Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Oh the irony...

Scene: Outside 1970s house in Ross on Wye:

Canvasser, Cicero (for it is he), knocks on door which opens:

Elderly Lady: Yes..
Cicero: Hello Mrs Xxxxx, I am calling on behalf of Chris Bartrum, your Liberal Democrat candidate in the upcoming Herefordshire elections, I wonder if you will be coming out to vote on May 3rd?
Elderly Lady: Oh I don't think so..
Cicero: Can I ask if you have voted our way before?
EL: Well, no, you see we are Jehovah's Witnesses and we never vote.

Door closes.

Exit Cicero grinning evilly and cackling...


As the days have gone by it has become a little easier to judge the impact of Gordon Brown' last budget. In particular it reinforces the feeling at the time- that Brown had run rings around a lightweight Conservative leadership. While it is fair to say that the budget response speech is extraordinarily difficult, after all the opposition has no notice of the measures to be announced, and must respond pretty much off the cuff, the fact is that Cameron made three too many Stalinist jokes, but missed the whole point of the Chancellor's policy, he even believed that there had been tax cuts- when in fact the budget was revenue neutral. By contrast Ming Campbell was able to go straight to the point- the Chancellor had pulled a fast one: a masterly piece of politicking, but an indifferent practice of economics.

Despite their poll lead, the last month has shown just how shallow and confused the Conservative front bench has become. The unworkable gimmick of the frequent flyer tax, the confused approach to social policy, the lightweight response to the Budget. Even Cameron's hair parting seems to be randomly moving from right to left and back again. Peter Hitchens all guns blazing attack on Cameron in his Channel 4 Dispatches programme "Toff at the Top" , reflects the deep unease that conservatives have about the Old Etonian clique on the Tory front bench.

Brown may be psychologically flawed, but even his enemies concede that he is a heavyweight politician. Even though there is a growing sense in the country that the time for a change is upon us, the newCons are unconvincing. Cameron is in place only for as long as he looks like a winner, if that veneer is lost, then the bitterness amongst the Tory grass roots will re-emerge.

So what of the Liberal Democrats?

We are also attacked for our leader. Yet on this occasion he played a blinder: a forensic dissection of the half truths and illusions of the budget. Ming continues to foster a collegiate approach, unafraid of challenges to orthodoxy, even from the Lib Dem front bench. He has patiently fixed many of the problems of the party, and has been extremely successful at raising money. The Liberal Democrats are emerging from the turmoil of 2005 with a tougher and more disciplined ideology. The May elections may show a few more straws in the wind, but there are now some signs that far from 2005 having been a high water mark, it may in fact be a floor for the future.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The times they are a'changing

The last episode of "The Trap: What happened to our dreams of Freedom?" proved to be a final summary of Adam Curtis' argument. His hypnotic juxtaposition of images and narrative continued the high standards that had been set in the previous two episodes.

Yet I felt that there was a slight misunderstanding of Isiah Berlin's views. Throughout, the idea of negative freedom was derided as being empty and meaningless, and the conclusion was therefore that a positive agenda was now needed. Yet that was the whole point of Berlin's arguments- that humans should not impinge on each others liberty was precisely so that they could reach their own accommodation with life- personally: politically, economically and spiritually. Negative freedom, by definition does not seek to supply the great answers, it only seeks to provide a framework whereby these answers may best be sought. Of course negative freedom is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for benign politics. The ideology of negative freedom is, by definition, not a grand theory like most of the ideas born in the fires of the French revolution. The grand theories of Satre or Fanon (or Marx) seek to impose a Platonic order, Berlin's ideas are based on an Aristotelian concept that processes are themselves ideas and that Platonic perfection is not actually achievable. So the two concepts of Liberty are rooted directly in the dichotomy between Plato and Aristotle. Positive Liberty believes in the perfectibility of Mankind, Negative Liberty believes that Humans are not reliably good. This debate echoes down the centuries, with Rousseau standing against Locke as powerfully as Marx against Berlin.

Nevertheless Curtis is right to point out the vacuum of negative liberty as it has been interpreted since the end of the Cold War. Without moral precepts, political leaders too become suborned by a narrow view of their own interest- election becomes an end in itself, achievements are measured in incremental targets rather than high themes. The "vision thing" begins to fail.

Yet, though Curtis reserves his ire for the Anglo-American version of negative liberty, It is worth observing that those countries, like France, that continue to speak the slogans of positive liberty, are not acheiving their goals either. Though figures like Putin now challenge the concepts of liberty of any kind, even those democracies with a proactive vision remain flustered by the new world.

In the UK now, we have two political parties that have fallen into the trap that Curtis identifies. They are prepared to sacrifice personal liberties, they believe that the power of the state or of business must in some cases over ride the rights of the individual. Both parties, in different ways now speak up for big state and/or big business solutions to economic or social problems. The seventies ideas of Schumacher: "Small is Beautiful" have been forgotten. Forgotten, that is except amongst the British Liberal Democrats.

The timing of Curtis' film is interesting. We have been enjoying an extraordinarily long cycle of prosperity-and with it considerable political stability. Even John Major was a relatively long serving Prime Minister: seven years. The decade either side belonged to Thatcher and Blair, and these are amongst the longest serving Premiers in British history. What happens next may well be much less long term. It is far from a given that Gordon Brown can hold power at the next election, even if he emerges unscathed from his own party's leadership election. David Cameron continues to attract vituperation as much from his own side as from Labour. The mathematics of the distorted First Past the Post electoral system currently favour a hung Parliament. The wilful rejection of political purpose and political vocation, in favour of a career path for a professional political class may yet have within it the roots of a near revolutionary change, as Curtis suspects.

The dynamic of British politics has been changed by the spectacular failure of the Blair government. The British people are indifferent to the blandishments of the political class- nevertheless the time is coming for a leader of vision, and yet such a figure seems not to stand amongst us. Yet I sense a time of great upheaval is coming:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

300 not out

There are periodic miles stones in this blog, and I have reached the latest: this is the 300th posting. Unfortunately I have been so relentlessly busy that I have not been able to blog with any great frequency in recent weeks.

However I hope that normal service will be resumed after Easter.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Tipping Point

A few years ago, Conservatives used to comfort themselves that although the polls were against them, the cumulative effect of unpopular government policies and a desire for change would get to the stage where a rapid and dramatic move could take place in the relative support of the political parties.

Well, the Tories have been waiting a long time. I do not yet believe that they have reached such a point. However the conventional wisdom is changing. Gordon Brown's budget was very politically astute- cutting the headline rates of tax, while still being essentially revenue neutral was both prudent and bold. It undermines David Cameron's "sharing the proceeds of growth" rhetoric in the eyes of his own supporters. The Conservative leadership are now likely to struggle a little to come up with a coherent economically literate response.

The budget is clever but not necessarily popular- and Gordon Brown needs to work hard himself to overcome the whispering campaign against him. The "Stalinist ogre" image that has emerged as a result of some off the record briefing is not an image that will maintain him for long in office as Prime Minister.

The next few months will decide whether breezy charm based on shallow policy foundations can overcome seriousness and discipline. It will be a tough battle. Yet for our country I am not actually sure that it even matters. As a Liberal Democrat I do not believe that either the Conservatives or Labour actually understand the nature of the real issues. The elevation of political gossip- who has personal spats with whom- into the meat of daily political debate is a matter of supreme indifference to the overwhelming majority of the citizenry, which is why fewer and fewer join parties or even vote.

Even if we do get to a tipping point where we want to swap Tory for Labour, the truth is that the effect will be about the same as rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic- while the Iceberg of political indifference looms ahead.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The strange death of political parties

As I was listening to the comments from the Conservative spring conference, it occurs to me that party politics as we have known it has finally died in the UK.

Without exception every Conservative expressed reservations about how David Cameron is leading his party- several even questioned whether the party even was Conservative any more. These views, remember, were being expressed to journalists- it was public dissent. In private, many of my Conservative friends are even more deeply anxious about what Cameron is doing, but their basic sense of loyalty would never allow them to voice these concerns in public- even though their views are deeply held.

It occurred to me that what holds for the Conservatives is true for Labour too- the membership do not have a central role any more. In fact both parties now fight "virtual" campaigns: they don't need members to canvass, because they buy detailed data bases that give better accuracy. They don't need members to leaflet, because they use paid delivery. They don't need members to telephone canvass, because they use call centres.

Once upon a time, the Young Conservatives was the largest club in the country, with over a million members. There was a whole social life on offer- tennis or other sports, and a myriad of other activities. No more. As the latest spring conference shows, the views of the members are not so important to the leadership, because in order to get power they must speak to so many people beyond their party- as Labour have done before. Indeed the traditional views of the Conservatives are actually seen as a barrier for the leadership to get elected.

Meanwhile in the Labour party, the views of the membership count for less and less- the membership does not wish to expand the strategic nuclear deterrent, indeed many remain unilateralists. Membership of the party counts for little, when large corporations or unions are prepared to give the funds for virtual campaigns.

The Liberal Democrats have their problems too, which I shall return to in a later post, but for now, I think that we should be concerned that the processional political class is untrammelled even by members of their own party. The increasing isolation professional politicians is leading us to disaster. Councillors now must take on almost unlimited liability, so fewer are prepared to do it- as in the past- on a voluntary basis. MPs now have a recognised career path, entirely within politics. And when even party members with relevant experience are sidelined, we should be increasingly concerned.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Lest We Forget

I was showing an American friend who is leaving the UK around London for the last time. He pointed up at St Paul's and said that in his three years living here he had never visited the cathedral. So we went in.

Of course, Wren's masterpiece is one of the most spectacular buildings in the world, befitting its status as the cathedral of the capital. The Dome with its spectacular views; the Crypt, containing the tombs of many of the great and good of British History all help to give a visit to St Paul's a sense of occasion.

However, perhaps the most moving part of the cathedral is the American memorial chapel at the east end, behind the High Altar. It honours American servicemen and women who died in the Second World War and was dedicated in 1958. It was paid for entirely by donations from British people and the roll of honour contains the names of more than 28,000 Americans who gave their lives while on their way to, or stationed in, the United Kingdom during the Second World War. The three chapel windows feature themes of service and sacrifice, while the insignia around the edges represent the American states. The panelling incorporates a rocket - a tribute to America's achievements in space. It is a quiet and heartfelt homage to the sacrifices that Americans were prepared to make to defend the idea of freedom against Fascism.

In the crypt is a memorial to an American hero, Billy Fiske, who volunteered to fight with the RAF in 1939, breaking the American neutrality laws, but who was the first American casualty- dying in the Battle of Britain in 1940.

My colleague and I were very thoughtful. Proud of the depth of the roots of the alliance between Britain and America, and fiercely angry that that the arrogance and stupidity of President George W. Bush have damaged even such a deep friendship.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dressing to the left

Having accepted higher taxes, more state interference, and virtually all of the Blairite agenda, even David Cameron's hair has moved left.

The one thing that David Cameron is not is a Liberal of any description; his controlling agenda now differs little from the surveillance state enacted under Labour.

The paternalist agenda of the Cameroons is now clear, even without a whisper of actual policy. So, although the desire for a change from NuLabour is becoming stronger across the country, there is little enthusiasm for the Cameroon clique, even (in fact, especially) amongst liberals in the Conservative Party.

Although many Conservatives are grateful to be a bit more popular, the current lead in the polls is fragile, and plenty of economically literate commentators are becoming hostile towards the Tory leader and his half baked ideas.

To my mind, I do not see Controlling Conservatives as an improvement on NuLabour failure.

Monday, March 12, 2007

What is Freedom?

Mark Curtis TV film, "The Trap: what happened to our dreams of freedom?" the first part of which was broadcast on BBC2 last Sunday, was genuinely good television. It asked difficult and profound questions in a new and interesting way, a sharp contrast to the sloppiness of Mark Durkin's hatchet job on environmentalism. for Channel 4 the "Great Global Warming Swindle" .

Curtis' big idea was that contemporary ideas of freedom fail to recognise critical elements of human psychology, and in particular they treat human behaviour is simply a stimulus-response mechanism. In its most reductionist form, Curtis has a point- human beings often act altruistically and the whole idea of free will admits the possibility that humans will behave in ways that may appear to be against their ostensible interests. Curtis thesis was informed by a variety of different sources, using ideas and images from game theory to the NHS to Hayek. It was almost hypnotic - and a wonderful use of the medium of television.

To some extent I see his point. The ideology of Freedom is rooted in a fairly pessimistic view of human nature- the constitution of the United States explicitly sets limits on the activity of different parts of the constitutional process to avoid a natural tendency to reach for dominance. It is not that human beings exist without compassion or altruism, it is simply that humans are neither reliably nor predictably compassionate or altruistic. When systems have been created that do rely on those characteristics, the result has either been short lived or tyrannical or both.

The Liberal approach to freedom does not deny the place of compassion- and is therefore radically different from the Thatcherite thesis "there is no such thing as society"- we know "society" does exist within our social values, but incompletely and unevenly. Unlike the Realist school of the American Neo-Conservative movement, we do not have a grand theory of human behaviour. Liberalism is a partial grand theory- it seeks to explain aspects of human political interaction, but since we admit the idea of humanity as an open system- with essentially unlimited capacities, both for positive outcomes and for destructive outcomes, Liberalism does not presume to have the answers to the human condition.

We see that there is great happiness in those who follow selfless paths- whether religious or not. We accept that material possessions may be more of a burden than a freedom, but it is up to every individual to follow their own path. Once again I find myself using P.J O'Rourke's great definition of freedom given at the 1993 Cato Lecture: " There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences."

It is in those consequences that all the debates of politics and history and indeed philosophy lie.

Followship not Leadership

The policy announcements from the British Conservatives on the environment turn out- as usual- to be as badly thought out as ever- VAT on domestic flights and a "frequent flyer tax". I am a frequent flyer myself, and if there was another way to conduct my business, which did not involve bleary eyed, early morning flights then believe me I would do it- but as yet there is no substitute but for the personal inspection of a business and with it face to face meetings with management. The idea that something so vital to the investment process can be dramatically curtailed by these taxes is simply laughable- all you do is increase costs. Meanwhile, given the state of the railways in the UK, VAT on flights simply reduces efficiency and increases costs still further. In any event, flying is still a very small part of total carbon pollution, albeit a fast growing part. Meanwhile Conservative councils are those most likely to reject renewable energy schemes- and electricity generation is the largest source of UK CO2 emissions.

Then when you read the small print you see that the eye catching initiative is simply part of a multiple choice questionnaire- with no commitment either way. So, we still do not have any credible Tory policy on the Environment- and the sham of leadership that this lightweight PR merchant gives is is exposed once more. It is a disgrace that a serious political party refuses to do more than dip its toe into anything that might demonstrate what the party might actually favour, might actually believe and still less what they might actually do in office.

The Tories may be ahead in the polls- given the travails of this dying Blair premiership, it would be surprising if they were not- but this is a fragile lead, and the enthusiasm of the electorate for them is demonstrably tepid.

The Liberal Democrats are continually renewing and refining our ideas- we have genuine policy debates. We have definite green ideas, which cover all of our policies. We have a point of view, which the electorate can agree or disagree with.

After this latest display of political cowardice from the Conservatives, it may not be long before their flimsy and insubstantial shadow cabinet is challenged to show some back bone - the genuine political courage that marks out what leadership is -or to get out.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Not fit 4 Purpose

John Reid- a strutting popinjay of a politician- announces that his department (you remember the "not fit for purpose" Home Office) will now text those whose visas are about to expire to ask them to leave the country.

He denounces scrounging foreigners who come over here stealing our benefits...

So how many illegals do in fact claim benefits? Er... not known. Is it a serious problem or not really? Er... not known. How many people are in the UK illegally? Er... not known.

Is John Reid a loud mouthed incompetent more interested in headlines for himself than actually tackling what may or may not actually be a serious problem?

Frankly, for bringing the unlovely formulation "not fit for purpose" into more general use alone, he should suffer the wrath of the voters...

Not to mention the unanswered questions about his former friendship with friendly neighbourhood war criminal, Radovan Karadzic, cannabis use at his house... and his Communist past of course.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The political pendulum

If I was happy with the state of British politics I would not want to change it.

There has been a long history of two party politics in Britain. whether it was the "King's Party" versus the Puritans or the Whigs and the Tories, Liberals and Conservatives, and later Labour and Conservative, the tradition, indeed the very structure of the British Parliament is based on a division into two groups: Aye versus No.

The result was that British political parties have had to be large coalitions. Blairites and Communists coexist in Labour and Social Conservatives and Libertarians coexist amongst the Tories. Power alternates between two parties and they survive in power depending on the irritation factor of the electorate.

The pendulum of politics swings, and no one group achieves dominance- it was not a bad way to protect democracy. The problem is that the political duopoly has smothered ideas and genuine debate. The parties are afraid of dissent and can expel members who will not conform. There is no other way to take a direct role in the political process except through a party- there is but one independent in the House of Commons (though- as cross-benchers- more in the House of Lords).

Increasingly few people are prepared to accept the political compromises that the bi-party system requires. Membership of all political parties has fallen, and increasingly citizens have chosen to participate through single issue groups. For example, membership of the RSPB is greater than the combined membership of all political parties. Electoral participation rates have been in long term decline for decades.

So, the swing of the political pendulum, if that is what the recovery in the Conservatives turns out to be, may not be of such dramatic significance. The convergence of Labour and the Conservatives has created a bland homogeneity, where no voter feels threatened and neither Labour nor the Conservatives step to far away from the bland marketing bromides that pass for political slogans these days. So the replacement of Blair with Brown or even Cameron will not change that much.

The problem is that this gentle decay of politics is a threat to our freedoms. Democracy is under threat not yet from tyranny, but from indifference- and indifference which suits the party duopoly.

The electorate are not stupid: they know that much of the posturing of politicians is empty, and that they are powerless in the face of much that occurs. We listen to statements that demand action on a range of issues where politicians can not do anything, but no one points out that the Emperor has no clothes, they just don't bother to vote.

Liberal Democrats should not simply aim to replace on or another of the two parties on the pendulum. Our view of politics is in opposition to the zero-sum game of the two party system. We accept that there is greater diversity in political opinion than is allowed for in a straight Yes-No question. We believe that a coalition of different parties is no worse than the coalitions within parties and does at least have the advantage of honesty.

It is not enough to change the government, we must change the system of government, and unless we do then the political class - increasingly professionalised and based on marketing rather than philosophy- will become divorced from the citizens that it is supposed, ostensibly, to represent.

Liberal Democrats have got to speak out: our creed remains, "Trust in the people, tempered with prudence". Our political system now excludes the majority of citizens and can easily fall into decay- and in the vacuum irresponsible and dangerous demagogues may lurk.

The pendulum is no longer a sufficient guarantee of our liberties.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"A voice, crying in the wilderness"

Just recently I have felt a little lonely as a Liberal.

The screw up at Harrogate: where it looked that Ming's bias against the Tories was driving him to shackle the Liberal Democrats to the Labour corpse.

The reversion to talking about voting systems rather than why we should be in power.

The opportunist attempt by the cynical David Cameron to claim credit for Liberal Democrat ideas.

All were conspiring to create an air of gloom.

And then, Paddy Ashdown comes to the rescue:

"In a nutshell, liberals believe in individual freedom, accountable government, the dispersion of political power, social justice, the rule of law, the free exchange of opinions and goods, and the protection of the natural environment. What could be more relevant to today's challenges?

Above all else, liberals value individual freedom, because we believe that people are best able to decide for themselves what to do with their lives – no-one else, whether government minister or religious leader, can do it for them. We want to see a government which is run as directly by individuals and communities as possible – decentralised in scale, responsive to the needs and wishes of ordinary people, and one which trusts people to take more responsibility for their own future. What better prescription for today's over-centralised and over-regulated Britain, run by an administration that doesn't listen and doesn't seem to take responsibility when things go wrong?"

Then I notice the strong performance that we are making in local elections.

Then I notice the predictions for the May elections:

Gains in Scotland and possibly Wales and LD set to gain control of several major authorities,

So I feel more reassured.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Backing the wrong horse

Several of my friends were standing for election to the Estonian Parliament.

Estonian politics are quite tightly defined. In many ways the cross party debates that take place in Estonia are mirrors of the debates that take place within the Liberal Democrats in the UK- so dominant is the Liberal strain of thought in the Estonian body politic. Two parties: Reform and the Centre Party are members of Liberal international, while the leading right wing party also defines itself as a classical liberal party. Even the Social Democrats espouse overtly liberal policies.

The outgoing coalition was between the Centre Party and Reform, with the support of the smaller, conservative and agrarian party, the National League (Rahva Liit). In fact, although ideologically liberal, the Centre Party is dominated by the populist personality of its founder and leader, Edgar Savisaar. So, while Lembit Opik was able to persuade the Centre Party to join the European Liberal group, in fact Savisaar is a law unto himself- the most polarising personality of Estonian politics.

Perhaps then we should not be so surprised to see that Reform achieved such a strong result- overtaking Centre as the largest party and increasing their vote by 10% and their number of MPs to 31 in the 101 seat Parliament. It was a spectacular result, and has been greeted with delight and astonishment in Liberal circles across Europe. An overtly freedom driven agenda has proven very popular in an election where turnout was the highest in a decade.

It is a triumph for Reform Prime Minister, Andrus Ansip, and one for Liberals to enjoy across Europe.

Meanwhile the united Isamaa-Res publica Liit- the Conservatives- saw their support fall, although admittedly not by as much as had been predicted. Despite pulling out all the stops and being well funded from abroad, the IRL were firmly beaten in to third place- gaining not much more than half the number of seats they won last time- and were lucky not to be overtaken by the Social Democrats.

David Cameron had a big role in the IRL campaign- appearing in their party election broadcasts. Several of my Estonian friends asked who "the bald English Conservative" was, and found it a little irritating that the Conservatives were telling Estonians what was good for them. I agreed, since that is what the Conservatives keep trying to tell the Brits, and I find that just as annoying.

In any event Cameron backed a losing horse.

Meanwhile I can congratulate Igor Grazin, Maret Maripuu, Meelis Atonen, and Imre Sooaar on their solid re-election for Reform. Congratulations too to Mailis Reps of Keskerakond. I was also pleased to see Tivimi Velliste back for IRL and Sven Mikser back for the Social Democrats.

A great result for Reform- who can now choose whether they should continue to work with Edgar Savisaar- after all a two party coalition would have a comfortable majority- or construct a weaker coalition with other parties.

All of that is still to come, in the meantime we can savour the moment- a Liberal Prime Minister, a Liberal Party winning the vote and the runner up being a member of LI too: more than 57% of the vote between these two parties and 60 MPs!

Palju onne Eesti Reformerakonna!

Friday, March 02, 2007

The dispossesed of Earthsea

Like many people I read the Earthsea books of Ursula K. Le Guin when I was a teenager.

I enjoyed the mystical sweep and the moral dilemmas that were presented in the stories. Unlike the traditional sward and sorcery genre, actions in Earthsea tend to have consequences- bad as well as good- and there are no particularly easy answers.

I was talking with some fellow bloggers the other day and they also remembered the books warmly.

Recently, whilst at an airport somewhere, I found several sci-fi books by the same author.

I have always enjoyed the technical sci-fi of writers like Asimov and Arthur Clarke. However Le Guin's work was a revelation.

I read The Telling first, possibly because, being a fairly recent book, it was more prominently displayed. The latest book I have read is The Dispossessed which I enjoyed even more.

Le Guin's talent is to write from a certain point of view without sounding preachy. The subtleties of Earthsea are repeated on a wider and far more adult scale. So in the (fairly small) amount of time I have free at the moment, I intend to pick up the rest of her sci-fi books- and it is good to have this to look forward to!