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Showing posts from February, 2006

Deckchairs on the Titanic

As Helena Kennedy finally publishes the independent report on measures to improve British democracy, I must confess to being pretty disappointed. Frankly, I do not believe that lowering the voting age to sixteen is anything more than a gimmick. It is, I think, clear that the government has far too much power visa-a-visa Parliament. MPs in the government party can be tempted to abandon their independence, when faced with a new, more lucrative role as government ministers.

Meanwhile, opposition parties struggle to defeat the government unless a significant rebellion does take place. The whips, both government and opposition blackmail, threaten and cajole their charges into doing what the party leadership requires of them. Yet, in many ways it is only the independence of MPs that can challenge government power, and that independence is compromised from the start by the demands of the system. Parliament is not taken seriously, and as a result, the Executive branch has too much power- and u…

Kolkata Cup

Speaking as a passionate supporter of the Scottish Rugby team, I hope that other nationalities may forgive my great delight at the latest result. For those outside the charmed circle of the Home nations, plus France, Italy, then Romania, Spain, Georgia, Russia, Hungary and Sweden, Rugby may seem a little provincial. However, to remind the English, that while they may have invented Rugby, they did not perfect it, is always sweet.

Now I must return to the party... "Oh flower of Scotland..."

Say not the struggle naught availeth

"Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value." Thomas Paine.

Today is February 24th. It is the anniversary of the Estonian declaration of independence. Last night Cicero attended a very crowded reception held by the Estonian Embassy. A pleasant excursion meeting dozens of old friends. I reflect on what has been achieved by such a small country. In particular I am touched by how quickly the country has recovered from the dispoilation of the Soviet era. Although several elderly stalwarts of the exile community shake their heads sadly when they discuss the "Second" Republic, in general it has been a positive story. It has been a triumph for Freedom over dictatorship.

Elsewhere in Europe the position of Freedom is a lot less happy. As I noted on this blog a few days ago, B…

Give them an inch

It is reported that Neil Kinnock wants to scrap the speed limit in miles and set it in kilometres instead.

About time!

One mile, er that would be eight furlongs, or 80 chains or three hundred and twenty poles, or one Thousand Seven Hundred and sixty yards. A yard is of course three feet or 36 inches. So naturally it makes perfect sense to drive on the motorway at 560 furlongs an hour.

Of course, I was actually taught (some of) this stuff, but the metric system is a load more logical, and it is what we use for virtually everything else. All this "its a federalist plot" to get rid of it is just garbage. I don't care if I drive at 160 kph, or 160,000 metres ph or 1,600,000 centimetres ph or even 1,600,000,000 mm ph. At least its logical and it is what our kids have been learning for nearly thirty years.

The tizzy that the Conservatives have got into on this issue, just reminds me why being Conservative is such a dog-in-the-manger, dead-end ideology. Few people now actually unde…

Irish eyes are... frowning.

Dublin this February has been raw. The constant topic of conversation has been the icy blast and wet weather. Yet Cicero endures it and pays a visit to the fair city. Well, to be honest, Cicero has never thought that it really was that fair. In its tourism marketing Dublin makes much of its Georgian heritage, but in reality, much of the city has not been not well looked after. Huge mistakes stand out- like the Central Bank building, which towers over the narrow streets of neighbouring Temple Bar like a troll amongst a flock of sheep.

Although on business, I take the opportunity to catch up with some old friends. One, David McWilliams, now has some celebrity in his home country as an economist and as a social commentator. I attend a well attended talk he gives at the new building of the Abbey Theatre. David is a master of the pithy phrase, and he engages the audience with his customary charm- lifting his points from his new book, "The Pope's Children", he provokes and teas…

A week is a long time

Well the past few days have certainly been days of, well if not wine and roses, then certainly beer and blogging. However, I have a busy week ahead. I will be away for a couple of days, then attending the London Junto on Wednesday. On Thursday I shall be attending a reception to mark the 88th anniversary of the declaration of Estonian Independence. All at a time, when most inconveniently, I actually have to hit some deadlines to prove I am still employed. It also means that I will be unable to get to the duel of -well not death, but duel of something- as the three Lib Dem leadership candidates clash for the last time in London.

I sense that this Berlusconi thing for Tessa Jowell's hubby might prove to be something dangerous. The timing- weeks before the Italian election- is strangely convenient, but the accusations are specific and detailed- and also, albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances, they have largely been admitted. I find myself thinking that governments rarely d…

Home thoughts

As Andy Murray knocks out Andy Roddick 7-5, 7-5 to go into the final in San Jose, it is a cheerful start to the day. Also, perhaps, not inappropriate to reflect on the role of Scots in the modern United Kingdom, and one Scot in particular: Ming Campbell.

The election for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats has come down to the wire, between Chris Huhne and Sir Menzies Campbell. It is time to justify my choice of leader. I say this, because this has been a very real contest and has shown some very real divisions. There has also been something of an undercurrent in this battle that has not been friendly and occasionally even bitter. I have little doubt that many members of the Parliamentary Liberal Democrats have not welcomed the candidacy of Chris Huhne- a man so recently elected to their number. The feeling amongst the Parliamentarians has been that one should earn one's spurs before presuming to lead them. Thus, seniority does count for something- as many coded messages in thi…

Going for Gold

I seem to have been surrounded by jubilant Estonians this week. After Kristina Smigun manged to bring home two olympic gold medals, Andrus Veerpalu has added a third. It puts Estonia sixth on the medal table at this point, behind Germany, the US, Russia, Austria and France, but ahead of Norway and Canada, Switzerland and Sweden. Since the population of Estonia is only 1.3 million, the per capita medal ratio is astounding and puts the country firmly at the top of the table. No wonder my friends are wreathed in smiles.

You know when you've been...tagged

By gracious command of John Bright's Body http://londonliberal.com/blog/

7 things to do before I die:

Go to Japan
Walk the Camino de Santiago...Again
Build a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired house in the Estonian countryside
Lose 20 kgs
Stop thinking that Richard III was a good thing on meeting my nieces and nephews
Fall in love again
Research my family tree

7 things I cannot do:

Shut up
Leave a party early
Invade Poland
Enjoy soccer
Forget the smell of burnt villages
Avoid the urge to punch Communists
Stop behaving badly

7 things that attract me to London:

The relative ease of getting as far away from London as possible
Melancholy songs like The Kinks Waterloo Sunset
The Natural History Museum
The Latvian club on Queensborough Terrace
The Cow- my local
Freedom
The Cross on the Dome of St. Pauls Cathedral

7 things I often say:

"Tere"
"Whatever"
"Oh really?"
"Death to the running dog imperialist lackeys"
"More Tea, Vicar?"
"Hello Kiddies! [sinister laugh] heh he…

Faraway Countries

I gave a presentation to the London Chamber of Commerce yesterday, talking about the economics of the Baltic countries. The Baltic is one of the most successful regions of Europe. However it stands next to two of the least successful places: "Kaliningrad" and Belarus.

Kaliningrad still does not know what it is or wants to be. It retains the absurd name of one of Stalin's saddest stooges- Misha Kalinin. There are other names it could have: the the Poles it is Krolewiec, to the Lithuanians it is Karaliauńćius, to the long exterminated Old Prussians it was Pregnore and to the Germans of an older generation it remains the Koenigsberg of Immanuel Kant. It has, for much of its history, been an exclave- detached from the main territory of its rulers. Historically it was a detached part of Prussia and then Germany, now it is a detached part of the Russian Federation. Great plans are discussed to restore some historical buildings and to modernize and replace the generally drab and …

Outrage

I had not seen the pictures. I finally saw them this morning and am utterly outraged- no wonder that people are so angry. It is totally unacceptable. They are deep insults to my most profound beliefs.

No- not the cartoons- the placards that the demonstrators carried protesting them.

"Behead those who insult Islam" "Freedom of Expression Go to Hell !!" "Massacre those who insult Islam".

This is totally unacceptable. It is not, however, a "clash of civilizations" it is a fight between Civilization and Barbarism. It is a fight between peaceful self expression and mediaeval bigotry.

It is not a fight that I intend to lose.

This is why I can only view with irritation the absurd legislation outlawing something called "glorification of terrorism" that this government proposes. Ridiculous, ill conceived legislation -while it is typical of this Labour government- weakens us in our fight with these savages.

We must not back down in the face of what is…

Neil Gunn

I have been trying to find copies of one or two Neil Gunn novels, but many seem to have gone out of print. It is a real pity.

I read the Silver Darlings many years ago, with more than passing interest- my own family were part of the great herring trade whose history Gunn evokes so keenly- my great-grandfather was a cooper who made barrels for the storage of the fish. It was a hard life, and my grandfather recalled meeting cousins who were very much the stereotype of the fisherfolk of the North East. Nevertheless we see the ruin of the formerly prosperous fishing towns of Buchan, it is hard not to feel anger more than regret for a passing of a long history.

Neil Gunn is, in some ways, a more sympathetic figure than some of his contemporaries in the Scottish literary scene of the mid-twentieth century. Unlike Lewis Grassic Gibbon or Hugh MacDiarmid, Gunn chose to write in English, rather than in a newly minted literary Scots, whether Lallans or Doric. It was a source of bitterness amongst…

A fine line

Much energy is being spent arguing that a smoking ban is illiberal. The basis of opposition being that it is an unwarranted restraint on personal behaviour. If smoking only harmed the smoker, this would be true. The problem is that secondary smoking turns out to be extremely dangerous. So smokers harm themselves, which is acceptable, but they also seriously harm other people, which is not.

The only vague problem that I have with a ban on public smoking is that perhaps private smoking clubs could be permitted- but then obviously the staff would have to be smokers too, and anyway how do you police this without undermining the whole basis of the law? Nevertheless, perhaps a licensing regime, much like that for alcohol itself, might have been adopted.

I am against the state interfering in most aspects of personal behaviour: there is a fine line between protecting citizens and nannying them. This law is dangerously close to that line, but to be honest, over many years, I have got more and mo…

February 14th

Dresden 61 years ago today.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

AEIOU

I have just come out of a TV interview. I am often interviewed, mostly by business television channels- CNBC, CNN, Bloomberg and so on. The subject was the question of which states will join the Euro zone in 2007-2008. In principle, Estonia and Lithuania ought to be able to adopt the Euro easily, but there are now big questions. The final, almost throwaway question was: "So what is the difference between the Baltic on the on hand and countries like Austria or Belgium on the other?"

My reply was flippant, but I couldn't help it:

"Austria does not follow Austrian economics. Estonia does"

For non-Austrians: AEIOU was a motto of the Empire: Austriae est imperare orbi universo - "It is Austria's destiny to rule the world" Now adopted used by Austrian-school economists.

Many a Slip

The Labour government took two further steps to failure yesterday.

The first is the deployment of troops to Afghanistan- that graveyard of Imperial hopes, whether British in the 19th century and early 20th century, Soviet in the late 20th century or NATO in the 21st century.

British troops will be leading a large deployment in one of the most ungovernable areas of southern Afghanistan, an area where the Taliban were not fully removed. The explosion in opium production, under the eagle eyes of heavily armed warlords, is just another reason why troops should be moved in- or so we are told. The fact is that the troops are being asked to do too much- they can either destroy the warlords by winning hearts and minds or they can destroy the opium crop, condemning farmers to destitution this harvest. To try to do both is probably only going to stir up a hornets nest. This over ambition is likely to destabilize the whole mission in Afghanistan. The British armed forces are already over stretched…

Palace of Dreams

Ismail Kadare is one of the most interesting writers in modern Europe. Over many years I have read his works (good translations) and recognised Broken April, Generals of the Dead Army, Pyramid, The Three Arched Bridge and especially The Palace of Dreams as real masterpieces, occasionally combining the best of Orwell or Franz Kafka with the magical realism of Thomas Mann.

Last year, Kadare won the inaugural Mann Booker International Prize and he is- together with the Estonian, Jaan Kross- talked of as one of the more likely novelists from Europe to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The publication of Kadare's latest work, The Successor, is therefore an event of considerable literary significance- I for one will look forward to reading it.

What, perhaps, makes Kadare's achievements particularly noteworthy is that he is Albanian and writes in that language. His works are flecked with references to Albanian history and culture, but most of all, they address the great stain on Alba…

No power on Earth

I stayed up to watch the result from Dunfermline and West Fife. I had my spies at the count who were telling me that it was looking good, that we were ahead but that the more Labour pit villages were not in yet. Of course, when those boxes were opened, it was clear that Willie Rennie had got it.

Does this excellent result mean anything long term?

The answer is maybe.

Firstly we can say that despite the awful experiences of the last two months, the Liberal Democrats are emerging intact. The party has not gone into meltdown, and the Conservatives are still weaker than they seem. The callow and shallow David Cameron is not the saviour of the Tories on his own.

Despite the aspiration of the Cameron clique for the Conservatives to be "Liberal", they are totally unconvincing. Meanwhile across the media, it is clear that on such issues as ID cards, civil liberties, and localism and local government the arguments are headed the Lib Dem way.

There are limits to what the government should …

"It came from Heaven Down"

I have always liked Denmark. I have many Danish friends. I like Copenhagen, I even like the Danish language, which seems to me to carry some echoes of English. The quiet, humorous Danes have created a steady, civilized country, which is proud of its achievements without being jingoistic. The Country is, to use that almost nineteenth Century word "worthy". High minded, honourable and kind.

Danish democracy is consensus based, but the country has not been afraid to make occasionally radical political decisions. Denmark is a country that, whatever its faults- and all countries have them- works.

Now, steady, stable and fair Denmark has come under attack. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the cartoons published in a Danish newspaper, the response is horrific. Danish Embassies have been attacked, people have been hurt and several even killed.

I believe in free speech- even the free speech of the Islamo-Fascists who would take my own free speech away from me. I am going to show my sup…

The Nanny State

"In fact, safety has no place anywhere. Everything that's fun in life is dangerous. Horse races, for instance, are very dangerous. But attempt to design a safe horse and the result is a cow (an appalling animal to watch at the trotters.) And everything that isn't fun is dangerous too. It is impossible to be alive and safe." P J O'Rourke

The amalgamation of the English and Welsh police forces is a classic case of the "Something must be Done" mentality. The idea is that the smaller police forces- never mind that most of them are doing a very good job- could not cope with the theoretical problem of a terrorist attack on their patch. This is nonsense. One of the smallest forces in the UK: Dumfries and Galloway were able to pursue the case against the Lockerbie bombers to a successful prosecution- the largest man hunt in British police history.

In fact this is an example of the nanny state- mostly this is "something must be done about X" and occurs a…

GSOH

"The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised. For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that the rule dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances." Aristotle.

A cartoon is usually considered to be funny. It is rarely considered as art, and is essentially, with the exception perhaps of Gilray or Hogarth, ephemera. Three months ago, some cartoons were published in a Danish newspaper. To strict Muslims, the depiction of the Prophet is anathema. A satirical depiction is highly insulting. OK- now several people have been killed, the Danish Embassies in Damascus and Beirut have sacked by a mo…

"...by other means"

Karl von Clausewitz' book "On War" provided the German High Command in the 19th century with a strategic maxim: "War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means". Thus the German high command prosecuted brief and rapid wars: with Denmark, then Austria and finally culminating in the humiliation of France in 1870. Eventually the willingness of the High Command to risk war led to the catastrophic miscalculation of 1914.

Post Imperial Russia seems to have new maxim: Business is the continuation of Politics by other means. This has led to a new, more twisted form of Russian Imperialism: Energy-Imperialism. Quietly the Russian state-owned gas giant, Gazprom, has patiently been building up an international network of reserves of both gas and oil, pipelines, oil refining interests, electrical generation and distribution. This has been coupled by a growing willingness of the Putin regime to put the diplomatic squeeze on former satellites. Putin publi…

Age before Beauty

I must admit to have been taken aback by the ageism of so many people who have attacked Ming Campbell. Sometimes they overtly say "He is too old", sometimes they are more coded: "it is an image thing". Personally I can only think that it is a symptom of the irrational obsession with youth that everyone seems to deride in others and ignore in themselves. In the US, Ronald Reagan was 70 when he became President for the first time. John McCain- a leading candidate for the 2008 election would be 72 on taking office for the first time. In the UK, Winston Churchill took office for the first time aged 66 and only finally stepped down in 1955 aged 81.

Menzies Campbell is 64. He has been an Olympic Sprinter and Captain of the British Athletics team, He has two university degrees: MA and LLB. He has twice been decorated by HM The Queen- a CBE in 1987 and a Knighthood in 2003. He has been a QC- the most senior level of Legal Advocate since 1982. He has served in the House of C…