Friday, September 29, 2006

Ken Livingstone: J'accuse

Cicero has received some very interesting responses to "Mr. Livingstone, I presume"

In particular the investigative journalist, Vitali Vitaliev, has pointed out what may be the most egregious display of public corruption since the Poulson scandal of the 1970s. His extensive article on the subject will be published shortly.

Ken Livingstone is using Londoners' money to support a dictator that Human Rights Watch accuses of multiple allegations of murder and torture: Hugo Chavez of "the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela". In particular, Livingstone has negotiated a deal to swap Venezuelan oil for surveillance, finger printing and closed circuit television expertise. Several London officials are being seconded to assist the government of Venezuela to install the equipment. Incidentally, the original story that the oil would power London Transport buses can not be true- it is the wrong grade- the oil instead will be sold on the global market- (to whose profit?).

Meanwhile the Venezuela Information Centre- chairman Ken Livingstone- has been set up and is currently being run from City Hall. The purpose of this is "to actively promote Venezuela's image in the UK". No details of any financial arrangements for the Mayor have been published.

Ken Livingstone is in the dock.

The charges:

1) Why is Livingstone supporting a regime with such a vile human rights record by providing technology that will actively assist the Venezuelan secret police?

2) What money is being made on the sale of oil? How does this benefit the impoverished population of Venezuela? When will he declare the total financial value of the transaction?

3) How is Mr. Livingstone being paid for his work in the Venezuela Information Centre?

4) Has the Mayor acted outside his authority by concluding such an agreement with a foreign government?

5) Hugo Chavez has referred to the British Prime Minister and leader of his party, as a "main ally of Hitler".

Does Mr. Livingstone care?

If not, why not?

6) Can Mr. Livingstone guarantee that neither he personally, his party, his office nor any of his associates are financially benefiting in any way from these extensive and largely undeclared financial transactions?

Vitali Vitaliev's accusations are even more extensive, and even more serious.

Mr. Livingstone has a case to answer.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Evil twin

I do not have very much time for the current Polish government.

The current Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski lives with his mother and a cat. Naturally he is fierce in his denunciation of homosexuality.

His identical twin, Lech, has managed to escape the apron strings- in order to become President of the Republic.

The twins are both backward looking backwoodsmen. Obsessive about who did what to whom during the Communist era, they have not had very much to say about the future. Even Lech Walesa regards them as strange. Their party- PiS- entered into a coalition with the Polish families League, LPR, whose bizarre Catholic jihad agenda has led them to be nick named the "Adams Family League". About from the LPR PiS entered into coalition with Samoobrona- "Self Defence"- whose quasi-fascist policies previously made them verboten as coalition partners. A Polish businessman said to me last week- "at least you know where you are with Lepper (Samoobrona's perma-tanned caudillo) - he is just a perfectly normal sleazy politician, the twins are warped and just plain weird.

The collapse of the coalition amid allegations of corruption should now lead to new elections. The Polish people deserve a better leadership than this ill assorted collection of spooks and misfits.

The opinion polls suggest that the Liberal opposition, Civic Platform, should win- I certainly hope so. The tragedy is that Lech Kaczynski will stay in office. Although most people think that it is his brother who is the evil twin, it unwise to assume his independence in these circumstances.

Mr. Livingstone, I presume?

We know that Ken Livingstone tends to get a bit aggressive when well oiled.

The trouble is that he does not do a very good job when sober.

Bendy buses are crap. How come Mercedes Benz got the contract?

Skyscrapers in London- who makes the most money?

Bicycle lanes? Don't make me laugh- and anyway the quality of London's road surfaces varies from "dismal" to "ploughed field". We told you before Ken- license the digging up of the roads otherwise a) they are always being dug up and b) the road surface ends up like a ploughed field.

As Livingstone returns from his £300 a night jolly at the Labour Party lovefest in Manchester, I wonder if he might consider that his record so far is rather sub-par.

Naah- even his own side think that he is an egotist.

I wonder if, in addition to being incompetent, he is also corrupt?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Two Cheers for the Balkans

I have been a bit slow commenting on the agreement by the EU to permit the entry of Bulgaria and Romania on January 1st 2007.

Of course I welcome these new countries. However since the big bang entry in 2004, much has changed in the EU.

The failure of the constitutional treaty has created strains, but in fact a variable geometry Europe now exists in all but name. Several countries are opted out of the currency or the Schengen agreement, some are members of Schengen but not eh EU as a whole.

Europe is turning from an table d'hote menu into an a la carte.

For this reason, I am unhappy hearing the Commission suggesting that enlargement should now take a break. In fact there is no excuse to exclude Croatia right now. As for the other Western Balkan countries- surely the lesson of the past two decades is that the Union should increase its engagement with the region. Not to disengage and leave it to drift.

With the thorny question of final status for Kosova still very much on the agenda, the strains are mounting- and Europe had better be very clear as to what it expects form both Serbs and Albanians.

At least with the entry of two countries that are very much comparable with the ex-YU countries, the populations of Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Albania can know that membership will happen one day.

Meanwhile with the EU on its border, perhaps the people of poor Moldova will begin to find their feet- let's hope so.

Global competitiveness

The World Economic Forum publishes each year an Index of Global competitiveness.

The US has fallen sharply from the top spot, the result of the new distrust of American institutions. The UK has fallen too on worries about the UK education system.

Interesting to take a look at who's hot and who's not...

"I did what I had to do- I saw it through"

As the curtain slowly falls and the political obituaries of Tony Blair are written, as the cheesy strains of "My Way" fade from the stage, it is hard not to suppress a harsh giggle.

Labour are being given a pig in a poke -the bizarre psychological torment that seems to have afflicted Gordon Brown since he first watched Tony Blair enter Ten Downing Street does not show the man who would be PM in anything but the harshest of lights.

Many senior Labour members believe that the Chancellor is not fit to be Prime Minister- and these are people who know him well! What are the rest of us to make of this seemingly humourless and angst ridden character?

What alternative do Labour have?

Various names are bandied about, but more in the context of the revenge of Gordon Brown against those deemed "too loyal" to the PM- the candidates who have nothing to lose by standing.

Nope- It will be Brown alright.

And then what?

I think we all know the answer.

Defeat.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Decline of the American Empire?

This article in The Economist caught my eye.

It seems to indicate an academic and well as a political and financial sclerosis that is afflicting the United States.

America has been an extraordinary intellectual power house in the sixty years since the end of the Second World War. Albeit that many Nobel prize winners, like Einstein or Edward Teller, were born outwith the US, nonetheless they were no less passionate Americans for being immigrants- and America won the lions share of academic recognition.

As a child, my father worked for several American corporations and visited the States often. I well recall visits to our house from colleagues who had become friends- they seemed taller, friendlier and much richer than any other people I had met. They had cine cameras- which seemed to me to be science fiction in 1971. I eagerly read the National Geographic Magazine- adverts for speed boats and huge cars- unimaginable luxuries it seemed at the time. Alistair Cooke, each week, would intone in patrician cadences the doings of this rich, diverse and extraordinary land.

Above all there was Apollo.

The missions to the Moon still thrill me- and the names of Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, Conrad, Gordon Bean, Lovell, Swigert, Haise, Shepherd, Roosa, Mitchell, Scott, Worden, Irwin, Young Mattingly, Duke, Cernan, Evans and Schmitt- still have more power to move than any football team ever could. The desolate, stunning wastes of the Moon had the power to transform the vision of the human race. Above all Apollo was American- the triumph of America.

If- God forbid- America ceased to exist, it would be remembered for all time for Apollo- the greatest act of collective endeavour in human history.

Yet America seemed to be extraordinarily terrible- the power of the nuclear bomb- which only the US has ever used in anger- seemed to make the "city on a hill" greater and more terrible.

Of course there were setbacks- the great crisis of the 1970's when Saigon fell, Nixon resigned and Apollo was cancelled. Yet by the mid 1980's America seemed to have overcome all things- richer and more powerful than ever it bestrode the world like a colossus.

Yet all was not well- instead of getting fitter, America became fatter- vastly, morbidly fatter.

Instead of economic investment the US began to borrow- on a scale never seen before and a speed never seen before. From being the worlds largest creditor, it became the largest debtor, eventually in September 2006 for the first time in 100 years it was paying more out than it received in investments.

Gigantic sums were being spent by the US Federal government on Defence and Homeland Security, yet these bureaucracies were wasting trillions of dollars- as the humiliation of the folding of New Orleans in 2005 showed. The increase in the American defence budget after the atrocities of September 11th was greater than the total defence budgets of all conceivable rivals.

Yet, from having been one of the most mobile and dynamic societies, the US closed down the escalator of social mobility. The gap between rich an poor became a chasm. The restrictions on immigration after 9/11 persuaded the worlds brightest brains to go elsewhere- the City of London, in particular, benefited and in financial services it rapidly overhauled New York.

The great names of the American auto industry- Ford, General Motors and so on- were brought to the brink of ruin by inflexible production and poor model lines.

In the midst of this confluence of crises the American constitution and political system revealed its age. The gerrymandering of electoral districts created a self-perpetuating, closed elite- divorced from the interests and wishes of the American people. Thus when George W. Bush was elected on a vote substantially less than Al Gore, no outcry was raised- the constitution was sacred and could not be reformed- even though American claims to democracy at the highest level now seemed empty.

The fact that George W. Bush was both inarticulate and inept was not as dangerous as his messianic vision. America had fallen into the hands of Religious extremists. Committed to the literal truth of the revelation of St. John, America's new millenarians committed the US to inactivity on Global warming- "gods will"- and one sidedness in the Middle East in order to promote the battle of Armageddon. The United States had fallen from the hands of technology into the hands of a mediaeval cult. The ideological certainties of the neo-Conservatives found a ready ear in a President determined to complete the work of his father and destroy Saddam Hussein. Yet the clarities of the White House led to a catastrophic failure of policy and imbrogled the US in a desperate struggle which it was ill equipped to fight and could not afford to lose.

The United States and the global system now face challenges that may end in disaster. The triumph of liberal, secular, humanism can not even be taken for granted in the US itself. The vision which took humans to the Moon, and might by now have taken us further out towards the stars, has been lost. The death cults of suicidal Islam and American end-timers threatens the prosperity and peace that we have created.

Europe, divided and fractured, and afflicted with a growing demographic deficit can not provide alternative leadership.

Unless the Americans can address their political, economic, social and cultural problems, the West risks eclipse- or worse.

A second dark ages, though still a small risk, is now a possibility.

Johann Hari is Vicki Pollard

I suppose it was inevitable, the injury to Richard Hammond, the Presenter of the BBC's -slightly dated- motoring programme Top Gear, has sparked the usual chorus of po-faced disapproval.

In particular I see Johann Hari of The Independent- self appointed leader of Britain's burgeoning gay chav community- has spoken out against the cult of speed and anti-political correctness of the programme.

God- what a bore he is!

The fact is cars are fun.

I shall drop the roof on my MG and drive the country lanes of Britain- taking due care and attention of course- but, on one of the straighter, safer stretches of road I might just open up the throttle and puton a bit of a blast, in honour of the boneheaded idiots who behave totally irresponsibly and with the maximum amount of immaturity.

At least they are lot more entertaining than the tedious self laceration of a Cambridge graduate who would really prefer to be Vicki Pollard.

Come to think of it, you never see Vicki and Johann in the same room, do you?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Guardian at the Gate

There are few in the UK who have paid much attention to the Presidential election in Estonia.

Yet the Liberal revolution in Estonia has attracted attention vastly disproportionate to the small size of the country. The flat tax revolution sweeping Europe was born here, and the country has become a model for flexibility, openness and the use of technology.

The defeat of President Ruutel, albeit by a narrow margin in the electoral college, was a victory against the forces that are trying to roll back the Liberal revolution that has taken place in Estonia over the past fifteen years.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a Swedish born, American educated, exile now completes the set of Baltic Presidents who have spent most of their lives in North America: Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania lived much of his life in Chicago, while Mrs. Vaira Vike Freiberga was a Professor in Canada. In the brief period that their terms will overlap (President Vike Freiberga must stand down later this year), it will be interesting to see how the cerebral but sharp tongued Mr. Ilves compares with the steely and highly intelligent woman, widely acknowledged as an outstanding leader for Latvia.

The victory of Mr. Ilves reflects the wishes of the vast majority of Estonians and is of more than symbolic significance. It is a major setback for Edgar Savisaar, the leader of the Centre Party and eminence grise of the current government. Mr. Savisaar has had questionable relationships with significant Russian interests and his policies have sometimes seemed to reflect personal rather than national interests. Although, in general, Estonia does not have a significant corruption problems, where the rumours of such problems exist they have tended to be associated with allies and friends of the Centre Party leader. Even when prima facie evidence of corruption exists- for example the dubious land deals of Victor Kaasik, a lawyer close to Mr. Savisaar- authorities have been unwilling to take effective action. This has been corrosive of trust in the Estonian legal system.

Mr. Savisaar had cut a deal to deliver the Presidency to Mr. Ruutel, with the likely quid pro quo that, after the Parliamentary elections in March, that as President he would do whatever he could to ensure that Mr. Savisaar could become Prime Minister. Mr. Ilves, by contrast is one of Mr. Savisaar's sworn enemies and the Centre Party leader's vocal and highly personal attacks on the new Head of State will surely come back to haunt him.

Mr. Ilves' ideological identity is not as clear-cut as his Social Democrat label would have you believe. In a country where any mention of Socialism is anathema, he has stood as a "Moderate", before adopting the Social Democrat moniker just before he was elected as an MEP, in order to join a significant grouping in the European Parliament. However, as a campaigning foreign minister he has demonstrated his commitment to the Liberal Estonian model.

Where Ruutel would have supported Savisaar and the drift away from Liberalism. Ilves will need to be as lynx-eyed as his name (Ilves is Lynx in Estonian) in order to ensure that the intellectual impetus of the Estonian model is not yet lost. The President of the Republic is the guardian at the gate- we should be pleased- indeed delighted- that a man with a proven commitment to freedom will be the guardian of the Estonian constitution for the next few years, for it ensures at least a chance for the Estonians to avoid descending into a political system of cronies and corruption.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Anyone but us...

I see that Health care professionals are a bit sceptical about Gordon Brown's plans to set up an independent NHS Board.

Quite right- how could it be held accountable? The problem about the Conservative reforms was the same- the independent trusts could not be quizzed by local MPs about how they spent the tax payers money that they received. How could a national board be brought to account?

Ministers would/do* say- "not my responsibility, it was that nasty independent board/trust* that made this happen".

* delete where applicable.

If tax payer's money is involved then Parliament must supervise and make someone accountable for how the money is spent- that is its job. If the ministry is not competent then it should be abolished.

Meanwhile I see Harriet Harman wants the public to run foreign policy - Oh dear, where to start...

The one area in politics where openness is a double edged sword and with her unerring eye for the pointless and the stupid she goes straight there.

Still, at least it is good to know that even Labour ministers agree that they should not be running either health or foreign policy.

Monty mania

Cicero tends to regard golf as "a good walk, spoiled"

Even still, Colin Montgomerie's putt in the Ryder cup was pretty impressive!

This is one of those events where even the Europhobe saloon bar bores can cheer on Europe.

Go the Europeans!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Unlucky politics

After the Conservative flirtation with mag-lev trains, perhaps we should not be surprised that a crash in Germany has killed at least 15 people.

Their support for Mag-lev, always looked like a gimmick- now it seems positively ill-judged

Spin and Substance

"Sincerity: if you can fake it, you've got it made." George Burns

Well, now we know- the Lib Dems are big on substance and actually... They are.

It has been customary to decry them as lightweights and to mock their aspirations of power, but the reality is that they have had a pretty substantive body of policy for many years- as even a fairly cursory look at their policy documents will show you.

So where do we stand now in British politics?

The political pendulum is swinging- and Labour must be feeling ever more nervous about holding on to power after the next general election, whenever that is. The Conservatives, like a very old bloodhound catching the scent, think that they are on the way back into government.

And yet, and yet...

Although David Cameron is trying to change the image of his party- new squiggly tree and all- there is not yet the kind of enthusiasm for him or his party that can guarantee that they can win. The mood music is full of doubts- how can an old Etonian embody the political future? Isn't he just promoting his public school cronies? Is his "green agenda" anything more than PR bullspiel and hype? Isn't this party simply swapping principles for gimmicks?

Many of the most mistrustful of Cameron's agenda are dyed-in-the wool Conservatives. They are angry that he won't address the need for urgent tax cuts. They regard the "policy lite" approach with profound suspicion. They fear that Cameron will abandon the visceral anti-Europeanism which he promised in favour of "Heathite" consensus building and compromise- and on issues where they believe any compromise is a betrayal. If a fanatic is "one who won't change his mind and won't change the subject"- the Europhobes of the Tory right wing certainly qualify.

So, whither British politics?

Unexpectedly this conference season turns out to look like something of a turning point. The Lib Dems avoided the potential pitfalls and are still in the race. Labour face a period of prolonged uncertainty before and even after a new leader is chosen.

The Conservatives? On the face of it David Cameron's first conference will be a coronation. Yet the comments of Edward Leigh and the social conservatives show that he may find it unexpectedly tough going- "Liberal Conservatism" does not seem to convince either Liberals or Conservatives. The Conservative conference will demonstrate whether the Conservatives have rediscovered the loyalty that was their secret weapon in decades past, or whether the corrosion of the past fifteen years continues.

Although the Conservatives are ahead in the polls, they have to be substantially stronger in order to have the faintest chance of winning the next election outright. The media have given Cameron a relatively easy ride- they are interested in him: he is young and relatively personable. The rumours of class A drug taking have seemingly been put to rest. He generates largely positive coverage. However he still has much to do in order to demonstrate substance.

Ming Campbell's focus on substance has a subtext- "Cameron is a lightweight, gimmicky PR merchant". This is a flank that Cameron must shore up- if he can. This conference will show if and how he can address the many lingering doubts about his leadership.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Talpra magyar, hí a haza !

"Arise Hungarians! the country calls"

The first lines of the Nemzeti dal- the national hymn of Hungary. It was penned by the insurrectionary poet, Petofi Sandor, shortly before his death in the Hungarian uprising of 1848-9.

Petofi was also the inspiration for the Hungarian uprising of October 23rd 1956. The student clubs, the Petofi circles, were ostensibly literary clubs, but they had come to have a more political character and in the confusing times after Krushchev's secret speech denouncing Stalin in February 1956, they began agitating for greater Hungarian Freedom.

The early stage of the 1956 rebellion was a demonstration outside the Magyar Televiszio studios which led to several of AVH secret police being lynched and hanged from the trees outside the building. Thus the latest violent demonstrations against the current Socialist MSZP government, which have taken place on the same spot, are intended to make a direct parallel with the '56. Certainly many of the skinheads throwing bottles at the police do not want a Socialist Prime Minister to preside over the anniversary of the '56 at any price.

Sure, the scale of the violence is simply a fraction of what happened in Paris recently, however the violent reaction to Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany's admission of lying underlines the political cost of a prolonged period of government mismanagement by both the MSZP and the previous FIDESZ government of Victor Orban. Both parties are utterly discredited and devoid of the trust of the people.

It may be that either a massive demonstration in Budapest on Saturday or heavy defeat at the local polls in the first week of October will force the MSZP out of office. However FIDESZ has already demonstrated the narrow mindedness that got them thrown out of office in the first place by simply seeking to take party political advantage out of a situation which they themselves are partly responsible for.

Arguably FIDESZ are MORE responsible- as a party with Liberal roots they should have known the importance of curbing the state and reducing the economic drag of the public sector, rather than going for the populist short term policies that they actually adopted. Of course, the only Liberal party now in Hungary is the SZDSZ under Gabor Kuncze, which has provided the country with the hugely popular previous President, Arpad Goncz, and the Mayor of Budapest, Gabor Demszky.

Investors in Hungary will be hoping that a responsible government emerges from this fiasco, but the immaturity of both sides in the Hungarian political arena does not look good. Perhaps a technocrat: Gyorgy Suranyi , the former central bank governor, Zsigmond Jarai , the current governor, Andras Simor, a previous Head of the Stock Exchange, or even Lajos Bokros- the man who rescued the country from the last financial crisis in 1994 could be prevailed upon to take the hot seat. When the streets echo to the inspiring lines of Nemzeti dal:

By the God of the Hungarians
We swear
We truly swear
No more the tyrant's yoke to bear!

It is clear that the times are changing rapidly.

After ten years of drift, it will hardly be before time for the long suffering Hungarian people.

I liked Mark Mardell's musings on the value of truth in politics A subject that I must return to soon.

A song at the final curtain

Thursday at the conference is not usually of great interest. The jaded, terminally hungover delegates are mostly subdued and many have left.

The only highlight is usually the leaders speech, but each year this seems to get a little more exaggerated. I remember Paddy Ashdown coming off stage after one of his "leader's speeches" which ended in fireworks, and balloons and the usual hullabaloo and muttering under his breath "stupid bloody circus" and I know what he means.

Nevertheless, "Ming-the Movie" which will proceed today's celebration of the final curtain on conference will at least let a few people know what an extraordinary man the Lib Dems have accidentally chosen as leader.

Although I disagree with Ming on many issues- I certainly do not regard myself as being on the "Centre left" for example, the fact is that his career has demonstrated a tenacity and an individual substance that is extremely impressive.

Ming is a self made man- an Olympic athlete, a highly successful QC, and a very determined politician. Like Ashdown (and indeed many of his own current front bench) Ming is a serial over-achiever. He does not owe his success to the vagaries of the public school system, to the traditional Scottish virtues of discipline and hard work. It is no accident that the Lib Dems political opponents make such personal attacks on him- they know that he is a solid and impressive man whose "gravitas" is not artificial.

Brighton has been a jolly conference, but also a deadly serious one. The opportunity to screw up was always there, but was strenuously avoided. Despite rather ill informed media comment about divisions, I think that the rigour of the economic liberals is helping the social liberals to define how their goals could be achieved.

So as the balloons fall and the applause continues for an unfeasibly long time I will smile and reflect: following a tough year the party is in decent shape after all. Policy arguments are moving to the Economic Liberal/Libertarian side of the debate, party organisation (with the exception of the English candidates office) is improving sharply. The door is not yet closed.

I always feel we miss out when we don't sing a national song to finish, so in the spirit of the age, I decided to get a cheaper, better, Polish, national song to finish (any errors of grammar are mine):

Jeszcze Partia nie zginęła,
Poku my żyjemy.
Co nam obca przemoc wzięła,
Focusi odbierzemy.

Marsz, marsz, Campbelli,
Z ziemi angliej do Skoci,
Za twoim przewodem
Złączym się z narodem.

Przejdziem Thamesę, przejdziem Forthę,
Będziem Liberalami,
Dał nam przykład Gladstone,
Jak zwyciężać mamy.

Marsz, marsz, Campbelli...

Jak Ashdonwni do Yeovila
Po Torykim zaborze,
Dla ojczyzny ratowania
Wracał się przez morze.

Marsz, marsz, Campbelli...

And if you still insist on a translation:

At yet the Party is not lost,
while we are still alive,
What alien force has seized
we will recalim with the Focus.

March, March Campbell,
from the English Land to Scotland
we shall follow you
to reunite with our people.

We'll cross the Thames and cross the Forth
we shall be Liberals
Gladstone has shown us the way-
how to be victorious

As Ashdown to Yeovil
after the Tory invasion
to save the country
we will cross the sea.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Biting the hand

I see Iain Dale dropped by Brighton last night. Perhaps another manifestation of our fairness or being the nice party, or something...

Iain has been making a living as the guru of the blogosphere, and despite being a losing Tory candidate last time, does occasionally manage one or two graceful comments about opinions not his own.

He has improved his blogging franchise still further with his Guide to Political Blogging in the UK . It is a personal- and idiosyncratic- selection of the top Lib Dem, Conservative, Labour and non aligned blogs. I see that this blog achieved the dizzy heights of being in the top twenty Lib Dem blogs, but this still places it outside the top 100 blogs overall.

Iain attended a fringe meeting last night- I would link to his blog of it, but to be honest it doesn't show him a particularly good light. While I don't expect him to engage with Liberal arguments, it would be nice if he could bring himself to do more than simply mock his political opponents.

I see Labour wouldn't even let him in to their conference- which speaks volumes about their control freakery.

The trouble with the Tories is that they find it so hard to rise above a pretty low level of debate with Liberal Democrats: "you won't get elected anyway, so what's the point?". They have no answer when we do beat them- and they can get petulant, disbelieving and bitter when the electorate does turn them out- though to be fair Iain is more... rueful.

However, if "sarcasm is the lowest form of wit", then mockery must be the lowest form of politics. Our opponents want people to believe that Liberalism can't win, that there is no real hope for change. As we know, when people think that the Liberal Democrats can win, they take them seriously and that is very dangerous to other parties, even under the current distorted electoral system.

Next year I suggest that not only do we invite him back, we put him on a platform and force him to debate his opposition to a Liberal Britain. After all it does seem that he is perfectly in favour of a Little Britain- since David Cameron is turning into Emily Howard- the unconvincing (political) transvestite.

See- no more lame than most of the jokes that we had from Iain (or round the arena, if I am honest).

Come back kids

Amid the alcoholic haze of many old friends meeting, Tuesday turned out to be an exceptionally good day for the Liberal Democrat conference.

The media attention was on Charles Kennedy's hail or farewell speech, which it was depended on who you talked to. He is popular, and with good reason- an intelligent and thoughtful man. There is a lot of human sympathy for him, and his appearance was a major step in the healing process both for Charles himself and also for the party, which has been very bruised by the leadership problems since last year. As for the speech- well he would have been cheered if he had recited the telephone directory- but it was workmanlike and solid, if not inspirational. As a demonstration of the recovery of the party, however, it was worth a lot. It was good for the psyche of the party to see him in Brighton. Despite media hopes, of course, Charles would not want to rock the boat- and his statement of loyalty to the party and to Liberal principles was genuine and heartfelt.

Yet Tuesday also saw the popular return of another previous leader: Paddy Ashdown. In recent years Paddy has been running Bosnia as the High Representative. By all accounts he did his job wisely and well. He is held in great affection by many of the people in that fractured land- and this affection is clearly returned. As a former first class translator of Mandarin Chinese, learning Serbo-Croat seems to have been a relatively easy prospect for him, and he clearly wished to continue to help the peoples of the Western Balkans become reconciled. Nevertheless he has now returned to London and his first intervention- supporting Ming Campbell as leader- was just the opening salvo in his resuming role in British politics.

Paddy's latest intervention is even more significant than Charles' speech. Admitting that all is not well in the garden of the European Union is essential in order for us to tackle the problems. The petition that was circulating to force the European Parliament to abandon the expensive and distracting plenary sessions in Strasbourg was one example of the increasing crtiticism amongst Liberal Democrats about the way that the EU conducts its business. Lord Ashdown's comments highlighting the "dysfunctional" and protectionist about the EU are well taken. We need an open and liberal Europe- and a protectionist "fortress Europe" would be damaging in the short term and a failure in the medium term.

As we see increasing geopolitical instability- and the possibility of the US becoming a less reliable ally- it is clear that Britain needs to reinforce our relationship with the rest of Europe. In the case of the more free market central Europeans, we have been quite successful at doing this. Elsewhere we have not been able to engage with the larger powers in the Union. It is true that this relationship can not come at any price. However, it is time for the UK to engage with all of the EU and to work for a definite agenda of free trade inside and outside the Union- including improving access to the European market for the developing world. In the context of the failure of the Doha round, it is now more important than ever that the free trade agenda is promoted- but by doing so, we also reinforce the idea that Britain is not merely an appendage of the United States in international affairs. Ashdown's comments are laying out the ground for Liberals to speak up about the future direction of the European Union- and to criticize the many things that need improvement.

Tuesday could have been a difficult day for the party- but actually it was significant in a good way. Ming got his tax proposals endorsed solidly. Charles' speech was a renewal, and Paddy reminds people that while we are genuinely internationalist and European, we are so on the basis of full use of our critical faculties- with our heads- rather than slavishly with our hearts.

The Liberal Democrats are having a good conference. I wonder, in the light of continued problems for Tony Blair, whether Labour will be able to say the same. Meanwhile the intervention of Edward Leigh against the gimmicky and shallow initiatives of David Cameron suggest that even the Tories' wunderkind may not get things all his own way.

With perhaps three and a half years before the next election, there is a growing sense that there is still all to play for the Liberal Democrats- and after a difficult year, there is a sense of relief and emerging optimism on the sunny and windswept beach in Brighton.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Conference Animal

I always wonder about "conference". Sometime speakers address the delegates as this singular creature: "Conference, we must blah blah blah". Talking about "conference" with no article is a sign of having been around for a while- being inside in the in crowd. But conference is a strange animal.

Sometimes, I am sure that the Party leadership must think that, if it is an animal, then it is a rather bad tempered one. In Blackpool, the proposal to inject more commercial disciplines into the post office was embarrassingly rejected by "conference", and this year there was the prospect that Ming Campbell would not be able to carry his tax proposals through the thickets and mires of the conference vote. In fact, from my arrival in Brighton it was fairly clear that the party was in good humour with the leadership, and although some we unhappy about scrapping the 50% tax proposal, it would be passed nonetheless.

Although it remains to be seen what Charles Kennedy will say in a few minutes, I would say that the atmosphere is pretty chirpy. There is none of the expectation of Bournemouth in 2004 nor the rancour of Blackpool in 2005. There is a very sober sense of the new political reality. The Tories are not dead, and this could hurt us. However there is also the sense of a party that is getting its act together. There is a much greater sense of intellectual coherence- and if the party still fails in my view to be coherent or Liberal enough, I sense the possibility of progress.

As "conference" is told to be sensible and serious, I find the mood in the bars is a little subdued, although there seem to be more younger members- many young women- which is nice. Meanwhile the more eccentric dressers seem to be given conference a miss this year. This is the straightest conference- in every sense of the word- that I have ever attended.

It therefore is no surprise that the party is happy to vote through changes on the tax side which are reasonably radical. I would have liked to see us scrap LIT and move towards a Land tax as a far better alternative to the current nonsense of the Council Tax, but you can't have everything.

I have hung around with my Scottish colleagues- always a pleasure to see old friends- although I notice my whisky consumption increases mightily in their company. The atmosphere amongst the Scottish Party is now one of real optimism for what might be possible at Holyrood in the 2008 election. Nicol speaks of being the largest party, and after the stunning success of Dunfermline, Labour must be looking to their laurels.

Perhaps the conference has turned into a pussycat.

Time to listen to Charles.

The Independent is written by Cretins

Cicero is sunning himself in Brighton, attending the Lib Dem annual conference. I quite enjoy Brighton- and I have had a breezy day in a compact and historic city that is without the snootiness of Bournemouth or the squalor of Blackpool.

The conference is one of the largest in recent years- I will write a bit more later about the doings of the Party.

One of the features of the party conference season is the large number of free newspapers that are given away. At the Lib Dem conference it has usually been The Independent that gives the biggest sponsorship and hands out the largest number of free papers. However, this year there is more competition, with both The Guardian- whose Deputy editor, Michael White, interviewed Ming Campbell on the podium yesterday- and The Times putting in stronger showings than normal.

Mind your, this year bloggers too are making an impact, and reading today's Indy, one can see why- the Op-Ed piece in Today's edition is one of the most ill informed pieces of Bullspeil I have had to read in a long while.

The gist is that Trans Dniestria has voted to be associated with Russia and not Moldova and that this result should be respected: 98.8% after all voted for it.

I don't know whether to pity the naivete or the bonehead gerbil brain that failed to recognize the utter illegitimacy of this vote.

Since the Russian 14th Army seized control of the region in 1991, the thuggish regime of Igor Smirnov has created the greatest illegal arms bazaar in the world on the streets of the tin-pot capital, Tiraspol. Tanks, missiles, aircraft, the most advanced weaponry- up to and including radioactive material- is auctioned to the highest bidder, no questions asked. Hizbollah, the Taliban, many of the nastiest people in the world have their agents trading in this criminal statelet. Of course the goons and henchmen of this "government"- several of whose members are under criminal indictment in other countries- have been able to dragoon the brutalized citizens of the statelet to "vote" in any way that suits their twisted ends.

However there is no attempt by the Independent to question the motives or legitimacy of the vote, neither is there an understanding of the blackmail that Smirnov has been able to use against the rest of Moldova by turning off the power at will. Smirnov is under pressure, since the Ukraine closed their border last year, and it is only a matter of time before Trans Dniestria will be forced to accept a deal. Giving comfort to this regime at this time is simply dim witted if not actually malign. The ignorance that the Indy's leader writer displays is another example of the cost cutting that is being forced on the dead tree media every day as they struggle to compete.

As yet another free newspaper is pressed upon me, entering the conference hall, I reflect that it becomes easier every day to just say no.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Irony

So Pope Benedict XVI has criticised the violence of Islam (and the Prophet particularly)

Kind of ironic that the reaction should be so violent

Personally I would like to protest against the protest- the people organizing these disgusting displays are nothing more than backward, ignorant bigots whose actions have gone a long way to proving the Pope's point.

Turn the fire hoses on them...

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Short Change

I hold no particular brief for Claire Short, She has often appeared a bit naive - and has been a serial resigner form Labour's front bench. Nevertheless she is clearly an honest and well meaning sort of politician and does have a genuine following in the country. She is an all too human antidote to the machine politicians of both Labour and increasingly the Tories.

I was therefore rather struck by her comments as she announced that she will stand down as a Labour MP at the next election. Her contempt for Blair and Brown was obvious. She lambasted them both- not just for Iraq or for the mess of ID cards and the trespasses that they have launched against civil liberties and, perhaps more significantly on their failure to deliver PR- which she sees as a central question in British politics.

As for Cameron, she condemned him too as a shallow PR merchant.

Claire Short represents a significant faction in the Labour Party- a faction that both Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam were a part of. This is not an insignificant faction: Denis McShane, Bob Marshall Andrews, are public critics of the government, but over 100 other Labour M.Ps support electoral reform too.

The obvious anger that Short feels towards the Blair-Brown government have driven her to contemplate leaving the Labour Party and perhaps standing as an independent.

It strikes me, that the few pebbles that Claire Short is throwing around could start an avalanche.

The tide for political reform in Britain may be turning- it will be interesting to watch how other Labour figures react to this clarion call for reform.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Future Shock

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write; they will be those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. Alvin Toffler

Thirty six year ago Alvin Toffler wrote "Future Shock" - His idea being that human beings are not well suited to handling a rapid pace of change. He coined the term "informational overload" to describe the key root of future shock. It is one of the themes of this blog that our knowledge of the future is imperfect and our skills of prediction are poor. Yet as Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues human beings persist in trying to create patterns out of essentially random events- he calls this the Platonic fallacy. Thus even the information that we actually possess may not be the information that we think we possess. It is understand these limits and in particular understanding how to react to our fallibility that can create robust systems.

As we examine the future, we are in danger of drowning real information in the noise of details- and this is particularly true in politics, where politicians also have less experience in handling executive decision making than ever.

It is part of the intellectual root of Liberalism that explicit limits must be set for state power- and as details begin to overwhelm our capacity to understand them, it will become ever more critical to break down larger decisions making into smaller pieces: more local decisions, more diverse and heterogeneous political choices.

The information society is drowning in extraneous details. Big picture thinking is now the only way to approach strategic decision making: yet that can only be predictive think to a very limited extent. The goal now must be to focus on the systems to cope with our own fallibility. The shift in political thinking is away from policy based on given predictions and towards systems that are robust and flexible enough to cope when we get it wrong. The key debate- across all democratic societies- is moving away from the false god of policy predictions and much more towards a debate about the systems of government. These are constitutional and executive: the government and the civil service.

The Liberal Democrats advocate quite radical changes to our constitution because we believe that our systems are unresponsive and inflexible. We believe in radical decentralization because centralized power systems are now too inefficient to cope with informational overload and because we believe that a mono-culture of policy options, in for example health, creates potentially dangerous rigidity. Economies of scale from national procurement are off-set by slow delivery and poor service outcomes. At each stage we are trying to improve the ability of government service providers to respond to changing circumstances. The failure of the large scale IT projects in social welfare is not a surprise- given informational overload, it is inevitable.

Liberal Democrats have a mature and developed set of ideas that are built around the context of individual freedom of action. We are not offering a change of policy within the current system, we are seeking a systemic change- genuinely radical. The key to freedom is to prune the activities of the centralized state and to create flexible geometries of power- some of which lie outside the state, like pressure groups and charities. It is only be limiting the activities of the state that it can deliver anything effectively to its citizens. In Britain, at least, citizens are voting with their feet- voter participating is historically low, because the state apparatus has not been flexible enough to respond or even reflect its citizens' wishes. Too many politicians have assumed the role of "Philosopher King" and presumed to second guess the will of the people.

Yet I do not fall into the trap of exaggerating the problem for my own ends- it is a debate of intellect and reason, not of emotion. I leave you with the words of perhaps the greatest philosopher king:

"Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present." Marcus Aurelius

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years On

Regular readers will know that I take the "War on Terror" personally. No question that the vile and depraved acts perpetrated on September 11th 2001 needed an answer. Have we answered it in the right way? For I fear that the way that the West has conducted itself since then has been blind and foolish.

I fear for the future of democracy. The incredible number of regulations imposed in the name of the War on Terror in the USA- from the so- called Patriot Act to the Department of Homeland Security all have been giant steps backward for the liberty of people in America and -as the US imposed extra-territoriality on many new rules- the rest of the world too.

Today on the Radio, I was hugely cheered to hear an American "heretic" raising the question.

"We have persecuted some; harassed large numbers; inconvenienced many; and taxed everybody. To what end?"

This is a question that should be on everyone's lips.

Have we been incredibly clever in defeating the devilish plots of Al Qaida, or was there not much of a conspiracy in the first place?

With the 43rd President still in office, the word clever does not naturally come to mind when considering this whole sorry fiasco.

Imperium

Modesty Forbids, but I see that Robert Harris is finally after me.

The first in a trilogy of fictionalised biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Imperium, has just been published.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Sic Semper Tyrannis

President George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United Sates, is not fit for the office that he holds and should be removed from it as soon as the constitution allows.

It is almost inconceivable to believe that after the attacks of September 11th we would now be debating what level of torture may be inflicted by US Federal agents- and whether near-drowning even counts. Illegal wire taps- spying on an industrial scale against American citizens, in clear contravention of the law have continued unabated. Today we see Mr. Bush defending- defending God save us- Illegal CIA prisons that detain uncharged prisoners for years. The Administration has been abusing the sovereignty of allies by flying illegal rendition flights of these same prisoners. In establishing an extra-territorial Cuban Gulag where prisoners are slowly driven mad Mr. Bush shows utter contempt for the rights of man and the very principles of liberty that form the foundation of the US constitution- the same constitution that he swore to protect at his inauguration.

And what of Tony Blair?

In the words of Renton from Irvine Walsh's novel Trainspotting:

Doesn't it make you proud to be Blair?" - "It's SH*TE being Blair! He is the lowest of the low, the scum of the f***ing earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever sh*t into civilization. Some people hate the Americans, I don't. They're just w***ers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by w***ers. We can't even pick a decent culture to be colonized by. We are ruled by effete arseholes. It's a sh*te state of affairs to be in, Tommy! And all the fresh air in the world won't make any f***ing difference!"

Blair should go ASAP. Bush ditto. Then we can repair the appalling damage that they have inflicted on our most fundamental freedoms through their arrogant belief in the "war on Terror" - the most ill conceived and ill advised mistake in foreign policy in 60 years.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Redwood is deadwood and Blair is in the air

An interesting contrast on the radio this morning. At 7.35 John Redwood is talking about crunchy economics. He made some valid points, but his manner was hectoring and abusive- talking all over the interviewer, whose primary point was that Redwood was strongly disagreeing with his leader. Redwood was rude and ugly- no charm, no social graces. Yet several of the points he made about economic policy were right on the money.

Twenty minutes later up popped David Cameron. His points were waffly- "sharing the proceeds of growth" "moderate choices"- intellectually it was drivel, but delivered with the easy charm of the fifth form cad. You felt that this was a cheery, reasonable sort of chap. How bad could he be?

The trouble is that the last time we elected a cheery public school chap, we ended up with a Prime Minister who ended up saying the following:

"If we are not prepared to predict and intervene far more early then there are children that we know perfectly well are completely dysfunctional, and the kids a few years down the line are going to be a menace"

"Predict"? "Intervene"? This man seriously believes that you can predict peoples lives from their circumstances. What an insult to the thousands of kids born in difficult circumstances who go on to lead rich and rewarding lives- and what an excuse for those people who refuse to accept the consequences of their own behaviour. This man does not understand the first thing about freedom- and for that alone, if not his myriad other misjudgements, he should not be in office...

...and Cameron should never get there.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Dividing up the pie

Madsen Pirrie on the Adam Smith institute blog makes an interesting point about why the Conservatives are making a fundamental mistake when they talk about economics. It is a mistake that many Lib Dems make too- the idea that the economy is a fixed pie, so that any tax cut must be paid for either by spending cuts or by higher taxes elsewhere.

Although I often find the ASI's commitment to tax cuts above all else to be impractical politics, it is worth pointing out that sometimes tax cuts can lead to an increase in overall tax revenue. This is the theory behind the Laffer curve, which seems to have received substantial confirmation in the results of taxation policies in Estonia, Slovakia, Romania and other countries that have followed a flat and low tax agenda.

One thing that can not be argued is that complicated tax systems become very expensive- a fiscal drag that can have very significant consequences. Therefore whatever the political agenda- flatter taxes, higher taxes, strongly progressive taxes- the key to the success of any of these policies is going to have to be simple taxes. A fact that was lost on Gordon "tax credit disaster" Brown some years ago.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Fractal Philosophy- Quantum Politics

The twentieth century saw a revolution in the understanding of science. The classical models of physics gave way to a new set of insights based around the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. In both physics and in mathematics a fundamental uncertainty has been discovered. The questions of the mathematical state of chaos- the so called fractal geometry- that have been described by Benoit Mandelbrot indicate that the consequences of given events may move in highly unpredictable directions. Conventionally, these insights have been applied to systems, including such complex interactions as the creation of galaxies, or the meteorological system of Earth.

However, applying the science of uncertainty to systems of human behaviour has seen much slower progress. Yet such application seems appropriate- it is already being used in economics analysis and politics bears several key characteristics of a fractal system.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his book “Fooled by Randomness” has a profound insight: that humans perceive their behaviour as part of a symmetrical world when, in fact, it is highly non symmetrical, as a result, humans are extremely bad at making accurate predictions and the more detailed the prediction, the more likely it is to fail. This insight has profound implications when considering political ideology. In particular it increases the systemic risk of mathematically chaotic outcomes to given decisions- this helps explain the fact that financial bubbles, for example, occur more often than is generally forecast. It may reveal that profound political instability is also a greater threat than has been predicted by classical political thinkers.

I have also noted another insight about social development that has come from James Burke, who has talked about the increasing connectedness of historical innovation. Historical development seems to take the form of a random walk, yet although being driven by isolated events, it has created increasing connectivity over time. This is despite the fact that few, if any, individuals could truly understand the path that their actions would lead to. Historical change has increased the interconnectedness of science, politics and culture. This increase in possible connections accelerates the process of innovation, but in highly unpredictable ways. Burke poses the question of what happens when this rate of innovation, or more importantly change itself, becomes too much for the average person to handle and what this means for individual power, liberty, and privacy.

Hitherto, we could conventionally divide up politics into the discourse of political principles and the creation of a specific policy platform. The insights that are beginning to emerge from this new science of uncertainty, as applied to politics, seem to indicate that the time has come to abandon the classical approach at least as far as policy formation is concerned. The idea that any given policy can have highly predictable outcomes is clearly not born out by events. The only predictable thing about policy outcomes is that they are highly unpredictable.

However, one particular insight is that the collective of a system is far more predictable in aggregate than any individual feature in a system. Essentially if we are limited to systemic prediction and that detailed prediction is structurally inaccurate, then the key for political leadership is going to be the question of structural limits to the system and not the false god of detailed policy outcomes. Thus, the implications of this new science of causation make it more critical to define core principles. This is why the system of political discourse matters more than specific policies.

Most politicians have failed to understand this central failure in the ideology of political systems. Political leaders continue to act upon the basis of a discredited classical political model, without addressing the new world of quantum politics. Those systems that were the most closed- the authoritarian systems, especially Communism- were those who collapsed first. However, all current societies, however open they may be, are going to face considerable challenges over the course of the next century. Open societies may have some advantages, but repeated policy failure in democratic states is discrediting the political class and undermining trust in the system. Meanwhile, increasing interconnectedness may increase the potential instability of human society. Information Technology increases in sophistication to a point where malign use could undermine all personal privacy and liberty. Without defining the limits in this new world, the threat of a greater tyranny than we have ever known could grow to a dangerous level.

The work of Hayek and Popper contains some recognition of the centrality of uncertainty. They recognized the critical limits on what information may be accurately inferred (predicted) in detail and came to the conclusion that liberty requires the retrenchment of the state. It is time for the general political discourse explicitly to face up to the real challenge of quantum politics.

The key to the success of new political discourse will be the retrenchment of the state and increasing openness of society. We need to understand too that the implied determinism of quantum politics does not end individual freedom of action, As David Hume has argued: while it is possible that one does not freely arrive at one's set of desires and beliefs, the only meaningful interpretation of freedom relates to one's ability to translate those desires and beliefs into voluntary action.

The challenge for citizens is to try to understand the limitations of these new conditions, and then reinterpret the traditional model of democracy in a way that preserves genuine individual liberty and not just the empty shell of democratic institutions. In the continuing battle against tyranny we have met the enemy -and it is us.