Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Morals of a Politician

One of the reasons why I adopted the nom-de-blog "Cicero" was because I saw- indeed still see- parallels between the fall of the Roman Republic and our own times. Although, after the accession of Octavian, Rome remained nominally a Republic with the Emperor initially simply "first citizen", in reality the political system based on Roman Liberty was overthrown. I strongly fear that although the nominal forms of Parliamentary Democracy may survive, the principles, indeed the guiding spirit, of Liberal Democracy are being eroded to the point where our freedoms are being taken away.

I see the challenges not being so much the direct threat of dictatorship, although in truth the nascent Russian democracy has indeed been overthrown by a dictator, but from a more corrosive and collective mixture of ignorance, hypocrisy and greed.

The fundamental problem is that many political platforms are not created based on evidence, but on prejudice. 

A good example has been the policies that have been adopted by successive governments towards the use of social drugs. Since the end of the "permissive" 1960s, it has been the collective wisdom that their are great social ills that result from the use of psychoactive drugs. Certainly many of these drugs are both highly addictive and can be often fatal, either through overdose or the physiological damage that long term repeated use may cause. The problem is that the policy that has been prescribed- prohibition- has not merely failed, it has arguably created more pernicious social ills- through placing the trade in the hands of criminal gangs and undermining the politics of smaller countries, from Afghanistan to Peru. The cure seems worse than the disease. Sure enough the political weather is being made by vested interests and not by, for example, healthcare professionals. The Liberal Democrats have championed evidence based drugs policy- and been abused by the twisted journalism of both left and right for being "soft on drugs". The drugs crisis is not made one ounce easier by the failed policy of prohibition, but it does appeal to the prejudices of the ignorant.

Politicians, by definition, are not experts- they are lay supervisors- yet in order to understand the pros and cons in modern policy, our political leaders need to have a skill set of knowledge that few actually possess. This has led many to conclude that society has become too complicated for democratic government to offer effective leadership. The example of China or Singapore is offered- technocratic elites who can take decisions based on detailed or arcane knowledge. This, for me, is a temptation that must be resisted at all costs not least because it is the end of democratic government as we have known it, but it also removes leaders from having to account for their decisions, because by definition they have arcane knowledge- and the result would be corruption and waste- as it already is even in the only three decades since the emergence of a more open China since 1975.

For the fact is that political leaders in a democratic state depend on the knowledge of their electorate. An ignorant electorate creates ignorant politics. An electorate that is not prepared to hold their leaders to high standards also creates a compromised political system. The current fashion to hold all politicians in contempt is equally dangerous, for few will want to serve if their every move is regarded with suspicion. The fact is that our political system requires accountability, but it also requires an element of trust- if the trust fails, the system falls. Yet that trust must rest on the electorate themselves understanding, openly or at least tacitly, the compromises that are required in order to take policy decisions. On the one hand the system should respond to political will, on the other hand the political will needs to be based upon more than mere populism- it must rest on serious and informed debate.

This is where I am so concerned. I have heard supposedly educated and informed voters express deeply ignorant and indeed wholly mistaken opinions and yet express them as unvarnished truth. They may be encouraged in this by a bigoted and prejudiced press, but in the age of the Internet, there is little excuse to be as ignorant as so many people can be.

In the end the morality of the politicians is our own morality, and their collective wisdom is our own wisdom. Unless the voters themselves take responsibility, then they will have their rights eroded by propaganda and vested interests.

That is exactly what I see happening now. The fault lies in ourselves.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Watching the Cyber war in real time

There are several ways you can take a front row view of the daily battles in Cyber space.

The Norse Platform displays about 1% of the attacks that go on across the Internet every day.

It should be a firm resolve of all Internet users to disinfect their system as often as practical. It also speaks volumes about the current state of global politics.

Mind you watching the attacks- mostly from China against the USA- is strangely compelling, as you can see here.   

Those are real attacks and real damage is cause each time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In praise of Ed Davey

The political world rarely rewards actual achievement. Instead it tends to reward those who claim achievement, whether or not they have a right to that claim or not. Hard graft often seems to count for less than effective spin. 

However it is worth noting that the Liberal Democrats in government have a very real heavy weight. A Cabinet Minister who has pushed through a radical agenda, despite major opposition from the Conservatives- especially the now former Cabinet Minister, Owen Patterson. A Cabinet Minister who has the respect of his international peers, and who has rightly persuaded some of our partners, such as Poland, to put the long term interests of the planet ahead of short run economic concerns. In the face of opposition that sometimes verges on the hysterical, Ed Davey has crafted a coherent, competent energy strategy and a credible and effective green strategy.

He has not been afraid to make some enemies on the way, but at every point he has been the rational, intelligent voice for the Lib Dem's green agenda. He also identified the "Putin problem" well ahead of his ministerial peers- and his decision to examine in detail the Alfa bank bid for the RWE North Sea gas assets is the first practical show that the British government really "gets it" about what the tyrannical Mr. Putin is trying to do. 

All of this comes from a man who has not had it easy. He lost his parents while still a child, but went on to be the scholarship kid, who then got an Oxford First. His son, John copes with severe disability and he and his wife Emily have always tried to put John's needs first- not easy when you have a job with the demands that his does. They have now added to their family, with the birth this year of daughter, Ellie, but Ed has always been clear that he has a hinterland well beyond politics.

Indeed he is actually a genuine hero- he once rescued a woman from an oncoming train at Clapham junction station- and was given a bravery award from the Royal Humane Society, not that he particularly talks about it.

This secretary of state is a grafter, but a grafter with a particular intelligence and vision. He represents the best of our party, and indeed our political leaders. As he achieves another success in his battle against climate change, I hope that our party can shout more loudly about one of its strongest assets, and one of its most effective leaders: Ed Davey.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Open war is upon you, whether you will have it or not"

Europe is on the eve of war.

Since Vladimir Putin came to power Russia has fallen sixty one places in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. It is currently 127 on the list, more corrupt than Gabon, Pakistan or Mali. The contempt for the rule of law extends across all aspects of Russian society. Property is routinely stolen, human rights are routinely abused

Russia is the most unequal society in the world and there is no justice in one of the least free countries on the planet

This lamentable record has been accompanied by the rise of one of the most outrageous propaganda machines ever seen in world history. Even the Soviet Union at its worst did not resort to outright lies. Now, Russia expects to be believed, even when all evidence proves that its leaders are speaking the direct opposite of the truth. Those journalists inside Russia who have had the courage to speak the truth have been silenced, often by murder.

Russia has for some time sponsored murder as an instrument of state policy outside its borders, as well as inside. 

In short the Putin regime is a criminal state: it is thieving, brutal and murderous.

In international affairs bloodcurdling threats have been followed up by action. Russia has launched Illegal military incursions into Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine.

In the past three months Russia has made military incursions across NATO airspace and seaspace, and now look set to put pressure even on Australia.

Direct threats have been made to the very existence of NATO states. Repeated Russian exercises have included the use of battlefield and even strategic nuclear weapons. In such drills, Russia has practiced the destruction of Stockholm, Warsaw and several other European capitals.

In short the Russian military is already on a war footing.

The contempt for any kind of justice has been seen in every aspect of the conduct of the Putin government: The rape of Ukraine, the crushing of all freedom inside Russia, the thuggish threats to world peace.

It is time to accept that Russia is and intends to be a hostile power and to seek the downfall of the democratic world by all means necessary. In cyberspace, the war is already raging- it is Russia that is attacking the global financial system. 

The West must understand that Putin is not a man we can do business with- he is a threat that must be answered with determination, and by military means if necessary. We should be giving hard military assistance to Ukraine now and reinforcing NATO borders in the expectation of a Russian military assault, by unconventional or indeed conventional means if necessary.

Western leaders keep saying that they do not wish to fight a second cold war. Unfortunately that is not their choice.

The fact is that unless we seal our perimeter and defend ourselves aggressively now, we could be looking not at a Second Cold War, but a Third World War.

Criminals control the Kremlin. The West is already under attack. If we too are not to be subverted by the evil in Moscow we must be clear eyed, realistic and determined.

This conflict is not our choice nor, despite Russian propaganda, is the West responsible for the moral disaster of Putinism.

Open War is upon us. We must not appease the criminal thugs already feasting on the dead of Ukraine. We must fight them and we must defeat them -by all means necessary.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Stand Firm on Russian Sanctions

In the few days, the discussion of Russia has acquired a new dimension. The announced withdrawal of Russian forces placed close to the Ukrainian border and a slight but significant easing on the previously blood-curdling rhetoric coming from Moscow has made some people think that the crisis, fomented and largely organised by the Kremlin, may now be beginning to ease.

Certainly the imposition of sanctions although it has had relatively little direct effect, has indirectly caused the government of Vladimir Putin some real problems. Western companies involved in the Russian market have radically reconsidered the risks of doing business in Russia and almost all have curtailed their investment plans. Some such as Blackstone and Adobe have announced plans to leave the Russian market altogether. The market capitalisation of the Moscow stock exchange has plunged. Inflation, at 8%, is already climbing further. Russia has faced investment shortfalls for some time, but is now facing huge capital flight- estimated at over £120 billion this year alone. Emergency interest rate rises have failed to defend the Rouble, which has fallen over 20% since the crisis began.
The core of the Russian economy remains energy. The World Bank estimates that 16% of Russian GDP, 52% of its government revenues and 70% of its export revenues come from oil and gas. The weakness of the global oil price (Brent is trading at $85/bbl. as I write) is probably the major cause for concern in the Kremlin right now, and as the markets price in a possible global slowdown and both Saudi Arabia and the United States pumping at high levels, together with the return of Libya and Iraqi oil to the global market, there is little that seems able to support a sustained recovery in the oil price in the coming months. Thus we are seeing open debate within the Putin administration as to how to cut expenditure to fit these reduced circumstances.

Nevertheless, we should remain deeply concerned over the potential use by Russia of its control of European gas supplies to threaten the stability of the entire European gas market in order to support its continuing attacks against Ukraine and to weaken support inside the European Union for the democratic course that the Ukrainian people have chosen.
Since the bloodshed on the Maidan began in January, Russia has illegally seized Crimea- although President Vladimir Putin assured the world he would not- and been directly implicated in military operations in Eastern Ukraine. The unconvincing denials and outright falsehoods put out by Mr Putin and echoed by Kremlin funded propaganda outlets have undermined any trust that we might have placed in the word of the Russian government. Shockingly Russian military forces also appear to be ultimately responsible for the deaths caused by the downing of Malaysian flight MH17. To add insult to injury, we should note the callous disregard that has been shown for the victims and their families, with the despicable theft of victim’s valuables and their appearance for sale on Russian websites.

Nor is it simply insult and rhetoric that Russia continues to direct at Britain and its NATO allies.

Beyond the continuing Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine, Russian military activity continues at a high level. Large scale “exercises” and regular incursions by Russian military aircraft into or close to the airspace of Finland and Sweden as well as NATO states seems designed to test NATO readiness, and maintain a high level of tension. The kidnapping of an Estonian security officer on September 5th and the seizure of a Lithuanian fishing boat in international waters on September 18th reminds us of the continued pressure our Baltic allies have had to endure. Other activity in cyberspace also suggests no let-up in the pattern of hostility towards NATO and the EU.

Under these circumstances it is pretty hard for us to take Russian assurances about their being a reliable partner in the European gas market at face value. The Russian government has been prepared to use their control over gas as a political weapon in the past, and there is a real chance that they may do so in the coming winter.

Yet the strategic position of Russia is weakening. Greater energy efficiency and new sources of power, such as renewables and shale gas is already causing a structural shift in the global energy market. European demand for Russian gas is also set to fall, as customers seek to diversify their sources of supply- not least because Russia is now perceived as a threat, instead of a partner. Mr Putin, not for the first time, has chosen a path of confrontation that will ultimately cause major damage to Russia. Indeed, the country may already be facing a period of considerable instability, and Mr Putin’s popularity- currently said to be stratospheric- may prove to be very shallow, as his problems mount.

Nevertheless, unless and until Russia gives up its reckless adventure in Ukraine and respects international law, it is critical that we keep up the pressure on the Putin regime. A further frozen conflict- as in Georgia and Moldova- is unacceptable.

Russia has chosen a dishonest, dishonourable and dangerous path, and Britain and its NATO and EU partners must maintain the current regime of sanctions- and even add to them if necessary. There can be no return to business as usual while Russia remains a real threat to European peace.


It is a threat that must be answered with a clear-eyed and disciplined assessment of the long term costs of dealing with a rogue regime in Moscow versus any possible short term benefits of a relaxation of the sanctions regime. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Politics in the media and in reality

Britain is in a fractious, ill tempered mood.

Discontent with the political class festers, and every mountebank, from Alex Salmond to Nigel Farage is being seized on as someone who can break the perceived corruption in Whitehall and Westminster.

Politicians are held- especially in the media- in widespread contempt.

That, of course is the problem. It is not that politics is necessarily more negative or even more corrupt than it used to be, but rather that we have grown used to a mocking chorus from journalists who are guilty of even more egregious corruption than the politicians they condemn so loudly.

MPs are paid a fraction of the sums given over to the self important blow-hards whose oleaginous faces adorn the top of their columns of angry and often surprisingly badly informed copy. Those who happily take their living from such dubious newspaper owners as the sinister and bullying Barclay brothers, the tax-avoiding Rothermere family, a Russian oligarch, a pornographer and of course Rupert Murdoch still presume to make moral judgements over those who have often made substantial sacrifices in order to serve their country.

So as I read yet another load of twaddle from these people, I find it hard to suppress a very hollow laugh. The scandal that haunts Britain is not in politics, but rather in the media, which picks and chooses its stories to fit a biased and immoral agenda.

So as a further storm of hypocrisy echoes across the op-ed pages of the British press, I find myself wordlessly turning the page and passing by such drivel.   

Across all political parties are people of genuine integrity and honesty, working to improve the country according to their lights. I may not agree with them, but I respect them. It is time for the media to accept that politicians are not all rogues or fools and to engage with the political process with a skeptical, rather than a contemptuous, eye.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Scotland's Choice

There has been a lot of criticism of the Better Together campaign. Some suggest it has failed to engage the emotions, some that it was too negative (it is quite hard to campaign positively for a No vote, which is why the SNP chose the question that they did). Some, who expect No to win, have said that such a victory would be "winning ugly".

There has been little criticism on the Yes campaign- they are believed to have "won the campaign".

I, for my part, beg to disagree. Yes Scotland have comprehensively lost the intellectual argument. They have been totally destroyed. From currency, to healthcare, to pensions every argument that they have put forward has been eviscerated. It is not that Yes Scotland has more emotion that bothers me- it is that they only have emotion. All rational considerations have been ditched and those who raise the perfectly valid questions of how- practically- Scotland can avoid serious problems, are dismissed without any attempt to answer the questions. 

The Yes Scotland prospectus for independence is the ultimate dodgy dossier- it is complete bullshit. A valid proposal for government can not simply rest on blind assertion and bluster. Salmond appeals constantly to the emotions, but this schtick is an insult to the intelligence.

Then there is the way that the Yes campaign has conducted itself. Vandalism of posters often happens in elections, sometimes speakers are heckled, it is part of the democratic process. What is not democratic is the wholesale use of intimidation, and threats. At times, especially in the West of Scotland there has been an atmosphere of mob rule. The hectoring of Nick Robinson of the BBC is frankly disgraceful- and he is not the only one who has received threats. The way Jim Murphy and many other politicians have been drowned out by chants, been attacked with eggs and been denounced as traitors has made me wonder what kind of Scotland is being created here. The problem is that it is pretty difficult to have a reasoned debate when one side has lost its reason. The rage of Yes supporters is brutal and scary to watch- and some of things that are being said would not be out of place in a fascist rally.

The referendum is not likely to give Yes the kind of support that would enable them to claim national unity- and their attempts to suggest that if Yes wins then No voters should celebrate is an insulting and casual dismissal of strongly felt opinions. Likewise their outrageous comments that those who oppose the massive economic and political dislocation that a Yes vote would bring are not part of "Team Scotland". It is not patriotic to propose huge and wrenching political and economic change and then attempt to dismiss those who oppose this as "traitors". To my mind the "traitors" are those who are seeking to mislead the Scottish people about just how long and difficult a process the creation of a separate Scottish state would be.  This referendum has been divisive and dangerous, and no matter who wins, it will be difficult to heal the wounds that have been created. Now, the process of healing must begin, but the Yes campaign should understand there has been emotion- and increasingly that emotion is abiding anger at the way that they have dismissed so lightly all the serious concerns that any rational observer would have at making such a big step. There are many who are no longer sure that they would have a place in a separate Scotland, those who feel genuine fear at the hatred that the Yes campaign has unleashed. 

In the end I believe that my concerns are held by the majority of the Scottish people and that the case for separatism has not been made. Once I might have said that Nationalists and Liberals shared many of the same values, but now I reject the SNP utterly and would actively campaign to defeat them above all else. I reject their irrational and dangerous politics. I reject their divisive tactics and their threatening and intemperate language. I now not only hope for the defeat of their attempt to break Britain, but for their removal from power at Holyrood. I would even welcome the return of more Conservative MPs and MSPs if it means the defeat of the SNP.

A narrow and nasty sect has offered nothing but bluster and bullshit. I hope and pray that they are comprehensively defeated this Thursday, and that then we can get on with the wholesale reform of the UK that has been delayed and distracted by this referendum campaign.