Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from 2009

Playing games with language

In the days where I was reluctantly forced into interminable business meetings, myself and some co-conspirators would try to reduce the tedium by playing little games. One such game was called "bullsh*t bingo". We would compile a list of meaningless business phrases and tick them off as they came up. "no brainer", "low-hanging fruit", "proactive", "treeing"- all would find their place in our little game.

Recently, however, I notice the spread of drivel a long way from the narrow world of business. It is not just the Dragon's Den TV show that has popularised corporate dull-speak, but across television a whole new language seems to be emerging which has very little to do with the way that people actually speak- or even think. For some reason, shampoo seems to be responsible for particularly banal phrases: "radiant shine", "dazzling" and- a particular bug-bear of mine- "fragrance".

Newspapers too- especiall…

The calm before the fall

There have always been two schools of thought about the track of this particular crisis in the British economy. Firstly that the dramatic contraction in spending power would lead to price deflation- that the reduction in spending power would lead to a nominal fall in prices. The second was that the crisis would make money worth much less: that inflation would take a hold. Of the two, the policy makers fear deflation much more, because it is much harder to combat once it takes a hold- as the state of health of the Japanese economy has shown. Furthermore, inflation gradually reduces debt burdens, instead of increasing them- and the government has taken on a gigantic level of debt.

From the point of view of the consumer, though, inflation is quite bad news- essentially it reduces the value of holding money. This is why the inflation bears have become very strong gold-bugs, since gold typically holds its value when fiat money is being debased by inflation.

After the shocking absence of meas…

Vitali Vitaliev: Life as a Literary Device

Sometimes a book comes along that defies categories and recently VitaliVitaliev has written a truly enthralling, unique book. (Full disclosure: Vitali is an old friend of mine). I have even- for the first time- reviewed the book for Amazon.com.

Here is what I thought about the book:

"VitaliVitaliev is used to journeys, and in this book he takes us as a companion on a journey of time and space- dozens of countries over two decades- and a journey of the mind. He is a great companion. By turns wry, tragic and laugh-out-loud funny, in the end he delivers a tour-de-force of warmth and humanity. The stream of consciousness structure creates links between places and people- Tasmania and Clive James, London and Peter Ustinov- that scintillate with wit and wisdom. he meets his triumphs and disasters and eventually treats those two impostors just the same.

Moving in a zig-zag across the globe from his native city of Kharkiv in Ukraine to Folkestone, Melbourne, the Falkland Islands, the fall o…

The UK: paying the price for failure

The last week has seen a whole slew of economic figures, but much of this was drowned out by the failure of the pre-budget report to address the growing fiscal crisis in the UK. However this crisis is just one of the problems that now beset the British economy.

We have seen an increase in the gap between the value of what Britain exports and what it imports. This reflects the fact that import costs have increased as a result of weaker Sterling. Meanwhile there was the announcement that British industrial production has stagnated. Yet, this stagnation is despite the fall in the value of the Pound that should make our goods much more competitive in the global market place.

The trend is instructive: in 1980, manufacturing represented 26.5% of UK GDP, in 2005, the last year for which we have comparable figures, the figure was 13.6%. It is estimated now that manufacturing represents less than 10% of current British GDP. Whereas the United States can return to being a workshop for the world, …

PBR?!.... RIP!

The Pre-Budget Review in the UK is a fiasco.

The policy measures announced are either pointless- the change in the Bingo levy, for goodness sakes- or dangerous- the increase in National Insurance. There is much rhetoric about cuts, no actual delivery. Even the "Banker's Bonus Tax" will raise nothing, and, by the way, similar measures were abandoned in both France and Germany (neither exactly "the Bankers Friend"), because they were thought to be unconstitutional. Taxes are supposed to be levied on the general population, if you start levying specific taxes, how long can it be before they become arbitrary, populist attacks on the chosen "people's enemy" of the day. Oh, wait a minute...

The real terror of this PBR, however, is in the detailed numbers on the economy.

When the UK stayed unexpectedly in recession last quarter, we were told that this was probably just "technical", and that the economy would be shown to have actually emerged from …

Shock News: Telegraph gets it right!

I don't usually agree with Op-Ed pieces in the Daily Telegraph.

This morning, however, there is a very good piece from Philip Johnston.

He points out that the repeated promises -over decades- from politicians of all stripes to make "efficiency savings" are actually impossible to deliver without a radical reform of the system of public expenditure.

The Civil Service is only interested in controlling the costs of expenditure in the current system. They are not interested in whether the system should be changed or even whether much of what government is prescribing is actually necessary at all.

What today's Pre-Budget report is going to show is that the British cupboard- apart from some mouldy crumbs of envy taxes- is totally empty. Unless we tackle the systemic costs of the public sector we are going to face even more rapid economic decline.

Over the long term, the burden of sustaining an extraordinary wasteful state sector is going to fall on a declining number of increasi…

Time for some tough talking

I joined the Liberal Party in 1979. I have been a Liberal Democrat since the foundation of the party. I have been a passionate and avowed Liberal Democrat and a liberal of a fairly libertarian stripe all my adult life.

My family have been committed to the party not just in recent wilderness years but all through the real darkness of the 1950s and indeed over four generations back to the beginning of the twentieth century. I have stood for innumerable, unwinable, elections and donated, over the years, many thousands of pounds to a cause that I deeply believe in. I have seen seven leaders come and go, some of them I have known quite well and respected, some perhaps less so.

Such devotion to a political party is not unique to the Liberal Democrats, but being a supporter of our party has not usually been a matter of the calculation of political advantage- it has been a stand of principle and not of patronage. Our party devoted attention to ideas. Our policies on such issues as devolution or…

Dear Britain,

I have been thinking about us. Things have not been working out for us for a while now. We have been spending more and more time apart. I find I just can't understand you any more.

You seem embarked on a mission of self destruction. In particular I find it extraordinary that you keep flirting with wholly unsuitable men. A few years ago you fell for the public school charms of Tony Blair. "This time" you said "it is different. We can have a caring, Socialist government and still have a good economy". As we now both know, the reality was rather different. With his dubious friends, led by Peter Mandelson, he let you down. Bloodied and crying you now think of him with tearful rage "He's a war criminal!" you cry. "He led me into an illegal war". Meanwhile his hand picked successor is a humourless, vaguely paranoid figure with none of that dangerous, sexy charisma that first attracted you to Tony Blair. I could warn you about David Cameron, yet…

Where does Britain go from here?

Britain invented industry and the modern capitalist economy. Our inventions include: smelting iron with coke, the metal lathe, steel, steam power, the railways, modern textile production, bicycles, television, telephone, the jet engine, the submarine, the hovercraft, toilet paper, the world wide web and even this list barely scratches the surface.

In "soft power", our philosophers include John Locke, the apostle of Liberalism, John Stuart Mill, Sir Karl Popper and Sir Isiah Berlin. The cultural impact of our country is extraordinary: our language is universal and most of the last four decades has been dominated by music from the Beatles to Pink Floyd that is British.

Yet Britain now faces an existential crisis. We are told that whereas our economy was the fourth largest in 2005, by 2015- on current trends- it will no longer be in the top ten. Our industrial base has shrunk dramatically. we no longer produce cars or bicycles or pianos or many other things that our country wa…

A Constitution for Liberty

The British press have been raising the subject of the number of innocent people who have been taking photographs who have been questioned by Police. On the face of it, it is wholly appropriate for the Police to be vigilant against the threat of terrorism, however the framing of the anti-terror legislation has been sloppy and open ended. In fact this is the defining characteristic of Nu Labour legislation across the board. The determination to pass legislation with minimum scrutiny has led to a huge amount of badly drafted bills being signed into law, and has required repeated repair to unworkable or prohibitively expensive measures.

The problem that the British parliament has is that there are few if any guiding principles that can help create consistency of legislation. The result is a large mass of conflicting statutes that create enormous complications. As technology has developed, much in law has failed to match these developments. Whereas privacy was the assumed fundamental posit…

Tea on Today

Perhaps because Central & Eastern Europe is a relatively obscure topic, I often find myself asked to comment on events by different television channels. It is an interesting contrast. For example, Bloomberg television is very high-tech, CNN far less so, while BBC Television is positively spartan, not even having a "green room" where one can wait before being interviewed. Over the past few days the events in Dubai have caused the global markets to examine the finances of Greece and Hungary. As a result I have been called by several media outlets. Yesterday I did the early morning slot for BBC TV news. This morning I was called in to talk to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4.

"Today" does have a green room, and given that it is radio, one can take notes into the studio- as a couple of fellow guests did. The green room even has breakfast, including yogurt and toast- a distinct improvement on the simple dab of make up powder that television provided yesterday. It w…

Credit Crunch 2.0

Over the course of the third quarter of this year, the impact of the financial tsunami which hit the global economy in 2008 has appeared to stabilise. Banks whose balance sheets have been severely damaged by the crisis have been forcibly merged, restructured or taken into public ownership. The single major player- Lehman- that went under caused so much damage that policy makers have vowed not to repeat that mistake. As banks struggled to retrench without increasing the global problems, the monetary authorities released huge amounts of liquidity. The result has been a rally in asset prices as the availability of credit, while not at the levels of 2007, is at least more predictable.

However, by taking on so much extra debt onto government books, the problem has not been diminished, but only moved around. Whereas the shareholders of banks had been looking at taking the impact of large loan losses, their place has been taken by tax payers. In some cases, this has been a great success: tax …

I fear the Greeks...

As the markets scratch their heads about the impact of the suspension of debt payments by Dubai, several other markets are coming into question.

One of these is Greece.

The fact that the Greeks are members of the Eurozone has certainly provided protection in the eyes of global investors. Other markets, such as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were said to be more vulnerable, yet now that Latvia has been refinanced by a syndicate including the ECB, IMF and several other states, led by Sweden, attention is turning to other countries. Whereas Hungary and Poland have devalued, Greece has not been able to, and now questions are being asked about the national debt capacity of the country.

The problem is now not just the perennial political instability of the country and how that has led to a failure to tackle the structural deficit, but also the exposure of the domestic banking market to the problems of the country's northern neighbours. The puncturing of the Bulgarian pr…

Getting Real about Climate Change

In 2001 the English version of The Skeptical Environmentalist by the Danish statistician, Bjorn Lomborg, was published. It marked the beginning of an increasingly vehement debate about the impact of Human activity upon the levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere and the potential that this has for changing the climate of the Planet. Lomborg himself was skeptical about some of the findings of others, and he was able to highlight some weaknesses in some of the work that had been conducted up until then. In turn, however, the response to The Skeptical Environmentalist, was extremely hostile. Lomborg's scientific skills, indeed his very integrity were bitterly attacked. Yet, in fact much of Lomborg's work underlined the very high likelihood that CO2 emissions were the result of the activity of man, and that they could in turn lead to significant alterations in climate.

The scientific work in studying the climate contains some of the most difficult mathematical questions that hum…

When it comes to supervising the Police, many heads are better than one

Sir Hugh Orde, the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), has had a pretty successful career in the Police, handling difficult jobs like the inquiry into the the circumstances of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and ultimately becoming second head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He is not a man with a political axe to grind.

Therefore, his forceful criticism of Conservative proposals to place local Police forces under the control of new directly elected commissioners should be taken seriously. In recent years, there has been much discussion of the problems of modern policing. The challenges of international terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime are said to require a wholesale reform to the smaller county-based forces that are the backbone of British crime fighting. Leaving aside the fact that the largest crime investigation of recent years- the search for the Lockerbie bombers- was led by the smallest force, that of Dumfries and Galloway, there …

But we really mean it...

The Queens speech is set to be one that Her Majesty will have to read through clenched teeth. Leaving aside the fact that there are only seventy days left in the Parliamentary session before it is prorogued, the fact is that the "gracious speech" is set to contain yet more evidence of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of New Labour.

We are told that the government will introduce legislation to guarantee the right to a good education and to guarantee- with legal force behind it- that the deficit will be reduced.

Could it be that ,like some kind of wavering alcoholic, the government doubts its own commitment to existing policies? In any event how can any government leaving binding commitments to its successors? The Parliament is sovereign and may change laws at any time as it sees fit.

The fact is that the government knows that the public no longer- if it ever did- believes that it can fulfil its promises, and by trying to back its promises with the force of law it rather giv…

Low Expectations

The latest poll apparently show that voters believe that David Cameron is thought to be a better leader than Gordon Brown, and much is being made of the idea that Mr. Cameron has "sealed the deal" with the British people.

The reality is of course rather different. As someone said to me the other day: "If Cameron or Brown are the answer, then Goodness knows what the question was!". The fact is that the voters have not forgotten the chaotic and sleazy end to the last Conservative administration, and the fact that Labour has got itself into something like the same kind of trouble is creating a certain resigned despair amongst the electorate.

The failure of the constitution and the creation of an isolated political class is leading to exceptionally low expectations of our political leaders, and even these vanishingly small hopes are usually crushed.

As Nick Clegg noted the other day, the state of our Constitution amounts to an emergency, and yet the cosy cabal of LabCon w…

"Because the stakes are so low.."

Although the attribution is contested, the aphorism "Academic politics is the most bitter and vicious form of politics, because the stakes are so low" is nowadays usually credited to Wallace Sayre, a political scientist at Columbia in the mid sixties.

British politics is increasingly shrill, and as we enter the long run into the general election in 2010, it is already clear that we can expect the battle between Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron to be one of the dirtiest campaigns on record. Yet in fact, although the struggle may be noisy, in the end it may ultimately change very little. The problem is now not so much the party of government, but the system of government that offers up such limited political choices. The current government has governed by ignoring the will of Parliament and the Conservatives, with their cosmetic commitment to local devolution will inflict further damage on Parliamentary authority. Of course, many will say that the expenses scandal means that Parliamen…

Rights and Freedoms

The continued determination of the British state to hold on to the DNA of innocent people in the face of huge opposition reflects the tenacity of a certain mindset. This same mindset insists that the intrusive and expensive positive vetting of anyone who comes into the slightest contact with children is the only way to protect kids from potential abusers. The fact that it patently does no such thing and effectively brands everyone as a criminal unless they can prove they are not, thus breaking the fundamental rule of justice: innocent until proven guilty, is answered with a shrug. Even so fundamental a rule should surely be ignored because "the kids" must be protected at all costs.

This is the way to total subservience to the state. Instead of society being based on a fundamental contract amongst free citizens, there are now large new areas of law which demand complete obedience. Whether the insulting anti-paedophile laws or the draconian anti terrorism laws, the last few yea…

Castrating Parliament

In the 19th century MPs were not paid at all, but Parliament was at the centre of national life.

Over time as the Parliament of landowners and lawyers also began to include simple employees, a small stipend was granted- and it remained small. Even now, back bench MPs only earn £64,766 a year. Meanwhile, even with allowances, they usually have to fund two places to live and two offices- in London and in their constituencies. They have to employ staff in both places too. By contrast all of the senior civil service grades earn a lot more than this, and of course do not have to fund their own office costs.

As the journalists of the Daily Telegraph relish the power that their scoop on MPs expenses has brought them they should reflect that most of them too are better paid than MPs are. Now the Kelly report proposes to cut back MPs compensation still further. For example, it is suggested that Parliament will only pay for a rented one bedroom flat in London. This, together with the ban on emplo…

The Treaty of Lisbon ratified

"Gentlemen, you are trying to negotiate something you will never be able to negotiate. If negotiated, it will not be ratified. and if ratified, it will not work"

Thus spoke the British civil servant, Russell Bretherton, who had been sent to represent Britain at the Messina conference in 1955. The other six countries represented at that conference: Belgium, France, (West) Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had sent their foreign ministers. The UK sent this relatively minor civil servant who essentially boycotted the discussions. It was the beginning of a continuously fraught relationship between Britain and the rest of the European Union.

In the same way that the UK tried to ignore the reality of the early moves for European co-operation, so it has tried to ignore the reality of the treaty of Lisbon. At the signing ceremony, 26 European leaders celebrated with a formal signing ceremony followed by a formal dinner. One- Gordon Brown- arrived deliberately late and did…

David Cameron faces a challenge

Oh dear! the deselection of Liz Truss by Norfolk Conservatives is something of a challenge for the so-called modernisers around David Cameron. To most people these days, the deselection of someone because they had an extra-marital affair several years ago looks pretty absurd. These days the majority of the population are understanding about the pressures that can cause marriages to fail, and know that the idea of blaming someone is often wide of the mark.

Nevertheless it is only to be expected that Conservatives would be more concerned about the issue of marriage and morality. Social Conservatives pay a great deal of attention to institutions, and are naturally conservative about maintaining them. There is indeed a real cost to society from the failure of such institutions, but while Conservatives try to defend the institutions themselves, a Liberal will focus of the role of individual rights and responsibilities, rather than an imposed sense of -often hypocritical- social morality.

Giv…

Tony Blair: a warning for Europe

In the just over two years since Tony Blair stepped down from the office of British Prime Minister, the state of his reputation in the country has not improved. Reviled in office as the man who committed the UK to a war that was not endorsed by the United Nations, his activities since strike the majority in our country as little better than sordid money grubbing.

As Prime Minister, Tony Blair had an unerring sense for the political, that is to say how things appeared rather than how they actually were. The obsession with appearances created a dangerous disconnect between what his government said and what it actually did. In the end the whole theatre of "spin" and presentation made the British people jaded and increasingly cynical about politics. In short "spin" became, in the eyes of the electorate, just another word for lie.

Although Mr. Blair now speaks a great deal about his religious faith, in office he did nothing to alter the constitutional bans that still offi…

Bank Bonuses: Why Osborne makes it worse

Even though the latest bank bonus payments have been greeted with predictable outrage in the usual quarters, in this case the "usual suspects" have a point. The concern about the financial industry for some time has been that the owners of bank capital have had their returns hijacked by bank staff. Certainly even before the crisis, the return on capital of banks over the past decade- mostly in single figures after bonuses- looked pretty anaemic. By contrast the payments to staff at banks have been substantially higher than investor returns. In the end, as we now know, the return on capital over the past two years has been so negative as to wipe out the balance sheets of several financial institutions. This has required the injection of billions from the taxpayers of the United States, United Kingdom and several other countries.

Several banks are now either owned by the state or rely on the state for their survival through a variety of measures- including the extremely expensi…

Jan Moir: Strange, Lonely and troubling

The news of Jan Moir's profound homophobia was deeply unshocking. It was not just that another young star has been pilloried by bigots.
Through the recent travails and sad ends of the careers of assorted hacks, fans know to expect the usual drivel dipped in poison - particularly if those journalists live a life that is shadowed by dark appetites or fractured by private vice.
There are dozens of journalists out there with secret and not-so-secret troubles, or damaging habits both past and present ; we all know who they are. And we are not being ghoulish to anticipate, or to be mentally braced for, their bad end: a long night, a mysterious stranger in the Groucho club, an odd set of circumstances that herald a sudden end to a once glittering career.
In the morning, the page has already been turned over before anyone reads the lofty concerns of a self appointed hypocrite. It is not exactly a new storyline, is it?
In fact, it is rather depressingly familiar, and somehow we completely expe…

So what if we get a hung Parliament in 2010?

The conference season has come and gone with very little real impact on the overall state of play in the run of opinion polls. Even this relatively small fall in its support would see the Labour Party lose the election. However that is not the same thing as saying the Conservatives will win it. The distortions of our electoral system mean that in order to gain a majority of 2, the Conservatives need a swing of nearly seven percent- the second highest swing in recent electoral history. Yet the polls, while charting a solid lead for the Tories in the popular vote, are far less certain about whether their lead in votes can be converted into a working majority of seats. Neither do the polls show great enthusiasm for the prospect of a Conservative government and much may happen between now and Thursday June 3rd 2010 which is the last date by which the election must be held.

What happens if Labour do indeed lose but the Conservatives can not gain a majority?

For the Liberal Democrats such a …

A New House of Commons

There has been a certain glee in the air about the return of the British parliamentary expenses scandal back on to the political agenda. Journalists, whose own misdemeanours in this field are proverbial, have delighted in the humiliations that have beset the political class.

The reaction from the voters has been, to coin a phrase, "they're all in it together". Rarely have politicians been held in lower public esteem. The general conventional wisdom is that an MP is probably a greedy rogue who seeks to put their own interest first and country second, if at all. The time has come- seems to be the conventional wisdom- for a new broom to clean out the political class bag and baggage.

Many commentators like Rachel Sylvester believe that politics is set to be transformed by an influx of political virgins into the House of Commons, that indeed the next election will transform the conduct of British politics.

I wish I could share this view.

As Steve Richards points out in the Indepe…