Monday, April 30, 2007

The delusions of Alex Salmond

I see that in the last few days of the campaign for Holyrood Alex Salmond has claimed that "Independence is not a One Way street". Apparently what he means is that having become independent, Scotland could then somehow become un-independent and rejoin some form of a reconstituted UK.

What a load of crap!

Independence is a one shot- and there really is no going back on separatism.

The fact that Salmond has to invent this spurious line shows how few people are truly convinced about Scottish separatism- only 32% of Scots currently support a wholly independent Scotland.

The fact that Scottish independence is currently supported by a higher number of English voters than Scots, should show "Wee Eck" Salmond that he is talking drivel.

There is still time to avoid having this shallow and dishonest politician as Scotland's First Minister, and I, for one, am far from convinced that the SNP will do as well as the current polls seem to suggest.

Such arrant nonsense should simply remind the Scottish nation why the SNP head is not fit to lead.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Man of Steel, Man of Bronze

In modern Russia there are groups that are essentially Fascist.

The British Ambassador to Moscow has been harried for months by "Nashi" . Essentially Nashi is a pro-Putin group that behaves with considerable brutality- they have rightly been compared with the Nazi SA thugs that helped bully Germany into allowing Hitler into power.

These thugs have now come to Tallinn.

Violence and looting broke out as the government of Estonia sought to move the controversial statue of the "Bronze Man"- a Soviet era memorial to Soviet troops, sometimes known to the bitter Estonians as the "Tomb of the unknown Rapist". At present the statue is next to a tram stop in front of the National Library, but after increasingly bitter demonstrations by Soviet die-hards and Estonian nationalists the decision was taken to relocate the statue to a military cemetery. This violence was planned by the Kremlin.

Russia has used this essentially minor issue of the statue as leverage against Estonia, and the increasingly pro-Soviet regime of Vladimir Putin has tried to use the issue to create tension between Russian-speakers and Estonian-speakers in this prosperous Baltic country.

The drunken riots that Russian policy has supported have now led to the stabbing and subsequent death of one of the hooligans. Given the total cynicism of the current regime in the Kremlin, it is hard not to point the finger of blame at the Nashi thugs and their Moscow sponsors.

In the same week Vladimir Putin has put forward an increasingly hard line position against NATO: threatening Russian withdrawal from the CAFE agreement and bullying Moldova into an accommodation with the Russian sponsored gangsters of Trans-Nistria.

Nashi are not an accident. They are used as an instrument of policy by Putin. The death of a young man and the trashing of central Tallinn are just a reminder of what Putin regards as acceptable- as acceptable as the hounding of the British Ambassador, or -worse- the casual murder of those with the moral courage to question this increasingly brutal regime.

After the corruption of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder by the use of Russian money, Western Democrats must recognise the weakness of the West in the face of multiple challenges form the anti-democratic regime in the Kremlin. We must not remain silent, but support Estonia and Moldova against this regime. In Georgia, where the members of the government are routinely threatened with assassination by Russian agents- and indeed it is hard to view the deaths that have taken place as accidental- the West should become far more outspoken. Russian control over Georgia, and in particular the energy transit route that the country controls, would be a serious blow to the energy security of the West- and deliver control over the vast reserves of Central Asia to a regime that can not be trusted to make an honest bargain.

This week Boris N. Yeltsin finally died- not particularly mourned by most. Yet now his chaotic and incompetent regime looks like a golden era of hope. The arrest of a few demonstrators, including Gary Kasparov shows the paranoia that the supposedly far more popular President Putin now feels about opposition.

Enough!

Despite the vile history of Stalin- the Man of Steel- all that the riots about the Man of Bronze in Tallinn show is that Putin enjoys the same Machiavellian world view, but in the Twenty-first century he is doomed to failure- his metal is not steel, it is tin.

NATO must speak out much more loudly against this tin-pot Mussolini and his drunken hooligan followers.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The possibilities of Ukraine

Ukraine seems to acquire notice only as a place of shifting and unstable politics these days.

The euphoria of the Orange revolution seems to have given way to a war of attrition between the different Ukrainian political blocs. Many are dispirited by this constant bickering and the political merry-go-round in K'yiv. However it seems to me that the situation in Ukraine is drastically better than in neighbouring Russia, despite the negative parallels that some have wished to draw.

Firstly the political problems reflect the fact that Ukraine has a political system. The various regional and economic interests in the country are balanced against each other, and therefore no single group can enforce its will alone- a sharp contrast to the dogmatic authoritarianism in Moscow. Secondly the inability of the centre to impose its sill is a distinct advantage in a country which contains significant diversity. The Eastern, more Russian speaking part of the country does not fear the possibility of compulsory Ukrainian that the more Ukrainian nationalist areas of the West might have forced upon them. Ironically enough this has made the use of Ukrainian more widespread than it might have been- even formerly wholly Russian speaking cities, like Karkhiv, now use more Ukrainian, while K'yiv is now a majority Ukrainian speaking city. Perhaps more importantly, there is far more economic diversity than in dirigiste Russia. Investment is beginning to grow strongly, and major international manufacturing concerns are set to come to the major Ukrainian cities.

Despite the attempt of Putin to drag Ukraine back into the Russian orbit, the lure of the West is stronger- and even the most pro-Russian forces accept that more Western integration for their country is necessary, and indeed desirable. The European Union has shut the door for the moment, but it is clear that Ukraine would like to return to the European orbit (after all the great Prince of Kievian Rus, the Ukrainian proto-State, was Yaroslav the Wise, a direct ancestor of many European Royal Houses, including that of Elizabeth II). While NATO too does not seem willing to expand further, there are voices both inside and outside K'yiv which do not exclude that possibility. In the meantime, the relationship with the EU is expanding, and will grow further following Ukrainian accession to the WTO in the next year or so.

The Ukrainian economy has been growing strongly over the past few years as agriculture and the production of such intermediate goods as raw steel recovers from the maladministration and incompetence of the Soviet era. The steady hand of the Ukrainian central bank has also avoided the volatility and instability of the Bank of Russia's currency management over much of the period since independence. Now, the key will be the opening up of the Ukrainian market and avoiding the temptation of corrupt and questionable economic regulation.

However the news this week that Ukraine, together with Poland, has been made joint host of the Euro-2012 Football championship was something of a Christmas present for the Ukrainians- indeed it is hard to think of anything that would have pleased Ukraine more than being able to see this championship at home. Investment plans are now being dusted off to improve the host cities and also the coast in order to keep the thousands of fans long enough to actually make money from them.

And Vladimir Putin knows that it will help to make Ukraine a far more European place.

Local News

The British political world is more uncertain than for many years- the end of Blairism raises many questions, but what remains surprising is the the fact that so few are convinced that the Conservatives are the inevitable answer to a decade of Labourism.

Will David Cameron be able to make enough progress to get into number Ten?
Will Gordon Brown turn out to be triumph or disaster for Labour?
Are the Liberal Democrats poised to advance or decline?

No one really knows.

So, political pundits cast around for any event which can shed light upon the darkness. The latest local elections give some pointers, but I suspect that the results will end up being ambiguous. The Conservatives seem poised to make substantial advances- after all they are up in the opinion polls- yet these advances may not be enough to show sufficient momentum to put them into power across the country, and in Scotland they may well hit a new low in support.

Labour may do better in Scotland than many expect. The Nationalists tend to flatter to deceive anyway, but I suspect that they will not make much progress compared to the level they gained in the first Holyrood election, so while they may have more votes than the 29% they gained in 1999, it may well be that they do not make the breakthrough to overtake Labour that the polls have suggested. However, Scotland aside, there may be few crumbs of comfort

The Liberal Democrats are on shifting ground too, but despite the Conservative recovery, they too may find that they can point to some progress on May 3rd.

So despite the search for more clarity, I think that British politics may become still more uncertain. Certainly a sustained Liberal Democrat recovery begins to make the idea of an NOC Parliament a far more likely prospect.

The Liberal Democrats have been faced with repeated forecasts of decimation- I think that this will not happen- indeed as we head towards the finishing line on May 3rd, there is a lot in play, and everything to play for!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Blatant BBC Bias!

I have listened with irritated boredom to the Conservatives endlessly banging on about bias against them in the BBC.

*yawn*

However this story on the BBC website about David Cameron makes me think they might be right.

One single paragraph heading summed up Cameron's performance on the Today Programme and on television.

Quite rude to point it out so clearly though.

Friday, April 20, 2007

I'm not looking for a New England

"This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

These are the words that Shakespeare gives John of Gaunt to describe England.

Of course not strictly accurate, since England has always had to share the island with other lands and peoples. Yet now, 412 years after Richard II was first performed, the question of England is now recurring.

England seems to be nervous and defensive about changes in the British state. As Wales and especially Scotland, have asserted more individual identities, the English, who perhaps subsumed their national identity more completely in the idea of the United Kingdom, have felt more antagonistic to the idea of a multi-national United Kingdom.

Yet the UK has never been a nation state, but only a state of nations.

That there are now large and well organised groups in Scotland and wales that favour separation from England and the break-up of the United Kingdom has come as a shock to many people in England. That politicians, especially in the government seem to be disproportionately from Scotland has fueled a certain resentment.

On the eve of a weekend of St George's celebrations, the English too are celebrating their separate non-British identity. Many people, not just the English would say- "about time too".

After all at a time when the Scots may be about to vote in large numbers for a party that wishes to end the United Kingdom, the rediscovery of an English identity may seem overdue.

and yet...

Firstly I do not believe that in a referendum the Scots would vote for separation, even were the SNP be able to form an administration at Holyrood.

Secondly I am mindful of the example of Czechoslovakia.

In the end Czech right wingers grew angry with the Slovak populists and although there was no referendum, the single Czechoslovak state broke into two. It was a cosy conspiracy between Slovak Nationalists, who feared losing in a referendum on independence and Czech conservatives who could not form a national government in the face of Slovak recalcitrance.

Could it be that the now overwhelmingly southern English Conservatives might seek to drive Scotland out of the Union, an an unholy alliance with the SNP?

Those of us who believe in the idea of the United Kingdom and the concept of "Britishness" are nervous about the intentions of Salmond and Cameron- two politicians of dubious integrity and uncertain identity.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Counting Chickens

Last night I made another one of what seem to be becoming regular appearances on 18DoughtySt.com. The audience for these political shows is doubtless vanishingly small, but they are grateful to a Liberal Democrat for providing a little leavening to their otherwise Conservative bias- several people in row all nodding agreement does not make for riveting telly, even for those few actually watching.

The atmosphere in the building reminds me vaguely of a Senior Common Room- slightly divorced from reality (not to mention extremely untidy!)- and some of the ancillary groups that also function from the headquarters of "Tory television" are a bit odd.

Last night the "Britain and America project" aired an attack advert against the BBC. I do recognise that our national broadcaster is not above criticism, but to attempt to stir up American antipathy against the BBC seems pointless and perhaps slightly petty. Frankly, I would have thought that the expansion of the BBC's operations in the US would be welcomed, since it might create commercial pressures to at least modify perceived anti-American positions taken by the corporation.

Meanwhile the steady but possibly rather patchy and fragile lead of the Conservatives in the polls seems to be creating a certain triumphalism amongst the Tories.

To hear some Conservatives tell it, Gordon Brown will inevitably lead Labour to defeat and the next election will also see the Liberal Democrats reduced to a rump of 20 or so MPs. Meanwhile an army of Lib Dem MPs, led by David Laws are poised to march into the arms of Cameron's compassionate Conservative revolution...blah blah blah.

Eh?

Well, you could have fooled me.

I have known David Laws for some years now, and with his talent he has often been approached by the Conservatives. I think the Tories, having left their own principles decline into a sea of contradictory waffle simply can not understand the idea that David and the other MPs are Liberals, on principle and out of conviction.

Cameron's bromides are far from universally popular. As I said last night: the "bland leading the blind" is hardly a recipe for perfect opposition, still less a programme of government.

I think that many Conservatives are counting their chickens a very long time before they are likely to hatch.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

U and Non-U

Class is to the British what Race is to the Americans. It is not really discussed, and if it is, it is usually dismissed to foreigners as "not really important, these days".

And of course, by and large it should not be that important- the braying Piers' and Tobys have mostly been expelled from the city for being really quite bad at sums, and now content themselves being estate agents, whether in Belgravia or Bulgaria- much more appropriate for someone educated at Cirencester's Agricultural College.

However amongst the more insecure and driven Middle Classes the fight for good schooling has managed to distort and twist the housing market as well as the University entry system. More than for some time it is wealth and social background that determines academic attainment rather than aptitude and intelligence.

Our society continues to neglect talent because it is from the "wrong background".

The acres of trash journalism concerning the putative relationship between the 24 year old second heir to the throne and his girlfriend seems to have encouraged the very worst in those for whom "it is not really important these days but". Personally I find the drooling drivel from those sad creeps who study the Royal family to be fairly emetic, and the garbage about whether Kate Middleton is the Right Gel to be Our future Queen like this from the Daily Telegraph makes me wonder about the whole question of our Monarchical system.

Personally I respect The Queen, but the antics of some of the Royal family leave me quite cold. I suppose we can hardly blame Prince William for grabbing what comes to him, after all he is young, rich, tolerably handsome and very famous- and many red blooded heterosexual men in the same position would seek to "oblige" as many ladies as possible. However in addition to his choice of women, he is doubtless also surrounded by similar kinds of flunkies- people who believe that the Prince is intrinsically special. I think it would take a character of iron to resist being warped by the constant wave of adulation from a sea of women and an army of toadies. Perhaps then we can hardly blame the Royal Family for being different, when they are constantly treated differently.

The Sovereign is the embodiment of the State and Elizabeth II has handled her role with grace, despite the cacophony of grovelling. However, The Queen grew up in different times, when a degree of privacy and discretion could be relied on. In today's modern world, perhaps the vestiges of our class system, mixed with today's crack cocaine of celebrity is a drug that will be too strong to allow any of the younger members of the Royal family to emerge unscathed.

I would still like to tar and feather the authors of the moronic tosh that declares that the choice of napkin or serviette to describe table linen is the root of a yawning social crevasse that may not, indeed should not, be bridged. These people are not merely pointless toadies, they are actually malign.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Too much information

Which country has the largest records of genetic information ?

You might have thought China, or India since they have the largest populations.

In fact, the United Kingdom keeps more genetic information about its citizens than any other state on the Planet. There is more DNA from British citizens in laboratories than in any other country on Earth.

The sources for this material is not just the criminal justice system, where DNA from people that is taken to eliminate them from police inquiries is not routinely destroyed. It is also the health care system, and insurance. It is even collected from school children!

A large amount of genetic information is now under institutional control. There are no clear guidelines under legislation as to who may have access to this information. The statutory body that was set up to supervise this has now been split, after too many members objected to the routine dissemination of DNA information.

Let us just recall that this is material that we see more scientific use for every day- material which could become the basis for indelible identification, yet which is now available to third parties. No other country keeps such information as a matter of routine.

No free and democratic state should seek to spy on its citizens- yet with CCTV- where the UK now also has the largest number of spy cameras per capita in the world- and DNA, the state may now reduce privacy to a dramatic degree.

We can not accept this astonishing erosion of liberty without some severe costs- and I do not accept the idea that "those with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear". The state is the servant of the citizen and not the master. I resent this gross intrusion into my life, as other countries prove, it is not necessary.

A free country does not need to snoop, and should not have a national DNA pool.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Songlines

Bruce Chatwin is such an elusive figure. His elegant prose style is easy to read, yet the truths that he writes about are partial truths or even not true as he has put them down. He is a storyteller, and reading Nicholas Shakespeare's compendious biography one senses that there were few parts of Chatwin's own life that were not embellished. The writer of unvarnished, spare prose, lived a life where he found it difficult to speak many fundamental truths about himself.

The result was great restlessness. A traveller to difficult and inaccessible places: Patagonia, Afghanistan, the Australian desert, Chatwin developed a passion for the nomadic. His books express an idea that wandering is natural and healthy both for the human spirit and indeed the human body. In the "Songlines" he develops this thesis based on a extraordinary range of different sources. His contention that the walkabout of the Australian Aboriginal peoples reflects a sacred connection both to the land and to the earliest roots of humanity is a rich and satisfying idea, yet the story of the characters of the Songlines ostensibly true, is actually substantially fictionalised. The "Bruce" of the book is a seeker after deep truth, yet the Bruce Chatwin remembered by those who met him was a braying oaf, who managed to offend many with intrusive and inappropriate questions. Of course a writer must simplify the truth of people's lives: the full truth is only gained by living such a life. However, nine weeks of research still seems a bit thin in order to put forward a developed theory of real intellectual integrity.

Perhaps writers are thieves- certainly Chatwin lifted life stories almost entire to put into his fiction. It was fiction that was closely based on real life, but it was fiction. Chatwin was a cruel fantasist in many ways, taking short cuts to see a different view of the truth that, if not wholly fake, was nonetheless not wholly true either.

Occasionally I have become irritated by Chatwin- a trivial, mendacious figure, he has seemed to me. I have thought that his brazen social climbing and prejudiced, exclusive view of the world was just another version of that old fashioned English public school snobbery. The wonder of those people who knew describe about him, I have put down to his very good looks. Less easy to explain is the personal charm that seems to have captured many in his spell- not least his accepting and largely uncomplaining wife, Elizabeth. Though Chatwin was promiscuously homosexual, and ultimately died of AIDS, he retained the admiration of many women which he occasionally returned in full measure- perhaps again, those good looks must have played their part.

Yet my final feeling about Chatwin is that while he may have been right about the need for the journey, he dismissed the question of destination far too easily. His joy was to wander, he never seems to have expressed thoughts about the inevitable completion of a journey.

Many faiths explore the idea of journey as a metaphor for religious growth. The Islamic Hajj, the Hindu Kumbh Mela and the Christian idea of pilgrimage all embrace the need, indeed the requirement for humans to make at least one great journey, even as they live settled lives.

In 2000 I made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella- on foot from France. It included many of the experiences that Chatwin speaks of in the impetus to travel. Yet it was more than just this impetus, though the destination was only part of the journey, nevertheless it was a key part. The rituals of arrival in the great Cathedral were not an afterthought. Though it may be better to travel hopefully than to arrive, in fact it is still a powerful experience to find that the destination itself has some meaning.

Chatwin wanders far from his English homeland- "le tombeau vert" he characteristically calls England- he tells many stories, and sees much in life. Yet in Chatwin's dense and spare prose I see only journey away, and not a sense of arrival or completion. His collection of essays: "What am I doing here?" sums up his dilemma in the title.

I wonder if he ever knew.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Credit Failure

Few people in the UK are aware of the problems of the US sub-prime credit market. Even if people are aware of the fact that the market there has dramatically tightened, not many from outside the industry are aware about what that means.

It means that in a period of about six weeks, credit has suddenly become very difficult to find- people who were financially stretched are now being forced to sell up, and the consequence is a serious down turn in real estate prices.

The over extended US credit market is facing the consequences of the bankruptcy of sub prime lenders and in their struggle to survive the remaining lenders are now lending "by the book". So, although interest rate rises have been relatively modest, the available liquidity has fallen sharply. Finally the US consumer faces serious pressure, and the decline of the US housing market is headed towards a rout.

Although the UK consumer lending market has not become as over extended overall as the US market; compared with the European markets, overall debt levels are much higher. Admittedly part of this is the high level of property ownership, as opposed to rental. However consumer lending too has been historically higher in the UK than in continental Europe.

A global tightening of liquidity in the consumer sector may begin to change the UK market in two ways: firstly the supply of credit may become more difficult- 110% mortgages may become impossible. Secondly the price of credit, interest rates, which have been flattening out after previous rises, may also unexpectedly rise. At the moment the forward yield curves show that UK interest rates are likely to fall over time. However after the sharp tightening of credit supply in the US, we should watch the British curves to see whether the market is concerned about a deleterious effect on the UK consumer market and also, especially, on the mortgage market.

At a time when UK bankruptcies are high and rising, despite relatively benign interest rate conditions, the economy could face serious disruption if the consumer credit market tightens significantly. By the time that house prices fall, it may already be too late.

These are nervous times in Downing St, but also in Threadneedle St: the home of the Bank of England, which now faces the first serious test of its independence.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The demise of "Society"?

I have been extraordinarily busy, and therefore finding even a few minutes to comment on things that catch my eye has been difficult, and though the next two days give the prospect of a bit of relief for Easter, it may still be that my blogging remains a bit sparse.

I spent the last two days in Slovenia, meeting people in Ljubljana and on the coast in Koper. Driving through the majestic scenery of this mountain enclave is always a pleasant experience, and although Slovenia's political and economic environment is, well, slow, the country remains for the moment the richest in Central Europe. The process of change is slower than the Baltic, but the fact is that life is pretty good here.

Like many small countries, you are struck by the very human scale of the way things are done- in the business community, there are virtually no strangers- everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows of them. Thus It is hard to keep any secrets- many were speculating as to the reasons for my own visit, and doubtless some guessed right.

The social capital in smaller countries does seem stronger than the more anonymous society of the UK. Although sometimes such anonymity is a relief, I fear that Britain is become an entire society of strangers. The drastic plunge in the numbers of people who take part in communal activity is shocking. Whether it is political parties, the churches, or even the the Scouts- there are fewer and fewer people who are prepared to volunteer. Our culture of long hours has much to do with this of course, but we also seem to be becoming more alienated from each other, in a way that the Smaller countries, such as Slovenia, would quite literally find unthinkable.

It seems ironic to me that the gimmick of the day from too many politicians is to propose a greater role for voluntary sector, at the very time when it seems that many areas of volunteership are disappearing. Scouters are regarded with the suspicion that they are latent paedophiles. The Church (of whatever denomination) is ridiculed. Politicians are vilified.

This is dangerous- the relentless barrage from an unrestrained media seems finally to be weakening part of the social foundations of our country. I am nervous for a country that relies on CCTV to "police" hooligans but will not adequately punish those who attack good citizens who intervene to prevent hooliganism personally.

To turn policing into a kind of play station game will not work.