Friday, June 30, 2006

Biting Back

OK- my take on Bromley.

The Tories tactics were naive and the had a very poor candidate who committed a series of blunders throughout the campaign (and afterwards- his acceptance speech was very ill judged).

If the question is only one of tactics, then the Tories should not be too worried.

But it is not just tactics. It is strategy they should be worried about. Cameron is just not convincing as a cuddly greenie

Consider the only policies that he as actually put forward:

"leave the EPP and become even more Eurosceptic"
"support the Iraq Occupation and support for the war"
"maybe more nuclear power is a good thing"
"more Trident is definitely a good thing"

The fact is that Cameron is now quite vulnerable to the charge that he is putting forward an image that is all hype, and the reality is that he is just an old fashioned Tory. He is vulnerable to this charge because it is probably true.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have actually started a process of radical change. The internal issues that I have noted before are being addressed very well- Ed Davey is exactly the guy to start the clean up of Cowley Street. Meanwhile, on the policy front, the party is headed down a far more Liberal path. Setting the limits of state power includes setting the limits of taxation. The fact that Cameron has tied himself up in knots of the tax issue is creating a new opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to be creative and radical about tax reduction.

Ming Campbell, as even Norman Tebbit acknowledges, is a mature and authoritative figure- and his measured and thoughtful approach to addressing the internal and the policy failings of the Liberal Democrats may go a lot further than shallow spin.

After Bromley the Tories will be scared of us in by-elections. Maybe they should be more frightened of our leadership and the policy changes that they are putting in place.

Mind you, good to know that our fantastic by-election team has not lost its touch.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Cost/Benefit Analysis

I notice that a great deal of work is being done to make the London Underground accessible to wheelchair users.

All very laudable, you might think.

The only problem is that the design of most of the Underground makes it essentially impossible to provide step free access from Street to Platform at almost all of the deep line stations. The cost of providing such access is essentially the same cost as building a complete a complete new Underground system. This is a sum of money that is about equal to the total annual GDP of the UK- One Trillion Pounds, probably not counting the economic dislocation that such a massive job would cause.

There are people who think that this money should be spent regardless. Certainly new stations should be built with wheelchair access in mind- as has been the case with the Jubilee line. Where possible, older stations could also be modified. However those who want immediate and complete wheelchair access are demanding a benefit that is out of all proportion to the enormous cost.

It is not just disabled access. In most fields of British politics at the moment, it is pretty clear that adequate cost/benefit analysis is simply not undertaken. Massive over regulation is now required of small businesses that carries a burden way in excess of any conceivable benefits.

Even giving every wheelchair user a gold plated Rolls Royce and chauffeur on call 24 hours a day is a tiny fraction of the cost of rebuilding the Underground. There are far more helpful and realistic options in helping wheelchair users get practically mobile.

There is an urgent need to subject most regulations to a cost benefit analysis- and abolish the ones that do not measure up.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

"Scotland... and whoever plays England"

Some nasty incidents across Scotland. A child punched for wearing an England shirt . A disabled man in Aberdeen attacked for flying a Cross of St. George from his car.

The print journalists have a great story- the "Scots *all* hate the English". Don't you just love the way these scribblers can create a storm of moral outrage? I don't defend the violent morons for a minute, but it is time we looked at ourselves with a clearer eye, and listened a lot less to the ignorant and the simplistic views that comprise the bulk of our media commentary.

However, the UK does face some serious challenges, and unless these can be addressed rationally and coolly, the four centuries of political union may well fall apart. Of course the SNP- Scotland's separatist party- would like this to happen. Increasingly too, there is a body of rather facile, Conservative commentators in England who want to break up the Union too- for their own narrow and short term reasons.

The time has come to make the Liberal case for the Union, and to explain what Britain is and also what it is not. Firstly, the UK is not a "nation state". It differs radically from almost all other European states- Switzerland being a noticeable exception- since it does not exist to protect or promote a single, majority cultural-linguistic group. The UK is a state of several nations and multiple identities. In that sense the British polity looks more like the US, Canada or Australia.

This is one reason why the UK has been far more successful in attracting immigration: apart from the necessity of speaking English, the British state has not sought to impose a uniform cultural or even national identity upon people who live here or who come here. This flexibility has been a source of great strength- despite some problems, the fact is that immigrants have settled more harmoniously in the UK than, for example, in France or Germany.

These British multiple identities have allowed people of many different cultural backgrounds to flourish, and the general success of immigration has had a hugely beneficial effect on the British economy. Despite the scare stories from spurious groups such as Migration Watch, there is no doubt that any dramatic reduction in the openness of the UK to reasonable levels of immigration will severely impact the growth of the economy. It is also, incidentally the same dynamic that has formed several daughter states of the Union of Crowns: the USA, Canada and Australia.

Those "Little Englanders" (or "Scottish Numpties") who want to end the Union are very much the same people who want to eliminate major immigration. These anti-global cultural particularists would prefer a twee parody in an economic backwater than a state that can compete with the best in the world. It is because we have a multi-national and multi cultural state that we have been able to reinvent ourselves. If we choose a mono national separatism, then we will have removed any chance of contending in the global economy and will have dealt a blow to the forces of globalism that alone can provide continued prosperity. Free Trade was ever the watchword of the Liberal party and it is still what we stand for today.

I rejoice in a multiple identity. I am European- especially when traveling in Asia and America, I see very clearly what we have in common as Europeans, and what distinguishes us. I am British- a European English speaker with a political identity that has stood up against tyranny and which is yet flexible and mutable. I am also Scottish (albeit of mixed heritage) -especially when I support the national Rugby Team. Scottish-British- European is a multi-layered identity. I am happy to have a sense of humour about the foibles of each of these identities.

So- I will still be supporting "whoever plays England" but I will do it with a smile- it truly would be a tragedy if sport was to end up damaging the valuable political union that we still share with the other nations of the United Kingdom. In the same way I will take the joshing about the "sweaties" that I am likely to get in return in the same spirit.

We are friends- indeed we are family- it is time to remember that a bit more often. The irony is that the thug who punched the little boy for wearing an England shirt neither knew nor, apparently, cared that the boy was a New Zealander. When the thug is found, it is tempting to want to give him a taste of his own medicine for bringing Scotland into disrepute. However we must ask ourselves how we can stop this stupid, pathetic and cowardly thuggery from gaining a further foothold. It is time for those who believe in the British political identity to make a stronger case to the Scottish people and to put the Little Englanders back in their box.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Top 10 Reasons for being Balkan

Top Ten Reasons for being Serb:
1. You are not a Croat.
2. Basketball team.
3. You can choose between several war criminals in Presidential elections.
4. You can enjoy the positive media coverage of your country when abroad.
5. You can fight 600 year-old battles against the Turks and their domestic collaborators, be convinced that it's happening right now, and not be entirely wrong.
6. You can always go to Greece and Cyprus and fear nothing.
7. Grilled meat and slivovitz.
8. You get to drink slivovitz and eat grilled meat even when under economic sanctions.
9. You are the only European country which was bombed by NATO.
10.Every now and then you get to fly to the Hague at someone else's expense.

Top ten reasons for being Croat:
1. You're not a Serb
2. Soccer team.
3. You get to pretend that your language is different from Serbian, although it's really not.
4. Dubrovnik.
5. You get to dream about independent Croatia.
6. Every now and then you get to sing "Danke, Danke,Deutschland," and continue to dream about independent Croatia.
7. You have a thousand-year culture of which no one has heard.
8. You have a democratically elected President who is not ashamed of being a Croat.
9. The glorious World War Two past.
10.You have a thousand-year culture....

Top ten reasons for being Bosniak:
1. You can get asylum anywhere except in Serbia.
2. You can pretend that your state exists.
3. Kebab.
4. You can pretend that Sarajevo is a really cosmopolitan European city when you know that it is not.
5. Great kebab.
6. You can be visited by Francois Mitterand, Bernard Henry-Levy, Susan Sontag, and Bill Clinton and it still doesn't make a difference.
7. Free round-trip to any Moslem country.
8. You get to be bombed by a psychiatrist.
9. You can fly your flag in the UN but nowhere else.
10.Foreigners give you money and don't ask any questions.

Top ten reasons for being Slovene:
1. You can speak the beautiful Slovene language and know that no one cares except you.
2. You can feel superior to all former Yugoslavs.
3. You can drink after work.
4. You can pretend to live on the "sunny side of the Alps," although you know it's not that sunny.
5. You can pretend that you are as good as any German while secretly enjoying the fact that you are a Slav.
6. Good relations with Italy and Austria.
7. You can afford to be Yugo-nostalgic.
8. You can marry a Slovene and have Slovene children who speak Slovene.
9. You don't have to be ashamed when abroad.
10.No one bothers you because no one really cares.

Top ten reasons for being Macedonian:
1. You can call yourself Macedonian and not get killed by a Bulgarian, Greek, Serb or Albanian.
2. Fresh tomatoes, watermelon and tobacco.
3. You can pretend you are a descendant of Alexander the Great and piss off the Greeks.
4. You get to be sad and suffer while listening to folk music.
5. Good relations with your neighbours, *especially* Greeks and Albanians.
6. American soldiers on your territory.
7. You get to call your country The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
8. Fresh tomatoes, watermelon, and tobacco.
9. You can successfully pretend your language is not Bulgarian.
10.Everyone is interested in the stability of your country except your neighbours.

Top ten reasons for being Montenegrin:
1. You can be proud of your heroic past and not being conquered by the Turks for 500 years.
2. You can sing epic songs about your heroic past and not being conquered by the Turks for 500 years.
3. You can think of Russia as your Mother, although Russia does not know you are her son.
4. You can combine orthodoxy with Stalinism and love of Russia and still think that you are better and more progressive than the Serbs.
5. Goat cheese, grilled lamb, and grappa.
6. You get to kill at least one person in a vendetta and defend your honour.
7. If you are a woman you can kill your husband and everyone knows why you did it.
8. You can smuggle cigarettes to Italy and live like a king.
9. You don't have to work even when you have to.
10.You don't have to work....

Top ten reasons for being Albanian:
1. You can always swim to Italy.
2. You can choose between a president who stole your whole income, one who killed all your relatives, or go fight the Serbs in Kosovo.
3. You can be proud of being from "the land of the eagle."
4. You can always swim to Italy.
5. You can take weapons from any army garrison and defend your honour.
6. You can get killed in a vendetta and be remembered as the hero of the family.
7. You get to be called the 2nd poorest country in Europe.
8. You can live in the ecologically cleanest country in Europe.
9. You can always swim to Italy
10.You are proud of being "from the land of the eagle".

Top ten reasons for being a Yugoslav:
1. You can be proud that you are neither a Serb, nor a Croat, nor a Slovene, nor a Bosniak, nor a Macedonian, nor Montenegrin, nor an Albanian, although you are one or more of the above.
2. You don't have to feel bad about being "Yugo-nostalgic".
3. You can have a husband/wife from any part of Yugoslavia and still feel like the country never fell apart, especially if you are abroad.
4. You get to listen to Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, and even Albanian music and feel that it's quite OK.
5. You don't have to be ashamed of your Titoist past.
6. You can sing Partisan songs from World War Two or rock-and-roll from the 1980's.
7. You get to be cosmopolitan and spit on all the nationalists.
8. You get to be researched by foreign sociologists interested in your identity.
9. You are invited to speak about Yugoslavia at conferences abroad.
10.You are a good candidate for a Soros stipend.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

100 not out

This, I notice, is my 100th posting on this blog.

Reviewing previous postings I am slightly surprised by the variety of themes that have been covered. However, I am still trying to convey a sense of what I believe are the core truths about the Liberal ideology and why I think that they are important.

For the Liberal Democrats the last few months have been a generally difficult time. There has been the concern that a reviving Conservative party will damage the Liberal Democrats next time. Indeed the local election results demonstrated that the Conservatives remain a force. Nevertheless the flat result for the Liberal Democrats masks some quite wide differences: success in Richmond, failure in Islington, considerable success in the north of England, a drift in the south.

However aside from the Conservatives mild revival, there have been many internal problems for the Liberal Democrats too. Some of this has come from the obvious sense of disappointment that more progress was not made in winning seats. Some negative sentiment was the result of rather chaotic and brutal removal of Charles Kennedy as party leader, combined with the unaccustomed whiff of scandal amongst our own MPs. The peccadilloes of Mark Oaten did not reflect well, although they generally added to the gaiety of the nation. More seriously, the Michael Brown affair has led to concerns that insufficient checks were made on donors to the party's campaign. This has left a sense that the party leadership in Cowley Street was losing its grip. To be honest the whole set up at the Party HQ has needed to be sorted out for some time.

Yet the result in Dunfermline also demonstrates the continuing appeal of the Liberal Democrats. The election of Ming Campbell too has steadied the ship- despite the personal attacks on him, he is, as I hoped, proving to be a collegiate and effective leader. More to the point is that he is a politician of substance and is crafting a policy agenda of substance. It is an agenda which is going back to the radical root of Liberalism, it is imbued with the Liberal idea that there must be explicit limits to state power in both social and economic spheres. This encourages me enormously, since it gives us a clarity which other parties lack.

The intellectual discipline of our business manifesto last time is spreading across all of our policy formation teams. The abolition of the DTi, the sunset clauses on new business legislation, the abolition of large parts of regulation- all were things that I campaigned for enthusiatically. The lazy and sloppy thinking of the current government, whose knee-jerk response to any problem is to create more legislation has only been echoed by the Conservatives. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats would abolish much of the bad and badly constructed legislation that has been this government's enduring legacy. Instead of the incredibly expensive and ineffective tax credit system, we would make the tax code simpler and reduce the general level of taxation, for example. No expensive and pointless ID cards.

Only in green policy would we create a new regulatory regime. Encouraging sustainability and punishing wasteful and polluting activity is critical to reducing CO2 emissions and reducing pollution. As Liberals we accept peoples rights to drive a 4x4 if they want to- but they can not force the rest of us to pay the price, and that is why these wasteful and inefficient cars would receive a stiff tax, to off-set the damage that they cause (and hopefully dissuade some people from buying one in the first place).

New ideas and imaginative policies- this is the key to the future of the party and of the ideology of Liberalism. In the face of the failures of the government and the policy vacuum of the Conservatives, it is refreshing to hear competent and well thought out policies coming through. The problems of the party HQ are now being addressed, and the new broom is beginning to address some of the tactical mistakes that the party has been making. I am much cheered by the progress that is being made.

We are putting our house in order. We are crafting an agenda of substance. We are using our ideology to create imaginative and radical ideas. This- and not the cynical blow dried vacuity of the Conservatives- is what will capture the attention of the voters. While the novelty of a Tory who does not look like a space alien has not yet worn off, it will.

By then we will be ready for the fight.

Land of the Eagle

Albania. The very word conjures up sinister connotations. The murderous regime of Enver Hoxha. The fact that under this vile regime almost everything was illegal. Religion was outlawed. Beards or jeans were illegal. The regime isolated the country almost completely. Firstly Hoxha quarreled, first with Tito, then the USSR- for being insufficiently Stalinist!- then China, for "bourgoise revisionism" (whatever that was). Dirt poor and desperate, internally, Albania's brutality was legendary. It is not surprising that the West filled much of their lack of knowledge of this mountainous country with fantasy- the Albanian Sigurimi torturers of the Ipcress File, for example.

If anything the reality was worse.

Tormented and brutalized. Isolated from any contact with the outside world, the Albanians nevertheless at least partly believed the propaganda of the regime- that Albania was the strongest and richest country in the world. When the fall of the regime finally came- sadly too late to hang Hoxha for his crimes- the shock of freedom was compounded by the sudden understanding that Albania was the poorest and least developed country in Europe. A country with African levels of poverty and malnutrition. The Sigurimi forced every Albanian to make a choice. There was no choice: the Party or death. The moral compromise, that every Albanian who lived through the regime was forced to make, has left a legacy of fear and guilt. Of all of the vile regimes inspired by Marxism-Leninism, with the exception of Pol Pot's Cambodia, the Albanians were the victims of the most depraved and brutal. In a company that includes Stalin, Mao and Ceaucescu, perhaps this gives a sense of the depths of the darkness in which the Albanians lived.

Not surprisingly post Communist politics has been turbulent. The bitterness of the past reinforced a politics of breathtaking irresponsibility. By 1997 the collapse of a series of pyramid investment schemes destroyed the country. The armouries of the military were looted and, awash with guns, the country descended into total anarchy.

Yet that is not the end of the story. Slowly, with the support of an international force led by the Italian Carabinieri, order was restored. A new government, led by a new President, began to start again. Slowly guns were removed from daily life. The economy began to move once more. Even the most lasting effect of the anarchy- the fact that a whole generation of young Albanians left the country, began to have a positive effect- they began to send money back home. The economy began to stagger, then walk, then trot, then run.

I first went to Tirana before the chaos. A bleak scene of dire poverty greeted me. Few cars. Electricity off for much of the day, water for only two or three hours. A fly blown and dusty place.

Twelve years later I have returned. The city is bustling- new buildings everywhere, new roads and a new airport under construction. Albanians are growing much richer. New projects to transform this beautiful place are everywhere: new tourism, new roads, new ideas. Politics is now far less poisonous, though still shrill and occasionally bitter, but becoming more courteous and dramatically less extreme. The casual insult "Hoxha!" is less used in Parliament, as the country begins to come to terms with the dreadful psychological scars of the appalling regime. It is not too much to say that the country has transformed, and is unrecognizable compared to the ghost haunted Albania of twelve years ago.

On Monday the dramatic improvement of the country was recognized: Albania finally signed the Association agreement with the European Union- a milestone that will eventually allow the country to join the bloc.

Albania, with minorities in all its neighbours, has renounced the idea of making those minorities part of Albania- instead they seek to make themselves and their neighbouring states a part of a common European home. As a result, Albanian relations with Montenegro and Macedonia are very good. The future independence of Kosova, which now seems likely, is hoped to be an end to the ceaseless struggle with the Serbs too. I met a senior official from Prishtina, and his comment: "we have all suffered too much. it is time for us to look to the future and work together, and not to take revenge for the past" was especially moving after he had described the appalling deaths of the entire family of a close friend in the Milosovic pogrom.

Albania- even Albania- is becoming European. Though to my eye the black double headed eagle on red that is the symbol of the Albanians is still exotic and- yes maybe- slightly sinister, the fact is that it is the flag of a country that is growing more normal every day. The reputation of the Albanian mafia may be extreme- but they are not in Albania, which is now a pretty law abiding place- the mafia were amongst those who left the country first.

I asked the driver what the biggest problems were for his country. "Well", he said, "The traffic is just awful".

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Simple Sums

The Liberal Democrat proposals on tax announced today are a substantial shift in the right direction. Taxes should be simplified and the burden of taxation must be capped, and preferably reduced from the current high level. The logic of our business policies- deregulation and the wholesale abolition of the DTi can help us achieve this.

The decision to create penalty taxes to encourage green behaviour should not be seen in the context of the general taxation pool- the whole idea of penalties is to change behaviour, and therefore ultimately the tax yield form these penalties will fall. The key change in the proposals is the decision to shift tax away from income and on to wealth. This is a radical shift- and a necessary one. Indeed I would go further and advocate a shift towards land tax- which can be the greenest tax of all.

The implicit commitment that the overall level of taxation should be capped is the right approach- and I hope that several other policies can now be recast with this in mind. This is a substantial step in the right direction.

Even more satisfying is the consternation that it is causing amongst the Conservatives. Their abject failure to put forward any coherent policies, and their unsustainable commitments to the public sector are particularly shown up by this joined up thinking from Vince Cable. The waffle of the Turquoise Tories is countered by the succinct and strategic thinking in these new ideas.

We may have just shot the Tory fox.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Od Warszawy

A sunny day in the Polish capital. As always, I marvel at the indomitable will that rebuilt this city from the utter ruin that the Nazis left. However, it is fair to say that the current political climate is less certain.

The provincial and insular politicians who currently form the bulk of the ruling PiS have now been joined by the Catholic Jihad faction ot the LPR-League of Polish families- although League of the Adams family might actually be more accurate. Meanwhile the cynical and aggressive Andrzej Lepper's "Self Defence" is in the unusual position of actually looking sophisticated- at least compared to the larger PiS. When you consider that Self Defence is trawling in the same waters as the BNP, this may give you a sense of how bad the current government looks.

Naturally, I am delighted that David Cameron regards these potato heads as his natural allies- he is trying to form a new alliance in the European Parliament to embrace the prickly Czech ODS and the naive and wooly PiS. Well, frankly: "Good Luck Mate!" the only thing that the PiS have going for them is that they are not outrageous crooks. This is good, but otherwise they have little to offer. Many of my friends shake their heads, when we talk of politics: " No, you see, we have been reduced to being a banana republic- only without the bananas". Well, no- it is not quite that bad, but the idea that the PiS are worthy partner for the Tories is... interesting.

I'll tell you what- if Cameron does go through with it, if I were a Conservative MEP, I would quit without a second glance, because it would simply show that Cameron himself is as ignorant and naive as the PiS, and yes they therefore do deserve each other. However there really does come a point when you have to stand up for something, instead of actually being negative. Since the Cameron bandwagon got going, we are encouraged to ignore the fact that either he believes nothing or that he has some kind of secret (but rather unpleasant) agenda- the electorate really are entitled to know which it is, before they sit in judgment.

Another interesting theme, in this most Catholic of countries, is speculation in the local press about Tony Blair being a Catholic. Personally- as a Protestant- I think that he already is. Therefore speculation that he will announce his conversion on leaving office, is frankly irrelevant. Neither, by the way should it matter. Except for the law,of course- but even in this most personal and private matter, Tony Blair has never met a law that he did not prefer to bend or break, rather than actually abolish- and this is the cause of the failure of his leadership.

Liberals believe that we already have too many laws- Mr. Blair's response to every crisis is to make new laws. One thing that Liberal Democrats might offer to the electorate next time is the abolition of restrictions on Catholics in high office- something that Blair himself has been too cowardly to enact.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Poisoned Polls

Within the course of a day we have seen some very different opinion polls released. Some seem to show the Tories are moving ahead, others show a recovery in Labour.

I am slightly surprised to see the government not being hurt more by the recent rash of bad publicity. The unmasking of John Prescott's secret Croq (uet) habit may not have any major impact, despite the shrill and rather snide comments in the press. As for Larry Lightweight- the current Tory leader- his rather pitiful choice of Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West as one of his Desert Island Discs was perhaps one of his more genuine political decisions over the past six months - the remaining choices were trite and formulaic. When a squity, playground kid just wants you to like him, he comes across in much the same way as David Cameron does now- unctuous. I am afraid my gorge just rises and I have the feeling of wanting to give him a good duffing up. The fact is that even on the right, anyone with intellect has some serious doubts about Cameron's soft soap shuffle. The Daily Telegraph, I notice, has been extremely grudging in giving respect to the Tory Leader. For me this underlines the fact that political support remains volatile and brittle- Despite Tory triumphialism, I do not see a sufficient head of support for them to win an outright majority and, given that this ought to be a highpoint of honeymoon support, the Conservatives are very far from home and dry.

Partly I think that opinion formers see through the shallow rhetoric of the shiny public schoolboys and detect the underlying policy vacuum. The failure to put forward an coherent policy agenda is a serious one. Part of the Blair revolution was the intellectual fire power the seemed to be deployed against the outgoing Conservative's- While the then Shadow Chancellor's speech on endogenous growth theory was widely mocked- "it's not Brown's, it's Balls"- it did demonstrate a certain seriousness about economic policy. This seriousness is missing from the Nivea-ed front bench figures such as Osbourne, Ed Vaizey, or indeed Cameron himself.

This provides the Liberal Democrats with an interesting opportunity. Although the Tories have tried to paint Ming Campbell as "too old"- the fact is that he remains very trusted by the electorate- with the erosion of the labor front benches reputation for probity, and the rather shallow Conservative front bench, it may well be that the discourse might favour seriousness in the coming months. The opinion polls are a snapshot- but they are not the photo finish and much may evolve over the next year or so.