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Shake Hands with the Devil

shake-hands-with-the-devilShake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire
Published by Random House in 2003

I went to Rwanda last year on a work trip and it inspired me to learn more about the genocide in 1994. I visited the excellent Genocide Memorial and bought several books.

Shake Hands with the Devil is the memoir of the force commander of the UN mission to Rwanda. It starts slowly, with some time spent on Lt. Gen. Dallaire’s career and experience, but by the end of the book it is clear why this needs to be covered in such detail.

This is a book about the actions of the international community in response to the crisis, or, more precisely, the lack of action. As Dallaire describes his experiences in Rwanda and with the UN it becomes clear that there was a lot going on that he was not aware of until far too late. The politics surrounding the genocide – the relationships the Rwandan government forces and the Rwandan Patriotic Front had with France, the US, and other western countries independent of the UN, the domestic situations in those countries and the public tolerance for another foreign intervention, the under-resourcing of the UN – contributed to something truly terrible. Shake Hands with the Devil doesn’t exonerate the Rwandans who made this happen and the choices both sides made, but he does make clear how the structural, systemic issues in international relations supported and exacerbated those choices.

There is a tragic honesty in this memoir: Dallaire comes across as a man well and truly out of his depth. He lauds and celebrates the officers and soldiers assigned to the mission but doesn’t hide his own failings. Indeed, the early pages spent exploring his own experience serve to show how his lack of real conflict experience hampered him as well as demonstrating the abilities that qualified him for the role.

Shake Hands with the Devil is an eye-opening read. The exposure of the way the UN has to operate, and what that means for people it is supposed to help, is damning.

The Secret State

secretstateThe Secret State by Peter Hennessy
Published by Penguin in 2002, updated in 2010

The Secret State is about Britain’s secret plans to respond to an attack on the UK during the cold war and beyond. It covers the rationale behind investing in nuclear weapons and why UK governments chose that rather than a civil defence programme.

It is a fascinating book full of detail from Peter Hennessy’s conversations with key political figures as well as information from documents of the time no longer secret. It makes sense of where we find ourselves now with the Trident programme and the reasons it is hard for governments to make a different choice about it now. It didn’t change my views about Trident and nuclear deterrence but it did help me understand the reasoning behind arguments in favour of it.

I found it quite amusing/terrifying that a large part of the rationale for a British nuclear capability was that governments in the immediate post-war period thought that the US was more likely to start World War III than the USSR, and an independent British nuclear capability would ameliorate that. I wonder if our current government still thinks that.

This is an interesting and informative read and I really enjoyed it.

Honourable Friends

Honorable friendsHonourable Friends by Caroline Lucas is a tour through her experience as a Green Party MP over the last five years and a look at the work she’s tried to progress.

Part of the book describes what it was like to enter Westminster when Lucas was first elected, with no party machinery in place to support her and no experience of the strange traditions of the place. Part of the book is a discussion about the change Lucas wants to see in both policy and procedure. A chapter is devoted to subjects like the environment, the NHS, housing and foreign policy. Lucas describes how she’s worked to find support from MPs in all parties and where she’s succeeded or failed. She points out how some of the ‘quaint’ archaic traditions of the British parliament hold back progress and block democracy. For example, Lucas talks about how voting works and how the process gets in the way of MPs giving votes serious consideration, or about how MPs are appointed to committees or reviews and how knowledge and experience is seen as unnecessary.

The book has a tone of ‘if people could just see how dangerous these policies are, they’d all change their minds’, a kind of bafflement that anyone could think austerity was a good idea. I’m not sure it’s a sophisticated persuasion technique, but I suspect Lucas is preaching to the converted with this book.

If you’re interested in the mechanics of how politics is done in the UK, or how democracy is expanded or contracted, then there is a lot of detail in here. Lucas’ style is conversational and it’s an easy read. I enjoyed it.

The Establishment

Establishment  In The Establishment, Owen Jones argues that the establishment is not so much a group of wealthy people in cahoots to keep everyone else down, but rather a collection of people with shared beliefs who benefit from being able to influence each other.

The establishment hasn’t remained stable over the years and those that are considered to make up today’s establishment are not the same as those following WWII. To start with Jones charts the shift in the political consensus from the 1940s to now. Once upon a time, free market ideology was fringe thinking and considered a bit barmy. Jones shows the methods by which more and more influential people were convinced by it’s proponents. It shows how money can be used to change people’s thinking. There are lessons there for those who wish to shift the political consensus back towards the centre, but the lesson is that money speaks and money corrupts.

Jones looks at each of the groups whose members make up the establishment and shows how their interests align and complement those of the other groups. The chapter on tax avoiders was particularly illuminating. The involvement of corporations and huge consultancies in the process of writing legislation and regulation enables those corporations to manipulate the system in their favour. The revolving door between politics and business has serious implications for democracy. To be clear, Jones never claims this is a conspiracy. There’s no group of people sitting in a room somewhere cackling and stroking white cats. Much of this is the unintended and unexamined consequences of people pursuing their own interests.

I found the discussion about ownership of the media and their relationship with their readers interesting. Papers don’t report what they think their readers want. They report what their owners and advertisers want. He shows (and he’s not the first) how the pressure to maximize profit compromises investigative journalism.

The Establishment is a dense and lengthy read. I found it thought-provoking and stimulating and would recommend it to anyone interested in how politics works.