Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Gordon Brown: Kim Campbell's a coming o-ho, o-ho

The woman on the right is the former Prime Minister of Canada, Avril Phaedra Douglas "Kim" Campbell. The man on the left is the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, James Gordon Brown.
Both succeeded extremely successful and charismatic leaders, Tony Blair and Brian Mulroney respectively.
Both were committed student politicians and pioneers in their respective Universities.
Both had strong roots in their local politics- BC and Scotland respectively and both took with them some of the attitudes of their local politics to their respective national capitals which made them unpopular in the country at large.
Both struggled to cope with the constitutional mess that their predecessors had created: the failure of the Meech Lake accord for Campbell, the incomplete transformation of the UK into a Federation for Brown.
Both had a tin ear for what the country was asking of them and both faced economic crises. despite leading the most successful political machines of their generation, both have squandered their inheritance. Initially popular with their party, they were faced with increasingly powerful internal dissent.
The first past the post electoral system in Canada exaggerated the scale of the Progressive Conservative defeat, but the defeat had already become inevitable. It was crushing. The Progressive Conservatives lost all but 2 seats, including Campbell's own seat. The Liberals won, with just under 42% of the vote, the Separatist Bloc Quebecois won 13.52% but 54 seats to become the official opposition. The more right wing Reform party won more votes- 18.69%, but only 52 seats. Next came the Socialist New Democrats who gained nine seats on 7% of the votes.
The PCs with 16.04% actually gained the second highest number of votes, but the split under first past the post was catastrophic- an almost complete wipe out. It was the end of the Progressive Conservatives as a political force.
As Labour supporters clutch to the comfort of "core votes", it is as well to remember that first past the post can exaggerate the mood of the electorate. The massacre of the British Conservatives in 1997 was more complete because of the electoral system.
As Mr. Brown contemplates the wreckage of the disastrous budget, and as Harriet Harman polishes her invincible vanity, the outlook for Labour could be very bleak indeed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Living in E-stonia

Quite a few people become a bit dismissive when I tell them I now live in Tallinn.

For some reason the British in particular are particularly contemptuous. Some actually say that it is as though I am living in Trumpton or some other charming but ultimately pointless and irrelevant place, Ruritania perhaps. They seem to say that whatever pretensions Estonia may have, "its not a real place".

Then I point out a few home truths:

Estonia spends less than a fifth on health care per capita compared to the United Kingdom, but on virtually every measure it has better health care.

Estonia has complete freedom of information, with cabinet meetings broadcast through a web cam and all the paperwork of ministries a public document accessible on the Internet- no ignored "freedom of information" requests in Tallinn.

Free WiFi is practically universal- a point one takes for granted until asked for €10 to access the Internet in Copenhagen Airport.

Now Estonia is already moving onto the next generation of high speed broadband . This matches the fact that they already have DAB radio systems that are twice as efficient as the UK.

Estonia has already completed technological jumps that the UK can not contemplate for many years into the future. As a result my business functions at a level of efficiency that would require a far greater investment in equipment or people to function in Britain.

The level of education is one of the highest in the world, with scores in maths and literacy well above those of England and Wales. Knowledge of foreign languages is close to universal and it is usual for a degree educated Estonian to speak five languages fluently.

Meanwhile it is only the British stag parties that provide the spectacle of public drunkenness and violence which is such a nasty feature of any small town or city in the UK.

In many ways Estonia is the most politically Liberal country in the world, with both the leading party in the coalition and the leading party in the opposition both members of Liberal international, but it is also economically Liberal: it has a flat tax, a land tax and an open economy. It is also socially liberal, and private affairs are not the affairs of state.

As the sun blazes down on the red roofs of Tallinn's old town this morning, I idly wonder whether even Trumpton was such a pleasant place to live.

Monday, April 27, 2009

What do you do....?

Now here is a job that would be hard to explain to someone at a party...

I...I...I...erm... I rub cream onto...erm... rat's... erm...well... erm

Erm...I..erm... stimulate... erm.. well.. rat's... erm... well... er.. to arouse... erm...

Look I give rats hard-ons.

Now leave me alone.

UK Defence Cuts: Either/Or

As the scale of the economic crisis for Britain sinks in, it is becoming ever clearer that there is no area of public or private expenditure that can escape scrutiny.

No area, in fact, unless you are Harriet Harman where you instead try to create massive new costs by imposing a legal duty to implement the intellectually incoherent nonsense of Labour's Diversity Police.

Meanwhile back on the real world, there is growing recognition that the Ministry of Defence has not escaped the decline into wasteful incoherence that has characterised the rest of government. The natural tendency of military bureaucrats to exceed even their civilian colleagues in the gold plating of projects has not been resisted by the incompetent Labour ministers, but now the time has come where some very painful decisions are going to be needed.

British Military expenditure rose sharply as the country found itself brought into the American campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even as the mission in Iraq has been diminished, pressure in Afghanistan is intensified. Further more it has become clear that the British ASW carriers are far from ideal in supporting these kinds of long range operations, which are the most likely conflicts that we can forecast. Thus the construction of new, larger aircraft carriers is a priority. The construction of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth is now underway, and they are due to enter service in 2016 and 2018. The cost for these boats, which are three times larger than the current Invincible Class is already scheduled at £4 billion (€4.5 billion) and given the history of these projects, and the decision to delay deployment to coincide with the introduction of new F-36 STOL Lightning Fighters the costs are virtually certain to be more.

Meanwhile, the Government has already committed money to the replacement of the Trident Nuclear submarine deterrent. Given that the last of these submarines only entered service in 1999, many, including Ming Campbell suggested that it was a little soon to be entering into a strategic commitment that was of questionable value in UK defence. The costs of this will most likely be at least £14 billion (€15.6 billion). The problem here is not so much the issue of the deterrent itself; nuclear weapons are expensive, but it is the delivery systems that form the bulk of the cost. Super quiet submarine technology and the inter-continental ballistic missiles they carry are gigantically expensive for the UK, even though we benefit from substantial co-operation with the United States. Once upon a time, the UK had a variety of different delivery systems, such as the V-Bomber and was preparing its own missile technology, until the decision was taken to use firstly American Polaris and later Trident missiles.

Britain has roughly 180 nuclear warheads. These are now entirely committed to the Trident deterrent. The question now is that, despite the aggressive posture of the Russian Federation, is such a strategic deterrent the best deployment of nuclear weapons, assuming that one considers the possession of nuclear arms is necessary. Personally, in the world of the current regimes in Iran and North Korea I think a nuclear deterrent is necessary, but I question the use of the kind of massed launch weapons that Trident clearly is. Our strategy is still rooted in cold war thinking. Even if Russia remains a strategic competitor, which it clear does, the fact is that the doctrine of MAD now leaves far too much strategic wiggle room for Russia- as the invasion of Georgia and the threats to Ukraine have shown. In that sense, the commissioning of the two new aircraft carriers is essential.

If faced with the choice, the nuclear armoury can be carried by other systems, including the Aircraft carriers themselves. There is no good alternative to the carriers.

As usual though, the Labour government have misjudged the problem- they continue to put a priority on the submarine based weapons, and this risks becoming a cuckoo that will squeeze out the more relevant and strategically necessary systems, such as the carriers.

Meanwhile in the death throes of the Labour government all Harriet Harman can think to do is impose her ideological blindness on the rest of us. She is blankly unaware of the consequences of her ill judged incompetence.

I suppose the amongst the many good things to come from the destruction of the Labour Party to come, is that she will be removed for ever from office.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Wycombe Wonders!

For those that do not know that I stood for the UK Parliament in High Wycombe in 2005, please excuse my absolute delight at this local election result:

Totteridge Ward

Steve Guy (Liberal Democrat) 733
Tim Hewish (Conservative) 408
Ian Bates (Labour) 214
Spoilt Papers 3
Turnout 31%

Liberal Democrat gain from Labour.

Hearty congratulations to Ian Morton, Chairman Wendy, the team and Councillor Steve Guy!


My "Aunty Rosemary" took the Aboyne and Upper Deeside from the Conservatives on Aberdeenshire Council. In Inverness we gained just short of 60% of the vote and there were big wins in Redbridge and Waverley too.

It really was a very good night for the Liberal Democrats.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reading the Last Rites for New Labour

In a way it is tempting to discount the significance of the British Budget. The fantasy economic forecasts and unconvincing explanations that were offered yesterday are just not going to be relevant. Deep in our bones we know that the situation is not a shallow recession followed by an early recovery. The collapse of the financial system has taken away entirely a significant percentage of UK wealth creating capacity. Everything afterwards is set to be slower and smaller.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the rather sepulchral figure of Alistair Darling should have read the last rites over the coffin of new Labour- there is no doubt now that the Labour Party has comprehensively fallen into a massive trap. Abandoning any pretence to support middle class aspiration by imposing an absurd 50% marginal rate will not raise the money the Chancellor has said it will. It will, however, mark the beginning of an exodus of investment capital from London. The various funds that congregate in Mayfair and St James will now leave. Small numbers of institutions, but controlling a lot of money. In the face of the most serious economic crisis we have seen in a generation, the Chancellor has chosen to make one of the most political budgets. He response to the economic situation is to close his eyes, block his ears and simply deny what is actually happening. Instead of accepting the real position, the Chancellor is hiding behind absurd economic forecasts and the return of a policy of class antagonism.

It is, I think, not merely the end of New Labour, but the end of Labour.

Meanwhile what must we make of the Opposition?

I am extremely concerned about what David Cameron was signalling in his own, rather flimsy, contribution to the debate. Mr. Darling left him with an open goal, but Mr. Cameron did not have the political courage to offer us more than mere flim-flam. Where is the leadership in such cowardice? There is now every chance that he can lead a government, whether alone or on coalition, but he gives no sign of offering even the framework of ideas that would drive future Conservative policy. This is not the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, but the trimming of Edward Heath- a return to nuance perhaps, but a failure to articulate core values and principles would quickly drive an inexperienced government onto the rocks. Civil servants will fail to deliver "joined-up government" if they do not understand even the guiding principles that the administration should be following.

As Vince Cable and Nick Clegg articulate a clear economic policy framework, I don't think it is too much to ask the Conservatives to do the same. On the other hand in any future Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition it would mean that the Liberal Democrats would be taking the lead, so perhaps Mr. Cameron is merely preparing for a coalition, though I suspect not. It is a massive failure of the Conservative political imagination not to be pressing home what the practical differences between a Cameron and a Brown vision actually are.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats are slowly emerging as a credible force in the polls. As the curtain comes down on the last twelve years of New Labour, we face a whole new political world. If Clegg and Cable can continue to articulate their coherent Liberal vision, it may even be that they, rather than the ineffectual Conservatives can end up as the prime beneficiaries.

In the next twelve months there is more to play for in the British political world than at any time since the early 1980s. That -in the end- could be the true significance of this disastrous budget.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Tipping Point

Ah Budget Day!

What tradition, what *significance*. The journalistic references to the historic budgets of years past, while all the time most people are simply working out the immediate financial impact of what ever complex fiddles the Chancellor is prepared to impose upon us. The polices that are simply robbing Peter to pay Paul while trying, of course, to prevent Peter from noticing too much.

Yet this year there is a certain ennui, a certain fatigue. The calculated posturings of the rather downbeat Chancellor will be met by the equally choreographed outrage of the Conservatives, as they struggle to work out just what on earth the Labour government have actually done. In the end, this is probably the last real Labour budget- and I expect that when Mr. Darling sits down that this will probably be the single saving grace for most of us.

Yet actually I think that the 2009 budget may indeed end up being something of a mile stone.

The Liberal Democrat pre-budget briefings are usually about as well attended by the eager media as a Stalin appreciation society self criticism and bring-and-buy sale. *Usually* of course was before the media realised that Vince Cable was that rare politician: a man who demonstrably knows more than the journalist. Yesterday, the labyrinthine Cowley Street headquarters of the Liberal Democrats was packed for one hour by journalists- probably several are still lost in the building.

Well what can be so interesting about what the Lib Dems have to say?

Ah, well- let us look at the situation that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable were discussing.

The basic story is that the most credible comment that the Chancellor can now make about the economy is "oooomygaaaawd".

Its bad.

In fact it is absolutely bloody awful.

Even more "fabulous" is that while for the richest five percent there really is a great deflation, for the great majority there is an acceleration of inflation: yes it is really true that you are feeling the pinch, because prices for you Mr & Mrs Average, really are going up.

So raising the tax threshold to £10,000 is a more than just a very good idea. It also goes to the heart of the economic matter (not to mention a very long way towards my long expressed preference for a flatter, simpler tax code). My response: *thunderous applause*.

At last.

Dealing with another bugbear- the unearned public sector pension gap- is also on the list. Good, we must do this, as a society we just can't afford to pay out what has not been earned.

Actually I have become increasingly proud of what the Lib Dems have done over the past week: credible and coherent economics is being matched by the political courage that has unearthed the crimes committed by the Police during the G-20 demonstrations on April 1st. I was frankly a bit sceptical of the need for Lib Dem MPs to attend and effectively act as some kind of Marshals, I am certainly not anti-Police in any way, but as we now know, it was indeed a necessary action. I don't think I am alone in being genuinely flabbergasted at the filmed actions of certain individual officers. While the other parties have begun to respond to the political weather on this issue, the Liberal Democrats have ended up being the better weather forecasters.

Meanwhile the latest opinion polls are confirming that the Lib Dems are indeed back up to the levels that they achieved at the 2005 election. Sure it is a function of the fact that Lib Dem supporters are now, like me, feeling even more committed than they were. It is also likely to be a recognition of something more. Without getting too excited about a single poll, we can at least now be more optimistic about the trend for a better outcome in 2010 than 2005. Let us see what the next few months bring.

However, I think that being able to lead on the issues of the economy at a time of economic crisis is highly likely to propel the party forward quite dramatically.

As the tired Labour government limps towards its tawdry conclusion, Tomorrow's budget could be their last ever. Meanwhile the British people are genuinely less susceptible to hype and spin.

I see a great opportunity emerging for the kind of principled Liberal beliefs that I have spent all my adult life supporting and indeed advocating. I can see several of my friends now limbering up up to join other of my friends (and OK, my family) already in the House of Commons.

If so, it will be because of what is happening this week. The Lib Dem policy of raising the tax threshold is I think, truly a tipping point. An economically and socially liberal party seems to be in the making- the Liberal Democrats- and un-spun Liberalism might just be what the country recognises as being necessary after all.


There are many kinds of blog. There are the twee, the trite and the trivial, the big the bold and bombastic. There is now a vast ocean of blogs in the blogosphere. Yet, like so many other things, there is emerging a pareto distribution of inequality in the blogosphere.

There are the powerhouse industrial blogs, like Political Betting and there are the cottage industry blogs, into which category this blog increasingly falls. There are those that can regularly get a thousand comments a day and whose readership is rather larger than such magazines as the New Statesmen, and those where readership is virtually nil. The difference is often simply one of frequency of posting rather than always the quality of the posts. Those that post consistently and frequently gradually obtain larger readership. This is a blog in the middle of a very long tail of popularity. I certainly notice on this blog that a couple of posts a day boosts my readership significantly.

Yet I rarely have the time or frankly the inspiration to be able to keep such production levels going. Although I tend to think of what I do here as a bit like a newspaper column, the fact is that most of the leading columnists only need to write a column perhaps once or twice a week. A blog, by contrast, is more like a newspaper itself: people only really read it if it comes out with several stories every day. On a good day I might get five hundred unique visitors, but usually it is under one hundred and fifty. The total number of visitors to this blog is inching up towards one hundred thousand, which is more like the monthly or even weekly number for the biggest blogs. Indeed Political Betting -a blog only a year or so older than this one- has recently recorded the one millionth comment.

Over the past few years the blogosphere has matured a little. I see significant changes in such leading sites as Iain Dale's, whose posts have been more varied- including using Twitter and other short message formats to increase his posting rate. Iain's site is more about the personal than ideological, whereas I am not one for the minutiae of political gossip and probably my stuff comes across as worthy but rather dull, which doesn't bother me overmuch- perhaps it is an accurate reflection of my own personality.

Of course in any group there are those who will break the rules. Some, like Chris Mounsey at Devils Kitchen enhance their ideological rants with as rich a recipe of inventive swearing as can be found anywhere on the 'net- probably including those X-rated sites. It reflects his genuine anger and incredulity at what he sees in the world, as well -of course- as being very funny.

Others are perhaps less sweary, but may end up a lot further outside the rules. In this category I would put Paul Staines at Guido Fawkes, who has been much in the news of late.

I hold no brief for the smearing of political opponents. Bluntly, even if it were true that Cameron had the clap at Uni, that all in George Osborne's marriage is not as it seems, or that other members of the Conservative or any other front bench have a variety of rather outre sexual peccadilloes, then any normal response would probably be: so what? I don't expect politicians to be any more pure than the next individual, and as our Sunday Tabloids are happy enough to point out, there are more things in heaven and earth than would certainly cross my mind.

Of course it was rather pathetic in a rather nasty way that Damian McBride was apparently trying to spread these stories, even while apparently not believing them. I am glad he was forced out. I am sceptical of his assertions that no-one in Downing Street knew anything of his activities. Unfortunately my response to the mock-outrage from everyone else outside the Downing street fuhrer bunker is much the same: So what? As usual Guido has fastened on the easy stuff: the petty and personal vendetta that makes politics so much fun as a spectator sport, but so much less important to most people's actual daily lives.

More to the point, if you are going to point the finger, perhaps you should be a bit less coy about how you gained your information. Guido, I think, would like to be taken seriously- a sort of PJ O'Rourke manque. So why the rather unlikely assertion that these e-mails were simply given to him? Surely it is far more likely that, after his previous spat with Dolly Draper, Paul simply planted a spider programme on Draper's computer to read incoming e-mails. Even if it is probably not legal, the effects have been so gratifying that, if so, he might as well admit it- unless of course he has other spiders on other people's computers elsewhere?

From the point of view of the blogosphere, Paul has become a superstar. From the point of view of politics, it strikes me that he is simply another variant of Damian McBride- and has fled the reservation towards some alternative anarcho-libertarian anti-universe. However the success he has had against the odious Labour spin-meisters means that, paradoxically, I think it pretty unlikely that Guido can be challenged while the Labour government is in office. Were the Tories alone or a coalition to come to power, then I would be quite surprised if he did not get his wings clipped.

Perhaps the success of Guido Fawkes might tell us a little about ourselves. Many specialist blogs on such things as the NHS crisis are ignored, but the scurrilous and the bitchy achieve the readership of millions. Am I being pompous about this? Well maybe, but disappointed also. There is so much incredible information in the real world But then life is full of strange ironies: that the final budget of the film of Apollo 13 was greater than the cost of the actual Apollo 13 launch for example, or that more people know the names Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo or Luke Skywalker than Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldin and Michael Collins.

As Humans we seem to prefer the easy fantasy to the difficult truth. Obi-Wan, Luke and the rest are simply fantasies and yet the actors that played them global idols, but Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are the genuine heroes.

I don't, indeed can't, compare this blog with Guido or Iain Dale- it is what it is, what I can make it in the time I have- and nothing more. Yet out there in the blogosphere are other blogs of real worth and genuine power that get only fractional attention compared to the dubious morality of Guido Fawkes or the twittering inanities of various celebrities.

Of course, in the end though what is popular may not always have a genuine worth.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


After a couple of hours de-spamming the blog instead of writing it, I have switched on comment moderation for a while.

I hope normal unmoderated service can be resumed as and when Chinese people stop trying to sell us things...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Muss es sein?

Of all the great souls who have passed before us the one, I think, that moves me the most is Beethoven. I am inspired by literature and art, but music expresses even more to me.

The majesty of his Ninth Symphony alone expresses a joy and freedom that takes us beyond our own confines and out into the Universe. His sombre sonatas express the ultimate inescapability of our human fate.

Yet always when I listen to this music of a genius I am filled with compassion for the Beethoven the man. The pain of his disease which robbed him of his greatest gift- his hearing. The mystery of his greatest love, his "Immortal Beloved". We have a copy of three of his love letters, the last runs so:

" thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved, now and then joyfully, then sadly, waiting to learn whether or not fate will hear us - I can live only wholly with you or not at all - Yes, I am resolved to wander so long away from you until I can fly to your arms and say that I am really at home with you, and can send my soul enwrapped in you into the land of spirits - Yes, unhappily it must be so - You will be the more contained since you know my fidelity to you. No one else can ever possess my heart - never - never - Oh God, why must one be parted from one whom one so loves..."

We do not even know the name of the Immortal Beloved.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Its the Economy stupid...

The Conservatives are living in hope and in fear.

They hope that the tide of incompetence and sleaze that previously engulfed the Major government will similarly engulf Gordon Brown. They hope that the more personable image of David Cameron will allow him to do what his three predecessors, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, could not and lead the Tories to victory.

Yet still, the Conservatives fear that their hoped for victory could still be taken away from them.

The opinion polls are quite volatile, and given the vagaries of our electoral system, it could still be that the Conservatives get comfortably the largest number of votes and yet not be the largest party in the House of Commons. The Tories need a substantial lead, simply to break-even. Since the Tories still support the first-past-the-post system it is -frankly- their problem and they get no sympathy from me for their predicament. The problem is that the run of polls is such that the Conservatives could be able to obtain a workable majority or end up just tantalisingly short of a majority in a hung Parliament -and the mathematics are such that it is extremely difficult at certain levels of support to see which way the results will break.

Yet how can it be that the leading opposition party can even doubt that they will defeat a government that is so clearly past its sell-by date? After all, the meltdown of the whole ten year Labour economic policy, combined with continuing sagas of waste and incompetence are now being spiced with stories of personal cupidity and sleaze that have clearly discredited the entire administration.

Although the Conservatives have recently maintained a lead in the polls that would allow them to gain a working majority, a frisson of fear continues in Tory circles- for their support is still very shallow. The public reaction to Cameron at this stage in his leadership is distinctly tepid when compared with Tony Blair at the same phase in his leadership of Labour.

To a degree one might suggest that the Conservative attempt to take the battle onto traditional Labour issue areas: health and education was the major success of Cameron's leadership. However it has also exposed an unexpected Conservative flank to attack from an unexpected quarter.

Given the direct responsibility that Gordon Brown has had over the past twelve years for the economy and therefore for the catalogue of economic policy mistakes that he has committed, the Conservatives might have felt confident that as far as these critical issues were concerned, then electoral support would run firmly in their direction.

Not So.

The fact is that the Liberal Democrats finance spokesman, Vince Cable, has turned the Tory flank. His expertise, based on being a professional economist, has been so great that he has been treated less as a party spokesman than as an expert witness- the to anguished frustration of Conservative commentators like Iain Dale. Yet the fact is that Dr. Cable -yes he even has a PhD in Economics- has shown up Conservative economic policy to be just as much empty rhetoric as the policies of the government.

At this time of economic crisis to lose the critical advantage of greater trust on economic policy is at best extremely unsettling for the Conservatives, at worst it could indeed cost them the chance of a majority at the next election.

The fact is that, head-to-head, it is perfectly obvious that George Osborne is absolutely no match for Vince Cable. Many erstwhile Conservatives have expressed the clear view that they think that Cable should be the finance minister, even were the Conservatives to win the election. Ian Hislop, not an aggressively partisan figure, has publicly said that he would prefer to vote for the "Vince Cable for Chancellor" Party. Leaving aside the fact that there is such a party already- the Liberal Democrats- there is no doubt that, even on Conservative benches, George Osborne is not liked or respected.

In 2005 the Liberal Democrats gained a swing of 3.7% to 22.1% of the vote and won ten more seats for a total of 62 seats. In 1997 they won 52 seats on only 18.3% of the vote. Yet, 2005 aside, the Liberal Democrats typically gain votes over the course of an election campaign. In 1983 and 1987 they entered the campaign in the teens but were still able to gain 25.4% and 22.3% of the vote respectively (though far fewer seats than at present owing once again to our strange electoral system.)

Thus the fact that the Liberal Democrats are now consistently back to the high teens, even occasionally into the 20s must surely be giving the Conservatives real pause. With the problems of the Liberal Democrat leadership now addressed, the media narrative, as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned is focused on the immense asset of Vince Cable's obvious expertise and the sorry contrast that George Osborne makes (Alistair Darling is weaker too, but his problems are masked by the gravitas of office).

The Conservative strategists know that elections are won or lost on the economy. They are also not used to facing a real fight from Liberal Democrats on those issues, because their traditional strategy of rubbishing the relevance of the Party or pretending, as Iain Dale does in his piece, that the Liberal Democrats are *really* some kind of closet Socialists, usually works.

However this is where the risk that David Cameron has taken now becomes obvious. He cannot credibly attack Liberal Democrat policies while at the same time putting forward more expensive, more traditionally left wing policies himself. Especially not while facing Vince Cable who is trusted by the waiting press and can explain precisely what the Tories are trying to do in terms simple enough for journalists to understand.

No wonder the Tories are afraid.

We are already seeing a concerted attempt by Conservative commentators to denigrate Vince Cable. it is not going to work, simply because Vince is Vince. He so consistently warned of the predicament the economy was facing- long before it was fashionable. He has been lucid and clear, because he genuinely understands the issues, in a way that only a lifetime as an academic economist, rather than as a boy politician, allows you to do. At the same time he is also able to convey his understanding in a way that trumps the glibness of his opponents. It will be practically impossible to change the positive electoral perception of Cable, because it is so firmly rooted in the truth.

We are now less than one year away from opening of the next election campaign. As the Labour government continues to decay, the focus on the Liberal Democrats is likely to increase. As the media discovers that Vince Cable is not the only talent on the Liberal Democrat benches and the Cameroons lose their novelty, then we could be looking at a further recovery in Liberal Democrat polling levels- at the perfect time to lead to an increase in the vote and the number of seats that the party can win in 2010.

The Liberal Democrats, thanks to Vince Cable, are having a good economic crisis. As the Tories view the next election with increasingly mixed emotions, the Liberal Democrats can increasingly look forward to the General Election with real hope.

The next year could end up as one of the best in Liberal Democrat history.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

No Witter on Twitter

Over the past couple of weeks I have been invited several times to join up to Twitter. Politicians, bloggers and celebrities seem to be clamouring for me to take their Twitter feed.

Many millions have done so, in order to get messages in 140 characters or less -so-called "Tweets"- from Stephen Fry or anyone else who wants to tell you about their world in a simple Tweet.

Indeed these Tweets, which can be published to blogs as well as other formats such as mobile phones have become something of a craze. Certainly the messages, usually beginning with the @ sign have become popular with such large scale bloggers as Iain Dale amongst others. Iain, like Stephen Fry of course has a real personal enthusiasm for new technology- sometimes even when it doesn't work.

It is now rumoured that Google will buy Twitter, making yet another generation of California nerds into multi-millionaires.

Personally I just can't see the point of Twittering. Just because communication has become ever easier does not mean that there is now a necessity to do so. In fact one of the curses of the modern world is the vast amount of banality that clogs the airways, drowning out the critical information in an ocean of irrelevance. Indeed the very point of Google is that it shifts through the trillions or even quadrillions of data points in order to bring you the few million most rel event to your search.

Tweets are a reductio ad absurdum of blogging.

Just because there is a craze for Tweets at this point does not mean- I think- that it really adds anything. Nor do I think that tweeting will necessarily last. It may well be that Twitter is the symbol of the peak of the market in the web 2.0 bubble, as was a symbol of the excesses of the bubble of a decade or so ago.

The point of this blog is to explore issues that interest me in more detail than the DTP (dead tree press) finds able to do. I bring, I hope, my own unique insight and expertise to issues which are often complicated. While, inevitably I must simplify things to allow for the fact that such readers as come to this blog may not have the same background, I still assume that they have a reasonable level of knowledge about the world.

I try, with this blog, to explore ideas. Twittering is simply the equivalent of social chit-chat.

"@ I won't tweet- prefer to be blogger and focus on the harder stuff. I also think Twitter risks becoming symbolic of web 2.0 crash"

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The East-West Border

The East-West border is always wandering,
sometimes eastward, sometimes west,
and we do not know exactly where it is just now:
in Gaugamela, in the Urals,
or maybe in ourselves,
so that one ear, one eye, one nostril, one hand, one foot,
one lung and one testicle or one ovary
is on the one, another on the other side.
Only the heart
only the heart is always on one side:
if we are looking northward,
in the West;
if we are looking southward, in the East;
and the mouth doesn't know on behalf of which or both
it has to speak.

Jaan Kaplinski

(Sam Hamill and Rita Tamm,
Translators©2006 Copper Canyon Press)

Friday, April 03, 2009

NATO Jamboree

The sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the NATO treaty in Washington in 1949 is now upon us. The organisation designed, in the words of Lord Ismay, its first Secretary General, to "keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down" has been a considerable success.
To mark the occasion, the two states that fought three wars within sixty years, France and Germany, are co-hosting the anniversary summit and inevitably the contrast between the last sixty years of general peace and the previous sixty years of horrific bloodshed will be a great part of the symbolism of the meeting.
However, there are two items of substantive business on the agenda and yet they too will be occasions of great rejoicing. On Monday the flags of two new member states will be raised outside NATO headquarters in Brussels after the formal ratification and acceptance of Albania and Croatia as NATO member states.
I have worked closely with the government in Albania and have visited the country several times. During my visits, I have been astonished at the dramatic, one might almost say "headlong" modernisation of a country that has had such a dark history. The cruelties of the insane and brutal dictatorship of Enver Hoxha were exceptional even in the annals of the crimes of Stalinism. To see such a state emerge as a vibrant, dynamic young democracy, despite many setbacks along the way, has been one of the most moving changes since the miraculously peaceful fall of Communism. Personally, as the Albanian black eagle rises to take its place with the other flags of the NATO states I hope that the old murderer Hoxha is spinning in his grave.
Yet it will be the raising of the Shahovnica- the "checkerboard"- flag of Croatia that will give me particular pleasure. I first began to work closely in Croatia when I was working with UBS in the early-mid 1990s. At that time, despite the ongoing military conflict, we were preparing the privatisation of the well known pharmaceutical company Pliva. At that time, and even for some years after the end of the war in June 1995, there were many signs with strict instructions as to what to do in the event of an air raid or enemy attack against Zagreb. Even on a pleasant late evening stroll taking the air in the bars of Tkalciceva street, the shortness of the hair of the young men reminded you that this was a City that had quite recently come within range of enemy artillery and that Zagreb had indeed faced attack.
The listing of Pliva on the London and Zagreb stock exchanges in April 1996 was an extraordinary success. I was proud to be part of the team that received deal of the year for this pioneer transaction. Shortly afterward we also led the first listing of Zagrebacka banka, and as the then chairman of the ZSE said to me at the time, "as far as financing in Croatia is concerned we can say that there are only two phases of market development: before Pliva, when we had no market, and after Pliva, when we did". Over the past years I have worked closely with several of the banks in the country and made a very large number of friends across a wide spectrum of activity, from business to politics, from culture to sailing. I have been able to pick up an understanding of Croatian and an appreciation for the determination and sense of humour of the Croatian people.
Since the election of President Stjepan Mesic- universally known as "Stipe", Steve- Croatia has been able to move away from the difficult times that marked the rebirth of the country. His relaxed and informal style reflects very well the laid back Croatian view of life. The President has proven a jovial foil to the more intense and serious approach of the Prime Minister, Ivo Senader. Despite the inevitable tensions of belonging to to two differing political parties, the Croatian Head of State and Head of Government have proven to be a highly effective lobbying team in their quest to gain NATO and EU membership for the country.
Despite this, it still seemed at one point that Slovenia might not be able to overlook the ongoing technical disputes between the two countries arising from the disruption of the former Yugoslav Federation that are only slowing being addressed. Yet in the end the generally friendly relations between Ljubljana and Zagreb overcame the problems. Sadly this contrasts sharply with the continuing disputes between Greece and Macedonia which has led to the Greeks maintaining their veto over Macedonian entry into NATO.
Although I see Croatian membership of NATO is a valuable thing in itself, since it will help the alliance reach out to the less stable parts of the Western Balkan region, it is fair to say that the non aligned and pacificist traditions the country also makes membership controversial. Although in many ways NATO membership is recognition that Croatia is a fully democratic state and an equal partner in the Euro-Atlantic partnership, there remain many in Zagreb who would prefer that the country stay non-aligned. Yet NATO,increasingly is also the defence counterpart of a prize that is far more widely supported in Croatia: membership of the European Union.
As I write the EU member states and Croatia have closed seven chapters of the thirty-five chapter treaty, while fifteen chapters are open and under discussion. Eleven chapters are being screened and the final two will await the completion of the others. Progress has been steady, but not spectacular and the original hope for entry in 2010 does now seem to have slipped to 2011.
In any event, it is quite clear that Croatia is well on track for EU entry, and the EU should gain its twenty eighth member state pretty soon (possibly at the same time as its twenty ninth member, should Iceland decide to apply to join the EU later this year and be accepted for fast track entry).
Of course Croatia will benefit from EU entry, but I can't help feeling that the European Union, as with NATO, will also gain from the deal. The ever growing stability of Croatia will help in turn to stabilise the position in the countries further south. Furthermore, Croatia brings a long history of contacts with the non-aligned world, the very history that makes NATO membership controversial, but can still help promote European values and interests in such places as Libya and Indonesia.
As the flag rises in Brussels on Monday, the renewed alliance has much to look forward to, but for me and I suspect for many others, it will be a moment of satisfaction as Croatia and indeed Albania takes a further positive step towards the future.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Oh wad some had the gift tae gie us... see ourselves as others see us.

No comment really needed, saving just how shocking most foreigners find this drunkeness.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

For those in peril...

After the amazing rescue from a helicopter crash in the North Sea, not three weeks ago, now there is grimmer news.

Another Puma has gone down, about 35 miles of Crimond. This time I don't think we can hope for survivors.

When accidents like this happen it is a harsh reminder of just how dangerous life on the North Sea rigs can be. Yet, the fact is that there is not 100% safety- and there can not be. Maybe anything worth doing carries a risk.

I am often mildly astonished at how matter-of-fact the North Sea workers are about taking on the risks that they do, yet in the end I suppose that the risks of death are only mildly higher compared to life as a whole, which itself does have a 100% fatality rate.

I had a friend who came off Piper Alpha two days before the explosion that wrecked the rig and killed 167 men. Even though he had special leave- he was getting married- he remained unemotional about his escape, while lamenting the deaths of his friends. As he said, another friend had been killed on the A94 the previous year- and you never knew what you might get in this life.

Even still, I know from sad experience that there will be a shiver down many a spine in Aberdeen tonight and much sad and subdued discussion in the pubs and bars.


Living in a foreign capital can often throw up faintly bizarre juxtapositions, things with familiar names may turn out to be something quite different from what you might have expected, whereas something that at first blush seems quite alien is actually very familiar.

The Finnish language, for example is quite close to Estonian, but it is spelt quite differently. Often I see signs in Finnish which look totally incomprehensible, but by saying them out loud you suddenly recognise a familiar Estonian word and realise that you can, after all understand what is written.

Something slightly similar happened to me the other day, walking past the Matkamaja- the travellers house- in the Town Hall square in Tallinn's old town. I saw a sign saying "Keili". Initially it was a word that seemed to bear no relationship to any word that I knew. On reading further I realised that it was a kind of dance evening.

It took a further minute- and the presence of the "Soti", Scottish- for the light to come flooding in, that a "keili" was, in fact, a ceilidh.

So I went along- and great fun it was too. Admittedly having the steps of the Dashing White Sergeant called in Estonian was something of a challenge, but I soon picked it up- and speaking even minimal Estonian is a good way to make friends.

Mind you, it still took me a couple of minutes to realise what "Dozy-do" was.