Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Estonia marks the years of freedom but Russia marks the dark hours of the night

Today is the day that the life of Re-independent Estonia becomes longer than the period of independence before Soviet occupation. It is a significant milestone in the psychological recovery of Estonian society from the Soviet occupation. Yet it is also the anniversary of the March deportation of 1949 when tens of thousands of Estonians- many, indeed most, were women and children- were sent to exile and often death in Siberia. Those that returned were brutalized and traumatized for the rest of their lives.

For the first decade after the recovery of Estonian freedom there remained a deep seated fear that this second period of independence would prove as fragile as the last, and that once again occupation, famine, torture and death would become Estonia's lot. Gradually that fear has begun to lessen, and as a whole generation has grown to parenthood with little or no recollection of Soviet power, the psychology of Estonians has subtly changed. The 2008 crisis has passed, and it is widely seen that Estonia has passed a severe test. Despite criticism from such biased witnesses as Paul Krugman, Estonia is proud of her achievement in weathering a storm which has shipwrecked other, supposedly more stable, countries. Indeed it is a testimony to the wry sense of humour that is increasingly evident here that the Krugman "twitterstorm" has been turned into an opera, which receives its premier next week.

More seriously, Estonians increasingly feel secure because they can contrast their achievements as new members of the OECD and the Eurozone (as well as NATO and various other international clubs) with the failures of the legal successor state to the Soviet Union: the Russian Federation. 

As Estonia has cemented its freedom with democratic norms, so Russia has become the plaything of a corrupt political-industrial class which seeks to remove its money from Russia as quickly as possible. The fact is that, despite the risks, even offshore centres such as Cyprus or Latvia, let alone Switzerland, are still far more attractive than the certainty of theft by the Russian government. Five years ago the use of gas supplies as a political weapon by the Putinistas was a significant threat to European democracy, but by being incompetently brutal, the search for alternatives- especially US shale gas- was rapidly accelerated. Now the market for Russian gas has weakened dramatically and Gazprom, the erstwhile largest company in the world, is being driven out of existence in its current form. It is another  profound defeat for the Kremlin. 

Despite the braggadocio that the Kremlin displays in approving the murder of its political enemies, it is a measure of weakness, not of strength, that the Russian state continues to use Soviet measures of repression. Likewise even Russia finds that its freedom of action is constrained, and their front of unity with their Chinese neighbours is not entirely convincing: it is a subservient relationship to Beijing and the Chinese respect strength, not weakness.

As Russia seeks to restructure its energy sector- again rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic- Estonia is building a new reputation for innovation and openness. As Russia considers how to stop the flow of capital leaving, Estonia considers how to recycle capital in the country and expand the network of successful  entrepreneurs that are driving the country back up to Nordic standards of living.

If in 1991 someone had said to the newly free Estonians that, over the next 22 years, the country would not only be a member of NATO and the European Union, but that it would be at the heart of EU decision making and a full member of the OECD- the club of the richest nations- and that there was the real prospect of the country being as wealthy as oil-rich Norway, then I think the reaction would have been tears of joy, even from the unemotional Estonians. That all of this has come to pass despite the hostility of Russia, which still refuses to acknowledge the scale of the crimes that were committed by the USSR (indeed Putin continues to praise the tyrannical Empire), would have seemed not far short of a miracle.

Well, it seems I live in a miracle.

On a day of mixed remembrance, there is much to celebrate in the Estonian Free State. 

If only the Russian people could recover their self respect in the same way as the Estonians so that they could drive out the thieves and murderers who continue to hold their state hostage and prevent it becoming a free, prosperous, and democratic citizen of the global community of nations. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Home Truths about the British Press

To return to a perennial problem in British democracy: what can we do about a press that is both so biased it is twisted, and so aggressive it has rightly been called "feral". 

The Reporter- once a by-word for integrity- think Alistair Cooke or Ed Murrow- has instead become a by-word for tetchy arrogance or profound corruption- think Piers Morgan, the Murdoch Press, the Daily Cancer-Scare or, lets face, it large parts of the BBC.

From overseas, I find it extraordinary that there is not more condemnation of the blatant manipulation, and outright lies that comprise a large part of the newspaper stories on the political pages- and increasingly in broadcast media too. Yet even in the fairly unimportant world of teen pop stars, the naked nastiness of the press- and especially the paparazzi in Britain- is making lives miserable. Justin Bieber, for example, is a fairly harmless teen sensation, who has been harried and hassled all through his visit to the UK- he is only 19, and may not have behaved well, but the abuse that he has had from the British Press makes it all too "Belieber-able" (sorry about that, couldn't resist) that he has no wish to visit the UK ever again. After all, why would you want to deal with the hostility and aggression that he has seemingly had to deal with?

The fact is that the general reputation of the British press internationally is growing more negative by the year.

HL Mencken famously said that "Journalism to Politician as dog is to lamp post". Mencken meant that all political ideas should be challenged, British journalists have taken him more literally. The problem is that they seem to have the delusion that spreading their effluvia everywhere they can in their own nests is something other than nasty and foolish.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Death of Chavez mourned by other Demagogues

The Op-Ed piece in today's Independent by George Galloway is a classic case of cheap left wing demagoguery. I can certainly judge George Galloway by his friends- mostly murderous criminals with no respect for democracy and little respect for human life, rather like the late Hugo Chavez.

Usually de mortuis nihil nisi bonum but in the case of Chavez we must make an exception. By making Venezuela a regional ally of Cuba, he placed himself firmly in the same tyrannical camp as the Communist regime in Havana. He led an onslaught against human rights that was condemned both by Amnesty international and Freedom House, and he subverted the democratic constitution of his own country, creating a cesspit of corruption and incompetence that has placed Venezuela on the road to economic perdition.

Naturally Galloway is a fan of the late Commandante Chavez. So are many other left wing demagogues like Ken Livingstone. However we can not be blind to the price of Socialism in Venezuela- and it is the huge impoverishment of the country and the creation of a cadre of communist ideologues that can only drive a country that ought to be wealthy into the deepest penury.

Galloway may have plans for us too- but his track record of support for the most brutal of causes, hypocritically posing as a puritan while living as a libertine, must surely condemn his actions and his words as well. 

Just noticed that Chavez died 60 years to the day since the announcement of the death of Stalin. Perhaps Democrats everywhere should celebrate this as death of a dictator day?         

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Trust and Distrust

"Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear" William Ewart Gladstone

The Liberal Democrats on principle oppose secret courts. Our party conference has repeatedly pointed out that no government can be above the law. It is an article of faith that we must oppose any executive authority that seeks to place itself outside the normal rule of law. Nor is this a purely theoretical issue: the information coming out of Libya after the fall of Gadaffi suggests prima facie evidence that agents of the British government sanctioned criminal activity- including torture and even murder- of those the government deemed arbitrarily and often without evidence to be guilty of enmity against the British state. 

The executive can not even give a number for how many such secret trials might take place under the proposed legislation, still less give any assurance as to the integrity of the judicial process without public scrutiny. Even senior members of the security services have expressed scepticism as to the need for secret trials. 

It is not merely Liberal Democrat policy - duly voted for at the last conference- to oppose the establishment of secret courts, it is a basic foundation of Liberal principles, Liberal ideology and Liberal faith.

So why in God's name did only seven Liberal Democrat MPs vote against the establishment of such secret courts last night?

Our Federal Spring conference begins shortly. Some, notably Liberal Democrats against Secret courts, will presumably be asking serious questions of our Parliamentary party. I am not able to attend this year. I will, however, be watching closely. I will not be alone, as the Guardian pointed out in December, this really is a litmus test of Liberal principles.

What is the point of working so hard to get Mike Thornton elected as MP for Eastleigh, if- the very next week- the Liberal Democrats are prepared to abandon a core principle of Liberalism?

I believe in the fundamental value of Liberalism as a political ideology. It is a pretty poor look out when David Davis turns out to be a more genuine liberal, not just than Ken Clarke, but than Nick Clegg, and the bulk of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party.

It is a very bleak day for liberals of all stripes when those we trust to represent liberal values renege on that trust in the name of political expediency. The Parliamentary party owes the long suffering Liberal Democrat membership at least an explanation and probably an apology.

A Democracy can not compromise its fundamental principles without weakening the very fabric of democracy itself and essentially giving in to its enemies- whether the criminal terrorists we most fear, or the criminal state tyrannies like Putin's Russia. We are better than our enemies only for so long as we maintain our better nature and adhere undaunted to the political, indeed the moral, principles of a liberal democratic state. 

Last night was a vote to weaken those principles and it is a vote that must not go unchallenged.  

Friday, March 01, 2013

Lessons of Eastleigh


When all was said and done it really was a close one, and another week, maybe even another day or two and it could easily have been another result. Be that as it may, the party dug as deep as I have ever seen it do, and the relentless commitment and hard work of thousands of volunteers with spectacularly good organisation on the ground made the difference. 


Set against pretty much the very worst that the party could face from pretty much the very worst of the British press, the result is -frankly- something close to a miracle for the Liberal Democrats.

The party has saved itself from the brink.

Now we owe it to ourselves and the country to set out a renewed, coherent Liberal agenda. Personally, I want to see a commitment to fair tax, which must also mean simple tax. We must stop the state trying to do too much, but make the commitment that whatever it does do, it must do with excellence. Among many other things, that means accepting the need for radical health care reform. It also means radical education reform-  challenging the vested interests in private sector education. Above all we must have another attempt to update our constitution in order to promote the rights of the individual above the rights of big government or big business or even big Europe for that matter. 

The experience of government has been a sobering one, but in the next two years we should put it to good use in crafting a new and practical agenda for radical reform- putting the rights of individuals at the heart of our community and national politics.

So in congratulating Mike Thornton MP and in grateful thanks for the immense efforts that Liberal Youth and the Scottish Liberal Democrats- and hundreds of others- have made, we should make sure that the new energy that the party is showing can now be put to the service of renewing and strengthening the Liberal agenda so that we can prove worthy of the victory in Eastleigh and a genuine contender for government in 2015.

That task may prove easier now we see how genuinely unpopular not just the Conservatives but also Labour still remain. 

The Tories had a terrible candidate, yet they still had a huge pile of cash and more than sufficient organisation to inflict a defeat upon the Liberal Democrats- in the end, as we know, they came third. As for Labour, they too had "candidate problems", but the result is exceptionally poor for them. Of course, as the UKIP vote shows, there is still a general feeling of "a plague on all your houses" among the electorate at large. 

Yet, partly because the Liberal Democrats have been so much under attack, and seen the price paid in election after election over the past two years, the victory at Eastleigh is particularly sweet since it proves not merely that the party is likely to survive, but that it has very tough roots indeed. That will change the media narrative. Instead of speculating whether the party will have any MPs after 2015, the message will subtly alter to asking how many MPs they will have, and whether that will be enough to disrupt a single party majority. The more that it seems probable that the next Parliament will also have no overall majority, the more difficult it is to dismiss the Liberal Democrats in the way that we have been dismissed by our political enemies over the past two years.

This is why we now need to craft a new agenda- not just for the current Parliament, but for the 57th Parliament of the United Kingdom, to be elected in 2015. 

I know that Eastleigh will energize the party as a whole- I am sure we can now work to rebuild our organisation and to recover the friends we have lost and the trust we forfeited. We must do that particularly by recovering the Liberal integrity of our ideology, somewhat compromised in coalition. However the joie-de-vivre that this by-election clearly held for a new generation of Liberal Youth activists is obvious; and for those of us who have campaigned in too many elections to count, it is certainly heartening to see.

It is a very sweet victory- and perhaps it may yet mark the turning of the tide.