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Showing posts from March, 2010

Not a good name...

I don't know why, but the tragedy of the Catholic church sex scandals was leavened for me this morning when I happened to notice the by-line of the reporter who has been dispatched to cover the scandal of sexual abuse in the Vienna Boys choir... I am told that Roger Boyes is a very distinguished man. Unfortunately I have been unable to suppress a fit of the giggles.

Barely worth a mention...

..but the RAF has reported 20 recent Russian incursions into British Airspace . As I have mentioned previously, several well known British politicians in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have lucrative board positions of companies which are either Russian controlled or which have significant business interests in Russia. A former KGB officer ("former"?- "once a Chekist, always a Chekist"- Vladimir V. Putin), Aleksander Lebedev is now the owner of a significant part of the British newspaper industry. Strangely muted comments from journalists on this takeover... I wonder why?

The Taken

Last night Freedom Square here in Tallinn was covered in candles to commemorate those who were taken away from Estonia in the March deportation of 1949. By that time there had already been a huge death toll and mass exile and forced emigration. Half of Tallinn was still in ruins following the bombing of the city by the advancing Soviet army in 1944. The leaders of the pre-war republic were in gaol or dead- not just the politicians, but civil servants, priests, teachers, in fact any one with a position of any kind of authority. Then came 1949. The MGB (the predecessor to the KGB) called it Operation Priboi and they swooped on all three Baltic countries in the few days leading up to March 25th. The rounded up their targets- mostly entirely innocent people, with over three quarters being women and children together with many older people, and packed them into cattle trucks and sent them to the remotest corners of Siberia. Those who survived to return many years later were changed beyond

Russia begins to rattle

I have not been confident of the stability of Russia since the economic crisis broke with full force two years ago. The fact is that Putin has taken a leaf out of Russian history, by centralising power and then decreeing a policy of modernisation- little understanding that the twenty-first century version of modernisation demands decentralisation and flexibility. If Putin is no Stalin or Ivan the Terrible, neither is he the more enlightened despot he would prefer to model himself upon: Peter the Great. The Russian Federation is so vast that its scale has historically terrified its leaders- repeatedly they have insisted that this territory traversing eleven time zones must nonetheless -quite literally- unwaveringly keep Moscow time. The slightest dissent has been taken as meaning that the huge space would fall into pieces. There is no confidence. The irony is that from the outside, Russia appears so powerful, aggressive and threatening. Nevertheless, as I have written several times in

Vince Cable for Chancellor

A few months ago, I heard Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, when asked which party he supported say: "I support the Vince Cable for Chancellor Party". The interviewer took it as a bit of a joke- after all there was no such party, was there? This morning I see in the Independent on Sunday that John Rentoul is suggesting that a lot of voters would like to see Vince Cable as the Chancellor , but he suggests that in order for the voters to get what they want, they should vote Labour. Oh really? I thought that was the Alistair Darling for Chancellor Party. There is indeed a Vince Cable for Chancellor Party- and it is most assuredly not Labour. More and more people are realising that the Liberal Democrats ARE the Vince Cable for Chancellor Party, and if they actually want the most qualified guy to head the British Finance Ministry, then they should vote for the Liberal Democrats to get him. You know- I think that Ian Hislop knows this too, even if his interviewer did not.

The Liberal Democrats march to the sound of gunfire

As the phony election campaign drags on -and on- a huge number of new pollsters from around the world are descending like flies onto the carcass of the 54th Parliament of the United Kingdom. Polls are being published on a daily interval. Like many things these days it seems to be a case of a lot of data but very little information. We still don't feel that we have a very strong sense of what the result of the vote is going to be. Mostly, this is a function of the way the current electoral system warps the result, so that topping the popular vote does not necessarily mean having the largest number of MPs. Nevertheless the polls are becoming consistent in a few features: Labour is behind- sometimes, it appears, substantially behind- the Conservatives. The Tories are consistently polling at above a third of the electorate, while the Labour Party consistently polls below this, and sometimes not much more than a quarter of the vote. Indeed the pattern is so consistent for so long, it is

Calling Time for Parliament

OK, now this ridiculous farce about the timing of the general election in the UK has gone on long enough. Why on earth should the incumbent Prime Minister have the power to call a general election at any time, up to the date of the final expiry of the Parliament? It is just another piece of the Royal prerogative that has long outlived its usefulness. It is blatantly unfair that an incumbent government should be allowed to decide for itself when its mandate needs renewing, with all the advantage in planning and party expenditure that this allows. The first sign of a government that is serious about reforming Parliament would be to set fixed expiration dates for each Parliament. At present, the date is movable up to five years after the previous election. In my view, it should be a fixed date every four years. That would allow all those involved in the electoral process to plan their lives, and remove the potential for abuse that currently exists. Of course, if a hung Parliament does e

Trading Down

The latest UK trade numbers are little short of disastrous. Despite the fastest and largest depreciation of Sterling in history, British exports in January fell by roughly £1.6 billion: a near 7% fall. The monthly trade gap between the value of our exports versus the value of our imports is now just shy of £8 billion. Exports in January were therefore just below £20 billion, with imports topping £27 billion. Oops. This should not be happening. Britain has deliberately chosen to devalue its currency in the international markets "in order to maintain competitiveness", which is to say to allow us to avoid making the unpleasant decisions that would actually maintain competitiveness. The spectacular failure that these latest trade numbers represent shows that the policy of the weak Pound is not working. Getting the UK out of this mess just gets harder. It is not the prospect of a hung parliament that is spooking the currency markets, it is the fact that neither Labour nor the Con

Stands Scotland where it did?

Returning to the snows of Tallinn I have been reflecting on the state of Scotland. Spending time in Perth has been a slightly sobering experience- and not just because I have given up drink for Lent. Perth is one of Scotland's wealthiest towns. It has a rich history and a fine number of interesting and ancient buildings. Attractively situated on the banks of the river Tay, its architecture is almost a visual representation of the Scottish virtues of strength, solidity and planning for the longer term. The wonderful Victorian railway station- stone built- was once a place where you could get to the rest of the country in speedy comfort. The public buildings of the Victorian age reflect a civic pride and a confidence in the future. Looking from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, I detect little of that confidence. The rail infrastructure is slow and decrepit- with even a fast train to Edinburgh taking twice the time of the 50 minute car journey. Once a great trading a

Perth: the Fairer City

Day two of the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference has been a textbook display of the virtues of Liberalism. A good and positive speech from Tavish Scott - the Scottish Leader- was certainly very well received, and there is indeed much to be optimistic about. The SNP proposals to reduce the power of local councils in Scotland seems to underline why the Liberal approach towards the Scottish devolution settlement is so much more grown up than the infantilism of the Nationalists. It is ridiculous to oppose a state centralised on London and then propose a state centralised on Edinburgh. The Scottish people grow tired of Alex Salmond's bombastic posturing. Yet the Conservatives remain totally irrelevant in Scotland , and the rage against Labour grows sharper. Listening to Fred Mackintosh- the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate in Edinburgh South- I feel more convinced than ever that the party will not only hold the seats we have, but make gains as well. Speaking to local people in Pe

Back in the Fair City

At the last minute, I was able to get a connection to Edinburgh so that I could attend the Scottish Liberal Democrats conference in Perth. As always it is a pleasure to see so many old friends. However, this year it is sad to note the absence of Roy Thomson. For more conferences than I can remember, Roy and I have met up- usually at an internationally themed fringe event, and then gone on the put the world to rights over a meal. Roy represented that stolid decency that is the hallmark of the Scottish Liberals and of the North East of Scotland. Roy did so much to promote and improve his home city of Aberdeen, it is difficult to know where to start. A gentle and thoughtful man, he was also a determined and doughty fighter for the causes that he believed in. I find, as I write this, that I am lapsing into cliche, but Roy truly was one of a kind. I think I am not the only one looking over their shoulder and expecting to see him. As for the conference, I think Roy would be pleased to see N

A Matter of Trust

Several months ago I wrote a series of articles about the dangers that Michael Ashcroft posed to the Conservative Party. I was not alone. The problem of a man who did not pay taxes in the UK nevertheless being nominated to be a member of the British Parliament as a result of his being a major financial supporter of the Conservative Party has always been a spit in the eye of British democracy. That the Conservatives now claim not to have known until very recently that Mr. Ashcroft has retained his non-dom tax status stretches all credulity. William Hague is either a fool or a liar. He should have known what Mr. Ashcroft's status was or was going to be as a pre-condition to his being granted a peerage. That a peerage had previously been refused simply underlines that care that the Tories should have taken on this issue. So what does it matter? Surely this is just another storm in a Westminster teacup? In fact the Conservative embrace of Michael Ashcroft demonstrates why there has b

What's the big idea?

The Blair decade was supposed to see the end of ideology in British politics. Socialism was dead, and what mattered was what works: managerialism pure and simple. The electorate was invited to choose the party that looked like the most credible management for the country. After all, the cold war - and even the economic cycle of boom and bust- was over and therefore it was simply a question of administration. As we approach the 2010 election, the Conservatives too seem to be approaching the electorate with the same message: "after the disaster of Brown, you need to change to better managers of the country". However, the Tories beyond articulating a nebulous message for "change", have deliberately avoided putting a coherent set of ideas- an ideology- before the British people. David Cameron bitterly resists any labelling of "Cameron-ism". In that sense he truly has been the heir to Blair, who also resisted such labelling, and indeed in office governed with

Taking a Pounding

I have been writing for some time about the threat to the stability of Sterling from uncertainty and from the intellectual holes at the heart of the policies of both Labour and the Conservatives. While I spent much of the day in various aeroplanes, the currency markets did indeed take a sharp kick against the Pound. This is partly a reaction to the growing uncertainty about the election result. It is also a reaction to the glaring intellectual holes at the heart of the policies of both Labour and the Conservatives. The Markets are deeply unhappy with the two different voices emerging amongst the Conservatives, with neither demonstrating a real understanding of the current economic situation. Now that UK government debt is trading at spreads which already imply that the country has lost its AAA, it is not a surprise to see the currency growing weaker. I expect there will be some volatility this week, while the market wrestles with the real level of risk, however there is little chance

No Notes but Nothing to Say

Across the media, David Cameron's speech is examined with all the attention due to the chicken entrails in the auguries of ancient Rome. But in the end I think that the chicken entrails probably carry more meaning than the endless trail of meaningless banalities that Mr. Cameron put forward. "Vote for change" means nothing if we do not know what will be changed and what will be kept the same. I know that politicians are afraid that if they put forward detailed proposals they will have to face tough questions, but it is not much of a change if they show such cowardice. The reality is that we face difficult times and it is not enough to admit that we face "touch choices" if you are not tough enough to phrase what those choices actually are. David Cameron increasingly faces an image problem: that he is all public relations spin and no substance. The speech did not address this. Lots of emotive vocabulary: no concrete proposals. Indeed virtually no proposals at all.