Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A State of Independence

As Prime Minister Gordon Brown sits down at the end of the last speech he is likely to make to a Labour Party conference as Prime Minister, it seems fair to consider the legacy of dismal failure that he leaves behind, and how that legacy can be corrected.

The supposed sop to Liberal Democrat supporters of a referendum on an AV electoral system is a deeply cynical raspberry from a Labour Party that has had 12 years to change things... and failed to do so. Yet apart from these hackneyed gimmicks, there was nothing. Labour is finished as a force for government for the foreseeable future and it deserves the trouncing that it is about to receive.

The big winners of the years of Labour rule have been the entrenched interests in the public sector, whose pensions have been protected and whose budgets have been inflated- regardless of effectiveness. Failure has been rewarded with salaries that match or better anything on offer in the private sector. An intrusive and bullying class of Labour client bureaucrats has created an network of policies in which any criticism of the public sector unacceptable, no matter how egregious the waste and indeed corruption may be, into a kind of thoughtcrime. Even when confronted with actual crimes, those responsible are usually -at worst- sent into a comfortable early retirement.

Labour talks about "creating jobs", but these jobs serve only to create further dependency.

Where are the genuine creative entrepreneurs, whose enterprise can unlock British talent and send it successfully into the global market place? They are hobbled by an array of byzantine and intrusive regulations which literally make it impossible for our country to compete. Meanwhile the profoundly inflationary policies of "quantitative easing" are destroying the value of our currency. As the Pound falls below parity to the Euro and stays there, and as the AAA country rating comes under review with negative outlook, the fundamental basis of the British economy is in a crisis.

More and more investors and entrepreneurs are leaving the United Kingdom- myself included.

Enterprise is not a dirty word- instead of talking about the "jobs market", it is time to support the wish of many people in the UK to be their own boss- free of intervention from employer or- indeed- government.

Without such entrepreneurs the outlook for the United Kingdom is bleak indeed.

It is disgraceful that I must pay tens of thousands to simply comply with arbitrary and illogical regulation. If I employ someone in Britain I must now spend vast sums on National Insurance, not to mention an array of complicated and often contradictory legislation which covers anything from fire regulations, money laundering, financial regulation and on to "diversity training". I may leave nothing to common sense- all must comply with the full spectrum of legislation which amounts to tens of millions of words. To ensure total compliance with legislation requires a compliance officer- a full time job which does not add to the profitability of the firm whatsoever.

It is insane that I need to spend over £1000 every year simply to find out how much personal tax I must pay to the government. It is immoral that I should pay well over 70% of my total income to the state in taxation. Any profits my firm may make are also subject to a vast number of taxes and regulations.

For some time I have run my business from Tallinn with full compliance to their legislation. However the effective and innovative use of the Internet and simple and clear regulation means my costs in Tallinn are about 10% of those in London.

More to the point in Estonia I am not told by some public sector leech- as I was the other day- that my efforts to build my own business were "capitalist exploitation of society and probably immoral". That such nonsense can be said with a straight face is perhaps the most poisonous legacy of a administration that has done more than any other to undermine the freedom of citizens to work for themselves instead of for the government.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Liberalism resurgent (in Germany)

As I predicted some time ago, the Free Democrats: the German Liberal Party, has seen a dramatic increase in its vote at the Federal elections. It has been dramatic progress, a nearly a third increase in the FDP vote, to give them 15% and the near certainty of forming a coalition with the Conservative CDU/CSU, under the Chancellorship of Angela Merkel.

The previous "Grand coalition" of the CDU/CSU with the Social Democrats can now be replaced with a far more radical free market led government. Profound congratulations to Guy Westerwelle and all of the FDP team.

The pan European trend of the slow decay of Socialism is, yet again, mirrored in this result from Berlin. Nevertheless it is not the Conservatives that are mere beneficiaries of the swing of the pendulum. The election result confirms the continuing demand for greater political choice. The combined vote of the FDP, the Greens and the Left party is greater than either the SPD or the CDU/CSU.

This latest election result in Europe shows that voters are increasingly rejecting the old left/right choices and are seeking a more diverse set of ideas.

That should give politicians across the political spectrum some pause for thought. As the polls for the Liberal Democrats in the UK now begin to match or better the result they gained in 2005, I suspect that it is not just in Germany that we may see a greater political pluralism- even if our 19th Century political system is ill equipped to cope with it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bournemouth absence

Although I had hoped to get down to the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth this year, simple pressure of work has now made that impossible. I must admit to great disappointment. The last conference before the General Election was always likely to show a few fireworks, and indeed the conference has attracted more headlines than any other over the past three years.

Some of these headlines show a significant change of course in terms of economic policy. Scepticism about the size of government expenditure has given way to concern and now it is clear that reducing government expenditure will need to be the most urgent priority of the next government. So far it has been the Liberal Democrats that have made the running, and although the Conservatives are now belatedly recognising that cuts will be required they continue to fail to provide even the slightest detail as to what they think should guide their decisions in this area. This political cowardice means that we are expected to chose a government without having the first clue as to what the Conservatives might do should they get into office.

The new property tax that Vince Cable proposes: the brilliantly spun "Mansion Tax", at least underlines that the Liberal Democrats are serious about balancing the books. Indeed there has been a plethora of new policy detail emerging from the conference. Neither has there been any of the tension between delegates and leadership that we saw, for example at Blackpool a few years ago. The party looks pretty united and increasingly well organised. The opinion polls offer some comfort, as the party has clearly recovered from the lows of two years ago.

There is every chance that, despite a potential Conservative resurgence, the power of Liberal Democrat incumbency and the growing weakness of Labour will allow the Lib Dems not only to limit any losses to the Conservatives, but also to make substantial progress against Labour. Under certain scenarios, there is even the very real chance to make progress beyond the current level of MPs, and the party of two years ago, traumatised by the internal problems that it then faced would be very happy to see the current position. The Conservative upsurge poses a challenge, but it does not pose an existential threat.

Of course the media's dismissal of the Liberal Democrats: Jeremy Paxman's arrogant assertion that "there can be no distinction between a Lib Dem policy and an aspiration since you are not going to win anyway" remains the primary challenge. When voters think the Lib Dems are able to win, they have a dramatically higher rate of success, so such a dismissal is incredibly damaging. The fact is that the party is back on track, and indeed at local level is making some dramatic progress.

For me it really is a case of "wish you were here".

Friday, September 18, 2009

Corporate Murder?

Trafigura is one of the leading oil traders in the world. However, like most oil traders it has hardly been immune from controversy. Over the years, several such companies such as Marc Rich & Co. and Glencore have been accused or implicated in various bribery scandals and the accusation that they assisted Saddam Hussein in avoiding UN sanctions through the so-called "topping-off" scandal.

So far, so unsurprising. Oil trading is a secretive and incredibly lucrative business, and beneath the shadows, rumours of industrial scale corruption have circulated for years. Most of the leading oil producers: Venezuela, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kazakhstan and now Equatorial Guinea are hardly models of Jeffersonian democracy.

The allegations made against Trafigura are, however, even more vile. Put simply, the allegation is that the company bought partially processed hydrocarbons, highly sulphurous Coker Petrol, and- using an extremely caustic process- they were then able to transform this into usable product. The problem was that this left a highly caustic residue in the bilges of the ship used to transport the product. When an attempt was made to unload this by-product in the Netherlands, it became clear, according to sources in Rotterdam, that the product was so toxic that it would need special handling. That handling would be so expensive as to certainly eliminate the profit obtained from the processing. However, it would also be illegal to export the product outside the European Union.

Nevertheless, the ship next docked in Cote d'Ivoire and what Trafigura describe as "slops" were unloaded in Abidjan, Within a very short period of time a large number of Ivorians reported serious burns, breathing difficulties and indeed several agonising deaths. Over 30,000 Ivorians raised a class action against Trafigura for their injuries.

The case is still sub judice, and Trafigura continues to deny liability. However they have been forced to make ex gratia payments following the publication of internal e-mails that undermine a substantial proportion of Trafigura's case.

The legal case will need to be completed, but to my mind this is not simply a matter for the civil courts. If it is proven that Trafigura knowingly dumped this toxic waste in Cote d'Ivoire, then this is a case of murder.

The company should, in my view, face a criminal investigation. If Nick Leeson could go to gaol for securities fraud, it seems to me that those responsible for this horrific incident should face criminal prosecution. If it becomes clear that the whole culture of the company itself is implicated, then the company should be liquidated and such wealth as remains should be placed in a trust fund to support the horribly burned, blinded, widowed, orphaned and wholly innocent people of Abidjan who were caught up in a crime.

In other news: Conservative Front bencher, Lord Strathclyde resigned from the board of Trafigura yesterday. As a member of the board he may be reflecting upon his actions over the years since this scandal first occurred.

Unrelated information: Rt. Hon. Alan Duncan MP, another Conservative front bencher, made his fortune as an oil trader, first with Solomon Brothers and later with Marc Rich & Co.

Mr. Marc Rich was convicted and subsequently controversially pardoned by President Clinton for his role in bribery and illegal dealings with the regime of Iran.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Famous Belgians

I guess Kim Clijsters must now join the short, but distinguished list of famous Belgians ( I mean real Belgians, unlike Tin Tin and Hercule Poirot).

It did remind me of the time Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon against the odds, and sure enough she was nearly the last mother to win such a major tennis tournament.

A Conservative dose of reality on the EU

Possibly the majority of Conservatives oppose British membership of the European Union. Even more likely is that the majority of Conservative voters do. The anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) attracts a great deal of its support from people who have previously voted Tory.

The case against the EU is made with wit and venom by Libertarians such as Devils Kitchen every day. Those amongst the Tories who publicly support the EU- like Ken Clarke or Chris Beazley- are roundly abused by their own side.

We are told that if the Irish reject the treaty of Lisbon in their referendum next month- possibly even if they accept it- then the British Conservatives will rescind the previous ratification and block its adoption.


No they won't.

Firstly, Ireland will ratify.

Secondly, for David Cameron will not commit such political capital to the cause. It would be pollitically suicidal and he knows it. Mr. Cameron, like Labour, only believes in "what works".

While even the most die-hard supporter of the EU would admit its myriad faults, the fact is that in a world where size really does matter, where China and India are taking their place at the centre of global councils, the only way that smaller European powers can project influence is through neighbourly co-operation. If the EU did not exist, we would have to build something like it. The EU therefore "works".

More and more of the figures around David Cameron regard the entire anti-EU lobby as not much more that "closet racists and fruitcakes, mostly", and many of the most senior people around Cameron have had serious jobs in Brussels. Ed Llewellyn was Paddy Ashdown's bag man long before he was David Cameron's- and his pragmatic views will trump the visceral nonsense spouted by the Conservative right.

Anti Europeans in the current Conservatives are a bit the Selsdon Man was for the Thatcherites: many might have supported the controversial ideas, but in the run up to the 1979 election, they were circumspect about saying so. After the election, the pressures of power eliminated the Seldon plan as a coherrent option- only John Redwood now ploughs the lonely furrow, long overtaken by the cynicism of practical politics. Were the Conservatives to be elected, they are now, in my judgement most likely to tack towards a far safer position than that of general opposition to the EU- and Redwood will be left even more isolated.

The Treaty of Lisbon, then, will be ratified.

I suspect it will be a long time before further institutional change is demanded: even Turkey accepts that it will not join before 2024. Meanwhile the position of the the British government will change: it will focus on trying to maximise the benefit from EU membership.

The right wing hard anti-EU wing of the Conservatives may declare that it feels betrayed, but they can not now say that they did not see it coming. Only if UKIP can make a breakthrough into the House of Commons would the Conservatives even consider a turn back- and that looks pretty unlikely.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Is Socialism finally falling?

In politics one should never count chickens, yet the American Press, in the shape of the Washington Post and Time magazine is arguing that a powerful pattern seems to be emerging across European politics. They detect nothing less than the eclipse of Socialism as a political force.

In Germany, the re-election of Angela Merkel as Bundeskanzelerin seems a foregone conclusion but the Socialist SPD is set to fall to its lowest result in over a generation. The left in Germany, France, Italy are facing eclipse. Even in Sweden, home of the "Social Democratic model", the Social Democrats have after nearly three generations been removed from office. At least the German SPD remains in office, albeit as a junior coalition partner, but they are part of an increasingly rare breed. At the moment Socialists or Social Democrats have a leading or significant place in the Governments of Austria, Hungary, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the UK: Nine states out of the 27 members of the European Union. Even then, the grip of the socialists in Germany, Hungary, and the UK is likely to be loosened within a few months. Even the possible advent of a hard left government in Greece- albeit led by the Socialist PASOK- is small comfort for left wingers. The European Parliamentary elections showed a dramatic fall in support for the Socialists, and now this seems to be confirmed at every level across the EU.

Are the Americans right: Is Socialism dying out?

Yet the change in European politics is not by any means a straight swing of the pendulum to the right.

We have seen fragmentation of both left and right wing parties, and the emergence of new forces. In Germany the hard left "Left" Party has undermined Social Democrat support, while new regional groups and a resurgent FDP have challenged the CDU from the right. In Austria the emergence of radical right parties has challenged the centre-right Peoples Party so severely that the Austrian Social Democrats cling on to power effectively by default.

In Britain the Conservatives have had to face the challenge of UKIP- a fringe anti-European party- while Labour has had to face the challenge of nationalists and regionalists in its previous heartlands of Scotland and Wales. Both have had to struggle against the growth of the Liberal Democrats across the country, with Labour facing severe defeat in the local government of much of its northern metropolitan heartlands. Despite all this, for many, however bleak the current environment may seem, it will seem inconceivable that Labour will not recover. Surely, they argue, the likely election of the Conservatives at the next election will be a relief, since it will refocus the party activists and leadership to rebuilding the party unfettered by the distractions of power.

Yet the fact is that there is not much of any political party to lead in the UK. Despite the prospect of entering government, even the membership of the Conservatives continues to fall, and the membership figures of Labour are bleaker still. The political parties of the UK are no longer massed groups of citizens, but simply power vehicles, where the free labour of party members is anyway no longer required, since advertising data will do better canvasses and paid deliverers and websites a better job of getting the message of the narrow party leadership to the voters. This is the pattern we see across Europe: an increasingly cynical electorate is declining to engage with any of the existing political forces.

The death of the parties of mass society- of socialism- may have been predictable, even necessary. However as voter turnout falls and party membership crash dives, I wonder if we are not seeing the end of Socialism as we have known it- no bad thing in my view- but instead the end of the political systems that we have known based on party politics.

What that means for our democratic system remains difficult to foresee, but if our society has become more politically diverse, we should not pretend that it has not happened, we will, however, need to overhaul our democracy to cope with the desire for greater and more nuanced political choice. The era of large massed parties may indeed be drawing to a close, and if it is we will need to consider how to reconnect citizen and state, to create explicit alliances across our democracy not only within a reconstructed party system but also beyond it.

Continuing with political systems based on 19th century structures and ideologies will create an ever more disconnected, cynical and atomised politics, and the apathetic indifference this fosters is fertile ground for the corrupt and the tyrannical.

It is not just the party of the massed society that is severely weakened, but the politics of the massed society. As Conservatives (and indeed Liberals) rejoice in the fall of Socialism, they must also accept the implications that their own desire for more choice and open markets has upon politics as a whole. Unless they do, then it will only be a matter of time for the massed parties of the right face their own decline and fall.

Liberals believe in a more open market of politics- it is time to remind the electorate of why we do that and why it is now necessary to make greater progress to that goal.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Democratic Revolution

The Following is an article I wrote for one of Estonia's leading newspapers. It was written in conjunction with a conference on Direct Democracy in Tartu which I spoke at this morning.

Estonia is entering a new era in her democratic history. As in so many other areas, Estonia is pioneering the use of technology in its political system. Gradually, the use of e-voting is beginning to take hold and, as ever higher numbers of people cast their votes securely over the Internet, many suggest that it is the key to greater popular participation in the political process. Of course, so far, these e-votes have only been cast in order to elect their political representatives. Now, however, the question is being asked as to whether these systems could now be used more widely, to make political decisions directly.

Given the low cost and open access that Estonian voters now have to the Internet, it seems self evidently true that it will soon become very easy to create regular e-referendums; to increase dramatically the number of questions that are put to the people and to fundamentally increase the level of direct democracy in the Estonian Republic. Yet despite the great positives that such a new system offers, there are nonetheless risks and in my view this risks must be considered as we enter the new world of the Estonian e-democracy.

As with so many ideas, the ideas of the ancient Greeks concerning government repay careful study. It is to the Greeks that we owe much of our vocabulary in this sphere: the very word “politics”- the affairs of state- itself, not to mention “democracy” –the rule of the people. And here lies our first question. The fact is that the Greeks equated “democracy” with rule of the mob. They feared the rule of the people as a tyranny of the majority over the minority. In the view of Aristotle, the ideal was not a "democratic", but a “political” system which balances different interests and which protects minorities.

What we today call “representative democracies” would certainly not be recognised by the Greeks as involving rule by the mob: they conform more closely to the political ideals of balance that Aristotle discusses. Different factions and points of view are accommodated and respected, not only within our Parliaments, but also -in citizens groups such as trade unions- outside of it too. Yet still, within our “democratic” system there lies a growing threat: the emergence of an isolated professional political class which becomes progressively more corrupt.

Classical democrats looked to the example of Cincinnatus the Roman who, once his service to his country was over, returned to his farm no different in wealth or status than when he first undertook his service to Rome. Such citizenship is still commemorated in the name of the American city of Cincinnati today. Comparatively recently President Truman was able to live a quiet life in his retirement with little or no security and the respect, rather than the adulation of his peers. However, we now live in different times and the temptations of celebrity and wealth have clearly struck many of the leaders and former leaders of modern democratic states. Thus there is a growing risk in a purely representative system that a corrupt political class fails to respond to the political will of the people and works only for its self interest.

Yet as we have seen, there are also risks in a purely democratic system. The rule of the mob is susceptible to simplistic and populist messages that can lead to the oppression of minorities and the erosion of the general freedom of a society. As an active political blogger, I notice the extraordinary vituperation of the political blogosphere. Ignorant and dangerous opinions are commonplace and the Internet allows the rapid propagation of ideas: all ideas, whether fair and reasonable ideas or not.

Libertarians dispute the value of restraints being laid upon the political system. They argue that greater participation is always a good thing, and that any attempt by some “philosopher-king” to define a notion of virtue is an unwarranted restraint on freedom. I tend to share this view in principle, yet I still believe in objective, rather than relative, views of political morality. I am therefore a Liberal, rather than a Libertarian.

Consequently I am also unhappy about the occasional- rather than central- use of referendum. Unless these concern fundamental constitutional issues, referendum is often simply a political weapon rather than a genuine attempt to divine the will of the people. Even in areas with regular democratic consultation- Switzerland and the United States- we find that popular votes are shaped by the nature of the question- that is, how the question is phrased, rather than the underlying issues. If referendum gives greater democratic legitimacy to our leaders, it also gives them more power- politicians will tend to merely include it as one in their list of political calculations. Certainly the decline of ideology has created a cadre of literally “unprincipled” political leaders across the planet.

What then is the answer? I suppose in a word it is responsibility. If politicians were more responsible, they would not give-in to the temptations of corruption. If the voters were more responsible, they would not give in to the temptations of populism. Yet of the two threats it is the threat of political corruption that is the most urgent.

The Estonian commitment to transparency is a severe brake on the level of corruption in the country, which is why the perception of corruption in Estonia is so low. Furthermore, as a relatively open and homogeneous society, the political will is not attracted to extremes. The high levels of education too are a big plus. Naturally there is also the question of size: the Athenian democracy functioned because it consisted of a relatively small number of individuals. It is certainly easier to create a balanced and stable political system when the number of different interests that need to be managed is relatively small. Meanwhile Estonian history demonstrates the value of opposition to state power, not merely against the horrors of occupation either; the example of Jaan T├Ánisson’s opposition in the “years of silence” is also particularly telling. A community with a strong sense of cohesion and which is comfortable with with the technology may make an Estonian Internet-based democracy real and successful. Certainly the larger nation states look increasingly ill adapted to the wired world.

As we consider the next moves in improving Estonian democracy, it seems clear that this sense of responsibility, moderation and balance will stand the country in good stead to grasp the opportunities that a more open political system based on e-democracy can offer. It would certainly be a far more dangerous proposition without them. Perhaps then the key to the successful emergence of an e-democracy will ultimately be the values of character, cohesion and social complexity that underpin each democratic community.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Price of Jordan

Katie Price is something of a cultural phenomenon. She has distorted her body to turn herself into a brand: "Jordan". Her past as "glamour model" - there is a piece of newspeak for sordid pornographic model- has given her an entry into the basement of celebrity.

Since then, she has parlayed her fifteen minutes of fame into a certain ubiquity, and now even the so-called serious press in the UK feels obliged to report her affairs. The latest is the breakdown of her marriage to one-hit wonder himbo, Peter Andre. As the squabbling couple fight their battles on the pages of the newspapers, I feel increasingly repulsed.

The incredible immaturity that this hard boiled misfit shows is a truly disgusting example of the coarseness of modern Britain. Though apparently she sees herself as a role model, it is hard to believe that using your children as a weapon against their father is anything but the lowest form of behaviour.

After a while I ask myself what it says about our society that a woman with a pretty open house approach to her bedroom can be given such wealth and adulation. Does it say that she is a freak, and that few of us regard her lifestyle as anything but bizarre? Or does it actually say that many of us- at least those that buy the celebrity magazines- actually aspire to be like her? Perhaps she is right, she is a role model.

If so, it is a role model for a society which has extraordinarily low aspirations. Trashy ghost written novels, "glamour pictures" and self indulgence is not exactly a brilliant CV.

In any event it is our poverty of ambition that seems to be condemning Britain to the hard shoulder in the global race for progress. We should expect hard work, we should expect competence as the norm, we should aspire to be the very best that we can be.

Jordan is a symbol of failure- and the time has come to push her freak show out of the limelight.

Monday, September 07, 2009

....when first we utter to deceive

The murky tangle surrounding the release of Abdelbaset Ali Al Magrahi begins, if that is possible, to get even more murky. The Prime Minister changes his views on whether victims of the IRA should sue Libya- an acknowledged paymaster of the murderous terrorist organisation.

Once he opposed this, now he supports it.

Meanwhile the Home Office has been forced to drop a control order against a Libyan terrorist suspect, since the House of Lords has instructed the Home Office to tell the suspect what he is actually suspected of doing.

The Orwellian nature of that last statement is obvious: at present, a suspect may not even know the accusations against him.

Even if one accepts that the details of the how the intelligence against the suspect has been gathered could remain confidential, it is a fundamental point of our system, dating back to Magna Carta, that no one shall be punished without facing due process: namely a trial.

If the system ceases to admit due process, then it is a very short step before government is conducted in a totally arbitrary way- in short it becomes tyrannical.

No punishment without trial.

Simple as that.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Lost an Empire... did not find a role

Harry Truman's last Secretary of State was the extremely talented Dean Acheson, and it was Acheson who has had the last word on the role of Britain in the later part of the twentieth century.

"Great Britain" he declared "has lost an Empire, and has yet to find a role".

Yet Britain eventually did find a role: the most loyal lieutenant of the Pax Americana. Despite a progressively declining economy, Britain maintained relatively large armed forces and typically integrated their operations with those of the United States. A good example is the fact that the UK does not have full size aircraft carriers, but much smaller vessels that were designed as a forward anti-submarine screen for the North Atlantic- effectively placing them subordinate to the much larger US carriers which could only be placed further back.

In the 1960's Britain chose to abandon its separate fighter-bomber programme, the TSR 2, and missile programme, the Blue Streak, and buy American equipment instead. As a result Britain dropped out of the space race and allowed France to develop its own military, missile and space programme independently. The costs of these programmes were obviously very large, and thus the decision to work more closely with the United States was as much a pragmatic decision as it was a political one.

Yet there has been a price for our close alliance with the United States. In many ways the USA has claimed the British tradition of liberty as part of its own inheritance and the British have become trapped in a world view that is backward looking. Unlike America or even France, Britain has lost a clear sense of itself and its purpose. Always cynical about grand ideas, Britain now seems to have lost any big idea about itself. As our politics has declined into pragmatic managerialism it has also become increasingly isolated from the principles that should underpin the exercise of power.

Now it becomes clear that the special relationship has ended. British disgust at the arrogance and incompetence of the Bush years is now being matched by the growing sense of hostility in the US towards Britain. British institutions, such as the NHS or the Monarchy, are held up to ridicule, while there was general revulsion at the cynical deal that Britain appears to have made with Gaddafi's Libya- a deal that is seen as being paid for by American blood. Open condemnation of the decision to free Al- Magrahi reflects profound anger at an attempt by Britain to gain commercial advantage from this tragic and disturbing affair. That calls for a boycott of British goods are still being made suggests that this a storm that has changed American perception of the UK from that of a loyal partner to that of a duplicitous and cynical freeloader on American goodwill.

In truth, the "Special Relationship" has been a complex and nebulous arrangement, but as- inevitably- the United States develops a broader range of alliances in the multi-polar world its diminution now leaves Britain even more lost. No Empire, no special relationship with the leading power: what is Britain for exactly?

I think the time has come for a radical reappraisal for what we as citizens want to get from our society and our government. I do not believe- and I don't think Margaret Thatcher did either- that "there is no such thing as society", it is just that "society" is not the same thing as government, and indeed not much to do with government either. As a classical Liberal I have always argued that the role and power of government must be limited as far as possible, and that the citizen is very unwise to offer government a blank cheque for its activities. The fact that our administration is largely conducted in secrecy I regard as dangerous, and that the democratic will is now largely conducted by professional politicians I consider profoundly wrong.

The aggregation of power to the centre has created a sense that the government are our masters, when it seems to me that they should be our servants. The very debate on Liberty, conducted in Britain from John Locke to Isiah Berlin is being subverted into cynical and unprincipled managerialism by politicians of all parties.

If Acheson's aphorism was primarily speaking of British foreign policy, I believe that the malaise that he identified was a more general failure of will- and it is a failure that we have still not rectified.

Our country faces profound challenges- even existential challenges- it is now essential that we abandon politics conducted by hype and Public Relations and focus on a new vision for our society. Ideology may have become a curse word in the past few decades, but I am increasingly certain the Britain needs an ideology- a set of principles that define us and inspire us.

Without the renewal of national purpose that this debate could engender, I fear that the UK faces a bleak and diminishing future: and will deserve to.

Lockerbie: Shooting at the wrong target

In 1988, one week after Pan-Am flight 103 crashed into Lockerbie I drove through the town. I was en route to Oban and had no other route. Like everyone else I had been horrified at the television pictures of the pitiful wreck of Sherwood Crescent, with bewildered residents and shocked pets climbing past the mangled remains of houses and the wreckage of the plane.

Lockerbie had been long familiar as a way mark on my regular journeys between Scotland and England. From that day onwards though, I could never think of it without a shudder. As I approached the town for the first time after the disaster, the traffic from the south gradually slowed- for the plane had partly come down on the carriage way, with a crater taking a giant bite out of the tarmac. Everywhere, for several miles around the town, there were what seemed to be little pieces of paper scattered in profusion, but which were actually small pieces of the white fuselage skin and other debris. Dumfrieshire seemed to have been visited by a giant litter lout.

It was a sight I will never forget. It was a truly monstrous crime.

Eventually two men were named as having planted a device in Malta that had been traced to flight 103. Addelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Magrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah were named by the British government. Eventually after an extraordinary diplomatic deal, the two men were indicted and placed on trial . It was an extraordinary trial: held in the Hague, it was nonetheless held according to Scottish legal rules. Eventually Fhimah was acquited but Al Magrahi was nonetheless convicted.

Subsequent to the trial it has been revealed that there was a break-in at Heathrow on the night before flight 103 took off, and that it was therefore quite possible that the device might have been placed on board as a result. It was evidence that could have forced enough reasonable doubt for the prosecution to have failed. Such evidence, it now seems clear could be central for finally understanding what actually happened to flight 103 and the people killed on the ground. More and more evidence has appeared that has undermined the prosecution case, including the fact that the chief prosecution witness was paid and even according to the chief prosecution counsel was "unreliable".

One thing is quite clear, even if his conviction holds- which seems unlikely- Al Magrahi did not act alone.

Despite the assumption of responsibility for this crime that Libya has taken upon itself, many of the victims relatives, including Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter and has become a prominent figure speaking on behalf of the families, no longer believe that the conviction of Al Magrahi is safe.

Yet the release of Al Magrahi, who is said to be terminally ill, raises some fundamental questions. Firstly, the release has come after the withdrawal of his further appeal against conviction- an appeal when more evidence concerning the break-in at Heathrow was said to have been presented to the court. As more information leaks out concerning the large number of meetings between British and Libyan officials, there is substantial evidence that the release comes as part of a deal between Britain and Libya that Al Magrahi would not die in prison in Scotland. Furthermore, rumours and speculation now suggests that Britain would be set to benefit commercially from contracts in this area.

It is hard not to sympathise with the outrage of the American families. Magrahi has been released- even though his appeal has not been allowed, and he thus remains a convicted criminal. In the US, Al Magrahi would have faced the death penalty and thus "compassion" has already been shown. The fact that the release has come as the result of what appear to be commercial promises from Libya is the United Kingdom accepting blood money from Libya at the expense of the mostly American victims.

It is absolutely shameful that Britain should have acted in this manner.

What lies at the root of this national disgrace is that the full story of what lay behind the shattering scenes of horror 21 years ago has not been told- indeed has been wilfully hidden by British and American officials.

The questions that remain, amongst many others, focus on the role of Iran, the break-in at Heathrow, the chain of command to other involved agents and the willingness of Libya to front for other powers. We have not been told the full story. The conviction of Al Magrahi looks more like scapegoat than perpetrator.

In the December hills above Lockerbie and in the blasted and broken town, the shattered wreckage of Clipper Maid of the Seas made a profound impact on all who saw the horrific sight.

In the name of the 259 passengers and crew and the 11 people who died on the ground, it is time for honest answers, from both the British and the American governments.