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".