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Showing posts from March, 2006

Ian Hamilton Finlay

I suppose as an unashamed classicist, Cicero was always going to appreciate the works of Ian Hamilton Finlay- and I do. Therefore the news of his death prompts me to revisit his extraordinary work. Primarily known for his garden- Little Sparta- in the Pentland hills, Finlay was a much broader figure in Scottish culture than Little Sparta alone. His poetry, sculpture and elegant drawings, prints and paintings marked him out as a singular and unusual mind. His struggle with authority marked him out further as a rebel, and occasionally even a revolutionary- his admiration for Robespierre's ally, St Just, being well known. Finlay's figurative work aspired to an elegance and purity of line that in some ways echoed the spare, almost Roman classicism of the early Napoleonic era. Yet Finlay was a truly Scottish figure in European sculpture- and in his admiration for Revolutionary France we could discern echoes of the revolutionary drinking clubs active in 18th Century Scotland, of whic

Highland Air

A weekend away in Aviemore. The conference of the Scottish Liberal Democrats was extremely cheerful. Rather splendidly, during the speech of Nicol Stephen, the party leader in Scotland, the TV transmission is interrupted for a few seconds: exactly as he mentioned George W. Bush, the picture disappeared- to be replaced by a second or two of a cowboy film, before returning to Nicol's speech. Clearly a technician with a sense of humour... Overall, the atmosphere is very positive, and I am able to catch up with a large number of friends- including University colleagues who I have not seen for many years. Malcolm Bruce's speech mentions the fate of the prisoners of Lukashenka. I notice that the demonstrations in Miensk have not died away- eventually, he will be replaced, and even such small pin-pricks will slowly erode the position of the last European dictator. I did a TV interview this morning on Ukraine. However imperfect Ukrainian democracy is- and it is certainly rough and read

Set Piece

I have just returned from a couple of days in Switzerland, and as always, I am struck by the efficiency of the Swiss infrastructure. I caught a train, punctual to the minute, from Zurich to Geneva. The trains link with the major airports and all major towns. In Geneva I read of the new infrastructure projects to improve transport in the major cities and across country. The budgets are transparent and agreed amongst the various cantons. Given the very mountainous terrain of much of the country, it is even more impressive to see how easy it is to get around. Returning to a cramped and heavily congested Heathrow (now fallen to only the fourth busiest airport in Europe) I take the most expensive mile for mile train journey in the world to get to Paddington station. The difficulty of travel is obvious. In Switzerland I can take a train direct from Zurich Airport to Geneva Airport. Simply to travel between Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted- different airports of the same city- is not possible w

The Logical Conclusion

As expected, Oleksander Lukashenka stole the election in Belarus. As expected, his friend Vladimir Putin congratulated him. Meanwhile Independent observers condemned the whole fraudulent process and protests continue in Miensk. Lukashenka is a parody bad guy- the question now is how far he can be pushed. The EU condemns him, as does the US. Isolating him, however drives him into the hands of Putin- who does not give a cuss for Belarusian freedom- indeed, if he thinks of it at all, he probably opposes it. So- will the West challenge Putin? I am holding my breath, but I have a candle in my window for the victims of the Belarusian KGB and their vile leader. If Putin is serious about reform, let him get rid of this joke president- as he is certainly able to do- if he is not serious, then he will continue to tolerate him. Either way, the West can draw its own conclusions- as it already is about the reliability of the Russian Federation as a supplier of energy. Until the white-red-white flag

Winning ways

"That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves." Thomas Jefferson This may not be a bad watchword for the modern British Liberal Democrats- for certainly it would be good to see a clearer intellectual discipline behind their policies. In fact it is now becoming critical. The Liberal tide in British politics seems to be rising- with the prospect of good local election results this year and very good results for the Holyrood elections in 2007. If the party is to gain momentum, then the intellectually lazy aspects of taxation policy have got to be eliminated. It still erks me that too many Liberal Democrats confuse the nominal rate of tax- say 40% with the actual tax yield. The work of Arthur Laffer demonstrated as early as 1974, that there is a peak nominal rate of tax, which if nominal rates are raised further will actually reduce the total tax yield. A 50% top marginal rate of tax will not work- even aside from the morally dubious

A lie big enough

So... Europe's last dictator announces that no European Union observers will be permitted to come to the Belarusian elections. Meanwhile the opposition are accused of plotting a coup. The same old Soviet lies: the criminals around the joke leader Lukashenka pretend that those brave enough to oppose their incompetent mismanagement of the country are plotting. Well, the prisons may well be full on Monday- but I know who the gaolers will be. Pathetic! When these criminals finally are removed from office I hope that they will answer for every lie they have told.

Not Compulsory

"Learning is not compulsory... neither is survival." W. Edwards Deming This is a week all about education. As the British Parliament debates further changes to the education system, it is clear that the place of education is rising up the political agenda. I have no particular quarrel with treating students differently based on academic ability. I am sceptical about schools selecting on that basis- frankly the grammar school system I have seen in operation in Buckinghamshire is not an advert for good schools. I am more familiar with streaming or "setting" within comprehensive schools, and to my mind this both helps kids who might not get support from middle class parenting and it concentrates on brain power rather than social exclusivity. Class based schools are not a good thing for an open economy. Certainly in my own industry of finance, I see people of well below average intelligence managing to maintain managerial level jobs, despite being very unsuited to them,

In Memoriam Lennart Meri 1929-2006

It is hard to explain to people who know nothing of Estonia why the death of Lennart Meri means so much. As President he displayed an intelligence and vision that truly marked him as a great statesman. Yet he was so much more than that- he understood the character of Estonians- the bad as well as the good. He connected deeply with the culture of his country- writing of the deep roots that connected the traditions of the Estonian people with the land where they have lived for millennia. A theme of one of his most popular books was the search for Ultima Thule- a place of mystic significance as well as geographic speculation. Estonia, he thought, had a case to be thought of as that remote, mystic land. Despite his deep passion and knowledge of Finno Ugric culture of which Estonian forms a part, Meri was in the best sense a true European- fluent in several European languages, he carried with him a full appreciation of the richness of our common European heritage. His intellect was wide ran

Honours List Farce

You know, it is hard to work up a sense of real outrage at the cash for peerages scandal. Mind you it really is a scandal- it is not just the harmless trumpery of absurd pseudo-mediaeval titles: these fat cats were buying membership of our national Parliament. Yet I can't say I am surprised- for as long as patronage remains a gift of the Prime Minister, and especially this Prime Minister, then corruption will be an inevitable side effect. But is it really that bad? We do regard the desire to be "The Right Honourable The Lord Scrod of Bottley" as fairly harmless- and it is less economically damaging than to demand 25% of a government contract in exchange for your dubious financial support for the ruling party. Nevertheless, with every drip of slime, it is not just the image of the compromised and morally dubious Blair government that falls- it is the far more corrosive "you are all the same" that damages politics as a whole. Blair is not "a pretty straight g


The historic flag of Belarus is white with a red stripe. The flag that is flown by the Lukashenka regime is the old soviet era "national" flag, minus the hammer and sickle. In a nutshell, that is the visual symbol of the current struggle for Belarus. Oleksander Lukashenka, leading a tyranny which uses its KGB goons to kidnap and kill versus Alyaksandr Milinkevich who is the united candidate of the Belarusian opposition. On March 19th, Lukashenka will steal another election. The legitimate choice of the Belarusian population will be denied to them. It is time to speak up now- the last dictator of Europe must be removed and his odious soviet-era symbols banished to the past where they belong. The colours of Belarusian freedom should be restored, and those who have denied them for so long should face trial. If the election on March 19th can not be judged to be fair, then the West should make it clear to Mr. Lukashenka that his fate may yet take him not just to trial in Miensk, b

Fifty Three

Fifty three years ago, on March 5th 1953, Josif Vissarionovich Djugashvili died aged 74. He had a stroke on March 1st. However it was many hours before any aid came to him. The fear he inspired meant that no one would disturb him. Even when he was found, befouled and lying senseless on the floor, he was left to lie still longer. Eventually he was put on a chaise longue. Finally, speechless and angry, he died. The tyrant Stalin was dead. No-one knows how many people his regime butchered and tortured. Even today so many still suffer from the loss of their family members. The degradation and hopelessness of Stalinism crushed the human spirit. Alcoholism was a frequent result. Those taken to Siberia, and who yet returned after the blessed news of Stalin's death were shadows of the people who had left. Millions upon millions of people were casually left to die, or worked to death or tortured to death. Even those who survived could never forget. The destruction of generations has left a

Balance of Power

The international system is facing a period of increasing upheaval. The duopoly of power: the Soviet Union facing the West, has given way to a radically different order. Initially the emergence of a single "hyperpower" -the United States- was suggested to be "the end of history", or rather the end of ideological struggle. However, it is now clear that the United States is not as preeminent as it had seemed. The shock of September 11th revealed that critical challenges now came from outside the state system- from small and ruthless groups with a seemingly limitless appetite for death on an industrial scale. Meanwhile, the economic strength of the US has been challenged- first by China and now, increasingly, by India. As other powers emerge: Brazil and a resurgent Russia, it is clear that the old certainties are giving way to new uncertainties. In this world of more even wealth and greater competition, the position of Europe has grown ever more uncertain. Initially Eu

A leap of faith

Tony Blair thinks that his decision to go to war will be judged by God. The fact that George W. Bush also trusted to his faith makes me cringe. This messianic appeal to faith I personally find repellent. It smacks of the hypocrite - "but I say unto you that they have their reward". However, perhaps it also explains why the West is getting into such a mess. The certitudes of faith should be leavened with doubt, otherwise we might have leaders of the West who believe that their personal relationship with the divinity renders them automatically successful. Then, they might insist that they alone know what is good for their citizens- that any crime is permissible- the abolition of "inalienable rights" such as Life or Liberty, for example. The prosecution of war, irrespective of constitution or international law; the use of torture; the intrusion of the state into any aspect of life that "the war on terror" requires - all this is allowed and justified by faith.

Carpe Diem

Ming Campbell has a great opportunity to push the Liberal Democrats to centre stage. The Liberal Democrats have always stood up for the socially liberal agenda. The clarity with which we express opposition to the political might of the state is part of the very bedrock of what we do well. The commitment to international law and to the social limits of the state have been two things that have made the Liberal Democrats stand out over the past five years. The opposition to the war in Iraq and the "war on terror" has marked us out as principled and brave. The next step is to show that our Liberal Democrat vision embraces economic freedom too. The taxation pot is not limitless, and the micro-management of Gordon Brown has created enormous fiscal drag. Even were it desirable (which I strongly dispute), it is just not possible to continue to tax and spend. If Lib Dems get tax right this time- which means setting clear limits on tax rates and tax takes- then there really is a great

The Ming Dynasty

We have a new leader of the British Liberal Democrats. As I had hoped, it is Sir Menzies Campbell QC MP. Congratulations to him and his team, and congratulations to us- we have a leader who looks for more like a Prime Minister than the shallow Mr. Cameron or the volcanic Mr. Brown (if it is to be him as the next Labour leader). As for the Conservatives, faced with Ming, a bloke who has fought his whole political career based on principle and substance, they are shrilly screaming “too old”. Oh really? It couldn’t be, could it, that they are a bit nervous? Cameron is straight out of the Blair school of shiny, shallow politics- and the game is moving on. When faced with Blair and Cameron, it is quite hard to spot the evil twin. Both like illegal war, authoritarian policies and the government telling you what to do. Tories: you could have been principled too (although admittedly most people don’t like your principles either) but you have ended up with a guy from the pages of Tatler, when y

On the eve

The result of the Lib Dem leadership election will finally be declared tomorrow. Cicero has supported Ming Campbell from the off, and I believe that he will come home tomorrow as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats. The party can then start to deal with some of the live issues of the day. One of these is not the report on childhood obesity. Was I alone in thinking that a report written by The National Audit Office, the Healthcare Commission and the Audit Commission was in fact a prime example of a far more serious problem: government obesity. Scientific opinion is divided as to what the current trends in childhood obesity actually are, and even more divided as to what the effects might be. Another, state funded, report will provide more publicly funded jobs in order to "tackle" this problem. It will however not actually tackle the problem at all, but it will give the illusion of activity and cost a fair chunk of taxpayers money. However, one issue that is becoming of crit