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.