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3rd May

Elizabeth Warren profile: published in The Independent, 3 May 2014


Peter Popham



Will Hillary Clinton be the next President of the United States? For a long time she has been viewed as the Democratic Party’s best prospect for 2016. The lady herself has yet to declare; she regularly deflects the question, which insiders say is neither coyness nor strategy but because she genuinely has yet to make up her mind. Her four-year stint as secretary of State left her exhausted. If elected she would begin her tenure aged 69. There are plenty of reasons to think long and hard.

And suddenly, running up on the inside very much as Mr Obama did in 2008, comes another woman: a grandmotherly professor trailing clouds of liberal credibility, with a passionate belief in her mission to restore justice and fairness to a system which has “chipped, squeezed and hammered” the middle class.

Elizabeth Warren, who launched her political career in 2012 by thrashing Scott Brown, the Republican magpie in the Massachusetts senate seat, is not running for president. She has said so many times and on many occasions. Furthermore she is a huge admirer of Hillary, the “presumptive nominee”. “I think Hillary Clinton is terrific,” she says. Hillary is “one of the coolest women on the planet.”

But Hillary Clinton is also mortal. She has not made up her mind. And suddenly, despite all the poker-faced denials – “I am not running for president: ask me any way you like” – Elizabeth Warren’s possible challenge is the talk of America.


If you were to design the perfect cv for a liberal presidential contender from the ground up, you could not do better than her life story.

Today aged 64 she sits fair and square among the great and the good: the first woman to sit in the Senate from Massachusetts, a law professor at Harvard, former Special Advisor to the Consumer Protection Bureau, champion Democratic fund-raiser. And she looks and sounds the part with her conservative suits, her timeless blonde bob, her frameless spectacles.

But no such outcome would have seemed very likely when, as 13-year-old Elizabeth Herring from Oklahoma, she began waiting on tables to help support her family. The Herrings had already lost the family station wagon after her father Donald, sometime carpet salesman, maintenance man and janitor, suffered a heart attack; now the family home was at risk, too.

At 19 she married a NASA engineer then began teaching handicapped children in a special primary school. When she subsequently gave birth to the couple’s first child and stopped working to raise her daughter at home, it would have taken a shrewd judge of character to see any special glory in her stars.

But Mrs Warren, who had already gained one university degree, clearly saw that her life was destined to hold more than housework. She enrolled in law school, took summer work with a law practice then after the birth of their second child and divorce from Jim Warren, supported her family by working as a lawyer at home, writing wills and negotiating mortgages.

After a second marriage to a Harvard law professor called Bruce Mann, she rose through the profession till reaching the same revered law school as Bruce. And along the way her ideas began to change.

A Republican voter in her earlier years, it began to dawn on her that the dice were increasingly loaded against her own kind, what she calls “the ragged edges of the middle class.” A turning-point came in 1995 when she was asked to advise a body called the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. She fought long and hard to give consumers the biggest possible right to file for bankruptcy; her failure to overturn the power of the big business lobbies opposed to that taught her a lesson in what the common American man and woman were up against.

Through a steady stream of books, lectures and interviews she became known as a consumer advocate, but her rise to national prominence was sudden. After the Wall Street crash of 2008 she was appointed chairwoman of the congressional committee appointed to oversee the use of the vast sums which the government had poured in to big financial institutions. She was not impressed, and in a series of televised challenges that were forensic in detail but quietly passionate in intensity – not unlike the parliamentary committee performances of our own Margaret Hodge – she set the bankers and their political defenders squirming. The word went around that the ordinary Joe had a vigorous new champion. YouTube did the rest.

Under her persuasion President Obama set up a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and she was the favourite to head it. And when, under massive Republican pressure, Obama chose a candidate less likely to test the bureau’s powers to the limit, Warren did an about-turn and headed for the Senate.

She came very late to politics, which makes her impact all the more impressive. In Massachusetts she raised more than $40 million for her campaign, more than any other Senate candidate. And although her oratorical style is meat and potatoes compared to Obama’s, it has inspired a huge following of Democrats convinced that America is in need of radical change.

“People feel like the system is rigged against them,” she told the Democratic Convention in 2012, “and here’s the painful part: they’re right.”

By setting out her stall on the issue of chronic and growing inequality, she has hit a nerve. “Billionaires,” she told the same audience, “pay less tax than their secretaries…People don’t resent that other people make more money – we’re Americans, we celebrate success. We just don’t want the game to be rigged.”

On the stump in Andover, Massachusetts, it was put to her that forcing the rich to pay more tax was “class warfare”. Her improvised reply – another YouTube smash hit – was perhaps the most succinct rebuttal of the Tea Party’s anti-government dogma ever made.

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” she said. “You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate…You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…You built a factory and it turned into something terrific. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

It’s a simple, timeworn message. But as Americans digest the sombre message of French scholar Thomas Piketty’s surprise best-seller Capital in the Twenty-first Century – proving that economic inequality is growing out of control – it resonates powerfully.

A Warren candidacy would have a gale of popular support behind it: professor, senator, economic policy wonk, for the grassroots she is above all a passionate activist. In her just-published memoir A Fighting Chance she recalls a dinner in 2009 with Lawrence H. Summers, then President Obama’s top economic adviser. “Larry offered me some advice,” she writes. “…I could be an insider or an outsider…Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them.”

Insiders listen to Elizabeth Warren, but it is as a potent outsider that she is prized. Could that potency survive a run for the top job?


Your Comments
25th Apr


Peter Popham



Going by the book, Pope John XXIII should have had to wait for a second miracle to be proved before being elevated to the sainthood. It is a sign of the new mood in the Catholic church – as well as the mood that has always surrounded that particular pontiff, described by one papal historian as “the most beloved pope in history” – that no-one has made a big fuss about this bending of the rules.

John Paul II, the Polish pope, has been bustling towards the company of saints since the crowds in St Peter’s Square roared “Santo subito!” (“Make him a saint at once!”) at his funeral in 2005. John XXIII, who died 42 years earlier, has been waiting in the non-speedy boarding line all these years. So it was imaginative of the new pope, Francis, to bring their fans together, to turn the Polish pope’s big day into a carnival for the church as a whole: conservatives and liberals, heirs of the permissive 1960s and those who have set their face against all such deviations, thrown together, obliged to share each others’ joys. It’s the act of a man with a sense of humour, and possibly a grain of sadism. Also – in his nonchalant waiving of the rules – with a keen sense of his own regal power, and a willingness to use it.

One seasoned Italian Vatican observer said of Francis’s decision to bump John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli before his elevation) to the front of the queue, “He wanted to make someone he really likes a saint.” That rings true. They are popes out of the same box. When Francis came onto the balcony of St Peter’s after his election and said “Buona sera” – as if meeting a family of church-goers in the town piazza after Mass, rather than presenting himself as the freshly-crowned monarch of an institution one billion-strong – the resonance was already clear to the liberal Catholics who have been waiting since 1963 for some good news.

Angelo Roncalli, the fat pope, the good pope, the smiling pope, was also the pope of surprises. On his election it was explained that this obscure and harmless Vatican diplomat, deep into his retirement job as Patriarch of Venice, would mind the shop for a few years, allowing the Church to get its breath back after the long, controversial reign of Pius XII, widely denounced for not standing up to Hitler. But it seems that however much the cardinals in conclave brood, plot and pray, they never know what will become of a common-or-garden cleric once he dons, Clark Kent-like, those papal robes. Who could have foreseen the way John Paul II tore around the world, turning himself into the first celebrity pope? Who could have imagined that his subtle, self-effacing doctrine-chopper Joseph Ratzinger would turn out to be such a serial blunderer once installed as Benedict XVI?

The shy, devout child of poor farmers from Bergamo who shared the ground floor of their home with the cows, Roncalli was apparently a lovable man all his life. His long diplomatic service in bastions of Islam and the Orthodox Church allowed him to see the church as it was seen by others, and not to be blinded by its grandeur or its claims to unique truth. Although Bergamo is a byword for northern Italian enterprise and business sense, he was more like an Italian from the south. He had a genial sense of his limitations which could easily be confused with laziness; he smoked cigarettes, the first and perhaps the last pope to do so, he clearly didn’t diet with any success. When it was pointed out to him that half the people on his staff seemed to be taking it very easy, he shrugged and smiled. “What can I do?” he said. “I am only the pope!”

And then he stunned the world by calling a General Council, summoning thousands of bishops to Rome, as well as senior Protestants and members of the Orthodox churches, to thrash out Christianity’s duty in a world that was changing fast. The Vatican’s officials were appalled by the idea, did all in their power to stop it, and once that failed tried their best to turn it into a bureaucratic stamping exercise, a reiteration of the church’s established positions. But Roncalli was having none of it: despite his advanced age he insisted in seeing good things in the way the world was changing – in the decline of imperialism, the improvement of working people’s conditions and the higher profile enjoyed by women – and was in no doubt that the church was in need of bringing up to date. Although he died years before Vatican II, as it is called, reached its reforming conclusions, his was its guiding spirit.

Of course non-Catholics, not to mention non-Christians, have every right to laugh up their sleeves at the Vatican’s saintly assembly line: getting into the company of saints is becoming a posthumous papal perk, rather in the way that ex-government ministers at Westminster ascend to the House of Lords. It doesn’t necessarily mean much, except for the million or so expected to turn up at St Peter’s on Sunday, for whom it will mean a great deal. It certainly doesn’t mean these men were infallible during their lifetimes. Let the good pope have the last word on that: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly,” he once said, “and I shall never do that, so I am not infallible.”


Your Comments
23rd Apr

Published in The Independent, 23 April 2014


Peter Popham


U Win Tin, who died on Monday 21 April at the age of 84, was one of Burma’s leading journalists, a towering figure in the democracy movement and a founding member of the National League for Democracy.

Handsome and charismatic, he devoted his life to the struggle to liberate his nation from military rule. As vice-president of the journalists’ union in 1988, he was one of the intellectuals who persuaded Aung San Suu Kyi to throw in her lot with the surging democracy movement. The two remained close to the end despite serious disagreements on strategy. She visited his bedside in a Rangoon hospital last week when he received dialysis treatment for kidney failure. After his death she described him as “a great man”. “It’s a great loss,” she said, “but it’s also not a loss because he can’t be lost to us. His thoughts, his words, his example will stay with us.”

Win Tin was born in the town of Gyo Pin Gauk north-east of Rangoon on 12 March 1930. At age 13 he followed the path of most Buddhist children and was ordained as a child-monk. He appreciated the simplicity and orderliness of monastic life, and although not overtly religious as an adult, his style of living remained monastic: he never married and lived in a two-room house in Rangoon with few possessions. “I am a single person,” he said, “I have no family life. Most of my life I have lived for my work as a politician and journalist. That has consumed my life. Since the age of about 19 I have lived as a public man. By that I don’t mean as a well-known person; I mean that my life belongs to society, and society is my life.”

After taking a degree in English literature, modern history and political science at Rangoon University, he worked as a translator while also doing shifts as night editor for Agence-France Presse. Later he won a scholarship to train as a journalist in the Netherlands, hitch-hiking around Europe during the holidays.

These were the chaotic early years of Burmese independence and Win Tin received regular accounts of events back home. Aware that many of his fellow expatriates would be starved of news, he bought a typewriter with the Burmese script and began typing up and cyclo-styling four-page newsletters and posting them to every Burmese living abroad whose address he could obtain.

On returning to Burma in 1957 he was involved in setting up several newspapers and was soon identified by the authorities as a trouble-maker. In 1968 he was banished to Mandalay, where he continued to write and edit, doing his best to dodge the increasingly oppressive censorship. But as revealed in a forthcoming book by Rosalind Russell (who as ‘Phoebe Kennedy’ was The Independent’s Rangoon correspondent), he had a unique asset: his improbable connection to General Ne Win, the military strongman who had seized power in 1962.

“Ne Win had an intellectual side,” Russell writes, “and sought out the company of the original, free-thinking Win Tin.” Whenever Ne Win came to Mandalay he summoned Win Tin into his presence. Win Tin had no special respect for Ne Win or his policies but appreciated the utility of the relationship. “It was a great safeguard for me,” he said. “Because the authorities knew of my contact with Ne Win, they didn’t dare to be too harsh.”

In 1988 the government sparked a major rebellion by recklessly demonetising three currency notes, pauperising much of the population at a stroke. Win Tin was involved in the months of demonstrations that followed, and with fellow journalists and intellectuals persuaded Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s murdered national hero, who was in Rangoon caring for her mortally ill mother, to participate.

On 26 August she made her grand debut, addressing a crowd at Shwedagon pagoda that Win Tin estimated to be a million. “As far as I knew she had never done any public speaking,” Win Tin recalled. But she spoke “very convincingly…For a normal person it is not so easy to talk to such a huge crowd, a sea of people. And she talked so wittily: we saw at once that she was a born leader – ‘a star is born’, something like that.”

The following month Win Tin, Suu Kyi and a handful of others launched the National League for Democracy. One of Win Tin’s tasks was to prepare Suu Kyi’s speeches for publication. “It was never necessary to edit the speeches, they were always perfect,” he recalled. “One of the things I admire about her is her ability to talk to the people and cut through to what is important.”

Thanks largely to Suu Kyi’s barn-storming campaign tours across the country, the NLD grew exponentially through the early months of 1989, attaining a membership estimated at 3 million and frightening the new military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC, into locking up the party’s entire central command. Win Tin was arrested on 4 July 1989 and brutally beaten before his court appearance. His upper teeth were knocked out and he had black and purple welts across his body.

He was sentenced to three years’ jail for “spreading anti-government propaganda”, but new charges were repeatedly added and in the end he spent more than 19 years inside, most of it in solitary confinement, some of it locked into a tiny enclosure called the Dog House as a special punishment. In one period he and other “politicals” succeeded in producing pamphlets on politics and current affairs from their cells, but eventually the material was discovered.

He was finally released on 23 September 2008, one year after the “Saffron Revolution”. On learning of his discharge he refused to change out of his sky-blue prison shirt, and continued to wear only shirts of that colour for the rest of his life – in solidarity, as he said, with those still inside, and because Burma was still one big prison.

Win Tin was always on the radical side of the party. He disagreed with Suu Kyi’s decision to fight a by-election in 2012, and was unimpressed by her willingness to have dealings with the military. “Some of us would like to push the military into the Bay of Bengal,” he said in 2013. “She only wants to push them into Kandawgyi Lake” (in central Rangoon). But he remained steadfastly loyal to her. “When people like me were released,” he told me in 2010, “it was like pouring water in a flower pot. But if Suu Kyi is released, it will be like the coming of the monsoon.”

U Win Tin, journalist and politician, born Gyo Pin Gauk 12 March 1930, died Rangoon 21 April 2014


Your Comments
20th Apr


Peter Popham


He will certainly be missed. Paolo Bonaiuti, whose departure from the rapidly thinning ranks of Berlusconi loyalists was reported this week, was the minder’s minder, the tireless Jeeves to Berlusconi’s Bertie Wooster, ever on hand to clear up a mess, to proffer a plausible excuse, to save his master’s bacon.

Tall but obsequiously stooped, with an undertaker’s air of total discretion, his value during his 18 years of service to the master became most obvious when he was not around.

In the summer of 2003 Boris Johnson, who was then editor of the Spectator, obtained an interview with Berlusconi at the premier’s seaside palace in Sardinia, later to become notorious for his ‘bunga-bunga’ parties.

“For three hours we have been in his presence,” Johnson wrote in The Spectator. “We have sat at a table in his drawing room, Berlusconi at the head, nipples showing through his white Marlon Brando pyjama-suit…It has been, says Valentino, his charming interpreter, the most detailed and generous interview that the leader has ever given…there is no stopping the balding, beaming, bouncing multi-billionaire.”

It was one of only a handful he ever granted to foreign journalists, and it was a disaster. In the course of it Berlusconi claimed that Italian judges were “deranged by nature”, prompting the legal profession to go on strike, and that Mussolini’s was “a much more benign dictatorship” than Saddam Hussein’s. The left-wing opposition and Italy’s Jewish community hit the roof.

The only reason this disaster was allowed to happen was because Paolo Boniauti was on the other side of the world, crossing the Pacific in a small boat. Had he been in place, micro-managing the boss’s schedule as usual, it is inconceivable that Johnson would have got in the front door. And now Bonaiuti has left Forza Italia, the party Berlusconi created from nothing. “It was a difficult, painful decision,” he said this week, “one I have delayed for a long time, but fully motivated by political differences and personal incomprehension that have deepened in the past year.”

Say your piece, Paolo: no-one believed a word you said when you were Berlusconi’s spokesman, so there is little reason to start now. Like the rest of his gang of flatterers, floozies and pimps, it was all too obvious why you were so loyal. In 1994, as deputy-editor of the Roman paper Il Messaggero you thundered against Berlusconi for sacking the legendary founder-editor of Il Giornale, the daily he had recently purchased. Two years later you were lucratively in harness.

With the boss condemned to the humiliation of a community service sentence in an old people’s home, the Berlusconi roadshow is disintegrating spectacularly. His Sicilian college friend Marcello dell’Utri, co-founder of Forza Italia and the alleged lynch-pin between him and the Sicilian  Mafia, fled the country before the Italian courts could hand down a verdict on the charge of Mafia association, but was arrested in Beirut and remains in jail.

The flood of local councillors and regular members pouring from Forza Italia into the new party formed by Berlusconi’s former dauphin, Angelino Alfano, tells its own story.

One of the few who have remained loyal is Sandro Bondi, a former communist politician who became one of his most trusted cronies. Six months ago he said of Forza Italia, “This story has finished badly. In all these years we have constructed nothing humanly or politically solid, capable of surviving the decline of Silvio Berlusconi.”

For 20 years Berlusconi and his money dominated Italy’s political story. But now that story’s over, and when Forza Italia finally expires it will leave barely a trace. There’s a moral there for other billionaires who dream of hijacking democracy.


Your Comments
11th Apr

published in The Independent, 11 April 2014


Peter Popham


We are living in increasingly interesting times. In eastern Europe, Russia seems intent on re-running the early days of the Cold War. A whole new generation is discovering the tingling of hairs on the back of the neck that you get when nuclear-armed nations start playing bad-tempered hands of poker.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, brace yourselves for a re-enactment of the event that set the Cold War in motion – war on the Korean peninsula, as the US and South Korea tomorrow [Friday] embark on their biggest ever aerial war games. The twice-yearly Max Thunder exercise, running to 25 April, coincides with two other ongoing exercises which have already provoked the North into a new bout of missile testing.

Two weeks ago, north and south traded fire across their maritime border, and there is a strong likelihood of further escalation before the fun and games are over. Remember, although the Korean War ended more than half a century ago, the two Koreas have never signed a peace treaty, and its tempestuous young leader has torn up what frail agreements did exist, declaring that the North is in a state of war with both the US and South Korea, and warning of his intention and ability to hit targets as far away as the continental US. It would be nice to treat Kim Jong-un, as a bizarre Korean joke; nice, but unwise.

The British response to this, if reports are to be believed, is to provide the regime with episodes of Teletubbies, Dr Who and Top Gear. Efforts to persuade the BBC to launch a dedicated Korean language World Service radio service to provide this actuality-starved population with real news have so far got nowhere.

Besides earning the corporation a few extra groats, it is hard to understand what sense there could be in bombarding the North Korean population with yet more incomprehensible fantasies, this time dreamed up in W1A. What passes for news in the Democratic Republic is bizarre enough already, without help from Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po and Tinky Winky.

North Korean news has always had a credibility problem but since the accession of Kim Jong-un it has grown far, far worse, to the extent that people are looking back on the reign of his diminutive dad as a golden age of clarity and commonsense.

Of the recent alleged news stories supposedly coming out of Pyongyang, which have even a tangential connection with the truth? The report that Uncle Jang Song Thaek was torn to pieces by famished dogs turned out to be the Chinese idea of a joke. Jang’s crony O Sang-Hon has also been liquidated, but was he done in by a flamethrower, as reported by the reputable South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo? That too, was very likely no more than a gruesome rumour.

But the official news is equally weird. This week Pyongyang reported Kim Jong-Un re-election as First Chairman of the National Defence Commission. It is said that he obtained 100 per cent of the vote. Believe it if you will – the North Koreans certainly don’t. This week a defector told the Daily Telegraph, “Nowadays people believe less than 20 per cent of what is broadcast…They only use newspapers to roll their cigarettes.”

But through the fog of propaganda, rumour and baroque invention, certain facts about this rogue regime are discernible. The execution of Uncle Jang was clearly the young dictator’s bid to destroy his most serious rival for absolute power, and to prove, outside the country as well as in, that he and only he is the boss. But to the extent that this unprecedented purge exposed deep and dangerous rifts at the heart of the regime, it was evidence as much of his weakness as his ruthlessness. And that raises the most fundamental question about the North Korean regime: how will it end?

Kim Jong-un’s strategy for survival could not be clearer or cruder: terrorise and purge your enemies within, hurl threats and ill-aimed missiles at those abroad. It may appear extreme, but it is in line with the national psychology of the north, sedulously nurtured by all three Kims for 60 years: that of a plucky, uniquely virtuous country whose only hope, surrounded by vicious enemies, is to cultivate ‘juche’, self-reliance. And in the absence of reliable alternative sources of information such as the BBC World Service, the brainwashing inevitably works.

South Korea’s belligerent President Park Geun-hye, daughter of the military dictator Park Chung-hee, has decided to take Kim’s threats at face value, authorising pre-emptive military action if the army believes a missile attack from the north is imminent, authorising the military to respond without reference to political concerns.

But this approach, combined with ostentatious military exercises like the one that is about to start, play straight into Pyongyang’s hand. The underlying goal may be to weaken and even remove Kim, but the in the short run their likely effect will be to make him stronger.  And if his army again responds with firepower, we will be in terrifying new territory, given President Park’s new guidelines. There is a grave danger that the result could be a full-blown military confrontation, with results that no-one could safely predict.

That seems a crazy risk to run.  Kim Jong-un is the political equivalent of the late cult leader Jim Jones. Threatening him with annihilation is no way to talk him down. That’s like practically ordering him to start doling out the Cool-Aid.


Your Comments
4th Apr


Peter Popham


The world’s biggest democratic exercise gets under way on Monday, and if the pundits are right, Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will win the Indian general election by a country mile.

For the outside world, including both the European Union and the US, Mr Modi is the man who has turbocharged the economy of Gujarat, the state he has ruled for 12 years, and who promises to do the same for the flagging Indian economy as a whole. He has also said he will take effective action against corruption.

But nobody who, like me, was in Modi’s state 12 years ago and witnessed the carnage that took the lives of hundreds of Muslims in bloody, brutal and tightly organised pogroms can suppress a shiver of horror at the thought that this man may now be about to join the world’s top table.

Those scenes were reminiscent of the tit-for-tat massacres of Hindus and Muslims during Partition, and the mass killings of Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That this should happen in 2002 in a relatively prosperous and educated part of the country was profoundly shocking. No-one ever succeeded in proving that Modi had ordered or encouraged the massacres. But many reporters noted the failure of police to protect Muslim communities against the mobs.

These killings were as disturbing as Germany’s Kristallnacht, and for the same reason. Hostility to Muslims is in the bloodstream of the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu nationalist organisations to which Modi and the BJP belong. Inspired by European Fascism and Nazism, the movement’s founding ideologist, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, prescribed radically different treatment for Hindus – children of the subcontinent’s aboriginal religion, according to the theory – and those who subscribed to other religions.

According to Golwalkar, India’s minorities were suspect. “They are born in this land,” he wrote, “but…are they grateful to this land?..Do they feel it is a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone is the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.” The dominant theme of Hindu nationalism has been suspicion of and hostility towards minorities, Muslims in particular. The idea that Hindus enjoy an exclusive, mystical connection to ‘Mother India’ is central.  And as Europe discovered in the 1930s, the politics of hate are terribly potent in countries gripped by poverty or mass unemployment. When politicians’ promises of prosperity ring hollow, the quest for some group to blame becomes a seductive alternative.

Narendra Modi’s roots in the Sangh Parivar go deep. The child of poor shopkeepers, he became a quasi-monastic member of the movement as a young man, swearing lifelong fealty and celibacy. He has done nothing else in his life but work for and within Hindu nationalism. His choice of Varanasi to be his constituency bore out the depth of his devotion: for pious Hindus it is the holiest city in the world, where the devout come to die so they can immediately escape the cycle of birth and death and attain liberation. This week he again forcibly reminded India of that identity by raising the question of the slaughter of cows for export to Bangladesh – always an emotive issue for Hindus, for whom cows are sacred.

But on the most toxic question for a Hindu nationalist, the treatment of minorities under BJP rule, Modi has kept silent. He has never issued an apology for the massacre that took place in Gujarat on his watch, nor risen to journalists’ demands, in his rare interviews, to go into detail about what happened. Instead he sticks to those grievances guaranteed to excite Indians of all ethnicities and religions and social classes: the faltering the economy, corruption, the need to act tough with China and Pakistan. His calling card is his reputation for firm economic management in Gujarat – despite the persistence there of a large, deeply-impoverished underclass. Whatever happened in the shadows he leaves well alone.

Mr Modi’s success in escaping from his past reminds me of the similar achievement of Italy’s former deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini. The leader of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the direct heir of Mussolini’s Fascists, and in his youth quite as committed a political extremist as Modi, he spent his first decade as a sort of parliamentary leper: no mainstream politicians would have anything to do with him. But then he gave his party a neutral new name, the National Alliance, condemned anti-semitism, visited Jeruasalem’s Wailing Wall, and in 1994 entered Silvio Berlusconi’s first coalition government. A few years later his stock had improved so dramatically that this ‘post-Fascist’ was regarded as a pillar of respectability compared to his wayward boss. In no time he was co-authoring the (doomed) EU constitution with Giscard d’Estaing.

Mr Fini’s transformation was more dramatic and arguably more heartfelt than Mr Modi’s. But both of these shrewd men have done precisely what was necessary to emerge from political no-man’s-land and take charge, while retaining their parties’ support. Modi has never accounted for the Gujarat pogroms, but instead in 2011 undertook a series of quasi-religious fasts as part of a ‘goodwill mission’ to his state’s Muslims. In intention it was very much like Fini’s visit to Israel.

They do what works; the prize is high office, and admission to the world’s top table. And in return the parties they lead – which have done little to back their leaders’ sweet words with reforming actions – gain the glittering prizes of power.


Your Comments
31st Mar


Peter Popham


The west owes Vladimir Putin a big thank you. We were forgetting who we were and who our friends were and who they weren’t. Crimea has been a sharp nudge in the ribs.

The G8 was always a curious entity. Russia had no business being in it, its economy being so much smaller than those of the other members. It was admitted in 1998, 13 years after the group was founded, with the intention of trying to keep the big brat in order and teach him some table manners. Well that didn’t work.

It was part of the west’s programme – patronising, unrealistic and psychologically flawed as it now seems – to persuade the Russians that the collapse of the Soviet Union, the loss of their entire area of influence, the plummeting of their prestige and the arrival of NATO and the EU on the border need not be seen in a bad light, in terms of defeat, but as a precious opportunity to be seized.

This was a classic case of failing to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Imagine if things had gone the other way. Those of us who lived through at least part of the Cold War remember not only the nuclear terror but the lively fear that, given a few false moves at the negotiating table, the logic of co-existence would collapse and Russian tanks would be at the English Channel – ready to welcome us into the expanded Soviet Union. That’s why we tolerated the nauseating logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, as the best assurance that that would never happen.

Russia, of course, feared exactly the same thing – which is why for them 1989 and all that was not a moment of liberation but the start of a long nightmare of loss. And that’s why, at the height of the Crimea crisis, a top Russian TV anchor bragged that Russia was “the only country…realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” The old bruiser was dragging himself up off the floor.

The new-old G7 may indeed, as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in a tone of sour grapes, not have much relevance in the world in any more, but its re-constitution symbolises an important fact: the west is once again the West, and thanks to Mr Putin it is experiencing a frisson of unity such as it has not known for a long time.

It has been argued many times over the past 20 years that NATO was losing its raison d’etre, that the US had lost or would soon lose its appetite for defending its European allies, and that the end of the Cold War had moved us all onto a totally new page. That view was strengthened by a series of events that drove new wedges between western Europe and the US. Europe’s dismal failure to agree on any kind of a robust, united response to the wars in former Yugoslavia exposed it to the scorn of the US, which seized the initiative in bringing the Bosnian war to an untidy but conclusive termination. The invasion of Iraq split Europe down the middle. Most recently, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scale of NSA phone-hacking infuriated and alienated European leaders.

Some of these rows were more significant than others; in particular the neo-cons’ urge, circa 2003, to re-boot the US as an imperial power ran deeply counter to the European tendency of the previous half century. But despite these rifts, what united Europe and the US – the West – continued to be far more important than what divided it: democratic institutions, strong but not tyrannical states, a growing recognition, embodied in trans-national institutions like the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe, of how peace and inter-dependence were intimately linked, and how these placed limits on the traditional concept of sovereignty.

In his seminal essay published in 2000, The post-modern state and the world order, the British strategic thinker Robert Cooper argued that it was this willingness to accept “intrusion in areas normally within state sovereignty” in the interests of greater mutual security that defined “the post-modern element” of the modern world.  “It is important to realise what an extraordinary revolution this is,” he wrote. “The normal logical behaviour of armed forces is to conceal their strength and hide their forces and equipment from potential enemies.” It was, he argued, “The shared interest of European countries in avoiding a nuclear catastrophe” which had proved “enough to overcome the normal strategic logic of hostility and suspicion.”

Europe’s memory of centuries of war and its determination not to have any more of them was at the heart of that post-modern world, and the G8 was one of the ways we tried to bring Russia on board. The fact that Russia has agreed to let an OCSE mission monitor the military situation in the Ukraine may indicate that Mr Putin still sees himself as beholden to those arrangements, but nonetheless that attempt has now failed.

The annexation of Crimea throws us back into a polarised world, and if that is a more dangerous world it has the benefit of also being a clearer and a more honest one. It is the latest in a series of apparently malign accidents that have forced the West to re-assess both its limits and its potentialities.

The chaos that has followed the interventions in Iraq and Libya have brought a welcome if belated dose of reality to neo-imperialists in Washington, London and Paris: it is now obvious to nearly everyone that it is much easier to create a failed state than to put such a state back together again.

At the same time, the Crimea crisis makes clear that what has been achieved in the former Warsaw Pact countries since the fall of the Berlin Wall is precious and fragile and cannot be taken for granted. In many of those countries, as in Ukraine, it has a long way to go; but what has been achieved is to be defended. Russia cannot be allowed to doubt that.


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26th Mar


Peter Popham


Last month Spain launched an extraordinary initiative: its Justice Minister announced a new law permitting all those able to demonstrate blood connections to the Sephardic Jewish community expelled in 1492 the right to return to Spain with Spanish (and therefore European) citizenship. The new version of the law, unlike the version trailed in 2012, does not require applicants to renounce their existing nationality. It has been enthusiastically received: one Israeli lawyer specialising in European citizenship applications reports around 1,000 enquiries. Spain’s Justice Ministry has received 3,000 applications so far.

In a mean and jealous world, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon’s initiative shines like a light in the darkness. Now it’s the turn of other governments to follow his example.

Burma’s reforming government should waste no time in laying out the welcome mat for the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians thrown out by the xenophobic dictator General Ne Win in the early 1960s.

Greece should do the same for the Turks expelled after the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution, and in tandem Turkey should welcome back its ethnic Greeks. As all these communities –including Burma’s exiled ethnic Indians and Spain’s long-lost Jews – are characterised by enterprise, economic dynamism and familiarity with risk taking, such a policy would have a singularly dynamic impact on the struggling economies of the countries to which they returned.

The Sri Lankan government of President Mahendra Rajapaksa would find no surer way of convincing the world of its good intentions than by inducing the huge Tamil diaspora to pack their bags and come home. The exiled Palestinians are more of a challenge, given that their homes, towns and lands have been very substantially expropriated. But a really imaginative, path-breaking general secretary of the Chinese communist party would even now be thrashing out the minimum necessary to lure Tibetans, including of course the Dalai Lama, back to Tibet. Diasporas are a terrible menace, as the Chinese, the Sinhalese and the Israelis know to their cost. The loss of homeland does terrible things to the mind. Being wrenched away from your home is a trauma that never heals.

Of course, merely to list these cases of mass exile and to name the obvious remedy – repatriation – is to appreciate how unlikely such policies are likely to be pursued. And to be impressed all over again by Mr Ruiz-Gallardon’s political boldness in drafting his law.

Critics say that his real reason is not the marvellous culture to which the Sephardic Jews contributed in Spain’s Golden Age, not the persistent attachment of that community to “their country, their language and their traditions” as the minister put it, but the economic vitality they would bring to stagnant Spain. But if true, that does not negate the moral dimension.

But how about extending the gesture to the Muslims, booted out of Spain en masse about 100 years after the Jews?

It is argued that the cases are different: the Jews were merely persecuted, while the Muslims were conquerors and invaders whose invasion was eventually reversed. Inviting them back would be like inviting the Germans back into Poland, the Italians into Albania, the British back into Bengal.

Yet if we are talking about culture, Islam was just as much a part of the old Iberian culture as the Jews were – arguably more so.

It could be said that Mr Ruiz-Gallardon would receive scant domestic applause for throwing down the welcoming mat to people whose co-religionists brought bloody mayhem into the heart of Madrid in 2004, and whose growing presence is a nagging political issue in many parts of Europe.

But if the problem with the Muslims is that many of them in the Middle East have shown little aptitude for co-existing peacefully with other communities, Israel’s appalling treatment of Palestinians opens them to the same objection. Mr Ruiz-Gallardon’s initiative is a bright light in a nasty world. But he is going to have a debate on his hands before it’s all over.


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26th Mar


Peter Popham


It’s how, in a sane world, we would all choose to live. The first sentence of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital reads, “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist method of production prevails takes the form of an immense accumulation of commodities.” We know in our hearts that this state of affairs is neither healthy nor sane. We can’t take those commodities with us, their production destroys the natural world and the gross inequality of their distribution poisons the social bloodstream. But now, as ever, that is how our societies function.

In a community called New Oasis for Life they are challenging those assumptions. Members of the commune, who range from illiterate peasants to middle-class refugees from the city, have no money or private possessions, they toil in fields and orchards that are owned and worked communally and they receive what they need to survive, nothing more. “What we’re doing here is basically communism,” says the community’s founder. “People do what they can and get what they need.”

The stinging irony is that New Oasis for Life is in China’s Yunnan Province, and although its ideology is directly inspired by Marx, the authorities of the People’s Republic are doing all in their power to shut it down. Members have been beaten up by thugs from outside, water pipes and generators have been destroyed, the police have set up a monitoring post at the entrance to watch comings and goings. In December the Forestry Bureau ordered the property returned to its original state before the commune was created and fined members 168,000 renminbi (£16,000). All the community’s children have been forcibly removed and sent to state schools.

We already know from the brutal persecution of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement characterised as an “evil cult” by Beijing, that China has very limited tolerance for groups that challenge the status quo. As the New York Times reported this week, New Oasis members suspect that the real reason the authorities are trying to close them down is because politically well-connected speculators are itching to get their hands on the land – and the plausibility of that scenario is a reminder of how far China has left behind the old time communist religion of Mao and his comrades.

But the emergence of New Life is yet more proof of the strength and persistence of the communist dream that has inspired generation after generation of revolutionaries, a dream that refuses to die. Bob Crow described himself as a “communist socialist”, and his great success in building up his union owed much to his passionate political convictions. Millions of people across the Indian state of Kerala, the Italian province of Tuscany and large swathes of the former eastern bloc look back on the social and educational provisions of the communist years with keen nostalgia.

At the bonsai scale – in one trade union, one collective farm, one European province – communism’s  achievements are inspiring. I remember the shock of discovering a remarkably pure strain at Kibbutz Malkiyya in Upper Galillee, where I volunteered before going to university, back before the Yom Kippur war: no wages, few private possessions, children reared communally, clothes dished out from a central store, meals eaten together. The founding kibbutzniks, intellectual refugees from eastern Europe, the walls of their simple homes adorned with prints by Miro and Klee, had found salvation. For them this really was the promised land.

Both the charm and the success of these experiments lies in their tiny scale. This is dwarf communism, and bears the same relation to Stalin’s Soviet Union as a gecko does to a dinosaur. Like Bob Crow, they are pettable, posing no threat to the established order. Communism’s economic contradictions – the idiocies produced by centralised planning and the denial of the market – are masked by the donations of outsiders. They flourish in their artificial micro-climates, when the brisk air of the real world would kill them stone dead.

Above all, they are all escapable: when they become Animal Farm-like tyrannies, you can run away. It’s much harder to escape the octopus tentacles of a communist party once it has achieved its goal of total control – as the nice communards of Yunnan are now discovering to their cost.


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26th Mar


Peter Popham


Italy has been described as a laboratory of bad ideas – Mussolini and fascism, Berlusconi, Beppe Grillo – but with the arrival of Matteo Renzi in Palazzo Chigi, Rome’s very much grander answer to no. 10, perhaps the men in white coats have semi-accidentally hit on something rather wonderful. Just perhaps.

Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister for the past 12 days, is 39 and looks at least 10 years younger, except for a couple of tell-tale strands of grey hair above his ears. He is rather large and pudgy, like an overgrown teenager, has a plump, totally unmarked face which produces two small vertical lines above his nose when he is posed a tough question, and has a pleasing knack of lapsing into funny, buffoonish expressions. Likeable if bumptious one might decide if one found oneself in the same class at school, a bit of a smarty-pants. These are mild criticisms compared to those doubtless harboured by Gianni Letta, the prime minister and fellow member of the Democratic Party (PD) whom Renzi stabbed in the back to get the top job.

So Mr Renzi is very sure of himself, and cheerfully ruthless. Above all, unlike Mr Letta and all previous leaders of PD, he does not look tired, afraid, haunted; he does not look like an old political hack. Of the various leaves he has taken out of Mr Berlusconi’s book, that aspect of genial self-confidence is the most striking: like Berlusconi, he expects to charm, to get his own way; he is not terrified of being mugged around the next corner.

Mr Renzi’s other advantage is that you do not know where to place him on the political map. The political family trees of other leaders of the Italian centre-left can be plotted with the mad precision with which ZigZag magazine used to tease out the genealogies of rock bands. Their tracks can usually be followed back to the once-mighty communist party or the corrupt and discredited socialist party, or one of the powerful trade unions. Such a bloodline gave a leader a good chance of unwavering support from one or more of Italy’s major dailies, all of them packed with party loyalists of one stripe or another, but by the same token it means they have to carry a lot of baggage. It means there are all sorts of lobbies they don’t dare to touch. That’s why they look in fear of their lives.

Mr Renzi’s sensational arrival in the top job was greeted by the most muted of receptions in the heavy dailies. He was not their man: they didn’t know what to make of him, or what to expect of him. All this was good, even if it did not appear so at the time. It means he is not captive to the powerful lobbies that have held Italy submerged in aspic for the past several decades.

Mr Renzi is the product of a political system whose most striking contemporary aspect is its amazing fluidity. That may sound like a good thing but it’s the product of serial failure. The collapse of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists in the corruption scandals of the early 1990s was the original failure, and yielded Berlusconi and Forza Italia. Berlusconi himself utterly failed to do as he promised and revive the economy, and that failure eventually produced the threat of Italy going the way of Greece. But instead of galvanising the political class into a spasm of realism, as happened in Greece and elsewhere, the crisis merely persuaded the haunted hacks of the nomenklatura to cede power to the unelected dictatorship of Mario Monti, the bankers’ friend. It was a shameful failure of courage by the political establishment for which they will pay for the rest of their careers.

The proximate result was the triumph of the comedian Beppe Grillo and his Five-Star Movement, which gained one-quarter of the popular vote in the last election. This was the ultimate victory of anti-politics, but Matteo Renzi is betting on the disaffected millions who gave Grillo their vote being utterly disenchanted by his behaviour since then, his brutal negation of democratic practice within the party, the tyrannical expulsion of those who cross him, including five more senators booted out this week. Those who voted for Grillo were refugees from both the right and (more numerously) the left, whom successive disillusionments had rendered politically homeless. But now they are finding that Grillo’s totally negative approach to the nation’s dramatic problems is barely more satisfactory than the policies enacted by his adversaries. Something, they realise now, must be done: it is not enough, like Grillo’s sinister Rasputin, Roberto Casaleggio, to conjure nihilistic dreams of a third world war followed by a brave new world ruled over by Google. You have to deal with the Here and Now.

That’s Mr Renzi’s trump card: his bustling air of determination to get things done.  This week the European Union said that Italy faces a “major challenge” in tackling its debt which is now more than €2 trillion, 132.6 per cent of GDP.   Also this week, Mr Renzi, who yesterday [Thurs] had his first meeting as pm with David Cameron, Angela Merkel and other top EU leaders to discuss Ukraine, has promised immediate action on jobs, affordable housing and crumbling schools. Italians are wearily habituated to their leaders accomplishing very little, and taking forever about it. Some prompt and efficacious action will be much appreciated.


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