of effete, elitist UK civil servants and career diplomats like our current ambassador Sir Kim Darroch, who were all doubtless super-confident “Never Trump” people (as indeed I was) and therefore failed to build any meaningful relationships with the Trump team, or somebody whom the new president considers to be an ideological and perhaps even temperamental soulmate?

In other words, why reinvent the wheel? Why pour time and effort into leveraging a new relationship from scratch when Trump and Farage are clearly already friends and allies? Britain should not waste time emulating this relationship – we should appropriate it and use it for our own ends. Love him or loathe him, Nigel Farage happens to speak Trumpian with a natural accent at a time when we have few other native linguists. That isn’t an advantage you throw away just to express general disapproval of the man.

Now, of course Nigel Frage is a flawed individual – and one can argue about the precise way in which the government puts him to use. Rather than making him ambassador, I would forge a new role, perhaps investigating the possibility of formally seconding Farage to the Trump administration as a gesture of trust and goodwill. Not only would this give Britain valuable eyes and ears in Washington DC, it could greatly aid the future negotiation of a future US-UK free trade agreement.

The details can be worked out later, but one thing is crystal clear for now – Donald Trump has no business interfering in the diplomatic staffing decisions of the British government. The ambassadors we send to Washington D.C. should be chosen by the British government alone, not foisted upon us by an inexperienced not-quite-president.

Donald Trump claims to have great affection for Britain, which is good. But he needs to learn that the best way to display that affection is to respect British sovereignty. If the president-elect insists on appointing his kids as White House advisers and can find his way around the federal anti-nepotism rules, that’s one thing. But we can pick our own ambassadors, thank you, Mr. President-elect.

 

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The Junior Doctors’ Strike Is A Tawdry Pay Dispute, Not A Principled Defence Of The NHS

NHS Junior Doctors Contract Strike

This strike is about money, not patient safety or the future of the NHS

James Forsyth speaks sense on the naivety and arrogance behind the ongoing junior doctors’ strike:

This walk out, the first all-out strike since the NHS’s creation, isn’t over some issue of high principle. It’s about money. The main sticking point in their negotiations with the government is that Saturday shouldn’t be treated as a normal working day.

The BMA’s suggestion at the weekend that it was prepared to call off the walk out if the government didn’t impose the new contract, but instead pilot it for a while, suggests that even the doctors themselves fear they’ll lose public sympathy by going ahead with this strike.

Yes. The fact that the final sticking point in negotiations is around money reveals all of the previous lofty, high-minded concerns about public safety and “tired doctors making mistakes” to be the cynical campaign rhetoric that it is.

Forsyth hammers home the point on pay:

Under the government’s offer, those junior doctors who are on duty one Saturday in four will receive a premium pay rate of 30 per cent. This means they are, on average, getting paid more for working on Saturdays than nurses, midwives and paramedics. The proposed deal is also more generous than what firefighters and police officers get for doing their job on a Saturday. This is hardly grounds for a walkout that will inevitably put lives at risk.

Junior doctors are right that they are paid less than doctors in some other countries. But this is, in large part, because the state has heavily subsidised their education. By the time a doctor has finished their foundation training, the state has already spent a quarter of a million pounds on them.

Until doctors are prepared to pick up more of this tab themselves, they shouldn’t complain that some of those working in other health systems are paid more than them. Indeed, it would be sensible of the state to actually require medical students to commit to working in the NHS for a certain number of years before funding their training—something that it doesn’t currently do. Junior doctors should also remember that if they stay in medicine and become consultants, they will find themselves in the top two percent of earners in this country.

This blog is no fan of the current Conservative government and no great proponent of the latest NHS reforms. But for the sake of decency, this strike needs to be broken. And then we need to have a long, hard national conversation about why an advanced democracy like Britain is facing a national strike of any kind in the year 2016.

Hint: if we did not still have a monolithic nationalised health service – the fifth largest employer on the planet serving the 22nd largest country by population – we could never be in the ludicrous position of suffering a strike of all the junior doctors in the land. Doctors would not all share the same employer, patients would not all rely on the same medical service and we would all be spared this drama.

Something to mull over as the accusations and counter-accusations fly.

 

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As The World Burns, Britain’s Political System Remains Broken And Neglected

 

If it suddenly feels as though there are more loud-mouthed juveniles wandering about during the daytime, it is because both the nation’s schools and the House of Commons have wrapped up their business and gone home for the summer holiday. But while no one should begrudge our young people or their harried teachers a much-deserved break, Westminster’s politicians are returning to their constituencies with few solid accomplishments to their credit, and with the very effectiveness of Parliament itself now in question.

While the world is captivated by the latest slaughter in Israel and Gaza, and scrambles to respond to Russia’s aggressive expansionism and the downing of flight MH17, a number of far less dramatic but equally intractable problems continue to chip away at British democracy and our political institutions. Normally, these “dull” issues only see the light of day at election time – at which point everyone stops to wring their hands about how terrible it is that so few people bothered to vote, or (heresy of heresies) that they voted for UKIP – but a pair of articles in the Spectator and at Conservative Home  sound an early warning that we would all do well to heed before we get distracted by the 2015 general election campaign.

The Spectator piece, by James Forsyth, starts by bemoaning the fact that so many of the ex-ministers recently departed from David Cameron’s Cabinet following the reshuffle have also elected to stand down as MPs at the 2015 general election. But it grows into a broader, important discussion about the kind of MPs that we should want debating legislation and holding the executive to account in the Commons:

Most of those leaving are not doing so because they are past retirement age. Sir George Young might be 73, but William Hague, Andrew Lansley and David Willetts are only in their fifties and Greg Barker is a mere 48. When they go, they will take expertise and experience that the Commons desperately needs to do its job properly. Former ministers play a particular role in the Commons’ ability to scrutinise what the government is doing.

Although the details of each ministerial case are different, Forsyth correctly taps into an increasing sense among many current and aspiring MPs that the only goal worth shooting for is a top-level Cabinet position, and that any other trajectory (a brief tenure as a junior minister or a few terms on the backbenches) is an unacceptable outcome for their political career.

Forsyth then makes an important point about an over-emphasis on youth which seems to attract the ‘wrong’ kind of young people into Westminster politics (such as Labour candidate Emily Benn):

This emphasis on youth precludes people having had a long career outside of politics. One doesn’t have to agree with the former minister who says that ‘we have the worst of all worlds — people who aspire only to be managers but can’t manage’ to think that it is unfortunate that the ambitious feel they have to stand for office before they have had time to reach the top of another profession.

This complaint ties in very strongly with this blog’s own concern at the lack of real ‘citizen politicians’, people whose sense of civic duty compels them to take a mid- or late-career break to sit in the House of Commons representing their constituents for just one or two terms of office. Of course there are always a handful of one-hit wonders, but most one-term departures are a result of losing re-election, scandal, failing to achieve work/life balance or bitterness that plans for rapid promotion and the acquisition of power and prestige did not come to fruition.

Indeed, an MP voluntarily leaving Parliament for a reason other than these typical motivations is almost guaranteed to be newsworthy, as it was when Conservative MP Dan Byles, of the 2010 intake, announced his decision not to seek re-election. And instances of British political candidates pledging upfront to serve only a single term or a set number of terms are almost non-existent.

Forsyth’s twin solutions are quite radical – he proposes increasing constituency sizes to dramatically cut the number of MPs to around the 400 mark, which would make it harder for them to be coerced into wasting time going to battle  for individual constituents and their personal problems, something which better falls under the remit of local government. (It should, however, be noted that US congressional districts are as much as ten times larger than UK constituencies, and American representatives are still expected to fulfil this role).

But ultimately, Forsyth believes it may be necessary to split the executive from the legislature and impose a separation of powers in Britain once and for all. This really is quite visionary stuff, and would form part of the comprehensive UK-wide constitutional reform that Semi-Partisan Sam has long advocated. If the legislature and the executive were separate, the quality and effectiveness of the House of Commons would be less polluted by the presence of young whippersnappers who regarded their seats and duties to their constituents as a mere springboard to higher office. The opposition to such a split would be immense and the details would need to be worked out – would all government positions be purged from the Commons, necessitating a separate election for Prime Minister, for example – but it is a fascinating idea worthy of serious discussion.

Meanwhile, Mark Wallace at Conservative Home has the House of Lords in his sights, arguing that the size of the upper chamber (rapidly nearing 1000 peers) is too large, too inefficient and so stuffed with “cronies and failed politicians” that the ability of the chamber’s subject matter experts to properly scrutinise legislation is severely limited.

With a very unflattering comparison to the 3000-member Chinese National People’s Congress, Wallace explains that such a large body can only be a recipe for confusion:

The swelling ranks are an outcome of the Lords’ confused role. On the one hand, the Upper House is meant to scrutinise legislation as a home of expertise; on the other, it is a tool for morale and political management in the Commons – convenient vacancies are created on the green benches by bumping MPs up, patronage (or the hope of receiving it) is extended to maintain party discipline, and partisan appointments are made in the hope of improving the chances for Government legislation …

The Mail‘s description of many appointees as “cronies and failed politicians” is too often correct – we are meant to get experts, but a lot of the time we get party apparatchiks, trade union officials and the great and good from Whitehall and the media. For every great debate, like that on assisted dying, there are a dozen in which the prevailing ideological trends of our left wing establishment are recited as fact.

It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Semi-Partisan Sam was in the public gallery at the House of Lords on Wednesday, and was shocked by the perfunctory laziness with which Oral Questions was rushed through, the sloppy way in which the self-regulating peers kept (or rather didn’t keep) order, and the sheer amount of timewasting that takes place as the House resolves itself into a committee, out of a committee or divides for a vote (mechanics that are rarely seen by the British people as the House of Lords proceedings tend to be shown only in highlight reels by the BBC). Quite why many of the peers filling the benches for Oral Questions were there at all was a mystery, given their disinterested faces and sleepy postures – until one remembers the £300 daily allowance.

Reform of this sleepy and dysfunctional institution will not be easy – the most recent plans, hammered out in the coalition negotiations in 2010, were abandoned when Conservatives reneged on their agreement to support the changes. But at a time when any mention of House of Lords reform is met with sighs and knowing warnings that it can’t be done, Wallace’s proposal for an easy quick win on the issue should garner support from everyone:

We do agree on a starting point, though: the numbers must be reduced to make the House functional. David Steel’s proposals to require members to commit to being active, working Peers or face expulsion and to introduce an age limit both have merit and would go some way towards fixing the problem.

Yes, it would. We still see the problem of peers “clocking in” to Parliament to be eligible for their daily allowance, while otherwise doing nothing to contribute to the workings of the institution or the democratic process. Accepting an ennoblement should be contingent on making a commitment to turn up for work and do the job. The current situation – where there are life terms, no upper age limits, no requirement to actually do any work and no simple procedure for removing lazy or criminal peers – is a virtual incentive for poor performance and represents the antithesis to a well functioning upper chamber.

None of these very unsexy constitutional issues are likely to set the world on fire, not when so many pressing international human tragedies are doing such a fine job of keeping it aflame in the worst possible way. But we in Britain have a nasty habit of ignoring pressing questions about how we want to govern ourselves and make decisions, allowing them to smoulder untended in the background until events cause them to suddenly burst to life in a wildfire of public outrage.

Think back to 2010, and the pompous outrage that met the formation of a Conservative-led coalition government that “nobody voted for”. It’s certainly true that there was no box on the ballot paper marked “Cameron & Clegg Double Act”, and so in that strict sense the plaintiffs are correct. But we all went into that 2010 general election knowing (or deliberately choosing to remain ignorant of) the way that our voting system worked, and that a hung parliament was a possibility. If the people do not have the proactivity or the attention span to think about these possibilities and make their preferences known beforehand, there are no grounds for complaint when Sir Gus O’Donnell and other senior civil service mandarins facilitate a resolution of their own behind closed doors.

In the same way, we all know (or deliberately choose to remain ignorant about) the variable calibre of politicians that are currently attracted to Westminster, and the hazy unwritten rules and conventions which govern Parliament’s workings. But as well as being cognisant of the problem, we are also now armed with a few radical suggestions for digging ourselves out of our democratic deficit.

With a small window before the 2015 general election campaign to get these issues debated and make them part of the policy discussion before the parties publish their manifestos, advocates of constitutional reform should see this moment as a rare opportunity.