Thursday, 30 November 2006

How Britain can be a true friend of the United States

Lurking under a headline worthy of The Times’s new tabloid format is a damning indictment of Tony Blair’s failure to manage Britain’s relationship with America. According to Dr. Kendall Mayers, a UK specialist at the State Department, Blair’s relationship with George Bush has been “a one sided relationship that was entered into with open eyes… there was nothing. There was no payback, no sense of reciprocity”.

Herein lies the root of much of the failure of Western policy in the Middle East. I have been and remain a staunch defender of the Atlantic Alliance and Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States. I am unashamed to call myself an friend of America. Yet the current Administration has treated the British Government with utter contempt. While I do not doubt the sincerity of Labour ministers when they say that they have always made strong representations to the American Government in private, it is clear that these have been brushed aside in a na├»ve display of hubris.

The catalogue of missed opportunities is long. Between 9/11 and the Iraq War, Britain pressed the US to take a holistic approach to the Middle East; no settlement could be achieved if the Israel/Palestine tragedy was not resolved. Yet the Bush administration has steered clear of this knottiest of problems, leaving it as a festering wound enraging Muslim opinion.

Only a few days ago Jeremy Greenstock, formerly Britain’s chief diplomat in Iraq, reiterated the claim that Britain urged the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority not to disband the Iraqi army. The Americans ignored this advice, sacked three hundred thousand of troops and started aggressively de-Baathifying the country. The newly jobless and disaffected quickly mounted an insurgency that only later took on an Islamist dimension.

The UK has repeatedly urged the US to close the Al Queda recruiting office at Guantanamo Bay. And the US ignored Britain’s suggestion that they engage with Iran in 2004; two years later we will go to Tehran cap-in-hand.

This is a tragedy. When asked on his death-bed what his greatest mistake was, President Eisenhower famously stated that he should have supported Britain over the Suez War. Despite the illegality of this conflict, the Anglo-French debacle gave a fillip to Arab nationalism that led directly to the Baathist takeover in Iraq and so to this second, equally ill-starred conflict. I do not tell this story to justify either that war on this one. Rather, I wonder whether President Bush will also one day come to rue ignoring British advice and treating his closest ally as a client state.

Having said all this, I do not share Dr. Mayers pessimism that the “special relationship” is doomed. However, a re-evaluation is due. Both Britain and America must learn that friends and allies serve one another best when being honest and tough with one another. There are many truths that friends do not wish to hear, but a real friend does not sit quietly by and bury his fears because he does not want to upset his friend with an uncomfortable truth. Rather, he tells it how he sees it, sticks to his guns (or ploughshares) and challenges his friend to prove his fears ungrounded. This is not what the Blair government has done, nor what the Bush administration has encouraged. But this is what the future must entail.

Britain must be a true friend to the United States. To be this, we must be a friend that says the truth.

Letter to the Times

In today's Times, Anatole Kaletsky writes Anarchy or tyranny? I choose tyranny. His argument is that rather than political stability resulting from economic success, the reverse is true. While his assessment is correct, his recommendation is surprisingly flawed for the Principal Economic Commentator of a leading newspaper.

In response, I have written the following letter to the Editor.


Anatole Kaletsky makes an elementary error in choosing tyranny over anarchy (Anarchy or tyranny? I choose tyranny, 30 Nov). While he is correct to suggest that economic benefits require social and political stability, this is because the exercise of basic economic freedoms rely upon the rule of law to make outcomes predictable. The rule of law, however, is as opposed to tyranny as it is to anarchy: to talk of "The tyranny of the law" is an oxymoron.

There is an alternative to the two poles that Mr. Kaletsky juxtaposes, one that epitomises both the rule of law and the freedom of the individual. It has been the basis of both the social stability and the economic success of the United Kingdom for over three centuries. In therefore reject the choices Mr. Kaletsky offers. I choose liberty!

Thomas Papworth

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Labour Party’s centralising tendency comes home to roost

Neil Woollcott has posted an article about a Labour Party proposal that its councillors contribute towards paying off part of its massive £23.4m debt. According to Woollcott, the media are “causing a big stir” about this and he expects Liberal Democrat bloggers to do the same.

Before we all jump onto our high horses about his, I think we should bear in mind that it is largely an internal Labour Party matter. If they want to ask their Councillors to contribute to a fund, it is up to them. If they want to oblige those holding the Labour whip to do so, that is a decision for them, and potential councillors and voters can judge them accordingly.

In my experience, those who run for office and especially those who hold public office tend already to be very generous with their time and their money - both to the local community and to their party.

What is sad about this proposal is that it is a typical example of cack-handed Labour Party centralisation that will probably cause more harm than good. For one thing, those who currently give generously may now limit themselves to donating only the prescribed amount. Perhaps more importantly, how those funds are used will be decided by Labour Party central office staff rather than by the individuals themselves.

This should be no surprise; Labour is a party that is committed to centralisation and does not trust individuals - even individual members, it seems - to dispose of resources as they see fit. It is, however, sad that local members’ generosity is to be replaced by a system that smacks of the very centralised tax-and-spend approach that has proved so ineffective in Government. Fortunately, this time it can only harm the Labour Party and not the country.

Electoral Commission report on donations and loans to political parties casts a shadow over Labour and the Conservatives

The latest figures from the Electoral Commission on the loans and donations received by Britain's political parties provide fascinating reading. Sadly, reporting on them has been less enlightening.

Indeed, there is something rather disingenuous about the BBC’s claim that “the main political parties owe a total of £60m in loans”.

£58.7m of this is owed by just two parties, The Conservatives and Labour.

As Labour admits struggling to pay its loans, it’s claim that “political parties should live within their means” sounds hollow. Labour has been living well beyond its means for some time, with the 2005 general election a lesson in how to finance the present by borrowing from the future. While it may be an exaggeration to suggest that it would not have won the 2005 election without the tens of millions of pounds of debt it ran up, it is undoubtedly true that its majority would have been far more precarious had it not chosen to mortgage its future in an effort to win a third term.

The issue of loans raises serious questions about the credibility of the financial arrangements of political parties. The Conservatives appear not to have declared loans on the grounds that they were made “on commercial terms” despite those loans being at preferential rates, below bank lending rates. The Labour party’s “cash-for-honours” scandal continues to cast the shadow of sleaze over the Government. By comparison, the Liberal Democrat’s outstanding loans could be cleared by a £15 donation by each member; it is unlikely that Cowley Street will be on the market in the near future.

Conservatives: £35.3m
Labour: £23.4m
Lib Dems: £1.1m
SNP: £525, 393
Plaid Cymru: £352,000
Respect: £34, 878
UKIP: £19,200

Source: BBC Online

Meanwhile, donations to the major parties seem to eerily reflect the parliamentary landscape, with the Labour Party receiving slightly more than the Conservatives while the Lib Dems received approximately a fifth as much as Labour. On the other hand, a couple of the minor parties have received significant donations that belie both their small size and their supposedly-socialist roots. Both the Green Party and the Co-Operative Party have received large donations that should help them pursue their radical socialist agendas.

Conservatives: £2,867,019
Labour: £3,227,340
Lib Dems: £629,903
SNP: £52,430
Plaid: £12,250
Co-operative Party: £142,036
Ukip: £17,913
Green Party: £138,396
Scottish Greens: £31,373

Source: BBC Online

The myth of the postcode lottery belies the awful truth

Last night on Channel 4, John Snow presented a Dispatches on Britain’s Healthcare Lottery. According to Snow, healthcare is applied differently in different regions and as such a “postcode lottery” applies across the UK. He cited a gentleman in Wales who was not able to get treatment that was available to English patients across the border, and an arthritis sufferer who was denied treatment that was available to a women with a similar condition only a few miles away.

This concept of the postcode lottery is a fallacy. While there is no doubt that different Strategic Health Authorities and even NHS Trusts have different priorities, this is not a lottery. A lottery, were it to apply, would at least be fair, for the totally arbitrariness and randomness of such a system would mean that every patient had an equal chance of “winning” treatment, irrespective of other factors.

What we have instead is a postcode auction, with houses near good public services worth significantly more than houses where provision is poorer. I well remember an evening walk in Muswell Hill, when a friend pointed out that the houses on one side of the road were worth £100,000 more than those on the other side, because one side of the house was in the catchment area for a highly rated state school whereas the neighbouring school was far less well regarded.

This is a disgrace that points to the heart of the current Government’s public services failure. What both John Snow and the Labour Government seem not to understand is that differences in provision are unavoidable: schools and hospitals will always vary in quality – uniformity is a pipe-dream – and there will always have to be differing priorities in different areas. As long as citizens are parcelled up by district and told which health provider or which schools they may access, house prices will reflect the quality of public services and the rich will be able to access better services than the poor.

Where schools are concerned, this is probably one of the main reasons why social mobility has fallen in recent years; where once bright children from poor backgrounds could access good schools, they are now stuck with whatever school their parents can afford to live near. Thus poor people are obliged to send bright children to underperforming schools.

It is time decisions about services were taken away from bureaucrats and handed to citizens. Rather than public services being allocated by postcode, they should be selected by the user. The Government’s “choice” agenda is a nod to this, but it does not go nearly far enough. The Government should get out of direct provision of services. Education should be provided by a voucher scheme that allows poor parents to buy their way into good schools: as the money follows the pupils and the pupils follow success, failing institutions will be replaced by successful rivals and the overall quality of education will improve. This already happens in havens of Social Democracy such as Sweden.

As regards healthcare, Government should use the tax system to fund individual health insurance for every citizen, rather than try to provide health through a state monopoly. Thus patients would be able to access, through their insurance providers, whatever treatment they required, rather than being at the mercy of state planners who have decided that in a certain region a certain treatment does not meet the bureaucratic requirements.

The tired old phrase about “a postcode lottery” is a myth that belies the truth: a postcode auction that enables rich people to buy access – through higher house prices – to the best public services. This travesty is the inevitable outcome of state planning. It is time to move to a system for providing essential services that is truly fair. Power over their own health and over their children’s education must be returned to the people.

Monday, 27 November 2006

Liberal Polemic in the news

On Wednesday I reported that Peter Riddell had published a piece in The Times about the Number 10 petitions site in which he noted that "As one blogger has pointed out, there is no chance to say whether you disagree, apart from creating a rival petition."

I suggested that this might be a reference to my article on the subject. I wrote to Mr. Riddell to ask him whether my suspicion was correct and on Friday he wrote back to confirm that it had indeed been my article to which he was referring.

Mr. Riddell remains very interested in how the Number 10 petitions site will develop so keep watching his articles in The Times for more information.

Six degrees of Kevin Bacon but just two removes from Iain Dale

Blogophiles will know already that Iain Dale, the doyen of the politicosphere, recently declared the “Top Ten Things I Would Never Do...” In so doing he also “start[ed] a Blog Meme” in which he invited fellow bloggers to follow suit and to further the chain.

Nich Starling and Guthrum tagged Duncan Borrowman and Duncan has in turn tagged me. Of course, mathematical law means that within three iterations a thousand people have been asked to do this, but nonetheless I feel flattered enough to comply!

I’m going to resist saying who I won’t vote for; as a card-carrying and for-office-standing member of the Liberal Democrats, it would be a waste of one of my ten. But I might be political enough to say

10. Allow loyalty to stand in the way of what I think is right.

Having said that, let’s get to the fun stuff:

9. Get anything pierced or tattooed – I’m with Iain Dale on this one!
8. Wear a sleeveless top – T-shirt? Yes. No sleeves? Not a chance!
7. Drink Southern Comfort (again!)
6. Join Friends Reunited – if we’re not united now there’s a reason.
5. Appear in the background on TV, like those people who steer themselves behind the reporter and waive or pretend to be nonchalantly wandering past.
4. Own a cat. I mean no offence, but when dogs are so loyal and friendly and (frankly) know who’s boss, why put up with a selfish, egotistical feline.
3. Stop knocking on doors – even the Prime Minster should canvass his own constituency occasionally.
2. Learn to stop bending my mates’ ears about politics (I wish I had the willpower!)
1. Put up with physical violence - even a play-punch.

And of course I reiterate Duncan Borrowman’s get-out clause with a cheeky

0. Ever say never.

In the meantime, I’ll tag the following bloggers, some but not all of whom are politicos (perhaps one of the above should have been x. have only politically-minded mates): Joe Otten, Jock Coats, Paul Evans, “Bendy” Wendy Richards, Eleanor Brown, Lynne Featherstone (may as well bring in one heavyweight, in a purely political sense of course), Stephen Tall, the author of Factchecking Pollyanna (though I imagine to little effect), Boris Johnson (how can one resist!), and Tristan if he’d leave an blooming email address.

Welfare is a product of state failure. It is time for Reform

Independent liberal think-tank Reform have today launched an excellent report on Reforming Welfare. Britain faces a ballooning welfare crisis. A shocking 5.4 million working-age Britons (14 per cent of the working age population) rely on state aid, over two thirds of them for longer than a period of a year. The UK spends £79 billion on non-pension social security: more than we spend on Education, which Labour promised would be its priority and which in the long-run is the best hope for reducing poverty and benefit-dependency in the future.

The Government is currently failing. Unemployment is falling more slowly since the New Deal has been launched. The number of people on sickness benefits has nearly quadrupled in 25 years, so that 5 per cent of men aged 25-49 are now ill or disabled. Tax credits are now paid both to the unemployed, which was never their purpose, and to those on high-incomes: a third of tax credit spending is paid to those with above average incomes. Despite a 400 per cent increase in welfare spending under Labour, the UK has the worst poverty trap in the OECD.

The state-monopoly approach has not worked. Fortunately, and perhaps at first glance surprisingly, the market offers the solution. The report notes that “paying independent agencies on results is more effective at getting people back into work than paying official agencies flat rates no matter what they do (or don’t) achieve. It has also unleashed a wave of innovation and of flexibility.” Reform offer six recommendations:

  • Abandon the state monopoly of provision – the state should put welfare out to tender and invite private and voluntary bodies to bid for the contracts
  • Job schemes should be about finding work rather than training, and the unemployed should be required to look for work if they want benefits (this includes those on Incapacity Benefit)
  • Reset the benefit levels and tapers to reduce the poverty trap that results from people seeing massive drops in benefits as they work so that they keep little or none of the extra money they earn
  • Simplify the system by merging some of the 51 benefits, 26 of which account for less than 1 per cent of spending
  • Raise the personal allowance so that somebody working full-time on the minimum wage pays no income tax (a proposal I have made several times before, most recently on 21 November)
  • Transform part of National Insurance into a form of unemployment insurance so that individuals who lose their jobs have ownership of a fund to help them during their period of unemployment.

These reforms are urgently needed. Unemployment is rising under the current Government and one in seven adults now rely on state aid. The current system squeezes ever more money out of the hard-pressed middle classes while failing to address the crushing poverty that afflicts the poorest in our society – it is those just below the “poverty line”, and not the chronically poor, that are the focus of this Government’s efforts.

Rather than continue with the state-centric solutions that have been characteristic of this Government, it is time to employ market mechanisms and the innovativeness of enterprise to address this costly and tragic disaster. This report could not come soon enough.

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Russian slide to fascism epitomised by assassination law

News from Russia is becoming increasingly bleak.

I was watching Andrew Marr on Sunday AM interviewing a friend of the late Alexander Litvinenko this morning. During that interview Marr observed that the Russian Duma had recently passed a law which effectively made it legal in Russia to order the death of dissidents abroad. If true, this is a monstrous law that should have triggered strong protest from European governments.

Russia, having shed communist tyranny only a decade ago, is now rapidly sliding towards fascism. It is not only the murders of Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya that suggest that the rule of law is rapidly being replaced by a thuggish dictatorship.

The signs that President Putin's government would return to the old ways were there early on. Indeed, his administration was ushered in on the back of the bombing of Moscow apartment blocks in a crime that was at the time blamed on Chechen separatists but which has often been linked to the FSB (the replacement of the KGB) - an accusation made by Litvinenko, among others. During the Kursk tragedy early in first term, a distraught mother of a naval hero lost in that submarine tragedy, when hectoring a podium of officials, was suddenly silenced on camera by a nurse who injected her with a serum; state doctors later said that it had been to calm her nerves.

Since then the situation in Russia has darkened. Politics has taken on a decidedly nationalistic tone, political parties have either been squeezed out or have become pawns of the Kremlin, and the Second Chechen War has killed at least tens of thousands. As international oil and gas prices have risen, and Europe has relied and will rely ever more on Russia as a source of energy, Russia's power and that of its government is rising sharply. This manifested itself recently in the crisis with Georgia. The small, Caucasian former Soviet republic detained and expelled four Russian spies. The resultant over-reaction by Moscow led inter alia to Georgian's resident in Russia being harassed by public servants and even to Georgian school children living in Russia being denied admission to their schools.

Also on Sunday AM this morning, the Financial Times's Moscow correspondent confirmed that the FSB is now effectively running Russia. This is a terrifying prospect. A rising Russian power in the hands of a security elite that views the loss of the Cold War as a temporary set-back is a serious danger to Europe and especially to what they call their "near abroad" - the former Soviet republics, some of which are now NATO and EU members. It is absolutely vital that Europe unite to deal with Russia, both to curb the threat it poses and to guide it back towards democracy and the rule of law.

Only a liberal, democratic Russia can ensure peace and security in Europe and prosperity and freedom for the Russian people. It is imperative that Europe develop a strategic approach to achieving this goal.

More nuclear nonsense from Peter Hain

Yesterday I wrote that Peter Hain was reported as having shifted from card-carrying member of CND to a supporter of Trident on the grounds that unilateralism had cost Labour votes in the past.

Today, on Sunday AM, he gave Andrew Marr a different reason for his U-turn. Rather than crass opportunism, as it appeared on Friday, he now says that "...since we are where we are, and the history of having an independent nuclear deterrent, I do not think that people in Britain will accept us giving that up." So basically, the reason for replacing Trident is because it is there. One is reminded of the World War One song "#We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here...#"

Saying that he had been a CND member in the past and "I don't apologise for that" (hardly a ringing endorsement!) he then expressed shock and irritation that Marr would suggest that Parliament should have a free vote. No vote on conscience over whether to develop the most massive of all weapons of mass destruction at a cost of tens of billions of pounds; "You couldn't expect a serious government, in charge of one of the world's global powers - Britain - making a recommendation to Parliament and just say 'you can do what you like, chaps' ."

Hain repeatedly mentioned that "this is a serious government", as though by reiterating the mantra he could give the government more credibility, but he was also clear that the Labour Party members would be whipped through the lobbies.

In fact, the Northern Ireland Secretary is wrong. There is absolutely no reason why Parliament could not vote on its conscience on this matter, except that the parties might reasonably argue that if retaining the deterrent were in the 2005 manifestos then everyone who stood on that manifesto has committed already to upholding it.

On the general principle that no serious government in charge of a global power would allow a free vote, one cannot help but note that the United States Senate and Congress are not bound to follow their Government's line. If the worlds' superpower can have a free vote on its tens of thousands of warheads, can the UK not have a free vote on replacing the system for delivering its 64?

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Slightly less authoritarian than the Dalai Lama

I have been looking at the Political Compass website again. For those of you unaware of this interesting site, it asks the reader 64 politically-oriented questions and then tries to place him/her on a grid where the x-axis is a line between “left” and “right” (by which I expect they mean collectivism verses the market) and the y-axis represents liberty verses authoritarianism.

Jock Coats says in his blog that he feels that “some of the questions are a little awkward.” I think this is if anything an understatement, though having done quite a few of these questionnaires in my time (on occasions when I have been tempted to enter the Government bureaucracy) I recognise that they are always rather poorly phrased, and I suspect that they are difficult to get right.

· The very first statement one must assess is “If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations.” There is no option to point out that thriving trans-national corporations are our means of generating the wealth and jobs and transmitting the goods and services necessary to serve humanity.
· My favourite, however, is that “"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is a fundamentally good idea.” to which I always reply that I Strongly Agree. It’s a brilliant idea, but totally impractical in the real world. Thus the Compass erroneously pushes me slightly more towards the Marxist camp than I deserve.
· An even more extreme example is “A significant advantage of a one-party state is that it avoids all the arguments that delay progress in a democratic political system.” I strongly agree, but I also strongly believe that the negatives far outweigh the positives. However, I am now pushed towards the Fascist camp. I see myself landing next to Stalin at this rate.
· “Mothers may have careers, but their first duty is to be homemakers.” This is true. It is also true of fathers, but nobody asks about them!
· “Astrology accurately explains many things.” Yep! But not in the way they mean!
· “No one can feel naturally homosexual.” No matter what one thinks of this, it is irrelevant. What matters is whether you think those who feel homosexual (naturally or not) should be treated equally within society.

Nonetheless, I think overall the test works okay. In the end I appear to be a true liberal – as the Libertarians say, people should be free of Government both in the bedroom and the boardroom. Rather than rubbing shoulders with Stalin or Ghandi, I’m nearer Murray Rothbard. Readers may not consider this a good thing!

I think my wife got the best result, though. She turned out to be slightly less authoritarian than the Dalai Lama!

I urge you to give the test a go. It’s fun and enlightening at the same time, and that’s a rare and valuable combination.

Peter Hain swaps CND for MAD in act of opportunism

The Times reported yesterday that Peter Hain allowed his CND membership to lapse a couple of years ago, and now supports a Trident-replacement.

What tempted the former peacenik to support a continuing independent nuclear deterrent for the UK?

According to the Times, "Mr Hain... said that Labour had been punished heavily in the past when it had fought on a unilateralist manifesto."

So it's about keeping his seat and access to the Ministerial limo, then, rather than what he believes to be right for Britain and the world.

A lesson to everyone about the man who would be deputy-leader of the Labour Party.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Shami Chakrabarti attacked!

In newsprint, thankfully. I doubt any physical assailant could maintain his resolve when confronted with her poise and dignity.

Seriously though, Tim Luckhurst launched his attack on “the closest thing this country possesses to an intellectual pin-up girl” in yesterday’s Times, claiming that “Her defence of individual rights against collective needs takes the demos out of democracy and leaves her organisation marooned on the extra-parliamentary left of politics.”

Frankly, I find this all rather ludicrous. I have seem Ms. Chakrabarti a number of times both live and on television. She is always sensible, measured and reasoned, putting forward strong and logical arguments. She sticks firmly to her liberal principles without ever drifting into dogmatism. In fact, of all the single-issue groups whose spokespeople appear regularly on the media, she is among the most reasonable and most balanced. Most importantly, she puts forward the case that we do not champion liberty at the expense of security, but rather enjoy a safe and prosperous society because it rests on a firm foundation of individual freedom.

Mr. Luckhurst is correct in one respect, however: she has acquired rapid celebrity over the past few years. Yet I doubt that this is simply the result of shameless self-promotion. Sadly, her rise to prominence is a feature of our times; when civil liberties are under attack as never before, one would expect to hear protests from libertarians.

The Labour Government is attempting to abrogate ancient freedoms that date back at least eight hundred years, from trial by jury to habeas corpus, while requiring citizens to carry ID cards and banning them from legitimate protest. That Mr. Luckhurst can trivialise Liberty’s objections as “see[ing] the good in every terrorist suspect and a heart of unalloyed evil in each successive Home Secretary” is absurd.

I hope that one day Shami Chakrabarti will be silenced. However, unlike Mr. Luckhurst, I hope that this will be because the freedom of the individual from both tyranny and terrorism is assured. Sadly, I suspect that is a utopian fantasy. In the meantime, I trust Liberty will remain a thorn in the side of authoritarians.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

David Cameron blue-rinse update

For the truly wonkish among you, MP3 downloads of the entire Economist/Stockholm Network debate David Cameron is just a blue-rinse Tony Blair? are now available here.

A synopsis of the event (their's, not mine) reads:

What is David Cameron for? He downplays tax cuts, is socially liberal and believes in a muscular foreign policy (and voted for the Iraq war). He would like to reform public services to give consumers more choice, and to involve private companies and charities in providing them. Sound familiar? And if so, is that a bad thing? After all, policies like these have just won three elections in a row. Will the new Cameron era be a break with the past or a return to true-blue values? Is Mr Cameron just a softer, pre-Thatcher Tory with a dollop of belief in the possibility of progress added? Can he create a vision for the future which his entire party can support, or will he only serve to divide the party further? And would Britain governed by a Cameron-led Conservative Party feel very different to Britain today?

Speakers: Prof. Dennis Kavanagh
Peter Hitchens, The Mail on Sunday
Dr Ian Kearns, Deputy Director, ippr
Jesse Norman, Senior Fellow, Policy Exchange
Chaired by Johnny Grimond, Writer-at-large,The Economist
Polling from Andrew Cooper, Populus

I'm famous, or derivative, I can't tell which

Peter Riddell's piece in today's Times presents a reasoned view of the new Number 10 petitions page.

Interestingly, he notes that "As one blogger has pointed out, there is no chance to say whether you disagree, apart from creating a rival petition." I wonder who this could be? Could it by any chance be me? I think it possibly could.

I think it equally possible that it could be any one of a number of others, though, so if you have also made this point and were feeling smug about yourself, perhaps you might post a comment below with a link to your blog-entry.

Otherwise, I'll go on thinking that I was that Blogger, with a smug grin that would make Tony Blair look dour.

Is David Cameron just a blue-rinsed Tony Blair?

Last night I attended a public debate hosted by the Economist and the Stockholm Network on the subject of whether David Cameron is just a blue-rinsed Tony Blair. Speakers included Professor Dennis Kavanagh (University of Liverpool), Dr Ian Kearns (IPPR), Peter Hitchens (Mail on Sunday) and Jesse Norman. It was excellently chaired by the Economist's Johnny Grimond.

Strangely, Peter Hitchens was most brutal not about Cameron (whom he predicted would not win the next election) or Blair but about the Conservatives in general. He described the Conservative Party as both a ‘ghost brand’, like loose razorblades and Capstan full-strength cigarettes that only continue to exist because a few old people continue to buy them out of habit, and a ‘poisoned brand’, too damaged to survive. “No re-branding can rescue this hopeless party”, he said, adding that “Cameron is a blue-rinsed Blair, it is a bad thing and it will fail”.

Ian Kearns agreed that it would fail, but mainly because Cameron was linked to the 2005 manifesto. Kavanagh disagreed, arguing that Cameron was only really the editor that drew together the policy ideas of the 2005 Shadow Cabinet. Kearns did note that there were genuine differences between the two, however: Cameron is no egalitarian, does not believe in redistribution, and (perhaps cynically) has repositioned himself on foreign policy. Kearns also called for compulsory voting as a means of filling the democratic deficit.

Jesse Norman argued that the difference was that whereas Blair was “a zealot” who had “Convictions on everything; ideas on nothing” (Hitchens objected to the description of Blair as having conviction) Cameron “had at least read a book”. He claimed – between plugs of several of his books, which are at least available to download for free from his website – that Cameron was aiming to redefine conservatism as neither paternalistic nor libertarian but based more upon the thinking of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, which he (not originally) has defined as Compassionate Conservatism. He alone predicted that Cameron would win the next election.

Kavanagh lamented the rise of a permanent, professional political class, and noted an unhealthy closeness between journalists and politicians: that it is possible to talk about journalists being in the Blair camp or the Brown camp is damaging for both journalism and democracy. He also lamented the focus on the five to eight per cent of the population in less than a hundred constituencies upon which elections turn.

Among the audience, just over half agreed that David Cameron is just a blue-rinsed Tony Blair.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Why I hate the Labour Party (part 1 of many)

Labour activist and blogger Don Paskini thinks he knows how to beat the Liberals at elections. I doubt it, but it is worth a look.

However, it is the comments submitted to the page that remind of one of the many reasons why I hate the Labour Party. Note this from one writer:
I was once at an election count when the successful
candidate refused to shake hands with the acid faced and
vanquished liberal and led a chrous (sic.) of "we beat the
Liberals" and they all ran off in a huff....

Funnily enough, I had a very similar experience. Throughout the nail-biting count they were rude, abusive and one actually pushed my wife out of the way because he wanted to get closer to the counting. However, I was decent enough to congratulate their victorious candidates for what was a hard-won and successful campaign.

Personally, it was a point of pride that I was a good loser, and hope that when I do beat them (and 2010 is only three and a half years away!) I will be magnanimous in victory.

Sadly, the Labour Party does tend to attract lowlife.

I find I’m in sympathy with another Tory peer!

Hell! While I’m at it, I might as well confess that I’ve been finding myself nodding with approval at Norman Tebbit recently.

At the Conservative Party conference he made an impassioned plea for tax cuts that should have struck a cord with all liberals (though cognitive dissonance probably prevented many from listening). He argued that it was those on low incomes, struggling to makes ends meet, who most needed the dead weight of taxation lifted from their shoulders. Thus, he called for the Conservatives to retain one promised tax cut, namely an increase in the personal allowance.

Compare this to the Liberal Democrats policy of abolishing the 10% rate so as to boost the personal allowance to £7,185, or to my own proposal that those on the minimum wage working for 35 hours a week should be free of tax (a personal allowance of c£9,500).

In addition, Lord Tebbit has been regularly seen going through the lobbies with liberal peer Lord Lester in opposition to the Government’s attempts to curb our civil liberties.

Forgive me a biblical moment but "there shall be more joy in heaven over one sinner that does penance…” and all that.

I find I’m in sympathy with a Tory peer

In today’s Independent Maurice Saatchi argues that the race for pragmatism and the centre ground has denuded politics of ideology. I cannot help but agree. This vacuous, idealess, opportunity-politics is killing us.

Ideology has a rather bad rap these days (for which Lord Saatchi is partly to blame). Of the three dominant ideologies of the 20th Century, socialism resulted in disaster and misery for billions, conservatism became ever more divorced from reality as it warped into a stereotype of itself (Angry from Tunbridge Wells calling for the return of the birch), while liberalism, though largely successful, lacked a pure voice.

Lord Acton noted in the C19th that liberalism was advanced by associating with auxiliaries who shared our intended outcomes, but warned that this provided ammunition for our enemies. So it was the Conservatives in the 1980s who positioned themselves as the voice of liberalism, and for a long time the ideology has been tainted by association with the less palatable aspects of conservative belief.

In the 1990s Labour dropped the socialist hot-potato. Now after ten years in opposition, the Conservatives are also distancing themselves from their ideological roots. But the result has not been a wholesale adoption of the proven ideology. Not, at least, in their hearts. Instead, they offer us pragmatism – which leads inevitably to flip-flopping and opportunism – and argue over who can manage the agreed processes best.

This is a tragedy. Ideology is the moral compass by which we guide our way through the maze of Government. A liberal politician can always ask the question “Does this enhance freedom?” The pragmatist, by comparison, can only ask “Does this serve our needs at the time?” There is no morality underlying that question.

Monday, 20 November 2006

I've succumbed to a piece of Blairite gimmickry

Forgive me a moment of cynicism, but I find myself thinking that the new No. 10 Downing Street petitions page is a vacuous attempt to make the Government look like it’s listening while in fact it is characterised by increasing deafness to public opinion.

That being said, I have brushed aside my cynicism and joined 2468 other people in signing the petition to scrap the proposed introduction of ID cards.

I have also written to the team running the project calling on them to add a facility to sign in opposition to a measure. My letter stated that:

I would like to propose one vital amendment to the e-petitions website. This is a facility to vote against the petition.

At present, petitions can build up support, but there is no means of measuring opposition. This makes it impossible to measure the true level of support for a proposal: does a million signatures imply large-scale support, apathy among 98 per cent of the population, or does it fly in the face of a large swathe of public opinion that is being overlooked.

If it were possible to have a facility to sign the petition in opposition to the proposal, a far fairer and more balanced measure of the will of the public could be taken.

Presumably, once Gordon takes over, this nonsense about consulting the people will be quietly parked, of course, but in the meantime, one does what one can.

They're threatening to Health and Safety me!

The Health and Safety mafia are after me!

At work (where I do most of my blogging!) I have moved a new pedestal next to my desk. A pedestal, for those of you not condemned to the miserable drudgery of the C21st office, is a two foot high set of drawers designed to go under a desk. For complicated reasons to do with my being officially "over-sized" I have two of these, so one is now lurking beside me.

I have been threatened with action. Apparently, the pedestal represents a knee hazard. I might crack my knee on said pedestal, causing some undetermined health-and-safety risk.

I know what’s coming. I put it there; I want it there; it’s not causing me any harm there. It is certainly not causing anyone else any harm there. It’ll have to go!

You see, it is not enough that I take care around my pedestal. Well-meaning people need to save me from myself. I don’t really want the pedestal there, I just think I do. If I properly understood the risks like the Health and Safety people do I would be glad to have it removed. It’s for my own benefit.

Sigh. I wonder why they ever let me out of the play pen!

Polly Toynbee - scourge of the unemployed and economic luddite

Last night’s Head 2 Head (BBC News24, 20 Nov 2006) was another excellent opportunity to shout at the television (which at 2am caused quite a stir!).

The face-off between Michael Gove MP and Polly Toynbee of The Guardian was a surreal affair. While neocon sympathiser Gove was highly critical of the war in Iraq and talked about cosying up to the Iranians in an effort to further peace, Toynbee was declaring her opposition to immigration and condemning the unemployed to ever greater poverty.

It was Toynbee that left me reaching desperately for either the remote control on any convenient heavy object. She began with a fairly reasonable sounding concern for the “third of the population” that were “still working class”. But it quickly became apparent that – like all radical socialists who look to the workers to usher in the revolution – her concern for the working class was at the expense of that far-more-desperate group, the non-working class. Indeed, she dismissed with irritation Gove’s attempt to move the argument to discuss the jobless. Instead, she called for equality of incomes even if this meant an overall reduction in wealth.

What stood out was her refusal to accept that growth is beneficial even if it is unevenly distributed. In basic terms, she was less interested in the size of the cake than in how large a slice the poor received. She (and Gove) advocated a rise in the minimum wage to help low-paid workers even though it would destroy job-creation – and this when employment is falling and unemployment rising. This would condemn those without work to perpetual destitution. She argued against competition from immigrant labour despite the fact that this has created wealth, reduced inflation and poured millions into the exchequer, paying for the Tax Credits and public services the poor so desperately need. And she called for punitive taxes even though this would drive out the entrepreneurs that are creating the jobs that are the only route out of poverty for the most destitute.

It was a despicable show. Polly Toynbee was more interested in “making the pips squeak” than maximising welfare or helping the unemployed. Socialism, perhaps, but not social justice.

Saturday, 18 November 2006

The error of labelling

I have begun to realise that I made a tragic mistake this year. I took to criticising one of my friends for being too "left-wing".

(Those of you who have assumed that the use of "liberal" in this site is in the American tradition are probably feeling somewhat disabused at this point!)

Up until a few years ago, my friend had been one of those people who thought a newspaper was something that was used to wrap up fish and chips. Lest you think I'm being harsh, I should stress that he took a sort of nihilistic pride in not watching the news or concerning himself with current affairs.

All this changed in the last few years. He vocally opposed the war in Iraq, and began to voice opinions about Human Rights and Third World poverty. To be fair, some of this had been hidden away in there for some time (he has been a lifelong member of Amnesty International) but since Iraq (and I would hazard because of Iraq) he has begun to give vent to his opinions.

I took issue with some of his more radical views, notably what I perceived as anti-Americanism and anti-globalisaiton. Unfortunately, in looking for a short-hand to define his views, I fell to pigeon-holing him as a member of the loony-left. I think this has backfired. It certainly has not help dissuade him. Instead, it has given him a focus for his views. He has begun to identify himself with the very left-wing factions into whose orbit I was most worried that he would be drawn.

I shouldn't over-play my hand here; his views were already forming and he was already tapping into sources with a decidedly socialist agenda. But nonetheless I think that by pigeon-holing him, I have encouraged him to read all the mail in that pigeon-hole, not just that originally addressed to him. I fear that as a result he is likely to begin to link himself with opinions and views that perhaps he might otherwise have approached with a more open mind.

I hope I've learnt a lesson. By labelling him, I have driven him into the very camp I was criticising.

Friday, 17 November 2006

What is liberal government?

The most common and yet most dangerous aspect of our great democracy is the tendency to view electoral success as carte blanche to enact one's wishes. Liberals, conservatives and socialists alike take the opportunity of a majority in the House to pursue their agenda and to reward their people irrespective not just of the wishes of the losers but also of their interests and liberties.

So with a Conservative victory comes tax breaks for the wealthy and benefits for landed interests, while Liberals and socialists in their turn "Soak the rich", diverting people's hard earned wealth to their pet projects. Politicians cite their democratic mandate to attack those whom they view as their political opponents (the "evil rich", the "lazy poor"); in the 1970s, Denis Healey wanted to "make the pips squeak" with high taxation.This is not what liberalism is about.

On the contrary, this is the very reason why liberals are concerned with the power of government. Government may be chosen by the majority but it still must represent the whole of society. Otherwise, we have the elected totalitarianism of Venezuela or the tribal politics of Kenya, where whoever wins rewards their allies and kinsmen at the expense of the rest.

Individuals, no matter how high-minded they might be, cannot be trusted to rule in a neutral and even-handed manner. We are all fallible; we are all biased. Thus, liberals must rule in a manner that recognises their own fallibilities and ensures that government does not serve any particular portion of the population, no matter how large and how needy they may be. Government should not serve the deserving. Government should limit itself to providing the basic framework within which individuals may thrive.

Democracy allows us to choose who will rule us and what the rules will be, but it does not excuse governments turning upon or exploiting the losers.

Death of a great liberal

Milton Friedman was a liberal in the classical mould who argued that liberty was both an end in its own right and the means by which the greatest degree of prosperity could be achieved. He was naturally distrustful of Government, and this led him to question the Keynesian consensus that dominated the world’s finance ministries during the half-century following the Wall Street Crash. Far from being the solution, Government was the problem: bad monetary policy had worsened the Great Depression, and after the war Government’s efforts to “pump prime” the economy to reduce unemployment in fact stoked inflationary expectorations and so drove up inflation itself. Keynesians suggested that there was a trade-off between unemployment and inflation and that Governments had to choose the right level of each for their countries, yet the pursuit of these policies led eventually to simultaneous rises in unemployment and inflation.

It was in response to this seeming perpetual decline that both the Reagan and Thatcher Governments adopted much that Friedman had recommended. Monetarism, deregulation and privatisation were adopted and implemented. Friedman was himself a sometime adviser to both President and Prime Minister, as well as to General Augusto Pinochet, the dictator of Chile in the 1970s and 1980s. This has led to his being associated with the political Right, with the Republican and Conservative parties.

Yet if Friedman found common cause with these parties, it was because they came onto his ground. He was not afraid to criticise them and advocated many liberal policies that angered the conservative right with whom he was so often erroneously linked. He blamed the 1980s economic roller-coaster in Britain on the Thatcher Government’s failure to implement his policies properly: their inability to resist meddling led, he said, to greater suffering than was necessary in the march to a stable economy. He was also a vocal critic of conscription during America’s war in Vietnam. He argued for the legalisation of narcotics and their sale in a free market on the grounds that supply would always be met, but if it were met illegally it would create far greater secondary problems; he drew heavily on the prohibition of alcohol in the US in the 1920s. As early as 1951 he advocated congestion charging, implemented half a century later in London by the left-wing Mayor of London.

Liberals (here with a deliberately upper-case ‘L’) are rarely gracious about Friedman’s work. The association with the Right causes an instinctive and visceral reaction. Yet, like his contemporary and colleague Friedrich Hayek, Friedman was no Conservative. In truth, there is much in his writings that should appeal to anyone who would call themselves “liberal” (with a deliberately lower-case ‘l’). Perhaps this is clearest in Free to Choose, where he not only set out the case for individual liberty but did so in a format that would enable him to reach the widest possible audience – a television series. This democratisation of economics not only brought the dismal science to the people but advocated individual freedom, deregulation and replacing minimum wages with tax credits. There is much here of which liberals of all stripes, and Liberals most of all, should take note.

Thursday, 16 November 2006

Opening salvo

Liberal Polemic is now live!

My blog is still a work in progress but I hope to populate it soon with plenty of thoughts and opinions.

This site will primarily act as a mouthpiece for my analysis of political and economic issues. There will be articles, the odd publication, and undoubtedly numerous occasional posts.

I will of course welcome constructive comments. You are free to disagree, but if you are rude or offensive I shall immediately withdraw your right to speak freely like the closet tyrant I am!

Thank you for visiting, and do please bookmark this page. I will be back with more substance once I've learnt what I'm doing.