Adrian Hamilton: How do you deal with an autocrat? That's our dilemma

Notebook

Saturday 15 January 2011 01:00
Comments

You have to hand it to an autocrat like Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.

One minute he has the sheer gall (or was it desperation) to respond to demands of demonstrators for his immediate resignation by saying that, after 21 years in power, he would be prepared to stand down as President when his latest term ran out in three years' time, the next he is fleeing the mobs and on a flight out of the country. It reminded you of Tony Blair promising Brown that he was going to go, but not until after the election and then not until just before the following one.

No politician gives up power easily when they have been in command for more than a decade, not Maggie Thatcher and not Ben Ali. He doesn't deserve much sympathy, any more than Blair or Thatcher. For a generation he ran Tunisia through a combination of bribery, cronyism and political oppression that was a model – at least to his neighbours – of ruthlessness, shrewdness and effectiveness.

The West supported him not so much because he did its bidding (he didn't always) but because he didn't cause any trouble. Tourism could go on, the mosques could be kept silent, and opponents, especially Islamic fundamentalists and communists, thrown into jail without Paris, Washington or London having to worry about the country.

The case of Ben Ali highlights the usual dilemma. Should we support such leaders in the interests of stability, however hard they crack down, or do we reassert our beliefs in freedom and democracy? The answer, it seems, is: try to stand aside while eventually supporting the crackdown.

Mess with characters and lose the audience

Extraordinary how in any series, from Spooks to The Archers, one begins to feel ownership of favourite characters. The BBC promised developments in The Archers that would shake Ambridge to its core. It wasn't the village that was meant to be shaken to the core but the audience hearing a main character wrenched from them at will.

What The Archers has done to the audience, however, is nothing compared with what lovers of Henning Mankell's Wallander have had to put up with from the BBC. First there was Kenneth Branagh making the part into a self-pitying continuation of his stage role in Chekhov's Ivanov. Then we had the second and third Swedish TV series from the short stories presenting us with a quite different and more likable policeman played by Krister Henriksson.

Then, having teased us with on-and-off screenings of these, the BBC suddenly shows over the winter the first Swedish series from the books, with Rolf Lassgard as a gross, neurotic and at first thoroughly unappealing version of the part.

Then, just as one had begun to warm to him, the series is brought to a sudden end, with four of the episodes left out. Mankell is due to bring out a further Wallander novel, the first for 10 years, this summer, while another batch of the agonising Branagh is in production. One dreads to think how the BBC is going to manage it all.

Endless search for decent holiday weather

Trying to plan a holiday this year with the end of the airline sales in sight, one is faced with the increasingly desperate question: "Where and when is there any such thing as guaranteed good weather?" An awful one-upmanship developed among friends and acquaintances. Moans that it did nothing but rain in a week in southern Italy in early July brought the response that "we were in the South of France in April and the sun shone every day".

There seems no pattern to it. All I can see is that, for those of us staying in Britain over the summer, the weather in this country now appears to be mimicking southern Europe of yore. The best times are May and early June and late September and early October. In the case of the Mediterranean, it was because it was too hot in August. Now that month seems truly dreadful everywhere.

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