hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Much EU About Nothing?

Alphen, Netherlands. 27 December.  German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has something of the night about him.  With the Germans about to lead the seventeen EUrozone countries into the greatest political leap in the dark since the creation of the European Union Schaeuble has suggested that the British people be denied a referendum on their future relationship with a future German-led EU.  It would cause “uncertainty” he said.  Even Schaeuble’s use of language speaks of another age.  In a 23rd December interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung Schaeuble said, “Our British friends are not dangerous”.  Why even use such language?
 
What worries Schaeuble is a speech British PR-Meister David Cameron is scheduled to make in January in which he will offer Britons a 2015 referendum…of sorts.  Schaeuble should not be worried.  According to Whitehall insiders Cameron as per usual is going to duck the real issues.  The choice on offer will be between doing nothing (status quo) or asking the impossible (that all EU member-states will agree to a limited repatriation of powers from Brussels to London).  Much EU about nothing.
Europe has always ‘worked’ by give and take.  The British ‘give’ was to agree not to block German-led moves towards the creation a European Banking Authority and thus tacitly accept deeper EUrozone integration.  The ‘take’ should have been a Germany that accepts Britons must now consider the only question now left to them; to be part of Germany’s new EU or not.  Sadly, Herr Schaeuble’s intervention points to the very undemocratic and autocratic future many Britons object to and again underlines Cameron’s weakness.
 
Cameron’s cave-in was probably made inevitable the moment the Obama administration waded in on Herr Schaeuble’s side.  Last week a "senior US administration official" (I have a pretty good idea who) said, “It is important to state very clearly that a strong UK in a strong Europe is in America’s national interest”.  What he meant to say was that a weak UK in a strong EU is in America’s interest, which demonstrates the extent to which Washington has misunderstood what is happening in Europe.  Americans are not about to witness the creation of a United States of Europe cast in their own image, but a sophisticated powerplay by Germany for leadership in the age-old name of a ‘free Europe’.  After all the sacrifice Britons have made over the past years supporting dubious American leadership this is Washington’s payback? 
Clearly, the US sees Britain as little more than a foreign policy surrogate in the EU, casting Britain in the very role of American trojan horse that Charles de Gaulle so objected to back in the 1960s.  I would like to suggest that Britain will not sacrifice its own liberty just because Washington cannot get its own foreign policy act together.  However, so supine have British leaders become I am no longer at all sure.
 
Nor am I suggesting for a minute that Herr Schaeuble is seeking a return to the dark side of German history, but Europeans have by no means escaped their history and Schaeuble really needs to watch his language.  Faced with a EUrozone crisis the severity of which very few even now understand Schaeuble is resorting to an age-old elite German tendency to be absolutely certain when absolutely wrong.  Schaeuble believes that only by casting all other EUrozone states in the German image and subjecting them to indirect fiat will financial prudence be restored.  Berlin’s strategy is to use EU institutions to that end while inserting clauses into agreements that protect Germany and its institutions from just such control.  This month’s EU finance minister’s agreement over a European Banking Authority reeks of such caveats.
 
In a well co-ordinated intervention Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barthe Eide, who I know, like and respect, last week warned that Britain would find itself facing “regulation without representation” if it left the EU.  What Espen has failed to understand is that in Germany’s new EUrozone Britain will face just such regulation without representation and still have to pay the enormous price for little or no influence that is the burden of Britain's contemporary EU membership.  In other words, taxation without representation.  It is a burden that will only get heavier.  In other words, the status quo is not an option.
Therefore, the only way Britain could remain a member of the EU outside Germany’s EUrozone will be to establish an entirely new relationship between those in and those out.   Such a relationship would need to be built on the kinds of checks and balances enshrined in the American constitution but which are steadily being removed from the EU summit by grinding summit.  Far from lecturing the British people about accepting EU membership at any cost or manipulating a weak British prime minister the shape of just such a relationship should be the stuff of British, German and indeed American diplomacy in 2013.  If a deal is not done by the German federal elections in September 2013 it will probably be too late as the British electoral cycle will then begin.   
 
Freedom to choose is a freedom for which Americans and Britons fought and died for in their hundreds of thousands in two world wars.  Americans, Germans (and Norwegians) of all peoples should respect and understand that.
Much EU about nothing?  I don’t think so.
 
Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 21 December 2012

Euro-Realism: For a Better Europe

Alphen, Netherlands, 21 December.  Oh no, Christmas again!  Gadzooks! Once again I have crashed and burned on the Christmas card front.  So, by way of dodgy recompense one more Yorkshire blast before the Yuletide gruel. 
 
Myth has it that Trotsky believed capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. In fact that was the so-called Ultra Leftists as neither Lenin nor Trotsky thought capitalism would face a final reckoning, believing rather that capitalism would preserve itself at whatever cost.  Only class struggle would ensure the collapse of capitalism.  However, if alive today Trotsky would doubtless believe the EU likely to collapse under the weight of its own copious contradictions.  At present all that is holding the Eurozone up is Euro-Aristocratic hot air, Imperial levels of wishful thinking and my impoverishment through huge transfers of my Dutch taxpayer’s money. 
 
Since I wrote “A Sad Day for Europe” last week I have been 'assailed' by various factions of Euro-frippery.  Some have been genuine but na├»ve, others well-intended but misguided, and not a few self-serving and cynical (and not a few of those from within the Brussels machine).  One was from the completely mad and worth framing and sticking on the wall school of thought.  I never knew one could do that with a broom handle.  One even suggested that in time I would face the latter day version of the Spanish Inquisition.  No disrespect to my Spanish friends but I suggested in retort that the Inquisition could afford neither the train fare nor the comfy chair (old Monty Python joke).  What all had in common was a complete inability to consider what is happening to Europe analytically.  This lack of analysis suggests that the Eurozone crisis is morphing into an ideological crisis and with it a retreat into a false consciousness (Marx) that is worse the closer one gets to Brussels Centre. 
 
Put simply, there is no pan-European demos upon which a democratic political union could be established, only a weak and frankly risible European Parliament which cannot hold itself to account let alone Europe’s pretend government-in-waiting, the European Commission. Worse, in the struggle for a mythical but unattainable European polis the writ of the European Council, the only truly legitimate inter-governmental EU body, is being daily undermined by the Parliament and the Commission in a Brussels Centre power struggle that is adding to the chronic uncertainty about where power lies, who exerts it and who, if anyone, has control.  As these people fiddle the Eurozone crisis gets daily worse and Europe’s people are lulled ever deeper into a false sense of security. 
 
Until Europe is led back towards competitiveness and profitability it is only a matter of time before the Euro fails.  Instead Eurozone ‘leaders’ are attempting to ring-fence the European economy from the world economy which simply delays the inevitable crash.  Printing money or making richer northern and western Europeans poorer by transferring huge sums to poorer southern and eastern Europeans without any real prospect of structural economic reforms can only ever be a temporary fix.  Europe must be made fit for the twenty-first century or fail.  2013 and 2014 will be the crunch years.
 
I believe in ‘Europe’ as a tight alliance of democratic nation-states.  For the sake of coherence and cohesion a small Brussels-based secretariat is clearly needed to help enact the decisions of the European Council.  I do not believe in a European Commission that seeks to compete with the very governments it should serve or a European Parliament full of flunkies, has-beens and ‘friends and family of’.  Indeed, until the so-called community method is abandoned in favour of an alliance of governments I fear crisis will follow paralysis and paralysis will follow crisis.  Indeed, the Eurozone crisis would be far closer to resolution if the Commission (and 'President' van Rompuy) had not offered plan after totally unworkable and impractical plan simply to link their insane ambitions for political union to the saving of the Euro. 
 
If this goes on the EU will indeed collapse under the weight of its own contradictions and at a horrifying price for the European people.  That is why as a European citizen, historian and political scientist it is my duty to point out to a dogmatic European uber-elite their dangerous contradictions.  Therefore, I will continue to fight for a Europe that makes sense, not a fantasy Europe but a real Europe. My Europe.
 
To conclude let me thank all who have given me time and attention in 2012.  You will find none of that politically correct ‘happy holidays’ nonsense here.  Indeed, wherever and whoever you are let me thank you for your loyalty and let me celebrate your culture by respecting you with my own.  A merry Christmas and a happy new year to you all! 
 
The Yorkshire world view will be back in 2013!  Now then!
 
Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 17 December 2012

Pacific NATO

Alphen, Netherlands. 17 December.  The Atlantic Alliance is about to enter a tumultuous period of change both in Europe and the wider world and how we all conceive of our place in that world (not Europe) will be critical to the Alliance.  This dawning reality was brought home to me Friday when I had the honour of debating NATO’s emerging security challenges with the Norwegian Ambassador to NATO and his colleagues on the Norwegian Permanent Delegation.  Given changing energy patterns and the melting of Arctic ice Norway will find itself on a new ‘front-line’ as the High North becomes a source of exploitation and friction.  Moreover, with yesterday’s re-election of Shinzo Abe as Japan’s Prime Minister and the possibility of renewed tensions with China a most profound question was also apparent; what if any is NATO’s Pacific role?
 
NATO’s role in the Pacific I hear you ask?  Ask many Europeans where NATO’s responsibility stops and I am pretty sure they would say the English Channel one end and the Baltic states' borders with Russia the other.  Many forget that the NATO includes the US and Canada and simply assume it is an organisation for the American-led defence of Europe. Indeed, the only time NATO’s Armageddon Article 5 collective defence clause was ever invoked was on 12 September, 2001 in defence of the United States. 
This matters because it is not the US that is ‘pivoting’ away from Europeans, but Asia-Pacific that is ‘pivoting’ towards Europe and Europeans need to begin to get their heads around this.  Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty states “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.
Now, no attack is pending but does the term “North Atlantic area” now include the the US and Canadian Pacific coast and their Pacific possessions? Times change.  If it does NATO’s westernmost point is the US Wake Island some 12045kms/7485 miles from Brussels but only 3207kms/1993 miles from Tokyo.  Indeed, Alaska is only 90kms/58miles from Russia’s Far East across the Bering Strait. 
There are some reports that US Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton is considering a Pacific-Atlantic Treaty Organisation or PATO.  Certainly, is hard to imagine a future conflict Asia-Pacific conflict that involves the US not demanding of Europeans at the very least solidarity.  But what woud that mean in a Pacific context?  It is certainly the emptiest and most over-used word one hears in Europe these days.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘solidarity’ as “holding together, mutual dependence, community of interests, feelings and actions”.  For many Europeans it seems to mean, ‘you have an obligation to defend me and to give me your money for which I will do little or nothing in return”.  The asymmetric commitment to successive crises has rapidly undermined the 'contracts' at the core of both NATO and the EU.
The 2010 NATO Strategic Concept states, “This Strategic Concept will guide the next phase in NATO’s evolution, so that it continues to be effective in a changing world, against new threats, with new capabilities and new partners”.  NATO is slowly beginning to grapple with the modernisation of Article 5 collective defence.  To be credible in this new age that will necessarily mean a NATO capable of generating the biggest of biggest security pictures.  It will also mean the creation of advanced deployable military forces reinforced by the defensive and offensive technologies of our time; missile defence, cyber-defence and global intelligence across five domains - air, sea, land, cyber and space.  Above all, it will require a complete overhaul of NATO’s strategic mindset so that everything the Alliance does is considered in the context of the world as it is, not the very narrow focus beloved of Europeans.  If not NATO will not die but slowly fade like the old soldier that it now is.  To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, Europeans must ask not what the Alliance can do for Europe, but what Europe can do for Alliance. 
 
The sub-title of the Strategic Concept is “Active Engagement: Modern Defence”.  If that is to mean anything it will mean an Alliance credible to the security needs of all its members, not just a few.  As the Alliance begins the long slog to rebuild the mutual confidence and trust undermined by the imbalance of effort in Afghanistan it will also a twenty-first century NATO relevant to the twenty-first century not the twentieth. 
 
Pacific NATO.  It is already a fact.  Can we ever make it a reality?
Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 14 December 2012

A Sad Day for Europe

Alphen, Netherlands. 14 December.  It was strange being with senior British parliamentarians in London yesterday talking about matters strategy and defence. There was an elephant in the corner of the room that was ignored – yesterday’s historic EU summit at which the European Central Bank was given sweeping new powers to supervise two hundred of the largest European banks and agreement reached over a banking union.  Interestingly there were only Americans in the room and no Europeans. It was as though we are already talking about Britain’s future strategy beyond the EU.  The Eurozone has now moved decisively down the road towards banking, financial and ultimately political union, with significant areas of national sovereignty now to be passed to European institutions.  EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso put it succinctly.  The summit he said demonstrated the “irreversibility” of the Euro and economic and monetary union.  He also signalled what is coming next when called for “steps towards a political union”.
 
Britain was not alone with its concerns.  Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg called the decision to create a banking union, “a sad day for Europe”.  “There is a move now towards eurobanks, eurotaxes, eurotransfers…We think these are steps in the wrong direction”.  At least Borg called it as he saw it.  PR-Meister Cameron retreated into the rhetoric of the political scoundrel.  Britain, he said, had insisted upon “safeguards”.  Having again roared like a lion before the summit about protecting the British interest, he squeaked like a mouse at the summit.  This is the classic tactic of all weak British prime ministers when out-manoeuvred in Europe; they stop protecting the British interest and begin conspiring with other European leaders who have what they want to con the British people into believing that a) nothing very important has happened; and b) in any case Britain has ‘opt-outs’ or ‘safeguards’.
The ‘safeguards’ are not worth the ink they are written with.  The ‘deal’ is that to prevent being systematically outvoted by the Eurozone any decisions by the new City of London unfriendly European Banking Authority (EBA) will need to be approved by a majority of the ten EU countries outside the Euro.  Unfortunately for Cameron eight of the ten ‘outs’ are so-called ‘pre-ins’, i.e. member-states that plan to join the Euro, and seven of them will always vote with the Eurozone.  Britain is now utterly subject to a tyrannous majority and it is only a matter of time before this new reality becomes all too apparent.
Cameron, this utterly weak British prime minister is now on the rocks, politically-damaged at home and abroad.  The sooner he goes the better.  Unable to grasp strategy he now simply stumbles on from crisis to crisis hoping against hope that his Eton-honed eloquence can mask his political and strategic shallowness.  Never has British influence in Europe been so low and all because he bought the nonsense pedalled by the Whitehall elite that London can only exert influence by being at the table.  Yesterday demonstrated that Cameron could have been standing on the table, megaphone to his lips shouting and no-one was listening.  It is appalling to watch my once great country so badly led.
Sure, the Eurozone would have bypassed Cameron if he had said ‘no’ as he did last year.  Sure, it is in Britain’s interest to see the Eurozone stabilised.  However, it is not in Britain’s interest to see the creation of a bureaucratic, undemocratic political monster.  Cameron did not fight hard enough on a basic principle; what is happening is a danger to European democracy.  As Sweden’s finance minister said, “It might be very popular among the eurocrats, but I think there are very few Europeans actually wanting these developments”.  In email exchanges this morning with senior European politicians the bustedness of Cameron’s busted flush is all too apparent.
As former Commission President Jacques Delors said this week Britain must now decide if it is ‘in’ or ‘out’.  As of yesterday being ‘in’ will mean joining the Euro as in time there will be no space for Britain to occupy between a ‘mythical’ single market and a single currency, the real single market.  It will also mean that if the British people are conned by the Establishment's economic scaremongering, they will also in effect be agreeing to the end of national self-government and the creation of a European super-state.  German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said of yesterday it was the “blueprint” for just such a vision. 
The simple truth is that the EU is now the Eurozone and the Eurozone is now the EU.  Those at the heart of the Brussels machine who saw the crisis they created as an historic opportunity to drive decisively towards political union have won.  The ‘outs’ now face a choice between; subjugation, integration or in time expulsion. 
Make no mistake; yesterday was the parting of the ways.  It is a sad day for Europe.
Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Mega-trends, Mega-change, Mega-failure

London, mega-trend, mega-city, 12 December.  Two reports this week past demonstrate both the sheer enormity and pace of change in this world and the utter inability of democratically-elected Western European politicians to deal with it. 
 
Last week the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) published Global Trends 2030, which neatly captured mega-change.  Yesterday a report was published in Britain on the 2011 Census that implied a shocking message; given the pace of hyper-immigration by 2100 England will have ceased to be England.  Far from crafting policies that can begin to cope with the consequences of such change British politicians are simply retreating into denial, renting ever wider the gap between leaders and the catastrophically-badly led.  It is a phenomenon repeated across Western Europe.
 
Last week’s NIC report makes for interesting reading.  It suggest four mega-trends: individual empowerment that will undermine state authority; a diffusion of power which will undermine both states and their international institutions; an increase in both migration and urbanisation and hyper-competition for food, water and energy.  In other words it is a dangerous cocktail of global instability that will be reflected in what the report calls a crisis-prone global economy subject to a governance gap with the potential for conflict increasing, both global and regional.  Conflict that will be both promoted and countered by new technologies.  This is big change stuff.
 
Fast forward to yesterday’s report on the 2011 UK national census and the street-level consequences of big change are all too apparent.  The UK report confirmed something the English people have seen with their own eyes and yet government has repeatedly denied; the forces of change reflected in the NIC report are changing the face of England.  My use of England as opposed to Britain is deliberate as the census confirms it is England taking the brunt of change engineered by two Scottish politicians - Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.  For the first time in its history people who identified themselves in the census as ‘White British’ are now in a minority in London which to all intents and purposes is ceasing to be an English city and is becoming instead the world’s first Mega-trend Mega-city in which big change is being played out.
 
Watching British TV last night was an exercise in elite denial.  The usual apologists were trotted out by the BBC.  A changing England was a ‘good thing’.  We are all part of the ‘global village’ and it is simply ‘globalisation in action’.  Hyper-immigration is something to be celebrated.  At one level they are right.  London is certainly a ‘dynamic’ place.  However, a vast number of ordinary decent English people feel betrayed by a political class that has consistently refused to listen to their concerns.  
 
It is frustration repeated across Western Europe.  This breakdown between peoples and their political leaders is pronounced everywhere.  Of course, such tensions always exist during times of economic crisis but this is something much, much deeper.  Politicians are trapped in a perfect storm of global change, uncontrolled mass migration, the consequences of foolishly-relinquished national sovereignty, extra-territorial human rights legislation and with it an inability to control national borders.  All they can do in response is either pretend they have control they do not, blame others for the fiasco (in Britain’s case normally Brussels and the EU) or simply deny change is happening.
 
At the end of next year transitional restrictions on the right of Romanians and Bulgarians to settle in other EU countries will be lifted.  Now, I have nothing but respect for both countries as I have visited both often and if I was a poor Romanian and saw opportunity elsewhere I too would vote with my feet.  Typically, unable to prevent the next tidal wave of eastern European immigration to Britain on the grounds London is bound by EU treaty the British Government is implying only a few thousand will move to the UK.  Yesterday I had a chat on the phone with a friend of mine who is a senior eastern European politician.  I asked him how many Romanians and Bulgarians he thought would move to Britain come early 2014.  “Anything up to a million”, he said.
 
Neither the fragile British economy nor its fragile society will cope with such an influx and yet ministers are in denial.  If politicians are to regain any sort of trust three things must happen.  First, they must begin to be honest with their electorates about the nature of global change and that there can be no refuge in nostalgia.  Society is what it is and change brings benefits as well as dangers.  Second, those very real dangers big change generates must and will be confronted and if needs be countries like Britain will take back power from broken Brussels to ensure that.  Third, Britain must really regain control of its borders.
 
If not then two things will happen.  Social unrest will break out and thuggish political extremists will emerge from the shadows in which today they lurk.  Democracy in denial is democracy in danger.
 
Julian Lindley-French   

Monday, 10 December 2012

The EU's Nobel Still-in-One Piece Prize

Blois, France. 10 December.  It is one of those surreal European days.  The EU has just formally accepted the Nobel Peace Prize (it was Tom Lehrer who wrote that political satire died the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Prize) when the sad truth is that far from multiplying European power and influence in the world the EU these days is diminishing it.  The surrealism is particularly pointed because below me Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) sits astride a charger cloaked in the finest armour looking west towards the English she sought to kick out of Europe.  Here in Blois English and French history meets on the banks of the Loire, that most royal blue of French rivers, symbolised by a small statue of a small woman born six hundred years ago in 1412 who changed the course of European history.  Europe is clearly approaching yet another historical bifurcation and being Europeans there is a tendency to think it is the only show in town.  It is not.  What is happening in the world beyond Europe is what is really interesting and there Europe is the past. 
 
In some ways the Prize marks the end of the European world.  Imagine a map centred not on the Greenwich meridian, but on the International Dateline.  The line runs not across the Atlantic but the Pacific from the Arctic to the Antarctic between China on one side and America on the other.  To its east lies the old West; to its west lies the new East. That is the new fault-line in global politics, the new Mackinderesque geographical pivot around which power will be organised.   Unfortunately, Europe’s inability to confront this new order is day-by-day driving the Old Continent inexorably towards a strategic cliff; a decisive moment of decline in which peace and impotence are interpreted as one and the same. 
 
Danger is everywhere on this map and it is all connected.  The unseemly growth of mighty but unstable China and its Asian neighbours, the slow and tragic collapse of middle eastern states, a fast-growing world population competing for ever scarcer food and water, the endemic intolerance and corruption of powerful near-neighbour European elites, the desperate energy competition between the consumptive oligarchies and the consumptive democracies, the new/ideological struggles between the children of the Book and between those of no ‘Book’, the merger of mass destructive technologies with ideology and old-fashioned state calculation.  Indeed, this is the very stuff of the twenty-first century.  And where is Europe on this map?  Indeed, whilst the next decade will mark the critical formative crucible of a new world order, Europe will be in a self-imposed strategic nowhere with NATO and the EU left hanging in the no man's land between rhetoric and reality. 

Can Europe be saved from an impotent future?  Britain and France are the only two powers capable of re-injecting some semblance of strategic reality into an EU/Europe which either seems to think it can opt-out of global change or simply does not want to play by the power rules the world is imposing.    However, Britain and France are moving rapidly in opposite directions.  France sees itself at the centre of Europe’s interminable struggle to create/save itself from itself.  Britain has no desire to be in such a place and yet the EU prevents it from playing the role of balancer it afforded Europe in the centuries following Jeanne d'Arc.  Inevitably, the very political fallout of this fundamental divide is beginning to creep into the strategic defence relationship. Sadly, in spite of high profile military exercises the much-lauded 2010 Franco-British Defence and Security Treaty is beginning to run out of political steam.
This time of year the Loire belies its age and skips youthfully in full flow on its way to the Atlantic.  Channelling turbulence will be critical if London and Paris are to save their vital strategic defence partnership. It may seem counter-intuitive but if the strategic conundrums being mapped out for both Britain and France are to be managed the treaty becomes more not less important.  The British must align with a new strategic bloc around the Americans and yet preserve key European ties above and beyond the EU.  France's somehow has to get other Europeans to think anew about the global balance of power, even if European integration was meant to be the eternal antidote to such power politics.      
If Britain and France cannot find common cause then the new forces of global change will help drive Britain beyond the EU.  This will be not only because of a level of political integration that might make sense to the descendants of Colbert but never to those of Locke or Mill, but because the EU will have lost all contact with strategic reality.  Indeed, it is the retreat of EU leaders into political and strategic fantasy that is doing the greatest harm to Europe’s future by disconnecting European security from world security and which makes today's award seem a little preposterous.
Jeanne d’Arc once said, “Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there”.  Maybe!  So, well done EU (I suppose that means me but watching leaders drink champagne on my behalf always seems a tad distasteful) but what about the world and what about tomorrow?  
The EU's Nobel Still-in-One Piece Prize (Just)! 

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Meaning of Ontology?

Alphen, Netherlands. 5 December.  It has been an interesting week spent careering around southern England in my little blue VW Polo with that vaguely manic look on my face I wear when behind the wheel.  I had the honour of addressing the First Sea Lord’s conference and the admirals, commodores and captains of the Royal Navy at HMS Collingwood near Portsmouth as to why NATO is so important to the future defence of the United Kingdom.  These were serious people dealing with serious issues and I was struck not only by the openness of British military thinking, but also their self-critique, although having come from the Netherlands which is in defence meltdown it was a little surprising to listen to complaints that the Royal Navy is only getting two new super aircraft-carriers, some fifteen state-of-the-art destroyers and frigates and six new nuclear attack submarines.  This sense of open minds and open thinking was reinforced at a small meeting on Monday at Kensington Palace with the British Chief of Defence Staff to discuss the future role and posture of the British armed forces. 
 
In between the two military meetings I attended a small academic conference in Bath on ostensibly the same subject.  Now, being academics the title of the meeting had to have the words ‘strategic’, ‘culture’, ‘transformation’, ‘European’, ‘security’ and ‘identity’ all in a row, but in the words of an immortal Lancashire comedian Eric Morecambe, “not necessarily in that order”. 
 
I knew I was in for a tough day when certain words beloved of the academic with nothing much to say started to appear.  ‘Ontological’ was liberally sprinkled about, although ‘epistemological’ and ‘reification’ also beloved of the theorist lacking a point, appeared only occasionally.  Ever since my long lost student days I have been suspicious of these words as I do not know what they really mean and I am not at all sure those that spout them do either.  They seem rather to be part of the ritual of ivory tower semantics into which so many politics departments at British universities have retreated in the past twenty years or so.  Much a-speak about nothing.
 
This was confirmed to me by an exchange I had with a senior academic at the meeting.  I say ‘exchange’ as it was more an ambush as clearly the chair and the academic assailant had pre-planned the attack, which was akin to British politician Denis Healey’s observation about being ‘savaged’ by a particularly genteel colleague as being “mauled by a dead sheep”.  The subject was Europe.  Now, many of you will know that I used to work for the EU and for many years was a passionate believer in ‘Europe’.  However, based on many years of hard political, economic, social, foreign and defence policy analysis and given current shocks I am now profoundly concerned about the direction of ‘Europe’ and Britain’s place (if any) within it. 
 
My analysis was duly presented only to be attacked with what can be best described as an analysis-free emotive rant.  I wanted to tow Britain out into the Atlantic, I was told.  The world’s fifth or sixth largest real economy and third biggest defence spender had no alternative but to accept its fate and sign up to a new EU it does not want in which it will be in a permanent minority.  No facts, just assertions.  And, as what passed for ‘argument’ petered out (as it did) the assailant feeling himself to be struggling then became just plain rude.  I did not understand either British politics or the way the EU works.  I resisted a giggle at that moment.
 
As I was listening I suddenly had an insight into the grinding leftist conformism of British academia.  There are certain analyses one is not allowed to make any more because it simply does not fit into the prescribed, politically-correct dogma that so much of British academic output reflects.  Rather, one must pass one’s days debating on the head of a pin the increasingly irrelevant shades of grey of mantra and produce undecipherable peer-reviewed literature that can only pass muster if it reflects current academic dogma before it is accepted into the not-so-great pantheon of academic bureaucracy.  The gap between the real world the armed forces are dealing with and the pretend world of much of British academia simply cannot be bridged.  What a shame. 
 
As I left Bath en route to another more interesting meeting I could not help but be reminded of a famous 1980s exchange between Margaret Thatcher and Irish Prime Minister and academic Garret Fitzgerald.  Thatcher was hand-bagging on about policy and practice when suddenly Fitzgerald had the temerity to interrupt. “That’s all very well, Prime Minister”, he said, “it may indeed work in practice, but does it work in theory?” 
 
Does anyone know what ontology means?
  
Julian Lindley-French