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Showing posts from March, 2009

"First as Tragedy, then as Farce"

"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce" Karl Marx Russia scares people. It is big and aggressive. It has a history of the blackest tyranny. It is the largest state on the planet, stretching across eleven time zones from the Baltic Sea to the Bering straits. It has a massive army which is armed to the teeth, including the largest nuclear arsenal of any country. It has repeatedly invaded its neighbours. It possesses the largest mineral reserves including the largest gold reserves, and amongst the largest oil and gas reserves on the planet. Until August it possessed the third largest foreign exchange reserves, second only to China and Taiwan. It is also a state which expresses a grievance. In the face of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and then the Soviet Union itself, the Russian leadership has become truculent- In 2005 Vladmir Putin has dec

Jacqui Smith: no ifs, no buts.

In the twenty years since I graduated from University I have travelled greatly. I have stayed in many different hotels all around the world. If once I had ever submitted an expense form with a claim for a porn film I would have been dismissed for gross misconduct immediately. The Right Honourable Mrs. Jacqui Smith MP has claimed for two films : one apparently called Raw Meat 3 , the other By Special Request. She has blamed her husband. I don't see how that works: it was not her husband who submitted the expenses claim, it was she herself. This comes on top of the fact that Mrs. Smith has claimed £157,631 in expenses including £22,948 in "Second Home allowance" while seemingly registering her sister's home in South London as her main residence. This woman is the HOME SECRETARY!!!! Gordon Brown thinks that this is just a little personal difficulty. No it isn't. She should resign forthwith. Since she won't, I will certainly be looking forward to the eviction not

Belarusian Freedom begins to stir

Belarus is usually described as the last bastion of tyranny in Europe. It continues to be a weird post-Soviet throwback, under its dictatorial leader, Aleksander Lukashenka. It officially uses the same flag and symbols as it used under the USSR, with only the hammer and sickle removed. Indeed the security service of this state of 10 million is still known as the KGB and it uses the same brutal methods as its Soviet namesake. Yet the situation in Belarus is not static. Although the dictatorship is certainly extremely repressive, the fact is that it is also somewhat erratic and now the regime has permitted a demonstration to commemorate the 91st anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian National Republic which was forcibly dispersed by Lenin's troops a year or so later. The BNR is looked to by the opposition in Miensk as an alternative to the Lukashenka state and the display of the White-Red-White flag of that time is a clear sign of protest. Thus the prominent display of th

The City and the Poet

Tomas Venclova is a poet and was a dissident. Some would say that he was still a dissident, in that he continues to speak uncomfortable truths to his fellow countrymen in Lithuania. He was expelled from the Soviet Union and deprived of his citizenship in 1977 for daring to challenge the illegal occupation of Lithuania by Stalin and for being part of the steering committee of the Lithuanian Helsinki monitoring group. The Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Final act during the period of detente with the West and in it they made explicit promises to respect human rights. Yet although the USSR had theoretical legal protections, the fact is that Communism is not a system of laws and in any event the Politburo has no intention of reducing the oppressive measures that they used to keep their unwilling populace in subjugation. So it was that the man now widely recognised as the greatest living Lithuanian poet was forced to come to the West almost thirty years ago. Yet Venclova is not just a L

Life as a Talking Head

From time to time I appear on various television programmes being interviewed about Central and Eastern European business issues. Usually it is Bloomberg TV, sometimes CNBC or CNN or, as today, on the BBC. Being a "talking head" is a rather odd existence. Usually you only have about three minutes to try to convey often very complicated issues to a journalist who may still be struggling to understand how to pronounce people's names, never mind understand how they fit into the bigger picture. It is something of an art and rather tricky to maintain fluency when it is important to be as clear as possible. Nevertheless I quite enjoy the challenge. In fact I appear regularly enough to have started to play little games. One is to incorporate an unlikely word suggested by someone else into the interview. I think my favourite was "crepuscular", although this morning I also managed "precipitation" - some harmless fun and it brightens my approach to what even I w

The real threat of Fascism

A couple of days ago I re-posted a list of reasons why David Morton says he is a Liberal Democrat. I thought it a gently humorous list and thought others would get the joke. At some point I will post my own list, but I liked the general thrust of David's comments. To my surprise it evoked a series of furious responses from one Neil Craig- see comments under the relevant post. Usually when people throw around words like "Fascist" and Nazi" they tend to be foam flecked lunatics who typically post anonymously. Most often I would tend to delete these posts, since they are unpleasant for me and my readers and quite often libellous. Neil posted under his own name and left an e-mail, and yet his comments were the epitome of bilious rage. It is almost always the case that when people accuse you of being a Nazi or some other thing that you clearly are not, they either don't understand the argument or they have already lost it. Given the massive errors in fact that Neil C

Freedom up in Smoke?

I am not a complete Libertarian, though I have a lot of sympathy for those that are. I think it is interesting that some Libertarians are trying to claim the name "Liberal" for their ideology, and I have sometimes observed that Libertarianism and Liberalism have a fair deal in common. I think where the two positions differ most fundamentally is over the role of the state. Liberalism does not automatically regard the state as a negative force. There are some limited areas, generally concerned with natural monopolies where Liberals believe that the state is an unavoidable presence and even a positive force, although we remain ideologically totally opposed to the presence of the public sector in wide areas. Yet Libertarians are ideologically "minarchist" to a level that Liberals consider impractical even were it totally desirable. The position of most Libertarians is, to a Liberal eye, simply too extreme to be practical. To that end, I have sometimes thought of the Lib

Why am I a Liberal Democrat?

I saw this comment from David Morton on Lib Dem Voice about why he was a Liberal Democrat: I found it hard to disagree- especially about beer... David Morton Says: 19 th March 2009 at 11:26 am 1. Because if push comes to shove I’d choose Liberty over Equality (even though the preamble says otherwise !) 2. Because if we don’t re-order society on Gaian principles then the Biosphere will defend its self and we’ll go extinct. 3. Because the price of Liberty is eternal vigilance and we need at least one party that be relied upon to do the Philadelphia lawyer stuff, however unpopular. 4. Because while an Anglosphere would have been better, we buggered up the 1770’s and the EU is now our best bet of protecting liberty, Equality and Fraternity in a globalized world with a rising China. No other party will make that case as well or as consistently 5. Because Labour and Conservatism are both theories of the distribution of money and as such are two sides of the same copper coin 6. Because L

Sloppy thinking in Bruges

Last night I went to a meeting of the Bruges Group at the Foreign Press Association which is housed in Gladstone's old house in Carlton House Gardens. In the very room where the Grand Old Man once conducted occasional cabinet meetings, Professor Tim Congdon and John Redwood were scheduled to speak on the place of the Euro in the current economic crisis. Well, except they did no such thing. All Tim Congdon did was point out that different countries in the Euro zone have different interest rates from Germany and that the UK was very lucky not to be involved. As to actual thought or justification for this "luck", well none came. John Redwood, hotfoot from the House of Commons, was next up and made a competent attack on the polices of the current government, with which it was impossible to disagree. Yet on the subject of the Euro- the supposed theme of the evening- he said virtually nothing except that, again, we were very "lucky" not to be in the system. Naturally

The urgent need to simplify tax or why off-shore havens still exist

Britain has one of the most complicated tax codes in the world. Though not as truly terrifying as the Mobius curve of the American regulations, the complicated exemptions and overlapping liabilities make even filling out a personal tax return a daunting process. For corporate tax liabilities, it usually requires a PLC an entire department to establish what liabilities might be. It is not just the complication of the system, it is also the high price. According to the OECD in 2006 Britain ranked ninth in the industrial world in terms of the size of overall tax burden, taking 37.4% of GDP in tax. Germany, Canada, Switzerland and the USA all take substantially less. Only the very high tax economies mainly of Scandinavia together with France and Italy take more. As Colbert once wrote, "the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing". Yet one reason why there is not so muc

Reflections on Perth

Spending a couple of days in Perth was a real pleasure, and I sense that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are in the best shape that I have seen them for years: just as well since in 2009 we have a tough fight to keep a Scottish Liberal Democrat MEP , in 2010 the British general election will take place and in 2011 the next Scottish Parliamentary elections will also provide some interesting fights. Tavish Scott has certainly steadied the ship , and I was impressed also with the way that Jeremy Purvis - who I must admit I did not know before his election- has emerged as a solid, rather owlish, figure in the financial brief. The star of the conference, though, was clearly Vince Cable. His own address to the conference- an unscripted and extremely thoughtful tour d'horizon of the current state of the British economy and British politics- was exceptional. In the face of the inadequacies of Darling and Osborne it is perfectly clear how far ahead Cable is of the competition. As one who

Further dispatches from Perth

The Scottish Liberal Democrats conference continues over the weekend, though unfortunately I will have to leave after lunch today: barely halfway through the gathering. It means, that despite seeing so many of my very old friends, inevitably I will miss several- and of course the most convivial gathering, in the shape of the conference dinner. As I get ready to leave, I reflect upon the current state of party politics. Relative to our immediate past, I find the Scottish Liberal Democrats in very rude health, yet I reflect that all political parties are simply shadows of what they once were. The network of Liberal clubs, Conservative clubs and Working Men's clubs which provided a social reinforcement to political activism are now long gone- transmuted into just another way to consume alcohol. The physical infrastructure of committee rooms, libraries and so on that the Victorian philanthropists bequeathed, are also now much diminished. Politics, as a mass social activity, appears to

The Fair City.. Continued

Well after the disappointing Smoking result, the rest of the Scottish Lib Dem conference looks to be much more plain sailing. I spoke in the economy debate, but although my "confessions of a banker" shtick got plenty of laughs, a four minute slot is just not enough to explain the value of the Estonian model of Liberalism- so I didn't try. I just laid into the unholy Tory-SNP axis of incompetence that exists in Scotland. The hypocrisy of the Unionists in a strong though unofficial alliance with the Independentistas escapes few it seems. Meanwhile the defeat of Labour is Scotland looms ever larger- and few can predict what that will mean for the political landscape, not only of Scotland, but the UK as a whole. My peroration on the urgent need of Scottish and British and, where relevant, European tiers to co-ordinate was received with the warmth that only a Lib Dem conference would give it I think. Always a pleasure to see so many old friends, though it is kind of interestin

The Fair City

I came up last night to the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference in Perth. The atmosphere is convivial, the weather spring-like, and it is good to see so many old friends. Mind you there is something about smoking that brings out the illiberal, even in the most liberal of Liberals. Of course smoking is bad and of course kids should be protected from smoking until they are old enough to make their own choices. However the motion before the conference was to ban cigarette vending machines- a similar policy has already been proposed by the SNP . I don't like it. Smoking where it does no harm to others is not illegal. Personally I am pretty libertarian about most vices: everyone is entitled to go to the devil in their own way. However too many doctors get to see over and over again the evils of smoking, and there is no doubt that the morality of the tobacco companies has often been extremely questionable. The result is some pretty strong emotions about the whole issue of smoking. The

Ryanair: The World's least favourite Airline

I am delayed at Stansted for six hours thanks to Ryanair's latest scam. I have a ticket for today's 8.30 flight to Shannon. I checked in online yesterday. When I got to the gate I was denied boarding- because, although my name was on the boarding pass, I had not entered my ID number into their system. So, even though Ryanair issued a boarding pass without information they consider to be vital, I have therefore had to spend £210 to buy another ticket so that I can fly at 14.40. Given Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary's hard ball business policies, it seems to me quite clear that this is an obvious fraud. Since the system allowed me to print a boarding pass without entering my ID Card or Passport details, it is quite clear that Ryanair have entered into a contract with me to fly me to Shannon. When I fly with other airlines I do not have to enter such details- I just give my booking reference- or show my credit card- and then show whatever ID I have. It is a matter of company p

You know when you've been...slimed

A pot of green slime was being scooped up tonight after it was covered in Peter Mandelson. A spokesman for the slime said that, although naturally shaken by being forced to come into contact with something so unpleasant, the slime was determined to return to normal as quickly as possible. "It all happened so quickly" said the slime, 55. "One minute I was gently fermenting and bubbling methane, the next I was having to deal with the unpleasant aftershave of the notorious Mandelson. I mean, it's not as if you know where he has been- it could have been very dangerous". The Spokesman added that despite its unsightly appearance, the Mandelson had been tested and found to have been only slightly toxic. "At no time was the slime in genuine danger, however unsightly the Mandelson might have been". The slime was praised by a blue-green algae "It is astonishing how calm the slime has been, when you consider that the Mandelson could have been anywhere, and t

Crew Cut Clegg makes his case

Speeches at political conferences often fall flat, and the irritating hullabaloo that usually surrounds the speech of a party leader on these occasions usually makes me feel somehow cheated. Who really cares if there were eight standing ovations from a party for its leader, or even twelve? It always strikes me as false anyway. I remember Paddy Ashdown coming off stage at a rally which had ended with fireworks and balloons and much razzmatazz and wryly muttering that it only needed elephants to make it into a circus. Yet sometimes a leader's speech can indeed be significant. David Cameron's speech in the Autumn of 2007 that made Gordon Brown recalculate his electoral prospects- a recalculation that seems to have acquired terminal significance after Brown was dubbed a "bottler", for example. Strangely, although much more low key, Nick Clegg may have done something similar over the weekend. It was not just Clegg's new hairstyle, a much more distinctive crew cut, th

Don't call us, Gordon

Vernon Bogdanor suggests in today's Times that Gordon Brown, if he is to avoid a "new Conservative century" should now reopen the discussions with the Liberal Democrats that were terminated after Tony Blair decided to ignore the Jenkins Commission . Bogdanor, who was David Cameron's tutor at Oxford, argues that the recession, although underlining the validity of Social Democratic ideology is in fact undermining Labour, the Social Democratic Party. Bogdanor's solution is to "reunite the left" and that the Prime Minister should talk to the Liberal Democrats. Well sorry Vernon, the Liberal Democrats won't get fooled again. The Labour Party has had nearly twelve years in office. During that time they have presided over a period of substantial erosion of our civil liberties. They have conducted an illegal war, they have failed to understand that the boom was not "an end to boom and bust", but rather the prelude to the biggest bust any of us has

The Special Relationship

Well, Mr.Brown is off to see President Obama, perhaps the most glamorous politician in the world. There will doubtless be much talk of "The Special Relationship" between the United Kingdom and the United States. There will be no end of smugness at Number 10 that Gordon Brown, rather than Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy, was the first across the threshold of the Obama Oval Office. It seems then perhaps churlish to ask what precisely is the benefit that Britain receives from this Special Relationship with the hyper-power? To do so is question the very basis of current British foreign policy. Macmillan, whose premiership matched that of Tony Blair for gesture and rhetoric, once suggested that Britain was wise old Greece to America's warlike Rome. The Americans had a clearer view, as Dean Acheson , Trueman's Secretary of State famously once said: "Great Britain has lost an Empire and still not found a role". It is still true today. Talking to Ministers in sever

10 Famous... Croats

Someone reminded me the other day that I had not done a 10 Famous... Croatians. Rather a surprise, since Croatia is a place where I have many friends and also a place which I have visited probably more often than anywhere in Europe, apart from the Baltic and Poland. Apart from being a spectacularly beautiful country it is also home to 4 million of the most individualistic and passionate people in Europe. The near fanaticism with which they view the sporting world means that I could simply make a list of sportsmen and women and many Croats would probably consider that would be enough! The country of Zvonimir Boban, Goran Ivanisevic, of Cibona for basketball or Hajduk or Dynamo for football certainly provides plenty of sporting heroes. The European Union is certainly going to be a more interesting and probably more fun place with the accession of Croatia, which will hopefully take place within the next couple of years. In the end though, after careful thought, I have with difficulty narr