Friday, August 31, 2007

10 Years On

OK, so an attractive woman was tragically killed in a road accident.

The astonishing outpouring of public grief, even at the time, I found rather disturbing. It seemed to be more about society's guilt at our conflicted feelings about this dramatic, disturbed and damaged woman, than any real feeling for someone that most of us had never met.

The fact that every anniversary has been marked with tabloid gush, to me just shows the breathtaking hypocrisy of the dead tree press as they continue to defy their falling readership numbers.

This latest wheeze, after the Diana memorial fountain, playground, walk, charity, stain glass window and for all I know no few tattoos, is the Concert, where the fight to get on the guest list has descended into black farce. How Paul Burrell can think that the Royal family hold him in higher esteem than pond life scum is beyond me.

So another year of mawkish mourning for dead Diana..

Its creepy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Making Predictions

"Making predictions is difficult, especially about the future"- Yogi Berra (but maybe Nils Bohr)

Let us think about the great unknown: the future, after all we can not be too sure about anything beyond now.

Nassim Nicolas Taleb has written at length about the scale of the problem that human brains encounter- our brains are hard wired to see patterns, even where none exist: he calls this epistemological arrogance, because humans very rarely say "I don't know".

The "profession" of politics sometimes seems to particularly attract humans who are less likely to admit uncertainty, still less ignorance. Yet the rest of us still invest our hope into such imperfect figures. Although much of politics is merely a matter of orderly administration: getting the drains emptied or the roads filled in, yet still we look for more from our political leaders we invest something of the best in ourselves into our leaders- whether or not they deserve it.

I don't know whether it is possible to ever fulfill such hopes- the politician is almost bound to disappoint those who elect them. Maybe this is because many hopes are simply unrealistic- but also maybe because many politicians promise too much. Unlike Jeremy Paxman, I do not believe that the political class is eternally divided from the rest of us by some vast psychological chasm. In fact I see them as all too much like the rest of us- limited and ignorant- though some are perhaps less willing to confess their inherent human weaknesses than the average.

Although I do not know what will happen in the future, let me state what I hope to see. One would certainly be change of attitude. P.J. O'Rourke- the worlds most serious humorist- once wrote that "People with a mission to save the earth want the earth to seem worse than it is so their mission will look more important". I would love any politician to have a sense of proportion when looking at the questions of government. Problems of crime become "a state of anarchy", problems of pollution become "global catastrophe". In my opinion we should approach things with more optimism- if we think of all problems as solvable, then even if we are wrong and they are mostly insoluble, then we might still hope for near miss!

However, attitude apart, I would still hope that we can set certain priorities. The idea of freedom, for me, is the touchstone. If we set the benchmark as being a society that maximises freedom: respects diversity and nonconformism and permits the maximum amount of dissent; then we are likely to create an environment where the next Google or the next Feynman or the next Larkin can flourish.

In that sense I am something of a disillusioned idealist. I have had the privilege of being close to societies where radical positive change became the norm, rather than the exception. When I return to my own country I am astonished that anyone could actually believe the trite banalities trotted out as the latest political wisdom. Yet each generation here seems determined to reinforce and not escape, the lying dialectic.

I am asking a lot: the idea of a political discourse rooted in tolerance and openness;
That we should promote the best in ourselves, whilst still accepting that even the best of us are hypocritical and imperfect.

I may well be a fool.

However I would far rather be my kind of fool than David Cameron or Gordon Brown- intelligent men, albeit in my view men utterly blinkered by their own personal background. They seem already trapped in the mechanics of political deception, while all the time losing their overarching political vision.

Recently my theoretical commentary on politics has been a little challenged: a large number of people have asked me to fight a seat which is winnable for my party. A place that I would be proud to serve as a member of Parliament, indeed ultimately, much though I have lived elsewhere, I am from no other place.

I hesitated.

Since my uncle- who I remain close too- was elected in 1983, I hope that I am aware of the up and downs of Parliament. I know- I think- the burdens of being a backbench MP. I also know that for me, it is a major financial sacrifice- not to mention the personal burden of the candidature and of course the very real risk of defeat -the first time- that would make my commitment one of parliaments, not necessarily one of months or years.

I don't know what the future will bring, but I do know that the best way to face it is to be resolved to do the right thing according to your conscience. Thomas More in Utopia once argued that anyone seeking political office should be automatically disbarred. I may earn the Saint's disapproval, but at the end of the day it would be my putative employer- the electorate- who will make their judgement as to my fitness to serve.

I must make a gigantic financial sacrifice- but this was never about money:

"This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."

If it falls to me, then OK, and let those be my watchwords.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Vladimir Putin and the 1984 All Stars

I suppose it is just possible that Vladimir Putin's regime might have lost its marbles, or maybe they just think that foreigners are stupid, but the latest drivel from Moscow truly defies belief:

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya was plotted by foreigners.

Yeah, course it was Vlad, just like we are also responsible for the Kursk disaster, the Ostankino Fire, the fact that Russians drink themselves to death, and that the Rothschild's plotted the Russian Revolution in the first place (Oh no, wait a minute that is an American conspiracy theory).

We have actually read 1984 you know Vlad- it has never been a banned book over here. Creating fictional Goldsteins is easy for Chekists on home ground, but in a free country it is far easier to spot the lie.

Soviet Socialism killed tens of millions. The fact that Putin eulogises it and uses many of the same brutal methods should turn his government into a pariah.

He is unquestionably our enemy.

Another generation...

I see that the former President of the European Commission and Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Gaston Thorn has died.

A business minded Liberal, in many ways he represented many good things about the drive for European Integration. Doubtless the Anti-Europeans will describe him as precisely the kind of Euro-fanatic that seeks to destroy the nation states of Europe.

However, as his obituary makes clear, he was a very proud patriot for his own country- fighting so strongly for the national idea of Luxembourg against the Nazis that he put his own life on the line, and indeed ended up in a German concentration camp.

His generation did not see the European Union as a way of ending Luxembourgish, or any other European national identity, but rather as a tool to serve the ultimate national interest. Partly this was by reducing the risk of future war, and though I see that Lepidus has already decried this (and Chris at DK would probably choke!), that certainly was a major influence on the thinking of the founders of the EU.

Yet even at the time, and increasingly since, the idea of economic integration was one that served the national interest by providing a greater economic space than the national economy alone, and therefore more attractive opportunities for all Europeans.

Gaston Thorn understood that greater prosperity serves the nation far better than greater poverty, and he worked for practical, functional policies that would help to provide it. "Three time Luxembourgish", he knew that co-operation based on the rule of law and the free market would bring far more benefits to his country and to all of Europe than going it alone ever could.

This kind of pragmatic nationalism is precisely the approach that I would like to see the United Kingdom develop: a robust defence of our values and identity is not the same as the hostility, generally based on ignorance, that UKIP or the extremists in the Conservative Party would prefer. This mildly jingoistic "foreigner bashing" is not in our national interest, indeed it is contrary to our national interest- as Gaston Thorn knew all along.

The European Union is far from perfect; major reforms are clearly needed. However, in the eyes of other EU members, the UK never seems to be satisfied, even when we win virtually all the concessions that we seek in negotiations.

We might gain even more, if we were less prickly partners. That really would be serving the national interest.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Devil's Advocate

Just before I left for my break I left a post pointing out that the Tories were trying to condemn a treaty that they were highly unlikely to have even read. I felt that this sold the whole idea of "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" down the river, since they had simply opposed without even thinking.

Chris at Devil's Kitchen then had a good old go at me - as is his want, and why people read him- in words of one syllable and four letters, for having the temerity to, even tentatively, support the idea that a reform treaty of the the EU was necessary. Chris, as a UKIP member, but also many Tories, believe in British withdrawal from the European Union.

Anyone can criticise the European Union- like many things that have grown up organically, it includes contradictions and absurdities. So does the British Constitution (which, being unwritten, is even worse and can mean contradictory things to different people).

His point, which he left in a posting here was : "Let's not beat about the bush here; just say that you are in favour of abdicating our country's sovereignty and have done with it. But in the name of all that's unholy, don't muck about with these weasel words: the method by which the Treaty has been amended to perform the same function as the Constitution has been well documented – not least by Christopher Booker today."

Chris, as the other Anti-Europeans do, continues to insist that sovereignty is like virginity, a state either has it or it does not. This is not true. Even the largest states have to compromise with non-state actors, be they the Ford Motor Company, Greenpeace or Exxon. Indeed the Federalist, usually French, vision of the EU- although not mine- is that only a European state entity can control such powerful multi-national or non-national forces. For them, European Federalism is essential to permit state power to off-set the power of markets or other non-state players.

My vision is different. I believe in the power of markets to create a generally better social and economic outcome than a state decree. In that sense the modern European Union owes a vast amount to the British. The British vision of a single European market has proven incredibly successful. Although limited- it still does not include financial services, for example- the fact is that when the EU embraces real economics it has delivered significant economic benefits to its member states. By definition, signing treaties, at least signing treaties in good faith, limits the freedom of action of a sovereign state- and yet such freedom has often been illusory anyway. As I saw last week on the Western front, the pity and futility of conflict in Europe has given way to a Europe that believes in working in a common cause for mutual benefit. That each negotiation in the EU is couched in the language of self interest simply underlines the nature of the EU- not a federation, but an alignment of common interests.

Today I met with the chef de cabinet of the Vice Chairman of the European Commission. Unlike many of the older members, Estonia has sent many of its best brains to Brussels, and it was a pleasure to listen to the thoughtful and wise ideas that Henrik Hololei was putting forward.

Europe is an idea to some people, even a vision. But in reality it is actually it a tool and it has massive practical use to most of its citizens. Yes I accept the problems- the corporate governance is dreadful, the responsiveness of many of its arms is also pretty poor (By the way I think Whitehall, with over 40 times the number of staff is much worse). However, net-net it has an overall beneficial effect. "Brussels" may drive Chris and other anti- Europeans into spectacular and hilariously foul mouthed paroxysms of rage but actually, away from London, Whitehall does the same for the rest of us.

There is a debate to be had about Europe, but it is not whether it should exist or whether the UK should be a member- it has already proven its economic, social and political benefits. The questions are what it should be doing, and how it should be doing it. I am not in favour of more government. I am in favour of appropriate government. What is appropriate for local communities should be decided there. For Scotland as a whole things should be decided in Edinburgh, for Britain as a whole things should be decided in London, but there are things that all Europeans can and should decide on together- which is what the EU should do. Swearing is funny, but it doesn't persuade me much that leaving the EU is either big or clever (and neither does Christopher Booker).

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Danish Town

Back again in Tallinn where I am due to speak at a conference tomorrow- hope that I can come up with something that makes sense to the notoriously well informed and generally unresponsive Estonian audience.

A real pleasure to escape the vile weather in London (only a week back and hating it already!). At least the summer still continus here, although it is in fact somewhat humid- unheardof in this generally quite chilly climate. Mind you I shall be going on to Aberdeen on Saturday, so that is set to be somewhat bracing!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The value of Mr. Micawber

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

An awful lot of Americans have just worked out that they are at the wrong end of Mr. Micawber's recipe for happiness, in fact the number of Home repossessions has jumped 93% in the last year.

Despite the respite of the Fed's emergency rate cut on Friday, the markets are growing ever more nervous. The grouping of risk into complicated bundles like CDOs has made it a lot harder to identify where the potential credit losses might be. Although Banks had thought that they had sold their credit risk, hedge funds which they also own have bought these risks, with the consequence that first Bear Sterns and now Goldman Sachs and many others have been forced to take dramatic hits. In the giant game of pass the parcel in the credit markets, some unfortunate bankers have discovered that their parcels are ticking.

Until the market understands the scale of the losses that they face, they will not be able to price risk, and that level of uncertainty is dangerous. Already the Bank of England has announced that they have been supporting a UK credit institution that could no longer relay on their market counter parties for funding. If this goes on, then we could see a spate of emergency bank mergers.

The final analysis will have to wait, but it is hard to avoid the fact that the US consumer has been living on extended credit for many years now, and the distortion that this has created may require the US economy to- at best- tread water for a while. This is unlikely to be beneficial to the UK, which is one of the largest investors in the American economy.

Meanwhile the prodigality of the Labour government is putting much directly at risk in the UK. The lack of accountability for the spending of government money continues to reinforce dangerous distortions- in particular the failure to tackle the massive public sector pension deficit threatens to destroy British competitiveness within a pretty short run time frame.

Time is running out- a major overhaul of public sector finances is now urgent (and is also part of the Liberal Democrat proposals for government reform) but all that the Tories feel able to debate is gimmickry- turning right on red or extra bank holidays.

If the Tories can not address the dangerous road that Britain is being forced down by Labour, then is it too much to ask that they get out of the way?

Monday, August 20, 2007

True Colours

Having returned to the UK, I take up my reading on the newspapers, with rather limited enthusiasm- I find less and less of interest, and am tempted to limit my dead tree exposure to the Economist weekly round up.

However, in my absence, I notice the Conservatives finally seemed to be launching some policies. Well, I actually thought they were and then realised that these were just the usual flyers. So still no actual agreed manifesto is in sight. Nevertheless, it was interesting to take look at what straws are in the wind.

The usual bromides about government waste are always valid, but as usual with too many politicians, they identify the problem and decree that it will be solved, without actually telling anyone how- a classic result of a lack of management education, sadly. So while it is clear that government is still incredibly wasteful, and I have very little doubt that savings ought to be made, the unerring accuracy of Parkinson's law seems to apply with extra virulence as far as the British state - and especially British Quangos- are concerned.

All politicians seem to promise savings and cut backs on Quangos, so far no one has actually delivered. The reason why is that the structure of decision making in the public sector removes accountability and incentives- without creating new culture of openness, the savings that the Tories suggest are in fact highly unlikely to be achieved: there are too many sectional interests ht will need to be addressed- not least amongst the politicians themselves, for whom the power of patronage vis-a-vis quangos, is an important political tool. So pardon my cynicism with regard to the proposed savings- but unless you change the whole culture of the public sector, the savings are likely to be fractional.

Moving on to the other proposals, I must confess to being little bit shocked. Surely, I think, even they must have some shame? Surely even the Tories could not be so blatantly self interested?

But no they have no shame, and yes they are that blatant.

I do not have too much of problem with the idea of an inheritance tax, so in that sense I have already put myself in opposition to the Daily Mail reading classes. Frankly I do not see why the undeserving rich should not be taxed- sure, one can argue about the threshold, and perhaps it is a bit low, but quite frankly since only 6% actually pay any inheritance tax anyway that is just a matter of tinkering. But the Tories are not talking about raising the threshold- they are talking about abolishing the entire tax.

Er... Come again?

While it is being sold as a tax to benefit families, I can not help thinking that the people it most benefits are the extremely rich, not the middle classes, in particular people like, for example David Cameron and George Osbourne would be the major beneficiaries. This is a tax that fulfils all the criteria for a good tax- cheap to collect, difficult to avoid, generates significant revenue, but for the most blatantly self serving of reasons the Tories think it should be abolished.

Of course the Tories do not think that all taxes should be abolished: the proposals are supposed to be revenue neutral- but by abolishing inheritance tax, which significantly benefits the rich, they are failing to lift the tax burden on the poor. One of the most significant problems with the UK tax system is that it is significantly regressive- that is that it falls disproportionately heavily on the poor, and one reason, incidentally why I am on record as saying that we should examine the options as far as a flat tax regime is concerned. The Tories apparently do not even see the regressive taxation system as a problem- the bulk of their proposals will make that position worse.

The rest of the programme- failing to replace civil servants who retire, replacing "fact finding tours" with video conferencing is meaningless gimmickry. Even making the the Tories into the political wing of Jeremy Clarkson with such new rules as allowing traffic to turn left on red, building massive new highways, expanding Heathrow to the limit simply creates huge new unfunded expenditure. The contrast with the detailed costings and the social and environmental responsibility of the Liberal Democrat programme is dramatic.

The Tories have laid out a C- programme of inanity and banality from a D- opposition.

Must try harder!

All quiet on the Western Front

I returned to Britain through the back roads of Northern France.
Instead of the speed of the uncluttered motorways, I took it slowly on smaller roads. Just South of Arras I found the first Commonwealth cemetery. Then another, then another, on the outskirts of this unprepossessing northern French town. The winding road from Amiens made Arras seem a long distance, but I suspect that for the Tommys moving up to the front, the sight of each sign post was knell bringing them another mile closer to the mincing machine of the Arras salient.
North from Arras lies a ridge that dominates the low ground, and from here the Germans pinned down the Imperial army- for such was the British army of the time. Eventually after a horrific bloodbath, the Canadians, who had become the shock troops in the salient- were able to storm the concrete trenches on Vimy Ridge on April 12th 1917. The artillery barrage that proceeded the storming of the ridge is said to ave been the most intense in history- and the astonishing pockmarks of crater upon crater even today gives witness to just how terrifying the battle must have been. It is not too much, perhaps, to say that in winning the first major allied victory on the Western front the Canadians came of age as a nation. Yet at what a horrific cost. Canada lost her innocence, and the flowers of the forest that still lie strewn across the battlefield- for sixty thousand bodies are unaccounted for on the Western front- taught Canadians the limits of their trust in the Empire of which they were a part. It was only 14 years later, with the Statute of Westminster in 1931, that formally ended the legal subservience of the old dominions. As with Gallipoli for the Anzacs, Vimy for Canada was a dreadful lesson, and from then on, the Dominions would be equal, and increasingly separate. After the war, with the loss of Ireland, in fact Britain lost more territory than Germany. All was indeed "changed utterly".
Moving north from Arras, more and still more cemeteries- there are over a thousand British and Commonwealth cemeteries- Indian cupolas mark cremations. Australian stars, New Zealand southern crosses, Canadian maple leaves, Scottish thistles, the county badges of English regiments like the Middlesex Pals or the Sherwood Foresters mark grave after grave. Nearly one million men were killed over the course of four appalling years. Even those who have graves may be nameless- nearly 300,000 graves, like the picture above, are marked "A Soldier of The Great War, known unto God".
Crossing the border into Belgium, still more names from our history- Mons, Le Cateau, Loos, where Kipling lost his only son. Eventually one arrives at the greatest British charnel house of all: Wipers, Ypres, now known in Flemish as Ieper.
Here my great-grandfather was gassed at Passchendaele, though since it took him six years to die, he is not recorded as a casualty. He volunteered in 1914, served on the Western Front, then posted to Italy, where he was injured at the slaughter of Caporetto- perhaps the biggest single allied catastrophe in the West. After recovery he was sent to Ypres a few weeks later- my grandmother still has a pen and ink sketch he made behind the lines there. After the third battle of Ypres- Paesschendaele- he still fought, even with only half a lung, until the bitter end on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
I went to the Menin gate, where the 60,000 or so with no known grave are commemorated. Each day the last post is played at 8 o'clock. Yet, all I could think was the same thought that came to me in the midst of the stones of a cemetery marking the graves of so many young men: How could we have done this? How could this have happened?
The last remaining British soldier to have fought on the Western front came here last week. He laid flowers at a cemetery.
A German cemetery.
It seemed as powerful a gesture as he could make on the pity of war.
Silent and tearful. I returned to the comforts of home.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

En Vacances

The beautiful weather in the South of France is making blogging sparse, but it is certainly interesting and fun talking with people here. I think I will take Chris of Devil's Kitchen up on his offer of a beer too, when I return.

I will update some more when the sun goes in...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

When the facts change...

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir? — John M. Keynes

The English version of the European Union reform treaty was published this morning, a few days later than the French version which came out last week.

The Constitutional treaty is a dead letter. Is the Reform treaty just an attempt to impose the controversial "constitution" by a more roundabout way?

Well, the UK Conservatives certainly seem to think so and demand an immediate referendum on the new treaty. Their reasons for asking for this are dressed in the language of principle, but as so often with the use of referenda, high principle is more like low politics. The Conservatives are highly sceptical of British membership of the European Union. Many of them advocate complete withdrawal, and they believe- indeed hope- that the British would certainly reject any treaty, no matter what.

I do not share their view.

Firstly, upon a close examination of the text of the new treaty, it is radically different from the Constitution. In particular it makes plain the sovereignty of the member states and affirms their right to leave the Union. It also sets out far more clearly the powers of National Parliaments over the European Union itself, and makes clear that its legal force is as a set of amendments to the original treaties, rather than a replacement to those founding treaties. To that end, the Reform treaty is actually less than half the size of the Constitutional treaty.

Furthermore, the entire legal basis of the Reform treaty is different from the constitutional treaty. Much of the treaty is in fact fairly non-controversial. No mention of flags and anthems, and while establishing a separate legal identity for the Union, it reaffirms the powers of the member states.

Now I have spent some time reading through the documents today.

William Hague announced at 7.45 this morning that his party opposed the treaty and that they would demand a referendum. So not only had the Conservatives apparently read through the treaty since dawn, they had also taken the serious step of deciding that it was completely wrong and should be entirely opposed before many people had even eaten breakfast.

Please bear in mind that the document that was published was a discussion draft, and is by no means the completed treaty. However, the Conservatives refuse to engage in discussing precisely what they oppose, just simply that they do oppose. It may be that they have been in deep thought since the French version was published, considering all the nuances in that language, but there is no evidence that more than a handful of the Conservative front bench can even read French, and those that do, do not seem to have been engaged in detailed discussions with their mono-lingual colleagues. So they must have adopted their position in the very brief period between the publication of the English text and appearing on the Today programme.

This is a Party that seriously believes that it is a contender for power?? To denounce a treaty that they can hardly have read is a contemptible display of banal and shallow politics. This is what shows up Cameron's house of cards. Their positions are based on ignorance- bullspiel and spin- and not considered or thoughtful and still less informed positions in any way.

William Hague should be ashamed of himself and anyone who wants the best for our country should note that the skiving Tories continually fail to do their home work. On Europe, as on much else, the Conservatives adopt ignorant and often extreme positions without even bothering to check their facts.

Those facts have changed, but the prejudices of the Tory Party will not allow them to even consider this. They press on with a dangerous and negative approach without pausing for breath. This immaturity is what makes the Conservatives unfit for office and will tragically continue to hand power to an over-mighty Labour party that despite its long, and increasing, list of faults at least has the advantage of appearing to take politics seriously.

I am happy to support any necessary referendum, but on the principle that significant constitutional change is involved. After the decisive rejection of the Constitutional treaty, the Reform treaty is now amendments of previous treaties, and therefore by definition no longer an issue of changing the constitutional status of the UK (indeed it is arguable about whether there was any fundamental constitutional change even in the original Constitutional treaty). At the least more reading of the new treaty causes me to reconsider my previous view that a referendum should indeed take place.

The Conservative position is simply absurd, and the vehemence with which they hold onto a policy based on ignorance is not far short of disgraceful.