Amédy Coulibaly described himself as a "soldier of the caliphate" in a short video made just before his killing spree in the Hyper Cacher supermarket in eastern Paris on 9 January.

It’s complicated

LONDON, MONDAY: People often feel the most profound question they can ask after a senseless killing is “why”? It speaks not only to bafflement faced with the apparent meaningless of the particular act, but also to our more existential need to find explanations for the things that happen to us and around us, and ultimately our search for a meaning for life (and death) itself.

On Saturday afternoon, someone unfurled a huge banner in Paris’s Place de la République saying, “Pourquoi?” Perhaps the literal translation, “for what”, is better here than “why”. Because “why” doesn’t seem a particularly useful question to ask about something like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The killers would have no difficultly answering it, and we know more or less what they would say. “For what?” or “to what end?” would be a more difficult question and a truthful answer would be revealing. What these people wanted could range from the utterly delusional (a global Islamic caliphate), through the implausible (civil war in France) to the much more terrifyingly possible (permanent alienation between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Europe). My gut feeling is that jihadist “leaders” will tend towards the more realistic (and dangerous) end of that spectrum; the actual killers are more likely to be delusional in their motives. But who knows?

Rather than (metaphorically) asking the killers why they did it, we might more usefully ask ourselves why these people think so differently to us. Why do they not recognise and respect free speech? Why do they not see religious observance as a private matter and not something to be imposed on other people? Why do they see ISIL’s statelet in Syria and Iraq, where life is indeed “nasty, brutish and short”, as preferable to free, prosperous and cultured France? Why do they believe evident fantasies? Why do they believe them with such fervour that they are prepared to kill for them? And why do they hold their own lives so cheap?

This has nothing to do with responsibility for the killings, which rest squarely with the gunmen and those who aided, abetted and encouraged them. But when we start to look at why they thought they way they did, it ought to be clear that the responsibility for that is much wider.

We might look at the characteristics and training of imams in French mosques, at the responsibilities of parents and the care system involved in their upbringing, at the way radical Islamism functions as a nihilist death cult, with a particular appeal to alienated and psychologically disturbed youth. We might also look at the French prison system (two of the Paris gunmen were apparently further “radicalised” at the notorious Fleury-Mérogis prison south of Paris, though it didn’t start there), at the way “ordinary” Muslim criminals are rehabilitated, at the culture of the banlieus (the often-desolate suburban zones that ring most large French cities), at youth unemployment, ghettoisation on housing estates, even mental health services. The list could go on and on, but we can’t simply walk away from this and pretend that having people who are primarily and viscerally motivated by a hatred for the society they live in has nothing to do with the way that society works.

If we hadn’t realised it before, the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Casher attacks have revealed that violent jihadism, particularly in Western countries, is an extremely complex problem with many, many causes. There are religious and geopolitical aspects, of course, but also personal and psychological ones. Many of the jihadist terrorists who have perpetrated atrocities in Western countries seem to show signs of psychological disturbance. A 2002 court psychiatric report on the Hyper Casher gunman, Amédy Coulibaly, found an “immature and psychopathic personality” (and one thing jihadist terrorists seem to have in common is an enormous capacity for self-delusion). It could be that this, combined with a sense of racial and religious grievance, instruction from manipulative and “hate-filled” preachers (such as the Kouachi brothers’ “guru” Faris Benyettou), connections with “ordinary” criminal gangs into drugs and petty theft, and a sense of nihilism and alienation to set against the perverted glamour of killing and dying for a cause, produces this murderous cocktail. Or it could be even more complicated than that.

It’s not good enough to pin everything on mass immigration or the impossibility of different traditions living side by side. It’s not good enough to put it all down to handful of “radical imams” and internet “hate preachers”. Still less to common criminality. But neither is it good enough to blame it all on George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and poverty and unemployment on bleak housing estates.

All these factors and more need to be carefully unpicked and dealt with, both ruthlessly and sensitively (a difficult but not impossible balancing act). Are we up to it? We will have to be.


How to keep the United Kingdom (sort of) together

Okay, panic over, here’s the answer to the West Lothian Question.

England is going to get its own parliament one way or another, so let’s have a proper parliament and not a rump group of Westminster MPs doing a spot of English legislating in their spare time. That means an English prime minister and cabinet, accountable to an English House of Commons – an English government in name as well as practice.

The governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have power over the same things – basically everything except those powers they agree to share through the UK (pretty similar to the “Devo Max” deal offered to Scotland at the last minute, as the union seemed to be slipping away).

For the UK, we directy elect the UK “prime minister” (best not say “president” while my fellow citizens retain their sentimental attachment to the House of Windsor – but how about “President of the Council” for those who, like me, enjoy finding new uses for old things?). He or she would head a small cabinet dealing with UK-wide matters, which we could call the Council of State (or even the Privy Council if you like – sorry, can’t stop myself).

I’m not convinced we would even need a UK parliament. We would have four perfectly good parliaments already, and how many parliaments does one small archipelago need? There wouldn’t be much UK legislation – most laws would be domestic matters – so what there is would have to be ratified by all four parliaments (and hence, in practice, negotiated first – what a novelty!). A less stringent alternative would be to have all four parliaments “meeting together” as the UK parliament (they don’t have to be physically in the same place – we have the technology for that). You could have some sort of weighting system, so that England gets more say than the smaller nations, but not 85% of the say.

There you have it: no cumbersome regional assemblies in England that no one wants; no asymmetric distribution of powers storing up trouble and sowing instability for the future; no Barnett formula; no ridiculous “double-hatting” by the UK prime minister dabbling as England’s PM two days a week (what happens if the UK prime minister is a Scottish or Welsh MP?); no paralysis in England when the UK government lacks an English majority; no need for increasingly meaningless Westminster elections (with ever dwindling turnouts) in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And no need for any resentment – it’s a voluntary union and everyone the same powers over their own affairs.

Of course there are a lot of detail to be worked out, but I can’t see any serious problems. My biggest headache is where to stick the UK prime minster, assuming the English PM bagsies the keys to Number Ten… You know, there must be a lot of room in that big grey building at the end of the Mall.

Machiavelli and his half-blood Prince

niccolo_machiavelli_statue-2I’ve just caught up with Alan Yentob’s BBC documentary on Machiavelli and The Prince, broadcast (I think) around Christmas. Old Nick is going through something of a rehabilitation at the moment (Jonathan Powell has recently published a sympathetic “updating”, for example) at the hands of our plutocratic elite, who are increasingly confident and willing to openly flaunt their Machiavellianism. Boris Johnson’s remarks last year about greed being good and rich and poor deserving their lot was another example of this tendency.

Taken on its own, The Prince is a horrible book, but one perfectly in tune again with the age. One of Yentob’s contributors made the point that we’re living through times remarkably similar to those Niccolò Machiavelli lived through at the beginning of the Renaissance: intense but futile competition for power, instability, a collapse of old certainties, widespread fear about security, and a bunch of unscrupulous rulers of dubious competence.

It’s an age of turbulence and Machiavelli’s harsh message strikes a chord with many. Not least those in power, to whom it offers a virtual carte blanche to behave as they see fit if they can get away with it.  “The common people,” Machiavelli wrote, “are only interested in appearances and results.” But what are these “results” and why should a Machiavellian ruler care?

Machiavelli’s fans — always most plentiful among the rich and powerful — contend that he is “only telling it the way it is”. Like it or lump it, people really do only care about themselves, and experience shows it is better to be feared as a leader than loved (obviously no one told that to Nelson Mandela). But for me it’s never been really clear what all this Machaivellianism is for. Often boiled down to “the ends justify the means”, Machiavelli’s thinking in The Prince seems to lack any concept of the common good. What are the ends exactly? Sometimes he talks (in striking echo to today’s leaders in the US and UK) about the “security of the state”, but this often means little more than the leaders own personal interests.

Machiavelli’s is an impoverished view of human nature. Even if it’s true to some extent of all of us, it’s not all that we are. Yes, we all want power and control over our own destiny, not everyone wants the same destiny, or sees the means of pursuing it as irrelevant to the value of acquiring it. He assumes everyone wants to live in a perpetual state of competition. This may suit the story of hyper global capitalism, but I don’t think it’s how most people want to live their lives.

The Prince is a book born of despair, written by a desperate man just released from prison trying to ingratiate himself with the new Mr Big in Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici. It leaves no room for love or kindness, or for the idea that the people might want to collaborate (or any other “idea” for that matter). Machiavelli knew a lot about one aspect of human nature and one aspect of power, but he either knew nothing about the other half, or chose not to express it in The Prince. Probably, every politician needs a bit of Machiavelli. But Machiavelli’s Prince, and Powell’s “new Machiavelli”, would be half a politician and, worse still, a bloodless half of a human being.

(Incidentally, Machiavelli emphatically did not take his own advice. Shortly after writing The Prince, he retired to his vineyard outside Florence and lived a quiet life writing books and plays. You can still buy his wine – I imagine it leaves a bitter taste.)

Andrew Rawnsley wrote on Nelson Mandela: ‘His ego was pressed into the service of an idea, not self’. Machiavelli has nothing to say about ideas and, for him, self-interest is the only thing that a prince should concern himself with. But there is low scheming and there is scheming in pursuit of an idea, what Rawnsley called Mandela’s ‘classy cunning’. Ultimately, what’s wrong with the Machiavelli of The Prince is not that he thinks the means don’t matter (although they do a bit, because bad means can tarnish good ends), but that he doesn’t think the ends matter much either.

A new Bambi or a new Speedy in the Matignon?

Manuel Valls, France’s new prime minister, is often compared to Tony Blair. He even describes himself, without apparent irony, as “Blairiste”. Surprisingly, this hasn’t done him much harm. In recent months, Valls has emerged from relative obscurity to become by far the most popular member of France’s embattled Socialist government.

Manuel Valls in the Assemblée Nationale, 2012

Manuel Valls, France’s new PM, combines Sarkozy-style aggression with a Blairite tendancy to face both ways at once.

Like Blair, he comes from the right of a left-wing party. Like Blair, it’s the issue of crime that brought Valls to political prominence. Blair made his name with his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan as shadow home secretary in the early 1990s. As interior minister since 2012, Valls has revelled in his role as France’s premier flic (‘top cop’), and ruffled the feathers of his socialist comrades with his generally hawkish approach to crime and immigration. And like Blair, Valls likes preaching the virtues of free market capitalism to a party that remains very suspicious of its vices.

Valls was even endorsed by the free marketeers’ house rag, The Economist (also an early fan of Blair’s) when he ran for president in 2012. This didn’t impress Parti Socialiste activists much: he got just 6% of the vote in the party’s primary

To me, a more useful comparison would be with Hollande’s predecessor as president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Valls’s energetic, media-savvy image, evokes Sarkozy’s time as interior minister under Jacques Chirac, when he earned the nickname “Speedy”. Valls has enthusiastically adopted Sarkozy’s ultra-aggressive style. Hollande, announcing his appointment on Monday night, was playing this up when he said Valls’s administration would be ‘a government for combat’.

Both as mayor of the depressed Paris suburb of Evry (Essonne) and as interior minister, Valls has endorsed — and even stepped up — Sarkozy’s policies on immigration and crime.

Valls took a lot of flak over his support for cops in their heavy-handed deportation of a 15-year-old Kosovan schoolgirl from France last year. Tough new immigration rules and quotas, introduced by Valls, build more in Sarkozy’s legacy than Socialist Party principle. His remarks on Roma people — “these people have ways of life extremely different to ours”, and claims that it was impossible for most Roma to integrate into France, echo similarly controversial remarks by the former president.

(Interestingly, like Sarkozy, Valls is of foreign origin himself. Sarkozy was famously the son of Hungarian immigrants, while Valls is a Catalan, born in Barcelona, who did not become a French citizen until he was 20.)

Valls’s appointment sets the seal on Hollande’s “tournant social-démocrate”, his supposed shift towards pro-market and austerity-based solutions to France’s economic woes. While Valls is hard to pin down on economics (he’s certainly more “left”, as we Brits would understand it, than Tony Blair, although not necessarily more so than Sarkozy) there’s no doubt Valls is a more credible frontman for Hollande’s “responsibility pact” — his pledge to cut France’s deficit in line with EU demands — than the outgoing Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Valls is an enthusiast for austerity. He has supported the idea — floated by Sarkozy himself — of enshrining the need for a balanced budget (France hasn’t had one since 1974) in the French constitution. Valls’s enthusiasm for “TVA sociale” — shifting some of France’s social insurance charges onto VAT — is another a policy which finds more favour in Sarkozy’s party than his own.

Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Sarkozy’s energy and ambition made him a thorn in Jacques Chirac’s side towards the end of his presidency.

He has also been critical of France’s 35-hour working week, introduced by Lionel Jospin’s Socialist government in 1998, which remains a talismanic policy for many French Socialists. The policy was also a frequent target of Sarkozy’s ire, although he never got round to doing much more than moaning about it. In true Blairite style, Valls talks about “flexisecurité” — a vague and meaningless blend of protection against unemployment and making it easier to sack people.

The appointment is not without risks for Hollande. Valls is loathed by many on the centre and left of the PS and has little real power base in the party. The Greens have threatened to leave the government over his appointment. And everyone knows, like Sarkozy, Valls is murderously ambitious.

Sarkozy’s noisy campaigning for the presidency was a constant pain in the backside for Chirac after the president passed over his interior minister and appointed the donnish Dominique de Villepin as prime minister in 2005.

In sending Valls to the Matignon, Hollande has perhaps been shrewder, and tied Valls’s political fortunes to his own. Yes, the president has a big problem in 2017 if his ambitious prime minister is successful. But he has an even bigger one if he isn’t.