Friday, June 29, 2007

Renewing the Liberal Democrats

The advent of the Brown Administration places new challenges for the opposition to face. David Cameron, for example, will need to adjust his front bench, to reflect the different portfolios that Brown has created. He will also need to find a considered response to the devastating charges from Quentin Davies, amongst others, that he is not much more than a vacuous light weight.

For the Liberal Democrats, the challenges are, if anything, greater.

Gordon Brown is clearly intending to address some of the major constitutional problems that the UK now faces. I now expect some radical measures, possibly an English Parliament for example, together with some of the measures that the Liberal Democrats have proposed to increase accountability at various levels of government. It will seem- and may even actually be- a concerted move onto territory hiterto considered to be that of the Liberal Democrats. His overtures to the leaders of the party have been deliberate and determined, and for our party they are very dangerous- as Brown must have known from the start.

There is simply no way that Liberal Democrat ministers could serve in a government with any other party without a joint programme- the spectacle of Paddy Ashdown appearing on the Today programme to talk about Northern Ireland and then being forced to defend ID cards- another policy of the government he would have served- was never truly likely. This alone shows why the Lib Dems will continue to stay away from these partial and symbolic gestures towards them.

The point of the debate that our party has been having is now shown in sharp relief. The Liberal Democrats have not been crafting a simple manifesto, we have been refining a Liberal ideology, where our policy positions are based on Mill's principles of political freedom. I welcome the debates that Liberals are having with Libertarians- the fundamental question of Libertarianism versus Authoritarianism is, to my mind becoming more critical than the old Left-Right split, which the defeat of Marxism has rendered dramatically less relevant anyway. Liberals are anti-Authoritarian, by definition.

Brown believes that the state is an enabler, Libertarians that it is an enslaver. By and large, Liberals increasingly side with the Libertarian view- it is critical to set hard and fast limits to state power. By contrast, in that sense Cameron no longer believes that the size of the state should be reduced: as many Libertarians in the Conservative Party have noticed to their discomfort. It is this territory of greater personal liberty, reduced powers for the state, including a sharp reduction in the economic powers of government, that the Liberal Democrats can now make our own.

However, in facing that challenge of renewal, I believe that we will now need to renew ourselves.

I have known Ming Campbell for decades. I supported his leadership bid. He is a generous, intelligent and decent man. However, the way that he has been upset by these devious manoeuvres-for that is all they are- from Gordon Brown have brought me to a sombre conclusion: the Liberal Democrats can not make the break through that we need under his leadership. He belongs to an older generation that still thinks of Liberalism in left-right terms as "of the centre-left". This vocabulary alone reveals a lack of strategic vision. He can not convince the British electorate that the Liberal Democrats offer a modern, distinctive, vision of a better future. Having been through one leadership election in the past -working closely with one of the losing candidates- I hesitate to suggest that we go down this road. However, if we do not see a positive reaction from the electorate of Sedgefield and Ealing to the campaigning and the principles of the Liberal Democrats, then I truly believe that our party must consider the future very carefully.

The last local elections, despite the vagaries of the electoral system, did bring the Liberal Democrats to within 1% of their highest ever national share of the vote, however the party has lost ground in several critical key areas, as the Conservatives have recovered and the Labour vote held up surprisingly well in Labour-Lib Dem battlegrounds. The polls have been getting progressively worse.

I realise the gravity of the position that I now put forward, and I truly do not do this lightly, but unless we can see progress in these by-elections, I am coming to the opinion that the leadership has to convey a totally different style: we need a new leadership style much sooner than after the next election- we need it now. Though the timing can not be immediate, it is clear that we need to move quite soon.

As a great Liberal, I believe that Ming truly wants to serve his party and his country in the best way he can. He has done this in the inclusive and collegiate way he has nurtured the talent we have in our party- talent that even Gordon Brown now recognises. Ming's greatest gift to the Liberalism he has worked for all his life may now be to allow that talent, tempered and matured in his shadow cabinet, to put forward a new strategic vision of leadership for our party and our country.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Brown Study

After an extended period out of contact (and extremely busy) I return to London to resume the blog. It has been a busy time in the areas in which this blog takes an interest- the issues of freedom, in both an international and a British context.

It is inevitable that I should acknowledge that my country has a new Prime Minister first, and to be honest I heaved a sigh of relief when Mr. Blair left office. His legacy will be examined in great detail over the coming years, but it is hard to avoid noticing how much he wasted. In the domestic field, his lack of understanding of management lead him to a studied informality in decision making that often lead to vast expenditure for virtually nil return. His failure to understand that the skill in reaching targets is not just about setting them was a clear example in his lack of managerial skills. As to foreign policy- his stubborn determination to back up President Bush's catastrophic Iraq fiasco cost the UK much life and much treasure, and weakened our position from any angle of foreign policy.

However it is not the outgoing PM that much concerns us now. Prime Minister Brown is an intriguing, indeed enigmatic, figure. Again a great deal has been written from the Blairite and from the opposition perspective, but although I think it clear that Brown is repelled by his predecessor- one only had to see the body language on show when he became party leader to see that, it is hard to know what he is actually repelled by, beyond the thwarting of his own ambitions for so long. If we indeed knew that, then clearly we would have a clearer understanding of his intentions.

From the perspective of the Liberal Democrats, the accession of Gordon Brown to the highest office has been quite damaging. Firstly, the identification of the Iraq War with Tony Blair has been complete, and his departure has removed a major problem for those who would not vote Labour on this point of principle. Naturally too, there is a certain curiosity as to what changes that a Brown premiership may bring. The overtures that he has made to Liberal Democrat figures, such as Paddy Ashdown, Julia Neuberger, Shirley Williams, and so on, reflect an opportunity for Brown to damage the Liberal cause- unless of course, he wants these figures to work as part of a major and very bold constitutional change. Without addressing the West Lothian question and a radical reform of the voting system, no Liberal Democrat would be prepared to serve as a minister in a Brown government, and though many may be being courted, the illiberal nature of much of what the Blair-Brown years have delivered would make few change their minds. That being said, I personally feel that Ming Campbell has not played this new position well, and any further stumbles will begin to try the patience of the party.

For the Conservatives, the advent of Gorden Brown has been even worse, the actual defection of Quentin Davies is a spectacular flame-out of the strategy of David Cameron and George Osbourne. Despite what several Conservatives have said, Davies is no maverick, he is close to the heart of the Conservatives on almost all issues, save that of Europe. It is a fact that political defections move with the political tide, and the fact that Cameron can not even keep his own members on side can only be seen by Conservatives in the bleakest terms. The coruscating farewell letter was truly poisonous, for it rings so true. If, as is rumoured, further defections are promised, then Cameron will have to return to the drawing board. The implosion of the "heir to Blair" strategy is clearly obvious.

I will not jump in to condemn Gordon Brown, although I personally feel that he bears co-responsibility for the failures of the last ten years. I am sceptical that he can deliver the kinds of reforms that are required, yet it may still be possible. After all only twenty four hours before enacting the single most successful policy of the Blair government- the independence of the Bank of England- he was formally opposing it. Perhaps he intends to be just as bold in his constitutional policies as he was then. The first hundred days will show whether Brown intends to leave the gimcrack and partial constitution we have now in place or whether he contemplates a genuine reform that will satisfy the English demands for fairness within the UK and the democratic demands for openness and fairness across the whole Kingdom.

The mechanics of the British constitution make powerful things plain, and give the pomp and ceremonial to the Royal symbols, rather than the Parliamentary powerhouse. Thus as the relatively low-key change of power takes place, we do not have dramatic inaugurations. Good! It was with a certain schadenfreude that we can see the symbols of Prime Ministerial power- the Jaguar and the outriders- removed from Tony Blair so immediately. However the underlying truth is that politicians gain their symbols of power at the behest of the people- a lingering message that I hope will not be lost upon the incoming Prime Minister.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Biffo Boris blogs blotto

I see Boris lunched rather well before he did today's op-ed piece in the Telegraph. He works himself up into a terrible lather about the fact that Gordon Brown is unelected as Prime Minister- YAWN.

Sorry Boris, two words why our constitution does not care about Gordon Brown becoming PM before he gets his own mandate, and why all your indignation is so much horse feathers:

John Major

Normal Service

Following my return from Albania, I have been focused upon completing a couple of investment transactions, in addition to trying to respond to some of the issues that were raised while I was in the "Land of the Eagle".

There are several things that I will need to address- the challenges facing the New British PM, and the implications of his courting of Paddy Ashdown and Ming Campbell. The latest exit from Russia by investors- in this case Dixon's also raises several questions.

Unfortunately I am now en route to Estonia, so I fear that my detailed thoughts will have to await more time for blogging -maybe next week!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

"Thou Savage Nurse of Noble Men"

"O! Land of Albania, thou savage nurse of noble men" was how Byron hailed the place in Childe Harold. For me too I feel I have come, once again to the dark tower. As always the country seems to be very hard work for a visitor- you end up hot, dusty, thirsty and faintly revolted by the poverty, the dirt and bad smells, the gimcrack buildings and the neediness all around you.

Tirana is a crumbling fly blown city which makes Easterhouse look like Paris. It is an increasingly eccentric place- all the crumbling commie buildings are painted lurid colours which, in a strange way, makes the place look a bit like art deco Miami.

Skanderbeg square, the central cross roads of the city, has a quartet of Zogist, faintly Fascist buildings, which, not withstanding their brutal origins, are probably the most harmonious in the city - the other side is dominated by a massive Communist mosaic depicting the triumph of Mother Albania- the full Stalinist works on the front of the Parliament. In the middle is a statue of Skanderbeg himself- mounted on a horse, looking like a combination of a pirate and a viking (which probably fairly accurately represents what he was).

Only in one corner is there any relief from ugliness, in the shape of a delicate mosque with an elegant filigree of colonnades and a minaret that almost looks too thin to remain standing. This is a building that dates back to the 16th century and is much the most attractive edifice in the centre. All around swirls the tides of noisy smoky traffic, moving like disorderly shoals of fish, superficially messy, but conforming to is own demented logic. Police cops try to direct the flow, but these are largely ignored.

When you go into a building to meet anyone there is usually a hallful of mendicants pleading for special treatment from a burly security guard, who generally abuses them- and even Western visitors must wait at the pleasure of the guard, and of course the host. The Prime Minister's Office- echoy corridors and marble floors has decorations that are seem to date from the time of the previous incumbent- the murderer Enver Hoxha.

Tirana sits in a plain, surrounded on one side by low hills, which mask the breezes from the sea, and on the other by frowning mountains that at this time of year seem always to have a five o clock shadow of clouds. Away from the city, closer to the airport, to the north, you can see the town of Kruje clinging around its castle high on the slopes about halfway up the wall of the mountains. From some of the taller buildings in the centre one can also spot the castle of Petrela, guarding the approach to the plain from the south- a Byzantine structure, taken over by the Turks, but built on a Roman ruin.

The echo of the Romans does not seem far away- the Latinate sounds of Albanian, though officially in its own language group, sound eerily like dog latin, it is usually possible to surprise an Albanian by picking up on the thread of the conversation. The slooshing and flat vowels softens some of the more guttural elements of the language. Everywhere one sees the dramatically sinister Albanian flag- its double headed roman eagle black against the deep crimson field.

Meeting the leaders of the country is a bit of a shock for those of us who are used the to easy egalitarianism of Estonia- firstly they are much older- well into their fifties, and since most are heavy smokers, they in fact look even older. Hunched and chesty, they struggle to converse in heavily accented English. At least the Prime Minister tries to say the right things, and almost uniquely amongst Albanians, he is not suspected of personal greed. However he is hot tempered and has been quick to punish those associated with his political rivals.

Albanian politics, like the country itself, is tightly clannish, with family and personal ties holding sway above all else. Indeed sometimes I have day dreamed that Albania is not so much a country as a giant extended family. A federation of squabbling and proud tribes whose genealogy is known to all and whose family history of violent squabbles and dramatic makings up punctuate the long brawl of Albanian history itself. In the economy, at least, even family businesses are now beginning to develop, and the economy is clearly moving forward and benefit ting from a form of capitalism that suits them.

Chaotic, noisy, hot blooded- the epitome of the Balkan image. However amidst the general crudity of life there is an energy that has not been ground down and the country is clearly turning a corner. It will never be Switzerland- it won't even be Sicily, but it will be different and better than it is now, and it is very much European. Not our, slightly milk and water, North Europeanism that is true, but a much more meaty (and, frankly farty) version of the southern Europeans. Brigands, bandits and rogues, the Albanian can charm and repel in equal and full measure and his clear eye and smile (with gold teeth) will be seen much more often in European counsels. Slow to forget an insult, their adulation of George Bush is equalled only by the cold contempt and hatred that they have towards the Russians. Albania is a hot blooded friend and a cold hearted enemy.

The theft of George Bush's watch is greeted with winks and muffled chuckles. Although the code of hospitality has been broken- possibly more to annoy the Prime Minister than anything- and although Bush has made himself genuinely popular for his outspokenness over Kosova, there is still enough of the rebel in Albanians to take deep satisfaction from "bucking the system" in such an emphatic way. As the stars and stripes on every lamp post and the welcoming posters for President Bush are taken down, the future still looks brighter. I meet the Chairman of the state electricity company. His eyes ringed with exhaustion, he outlines the truly heroic efforts that he has made- and as a young and western educated man he has understood the scale of the problems he faces. After the crisis of the winter, it now seems quite possible that the worst is over. I certainly hope so- this difficult and chaotic country deserves some peace and prosperity ofter centuries of war, occupation and tyranny.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Greatest threat to Freedom?

Although the theme of this blog is about Freedom in the wider sense, the developments in Russia have caused me to focus quite a bit on what I see as the tragic and dangerous state of affairs under the regime of Vladimir Putin.

Lepidus, a regular corespondent on the blog, points me towards a piece by Anatole Kaletsky in today's Times. I like Anatole Kaletsky, who is a sensible and sane writer- and also good company- but I think that his comments rest upon several very Russian misconceptions of what Russia was before Communism and what it has become afterwards.

In order to think about Anatole Kaletsky's argument I think it is necessary to take a small excursion into Russian history.

Although Russia still looks to Kievian Rus as its ancestor state, in fact the political traditions of Moscovy were quite different from the diffuse collection of principalities that proceeded the Tartar conquest. The dramatic expansion of the power of Moscovy rested upon two great victories- the defeat of the Golden Horde and the sacking of Kazan in 1552 and the burning of Novgorod in 1570. These events liquidated any alternative Russian power centre to Moscow and incorporated an multi-national character to the emergent Russia. From an early stage, Russia has had an Imperial character- centralised and multi-national. As a result Russia never developed a sense of ethnic-cultural national identity that was the characteristic of Western Europe. Loyalty was to the autocracy and to orthodoxy, and where a sense of national feeling developed, it was once that focused on all Slavs, rather than Russia specifically. By contrast the fact of the persistence of Ukrainian as a separate language indicates that the Ukrainians were developing a separate sense of national identity (and it is interesting to note that the Ukrainian colours are not the Pan-Slav red-white-blue combination). In other words, even the Slavic nations within Russia were not entirely reconciled to Russia. The non-Slavic nations had different experiences- The Caucasian nations, for example, looked to a history rooted in antiquity that was radically different from that of Russia, and indeed the Russian interlude only dates from the beginning of the 19th century. In other words my response to Anatole Kaletsky is that although he asks for us to look at the West through Russian eyes, in fact part of the problem is that Russia still looks at separate nations that share a history in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as "the near abroad". Russia's own sense of itself is still rooted in an Imperial mindset.

Further, this mindset is tinted with the knowledge that Russia has never had a significant interval of freedom- the great figures of Russian history: especially Ivan IV "the Terrible" and Peter the Great were all despotic and tyrannical- indeed Ivan IV may even have been insane. Even Catherine the Great, although she cultivated an image of liberal sophistication, ruled with an iron hand. Rulers- Boris Gudanov, Nicolas II or Kerensky for example- that attempted to reform the Empire usually failed So on top of a vague sense of specific national identity, there is also the sense that liberalism can not work in Russia. Routinely Russians say that the country is too large and the Russian mentality is too weak to allow liberal government.

My response to this is that Freedom truly is indivisible.

Ultimately the breakdown of relations between Russia and the West rests upon the breakdown of democratic rule in Russia. The Siloviki who surround Putin, although rooted in the Soviet era KGB, are also the direct heirs of the servants of autocracy too. Their sense of Russia is eeriely similar to that of the 19th century Russian bureaucrats so ably satirised by Gogol. I hold them in contempt because of their failure to address the crimes of Communism indeed their glorification of the bloodiest period in Russian history I find utterly shameful. However, it would be wrong to ignore the continuity of Czarist traditions in the current regime. Unfortunately for the Siloviki, several things have changed. Firstly the failure to establish a system of checks and balances and the rule of law is undermining investment and ultimately is impoverishing Russia. The level of corruption is now at utterly heroic proportions- and the wealth of the country is being squandered by those few who maintain their position by closeness to the regime. As under Czarism, the inability to change corrupt leaders is likely to lead to assassinations and increasing instability.

Some Soviet habits have not changed- especially the brake on dissent, yet the Siloviki, know that they are riding a tiger- and that the slightest economic hiccup will create disorder- thus the need, as they see it, to reimpose Soviet order. Hence the patriotic -imperial- slogans, the increasingly central control, and the break down of democratic values.

As Anatole Kaletsky points out, Putin knows that he is making us into enemies, but he is doing this for internal reasons.

I believe that this is desperately short sighted and that it will cost Russia very dearly. A new cold war is one that Russia can not win- they need investment. Away from the energy sector, the Russian economy is a basket case. Domestically, Russia already shows that "what is Russian is Russian and what is foreign owned is negotiable". They continue to play zero-sum games internationally. The glorification of the Soviet era is sending Russia towards Fascism- and no one is a winner if Yeltsin's Russia is seen in retrospect as the Weimar Republic.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Friendly Fire

Cicero does not usually believe in attacking people on his own side. There are very few Lib Dems with whom I have very many profound disagreements. However there is one figure in the party who I am beginning to use as a lodestone:

if he opposes something, it is usually right, if he supports it, it is usually wrong.

It is not only that his opinions tend not to be in accordance with mine, it is also that he usually expresses his views with a degree of intemperance which compounds whichever error he wishes to make.

The latest passionate but mis-aimed missive was a letter in the Independent this morning.

Whatever opinion you have of the State of Israel, signing off with the intemperate lines :"We can hope for a time when Israeli and Palestinian states co-exist peacefully, but for the present, Israel should be regarded as a pariah state practising the same racist policies white South Africa had" is not going to get you much of an audience on the Israeli side.

Step forward Chris Davies MEP- I wish to disassociate myself from virtually all of your recent public comments. I am not surprised that you were forced to step down as leader of the UK Lib Dems in the European Parliament. I also beleive that you may wish to consider your position still further.

D- Notice

On the day when Putin decides that it is easier just to point nuclear weapons at Europe, rather than engage in a political debate it may be worth asking some interesting questions about what the UK is doing about the practical threat from Russia:

How many Russian diplomats have been asked to leave London in the past six weeks "for activities incompatible with their diplomatic status"?

How many Russian private citizens have been refused entry to the United Kingdom over the same period on grounds of a threat to UK national security?

How many Russian citizens have had their visa status revoked over the same period?

How many D-notices requesting that such information not be published on grounds of national security were issued over the same period?

CLUE: it is more than none.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Why Britain has a problem with Russia

Spreading "interesting" versions about why they killed Litvinenko- the English word, I believe, is "lies"
Beating Up British Diplomat in Siberia (Oh! You naughty children)
Threats against BP-TNK- the "environmental investigation" was a nicely Stalinist touch for anyone who has actually visited Magnitogorsk
Sending Nashi thugs to break the windows of the British Ambassador's Residence (again)
Illegal overflights of Scotland- We did not lock on with weapons radar- though next time, we may actually fire
Launching an internet war against Estonia from the Kremlin servers- then implausibly denying it was anything to do with Russia
Illegal overflights of Lithuania
Illegal trade sanctions against Poland
Illegal blockade of EU Embassy in Moscow
Illegal sanctions against Georgia (Sakartvelo, obviously, sanctions against Atlanta would be OK)
Illegally interning Georgian Citizens (Again Sakartvelo, if you are from Athens,Ga and sing mournfully, then "interning" is probably too good for you)
Russian Embassy in Tallinn organising riots (Great Picture, Your Excellency!)
Arresting Gary Kasparov and others on trumped up charges so he could not go to meet the EU leaders in Samara
Holding Russia-EU Summit in Samara- I mean, have you been there?
Beating Up British Embassy security guard
Illegal Overflights of Estonia
Pretending that the murder of Anna Politkovskaya was just a mafia hit
Failing to solve 98% of murders
Killing another 36 miners in methane blast in Kemorovo because of continuing poor safety standards- then inventing paranoid conspiracy to explain it
Supporting Castro- Look, Buena Vista Social Club was, like, so 2001
Calling the US and everybody who was not actually a Nazi "Nazis"
Not calling the Germans "Nazis" and being obviously friendly to Germany in order to try to split NATO
Likening Bush to Hitler (when it should be Warren G. Harding)
Final Yukos Nonsense
Beating Up Estonian Ambassador- (Nice to attack women,yes? We like)
Missile Test
More human rights abuses than you can beat a prisoner with
Illegal sanctions against Lithuania
Population fell by another 59,000 this month- continuing the fastest peacetime fall in population in human history
Cutting off oil deliveries to Lithuanian oil refinery, then claiming to be a "reliable energy partner"
Paint attacks on several EU missions in Moscow
Failing to address fastest increase in HIV infection in the world
Not cremating Yeltsin (high risk of vapour explosion) but having funeral service in tasteless "Christ the King" Cathedral Replica
Sending Nashi mob to blockade Estonian Embassy, holding diplomats hostage for two days
More bullying in army than in Soviet times, average of 12 suicides a month
Stuffing up the Kosova resolution
Supporting Serbian Radical, (spelt F-a-s-c-i-s-t), Party
Announcing pipeline to avoid the "European influenced" South Caucasus (Georgia, again)
More pointless deaths in Chechnya
Failing to address the fastest increase in multi-drug resistant TB in the world
Illegal overflights of Norway- I mean, Why? Its not like the Fjords move around a lot
Spying on the NATO exercises in the Norwegian Sea a bit obviously (they actually got in the way)
Trashing Estonian Consulate in Pskov
Illegal overflights of Latvia
Sending their paid agent Gerhard Schroder to Tallinn as envoy (No one met him- HA!)