The Debatable Land #2: A Game of Chicken
Welcome to the second edition of The Debatable Land, a more or less weekly newsletter of thoughts and things what have caught my eye. Thanks very much for being here. As ever, if you felt like sharing this with friends and family or on the social media platform of your choice then, well, that would be lovely.
From Russia With Malice
I do not wish to alarm you unduly but the prospect of a war in europe soon seems significantly under-priced. Or, rather, to be more strictly accurate, the prospect of an existing small and dirty conflict becoming a much larger conflagration is one that, for understandable reasons, many people prefer to avoid contemplating.
But the Russian build-up of forces on its border with Ukraine is not happening for no reason and the risks it could easily end in a “proper” war wholly distinct in kind from the (comparatively) minor, half-acknowledged, fighting that continues in Eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years. Long enough to become accepted as the way things are; not so long, or with sufficient casualties, as to require a solution now.
100,000 Russian troops on the border concentrates minds and raises stakes in equal measure. Earlier this month Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, warned that Moscow would be making a “serious mistake” if it escalated an already fraught situation. At the same time, however, this should not be considered any kind of guarantee to Ukraine and Washington has warned Kiev not to do anything that might be used as an excuse for action by Moscow. This is a twilight world in which a promise must be believed - or believed enough - by those it was not made to but not counted upon too much by those to whom it was.
Because, in the end and to adapt Bismarck, are the wheat fields of Ukraine worth the bones of a Grenadier Guard? Not yet, they ain’t even though Britain has adopted a tougher line with Russia than France or Germany or even the United States. Like Poland and the Baltic states, Britain is on the hawkish side of this stand-off, warning that Russia must be made aware a heavy price will be attached to any further messing with Ukraine.
Russia has hinted that a new bargain - the withdrawing of western military assistance to Ukraine and a promise never to admit Ukraine to Nato - would ease tensions. It would do so at the expense of Ukraine’s independence, however, and it would suggest that it is only Nato membership which has protected, say, Estonia from a full-scale, open, act of Russian military aggression (to be distinguished from cyber attacks on Estonia). And if western guarantees to Ukraine prove worthless, what value can be placed on promises made to the Baltic states, Nato membership or not?
And does Russia wish to negotiate anyway? Or is this merely a kind of show, a feint to demonstrate that Russia could pour into Ukraine if it chose to even as it does not feel the need to do so now? Naturally it would be nice to think this is a display of strength merely put on for Putin’s domestic audience but it is also, surely, something more than that. For it must be a reminder to other eastern european countries of the cost of seeking to escape Moscow’s gravitational pull.
For, in the end, that is the nub of the matter: at a certain level and as a psychological matter Russia cannot quite accept Ukraine’s independence at all. It is a kind of dismemberment, the pain of which nags the main body long after the limb has gone. An affront, too, and therefore something to be rectified some day.
The moral of the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf is that, in the end, there really is a wolf. In this instance, Putin has invaded Ukraine twice already. Once in the Crimea, once in the Donbas. With that track record it seems prudent to work on the assumption he will be prepared to engineer a third conflict. The burden of proof must be upon him. Only then can you deal with him.
For Washington, though, this is not merely a question of Ukraine or US-Russian relations on a host of different fronts. Nor is it just a question of American “credibility” for lurking beyond and above this dance is a still more delicate one. For if you think eyes in Beijing and Taiwan are not looking at what is happening in Ukraine right now - and what will happen there in the next few months - I suggest you are sorely mistaken.
Small by-election in Bexley, not many dead.
It is neither a surprise that the Conservatives won this week’s by-election in Old Bexley and Sidcup - Ted Heath’s old seat, which he won for the last time in 1997 - nor that just 34 percent of eligible voters bothered to take part in the contest electing a successor to the late James Brokenshire. The ten point swing against the government is relatively modest by the standards of 21st century by-elections and so, on the surface, all is fine and more or less dandy for the Tories.
But that’s on the surface. A modestly deeper dive reveals some grounds for Conservative concern. Not worry, but concern. True, Labour’s share of the vote only increased by seven points but this was broadly matched by an equivalent fall in the Lib Dem share. That suggests we may be seeing the start of a natural, unprompted, realignment in constituencies across England in which non-Tory voters gravitate to the opposition party best-placed to defeat the Conservatives in any given constituency.
If so, that would reflect both Tory dominance and be a reaction against it. And if this keeps happening, it would make English politics a little bit more like Scottish politics. Here the SNP remain dominant and all but unchallengeably on a national level. At the constituency level, however, matters are arranged differently. In the south of Scotland and parts of Aberdeenshire once strong Liberal votes have gone over to the Tories; in North-east Fife Tory voters have shifted to the Lib Dems and Edinburgh South is not now a safe Labour seat because Morningside matrons have discovered their inner Marx. On the contrary, it is because here Labour is the party best positioned to defeat the SNP just as elsewhere voters have self-sorted themselves to back the non-SNP party with the greatest chance of knocking off a Nat.
Once that process starts, it gathers momentum. As I say, this may be only a minor irritant for the Tories just now but I wouldn’t wish to bet against it becoming a greater problem for them. This is so even though Sir Keir - “Special K, K for Keir ” - Starmer is not obviously a prime-minister-in-waiting.
On the other hand, should you wish a potato-brained response to this result Paul Mason is very much here for you:
But what if large parts of the north and midlands see some of that genealogical Tory racism and think, ‘Aye lad, we’d like a bit of that’?
Whatever. It is difficult to see a path back to power for Labour which starts from the proposition people who didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn are all racist scum. Equally, a Labour party interested in winning must be keenly interested in holding seats such as Milton Keynes, Reading West, Gillingham, Medway, Thurrock, and Dartford all of which the party won in 2005 and which it will need in the future too. A Labour party that is not a national party - in both an English and a UK sense - is a Labour party that deprives itself of a purpose and condemns itself to opposition and atrophy.
And since the long-term stability and, perhaps, even viability, of the United Kingdom depends upon Labour someday - soon! - winning a British general election the party’s internal squabbles are a matter of significance even in those parts of the realm where the party is not currently over-burdened by success.
“I’m a Black Bitch and proud to be one”
So says one resident of Linlithgow, West Lothian, deploring the decision made by Greene King to change the name of an ancient pub in the town from “The Black Bitch” to the altogether more modern, and inclusive, “The Black Hound”.
As the Daily Record explained:
Hundreds of locals had yesterday signed a petition - called Stop the Black Bitch Pub Name Change - demanding the pub keep its original name, which has long been a nickname for local townsfolk and symbolises a well-known local legend dating back to at least the 17th century.
The Black Bitch name is associated with the town’s coat of arms, which portrays the legend of a greyhound who saved his master when he was sentenced to starve to death on an island in Linlithgow loch.
There is much to enjoy here. Obviously it is political correctness gone mad and pleasingly the Record found a local prepared to make exactly that complaint. But it would take a heart of stone not to also enjoy the company’s explanation: “While we know that the name was not originally racist or offensive, we have to appreciate that language changes.” So it does though not, perhaps, to the extent that a black female dog is no longer a black bitch. A reminder that the (unavoidable) reality someone might be offended does not itself necessarily make something offensive - though this is a nuance easily lost these days.
Everyone will move on - even in old Linlithgow toon - and all this will soon be forgotten so best to enjoy it while you can.
Janan Ganesh on Christopher Hitchens (FT) who died ten years ago this month:
He was made for our time, not his own. The great vacancy in today’s public life is for an equal scourge of the censorious left and the feral right: a fanatical sceptic. Sam Harris is too clinical in speech and thought. Joe Rogan is too much the opposite. Emmanuel Macron has a country to run. Hitchens would have been in his element. As the decennial of his death nears, I don’t think it is understood that the loss of 10 Decembers ago was more than aesthetic.
Ganesh concludes: “Never join a team” and while this is sound advice it is not quite right. Christopher had any number of teams even if he was happiest when he did not have to share the field with too many colleagues. A writer’s first duty - I am assuming here that we are talking about a proper writer - is to the truth. That is team enough for it means, if we are interested in being honest - and I think we should be - accepting the burden of being as tough on those who notionally share our perspective as we are on those who do not. This is an exacting standard and one only rarely met. But if no attempt is made to even try to meet it then all that’s left is shameless hackery. That can pay the bills but it neither feeds the soul nor produces worthwhile work. One should be suspicious of one’s notional allies, not least because it should never be assumed they are on “our side” for the right reasons. The spirit of “Hang on a minute…” is a better than decent starting point and my enemy’s enemy may still be a chump.
Sad dog, Stan, wearing a silly onesie and feeling dopey and sorry for himself having had his nuts chopped off today, thereby delaying many things including the finishing of this newsletter.
The First Kiss is the Deepest:
Sometimes it is reasonable to pity politicians. Here’s Sajid Javid on Thursday being asked about Christmas snogging:
“People can snog who they wish. I’ll certainly be kissing my wife under the mistletoe – it’s a Javid family tradition. It’s got nothing to do with the government who you kiss or anything like that. But the only thing is just – there’s guidance already out there – just be cautious and enjoy yourselves.”
You will agree that “It’s a Javid family tradition” is splendid and you will also agree that “enjoy yourselves, but cautiously” is very good indeed and - inadvertently! - actually about the best that can be hoped for in the present circumstances.
I doubt Javid got into politics to answer questions about when - from a public health perspective - it’s appropriate to kiss someone but here we are. He could have been forgiven for responding “Just use your bloody common sense, you fools” but of course if he’d said that, he wouldn’t have been forgiven. People demand guidance and a false sense of certainty precisely because the times are so uncertain. There will be much more of this before there is any prospect of there being a little less of it and this is one reason why the libertarian wing of the Tory party - of which Javid is by instinct a kind of member - is even more out of step with public opinion than is customarily the case.
Old But Very Golden
Courtesy of a charming work, “Anecdotes and Stories of Abraham Lincoln” in which a gallant petitioner waits upon the great man at the White House in the hope of receiving some material advancement:
“My turn soon came. Lincoln spoke to my father, and said, Now, gentlemen, be pleased as to be as quick as possible with your business, as it is growing late.” […] My father stated the business to him [...] He then said, “Have you seen Mr Stanton?” We told him, yes, that he had refused. He (Mr Lincoln) then said: “Gentlemen, this is Mr Stanton’s business; I can not interfere with him; he attends to all these matters and I am sorry I can not help you.”
He saw that we were disappointed and did his best to revive our spirits. He succeeded well with my father who was a Lincoln man and who was a staunch Republican.
Mr Lincoln then said: “Now, gentlemen, I will tell you what it is; I have thousands of applications like this every day, but we can not satisfy all for this reason, that these positions are like office-seekers: there are too many pigs for the tits.”
Verily ‘twas ever thus, though it does NO HARM to be reminded of such things.
Paying it Forward: How one family from Afghanistan found a new home in Aberdeenshire. (BBC)
Helen Lewis on Stephen Sondheim and Not Being Andrew Lloyd Webber: “Which kind of success is more durable? I would argue that influence always beats commercial rewards. The year 1922 saw the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. But the bestselling novel of the year was ASM Hutchinson’s If Winter Comes.” (Substack)
What did Joseph Stalin, Cyndi Lauper, Pablo Escobar, John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov have in common? Answer: psoriasis. (Spectator)
Megan McArdle on Twitter and Life After Jack Dorsey: “Pause a moment and reflect just how odd a business Twitter really is. In one respect, it is by far the most influential social media service, commanding astonishing mindshare among powerful elites […] But as a business, it’s close to a flop. Some 80 percent of tweets are produced by only 10 percent of users — and even the most avid participants seem to loathe its main product. Listening to Twitter users talk about the platform is like listening to addicts in recovery: They log on seeking a dopamine rush of outrage, and leave feeling exhausted and awful, yet always go back for more.” (WaPo)
Are you a bull or a bear? John Cassidy is the latter (New Yorker), especially with regard to car stocks: “If Tesla, Rivian, Lucid, and other E.V. startups are going to dominate the global auto industry in the coming decades, the logical corollary is that the legacy carmakers are headed for the scrap heap. But, lo and behold, the market valuations of Ford and G.M. have been rising sharply, too. Since the start of this year, Ford’s stock has doubled, and G.M.’s has risen by about fifty per cent. Why? The Wall Street Journal reported back in March that investors were ‘piling into . . . old-school car makers that are reinventing themselves as electric-vehicle producers.’ In May, Ford unveiled an electric version of its best-selling F-150 pickup. G.M. is working on an electric version of its Chevy Silverado truck.” Another data point supporting this: until last year Baillie Gifford, the Edinburgh fund management house, was the second largest shareholder in Tesla. Since then they have sold much of their stock, reducing their holding from 7.7 percent of the company to a little under 3 percent. This was, in part, a question of balancing fund portfolios and in part a simple matter of taking profits but it also suggests that, while BG remains heavily invested in Tesla, this is a moment for selling more than purchasing. [Do not, for heaven’s sake, consider this financial advice.]
It is Advent so, really, how should you punctuate ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’?
But - spoiler alert! - there is this too:
That’s all folks! See you next time but, until then, if you felt like pressing any of these buttons I’d be confident you are wholly part of Team Good Folks…