Friday, April 28, 2006

Off broadening my mind..

Travel broadens the mind, so they say. So I am off to the bosom of my family in Aberdeenshire for a family wedding. Can't say I am being very green as far as travel is concerned: Last week Warsaw, this week Aberdeen, next week Japan- via the UAE-, then Zagreb, Tirana, Warsaw again and then the Viljandi Folk festival in Estonia. Lots of CO2 emissions, must remember to buy the carbon bank equivalent to off-set. I wonder, did David Cameron plant a forest for his emissions on his trip to Norway- hmm hmm- possibly not a good idea to dwell on DC's emissions... though it is hardly likely that you would beleive them anyway.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Judge a man by his friends

I have just returned from Warsaw.

I have always found Warsaw a slightly extreme city- the mementoes of the appalling destruction of the city during the second world war are on every street corner. The serenity of the old town -the Stare miasto - is marred by the fact of it having been rebuilt in toto. It seems strangely artificial- beautiful, but almost like a mask- and the reality underneath is, like much of the rest of the city actually pretty ugly. Yet Warsaw is a city of broad shoulders, and talking with friends in my rather rusty Polish, I begin to see the new identity of Poland. As Pawel- a good friend- points out, Poland has become like the mid-west of the USA. Bland, but fairly conservative. When I first went to Poland, Warsaw had three skyscrapers, and dominating them all was the Stalinist wedding cake of the Palac nauki i kultury - now there are over thirty skyscrapers, by my count. In the end we have it- not Chicago, but Cleveland, Ohio.

Yet amongst this evidence of rapid change the state of Polish politics remains poisonous. Instead of the expected coalition of the more conservative right wing party-the P i S- and the more liberal party- the Platforma Obwytelska- the P i S instead is set to create a coalition with the deeply Catholic LPR and the extreme right wing Self Defence. Self Defence is led by the perma-tanned figure of Andrzej Lepper, a mixture of Robert Kilroy Silk and Jean Marie Le Pen, only more right wing. As for the P i S themselves, they have become a totally backward looking party, more interested in commissions' to address the wrongs of twenty years ago, than in addressing the problems of today. They have no answers for the Liberal world in which modern Poland finds itself and from which it is profiting- as the evidence of the Warsaw skyline shows.

As a result the opinion polls are showing P i S falling like a stone, while the Liberal Platforma is making major progress. Perhaps the long awaited realignment of Polish politics, where some elements of the Solidarnosc successors- of which Platforma is a part- will no cooperate with some of the left wing elements. The fact that the P i S has cooperated with the pariah of Andrzej Lepper, suggests that this may now occur.

In any event, the fact that David Cameron believes that his best friend in Poland should be the P i S- who are happy to be coalition partners with neo fascists- is interesting and shows a stunning lack of judgment. As the P i S flail around, it is easy to judge Cameron by his friends- and I do.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Zero Sum Game

The government of the Russian Federation continues to act as though there is no such thing as a win-win solution. The country continues to through its weight around in almost every sphere: the seizure of Georgian mineral water (see link) is just the latest in a series of heavy handed restrictions on trade with countries that the regime in Moscow doesn't like. Essentially Russia continues to believe that if someone wins in a negotiation with Moscow, then by definition the Russians must have lost. Economics has become a continuance of politics, or even war, by financial means.

This one eyed view in Moscow has led to some extraordinary situations. For example the gold collar of office of the pre-war President of Estonia remains in the Kremlin, despite the fact that the Russian Federation can have no earthly claim over it. Russia therefore still retains the treasures that their Soviet predecessors looted from other countries- whether these are jewels or, for example, the library of the University of Tartu.

The Russian company, Gazprom, is seeking greater access to the European market, and as a supporter of free trade, I do not disagree that ultimately they should have this. However, the Russians should understand that unless they learn better manners, they will continue to be mistrusted. The fact that yet another newspaper, this time Komsomolskaya Pravda, has been taken over by Gazprom in order to serve the Kremlin only adds to the growing body of evidence that Russia has abandoned democracy for the time being. It also underlines the fact that Gazprom, already the largest company in the world, is de facto an organ of the Russian State. Therefore, the discussions taking place between British Gas and Gazprom should be seen in a rather critical light. Personally, I believe that the fact that Russia continues to use Gazprom and UES, the giant power utility, as functionaries of the state should render them ineligible to invest in the European Union, at least until sufficient restructuring has taken place that allows Russian entry into the WTO. Since Russians continue to believe that economics is a zero-sum game, then perhaps we should make sure that every point of contact is now a matter for negotiation- only then may the Russians begin to understand that they must adapt a more liberal approach in business affairs as well as in international politics.

The alternative for a declining West may be that our corporate treasures end up in the Kremlin, together with all the other things that have been stolen in previous generations.

Celebration

In common with most of her subjects I tend to wish Elizabeth II well- so congratulations to her on the occasion of her 80th Birthday.

Also today is Good Friday in the Orthodox church. I therefore wish a Happy Easter to my orthodox friends.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Constitution of Liberty

I posted the preamble of the Liberal Democrats constitution on politicalbetting.com. As I read through it, it struck me as rather a woolly document, especially when compared with the old Liberal Party constitution (and my own recollection of it). It occurred to me that it could do with a rewrite, so here is my thoughts on what we should say about our key principles:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build an open society in which every citizen shall possess liberty, property and security, and none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. Its first principle is freedom. It seeks to secure the rights and opportunities of the individual in all spheres.

We believe that each generation is the steward of the Earth and is responsible for protecting the balance of nature.

We believe that each state and nation is interdependent and that, irrespective of national boundaries, the cultures of humanity are worthy of respect without racial, religious or national prejudice. We believe that the free movement of ideas, of goods and of people should be guaranteed to the mutual benefit of all. We seek to build a world where all people share the same basic rights, and where they can live together in peace. To this end we support democratic international and supranational bodies and we are prepared to set aside national sovereignty where necessary in order to work with other countries, and in particular within the European Union, towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security.

We hold it to be true that the state exists to guarantee freedom. That freedom includes the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely. We will protect the right of citizens to enjoy privacy in their own lives and homes. The authority of the state derives from the democratic sovereignty of its citizens. We reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and we oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality. Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government as guarantees of freedom.

Believing that freedom can not be achieved without social justice, we resolve to wage war against poverty and spread wealth and power as fair rewards of skills and efforts. Each citizen possesses inalienable economic rights, which include an effective voice in deciding the conditions in which they live and work; the liberty to buy, sell and produce in circumstances which secure for the consumer real freedom of choice; guarantees against the abuse of monopoly, whether private or public; the opportunity to work at a fair wage; decent homes in a varied and attractive environment; good education and facilities for the full cultivation of the human personality.

We believe that sovereignty should be exercised as close to the level of the citizen as practical, and to that end we believe that effective local government, elected under a fair voting system and which is fully transparent in its decision taking is a vital pillar of a democratic society. We therefore acknowledge the right of citizens to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

It is the responsibility of each citizen and the duty of the state to protect and enlarge the conditions of Liberty. The Liberal Democrats consist of women and men working together for the achievement of these aims

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Colour by Numbers

So David Cameron suggests that we could "Vote Blue and get Green". I am not really sure how this squares with any actual policies that the Conservatives have put forward. Indeed the only policy in the environmental field I have heard them offer at all is a proposal to release some green belt land for development. Even if it may be a sensible policy- a dubious prospect- it is not what is conventionally thought of as a green policy. The mention of colours does rather open the Conservatives to the accusation that they are just a bunch of political chameleons.

In the blogosphere, there has been much consideration of the prospects for the Conservatives. Many of the more partisan Tories put forward the view that they can sweep aside the Liberal Democrats and position themselves to seize power once more. Of course, we are still not very clear what the Conservatives would actually do in office- whether they intend to cut taxes or hold them, and exactly what their spending priorities would actually be.

As for the real prospects of the Conservatives on the ground- these too are rather vague. However the chances for the Conservatives in the Moray by-election look pretty awful. An inept campaign has dropped repeated clangers, despite the fact that the Scottish National organizer has been the agent. Indeed the Scottish Tories may well face a police investigation, so casual has been their approach to electoral law. Meanwhile it seems likely that, far from advancing, Conservative support may even fall, with the Liberal Democrats making enough running to knock the Conservatives into third place. Moray was once a reliably Conservative seat- not any more, it seems. If there is no come back for the Tories in Scotland, then they can only rely on certain areas of the country- and become, in effect, a regional party of the south east.

Even if the Conservatives make progress in London at the local elections next month, the fact is that this not enough. Unless the Conservatives can make large gains across the country, they can not claim any credibility in their aspirations to government. Perhaps instead of trying to close the credibility gap by saying that they are "green", they might best try telling us what "blue" actually means- when they know themselves, of course...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

10 Liberal Texts

Iain Dale put down some thoughts on his blog as to what the 10 key texts of Conservatism were. I was interested to see that several Conservatives tried to claim Liberal thinkers, such as JS Mill, as Conservative.

My own choice for Liberalism would be (in no particular order):

JS Mill: On Liberty
FA Hayek: The Constitution of Liberty
Karl Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies
John Locke: Second Treatise on Civil Government
Voltaire: Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations and on the Principal Occurrences in History
Rousseau: The Social Contract
von Humboldt: On the limits of State Action
Isaiah Berlin: Two concepts of Liberty
James Madision/Alexander Hamilton: The Federalist Papers
David Hume: A Treatise on Human Nature

Probably various others such as Aristotle's Politics or Joseph Steiglitz' Globalisation and its Discontents, should be included- please leave your ideas...

European Decadence

Hilmar Kopper, the President of Deutsche Bank has shrewdly identified a key problem with Europe as follows: "To agree on keeping a status quo that can't be kept has nothing to do with consensus. It's decadence".

The scale of our problems in Europe is now enormous. Demographically, Europeans are not even replacing themselves. The steady decline in the economic significance of Europe is becoming a collapse, as India and China emerge as modern economies. As economic power flows elsewhere, the political and cultural influence of Europe ebbs too. Still the leaders of Europe do not admit, even to themselves, that the point of crisis is now upon us. Listless and nervous, the voters do not know where to turn. A succession of elections in Portugal, Germany, Italy, and Poland have demonstrated confusion as to how to face up to the scale of the problems. The institutions that have guided Europe through the years of recovery after the two world wars are now seen a shaky and no longer reliable. NATO, once so critical for European security, seems now only a mechanism to retain American engagement in Europe, when the US would rather look elsewhere. The European Union seems to have become a bloated failure, bogged down in over regulation and elitist projects that do not connect with the general population.

European weakness has become European decadence because of a failure of leadership. In country after country there has been a failure to tell the truth about the crises that we face. It is the dishonesty of the French elite that has brought the populace onto the streets in support of a system that can no longer be sustained. A "Liberal" of what ever kind, especially the reviled "Neo-Liberal" is a hate figure in a country that urgently needs liberal reform if it is to escape economic trap that fifth Republic social policy has created. In France, as in Germany, the crisis is not a distant prospect, but a wave crashing ashore. Though more distant, the crest of the wave is now clearly seen in Britain too- and leadership is similarly lacking.

Perhaps the problem is that most of the possible solutions to European problems are counter intuitive: fixing unemployment by making it easier to hire and fire, and easing immigration controls. Creating a more secure society by abolishing state controls on the economy. These are both hard for voters to understand and unttractive for political leaders since they reduce their power. Yet leaders of vision must understand that the stakes are high. Attempting to cling on to the status quo will fail. Leadership is required: difficult decisions must be made now. Without leadership, the decisions will be made anyway- but not in Europe, and not to European advantage.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"The Long War" against?

The Pentagon has announced a rebranding exercise. The War formerly known as the War against Terror" will now be known as "The Long War".

Usually in a war it is helpful to know three things: who you are fighting, what you are fighting for and when you know whether you have won or lost.

We are given to understand that our enemy, the shadowy and evil people associated with Al-Q'aida could appear in any place and commit any crime up to and including using nuclear weapons against population centres. The definition of success is that such crimes do not take place. Repeatedly those authority figures with access to the highest grade of intelligence tell us that many attacks have been thwarted, but "if you knew what we knew" then we would be pretty scared, indeed terrified out of our wits.

In the name of the War on Terror, the US-led coalition have gone to war in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban regime that undoubtedly sponsored Bin Laden and his close personal maniacs in Al Q'aida. Subsequently the US and its allies have undertaken a far bigger operation in Iraq. The justification for going to war in Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed "weapons of mass destruction"- hinted at being nuclear- that would be handed to Al Q'aida for use against the West. In the event, after the Coalition occupation of the country it was discovered that Saddam did not have a nuclear capability and that the WMDs that he had previously possessed- gas weapons- had been destroyed. Thus the ostensible reason for the Iraq war was invalid.

Since 2001 no further attacks have taken place on US soil, although disorganized attacks have taken place in Istanbul, Israel, Bali, Jakarta, Morocco, Egypt, Madrid and London which have all been said to be Al Q'aida inspired. The police investigations have not revealed a single controlling force behind these attacks, but rather that each attack was specific and largely local. The largest single area of operation for Al Q'aida inspired violence is of course post-Saddam Iraq.

In the United Kingdom, we have had prolonged experience of terrorist attacks- largely from the Provisional IRA- the largest of the terrorist movements of the 1960s-1970s. The PIRA was heavily armed and generally considered ruthless, with 10 PIRA/INLA operatives starving themselves to death in the hunger strikes of 1981. However suicide attacks were not part of the PIRA's modus operandi. Other terrorist movements, such as the German Red Brigades and Baader Meinhof Gang and the Italian Red Brigades were also inspired by Marxism-Leninism and it is widely believed that all of the Western European terrorist groups of the 1970s received support and money from the Soviet Union.

Al Q'aida does not have a sustaining power behind it, and if it exists in a formal sense, then it is a highly diffuse and non-hierarchical organization. As a result to fight such a group or groups is more like a police operation- dealing with an infection within- rather than fighting an external enemy.

We know that we want the Al Q'aida attacks to stop, but how can we make this happen when we know so little about what inspires and motivates the small and closed groups that inflict the violence? With the PIRA, the generation of leaders under McGuinness and Adams recognized that the violence was futile and that they recognized that they could conduct a political struggle for the same aims. The ending of financial and military support from such sources as Libya and the USSR and more successful MI5 penetration may also have concentrated their minds. The RAF or Red Brigades - perhaps closer to Al Q'aida than the PIRA in numbers and organization- either ceased operations or were caught in a series of police operations.

So, compared to the PIRA, we are not entirely sure who we are fighting and we will not be sure when or if we have won. As far as what we are fighting for, I would make the following observations. Most liberal societies have faced terrorist attacks. Sometimes these have been defeated. Sometimes, however, attacks have led to something of a much bigger scale: the assassination at Sarajevo on June 28th 1914, for example. Thus, it seems to me that the risks of over reaction are more dangerous than the risks of the attacks themselves.

I oppose the "Long War", because the methods being used to prosecute it may or may not have any effect on terrorism, but they definitely have an effect on Liberty. In the name of protecting us from the terrorists, our leaders have imposed open ended restrictions upon our society- costs of money transmission, travel, investment, business, or dealing with the state at any level have all increased. The state has taken upon itself the right to know previously private information and to use it in any way that it sees fit. The state requires citizens to prove their innocence- a negation of a basic principle of the Common Law. If the War on Terror is being fought internally, it is a cure worse than the disease.

The Long War is a chimera- there is no way of knowing who we are fighting, there is no way of knowing if we have won or lost. If we are fighting to protect our freedom though, we are in danger of destroying ourselves. Once again it comes back to the need to define what the state may or may not do. Clear rules that define and limit the activities of the state are the central root of a liberal constitution- the War on Terror has eroded these rules. We must turn back. We must end this "war focused" mindset and remember that this is a police operation, not a war necessarily against an external enemy. The alternative is that "The Long War" will become as permanent as the war of Orwell's "1984"- with Bin Laden as our own Goldstein- and just as damaging to the individual liberties that we prize and that terrorists despise.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Fruitcakes and Loonies

No, this has gone beyond a joke- a perfectly nice Conservative twin-setted lady called Joan Howarth has revealed that she is not too keen on the ethnics... It is hard to believe that the Almighty has such a fabulously extreme sense of irony.

So you see Mr. Cameron, when you rounded on UKIP as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists mostly", we could not help thinking that it was actually the Tory party you were talking about. If Mrs Howarth is in the "wrong party", then you may have a bit of a problem: there just aren't enough Notting Hillbillies for you to get elected. While Zac, Ed and George (and doubtless many a Crispin, Josh and Tristan) are all on your side- your party really isn't.

Excuse me, I just need to nip outside to cynically laugh my head off...

Wikimeme

OK, OK I'll do the wikimeme:

August 31st

Three Events

1980 - The Solidarity trade union is formed in Poland.

1920 - Polish-Bolshevik War: A decisive Polish victory in the Battle of Komarów.

1997 - Diana, Princess of Wales, dies in a car crash in Paris.

Two Births

12 - Gaius Caligula, Roman Emperor (d. 41)

1945 - Itzhak Perlman, Israeli violinist

One Death

651 - Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne, Irish bishop and missionary

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Cliche in the Hand

Watching David Cameron rallying the twinsets in Manchester was an unexpectedly amusing use of weekend time. "We must not put our foot on the brake", he said, "but the accelerator". A bit ho-hum as a line, but not as vacuous as "we must become the party of aspiration once again". "We must lead the debate on pensions". Well, looking round the conference hall, one could certainly see why the Tories would want to lead that debate. Exactly how, ah well, that was not on offer- this was a policy free zone. "Forward, not back". Oh wait a minute, that was a Labour cliche.

In fact, although it seemed that most of the conference was a rehash of CJ's lines from the Reggie Perrin scripts of the Seventies, it was hard not to feel a sense of amusement at the cascade of empty cliches: "a cliche to me is like a red rag to a bull, I avoid them like the plague...". Someone once said that over use of cliche was a sign of a befuddled mind, and to be honest it did look as though the Tory party had come out in their dressing gown and were urgently missing their appliance.

Ming Campbell's comment: "The Lib Dems campaign on principles, not on focus groups"- yeah, OK a cliche, but also true. The fact is that the Tories don't have two policies to rub together. They don't have too much time to fix this problem. Perhaps the new, shiny Tory Emperor...

Friday, April 07, 2006

Insular thinking

I must confess a certain degree of irritation at the bluster with which the ignorant will try to put forward half baked ideas as though they were gospel truth. The media are often guilty of this: often, when I have been close to a subject that was being reported in the press or on television, I have heard statements that were misleading, partial or just plain wrong. As a result I have learned to read or listen to even our more distinguished commentators with one ear cocked for misrepresentation and inaccuracy.

The pity of it is that on quite a few issues the media have helped to create "conventional wisdom" that is simply wrong. For example, on politicalbetting.com- a excellent website which I read fairly avidly- I see posters regurgitating statements that are completely wrong. These errors are not just of opinion, but of fact. For example, Conservatives, determined to prove that the Euro is a failure, try to blame wholly unrelated problems in the European Union entirely on the European Central Bank. I appreciate that monetary policy is complicated, but displaying simple ignorance of the whole basis of how the ECB actually works I rather think disbars one from pontificating on the subject.

I also find that so many Brits like to think in stereotypes: the complicated reasons for the recent French strikes are distilled into "The French are lazy". Other national caricatures, like "The Germans are arrogant", have become part of the intellectual furniture of far to many people in the UK. Usually ignorant of either the place or its language, British visitors often seem to travel round continental Europe in a haze of prejudice. I am glad to see Sir Geoff Hurst advertising the German tourist board- perhaps it will remind people that, whatever our history, Germans are by and large very much our friends (and so, by the way are the French, Italians and most Europeans) - and the generation that now chants "two world wars and one world cup" mostly can not remember any of those events. Those that were alive through the wars were determined not to build up the barriers that led to war in the first place. If we persist in our ignorance of our neighbours and continue to denigrate them and their culture then we too will have become a stereotype, and it is not an attractive one. The boorish, drunken, violent "hooligan"- a word that has developed some surprising currency even amongst those countries that we do not choose to mock.

Stupidity is simple, the world is complicated- those commentators and politicians whose casual judgments shape opinion may wish to reflect on this- for with the advent of new technology, including the blogosphere, they may find their days become numbered.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Crise de nerf

Three million people on the streets of Paris. All protesting about the most minor of changes to labour laws that would probably have a slightly positive effect on the high rates of French unemployment.

This seems to be another waymark in the decline of France into political and economic irrelevance. President Jacques Chirac, himself re-elected for his second term only in preference to the extreme and thuggish Jean-Marie Le Pen, continues to brazen out a leadership that has utterly run out of ideas.

The narrow elite of the French Republic, educated in the Grandes Ecoles, seems gripped with doubt. The confidence of Charles de Gaulle or Jean Monnet in a certaine idee de La France has given way to a defensive and querulous determination to resist change. Now around 200,000 French citizens have come to Britain- French schools in London are massively over subscribed, and the streets of South Kensington now echo to the language of Voltaire on a scale not seen ever before. Could anything demonstrate more clearly the failure of "the French model" than the fact that its most gilded products can no longer find a satisfactory home in France?

There is another side to the French nervous breakdown. In my own family, my French brother in law has built a highly successful business, despite the fact that he is not a product of the higher university system himself. However, he has built his business in Britain, since in France he may not rise beyond a certain level in either public or private sector. In the UK he is now a highly successful entrepreneur ( a word, I should remind President Bush, that is French in origin). As passionate Frenchman as he is, especially when it comes to sport, he finds far more opportunities in the UK than in France.

No wonder that three million people are on the streets- but they are fighting the wrong battles. No-one owes France a living, and no-one will pay French bills, if they themselves will not. The openness and ambition that characterized the first years of the French Fifth Republic has given way to fear. The theatrical exit that M. Chirac manufactured when one of his countrymen addressed a European body in English, reflected a cultural defensiveness rather than confidence. The rudeness that he showed to the new entrants into the European Union has not been forgotten. Despite being on the popular (and perhaps correct) side of the argument as far as the invasion of Iraq is concerned, France has squandered its opportunities.

France is at a crossroads- A key player in Europe seems depressingly unable to face up to the need for radical social changes in order to respond to the revitalised challenge of Asia. For as long as this willful blindness continues, the crisis will continue. However, this is France, and her fractious, argumentative and free people will not tolerate for long the kind of failure that this generation of politicians, drawn from the same narrow and homogeneous power elite, are prepared to serve up to them.

Vive La Revolution!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Window on the World

It is always interesting checking through the viewing stats for this blog.

I see the IP address of several friends- Steve G, Steve T, Simon M and Andy W know who they are!

Tristan has left several interesting comments, as has Andrew Montford- apologies for the delay in posting some of these, I had failed to notice that they were not being e-mailed automatically for review.

On the other hand I see IP addresses from all over the place- those from the Baltic Countries are especially welcome- notably my old friend Igor, who I look forward to sharing a drink with the next time I am in Tallinn.

The latest set is particularly interesting: many from Latin America with Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Mexico and Colombia all being represented. I have regular readers in the US, Canada (a country close to my heart as a former student there) Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Germany, Poland, Italy, Luxembourg, Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium.

In the UK I see readers from Parliament and several Universities- Imperial, UCL, and various Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, York, Durham, Napier, Edinburgh and many others. Since they seem to return, I hope that they are finding something of interest! I see several colleagues in City firms and a variety of Scottish IP addresses.

Since this blog is now approaching 5000 individual page loads, I hope that this fairly small but diverse group of readers have enjoyed the rather varied mixture of my thoughts- I shall seek to refine them and hopefully make them more readable as this blog develops.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Words of Wisdom...

I first encountered "Chase Me Ladies, I'm in the Cavalry" in a quiet office and laughed so loudly that problems ensued... they asked me to leave. Click on link for more, but the following made me fall off my chair giggling:

"Every adult must at some point have paused during some slapstick piece of debauchery and thought, "Christ, this is ridiculous". Having testicles is like being chained to the village idiot. Sad, but there it is. And when we have solved every racial, political and economic problem, we will still be stuck with that one."

What works...

Last Friday Cicero was speaking at the two-yearly seminar on the Baltic countries held at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL. Two years ago we were celebrating the entry of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the European Union and NATO. This year the atmosphere is more muted. The reforming zeal of the region continues, but a greater sense of tiredness is evident- the politicians are clearly finding that keeping focused on the complexity of change is now more difficult with the goal of EU entry now achieved.

Yet as a Liberal I am heartened.

The key note speaker, Mart Laar, was the Prime Minister during the implementation of the shock therapy programme and continues to lead the most right wing faction, Isamaaliit, in the Estonian Parliament. Meanwhile another speaker, Professor Marju Lauristin retains her membership of the Social Democrats (although she herself was a minister in Mart Laar's government). What strikes me, however, is that there is a large body of policy which the to politicians at either end of the Estonian political spectrum actually agree on. Not for the first time, I find myself thinking that the debates that take place across the political spectrum in Estonia take place within the Liberal Democrats in Britain.

Although British Conservatives lionize Mr. Laar, he describes himself as a Liberal and in his blunt support for the European Union he has far more in common with British Liberal Democrats than with British Conservatives. Although the gentlemanly and thoughtful Christopher Beazley MEP, who chairs one of the sessions, provides his usual thoughtful analysis, it is clear that as a pro-European Conservative, he is a very small minority indeed. Christopher represents one of the most attractive strains of Conservative thinking, but in their determination to head down the cul-de-sac of Anti Europeanism, the Conservative party no longer listens to such humane and principled voices.

Meanwhile, in her open minded views on welfare reform, Professor Lauristin too reflects Liberal ideas- a far cry from the dog-in-the-manger union activity that still creates many difficulties in the British public sector. I see that British politics is still so much more polarized compared to Estonia. I idly wonder whether this is just another example of the "grass is greener", but think that the practical realities of reform have forced Estonian politics into a more informed and honest mind set than the ill informed brawl of the British House of Commons.

The Liberal tide in Europe is rising and the success of such countries as Estonia is something that British Liberal Democrats can learn from.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Ending in Failure

Reading through the headlines, it seems that the majority of us would very much like to see the end of Tony Blair's political career. However (we are told), Mr. Blair intends to stay for a while yet, and now rather regrets his statement that he would not stand again as Prime Minister.

I think it was the Empress Theodora who urged her husband, Justinian, not to flee from Constantinople arguing that "Imperial Purple makes the best burial sheet". Certainly the reality of power does seem strangely addictive to those who hold it. Despite the old adage, attributed to Enoch Powell, that "all political careers end in failure", the fact is that few politicians set out a definite measure of success of failure. What does Tony Blair do now? He probably did not not expect in 1997 that his premiership would be defined by terror amid war but what would be a success or a failure at this point, nine years later? He can not control the exit from Iraq or Afghanistan, he can not define economic success at a time when the UK economy is stuttering. He can not link his partial constitutional reform programme together, since his plans to reform the House of Lords are now purely reactive to scandal. The wiggle room for Mr. Blair's great ideas has gone completely.

Whatever expectations Mr. Blair may have had in defining his time in office, they have all been blown off course by "events". Nevertheless, since his re-election just over a year ago, it has been clear that he was in the endgame of power. Yet, does he now start to sew up some of the loose ends in the expectation of a smooth transfer of power to his successor? Nope. He now plays coy: we are not allowed to know when he has penciled in more time to spend with his literary agent, family and friends. "Just a little more time!" seems to be the plaintive lament- but there is less and less time- and the critics of the Labour government grow more damning. The hopes that Blair engendered as his government swept to power: that he would be freer, fairer; that he would end the culture of corruption, have come to nothing. In the twilight of office it seems that all his yesterdays have lighted fools- after being drunk with arrogance and gorged with power, his great banquet now ends with crow: the knowledge of failure. Even though Mr. Cameron's Conservatives have retained their terrible table manners, when it comes to putting noses into the trough, it seems that they have little to teach Mr. Blair now about sleaziness.

For myself, I personally think the measure of the man can be seen in the way he chooses to practice his religious faith. It is currently unconstitutional for a Roman Catholic to be Prime Minister. It is a stupid law, but it is a law. Instead of changing the law openly, Mr. Blair is said to have received religious instruction at 10 Downing Street, and is believed to have taken Catholic communion on several occasions. The law is stupid, but, Mr. Blair, it does apply, and it does apply to you. Spin and lies- discreetly signaling that formally you remain a Protestant- is utterly unworthy. If Mr. Blair had had the courage to change laws directly, the courage to lead, then he might have been a good Prime Minister. In the end he is a failure because he does not lead- he prefers the stealth tax, the back door route and the spin doctor to the principled stand and a proper debate.

At the root, Mr. Blair simply does not understand that State power must be limited, and that those limits must not be breached under any circumstances- that is what a constitution is supposed to police. Now it will be a successor who lays out the case, indeed the urgent necessity, for constitutional reform. With the Conservatives and Labour spattered by sleaze, I earnestly hope that the Liberal Democrats can now make their case for setting the limits to state power. I hope too that this may prevent the kind of shallow, dishonest, mountebank leadership that Tony Blair has given us ever being taken seriously again.