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Showing posts from 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 de…

"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 decad…

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 …

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…

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 a…

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,…

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.

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 …

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 t…

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 …

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 h…

"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 el…

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 prototypi…

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 membe…

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, "Co…

"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 …

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.

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 al…

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…

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 freedo…