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


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.


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


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
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.

Like Trees in November

Finally the Autumn has come to London- the leaves have started to turn.

It seems a very late start to the season- with Christmas now only five weeks away. However the dark and the cold is now upon us in earnest. Autumn always seems a melancholy season- Keats "Ode to Autumn" or Yeats "Wild Swans at Coole" seem the most appropriate backdrop.

I like watching the changing seasons- but although it is pleasant to see the turning trees in Hyde Park, I find the pleasures of an autumn in London diminished compared to the hills of the north. There Autumn is not only visual- you feel more exposed to the winds and chill and the season seems wilder and more embracing.

It is twenty years since I was a student in Canada. There the colours of Autumn were all the more intense- as though nature was more aware of the deep cold to come. The squirrels, black ones- grew fat as they prepared to hibernate (unlike the reds and greys in Scotland).

As mellow fruitfulness gives way to winter chill, another year prepares to take its leave.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

...much to be modest about

Sorry to be a cracked record, but I see that Mayor Ken Livingstone is claiming that his trip to Cuba and Venezuela was a very modest one.

It cost £36,000! (€54,000 or just under $70,000 for our international readers) for a trip that did not even bring about its stated aim of the dubious deal with mad cap dictator Hugo Chavez.

Next time Mr. Livingstone wishes to take a break in the axis of evil and its allies, I wonder if he might not try North Korea- on a one way ticket, please.

Axis of Mediaeval

How much more crow is George W Bush supposed to eat?

In 2003 the administration set out an agenda postulating that there were a series of "bad guys"- Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya and Cuba- that the global community would have to isolate and overthrow, the so-called "axis of evil".

In 2006, after the catastrophic failure to cope with the consequences of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the Administration is now proposing to put the fate of Iraq, and by remove, US foreign policy into the hands of the Iranian and Syrian regimes.

Syria is led by the hereditary dictator for life, Bashar al-Assad. Baby Assad is an interesting personality- a trained doctor with a specialism in ophthalmology, he studied at the University of London, where he met his wife, Asma, who was born and brought up in the UK. He never expected to inherit power from his wily father Hafez, but the death of his elder brother, Basil, put him in harms way. Initially Bashar was thought of as a liberal, but the "Damascus spring" has ground to a halt. Meanwhile the setback to Syrian control over Lebanon following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri also created new pressures upon the Assad regime, rooted as it is upon the minority Alawite group- despite the fact that the Presidents wife is a Sunni Moslem. Despite the sinister and corrupt leaders of the Ba'ath Party grouped around Al-Assad, the secular regime in Damascus is rational, albeit that it harbours some of the most dangerous extremists in the various conflicts across the Arab world.

Iran, by contrast, is an altogether more dangerous foe. The President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, represents a very radical faction inside the country- he is believed to have been one of the students that took hostage the Americans for 444 days at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Whether this is true or not, it certainly is true that Ahmadinejad is a holocaust denier who leads a government determined to acquire nuclear weapons.

These dangerous and unsavoury regimes are now being courted by Britain and America in order to provide cover for the withdrawal of coalition troops.

It is the final ignominy.

It reveals completely the catastrophe of Western humiliation in the Middle East. Blair will doubtless cling to office until Spring of 2007, while Bush will be in office until January 2009.

Their epitaph will be failure. Bush will be remembered as the worst President since the death of Warren G. Harding, whose own verdict on himself was: "I am not fit for this office and never should have been here". As for Blair, his legacy will be more complicated- but no less a failure for what might have been.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Tradition and Memory

On Sunday I went to attend the remembrance day service in Ely Cathedral. It was a wonderful reminder of my own school days and the continuation of traditions. The wonderful cathedral rises like an ocean liner above the bleak and rather wintry fens. It may be me, but I have never felt warm in the Fenlands.

The Cathedral was completely full, so I stood at the back with a few other late-comers. The banners of the British Legion, Sea Cadets, Scouts, Guides, Cubs and Brownies were marched in, with a military band playing cheerful airs- although the pealing of the church bells-as is proper- were muffled. The national anthem was played- though noticeably few seemed to know the second verse- and I have always liked the "May she protect our laws" bit. Although there were not enough orders of service to go around, I found myself remembering the hymns unbidden. I suppose they were so familiar- particularly the Crimmond setting of Psalm 23.

The two minutes silence- well, given the number of babies the two minutes mostly silence- was proceeded and ended by military trumpeters. Then a beautiful anthem and the sermon. All wonderfully unchanged and strangely comforting.

Yet as the Scouts, Brownies and so forth followed the march out from the Cathedral of three hundred soldiers from the local garrison, I was strangely troubled. I suppose Baden Powell would have entirely approved of the idea that Scouts were training boys in certain military skills, but it gave me pause. Given the way of the modern world we have lived mostly in peace. Despite the idea of a "war against terrorism" the reality is that even with MI5's questionable belief in over 30 conspiracies, very few of us are likely to face anything at all in our daily life comparable in any way to the two world wars. Though our soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the scale of these wars is rather less than a typical colonial war of the nineteenth century- the century that we conventionally think of as the Pax Britannica.

As I watched the parade with banners fluttering, I wondered if I was watching something real- rooted in the traditions of centuries, or whether we cling to the forms, but forget the real sacrifices that warfare insists upon. Is our fear of terrorism making us throw away the freedoms that make our society what it is? Are we decadent, or do we truly match up to the generations that understood the burdens and price of being a free country?

I have no answer, but pray that we are not to be tested.

Democracy Tables

An interesting idea has been to pool the results of surveys of different aspects of democracy- transparency, press freedom, corruption etc. to create a table ranking the level of democracy in different states.

Some very interesting results: Finland is number one, Myanmar (Burma) is bottom.

Inside the European Union Greece does not even make it into the first division and Italy only just makes it. Perhaps even more worryingly - Bulgaria is also in the second division, whereas Romania ranks in the third division even below Serbia.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Something must NOT be done

After the passage through the House of Commons of the largest bill in British political history, our legislators seem shell-shocked.

This is only the latest Companies Act to be addressed by Parliament in recent years. We have also had several Criminal Justice Acts too.

The problem is that too many MPs do not see that regulation can be done implicitly through the interpretation of principle and existing Acts of Parliament and are determined to create explicit and micro-detailed Acts of Parliament- "some thing must be done about...".

This is very dangerous and removes much flexibility and, in the case of the new Companies Act may hamper the competitiveness of many British companies, especially small businesses that now have to comply with a mountain of detailed regulation.

Some may see Nick Clegg's call for a Great Repeal Act as a bit gimmicky- I for one welcome it, and I notice that the general reception has been very positive.

Perhaps the tide is turning- I certainly hope so, before blogging gets regulated by some Act...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

In Flanders Fields

In Britain and the Commonwealth the symbol of war remembrance is the Red Poppy. However I see that a Christian Group, Ekklesia suggests that we should actually wear the pacifist white poppy to avoid glorification of war that the Red Poppy might represent.

I have no quarrel with those who choose to wear white poppies, but I find it hard to equate John Macrae's poem with the glorification of war. I attended University on John Macrae's home town of Guelph, Ontario- yes Macrae was a Canadian- so perhaps I feel a bit closer to the poem.

I still think the message that the poem sends is a message of humanity amidst the slaughter and the death. I leave it for you to judge for yourselves:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place;
and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.
Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Laughable Ken Livingstone

Interesting that Livingstone, who apparently can not tell democratic America from dictatorial Cuba, found that Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez is as mercurial with his "friends" as he is with everyone else.

As a tax payer, I rather think that Mr. Livingstone should repay the cost of these trips.

Anyone who wants Britain to be more like Cuba under Castro or Venezuela under Chavez is either deluded, stupid or evil.

Perhaps Livingstone will stand "indefatigably" with George Galloway in the Dunce's corner of British politics -reserved for those who kow-tow to the enemies of our country.

50-50 Nation

As the last few results come in from the United States mid-term elections, there are plenty of people who are poring over the entrails to divine what changes these results may portend.

The expected gains for the Democrats in the House of Representatives leave the Speakership in the hands of Rep. Nancy Pelosi- a rather polarising figure, to say the least. Meanwhile, as I write, control of the Senate rests in the hands of Montana and Virginia, and by margins that are extremely tight. The Republicans need only hold on to one in order for their control over the Upper House of Congress to be preserved.

The extraordinarily small margin- less than twenty thousand votes for the two states, after nearly 80 million votes have been cast, should give some of the more enthusiastic Democrat boosters some pause for thought.

Despite the litany of corruption, pork barrel politics, the disaster of Iraq, the incompetence of the Republican administration, it is hard to hide the fact that US politics remains intensely polarised and bitterly divided. Listening to the meaningless exhortations from victorious Democratic candidates, it is hard to feel enthusiastic about America's leftists- whose brand of sanctimoniousness surpasses even Blair's barf-making levels of cant.

Personally, I shall look forward to listening to P.J. O'Rourke's, doubtless scabrous, commentary. The American political class is, I think rightly, held in considerable contempt by the good people of that great nation.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Problem of Party Politics

Cicero has put his name forward to be a Liberal Democrat candidate for Westminster twice. The first was in the Home Counties, where there was little history of success at national level, although within the last few years the Liberal Democrats had had minority control over the local district council.

The second time has been closer to home in Scotland, where there are several local Liberal Democrat MPs, MSPs and effective control over the local authorities.

In both cases party membership was surprisingly low, but there were activists and members determined to make some progress. The particular surprise for me was that the Scottish constituency party was not much larger that in the Home Counties. Being selected the first time was a slightly hit-and-miss affair. For complicated reasons the constituency was almost the last to select a candidate before the 2005 General Election was declared. Therefore there was little expectation that the party could do well in that constituency. That I had been selected by a vote of the members is something that is satisfying, but the fact is that I was only selected by a two vote margin.

The selection in Scotland is still ongoing, but whichever of the candidates is selected, they too will owe their selection to a relatively small number of local party members who come out to vote. For example, fewer than a quarter of those eligible decided to turn out to the hustings- this in a seat where the Liberal Democrats have a very real chance of winning the seat. Perhaps I shouldn't be, but I still find myself shocked by such relative apathy even amongst party members.

I may say that being a Liberal Democrat candidate even in one of the most difficult seats was a great pleasure- it was fun campaigning and I met a brilliant team who worked so hard and so well- no wonder our position in the seat improved so much. We even did more than our share of assisting higher priority seats in the area and still pulled in votes in our home constituency: in fact we turned in one of the most improved results in that part of the country.

Yet to a certain extent, it is the apathy of the initial selection that highlights one of the major problems of the current British constitution. In a large swathe of seats it is not the electorate that chooses the MP- it is the party organization- however small or apathetic. "Safe seats" allow party bigwigs to select the candidate who is pretty much guaranteed to win the seat. In the Home Counties seat the Conservatives have held the seat for nearly two generations- even though sixty percent of the electorate vote anything other than Conservative. Yet whoever has gained the Conservative nomination, no master how lazy- as at least one Tory member certainly was- no matter how inappropriate, they have still got the nod from the local party and the certainty of sitting in the House of Commons.

The Scottish seat that my name has gone forward in, is a marginal seat, but surely all seats should be marginal? This is to say that every MP should surely have to work to achieve election or re-election. Of course a change in the electoral system would help to bring this about, but more and more I think that we should consider the right election system.

In the Scottish Parliament, the unhappy combination of first-past-the-post and list systems, while it has created a more proportional Parliament, has also created a two tier system of MSPs. Furthermore it has actually enhanced the power of political party bigwigs, who decide the order of candidates on the list. Personally I am in favour of an electoral system where voters decide between candidates in order of preference- if necessary between candidates of the same party. The Single Transferable Vote- STV- may be complicated to count, but it is very easy to vote. It will be interesting to see how the elections for Scotland's local authorities go, compared to the Parliamentary elections next year.

I do not know what the likelihood of my being selected for the Scottish seat is, but I am beginning to think that we will need to think very carefully about the future of political parties in their current form. The issue of secret funding schemes that has emerged in the Conservatives and Labour, and the question mark that emerged over the public donation made to the Liberal Democrats reminds us that democratic parties and money can be a poisonous mixture. I do not believe in public funding for political parties, but neither am I comfortable with the way that parties are funded at present- I am not sure what the solution is, but it is going to become more important as we see the cabal of Conservative funders looking to match the power of patronage that Labour has deployed to raise funds for itself.

The growth of single issue campaigns over the past thirty years has further weakened the roots of the parties, which are -almost by definition- coalitions of different priorities. The growth in the number of political parties- Greens, UKIP etc. Reflects a more pluralistic political environment too. Our constitution does not reflect the diversity of opinion in our country.

Those who support the current electoral system suggest that it gives more decisive government. My response is: "why should a party that gets less than 40% of the popular vote get to have 100% of the power?"

I generally think that Clare Short is a rather immature politician, but when someone senior in their party recognizes the problem of our constitution, I am pleased. I think that one of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats, despite their problems continue to attract the support of between one in five and one in four voters, is that people now recognize that the problems that Clare Short talks about only now, we have been talking about for decades.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Every year Transparency International release their index of corruption perceptions.

For a student of freedom this index is a very interesting read- it reminds you that governments can be thieves as well as enablers, and that there is no such thing as a perfect government. It also reminds us that the more corrupt a society, the poorer it tends to be.

The tragic list, this year is headed by Haiti- little raised in misery since the time that Graham Greene wrote about it in "The Comedians".

From the Central European perspective is the marked improvement of Latvia and Lithuania- the Baltic bloc is now clearly a cut above the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. However Bulgaria too has improved sharply- overtaking Poland.

As for the UK, its fall reflects the steady decay of good government under our hobbled constitution.

The day of reckoning

I find it suspicious that the announcement of Saddam Hussein's death sentence comes a day before the US mid term elections.

It reminds me a little of the President's infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech from the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln- it is meaningless to the actual situation on the ground in Iraq.

I do not believe in the right of the state to take life. That includes even the vilest tyrant- which Saddam certainly was. If Hess or Speer were not executed (and if Stalin and Mao and their henchmen) for their crimes, then I see the execution of Saddam as arbitrary and therefore invalid under law as well as morality.

The fact that the announcement was made with the timing so co-incident on the US mid terms suggests even more that the sentence was given as a political gesture to suit the occupiers of Iraq.

What concerns me is that, given the rigged American democracy, this gesture might even work. Although the Democrats seem able to punish the Republicans in the House of representatives, it may well be that the Republicans will retain control over the Senate, which under the circumstances will be taken as a triumph for this pygmy President.

Bush and his cronies- the incompetent Rumsfeld and the erratic Cheney should receive no reward for this "November surprise". The President deserves punishment for the incompetence of his security departments, like the fiasco of Homeland Security and Hurricane Katrina. He deserves punishment for the sleazy scandals that the hypocritical Republican establishment have brought upon themselves. He deserves punishment for his bombastic vainglory.

He has created economic weakness, where before there was strength. He has created questions about the reliability of the US as an ally, where before there was certainty. He has presided over the terrifying erosion of US constitutional rights including allowing torture and false imprisonment as a matter of course- and on an industrial scale.

The Republicans did not scrutinize this fiasco- the American people should punish the "big government Conservatives" by handing them a defeat so large that no amount of Bushes bluster can distract the American people from the single inalienable fact:

Bush and the Republicans have presided over massive failure at every level.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

New Liberalism

Over the past few months there has been an attempt by the British Conservative Party to paint themselves as somehow more of a "Liberal" Party.

David Cameron has referred to himself several times as a "Liberal Conservative". Many Conservatives have pointed to aspects of Thatcherism (even!) as Liberal in inspiration. The ideas of deregulation and limiting the role of the state do have some Liberal flavour, its true.

Yet the fact that Cameron can suggest anything of the kind reveals the essential flaw in the arguement. Even if the Conservatives once, briefly, embraced aspects of economic Liberalism, they never even understood, still less embraced the political philosophy of Liberalism.

The reason why Margaret Thatcher is, in fact, one of the least Liberal governments in Twentieth century British history is the astonishing increase in the power of the centralized state that she presided over. This poisonous legacy has continued under Blair- the "Imperial Treasury" has concentrated power into ever smaller cabals.

For Liberal Democrats, localism is not some gimmicky mantra, newly discovered- it reflects part of the very DNA of the party. Gladstone spoke of Liberalism being trust in the people, tempered with prudence, but the assumption was and remains that Citizens have the right to make their own decisions.

The fact that our electoral system does not allow Parliament to accurately reflect the will of those citizens makes a mockery of our democracy- and the fact that the Conservatives do not even recognize the problems simply underlines the fact fact thay are simply unable to understand what Liberalism actually is.

Liberalism insists on the rights of the citizen to be empowered over the organs of state- Conservativism has historically massively increased the powers of the state at the expense of the citizen, and Labour as a Socialist inspired party, does not beleive that the state can be malign anyway.

The current debate over what policies to adopt in the face of growing evidence for serious, human inspired, climate change has shown up the differences between the parties more subtly. Both the Conservatives and Labour are now following the Liberal Democrats and realising the need for taxes that alter consumer behaviour. The difference is that The Liberal Democrats explicitly argue that any green taxes must be revenue neutral- in otherwords, they must be offset by falls in general taxation.

New Liberalism is determined to limit the power of the state, and to make it more accountable. New Labour, by contrast introduced a weak freedom of information act, which has been watered down to the point that there is no presumption that information should be released at all. The citizen is not allowed to know the most basic information about how they are governed. This is truly a scandal.

By contrast, in Liberal ruled Estonia, virtually all government documents, including webcasts of cabinet meetings can be seen over the internet. Only operational military secrets are not wholly in the public domain. It is absurd that even the mother of Parilaiaments can not hold British government ministers to account in the way that any single Estonian citizen can do to their ministers.

Information Freedom is right of any citizen. It is a human right that within the law the citizen is free to live life without interference. This interference includes a right to privacy. At a time when more and more information is being collected by the state- citizens have no protection either to verify such information and correct it, if necessary nor can they delete any aspect of their increasingly compendious files. The future constitutional battles will include ever greater concerns over privacy. Liberal Democrats will be in the vanguard of the battle to protect the citizen from unwanted interference by an untrammelled state.

When we demand an end to poverty, ignorance and conformity- increasingly the emphasis will be on the third- the pressures on the citizen to conform will assume an importance that David Cameron does not even begin to understand.

The Conservatives may battle for what the perceive as the "liberal" centre ground. They do not understand that Liberalism is a radical reform movement- almost the opposite of what Mr. Camerons beleives it to be. Non-conformist, radical, and challenging of exisiting nostrums. The New Liberalism of the Liberal Democrats inherits the mind set of its Liberal heritage and applies it to the questions of the modern age. We are nothing to do with the opportunist posturings of the immature Tory leadership.