Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Golden Eagles

The move to declare the Golden Eagle as Scotland's national bird continues.

The Eagles are majestic creatures, although I have always had a soft spot for Puffins, which always strike me as rather attractive, with their clown like beaks.

I have only twice seen Golden Eagles in the wild.

Once was on the Isle of Mull. I was under a tree, taking shelter from the Atlantic showers. A rabbit appeared on a patch of grass about four metres from the tree. Suddenly the rabbit seemed almost to disappear, and in its place the Eagle. The rabbit had been killed instantly by the fell stoop of the gigantic bird. Slowly, almost lazily, it spread its wings once more and casting a contemptuous glance over its shoulder at me, its huge wings pushed it back into the sky, clutching its prey in its talons.

The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds but it was hard not to be in awe of this tremendous bird.

The other time I encountered these birds was walking up by Braemar, beyond Linn of Dee. There in the high hills I saw two Eagles. The were flying higher and higher, then they linked talons and folding their wings they span towards the earth- almost dancing. At a certain point they broke off and flew up to a greater height once more.

I am told that this was the mating flight of these great birds- and Eagles mate for life, so it is very rare to see them doing this.

I shall always recall with exhilaration the day I saw the Eagles dance.

Monday, October 30, 2006

American Elections

The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it. P. J. O'Rourke

The American political class may have gerrymandered its democracy to impotence.

George W. Bush may be the most incompetent president in modern American history.

The United States may be trapped in Iraq and hobbled in the war against terror.

But, with only a week to go before the US mid term elections it does look as though the American people, united in disgust for the sleazy and useless leadership of (primarily) the Republican Party, might actually do something radical.

Throw the B**tards OUT!!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Leadership deficit

As another week trundles by in British politics, the disillusion of the British people with their leaders grows still further. After the pathetic display of John Reid on immigration- showing yet again why "Yes, Minister" really was so painfully accurate- we now have the usual Tory sex scandal.

I make no judgment as to whether a man leaving his wife for another man is any better or worse than leaving his wife for another woman. It is to be regretted either way, when there are children involved, but I will make no Jeremiad - although since he seems to have opposed a good deal of legislation to equalise the legal position of gays, so I suppose he could legitimately be accused of hypocrisy.

What tires me is that every generation of British politicians makes the same mistakes.

Meanwhile, the British people are getting frustrated with a political class that alternately talks down to them or ignores them. The political scandal is not the easy-to-understand sexual shenanigans of obscure political figures- it is the denial of power and even information to the mass of the British electorate.

After a nominally Labour government that based itself on marketing gimmickry, are we now to have to endure a nominally Conservative government differing hardly a jot ideologically, and based on the same trivialities of image?

If so then our politics have become morally bankrupt. For the fact is that there are ideological questions that need to be addressed. As a Liberal I am sceptical of government, yet the newtorylabour consensus entrenches inappropriate government at every level and very big and centralised government in Whitehall- it is a dangerous coalition, and an expensive one too.

It is not enough to change the party of government- we must change the system of government too.

The moral and intellectual pygmies who might laughingly be called our masters deserve to be tested to higher standards- a more open political system is now vital. The nineteenth century habits of both legislature and executive must be reformed. The absurd secrecy that the British civil service demands must be abolished outright- the Freedom of information act, which has been reduced to a pitiful farce, must now be given real teeth.

With political participation rates now falling below 50%, even for a general election- the time has come for the whole racket to be cleared out, bag and baggage.

A free market in politics is long overdue...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Arms Sales

This, alleged to have been posted on McDonnell Douglas' website, made me laugh:

Thank you for purchasing a McDonnell Douglas military aircraft. In order to protect your new investment, please take a few moments to fill out the warranty registration card below. Answering the survey questions is not required, but the information will help us to develop new products thatbest meet your needs and desires.
[_] Mr.
[_] Mrs.
[_] Ms.
[_] Miss
[_] Lt.
[_] Gen.
[_] Comrade
[_] Classified
[_] Other
First Name: ...............................................
Initial: ........
Last Name.................................................
Password: .............................. (max. 8 char)
Code Name: ................................................
Latitude-Longitude-Altitude: ........... ............

2. Which model aircraft did you purchase?
[_] F-14 Tomcat
[_] F-15 Eagle
[_] F-16 Falcon
[ ] F-117A Stealth
[_] Classified

3. Date of purchase (Year/Month/Day): 19... /.... /.....

4. Serial Number: .......................................

5. Please indicate where this product was purchased:
[_] Received as gift / aid package
[ ] Catalogue / showroom
[_] Independent arms broker
[_] Mail order
[_] Discount store
[_] Government surplus
[_] Classified

6. Please indicate how you became aware of the McDonnell Douglas productyou have just purchased:
[_] Heard loud noise, looked up
[_] Store display
[_] Espionage
[_] Recommended by friend / relative / ally
[_] Political lobbying by manufacturer
[_] Was attacked by one

7. Please indicate the three (3) factors that most influenced yourdecisionto purchase this McDonnell Douglas product:
[_] Style / appearance
[_] Speed / maneuverability
[_] Price / value
[_] Comfort / convenience
[_] Kickback / bribe
[_] Recommended by salesperson
[_] McDonnell Douglas reputation
[_] Advanced Weapons Systems
[_] Backroom politics
[_] Negative experience opposing one in combat

8. Please indicate the location(s) where this product will be used:
[_] North America
[_] Iraq
[_] Iraq
[_] Aircraft carrier
[_] Iraq
[_] Europe
[_] Iraq
[_] Middle East (not Iraq)
[_] Iraq
[_] Africa
[_] Iraq
[_] Asia / Far East
[_] Iraq
[_] Misc. Third World countries
[_] Iraq
[_] Classified
[_] Iraq

9. Please indicate the products that you currently own or intend topurchase in the near future:
[_] Color TV
[_] VCR
[_] ICBM
[_] Killer Satellite
[_] CD Player
[_] Air-to-Air Missiles
[_] Space Shuttle
[_] Home Computer
[_] Nuclear Weapon

10. How would you describe yourself or your organization? (Indicate allthat apply:)
[_] Communist / Socialist
[_] Terrorist
[_] Crazed
[_] Neutral
[_] Democratic
[_] Dictatorship
[_] Corrupt
[_] Primitive / Tribal

11. How did you pay for your McDonnell Douglas product?
[_] Deficit spending
[_] Cash
[_] Suitcases of cocaine
[_] Oil revenues
[_] Personal check
[_] Credit card
[_] Ransom money
[_] Traveler's check

12. Your occupation:
[_] Homemaker
[_] Sales / marketing
[_] Revolutionary
[_] Clerical
[_] Mercenary
[_] Tyrant
[_] Middle management
[_] Eccentric billionaire
[_] Defense Minister / General
[_] Retired
[_] Student

13. To help us better understand our customers, please indicate theinterests and activities in which you and your spouse enjoy participatingon a regular basis:
[_] Golf
[_] Boating / sailing
[_] Sabotage
[_] Running / jogging
[_] Propaganda / misinformation
[_] Destabilization / overthrow
[_] Default on loans
[_] Gardening
[_] Crafts
[_] Black market / smuggling
[_] Collectibles / collections
[_] Watching sports on TV
[_] Wines
[_] Interrogation / torture
[_] Household pets
[_] Crushing rebellions
[_] Espionage / reconnaissance
[_] Fashion clothing
[_] Border disputes
[_] Mutually Assured Destruction

Thank you for taking the time to fill out this questionnaire. Your answers will be used in market studies that will help McDonnell Douglas serve you better in the future - as well as allowing you to receive mailings and special offers from other companies, governments, extremist groups, and mysterious consortia.
As a bonus for responding to this survey, you will be registered to win a brand new F-117A in our Desert Thunder Sweepstakes! Comments or suggestions about our fighter planes? Please write to:
McDONNELL DOUGLAS CORPORATION, Marketing Department Military, Aerospace Division
IMPORTANT: This email is intended for the use of the individual addressee(s) named above and may contain information that is confidential privileged or unsuitable for overly sensitive persons with low self-esteem, no sense of humor or irrational religious beliefs. If you are not the intended recipient, any dissemination, distribution or copying of this email is not authorized (either explicitly or implicitly) and constitutes an irritating social faux pas. Unless the word "absquatulation" has been used in its correct context somewhere other than in this warning, it does not have any legal or grammatical use and may be ignored.
No animals were harmed in the transmission of this email, although the kelpie next door is living on borrowed time, let me tell you. Those of you with an overwhelming fear of the unknown will be gratified to learn that there is no hidden message revealed by reading this warning backwards, so just ignore that Alert Notice from Microsoft. However, by pouring a complete circle of salt around yourself and your computer you can ensure that no harm befalls you and your pets. If you have received this email in error, please add some nutmeg and egg whites and place it in a warm oven for 40 minutes. Whisk briefly and let it stand for 2 hours.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

John Reid's Statement Revealed

The House will wish to know what arrangements will be in place here in the UK to support the accession of Romania and Bulgaria on 1 January. = My token sop to the tabloids.

Global movement is a fact of life. In the UK we have over 90 million visitors a year. This openness ensures we have a vibrant society and a strong economy.

Over the years Europe has prospered by letting people move and trade freely. = but I will give the illusion of closing the door

But as the EU expands this poses new challenges which have to be managed properly. Here, as elsewhere, managed migration is the right approach. ="managed migration", as if...

In 2004 when 10 new countries joined the EU, we gave their people access to our labour market. But the Workers Registration Scheme ensured people came to work and not claim benefits.

This has been a success. = we opened the door and it worked.

Workers from the new member states have filled skills gaps, including in key public services such as the NHS and social care, and have contributed to UK growth and prosperity. = we are totally dependent on foreign workers

Studies have found no evidence they have taken jobs away from British workers or undercut wages. = Thank God, But our political rating was hurt anyway

Employers and customers alike have welcomed their skills. Very few have brought dependants and the proportion attempting to claim out of work benefits has been less than 1%. =They are not settling- Hurray

In 2004 only Ireland and Sweden took the same position. Since then Italy, Spain, Finland, Portugal and others have followed our lead and lifted restrictions. Germany has admitted 500,000 eastern European workers. = we are not unique, no really

Over the last few months, I have set out ambitious (=unworkable) plans to ensure that our immigration system is both effective and fair, including plans to ensure immigration rules are advised by an independent Migration Advisory Committee; plans to double spending on enforcement; and plans to introduce ID cards for foreign nationals. = we have created a meaningless Quango and a whole load of new public sector jobs with large unfunded pension requirements

There have also been some transitional impacts from the last round of accession.
A small number of schools have seen a significant increase in admissions. Some local authorities have reported problems of overcrowding in private housing. There have been cost pressures on English language training. = er… we blew our educational budget.

Because we believe in the principle of managed migration we believe that before we take further steps, our plans for immigration reform should be further advanced, that we should understand any pressures in detail, and we should ensure that appropriate measures are in place to ameliorate them. = meaningless

Our plans to manage accession have been developed on this basis, and today I can set out for the House three key steps. = always three, you notice

First, the Department of Communities and Local Government(DCLG) will work in partnership with local areas to spread best practice in meeting isolated and specific pressures that have arisen as a result of recent migration. =meaningless consultation with people who do not know what "best practice" is anyway

Second, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) will provide £400,000 to fund a new excellence programme, which will support schools that have limited experience of teaching new migrant pupils with English as an additional language. = meaningless expenditure

Third, the UK will maintain controls on Romania and Bulgaria's access to jobs for a transitional period. = meaningless and undefined

The opening of our labour market will take account of the needs of our labour market, the impact of the A10 expansion and the positions adopted by other member states. = we are trying not to make it look like the door is wide open

Furthermore, we will expect employers to look exclusively to workers from EU nations to meet any low-skilled labour shortages within the UK. = so brilliant guys from the States are not welcome

We can therefore announce today that from 1 January 2007 we will be phasing out all low-skilled migration schemes for workers from outside the EU. = tough luck on the Commonwealth too

Places on the two low-skilled migration schemes for non-EU workers (the Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme and the Sectors Based scheme which between them currently have 19,750 places) will now be restricted to nationals from Romania and Bulgaria with this cap maintained at its present level. = meaningless restrictions will be imposed, that will mostly be ignored

In the first instance, food processing and agriculture will be the only sectors open to less-skilled A2 nationals. But we will listen to industry representatives where it is felt similar schemes are needed in other sectors. = we don’t know what to do.

Employers will need to convince the government there is a genuine labour shortage and such schemes would be limited by quota. = but we know better than businesses about what is good for them

Once we have brought forward proposals for a Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) we will suggest that in due course the MAC will advise on how the quotas on low-skilled migration are managed. = a whole new Quango for patronage- whoopee!!!!!!

Highly-skilled A2 workers that qualify for the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (currently just under 100 a year) will also be admitted, as they are now, along with any dependents. = well, most of the last government of Bulgaria were London based investment bankers

Romanian and Bulgarian students studying in the UK will also continue to be able to work part-time, providing they are enrolled at an approved college on the DfES Register of Education Providers. = extra bureaucracy and forms- whay-hay!!

In addition, Romanian and Bulgarian workers with specialist skills that are needed in the UK will be able to come here to do jobs that cannot be filled by resident labour, provided they meet our tests on qualifications and earnings. = Please come and be a barista- especially if you are pretty

This is already the case. 1,740 Romanians and Bulgarians entered the UK last year on this basis. Again, work permit holders will be able to bring dependents as they can today. = Spurious numbers to give the iullusion that we know what is happening

These arrangements will be reviewed annually. = we will do nothing

The terms of the Accession Treaty do not allow us to place restrictions on EU nationals' rights to come here to set up a business.

So the self-employed will continue to be able to work here (and in all other EU countries), if they can prove when challenged that they are genuine, and not in fact employees posing as contractors. = we have created a loophole that you can drive a bus through and blamed it on the EU

We look forward to welcoming Romanian and Bulgarian workers here, provided that they comply with our rules and obey the law. = Unwelcoming immigration officers born in Bangladesh making sure that the EU line is longer than the none-EU line

Visa regimes for the new accession countries will be maintained up until accession. Bulgarians and Romanians will therefore continue to need to have visas for entry to the UK up until midnight on 31 December 2006. = meaningless

But after that people from Romania and Bulgaria will be able to travel about the EU freely.

However, if they want to take employed work they will need a work authorisation document. =ID card

As set out above to get such a document they will need to have passed the tests to get onto the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme, have secured a work permit for a skilled job, proved they are a student at a reputable college, or got a place in the quota for agriculture or food processing. = Sod off Jonny Balkan

The House will expect to know how this system will be policed. I must be clear to the House that policing the system against a background of free movement to the UK will present some challenges. = ha ha ha ha ha ha it’s the way I tell them

But workers or employers who are tempted by this into breaking the rules should be aware that they will be robustly enforced.

Subject to debate in this House, we will take powers to make it an offence for an A2 national to work without such a document. We plan to make this punishable by an on-the-spot fixed penalty. = which an itinerant peasant from Cluj will be able to pay, of course

It will also be an offence for an employer to take on undocumented A2 nationals. = no, we really do know better than businesses about who they should hire

This will be punishable by a heavy fine. Employing illegal workers undercuts legitimate business and leads to exploitation. It will not be tolerated. = if we can find them.

Employers will rightly ask for assistance in fulfilling their responsibilities. There will be, therefore, an information campaign for employers, backed up by a toolkit and helpline, to ensure that firms are aware of the rules and their responsibilities. = Loads of new state sector jobs with unfunded pensions will be created to staff the help line too, Yippee!! My Permanent Secretary will be so pleased

Employers and employees must be clear that they have a duty to play by these rules or suffer the consequences. = extra costs on employers to pay for more bureaucracy to interfere with their staff arrangements

Through this measured response to accession we will ensure that migration is and continues to be managed in the best interests of the country as a whole.= Great, more budget for my department, and a whole new Quango- Yippeee!!!!

Pure Sir Humphrey Appleby, really....

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Anti-party Politics

The proposals that Jack Straw has put forward for the reform of the House of Lords remind me why politics is too important to be left to the politicians.

Since the 1960s politics has lost its sense of vocation and become a profession. MPs are now paid a professional salary and there are recognised career paths that lead into the House of Commons: "lobbyist", "researcher", "campaigner" and so on. The number of people with either business or Union experience in the House of Commons has fallen sharply, while the number of MPs who were previously public sector workers has increased. Lawyers continue to be a large part of the legislature.

However, MPs have ceased to be real representatives of their constituencies and have become solely delegates of their party, on which they are entirely dependent to get elected. The independent MP remains a very rare beast- only four in the current Parliament. The number of seats under FPTP that are genuinely competitive is really quite small- so the key to being elected is merely to get the approval of a few tens of party activists. Safe seats can be in the gift of some very unrepresentative figures indeed.

The constitution of the House of Commons needs review- it is high time that every seat was a marginal and that votes directly related to seats- and that the system allowed for more and more independent minds and voices in the House.

If the House of Lords needs reform we should bear in mind several key principles, if it is not to become a pale imitation of the House of Commons- or worse.

Firstly there should be a broad range of non political figures- Bishops, representatives of other religions, business people, union leaders, community leaders should be in the Upper House ex officio. Often these leaders are members of the House of Lords now- and they make a profound contribution to the debate.

Secondly the mandate of the Lords should be different from the House of Commons. Firstly the cycle for the Lords should be a lot longer- and possibly, like the law lords today, it should be until retirement unless guilty of some gross abuse or crime. Perhaps also specifically non party seats should be elected to be cross benchers- including senior judges, as at present, but also including, for example, academics. The franchise therefore might not simply be related to where any given Lord chooses to represent, but might be University courts, for example. In fact once of the key advantages of the Lords today is that they are purely national and do not represent local constituencies. I saw Iain Dale suggesting counties as a basis for Lord representations, but under PR we could return to County constituencies for the House of Commons, so I do not see County positions for the Lords being necessary for the Commons. An exception to local representation might be that some MSPs or MAs or their specific representatives may be selected to represent the Scottish Parliament or Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies in the House of Lords.

As should be clear from the above, I do not approve of salaried members of the House of Lords- I do not think it necessary or wise to professionalise every level of Parliament.

The purpose of all these reforms- to both Lords and Commons is to call the Executive to heel. We have already got a Prime Minister who has done the worst thing a Prime Minister can do- he fought an illegal war. The failure of Parliament to hold the government to account, with the extremely honourable exception of Ming Campbell and the Liberal Democrats, is an example of what is wrong with the House of Commons. The abject dependence of MPs on their party machine renders honourable dissent career suicide for ambitious wannabe ministers.

After reform I would also suggest that the Executive may co-opt more outsiders into the Lords to serve as ministers- it happens now, but I would like to see a much broader range of brains and talents in government than simply those who have climbed the greasy pole of "researcher-lobbyist-leader of the opposition", for example.

Politics has become a closed shop- and this is one reason why so many are angry and disillusioned with our political class. It is time to open up the franchise, and create a freer market in political ideas than the current increasingly corrupt and intellectually bankrupt party system.

Electoral Reform for the House of Commons and a more open House of Lords, including a large elected component is now long overdue. Jack Straw's ideas are wrong, but by all means let us start the debate.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Warning signs

October 23rd is a date that has great resonance in Hungarian history- it is the anniversary of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. This year- the 50th anniversary- has proven to be far more contentious that previous years. Partly this is because this is one of the last major commemorations where many of those who took part are still alive. Partly, though it is a function of the political dispute that has wracked the country since the leftist Prime Minister admitted that he had "lied and lied" about government policy.

Many of the insurrectionists are fiercely opposed to the government, which they see as the successor to the old Communist Party. Many will refuse to acknowledge the Prime Minister or to shake his hand. The legacy of bitterness has continued even to generations that were not alive in 1956. Hungarian politics- fifty years on- remain fractured and immature.

Worse still is the political position of Bulgaria- which is set to join the European Union in two months time. The Presidential election will be a run-off between the Socialist (not very ex-Communist) Georgi Purvanov and the leader of the neo-fascist Attaka party, Volen Siderov.

The moderate parties have been squeezed between the radical contenders. The fact that Siderov has made it to the second round, albeit that he is unlikely to win, should concern everyone. His racist attacks on Turks, Roma and other minorities are often little short of an incitement to violence.

Dangerous times when civic debate is so bitter- as both Bulgaria and Hungary show.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The media's distorting lens

I wonder how many times when one of us gets a story on the radio or television about a subject we know about, we go "that is not very accurate". I paraphrase here.

For me, I find it happens more and more often and in stranger ways.

The noise of the media was drowning out information anyway, but here is an example for you.

The BBC thinks that a story about a film about a Norwegian film about gay penguins is more important than

1) Russia, under new tyranny, is killing far more than just prominent journalists
2) North Korea will detonate a second nuclear bomb- according to local sources
3) Several more countries are pulling troops out of Iraq
4) The Queen is having a successful tour in the Baltics, and condemns Russian brutality
5) Segolene Royal is more likely than ever to be the first woman President of France
6) "Borat"- a fictional character gets an invitation to Kazakhstan.

OK, OK. Gay penguins it is... You silly twisted boys.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Down with Kaftans

Initially I thought that Jack Straw's thoughts on the veil were a personal view. I certainly hoped so. I do not believe that any government should have a position on what people should wear!

Where do you stop? "Sorry, wearing a kaftan marks you out as a dangerous, pot smoking radical, we will pass a law forbidding the wearing of kaftans". Er... Shouldn't you be fighting the dangerous behaviour, and not the supposed symbol of the behaviour? After all Mr. Straws crimes were only against fashion and not usually the law, apparently.

I have problems with veils- I wonder whether women are being somehow forced to wear them. If there is no force, and if indeed women are choosing to wear the veil, then they should have perfect freedom to do so.

Now Labour is scaring me- they seriously can not tell the difference between a woman in a veil and a murderer.

This is serious- it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Labour does not even care about promoting violence and oppression against Muslims who choose to wear distinctive clothes. What's next- "prayer hats make you different, don't wear them"? Don't wear the sari?

This absurdity proves that the newtorylabour consensus of professional politicians should be that last people being allowed any where near our ancient liberties.

A Family visit

Cicero is visiting the Baltic States again this week.

It is a good week to be going- as H.M. The Queen has been showing. Her speech to the Lithuanian Seimas had just the right balance- and reminded both Lithuanians and Brits how much we have in common.

Like many people in Britain I have slightly mixed feelings about the idea of monarchy. However when I see the wonderful response of the peoples of the Baltic to Queen Elizabeth I find it hard not to be moved.

The Queen represents a bloodline traceable to Kenneth MacAlpin of Scotland and Cerdic the West Saxon- who first arrived on these shores just after the fall of the Roman Empire. The fact that the Lithuanians have also discovered that the Queen is a direct descendent of the mediaeval ruler of Lithuania, Mindaugas, has reminded me that sometimes the Queen has a truly personal relationship with History.

I am moved too, because the visit of Queen Elizabeth would have seemed like a fantasy only a few years ago. After everything- the brutal occupation, the murder, the oppression- after the refusal of Britain to recognise the legitimacy of the Soviet claim on the free peoples of the Baltic, at last there is a truly tangible symbol of all that was steadfast, but above all of all that has changed.

I write this, to my surprise, with tears in my eyes.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Free to Choose

If a government minister came in to your house in the morning and told you that you should not wear whatever clothes you had set out for the day, it is quite likely that at the least, you would tell the minister to get out of your house.

What people choose to wear- whether it is a mohican and safety pins, a worsted suit, jeans or anything else is not a matter for the government.

Why should a government minister tell Muslim women what to wear? Once you start down that road where do you stop? Now, apparently the Jewish yarmulke or Sikh turban or visible crosses on necklaces are no longer acceptable.

The minister's lack of tolerance reduces freedom for everyone.

I do not feel entirely comfortable with heavily veiled Muslim women, but then I did not feel that comfortable with punks- or the kaftans that Mr. Straw himself famously used to wear.

It is not up to the government to tell anyone what to wear- that way lies towards intolerance and a lack of respect that will alienate Muslims in our society.

If people choose- and I use the word advisedly- to wear the veil, then the government has nothing to say on the matter.

As we used to say: its a free country.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Munich 2006

It was not just the spying.

The four Russian officials who were arrested in Georgia were plotting to assassinate senior members of the Georgian government. To destabilize the country and close the only way for the West to get access to the Central Asian and Caspian oilfields that does not go through Russia, China or Iran.

These are terrifyingly high stakes. As Edward Lucas says in his article- the fall of this "faraway country of which we know nothing" would allow the KGB-led government of Russia to have complete control over the European energy market. Given the practice of Russia to be extremely aggressive in the use of energy as a political lever, this must not be allowed to happen.

Russia is a rogue power- and one that has not abandoned Soviet Imperial dreams. By being blind to the danger, the West could lose the new cold war without a shot being fired.

Yet another reason for the UK to reduce our use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible- as if the natural balance of the Planet was not sufficient reason.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Context is everything

The comments of General Sir Richard Dannatt calling for the early withdrawal of British Forces from Iraq are probably right. I too tend to think that British troops would be better used in Afghanistan and, as I have written recently, I believe that the British mission in Iraq needs to be given an exit timetable as soon as practical.

However it is one thing for me, as a private citizen, to call for these courses of action. It is quite another for the most senior General in the British Army to enter the political arena.

The General does not have that liberty to speak out. He should retract his remarks and not repeat them.

Generals work for politicians and if they disagree with them they should do so privately.

Sir Richard may well be right, but in our democratic system, Generals should be seen and not heard.

UPDATE: Tony Blair has said that he agrees with every word the General said.

Hmm... Two-nil to the General - who I suppose will be in office after the PM has left it. Not the first time this has happened, trouble is it usually happens in Turkey.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Cancer of Iraq

The Lancet has reported an estimated civilian death toll in Iraq of 650,000.

I think the situation in Iraq cuts to the heart of the really big issues.

What is a just war?

What level of violence can democracies allow themselves to inflict?

What is a civilian in a civil war?

In my heart of hearts I did wonder whether the Liberal Democrats were doing the right thing when we opposed launching the war. By all accounts, Charles Kennedy stood up in the whips office of the House of Commons and explained why the party was going to vote en bloc to oppose the launching of attacks and was actually rather inspiring. It was, I think, a real example of political courage.

I think now that Blair did the worst thing that a PM can do - he prosecuted an unnecessary and unjustified war. What we do now is not clear to me, but all the time the image of the helicopters in Saigon is in my mind. Blair is now unlikely to be Prime Minister for much longer, I hope that he can live with his conscience in his "retirement".

I don't know if the death toll reported by The Lancet of 650,000 Iraqis is the right number. I do know that "shock and awe", daisy cutters, the storming of Fallujah, the Green Zone and so on are not likely to be contributing much to a winning of hearts and minds.

We have given our troops an impossible job and an alliance with US forces that seem to do more to provoke than to pacify.

I think now that we should be working to a timetable to withdraw- whether we declare it or not. I see the more relevent- and more justified- war in Afghanistan moving towards an unwinnable end game too. Perhaps with more resources we could still- just about- win here. Yet it seems literally incredible to me that- given the long history of guerilla warfare in Afghanistan- the President of the United States thought that the situation was "solved" merely by the fall of Mullah Omar, and that therefore he could strip the country of troops to fight his family feud with Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile our moral force has been blown away - from now on it is going to be extremely hard to confront North Korea, Iran, Russia and the many other bad guys out there.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Asian Conundrum

30 years ago today the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (then Hua Guofeng) announced the arrest of the Gang of Four.

The arrest of these most senior figures in the Chinese Communist Party (including the widow of Chairman Mao Zhedong himself) is popularly thought of as being the end of the bloody turmoil of Mao's catastrophic "cultural revolution".

Certainly the installation of Deng Xiaoping as the new moderate and reforming leader in 1977 turned the People's Republic of China into something much less murderous.

China remains under the control of Communists that have not repudiated Mao, even while they now acknowledge "mistakes". "Mistakes"? No one knows how many people died during the famines and massacres of the cultural revolution nor the equally catastrophic "Great Leap Forward" that proceeded it. The death toll is certainly tens of millions; it may even be over a hundred million- a number that is higher than Hitler and Stalin combined.

Despite the welcome moves to greater liberalism, China remains a tyranny and a highly unpredictable one at that. It is certainly significant that the PRC has criticized North Korea for their presumed nuclear test. Yet criticism is not enough. The wretched regime of Kim Jong-il is dependent on China- a fellow Communist state and a determined move by Beijing could remove this dangerous factor in East Asia for good.

Given the fact that the United States simply does not have the resources to remove Kim by force, it could prove a substantial opportunity for China. By removing the lunatic regime in Pyongyang China has the opportunity to offer reunification to Korea and to turn the united country into a neutral zone- removing American troops for the peninsula. If, of course, the Mandarins of the Forbidden city can accept the collapse of a Communist state.

It would certainly be a test of whether the Chinese state interest remains led by ideology or by power. From the point of view of Western interests, it is a moot but significant point- for the problems of Taiwan, the Spratly islands and the continuing oppression of Tibet remained us that we must still tread lightly.

The arrest of the gang of four started a process that is still not complete.

Zhou Enlai was once asked what he thought were the lessons of the French revolution :

"Its too soon to tell"

The same applies to the phenomenon of modern China since 1976- the great conundrum.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Energy security

On the day of the funeral of Anna Politkovskaya it hardly seems necessary to point out the failings of the Russian Federation. The narrow view of the Russian regime about its own national interest marks them out as a country that does not believe in the benefits of free trade. The Kremlin sees power as a zero sum game, in every case there must be winners and losers. The idea that a given course of action could lead to winners on all sides is pretty alien to thinking that was conditioned by the brutalities of the KGB.

The pattern that Russia is establishing in developing its hydro carbon reserves demonstrates that no non-Russian company will be allowed to benefit in any way from these reserves. Energy, for the Putin regime, is a weapon that can be used to pressure, influence and threaten. Ukraine, Georgia and other countries have felt the use of the Russian energy weapon. Soon it will be the turn of the European Union, unless we can successfully diversify our energy supplies away from reliance on Russian oil and especially gas.

For most of the past 40 years Britain has been protected from the threat of energy boycotts or even an increase in prices, because we had substantial energy resources in the North Sea. However these reserves are now running down. Britain's energy demand continues to rise, just as our supplies are falling.

Meanwhile the evidence that fossil fuels are a significant factor in global warming is growing stronger. The threat of pollution-driven climate change becoming irreversible is growing. It is clear that Britain must increase the supply of energy from renewable resources and if at all possible, reduce our consumption of energy overall.

The gimmickry of David Cameron has at least increased awareness amongst Conservatives about the problem, but the proposals he has made lack any real substance. Meanwhile the solution from Labour: build more nuclear power stations, carries its own threat of pollution and problems that we do not yet know how to solve.

The Liberal Democrat proposals of shifting the tax burden against polluters at least addresses the key issue: money. However there is still a battle to be won for hearts and minds. I spent a day on the Essex coast- at Bradwell- a week or so ago. Bradwell is the home of one of the earliest nuclear power stations- a station which is now in the process of decommissioning. No one knows how long the process will take- at least a century. It takes over a hundred years to clean up a station that only had a generating life of less than forty years! Meanwhile there is a proposal to build a wind farm in the same area. One might have thought that there would be broad support, after all it will help to replace jobs that have been lost after the closure of Bradwell, and wind farms are seen by many as a positive. However, the NIMBY faction has got in quick- and protests about the wind farm are conspicuous.

In Scotland, there has been a more positive view- as technology improves, the farms are set to contribute a substantial boost to the range of renewable resources and, while each application should be reviewed on its merits, the stance is -and should be- broadly positive. Other resources, especially solar, could be combined with better energy storage technology- perhaps in the future based on hydrogen- to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels. Aberdeen, for example, having been a leader in oil support technology should now be thinking about supporting research to improve the diversity of the regional economy- while at the same time using the expertise in energy that the city has acquired over the past forty years.

The short term threat is that Russia will start to dictate our foreign policy, the long term future is that our coast will erode and sea levels rise to flood many of our major cities.

In the end, we may end up being grateful to the short sighted brutality of the Russian Federation for making us see more clearly where our true interests lie.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Anna Politkovskaya RIP

I have hesitated to write about the brutal murder of Anna Politkovskaya.

She was a close friend of friends and I know many people who will be simply stunned at this senseless crime.

Politkovskaya was in a very real sense the conscience of modern Russia. A voice speaking up for tolerance and mutual respect. She was scathing about the failings of the Putin regime, and in Chechnya she had seen the crimes of that regime up close. Her life had been threatened several times, but she had the courage and determination not to give in to the thugs and crooks who now dominate political and economic life in Russia, and especially in the North Caucasus.

Several hundred protestors gathered in Pushkin Square in Moscow to mourn her death. The setting was significant, for it is where dissidents protested during Soviet times.

It is hard not to despair of modern Russia. The casual - and unsolved- killings of Galina Starovoitova and Andrei Kozlov have shown that any independent voice in Russia risks their lives. The bully-boy tactics against Georgia show the Putinistas at their very worst.

Newly assertive abroad, but lawless at home. The bear is still dangerous, but as always the danger is mostly born by its own citizens.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Trust but verify

A recent survey has shown that people in Britain are moderately happy with their lives. All in all a happy society is to be welcomed.

One area where the survey showed particular dissatisfaction was with politics. The Brits don't trust their leaders- any of them. They are not even sure about the institutions. The findings are striking, and very distinctive.

Personally I think that it shows the good sense of most of the British people- the fact is that a healthy scepticism is much to be preferred compared to the slavishness of the citizens of a tyranny.

However it also shows the corrosive effect of the image and spin obsession of the Government and now of Cameron's Conservatives. People do not have trust in the institutions because they do not feel ownership or connection with the political system. There is a great divorce between an increasingly professionalised political system and an alienated population. The fact is that a single vote every few years in a rigged electoral system allows very few voters to get the MP that they voted for, still less the policies that they support.

Until the power of the electorate is restored through a fair voting system, then the Executive will continue to treat MPs with contempt. MPs gain their power from being selected by a handful of their party members- for the number of safe seats that there are already means that the result is all but sure. Personally I do not believe in safe seats- every seat should be marginal and every MP should justify themselves to the electorate.

The only way to keep politicians honest is to ensure that the electoral system makes them accountable and unless that happens, then the British are quite right to look on politicians with a sceptical eye.

When we have politicians who work to earn our trust, then maybe we can think about trusting them- until then we can play the political game, but we should cut the cards ourselves.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Scandal-gate

I see that the rather hilariously juicy scandal unfolding around the American Republicans has- inevitably- been given the suffix -gate, just to demote that it is a real scandal.

After the dodgy IMs and e-mails to the teenage pages it might have been e-gate or page-gate but no...

it's "Mastur-gate".

Somehow I can't see this being adopted by the headline writers...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

National Poetry Day

My favourite poem or poet varies from day to day, though Keats, Hardy and especially Eliot are always amongst the front runners. Sometimes Burns, sometimes Derek Walcott or Ted Hughes.

However, in honour of the perennial Estonian theme of this blog, I thought I would post the translation of a work by the Estonian poet, Jaan Kaplinski, whose work I have always enjoyed, but who not be so well known to readers here.

THE EAST-WEST BORDER is always wandering
sometimes eastward, sometimes west,
and we do not know exactly where it is just now: in Gaugamela, in the Urals,
or maybe in ourselves,
so that one ear, one eye, one nostril, one hand, one foot,
one lung and one testicle or one ovary is on the one, another on the other side.
Only the heart, only the heart is always on one side:
if we are looking northward, in the West;
if we are looking southward, in the East;
and the mouth doesn´t know on behalf of which or both it has to speak.

Havel na Hrad!

Today is Vaclav Havel's seventieth birthday.

During the 1980s I was an active supporter of the dissident movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Over the years I met with Hungarians from FIDESZ- while they were still libertarian and not conservative, and with Poles from Solidarnosc. Already in those days the opposition was semi legal, although both Poland and Hungary saw many people arrested, imprisoned and otherwise denied their civil rights.

Though other places, like Romania or Albania were more brutally governed, there was nonetheless a particular horror about the "Czechoslovak Socialist Republic". The crushing of the Prague Spring led to the deadening hand of "normalization". Utterly grey, utterly conformist.

Yet the Bohemian spirit was not entirely crushed. A few very brave souls kept the spirit of freedom alive. In 1977 Charter 77 was founded. Yet amongst the 15 million Czech and Slovaks very few people actually signed it. The secret police, the StB, kept a brutal lid on any stepping out of line.

Despite this, when the revolution came the Czechs and Slovaks cheered the Bohemian playwright into Prague Castle- the symbol of the government. The slogan "Havel na Hrad!"- Havel to the Castle!- was a sign of the end of tyranny.

A year or so later. I finally came to Prague and met with the Chartists that I had written to during the long years of the tyranny. In a smoked filled house in Prosek- North Prague- I met with many of the Chartists- some by then in the government. Olga Havlova- Vaclav's wife- led the party and good Czech beer, music and good fellowship were the order of the day. In broken Czech and broken English we toasted Obcanske Forum- the Civic Forum that had grown out of the Chartist movement. We toasted freedom- Na svobodu!

So after all the suffering, the imprisonment and beatings in Pankrac (and other) gaols, liberty finally came to the Czechs. The moral courage of Vaclav Havel was no small part in the gaining of that freedom. Though many of those present at the party, including Olga Havlova and our host that day, Ervin Motl, are now dead, it still seems appropriate to raise a glass:

Vaclav Havel: vsecno nejlepsi!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Down with Butskellism

In the years between the Second World War and the advent of Thatcherism, British politics ran along a line of very cosy consensus. The era of so-called Butskellism was, however a failure. The consensus of "don't rock the boat"- of cosy agreements between militant trade unionism and incompetent management led to a precipitate decline in the economic power and political influence of the UK.

Thus I can only greet the drive by the Conservatives to enter the "centre ground" of Blairism with the sound of one hand clapping. Unlike Ming Campbell, I do not consider myself "of the centre left"- I consider myself a Liberal. Liberals have a deliberate agenda, built around personal liberty. Unlike Thatcherism, Liberalism knows that in order to preserve and reinforce liberty new political and constitutional arrangements must be established- for the old political system is worn out.

I look at the choice between Blair- an Oxford educated public schoolboy- and Cameron- er.. another Oxford educated public schoolboy- with something close to contempt.

"But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening. What was it that had altered in the faces of the pigs? Clover's old dim eyes flitted from one face to another. Some of them had five chins, some had four, some had three. But what was it that seemed to be melting and changing? Then, the applause having come to an end, the company took up their cards and continued the game that had been interrupted, and the animals crept silently away.

But they had not gone twenty yards when they stopped short. An uproar of voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously. Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

George Orwell
"Animal Farm"

Sto Lat Solidarnosci !

I am looking forward to seeing Tommy Sheridan facing criminal charges for perjury.

Of course, I hold no brief for the News of the World rag either, but the hypocrisy of Sheridan is a nasty infection on the Scottish body politic.

The fact that he calls his diminishing band of followers "Solidarity" is yet another example of the vanity and delusion of the man.

Solidarity was the name of the Union in Poland that defied Socialist rule.

The fact that Sheridan still uses the language and proclaims the policies of Communism mark him out as either stupid or evil. The fact that he uses the name of Solidarity is an insult to those who were tortured, imprisoned or murdered by Communists.

Fortunately the evidence for Sheridan's perjury seems quite strong.

Good- this vanity party will not be around for long.

NHS=IOU

I see in his usual attempt to out-Blair Blair, David Cameron has changed his slogan to three letters (as opposed to Blair's, three words: the irritatingly pointless "education, education, education").

The letters are N.H.S.- the National Health Service.

I am sure that all the Healthcare professionals in the country will be delighted that politicians are coming to second guess them and impose more outside controls.

I listened to Andrew Lansley, the Tory front bencher, on the Radio this morning.

Oh Dear! He was totally glib, shallow and pointless. "Yes, there must be more money". When pressed as to where and how much, no answer.- the very essence of an ignorant politician.

I have no more answers to the questions of the NHS than Andrew Lansley does.

I do, however have many questions.

The demand for Health care is growing and is particularly acute in the last months of life. We have the technology to prolong life a little- yet there are significant moral questions about whether this is desirable- don't we need to talk about death with dignity?

Labour significantly increased expenditure on the NHS, yet outcomes have not improved- why not?

Should the National system be rebalanced into smaller units?

It seems impossible to roll out a truly national IT system- can we not get different systems to talk to each other via the internet?

How can we balance the need for consistent experience amongst doctors with the need for local provision in different specialist fields?

Are large hospitals actually any better? Do the risks of cross infection negate any other benefits?
Why are British healthcare students not gaining jobs after qualification?

What do the medical professionals think? How much should we listen?

Should not in-patients at least pay for bed and board?

Should we now abandon "socialized medicine"?

If so, how?

The issues in Healthcare are complicated and will not be solved by political grandstanding.

My heart sinks at the idea that the Tories intend turning the NHS into a political football.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The strange death of the Scottish Conservatives

One of the key reasons that Cicero joined the Scottish Liberal Democrats 27 years ago was that they believe in a Federal Britain. Federalism is not, as the Separatists would argue "the Union in another form" and neither is it "Devolution" in the sense of powers handed down from Westminster to Scotland.

Federalism is based on "Home Rule"- that is to say that the Scottish People agree to share certain areas, like defence, foreign affairs, environmental policy and some finances with the rest of Britain, but otherwise control their own affairs, including most taxation.

This is not the system that we have now, which is merely democratic oversight over the former Scottish Office. Neither, however, is it complete independence. It is a distinct policy that allows Scotland the best of both worlds- the benefits of controlling affairs at the most local level, with the benefits of working with the other nations of Britain.

Once, the Conservatives stood for a distinctive policy- "The Union". The idea that despite the legal, educational and cultural differences, despite the fact of government being devolved to the Scottish Office, the government of Scotland was in no way legally distinct from the government of the United Kingdom. Only one problem- it was increasingly obvious that Scotland WAS distinct. The collision between the Scottish people and militant Thatcherism revealed a chasm between Scotland and the Conservative Party. The result was that the Tories collapsed in Scotland- reduced to a rump of largely elderly backwoodsman.

Next May 3rd, the third elections for the Holyrood Parliament are set to take place. The result may be somewhat different from the previous two Parliaments. The Conservatives remain becalmed at only around 10% of the vote in the latest opinion polls. The Socialist bloc, beset by scandal looks like they may not even qualify for the Parliament at all. The fall in the Conservative vote and the end of the SSP will leave a lot of votes up for grabs, especially as the Labour Party is growing ever weaker.

The question then emerges: what of the three main parties. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have run the Scottish Executive since 1999, and in particular the opposition, separatist, party -the SNP?

The SNP in most policy respects are as left wing as Labour. Both Labour and the SNP believe in socialist policies for Scotland's problems. Yet, the fact is that the share of the state in the Scottish GDP is now as large as anywhere in Europe- and the even starker fact is that state Socialism has failed.

There are examples of successful, small economies- and all of them are free market based, not Socialist. It is time for the Scottish Liberal Democrats to remind the people of Scotland that we stand for policies that allow the individual more rights and more control over their own affairs. When we talk about localism we mean, for example, that the City of Aberdeen should be deciding its infrastructure needs- and should be given the appropriate resources. We mean that local people should be deciding the local levels of health care and education, and that this should not be in the hands of centralised government, whether in London or Edinburgh. This is part of the DNA of Federalism- making sure that decisions are taken as close to those most affected as possible. No unelected quangos, and a bonfire of unnecessary regulations- Nick Clegg's call for a Great Repeal Act most definitely applies to Scotland.

The message of the smaller states, in the European Union, like Estonia, is not that independence is attractive. Scotland is different from the Baltics because Scotland has always had the choice. Britain was and is a free country and at anytime, if the Scottish People wanted independence and voted for it, then independence would happen. The occupation of the Baltics made those countries determined to be independent. It made them more determined to be free, by which I mean they were determined to give personal autonomy to the individual. The great thing is that this has worked- Estonia is growing rapidly in wealth and cultural, economic and political maturity.

The message of the death of the Scottish Conservatives is complex. Firstly, and most importantly, it reminds us that parties must listen to the people that they offer to serve.

More critically- the death of the Tories in Scotland is a harbinger for Britain as a whole. The Conservatives have not had a good week in Bournemouth and this was really their last chance to set out a case to be elected with a majority in Britain as a whole. Without any significant support in Scotland, the Tories are relying on England for their majority- and it is not enough. The SNP may well now get the support of ideological free marketeers, who now finally give up on the Scottish Conservatives, but the fact is that the SNP is still a socialist party, and the influx of right wingers will make it a fractious and ungovernable party.

Yet the Scottish People have a better choice that either separatist incoherence or state socialism. A Liberal Scotland built on a Federal Principle is now within our grasp. The Liberal Democrats can emerge as the real winner in the next Holyrood elections- and the future of Scotland and of Britain now depends on the march of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Scotland should be free. However freedom does not mean independence, and independence is not necessary for freedom. The death of the Scottish Tories makes it clear that the inflexible Union is not wanted- the weakness of Labour suggests that the half measure of devolution needs to be completed.

Home rule and a Liberal Scotland should be our rallying cry.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The higher a monkey climbs...

The Conservatives do not seem set for good luck this conference.

The delays in distributing security passes have annoyed many- though you could argue that this is because of an unexpectedly large attendance. Nevertheless, it does not look too organized.

Then, when people arrived in Bournemouth- in contrast to the balmy days for the Liberal Democrats in Brighton- the Tories are greeted with tornadoes in the Channel and blustery rain. Thus the very long queues to get security passes on the day got very wet indeed.

Then there is the press: the opening of the conference has been greeted with the news that the police are questioning Conservative as well as Labour donors.

Frankly, after the disgraceful attempt by Conservatives to equate the completely open payments made to the Liberal Democrats with the secret loans and payments made to Labour and now, it turns out, the Tories themselves, it is hard to avoid schadenfreude.

And all along the growing question about Mr. Cameron... Where's the beef?

Going to be harder to make this conference look good...