Who is Michael Gove?

Michael Gove will now stand for leader, upsetting Boris Johnson's hopes to become the next prime minister. (Getty)
Michael Gove will now stand for leader, upsetting Boris Johnson’s hopes to become the next prime minister. (Getty)

It was a standard assumption throughout the United Kingdom’s EU membership referendum that former London mayor Boris Johnson supported the ‘Leave’ side due in large part to his ambitions of succeeding David Cameron as Conservative Party leader and then as prime minister.United Kingdom Flag Icon

At one point, Amber Rudd, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, in a debate over Brexit, argued that the only number that Johnson was interested in was the number 10 — as in 10 Downing Street. And that was from a rising star in Johnson’s own party.

When Johnson made his high-profile decision to join the Leave camp, he did so shortly after another top figure in Tory politics made the same decision — Michael Gove, previously a close Cameron confidante and justice secretary, but whose main mark on government had been four years of tumultuous (and often divisive) reforms as Britain’s education secretary.

Gove entered politics at Cameron’s request, and he was so close to the prime minister that he served as godfather to Cameron’s severely disabled son Ivan (who sadly died in 2009). It was a blow to Cameron when Gove declared his support for the Leave campaign, and the two’s once-solid friendship is reportedly strained.

After weeks of campaigning alongside Johnson and emerging on the winning side of the referendum debate, however, Gove’s declaration this morning of his own leadership contest has strained far more than a friendship, upending British politics in a week when every hour seems to bring a shocking new twist. Indeed, Gove’s leadership challenge and his ‘more in sadness than in anger’ conclusion that Johnson wasn’t up to the task of being prime minister will now define Gove’s political future. Just as Ed Miliband never fully escaped the cloak of treachery in pipping his own brother, the far more experienced former foreign minister David Miliband, for the Labour Party leadership, Gove’s eleventh-hour change of heart will dominate the narrative of the campaign ahead. Nigel Evans said that Gove had ‘stabbed Boris in the front,’ and even Johnson, in his remarks in withdrawing from the leadership race, paraphrased Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, subtly comparing Gove to Brutus, the friend-turned-assassin.

When a private email to Gove from Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, a columnist for the Daily Mail, was accidentally leaked to the press yesterday, it showed that Gove and his private circle held considerable doubts about a Johnson government. In closing out her email, Vine advised Gove to ‘be his stubborn best.’

It seems that Gove was far more stubborn than anyone believed possible when he made a late-night decision to stand for the leadership himself — Johnson found out along with the British press this morning as Gove announced his plans:

In particular, I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future. But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead. I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership. I want there to be an open and positive debate about the path the country will now take.

Gove will be a formidable candidate. He comes to the Tory leadership race, presumably, with many (though not all) of the MPs who were prepared to support Johnson and Gove as something of a joint ticket (with the implication that Gove would serve as Johnson’s chancellor and a guarantor that a Johnson government wouldn’t go wobbly on Brexit).

But while Johnson may have indeed been a fair-weather convert to Brexit, no one should doubt Gove’s long-held euroscepticism. It comes, in part, from Gove’s own background, watching the fishing business that his father and grandfather built destroyed by European competition in the 1970s. If Johnson brought the personality and ‘star power’ to the Leave campaign, Gove brought with him the accumulated credibility of one of the Conservative Party’s brightest and most committed reformists. Though Johnson and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage perhaps won more headlines, Gove was also in the mix, making a credible case for Brexit, earning plaudits as the ‘brains’ of the Leave campaign.

After leaving Oxford, Gove entered the media world and quickly became one of the lights of the right-wing press. When he came to politics in 2005, winning election to parliament from the southeastern English constituency of Surrey Heath, he was part of Cameron’s original ‘Notting Hill’ set that included chancellor George Osborne, whose vigorous support for the Remain campaign eliminated his long-held wishes of succeeding Cameron as prime minister. On social policy, Gove has always been as progressive as Cameron or Osborne — he supported providing marriage equality for gays and lesbians in the 2013 landmark parliamentary vote, for example.

Upon the Conservative victory in the 2010 general election and Cameron’s governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Gove became secretary of state for education, and he used the position to upend the state of English education for the next four years. To this day, Gove is a figure of hatred and scorn among British teachers for the pace and extent of the policy reforms he initiated. As education secretary, he uncoupled schools from local authorities (giving them more freedom) while introducing all sorts of micromanaging revisions to the English curriculum (thereby taking away much of that freedom). He made it easier for researchers to access information about education and schools to determine which strategies are performing well.

Though Cameron, in part due to howls of protest from teachers, demoted him to chief whip in 2014, Gove was appointed secretary of state for justice in 2015, where he has had much less time to implement deep reforms. (He did, however, discontinue a court fee introduced by his predecessor Chris Grayling).

Gove will now make the case that only a Leave supporter — unlike his chief competitor, home secretary Theresa May — can credibly assume the premiership after the decision in last Thursday’s referendum. He will also argue that, unlike May, he alone is willing to hold firm in negotiations with the remaining 27 member-states of the European Union. As one of the leading voices of the Leave campaign, Gove will begin with significant support among the Tory eurosceptic backbenches. If he winds up as one of the final two contenders, he may find that his Leave support will be rewarded among those rank-and-file Tory members who will determine the winner of the runoff this summer. His starring role in the Leave campaign may have made him far more palatable to Tory rank-and-file who now see him less as an Oxbridge policy nerd and more of a crusader for their own (anti-EU) values.

But as Hugo Dixon noted earlier today, Gove is a something of a radical — more so than just a small-c conservative — and that separates him from Cameron, May and perhaps even Johnson. In light of the rapid pace of political developments, however, there’s no guarantee that Gove will even make it into the wider runoff. Work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb has already amassed several high-profile endorsements and the support of nearly 20 MPs. If Gove helped put Johnson on the pile of so many would-be prime ministers who never quite made it out of the starting gate — Michael Portillo, Kenneth Clarke, David Miliband — no one should be surprised if Gove himself winds up behind May and Crabb in the parliamentary voting that will take place in the first two weeks of July. Unlike Johnson, May or Crabb, Gove has something of an awkward, even oddball, personality, and Gove himself has many times said that he lacks the talent to be prime minister.

Then again, after getting the best of one-time mentor Cameron and one-time ally Johnson, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gove thrive, either.

PSOE’s incentives point to PP-Ciudadanos minority government in Spain

Pedro Sánchez has led the PSOE to a better-than-expected result, but it leaves Spain no closer to a clear governing majority. (Facebook)
Pedro Sánchez has led the PSOE to a better-than-expected result, but it leaves Spain no closer to a clear governing majority. (Facebook)

Voting under the penumbra of an ongoing political crisis in the United Kingdom following last Thursday’s referendum, in which a bare majority of British voters chose to leave the European Union, Spanish voters in Sunday’s general election — the second in seven months — fell back on established parties instead of more radical newcomers.Spain_Flag_Icon

Despite polls (and even exit polls) that predicted the rise of Unidos Podemos, a joint ticket of Spain’s far-left communists and Podemos, the newer anti-austerity movement, the ticket won the same number of seats in the lower house of Spain’s parliament, the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), than it had after the December general election.

Forecasts that Unidos Podemos would overtake the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) proved wrong. The PSOE, under the leadership of Pedro Sánchez, remains the largest leftist force in Spanish politics.


Unfortunately for Sánchez, the PSOE fell further behind the governing center-right Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, which won 137 seats — a 14-seat increase since the December 2015 elections. Those gains came mostly as a result of record-low turnout and a subtle migration back to Rajoy’s party from the upstart, liberal Ciudadanos, which lost eight seats in last Sunday’s voting.

spain 16 deputies (1)

So what next? In an election where voters largely returned the same verdict, Spain’s political class is now looking at another round of coalition talks as a country with a traditional two-party system now copes with four major parties.

At the heart of these talks, however, is the PSOE, which is now positioned as the leading swing vote between Spain’s conservatives and Spain’s hard left. No matter what comes next for Spain, the PSOE will almost certainly determine the outcome.

So as Spain’s political leaders get down to the business of coalition talks in the days and weeks to come, the most important factor to keep in mind are the PSOE’s political incentives (and, to a lesser degree, Sánchez’s incentive to remain PSOE leader in the hopes of winning a future election). Continue reading PSOE’s incentives point to PP-Ciudadanos minority government in Spain

Corbyn suffers massive parliamentary revolt as Labour unravels

Jeremy Corbyn faces an insurrection from his own MPs in Westminster, though it's not clear they can win a fresh leadership vote. (Getty)
Jeremy Corbyn faces an insurrection from his own MPs in Westminster, though it’s not clear they can win a fresh leadership vote. (Getty)

A few months ago, I argued that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had a tailor-made opportunity with the EU membership referendum. United Kingdom Flag Icon

Given that working-class Labour voters would be likely to determine the result, Corbyn could have shown that he has what it takes on the most crucial national referendum in decades. Most importantly, for a nervous set of Labour MPs warily eyeing a general election in 2020 or even sooner, it would show that Corbyn could actually win votes.

 Corbyn, who fought a lonely fight in the 1970s and 1980s against Margaret Thatcher, then increasingly against his own party’s moderate ‘third way’ leadership in the 1990s and 2000s, was uniquely placed to win back those voters in northern England, many of whom supported Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2015 general election. Of course, they are the voters who also voted so overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. Sadly, Corbyn had the kind of credibility that could have brought more working-class voters in Labour’s traditional northern heartlands to the Remain camp.

As it turns out, Labour supporters backed Remain by the considerable margin of 69% to 31%. But that 31% that supported Leave could have made the difference between failure and victory.

Today, as over 80% of the Labour Party’s MPs have delivered a vote of no confidence in Corbyn, and as Corbyn now faces — at minimum — a humiliating new leadership challenge, it’s clear that his lackluster performance in the ‘Brexit’ referendum has energized his opponents and caused even longtime supporters to reassess his ability or willingness to make the case to voters.
Continue reading Corbyn suffers massive parliamentary revolt as Labour unravels

In defense of David Cameron

Prime minister David Cameron resigned earlier this morning. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters)
Prime minister David Cameron resigned earlier this morning. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters)

Normally, when a politician — especially a president or a prime minister — resigns, he or she is met with effusive praise.United Kingdom Flag Icon

There’s the defeat. Then the stepping down. Then a deluge of pieces heralding the peaks as well as the valleys of the political career that’s just ended.

Not David Cameron, who stepped out of 10 Downing Street this morning to step down as British prime minister, a day after he narrowly lost a campaign to keep the United Kingdom inside the European Union. For Cameron, today’s political obituaries, so to speak, are absolutely brutalThe Independent called him the ‘worst prime minister in a hundred years.’

And that’s perhaps fair. He is, after all, the prime minister who managed to guide his country, accidentally, out of the European Union. His country (and, indeed all of Europe) now faces a period of massive uncertainty as a result.

The man who once hectored his party to stop ‘banging on about Europe’ has now been done in over Europe — just as the last two Conservative prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

He’ll leave behind a Scotland that wanted to stay inside the European Union by a margin of 62% to 38% and that will now have the moral and political capital to demand a fresh independence referendum to become an independent Scotland within the European Union. First minister Nicola Sturgeon, of course, knew this all along, and she wasted no time in making clear that a second vote is now her top priority.

He’ll also leave behind an awful mess as to the status of Northern Ireland, which also voted for Remain by a narrower margin. Its borders with the Republic of Ireland are now unclear, the republican Sinn Fein now wants a border poll on Irish unification and the Good Friday agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence might have to be amended.

He’ll leave behind an angry electorate in England, sharply divided by income, race, ethnicity and culture — if the divide between England Scotland looks insurmountable, so does the divide between London and the rest of England. Despite the warning signs, and the rise of Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Cameron failed to provide English voters with the devolution of regional power that voters enjoyed in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and even London.

Cameron showed, unlike Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, he was willing to accede to the wishes of Scottish nationalists and give them a say in their own self-determination. Given the corrosive nature of the eurosceptic populism within his own party and in UKIP, it wasn’t unreasonable that Cameron would force them to ‘put up or shut up’ with the first in-out vote on EU membership since 1975, when the European Union was just the European Economic Community.

On every measure, Cameron leaves behind a country more broken and more polarized than the one he inherited from Gordon Brown in May 2010. Continue reading In defense of David Cameron

British voters take to polls today for historic EU referendum vote

After years of preparation, it's now up to voters to make their choice.
After years of preparation, it’s now up to voters to make their choice.

So it’s finally here.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Polls are now open across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where voters are deciding whether to either remain a member of the European Union or to leave the European Union. It’s home to the largest city in the European Union (London) and, with 64.9 million people, it’s the third-most populous state in the European Union, after Germany and France.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. through 10 p.m. — that means that here on the east coast of the United States, polls will be closing at 5 p.m. ET, with the first results to arrive shortly thereafter. No official exit polls are being conducted, but private hedge funds are believed to have commissioned exit polls and early financial indictors could tell us know traders believe the result will go. In any event, the final result is expected to be announced by ‘breakfast time’ on Friday morning.

The United Kingdom joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973 under Conservative prime minister Edward Heath, after two failed attempts at membership, in each case vetoed by French president Charles de Gaulle. Continue reading British voters take to polls today for historic EU referendum vote

‘Leave’ campaign’s immigration emphasis could trump Brexit economics

UKIP leader Nigel Farage made immigration the heart of his campaign to leave the European Union. (PA)
UKIP leader Nigel Farage made immigration the heart of his campaign to leave the European Union. (PA)

Turkey is not going to become a member-state of the European Union anytime soon.United Kingdom Flag IconEuropean_Union

No matter what joint talks take place next week, next month or next decade between Turkish and European diplomats, it is absolutely incomprehensible that the European Union, with or without the United Kingdom, would be willing to grant membership to a state with the level of economic corruption and political authoritarianism as Turkey. Full stop.

Even if European diplomats did, though, and even if each of the other 27 member-states of the European Union wanted to admit Turkey — which today borders war-torn Syria and destabilized Iraq — all it would take is for a British prime minister to say, simply, ‘No.’

That’s because EU membership is one of a handful of issues accomplished only by unanimity of the European Union’s member-states. For example, Greece has held up Macedonia’s EU accession hopes for years over a long-simmering conflict over the name ‘Macedonia,’ and the Greeks, for the better part of the last century, have been none too keen on doing many favors for their Turkish rivals, either.

Last week, EU officials cheekily informed Turkey that the country has not yet met all of the EU conditions for visa-free travel to the European Union, one of the rewards that Turkey received as part of a controversial deal to stem the flow of Syrian and Iraqi migrants from Turkey into the European Union. Though critics of German chancellor Angela Merkel argue that she sold out EU values in exchange for a Turkish solution to the EU migration crisis, Europeans are holding firm in requiring that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stop using ‘anti-terror’ laws to arrest journalists, academics and political opponents. This is hardly the stuff of happy Turkish-EU relationsContinue reading ‘Leave’ campaign’s immigration emphasis could trump Brexit economics

Why British sovereignty would be even weaker after leaving the European Union

Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg (left) meets European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (right). (EEA).
Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg (left) meets European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (right). (EEA).

Chief among the reasons that the ‘Leave’ campaign cites for its campaign to convince British voters to leave the European Union is sovereignty. European_UnionUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Here’s Ambrose-Evans Prichard, with a well-written and thoughtful essay endorsing Brexit last week in The Telegraph:

Stripped of distractions, it comes down to an elemental choice: whether to restore the full self-government of this nation, or to continue living under a higher supranational regime, ruled by a European Council that we do not elect in any meaningful sense, and that the British people can never remove, even when it persists in error.

For some proponents of the ‘Leave’ campaign, sovereignty matters so much that the warnings of a significant short-term disruption to the British economy simply do not matter. In the long run, Brexit’s benefits will come, supporters hope, from the ability of future British policymakers to enact laws and regulations unhindered by the grinding bureaucracy of Brussels and Strasbourg.

That Brexit will lead to such full-throated British sovereignty is not so clear — at least if the United Kingdom wants to leave the European Union while still retaining access to the single market, one of the world’s most integrated free-trade zones.

Britain, contemplating divorce, already has a ‘separation’ with Europe 

It’s not always easy to sort the alphabet soup within the European Union, let alone the rest of Europe that lies outside the technical European Union. But arguably the United Kingdom today enjoys much more freedom than any of the other 27 member-states of the European Union. As British voters consider divorce from Europe, they would do well to consideration that their country is already in something of a separation with Europe.

Today, the United Kingdom is neither a member of the euro currency zone and monetary union, nor (like Ireland) the Schengen zone of free movement. The former means that the United Kingdom still has its own currency, the pound sterling, and the Bank of England controls British monetary policy. The latter means that the United Kingdom retains more control over its borders than even non-EU states like Switzerland and Norway (both party to the Schengen Agreement).  Continue reading Why British sovereignty would be even weaker after leaving the European Union

Long before Brexit came Greenlandexit — and a corresponding boost to Greenland’s economy

In 2015, Greenlandic prime minister Kim Kielsen signed a new declaration over EU relations.
In 2015, Greenlandic prime minister Kim Kielsen signed a new declaration over EU relations.

The year was 1985.European_UnionUnited Kingdom Flag Icongreenland flag

Germany was still divided into east and west, and Portugal, Spain, Austria and Sweden were all still outside the European Economic Community, the forerunner to today’s European Union.

But it marked the first — and, so far, the only — time that any territory voluntarily exited the European Union.

It was Greenland, then and today an autonomous country within the kingdom of Denmark. In the 1980s, Greenland was fresh off winning a new layer of home rule in 1979 from the Danes. Angry about the fact that its own local fisheries were forced to compete with more industrial fishing outfits from the European Union, Greenlanders voted to leave the European Economic Community, many of them noting that Greenland is closer, in geographic terms, to the North American continent than to Europe.

In the intervening years, of course, several rounds of treaties have refined the European Union’s structure, including the Treaty of Lisbon, which for the first time introduced in Article 50 a legal mechanism for a member-state’s exit from the European Union that establishes a two-year framework for negotiation from the moment of withdrawal notification to final exit.

Greenland, however, set the only real-world precedent that British voters and policymakers have if, indeed, the country decides to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum.

Flush off the excitement from winning a modicum of self-government from Denmark nearly 3,500 miles away, the eurosceptic, left-wing and outright separatist  Siumut (Forward) soon won the first local elections after the introduction of home rule. Among other things, Greenland’s prime minister Jonathan Motzfeldt scheduled a referendum for February 23, 1982, in which Greenlandic voters would be asked whether the country should continue to be a member of the European Economic Community after becoming a member, nearly by default, when Denmark acceded in 1973.

The referendum was close — out of 23,795 voters, 53.02% voted to leave and 46.98% voted to remain. Continue reading Long before Brexit came Greenlandexit — and a corresponding boost to Greenland’s economy

Brexit vote is England’s parallel to Scottish independence referendum

Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, hopes to win Thursday's referendum on the back of English nationalism. (Telegraph)
Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, hopes to win Thursday’s referendum on the back of English nationalism. (Telegraph)

Imagine yourself as a typical, middle-class voter in  Northumberland.United Kingdom Flag Iconengland_640

Two years ago, you watched as your Scottish brethren to the north held a vote to consider whether to declare independence from the United Kingdom.

When they narrowly voted against independence, you watched as prime minister David Cameron renewed not only the Conservative, but the Labour and Liberal Democratic promise to enact ‘devolution max‘ for Scotland. He also declared, within hours of the vote, that he would seek to prevent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from voting on local English matters in Westminster, thereby correcting the long-discussed West Lothian question. (He managed mostly to annoy Scottish voters, pushing them in even greater numbers to the Scottish National Party and its talented leader, first minister Nicola Sturgeon). As the independence threat receded, however, Cameron failed to follow up on either the Scottish or the English side of the federalism issues that the referendum brought to the fore.

Now imagine that you feel like your fraught middle-class status is threatened — by the global financial crisis of 2008-09 or by the widening scope of inequality or even by the rising tide of immigrants to your community, making it even more difficult to compete for dignified and meaningful work.

Maybe you even decided to abandon the Tories or Labour in the 2015 general election, voting instead for the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as a way to send a message to Westminster about immigration or globalization. But with the first-past-the-post system, 12.7% of the vote for UKIP translated into just one seat among the 650-member House of Commons. Within England alone, UKIP won an even larger share of the vote (14.1%) than it did nationally. Again, you might have felt that your vote counted for little. Or nothing.

And so, as another referendum approaches this week on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, you might feel doubly disenfranchised. First, to the nameless bureaucrats in Brussels that you believe dictate too much in the way of the laws and policies that govern England. Secondly, within a national political system whose rules minimize third parties and whose leaders have devolved power to all of the regions except, of course, the region where nearly 84% of the population lives: England.

Leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign make it none too clear that, among their goals is this: Take. Back. Control. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that the parts of the United Kingdom with the greatest amount of regional devolution — London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — largely support the ‘Remain’ side in the Brexit referendum, according to polls. If ‘Leave’ wins on June 23, there’s a very good chance that it will do so despite the firm opposition of non-English voters.

Continue reading Brexit vote is England’s parallel to Scottish independence referendum

Rome elects Raggi, Five Star Movement candidate, as first female mayor

Virginia Raggi hopes to become the most influential Five Star Movement activist on Sunday by winning Rome's mayoral election.
Virginia Raggi hopes to become the most influential Five Star Movement activist on Sunday by winning Rome’s mayoral election.

Fifty-four years after Amma Magnani starred in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s classic Mamma Roma, redefining feminism for Romans and Italians alike, the Eternal City is getting what centuries of imperial and papal rule never allowed — a woman in charge.Italy Flag Iconrome

Say what you will about her, unlike Magnani and unlike the founder of her party, Beppe Grillo, Virginia Raggi is no comedian.

For a movement that has sometimes suffered by the fact that its most prominent leader and founder is Grillo, a comic-turned-politician, it now enters a phase where it will be judged by governance, and not just politics. The protest Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) emerged in Italian politics in the 2013 parliamentary elections as an anti-austerity and anti-eurozone force, drawing votes from the remnants of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition as well as disenchanted leftist voters.

The Five Star Movement controls 91 seats in the 630-member lower house of Italy’s parliament, the Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies), where its role has chiefly been to throw sand at both the Italian right and the dominant Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) of prime minister Matteo Renzi.

That will all change after Sunday, when Rome’s (and Turin’s) voters elected two women affiliated with the Five Star Movement, giving it the opportunity to mature into a new role — a functional party of municipal government.

The 32-year-old Chiara Appendino has won a runoff to become the next mayor of the northern industrial city of Turin, but the real prize is Rome, where Virginia Raggi has easily won a runoff against Democratic Party challenger Roberto Giachetti to become the Italian capital’s first female mayor. It is also, by far, the most high-profile electoral success of the Five Star Movement to date.

rome 2016

Rome, home to nearly 2.9 million people, is the European Union’s fourth-largest city after London, Berlin and Madrid. But successive governments have left voters angry, just about everything — roads are worn, public transportation chugs along slowly and trash often goes uncollected. Residents have been dreaming for decades of a third line for the city’s burdened two-line subway system, but construction has stalled under each of the last two administrations.

The last elected mayor, Ignazio Marino, a novice in Italian politics and a former transplant surgeon, resigned in disgrace late last year after just two years in office, implicated in an expense scandal in which Marino apparently charged around €20,000 for personal dinners with friends.

Marino’s personal scandal followed the even wider Mafia Capitale scandal, which saw politicians misappropriate public funds (including funding set aside for the education of marginalized Roma children) to organized crime units in both Rome and the surrounding Lazio region. Moreover, by the time Marino finally resigned, no one — not even Renzi, let alone everyday Romans — seemed to have much faith in Marino’s ability to run the city. The Genoa-born Marino came to politics only in 2006 with his election to Italy’s Senato (Senate).

Marino managed to win election in June 2013 only because of the massive unpopularity of his predecessor, Gianni Alemanno, a controversial figure and Berlusconi ally with former ties to the neofascist right who seemed more concerned with stirring up his national profile than the mundane matters of day-to-day governance in Rome. Continue reading Rome elects Raggi, Five Star Movement candidate, as first female mayor

Where is the scrutiny of 70-year-old Trump’s health?

Donald Trump would be the oldest American president at inauguration, but his doctors claim he would be... the healthiest?
Donald Trump would be the oldest American president at inauguration, but his doctors claim he would be… the healthiest?

A thought exercise.USflag

Donald Trump just turned 70.

That makes him (slightly) older than Hillary Clinton. It would make him older than any other president in US history, though obviously not older than many other world leaders who were active well into their 80s, including Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle or, more recently, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Cuban president Raúl Castro and former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh.

But where are the stories about his health?

He has released exactly one report — last December — about his health, and it’s far from authoritative. In fact, by the standards of presidential campaigns, it was more comical than informative:

“If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual elected to the presidency,” [Dr. Harold] Bornstein wrote.

If Trump has eviscerated traditional norms about releasing tax information as the presumptive nominee, he’s done the same with health disclosure.

His father, Fred Trump, died at the age of 93, but he suffering in his final years from Alzheimer’s disease, and so it’s worth knowing if Donald Trump is at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease over the next eight years. Though you might agree with his rhetoric, his statements are sometimes so incoherent (‘I know words…’) and so inconsistent that you wonder sometimes if he suffers from some kind of cognitive impairment. A clean bill of health from a neurologist could help ameliorate that doubt, but it’s an important question. Many advisors to Ronald Reagan (and even his son) admit that the late president may have been suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s in his second term. Continue reading Where is the scrutiny of 70-year-old Trump’s health?

What 21st century Americans can learn from Tokugawa-era Japan on guns

19th century Edo-period painting of Kiso Kaido highway with a view of Mt. Fuji.
19th century Edo-period painting of Kiso Kaido highway with a view of Mt. Fuji.

The horrific massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, early Sunday morning has, not unpredictably, set off a new round of calls for more stringent gun control, especially on the American left.USflagJapan

As Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, held a filibuster on the floor of the US Senate Wednesday and Thursday to demand that Senate Republicans agree to hold a vote on gun control, the one measure that both sides seems even potentially likely to agree is a bill to deny (or delay) gun purchases to individuals on the national ‘terrorist watch list.’

Even that bill is controversial. On both the left and the right, critics rightly argue that the terrorist watch list and the related ‘no fly list’ are compiled in a way that violates basic due process. To use these as a proxy to restrict additional rights, such as 2nd amendment freedoms, only magnifies the due process problem with these secret lists. It’s hard to imagine that the US Supreme Court would uphold as fully constitutional a new law that ties gun restrictions to the terrorist watch/no fly lists, at least in their current forms. Imagine, too, what could happen if a president Donald Trump decided to list all of his domestic political opponents on a ‘watch list.’

But put that aside for a moment. Imagine a world where Republicans and the National Rifle Association agreed, for instance, to re-introduce the ‘assault weapons’ ban that was initially passed in 1994 and that phased out in 2004.

As Dylan Matthews has written at Vox, however, it is not clear that the measures that most Democrats support, including president Barack Obama and presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, would accomplish significant reductions in mass shootings or gun homicides.

He argues that the United States would have to go much, much farther, including the kind of mandatory confiscation and widespread bans on firearms that Australia’s conservative government (at the time) introduced after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which left 35 people dead and 23 people wounded:

Realistically, a gun control plan that has any hope of getting us down to European levels of violence is going to mean taking a huge number of guns away from a huge number of gun owners.

Other countries have done exactly that. Australia, for example, enacted a mandatory gun buyback that achieved that goal, and saw firearm suicides fall as a result. But the reforms those countries enacted are far more dramatic than anything US politicians are calling for — and even they wouldn’t get us to where many other developed countries are.

As Matthews notes, there’s only so much that American politicians can do in the current political climate. Moreover, the 2nd Amendment potentially places real constitutional limits on gun control. After the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, I’m not so sure that even the current Court, deadlocked with four generally conservative justices and four generally liberal justices, would necessarily give its blessing to an Australia-style reform.

But the fundamental problem isn’t necessarily constitutional or legislative. It’s culture. Americans have a gun culture unlike anywhere else in the developed world. Until and unless Americans eliminate that culture (not likely anytime soon), it’s going to prove impossible to enact the kind of gun control legislation that could show dramatic reductions in gun violence.

As a Millennial gay man living in downtown Washington, I don’t really care for guns. Hunting bored me, even when I was a kid in rural Ohio. But I’m not everyone in the United States, and many law-abiding Americans love their guns — as a means of protecting their homes, as a principled symbol of individual liberty, for the sport of hunting or just for the love of firearms in its own right. I would personally love an American culture that looks more like European culture or Japanese culture. But no one could make that happen unilaterally, even if he or she were elected president tomorrow with a majority in both the House and the Senate.

Any effort to eradicate the number of guns in circulation in the United States would be most successful if you went back in time to the middle of the 20th century. It’s hard, frankly, to think of a single policy issue that suffers more from path determination (including rail and public transportation). Even more, if you’re a leftist and you care anything about civil liberties, you should also be worried about the kind of police power you would need to round up the vast majority of guns in the United States, because it would rival the kind of force you would need to, say, round up 11 million Mexican immigrants for deportation.

What’s fascinating is to chart the trajectory of gun culture in Japan. An early adopter, Japan was one of the first countries to experiment with the gunpowder invented in nearby China, and it might have started using very primitive firearms as early as the middle of the 13th century. Throughout the 16th century, however, Japan was a country divided and at war, among various daimyo (feudual lords) across the islands we today recognize as Japan. Firearms, imported from traders in Portugal and the rest of Europe, played an important and lethal role in those civil wars. In particular, firearms played a pivotal role in Oda Nobunaga’s victories in the 1570s and early 1580s that largely unified the island of Honchu. Continue reading What 21st century Americans can learn from Tokugawa-era Japan on guns

Jo Cox’s assassination will forever mar the Brexit referendum

Labour MP Jo Cox was killed in her own constituency Thursday, just one week before a once-in-a-generation referendum on British EU membership.
Labour MP Jo Cox was killed in her own constituency Thursday, just one week before a once-in-a-generation referendum on British EU membership.

I had a series of posts that I was planning to finalize starting today about the Brexit referendum but, of course, the news of Jo Cox’s murder has preempted everyone’s thoughts about the European Union debate today.United Kingdom Flag Icon

There will be plenty of time for more debate in the week ahead, one of the most important weeks of political debate in the United Kingdom’s postwar history and, indeed, in Europe’s postwar history.

But it will now be forever marred by Cox’s assassination, especially if, as has been widely reported, the gunman shouted out ‘Britain first!’ as he was shooting the 41-year-old Labour MP.

Cox, a wife who leaves behind a grieving husband, Brendan, and two young children, was elected to the House of Commons in 2015 after a longtime career with Oxfam and other charitable organizations. She was in particular passionate about providing relief to those suffering in war-torn Syria. As a Labour candidate and MP, she was a passionate supporter of  resettling refugees from Syria in the United Kingdom. She was one just a few supporters of Liz Kendall in last summer’s Labour leadership contest, but she was also one of the MPs willing to put Jeremy Corbyn’s name on the ballot. If anyone personified the kind of rising star who could carry forward the center-left policy perspective of ‘Blairism without Blair,’ it might reasonably have been someone like Jo Cox.

She was also a passionate product of Yorkshire, and she was genuinely proud of the fact that she grew up in Bentley and that she never lost touch with her roots in that community, indeed the community where a deranged killer ended what should have been decades more of public service.

If you’re on the right, you can do no worse than Alex Massie’s tribute today in The Spectator. If you’re on the left, you can do no worse than Polly Toynbee’s column in The Guardian. Both make much of the tone that’s characterized the referendum campaign. Continue reading Jo Cox’s assassination will forever mar the Brexit referendum

Some thoughts on Japan

Tokyo's Shinjuku neighborhood at nighttime.
Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood at nighttime.

Readers will note Suffragio‘s sparse publication schedule over the Memorial Day holiday and the following week. Japan

That’s because I’ve been traveling in Japan (for the first time, though not the first time in Asia), and though I had been planning to scale down my writing on world politics, I hadn’t expected to spend quite so much time walking, talking, eating, drinking and exploring in a culture in which I’ve tried to immerse myself, at least as time has allowed, in the three months leading to the trip. I hope to spend much of the rest of the summer continuing to learn more about the country’s history, food and, above all, its cinema. (And, of course, its politics — senatorial elections are coming quickly in August).

A bamboo grove on the outskirts of Kyoto.

In any event, everyone needs a break from world politics, especially in an American presidential election year that’s atypically unpredictable. There’s only so much one can write about Brexit.

If interesting, here are some of my thoughts about 11 days in Japan.

The train rolls up before 6:30 am in rural Mie peninsula.
The train rolls up before 6:30 am in rural Mie peninsula.

The best infrastructure in the world. I am tempted to say that the United States could benefit from Japan’s counter-occupation for a few years. I understand why Japan, which has a smaller area and a denser population (especially on Honshu, the most populous island), has a more plausible rationale for a high-speed rail network than the United States. But to come from Washington, D.C., where the Metro system is experiencing dangerous fires and unimaginable levels of dysfunction, the sophistication of Japan’s infrastructure is staggering by contrast. Japan’s 1990s-era bullet trains were faster than today’s Acela Express, the so-called ‘high speed’ train that runs from Boston to Washington. Continue reading Some thoughts on Japan

The case for optimism about Western democracy

In five months, we could be living in a world where:

  • British voters have wisely rejected Brexit, and prime minister David Cameron continues the drive to reform the European Union and its institutions,
  • Donald Trump has been vanquished by an even wiser American electorate that has turned to two eminently qualified alternatives in Hillary Clinton and Gary Johnson,
  • Venezuela has (through legal methods) removed its socialist president from power, ending 18 years of chavismo,
  • Alain Juppé has defeated Nicolas Sarkozy for the center-right presidential nomination and is poised to defeat Marine Le Pen in the first round of France’s spring presidential election,
  • Matteo Renzi has won a referendum endorsing his broad course to reforming the Italian economy and political system, and
  • Angela Merkel will be well on her way to a fourth term as Germany’s chancellor, giving her a mandate to reform and repair the clear damage to the European Union.

(Though Brazil, Japan, China, India, Russia, Egypt, the Philippines and Indonesia could still be in deep trouble).

The point here isn’t to be Pollyanna. But maybe the pessimism that extremism is sweeping the United States and Europe will turn out to be wrong. There’s every chance that at the end of this awful year, we’ll all wake up to electorates that have landed on the side of reforming our institutions, not tearing them down.