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.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

BBC hatchet job shoots at the wrong target

A friend of mine, who used to be the Editor of Newsnight- the BBC's flagship current affairs programme once said to me "Of course you must understand that television is essentially a tabloid medium". Yet, amongst the increasingly bland litany of "human interest" reality TV, celebrity wankfests and all the dross on our screens, you might have hoped that news and current affairs could hope for a greater ambition.

But No.

On Newsnight this week- which I caught when it was rebroadcast on BBC World- there was a spectacular example of a journalistic hatchet job, which The Sun would have been proud of.

The purported scandal was that "London based investment banks"- boo hiss- were knowingly mis-selling swaps to Italian and other local government institutions.

 In order to make the story stick, you need to know how a swap- conceptually- works. On cue, up came a slide that was supposed to show this. Err.. it was meaningless. It was, literally, a bunch of arrows that might as well have come from the opening credits of Dad's Army. So the first thing we need to know is that the journalist- Joe Lynam- can not explain a swap because he does not understand what a swap is.

The rest of the programme was a series of ever more laughably obvious cliches- the shiny towers of the City contrasted  with sunny Italy, even an interview conducted with an actors voice to protect the identity of "John"- not his real name.

We were supposed to be shocked that some swaps contracts had been voided because of faults which the wicked "London based investment banks"- a formula used in nearly every sentence of the piece- knew about but would not admit. Yet this was totally meaningless too: in a market of tens of thousands of transactions every day, it would be nothing short of a miracle if some transactions were not voided- for a whole variety of reasons- but apparently this journalist expects a level of perfection in financial transactions that no-one else even dreams of.

The portentous tone of the piece grew increasingly like one of The Day Today's best skits. 

It was crap. It was dangerous crap.

I worked over 20 years in the City of London. I am well aware that there are serious issues of business ethics, competence and sound practice that need to be addressed across the financial services industry. Yet the idea that "London Based investment banks" were praying on innocent government bodies in Italy just won't wash. Government treasurers are not usually inexperienced innocents- many have just as much knowledge of the market as anyone else. Banks in fact simply act as intermediaries in the swaps markets, between the different principals- but remember the journalist, Joe Lynam, doesn't understand swaps, so is unlikely to know this. He also does not understand how the regulatory system works- transactions between market counterparties are mostly a function of contract law- and therefore the regulatory role of the FSA is necessarily highly limited, so his criticism was aimed at the wrong target.  

In the end the villains of the piece may well not be the banks at all, but rather the governments of Italian regions that are trying to welch on duly contracted debts which they entered into fully understanding the risks.

Oh and Italy isn't a formal Federation either- but general knowledge was just another thing missing in the terrible piece.

So a pretty low grade sub-tabloid journalism engaging in a bit of cheap banker bashing. Pity it had to be shown on the BBC's flagship current affairs programme.

You can watch the fiasco here. The full definition of a swap is here.

The motto of the BBC used to be "to inform, to educate and to entertain". Joe Lynam and Newsnight think it is "to bluff, to bullshit and to lead a witchhunt by the ignorant". It was a truly disgraceful piece that should never have been broadcast. 

Still, at least our hero got a nice sunny trip to Milan at the public expense. 

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Tory Tantrums

It is quite hard to fathom the current maelstrom of gossip in and about the British Conservative Party hitting the headlines this weekend. The Prime Minister has crafted a reshuffle that rewarded several of the more patient of his party's right wingers, without destabilizing the coalition itself too much. Yet the response has been a plethora of alleged plots and supposed fury. Plans are said to be afoot to bring Boris Johnson back into the House of Commons in order to challenge his erstwhile Eton and Oxford chum. The mechanism apparently involves a third old Etonian- Zac Goldsmith- standing down so that Johnson can return to the green benches of the House of Commons.

I think 98% of the population are probably asking "what madness is this?"

If such a large number of Conservatives now genuinely believe that the most Euro-sceptic Prime Minister in British history has somehow morphed into a bleeding-heart, then they seriously misunderstand both the Prime Minister, but also the nature of British politics in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Simply because Boris Johnson is more popular in the polls than David Cameron does not mean that it is necessary or even advisable that Cameron should be struck down. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has been able to ignore the several skeletons rattling in his closet, not least because his two-time opponent, Ken Livingstone, was just as indiscreet with women and cronies, with the added bonus of occasional money questions too. Setting out to become Prime Minister is an altogether different story. The cliquishness of the supposed OE plot has much potential to backfire- not least because Goldsmith's seat, far from being safe, is still quite marginal against the Liberal Democrats, who held it for 13 years before Goldsmith turned his well funded eye onto the constituency.

The fact is that the Tories are losing their heads.

The Liberal Democrats were forced to take a huge amount of punishment in the first two years since the coalition was formed. As they say "mistakes were made". However it is now increasingly recognized that the Lib Dems were more or less forced into supporting the coalition, given the extremely difficult economic circumstances, and given that no other coalition could be formed. It was- and is- a painful duty, not an enthusiastic grab for power, and the Lib Dems have paid the price: outmatched on AV and outright betrayed on House of Lords reform. Yet despite this, Mr. Clegg's leadership has generally retained the weary loyalty of his members, who understand the difficult political realities. 

By contrast many Conservatives seem determined to ignore realities- political and economic alike- and march down a radical road for which there is an insufficient consensus, either in the coalition or indeed the Tory party itself. The fact that David Cameron has not been able to provide the right with sufficient red meat: partial or even full withdrawal from the EU, large scale government spending cuts in health, welfare and education, an even more ludicrous immigration policy, is seen as a failure of his leadership, and not as a sign of the unreasonable nature of the right's demands. Yet those demands are crazy. There is no consensus for an EU withdrawal anywhere except in the Conservative right wing- and despite their arrogant moral certainty, the Tory right is a pretty small minority that gets ever more unconvincing as it grows ever more shrill and dogmatic.

The Tory right seeks revenge for the slights that they perceive that Cameron has launched against them. Yet the reality is that far from the supposed "Johnson plot" being the salvation of the Conservatives, it could mark the doom of the Conservative party. 

Self obsessed, doctrinaire and out of touch, the "flapping of white coats" now afflicts many on the Tory benches. A series of by election defeats, beginning with Corby, could mean that far from the Conservatives holding the ring until 2015, the Lib Dems find that they are no longer able to participate in a government of instability and irresponsibility and that new electoral maths gives them an alternative. 

The Lib Dems paid a price in order to obtain a stable government to deal with the economy. If the Tories can not deliver stability amongst themselves, then why should the Liberal Democrats continue to pay the price, if they find they have other choices?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Time to join Schengen

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) did not have a happy birth. It was conceived by the Labour government as a supposedly tougher response to the alleged hoards of immigrants that were a threat to the British way of life- or some such nonsense anyway. It was, in short, a political project, and like most political projects it failed to take into account a whole range of practical difficulties. These difficulties become more obvious every day, and it is now not far short of a serious disaster.

The basic problem is that since the UK chooses to administer its immigration policy separately from the rest of the EU, it has to run a separate visa and entry clearance policy. Yet this has led to the stupid spectacle that any Australian who wishes to gain entry clearance to work in the UK may well have to go to Manila, in the Philippines, approximately 4000 miles from Sydney in order to be interviewed. Meanwhile Asian tourists are being put off by the need for a separate visa, to the point that Chinese tourism to the UK is about 4% of the level of tourism to the Schengen zone- the common visa regime of the other EU member states, plus Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland. 

The fact that the UK is not in Schengen means that arrivals from Schengen destinations, like Spain or Italy must go through the same entry clearance as arrivals from Bangladesh- this is why the queues at British Airports are now as bad or worse than in the US or even Russia. The need to queue for hours simply to enter their home country has begun to irritate many frequent travelers- including myself- who do not have to undergo frontier checks for most other countries that we travel to.

Meanwhile, as the UK puts up barriers to people that it should be welcoming, the restrictive system has become riddled with corruption. The student visa system has totally broken down, to the point that the government has decided to revoke "trusted" status to a University- London Met- and as a result is now threatening to deport 2000 students who are probably completely legitimate. This is hardly an advert for the British University system, which increasingly relies on students from around the world to pay full fees in order to avoid bankruptcy. 

The fact is that British immigration policy- as created by a Labour government cowering before self serving interest groups, such as "Migration Watch", and the ignorant drivel published in the Daily Mail- is now a complete disaster. It is allowing in illegitimate applicants while refusing entry to tourists, students and business people who are a critical part of our economic success.

The fact is that the spurious claim that "the UK must control its own borders" can not be delivered by the current policy. Without a wholesale clear out of corrupt officials and a complete restructuring of the institutions, including the Home Office as well as the UKBA- a policy that will be hugely expensive- the chaos at our borders will grow ever worse.

A rethink is urgently required, and as a matter of priority the UK should be looking to join the Schengen group as soon as possible- the fact is that it is crazy to continue this disastrous failed policy of so-called toughness, which is in fact a chaotic and incompetent laxness. 

Monday, September 03, 2012

Fifty shades of blasphemy


In the last years of his life, Malcolm Muggeridge became rather a figure of fun. His appearances on television were easy to parody, and his censorious views on sex seemed increasingly ludicrous. In fact the more he went on about the subject the more I thought "bad luck, Mrs. Muggeridge". 

Yet, perhaps the much lampooned St. Mugg might have had a point after all. Fifty Shades of Grey, the latest literary "sensation" is a pretty terrible book. The dialogue is awful, the plot ludicrous, and -considering that this is the new genre of "mummy porn"- the sex scenes are laughable. Yet this absurd book has sold in millions. It is the epitome of the smutty book, but with the twist that it was written... ta-daa... by a woman. One of the most popular scenes is when our heroine is testing her limits of sado-masochist joy to the background of some choral music provided by her sexual Svengali.


"The singing starts again … building and building, and he rains down blows on me … and I groan and writhe … Lost in him, lost in the astral, seraphic voices … I am completely at the mercy of his expert touch …
"'What was that music?' I mumble almost inarticulately.
"'It's called Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis.'
"'It was … overwhelming.'"

Anyway, you get the idea.

The problem is that the Forty Part Motet is not a hymn to the sado-masochistic orgasm. It is a hymn to God:

Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te
Deus Israel
qui irasceriset propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis
Domine Deus
Creator coeli et terrae
respice humilitatem nostram

I Put my hope in no other but thee, 
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness

Of course God isn't too popular these days- our determinedly secular society is begin to feel that belief in a Creator is an early signifier of the kind of mental illness that leads to 9/11. Perhaps in some people it is.
I find it difficult to feel the certainty in every detail, every ritual, every facet of religious faith. On the other hand, when I listen to Ed Mitchell, an Astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission, describe an extraordinary experience on the voyage back to Earth: "I realised that the molecules of my body and my partners, and the molecules of the spacecraft were prototyped, maybe even made, in ancient generation of stars. And suddenly, instead of being an intellectual experience, it was an emotional experience, a kind of ecstasy!", then I feel the Universe we are discovering through science is every bit as magnificent and mysterious as the religious Universe.
In the face of the magnificence of the Universe, and the power of Thomas Tallis's music, the tawdry fictitious couplings of Fifty Shades of Grey do seem slightly demeaning. The Godhead- for want of a better word- of the Universe may grant the joy of orgasm, but no matter how good, perhaps this is quite a small joy compared to the exultation of the infinite. (or maybe it is just bad luck to me and my partners!).
On the other hand I was listening to the 40 part motet on my IPod walking through the medieval streets of Tallinn this morning and my head was full of Angels. 

Saturday, September 01, 2012

I believe they put a Man on the Moon

The death of Neil Armstrong has, rightly, caused a certain amount of introspection around the world.

Although I was a very small child, I can remember the Apollo Missions quite clearly, and apart from the amazing technical achievement, the thing I remember most was the sense of anticipation- that the Moon landings were not merely valuable for themselves, but that they marked a whole new era of manned space exploration. Each mission carried more and did more and for longer. It seemed that it would be a very short time before humans were permanently on the Moon, and the Sci-Fi world of Space 1999 or even Thunderbirds was not a fantasy, but was simply waiting for us just around the corner.

If Man (as we used to call humanity) could get to the Moon "before this decade is out", then surely Man would be on Mars before the century ended. Our culture, from David Bowie to Brian Aldiss was steeped in the imagery of a future in space. Aliens existed- they appeared in Star Trek every week. Indeed so dramatic and beautiful was the world of science fiction, that even the spectacular sights and achievements of the Space program were somewhat overshadowed.

Yet the 12 Astronauts who walked on the Moon and the six who piloted the command modules in lunar orbit, together with the crews of Apollo 8, 10 and 13 who circled the Moon but who, for different reasons, did not land are the only humans who have seen the whole disc of the earth with their own eyes. The astonishing pictures they brought back not only told us about Space, they told us about Earth. 

Apollo was and remains an inspiring and magnificent achievement. In the middle of the adulation stood the taciturn figure of Neil Armstrong. He brought a steely professionalism and a dour Scottish sense to the Moon, and if others found themselves changed by the experience, his resistance to such change seems to have been largely successful. Latterly he became a Professor of Engineering and although he was for much of his life probably the most famous man alive, he rejected all trappings of celebrity. He was and remained to the end of his days a proud "geek".

Armstrong recognized that Apollo was not about the Astronauts who made the small steps on the Moon, but about the whole of humanity that had chosen to make the giant leap into space. Unassuming, thoughtful and very shy, he represented the kind of hero- a word he abhorred about himself- that actually makes an achievement, rather than those who claim the false god of celebrity adulation.

Of course in the end the kind of space age that we anticipated 40 years ago has not come to pass. Compared to Apollo, the Space Shuttle was a hugely expensive failure, and the political leadership that funded the Space program lost their sense of vision and adventure as the optimism of the 1960s hit the quagmire of the 1970s. The optimism of the pre-Watergate generation has been crushed by a cynicism so all pervading that some genuinely believe that Apollo was faked- even though they can see with a telescope with sufficient magnification the tracks, footsteps and debris left on the Moon by the brave men who went there.

Now there are only eight men alive who have walked on the surface of the Moon. From Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11, Alan Bean of Apollo 12, Ed Mitchell of Apollo 14, Dave Scott of Apollo 15, John Young and Charlie Duke of Apollo 16  to Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan of Apollo 17, we should treasure these pioneers. Soon there will be none to recall that single bright moment. Yet, eventually, the will and the technology of new individuals will match the imagination that took us to the Sea of Tranquility and beyond. Then we will truly be able to appreciate how remarkable the Apollo Program was, and what remarkable men were chosen to leave our planet for the first time.

Godspeed Neil Armstrong. 


A taxing subject: wrong answer, wrong reason, but right reasoning

The UK tax system is a mess. At 11,560 pages, it is five times longer than the German tax code. It allows so many exemptions at the top end that the wealthiest taxpayers pay a smaller proportion to the treasury than the poorest. So despite the Daily Mail's drivel about the rich being "overtaxed", the fact is that the tax burden in Britain falls disproportionately on the middle class.

So the Lib Dem proposal to impose a super-tax on the wealthy has some superficial economic merit.

Unfortunately it is a cynical exercise in the politics of the focus group. The party leadership launched the initiative knowing that the Conservatives would veto any tax that was not already in the coalition agreement. There was no chance of this idea gaining any traction. 

So why do so?

The answer is simple: because the party leaders are reading the opinion polls and focus group reports that suggest that such a differentiation on tax will boost the only weakly recovering support for the Lib Dems. The howls of contempt from the hypocrites of the right wing press only adds to the attraction of this "initiative".

However I, for one, can not help but feel rather irritated. I am a Liberal at least in part because I approved of a party that eschewed these blatantly political games in favour of policy initiatives that were intellectually honest and coherent.

I have just received my conference pack to attend the Lib Dem conference in Brighton. I am underwhelmed. The policy ideas to be discussed are mostly puerile and irrelevant- designed to minimize pressure on the embattled leadership by focusing on milk and cookies issues, rather than anything that might give Nick Clegg a headache.

It is understandable, of course, but the membership of the Liberal Democrats is adult enough not to need being led by the conference wranglers and minders. Indeed it is the fact that the Lib Dems promote free speech and internal democracy that is why so many of its members remain loyal.

So I will go to Brighton, and I intend to speak up for more efficient and fairer taxation. I will, however dismiss this latest so-called "initiative" for what it is: a cynical exercise in politics and not a serious attempt to promote radical reform.

UK tax is spectacularly expensive to collect and deeply regressive in its economic impact- and both Labour and the Tories think that this is OK. It is time that the Lib Dems approached this critical subject from the point of view of the public good, and not the calculation of political advantage. To do otherwise puts party above country, and the Lib Dems should never do that under any circumstances.