Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Political shifts

Opinion polls are faintly addictive- especially for those of us with far too much anorak in our DNA. However, generally I have not tended to comment on the gyrations that we see- there is too much random walk to draw hard and fast conclusions from any given poll.

The latest opinion poll from Communicate Research seems to have some important change to the methodology- for it has catapulted the Liberal Democrats up by 50%. So CR now has the Lib Dems on 21%- roughly where we seem to be with other polls. While obviously comforting- particularly since Lib Dem support typically rises in General election campaigns- they interesting theme of this particular poll is the weakness of the Labour core vote and the increasing strength of the Lib Dem core vote.

Its only a poll- so you have to take it with all the health warnings and caveats- but the message for Labour is beginning to look a bit bleak. For the Lib Dems, across the mass of the polls there is considerable encouragement. The feedback from across the country- including local election results- seems to be consistent. After a pretty glum time, the party seems to be settling down. The collegiate and thoughtful approach of Ming Campbell- although the subject of derision from our opponents- may, perhaps, be bringing results.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Academic Stalinism

To those of us of a certain generation, Cristina Odone's piece in the Telegraph Notebook today will have raised a wry smile. Her comment that a middle class background may become a barrier, ceteris paribus, to University entry was intended to be a humorous dig against government imposed political correctness.

In fact, and certainly at Aberdeen - fairly middle of the road in most ways- a substantial proportion of the faculty were unashamed Communists even in the 1980s. Class background was the primary issue and the source of their entire weltenschaung.

Over the weekend, I attended a performance of Tom Stoppard's Play Rock and Roll . David Caldwell has taken over from Brian Cox the role of Max- the unrepentant Marxist academic, although both playwright and actor make the character sympathetic, my personal reaction was to remember those of my tutors who regarded anti-Marxists, like myself, as deluded trash. The relief I felt when I moved to study in Canada and did not have to even address the concept of Marxism, was great indeed.

In the context of academic freedom, there may be a place for the Marxist analysis, but Cristina's piece just reminds me why I want to see the role of the state in the Universities diluted substantially. Neither admissions policy nor most other facets of University life can be free for as long as the government pays the piper.

One of the best lines in the play was that it is not the government that is the source of the people's freedom, but the people themselves. We have says one of the characters "created a democracy of obedience". We are not permitted to know how much our hospitals cost for utterly spurious reasons of invented commercial confidentiality, we are stripped of our privacy- quite literally- by CCTV X-Rays. We permit criminality at the highest level of government.

At least we can role back the state from the Universities- can't we?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Information and Knowledge

"There's a difference between information and knowledge. It's the difference between Christy Turlington's phone number and Christy Turlington." P.J. O'Rourke

This week The BBC Radio "Today Programme" is examining the results of the large increase in Health expenditure that was initiated in 2000 when Tony Blair committed his government to match the average spend across the European Union. As they note, over the past seven years total health spending across the UK has increased by 2% of GDP ans is now approximately 9.3% of GDP, while cash spend by the NHS alone has more than doubled - by around £55 billion.

Unfortunately, this has not resulted in a dramatic increase in the speed or quality of patient care. Examining how the money is spent:

They show a detailed breakdown of the £19 billion cash increase in spending for the hospital and community health services part of the English NHS from 2004/5 to 2007/8. It is not possible to put together national numbers (a statement that is revealing in itself).

Around 34% of the £19 billion was swallowed up by increases in NHS staff pay. New pay deals - not only for GPs and Consultants, but all NHS employees - have been expensive (and the returns, in terms of better care, higher productivity somewhat elusive so far). Amazing errors have been made: no cap on GP pay packages, for example. Higher prices for NHS procurement further 5%- just simple inflation.

Other cost pressures have arisen too- paying for the consequences of implementing the EU working time directive for junior doctors, paying out on clinical negligence claims and so on. These add up to a further 30% of the £19 billion cake.

Overall, just 31% of the £19 billion - £5.9 billion - is left to spend on developing services, improving the quality of care, meeting targets and so on. So there has been some increase in resources: staff, beds, equipment and so on. The total NHS workforce in England, for example, has grown by 20% between 2000 and 2005; consultant numbers by 25%, nurses by 17%, GPs by 11%, but the biggest increase of all is the number of managers: over 30%

Meanwhile, we know that NHS activity has increased. Total hospital admissions have increased by 1.9 million between 2000 and 2005 - although nearly three-quarters of this has been emergency cases and not elective work. Some numbers: cancer survival rates, for example, have improved somewhat.

The fact is though that although ministers had some information about the system that they controlled, the fact is that few of them, if any, had real knowledge of the conditions on the ground. The spectacular increase in costs has been mostly absorbed by the system without delivering commensurate improvement in patient care. This was predicted by many, and is going to be a function of the bureaucracy.

The time has come to devolve control away from those who rely on information in favour of people on the ground who have real knowledge. Decentralisation and diversity are now going to be the keys for better delivery- and that probably has to mean a far greater use of private sector providers. This may be anathema, but with more than £3 billion being spent on an unnecessary centralised IT system and when two thirds of the £19 billion increase in English expenditure- £12.6 billion- is simply absorbed by the system itself, then it is clear that the case for the end of the current system is becoming ever more persuasive.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Snow thoughts from Abroad

I am waiting in a snowy Tallinn Airport waiting for my flight back to London.

As always, fun to spend time in the Estonian Capital, meeting with old friends and working on some interesting transactions. The construction boom is continuing apace, although more and more people are reporting a shortage of construction workers. Salaries are increasing, but clearly not fast enough to attract returnees from Finland, Norway or the UK in sufficient numbers to fill the gaps.

In general, though the Estonians regard a period overseas as a necessary part of any career. Gaining experience overseas and speaking English are not seen as optional - even for tradespeople- in this highly educated country. The assumption persists here that the time spent overseas though is not indefinite. Certainly there has been a turnover of people- with the average stay away being about 3 years.

With other countries, the flow has been a little less balanced, and in larger numbers too. However, even amongst the Poles and the Lithuanians, the countries that have seen the largest percentage migration, there has been considerable turnover. In the UK, there have been an estimated 600,000 Poles arriving in the UK since Poland joined the EU in 2004. However there is nothing like this number present in the UK now. Despite this we have seen small communities of Poles emerging in widely scattered places across the UK- and unlike many other groups who tend to settle solely in the larger British conurbations. Although the majority of the people in these communities will return to their homeland, it has been interesting to see the way that the communities have developed and it is probably true to say that some, through marriage or inertia will settle permanently in the UK.

As we saw from the recent story of a Yorkshireman with West African genes: "twas ever thus". Our islands have received many migrations over the years: Huguenots, Flemings, Danes, East African Asians and many other groups have come and eventually become assimilated. Indeed so it was with the wartime Poles: including my Great Uncle Wadek who fought in the RAF.

In the long term, this generation of Poles or Lithuanians who settle in the UK will assimilate too. In the short term, they may have some distinct political impact. Those that vote, (and all EU citizens are permitted to vote in local- including the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly- and European elections, though not for Westminster) tend not to be pro-Labour, whose colour scheme is too close to that of the despised Communist rulers of the past. The influence of the Roman church also remains powerful amongst Poles and to a lesser extent Lithuanians, and this tends to reinforce Conservative thinking. That being said the many and growing scandals besetting the Church in Poland have driven church attendance down, even in the "most faithful daughter of the church". Furthermore, people who choose to come to the UK tend to be more "Royalist than the King"- and resent those drippy creeps in local councils who abolish the Union Jack in order "not offend anyone". Almost by definition anyone who has the get up and go to relocate to a new country is a hard working self starter, and they resent as much as anyone the dependency culture of welfare addicts which drives up their tax bills.

So, on balance many immigrants are economically Liberal but quite often socially Conservative. Of course, it depends on the country of origin: Estonians tend to be socially more Liberal, Bulgarians less intolerant of the "Socialist" label. Another factor to consider is the voter participation rates for immigrant workers tend to be very low, so any effect is likely to be fairly marginal. Nevertheless at the last election the "ten Liberal points" were printed in Polish as well as a variety of other languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Chinese, Portuguese and about a dozen more on some leaflets. It will count in some places.

As a sit in the lounge I ponder: how diverse the UK is, and to a great extent it always was. Though in recent years the number and range of countries of origin of people in the UK has grown, Britain has always welcomed the world. We remain cosmopolitan, and it is one of our greatest strengths.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

New European Vision

OK, first things first... The European Union needs to change.

The question is, how?

Last night the Estonian Prime Minister, Andrus Ansip, put forward a few ideas.

Firstly, and unlike most British political leaders, he made the point that the European Union as it stands has had a generally beneficial effect- "as a peacemaker, the Union has been of central importance". Economically the single market and enlargement have had a terrifically positive effect.

However, his vision of Europe is not one of mushy Federalism, what he called "the absorption of countries by the EU"; instead he spoke repeatedly of the integration of nation states. States working together in common interests, but not the creation of a National European identity, which he does not believe is possible anyway, still less desirable. Europe is a positive, but there are nevertheless limits to what Europe should try to do. Nevertheless, he also insisted that enlargement should still be pursued as a goal, and provided that the Copenhagen criteria are met in full, would welcome enlargement to Turkey and all other European states.

In fact this is not too far away from the actual British position, as opposed to the hysterical posturing of our political leaders. However I think that we can do better than this. The key freedom to work for in Europe is free trade. The breaking down of separate regulatory regimes, which acted as de facto trade barriers was the idea behind the Single European Act. Yet the bulk of this deregulation was concerned with goods. Services, and in particular financial services were not addressed. If a clear agenda is to be established for the European Union it must surely be focused on two areas that will generate the maximum economic benefits: the creation of a far more developed single European market for services, especially financial services. The second is to abolish the Common Agricultural Policy, and open up our markets to agricultural producers across the planet- especially in Africa.

Talking to Andrus Ansip afterwards, there was a great sense of disappointment with the position of the UK: "Always, it seems, that the UK is preparing to leave the room". Indeed, the Anti-European feeling is very strong in Britain. However there is a case to make to embrace reform and to put forward a positive agenda- which the British have failed to do since the late 1980s, when it was- ironically enough- Margaret Thatcher's government that fought the case for the single European market. Stuart Wheeler, the former Conservative donor, asked a question from the audience about the Court of Auditors failure to certify the EU accounts. I agree with him that the procedures and practices of the European Union need some pretty radical reform, however I do not believe that the EU is irredeemably unreformable. Like Prime Minister Ansip, I believe that we gain far more from our membership than we can ever gain from being outside.

The European Union is headed for a political crossroads: there are going to be new leaders in Britain and France. The opportunity for Britain is to put forward a new pro-active world view that will embrace free trade, free services and institutional reform inside the European Union.

UKIP have a clear position, but I think that it is British national interests to be able to directly influence the rules and regulations of the European Union- many of which, like Norway today- we would have to obey anyway. I can not support the UKIP position. The Conservatives pretend that the "threat" of British detachment or even exit from the EU will pursuade the other member states to support out views. Personally I regard this as self deluding, dishonest nonsense. Labour are passive in their dealings with the other member states.

The Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to speak out for a genuinely Liberal Europe. We are in favour of free trade and freer movement in services and agriculture, we are against a European super state and "ever closer union". We should speak out in favour of the limits to Europe, but also to point out the benefits we have and that we can gain from our co-operation with the other member states. Europe is most successful when it addresses functional and practical issues, rather than federalist symbolism. There is still much to acheive on the functionalist agenda- and much for Britain to gain from a re-energised functionalist programme- and one of the greatest gains would be renewed respect from our friends and partners, including Estonia.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Dinner at 8...

I am just about to go and watch Andrus Ansip, the Estonian Prime Minister, deliver a lecture at the London School of Economics.

The title of his speech: "The European Union: a Positive View" should be a bit of a wake-up call to those, like the paleo-Conservative Anti-European faction, who believe that the UK will have friends if it continues its dog-in the-manger anti Europeanism.

When even the Uber-Liberal Estonians believe that the EU has some qualified success to report, then surely it is time to speak up for Reform within the EU. It is certainly a lot less negative than the isolationist wackiness that the Tory Primitives and their UKIP allies put forward as the centre of their half-baked policy "platform"

I look forward to hearing more of the PMs views over dinner later...

Makes you proud...

So we are all supposed to be environmentally aware? After all what kind of person would deliberately pollute and litter a heritage coast?

Errr.... Brits would.

Personally the police should be allowed to arrest the lot of them for theft- for, despite the history of wreckers and smugglers in the South West, this brazen display is pretty disgusting.

Makes all the sanctimonious drivel about Jade Goody seem rather hypocritical really.

Still, at least they are cleaning up Rat Boy's housing scheme at the Byker wall: it is even being listed, which will obviously transform the lives of those living there.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Minority Report

I made a comment on the putatively Scottish antecedents of Lech Walesa.

I see Lepidus suggest that Walesa is another version of the proto-Indo European word for stranger that gives English the word Welsh and the Germans the word Wendisch- and indeed is the root of the name Wallace, from which (it is suggested) the Walesa actually derives.

I don't think- short of DNA evidence- that we can truly check to what degree Lech Walesa is actually Scottish- after all there were so many Scots who settled in Royal Prussia, and in particular the City of Gdansk (then, of course, Danzig), so there is every chance that the former President has at least some Scottish blood- if not from the first bearer of his surname.

The area around Gdansk has a distinct identity- and, unusually for Poland, quite a strong accent. Indeed the Slavic population of that formerly most German of Provinzen, Prussia has not always regarded itself as Polish, but rather Kashub- or Kaszub, in its Polish spelling. The Kaszuby retain a distinct identity (Like the Goraly of the Polish Tatra, whose greatest son was, perhaps Papierz Jan Pawel II- Pope John Paul II).

The Kaszuby are just one group in the Baltic who have retained an identity despite the periodic tides of history often being unfavourable. In Skane- today southern Sweden- the local population retain a dialect and customs that have more in common with their Danish neighbours- not too surprising, considering the area was Denmark as late as 1658.

In the Aland islands, nominally part of Finland, Swedish speakers have established a high level of autonomy- and this carries over to the Swedish minority on the mainland of Finland, whose culture and language remain obvious even in modern Helsinki (Which the Swedes still call Helsingfors)- the Swedish language newspapers are still respected and have a long history behind them.

In Estonia, there is a great tradition of respecting the identities of national minorities. During the first republic the World Jewish Council gave a gold medal to the Estonian government for the way the Estonian constitution promoted the building blocks of cultural autonomy: schools and even guaranteed representation in the Parliament of Estonia. Even today such provisions continue to hold, but bear in mind that in 1938 the population of Estonia was 88% Estonian, but after the Second World War, the Estonians were decimated: exile and the camps took a dreadful toll, while the colonisation of Estonia by Russians was encouraged by Soviet authorities. The population of Russians grew to 25.7% and the proportion of Estonians fell to 68.6%. Still, even this recent wave of immigration is developing an Estonian identity- and indeed an identifiable Estonian accent when they speak their own language. Nevertheless the Russians and the indigenous minorities: the Setulased and the speakers of the impenetrable Voru Keel continue to have a rich and full cultural life. Even the Old Believers - hidden away on the shores of Lake Peipus- retain a proud independence.

In Latvia, in addition to Russians ,there are still the survivors of the ancient Livonians whose Finno-Ugric tongue, related to Estonian, still has a few hundred speakers- and indeed it is taught in schools even today.

Lithuania, at first glance, seems to have little to differentiate the various groups, but in fact each region, as in Latvia and Estonia has certain distinct characteristics. Although it might be going a bit too far to call the Samogitians a group separate from the Lithuanians, there is no doubt that they are certainly distinct.

After a while it is possible to see the Baltic as a patchwork, not of different states but of different cultural-linguistic groups. Sometimes this can get very complicated: For example, while Latvians are generally Protestant, there is group in the South East- the Latgalians- that are generally Catholic, like their neighbors the Lithuanians. Yet the policy of Latvia has more often been aligned with its northern neighbour than its southern, despite a common linguistic root.

The new President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, has often spoken of Estonia's membership of a wider Northern European cultural identity- he calls this Yule-land, based upon the fact that all of the Northern side of the Baltic, plus Britain and Estonia use the word Yule, or a variant thereof. Indeed he has previously suggested that this cultural identity could have a political dimension.

So distinct identities do still have some definition, even in a part of Europe where the question of national identity is not so controversial as once it was. In some sense we could identify Lech Walesa as a Kaszub, a citizen of the Hanseatic City of Gdansk and as part of the wider Baltic world.

However, I think that his chosen identity is neither Danziger nor Scottish, but as a patriotic, pious and proud Pole: Semper Fidelis.

Blue Monday

No Not the New Order Song- Apparantly it is Today- the most depressing day of the year- Official!

Well, I don't feel too bad- the exercise programme continues, I have not taken up smoking, and although things political are a bit dull at the moment, I have little doubt that normal service will be resumed.

Admittedly my work colleague has been quoting Julian and Sandy from Round the Horne, but I am sure that he can get treatment at the Marine Commando Club, Paddington- if required.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Meedja

I have become more irritated in recent days with the ignorance with which the "Meedja" are approaching the debate about the future of the UK. They base their ideas upon a simple but utterly flawed premise. That the choice for Scotland and the wider UK is between the current partial and unfair system and outright independence.

Simon Heffer in the Telegraph displayed all the sensitivity for which he is renowned in his analysis: basically "the Scots have changed the rules of the Union and I don't want to play any more".

Well, tough!

As always the Labour government has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by turning a basically good thing: the advent of a Scottish Parliament, and turn it into a fiasco. However the fact is that the choice is not the dogs breakfast of the current system or the end of Britain. The fact that the Meedja insist that it is, is an insult to the intelligence.

All along the Liberal Democrats have said that the only way to create a stable constitution is to have genuine home rule for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. How England wishes to be ruled is up to them- but there is nothing wrong with handing back control over health and education to the County councils- after all several English counties are larger than member states of the European Union and comparable to the federal units of Germany or Spain.

As for Scotland- of course there should be greater economic autonomy-and that does not mean larger subsidies, it means controlling the budget that is spent now- and preferably making it smaller.

However the Meedja will insist that the choice is being shot and being hanged, rather than a genuine debate about real and improved alternatives to either. Poor things they really find it all so difficult.

Not surprising then to see that having created a star out of the ignorant and obnoxious Jade Goody, the Meedja (and God save us dubious politicians like Keith Vaz) are now delighting in her inevitable self destruction. As she is doubtless removed from the Big Brother House- probably to an orgy of booing- I will reflect that if Britain is a nation of Chavs it is the Media itself that must bear much of the blame for the respect they give to freak show guests like Goody and her clan and the contempt they show towards people who might be better informed than they are- a large percentage of the population, it seems.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

More things in Heaven and Earth

The implications of Quanta have always intrigued me: the idea of an infinitely repeating number of observable Universes creates a fantastically baroque cosmology.

I see Marcus Chown shows up the effects of an infinite quantum Universe in a piece for the Telegraph.

Not only is Elvis alive, but in an infinite number of Observable Universes you, dear reader, are the Prime Minister, in an infinite number of different of Observable Universes you have green hair, in an infinite number more you are Stalin, or Mother Teresa or an international playboy and jet setter.

Don't get too excited though- Cicero is all of these things in another reality too.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Wi' Wallace bled

Two quotes from "Scots Wha Hae" in a single day- what can be the meaning of this?

Lepidus pointed out a story in The Economist about Poles coming to the Highlands in significant numbers, many of whom have names that were originally Scottish.

I think that the story might have come from a comment I made to Edward Lucas about Lech Walesa, whose name has been said, without any confirmation, to be a corruption of Wallace.

Certainly the family is very much part of the area- and may be Kaszub - and of course the City of Gdansk does have two districts: Stare and Nowe Szkoty.

The coming crisis in the British Public Sector

Once upon a time there was an Island country that had an independent civil service. This civil service attracted many good brains and so was a finely honed tool of administration. Senior leaders of the civil service were not extravagantly paid- indeed they usually earned less than their equivalent in the private sector, but there were regular perks: Knighthoods for the big bosses and good gongs for the rest that help to recompense the lack. In addition there was a pension that was non contributory and index linked, so overall the civil service was not that badly off. There was a certain "flexibility" too- since decision making was private mistakes could occasionally be overlooked and therefore not blight the careers of those involved: Ministers were responsible for their departments, and if the mistakes that were made were serious enough, then the Minister would have to carry the can and resign. As The Economist points out, this week, much has changed

Over time the public sector became less fashionable and struggled to attract the cream of the graduates that it had once enjoyed. Salaries began to rise substantially. Over the five years to 2006 the number of senior civil servants earning over £100,000 tripled. Even areas that were nominally autonomous, although funded by the state, like the Health Service, saw pay scales soar. The average GP was soon earning over £100,000 too. The British National Health Service, which had not delivered adequate service for some time, despite the earnest ideals of the 1946 National Health Service Act, but had at least been relatively cheap, now became both inadequate and expensive.

Further blows followed. Public sector pensions also increased vastly in cost- no longer could the unfunded pensions be ignored, when the cost the average British family over £900 a year. The attractiveness of public sector pensions led to vast- but entirely legal-fiddles, where huge pensions could be purchased for minimal outlay, provided that the employee stayed in the state sector, and final salary schemes continued unchecked- opening up a gigantic deficit in the public pensions systems.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the Army began to become involved in the pillaging of the public purse. The value of projected PFI projects contracted for equipment and training exceeded the entire military budget for 2006- an estimated cost of over £35 billion.

While nominal inflation remained low in the economy as a whole, the cost inflation rate for the public sector became a massive multiple of costs elsewhere. The projected increases in the role of public sector proposed by Gordon Brown did not take into account the even larger increases in unfunded pension liabilities which multiplied the overall costs dramatically.

Sterling interest rates- already at a considerable premium to Euro rates- began to increase more rapidly than the UKs competitors....

What happens next?

Brown has not delivered prudence, he has delivered accounting adjustments (and statistical fiddles). The cost of the public sector, nominally sustainable, is in fact out of control.

The consequences, together with the pressures on the British Housing Market point to a serious downturn. The bond market- trading on an inverted yield curve-already predicts this.

Scots Wha Hae

The last few weeks, since the publication of a poll in November suggesting that the majority of both Scots and English support independence, have seen the debate on the issue grow much hotter.

This is very far from the first time, in recent years, that the majority of Scots have supported independence- indeed it was the usual state of affairs for much of the last ten years of the last Conservative period in government. Perhaps then that we should not be surprised to see that Iain Dale has been running a poll about whether Scottish "Devolution" has strengthened the Union , and even less surprised to see that 92% of the readers of Iain's blog think that it has not.

I beg to differ.

I passionately believe in the "claim of right" of the Scottish people to control their own affairs. I do not believe in Devolution- that implies power has been handed down to the Scottish people from on high. I believe in Home Rule- the free decision of Scotland to share its sovereignty with the other nations of the United Kingdom. Under Labour, we do not yet have this, but I will continue to argue for and believe in a Federal Britain.

Looking back to 1997. The decision by Labour to create a Parliament for Scotland (and an Assembly for Wales) was the "unsettled business" of John Smith, the lost Labour leader, and the Parliament is his lasting memorial. However had such a Parliament not been created, I believe that the frustration of the 74.3% of the population that supported the creation of the Parliament would have boiled over. Scotland already had devolved government- but it was devolved to the unaccountable Scottish Office. Scotland's legal system was practically the only one in the world without its own legislature, and the compromises of passing legislation twice through the House of Commons was eroding many of the key legal principles inherent in the Scottish system- creating strange anomalies.

I have always found the smugness of Alex Salmond strangely unconvincing, even though in the North East of Scotland, particularly, the overlap of SNP and Liberal Democrat voters is substantial. However, neither do I believe that the election of the SNP to the Scottish Executive would automatically end the Union. I think that the position of Scotland would become like Quebec or Catalonia- a distinct entity, for sure, but not necessarily independent.

Denying Scotland its Parliament would have driven the Union to destruction- and given the history of other parts of the UK, it is not fanciful to believe that the denial of Scotland's democratic rights would have led to violence.

Thankfully the Conservatives lost the election of 1997- and the bone-headed way that English Conservatives continue to approach the issues of Scottish governance underlines why it remains unlikely that the Tories will ever recover north of the border. "Devolution" can not be wished away- but it can be improved, and the major part of that is the creation of comparable English entities in order to restore the balance of our common constitution.

Another Europe...

The latest release of public documents throws up the interesting story that Guy Mollet, the French Prime Minister of the time, suggested in 1956 that France and Britain form a Union.

The idea of France joining the Commonwealth- then an organisation of far more substance than it has today- was taken seriously at the time in London. France under the Fourth Republic was yet to develop the robust nationalism that has been the hallmark of the Fifth Republic. It is interesting to speculate what kind of Europe we would see today, had France moved so decisively into the British camp, rather than, as it turned out, building the bridges to Germany that ultimately became the Franco-German motor.

Arguably, a Franco-British deal would have simply reinforced the continuing bitterness against Germany, and perpetuated the divisions that caused the First and Second World Wars, Perhaps Germany would have quietly slipped into the Soviet orbit- a state of affairs that would have made a third world war all but certain.

I find it interesting to see how different the Europe of the 1950s actually was, and this gives me pause when I view the current state of the continent. Much of the comments about the current state of the European Union are based around the idea that it is a stable entity. In fact, I would suggest that the balance of power will not remain decisively with the original founders, and particularly not with the Franco-German motor as conceived after the abandonment of the Mollet inspired Franco-British Union.

The dramatic catch-up that the formerly captive half of the continent is now making is impressive- Estonia and Latvia are likely to achieve Scandinavian levels of wealth within half a generation, and even slower movers are comfortably outpacing the growth rates of the original six EEC members. Meanwhile the more sceptical tone of these new members has reinforced the position of the British- who championed their membership, in sharp contrast to the arrogant posturing of Jacques Chirac who diminished French influence spectacularly with a series of own goals.

British foreign policy has been to promote the Central Europeans, and they have been loyal to the UK as a fellow Atlanticist nation. However, there is growing frustration in the chancelleries of Central and Eastern Europe. Having just joined the EU, there is little patience for the "Better-Off Out" school of British politics, who are mostly regarded as demented loonies. David Heathcoat Amory's trip to Estonia to try to persuade the Estonians to veto EU entry was regarded with frank bemusement in Tallinn, for example.

There is a giant difference between regarding the idea of European co-operation as a positive, while being opposed to aspects of the Union and the way it conducts its business and being against membership of the European Union. There are major problems with the European Union, but leaving the organisation will not solve them, and will weaken Britain. By continuing to engage with those countries that share the British wish for genuine reform: Scandinavia and the CEE states not least, Britain can create its own motive force for a EU based on more liberal and free trade principles: the Single European act was an early example of British policies achieving major successes, with more allies now members, the UK ought to be developing things still further.

The one thing that we should not be doing is alienating our new allies in the East.

Therefore the comments of Liam Fox suggesting that Poland and Hungary should have their membership of NATO suspended are at best spectacularly ill-judged. They show a clunking understanding of the new geo-political realities in Europe- especially considering the sacrifices that have been made by their forces in Iraq: While the British military has reported 126 deaths; Italy, 33; Ukraine, 18; Poland, 18; Bulgaria, 13; Spain, 11; Denmark, six; El Salvador, five; Slovakia, four; Estonia, Netherlands, Thailand, two each; and Australia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Romania, one death each. Romania has also lost four service personnel in Afghanistan.

Frankly, David Cameron should fire him on the spot.

Next week Prime Minister Andrus Ansip of Estonia will be speaking at the LSE. His title: "The European Union: a positive view" underlines the fact that Anti-Europeanism in Britain finds no echo, even in the most free-market European State. Genuine Euro-scepticism, on the other hand, does find such an echo.

We do not know what the geo-political realities will be for Britain in fifty years time- but provocative stupidity like Liam Fox's comments can not be tolerated in any responsible party.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The power of symbols

I meant to comment earlier on the decision in Estonia to equate the symbolism of the Soviets with that of the Nazis and ban both.

The reaction from Russia- the usual offensive bluster- just reminds us that they still do not understand the scale of evil that these symbols represent.

All the Estonians I know- and I know many- had family members who were taken. Many never returned. Those that did were often broken in health and spirit. These were innocent victims of an inhuman ideology.

Of course the Estonians take it personally.

Russia still does not acknowledge that the occupation of the Baltic was a crime. It is not like the Balts intend to change borders or demand financial restitution. All they ask is an acknowledgment.

The silence from Putin's Russia is deafening- and it speaks in libraries of what the Kremlin still believes.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"I may not have succeeded.."

I met Robin Cook, the former British Foreign Secretary, a few times over the course of his life.

The first time was while I was campaigning with Malcolm Bruce, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the 1992 election. During that campaign there were several set piece debates involving the four leaders, Malcolm, Ian Lang- the then Conservative Secretary of State- Donald Dewar for Labour and Alex Salmond of the SNP. Over the course of the campaign we grew quite friendly with "the opposition". Occasionally one or another of the leaders might be substituted, depending on commitments elsewhere, and indeed in Lanark, for a BBC hustings, Robin Cook turned up in place of Donald Dewar.

Where Dewar was gregarious and warm, Cook was watchful, suspicious even. He sat alone in the green room checking out the "Racing Post" and gathering his thoughts. He struck me then as a solitary figure- quite unlike the cheerful and joke-cracking Dewar.

Through the years that passed, that initial judgement- that he was an intense, driven and solitary man- did not much change. Then, as it turned out less than three weeks before his death, I was present at a small and private reception at the Estonian Embassy in order to see him being presented with one of Estonia's highest decorations: the Order of Terra Mariana.

This Robin Cook was much mellowed. It was as though the experience of his second marriage and the principled stand he had taken against the war in Iraq had liberated him. One no longer had a sense of caution, of prickliness, but of a man who was comfortable inside his skin. While I had respected his stance, he had hitherto seemed admirable perhaps, but not likable. That day, he was charming, thoughtful and wise.

His sudden death a few days later came as a real shock.

On the day that George W. Bush announces a further "surge" in the prosecution of the bloody war of attrition that Iraq has become, it seems somehow appropriate that Robin Cook's epitaph has been published:

"I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war"

I now think, what might things have been like, if Robin Cook had lived. For all his faults, he was a man of principle and at the end a man of honour.

Alas, too late, the Statesman awoke and he is sorely missed now.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Educashun Educashon Education

I am not going to get at Ruth Kelly- her own side will do that for her. For me it just underlines the tangled web that Labour have created for themselves when talking about Education.

It strikes me that we should now start thinking more Liberally about education- and that means from the consumer interest and not just the producer, which has been something that we have done too much of in the past. In recent months there has been a renewed interest and debate about selection at secondary level. Personally I am not in favour of the abolition of selection where it still exists- basically Bucks and Kent in England- and neither is my party. The real question though is about choice.

The problem I have with Bucks is that the choice available is quite poor. Firstly, the Grammar schools are nowhere near as good as they think: when you look at the Key Stage levels, the school that does best in Wycombe is actually: Great Marlow- a "secondary modern". So despite getting the pick of the pupils, and being better funded and frankly having more supportive, better funded p.t.a.s the results are not as good as they really should be for the grammar schools like RGS, Wycombe girls or John Hampden. Does that mean that selection should be abolished- no! HoweverI would like to see a comprehensive alternative available- and I think it would do well.

Meanwhile, I am becoming more persuaded that choice in education should mean vouchers- and a broader supply of education provision. My own experience was in a large streamed comprehensive. There were faults, but compared to my siblings, who went to minor public schools I did not do too badly. The interesting thing is that the quality of education I received was probably a bit better, but also in the price of the public school was some perceived "prestige"- all part of the market price, but with a voucher scheme, I think that prestige might depend a bit more on academic merit and less on snobbery.

There are positive-and negative- lessons from selection, but the key is to create more diversity of supply and thus a genuine choice for pupils and their parents. Meanwhile the role of the state should be reduced- including the disaster of the national curriculum, which has reduced science and eliminated modern languages. Menwhile it is good to see that the pathetic grade inflation of the GCSE and A levels now faces a challenge from the Bac.Personally I think that the market will always solve this problem eventually, and only government interventionism (of which the Conservatives BTW were just as guilty as Labour) kept the obviously devalued exams in place for so long.

So in short, creating genuine choice- ie a free market- in education is not just a matter of academic selection at 11. It involves creating competiton and diversity. It involves reducing the role of the state- with vouchers, anyone who fulfills the contractual requirements could be able to open a school.

Meanwhile, although my party currently opposes it, I do think that Universities must be freed from government control and be allowed to set fees independently. Again vouchers, possibly funded by a graduate tax would make sense here.

Inevitably education has ended up as a political football - especially for the Labour class warriors. Now I think we have got to be pragmatic and open minded. 7 million functionally illiterate adults and 47% of the population unable to understand percentages (oh, the irony) is not a good record.

Ultimately, though, this is to do as much with social policy as with educational policy. I beleive in a society based on personal autonomy, which means if you screw up, you might have a minimum safety net, but other than that, you take the consequences. That is the flip side of freedom, and one that we must accept with open eyes.

So a controversial post, but I hope it will stimulate some ideas- the cosy complacency inbuilt in the current approach has reached its best before date. The time has come to think about more radical solutions.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Political Tactics in 2007

Once again "Lepidus" issues a challenge for this blog to respond to.

His basic point is that: "Manchester Withington [was] probably the most extraordinary Lib Dem result of all time. Bigger swings have been achieved, but really only in By-Elections. Tory vote drops by a third, John Leech elected.

Take two: Islington South close marginal, Lib Dem vote rises but so does the Tory vote! Result: Emily Thornberry MP.

That is is why Withington was won and I(slington)S(outh) not. There are scores of seats up the Country where Labour's machine has atrophied, with decent Tory votes but with the Lib Dems having surged into second. The Tory votes in such seats will indisputably be key as to your seat count. I bet Lord Rennard thinks so. Agree do you not......."

But actually it seems self evident that I do agree, and we need to ensure that we can get votes from both Labour and the Conservatives. The point I am making in my rant is what we need these votes for.

The battle for power in British politics has become a struggle for the supposed centre ground, with focus groups dictating the positioning of party policy. I believe that this has been entirely corrosive. I think that it is incumbent upon political leaders to have some moral backbone and to set out clearly their basic credo. This is why I have been so contemptuous of David Cameron thus far: his refusal to outline basic policy principles is a fraud against the electorate, since either he has such principles, but refuses to speak up because he fears that they may be unpopular, or that he has no such principles, in which case he is a moral pygmy.

The standard response from the Conservatives has been- I paraphrase- "stating policies is too much a hostage to fortune, and opens us up to attack from our enemies".

My response is that if the Conservatives have so little confidence in their own ideology, then perhaps they should pack up now.

I have considerable confidence in Liberalism as an ideology- I believe that the debates in our party are eliminating a lot of the waffle and injecting a properly Liberal demand to set limits on the size and role of the State. I believe that the Liberal agenda of Freedom and Personal autonomy are things that are necessary to our society, and that furthermore they will, when properly set-out, be popular too.

Once I might have said that the Lib Dem agenda, as an explicitly free market based ideology, would be more attractive to otherwise Conservative voters. Historically, the Liberals and the Liberal Democrats gained more when Conservatives were weaker than when Labour was weaker: so stronger in the two 1974 elections (19.3% and 18.3%), but falling back in the 1979 (13.8%) when the Tories surged to power. It was only in 1983, after the creation of the Alliance, that ex-Labour voters seem to have come to the Party in bigger numbers, and even that surge- to 25.4%- was blunted to only 22.6% in 1987. Subsequently the party changed its tactics in order maximise seat gains, but as a result the party remained below 20% until the 2004 election, when it received 22%, despite an increase in the Conservative vote- only the second time in my lifetime that both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat votes increased significantly at the same time (the other being 1983). However, the big question now is how bad is the disillusion with Labour? Although anecdotally, in such places as Wycombe, Labour are clearly in deep trouble, there is no polling evidence of a general rout of Labour.

What does this mean in the current political climate? Firstly I believe that we should not say too much about the programmes of the other two parties, but speak positively of our own agenda. However the blurring of the traditional Tory-Labour boundary, as a result of focus-group led politics, clearly may allow the Lib Dems to gain support from ex-Labour supporters, in a way that has hitherto been more difficult.

So far, so conventional.

I am beginning to think that some less conventional thinking is called for. The gradual decline in electoral participation rates, I believe, is our democracy beginning to show its age. The systems that we use are primarily 19th century in origin and the political system, including the parties, may be reaching a critical point. The are predicated upon ideas of the exclusivity of political decision making. Part of this blog is explore some of the issues that we will need to address, at a time when unexpected challenges are beginning to emerge to the general conventional wisdom about liberal, democratic States. Thus I think that ideas of personal autonomy and freedom will assume considerably higher significance as technology- including blogging- changes the nature of the political debate and potentially changes the nature of political decision making.

Thus the role of ideas, what might be called ideology, may prove to be of lasting significance, even while political organisations weaken still further. The internal compromises of party political policy making lose their emphasis in the more open forum which technology may provide.

On the other hand, technology may threaten our personal autonomy, with invasions of privacy on a scale that will be hard to control, unless the principles of freedom and privacy are built into the very structure of our political systems- and it worries me that too many politicians fail to understand, still less to grasp, the nature of the issues that we will have to address. Cameron has had an opportunity to demonstrate that his agenda engages with these future challenges: so far, no dice. It may well be that he can simply ride the political pendulum to power, if he does, though, he will be a failure. He needs to lead a moral and political debate, to demonstrate the credentials of his leadership: so far he has failed. He shows all the failings of his PR background, with no sign of a deeper understanding. Gordon Brown has such a moral agenda- as indeed, to be fair, has Tony Blair, its just that his principled stand turned out to be Iraq, where he was completely wrong at almost every level.

We can see that Brown will be different from Blair, but not necessarily better. He will continue to expand the state and to believe in micro-management. Liberal Democrats will oppose him with renewed vigour: Brown is an anti-Liberal. I don't even know what Cameron is, and as time passes, I don't much care either- he lacks the moral courage to speak out anyway.

The 27 times table

The enlargement of The European Union to include Bulgaria and Romania has not quite been the celebration that the previous enlargement to ten other countries was a couple of years ago. Perhaps this is because to some degree this is an enlargement of the also-rans: the countries that could not make enough changes to get entry in 2004. Perhaps too, by every estimation, there is still considerable work for the acceding states to complete, even after entry. Bulgaria and Romania are a third as wealthy as the EU average, which itself is diluted, since the 2004 entries were themselves only half as wealthy as the EU of 15 states. Bulgaria and Romania are still poor, with weak institutions and considerable problems with corruption and crime. The UK, having opened the door to the 2004 applicants has retained work restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians (albeit that these restrictions are more cosmetic than real). So this enlargement has been a subdued affair- in keeping with the air of gloom that pervades the European body politic these days.

Meanwhile the fact that the procedures that were designed for a European Union of 12 in 1992 are supposed to function for a Union of 27 has underlined several of the problems of the organisation. Nevertheless, the fact is that the Union is functioning-and still reasonably well- suggests that the pessimists, who insist that without the Constitutional Treaty the EU is doomed to gridlock, my be slightly over plying their hand. Although the majority of the EU members have ratified the treaty- the fact of the rejection by the electorate of two of the founding members: France and the Netherlands is not something that can easily be set aside. Nor should it be, especially as several other countries, including the UK, would find the treaty extraordinarily difficult to ratify, even if France and Holland eventually do so.

The problem of the Constitutional treaty is that it tries to do too many things and satisfy too many constituencies: from dyed in the wool Federalists to Free Traders. Although many of the measures in the treaty are practical, the fact is that the total effect is cumbersome and not focused on the key issue of accountability. The European Union needs reform, but perhaps we should now return to the practical and functional approach of the original six. The political climate is not right, even were it desirable on other grounds, to emphasise the symbolism of Federalism.

The fact is that The European Union is most successful when it devotes its efforts to genuine economic liberalisation: as the single European market has proven. That work is not yet complete- as the absurd protectionism in financial services that continues, following the cynical rejection of 12 years of work on the Financial Services directives has shown. While a reduction in costs and a streamlining of decision making would be welcome, the fact that these measures come wrapped in much symbolic erosion of National Sovereignty has effectively killed off the whole project. Angela Merkel argues that the Treaty should be resurrected, in order to restart momentum in the Organisation. I disagree- of far greater benefit would be the extension of the single market into Finance.

Unfortunately the cynical veto of that legislation came from Mrs. Merkel's own Germany. So it seems that we must go down the cul-de-sac of the Constitutional treaty, before the use of the Union can be proven again, and the gloom begin to lift.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Statistical Error

Following on from yesterday's story on the basic failings in literacy, even of graduate job applications. It occurred to me to check the literacy rates across different countries. The list is interesting, for the UK comes out as a highly literate country . Only one problem, despite claiming full adult literacy, even the UK statistics agencies point out that over 7 million people in Britain are functionally illiterate.

Perhaps under the circumstances, we should not be surprised that numeracy is even worse: The Department for Education's own figures suggest that 47% of the adult population understand percentages so little that they would not be able to understand the proposed new food labelling system.

Despite rising pass rates at national exams, despite constant tinkering with the education system, the UK labour force has a large number of dramatically under-skilled workers.

This is a crisis that remains unresolved, despite the "education, education, education" best intentions that Tony Blair brought into office. The problem is that the social standing and respect for education in the UK is pretty low. The result is that the status of teaching is low. The primary consequence of low status is that the general quality of teachers is also inadequate. The various gimmicks that successive governments have applied to the sector - notably the national curriculum- have probably weakened standards overall: science teach is down, language teaching is down sharply and, despite better exam grades, there is considerable anecdotal evidence of generally low literacy and numeracy levels.

The urgency of the problem is clear- the latest forecasts of shortfalls in NHS staffing make for sobering reading. It is not just an economic question of skill shortages. The problem is one of trust. Generally there is a correlation between low levels of education and a propensity to commit crime. The reason why employers also prefer to hire overseas nationals, even for unskilled work, is that they can not trust British born workers. Unreliable attendance, poor punctuality, low productivity, and a generally bad attitude are all problems that British employers face on a daily basis. Not, however, with immigrant labour. The Polish capacity for hard work is quickly becoming proverbial across the country. Hard working, overwhelmingly law abiding, with a positive attitude: no wonder British Employers prefer to hire overseas labour.

Last night I watched a repeat of the Programme "Grand Designs"- the featured House construction was a prefabricated structure imported and erected by German workers. The Germans arrived on site in Britain at five am, to ensure that they could start on time at seven. Unfortunately, the crane, supplied buy the British, arrived three hours late- no-one had checked the address. The Germans had planned to avoid problems: the British were simply sloppy.

It is therefore not a surprise that British workers work the longest hours in Europe: they have to.

The question now is: how to reverse this decay of the social fabric? Uneducated, feral children, prone to violence and criminality, instead of contributing to civic society, end up as its enemies. For me, the key issue is to demonstrate that actions have clear consequences. This has to be part of a social agenda that insists on personal responsibility. Social dependence on welfare must be challenged: limiting the time that certain benefits can be paid, for example, may well be the way forward. In the end, an agenda of personal freedom demands personal responsibility in order to create autonomous citizens.

However, without basic education, our society is not even making it past first base for too many of its citizens.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New Year- same old, same old

Although I was back in the office yesterday, it was something of a quiet day- few people around. As I arrived at my local tube station the joy of the latest tube fare increases was fully apparent: a zone one journey has gone from an extortionate £3 to an eye popping £4- a 33% increase. As usual Ken "sobersides" Livingstone came out with some tosh to justify this disgraceful state of affairs. London tube fares are not just higher than any other major city in the world- they are a multiple of the fares in any other major city in the world. This, together with the near doubling of bus fares and the likely further increase in the congestion charge beyond £8 a day, is just another example of the punishment that the incompetent administration in City Hall visits upon Londoners. I might feel less aggrieved, were it not for the constant drip of Mayoral propaganda on posters across the tube network: the latest being an anti-nuclear poster campaign. Frankly, the cost/benefits of nuclear power stations may not be quite what Greenpeace suggests, and I resent my money being spent on simplistic propaganda based on questionable science.

Mind you, this morning my good humour was slightly restored by the comedy act that is Migration Watch. Having claimed that the benefits of immigration were actually only 4p per citizen, the very next item on the Today Programme was about the elementary mistakes that job seekers make on their applications. Such things as poor grammar, including misspelling "Curriculum Vitae" were amongst the most basic errors. Migration Watch would prefer to impose further costs on British business by forcing them to pay for training, in order to fill skill shortages and thus eliminate the need for immigration. The fact that this would erode British competitiveness to the point that British firms would leave the UK in greater numbers does not seem to have occurred to these Daily Mail reading bigots. Immigration keeps jobs and taxes in the UK. Without it, the jobs would move to where more skilled and more disciplined workers actually live: the quality of the native British labour force is simply uncompetitive as it stands. The 4p number is as spurious as most of the other Migration Watch statistics. Still- it did allow me a chuckle as I emerged from the shower.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

"So farewell then" 2006

It is pretty hard to avoid sounding demi E.J Thribb when saying goodbye to a year.

Politically it has been slightly inconclusive- although the Conservatives have advanced, it does not, as yet, seem enough to give them the chance to win outright, come the next election. Labour seem more becalmed than in actually stormy water, and while the Lib Dems have had a generally poor year, the party is at least becoming more coherent and although polls have been generally down, in local government by-elections, the Lib Dems have achieved considerable success. However, I think no party can look at 2006 with unalloyed satisfaction.

So from the perspective of Liberalism, some progress inside the party, but a generally poor press and falling polls have clearly hurt. Many of our political enemies would like to write off the chances of the Lib Dems- well, the world is littered with the bones of predictions that never happened. The only thing that I can do is to campaign for the core principles that this blog espouses. I believe that we are winning the argument. I also believe that unless the idea of freedom is explicitly incorporated into policy formation, then our society risks blundering in some very dangerous directions.

Another key area for those who advocate strict limits to the state: privacy, is also set to rise up the political agenda. Already I detect a backlash against the snooping state- and, for example, as more DNA is kept on record, the risks of intrusion increase.

Despite the mushiness of both the Labour and Conservative intellectual platforms, I believe that the electorate is seeking a more crunchy style of politics- I hope that the Liberal Democrats can provide it. 2007 may well be the year that we finally see whether the political pendulum will come our way, or whether we have to endure another dead end government.