Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ian Hamilton Finlay

I suppose as an unashamed classicist, Cicero was always going to appreciate the works of Ian Hamilton Finlay- and I do. Therefore the news of his death prompts me to revisit his extraordinary work. Primarily known for his garden- Little Sparta- in the Pentland hills, Finlay was a much broader figure in Scottish culture than Little Sparta alone. His poetry, sculpture and elegant drawings, prints and paintings marked him out as a singular and unusual mind.

His struggle with authority marked him out further as a rebel, and occasionally even a revolutionary- his admiration for Robespierre's ally, St Just, being well known. Finlay's figurative work aspired to an elegance and purity of line that in some ways echoed the spare, almost Roman classicism of the early Napoleonic era. Yet Finlay was a truly Scottish figure in European sculpture- and in his admiration for Revolutionary France we could discern echoes of the revolutionary drinking clubs active in 18th Century Scotland, of which Robert Burns was a noted member.

I fear that Little Sparta may descend into a twee parody - yet the discerning will detect in his work there the spirit of an active and passionate believer in the rational and the human. An inspiring and forthright figure, his clarity will endure, I hope, long after his death.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Highland Air

A weekend away in Aviemore. The conference of the Scottish Liberal Democrats was extremely cheerful. Rather splendidly, during the speech of Nicol Stephen, the party leader in Scotland, the TV transmission is interrupted for a few seconds: exactly as he mentioned George W. Bush, the picture disappeared- to be replaced by a second or two of a cowboy film, before returning to Nicol's speech. Clearly a technician with a sense of humour...

Overall, the atmosphere is very positive, and I am able to catch up with a large number of friends- including University colleagues who I have not seen for many years.

Malcolm Bruce's speech mentions the fate of the prisoners of Lukashenka. I notice that the demonstrations in Miensk have not died away- eventually, he will be replaced, and even such small pin-pricks will slowly erode the position of the last European dictator.

I did a TV interview this morning on Ukraine. However imperfect Ukrainian democracy is- and it is certainly rough and ready- it is at least vigorous, and it is a standing rebuke to the regime in Miensk- and Moscow...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Set Piece

I have just returned from a couple of days in Switzerland, and as always, I am struck by the efficiency of the Swiss infrastructure. I caught a train, punctual to the minute, from Zurich to Geneva. The trains link with the major airports and all major towns. In Geneva I read of the new infrastructure projects to improve transport in the major cities and across country. The budgets are transparent and agreed amongst the various cantons. Given the very mountainous terrain of much of the country, it is even more impressive to see how easy it is to get around.

Returning to a cramped and heavily congested Heathrow (now fallen to only the fourth busiest airport in Europe) I take the most expensive mile for mile train journey in the world to get to Paddington station. The difficulty of travel is obvious. In Switzerland I can take a train direct from Zurich Airport to Geneva Airport. Simply to travel between Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted- different airports of the same city- is not possible without multiple changes and about three hours of time- the approximate time it takes to get between Zurich to Geneva airports. In Scotland, the runways of all except Prestwick are relatively short, which limits the access of intercontinental flights- and given the global nature of the oil business this is a major brake of the future development of Aberdeen. Access to all the airports of Scotland is restricted, with no rail links yet established. This is just not acceptable, and will continue to damage competitiveness and efficiency until we fix the problems- as the Swiss continue to do every year.

As I Return to the UK I see that the tired farrago of the annual budget farce is upon us. This tawdry spectacle is what passes for a Parliamentary set piece under the current constitution. The scale of Gordon Brown's failures is obvious- yet all the Conservatives can argue is that not enough money is being spent on health! No mention of the astonishing waste that takes place in most government departments. No mention either of the amazing inefficiency of taxing people and then giving money back to them through a labyrinthine structure of benefits and tax credits. If our physical infrastructure is tired and inefficient, the infrastructure of government is morbidly obese, and will choke to death without major restructuring. The posturing drivel of the Parliamentary set piece- Cameron dancing around in response to the misleading and distorted numbers served up by the arrogant Chancellor- leaves me cold and very angry. Our constitution is not holding those who spend government money properly to account- which is the minimum that I would expect that it should do.

On the other hand the gathering scandal of the fund of the Conservative and Labour parties simply underlines the problem of money in our political system. I was deeply angry to hear Blair respond to Ming Campbell's question on Lord Sainsbury's loan to the Labour Party: How dare he draw a moral equivalence between the declared donations to the Liberal Democrats and the secret loans to the Labour party.

No Mr. Blair we are NOT all the same: the Liberal Democrats have disclosed their donations at every stage- to the point that those donations have been challenged. Labour and the Tories took undeclared loans for years and made the people who provided them into members of our Parliament. Unconstitutional and probably illegal. As I settle into my dirty train seat, I grow even more angry with the implosion of leadership at the heart of our constitution.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Logical Conclusion

As expected, Oleksander Lukashenka stole the election in Belarus. As expected, his friend Vladimir Putin congratulated him. Meanwhile Independent observers condemned the whole fraudulent process and protests continue in Miensk. Lukashenka is a parody bad guy- the question now is how far he can be pushed. The EU condemns him, as does the US. Isolating him, however drives him into the hands of Putin- who does not give a cuss for Belarusian freedom- indeed, if he thinks of it at all, he probably opposes it.

So- will the West challenge Putin? I am holding my breath, but I have a candle in my window for the victims of the Belarusian KGB and their vile leader. If Putin is serious about reform, let him get rid of this joke president- as he is certainly able to do- if he is not serious, then he will continue to tolerate him. Either way, the West can draw its own conclusions- as it already is about the reliability of the Russian Federation as a supplier of energy. Until the white-red-white flag flies again as the legitimate flag of a democratic state, we should recognise that Putin is not a government that we can "do business with" in any normal sense.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Winning ways

"That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves." Thomas Jefferson

This may not be a bad watchword for the modern British Liberal Democrats- for certainly it would be good to see a clearer intellectual discipline behind their policies. In fact it is now becoming critical. The Liberal tide in British politics seems to be rising- with the prospect of good local election results this year and very good results for the Holyrood elections in 2007. If the party is to gain momentum, then the intellectually lazy aspects of taxation policy have got to be eliminated. It still erks me that too many Liberal Democrats confuse the nominal rate of tax- say 40% with the actual tax yield. The work of Arthur Laffer demonstrated as early as 1974, that there is a peak nominal rate of tax, which if nominal rates are raised further will actually reduce the total tax yield. A 50% top marginal rate of tax will not work- even aside from the morally dubious right of the state to take so much a proportion of anyone's income.

Soaking the rich does not work as either a moral or an economic proposition. I would far rather have a simple tax code- if not a flat tax, then certainly not more than two marginal rates of tax. I would prefer to see the poor kept below the tax threshold, than to force them to claim benefits. The fiscal drag of Gordon Brown's "robbing Peter to pay Paul" policies is now unsustainable. Clarity and simplicity should be our watchwords- no grandiose and unworkable micro management and over regulation.

We need to apply a simple discipline in every policy discussion: how are the rights of the citizen and the consumer protected and advanced?

We need to do it now- the time may not be far away when we are ensnared in government, with little time to think about basic principles in the face of the realities of the civil service and the state. Make no bones about it: the Liberal Democrats really could be in power within a fairly short time. We owe it to ourselves and our country to make sure that we are ready for the responsibility.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A lie big enough

So... Europe's last dictator announces that no European Union observers will be permitted to come to the Belarusian elections. Meanwhile the opposition are accused of plotting a coup.

The same old Soviet lies: the criminals around the joke leader Lukashenka pretend that those brave enough to oppose their incompetent mismanagement of the country are plotting. Well, the prisons may well be full on Monday- but I know who the gaolers will be.

Pathetic! When these criminals finally are removed from office I hope that they will answer for every lie they have told.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Not Compulsory

"Learning is not compulsory... neither is survival." W. Edwards Deming

This is a week all about education. As the British Parliament debates further changes to the education system, it is clear that the place of education is rising up the political agenda. I have no particular quarrel with treating students differently based on academic ability. I am sceptical about schools selecting on that basis- frankly the grammar school system I have seen in operation in Buckinghamshire is not an advert for good schools. I am more familiar with streaming or "setting" within comprehensive schools, and to my mind this both helps kids who might not get support from middle class parenting and it concentrates on brain power rather than social exclusivity. Class based schools are not a good thing for an open economy. Certainly in my own industry of finance, I see people of well below average intelligence managing to maintain managerial level jobs, despite being very unsuited to them, solely because they attended the "right" English public school. I may say that I do not think that these people are particularly satisfied with life.

Indeed it is the fact that the white collar parents have been so much more successful in getting their kids into education in France and Germany that has undermined the effectiveness of the education system in those countries. The Lisbon Council report on European education is damning, in France, Germany and Italy, class distinction is a major cause for concern:

"Europeans from difficult socio-economic backgrounds don't receive the same educational opportunities as children from rich and middle-class families," the Council said. "In many countries, the data suggest that European schools reinforce existing socio-economic inequities."

The conclusion is that unless education is provided to kids, regardless of social-economic background, then economies can start to fall behind in terms of international competitiveness- indeed the Lisbon Council already thinks that this is happening to the European Union as a whole. They point out that Korea is already much better educated than the European average, while both India and China are producing science and technical graduates in the millions. Although France, Germany and Italy are particularly criticised, the fact is that the UK has not much to be happy about either. British technical education at high school level is neither rigorous nor particularly broad. There remain serious flaws in the teaching of maths and science subjects, and even the liberal arts are taught without, for example, a detailed knowledge of English grammar. As for language skills, the United Kingdom has almost abandoned effective teaching of modern languages even at high school level.

Unless the European Union can drastically improve access to education, the consequences could be critical. As Asia advances up the value added curve, Europe will possess increasingly dated brands with less innovation behind them. The restrictive labour laws and expensive labour rates in Europe will make inward investment ever less attractive as Asia provides more and better workers. Asia will provide ever greater markets, while the European demographic decline will increase costs and reduce opportunities. Meanwhile the European uneducated underclass will grow ever more fractious as they are completely excluded from economic prosperity. In the global economy, Europe could be reduced to Latin American levels of relevance as the power houses of South and East Asia come to challenge the economic power of even the United States.

Yet it is not just an economic or social benefit that we receive from education after all, there is a moral purpose to education too:

"There are more men ennobled by study than by nature". Marcus Tullius Cicero

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

In Memoriam Lennart Meri 1929-2006

It is hard to explain to people who know nothing of Estonia why the death of Lennart Meri means so much. As President he displayed an intelligence and vision that truly marked him as a great statesman. Yet he was so much more than that- he understood the character of Estonians- the bad as well as the good. He connected deeply with the culture of his country- writing of the deep roots that connected the traditions of the Estonian people with the land where they have lived for millennia. A theme of one of his most popular books was the search for Ultima Thule- a place of mystic significance as well as geographic speculation. Estonia, he thought, had a case to be thought of as that remote, mystic land.

Despite his deep passion and knowledge of Finno Ugric culture of which Estonian forms a part, Meri was in the best sense a true European- fluent in several European languages, he carried with him a full appreciation of the richness of our common European heritage. His intellect was wide ranging, his wisdom universal- his mind was paved with the literature and philosophy of Europe. Yet Meri was never ponderous- his quick humour made him a delightful conversationalist, and his wry smile was never far away. To a generation of Estonians, Lennart Meri was a puckish grandfather, humorous and kindly, but possessed of an occasionally acid tongue. After the failure of the August 1991 coup in Moscow, which put all the hopes for Estonian freedom at risk he explained why the coup could not have succeeded:
"I've never met a general yet who could milk a cow." His words were often prescient: in the mid 1990s he decried Western finance for Russia, which was mostly siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts, with a pithy and dismissive comment: "The West is making a fundamental mistake when it keeps Russia's nomenklatura fed in salami."

An intelligent and occasionally formidable man, his humour and kindliness nevertheless inspired a profound loyalty in those closest to him. He became the object of great affection in the younger generation, in whom he in turn placed much trust for the future. In later years, after he left office, he conducted himself with dignity, despite the provocations of those who opposed his vision of the future.

Lennart Meri has been voted "the Greatest Estonian". Even such an accolade sells him short. He represented the humanity of European culture, he understood the strengths and failings of our diverse continent, he spoke for the oppressed and the downtrodden in their resistance to tyranny. A liberal intellectual, he spoke with wisdom and vision: A great European and a great man.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Honours List Farce

You know, it is hard to work up a sense of real outrage at the cash for peerages scandal.

Mind you it really is a scandal- it is not just the harmless trumpery of absurd pseudo-mediaeval titles: these fat cats were buying membership of our national Parliament.

Yet I can't say I am surprised- for as long as patronage remains a gift of the Prime Minister, and especially this Prime Minister, then corruption will be an inevitable side effect. But is it really that bad? We do regard the desire to be "The Right Honourable The Lord Scrod of Bottley" as fairly harmless- and it is less economically damaging than to demand 25% of a government contract in exchange for your dubious financial support for the ruling party.

Nevertheless, with every drip of slime, it is not just the image of the compromised and morally dubious Blair government that falls- it is the far more corrosive "you are all the same" that damages politics as a whole. Blair is not "a pretty straight guy"- he has been in office too long for that.

What frightens me is that the alternative for many people is an even more cynical, shallow and opportunist figure: David Cameron. Personally, I am more and more of the opinion that the Public Schools seem rather too good at producing the smooth and well practiced liar.

Privilege and class are not quite dead in our supposedly meritocratic country- hence the absurd desire to be part of a system that continues to award the five classes of "The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire" as a reward for good works. Five classes? Oh yes MBE for lollipop ladies, OBE for charity work, CBE for nearly a knighthood, KBE for senior government approved figures, DBE for actresses...

Mind you, as far as social mobility is concerned, I look forward to the first comprehensive kid as the PM- we still have not had one...yet.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

White-Red-White

The historic flag of Belarus is white with a red stripe. The flag that is flown by the Lukashenka regime is the old soviet era "national" flag, minus the hammer and sickle. In a nutshell, that is the visual symbol of the current struggle for Belarus. Oleksander Lukashenka, leading a tyranny which uses its KGB goons to kidnap and kill versus Alyaksandr Milinkevich who is the united candidate of the Belarusian opposition.

On March 19th, Lukashenka will steal another election. The legitimate choice of the Belarusian population will be denied to them. It is time to speak up now- the last dictator of Europe must be removed and his odious soviet-era symbols banished to the past where they belong.

The colours of Belarusian freedom should be restored, and those who have denied them for so long should face trial. If the election on March 19th can not be judged to be fair, then the West should make it clear to Mr. Lukashenka that his fate may yet take him not just to trial in Miensk, but to The Hague- as it did the second-to-last dictator in Europe: Slobodan Milosevic.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Fifty Three

Fifty three years ago, on March 5th 1953, Josif Vissarionovich Djugashvili died aged 74.

He had a stroke on March 1st. However it was many hours before any aid came to him. The fear he inspired meant that no one would disturb him. Even when he was found, befouled and lying senseless on the floor, he was left to lie still longer. Eventually he was put on a chaise longue. Finally, speechless and angry, he died. The tyrant Stalin was dead.

No-one knows how many people his regime butchered and tortured.

Even today so many still suffer from the loss of their family members. The degradation and hopelessness of Stalinism crushed the human spirit. Alcoholism was a frequent result. Those taken to Siberia, and who yet returned after the blessed news of Stalin's death were shadows of the people who had left. Millions upon millions of people were casually left to die, or worked to death or tortured to death. Even those who survived could never forget. The destruction of generations has left a lasting legacy. The rot of post-Stalinist Communism, while less monstrous, was more despairing.

A beautiful girl, when a small child, lost her father to an accident as the result of alcohol. What stability there was in her Soviet life was lost. Her late childhood and early teen years became a journey from place to place with no security. She has left her country and lives now in the West. Even now she can not feel comfortable in her own skin. Her pysche is frozen.

When we talk about the crushing of humanity that Stalin led, each individual bears the stress of these crimes even down the generations. As I think back on to the death of the monster, I think grim thoughts indeed. In those long hours that he lay, immobile and filthy- did he contemplate his crimes? Did he understand that his name would become reviled through the ages? That his death could only bring a leap of hope to the hearts of those he tormented? As he struggled with his own death, did he think of the deaths of so many others, for which he was directly responsible?

Part of me hopes that his death was hard- that every breath was an agony, that his fear and rage choked him as he lay helpless. Even I, unknown to him and far away, have been touched by the results of the vile machine he created. Love can be poisoned by the past that makes us who we are.

Yet in the end, the death of Stalin was just another old man finally entering the dark. Those of us who still walk in the light might think about what we owe to each other: to love one another or perish.

Fifty three years ago- nearly two generations. I wonder when the sorrow that this man caused can ever be healed.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Balance of Power

The international system is facing a period of increasing upheaval. The duopoly of power: the Soviet Union facing the West, has given way to a radically different order. Initially the emergence of a single "hyperpower" -the United States- was suggested to be "the end of history", or rather the end of ideological struggle. However, it is now clear that the United States is not as preeminent as it had seemed.

The shock of September 11th revealed that critical challenges now came from outside the state system- from small and ruthless groups with a seemingly limitless appetite for death on an industrial scale. Meanwhile, the economic strength of the US has been challenged- first by China and now, increasingly, by India. As other powers emerge: Brazil and a resurgent Russia, it is clear that the old certainties are giving way to new uncertainties.

In this world of more even wealth and greater competition, the position of Europe has grown ever more uncertain. Initially Europe seemed to be the big winner of the end of the cold war. From being the cockpit of the cold war conflict, Europe has reunited, with the institutions of the European Union and NATO gaining almost all of the former Soviet occupied states as new members. Yet, this superficial success masks a great crisis.

The United States is challenged by the new balance of power, the European Union is not merely challenged, it is threatened. The economic structures that were created in the post war world are now threatened by competition and by demographics. Instead of funding savings, the socialist systems created in the 1950's and 1960's chose to fund welfare through government expenditure- a mistake that has had profound implications for wealth of all subsequent generations. Indeed the creation of comprehensive social protection now threatens European competitiveness to such an extent that it is difficult to see how it can be maintained in its current form at all.

For the Conservatives, the answer is clear- to cut ties with the European Union and to forge a new niche as a dynamic, privateer economy off shore of the lumbering socialist behemoths of the European Union. The problem, although British demographics are OK, and helped considerably by the relatively open door that the UK has allowed to the workers from the new EU member states, is that the UK is not particularly competitive compared even to many EU economies. The disruption that leaving the EU would cause- irrespective of whether the EU takes punitive action against the UK, which would certainly be a possibility under some circumstances- would create so much uncertainty as to undermine the British investment cycle, and reduce the efficiency of the British economy still further.

Thus, the UK will still need to negotiate its position with the European Union, and ultimately the UK can not separate its own destiny from the success or failure of the European economy, with which it conducts 70%-80% of its trade. This fundamental reality may be unwelcome in certain quarters, but Britain is not isolated within the EU. The Nordic countries and most of the new members are firmly on the side of a less intrusive, more Liberal European Union. It is now up to British diplomacy to make the best of a potential reforming group- one that may yet include Germany, the swing state of the EU- in order to put forward a new agenda for the European Union. This agenda must recognise the scale of the crisis that faces the continent and begin the process of radical reform that can maintain Europeans in the face of the increasing challenges from the rising global powers of Asia and America.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

A leap of faith

Tony Blair thinks that his decision to go to war will be judged by God. The fact that George W. Bush also trusted to his faith makes me cringe. This messianic appeal to faith I personally find repellent. It smacks of the hypocrite - "but I say unto you that they have their reward".

However, perhaps it also explains why the West is getting into such a mess. The certitudes of faith should be leavened with doubt, otherwise we might have leaders of the West who believe that their personal relationship with the divinity renders them automatically successful. Then, they might insist that they alone know what is good for their citizens- that any crime is permissible- the abolition of "inalienable rights" such as Life or Liberty, for example. The prosecution of war, irrespective of constitution or international law; the use of torture; the intrusion of the state into any aspect of life that "the war on terror" requires - all this is allowed and justified by faith. In the words of Cromwell "I beseech you... think it possible that you may be mistaken". However, such faith as that professed by Bush or Blair allows no room for doubt. The consequences are there for all to see. In battling the perverted certainties of Islamo-fascism, the West has fallen into the hands of justified sinners of equal self righteousness.

Whether we talk of investment and the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, that I have discussed on this blog before; or of science and Mandelbrot or Heisenberg; or of politics and Aristotle and Cicero, the key is to understand that we ourselves are inherently fallible. Thus we must construct political systems that nor merely accept that their leaders are flawed, but which expects that we are and bases its design on that single key assumption. In fact we have mostly done so. That is why the tinkering with the constitutional arrangement in Britain or the United States must be resisted so fiercely. In fact in Britain, the fact that constitutional order can be subverted so easily should now make us more determined than ever to create a political system that is less open to corruption and misuse. The latest allegations against David Mills, whether true or not, show again how high-level corruption can reach into the heart of the state and undermine our democracy with money.

It is no longer enough to trust our politicians, we must- in that Russian proverb much quoted by Ronald Reagan- "trust and verify". No matter how certain the Prime Minister may be of his faith and his justification, he must verify himself, through the constitution, to the people who employ him: the British people.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Carpe Diem

Ming Campbell has a great opportunity to push the Liberal Democrats to centre stage. The Liberal Democrats have always stood up for the socially liberal agenda. The clarity with which we express opposition to the political might of the state is part of the very bedrock of what we do well. The commitment to international law and to the social limits of the state have been two things that have made the Liberal Democrats stand out over the past five years. The opposition to the war in Iraq and the "war on terror" has marked us out as principled and brave.

The next step is to show that our Liberal Democrat vision embraces economic freedom too. The taxation pot is not limitless, and the micro-management of Gordon Brown has created enormous fiscal drag. Even were it desirable (which I strongly dispute), it is just not possible to continue to tax and spend. If Lib Dems get tax right this time- which means setting clear limits on tax rates and tax takes- then there really is a great prize for us. Liberals, by definition believe in limits to state power. The fact is that we have not expressed our economic Liberalism nearly clearly enough. We grew confused- sometimes preferring the producer interest, instead of defending consumer choice. Now we have an opportunity to escape these past mistakes.

We do not need to break with our past- as Labour did, and the Conservatives still do- we need to show why a smaller state, more localism, a bonfire of quangos, and free trade, (domestic and international) are such strong Liberal Democrat traditions- and what that means.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Ming Dynasty

We have a new leader of the British Liberal Democrats. As I had hoped, it is Sir Menzies Campbell QC MP. Congratulations to him and his team, and congratulations to us- we have a leader who looks for more like a Prime Minister than the shallow Mr. Cameron or the volcanic Mr. Brown (if it is to be him as the next Labour leader).

As for the Conservatives, faced with Ming, a bloke who has fought his whole political career based on principle and substance, they are shrilly screaming “too old”.

Oh really? It couldn’t be, could it, that they are a bit nervous? Cameron is straight out of the Blair school of shiny, shallow politics- and the game is moving on. When faced with Blair and Cameron, it is quite hard to spot the evil twin. Both like illegal war, authoritarian policies and the government telling you what to do.

Tories: you could have been principled too (although admittedly most people don’t like your principles either) but you have ended up with a guy from the pages of Tatler, when you really needed someone less shiny… and more honest.

Those of us who want the Liberal Democrats to fight for a muscular Liberalism, with Freedom as the definition of our policies, will be watching closely the new regime. We know that Ming will fight our corner on such issues as ID cards and civil liberties. We now need to define the economic priorities of Liberalism. For me, that means abandoning the myth that we can plan the future in detail and create a flexible political system that responds to change effectively and efficiently. This also means setting the limits of the state- not just in a social way, but an economic way too.

The state should not spend more than a set percentage of national income- what that limit is, we can debate, but it should not be more than at present, and arguably it should be quite a bit less.

Liberalism is "Trust in the People, tempered with prudence"- it is not "Trust in the State, tempered with greed".

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

On the eve

The result of the Lib Dem leadership election will finally be declared tomorrow. Cicero has supported Ming Campbell from the off, and I believe that he will come home tomorrow as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats. The party can then start to deal with some of the live issues of the day.

One of these is not the report on childhood obesity. Was I alone in thinking that a report written by The National Audit Office, the Healthcare Commission and the Audit Commission was in fact a prime example of a far more serious problem: government obesity. Scientific opinion is divided as to what the current trends in childhood obesity actually are, and even more divided as to what the effects might be. Another, state funded, report will provide more publicly funded jobs in order to "tackle" this problem. It will however not actually tackle the problem at all, but it will give the illusion of activity and cost a fair chunk of taxpayers money.

However, one issue that is becoming of critical importance is the retreat from free trade. The whole idea of the European Union is to at least create a free trade area. Unless the protectionist impulse that is giving rise to "national champions"- such as the proposed merger between Gaz de France and Suez- within the European Union is crushed, the whole market will be damaged and the consumer will pay a severe price. Protectionism is growing across the planet- with the absurd posturing of American legislators against the proposed takeover of P&O, and hence some of the ports of the USA, by Dubai Ports World, a UAE based company- the latest threat.

Liberals, if they stand for anything, stand for free trade. Protectionism is the one sure-fire way to undermine the core of global prosperity. Fair trade, open trade, free trade- or global recession.