Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Campaigning Support for Gay marriage

In the past few weeks an Internet meme has emerged concerning gay marriage. It started with a college humor video suggesting that gay guys would marry straight guys girlfriends'. It was a winsome piece of humour, playing to the idea that certain gay stereotypes would be very attractive to women, and that therefore straight guys should support gay marriage in order to eliminate the competition. Then a bunch of gay women thought that lesbians could follow up on this and came up with a whole load of reasons why straight women should support gay marriage. There was a pretty dramatic response, which the girls also responded to themselves with great good humour.

Meanwhile straight men also decided that they could support gay marriage, although disparaging the idea that gay men would want to marry their girlfriends... since they did not even want to do that themselves. Gently they too took the rip out of some of the stereotypes, this time straight stereotypes. On the other hand the straight women were more interested in responding to the straight guys, who they clearly found rather obnoxious, rather than respond to the gay ideas. 

Frankly the Lesbian videos were genuinely very funny, but it is amazing how a single idea can populate the the whole Internet. Popular causes and the easy access to the technology are transferring campaigning into a whole new direction.

Equally interesting how the battle of the sexes continues unabated, even in the subject of gay marriage.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Can the Tories survive another decade?

The British Conservative Party is an extremely successful electoral machine. Over the nearly 170 years since it was founded in 1834, it has been in government more than half the time. It is currently the most powerful political party in the UK, holding the largest single bloc of seats in the House of Commons, the largest number of Peers as well as being the largest single British Party in the European Parliament (holding 25 of the 72 British seats) and being a dominant force in local government too, with over 9,000 councillors. In the face of such a record it may seem absurd to even question the future of such a political success story.

Yet the fact is that the Tories are facing a mounting series of challenges which could certainly lead to electoral defeat and potentially political irrelevance within a pretty short period. 

To me, the fundamental problem remains the unresolved merger of economically liberal ideas, which in the Conservative Party, are usually deemed "right-wing" with socially liberal ideas, which are usually deemed "left wing". David Cameron as leader has followed a largely left-wing social agenda, even as he has tried- with only partial success- to get the country through the economic crisis by following a right-wing economic agenda. However his socially liberal views have allowed his political enemies within the Conservative party to paint him as left wing across the board, which is emphatically not the case. More to the point the social conservatives are both increasingly vocal and increasingly unlikely to give way, even when the majority of their party do not support them. Overlaying this economic and social cleft there remains the poisonous issue of Europe, where an ever more intractable group of Europhobes are refusing to accept any compromise - insisting ever more vocally that the only way is out.

It is not just that the Conservative Party is divided- all political parties comprise differing points of view- it is the bitterness of the divisions and the rancor with which they are held that is making the Conservatives ever less attractive electorally and ever more difficult for a leader- any leader- to chart a safe course. Take Europe, David Cameron is the most Euro-sceptic Prime Minister in British history, he has- very wrongly, in my view- been prepared to veto major EU agreements and has been highly critical of the policies of other EU governments. You might think that the Tory Europhobes would regard him with some approval, but in fact far from it. The social conservatives and the anti-Europeans are fanatics in the classical definition, they won't change their minds and they won't change the subject, yet they have to function in a political world. Cameron has to function within the EU under a series of functional compromises, yet his own side regard such compromises not as an essential political tool, but as a betrayal,

When every decision is viewed through such a distorted prism, it becomes ever more difficult to make a decisions at all. In the circumstances it was only a matter of time before such dinosaurs as Peter Hitchens or Janet Daley would start to speculate over David Cameron's job security- but the issue they have made a litmus test, gay marriage, is a battle the social conservatives have long ago lost. Even the deeply social conservative "Cornerstone Group" (aka "Tombstone") has not been able to muster too much resistance, yet the noise that they have made simply reminds the voters how far behind the times so many Tories still are. Indeed, with an average age well into middle age, the Conservative membership is ageing pretty rapidly out of existence. In fact these Tory activists have been defecting to UKIP in some numbers, but it is a measure of how powerless party members are that the Conservative Party itself remains largely unaffected- it has become a virtual campaigning organisation, using paid deliverers and highly targeted voter ID software.

So with membership falling, and the growing perception that the party, even when on the popular side of the argument, can not effectively formulate or follow through its ideas, the Conservatives are on a slippery slope. Of course many would say that the coalition was to blame, and that the Tories will merely follow the depths that the Lib Dems have already plumbed. Yet there are signs that the Lib Dems could be poised for a modest, but significant recovery. As UKIP nibbles away at the right of the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have been winning significant numbers of council by-elections too. Given the bizarre maths of the British electoral system, it does not take that many votes to fall away before major damage can be inflicted on a political party.

A UKIP/Lib Dem squeeze on the Tories- sounds like wishful thinking, yet in some contests it has already been happening.      

Monday, December 10, 2012

Goodbye Europe? No, Goodbye Britain

In 26 European Union countries, (and one acceding country, Croatia) today is something of a celebration, albeit a muted one, given the circumstances of continued economic hardship- the European Union will formally receive recognition as the winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. In one other European Union member state it is the occasion of ridicule and disbelief. Admittedly the contemptible British press prefers to hypocritically attack an Australian radio programme for an unfortunate prank that went badly wrong, so probably remarkably few people in the UK may be aware of the special recognition that the EU is getting, unless they encounter some sneering comment on page 17.

Across the British political spectrum, the European Union has become a bogeyman for all of the ills that afflict the dis-United Kingdom. "Brussels bureaucrats"- although there are actually fairly few of them- are the first in line in the British political blame game. Britain is allowed to opt out of more than half of the activity of the EU, and yet "Brussels" continues to be accused of unwanted meddling. It is a fantasy, but those who protest are branded as obsessive Europhiles. In fact, as my friend Willis Pickard points out, Leveson has condemned the anti-European newspapers for "fabrication" and "careless misrepresentation of the facts". He also makes clear the impact of the unrelenting hostility of the press has had on government policy making. It is essentially impossible to make a positive case for engagement with the EU without receiving a barrage of negative coverage. Alone of the EU leaders, Gordon Brown chose to sign the treaty of Lisbon late and in a locked room- a pitiable display of cowardice, to be sure, but one that underlines how far the UK is now from the mainstream, even of agreements it actually signs. 

Funnily enough support for British membership of the EU has slumped to a new low.

The result is now that the once unthinkable idea of British withdrawal from the European Union is now being taken seriously. Yet the principle proponents of this one-way ticket have failed to explain what they would settle for. The Economist, not a notably left-wing publication, points out just how reckless an EU exit could be- the fact is that the only way to gain the supposed benefits that the anti-Europeans expect from withdrawal would be not the "simple commercial/trade relationship" that the Tories and UKIP wish for, but in fact a complete withdrawal- including from the single market, which the Tories still profess to hold so dear. The fact is that the Europhobes have been either breathtakingly naive or willfully blind- out will indeed mean out and that means completely out, otherwise there is simply no point in leaving at all. Rather like the SNP, who have also been caught out by their wishful, rather than practical, view of EU membership, the Tories can not have it both ways. Yet despite their abject failure to address the critical issue, the noisy Europhobes are still being taken seriously by their friends in the press- if by ever fewer people elsewhere.

The European Union would be diminished by a "Brexit". Yet the European Union will survive- indeed it still seems likely to acquire even more members. It would be recognizably the same institution. Can the same be said for the United Kingdom? 

The foundation of the success of the SNP in Scotland has been "independence in Europe". Could it be that new life is breathed into the sickly support for Scottish separatism if a post-EU United Kingdom finds its economy trashed and its political clout reduced to the same level as Malaysia? Far from the reinvigorated Kingdom that UKIP and the Tories proclaim, we could instead see the rapid end of the British state. To my mind it is at least as likely as any other outcome from this reckless, ill planned and ill judged policy.

So I believe in two Federal ideas: the British Federation and the European one. They are complimentary, not opposed. To break the EU, as UKIP and its allies propose, would not be good news for the EU, but it could be utterly disastrous for Britain.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Deeply saddened

A dedicated nurse. An Australian spoof. A British tabloid security scare. A world-wide "scandal". 

A suicide.

Two kids are motherless, but don't worry the press had nothing to do with it. They did not doorstop her, or harass her in any way, so that is all right.

But hey, its OK the British press can regulate itself.

In other news. The Leveson inquiry finds that there is a systematic anti European Union (read = paid for) bias in several British newspapers.

In other news, there is now an opinion poll that suggests that the majority in the UK would vote to leave the EU.

In other news, the Conservatives now tend to support withdrawal from the EU.

In other news, the cost of withdrawal is never discussed, because doing so is deemed by the tabloid press as being "pro-EU propaganda"

Don't worry. Its OK. the UK press hardly ever kills anyone. They hardly ever make mistakes.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Making the same mistake twice

As I read through the Sunday news, I am struck with a sense of fatigue. The responses to the Leveson Report might have come straight from an episode of Yes, Minister. The self-serving posturing of the corporate press merely confirms all we feared most: they have a profit-driven agenda which is little or nothing to do with the national interest and which they will ruthlessly defend. The switch from open contempt of David Cameron to mild adulation, merely because the Prime Minister has essentially rejected the core recommendation of the report- that new arrangements should be underpinned by statute- reveals the Press at its cowardly, bullying, lick-spittle worst.

As it happens I am disappointed in Leveson. I think the report failed to address the rapidly changing nature of the media- the increasing diversity of media channels and the rise of citizen-journalism- and this is a critical failing. However the hysterical vituperation that has been delivered by the press, defending indefensible press intrusion on the bereaved, for example, as a matter of the "free press", makes me think that they, like so many other institutions in the United Kingdom, have long ago lost any kind of moral compass.

The fact that the Mail on Sunday felt free enough to launch yet another smear attack on Nick Clegg within a couple of days of the publication of the report is a measure of the limitless arrogance of Paul Dacre. Yet it could hardly have been a more compelling example of why the British Press has become an international by-word for immoderate hostility and corruption. In short it is not much of a step to describe the network of foreign ownership, powerful influence and the extremist venom of the so-called opinion-formers as a malevolent, evil influence on British public life.

Yet "the fault, Dear Brutus, lies not on our stars, but in ourselves". The fact is that the people of Britain allow themselves to be manipulated by the distortions, lies and special pleading that the Press serves up to them. The crisis that Britain now faces- economic, political and specifically national- needs to be addressed calmly and intelligently, and yet we continue to give ear to the barrage of greed and stupidity that passes for informed comment in Britain today. Facts are ignored or lost in a cacophony of bawling ignorance.

"My opinion is just as good as yours" is universally believed, even if some opinions are based on completely false premises. The Press does not seek out the truth between contending ideas, still less does it "speak truth to power", rather it allows people like Johann Hari to become respected columnists, even when it is clear that they are little more than fantasists. All the time, the concerned citizen seems to lack the discrimination that would filter out ideas that are not based on at least a nodding acquaintance with the facts. 

In the age of the Internet, it is a simple and immediate process to check facts. It is a measure of how twisted British journalism has become that even as the availability of facts has become easier, so ever greater errors are found in the Press. It should be a standing rebuke to every newspaper editor in the Kingdom that an organisation such as FullFact.Org can publish on a daily basis detailed analysis of claims made by scientists, politicians or the press- and can refute so easily many of the headlines.

I believe that the British Press is a major contributor to the current national crisis in Britain. The idea that these corporate entities, a large number of which are foreign owned, are the only thing keeping the British political world free of corruption is laughable. I do believe the public has a right to know. I do not think that protests by the Press we are seeing now are about the principle of right to know, I think they are about the far more limited principle of profit. I do not think that Leveson addressed the issue of the boundaries of the public domain- either a privacy law or a law on the free press. Most of all, I am sad and angry to see how easy it is for the corporate press to continue to manipulate the voters based on a false agenda. 

The rise of the blogosphere and such sites as Fullfact are a testament to the death roll of the newspaper industry- the corporate media, from Fox News and The Daily Mail, to the Guardian and the BBC, have a declining influence, yet it is still pervasive and still pernicious. In the end it is is a matter of public and personal responsibility that individuals must maintain a personal scepticism, and unless we do that, we will continue to be mislead by opinions which are private interests masquerading as the public good.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Leveson... the Weasel Press speaks out

The past couple of weeks has seen a concerted defence of the British media by, er... well the British media. Articles such as "Don't Make us North Korean", "We must defend a free press" and so on have been a spectacular case of special pleading. So many people who cross the boundary between politics and journalism, from Boris Johnson to Paul Goodman, have been rushing to tell us why any regulation amounts to the end of the free press as we have known it.  

Well frankly Bul***it.

The fact is that the Press has been ignoring its own (self) regulators for years and- it is now blindingly obvious- have been routinely breaking the law of the land with impunity. As more charges are brought against News International, is it not a scandal that the same management, in the shape of Rupert Murdoch and his family, remains in control of the largest private media business in the UK? Is it not outrageous that the Express refuses even the toothless sanctions of the self regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, and continues to publish stories that are completely false, about the EU for example, with no realistic sanction even possible against them?

The self serving special pleading coming from across the media, from right to left, is not a sign that some kind of new regulatory regime is wrong- it is simply a sign that the media as a whole opposes it. Frankly the "feral beast" spends far more time examining the underwear of those in the public eye than it does unearthing the web of corruption that has clearly existed in the political-journalistic combine. Scandal is measured in the playground human interest of who is sleeping with who, and not the real public interest of who-owes-who and how much. The British press has conspired to suppress stories that are in the public interest in order to promote its own interests. This is why such figures as Guido Fawkes briefly acquired some influence- because they did make a few glancing blows against the establishment, which the wider media refused to do, unless it suited their own agenda.

The press are trying to get their retaliation in first to circumvent whatever Leveson is going to say. Given that he has had to circulate various drafts of his report, the media already knows that the Leveson report is going to be pretty blunt about their failings and scathing about their crimes.

The British media in the past few years has grown careless with arrogance. The fact they are circling the wagons in order to try to prevent any trespass upon their perceived freedoms is frankly contemptible. It is the action of a harlot seeking to defend her raddled trade on the grounds that at least she has sold her honour professionally. 

Within reason, the Leveson report should be adopted, and those who pretend that any regulation means a North Korean press should be treated with the disgust that they deserve. The Milly Dowler phone hack was only the most appalling of the crimes committed by the thousand by an unaccountable and irresponsible media. These cases should not merely attract criminal charges, they should also attract professional opprobrium too- and no journalist with any integrity should oppose this.

Pity that it turns out that so few journalists are prepared to accept that their profession is guilty of considerable wrong-doing. "They just don't get it", as we said of MPs. Now we should make damn sure that the media does "get it" and ensure that they do not use their power to weasel out of whatever the necessary measures are that come out of the Leveson inquiry.   

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Radek Sikorski stirs up indifference amongst his Tory friends

The Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski usually gets a good press in the UK. His fluent English and his academic intelligence help him stand out as an individual, while Poland is one of the few countries of Central/Eastern Europe where the British have a clear and generally positive view of what kind of country it is. It also helps a lot that Mr. Sikorski, as a graduate of Oxford University, has a big network of friends in Britain- including his former Bullingdon Club confrere, Boris Johnson. Mr. Sikorski's wife is the American historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her magisterial book Gulag , Anne Applebaum, and she is also a regular visitor to Britain.

Yet despite his close connections with the UK, and his former British citizenship, which he only renounced on becoming Polish Defence Minister in 2006, it is clear that Sikorski is hardly an uncritical friend of the UK. Indeed the Anti-EU faction in the UK would argue that he was hardly a friend at all, as he seeks to align Poland with France in the high spending group of countries, opposed to drastic budget restraint in the European Union. Nevertheless, his speech at Blenheim Palace and his subsequent  article for The Guardian reflect the deep concern that many close friends of the UK on the right wing have concerning the direction that the right wing of the Conservatives in Britain are taking towards the European Union. Although not the most British of the Polish Ministers- that honour goes to Jacek Rostowski who was born and educated in the UK and worked for the British foreign service, only "returning" to Poland in 2002- Sikorski's concern reflects the fact that while the British debate about the EU may be going on in a vacuum in the UK, is nevertheless being watched with concern amongst our closest allies beyond our shores.

Sikorski has made a series of thoughtful and intelligent speeches concerning his country's relationship with the EU, Germany, Russia and now the UK. In all of them there runs a series of threads- based on the Polish experience of the deadly twentieth century. The emotion with which Poles state their case passes the British Tories by. They do not understand that Poland and the other radical states of Eastern Europe regard the EU as highly necessary; and that existential threats to the EU, (which the British anti-Europeans now more or less openly hope for) are a deadly serious challenge for countries determined to build on the cohesion that the EU represents. Those who wish for the demise of the EU are enemies, even if they share many of the same outlook economically or politically in other spheres.

So although the British Conservatives continue to talk to themselves or to the saloon bar creeps of UKIP about the European subject- the fact is that the UK is already paying a price for their recklessness and losing a lot of friends by both the hostility with which they promote their cause and the illiteracy and ignorance of the arguments they put forward.

Listening to the two minutes hate from the right wing press is not a sensible way forward, and it  is time for the real debate to be joined.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

An Estonian anti-party revolt could lead to a new democratic system

I am a Liberal in more or less all meanings of the word. I am also a profound supporter of Estonia, the country where I have made my home over the past four years. My relationship with Estonia dates back decades, to when I was still in high school in 1979 and first got involved with the fight for freedom in Eastern and Central Europe, which was also the same year that I joined the Liberal Party.

One of the many great things about Estonia is that, since independence was recovered in 1991, it has been dominated by liberal ideas in both economics and politics. Indeed the the liberal Reform party has been and remains the most popular political party, while the opposition Centre Party is also a member of Liberal International, albeit that it represents a populist Liberal strand that I have less sympathy with. In fact one can find liberals in all of the Estonian political parties and there is no doubt that Liberalism is deeply woven into the political tapestry of Estonia.

Yet even the most nominally Liberal organisation may grow lazy or even corrupt if it loses sight of the need for political dialogue based on a certain amount of humility. Over the past few years no Estonian political party has escaped allegations that they have sought to break the rules on party funding. The nominally Conservative IRL has been accused of providing illegal documents to foreigners in exchange for donations. The Social Democrats too have been alleged to have broken the rules in a similar fashion. The Centre Party faces perennial allegations against their leader, the populist mayor of Tallinn, Edgar Savisaar. In recent months, however, it has been Reform that has faced a storm of different allegations. This, paradoxically, does not -so far- seem to have blunted their support, which has remained solidly above 30%, and comfortably ahead of the other political parties.

Now several activists have made a public complaint about what they see as corruption in the ruling party. They are a fairly heterogeneous bunch, but if I could categorise them I would say that they shared a radical mind set and are very open to what Estonia could be. They are not, in general, party political and certainly not in a tribal way. In fact they are quite genuinely intellectually liberal- and yet in their Tartu Manifesto, they are in revolt against a Liberal party.

Occasionally in the past on this blog I have made criticisms of things that I believe could be improved about both the political and economic system in this country, and I have noted poor decision making which was- wrongly- taken by the Foreign Minister and others to be a criticism of Reform. In fact it was a sharp criticism of IRL, the Conservative junior coalition partner. Now, however, it seems clear that the Liberalism of Reform is seeing its radical streak blunted both by the compromises of power, which may be unavoidable, and the stagnation of leaders who "focus simply on day to day administration and seem to have lost their political vision", which -by the way- is a comment from one of their own MPs. More and more, over the past two years, when discussing Estonian politics, the word "stagnation" comes up. The fact is that the list system has created a tribe of placemen politicians who lack an individual mandate to propose new ideas or to challenge the political hacks who dominate the back rooms of all political parties. The result is complacency and inertia- and increasingly a sense of frustration with a system of party politics that requires regular infusions of questionable cash.

In May 2010, just before the last general election, the radical theatre company, NO99 company, created one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre ever seen in Europe: The Conference of United Estonia. Advised by some of those who have now challenged the current political consensus, it was a huge production that exposed many of the critical problems facing the Estonian body politics. It should have been a wake up call for citizens to challenge their leaders more. Many politicians feared that the theatrical event might actually become a real political party and challenge the political establishment- some hoped that it would. Despite this powerful manifestation of disgust at political party corruption, the political establishments of all parties have ignored the message that United Estonia was sending.

Yet, the Tartu Manifesto that the activists have made against the specific problems of Reform has wider implications for the whole of Estonia. The fact is that citizens do have a weapon that they can wield against the political establishment, and that is based on the growing use of the Internet for Estonians to vote. At the last election over 25% of the votes were cast online, and the next election could see a further rapid increase. Estonia is now not only a physical nation, it is also an Internet community, The political discourse, as in many other countries, has moved out from Parliaments. The difference is that Estonians now have an efficient and cheap way to reduce party influence and make critical political and economic decisions directly. The implication, both of United Estonia and the Tartu Manifesto, is that the political establishment ought to be weakened, and the online voting system leading to more direct democracy is the method by which this might be achieved.

As a Liberal I can only welcome this possibility. As a Radical I have always believed in trust of the people, and the well educated, serious minded Estonian nation is a perfect laboratory for a new, technology based, liberal, direct democracy, as it has been for a responsible,liberal free market economics.

My friend, Daniel Vaarik, one of the signatories of the Tartu Manifesto, on his superb Memokraat blog, makes a point that technology at a certain time may seem unchallengeable- yet eventually the Knight in Armour can be destroyed by the cannon. I think he is right, and the 19th century technology of representative democracy may now be facing the unanswerable challenge of a validated Internet-based direct democracy. Of course, the political establishment may seek to blunt this challenge - and almost certainly will. However the key to political success is to understand what you want and to work exclusively to that end. 

It is not just in the centre that Estonian politics is renewing itself. New, more influential regional groups - not least in the South, but also in the West and North East- may also help to shake up the cozy consensus in the picturesque Estonian national Parliament in Tallinn. Estonians in Brussels talk about extending the radical Liberal vision- and this may challenge the current arrangements in Tallinn too. The period of stagnation may be coming to an end. Whatever comes next may be less stable in the short term, but will also be more interesting and dynamic. The renewal of Liberal Estonia in a more radical shape will certainly be extremely interesting.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sick Charter

The problem with the latest corrosive scandal to engulf yet another UK institution is that... well it's all so predictable. People, or organisations for that matter, that believe themselves untouchable quite often end up doing fairly unspeakable things. Although I didn't know Jimmy Savile from a hole in the ground, it does rather seem as though he believed he was untouchable, and lets face it he is dead and was given something of a hero's send-off- so in life he surely was untouchable. Those who have come out to complain about his behaviour since he died do seem to have the smack of truth about them and of course those "in the know" now say that they knew all along that there was something untoward about him. 

So far so tragically sordid.

What the BBC has done about "Savile" as we must now call him (certainly not "Sir Jimmy", although that is the style he knew until the day he died) has revealed the very culture that allowed this seemingly rather creepy man to commit some rather nasty crimes. The fact is that the BBC long ago lost a sense of humility. The very fact that the -now outgoing- Director General had such and absurd title as "Head of Vision" speaks libraries rather than volumes about the isolated culture that this vast and generally unaccountable bureaucracy has created. The fact is that the BBC relied on a false image of itself. It believed that it had a higher calling than those that it was supposed to report on and report to. Huge amounts of money are being spent recruiting "talent", yet this "talent" produces formulaic and pretty trashy television. Only on Radio can some glimpse of Reithian grandeur still be found- and even here, the arrogance with which the Today Programme devours the news agenda- rendering the remainder of the day's news output a mere shadow of its former self- suggests that another "sexing-up" scandal can not be far away. 

So as the BBC tries to pick up the pieces and as the temporary leader tries to convince the poorly named BBC Trust that he should be given the sceptre, the reality grows ever clearer: the BBC has not merely made mistakes, it has become a mistake. It has allowed a bloated culture of excess to drown out the mandate that public service broadcasting was supposed to sustain. The culture that permits gratuitous errors of fact. The culture that breaks the first rules of journalism- that the facts must be checked and corroborated. The reality is that the BBC has bullied and bludgeoned its way through its recent reportage- it was, in truth, an accident waiting to happen.

Without a wholesale change in the way the BBC does things, it -and its evil twin, the Murdoch Empire- serve no purpose save a negative one. The creeps and charlatans that have hidden under Aunty's skirts are now too numerous to be ignored and the cravenly political- mostly Guardian reading- agenda to which the organisation has subscribed must now be dealt with. The spectacle of the BBC disappearing up its own fundament has been ludicrous in the extreme, and yet, as I say, it all seems so predictable. After all Private Eye was there years ago.

Now Private Eye reminds us that they suggest some time ago that another knight- Sir Cyril Smith- was involved in some dubious activity, although here the evidence seems a bit more controversial, though as we have learned recently, the benefit of the doubt seems to be in short supply, and rightly so. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The EU Budget... a Labour betrayal that will be remembered

Brits are told every year- especially by the anti-EU press- that the EU fails to pass its own audit test. It turns out that this is not strictly true. Each year mistakes and errors are found, but, it turns out that these are most often in the 80% of the EU budget that is administered by the national governments. In fact, the EU budget turns out to be in a far more orderly position than the "failure of the EU court of auditors to approve the budget" implies

David Cameron intends to reduce- if possible- the total EU budget, and this, in the context of the large austerity that national governments are being forced to impose sounds wholly reasonable. However, Mr. Cameron, together with the other EU leaders, has been asking EU agencies to do a lot more in connection with the crisis that the EU faces. Several of the Eurozone governments are also asking the EU to do more- and it can not do this without increases in the budget. Thus, the challenge to reduce or even simply freeze the budget is probably a literally impossible task- and is, it turns out, certainly not a reasonable position for the British government to adopt, especially since they have clearly failed to inform the British electorate what they have already agreed to.

The fact is that there is now a huge information gap. British voters are not being given the information about what the EU does and how it does this. Furthermore any attempt by- say the BBC- to provide explanations is denounced as EU propaganda by the Europhobes. It is easier for the media to avoid the issue, even though it has left a black hole of an information vacuum about the EU, into which the right wing Tories and UKIP send a torrent of their own inaccurate propaganda. 

The result was the utterly disgraceful spectacle of the completely unprincipled Labour Party under Ed Miliband seeking, for their own short term ends, to make Mr. Cameron's position even more difficult by voting with the know-nothing wing of the Europhobe Tories. If I ever think about  giving the adenoidal leader of the opposition any benefit of the doubt in the future, his mealy-mouthed display of the uttermost hypocrisy during the Commons debate will forever still my sense of mercy. The fact that he allies himself with the most poisonous of the Brownite micro-managers- Ed Balls- merely confirms that whatever principles he may adhere to will always be abandoned in time of short term political need- as with AV. Labour under Miliband are as cynical bunch of hypocrites as has been seen in British politics since Disraeli retired.

The Europhobes are wrong in their judgments, but at least they genuinely believe in their mistakes. Labour knew that what it was doing was against the national interest, but did it anyway- and that is what made it such a contemptible display.      

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Internet Freedom may make Estonia the first e-democracy

Living in the country with the freest Internet in the world opens up some interesting and surprising lines of discussion. Now that nearly 25% of the population choose to vote online, there are some very interesting implications that are coming out. 

Firstly there are the short term implications of more e-voting. The fact of being able to vote, even if you live overseas, keeps the Estonian diaspora far more in touch with home. In the recent Lithuanian election, for example, where online voting does not happen, the nearly a million people who live overseas from Lithuania had to make a significant effort to register and to vote- the result was that of the 74,000 Lithuanian citizens estimated to be living in the UK, for example, less than 9,000 actually voted. Had more voted from overseas, it is quite likely that the Conservative-Liberal government would have been returned to office rather than the currently deadlocked situation based on the controversial Labour Party-Social-Democrat-Paksas partnership. In Latvia and in Estonia, which both do have e-voting, the reforming parties were able to maintain themselves in office, despite being forced into radical austerity measures. Younger, more tech-savvy people have been among the most eager to adopt e-voting, but are also the most eager to spend time overseas. The political implications are therefore obvious.

Yet there is also a longer term set of issues. The fact is that the use of e-voting opens up the prospect of more issues being put the the voters directly. Although this has not happened yet, it can only be a matter of time before the first e-referendum takes place in Estonia. In fact the discussions around this subject go right to the heart of what makes a democracy actually so democratic. Simply asking a referendum in isolation tends to lead to knee-jerk or extremist responses, but where that question is proceeded by a nuanced debate, the results can change markedly. On the one hand the risk of populist and shallow responses, on the other the clear impact of a full debate- and the desirable result of far greater citizen participation in the political process. Given the many compromises that our so-called "representative" (in fact often deeply unrepresentative) democracies impose, the creation of a more open political system has very radical implications.

Estonia, like many other democratic states, has a troubled relationship with its political parties, and in particular how those parties are funded. There have been a series of escalating scandals which at various times have touched all the political parties, and yet still, no-one has devised sufficient safeguards to prevent such activity. Parties are unpopular in principle, yet they remain critical for the functioning of a stable representative democratic state. Yet part of me is beginning to think that the emergence of e-voting presents the first significant challenge to the status of modern liberal states as the bulwarks of freedoms. As e-communities emerge across the web, cannot a country also form an Internet community? Another plank of Politics 2.0 seems to be coming into place.

It already seems to be happening in Estonia.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Romney, Obama and the next four years

The American Constitution is a practical document, not holy writ as so many Americans might have you believe. It has its fair share of holes- as was most recently shown in 2000 when despite a popular victory of over a million votes, Vice President Al Gore was defeated by George W Bush in highly controversial circumstances. However in its practical way is sets a regular round of elections, with the election date being the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The 2012 election is thus due on Tuesday 6th November. It is an election in many states for the Senate, and in all states for the House of Representatives, on the ballot are innumerable state offices, from to sheriff to comptroller, to district attorney. Of course this is a leap year, and as a result the top of the ballot is reserved for the election of the President and Vice President of the United States- the two most senior officials of the Republic.

OK, so its an important election, and it is also a close one... if you believe the opinion polls. Certainly the incumbent President, Barack Obama, has not had an easy time convincing the American people that he deserves re-election. Nevertheless in the past week he has received some surprising endorsements: from The Economist and the Financial Times, which as part of the European fan club for Obama might not be all that surprising, but also Mike Bloomberg, the nominally Republican Mayor of New York City- an endorsement that came when Mr. Bloomberg was firmly in the public spotlight, dealing with the impact of tropical storm Sandy on the Big Apple.
In some ways, the choice is extraordinarily narrow- the choice between two Harvard Educated Lawyers. That, of course is not what Europeans think: the European support for Obama is massive. Indeed even Conservative politicians have been downright rude to the Republican challenger- even though the opinion polls have shown him within touching distance of the White House. More to the point President Obama, with his "pivot to Asia" and his continuing reset on relations with Russia is hardly the most pro-European president. Romney has gone out of his way to make positive overtures to the Europeans, he even speaks French, which the Republican party is as close to an admission of being political unsound as they will allow. Yet Europeans seem either blind to his blandishments, or indeed are openly contemptuous. Why is this?

Many point out Romney's own rather privileged background- and the fact that he has made himself hugely rich. However, in the United States, the fact that Mr. Romney created a business like Bain Capital puts him in something of the same light as Sir Richard Branson in the UK- an unabashed, can-do entrepreneur. Then, of course, there is the issue of the positions that Mr. Romney adopted in order to gain the nomination. There is no doubt that he espoused positions which, even within the US may be seen as pretty right-wing. Yet in fact since securing the nomination, he has rather tacked back to the centre on several issues, albeit that he chose the strongest fiscal hawk in the House- Paul Ryan- to be his running mate. More to the point, there is the matter of Mr. Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts, where he demonstrated a pragmatic and centrist streak in his administration that both speaks well of him as an administrator and also suggests that he would indeed be a very effective President of the United States. 

To my mind the issue that has remained unspoken- on both sides of the Atlantic- is the matter of Romney's Mormonism. There remains deep suspicion of the Latter Day Saints as some kind of cult, and although I would say that the LDS are no worse than most other millenarian Protestant sects- and better than many. Nonetheless if Romney was not a Morman, I think he would be firmly ahead in the race.

However, the fact is that if we believe the numbers coming out of Nate Silver, Mr. Obama seems set to secure a second term. Yet after having regained office, Mr. Obama may find that the difficult ride he had in his first term will be as nothing to the problems of his second. Even if we assume that he is indeed returned, the fact is that the Congress will remain fractious, with little wish to bridge the partisan chasm that has opened up across the aisle, Congress is finding it ever more difficult to complete the role that it is given under the constitution. As another "fiscal cliff" looms, the fundamental gap between the Republican tax cutters and the Democrats who refuse to cut spending is leading the most powerful country on the Planet to perdition. Without compromise- now a dirty word in American politics- the relationship between the Administration and the Legislature will grow ever more dysfunctional.

Then, of course there are the multifarious international challenges which will face the West  over the course of the next few years. The threat of Iran may be receding just a little, but the slightest mistake could lead to open warfare in the Persian Gulf. Russia remains resentful of its diminished status, and all to eager to challenge the West in Syria, or any other place where it retains the capacity to meddle. Above it all, there remains the growing challenge of China. For it is not just the United States that is changing its leadership this week- so too is the People's Republic, and it may yet be that the most deeply conservative factions of the Communist Party have been able to retain their influence and thus derail the prospect of a more liberal and open society emerging in the Middle Kingdom. In the end, that might be a more significant turning point than the turning of yet another page in the US constitutional calender.   

Monday, October 22, 2012

What can they mean?

I see the Scottish Daily Record has a story about the drastic fall-off in support for Scottish independence since the start of the year. What is interesting is the rather convoluted mention in the piece of "the same bar that Salmond plucked his independence poem from" and "bar room doggerel".

OK Daily Record, out with it: shouldn't you actually publish a story about the gathering rumours about Alex Salmond's drinking instead of merely leaving sly hints?

I have no love for the portly first Minister, but if he is an alcoholic then he needs help and not a conspiracy of silence.

The impunity of the BBC

In a way the bombshell that has hit the BBC in the past 24 hours over the raft of allegations about the sexual conduct of Jimmy Savile- and the apparent long-term cover-up- is entirely appropriate. Yet to my mind the storm that has broken is also slightly mis-aimed. It is rather like Al Capone being convicted of tax evasion, rather than the much grosser crimes that he undoubtedly also committed. The fact is that the BBC has an ever longer charge sheet of misconduct, and the cover up of what seems, to say the least, the creepy, probably criminal, antics of one of its stars is actually a bit beside the point.

Although I believe Rupert Murdoch to be a criminal who should himself now be in gaol, his constant criticism of the Corporation was not entirely self-serving. The fact is that from the gold plated hypocrisy of its expense accounts culture to the naked bias of its news programmes, the BBC has moved a long way from the trusted, Reithian ethos that prevailed even up to a couple of decades ago. The image of the impartial reporter, epitomised by Mark Tully, Charles Wheeler or Alistair Cooke may have been a bit glamorised, but there is no doubt that to be a BBC correspondent once implied a depth of knowledge and experience that was much more than merely superficial. Yet the BBC has for some time now been trading on the respect that this previous generation of journalists had earned without, however, matching it today. In the days of Sir John Reith, the idea that the BBC would routinely allow errors of fact in its output to go unchallenged was literally unthinkable. Now barely a day goes by without my hearing basic errors of fact- often in news bulletins. Then there is the increasing and obvious editorial bias. statements are taken out of context and edited down to a point where the editorial slant becomes highly misleading. As a matter of reportage, the BBC has stooped to the simplification of the tabloids, rather than the nuanced judgements that its charter demands. The original mission: "To inform, to educate and to entertain" now focuses entirely on entertainment, and the first two aspects are widely derided as elitism. No one has remade David Attenborough's seminal Life of Earth series, despite the startling advances in knowledge we have made through understanding the genome, because the very idea of a natural history is deemed to be too didactic (and anyway US networks are more circumspect than they were about co-financing anything that deals with the theory of evolution). The other documentary series of the 1960s and 1970s- Civilisation, the Ascent of Man or America would likewise not be made today- partly for reasons of cost, but also because the BBC itself prefers to buy-in cheap entertainment like Strictly Come Dancing. For the fact is that- as Rupert Murdoch charges- the BBC now measures success solely in terms of winning the ratings battle.

The result of this constant battle for ratings has been the elimination or demotion of much that was valuable about public service broadcasting- notably children's programmes- and the creation of a cadre of frankly overpaid "star talent". 

The defenders of the BBC like to point out the hostility of Murdoch as a positive- that if the obvious villain of the British media industry disapproves, then the Corporation must be doing something right. Yet in fact the enmity of Murdoch has given the BBC immunity to even the vaguest criticism. However- as the Savile scandal shows us- such impunity has created an intolerant culture of arrogance. The British media, including the BBC, has developed its own agenda which has little to do with impartial reporting and everything to do with promoting its own vested interests. It is generally accepted that the BBC has a broadly left-wing bias, and from comedy to news, it now does not even make a pretence of denying it. The constant derision of the Liberal Democrats, for example, is not reflecting a national mood- it is shaping it. The failure to report European affairs in any mainstream way has resulted in a general ignorance of the most basic issues facing Britain and the EU. Of course the issues are complicated, but the state funded national broadcaster has a duty to inform and educate- which it consistently fails to do. The fact is that sending hundreds of staff to cover the US elections is a pure boondoggle- and precisely the kind of gold plating that an organisation that believes itself untouchable can get away with. Meanwhile more pressing domestic issues go largely unreported.

So the Savile scandal is simply the tip of the iceberg. Yet it does open up an opportunity to scrutinise an organisation that has become bloated with money and untrammelled power. As the inevitable call for inquiries gathers pace and politicians rush to join the band wagon, they should note that the license payer has, for some time now, been getting a very bad bargain out of the BBC.

In the same way that the Milly Dowler hacking scandal revealed the corruption at the heart of the Murdoch Empire, so the Savile scandal should reveal the corruption at the heart of the BBC. As Murdoch, in my view, should be held accountable for his crimes so the BBC must also lose much of the power that it has so casually and wrongly exercised over the past few years. 

The media market is changing radically as new technology increases but also fragments the content available for distribution. The time has come to break up the BBC and to drastically remake its remit. The national debate as to how best to do this is merely another strand of the wider debate about the whole nature and future of our democracy that I think is long overdue in the United Kingdom.

Monday, October 15, 2012

On a street corner in Minsk

I am not sure where I finally lost it with Minsk. It  could have been on the corner of Lenin and Karl Marx streets or maybe walking down Kirov or Sverdlov street or any one of a dozen or so streets named after the brutal thugs who followed the gangster Lenin and his depraved Soviet creed. The Soviet demonology was of course missing its chief demon and near anagram of Satan- Stalin- but still the streets of Minsk proclaimed Soviet power unvarnished with hyphens or humanity. The Soviet era flag, the Militia, and the KGB all survive in "Europe's last dictatorship". 

Yet the visit to Belarus had begun with good humour. Black humour admittedly: "Welcome to Belarus where the local time is 1983". 

We were here to meet friends and celebrate the wedding of an attractive young couple, and whatever my misgivings about the reputation or the Belarusian state and its eccentric leader, Alexander Lukashenka, they were assuaged by the knowledge that I would be there for only four days and that I would be among friends.

Speeding through the slab-like  airport terminal building, the arrival process was remarkably painless- it was only later, on departure, that the dingy hideousness of the Airport was revealed, but initial impressions were good. We met our friends easily and were soon speeding on smooth, clean highways toward the city centre. As for the initial impressions of the city itself, these too were a positive surprise. Although Soviet era apartment blocks are not particularly attractive anywhere, here in Minsk they were clean and painted and surrounded by neatly trimmed grass. Soon we were amongst the Socialist realist buildings of the city centre, and these too were a major surprise. Yes they were blocky and bombastic, but, especially considering the tragic circumstances of their construction- Minsk was all but destroyed in the second world war- they were no more "totalitarian" that the boulevards of Paris constructed by Housman for Napoleon III. In fact they reminded me both of Paris and of Budapest, another city of wide vistas and which I also rather like. 

So, we went on an evening walk to explore, and the bright, well-lit streets allowed us to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet and work out what we were looking at, "The Belarusian State Circus", "The National Bank of Belarus", the "Committee for State Security", Ha! Of course here it is still called the "KGB". It seemed simply odd, funny even. That, we said smiling, was why the city felt so safe. And if buildings were still decorated with the Soviet hammer and sickle, well that was simply another eccentricity. Of course there was very little advertising and, we said marveling, no graffiti. Yet there were also very few restaurants, and these were all full, but we kept looking to find a place to eat. Minsk is a city of 1.8 million people, the largest city between Moscow and Stockholm and the largest for at least three hundred miles in every direction, yet there were so few restaurants... Eventually we found a cellar. I deciphered "My English Grandmother" and a faintly Miss Marple Logo. Inside all was lace doilies and chintz- an odd parody of what someone might think was English- if you had never been there. We had Beef and Yorkshire pudding presumably served as a kind of homage to the fictional English Granny, but it was a homage based on something heard about but never seen. All the menu was in Russian. We noticed that even the young people did not speak much English- or any other foreign language.

The next morning we walked further. Underneath Lenin square- "decorated" with a 30 foot statue of the old Tatar gangster- there was a shopping mall. At least it looked like a shopping mall, but where were the bland international brands? Nothing but cheap tat mostly from the cheapest oriental producers- quality was very low but prices, when translating back from the thousands of Belarusian Roubles it takes to buy anything at all, were high. It was a Potemkin shopping mall, full of slippery marble but nothing that anyone would really want to buy... if they had a choice. Above ground the square was a vast concrete bowl surrounded by huge and hideous government buildings and one red brick Catholic church- St Simeon and St Helen- which had spent most of the Soviet period under threat of demolition and being used as a cinema.

The wedding the next day was a registry affair. The couple, both in their mid twenties, were beautiful and well matched. Though there was much talk from the friendly and handsome registrar lady I could decipher little save repeated reference to the laws of the Republic of Belarus. Yet there was plenty of room for the traditions of Slavic culture- candles and woven cloth much in evidence as symbols of the beginning of married life. Then the fully traditional party- bread and salt to welcome the couple, much speech and song to celebrate. A happy party.

Of course there were the odd asides. Stupid and absurd things were done in the country "because the president said so". Rings with forbidden -non Soviet- national symbols. The knowledge that many of the friends of the couple could not join the party, "because they can not return home safely". The awareness that the best brains were leaving the country if they could- including many of the young folk in the room. I thought to myself that I was not expecting Belarus to be a Jeffersonian democracy or a beacon of prosperity- the country was clearly nothing like either of those things. But what was it? There were little touches of capitalism- the odd- rather small- adverts, and a large number of western-made cars on the road. Yet after a few hours walking I felt dizzy and sick. Something is polluting the air with particulates- but nobody seems to know with what and official figures are hard to validate. But surely, I thought, Lukashenka can not be truly serious about promoting Communism as an article of faith? It must be- I surmised- simply that perhaps he is a deeply conservative leader of a pretty conservative country- after all the party, if not its symbols, is indeed dead and gone.

Yet standing on the corner of Marx and Lenin streets I realized that this weird parody of the USSR- Brezhnev on Ice- is deadly serious. The incredible, unforgiving bureaucracy which- I learned- insisted that if a container was not on an import list, it could not be brought in- necessitating days of work at the border packing and unpacking. The requirement for official paperwork for the slightest interaction with the state, where even a five minute delay at the registrar, for example, would have cancelled the wedding. This is a Vogon level of bureaucracy. And then there was the KGB.

I encountered two of them them in a smoky bar- yes Belarus remains immune to smoking bans as it is to any other foreign influence except Russian. There they were, two middle aged, paunchy, shaven headed types- unmistakable as they sat next to the rock band which was entertaining the boisterous crowd of dancers by playing western and Russian rock songs of twenty and thirty years ago. The two were blankly indifferent to the enjoyment of the crowd, simply smoking and making sure the band did not play anything remotely off message. They were bored, drinking coffee and smoking and blank as they blankly occupied the best seats- close enough to reach out blankly and turn off the amplifier if needed. A pointless job, you might think, yet one the regime clearly deems to be worth paying for.

Another pointless job is that they dub all foreign TV channels, so it becomes difficult to learn English or any other foreign language- in any event they only allow one non-Russian foreign news channel to be broadcast: Euronews, and that- as I say- is dubbed. It was when we found that Google is blocked in Belarus that it became clear that information is still severely rationed in this twisted theme park of post Communism. So are languages. Russian is favoured for everything.  Belarusian, officially a co-equal language with Russian, and the one, confusingly enough, that all of the metro and street names are written in- although maps are written in Russian- is not necessarily now even understood by every one on the street, although it is so similar to Russian. Lukashenka seems to promote Russian over Belarusian whenever he can.

Of course the Belarusian economy is a mess. The army of arbitrary and pointless officials have  created a Kafka-esque nightmare of regulation. The currency is imminently expected to devalue again and foreign currency is hard to come by. Next to some partly restored area of the old town- the Trinity suburb- a vast ziggurat of vulgar and expensive apartments has taken five years to put its blight over the last surviving historical area of Minsk. It was a poor mans idea of what wealth might look like, just as Lukashenka's decrees are simply a vulgar barbarian's idea of what culture or freedom might look like. There is order but it is a dead and sterile order. I kept finding in my head the image of a field ploughed under with weed-killer- orderly, but dead. I yearned for graffiti, if only to show that there was some spirit- I yearned for adverts if only to show that there was some aspiration. 

Finally walking into the church of St Simeon and Helen, there was a Catholic service being conducted in Belarusian. Lukashenka prefers Orthodoxy and Russian, but still this community, around for a thousand years and more still survives. We paused and stood next to the doorway and listened to the mass. 

"Oh Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us
Oh Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace"

Then it really hit me. I understood, emotionally, what I had been seeing. "Oh Saviour of the World", I prayed, "Will you not save Belarus?". I wanted to weep and howl and gnash my teeth at the pointless futility, the utter despair of this stupid, wicked government. 

All the thwarted hopes, the simple, godawfulness of the regime, it was all too much. The contrast between the sweetly charming people, their uncomplaining, shy friendliness and the thuggish brutality of the government: the militia with their absurd, huge Soviet era hats, the indifferent slug necks of the KGB stooges, and all the other symbolism of the monstrous evil of the Stalinist past. It seemed to me that Lukashenka is not merely the dictator of the Belarusians, he is their captor. 

So on  a street corner in Minsk, I could not decide if I was looking at Himmler Strasse or Lenin Prospekt, or Goebbels road or Karl Marx street, and it did not seem to matter very much, even though the National Socialists had only inflicted perhaps half the deaths that the Soviet Socialists managed. 

Round the corner from the church is the prison. The conditions are said to be terrible. Few come out. Some never.

Belarus is not a comedy. It is the blackest tragedy.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Radical Liberals

The slight bounce in the polls for the Liberal Democrats after the Brighton conference, now up to 15% support, may well be part of the froth of the conference season. On the other hand, support at that level has often been the norm for the party at this stage in many previous Parliaments. So those pundits gleefully hoping for the demise of the party seem set to be disappointed. Certainly the atmosphere in Brighton was more of a party on the way back than one on the way down.

In fact I see a renewed commitment to Liberal ideas and a more genuine debate as to what the priorities amongst Liberal values should be. For myself, as this blog makes pretty clear, I am mistrustful of both big government and big business. In that sense I harken back to the classical Liberal tradition which respects entrepreneurship and which believes in the older Liberal virtues that, in short, we exist "to build a Liberal Society in which every citizen shall possess liberty, property and security and none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity", a statement that is so powerful to Liberals that it has become a cliche. In the older Liberal constitution, however, the next sentence is equally striking "[the party's] chief care is for the rights and opportunities of the individual and in all spheres it sets freedom first".

In my view the economic crisis has underlined the natural suspicion towards the cartels that big business intentionally creates- to the detriment of the interests and rights of the individual. My concern is that the Socialist solution of greater government control through regulation, oversight or taxation is a cure that is worse than the disease. There are such statists in the Liberal Democrats too, but the root tradition remains a radical one, and it is that radical tradition that I seek to promote against socialist statism and right-wing business cartels.

I spoke at the Liberal Democrat conference on the subject of regional pay in the public sector. In the private sector, of course pay rates for the same job vary- often substantially- across the country. The conference put forward a motion arguing that regional pay- de facto- would mean that poorer areas would see wage cuts, and that it was nothing more than a cost cutting exercise. I was a bit disappointed by this, and the implication that the state sector should have uniform pay rates across the country as a kind of subsidy for poorer areas. The fact is that in many areas there are staff shortages and the uniform pay rates prevent local councils from paying more in order to attract staff. Of course the motion had some rather weaselly words allowing greater "flexibility", but the reality was that the conference motion was a sop to the TUC campaign against regional pay, since national collective bargaining allows more militant union leaders greater power. For me, the Liberal commitment to local control and indeed more individual control over working conditions is undermined by national collective bargaining, and that is why I spoke against the motion. I am not an instinctive right-winger, despite being a chairman of a chamber of commerce. I am an instinctive Radical.

The obvious failure of the bank cartels which lie at the root of the economic crisis has been matched only by the subsequent failure of the state intervention. The radical, the Liberal, solution is to promote far greater competition and diversity in the financial markets, and indeed throughout society. The "John Lewis" solution of mutual ownership is attractive to Liberals because by making employees into owners it creates more power for the individual over their own circumstances and therefore offers greater freedom and greater incentives. Mutual ownership is not a panacea, but it is one option amongst many that can provide an antidote to the uniformity of joint stock enterprises on the one hand and state provision and control over services on the other. 

I think a Radical agenda- suspicious of big government and willing to use market mechanisms to control big business- is part of the intellectual DNA of Liberalism. I, like many others, will be trying hard to make sure that is the intellectual touchstone for the whole of the Liberal Democrats too. For, in that robust exchange of ideas, we can acquire the energy to overcome the headwinds of the past two years and make a new breakthrough- even as early as the next election.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dead Parrots strike back

The conventional wisdom in the British media is that the Liberal Democrats are doomed to a huge defeat in 2015. The only question that exercises such commentators as Polly Toynbee is how large the Labour victory will be and how long they will be in power.

For sure, as Sir Mervyn King foresaw during the general election, in conversation with my friend David Hale, any government that took office in 2010 was going to face exceptional challenges. The economic situation when the coalition was formed was the worst in over 60 years. On top of this came the challenges of forming and running a new political structure, namely the coalition itself. Well, as we now know, "mistakes were made". The learning curve was pretty steep, and the Lib Dems have paid an exceptional price in support for being behind that curve. 

Yet the Brighton conference may well mark an inflexion point both for the members of the Liberal Democrats and indeed their voters. The political environment could have hardly been worse- a halving of support, a leader the focus of huge personal opprobrium, the disruption of losing "short money", even the impact of the move in headquarters from Cowley St to Great George St., all have contributed to a loss of membership and of morale.

The morale of the party has clearly recovered: the atmosphere in Brighton was not so much grimly determined as actually rather jaunty. The membership issue, in common with all other political parties, may prove more problematic. The other two parties have already made a large move towards creating "virtual" campaigning. The professional targeting of voters  through sophisticated databases such as the Conservatives' "voter vault", is far more advanced. The fact is that for all parties, the key issue is not about membership any more, it's about money.

The need to modernise campaigning will have a significant impact on the Liberal Democrats, as it has on Labour and the Conservatives. However, the persistence of party democracy in the party is the baby that must not be thrown out with the bath water of old fashioned campaigning tactics. Once, the party faithful were simply the foot soldiers of the campaign, And the quid pro quo was that the campaigners had disproportionate influence.  Yet, now the key area is the formation of policy. The focus groups have created tightly targeted policies, which are tested without reference to the intellectual purity of the party concerned but only within a marketing strategy. This was the fatal error behind Blairism. 

The Liberal Democrats are a highly ideological party driven by many expert members: many were on show in Brighton. Indeed it was quite clear that those of us who have been long term members were regarding the current difficulties of the party with a certain wry amusement. We continue the fight, of course, seems to be the message, yet I am mildly  concerned about how much the rules of the game have changed. It remains to be seen whether the Lib Dems can match the financial fire power that the other two parties can bring to the new world of professional politics.

Nevertheless, at least the party is aware of the problem, and the new party chief executive, Tim Gordon has moved to address some of the critical issues already- and that, as much as anything else, will establish the recovery of the party. For the reality is that in most conventional terms, the party is already recovering, activity is up and the members are remarkably united in the face of adversity, albeit that total membership is still down, as it is in other parties, especially the Conservatives, whose activists in some areas have defected en bloc to UKIP. 

If the Lib Dems can win the race to modernise their campaign in key seats, then the outlook  for the party is not so bleak. So the cheerful Liberal activists on the wind swept front at  Brighton are not whistling in the dark, and as so many times before, those who predict-, in fact hope- that party faces its demise will, as before, be very disappointed. the "dead parrot" remains very much alive.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Brighton Rock

A party conference is a remarkably artificial affair, even for Old Lags like me. The business of the hall is somewhat tangential to the real business of conference which is to refresh old friendships and get to as many fringe meetings as possible. For the more frivolous, the determination seems to include finding as many free meals and drinks as possible, but to be honest the attraction of acidic white wine- even free acidic white wine- pales. Chateau de Battrieacide creates heartburn and headache in equal measure, so I strictly ration myself.

Brighton as a conference venue is quite attractive these days- more modern hotels, albeit spectacularly overpriced ones, now function within a brief walk of the conference centre than ever before, and Brighton has emerged as a convenient and compact conference venue, with much to attract the average attendee.

That elusive thing "atmosphere" is what long time attendees tend to focus on, and this year I detect two undercurrents. The first is that a large number of the delegates have a cautious sense that the worst for the Liberal Democrats may be over. These views contrast the near-panic in Conservative ranks with the solidity in the- much diminished- Liberal Democrat ranks. More by-election gains are cited as an antidote to the still dire poll ratings. It may even be true.

The second is the air of triumph amongst those who may loosely be described as the Party left wing. Tim Farron is ubiquitous, and is clearly positioning himself in the frankly unlikely event that Nick Clegg chooses to depart. Several policy motions are nods in the direction of the left, and there is much applause to for those who purvey Anti-Conservative rhetoric. To be honest I am more sceptical- the party establishment is clearly more suspicious of the smiling party President, and in the face of much media provocation, Vince Cable remains silent. In any event the party leader- while facing uncomfortable questions- is firmly in place.

Meanwhile the core of party members is surrounded by a vast new halo of lobbyists and security.  Long gone are the days of the informality of the Liberal Assembly. For myself, I think the kind of grown up, genuine debate that was embodied in the Liberal tradition would find a ready market in the wider world - and be far more attractive than the carefully stage managed hall events that we now undergo. 

Anyway, time to explore the conference...    

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How the Lib Dems might beat Spotty Youths and the Nasty Party after all

The problem with Ed Miliband, indeed all of those who came into politics without doing anything else first, is that he still carries the air of the delayed adolescent. 

Basically Ed Miliband looks like a spotty youth in a cheap suit. So no shock to see that the latest polls do not have him carrying it off as party leader.

Meanwhile the Tories seem determined to prove beyond all doubt that they are still the "nasty party". While not quite as foolish as Mitt Romney, you know that sometime, somewhere probably all the Tory front bench have agreed with the Romney idea that the poor are basically just a bunch of freeloaders.

The blind panic among Conservatives now they are under the cosh contrasts rather badly against the grim determination, and discipline among the Liberal Democrats who have been facing repeated setbacks in the past two years. The Lib Dems have been largely written off as a political force, but the party, despite taking large losses at every level, has remained united and even fairly cheerful. Nick Clegg, despite the self interested stirring of the usual suspects in the media, is not under any kind of leadership threat.

The Nick Clegg apology, which seems to have gone viral, in the form of a rather good parody, was obviously the result of a very careful political calculation. It is a fact that politicians never- until now- apologize for something they have actually done and which they are responsible for. So Nick Clegg has actually done something unusual, and has taken a probably well advised political risk. I say well advised, because it strikes me that there is now a strategy in place to rebuild support for the party and its leader- and that this apology is merely the first step.

As a curtain opener to the Lib Dem conference in Brighton next week, Tim Gordon, the new Lib Dem chief executive has overseen an interesting and shrewd move. I will be going to Brighton for the first conference since before the last general election. 

Let us see what else the leadership has up its sleeve.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Suppose the UK leaves the EU by default?

Over the last week the global financial crisis, as it affects Europe, has changed direction. Several of the critical uncertainties that were dogging the Euro have now been resolved. The German constitutional court has ruled that German participation in the current rescue plan is legal, and that future plans are a matter for votes in Bundestag. The Dutch electorate have sung solidly behind pro-EU parties, and the European Central Bank has begun to deploy substantial firepower directly in the markets.

The countries that have advocated greater Eurozone integration seem to be winning the argument, and the focus of debate has moved on towards how and not whether a new European Federation can be constructed.

Many on the right in the UK are determinedly contemptuous of these increasingly dramatic developments. As at the Messina Conference, where the founding members of the EEC sent Ministers, while the UK sent a junior civil servant, the UK has- by default- taken a decision not to be involved in a major question of European integration. There has been no real discussion, but over the course of the past five years, Britain has essentially withdrawn from about half of the activity of the European Union. The list of projects that the UK is not involved with includes, of course, the common currency but also the common visa zone- where several non-EU members, such as Switzerland and Norway are members. The UK is also opted out of large chunks of common policy, from fundamental human rights, to administration of justice. Although Denmark has the same number of opt-outs as the UK, in practice it co-operates with the rest of the EU in these second areas, and is of course a member of the Schengen zone. In other words, Britain is already the least engaged member of the EU.

If we listen to Liam Fox, then this semi-detached status is no bad thing. Indeed, Dr. Fox suggest that the UK should completely withdraw from any EU activity that he deems "political".

Yet the idea that the EU should simply be a "common market" and nothing more is already 25 years out of date. The scope of integration and engagement is already "political", and it will become ever more so. The majority of EU member states expect far greater integration, with the "political" disputes being how best to achieve this integration.

The British right wing, of course, views this with horror. It is very easy to portray the EU as some kind of enemy, and the lazy journalism of discredited newspapers find "Brussels" a convenient Aunt Sally for the UK's own problems. When Dr. Fox blames Brussels for the economic crisis, he presumably does not hear the storm of protest in the rest of the EU that firmly blames the irresponsible banks and their loosely controlled businesses based in London for the fiasco. When the British try "to defend the City of London" they become extremely unpopular, since the City has become, however unfairly, the lightening rod for discontent and anger about the Banks. 

This is certainly not reported in the Daily Mail.

The fact is that British opinions are increasingly ignored. Worse, they are actively discounted. Many member states find the British detachment from the rest of the EU a symptom of bloody minded arrogance, and are not too concerned about whether the UK packs up its toys and leaves the EU altogether or not. The Germans regard British comments on the Euro- "told you so", with something approaching cold fury. The constant British inability to see Germany as a modern democratic state, but simply as the progenitor of two wars, has helped to turn Berlin into a political opponent. Yet long standing friends in Scandinavia, for example, are no longer inclined to defend the British positions, still less associate themselves with them. The UK has few friends- and given the poisonous nature of the British media, there is virtually no understanding in Britain as to the true nature of European debate. Founded on mistrust and ignorance, the megaphone diplomacy of the British Right has alienated even our friends.

Now it would take years for even a government in London that was sympathetic to a goal of greater EU integration to acquire the political heft to do more than meekly agree to the decisions of those countries that have already functioned for decades in EU systems that the UK opted out of. 

Britain could not catch up in the next ten years.

Yet a European Federation could be a reality within a decade. 

If we listen to Dr. Fox then the British would say that we would simply treat our relations with such an entity in the same way as we deal with China or the United States. Yet the UK is massively economically integrated with the wider European economy: we trade more with Ireland than we do with all of the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China combined. We are dependent on the European markets to a huge degree, which is why, in the end, we took the decision to join the EEC in 1973, sixteen years after the first Treaty of Rome was signed, and would have joined earlier, if we could have done so.

Dr. Fox and the Tory Right have a naive vision that, freed of the EU "yoke", Britain could become a free market "privateer" economy. Yet that implies massive economic change. The country would, for a star,t need to maintain confidence through much tighter control of the government finances than it has done at any time over the past 60 years. Real deficit and debt reduction would probably be needed, and that would been a radical shift in the funding of, for example, the NHS and pensions. Light touch regulation would have to be quite subtle, since the country could face accusations of "dumping" if regulations are deemed by our largest markets to be insufficient. Interest rates too, for a much smaller economy than the new Federation, would probably be higher- giving a structural problem of how to compete with the new Federation. 

A "privateer" economy might end up far less competitive than that of the new Federation. After all in the 1960s, the UK slipped ever further behind the then six members of the EEC, and that could well be the reality again. The difference is that the Federation will embrace substantially all of the current 27 members of the EU. There is no EFTA comfort blanket for the UK to cling onto this time.

I believe that it is time to bring the British European debate into the open. The policies of the Tory right have already cost the country respect, influence and a lot of money. They could end up costing us a whole lot more. I believe that we need a national debate about our whole relationship with the rest of the World, not merely the EU. 

In the end I believe that "privateer Britain" is a mirage. We have far more to gain as a member of the EU, fully engaged with all of its activities, than as a sulky and petulant stand-out. I think it is better to recognize this now, than to have to come back in 20 years, meekly pleading to join institutions that we had no part in shaping, and indeed have tried to obstruct.

Of course, in 20 years time given the wide range of opposition the UK has inspired amongst its former friends, it might be more than a General de Gaullle saying "Non". 

We risk being shut out for all time.  We must not let that happen without at least a real debate.