Thursday, December 28, 2006

If Freedom fail

Over the past year, one of the major themes of this blog has been Freedom.

However, this is not the kind of freedom where "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law".

It is my belief that the individual has the right to live their life untroubled and untrammelled. Everyone should be free to choose to "go to the devil their own way".

Nevertheless, there are many snares in untrammelled freedom- selfishness cuts us off from others, greed ultimately poisons our bodies, or our happiness. Materialism leads us to neglect ourselves in favour of possessions.

So, although I will make no judgments of others, it is clear that there are certain disciplines that we can impose upon ourselves that will help us live more fulfilled and happier lives. It is these disciplines that form the basis of morality and ethics.

From the 1930s, the Oxford Group began to talk about a "moral re-armament" in the face of the challenges of both Hitler and Stalin, and while occasionally the ideals of what became Moral Re-armament (M.R.A.) may have strayed either into naivete or directly political action, the core values have stood some surprising tests. The twelve-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous has its roots amidst the Oxford Group, for example.

When I was a child, my father was interested in the values of Moral Re-armament, and had an audio tape of M.R.A.s Gilbert and Sullivan style satire on the Cold War: The Vanishing Island, which we used to listen to on long car journeys. At the time, the key to the satire appeared to be be the Cold War itself- the regimented forces of Weiheit'tiu (We Hate You) challenging the power of the island of Eiluph'mei (I Love Me). Now, and with a more adult eye, I see that the satire was as much about the license that freedom gives to selfishness and greed. Although dated, I still find myself picking up on the cynicism of the Press that is portrayed in the song "Inky Scribes" or the self satisfaction in the words of "We are right, you are wrong"- a song that sums up the arrogance of George W. Bush to perfection.

The core message of the Oxford Group is the need to take personal responsibility for one's own actions and behaviour. Although originally a Christian Group, Moral Re-armament, now known as Initiatives of Change, has embraced members of all religions, and those whose tenets prefer to embrace a voice of conscience instead. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the Group itself, the message of the Oxford Group seems to be gaining a greater resonance in our own time.

In the West, we live in a time of unparalleled abundance- yet our actions are polluting the world. We give ourselves more and more license, yet in order to posses things once thought of as luxuries we now commit to greater financial burdens. The conformity of groups has eroded our rights to be respected as individuals.

Our society has become one where those who take responsibility end up becoming blamed, while those who shirk responsibility are ignored. Our political system has become a paralyzed bureaucracy, dependent on 18th or 19th Century technology and ideas. Our universal principles reduced to the flummery that disguises an all powerful executive, which seems determined to reduce the power of individuals as far as possible. Without personal responsibility, the human spirit is reduced to irresponsibility- and society begins to lose cohesion.

Meanwhile, the power of organised religion- a previous source of morality- has declined into the ritualistic. The moral force that religion once had has been blunted by the increasingly undeniable truths of science. Western society no longer accepts the unvarnished tenets of faith. In a sense this is a maturing- we can now see our place in the Universe more clearly. Yet this change in perception has removed the parental figure of the God of Religion. We still know very little of our place in the Universe, and dimly we perceive the value of the moral and ethical lessons of the past. Slacking our physical appetities does not necessarily filfil us, shirking responsibility reduces our sense of autonomy. Yet no single spiritual manifesto seems to address modern concerns.

Vaclav Havel spoke out against Communism in "The Power of the Powerless"- and he also put forward a moral manifesto for a citizen against the state: "The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility", perhaps this can be the basis for a new political perception.

Today we face the challenge of fanaticism- this time "We Hate You" comes in the monstrous actions of Al-Qaida. Their barbarity may tempt us to act intemperately, but as Iraq must surely demonstrate-we must not give into the temptations of revenge rather than reason.

More and more the greatest challenge we face is in ourselves- the challenge of overcoming our own actions. Our failure to nurture moral disciplines in ourselves has allowed our Greed to turn the gardens of China into polluted deserts and the seas of the world into fished-out dustbins. Our failure to nurture our offspring leads to ill educated, feral children whose lack of personal autonomy makes them live their lives in a consequence-free moral vacuum. Ultimately our greed and our selfishness destroys us as well as everything else they damage.

I do not put forward the manifesto of a philosopher-king, Freedom allows all to make moral choices within the law. However, genuine freedom gives, indeed insists upon, personal autonomy and responsibility.

As a Liberal I demand the freedom to take responsibilty for my own life. It is not merely a civic duty but a moral obligation. Though many will regard this as pointless dreaming, yet will I leave with one further thought from Havel:

"Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance."

As I see the banalities of our political cycle seem poised to move to their own imperatives, yet will I continue to campaign for Freedom. I will also seek a path of moral responsibility based upon personal autonomy. Honesty, purity unselfishness and love do not seem like bad influences upon the course of life. The next years will need a far greater political and moral vision- and we can not rely on our leaders to provide it. It is up to ourselves to make moral choices and to speak out for the principles and values of freedom in the face of indifference, ignorance or hostility.

"Events.." in the natural world

Just over a year ago a gigantic earthquake hit the fault between the Indian and Burma tectonic plates. At 9.3 on the Richter scale it was the second largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. A few minutes after the quake had stilled, the first tsunami came ashore on Sumatra, before spreading out across the Indian Ocean. Along a huge section of coast the surge of water flooded ashore- often for many miles. The US Geological Survey initially recorded the casualty toll as 283,100 killed, 14,100 missing, and 1,126,900 people displaced- one of the most destructive natural disasters ever recorded.

The Boxing Day Earthquake reminds us that the unexpected can come from many different quarters. Humans seem remarkably good at ignoring long term danger- until, that is disaster strikes.

There are several events that may at the time be considered "black swan events"- that is that they are inherently unpredictable- arguably 9/11 was one such event. However this is not so with many natural disasters. The problem is not forecasting what will occur, this is usually very clear, but when. For example Mount Vesuvius near Naples has been a regularly erupting Vulcano for all of human history- averaging an eruption about six times a century. However since 1944, the Mountain has been quiet. That the vulcano will erupt again is a certainty- when is highly unpredictable.

Similar statistics show up in the Kanto fault under Tokyo- regular large Earthquakes about every sixty years: the last one being the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake - Yes, one seems overdue at the moment. Other major cities, like San Francisco and Istanbul are also prone to large scale, destructive earthquakes, but on a regular scale that is longer than a single human life- so people forget about the risks. Floods and Storms are also certainties on a macro scale- but so unpredictable on a micro scale that preparation is almost always suspect: as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina proved so brutally.

However, it is easy to add another unserious prediction to our survey: large scale natural disasters will occur in 2007, and humans will probably be unprepared for them.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"Events...." in Europe

Christmas, the season of Saturnalia, has come and gone.

The days are drawing out- albeit that it will be weeks before we notice the longer daylight.

It is impossible to know what 2007 holds. We can talk about trends, but this forgets the "black swan" events that are by their nature unpredictable. The Grim Reaper can confuse many calculations- as he seems to have done in Turkmenistan with the death of the brutal dictator Niyazov, leaving no obvious successor. New ideas can gain purchase rapidly and then turn into the Conventional Wisdom. So I make no serious predictions about the passage of events.

So I will devote this fallow period before real work restarts to some unserious thoughts about the kind of events that may shape the coming year.

"Unseriously", we could think of many things that might happen in 2007- Iran may go nuclear, or may go moderate. North Korea may collapse or linger on. China may reform or crack down. Each seems about equally likely at the moment.

Yet many things will inevitably change- Tony Blair is committed to leaving office, for example. It remains to be seen if his heir presumptive, Gordon Brown, can maintain the success of the power machine that the Labour Party has become. Yet whoever becomes the Prime Minister will face new and different challenges, not least from the changing European environment.

The European Union continues to struggle to establish the ground rules for a Union of 27. Now it does seem that an attempt will be made to resurrect the constitution in 2007. The defeat of (and in) France may prove to have been a transitory one, and in fact it is Britain- rejected by the United States and increasingly riven by separatist factions- that may face the greatest problems in the coming year. After all, it seems very likely in 2007 that France will have a replacement for her discredited leader, Jacques Chirac. In the likely honeymoon period that the new President may have, much may be achieved- at home as well as abroad. Quietly the ratification process of the constitution has continued- and 17 countries have ratified the treaty.

The problem is not what the Constitutional treaty is, the problem is what it represents. In fact, it is a series of compromises set out with the aim of reducing the cumbersome fabric of the European Union. Yet the political nature of the document has made it a domestic football in France and the Netherlands, and a total deal breaker in the United Kingdom. In short, the stance of the British Press and the Conservative Party would make it extremely difficult for the UK to ratify the treaty at all under most likely scenarios.

So, a first unserious prediction: Europe will return to the forefront of the political battleground in 2007

Thursday, December 21, 2006

No State Funding for Political Parties

Labour gets ever more mired in the cash for peerages mess. The Tories find themselves funded by obscure trusts in Liechtenstein. Questions continue about the Michael Brown affair amongst the Lib Dems.

Some commentators now believe that political parties should be funded directly by the state. After all, goes the argument, it is necessary for the workings of the political system to have vigorous, well funded parties and it is better to have these openly funded rather than by foreign or other questionable sources.

Bluntly, this is self serving bulls**t.

If the political parties can not manage to fund themselves in a legal or orderly way, then I have no quarrel with the idea that they should go under.

Why should what is, in effect, a private club that seeks to fund a massive advertising campaign every few years get its money from the state, that is to say, from everyone else?

If Labour or Tories can not run themselves without recourse to unsustainable levels of debt, then tough- they will have to scale back what they do. As it is, Labour and the Tories rely on the support of Trade Unions and shareholders of major corporations who may not actually support the ideals of either of the two parties.

As for the Liberal Democrats. I believe we should return the money to the defrauded shareholders in Michael Brown's companies- it will be tough, but at the end of the day it will demonstrate that we are serious about being funded only by our members and supporters.

The party funding scandal will just get murkier- the strange and private groups of business people who are scouting for money for the Conservatives are likely to get Mr. Cameron into just as much trouble as "Lord" Levy and Mr. Blair.

Meanwhile, state funding profoundly disadvantages any new parties- and frankly I think that the current set up could do with more competition. With the current absurd electoral system in place, state funding will make the political system even less responsive- more professionalised, less rooted in the wider community- than it is already.

I do not see why I should pay a penny to the Conservatives or Labour, so the idea of funding tens of millions in advertising for them is totally repellent.

It is up to the electorate to punish political parties that are prepared to bend and break the law, and state funding just rewards politicians who can't stay honest...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What are the Liberal Democrats for?

An occasional poster to this blog, "Lepidus" made the following comment:

"many Lib Dems will likely be elected on the back of "Tory Votes" as was John Leech, so you are wise to seek out Labour held seats, as they will be far the easier pickings. You have I think adopted the classic Lib Dem obsession with the Tories at the point when the easier pickings are elsewhere even if some like Gidley weren't hammering the final nail into their political careers themselves, hence your strident tones. Excuse my cynicism but if the Tories were more "ideological" in your view you would be lambasting them equally hard for being "extreme", come to think of it that makes you a perfect Lib Dem MP Consul! I look forward your new Philippics in the HoC."

Essentially, if I can paraphrase: basically "don't get hung up on Tories, it will be easier to beat Labour".

I think to answer the point, I have to step back and reiterate why I support the Lib Dems and not the Conservative Party, still less the Labour Party.

I am a free market Liberal- it is axiomatic that freedom delivers better outcomes than a command economy. Neither do I believe in social class as the first component of society and am therefore anti Marxist.

This already makes me far less likely to support even a Fabianite form of Socialism. Although clause four has gone, the intellectual roots of Labour remain in "the Labour movement" - an explicitly class driven set of groups. The result is that Labour policies in office have always tended to amass power to the state and to believe that this is a superior way to organise society.

I am profound sceptical about the power of the state as a force for good and, although Labour have tended to enact more socially liberal measures in office, the fact is that I reject their core ideology.

The Conservatives can be said to have two core roots. The first is closer to the Liberal identity as far as economic organisation is concerned. However, the second is to be socially conservative- a belief in certain long standing social models for behaviour, and a rather prescriptive code of personal moral conduct, including sexual conduct. For me this is deeply unattractive. It implies a moral judgment and control by the state over personal conduct outside of what is limited by law.

So, although I can share some Conservative points of view on economic policy, I reject a fundamental part of their core values.

So the positive features of the Liberal Democrats?

The Liberal Democrats are pro-individual in economic, social and political spheres. The core value of the Liberal Democrats can be put in two sentences from John Stuart Mill:

"That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant."

Or, if you prefer PJ O Rourke:

"There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences"

It is through this prism that I examine political discourse in this country and the world. For example, I notice from my long standing (over 20 years) relationship with Estonia, that the key to good government is simplicity.

I am ideological about this- and so, by the way is my party: almost all our slogans start with Freedom.

So, from high principle, down to low politics.

The basic principle of Socialism is dead- long ignored by Labour, but with the complete abandonment only coming under Tony Blair. Labour was turned by him into a power machine, designed to bring power to the Blair-Brown axis. It was extremely successful in doing so. The problem for Labour has been what to do with power once gained. Some of the Lib Dem agenda- independence for the Bank of England, devolution of power away from Whitehall has been adopted. Apart from that, this government has created legislation at a truly manic rate. Their view of power demands repeated "action". The command roots of Labour have never been more obvious- inheriting the centralised system of government from the Conservatives, they have turned Whitehall into a machine to impose their will on the state through incontinent and ill thought out law making.

Unfortunately- it has failed. It is too complicated, too top heavy and too expensive.

What is the Conservative response?

To try to turn their own party into a contending machine. The lesson they learned from Blair was that being fuzzy about core principles and focus on power alone. This is the only route, they believe, that might enable the party to become a contender for government. The coterie of people around David Cameron have no other experience except the "Westminster Bubble"- and they are deeply impressed with the use of power under Labour.

But even Marx knew: "history repeats itself twice, first as tragedy, then as farce".

Even if Cameron achieves power- his sole definition of success- he will fail in government.

The intellectual sloppiness of Cameron is shocking, his whole approach is based on giving the electorate what they say they want. It is the exact opposite of the kind of politics of principle that great leaders must espouse. There is ultimately no future in Cameron's Conservatives, because there is a vacuum at the very heart of his ideas.

So, that a long way of answering Lepidus.

What about the implications for the future?

It may well be that Labour's implosion comes before that of the Conservatives, after all the intellectual bankruptcy of Socialism is more long standing, but the steady decline of political participation shows all is not well anywhere in politics.

Liberalism is a simple vision, but it is a powerful one. I believe that the radical changes that are coming in our society will demand wholesale reform of our political system. The death of political parties might be part of that, and for many people, not in the least unwelcome. In the face of wrench changes, where information technology could challenge the very concept of freedom as we know it, I see no coherent vision except in the idea of freedom above all things- that is Liberalism.

In is far as I may be said to be in politics at all, I am in it to articulate a vision.

This vision is: to increase Freedom, to ensure Justice and protect Individuality.

If Labour or the Conservatives could articulate such a vision for political renewal, then I would take them seriously- but they do not and can not- they fight yesterday's battles with yesterday's weapons.

Does that answer your question, Lepidus?

Ooh Cheeky...

I know, I know... Lembit Opik- crazy name, crazy guy.

I saw him about a month ago and he said that he had broken up with Sian, and that "it was not going too well".

Lembit is a treasure- genuinely funny, albeit ever so slightly manic (after all a pilot, expecially a paragliding pilot is clearly closer to the thrill seeking end of the personal equation).

Although the extremely detailed interview that Sian gave the newspapers was clearly done for a great deal of money, I don't really see too much damage to Lembit in the long term.

Women will wonder what he has in him, and guys will generally feel that a Cheeky girl sounds like fun.

In the shallow waters of mild celebrity such emotional squalls are to be expected- and are basically good entertainment.

Personally I have been laughing like a drain for several days... and I am grinning still.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Russia faces catastrophe

An interesting article from Matthew Lynn at Bloomberg deserves wider circulation.

The implications of his point that Russia is not a sensible place for major international investment are even more profound than they first appear.

Essentially Russia is not only refusing to allow international business to function, but where investment is being made in capital equipment and techniques that the Russians do not posses themselves, then they are trying to steal this proprietary technology.

Meanwhile the political picture grows more violent. Putin's "Nashi" goons continue to harass anyone they see fit- including the widespread use of violence and murder.

This is not a recipe for a powerful Russia. It is a recipe for an impoverished, weak and isolated Russia. Such is the catastophe that the KGB Colonel has led his country into.

The greedy, Mafia state will fail- and with unforeseeable consequences. Despite the flow of petro-dollars, the money leaves Russia as fast as it arrives. Away from the Potemkin villages of Moscow and St. Petersburg, conditions are little better than mediaeval. Corrupt and broken police forces vie with the local hoodlums to see who can extract more from the defeated and downtrodden populace. The corrupt and brutal army continues to bully thousands of conscripts- hundreds of whom die each year. Meanwhile generals make a niced cut selling arms, often to the Mafia or to the Chechen troops that they are supposed to be fighting.

The average Russian male can now expect to live less than 52 years. Most even of that short time is likely to be in a drunken haze of gutrot vodka.

By taking away peoples rights to control their own lives, you take away their reason to live. The criminal regime of the vile Putin- now apparently the richest man in his tin-pot kingdom- has destroyed more than it created, but mostly it has destroyed the most precious thing of all: hope.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Strategy versus Tactics

Much of the daily grind of politics is about the getting and keeping of power, rather than a considered approach to what you do with power once you have got it.

To be honest I think that this is where a lot of the current disillusion with politics emerges from.

If you are political anorak, there are few places better for endless discussions about the mechanics of elections than http://www.politicalbetting.com/

I particularly recommend their latest discussion on the electoral maths of hung Parliaments.

However, there are fewer discussions about first principles- and yet for me, this is what is attractive about the idea of politics. The fundamental questions about what political power is and what the aims and practice of politics should be can be inspiring topics. Young people are passionate about political topics, from the environment to health- overtly political areas- but the business of party politics is viewed with suspicion and even disgust.

We might blame the media, and it is true that the 20 second soundbite is not a good way to judge complicated and difficult areas of policy. However, we should also blame ourselves as political animals for failing to engage fully with the political process. Time and again I see party political point scoring, even when the cause is lost and the points being made are irrelevant. It seems that our determination to support a given position leads to closed minds, and that particularly is what turns people off politics.

Open minded politics is about gaining positive outcomes- the art of the possible- but it is also about putting forward honest ideas and honest choices. In a futile search for passing popularity , most of our politicians sacrifice the truth.

It has not made for a very virtuous political system. If you believe with Aristotle that "All virtue is summed up in dealing justly". Then the compromises and half measures served up as political programmes are distinctly unappealing.

Once again I re-iterate my call for strategic thinking, open minded approaches and honest dealing. Many may consider it a fools errand.

I consider it essential that our political system rediscovers the need for virtue. Long term strategic principles and not short term tactical battles are what is inspiring about politics- and what is necessary.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Green Christmas

Sir David Attenborough made a striking statement in his evidence to the Parliamentary committee. "Wasting Energy", he said, "is morally wrong".

He has a point. Even Lapland has no snow this year and it is now thought that 2006 was the warmest year on record. The evidence for a significant warming of the planet taking place is now substantial.

There is also increasing evidence that global warming is a man made phenomenon.

In nature, it is very rare to find waste- there are niches for life virtually everywhere on the planet. Therefore, the dumping of excess waste heat is bound to cause serious imbalances.

It is incumbent upon humanity to live our lives in a manner that respects the balance of nature.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

From Soviet Socialism to National Socialism in 15 years

After the murder of Litvinenko, perhaps we should not be surprised that Shell have decided to relinquish control of the Sakhalin-2 energy fields. As BP's deal with TNK now increasingly comes into the spotlight, it is salutary to see the campaign of harassment against the British Ambassador waged by Putin's thugs.

The fact is that Russia has drifted into "capitalism in one country"- failing to acknowledge the necessity to trade in order to gain expertise. The only relationship they seem to understand is control and compulsion.

This is Fascism.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Rain in Albania

It has been a busy day, enduring the pelting rain in the Albanian capital.

My purpose was to meet with various public figures and discuss ideas about investment. The first port of call was The President of the Republic. As the traffic in the crowded streets of Tirana began to delay us, I got out of the inevitable Mercedes and strode out, in order to meet my appointment on time.

I was-just- on time, but President Moisiu has a military sense of timing. I was reminded that "punctuality is the politeness of Kings", as I arrived in his office about five minutes later than 11.00. Nevertheless it was interesting to see way that such a man engages with the new Albania. As a general in the Albanian army he was given the job of building the famous "bunkers"- three million pill boxes- that the Dictator decreed. Although Hoxha was a megalomaniac, even he must have been surprised by the effectiveness of the army in completing the task. President Moisiu is known as conciliator, and I reflected on the strange twists of fate in the life of this man. Behind the President's desk I noticed the insignia of the Order of St. Michael and St. George- the British diplomatic order, originally founded during British rule over neighbouring Corfu in 1817.

A later meeting was with the fiery Prime Minister, Sali Berisha. My Albanian hosts were astonished to discover that the PM devoted as much as 45 minutes to a one-on-one meeting. Yet we had much to discuss. I was prepared to find a professional controversialist. In fact I found a man still engaged with ideas, and angry that the legacy of the dictatorship was slowing him down. As he outlined Albanian plans for a flat tax and a whole raft of reforms, I must admit I grew more and more impressed. Despite his pugnacious form of expression, I sensed a determined leader- albeit one challenged from every side.

Albania is still a backward and neglected country- and one with low levels of social capital and major corruption problems. Despite all of this, it has been transformed from the ghost town of my first acquaintance into a country that has achieved many things, but hopes for so much more.

As the rain hits the windows of my hotel bedroom, I gaze across the city. The low levels of water in the rivers is causing problems in the power system, which is almost entirely hydro powered. Lights across the city flicker, and sometimes grow dark. Yet as the rain comes down I reflect that the dams must be filling up. Though the politics remain poisonous and personal, though power generation is now at crisis levels, yet the Albanians remain indomitable in the face of these problems.

Albania this December is a surprisingly hopeful place.

Are you thinking what they're thinking?

As the Conservatives and their blinkered friends in "Migration Watch" continue to pedal their warped ideas about immigration, it was interesting to get some information about British emigration overseas. In recent years we have heard a lot from the Tories about refusing to let in "non-European immigration" to the UK. Fascinating to notice that apart from Spain, most Brits chose to leave the UK and go to... Non European destinations.

A good thing that the New Zealanders are not arguing "send them back" then.

The fact is that emigration/immigration are subjects that are far to complicated to be debated using the language of the Daily Mail.

So, by all means let us discuss the question of migration, only please, without the misrepresentations and distortions of "Migration Watch" and the Tory party.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

En Route to Tirana

I am "enjoying" the dubious pleasures of Stansted Airport as I wait for my flight to the Albanian capital.

I am due to meet with senior figures in the government of Albania to discuss the results of a meeting that I hosted between Estonian political figures and the Albanian PMs advisor in London. I will also be discussing aspects of a potential involvement between the firm that I advise and the Albanian financial system- such as it is.

However already, the extra immigration checks and the rather piratical figure of the Albanian Airlines rep are setting the usual tone: that Albania is still too poor and chaotic to be either trusted or liked by the European powers.

Nevertheless, the fact that those who sent me are interested enough to do so, and that those who have issued the invitation understand why, is encouraging.

Albania is still in the middle of a long and hard journey, but recent progress has been swift- I sense similar things beginning to happen in Albania as have already taken place in the majority of the countries of the region. On the other hand, perhaps a Banker in Tirana is the definition of optimism.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Are the Liberal Democrats Libertarian?

A few days ago Cicero met with one of the better known figures in the Libertarian Alliance, Brian Mickelthwait. Brian writes for various blogs that I enjoy reading- including Samizdata.

Ahead of our meeting Brain expressed "scepticism" about the Libertarian credentials of the Liberal Democrats: "My charge was that when you meet a Liberal Democrat you never know what he will believe. The one who talks to you is likely to say what you want to hear. But the others will simultaneously be telling other people with quite different views what they want to hear. So don't vote for these lying creeps."

Political parties- all of them- are coalitions of people who quite often disagree with each other. Apparently we are not supposed to "air our dirty linen in public", but actually one of the reasons that the Liberal Democrats appealed to me was that they were prepared to talk about issues and policies amongst themselves in public. The eclipse of the Liberal Party as a force in government led to the party becoming a ginger group for pioneering ideas- ideas that were subsequently put into place by other parties. Liberalism was about ideas more than power.

However, over the past fifteen years something important has happened in British politics. Social changes have undermined thecoherentt "class" basis for the Conservatives and Labour. As a result the ideological underpinning of first Labour and now the Conservatives' agenda has weakened drastically. The consequences have been the creation of PR driven, increasingly unideological political agendas- so-called "triangulation". However, the Liberal Democrats have actually gone in the other direction. More and more the debates inside the party have begun to relate to first principles of Liberal ideology.

The emergence of a group of successful over achievers in the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party- David Laws, Edward Davey, Nick Clegg, Susan Kramer and so on has brought the debate to the highest level. The publication of "The Orange Book" was a key step in framing the debate in much more explicitly economically Liberal terms.

At the time, the leadership of Charles Kennedy was reluctant to engage with the debate- and many activists in the party found it difficult to accept the policy conclusions that were drawn in the book. However, although Ming Campbell has continued to call himself a politician of the centre-left"- a position I have explicitly rejecte. Nonetheless, the new leadership has actively engaged with the economic Liberal positions. Meanwhile the members have actually got round to reading the book. New policies- especially on deregulation-explicitly come from the freedom agenda, while the debate on taxation has shifted from a tax and spend perspective to the ideology of "setting limits to the role of the state"- which for me is the hallmark of Liberalism. From our commitment to civil rights is emerging a far more Liberal approach across the board-especially in taxation and the wider issues of the economy.

To a degree the Liberals and Liberal Democrats never wholly lost the free market agenda- Malcolm Bruce was talking about similar issues when he was industry and treasury spokesman 20 years ago- but there is no doubt that there was and remains a significant constituency for a more Social Democrat "social justice agenda" inside the party. However to me this is no more shocking than seeing Social Conservatives and Libertarians inside the Conservative Party. The reality is that any political party is a coalition.

The publication of a follow up to The Orange Book: Britain after Blair continues to advance the debate inside our party in the direction of an explicitly freedom driven agenda. Although the debate continues, the fact is that issues like land tax, flat tax, deregulation and so on are being taken seriously, even by those who do not necessarily support them.

So the answer to Brain Micklethwait is no, we are not yet wholly Libertarian- but no party is, or is likely to be. However there is an increasing number of Liberal Democrats who are absolutely Economic and Social Liberals. I believe that the tradition of J.S. Mill in our party makes us far more open to the ideas of Hayek than any other political party. I also believe that as the Labour and Conservatives descend into Butskillite mush, the Liberal Democrats will develop a firmer ideological edge over our rivals, and that as a party we will reap the rewards.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The tax-and-spend dead end

Having finally analyzed the Chancellors pre-budget report, it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry. As Philip Webster and Gary Duncan write in The Times today, Gordon Brown has simply repeated his habit of imposing extra taxes and increasing public borrowing. At a time of severe labour shortages in the construction sector, the timing of his announcement of further expenditure to refurbish schools could hardly be worse.

Meanwhile his cocktail of "green taxes" looks weak and ineffective. Whereas, the Liberal Democrats would increase taxes on pollution and cut taxes elsewhere, the Labour government just increases taxes. The British economy is already groaning under the weight of Gordon Brown's attempts at micro management. Meanwhile Cameron's promise to "share the proceeds of growth"- increasing expenditure while making undefined pledges on lower taxes just looks like what it is: pure waffle.

The fact is that a limit must be set on the size of the state- and since Gordon Brown began ignoring his own "golden rule", neither Conservatives nor Labour are prepared to accept this. The proportion of the national income under state control is too high and must fall. The Liberal Democrats have pointed out several ways about how to do this- scrapping a large part of regulation, and closing large parts of Whitehall, including the abolition of the Department of Trade and Industry (or Timidity and Inactivity, as Private Eye has it).

Brown and Osbourne are two cats up the same tree- both advocate increasing government expenditure practically without limit. Both fail to understand the need to simplify and reduce the role of the state. Both are in a dead end.

The time has come to challenge the Blair-Brown legacy: over regulated, over taxed, and over bearing.

It is such a pity that David Cameron would say almost anything to get elected, anything that is, except the right thing.

So the task must fall to Ming Campbell and Vince Cable- The tax-and-spend consensus is choking the British economy- it must be challenged and harried at every turn!

Propagande.. c'est quoi?

The corrupt and incompetent M. Jacques Chirac does it again.

Since the free world does not find the French world view... commercial, the government of France has decided to set up its version of Al Jazeera.

Despite a budget less than 10% of CNN it is still tens of millions of Euros out of the pocket of the French tax payer.

Un elephant blanc, peut-etre?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Separatist Sirens in Scotland..and England

Much is being made of the development of a small lead for the SNP in the opinion polls ahead of next years election to Holyrood. In addition there is said to be small majorities in favour of independence on both sides of the border. The way some tell it, the United Kingdom is headed for inevitable dissolution.

So, it is a relief to see a much more balanced analysis from Magnus Linklater in The Times.

The key point is that while the idea of independence might be emotionally attractive, the practical realities would be deeply unpopular and as a result, even were the SNP to be able to form a government at Holyrood next year, they would be highly unlikely to win a referendum on independence. The support for the SNP is support for an opposition- and as the election draws nearer, even that lead in the polls may prove illusory.

To a certain extent the increase in the support for the SNP reflects the final despair of the Scottish Conservatives. The classically liberal elements of the Scottish Conservatives have seen the success of the liberal policies in the Baltic countries and now believe that Scotland could aspire to the same Über-Liberal nirvana- as an independent state. Unfortunately the economic policies of the SNP are based on the Social Democrat centre of gravity of Scottish politics. The radical nature of Liberal policies is not likely to be loved by the Socialist wing of the party, so ex-Tory entryism is unlikely to capture the heart of the SNP- despite their dreams.

The SNP stands for only one thing: independence; but against lots of things,including many things that provide Scotland with jobs. Even if they could gain power, they are likely to prove factional and unstable- defections and disagreements are the norm for the SNP. The fact is that separatist politics has a long way to go before it can mature enough to create stable economic or even constitutional policies for Scotland- it still can not decide whether Scotland would be a Republic or not. In short, it seems unlikely that the SNP alone could carry Scotland to independence without a significant change in the current conditions.

Of course one of these changes might be a backlash in England. There are two sources for discontent south of the Tweed- one is the question of local government and the other is a national question.

The grumbling about the perceived subsidy of Scotland has become a roar since the Holyrood Parliament was established. Of course the fact is that any constitutional settlement should take into account the whole of the UK, and the advent of assemblies or Parliaments for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has left a glaring omission: England.

Originally the idea was that English regional assemblies would fill the gap. However the primary identification for most English people remains with the county. Sports,especially cricket, remain organised by counties. "Eastern Region" masks intense rivalries between Norfolk and Suffolk; "South West Region", stretching from Gloucestershire to Cornwall, can barely be said to have a common identity at all. If local government is to have local roots, then there is a case for much stronger county governments, which can cooperate amongst themselves on an ad hoc basis where appropriate, rather than the devolution of Whitehall to regional bureaucratic hubs. Then a weaker "English Assembly" could sit as a committee of the House of Commons.

I put forward the idea, since it strikes me that the one size fits all approach to local government is clearly not appropriate. Most English counties have populations around a half a million- and several are over a million- a level that is greater than several individual member states of the European Union. Although the British civil service has split itself, to some degree, in order to work under unelected regional groupings, the fact is that the regions remain unpopular and regional assemblies have already been rejected in referenda.

The national question is bound up in sense of English grievance about the whole idea of the UK. Personally I find Conservative complaints about "the whinging Jocks" pretty irritating. It reflects the lack of confidence that repeated defeat is instilling into many Conservative minds. "Since we win a plurality of votes in England, should we not control England, and let Scotland separate?". I do not understand such weak minded self indulgence. The United Kingdom stands for many positive virtues- not least the idea that nations can work together harmoniously. Our long history together has seen lows- the slave trade, some aspects of colonialisation- but also enormous success- the rise of industry, liberal politics and a culture of liberty and tolerance. Our shared institutions include everything from the RNLI to the BBC, and this is social capital that takes years to build, but which can be destroyed all too easily.

Real leadership involves speaking up for those shared values- leaders of all political groups should remind the British people constantly of the value of our shared civic identity. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, supporters of devolution, have been far more forthright in supporting the UK than the Conservatives, who opposed it. This reflects a political calculation that is profoundly dangerous. The vacuum that the weakness of the Scottish Conservatives is creating is a window of opportunity for separatism- but with vision and leadership the separatist sirens can be beaten- on both sides of the border.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Bemused..

Last week the Adam Smith Institute linked to a piece I did advocating greater understanding and use of markets in dealing with our housing crisis. Today I see The Guardian has linked to my piece pointing out the heroically overspun Blairite approach to hospital closures.

I suppose what they have in common is hostility to Mr. Blair.

Mind you, good to see that Liberalism can be attractive to people across the British political spectrum...

A tide in the affairs of men

Last night Cicero attended a talk given by Steve Forbes, the American publisher and former presidential candidate at the London Junto- a discussion group for financiers, loosely modeled upon Ben Franklin's original Junto.

Ben Franklin famously said "Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.". So it was particularly appropriate that the leading American advocate of flat tax should be speaking to the group.

Cicero has been involved with the Baltic countries since he first discovered the Estonian Legation in London in 1979 and Estonia has been in the vanguard of the flat tax movement in Europe. Following Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia and Montenegro have all adopted modified flat tax regimes, with new countries joining the list quite regularly.

So far, no Western European state has adopted flat taxes.

A major benefit of a flat tax is that since there are no deductibles, it becomes extremely simple to calculate- thus the expensive tax bureaucracy and the large number of accountants required to help taxpayers fill in the complicated forms are no longer needed. It is therefore a huge saving in collection costs. In Estonia the tax form is a single sheet of A4 that can even be completed online, if you wish.

Perhaps a part of the reason that Western Europe has not adopted the flat system, is that there are several misconceptions about what the results of a flat tax actually are. A single tax rate is seen as being unfair to the poor- since, as a proportion the rich pay the same rate as the less well off. Yet, if the tax free threshold is set high enough even an average tax payer can pay very low levels of income tax- and the system is therefore still progressive.

Indeed, the high rates of taxation under the "progressive" regime, together with a large number of "middle class" tax credits has meant that many of the poorest pay a far higher proportion of income in tax than the middle class, while the rich actually now pay least of all. The wealthy establish a network of off shore structures in order to shelter their assets or income from income or capital gain tax, and since the tax rates can be 40% or 50%, it is economic to spend money to create these complicated and expensive structures.

The policy of Gordon Brown- creating very large tax credit systems- has succeeded to some degree in creating a client relationship for many citizens with the state. The state has increased its power over the citizen by offering tax credit payments. The problem is that the increasing costs of administering these gigantic programmes is creating a fiscal drag- the costs are slowing down our economy.

Steve Forbes spoke very much about American conditions- yet, although the British tax code is not yet as complicated as the US, it is certainly heading in that direction. If we are to avoid the cul-de-sac of an almighty fiscal bureaucracy, we must act quickly to simplify taxation.

Fair, Simple, and cheap to collect should be our watch words- it is time for the British Liberal Democrats to speak up for a tax system that actually delivers these things. The current taxation system does none of these things- Brown's policy (and Cameron's acceptance of it) must be challenged.

As the flat tax tide rises across Europe, it is time for the United Kingdom Liberal Democrats to debate these issues honestly and openly.

.

Russia: How not to win friends

The latest comments from the Russian chief prosecutor are not acceptable.

Unless Mr. Putin actually wants a major diplomatic crisis- to include the arrest and or expulsion of the very large number of Russian spies in the United Kingdom- then I would suggest that he talks to his chief prosecutor- now.

The patience of the United Kingdom in the face of murder and nuclear contamination coming from Russia is not unlimited. It would be wise not to add insult to injury.

Getting your Retaliation in First

Ah! In December a young Prime Minister's fancy turns lightly to thoughts of spin.

The gigantic deficits in the British health care system are reinforcing a need to rationalise services on fewer sites. The problem is that closing hospital services is always deeply unpopular in the the communities they serve. When the services under threat are Accident and Emergency- then campaigns are tinged with the fear that A&E services might be too far away and that lives may be lost. Whether road accidents or heart attacks- people get nervous about closures.

So Mr. Blair is making a pre-emptive strike - arguing that those who oppose the closures are putting lives at risk. I have no idea whether Mr. Blair believes this, or whether he merely finds it expedient to believe this- in any event the evidence is somewhat finely balanced. However the concentration of sick people in one place strikes me as potentially quite dangerous.

Today we have MRSA- what happens tomorrow if H5N1 becomes transmissible between humans? Large hospitals may then become useless or even dangerous white elephants- spreading disease faster than it can be cured.

I assume that this is what Mr. Blair means when he talks about joined-up government?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Networks beat centralization

For some time there have been growing concerns about the cost of the new NHS centralised information system. The latest estimates are truly staggering: £31 billion.

What kind of a mindset creates such a behemoth?

Why is it required that the system should be centralised?

It is almost as though the Ministers forgot that the internet exists- it is totally unnecessary to centralise patient information to this absurd degree. While there might be concerns over the security of the links, these apply just as much to a centralised system - and curing the problem would not take £31 billion.

A system that re-invents the wheel to solve a problem that does not really exist- that is typical of Whitehall.

Meanwhile Microsoft has also managed to lay an egg, in the shape of its new Vista operating system- a system that has taken an enormous amount of centralised brain power to develop. Yet no one else will ever do the same. Again, the answer is the internet- linking simple units together creates far more complexity, far more quickly that any centralised system could ever originate. Thus the development of new software is coming from Open source systems, like Linux and proprietary operating systems are already losing ground in the face of this phenomenon

The same applies to public administration- the great bureaucracies, whether Microsoft or the NHS (or even political parties that manage to borrow tens of millions on low security) will not be able to compete with smaller, simpler, cheaper networks.

And, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Cicero will be listening to Steve Forbes speaking this evening, and will report back in the morning.

Russian apologies

It is now clear that officials in the Russian security services were a part of the plot to kill Alexander Litvinenko.

Even if the order did not come from the top, agents within the State apparat connived in the assassination of a British citizen.

Therefore it is all the more distasteful that the Russians should have criticized the publication of Mr. Litvinenko's deathbed accusations against President Vladimir Putin.

As Dame Pauline Neville-Jones said "bloody cheek!".

Whatever the plots and machinations behind this sinister murder, the fact is that Russian agents were complict in the crime. The Russian government should understand that in previous times, this would have been considered and act of war against the Queen's peace. Instead of criticism, the British government has a right to demand full co-operation from the Russian government.

If we don't get it, then that would be tantamount to an admission of guilt.

Russia doesn't do apologies- while Blair busies himself apologizing for the slave trade of three centuries ago, there are Russians alive now who took part in one of the greatest single acts of mass murder in history: the Great Soviet Terror.

We would do well not to forget the psychological damage that has been inflicted on Russia by the Terror, we would, however, be even more foolish to accept uncivilized behaviour as the norm from the Kremlin.

"Never apologise, never explain" was Stalins's policy- we must not accept it from Putin.

Blue Labour

I see that David Cameron has defended his push for the centre ground.

Except it is not the centre ground- supporting ideas such as "relative poverty" and Polly Toynbee's rants is not triangulation, it is capitulation.

This country does not need more of the same- it needs a radical deregulation and much clearer limits to the power of the state.

The Conservatives are offering nothing new that can advance this agenda. Either they are serious about their new stand, in which case they are wrong, or they do not believe a word, in which case they are untrustworthy.

Looking at Cameron this weekend, it could even be both.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Litvinenko: The plot thickens

Since we have established that the poison used to kill Alexander Litvinenko was Polonium -210, it has been clear that there was a direct connection with the Russian security services.

The Polonium has also created its own trail- leaving traces in the plane that it came to Britain on, and cross contamination in several other planes.

The investigation has already established that Alexander Litvinenko was murdered, that the poison came from a specific reactor in Russia and that the poison was brought to London on October 25th on a BA flight -around the time of the Arsenal-CSKA Moscow football match. Access to the poison is limited to people with specific security clearances in the Russian security services.

As the question of how, and even who killed Mr. Litvinenko has become clearer, the critical question still remains: Why was Mr. Litvinenko killed?

In attempting to answer this question, we keep taking more steps closer to the person and personality of President Vladimir Putin himself.

The murder, despite initial connections, does not seem to be as a result of any information concerning the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. It seems that at the time of his death, Alexander Litvinenko was only tangentially looking at that case. The allegations that he had previously made suggesting that the supposedly Chechen bomb attacks in Russia that provided the pretext to restart the Chechen war were in fact made by Russian security services themselves have been public for some time.

The only new allegation that Litvinenko was making, was that Putin was guilty of molesting children. Even were this true it would be highly unlikely to be believed, and certainly posed no threat to Mr. Putin, even if he found the allegations distasteful and annoying or worse.

The current story in the press is that dissident or rogue security agents may have been responsible, attempting to pressurize or discredit the Putin regime. Of course it may be that the pressure is personal: the message is to Mr. Putin himself, that he would not be safe in the West, were he to choose to come here after his term ends.

It would be fair to say that the number of people who wish to see the death of Vladimir Putin is now quite a long one already.

The conclusion is that the Russian Security Services did this, the only question is whether it was for Vladimir Putin or against him. Although few murders have been solved inside the Russian Federation, the British enquiry may well find enough evidence to request the extradition of specific suspects- then we may find some very interesting answers to all of this speculation.

Alexander Litvinenko became a British citizen only on November 1st 2006. He may have been murdered precisely because of this. It would be fitting if his murder was solved because he had become a British citizen, and the British authorities lived up to their responsibilities to their citizens, in a way that the Russian Federation has so dismally failed to do for its own citizens in recent years.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A note of reality

The relationship between Britain and the US has come under the spotlight again.

As the "Yo Blair!" incident showed, the oafish Bush administration has taken Britain for granted for some time. The fact that this is now openly acknowledged in Foggy Bottom will not solve the problem.

When the inevitable change of personnel happens in Downing Street next year, we can only hope that a more sober appraisal of British interests will follow. Yet another extradition of British citizens under the one-sided US extradition treaty reminds us that there are major aspects of British American relations that need to be changed- urgently.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Refusenik

Blogs and other internet sites should be covered by a voluntary code of practice similar to that for newspapers in the UK, a conference has been told by Alastair Campbell.

Shan't sign any such Authoritarian drivel.

THIS IS A FREE COUNTRY, YOU JERK!!!

I can, and will, say what I damn well like.

Next New Labour assault on Freedom?

How not to fix homelessness

Cicero stirred late this morning- he had been making a speech out of town and did not return until just before two in the morning.

Through the numbing dirge of the Today Programme that came on to awake me, I suddenly sat up bolt upright in bed and issued Latinate curses.

Ken Loach, the director of the television drama "Cathy Come Home" was being interviewed concerning the latest Shelter Report that has just been released that suggests that one in seven children are homeless or living in sub-standard accommodation.

Shelter was established after Ken Loach's film publicized the issue.

Homelessness is likely to become a growing problem, as the cost of housing, relative to earnings, continues to rise. Shelter is raising an issue of significant concern.

What made me sit upright was the comment that housing shortages are caused by the free market. Furthermore, Loach explicitly said that the problem was that the economy was no longer being planned. He suggested that British industry needed to return to a planned model too.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the peak of state planning in the British economy. British Shipbuilding, the National Coal Board, British Leyland, British Steel- all entities that were ultimately destroyed, not be the fact that they had to operate in a free market, but because they were lead by State Planners and could not impose free market disciplines upon themselves. In the name of "protecting jobs" Communist shop stewards were able to blackmail managements' into suicidally uncommercial business plans. The imperative was to save jobs, no matter what- the result was catastrophically uncompetitive businesses. State Planning meant the Austin Allegro and the Morris Marina- not only were these abysmally poor cars, they continued to be made, even when it was obvious that they were disastrously uncommercial.

The problem for housing in this country is not that housing needs to be planned. The decline of public housing provision in this country is not the fundamental cause of housing shortages- the problem is the supply of housing overall.

So why is the market not able to provide supply to fill the demand for housing?

Put simply, it is not allowed to.

The combination of environmental protectionism- which I do not object to- and NIMBYism, which I do object to, has choked off supply. Rural Communities can not provide housing for young people, as the number of households has increased. Ironically this has led to there being insufficient demand for Village shops, and even pubs. Many country villages are now wealthy dormitories, dominated by second home owners and bereft of community life.

How could this have occurred?

One word: Planning.

The vested interests of NIMBYism have set planning regimes that are far to strict.

The time has come to create a much more flexible environment in which to balance the contending needs of housing, the environment and the economy. I do not believe that this can be "planned" by bureaucrats, any more than British manufacturing could be planned in the 1970s.

The first step might be to repeal the Town and Country Planning Act . It should be replaced by a much more flexible regime; not flexible as in softer, for some areas, like building quality, might be controlled more strictly, but flexible as in recognizing that "planners" should not always, or even necessarily, have the last word in the Community.

Ken Loach: it is Planning that has created the housing shortage, and I do not believe that it can fix it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The New Political Divide

The Conservatives snub to the CBI is a nice line in biting the hand that feeds you.

Now, these days, the CBI conference is less a conference of the Captains of Industry and more of a conflab of their PR people. However the message that Cameron is sending out to the wider world is interesting: the Conservatives have more important things to do than to think about the problems of business.

The problem is that that the problems of business are actually more important than the rantings of Polly Toynbee or the inner turmoil of Hoodies. British business is being undermined by regulation and high taxation. Jobs are moving away from the UK as a result, with Burberry only the latest high profile manufacturing departure to Asia.

The interference of the state is crtically damaging. Apparently Blair will say that he will cut business regulation by 25% when he actually comes to the CBI today. While there is more joy in Heaven at a repentant sinner, the fact is that the PM has already demonstrated that he has rarely seen a regulation he did not like, and "25%" is an amazingly round number. How about working with business on a broader range of issues? No, sadly, it is the usual grandstanding.

The Liberal Democrats have been a lot more detailed and specific in setting out the business agenda. Deregulation is key, and equally important is clarity. Business leaders need a predictable business environment, with as little interference as possible- that is the explicit aim of the Liberal Democrats in setting out an agenda for business.

So the divide in business policy, as in personal freedom and increasingly across the board in British Politics, is between the Liberal Democrats who wish to see increased freedom and have a coherent set of policies to get there, and new Labour and Blue Labour who ignore the real questions, and sell sound bites as policy and increased regulation as a reality.

As the Blue Labour project reaches the point of no return- watch this space, British politics is going to get a lot more interesting.

Mr. Cameron will deeply regret his snub.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Pro Business Party?

I see that the CBI- the Confederation of British Industry- is a little irritated with the Conservative leader, David Cameron for canceling at short notice his address to their conference.

I am sure that they will be even more pleased to see that the Conservatives new pro-business policy includes considering a 35 hour week- a policy that seems to have added €100 billion to the French national debt since it was introduced.

Perhaps next year they should invite Sir Menzies Campbell. The Liberal Democrat leader now clearly leads the country's most pro-business party. After all the Liberal Democrats manifesto in 2005 called for deregulation, including sunset clauses, and a simpler tax regime including lower taxes on small business.

At a time when Labour are drowning the British economy with burdensome regulation and increased taxes, I am sure the fact that the Conservatives' promise more of the same will be noted.

In fact I see that UKIP have gained some support from the Conservatives in recent by-elections. Die-hard Tories seem to be moving out of Cameron's orbit. As a party, they may not win too much at the next Westminster elections, but if they were to get more than the kind of support that the Referendum Party once garnered, the Tory threat in key marginals may be weakened enough to severely blunt the Conservative attack.

The Conservatives may still believe that they will make gains from the Liberal Democrats at the next election.

Oh really?

With the Lib Dem poll numbers looking like tracking above the level of the 2005 General Election, and UKIP nibbling a little at the Tories- I will place a wager that the Lib Dems will actually make gains next time.

Post Modern Stalinism

As the reverberations of the death of Alexander Litvinenko continue, several interesting facts come to light.

Firstly, the killers who planted the Polonium 210 have left finger prints all over the crime scene. Not physically, but in the Polonium 210 itself. As we know, it is an extremely rare isotope. Not only that but the precise composition of the poison will identify the reactor that it came from.

That reactor will be Russian- it may well be the GRU reactor at the "Aquarium". It is a direct smoking gun.

Access to the poison will be very limited, and under the control of the Russian security service.

Smuggling the poison into the United Kingdom would be difficult and although there are various ways that it could have come, however there is a good chance that it simply came through the diplomatic bag.

The evidence that Russian security agents were involved is overwhelming- the Polonium could not have come from anywhere else.

The question for Britain now is what to do next?

The murder of a British citizen by agents of a foreign power would, in the nineteenth century, have been an act of war. In the twenty-first century it will have roused the British to a white lipped fury- in private.

Yet, we will have to act with the utmost restraint. We can not give a pretext to the Russians to attack BP or Shell's interests in the country. Neither do we wish to upset the delicate balancing act that is currently taking place in the European gas market, just ahead of the winter.

The critical question is whether or not the agents were under the orders of President Vladimir Putin, or merely under his protection.

Many people tell me that the Russian spying operations in Britain are now far more extensive than they were under the cold war. After all there are tens of thousands of Russian now living in London. Of course many are profound enemies of Mr. Putin, as Mr. Litvinenko was.

In the new Cold War that this murder creates, the key will be to use the interactions between Russia and the West to export freedom proactively- the failure and weakness of Russia is because they are not free or integrated enough, so they will have to deal with this some time.

In the olden days we would have expelled those spies in the diplomatic service for "activities incompatible". However several Russian spies now work for commercial organisations- and therefore could be arrested. We do not want to do that, since we would see tit for tat harassment of innocent British workers/tourists in Russia, as the recent anti-Georgian pogroms have shown. A diplomatic expulsion is a weaker but probably much safer symbol.

Russia has used the openness of the West against us- bribery and corruption have been used against us. However, Russia is no monolith and the West must now identify the different forces at work in the country. Perhaps Putin is an irresponsible KGB warmonger, determined to settle old scores, and who ordered this reckless murder to demonstrate his power.

Much more likely is that Putin can not control even his own security service. Russian weakness, in the current climate seems more likely and is more dangerous than Russian strength. Refusal to deliver gas is easier to solve than Russian inability to deliver gas.

If Putin ordered this, then his villainy will put him beyond the pale. If he did not, then Russian factionalism has undermined the discipline even of the much feared Russian Security apparatus.

Although the British would prefer the idea of the uncontrolled ex-KGB, in fact that makes Russia far more dangerous than the Putinist myth of the disciplined recovering Russia.

Indeed Russia now looks closer to collapse than ever.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Spectre at the Feast

I had intended not to write about Russia for a little while. This is especially since I am in the Baltic states this week, and it is difficult to be objective about a Russia when here it seems very big, very bellicose and very close.

However the death of Alexander Litvinenko may end up being the catalyst for a turning point in the perception of the West about what is happening in Russia. The British authorities are, rightly, trying to ensure that the investigation into Mr. Litvinenko's "unexplained death" will be as fair as possible.

Quite likely, the British government does not want to find any connection between the Kremlin and a callous murder of a British citizen in London. Since proving such a connection in a court of law is likely to be extremely difficult, publicly the British government will maintain the polite fiction that this crime is an unpleasant distraction to good Anglo-Russian relations.

Spies, especially double agents, are not popular with anyone on either side. However, in private the British will express fury that, for whatever reason, this death has occurred and the final, bitter denunciations of the dead man will stand as an accusation across the table at the bilateral Anglo-Russian meetings around the Russia-EU summit in Finland this week.

The Lahti summit in Finland is already torpedoed by the Polish veto on making a new EU-Russia agreement. The ongoing dispute over Polish meat exports to Russia is just a symptom of the loathing that Warsaw has for the Kremlin, and the eccentric government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski is highly unlikely to give an inch. Yet what lies beneath is not meat, but gas.

I have commented before about the dangers of Europe's future gas dependency on Russia- and the potential for Russia to use energy as a strategic weapon. However this week has seen the emergence of a different crisis and, perhaps as a Liberal, a more predictable one at that. As Edward Lucas notes in the Economist today, the discovery of a Russian gas shortfall opens up the prospect, not of Russia as a dangerous supplier, but of Russia being unable to supply at all.

Why should this be predictable to a Liberal?

Why, simple, the structure of the Russian energy industry as two state controlled behemoths, instead as free market entities has destroyed the efficiency of both operations. Investment has been misdirected and the result is that instead of bringing on new gas fields, Russia has run off old fields, and failed to invest in new transit infrastructure. Meanwhile the country has increased the use of gas in the domestic market. The consequence is that Gazprom will not be able to deliver the gas that it has contracted either to the domestic market or to the overseas markets. Putin will not want to take the electoral punishment that the interruptions to domestic supplies would give him. The consequence will be erratic supplies elsewhere.

Meanwhile, where new energy supplies are being opened up- in the Sahkalin-2 fields that Shell is developing, further disputes threaten the entire basis of international investment in the country. Unless Russia honours its contracts, the fact is that it will not get access to the technology that it needs to bring on new oil and gas fields, nor to increase capacity in existing fields, which have had their geology damaged by Soviet drilling techniques.

In the face of the gathering storm in European-Russian relations, few in the British government will want to take up the case of the dead Mr. Litvinenko. However, whether the British government desires it or not, it will be his ghost that speaks loudest at the deliberations this coming week.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Friends and Allies

I flew into a dark and damp Tallinn this morning- the snow has not arrived, although the Christmas market has arrived in the Old Town Square.

I quite like the Baltic winters; although dark, they are cosy and candles and hoogvein help to lighten up the season.

Tallinn is busy- the roads are clogged, where once it would have taken 10 minutes to run in from the Airport, now it takes nearly a half hour. The Airport itself is cramped- the result of yet another expansion programme (it does not seem so long ago that the gleaming new terminal opened, now it is already too small). All of these changes are, perhaps, a function of the fact that Estonia is set to overtake Portugal in PPP GDP per capita by the end of next year. Convergence is happening so fast that it is fair to say that it looks more like overtaking.

Another reason for all the congestion is the visit of President Bush. He will arrive in Tallinn on Monday. Already the security is tight, although the fact that the President's children can be robbed despite secret service protection suggests to me that the whole process is merely a demonstration that the mere citizen must give way to the power of the "leader of the free world". I see that President George H.W. Bush has defended his son, saying that he is honest. Yes, I think he probably is (mostly) honest, but that really isn't the point- he is incompetent.

Although it may not be the most charitable thought for Thanksgiving, it does seem almost unbelievable that one man - an allegedly democratic politician- can cause so much disruption. I was in Vienna in the summer when the President paid a visit- total chaos for over a million people. In London, he would not leave the security bubble even to come to the City of London and try and rally support for American finance, as any British leader of whatever stripe would do in New York for British firms. So, in addition to being an incompetent warmonger, he seems happy to tread on as many toes as he can, wherever he goes.

With the ever more onerous restrictions on visitors to the US, the intrusive nonsense of the so-called "Patriot Act" and the Sarbanes Oxley act and this insensitive oaf in the White House, I think those of us who generally like the United States and Americans, will be looking forward to the end of this particular era and the emergence of a less defensive, less arrogant and more engaged America. There are still 26 months to go though, and with Bush in charge until then, anything could happen.

Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Polly-morphous Politics

I am getting very confused about the British Conservative Party- although not, I suspect as confused as the party members themselves must be.

Apparently the Conservatives should ditch Churchill and listen to Polly Toynbee, according to one of David Cameron's advisors, Greg Clark.

Polly Toynbee is so consistently wrong in her analyses that it is almost comical to think that anybody, still less her political opponents, should take her seriously.

Yet, there is a kind of mad logic in the idea. The Conservative manifesto in the 2005 general election was a collection of policies that were often mutually contradictory. The spending commitments did not match with commitments in taxation or borrowing. Quite literally, the Tory manifesto did not add up. The party did not have the courage to present to the electorate what politicians usually call "tough choices". So perhaps we should not be surprised to find them so "elastic" in their other ideas about policy.

The post-Labour world is going to need a radical shift in the ethos of government- it is going to need crunchy decision making in order to reduce the burden of the state upon the citizen. It is rare that I find myself in agreement with the Daily Telegraph, but the threat to personal privacy from the latest raft of child protection laws put forward by the Blair government is very real. It goes to the heart of the problem with the current administration. Yet, where are the Conservatives?

The fact is that the Tories have bought into the ideology of Blairism so much, that they can no longer oppose this bloated, illiberal government with its ill thought out, inconsistent and incontinent legislation. All the Conservatives offer as an alternative is that "it is our turn at the cookie jar". I have no idea whether the Tories really want to listen to Polly Toynbee or not, but I do know that they want us to think that they listen to her. They want to seem unthreatening- the problem is that they have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

They have lost their key, anchor principles.

The intellectual fire has now long gone from the Conservatives. They have lost the intellectual coherence that gave Thatcherism its real impetus. The mind behind the last manifesto - David Cameron- truly would, in the words of Lord Saatchi, "say anything to get elected". It is sloppy and dishonest politics- and it is no wonder that the creeping disillusion with British politics has become pervasive.

David Cameron is not a "Liberal Conservative", because Liberalism has core values and principles. It is hard to avoid the question: does David Cameron have any principles that he would not trade?

The fact that the MP who wants to give Polly Toynbee a Tory platform, Greg Clark, is the member for the famously arch-Conservative seat of Tunbridge Wells is just another irony.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Cretin troll is back at The Independent

I see that The Independent is making known its considered view of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.

Pity that they can not check the most basic facts. President Yuschenko of Ukraine was not poisoned by Thallium, but by Dioxin, as the most cursory check would have shown.

It is hard to take the Indy seriously as a newspaper of record when it can not even get the most basic facts right.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Whodunit?

An attempt has been made to kill Alexander Litvinenko One of Boris Berezovsky's allies in London. This piece from The Times gives a flavour of the man.

I occasionally meet refugees from the regime in Russia who have come out of the looking glass world of the secret services. Oleg Gordievsky, a highly successful agent- for the British, or Vasili Mitrohkin who brought much of the KGB archive into the public domain. I think Westerners often find the cloak and dagger brutality of the Soviet state very difficult to believe.

It is always a salutary experience reading the books of Viktor Suvorov , especially Aquarium, his personal history as a GRU- Soviet military intelligence- officer. The murderous brutality of the machine is made entirely plain. It is interesting to see how short people's memories are- the mysterious and very convenient death of Stephen Curtis of Bank Menatep in a helicopter accident seems to have been long forgotten.

Modern Russia is led by a former KGB officer. We did not allow a Gestapo officer to take power in Germany after the fall of the Nazi's. Yet the West, in the same way as it tolerates the iconography of Communism- Hammer and Sickle, Soviet jeans and all- still tolerates ex-Communists in a way that would be impossible about ex-Nazis.

The only difference between Soviet Socialism and National Socialism is that Soviet Socialism killed more people.

In modern Russia, the former KGB has splintered and many have gone freelance. The direct successor organisation, the FSB, retains many of the vile traditions of its depraved predecessor, but there are other groups who use the same methods for different ends.

The use of a relatively sophisticated poison as Thallium clearly indicates a post KGB link. The question is, which one? After all Mr. Litvinenko and his patron, Mr. Berezovsky, have many enemies. Is it the FSB determined to kill a traitorous former officer of the KGB? Is it pro-Moscow Chechens, allied but not controlled by, the Kremlin. Is it a more interesting game of bluff, trying to pin the blame on the Kremlin in order to discredit the Putin government?

Some commentators, such as Mary Dejevsky in The Independent, have seized on this last possibility and attempted to exonerate the Kremlin. However, this is to ignore the fundamental problem. The fact is that all of these possibilities could be true, and the reason why they could be true is because of the lawlessness at the very heart of the Russian State. FSB operatives do not act within the law, not even Russian law. The brutality of Leninism and Stalinism, which continued throughout the Cold War, has not been ended by the fall of the Soviet State. Whatever the precise origin of the plot to kill Alexander Litvinenko, the climate that has fostered the plot is the direct result of the Kremlin's failure to clean up government in the post-Soviet era, so for that alone Putin must take the responsibility- regardless of the immediate source of the poisonous Thallium.

Perhaps the bitterest irony of Putin's return to Authoritarianism- the use of violence, but also the reimposition of State power in key sectors of the Russian economy- is that it has failed so abjectly. The exclusion of foreigners from the Russian oil and gas sectors has left those sectors now unable to deliver the gas that they have already contracted to sell. Eliminating competition and the creation of behemoth national champions such as Rosneft in oil or Gazprom in gas will not improve the position of Russia one jot- it will merely concentrate power still further, reducing efficiency and increasing corruption.

Already the level and costs of corruption under Putin is higher than it was under Yeltsin.

Russia is to be feared- the savagery of its post-KGB leadership is as vile as ever. However we should perhaps fear Russian weakness even more. The drastic fall in the life expectancy of the Slavic Russians is a sharp contrast with the increase in the size of the North Caucasian nationalities. Although the population of Russia could fall below 100 million by 2040, the population of Chechens is growing, so their relative preponderance will increase -fast. This is not a recipe for stability in the key strategic area of the Caucasus region.

The failure of Gazprom or Rosneft to make the right investments will reduce their potential capacity at a time when Western Europe is increasing its dependence on Russian gas. The Russians will not be able to supply Western needs as the result of their failure to open up their energy industries. This is a problem as serious as the likely chance that Russia would use energy supplies as a political weapon against the Western European states, as it already has against Ukraine and other countries in the East.

Corruption will continue to increase as the result of the murders of those who challenge it- when even Politkovskaya is murdered, what are the chances for less internationally well-known figures?

Meanwhile the attempted murder of Litvinenko, who is a British citizen, in the British capital reminds us that the brutality of Russia, official and unofficial, is unabated. If we do not remind ourselves of this on a regular basis, we might not notice the effect of Russian money on ourselves: the question marks over Gerhard Schroders lucrative personal contracts with Russian oil and gas interests might give us pause for thought about our own leaders' relationship with Russia, at any level.

The stakes are high, the game is dangerous. We must renew our guard against those who would corrupt us, use energy supplies as a weapon or even kill us.

However we should continue to force Russia to face up to its responsibilities- the post Putin world is taking shape. There is still a chance to create a decentralised, pluralist Russia, a country that finds that competition makes it stronger, and not weaker. However it will take clear heads in the West. With Bush damaged, Blair and Chirac in their final months in office, it may fall to Angela Merkel to provide clear-eyed vision. However, she will struggle to overcome the fears of Russo-German collaboration that lie deep rooted in Central Europe. In the end it will be Britain that will have to engage- but if Blair can not, will Gordon Brown be able to?

Friday, November 17, 2006

The legacy of Margaret Thatcher

The recently announced death of Milton Friedman put me in a reflective mood. In particular I was thinking about what the lessons of Thatcherism are for today's generation of political leaders.

Margaret Thatcher, nominally influenced by Friedman and indeed to some degree Friedrich von Hayek, was yet not an acolyte of these thinkers. Up until the 1982 Falklands conflict her government was pragmatic on many issues- encumbered said her allies with the need to accommodate the Heathite "wets". After the victory in the South Atlantic and subsequently in the 1983 election, her administration changed substantially. She became more abrasive and combative. 1984 saw the miners strike- and arguably the defeat of Arthur Scargill's brand on Kremlin supported Marxist unionism was both the end of the 1970's and the beginning of the end of the ideological struggles of the cold war.

Privatisation and the City big bang, with hindsight, may be seen as her lasting contribution, yet by the 1987 election, high Thatcherism was already in decline. The poll tax was emblematic of an administration that had lost much of its ideological impetus, and was creating an ever more centralised state- removing the power of local government to challenge Thatcherite initiatives.

Danger signals -such as profound Scottish resistance to the poll tax- were ignored and despite the power of Margaret Thatcher in her pomp, she grew more isolated. Milton Friedman himself noted that the compromises of power had already blunted the ideological purity of the government.

Thatcherism did not survive the defenestration of its heroine - quickly descending to the bathos of John Major's "cone hotline", section 28, and ever more creeping centralisation. Thatcherism did not embrace social liberalism, still less the idea of open politics, even while it took much inspiration from Hayek's view of economic liberalism.

So Margaret Thatcher: socially conservative, proudly provincial, created a partial transformation- and a controversial one at that. Though in foreign affairs she had a clear agenda, which enabled to identify the evils of Communism- and of Milosovic at a time when Major and Hurd appeased him- at home her legacy was more pragmatic, and more mixed. Friedman knew this and though he accepted the compromises that all political leaders must make, it is clear that he grew estranged from Thatcherism during the later years in office.

Her legacy?

The end of direct Marxist influence in British political life (although seeing ex-Stalinists such as Jack Straw or John Reid in office still irritates me) -the defeat of the Soviet funded union leaderships. Her clarity in opposing Soviet power. Though the Rail Privatisation was ended by de facto nationalisation of Railtrack, still the presumption is that private enterprise has a positive ethos.

Her further legacy?

The alienation of Scotland- to the point where the Conservative brand is fatally compromised. Although Scots such as Michael Forsyth were her most faithful acolytes, they too understood the rage of the nation at the patronising lecturing that grated so strongly. The centralisation of power in Whitehall and the reduction of local government to a mere adjunct to the central government with little budget control.

Friedman was still proud of his star European pupil, yet though much progress may be ascribed to his ideas, perhaps the key lesson is that power obscures your vision- a lesson that Tony Blair has learned all over again in Iraq.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Better off in!

I see that the more rabid conservative bloggers are advertising a meeting of the Bruges Group over the weekend that intends to discuss policies for "a post EU" Britain.

You might expect to see such immaturity on the amusing Guido Fawkes blog- but I was moderately surprised to see the same event given equal coverage on Iain Dale's blog.

Iain is the Queen Mother of political blogging, especially since he became a Tory "A" Lister- "They can't answer back you know". Although he was on a hiding to nothing trying to unseat Norman Lamb in North Norfolk, there are many people who would certainly like to see him inside the House of Commons. Personally, I enjoy many of his initiatives as a blogger.

Nevertheless the fact that the majority of British Conservatives can no longer have a sensible debate about the costs and benefits of membership of the European Union and have taken the maximalist position of complete withdrawal just reminds me why the party should not be let anywhere near the levers of power.

Either they are fools who do not understand the vast political and economic costs that withdrawal would inflict on the UK, or they are hypocrites who know those costs but like to fantasize about withdrawal in front of the electorate, while all the time knowing that they could not take the final step.

UPDATE: Iain writes- saying that it is MessageSpace that provided the advert on his blog and that he carries adverts from other organisations that he is not associated with. I have therefore modified my post to attack the Bruges Group itself and those in the Conservatives (though not, presumably Iain himself, since he disassociates himself from the Bruges Group) who advocate withdrawal from the EU.

Glad he did not object too much to being compared to the Queen Mum- I expect he will have revenge when I go on his 18 Doughty St show in a couple of weeks

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What the Queen's Speech could have said

"My lords and members of the House of Commons, my government will pursue policies aimed at making fundamental changes to the system and conduct of government in the United Kingdom, reducing the power of the state and decentralising political decision making to the lowest appropriate level. It will seek to reduce the regulatory burden on citizens and on business and will promote personal freedom as its highest cause.

The dangerous culture of secrecy concerning government decisions at the highest level has eroded public trust in the very institutions of British democracy, accordingly a new bill enshrining a presumption that government information be published under all circumstances unless certain, limited operational military information is involved will be introduced as soon as practical. At the same time a bill to establish a right to private privacy will be published.

Democracy rests on the engagement of the citizen with their institutions, the unfair electoral system has weakened this link and accordingly my government will enact legislation to create a fair voting system both for the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

A stable economy is the foundation of a fair and prosperous society. However the role of government in managing the economy has become too large in recent years. Accordingly a wholesale review of legislation shall begin with a mandate to choose which legislation should be annulled or repealed. My government is committed to reducing the regulatory burden on British companies and encouraging the establishment of a healthy small business sector.

The British tax code is now one of the most detailed and complicated in the World. My government is committed to simplification of personal taxes- returning to two tax bands and integrating taxation and benefits. National Insurance has become a mere adjunct to income tax. It will now be abolished as a separate tax.

My government will continue to maintain low inflation, sound public finances and high employment.

My government will remain vigilant against the threat posed by international terrorism, but that vigilance will not come at the price of British liberties. Our approach to criminal justice has permitted the release of offenders, such as those convicted of offences against children, while these convicts are still dangerous. At the other end of the scale those convicted of minor offences are sent to gaol, despite the disruption to the life of families that that this causes. Accordingly my government will work with the police and probation services to ensure that dangerous criminals are not released too early and to develop alternatives to custodial sentences for minor offences.

A repeal of a considerable part of the criminal justice legislation that involves cumbersome bureaucracy must now be considered. ID cards will not be introduced and no new powers for law enforcement agencies are required. Clarity will be the watchword of our government in this as in all its dealings.

A bill will be introduced to provide for trials without a jury in serious fraud cases.

My government will publish a bill on climate change as part of its policy to protect the environment, promoting the use of low emissions energy sources and endevouring to promote British energy security.

A bill will be introduced providing for long-term reform of pensions.

My government's programme of educational reform will continue to raise standards in schools to help all children achieve their full potential. A bill will be introduced to reform the further education system to allow Universities to become independent of government control
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My government will carry through the modernization of healthcare promoting more local autonomy. The centralized computerisation of NHS systems is not necessary and will be scrapped.

My government will publish proposals to reform the planning system promoting a more flexible planning regime and effectively repealing the town and country planning act 1948. Estate Agents will be required to operate under a self managed regulatory organization similar to the regime that operated in the financial services before the FSMA was enacted

Bills will provide for reform of local government with enhanced powers as part of the comprehensive reform of the constitution.

The powers of the Royal Perogative will be stripped down and those that remain will be placed into the hands of a commiteee of privy councillors under the supervision of the House of Commons.

Members of the House of Commons. Estimates for the public services will be laid before you.
My lords and members of the House of Commons. My government will work closely with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales Northern Ireland and in England.

The Duke of Edinburgh and I look forward to our State Visit to the United States of America in May 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown Settlement.

We also look forward to receiving the President of Ghana and Mrs Kufuor.

My government remains committed to peace in the Middle East. It will continue to work to find a lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and to assist the government of Afghanistan. In Iarq, inconsulation with the government in Baghdad and notifying our allies in the coalition, we will begin to withdraw our troops as soon as practical.

My government will work with the United Nations and European Union partners to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including addressing international concerns over North Korea and Iran, and to promote good governance.

My government will continue to work to build an effective and globally competitive European Union and will also work to strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

My government will contribute to a modern and inclusive United Nations and be presenting proposals to take forward the World Trade Organisation Doha talks.

My government will continue its focus on Africa, including by seeking a resolution to the crisis in Darfur. I look forward to visiting Kampala next year for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Other measures will be laid before you.

My Lords and Members of the House of Commons: I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels.