Thursday, December 29, 2005

The turn of the year

Cicero has enjoyed the season of Saturnalia turned into Christmas- although the feasting and revelry have been kept to the statutory minimum, as Cicero wishes to fit his clothes in the new year- and not just the baggy ones. In this quiet time before the turn of the year, the news flow is small and the media in Britain concentrate on the surprising fact that winter comes in December. This, together with the annual release of government papers under the thirty, fifty, seventy, or two hundred year rule (ever get the feeling that civil servants take government secrecy a bit too seriously?) comprises the bulk of the news. All this and Bob Geldof making a fool of himself with Tories.

So, even though Cicero knows that the future is essentially unknowable, and that the limits to human knowledge make it entirely random as to whether predictions are accurate or not, he is tempted to think about what things might happen in 2006.

Even for events which are highly likely and highly disruptive, the details are as yet unknowable. For example the 70 year pattern of Kan-to earthquakes under Tokyo has been disrupted, but according to the previous pattern one is overdue. The North Anatolian fault could also unleash an earthquake under Istanbul, but as with Kan-to, the timing and magnitude remains unclear. As always the Californian "big one" could occur this year too. That earthquakes will take place is certain, that they will take place on the Kan-to, North Anatolian or San Andreas faults is not, even though the effects of such quakes are highly dangerous, they are equally unpredictable. Likewise it appears a highly dangerous and disruptive caldera volcanic eruption could be due, for example in Yellowstone National Park, but the time window for this could be out by ten or twenty thousand years. In other words, it would not be a complete surprise if such events were to happen, but there is a huge degree of imprecision as to when. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions will happen, but their position, timing and size are not predictable in more than the most general way.

In the political world too, we can see some highly dangerous possibilities, but again these are uncertain. The "War on Terror" has already evolved in highly unpredictable ways- the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq just being some of the side effects of the September 2001 attacks. However, the failure of the Bush administration to uphold the highest standards of moral conduct has eroded support for the USA dramatically. The scandals of Abu Graib, Guantanamo, "extraordinary rendition" and so on, have only added to the sense of unease that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction had already cast over the operations in Iraq. While further successful acts of terrorism may change the political outlook over a short period, there is an increasing sense of drift amongst the highest councils of the coalition, both in the US and the UK. The neo-con vision of a democratic and peaceful Iraq, is being replaced by a more realistic and more brutal vision, which still allows the withdrawal of the coalition forces. Meanwhile the gathering, and very real, threat of a nuclear armed Iran is concentrating minds both in Washington and in Europe. The delay to the withdrawal of Polish troops from Iraq may be the first sign of a more united resolve to face up to the problems of the middle east. However the precarious political position, both in Israel and the Palestinian territories, makes progress in this area hugely difficult.

Russia takes over the G-8 for 2006. The scandal of an undemocratic, increasingly obstructive, regime in Moscow will be highlighted over 2006 and the resignation of Putin's last, even faintly, liberal advisor- Andrei Illarianov- paradoxically underlines the increasing isolation of the Putin clique. The lack of transparency in Russia is a sign of great weakness. The consistent failures of the regime- losing control in the North Caucasus especially- may well have implications for the political support and success of the regime. The freedom of action that Putin has previously enjoyed may be abridged during Russia's year in the G-8 spotlight. Russian support for such twisted governments as Belarus' Lukashenko or the puppets in Transnistria, Abkhazia or Ossetia may be challenged more strongly. The subborning of Schroeder is a scandal amongst the chanceries of Europe, and Putin is under particular personal scrutiny. There is a real chance, given his KGB background, that he will not be able to cope- and his plans for peaceful retirement, running Russia from the offices of Gazprom, may still come to naught.

In Europe, the pressure on the broken backed regimes of Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi can only continue, but like Charles II, they may "spend an unconscionable time a-dying". By contrast, Angela Merkel's first steps on the European scene have been surprisingly sure footed- there is a chance that Germany can begin to shake of the lethargy that has afflicted her since re-unification. This has profound implications for the European Union and after the failure of the constitution, the British pragmatic vision of the European Union has certainly gained credibility, if not acceptance. The dynamic new member states continue to show impressive economic performance, but the effect of the huge numbers who have come overseas for work may begin to slow down their stellar progress- the United Kingdom has created more jobs for Poles than Poland has over the past two years.

As for British politics, these are more unpredictable than ever. The emergence of a Tory leader who does not actively repel voters is a first in over a decade, but while necessary, may not be sufficient to spark a real recovery in their fortunes. The suspicion that the new leadership is essentially vapid- relying on style and image, rather than substance- remains. My hunch is that the British electorate has tired of the highly spun and polished Mr. Blair just at a time when the Conservatives have chosen a leader who apes most of Mr. Blair's positions and even mannerisms. As for Mr. Brown, the humorlous intensity and control freakery in most of his positions is beginning to grate. The frustration with high taxation seems set to grow. Thinking more broadly, the increasing unpopularity of the Police is interesting- the Police are being given ever wider powers under terrorism and ASBO legislation- and the more thoughtful are very unhappy. The Police themselves, faced with an ill thought out and unpopular move to centralise control into fewer regional police forces may even emerge as a focus for some opposition to the illiberal polices of the current government.

We can not predict the effects of what Nassim Taleb calls "Black Swan" events- assassinations or epidemics- although doubtless the random swirl could throw up some of these too. It is therefore not so much the real future that we can think about, but the changes that may happen to "now". Perhaps that is the secret of good politics: not detailed forecasts which will inevitably be wrong, but rather a set of guiding principles about how to understand and how to react to change.

As I sat down to write this I examined various predictions- astrology, bible code and so on. Predictions about the "rapture" and "end times" have a vast discontinuity with what I understand about the universe about me. For myself I do not believe that the creator of the universe - quantum, fractal, and vast in scale- is likely to behave in the manner that Oklahoma rednecks- or dippy New Agers- seem to expect. Glimpsing the beauty and scale of the nearby star fields seems to make the "end time" predictions, whether based on the Book of Revelations or not, look like children's fairy tales, and even a thousand year rapture is the blink of an eye in such a place- these "predictions" are human stories, not divine ones and as we know, all humans are completely fallible.

Speaking personally, 2005 was a year of transition. I hope that 2006 can be a year of achievement. I wish everyone a happy and prosperous new year.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

"Adam and Steve"

Cicero has just returned from a lightening trip to Aberdeen. The Granite City is very close to my heart- as Iain Crichton Smith says "Places that have been good to us we love, the rest we are resigned to". Although it was a pleasure to see friends and family and indulge in a little nostalgia for a place that was certainly good to me, in fact amidst the gentle lanes of Old Aberdeen a small revolution was taking place.

In the clear low sunshine of a crisp December morning two old friends of mine were committing themselves each to the other. The trappings were traditional- a service of blessing in the mediaeval chapel of Kings College, followed by a champagne reception and large lunch, whilst in the evening a traditional Scottish ceilidh took place. Old friends, children playing- all the traditions of a wedding- without actually being one.

In fact it was the registration of a civil partnership. Neil and John have been a couple for longer than many marriages last- for over a decade in fact. However, if one of them had been taken ill, then the other could not be seen as next of kin. Legal and financial relations that straight couples take for granted could not be used by gay couples.

Some regard homosexuality as wrong- as somehow morally suspect or "abnormal". If that is so, then can someone explain why such a trait keeps returning in every generation. Even under profound persecution, some men and women still seem to fall in love with their own sex instead of, or as well as, the opposite sex- it seems to be part of our biological nature. Since at least the end of the 1960's most Western countries have said that homosexuality is not a crime. Slowly, over the years we have accepted that it is as much a part of the make up of human beings as left handedness or blue eyes. If we do accept this, then the discrimination against gay couples is neither logical nor kind. The persecution of gay people has not shown up our society in a very good light. Tolerance and kindness are part of the features of civilized life. Some religious extremists can not be convinced- they are entitled to their views. They are no longer entitled to continue to practice legal discrimination. As far as Christians are concerned, one might have thought that a bit of live and let live would befit the follows of Him that said "let he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone".

The relationship that was legally sealed on Tuesday is valid and valued, and not just by the individuals concerned. Hundreds of friends, family and colleagues were affirming by their presence their support and affection for two men whose hard work for their local communities is respected and admired. I truly hope that discrimination on grounds of sexuality can soon be treated in the same way as discrimination on basis of race, of sex or of religion- not legally possible. The quietly revolutionary events in the mediaeval buildings beside the cobbled lanes of Old Aberdeen were another step down the road to a more tolerant era. Congratulations to Neil and John.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Last laugh?

In July, just prior to the announcement of the Olympic Games venue for 2012, one of those occasional delightful, frothy stories broke. Three European leaders: Chirac of France, Putin of Russia and Schroeder of Germany were sitting outside, enjoying a drink at a small summit that Putin was hosting. Unbeknownst to M Chirac, his remarks were being recorded. Famously, he declared British cuisine to be so bad that no-one could trust them. Only Finnish cuisine, he said, was worse.

It was therefore with particular satisfaction that we saw, a few days after this story broke, the two Finnish votes making the crucial difference in a four vote victory of London over Paris for the 2012 Olympics. "Hubris", we smiled, "before Nemesis".

However, we can now see that the mini-summit was of greater and more sinister importance. As the scandal of Schroeder becoming chairman of the shareholder representatives of the controversial Baltic gas pipeline company unfolds, more and people are asking questions.

Just to make clear: Vladimir Putin and his wife are personally corrupt and are taking assets away from their legitimate owners on a scale never seen since the death of Nero. Jacques Chirac is only protected by the immunity of his office from being charged with serious allegations of theft, fraud and bribery. Chirac is alleged to have funneled corrupt payments to the previous German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl. Is it unthinkable that Schroeder too has been subborned to betray his country (and her NATO allies)?

Unfortunately not. The corrupt cabal, with the poisonous Putin at its heart, pose a direct threat to our democracy. Russia is a rogue state and should be treated as such. If we should "Judge a man by his friends" then anyone with Putin as a friend is now highly suspect.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Headbanger

Ken Clarke says in public that his new leader is "the most extreme Eurosceptic ever to lead the [Conservative] Party"

What????

More extreme than Michael Howard- leader of the Cabinet opposition to much European legislation under John Major? More extreme than William "seven days to save the Pound"Hague?? Even more extreme than the swivel eyed IDS???

Yep.

Guess what, the leader of the "opus Dave" has just restarted the European dispute inside his party. The Buncefield level explosion that he is risking will lead several, perhaps even the majority, of the Tory MEPs to defy his edict that they leave the moderate EPP and sit with the smaller, weaker and substantially madder Independents.

I think that we are beginning to get the measure of Mr. Cameron, and aside from a certain breezy charm, I detect some interesting limitations. OK he could not help the fact that he went to Eton, nor Oxford. However, He certainly could help the fact that he joined the braying Hurray Henrys of the Bullingdon Dining Club at Oxford (so ably parodied by Evelyn Waugh). He could help the fact that he joined the snooty Whites Club- Home of the famous "Shit of the Year" contest. He could help the fact that he was an enthusiastic huntsman with the Old Berkshire. So what? We might say, we knew that he was an old school posh boy.

The trouble is that these posh boys get up everyone else's nose- which is why the rather illiberal hunting with dogs act was passed-and ordering his MEPs about will either make him look like an arrogant right wing nutter or, and perhaps more likely, he will fail and look like a chinless wonder. If he is as extreme as Clarke suggests, he could end up in real trouble.

Extreme euroscepticism is not "a move to the centre ground" nor is it an end to "Punch and Judy politics". If Clarke is right, then Cameron is no moderate, he is a Eurosceptic headbanger who will split his party again. The stakes are high because for the Tories this really is the last chance.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Without sin?

Sometime ago, around the signing of the agreement between Russia and Germany to build a pipeline, there was a rumour that this was part of a personal deal to benefit Gerhard Schroder. The fact that Mr. Schroder, within days of leaving office, has in fact joined the gas pipeline company as the leader of the shareholder committee rather suggests that these rumours were true.

Bluntly, the move is so brazen as to suggest that the relationship between Schroder and Russian President Putin was as improper as the rumours alleged. Of course corruption is nothing new - not even for Germany, after many allegations concerning former Chancellor Kohl's relationship with the French Government- it is, however, highly corrosive.

By the time of Cicero, the values of the Roman Republic were undermined by increasingly cynical politics and corruption. The eventual result was the collapse of the Roman political ideal of cives Romanum sum into decadent brutality. From the self indulgence of Mark Anthony and on to the the vile debauch of Tiberius, Caligula and Nero- power was taken from the SPQR- the Senate and People of Rome- and given to corrupt despots. The price of freedom truly is eternal vigilance and we are letting our guard down.

At a time when major figures in the US administration are demonstrating a contempt for due process and the rule of law and becoming accomplices to torture, false imprisonment, extra judicial murder and illegal war, we might have hoped that Europe could speak for Liberal values. However, Europe is now itself mired in corruption. The evil criminality of the Putin regime in Chechnya and its aggressive foreign policy have already rendered the Russian Federation as a rogue state, but the net has grown wider and ever wider.

At present the President of the French Republic is accused of corrupt expenditure while Mayor of Paris. The immediate ex Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany appears to have received payments from the President of the Russian Federation, whose contempt for the rule of law is well known but whose personal venality, and that of his wife, is perhaps not so well known. As for the Prime Minister of the Italian Republic, his conflicts of interest render him unfit for any public office. These leaders can not lecture anyone, because their own conduct is so shameless.

But what then of Mr. Tony Blair?

Sadly there too are certain rumours concerning the Prime Minister of Great Britain and his own corrupt lobbying. Some are old- the lobbying for Lakshmi Mittal, the Ecclestone saga. However worse is yet to come. Cicero hears that some very old friends of Mr. Blair, who long ante-date even his leadership of the Labour party, but who have quite "interesting" pasts, asked Mr. Blair for certain favours in Poland about two years ago, and he complied. Senior figures in Poland have suggested that Mr. Blair is not "a pretty straight kind of guy" at all.

The case for control, oversight and reform is overwhelming- in every country. Until we can control our own corruption, we can hardly lecture the rest of the world. I feel that unless the storm breaks, that Western Democracy will go the way of the Roman Republic- mired in cynicism ("they are all the same") and increasingly corrupt and decadent.

Transparancy and the highest standards in government life are not negotiable- unless we insist on the integrity of our leaders we are headed down a very dark road indeed.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Unlikely Virtues

"A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them." P.J. O'Rourke.

The love fest that the British media are indulging in over the new Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, is reaching ever higher levels of hyperbole. It is certainly true that Mr. Cameron appears to have a cardinal virtue in a politician- he is lucky. The way he has risen without trace (or any real organisational experience) is a testament to luck. The fact of his coming to the leadership when Gordon Brown is facing the first breath of the storm that his policies have created is also lucky. Even the fact that Lady Thatcher has been taken ill on the second day of his leadership may also be considered to be lucky- at least there is no chance of "backseat driving" now.

However, I view the drooling of the British media over Mr. Cameron with a jaundiced eye. Sure, he does not look actively sinister as his predecessor, Michael Howard, does. True too, he has an easy, breezy charm. However his sole entry into the field of policy- his co-authorship of the 2005 Tory Party manifesto- was pretty catastrophic. His knowledge of economics is thin, and the decision to stick with the lightweight George Osbourne as Shadow Chancellor, while a tribute to personal loyalty, is not a sign that the Conservative Party can engage with hard policy.

While it may be that the Conservatives can fashion a coherent policy agenda, focusing on the soft issue areas, where they have perceived weaknesses- such as the environment, health or education- I am sceptical. Mr. Cameron and his somewhat callow team have a pretty narrow set of personal experience- largely upper middle class white males- so their attempts to court groups from outside that circle already looks rather patronizing. Furthermore, there is little intellectual fire power on the critical issues of economics. This is a humanities based shadow cabinet with very limited business or commercial understanding. Amidst all the media bally-hoo, these fundamental facts have been lost. When the inevitable disillusion sets in, it will become very easy to remember that "all political careers end in failure".

As I skim the newspapers this morning, I find myself thinking on another P.J. O' Rourke comment, made concerning the Kennedys, "It's always easy to impute / unlikely virtues to the cute".

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

New Nations

The website newnations.com is an interesting project. The trenchant and honest views that it promotes are increasingly refreshing in a world that seems ever more committed to weasel words on powerful subjects like torture and oppression. What is shocking is that, having started off as a documentation of the criminal acts of regimes in such places as Russia or Azerbaijan, it increasingly finds that the actions of the USA are coming into question.

The latest vile euphemism for torture by the United States is, apparently, "harsh questioning".

Well worth a read- click on the heading for the link.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

In the arcane British political system, nothing is called by its right name. So the fact that the Minister of Finance is given the rather abstruse moniker "The Chancellor of the Exchequer" should surprise no one. The current incumbent, Gordon Brown, is a humourless and driven man who contains all of the self righteousness of the son of the Manse that he is, with little of the humility.

His approach to the finances of the United Kingdom is to micro manage. His fervent belief is that taxation can be used as an effective agent to create social justice. Now around half the population of the UK receives different tax credits or support payments. Mr. Brown is, however, oblivious to the cost. The huge bureaucracy that his collection and payments system supports is enormously expensive. The British tax code is now vastly complicated- with even the most simple tax return requiring an accountant to arrange it. As the Chancellor ties himself in ever greater knots moving payments around from one part of the economy to the other, the costs get greater and the drag on the economy greater still.

Yesterday's statement from Mr. Brown was the beginning of the end. The global slowdown reveals the inefficient and expensive policies of Mr. Brown in a harsh light indeed. Tax simplification is an idea whose time is coming. Whether a classic flat tax- as Cicero would prefer- or not, the vast system of transfer payments needs to be done away with and replaced with lower, simpler taxes.

At least now, we do not need abstruse language to describe the position that the Chancellor of the Exchequer now finds himself. His economic sums do not add up, his policies have failed, his outlook is bleak. The Gordian knot of taxation that Gordon Brown has tied, will have to be cut- and for all his bluff yesterday, he will be remembered as a failure.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The limits to knowledge

Cicero attended a very important discussion last night. In the rather stuffy surroundings of the Travelers Club, he heard a revolutionary: Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb has a profound insight: that humans perceive their behaviour as part of a symmetrical world. In fact it is highly non symmetrical. Partly as a result, humans are extremely bad at making accurate predictions and the more detailed the prediction, the more likely it is to fail. The implications of this are very profound indeed.

Taleb rails against the "scandal of prediction"- and is particularly fierce in his denunciation of politicians. Politicians draw up detailed plans for conditions that are inherently unpredictable- he suggests that this is little better than a fraud against the electorate. He is right. Cicero does not believe that detailed government policies can change outcomes in predictable ways. Macmillan's famous comment on the primary challenge to political leaders being "events" refers to the fact that a successful political leader, almost by definition, can only react to the conditions that they find in office. Rarely do policy proposals actually achieve their expected goals in a highly predictable way. Taleb's collaborator, Benoit Mandelbrot, has pointed out that there is a mathematical state of chaos- the so called fractal geometry- that takes the consequences of given events in unpredictable directions, and no where is this more true than in the social sciences and especially politics. Politics is almost a stereotype of what a fractal system might look like.

This is why the system of political discourse matters more than specific policies. The collective of a system is far more predictable in aggregate than any individual feature in a system. The only predictable thing about political outcomes are that they are highly unpredictable. The Liberal commitment to retrenchment reflects that fact that it is not only desirable the state should be limited- it is ultimately inevitable.

The work of Hayek and Popper contains some of this recognition of the centrality of uncertainty and that is why they are philosophers more than economists. There are critical limits on what information may be accurately inferred (predicted) in detail. This is a systemic problem. From the perspective of Economic Liberalism it is one of the key insights that informs our ideology. Taleb is bringing to the science of the self, the same revolution that Mandelbrot has brought to the science of causation. Essentially if we are limited to systemic prediction and that detailed prediction is structurally inaccurate, then the key for political leadership is going to be the question of structural limits to the system and not the false god of detailed policy prediction.

The link above will lead you to Taleb's website, but as far as detailed plans by politicians by concerned, then the last word should belong to Yogi Berra:

"You gotta be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there".

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Boiled Frog

Over the past few months it has become conventional wisdom that Iraq is of diminishing importance in the political world viewed from Westminster. Yet I notice that Sir Menzies Campbell QC MP has been receiving more than usual coverage in his protests.

Since George W. Bush declared on the deck of an Aircraft carrier that as far as the United States was concerned Iraq was "Mission accomplished", we have learned a great deal about Iraq and about the United States.

We have learned that Saddam Hussein had rendered his "weapons of mass destruction" unusable, so that the ostensible case for the war was entirely wrong. We have learned that there was considerable scepticism amongst British and American intelligence experts that Saddam indeed had such weapons at the time that war was launched, but that such doubts were edited out in order to support a political case for military action. In other words that the supporting documentation had in fact been "sexed up". We have learned that American and probably British troops were engaged in illegal torture and ill treatment of prisoners. We have learned that fuel-air weapons have been used with scant regard for innocent victims. We have learned that the United States did not have an effective plan to stabilize the political or security position in post war Iraq. We have learned that in this security vacuum that Al-Qaida affiliates have been able to unleash significant violence against Coalition troops and Iraqi civilians. We have also learned that the Bush administration has little more than platitudes to deploy in its self declared "War on Terror". We have learned that the American people are increasingly unhappy about the deployment of their soldiers in Iraq.

The Neo-Con vision for the United States as an active force to promote American values lies twitching in the dust of Mesopotamia. The First Ally- Mr. Blair- sees his own reputation fading. The price of failure on the Tigris is now so high that it threatens the entire economic security of the capitalist system. The mistakes that have been made have been made step by step. The result is governments have mislead their own people, and indeed taken freedoms away from their own people. They have broken international laws on the inception and conduct of war, they have committed criminal acts such as torture and the use of illegal weapons. With the use of white phosphorus now confirmed, we know that the only people who possessed and used illegal weapons in this conflict were... Us.

The charge sheet is now long, and if it had been read before we started, then the proposing governments would have been out of office immediately. Our sensibilities may be blunted, as those of the frog who would jump from boiling water but not from water that slowly heats to boil famously are. Nevertheless, Sir Menzies is right: a government that will not obey international law can not be trusted to obey constitutional limits on its own power- that way tyranny lies.

Cicero knows that war is a good way to usurp political power- as Julius Caesar did in his time in Ancient Rome. Blair may be no Caesar, but neither is he Cincinnatus who quietly returned to his fields when his time in political life was complete. The spinelessness of the Conservatives over Iraq is a scandal- they raised more heat over hunting that over Iraq. So the noble Phillipic that the Liberal Democrats continue to raise gives Cicero hope in the face of profound anger.

Iraq will not go away as an issue- and the questions that it raises are still fundamental to the morality and constitutionality of our political system.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Croatia

I have spent a week at different corners of Europe. I began the week in Zagreb, the elegant Austro-Hungarian Capital of Croatia and finished it in Tallinn, the Capital of dynamic little Estonia.

Zagreb is an intriguing city. The Gornji Grad and the Kaptol districts retain the street plan of their mediaeval foundation, with a street, the Krvavi Most ("Bloody Bridge"), commemorating the pitched battles that used to take place between the young men of both districts. Around the corner is Tkalciceva, a pedestrian street of bars and restaurants where I recall meeting soldiers on leave from the battlefields of the early 1990's. The edginess of that time has given way to a more gentle, tourist friendly coziness. Around the foot of the Mountain of which these two mediaeval districts form the foothills lies the elegant boulevards of the Austro-Hungarian lower town. Though not so visited as Prague or Budapest, yet the City of Zagreb retains an elegant and cosmopolitan air.

Croatia has had a bad press in the UK. The image of the former leader, Franjo Tudjman, was harsh, and not helped by many of his actions in Bosnia. Nevertheless, in Croatia his memory is respected, although no longer uncritically. Despite Tudjman's image as a right wing authoritarian, he too had been a Communist Partizan and Croatia retains much of the systems of the Communist era. The reform pace has sometimes been erratic and much still remains to change before the country can take her place in the European Union. The country is Conservative and looks to Austria and the Christian Democrats for many of its models of how to do things- the pace of change is now steady, rather than spectacular.

While British-Croatian relations have improved from the deep freeze that was their initial state, they remain correct, rather than warm. My own personal relationship with Croats is extremely friendly and, not for the first time, I wonder about the failures of British foreign policy. We were far too close to Serbia in the early 1990s to see the true nature of Milosevic. Perhaps when the UK comes under attack for her policies in the region we should not forget that Douglas Hurd, after stepping down from being foreign secretary, joined the board of a bank that- within six months- gained a very large privatisation mandate in Serbia. This provided sufficient funds for the Milosevic regime to allow Serbia to continue to prosecute the war for several more years. At best, the reputation of the United Kingdom was damaged by carelessness. There are some who would call it corruption.

Either way, Croatia does not forget.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"Whom the Gods would destroy"

Although it is an early stage in the UK Parliamentary cycle, there is something of the feel of a phony war. The Prime Minister insists that he will not fight the next election, but has not yet started the process of finding a successor and may not do so for several years. The Conservatives are faced with a pig in a poke- David Davis seems to lack the most basic feature of modern politics: communication skills. David Cameron, supposedly set to bid for the centre ground, in fact seems set to begin his leadership with a blazing row about a subject that only Tories are passionate about: Europe. The rather abstruse nature of the European Parliament is understood by few British politicians, still less the electorate, yet DC seems determined to expel the few remaining faintly pro-European Tories by forcing them to leave the current right wing European faction in the EP, known as the European Peoples Party, on the grounds that it is too pro European. No one in Britain will care and all the electorate will see is the Tories tearing themselves apart over Europe- as usual.

Euripides said it right : "Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad"

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Albania

Cicero's great friend, Atticus, spent most of his life away from Rome. In fact he spent most of his life on his estates in what is now called Albania. The correspondence between the two friends was life long and covered a huge range of political and philosophical ideas as well as the exchanges that are more usual between friends of such long standing.

Cicero has now received an invitation to celebrate the life of a great mediaeval figure of Balkan history: George Kastrioti, nicknamed Skanderbeg. Skanderbeg was a war leader who successfully resisted the advance of Ottoman Turkey into the region. His citadels across Albania are a now picturesque reminder of (still) more turbulent days. Of course in the current more febrile climate of the modern Balkans even the events of 500 years ago still have a modern resonance. Thus Kastrioti, as an "ethnic Albanian" (a nomenclature that he would have probably failed to understand, still less to claim) has been promoted as the prototypical Albanian hero. Statues of the mounted leader adorn public squares, not least Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, stamps, bank notes, flags- few can escape the image of this fierce warrior. Skanderbeg has been evoked at almost every point in Albanian history.

Cicero has now been invited to celebrate the life of the great man- but the bright spot is that it is not the Albanian government that has made the invitation. Despite the recent enmity between neighbours, and the well documented hostility between Albanians and their Slavic neighbours, it is the government of Montenegro that wishes to celebrate the life of the great Albanian. Cicero finds this strangely reassuring. Cicero looks forward to a time when the Illyria of Atticus - a borderless and peaceful part of Europe- may be restored.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A new climate

In principle, despite being substantially dead, Cicero prefers a warm climate.
There are certain exceptions. One is the formerly barbarian territory of the blackcoated Aestui... the locals call it Eesti, foreigners, ironically, think "Estonia" is the Latin name.
Cicero spends far too much time there- "gentlemen prefer blondes" is a mistranslated view of it.
Nevertheless, there are downsides. I certainly prefer to avoid demented wierdos like the Tory MP David Heathcoat-Amory (and so, it seems, does the British Embassy). Most of the Tories who now come to Tallinn are a bit - well frankly- odd. While Cicero generally avoids the Brits in Tallinn- he does not like vomit on his sandals- he particularly dislikes seeing George Osbourne come to Tallinn and utterly failing to understand the place.

Estonia is not a poster child for Conservative government- it is perhaps the most Liberal country in Europe- the Estonian coalitions have almost always included either of the two member parties of Liberal International and have often, as now, been lead by a Liberal PM.

Despite the occasional embarassment of Conservative visits, the Aestui are doing very well- they have set the limits, explicitly, to government power- something Cicero tried to do 2000 years ago. Who would have thought the barbarians would get their way before the rest of us (I mean apart from the thinkers like Locke, JS Mill, or Hayek)?

Education

When I hear a British politician talk about "education" I reach for my howitzer. UK politicians are amongst the least educated in the world. There is no equivalent of the French ENA, still less the US Kennedy school of government.. or Hoover Institute or Brookings or so on. That would somehow be "undemocratic". It is not, it is a question of aptitude and IT SHOWS!!

If we have increasing numbers of pseudo qualifications dictated to us by politicians, then perhaps we should ask the same of our newly professional political class. David Cameron or even Charles Kennedy, like Tony Blair before them, have no experience running anything. Speaking as an investor, I would never invest in a CV that went "Student debater, junior legal clerk, MP, junior front bench" (i.e. TB's Experience before he ran a budget of about half a trillion quid). Still less would I buy "graduated, "advisor" to Norman Lamont, "advisor" to Michael Howard, "Corporate Office of Carlton Communications plc" then 4 years as an MP, then "HM Leader of the (official) Opposition"" (i.e. DavidCameron's (probable) CV).

These people have delusions of adequacy!

Personally, I want an open market- that means a way that I can chose between the wheat and the chaff, irrespective of party.

In the face of the collapse of the UK pensions system, the offshoring of UK industry and the export of those few UK citizens who can actually demonstrate global skills (as opposed to degrees in mediaeval plumbing and basket weaving) I think that it may not be long before the peasants with the pitchforks may start to gather. The French are too elitist- that we grant (and the pitchforks are already out there on a regular basis). The Brits, however, are TOO C**P- and I don't care if it is TB, GB, DC, DD or CK.

Folks- Please show your putative employers (i.e. the electorate) that you are not just BS merchants- qualify yourselves, like every other professional does (at your behest). I would not (and neither would your employers- the British people)- trust you to run a jumble sale. I am tired of meeting UK government ministers who do not understand a balance sheet. It is rather amusing that Gordon Brown is treated so seriously, considering that he has less economic sense than a second year accountancy student.

DUUUUDE- You and the third rate nobodies like Fraser Kemp are unbelievably useless.

I am sure I left my pitchfork somewhere in the cellar...

"Migration Watch" may lead to softening of the brain

Last week I attended the relunch of the Centre for Reform- now known as Centre Forum. I have never been happy regarding myself, or being regarded, as "of the centre". I was still less enamoured of Adair Turner's words on Immigration during his keynote speech. After listening to Migration Watch drivel on the Today Programme a couple of weeks ago, I have come to the conclusion that those "expressing concern" about immigration either can not count or have another agenda. Milord Turner should stop reading Migration Watch and their dodgy numbers.

This supposed immigration "think tank", Migration Watch, tries not to attack immigration from the New European Union, but they have a clear agenda, which is opposed to immigration generally. The comments which come from this supposedly independent think tank could have been written by some of the more ill informed bigots on the right of British politics. Research that they publish suggests that the UK acquires new immigrants every year that are equivalent in numbers to a "City the size of Bristol" each year. This is nonsense. There is considerable churn in numbers- for example, after substantial growth in the number of Poles working in the UK over the past five years, the Polish Embassy now believes that the total number of Poles in the UK is now fairly stable, though turnover is considerable. The Migration Watch numbers fail to recognize people as they leave as well as when they enter the UK. Given the large number of British Citizens who are emigrating from the UK, if you believe the Migration Watch numbers, there would be more than a quarter of the British population that would be foreign born. In fact the number is 7% and has been stable for some time.

Implicit in the ideas of "Migration Watch" is that immigration subtracts from our national wealth: many people migrate simply to gain benefits from the British welfare system. Yet, for example: of all the many thousand EU-10 individuals who have registered to work in the UK since 2004, the total number of those who have applied for British benefits is a few hundred, and the number of those whose claims have been allowed is under 50. There is no benefits drain- a pure fiction.The next idea that anti-immigration campaigners come up with is that "they take our jobs". At a time of near full employment, this is a claim that is pretty hard to justify, but the point is that enterprises can usually only pay workers who add value to their operations. Taking a couple of extreme examples: A Lithuanian Investment Banker might develop proprietary structures for his bank worth millions, he or she will be very well paid, but will pay large amounts of Tax and NI to the UK exchequer as well as spending considerable sums in the UK economy. Another example: even an illegal Hungarian cash paid building worker adds substantial value to their employer- and thus to the UK economy. The benefit may not come directly though income tax payments, but it comes from the fact that the construction activity boosts our economy, and the money that even building workers need to spend to live also benefits our economy. The most mainstream example might be the Slovak student who works in Starbucks. Although not very well paid by British standards, the student can save enough to complete his or her studies upon their return to their home country. Thus most immigration is win-win. The Student gets to save more money and experience in an English language culture. The home country gets a transfer of money- and the UK gets the benefits of the worker- usually including tax benefits while they are in our country- and you and I get better banking services, cheaper construction or even a marginally cheaper cup of coffee served by someone with smile who is not afraid of hard work.Of course, Migration Watch will say, we are not opposed to legal EU migration- but the fact is that we get benefits from workers no matter where they come from: Australia, India, Morocco or Albania- presumably the countries that Migration watch is most concerned about. Yet, the numbers of workers entering from these countries are broadly stable or even falling. Migration Watch has compromised its integrity by failing to understand economics and distorting the numbers to serve a political point.After the most disgraceful campaign on immigration that the Conservatives fought in 2004, it is pretty easy to detect "His Master's Voice" in their spurious numbers.

Immigration is a sign of British Success and it is in fact a vital component of British success- After all, my sister, while she lived in Paris for a few years, could find no plumber at all, especially not a high quality Polish one. So, while many think tanks add to the quality of political debate, it would be wise to put a government health warning on some numbers: "Distortions and misleading facts may impair political judgement and cause ill informed voting" or "Migration Watch serves Tory Propaganda and may damage your intelligence".

Friday, August 05, 2005

Why pragmatism is dangerous

The Prime Minister has just announced that he would wish to make changes to the Human Rights Act. I have a problem with this. The basic issue is that this PM and his party are not guided by founding principles. The high theme of this government is "whatever works". For me that is extremely dangerous. A state that fails to establish explicitly where its limits truly are will expand to control all things. Political principles are not about what the State should do , but about what the state should not do. These limits to state power are the key to a successful democracy. The Human Rights act explicitly sets out what the State may not do. Tinkering with it can only increase the scope of state power and that must be resisted.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Total Perspective Vortex...

Cicero often- for good or ill- subordinated his philosophy to his political thinking. Yet in some areas like nature, humans can contemplate things beyond their own personal activities and identities. One of the most powerful images of my lifetime is a view of Earth that no other generation ever saw. The sight of our planet as a distant sphere of blue against the infinite darkness of space has changed the way in which we contemplate ourselves. Some argue that we must strive to move out from our home planet, simply because it is so fragile. Others argue that to take life away from the ecosystem is not sustainable, since the whole of our existence is bound up in the stunningly complex relationships of life that have been given the name of "Gaia".

In contemplating the myriad complexities of life on our planet, it sometimes feels that at some level perhaps we truly are contemplating the divine. In the enormous space of the Universe, it is hard to contemplate what the creator of all this could actually be- perhaps better to contemplate our smaller god and our immediate creator: the planet itself. If we start from the value of our fragile planet- see it in its broader context, then we can begin to have a much deeper awareness of the nature of our interactions with Earth and eventually to understand them- so when we contemplate the delicate fragility of our planet, we can look beyond our individualities and yet still understand them- in the right perspective.

Douglas Adams once wrote of a device, the Total Perspective Vortex, which showed the complete universe with a sign saying "you are here". The psychic shock destroyed the personality of anyone plugged in to it. Certainly the pictures of Earth have changed our perspective- and though the shock is still being felt it is, on balance, a positive shock.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Political heroes

Choosing political heroes is sometimes dangerous and often fairly partisan. So in Britain Conservatives usually choose Winston Churchill (conveniently overlooking the fact that he moved with comparative ease across party lines in his younger career) or Margaret Thatcher. Socialists often choose Nye Bevan or Atlee. Liberals probably choose Jo Grimond who brought their party back from the dead, or Paddy Ashdown who remade it.

Cicero has a wider range of political heroes. As philosophers, JS Mill, John Locke, Kant and to a degree, Friedrich von Hayek capture a philosophical defiance of tyranny. Amongst British political leaders, John Hampden, one of the five members who stood up to the tyranny of Charles I, is sometimes seen as a proto-Liberal. Pitt the Elder, who spoke for the freedom of the American colonists against the foolish authority of George III stands as a giant of a later century. For the nineteenth century, Gladstone, whose rousing speeches during the Midlothian campaign awoke the conscience of Britain over the Bulgarian atrocities stands out as a great man and a great Prime Minister. Then perhaps John Bright and Richard Cobden, who were the first real campaigners for free trade. In the twentieth century, FDR for his personal courage as well as Churchill for his glorious rhetoric in the face of Hitler. Tomas Masaryk, the apostle of Liberal nationalism and Jaan Tonisson, the Estonian leader who spoke for Europe a hundred years ahead of its time. Of course, more conventionally, Cicero also approves of Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. For moral courage, Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet or Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright are also great heroes to me.

Villains are often so much more obvious: Pol Pot, or Mao-tse-Tung, Hitler or Stalin are all vile murderers and their crimes evil but sadly far from unique. In Britain such evil is not accounted in our recent history, so our villains are mistaken rather than crudely evil, though doubtless many Communists had the potential, as Oswald Mosley did, to sow hatred and violence- if they had ever got the chance. We have our fair share of less creditable leaders: Charles I, whose inflexibility and incompetence cost him his throne and his head. Disraeli and his charlatan policies that swapped the realities of economic power for the tawdry expense of Imperialism. As for the mistaken of the twentieth century, well Chamberlain for his foolish appeasement or Attlee with his milksop economic socialism cost our country dearly- Baldwin too. All these the masters of the locust years when Britain withered in influence and power.

In the end the heroes have vision and moral courage, the villains are banal or blinkered.

Cicero

Marcus Tulius Cicero was born on January 3rd 106 B.C. and was murdered on December 7th 43 B.C. He can be seen as the interpreter of many important concepts that had been previously created by Greek philosophers. He translated into Latin many key concepts from the original Greek. We now derive our English words from these translations such as: morals, individual, science, property and appetite. A sceptical philosopher, he shared with the stoics a belief in moderation. He was a popular and sucessful politician during the period of the Roman Republic. Though he felt that the virtue had gone out of the institutions, he continued to uphold the Republic in the face of the growing threat of tyranny and it was his passionate defence of the Republican system that ultimately cost him his life.

Many themes of this blog will be political. I hope that many of the themes will be informed by the Ciceronian tradition of moderation. Some themes will be the exploration of the nature of individual freedoms from the perspective of Liberal ideology. Some themes will be more eastern European- a long term professional and personal interest of mine. Some will be simply whimsy. Always, and explicitly, my bias is from the viewpoint of a political, economic and social Liberal. This is in the European, not the American sense of this word.

I hope that you enjoy it.