Friday, May 26, 2006

Home is the Hunter

After a fantastic break in Japan, once again I am greeted by the flickering screen and some time to fill it. As a trip, I think it would be hard to match Japan for the variety of things to see and do. The temples of Kyoto or Nikko truly are serene and beautiful. The gentle shrines of the nature worshipping Shinto faith contrast with the astonishingly ugly urban sprwal of the major cities.

Tokyo was a far more pleasant city than I had imagined- its many attractive parks providing relief from the dramatically urban skyline of Shinjuku or the Ginza. The different districts of the city: Akasusa, Ueno, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, the Ginza and so on provide contrasts, so that Tokyo is not a uniform urban environment but, rather like London, it is a fusion of different villages. Osaka was more uniform and therefore less interesting.

The style of the Japanese was an unexpected surprise. The, almost Italian, sense of the bella figura was remarkable- well dressed and elegant, the look of the people was enhanced by the fact of there being very few fat people in Japan. The excellent food was another slightly Italian trait. Certainly it was very difficult to eat badly - even on a budget- and if pushing the boat out, Japanese haute cuisine is as good as anything in Europe, and considerably healthier. Mind you it is certainly possible to spend vast sums of money both on food and accommodation, should you so wish. However, the secret of Japan is that it is not necessary to spend a great deal of money.

The legendary timekeeping of the transport system strikes one almost as miraculous, coming from the sloppy and underinvested transport world of the UK. The fact that it is not only the Shinkansen- "Bullet"- trains, but all trains that run exactly to time is a great pleasure after the uncertainties and discomforts of the British Rail system. As a tourist its is easy and quick to travel a very large distance- in Europe, only the Swiss seem to combine the punctuality and cleanliness that the Japanese take for granted in their lives. There is a sense of order and organization, despite the almost Gothamesque urban sprawl that renders Japanese suburbia a reflection in blah.

The shock of the trip was Yakusuni- the shine where the millions of Japanese soldiers who have died fighting "for the Emperor" have been enshrined in the Shinto tradition. The museum that is part of the complex contains in its English language commentaries the most partial and one sided account of the actions that led up to the Japanese involvement in the Second World War that it could be possible to find. The aggressive militarism of the Japanese regime is disregarded completely- it seems that only Japan had legitimate interests. The disgraceful prosecution of the war- the Rape of Nanking, for example- is ignored. Personally I am unsurprised by the venom with which the Korean and Chinese regard this shrine. It is an unworthy monument that fails to give a truthful and adequate account of why and how so many young men were sent to their deaths- and the horrors that Japan visited upon her neighbours. Accustomed to the measured and balanced museums of Europe, I left the shrine feeling a cold anger that should a partial account could be left to stand in the face of the accusing eyes of millions of dead. The Atomic bomb did not fall upon an innocent Japan, but a country that had surrendered itself to brutal militarism and an alliance with the vile regimes of Mussolini and Hitler.

Yet, the fact is that Yakusuni is controversial even within Japan, and my overwhelming impression was of diversity (surprising perhaps, considering the reputation of the Japanese for conformity) . Japanese culture, with its sense of the aesthetic, is both beautiful and unique. In enjoyed myself greatly. Despite the large numbers of Japanese tourists, the fact is that Japan does not take in very many visitors from overseas. Gaijin are not common away from Tokyo and the major tourist centres. Indeed, last year it seems that even tiny Estonia had more foreign tourists than Japan. Ah yes, Estonia- well regular readers will know that it is hard for me to get away from this subject. In fact on this trip I was traveling with two Estonian friends. Since an Estonian is a new star in the field of Sumo, we could not avoid going to the Sumo Basho to support Baruto, as he is known in Japan. It was a fun experience- and indeed Baruto justified his star billing- in only his first major tournament he came third.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Technophobe

The political air has been filled with the braying of Tory triumphalists since last Thursday, and to be fair it is probably their best result for years, even decades. The rush to bury the Lib Dems is, however, somewhat premature. The mixed results that the Lib Dems have had mask the fact that while in some areas, like Islington and Winchester (OK, a local factor there, we all know) , in several other places, like Brent, we did unexpectedly well, and ultimately the party has ended up gaining councils. Also the way in which the Tories are so keen to bury Menzies Campbell I, personally, find rather telling. The fact is that the attempts to paint Ming as "too old" are a function of the fact that their leader is "too young", and with several unexplained and questionable episodes in his recent past. Over the weekend a senior journalist I know suggested a level of scandal about various senior Conservatives that I do not feel at liberty to repeat, but which, if true and if public, would be very serious.

What concerns me is that such figures can lay themselves open, by their behaviour, to astonishing blackmail. I have often wondered about John Major. His abject failure to insist on the resignation of his scandal-hit ministers until it was far to late was, at the time, taken as a sign of his essential decency (or ineptitude). With the hindsight of the knowledge of his own extra marital affair, I have wondered if, in fact, he may have been susceptible to pressure. Some powerful people may have knowledge of scandalous behaviour by politicians which they may not make public, but use for a much darker game of blackmail. Perhaps that is happening now too. Certainly I am not the only one to think that the flush of Labour scandals which are all of various vintages, but which have all been revealed at the same time, is not coincidental, but planned. Concealment, for a while, may prove the most valuable way for a journalist to report a scandal, and their proprietor to develop more influence, or profit.

All in all, my feeling is that scandal flourishes in the isolated and isolating political culture that we have created. Too many politicians have become a class apart- with no other discernible skill save that of climbing the greasy pole. There are good people in all parties, yest the system does not recognize this, preferring to dwell on the point scoring, rather than real debate. The dumbing down of political debate may have reached the point that the only thing we know about a political figure is their presumed sexual proclivities. This is a sordid decadence. As we debate the future of our political system, I would hate to have our country take the wrong path because we were too stupid to recognize the right one. Blair and Cameron seem to have come out of the same mould of shiny, public school politician- but I see no substance in either. Perhaps the voters are prepared to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt at present. However there is a great deal of doubt about him and his team- and we should remind people that substance is the essence of politics.

I am now en route to Japan, and have now discovered the utter incompatibility of all my techie stuff- from mobile to BlackBerry- with Japanese protocols, so I suspect blogging will be quite sparse over the next couple of weeks.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Shock! Horror! Probe... [yawn]

Mildly amused to see Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes offering up a new title in the Money for Old Rope category of British publishing. Their "Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze" really goes for the heart of the scandals of this government and will shake the establishment to its foundations- Yours for £7.99.

Err.. NO

Their definition of Labour scandals is just the tittle-tattle. The REAL Scandals are things that the News of the World would never write about, because their readership don't care and it takes too many pages of newsprint to explain the scope of the crime. But then Iain Dale, like the NOTW, is not really interested in politics these days. As a fully paid up media tart, he has entered the Queen Mother branch of show biz.

Anyway, he is getting lazy: having authored the country finest toilet reading: "Thatch: a tribute in words and pictures", now Iain can not even be bothered to write himself. His latest wheeze is that his next magnum opus in the Reader's Digest Toilet Library (TM) will be authored by his blogger chums. In double quick time too- about the same length of time he takes to stir from his chaise longue and nibble another praline.

Can I make a plea that he gets it printed on softer paper next time though? His "PM Portillo and other Tory Misjudgments" did not really have the right absorbant qualities.

Went the day well?

After nearly six hours in an airless sports hall, as the officials struggled with the new automatic counting machines, the results were... well, "as you were". Looking across the country it is hard to avoid feeling a bit flat. Certainly not much really bad news- though losing Islington was a disappointment clearly- on the other hand, holding Kingston and Sutton, taking Richmond and making overall progress is not too bad. Knocking the government into third place in the national share of the vote is also reasonable. Labour, however did not melt down- though they had a pretty horrid night over all, it was just about as bad as expected, but not worse. The Conservatives will be obviously happier, but 40% in the locals still does not look a government forming vote, at a General election, and they missed as many targets as they hit. There must be a slight sense of unease that, aside from London, their performance in the metropolitan boroughs was generally poor.

From a personal perspective, I am concerned. Turnout was still laughably low- generally around 25%. It is clear that people are just not engaging with the political system that is supposed to serve them. On reflection, I think that there probably is something that politicians actually could do to improve this. It is something so old fashioned that many will instantly dismiss it: it is courtesy.

By and large I do not believe that most of my political opponents are personally corrupt. I just think that they are mistaken. Clearly when incompetence is found- and Charles Clarke's upset at the Home Office does apply- then someone must take responsibility, and under the current cabinet system, that should be the minister. Clearly too, sexual harassment of employees, as alleged about John Prescott, is a serious professional failing and, if true, is not acceptable. However, we should be a lot more nuanced in our criticisms. Otherwise all we end up with is the sense that every failing in a minister is a scandal, and should be punished by a resignation that, if resisted, demonstrates a lust for office that is equally unacceptable.

Damned if you quit, damned if you stay.

Generic sleaze is corrosive of politics as a whole. If politicians would like greater respect from the general populace, then perhaps they should start by respecting each other in public, as most of them do in private. The problem is that such a self denying ordinance robs us of what may people see as part of the fun of politics: common abuse and muckraking. It may be fun, but we have got to try to wean ourselves away from this kind of schoolyard stuff- otherwise turnout will remain low. More to the point the quality of politicians will fall. Only professional politicians, accustomed to the personal abuse and either too thick skinned or brazen to care what people say about them, will put themselves forward. Many genuine people on all sides of the political spectrum are being put off by the intensity of the personal invective. Few rich or successful people now wish to put themselves up for election, when even driving a twenty year old Jag is considered a thoughtcrime.

For myself, I have agonized somewhat. I have no corrupt skeletons- save perhaps a couple of late tax returns. My sex life is as embarrassing as anyone else's- in the sense that I would hate much of it to be front page material on The News of the Screws- but to most eyes, it is fairly boringly normal. I am reasonably successful in the City, so there will be those who would dislike that, though I have always imposed a very strict code of personal ethics, way beyond the needs of law, and as a result am dramatically less rich than even perfectly acceptable behaviour would have made me. In the opinion of my friends and my party I am well qualified to stand for Parliament again.

I will put my name forward, but only a fool would be undaunted by the prospect of the examination ahead. Perhaps the only way is to handle oneself is with a measure of defiance, as Alan Clark- that charming rogue- did. However, a "Flashman" Parliament is as repulsive as a "Pollyanna" Parliament.

Mind you, it might be a lot more fun.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Vote early...

I have done my civic duty in Westminster, voting in the city council elections. I really quite enjoy the ritual of going into the polling place and casting my vote. The Liberal Democrats made the ward I live in into a target ward, and a huge amount of effort has gone in. Tens of thousands of leaflets and letters, canvassing, calling, fund raising- all for today. Over the past two years there have been over twenty Lib Dem leaflets in the ward, with the Conservatives sending out three and Labour none. If it was just a question of rewarding the efforts of the parties, then Sue Baring, Martin Thompson and Ben Way would be elected to the council with handsome majorities.

As we go through this process I reflect on some of the arguments about making voting compulsory. Personally I am very strongly against. Although I enjoy the ritual of voting, I am quite happy to listen to people who have different view. The fact is that our voting system is very imperfect. Votes are not all equal but depend on how marginal or otherwise your polling district is. It will be very interesting to see what changes take place in Scotland after the new, more proportional, voting system comes in next year. I hope that the rotten burghs of the central belt will now receive greater scrutiny as opposition councilors challenge the old regime, in some cases for the first time.

Even if our voting system was fair, then there is the issue of what power our elected representatives actually have. The way that the block grant can be manipulated essentially renders the power of the councils to control their own expenditure pretty marginal.

So why vote?

Well, in my case voting Liberal Democrat is a statement to change the system of government. Personally I want councils to gain more influence- and if they screw up, then they can take the consequences. At the moment Whitehall takes most of the decisions that are relevant to local government, and I believe that this should stop- and that only the Lib Dems are saying so. I am determined to vote positively and so am determined to vote. If, however there was no Lib Dem candidate why should I vote at all? It is certainly not up to the state to tell me that I must vote. If people do not feel inclined to vote, for whatever reason, then politicians should respect this- and learn from it.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Abroad thoughts from home

A sunny Aberdeenshire- a sight guaranteed to gladden almost any heart. A pleasure to be amongst "ma ain folk"- and my cousin is now well and truly married. The weather was so good, that we were able to hold the ceremony outside- and it almost felt like Benachie was a guest at the wedding.

Arriving at Dyce, the previous day, I found Donald Trump's rather knackered looking 727 business jet parked across the runway- a big deal, apparently, but given his track record of considerable failure, as well as his talent for vulgarity, I am somewhat cautious as to the real chances of his bloated golf course project for Balmedie. Since he has not even submitted even an outline for planning permission, and his project may conflict with the planned off-shore wind farm in the same area, there may be trouble ahead Still, at least it is ambitious, and I do detect a spring in the step of many people in the North East.

In the clear, bright light that seems unique to Aberdeenshire, it seems appropriate to question many things. The implosion (however temporary) of the Labour government has not been matched with a corresponding advance for the Conservatives. I think that people are rather sceptical about what they get if they simply swap Red for Blue. The similarities between the fag end of John Major and the current position of Tony Blair may be only superficial, but they are sufficient for the voters to get pretty bored with both sides. So, I think the Liberal Democrat contention that changing the government is not enough, we need to change the system of government is finding some resonance.

Mind you, after I raised the issue of the Laffer curve in a letter to the Liberal Democrat News, I am a bit irritated by the response. If tax yield falls after an increase in marginal rate of tax as Laffer predicts, it can hardly be said that increasing marginal rates will help promote government expenditure programmes. From my work in Central and Eastern Europe, I can see quite clearly the validity of Arthur Laffer's work, and I am slightly resentful of comments that suggest that since I support cuts in the marginal rates of income tax, that therefore I am undercutting the alleviation of child poverty. NO! If there is less money in the kitty, how can it be said that this is a good thing? Furthermore, I am morally opposed to taxes of more than half of anyone's income and oppose a government budget of greater than 50% of GDP. Liberalism sets limits to the state, and in my opinion these are the absolute maximum limits that the state should be permitted in the economy. This does not make me a right wing nutter- it just means that I can count and understand a basic level of economics.

I am preparing to go to Japan- and looking forward to exploring such rich sites as Kyoto, Nara and Nikko- anyone out there with any better recommendations?