Two topics engendered a lively interchange of views: the assassination of Qassem Suleimani by an American drone was an obvious topic and in the second half we discussed why there was so little debate about the rising levels of inequality.
A lot of the early debate was about whether it was legal under international law. Article 51 of the UN Charter was referred to which is:
Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
Legal UN Repertory
The point was made by several that this was not the first assassination, either recently or in history. Russia has often assassinated individuals (as we know only too well in Salisbury*) and as far as the near east is concerned, President Obama authorised a number assassinations by drone in the area. The issue with the USA someone said is that no state was above them. They chose whether to follow the UN or not according to their own perceived interests. This could only change if the veto system was done away with.
A significant area of debate was around the certainty or otherwise of outcomes. By assassinating Suleimani what did it solve? The outcome, especially in such a volatile region, was unpredictable. A replacement would quickly be found and whoever it was could even be worse. It rather assumed that problems were present in one person and so by removing them from the scene, the problems were solved: a dubious proposition. It was about culture not an individual.
The Near East has been a volatile region since oil was discovered in what was then called Persia and protecting the supply was a key component of British foreign policy in the last century. It was suggested with the gradual lessening of western dependence on oil, its crucial role as energy supplier will diminish.
Several people made the point that it was another example of the retreat from the attempt to establish a rules based way for countries to deal with one another established after the terrible events of WWII. The Second Gulf War, the invasion of Ukraine, the attempted murder of Skripal here in Salisbury and now this assassination, all seemed to point to states feeling they were free to act in their own interests and ignore the UN.
The fundamental question posed was: was it ever right for states to act this way for the greater good? This prompted the question: would it have been right for Hitler to have been assassinated assuming it was possible? [There was indeed a plan to do this but it failed. There was the ‘July plot’ by German generals which also failed]. What in fact was President Trump’s motives for this attack? Was it to distract from the impeachment enquiry or to bolster his re-election chances? We cannot know of course.
There was also a debate about consequentialism. Since we do not know the future then we need to act on the moral case of the moment.
It is probably true to say that the majority were concerned at the latest attempt to side step international justice and simply as though might is right. The decline in the post war attempts at a rules and treaty based approach – not just with the Iranian assassination but more generally – was also lamented.
Part 2: inequality
This was about the increasing level of inequality in the UK and the question posed was why has it not made more of an impact politically? It had not made the impact that climate change has done for example. It has been a long term policy of the Left but it was felt that Brexit had overwhelmed the recent election debate and matters like inequality faded from view.
The point was made that wealth was not the same as income. Income inequality was not in fact increasing someone said whereas wealth inequality was. Was it off the agenda? It was part of the policies of various parties, the Greens, LibDems and Labour but not for the Conservatives. Maybe it was another problem linked to the voting system.
How was the ‘agenda’ set anyway and was it another example of the media driving things? The majority of papers for example were owned by wealthy oligarchs. Although the word itself was questioned the point was that the wealthy were able to set the agenda via their influence.
The point was made that not all such people were bad and some did good things with their money. Although this was true in some cases – and the example of Bill Gates and his foundation’s work in tackling malaria was a case in point – the fact remained that fewer and fewer owned the world’s wealth with half now owned by people who can sit on a double decker bus. Much of this wealth sat in tax havens.
To become wealthy you had to own assets, you could not become wealthy by being an employee although there were some City traders who might disprove that rule.
The question was raised about the distinction between wealth extraction and wealth creation – were they in fact distinct? A point to be debated in future perhaps.
The debate moved on to discuss value extraction and the case of someone who secured a forestry contract for example and sub-contracted the work to someone else who was paid a fixed amount. Economists might talk about ‘rent’ in these cases but was there equity in the arrangement seemed to be the crucial question. Some thought yes, and some thought no. But the issue of risk never surfaced in the discussion since the contractor would be paid in most cases whereas the main contractor took the ultimate risk if things went wrong. The point was that value was a collective enterprise and the current system did not really reflect that.
Land ownership in Scotland was instanced as being a live issue and very political largely for historic reasons. It was an example of the form of wealth inequality.
Perhaps because this is such a multi-faceted subject we did not come to any firm conclusions and we did not really understand why this topic has so little salience in the political sphere.
*For those interested in the attempted assassination allegedly by Russian agents, Mark Urban’s book The Skripal Files, Pan Books, 2018, is an excellent read.