Almost all countries require their political leaders to relinquish power before they are ready to. Different political systems have different exit requirements. Tony Blair, who stepped down yesterday after ten years as British prime minister, was under no constitutional obligation to leave. Formally, a British prime minister exercises power on behalf of the Queen, who has no fixed term. Nor does her prime minister. Within any period of five years he can call a general election whenever it suits him (on the Queen’s behalf, of course.) If he keeps on winning these elections and (more importantly) his party thinks he can go on doing so, he can stay in power indefinitely. It was because the Labour Party decided that Blair could not win it another election that he was forced to quit.
What are the chances of another world depression? Even to ask the question might seem mischievous. Everything is going marvellously well. We have discovered the secret of everlasting growth. Don’t ruin it with inconvenient scepticism.
In my last column, I talked about how Russia’s great power illusion clashed with the facts of American power. I argued that, in present circumstances, its foreign policy should be designed to conciliate and please, not threaten and annoy. This is not the way Russia’s policy makers see things. Today I want to unpick two complementary doctrines which form the ideological basis of Russian foreign policy: Anatoly’s Chubais’s ‘liberal empire’ and Vladislav Surkov’s ‘sovereign democracy’. What is striking is the virtual identity of vision between the leader of the liberal right wing party (SPS) and the Kremlin’s chief ‘politologist’.
Old men who have lost their potency comfort themselves with the thought that they can ‘still do it’. So do collapsed great powers. The outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair fantasised that his country’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States gave him unique influence over President George W. Bush. The European Union, having lost its ‘hard’ power, believes that ‘soft’ power can do just as well. Russia’s illusion –occasionally shared by France – is ‘multipolarity’. ‘The formation of a multipolar world’, wrote Yevgeny Primakov in 2003, ‘is the main vector of the world’s development’. President Putin echoed him at Munich this year. ‘The unipolar world… did not take place’.
The latest spat between Britain and Russia is largely a newspaper creation. The refugee oligarch Boris Berezovsky told the Guardian (13 April) that ‘he is planning the violent overthrow of President Putin from his base in Britain’. The Russian government was predictably, and understandably, annoyed. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s chief spokesman, said Russia would be calling (once more) for his extradition to face trial for criminal activities. Of course, nothing much will follow. It’s just another small nail in the coffin of Anglo-Russian relations.
President Putin’s proposal for a ‘social’ parliament to ‘improve the links between government and society’, put forward after the attack on Beslan in September, has a chequered political lineage. The main historical idea is that a ‘social’, or ‘industrial’, or ‘functional’ parliament should be set up alongside the ‘political’ parliament, though in some schemes it would replace it. It has been advanced by both democrats and anti-democrats, but the only full-scale realisation was in Fascist Italy, where the social parliament was part of what was called ‘the corporate state’.
On Monday I went to the launch in London of the 2005 Index of Economic Freedom. It is published every year by the Washington-based think-tank, the Heritage Foundation, in conjunction with the Wall Street Journal. It ranks 155 countries by how economically ‘free’ they are, according to 10 criteria. Seventeen countries are classified as ‘free’, a further 56 as ‘mostly free’, 70 as ‘mostly unfree’ and 12 as ‘repressed’. Predictably, Hong Kong and Singapore are the two at the top, Burma and North Korea the two at the bottom. ‘Old’ Europe and Japan seem to be on the way down (with France clocking in at no.44) and ‘new’ Europe on the way up, with Estonia at no.4. Russia comes in at 124, in contrast to Ukraine, the ‘second most improved’ country, at no.88. Africa is the least free region of all.
Seizing the moment of pity and guilt created by the East Asian tsunami, the British government has launched an ambitious ‘Marshall Aid’ plan for the poorest countries in the world. It consists of three elements: debt relief, trade reform, and aid. As well as cancelling poor country debts owing to them, the wealthiest nations would pay the debts owing to the IMF, the World Bank and the African Development Bank. They would cut the export subsidies which wreck the rural economies of poor countries. Capping it all, they would make available additional aid of $50bn. a year for 10 years through an International Financial Facility. The new Marshall Aid would be targeted on sub-Saharan Africa.
With Yasser Arafat dead, peace in the Middle East supposedly has a new chance. It is time to revive the ‘road map’, leading to the creation of a ‘viable’ Palestinian state. This presupposes that Arafat was the main obstacle to peace. He was the terrorist leader who never made the transition to being a statesman.
Asked why he beat George Bush Senior in the US Presidential election of 1992, Bill Clinton answered ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. Last week Bush’s son might well have been tempted to say, ‘It’s moral values, stupid’. George Bush Junior, the reformed alcoholic and born-again Christian, became the standard-bearer of Middle America’s crusade against evil – the evil of gay marriages and abortion at home, the evil of Osama bin Laden abroad.