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December 09, 2013

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Dan Hardie

I just tried answering those questions with regard to dear old Britain, but I have to admit that for most of them, absolutely nothing came to mind:

'Probably the most far-reaching event for the UK in 2013 was...

2013 was the year I'll remember for...

If there was one piece of 2013 journalism I'd recommend about the UK, it would be...

The important cultural event this year was...'

Dan Hardie

Okay, making an effort:

'Probably the most far-reaching event for the UK in 2013 was...
Not the announcement of the Scottish Referendum, since that happened in 2012, nor the Leveson report, which was also published that year. Possibly Salmond's White Paper last month, which so far seems to have been the dampest of squibs.

Probably the data showing that poverty among the working poor is bad and getting worse, followed by stuff on the general squeeze on the living standards of the bottom 40%, underway for about nine years now.

Ed Miliband being nasty to the power companies and the Tories finding that the electorate didn't automatically scream in horror belongs somewhere on the top 10, as does young Miliband promising he would move Labour funding away from the unions and then rapidly finding that he couldn't.

Generally, I think we've got a political culture where a few left-wing policies, eg on tax avoidance or utilities bills, could be pretty popular if we had a government that would implement them, where a number of right-wing policies, eg on welfare are also rather popular (and where we do have a Government that is implementing them); but where political parties generally are held in low esteem, and where the next election will be a question of 'vote for the least worst bunch'

2013 was the year I'll remember for...

Really, if we're talking about public life, I don't think I do, much. Am I forgetting something really important?

If there was one piece of 2013 journalism I'd recommend about the UK, it would be...

Any of Martin Wolf's pieces on the economy, all behind the FT's paywall. When I look at most other titles, I can't believe how many other journos are actually getting paid for the stuff they write.

The important cultural event this year was...

In the UK? I'm pretty sure there hasn't been one. I saw the Saudi film 'Wajda', covertly directed inside the Kingdom by a woman about a young girl trying to buy a bike, and it was rather good and funny. Whether it turns out to be an important cultural event that presages profound change in the relationships between the genders in repressive Sunni theocracies, or just a rather good film seen by a tiny number of arthouse movie fans, I can't say.'

ajay

What about the Syria vote, Dan?

Chris Williams

'Probably the most far-reaching event for the UK in 2013 was... No war, or warlet, in Syria.


2013 was the year I'll remember for... The incredible survival of George Osborne, who has not lost his job despite his targets being in tatters.


If there was one piece of 2013 journalism I'd recommend about the UK, it would be... John Harris's various things on UKIP, Labour and small 'c' conservativism. This polemic was also good: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/11/grammar-schools-social-mobility-deluded-thinking


The important cultural event this year was... Laura Mvula's first album, which is perhaps the only point at which 'stuff I like' interacted meaningfully with 'stuff others have heard of'.

Dan Hardie

I was forgetting something: Syria. In my defence I was out of the country at the time.

I thought about saying 'Snowden' but I think that will have political repercussions mainly outside the UK: if any country's policy changes as a result of the Snowden affair, it will be first the US, second Germany, thirdly France, fourthly possibly some of the Brics, fifthly perhaps some of the second-tier EU countries following the German lead. The UK will change what GCHQ does, if it does so at all, a long time after the US.

The cultural events I most enjoyed were the Courtauld's exhibition of Durer's engravings , and the National Gallery's 'Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900' - both of which are still on and are highly recommended to anyone who likes the visual arts and is in, or may be going near, London.

I'd seen one of the Durer engravings before, but it's astonishing just what the man could do with a tiny engraving blade. It's actually genuinely exciting to look at how he carved the lines representing a barn roof.But the real surprise was the National's exhibition. I knew some of the work in both exhibitions from reproductions, and I'd always admired Kokoschka, but I really didn't see the point of Schiele and Klimt, and in fact rather disliked the latter. Seeing their original works changed that a lot. And I really hadn't known just how many good painters there were in Vienna in 1900, nor that Arnold Schonberg was actually rather a talented painter as well as a composer.

Still, 'Viennese modernist painting is marvellous' may count as something of a surprise to me, but I think one or two other people had already arrived at the same conclusion some time before.

Dan Hardie

'No war, or warlet, in Syria.'

This kind of phrasing does annoy me, I have to say: it puts me in mind of the end of 'Homage to Catalonia', about the 'deep, deep sleep of England, from which I fear we may only be awakened by the sound of bombs*'. No doubt it's a slip, but I don't think it's too much to say that it's still indicative of a rather insular, not to say parochial, attitude. There is very much a war going on in Syria. Britain is not involved in that war, which I think is a good thing if we were going to intervene on the basis of the incoherent train of thought presented by David Cameron. But the war hasn't ended, as any Arab would be able to tell you.

Similarly, I've seen people talk on Jamie's Twitter feed about how 2013 is the 'twelfth anniversary of the beginning of the Afghan war', and I just rub my eyes in disbelief. Try the thirty-fifth anniversary, or arguably the thirty-seventh, and you might be a little nearer the mark.

*I'm quoting from memory, so that may need some correcting.

Chris Williams

Dan, it was no slip. The brief reads 'for the UK'.

ajay

I think that 2013 may be looked back on as the year when the conventional wisdom south of the border changed from "independence will never happen" to "independence is probably going to happen". People down here started to realise, finally, that the political climate in Holyrood is very, very different to that in Westminster, and getting more different all the time as Westminster lurches right, and things like this (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/may/16/nigel-farage-edinburgh-protesters-van) may have helped - it's startling when you see someone who's a significant political player in the south, a real influence on the government, the voice of the very real concerns of the etc, literally being unable to get a drink or call a taxi in Scotland.

Dan Hardie

Chris: I am sorry, I missed your point and jumped a little too hastily onto that hobbyhorse. The comment on Jamie's Twitterfeed about Afghanistan was indeed bone, but that was nothing to do with you.

Ajay: speaking as someone who knows very little indeed about Scottish politics, does the referendum maybe not lead to Scottish Labour finally getting a bit more of its act together and the SNP settling for being the biggest players at Holyrood? On Farage, I wonder if the real significance of that incident wasn't that the automatic reaction of at least some SNP supporters was 'let's go mental'.

My impression of the SNP, possibly unfair and certainly based on fleeting visits to Scotland and only a bit of reading, is that there's a strong element of young (or mid-life crisis) male anger: resentment of the bloody English substituting for any very coherent arguments about the benefits of independence. Lots of twenty-something men dressing up in kilts, painting the saltire on their face and pointing to the word 'YES' on their bare chests; not so much about how Scotland as the junior partner in a sterling currency area would be any better off than Scotland under the Union. That kind of machismo is surely rather more attractive to younger men than to older ones, and not very attractive at all to women.

ajay

Probably best you not comment on Scottish politics if that's the kind of thing you're going to come up with.

Dan Hardie

Eh, probably best you not comment on the British military, as you do rather frequently, if you've never spent a fucking day in uniform but like to speak like you're an old sweat. No more polite requests for information on Scottish politics to Ajay, then.

ajay

Well, really. "Strong element of mid-life crisis male anger"? I think that could have been better phrased. I'm not an independence supporter but I wouldn't talk about them in that kind of dismissive way - it's just infuriating to read, and there is a hell of a lot of it coming out of the English right wing - "oh those Jocks, they just watch Braveheart and get a chip on their shoulders, they don't realise how much we subsidise them, etc, etc."

Plus, 41% of men and 27% of women support independence. So two out of every five likely Yes voters are female.

(I am not disposed to wave my service record around in public, Dan, but rest assured it's of roughly similar duration to yours. OK?)

Chris Williams

In my own intellectual neck of the woods, the 2013 landmark was Scottish. Police Scotland is pioneering what EnglishandWelsh policing might end up looking like, if they go down the 'ACPO regions' route which is at least as sensible as the current '1964' model. Police Scotland is also the second largest police force in the UK.

Dan Hardie

There is certainly an element of anger and resentment - particularly mid-life crisis male anger, to use the phrase you so disliked- in English support for UKIP. I really won't have a nervous breakdown if a passing Scotsman says so. Why is it so dreadful to suggest that the same might be true of some support for the SNP?

I did get the impression that SNP support is stronger among men, and has a lot to do with resentment and even anger. I could, as I took some pains to say, twice, be wrong. Some of my impressions are no doubt the result of the availability heuristic: the Scots people I know are disproportionately young and male (because I met some Scots in the military and then some of their non-military acquaintances: soldiers tend to be Unionist, the acquaintances- not. And the last time I was in Scotland was September 2012.

But the vibe I pick up is that *their* SNP support has less to do with social democracy in a post-Westminster state than with being angry with the English, from whom all bad things have flown.

And there does seem to be (again, availability heuristic) some anecdotal evidence that there's a high level of anger among at least some SNP supporters. For example, I think Farage is a twat whose ambition is to swing Britain (or the post-Scotland rump state) further rightward: I don't like the man or what he stands for. Still, it wouldn't occur to me react to him the way those young SNP nutters did.

And, as far as I can see, and again I may be wrong, a lot of SNP supporters have a thing for the frankly revolting popularity of 'Braveheart': a lousy movie made by a nutso anti-Semite. One of the Chrises here (chris r?) said in a recent comment thread that he spent several days at the SNP conference being frequently told, as Gospel truth, that the Scottish had suffered the highest casualty rate in the First World War: not something I've been able to find any support for, but the kind of thing I've heard in more than one discussion about what the English have done to Scotland. A Scottish Corporal I served with was attacked in a fish and chip shop in Dumfries when he got back from his tour of Iraq by a crowd of young (white) guys shouting 'squaddie murderers': I can't think of anything like that happening to any English soldiers I know.

All polling on Scots independence seems to show that support for 'Yes' is higher among men than among women.
Yes, I've probably got a lot of things wrong: that was precisely what I said, twice, in my initial comment.

If you think an Englishman talking about Scotland is making mistakes, and he's indicated that he doesn't know that much and would like to know more, why not respond in the same spirit and tell him some more, instead of declaring that he really shouldn't talk about Scots matters?

I've said far harsher things about (nowadays overwhelmingly English) Tory voters and politicians than I did about the SNP ditto above. I rather hope that we won't have some patriotic Englishman coming along and pronouncing that I shouldn't speak about the English, what with my coming of Irish stock and all.

Alex

DH does have a point about Scottish independence, which speaks to a blog post I've got in the works - namely the total abandonment of the intellectual basis of the SNP in its modern form. Its relaunch after 1978 was pretty much entirely built on the whole Tom Nairn thing of the UK being an ideological construct that lets the City interest screw over Scottish industry via the BoE's monetary policy and the elite play at empires, so let's bin Ukania and ponies all round.

The current proposal is specifically to keep the Bank of England and the pound, i.e. keep UK monetary policy (and these days, that seems to include bank regulation, housing policy, and all sorts of other stuff), keep the regiments, and keep the Queen. Even telling the Brits to get their nukes off the Clyde gets put off to what looks a lot like the too hard bucket.

I would argue that this looks like the UK without the good stuff, and further that the whole discourse of being a new country coming home to Europe, right around the periphery from Wester Ross to the Bosphorus, provides the same function with regard to the ECB and the economic set-up of Europe that Nairn claims the UK does. Only much more so. The UK very much is a transfer union, and Scots are in fact represented in the important bits of its political system in precisely the way Greeks aren't in the EU.

In short, long live Tartania.

Dan Hardie

If I did genuinely piss off ajay, or any other Scots, with the mid-life crisis remark, then I'll accept that their offence is genuine, but it's also misplaced. 'Mid-life crisis male anger' is something I would certainly say about some, mainly English, Tories, and many, overwhelmingly English, UKIPpers. There are a lot of people out there feeling furious about ills that have, allegedly, been done to them and saying that they will vote accordingly. It's worth noting, in this regard, that the Scottish edition of Rupert Murdoch's Sun had a long-standing policy of supporting the SNP against Labour. (It will be interesting to see which way Murdoch jumps just before the Referendum.)

I don't think that there's any validity at all to most of the many, many reasons for resentment that the Sun urges upon its English readers, and I wouldn't mind if a Scotsman said so. I don't think it's somehow out of order for an Englishman to say the same kind of thing about the Scots. There are lots of red-faced, choleric middle-aged Englishmen fulminating about the state of the nation what with all the darkies over here: I've met some of them, and they are wrong. I've met at least a few choleric Scotsmen who fulminate about the dreadful things that England is doing to Scotland, and I don't feel obliged to pretend they are right, or to say nice things about them.

Richard J

ajay> To be fair, the possibility of an independent Scotland is reflected everywhere but the polls, which have remained obstinately stuck within 2-3% of the value they had at the start of 2012. (As a psephological aside, separating out Panelbase [1] from the rest of the polls brings this out remarkably clearly.)

(Arguing against cybernats, which is my one non-alcoholic vice these days, really brings to mind the Mencken quote about simple neat solutions to complex problems. The community also has a nasty case of a contaminated Google feed and a prejudice against the mediawhich means all kinds of zombie ideas and arguments keep on getting churned round it, even after reality has inconveniently moved on. Such as around the EU membership point, for example - you'll still see the successor state argument being rolled out, even though the White Paper has accepted it's a non-flyer and moved towards arguing 'of course, it's inconceivable that an unprecedented issue that requires the unaminous consent of 28 nations can be resolved entirely smoothly in 18 months.')

[1] Which consistently shows an 7-8% lean towards a Yes vote over the rest of the polling companies.

Dan Hardie

Questions for a politics exam, or for a modern history paper in a few years:

'The rise in support for UKIP was perhaps the last significant impact on English politics of the 'Sun' and the 'Daily Mail'. Discuss.

'Many British people suffered an almost decade-long stagnation in their living standards, punctuated by the effects of the worst financial crisis in 80 years. The conditions should have been ripe for radicalism. Why did British governments in the period 2003-15 fail to offer any radical policies?'

'Were the leaders of the SNP nationalists who agreed to a social democratic platform to preserve party unity and electoral viability? Or were they social democrats who were pushed into demanding independence by the intransigence of Westminster?'

Dan Hardie

My bad in one comment above. It was not 'one of the Chrises' but Stephen who made the points about the SNP and the First World War, in these comments:

'It is an article( of faith amongst nationalists that proportionately more Scots died in the war than from any other country because they were seen as expendable by their colonial overlords)'

'My knowledge is WW1 is very limited.. but my experience of the custom and practice of contemporary Scottish nationalism is extensive and wearying, including most recently(for business not pleasure)a four day immersion at SNP Conference at Perth.

In fairness most mean soldiers rather all war deaths (although I've encountered those who will even argue this patent absurdity)and when they say that Scots casualties were the highest what they really mean is "higher than England"'.

ajay

'Many British people suffered an almost decade-long stagnation in their living standards, punctuated by the effects of the worst financial crisis in 80 years. The conditions should have been ripe for radicalism. Why did British governments in the period 2003-15 fail to offer any radical policies?'

I vaguely recall something (waves frantically to catch Chris Williams' attention) about the really dangerous time for political upheaval being when things start to get a bit better but they aren't getting better nearly fast enough. Really immiserated people tend not to be terribly radical because they don't have the energy. The Irish Rebellion started in 1916 not 1845.

On the other hand, the UK population in 2003-15 was hardly immiserated, stagnating living standards or not. Maybe the answer is that we now have much lower estimates of the power and competence of government: even if a 21st century UK government had proposed a radical policy that promised to improve peoples' lives, no one would have believed that they could have pulled it off.

'Were the leaders of the SNP nationalists who agreed to a social democratic platform to preserve party unity and electoral viability? Or were they social democrats who were pushed into demanding independence by the intransigence of Westminster?'

I would say option 1, definitely. Being a social democrat of some kind is just the default state for Scottish politicians. Option 2 sounds like the cause of the split in 1998 between the Scottish Labour Party and the Blair government (which didn't happen).

Barry Freed

I vaguely recall something (waves frantically to catch Chris Williams' attention) about the really dangerous time for political upheaval being when things start to get a bit better but they aren't getting better nearly fast enough.

Chalmers Johnson goes into this in his Revolutionary Change*, although I'm not sure if it is original to him.

*That one also contained the memorable formula for revolution, something like "Multiple societal dysfunctions + elite intransigence + x = revolution" where x is some catalyst.

Dan Hardie

ajay: 'I vaguely recall something (waves frantically to catch Chris Williams' attention) about the really dangerous time for political upheaval being when things start to get a bit better but they aren't getting better nearly fast enough.'

Tocqueville said something very like that, on the subject of the French ancient regime. I'm quoting from memory, so this will need correction, but it was on the lines of 'The most dangerous time for an autocratic regime is not when things are at their worst, but when they have started to improve.'

I'm not sure if Tocqueville was the first person to come up with this thought, but as he was one of the very first historians of revolution, it seems quite possible. Chris Brooke would be a good person to ask.

Now I come to think of it, the last time that a significant number of British people had a stagnation in their living standards- and, in some cases, actual immiseration- joined at one point by a major financial crisis and resultant unemployment was the interwar period. And that too was notable for the lack of radical Government policies. Governmental radicalism had to wait for 1945 and Attlee (or, arguably, 1940 and Churchill).

ajay

Looking at it from the other end, there were lots of radical policies in the 1906-14 government, which also had a financial crisis (the Panic of 1907) - but the impact on growth was short-lived, and unemployment was pretty low throughout. So I'm not sure that proves much either way.

dsquared

Far reaching event - definitely Miliband keeping us out of Syria, and probably making a large contribution to keeping the Americans out too. Underlined the end of the "humanitarian intervention" era and weirdly, seems to set out more of a sustainable role for the UK as the "sensible mate" of the USA in world affairs.

I'll remember it for: Cyprus banking collapse, where in retrospect a lot of people ought to be admitting that the Euroland permanent government played an unexpected blinder.

One piece of journalism about the UK ... tough one. Paul Lewis's investigation into undercover police was published this year, wasn't it? That was excellent. Would you count Lord Adonis' book on the coalition talks?

Not sure about "important" cultural events ... the one I enjoyed most was this concert. Simon Rattle coming back to the OAE was probably pretty important but I didn't see it; the rest of their season knocked it out of the park, orchestrally speaking though.

ajay

One piece of journalism about the UK ...

I'd stretch a point and pick the Glenn Greenwald stuff for the Guardian about Snowden - it was (in part) about the UK government and its activities, even if most of its impact was abroad.

In terms of sheer enjoyment, the most significant cultural event for me this year was "Pacific Rim", because I saw it while feeling pretty worn at the end of a highly stressful and unpleasant week and it was just what I needed - I left the cinema with an immense grin that lasted for about 20 minutes.

nick s

I'll remember my brief trip back to the motherland: after a decade as an expat, I'm now a foreigner everywhere, but I was struck by seeing northern town centres comprised of pound shops, charity shops and not much else, while London was had a construction project on every corner for god-knows-what.

Dan Hardie

dsquared: '(The Syria vote) Underlined the end of the "humanitarian intervention" era '.

Hmmm: I'd say that there is a real difference, worth preserving, between 'humanitarian intervention' and 'liberal intervention'. The first is military intervention to present what one might reasonably believe to be the mass killing of civilians, or their deaths from famine exacerbated by war, in which the intervening nation or nations have a justification under at least some parts of international law. By contrast, the second is intervention to topple a regime whose acts or beliefs are repugnant to Western norms and which lacks any sustainable justification under international law.

The first type often (although not always) takes place with the consent, even at the request of, the government that nominally rules the territory where the fighting is taking place: eg Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Mali and the Central African Republic. The second doesn't, at any rate not in any examples that I can think of. Sometimes perhaps it's debatable whether an intervention is of one kind or the other, but I'd argue that as long as there are interventions which plainly belong to one or the other type, the distinction's worth retaining.

Furthermore, as the examples of Mali and the CAR show, the era of 'humanitarian intervention' is definitely not over, or if it is, someone forgot to tell the French. I can remember confidently proclaiming the end of foreign intervention by Western countries late last year, a few months before France, with British support, sent troops to Mali.

Nick s: 'I was struck by seeing northern town centres comprised of pound shops, charity shops and not much else..'

I spent some time earlier this year in Darlington, and it was terrible. And I went to Derby, the Midlands rather than the North, to see the Joseph Wright paintings, and it was utterly depressing: the main street was literally pound shop, off-licence, pound shop, bookies, charity shop, pound shop, bookies, slot machines.

dsquared

yes good point, "liberal intervention" is probably a better term as it's hard to get scarequotes codified into any form of international law.

ajay

The first is military intervention to present what one might reasonably believe to be the mass killing of civilians, or their deaths from famine exacerbated by war, in which the intervening nation or nations have a justification under at least some parts of international law. By contrast, the second is intervention to topple a regime whose acts or beliefs are repugnant to Western norms and which lacks any sustainable justification under international law.

Apart from Iraq (and even that's arguable in terms of how the invasion was justified) what examples are there of the second class?

Richard J

I can think of a few arguable nineteenth century examples, but none that contemporary.

The French invasion of Algeria, for example, which was justified (per the book wot I am reading now) mainly as a final suppression of slave traders.

ajay

I never felt too sorry for the 19th century Algerians. If you've spent the last several centuries making your living off the trade in human souls, then, frankly, you had it coming.

Chris williams

That sigh of relief you just heard came from Bristol.

Dan Hardie

I think Iraq was the only (arguable) liberal intervention that actually happened. But there was certainly an odd period between the invasion of Iraq and the belated recognition that there was a serious Iraqi insurgency. This last happened by about September or October 2003 for sane people, but by the spring of 2004 even the true believers were admitting that there was a problem. During that time, there was a lot of talk about whether the next war should be with Syria or with Iran.

Some of this came from mouthy journalists, or 'intellectuals' of the Ignatieff class, but I'm prepared to bet that when, or if, we get a good look at the archives of the G.W. Bush administration, some of it will turn out to have come from people close to, or indistinguishable from, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Of course they had their own, decidedly non-liberal, reasons for wanting such wars, but that liberal thing had its uses.

Apropos of this, I had a drink with one of the two most famous 'Decent Left' British journalists in the winter of 2006, and said that I thought that if the Iraqi insurgency hadn't taken hold so early, there might have been an American invasion of Syria. 'Oh, definitely,' he said, and then expressed deep regret that this hadn't happened.

One especially promising young journalist went one better than everyone else and celebrated the fall of Baghdad by writing an article which called for the invasion of North Korea: 'Millions will cheer their own liberation'. Whatever happened to Johann Hari?

Dan Hardie

I bring you Johann Hari on North Korea, April 2003. The Independent's archives don't seem to have preserved this article, but fortunately, the most gifted journalist of his generation got his brilliant writing syndicated in the New Zealand Herald. Some samples:

'The nations of the world, united through the United Nations (and we can all surely agree that Kim is the last person alive whose finger we would like to have on a nuclear button), must take out the North's nukes with a targeted use of special forces, intelligence and bombing.

'This is not as dangerous as it sounds. As Chris Bellamy, the Independent's military expert, explains: "A nuclear weapon won't detonate if bombed. If it goes off accidentally, the worst that will happen is that the conventional explosives will go off. The chances of a nuclear explosion are negligible."

'North Korea - if the regime doesn't implode - can then be invaded and liberated.'

People with memories of the period will of course be astonished to learn that the article begins and ends with an attack on someone who had written another newspaper article, one which had expressed doubts about the invasion of Iraq. Did anyone actually write any other kind of op-ed in 2003?

ajay

Ugh. That's quite a find, Dan. And the ones who weren't after Syria or North Korea were after Iran, if I remember.

That sigh of relief you just heard came from Bristol.

And Glasgow and Liverpool for that matter. Yes, we had it coming too. Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." Fortunately we avoided it, and fortunately also we made some degree of atonement through the West Africa and East Africa Patrols after abolition.

dsquared

During that time, there was a lot of talk about whether the next war should be with Syria or with Iran.

Also Darfur. Although most of the selling on that one was done on humanitarian grounds, there was a sizeable faction of campaigners who wanted to actually reject the successful peace talks because they weren't going to remove Bashir.

I suppose what actually died the death with the UK Parliament Syria vote was US/UK-led unilateralism. The UNSC is a lot more back in control of all kinds of invasion and that's a very good thing.

Phil

Yes - ideas about humanitarian intervention and "responsibility to protect" aren't going to go away (nor should they), but I think we will see them being used more in the context of putting stuff before the UNSC and less to justify acting without reference to the UNSC.

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