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.


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.