Monday, February 27, 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 unchecked it is making some serious mistakes.

One major example is the emerging crisis in public sector pensions. It now appears that the deficit in public sector pensions is four times larger than previously estimated: £81 billion is simply unsustainable- it is beyond a crisis. Unless this deficit is tackled, we will either crush our economy under massively higher taxes or drown it in debt. The only alternative is very radical reduction in the burden. State employees must not be permitted to retire early, and indeed the retirement age will have to rise sharply. This crisis has been long predicted, but the scale is now overwhelming, without immediate, urgent action, the consequences to the future of the British economy will be catastrophic.

Perhaps votes for 16 year olds might be justified after all- they are the ones who will have to pay the gigantic bills that a basically unfunded state employee pension scheme has created for the rest of us.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

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..."

Friday, February 24, 2006

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, Belarus now represents a clear example of an old fashioned tyranny. It is with some satisfaction that I note that the LDYS group have started a new website to support the campaign for freedom in that benighted country: http://www.united4belarus.org.uk/
Although some elections will take place in March, it is hard to be optimistic about the removal of the odious Oleksander Lukashenka. However it is important to stand up for the right thing and part of our Liberal DNA.

More than twenty years ago, I was interviewed for entry into a famous University. My support for the Baltic countries and my membership, even then, of the Liberal Party, we all duly noted on my application form. While it is fair to say, that my qualifications were probably not up to the required standard, I still raise a wry smile at the withering comment that the rather dry academic made as he went over the form:

"Mr Cicero, with your interest in the Baltic States and the Liberal Party, we think you might be too obsessive about lost causes".

Seven years later Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were admitted to the United Nations.

I find myself discussing freedom quite often these days, and even the foundations of the debate for the next British election seem to be emerging as a choice between liberal and authoritarian. So, the battle for Liberalism has been a longer one, but "say not the struggle naught availeth", after a recovery in the opinion polls, and the prospect of a new leader, the Liberal Democrats look better than ever. It also particularly pleases me that the youth wing of the party should stand up for "lost causes" like freedom against the tyrant of Miensk. It is principled and consistent with Liberalism's instinctive internationalism.


A few days ago our local party treasurer in Westminster LD's, Angela Whitelegge, died. A humorous and game women, she peppered her conversations with smiles and beaming goodwill. I always think of such instinctive Liberals when I think of our party, and she will be missed. One day I believe that the work of such people as Angela will be rewarded with a far more Liberal Britain.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

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 understand the imperial system, but for traditions sake we still use a few bits of it. It is an expensive, irrelevant anomaly. But say, "well lets get rid of it!" and the cry is that we must defend the mile. What is the point? No-one under the age of thirty five has the faintest clue what a perch, pole, rod, acre, peck, quart or gallon is, either in relation to each other or to the SI system which they actually learn and understand. Imperial measures are charming, maybe, but inefficient and stupid. Let us complete our partial metrication, say I

- I'll happily raise 548 millilitres to that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

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 teases his audience with well judged and humorous controversy. The title of the book reflects the peak of the baby boom in Ireland, which came in June 1980- nine months to the week after the visit of John Paul II to this most catholic country.

Later David and I meet for a drink with Konstantin Gurdgiev, an academic economist at Trinity and editor of Business and Finance magazine and his wife, and discuss modern Ireland. Inevitably, the astonishing rise in property prices is an early theme. I note that one side effect has been that so much Irish money has been funneled into international property funds that Ireland has- very ironically, considering its history- become the landlord of of large parts of Europe. David lauds the rise of the Irish credit market. I am not so sure- the evidence of excess that he produces makes me think "over capacity", and to wonder whether the country, in a world where it can not devalue its currency, might not be on the brink of some fairly wrenching economic change. Another theme, across my stay, has been the problems of Dublin's traffic. Living in London, I find it hard to believe that a city so much smaller could have such problems. In fact the sclerosis of traffic reflects years of underinvestment. No coherent metro, no traffic relief schemes, no integrated transport system at all. In short transport in the city is a mess. Yet, as we go for dinner at one of the new, elegant restaurants, it is clear that much else in the city has changed substantially for the better in so many aspects.

As I return to the sleekly modern boutique hotel on the banks of the Liffey, I reflect on the atmosphere. Sure, it is fair to say that Ireland is in much better shape than it used to be, however, there is a sense of unease about the future. In another meeting, the head of one of Dublin's financial services companies is scathing about what he sees as the fecklessness of modern Ireland. The failure to invest, while times have been good, he suggests, has undermined Irish competitiveness. The fact that the Irish are now, for the first time in centuries, attracting immigration is a source of bemused pride, but even here there is still further unease. Although David forecasts a second generation Pole as Irish PM before the mid century, there are those- who have a more purist eye on Irish culture- who are less happy.

The shock of change is leading to a backlash. Where once, the country wanted to be Liberal in the manner of the Nordic countries, now Ireland is looking to its more basic cultural traditions. Subscription to Irish language schools has rarely been higher. Gaelic games are more popular than ever. I sense a country that wants to turn to its unique cultural traditions for reassurance. David suggests that this is a happy outcome, and that it reflects a pick and mix approach to the most eclectic parts of Irish identity. I am not so sure, I sense a country that wants to turn in on itself, that is struggling to accept new immigration, that is nervous about the future. The economic cycle has been kind to the country over the past twenty five years- what happens if Ireland faces a more challenging economic environment? I see no answer, but am troubled.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

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 die of "the smoking gun"- rather they tend to get gangrene. I shall be watching with renewed interest the case continue.

From the ridiculous to the noble. I shall also be watching closely that fate of those who dare speak up against Oleksander Lukashenka, soi-disant President of Belarus. Europe can and should speak out against this criminal joke of a regime- and we should certainly be supporting those with the courage to oppose the Belarusian KGB.

All in all an interesting week ahead- and although my blogging will be sparser, I shall be no less interested in the various political and social threads that may be drawn together over the next few days.

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 this campaign have made clear.

However, the fact is that many outside the Parliamentary party are very unhappy with the overall performance of that party and feel that, for whatever reason, the Liberal Democrats have underperformed- there is a sense of rebellion in the air. The general mishandling of the removal of Charles Kennedy has left a legacy of mistrust. Ming and others have been- unfairly in my view- blamed for these mistakes. Certainly the leading figures in Cowley St.- not least Chris Rennard- have given a firm impression of seeking to make amends, and the commitment that they showed in Dunfermline was part of that. Nevertheless, it is clear that critical changes in our administration are now overdue. Hence the success of the insurgent campaign of Chris Huhne.

The party was in fractious and rebellious mood at Blackpool, and has not been allowed to settle down since. We stand on a knife edge: we could stray but a little and all of the work of the past decade and more could be lost. I have been a member of Liberals and Liberal Democrats since 1979 and know well how easily we have become at times our own worst enemies. Yet, "Westward look, the land is bright". The ideas of Liberalism have made remarkable progress in the past ten years. Issues directly from the Liberal agenda, from home rule for Scotland and Wales, to environmental protection, to civil liberties and respect for international law have become central to the political debate in this country and the world. We have made continued progress, with Willie Rennie MP being only the latest of a haul of talented and thoughtful Parliamentarians to grace the Liberal Democrat benches.

So- what is to be done? I want to see a united and disciplined party that can address the weaknesses in our programme- and there are several: economic, educational, welfare, health reform all need work. I also believe that the question of land ownership and land taxation need to be addressed, and that the whole basis for our nationalized control over development needs to be changed. This, like transport and the environment, with which land reform forms a policy triangle, will be of increasing significance as the limits to growth are tested more severely.

I have voted for Ming Campbell. This is despite the fact that in many policy areas I find myself in sympathy with the Huhne-ites -indeed Chris is a prominent member of ALTER, which has been strong in voicing the issue of Land Reform. However, the fact is that Ming represents a distinguished tradition of Scottish Liberalism. Coming from the state schooling sector and relatively modest beginnings, Ming could have been not merely a friend of John Smith and Donald Dewar, but a political ally. Achieving great distinction in sport and at the bar, he was invited by the Conservatives to join them. Ming is, however, a true Liberal. One of those PPCs who stood again and again without success, before finally breaking through. His discipline and focus are undoubted. His interventions as shadow foreign secretary have helped gain renewed respect for Liberal internationalism. He is respected by his colleagues. It is not just a question of "gravitas", nor even the fact that he has undoubtedly earned the support of his Parliamentary peers- it is the question of vision.

Ming Campbell, despite being a successful sprinter, is truly the master of the political marathon. The destruction of the Conservatives in Scotland- perhaps not understood by Liberal Democrats south of the border- is not solely his achievement (that credit might best go to Malcolm Bruce from our party) but with tenacity Ming understood the prize, and worked very hard to achieve it. He remains collegiate and approachable. He remains the lad o' parts who came from relatively humble beginnings to considerable success. This wisdom of experience is not to be ignored or discarded lightly. This is a man who the other political parties fear. Under the right mathematical circumstances, Sir Menzies Campbell could even be the Prime Minister- and in the month of the centenary of the election of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, that is a pleasant thought.

I believe that the fact is that Ming is be better placed to be a greater unifier than Chris. The fact is that Ming is better placed, through his experience, to have a broader vision than Chris. The fact is that Ming, by being more open and collegiate, is better placed to be a more effective leader than Chris. So, at the wire: unity, experience, openness mean that I support Ming Campbell's Leadership.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

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.

Friday, February 17, 2006

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 heh heh"
"Look, the capital structure just does not look right"

7 books (novels) that I love:

Palace of Dreams - Ismail Kadare
Professor Martens Departure - Jaan Kross
Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
Unnatural Causes- PD James
The Riddle of the Sands - Erskine Childers
Engineer of Human Souls - Josef Skvorecky
The Magic Toyshop- Angela Carter

7 movies I watch over and over again (well, more than once):

Apollo 13
The Hours
Enchanted April
Orlando
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The Eternal sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Annie Hall

7 people I want to join in too:

No I am not going to tag them, but wouldn't it be interesting to know:

Alexander the Great
Aristotle
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
P J O'Rourke
Danger Mouse
Professor Moriarty
Liv Tyler





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 unpleasant Soviet era buildings- after all the President's wife, Ludmilla Putina is herself from the city. Yet years pass, and the decay and the wretchedness continue almost unaltered.

On the southern border of Lithuania and Latvia, Belarus too clings to the Soviet era. Led by the erratic tyrant Oleksander Lukashenka, it refuses to embrace market reforms or democratic values. Even the nasty soviet era flag (minus the hammer and sickle) has been retained, despite the fact that the traditional white-red-white triband more closely resembles the flag of modern Russia. Lukashenka is an old fashioned sort of dictator, and from the concrete ugliness of Miensk, the capital, he orders the torture and intimidation of his enemies, coupled with casual orders to murder. The opposition is brave and determined, but the Belarusian KGB (yes, it is still called that) is far from gentle. Newspapers are written and printed in Vilnius and smuggled over the border. Yet despite the oppression, there are still attempts to speak out- as the latest news from the country shows. "Europe's last dictator" is hated and feared- but there are principled and honourable men and women who will not bend the knee before this vile regime.

As the Poles of the Second World War used to say: "Za wolnosc wasza i nasza!" - For your freedom and for ours! I hope that we take more notice of and begin to support more firmly the struggle for freedom that continues on the borders of the Europe Union, not three hours flight from Britain.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

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 obviously an orchestrated campaign to stir up Muslim feeling against the West. The fact that it has taken months for the cartoons to become an issue reflects that fact that the leaders of the Islamo-fascists are using them in a twisted and cynical attempt to undermine moderation and tolerance- not least that which exists amongst Muslims themselves.

The fact is that, despite the depraved violence against Danish interests, it is Muslims themselves who have died, Muslims who have been injured, and Muslims that have lost their property. As with Hitler and Germany, the biggest victims of fascism are those in whose name the fascists purport to serve.

Nevertheless, there is a deliberate plot to challenge the fabric of Western tolerance- and we must face down this evil.

Mr. Blair's failure is that he reveals himself to be confused and craven at the same time- and this challenge, above all that we have faced in my lifetime, demands a clear mind and a clear message.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

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 his former friends that he should do so.

Yet Gunn is a better writer- the Communist archetypes that Grassic Gibbon created in a Scots Quair become nothing more than marionettes as the series advances. It is also hard to be sympathetic to MacDiarmid, who joined the Communist Party shortly after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolt in 1956. Although the melancholy of "The Little White Rose" is a bitter-sweet evocation of Scotland: "The rose of all the world is not for me/I want for my part/Only the little white rose of Scotland/That smells sharp and sweet and breaks the heart", it only partially off-sets the general arrogance of the man.

Gunn is, together with Nan Shepherd, a more optimistic writer- his characters are not defined by their conditions. Nan Shepherd allows her heroine, Martha, a kind of redemption, while Grassic Gibbon does not allow Chris anything more than to be crushed by what he sees as the inevitable oppression of bourgeois society. Perhaps Grassic Gibbon might have matured in the same way as Gunn, had he lived, but his extant work is an angry indictment of his homeland. Gunn, by contrast, believed in the strength of what he saw as Scottish- and particularly Highland- virtues.

Gunn is a more human writer and far more critical of totalitarianism, as he moved away from his early socialism. His novels are more spiritual and in later life, as he studied such schools as Zen Buddhism, they acquire more humour too.

I will now try to find copies of The Silver Darlings, Bloodhunt and Green Isle of the Great Deep - it will be nice to re-read them again.

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 more fed up with the thoughtless and nasty behaviour of smokers.

As a barman, when I was a student, I had to clean the garden behind the bar. Despite plenty of ash trays I never failed to pick up less than 150 cigarette butts from the grass each day. A disgusting job, especially after rain. After that, I could not feel anything but supportive of those non-smokers who work in bars and who do not want to be exposed to secondary smoke and all the other nastiness of tobacco.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

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, this could be the last straw. As usual the government sleepwalks into a mess, with little discussion allowed.

The second step is the disgraceful attempt to make ID cards compulsory- despite no such commitment being in the Labour manifesto only nine months ago. This government is proposing a compulsory database, including biometric information. Leaving aside the fact that this information is just as open to fraud as any other electronic data, this means that the British state will have more and more complete physical data on its citizens than any other state. As 7/7 showed, it is hard to see how exactly this is going to make us safer. However in the wrong hands, it is easy to see how it could be misused. The fact is that I am not sure that the government is not the wrong hands anyway. I oppose ID cards, I am outraged that they are to be made compulsory, I will not carry an ID card under any circumstances.

I employ government to secure order and clean the streets- they work for me, and I will not suffer to be spied on by bureaucrats.

As far as this intrusive and incompetent government is concerned "I'm a Liberal and don't believe in this sort of thing" . I do believe in Peace (no illegal war), Retrenchment (limits to government) and Reform (accountability of that government).

Monday, February 13, 2006

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 Albanian history- the tyranny of Enver Hoxha. Though the all pervasive nature of that tyranny makes it unclear how much Kadare physically resisted the vile regime of the "Albanian Party of Labour", his novels are searing denunciations of the dictatorship and the way that it perverted the psyche of the individual.

I will be returning to Albania shortly- the land that Byron called the"noble nurse of savage men". Always as the bleak and beautiful mountains come into view I try to catch sight of the millions of concrete bunkers that the paranoid and twisted regime scattered across the Albanian countryside, though these are gradually being dismantled. In the increasingly colourful chaos of Tirana it is hard to equate the vivacious and generous Albanians with the evil regime that once governed them. Yet everywhere there are signs- people of the generations that grew up under the baleful glare of the monster are much shorter: they did not get enough to eat under the dictatorship. When they mention Hoxha, which is seldom, the say "the dictator" and make the sign against the evil eye. Such is the legacy of the man that murdered so many, including his closest collaborators, in cold blood.

Kadare's beautiful novels were born in pain, and they speak to all of us of the price of the failure of freedom.

Friday, February 10, 2006

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 be allowed to do, and as all three leadership candidates said yesterday, there are limits to what proportion of the national income that the government is allowed to take in taxation.

Labour's permanent revolution: endless legislation and endless tinkering with the tax code and regulation is looking more played out than ever.

To misquote Victor Hugo: No power on Earth- not even ourselves- can stop an idea whose time has come. That idea is Liberalism.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

"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 support for free speech and my support for Denmark by wearing a pin of the Danish flag. By doing so I will show my contempt for the violent savagery of those who can not even understand the strength and nobility of a free society.

I know a lovely land
With spreading, shady beeches Near Baltic's salty strand;
Near Baltic's salty strand;
Its hills and valleys gently fall,
Its ancient name is Denmark,
And it is Freya's hall
And it is Freya's hall

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

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 after a highly unlikely accident. The hysteria of the "War on Terror" that is giving an over mighty state the right to abridge our liberties now seems set to undermine the efficiency and local nature of our police forces. This is weak kneed. The price of such an approach is to reduce the moral hazard of our whole society. If things go wrong, sometimes it is just an accident- but increasingly our legal system is determined to make a buck. Suing after accidents has distorted our medical system- now few are willing to take on the role of Obstetrician since the risk of being sued is now so high. The costs of ever more intrusive and absurd safety requirements is driving once profitable British businesses into bankruptcy.

Life should contain some risks- all of us have an unwritten expiration date on our birth certificate. The key is the find a balance- the "something must be done" brigade are driving our society to expect the impossible: complete safety, and to sue when this is not the case. The price is unresponsive police forces, absurd safety instructions and intrusive regulation.

Life is dangerous- that is why it is precious, and fun. A safe life would be as dull as [fill in your choice of dullness here]

Monday, February 06, 2006

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 mob. At a demonstration in London, barely six months after suicide bombers killed 56 people and injured 700, some young idiot dressed as a suicide bomber to "make his point". I was in London that day, and do not forgive the monstrous ideology of hate that inspired those immature and foolish young men to destroy themselves and others.

Some may argue that "the West" should make the allowances in dealing with Islamic extremism. Yes- the cartoon was ill judged and we must recognise that fault. However, if there is to be a cultural divide over the right to free speech, then I will hoist the flag of civilised, honest and free Denmark over any perversion of any religion. We can make the allowances for the idiocy of the mob and not press charges against the 22 year old, Omar Khayam for his stupidity. However, those that called for death and violence - and have achieved their goal- should understand that intolerance does not have free reign. There is a limit to tolerance, and when there are those whose creed of blind hatred leads them away from debate and into violence: they are the enemies of a free society. As for God: many crimes are committed in the name of an all loving creator, but these crimes are committed by humans. Yet with tolerance, humanity and humour, we can all make our own way.

Friday, February 03, 2006

"...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 publicly laments the fall of the Evil Empire- he would he was a loyal servant of that vile tyranny.

The possibility that Russian state interests could buy monopoly control over British gas supplies should horrify. The pressure put on Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and even EU members such as Hungary through withholding gas supplies shows that the Russians would be utterly ruthless in putting forward their political interests in Britain. The potential bid for Centrica, owner of British Gas, and the possibility of Russian entry into ownership of North Sea gas fields must be resisted fiercely. A state owned monopoly is not a fit and proper entity to compete in Western markets- they can kill competition and hold the gas market completely under their thumb in order to project Russian political interests. Since foreigners are not allowed to control Gazprom, the British gas market in turn should not be sold to the Russian state.

Bribery is a part of Russian foreign policy: the decision makers in London and Brussels must be watched carefully. The interests of freedom are under threat: not this time from Russian missiles, but from Russian money. Given the KGB taint in Russian government, we should be totally alert: "just because they say you are paranoid does not mean that they are not out to get you"

Thursday, February 02, 2006

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 Commons with distinction for nearly 20 years. This is a man with the intelligence and knowledge to make a great Prime Minister.

The only "achievement" of David Cameron- apart from his unlikely elevation- has been to be rated the 92th sexiest man by the readers of New Woman . Image obsessed crazies might argue that this is more important in today's politics- my only advice to such shallow immaturities is to grow up and get a real life.