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30 Minutes in Salisbury

Salisbury is a nice old English town with a fine cathedral, only an hour and a half from London by train, but it doesn’t see many Russian tourists in wintertime. It’s not as cold as Moscow, but Russians tend to prefer Mediterranean destinations for holiday breaks in early March – unless, of course, they are planning to kill somebody.

The person of interest in Salisbury was Sergei Skripal, a former member of the Russian military intelligence service who started selling information to the British in the mid-1990s and was caught and jailed by the Russians in 2004. He was pardoned and allowed to go to Britain as part of a spy swap between Western countries and Russia in 2010, and he settled in Salisbury.

On 4 March of this year, Skripal and his daughter, who was visiting from Moscow, were found semi-conscious on a bench in the street in Salisbury and taken to a hospital. They spend weeks in intensive care, and it was determined that they had been poisoned by novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent that falls into the category of banned chemical weapons.

A policeman who went to Skripal’s house was also struck down by the poison, which had been sprayed on the handle of the front door, but he also recovered eventually. Three months later a Nina Ricci perfume bottle that contained leftover novichok was found in a charity bin in Salisbury, and a woman who sprayed it on her wrists died.

Britain accused Russia of sending assassins to kill Skripal and of using a banned weapon. It had no hard proof beyond the novichok, but Skripal was still helping Western intelligence agencies to understand Russian training and techniques, so Moscow had a motive.

Many people pointed out that it would have been foolish for Moscow to choose such a complicated method and risk exposure. Why didn’t it just hire a non-Russian hitman to do the job? But Moscow has done this sort of thing before: Russian agents, exotic substances, the lot.

Alexander Litvinenko, a member of the FSB secret service, got into trouble after his investigation into links between Russian mafia groups and his own organisation made him unpopular with Vladimir Putin, the FSB’s head. Litvinenko fled Russia for Britain after Putin took over the presidency in 2000.

Litvinenko remained a harsh critic of Putin, and in 2006 Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, both former FSB agents, were sent to London to kill him. CCTV images showed the killers with Litvinenko at a London hotel where they dosed his tea with a tiny amount of polonium-210, a highly toxic radioactive substance that would not normally be spotted because it does not emit gamma rays.

That was a reasonably competent operation, exposed only by bad luck. The 2018 operation was different. CCTV images, released only last week, showed Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, two 30-something Russian ‘fitness trainers’, making a brief trip to Salisbury on 3 March, presumably to do a reconnaissance, and back to the town on the 4th to do the dirty deed.

But then it got weird. Putin publicly urged the two men to go on TV, and last Thursday they appeared on RT, a Russian international news channel, to explain their brief trip (which gave them only 54 hours in England).

“Our friends had been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town,” said Petrov. They especially wanted to see Salisbury Cathedral, said Boshirov: “It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock….” But they looked like heavies from Central Casting, and not at all like clock-tower enthusiasts. ‘Nekulturny’ (uncultured), as the Russians say.

Why did they only spend 30 minutes in Salisbury the first time? “It was cold.” (It was 10 degrees C warmer than Moscow.) Why did they take another train down to Salisbury the next day? “We really wanted to see Old Sarum and the cathedral.” (Old Sarum is an Iron-Age hill fort near Salisbury that was closed on 4 March.)

And on 4 March one of the CCTV cameras picked them up close to Skripal’s house and far from the cathedral or any other tourist attractions.

Is Russia deliberately trolling the British government to show its contempt? Probably not, because it has tried very hard to distance itself from the crime in other international venues. Did Putin’s regime put those two highly implausible ‘tourists’ on RT because it forgot that different standards of truth prevail elsewhere? Maybe.

But the likeliest answer is that these clumsy and self-defeating actions are indicators of how far the rot in the regime has gone. Elements of the system, like the armed forces (which have performed well in Syria), retain their efficiency and discipline, but corruption and incompetence rule elsewhere.

The Salisbury debacle would not have happened eighteen years ago, when Putin’s reign was new. It suggests that the regime is a lot closer to its end than its beginning.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“A policeman…motive”)

Pakistan Election

“Look, we have no other choice,” Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said last May. “These games have gone on too long. Something has to change.” Then he left to be with his wife Kulsoom, who is on life support while receiving treatment for cancer in England. But last week he and his daughter Maryam returned to Pakistan to begin serving the jail sentences imposed on them by a Pakistani court.

Why did he do that? He may never see Kulsoom again, and the Pakistani military would not have tried to get him back if he stayed in exile. The family has plenty of money (including four luxury apartments on Park Lane, one of London’s grandest streets), and he could have enjoyed a comfortable retirement far from Pakistan’s brutal politics.

He went home, and Maryam went with him, to serve jail sentences of ten and seven years respectively, because his party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), could still win the national election on Wednesday. Or at least it could win enough seats to form a coalition government with the other anti-military party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

The PPP is led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 29-year-old son and grandson of former prime ministers. His mother, Benazir Bhutto, was killed in a terrorist attack that may have been orchestrated by elements in Pakistan’s all-powerful military, and his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by one of Pakistan’s military dictators. He does not love the army.

The PPP will come third in the election, behind both Nawaz Sharif’s party and the pro-military party led by former star international cricket player Imran Khan, because its support is largely confined to the province of Sindh and the rural poor. But if the PML-N and the PPP together win more seats in parliament than Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), they might be able to form a coalition government that could face down the army.

Nawaz Sharif cannot run for parliament from jail, but his brother Shahbaz Sharif, currently leading the PML-N, certainly would become prime minister–and Nawaz Sharif’s conviction would probably then be overturned on appeal. To lodge an appeal, however, he must first show up and go to jail, so there he sits (at least for the moment).

He would stand a good chance of winning an appeal if the military didn’t intervene, because the case against him is weak. It is preposterous and shameful that around a thousand rich Pakistani families, most of them in effect semi-feudal land-owners, dominate the politics of a country of nearly 200 million people at both national and local levels, but it is not illegal.

Most of those families keep much of their wealth abroad, and as many as half own an expensive house or apartment in London. Nawaz Sharif’s family used a company in Panama to manage their overseas properties, and all the details were disclosed with the publication of the Panama Papers.

The case against Nawaz Sharif and his children, probably constructed by the military, charged him with owning assets beyond his income. An anti-corruption court that was probably under heavy military pressure removed him from the prime ministership last year and another court then sentenced him to prison. But it’s not a safe conviction.

When a reporter from Pakistan’s biggest TV news channel, Geo, dug up information in March that suggested the grounds on which Nawaz had been removed as prime minister were “extremely weak”, its cable distributors cut it off, almost certainly under military pressure.

In May, the country’s oldest and most influential newspaper, Dawn, published an interview with Nawaz in which he questioned the army’s wisdom in “allowing” Pakistani militants to go to India and kill 150 people in Mumbai in 2008. Dawn’s distribution was immediately suspended across large parts of urban Pakistan that are controlled by the army’s real estate giant, the Defence Housing Authority.

The rest of Pakistan’s media, once lively, are now thoroughly cowed: they did not even report on these events. Some 17,000 activists of the PML-N are facing criminal cases for breaking unspecified election rules. But unless the army directly interferes with the vote-counting – which would certainly trigger mass protests – Nawaz Sharif may still end up back in power.

As Nawaz remarked, “There was a time when we used to say (the army is) a state within a state. Now it’s a state above the state.” This election is really about whether the army keeps that power over civilian politicians, and also holds on to the vast business empire that guarantees its senior officers a prosperous retirement.

To justify its privileged position the army needs a big military threat, so it supports various militant groups to maintain a guerilla war in Afghanistan and a permanent military confrontation with India. Whereas every civilian politician who has gained a firm hold on power has tried to normalise Pakistan’s relationship with India – and several (including Nawaz himself in 1999) have been overthrown by the army for daring to try.

Nothing less is at stake in this election than peace in the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan’s release from the burden of an over-powerful military (which might at last allow it to match India’s high economic growth rate). And it is even possible that the anti-military parties could win.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 8. (“The PPP…dictators”; and “He would…Papers”)

Half the Jobs Are Going

“The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is, to our minds, faintly ridiculous,” said one of the judges on the employment tribunal. So the tribunal ruled that Uber’s 30,000 drivers in London were actually employees, and therefore entitled to be paid the minimum wage, to be given sick pay, even to have paid holidays.

Uber promptly appealed the ruling, because it would wreck its business model in the United Kingdom and, if the example spreads, worldwide. But it was only a temporary victory for workers’ rights, because just as the real jobs have been replaced by fake “freelance” jobs like Uber that strip people of their old legal protections, so the “freelance” driving gigs will soon be replaced by – no jobs at all.

The first self-driving cars are already on the roads. Automation, in the form of artificial intelligence, will probably abolish almost all the driving jobs in the next twenty years. In Britain alone, that means 400,000 jobs driving big trucks and almost 300,000 licensed taxi drivers. (The jobs driving delivery vans will last a little longer.)

Three-quarters of a million jobs gone, say, and nothing plausible coming down the road to replace them. Scale it up to the size of the United States, and that’s around 4 million more American jobs gone, not to foreign competition and “outsourcing” but just to technological change. It’s harder to replace drivers than bank tellers – “every ATM is the ghost of three bank tellers” – but it just takes a little longer to develop the right software.

There is a message here for all the angry people who voted for Brexit in Britain, who will vote for Donald Trump next week in the United States, who will vote for Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France next April. They are angry because the secure jobs and decent living standards they enjoyed in the latter half of the 20th century are gone. Something must be done about it, but the jobs are not coming back.

The newly insecure millions blame “globalisation” and the export of manufacturing jobs to lower-wage economies overseas for their plight, and in the early days that was indeed what killed most of the jobs. This is why they cheer for Donald Trump when he promises 40 percent tariffs on imported goods and the end of free trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement. They hope that he’ll bring the jobs home.

If he wins, he will destroy the Mexican economy, cause immense collateral damage to the Canadian economy, and trigger a full-scale trade war with China, but there is still no hope that those lost jobs will ever come home again. There might be more manufacturing in the United States, but automation would still ensure that most of the old jobs were eliminated. As they will one day be eliminated in their new homes overseas too.

This is a global economic transformation comparable to the industrial revolution, when entire populations went from overwhelmingly rural to overwhelmingly urban in only two generations. This time the transformation is from a full-employment economy to an economy of abundance that only requires a fraction of the population to work.

A 2013 study by Oxford University economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne concluded that 47 percent of American jobs are likely to be destroyed by automation in the next 20 years. That’s change so big and so fast that people can’t believe it’s happening, and so they prefer to focus on something like out-sourcing that might be fixed by politics.

The industrial revolution was an angry, turbulent time, with urban uprisings and class warfare. We’ll be lucky if the damage this time is limited to demagogues like Donald Trump, who pander to the fear and anger of the newly displaced – and not just the displaced of the old working class, but the growing numbers of middle-class people who are also being displaced by machines.

They are not “right-wing” in the traditional sense, although many have become more socially conservative and some openly racist as their panic rises. “Populist” is a much better word: they hate the changes and the “elites” who seem untouched by them, and they want their old jobs and their self-respect back. But the old jobs are not coming back, and even populist politics cannot resurrect them.

Besides, most of them actually hated their jobs, from which they were only free for two weeks (the US and Japan) or at most five weeks (Europe) a year. The real task will be to find ways of providing a majority of our fellow-citizens with money and self-respect without those jobs. Some form of Guaranteed Minimum Income is probably the answer, but we have barely got round to asking the right question yet.

This is not a disaster; it’s a process. Last time it took over a century of mass misery and occasional mass bloodshed to get through it, but at the end most people were living much longer, healthier, more interesting lives than their peasant ancestors. We should try to do it a lot better and quicker this time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The newly…too”)

Brussels Bombs

Belgium may be a boring country, but it still seems extreme for a Belgian politician to say that the country is now living through its darkest days since the end of the Second World War. Can any country really be so lucky that the worst thing that has happened to it in the past seventy years is a couple of bombs that killed 34 people?

That may sound a bit uncharitable, but respect for the innocent people killed by terrorists does not require us to take leave of our senses. What is happening now is the media feeding frenzy that has become almost a statutory requirement after every terrorist attack in the West.

And people do let themselves get wound up by the media-generated panic. Last night at dinner a young man, staying with us overnight in London before taking a morning flight to the United States, openly debated with himself about whether he should cancel his (non-refundable) ticket or not. It was a ticket from London to Chicago that went nowhere near mainland Europe at all.

The airlines are just as prone to panic, cancelling flights into Belgium as if the country had suddenly become a seriously dangerous place. This story will dominate the Belgian media for weeks, and the rest of the Western media for the remainder of this week. Even non-Western media will play it for a day or two. Almost nothing new or useful will be said, and then the frenzy will die down – until next time.

This is a very stupid way of behaving, but you will notice that I am a part of it. No matter what I say about the bombs in Brussels, the fact that I am writing at length about them in a column that appears all over the world contributes to the delusion that they are not only a nasty event but also an important one.

It is the sheer volume of coverage that determines an event’s perceived importance, not what is actually said about it. But if we in the media are compelled to write about an event like the Belgian bombs anyway, what can we truthfully say about it that will not feed the panic?

The first thing, after every terrorist attack, is to stress that the media coverage of the attack is its primary purpose – indeed, almost its only purpose. It’s obvious and it’s trite, but if you don’t actually say it people forget it. Like the health warning on cigarette packets, it should be part of every story on terrorism.

Secondly, we have to put the alleged “threat” of such terrorist attacks into perspective. People rarely do this for themselves, because once events are beyond the range of their daily experience most people cannot distinguish between what is truly dangerous and what is only dramatic and frightening.

It really does help to remind people that terrorism is a statistically insignificant risk – that they are in much greater danger of dying from a fall in the bath than of dying in a terrorist attack – even if that approach conflicts with the journalists’ natural urge to emphasise the importance of whatever they are writing about.

And finally, a little dispassionate analysis quickly deflates the notion that terrorism is “an existential threat” (as British prime minister David Cameron once said). For example, the recent terrorist attacks in Europe have been largely confined to French-speaking countries.

Muslim immigrants in France and Belgium mostly come from Arab countries, and especially from North Africa, where French is the second language. Radical Islamism is much weaker in the rest of the Muslim world, so Germany (whose Muslims are mostly Turkish) and Britain (where they are mostly of South Asian origin) generate fewer Islamist extremists than the francophone countries, and face fewer terrorist attacks.

France’s and Belgium’s Muslim citizens are also less integrated into the wider community. French housing policy has dumped most of the immigrants in high-rise, low-income developments at the edge of the cities, often beyond the end of the metro lines. Unemployed, poorly educated and culturally isolated, their young men are more easily recruited into extremist groups.

The point of this sort of analysis is to cut the problem down to size. There is no terrorist army in Belgium, just a bunch of young men making it up as they go along. For example, the Brussells attacks happened four days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the gang who carried out the attacks on the Bataclan arena and the Stade de France in Paris last November.

Back in Brussels after failing to use his suicide vest in the Paris attack, Abdeslam was a psychological wreck, and his Islamist colleagues undoubtedly expected that once in police custody he would sing like a canary. So they decided to launch another attack and go to glory before the police kicked in their doors.

Prime Minister Charles Michel issued the usual ritual incantation about Belgians being “determined to defend our freedom,” but Belgium’s freedom is not at risk. Terrorists are not an existential threat. They are a lethal nuisance, but no more than a nuisance.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“And people…time”)