Saturday, 30 December 2006

A lot of nonsense talked about Saddam

One of the world’s most evil tyrants was executed this morning, in accordance with Iraqi law. We may not like it, but we should accept it with more grace than some liberals appear willing to show.

I must take issue with Tim Kent’s conspiracy theory, in particular (another MySpace user, so I can’t reply on his blog). He argues that “[Saddam’s] old friends are protected. Yes, his old mates like Rumsfeld, Bush, Thatcher, Kohl. All of the people who supplied him with weapons, chemicals, materials to carry out his murders and wars. No need for that to come out now!”

This is nonsense. These four and others did tolerate Saddam Hussein during the 1980, in the erroneous belief that he was a lesser evil than Ayatollah Khomeini. But it is unlikely that there are any smoking guns still to be revealed. On the contrary; the reason why Mr. Kent is able to make his allegations is because the involvement of Rumsfeld, Bush, Thatcher, Kohl and others came out a long time ago.

Secondly, it rests on the presumption that he was hanged at the behest of the American and British governments: “Hanging Saddam leaves a further stain on the west…” In fact, the Coalition Provisional Authority did what little they could to prevent his death. Iraq’s first post-Saddam constitution, the Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period did not provide for the death penalty, and Western governments tried to convince the Iraqi government not to introduce it.

The Iraqis were determined, however. The death penalty is common throughout Arabia, where Western opposition to capital punishment is treated with derision. With hundreds dying every week from sectarian violence, terror and crime, they were never likely to accede to our pleas. In addition, it was quite clear that they wanted to kill Saddam Hussein; one of the greatest concerns about this whole episode was that capital punishment was introduced very much with one man in mind.

In fact, while we a right to oppose the death penalty, I am not convinced that we are right to hector the Iraqis about it at this time. Notions of justice are not universal but are rooted in cultures. In our Christian culture, where “there [is] more joy in heaven over one sinner that does penance than over ninety-nine righteous persons…”, we look to rehabilitate criminals. Other cultures are less forgiving. I am not an expert on Islam or Arabic tradition, but it may be that retribution is more important to them than rehabilitation. Furthermore, with hundreds dying every week, they are probably not in a forgiving mood.

I hope that eventually Iraqis will come to enjoy true liberty: not just the freedom from Saddam that President Bush hailed, but the true liberty that comes from being an autonomous individual free from fear or coercion. It will be a long journey, and it may be that their road to freedom must begin with the execution of their last tyrant. In future I hope they can build a society where the State does not kill its citizens (even criminal ones) and rules apply equally to all. I do not think we will advance their respect for liberty by condemning the death of this evil man.

Friday, 29 December 2006

The fine Labour tradition of cynical populism

I cannot possibly match the pith of the eloquent Cicero, who wrote his own short word about Hazel Blears. But words must be written.

Hazel Blears, the Labour Party Chair, has attended a protest in Salford to object to Government policy that will close the maternity ward in her local area. Defending her actions, Ms. Blears said “As a constituency MP, I am representing the strong feelings of my constituents. The people of Salford and Eccles come first.”

Actually, they don’t. Ms. Blears has clearly forgotten (if she ever knew) Edmund Burkes famous dictum that constituents do not elect a Member for Bristol (or Salford) but a Member of Parliament. Though Ms. Blears represents her constituents at Westminster, her duty is to make decisions in the national interest based on their needs and beliefs, not to bring home barrel loads of pork.

Of course, were Ms. Blears a humble back bencher she could be forgiven for defending local interests against national policy. But she is not. Ms. Blears is a Cabinet Minister (without portfolio – that is to say a politically-appointed drain on the public fisc) and as such shares responsibility for the very policy to which she is now objecting. Perhaps she has also forgotten (if she ever knew) the concept of Cabinet Collective Responsibility. While she may argue her point vociferously in camera across the Cabinet table, in public she must either support the policy or resign.

Of course, the Labour Party – which has never had much respect for political conventions or the constitution of government – has been here before. In 1975, Harold Wilson suspended collective responsibility during the referendum on whether to remain within the Common Market.

More recently, in another example of cynical populism, Hilary Benn (whose redoubtable father had been one of the chief protagonists in the 1975 debate) joined the Make Poverty History and environmental campaigners that marched to Gleneagles. In fact, neither Mr. Benn nor his Cabinet colleagues had any intention of implementing the policies demanded by this (largely anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation) crowd. But in classic New Labour fashion, they wanted some of the celebrity and the veneer of rebellion that attached to this youthful and spontaneous movement, so they despatched one of their more youthful-looking and more spontaneous Ministers to rub shoulders with the moral glitterati.

This cynical populism is a disgrace. It insults both the intelligence of the voters and the passion of the protesters. More importantly, it undermines the much-needed and serious policy debate that is required. The National Health Service needs reform, and global poverty and environmental degradation need addressing. The solution to these challenges will be found in the complex and difficult world of politics, where tough choices must be made for long-term objectives. This requires Government to identify the best approach, to shape a policy and to implement it. As with all changes of policy, there will be some losers, but hopefully there will be more winners and overall we will live in a better place. If that is not the result of the policy, it should not be implemented; if it is, it should be pushed with enthusiasm by the whole of Government.

If Ms. Blears, Mr. Benn or any other member of the Government feels uncomfortable with its programme, they should resign from the Government. But few now have the honour or conviction of Geoffrey Howe or Robin Cook.

Don’t swallow that note, or that argument, either

Yesterday, Adrian Sanders MP wrote an entry in his blog (speakers on when you visit it!) entitled Don’t swallow that coin, in which he argued that early doubts about the euro have been proved unfounded. I am unable to leave a reply on the blog (MySpace is fighting me!) so I am obliged to do so here.

Though it is true that early scepticism about the euro has given way to cautious optimism, the evidence that Mr. Sanders gives for hailing it as an untrammelled success is flawed. His statement that “the new currency is competing with the Dollar for top spot in the world's list of currencies” is at least a bit premature. The Euro accounts for only 25 per cent of global foreign exchange reserves as compared with 66 per cent for the dollar.

Similarly, his claim that “ more and more of the world's goods and resources are being priced in Euros rather than Dollars”, though perhaps true, may exaggerate its significance. While the accession of ten new members to the European Union (and in three days it will be 12) has required them to peg their currencies to the euro rather than to the dollar, the enlargement process is stalling, and anyway is ultimately limited. A few other countries may be seeking to shift their own currency peg to the euro, but the dollar remains the yardstick by which others are measured.

In fact, some of Mr. Sanders’ claims are frankly outlandish. That the face value of printed notes is now greater than that of the dollar, having doubled in five years, is neither relevant nor automatically to be welcomed. The dollar’s fall relative to the euro may have assisted this transition, but it is not helping European exporters (at least, not on the Continent). Meanwhile, the fact that the money-supply has doubled in five years is usually a sign of inflation.

Of course, if the European Central Bank had deliberately chosen an inflationary policy it might be understandable, as some of the larger Euro-zone countries have been struggling with deflationary pressure over the past few years. Certainly anything that could save Germany and France from their stagnation should be welcomed. However, the UK has been happily free of deflation and growing steadily over the past few years – in fact it is inflation that under Gordon Brown has been causing us concern. Thank heavens, therefore, that we have an independent central bank that can respond to our specific economic circumstances!

Mr. Sanders attempts to ridicule Britain’s monetary independence by suggesting that “by staying out, [all] we retain [is] the Queen's head on the bits of paper we exchange for goods and services, our banks make massive profits out of us, and we keep our coins”. In fact, the Bank of England has done (and forgive me for what must be one of the most apposite puns in history) a Sterling job in maintaining price stability – far better than the ECB, which has overseen a mini-recession in Germany while other member-states have witnessed inflation.

Furthermore, the pound has managed to steer a course between the euro and the dollar, which is handy because half our trade (the half Mr. Sanders ignores) is still with the dollar zone. So while Mr. Sanders may be right to say that “If you run a business that trades with the Euro zone you pay exchange rate commissions to the banks on your transactions, that increase your costs and reduce your competitiveness”, he neglects the fact that if you run a business trading with the dollar zone and we had adopted the euro, you would have experienced massive and unpredictable volatility in exchange rates that would have disrupted any long-range economic calculations. This is far less of an issue for our European neighbours, as they have increasingly shifted from trading globally to trading regionally, but the fact that they are doing so does not prove that the Single Market generates better returns than global trade; it merely proves that trade will follow the path of least resistance.

Mr. Sanders’ suggestion that “The Euro is achieving … a single currency zone and market that could match and compete with the Dollar and US economy on equal terms” is ludicrous. The European economy may be as large as that of the USA, but this was not caused by the Euro. Neither has the euro-zone’s economy performed as well as that of the dollar zone, though America does appear to be moving into a period of slower growth.

It is clear from his blog that Mr. Sanders has been drawn in by the economic (supra-)nationalism of the euro’s perceived success against the dollar and has lost sight of the real goal, which is the British economy. This is a shame. Whether Britain will fare better within the euro-zone or with its own currency is a matter of national policy that should be based on sound economic reasoning and not a puerile competition with the Americans over whose currency is the biggest. I would heartily concur with Mr. Sanders that one should not swallow either euro or British coins. I suggest one should not swallow his argument, either. Whether we decide to swallow the euro will require more – and more elevated – debate than Mr. Sanders provides.

Thursday, 28 December 2006

Three-out-of-three is bad

Before Christmas I reported that the Labour Government has managed to increase both taxes and unemployment. In my enthusiasm for the festive fun, I overlooked a third painful statistic: inflation, too is rising.

That taxes and unemployment were rising simultaneously should come as no surprise, as high income and corporate taxes squeeze entrepreneurs and businesses, while high employment taxes (National Insurance to my British audience) raise the price of labour and make expansion unprofitable or shift the balance in favour of capital (i.e. it is cheaper to mechanise than to employ).

In the dark and dismal past, however, it was generally held that unemployment and inflation were opposing sides of a great balance. Between the 1940s and 1970s economists – inspired by J M Keynes – convinced governments that unemployment could be countered by inflationary policies (which surreptitiously reduce real earnings and so free up capital to employ extra workers). This was a flawed thesis, as demonstrated by Nobel economics laureates such as Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek, who persuasively argued that policies aimed at full employment were both misguided and counter-productive.

Even more flawed, perhaps, was the resulting myth that inflation and unemployment were a trade-off. In theory, unemployment could be reduced only by inflationary policies, while the eventual need to rein in inflation would cause unemployment. It did not, however, follow that the two were in balance. In fact it is possible to have both rising unemployment and rising inflation. Our current Labour government is in the process of proving it.

Britain’s consumer-price inflation rate in November was 2.7 per cent, the highest rate since records began and also the highest rate since Labour took office. Combined with the rise in unemployment to 5.6 per cent from 4.7 per cent a year ago, a budget deficit of 3 per cent, further expected tax rises and GDP that is predicted to fall in 2007 and this is a pretty miserable picture of Labour economic failure.

Saturday, 23 December 2006

David Irving’s freedom (and Roman Halter’s love of liberty)

After 13 months in prison, the holocaust denier David Irving is back in the UK, painting himself as the victim of an atrocity. The sad thing is that in this case he is telling the truth.

Atrocities are, of course, relative. 11 million people died in the Holocaust (or 14 million, or 20 million, or seven, depending on whom you ask) and by comparison 13 months in prison is small beer.

But there remains a qualitative link between banning a man’s freedom of speech (whether or not you think he is crazy or evil) and other, more savage, forms of oppression. The Nazis thought they were making the world a better place – for thoroughbred Aryans, at any rate. Undoubtedly a similar confidence filled those who criminalized Holocaust denial in Austria, Germany, France and elsewhere.

I can think of few justifications for these laws, most of them weak. That deniers are able to ferment fascism is unlikely; the most effective recruiting ground for the far right these days is anti-Muslim rhetoric, and it would take a truly masterful storyteller to tie Al Qaeda in with the Zionist Conspiracy. That it denigrates the memory of the dead or exacerbates the suffering of the living may be true, but this is no reason to ban free speech; we must all tolerate views that we dislike. As for the suggestion that these lies might confuse poor innocent minds that do not know better, this is both condescending and prevents people learning the most vital lesson of history, which is how to be discerning.

By comparison, I can think of a couple of very solid reasons for permitting free speech. The first is that the best way of exposing lies and mistakes is through refutation; by imprisoning those with whom we disagree we pass up an opportunity both to expose them and to sharpen our own arguments. We also give them a veneer of martyrdom. The second reason is that it makes a mockery of our exhortation to others to respect freedom of speech – either by allowing their own citizens to speak or at least not to fume when ours do so.

There are echoes here of the furore over the recent conference in Iran questioning the holocaust. We should have treated this with contempt, but by and large ignored it. It was a political stunt and by rising to the bait we played into the hands of Iranian hardliners. In the process we look like hypocrites. Earlier this year liberals across Europe were calling for tolerance of freedom of expression after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, and great amounts of angst ensued when Muslims across the world, including in Iran and the UK, were seen to argue that blasphemy was a sin punishable by death and that Western liberalism was mistaken, a contradiction of the word of God, or still worse a cynical excuse to justify attacks on their religion. We must prove at least this last concern wrong by applying freedom of speech impartially. If we defend one group’s right to offend Muslims we cannot then condemn another group for offending Jews.

Having said all this, my argument remains that of a remote observer. I am neither a Jew nor a Nazi nor a Muslim nor a cartoonist. I am passionate about freedom of speech but it is not my people’s suffering that is being denied by Mr. Irving. So if I have not convinced you, or if you are in the mood to be both moved and uplifted by somebody who did suffer first-hand, watch last night’s BBC 10 O’clock News and listen to Roman Halter. You will need to scroll 10 minutes and 40 seconds into the programme to hear this Jewish immigrant, who survived the concentration camps but saw his whole extended family wiped out, explain why Mr. Irving should be allowed to speak and publish, even if what he is saying is repulsive. In so doing, he speaks so lyrically of the freedom of expression that we all tend to take for granted that it is truly humbling.

Friday, 22 December 2006

The strange echo of Prime Ministerial corruption

He's the Prime Minister of one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. His nation’s $2 trillion economy relies on its reputation as an open market, free of corruption and sleaze. He is overweeningly proud of his country and its place in the world. Yet he has just been interviewed for 17 hours by investigators - not as a suspect, mind; as a witness. It is a lasting shame to his countrymen.

And we should know, because we have just been through the same thing.

Dominique de Villepin has been interviewed by judges investigating the Clearstream Affair. This sordid tale involves a secret Luxembourg bank account stuffed full of deposits, some of which were apparently made by UMP Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. de Villepin admits that in 2004, as Foreign Minister, he asked a secret service agent to investigate the list of accounts. It now looks suspiciously like the mysterious slush-fund was deliberately set up to smear Mr. Sarkozy, whose ambition to succeed Jacques Chirac as President is no secret.

Mr. de Villepin's political career is in tatters. Widely recognised as President Chirac's anointed heir, it now seems impossible that he can challenge Mr. Sarkozy for the presidential nomination of the (Gaullist) Union for a Popular Majority.

One of the ongoing battles of my life is convincing people that not all politicians are irredeemably corrupt. The behaviour of two of the world's leading statesmen undermines that effort.

Another old Labour story: taxes are rising

Yesterday I reported that unemployment was rising under Labour. Today, it’s the turn of income taxes. Hard working taxpayers are being squeezed as never before.

Taxes on average incomes are at their highest since records began in 1987. The Office of National Statistics reports that taxes on incomes are now 23.6 per cent of wages and salaries.

This must be borne in perspective; taxes on average incomes have hovered between 20 and 23 per cent throughout the two decades in which they have been measured. But taxes are creeping up, with no sign now that in the near future they will be reigned in.

The squeeze is especially painful for two reasons. Firstly, it is outpacing rises in wages: taxes rose by 6.7% compared to wage rises of 4.6%. Secondly, this comes as other inescapable costs are also rising: interest rates are rising; inflation is rising; utility bills are rising. Consumers are under intense strain. This year’s Christmas cheer is increasingly being funded by savings rather than income, which can only be a short-term solution.

2007 is likely to be a very happy new year for Gordon Brown as he finally realises his lifetime ambition and moves into Number 10. In doing so, he will leave behind a Treasury in a parlous state. Whomever he makes his Chancellor (and my bet is on Alistair Darling) will inherit a poisoned chalice; inflation, unemployment and taxes are all rising as Brown’s public sector profligacy bites home. A happy new year for Mr. Brown, perhaps, but for the rest of us, the long hangover is coming.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Labour isn't working

It’s an old story, but it appears that they’re remaking it again. No, it’s not the BBC dramatisation of Dracula. It’s rising unemployment.

Youth unemployment is particularly troubling. In November this year 11,200 young people had been claiming benefits for more than a year. Youth unemployment is now worse than it was when Labour came to power. Figures from the Office of National Statistics are instructive:

1997 2006 Change
16 – 24 year olds unemployed 665,000 702,000 + 37,000
16 – 24 unemployment rate 14.4% 14.5% + 0.1%
16 – 24 unemployment rate – London 22.5% 42.9% + 20.4%

Labour MPs are rushing to blame the usual suspects – immigrants. With simple but flawed logic they suggest that hundreds of thousands of East Europeans have flooded in and taken jobs that might otherwise be filled by British workers. However, if this were the case, why was it that two thirds of a million 16 – 24 year olds were unemployed before the East Europeans arrived? How has Britain managed to absorb hundreds of thousands of East European workers when unemployment has only risen by tens of thousands?

This scapegoating of hard working, tax paying immigrants is a sordid attempt to shift attention from the real culprits: the Labour government. Youth unemployment is on the rise because Labour has strangled business with masses of extra regulation and rising taxation. It is rising because our schools are still failing to teach basic skills to far too many of our children; a quarter are functionally illiterate, innumerate and leave school at 16 with no qualifications worth speaking of. And it is rising because the government’s New Deal is a disaster, costing more and proving less effective than similar schemes in comparable countries, while massaging the jobless statistics by placing young people in jobs that last less than 13 weeks, so that returning jobless do not appear to be long-term unemployed.

In 1997 Gordon Brown described the levels of youth unemployment that Labour inherited from the Conservatives as “sickening”, a “human tragedy”, “an economic disaster”. After nine years of his chancellorship, it is now worse. It is an old Labour story, and each time we read it we feel the same despair. Labour isn’t working.

What future for Tony Blair

Tony Blair has told DJ and former TFI Friday presenter Chris Evans that after he leaves office he would like to find a job with “a real purpose to it.”

It will certainly be a challenge. Most Prime Ministers effectively retire, though they turn a tidy sum on the lecture circuit. According to The Observer, John Major makes £30,000 a speech. But Mr. Blair’s ego is likely to prevent him fading away into memory.

One thing is sure. Mr. Blair will not sit happily on the backbenches. I doubt he will fight the next general election, and if he does he will not be seen much in the chamber (No change there, then!).

So what will he do with all the time on his hands? His (typically-tortuous) comments to Mr. Evans are instructive: "I think the single thing for me that is most important is that whatever I do afterwards it has a real purpose to it, that it is not just about doing a job," he said. The job of Prime Minister was “a position that once you have occupied it you have done something that has what I call a real life purpose to it… And certainly in anything I wanted to do afterwards, it would be a different purpose but similar in its motivation."

With his penchant for strutting the world stage and his line in highfaluting and emotionally-charged rhetoric, Mr. Blair surely has his eye on some international prize. If so, it is a forlorn hope. In the eyes of much of the world, Mr. Blair is damaged goods, forever tainted by his association with George Bush, the War on Terror and Iraq.

Members are unlikely to agree to Mr. Blair filling any key UN role; the idea of Mr. Blair as a future High Commissioner for Human Rights is absurd, even if any link between him and the outrages on Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib is unfair. Similarly, European governments are unlikely to tolerate a Blair bid to be President of the European Commission; despite his vaunted Europhilia, he has not brought Britain into the Euro, he divided the continent over his Iraq policy, and (ironically, from a British perspective) he is seen as dangerously liberal among our socialist and dirigiste neighbours. Neither is any charity or campaign group going to risk turning off a large swathe of its potential donors by associating itself with such a divisive figure.

Tony Blair’s only hope is to found his own charity and use it as a springboard to launch himself across the world. Perhaps he sees himself as the next Al Gore. But as his pitiful effort this week to bring peace to the Middle East (and goodwill to all men) has highlighted, he is a man whose ambitions far outpace his capabilities.

Whether because he is unable to find a role in a post-Blair world, or because he fails to live up to the challenges he sets for himself, Mr. Blair’s post-premiership is likely to be a failure. History will repeat itself as both tragedy and farce.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

The strange death of Libertarian Home

Libertarian-minded colleagues will know that a month ago a new blog was launched that sought to be "the leading portal bringing together the libertarian movement." hopes to be the missing link between the millions of people who have libertarian-leaning views and the libertarian movement. Our aim is nothing short of a revival in libertarian thinking.

It started well. On 24 November an article was published calling for the privatisation of marriage (it's either a legal contract, which can be administered by any lawyer, or a religious union, which is the preserve of priests). Articles appeared defending Acid House parties ("We wanna' be free... to do... what we wanna' do") and attacking Guantanamo Bay. There was a space (Your Platform) where one might submit a short article, and regular round ups of the days news from a libertarian perspective. LibertarianHome received mentions in Tristan Mills's blog among others. Hopes were high.

They have since fallen rather flat. The last time the home page, which provides the libertarian news round-up, was updated was 7 December. The Liberty Log, providing original news and articles, has not been updated since 4 December. And the last time that anyone else had anything published on the Your Space section was 2 December - and not for want of material.

Blogs are, of course, often reliant on one individual, and it may be that Alex Singleton, the apparent editor of LibertarianHome and Director General of the Globalisation Institute, is unable to devote enough time to it. If so, it is a sad false-start. There remains the blog of the Libertarian Alliance (I am unclear as to whether their website is here or here), but the vaunted aim to revive libertarian thinking has yet to be realised.

Monday, 18 December 2006

The Ecstasy and the agony

There is an odd article in Times 2 today. Under the none-too-original heading The Ecstasy and the agony comes the subtitle As the first wave of Ecstasy users reach their forties, research suggests the drug can cause long-term brain damage. At last, one might be forgiven for thinking, conclusive evidence that Ecstasy is a harmful narcotic. Except that the bulk of the article paints a far more mixed and indeed contrary picture.

It begins by pointing out the deficiencies in most existing scientific research: the read-over from lab rats to humans is not applicable; the purported link to Parkinson’s disease was based on a confusion between MDMA and methamphetamine; most “drug casualties” have used a wide variety of legal and illegal intoxicants in massive doses, thus rendering it impossible to draw conclusive links between any single cause and an effect.

Instead, the article casts serious doubts on evidence of any long-term risk. While between one and two million people were dropping a pill a week in the UK, there were less than 20 deaths a year – and these from secondary effects rather than from the toxicity of the drug. According to Valerie Curran, Professor of Psychopharmacology at University College, London, “If you look at people who have given up for a year, there’s very little evidence of damage that persists”.

The problem is most tellingly captured by John Henry, Professor of Accident and Emergency Medicine at Imperial College, London. “I wanted to start research on the effects of Ecstasy years ago and they told me, ‘don’t be an idiot’. I really think that if we studied schoolchildren and found out who used E and then followed them up to see what happens, we’d have the answers by now.”

Professor Henry goes on to imply that there has been minor cognitive damage (“one or two or three IQ points”) which has effected in excess of a million users. This adds up to a lot of lost intellectual capital, but the real message here is that Government’s heavy-handed blanket ban on the drug has impeded research into the long term effects.

The truth is that thirty years after it was banned in the UK and twenty after it became the party-drug of choice for the all-night dancer, we continue to know very little about the risks. As with cannabis and other narcotics, prohibition has exacerbated rather than alleviated the problem. Scientific research is difficult as one cannot give willing volunteers the drug. It is not easy to find long-term users because they are inevitably covert about their use. Meanwhile, the criminals that feed the demand are unscrupulous; they do not have quality control, they are not regulated, and the customer has little come-back if s/he is harmed by their product. People who fear they are suffering a negative effect often hide their use from emergency services. Seeking help for long-term use is stigmatised and may leave a trace on medical records that will have other social and economic costs. Rather than protecting citizens, prohibition drives up to two million of them to deal with criminals every week – and this is just the Ecstasy users. The billions of pounds they generate feed organised crime on Britain’s streets and fund murderous civil wars in South East Asia and elsewhere.

Professor Curran sums up the domestic case for a more intelligent and liberal approach: “We should accept that people are gong to take drugs and say: ‘Here is the science. Here is the risk-benefit profile. It’s your informed choice.’ Instead we’re in this crazy world where everything is pushed underground and drugs are put in the hands of criminals. I’m not saying we should legalise – that’s a big step – but in Holland, where there are coffee shops [for cannabis use] there haven’t been any major disasters through making cannabis available”.

It is not in the character of Labour or Conservative governments to trust people to make informed decisions about their own desires and the risks they face. They tend instead to treat individuals like children, to be swaddled and protected from all risk. The result is a thriving criminal underworld, misery exported to the Third World, and a future public health situation about which the scientific and medical authorities have no knowledge. Prohibition has failed.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

A defeat for freedom and reason

I am increasingly convinced that an epic struggle is underway between the forces of reason and those of ignorance, between progress and fear. That’s a pretty bold claim, and includes language usually reserved for Channel 4 adverts for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the fact remains that science and progress are under threat from a vocal and sometimes criminal minority.

Yesterday a Derbyshire farmer withdrew from a trial of genetically modified potatoes due to take place next year on the grounds that he fears for his personal safety. He claims to have received threatening phone calls. This reminds me of the incident in 2001 when protesters (including environmentalist and journalist George Monbiot) destroyed GM crop-trial in Flintshire, only two of whom were tried and given what were cursory fines. It is also linked to other anti-scientific movements.

In fact, nobody has ever proved any risk to health as a result of consuming GM crops. America’s 280 million people have been chomping their way through GM products for a decade without one recorded ill effect – despite this being the country where a man can sue Michael Jordan because he looks like him! The leading scientific academies of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the UK and the USA have all declared that GM foods are safe.

Furthermore, GM crops have clear beneficial effects. They are great for the six million poor Third World farmers who grow them: Chinese farmers have seen profits rise by $500 a hectare; South Africa’s small scale cotton farmers have seen profits rise by three quarters; the reduced reliance on pesticides and herbicides has also reduced the damage to these farmers’ health. It also has a positive knock-on effect on the environment for the same reason. The “Golden rice” that is being produced is an odd colour because it contains a higher than normal amount of beta-carotene. If cultivated and consumed widely around the world it could alleviate the half million cases annually of child blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency. Plants are being modified to make vaccines to protect people against hepatitis and diarrhoeal diseases that cause millions of deaths.

The fear of GM crops is an irrational result of a number of factors. The fear of science is as old as science itself, championed by the Church and the subject of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the case of food-fear, it began to gain real ground in Britain after the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis. Though this was a tragic episode, the ramifications of which thousands are still having to live with, it had nothing to do with GM food. Rather, it triggered a wave of food paranoia that still clouds debate in the UK today.

Debate is, in fact, what we need. Food safety is an important issue, but so is poverty alleviation, environmental protection and (dare I say) the economics of food production. Rational debate about the balance between these is necessary, as is a serious examination of the risks and rewards of using GM crops. What cannot be tolerated is that a small minority of ignorant zealots can be allowed to disrupt scientific research and threaten people’s safety. As with the criminal activity of antivivisection extremists (plenty of examples of which are already well known), it is essential that the Government and the police take a firm stand. The use of “direct action” in the name of the public interest or the supposed rights of animals is not only illegal but a threat to democracy. If we are all free to damage property and intimidate people associated with things with which we disagree, we are living not in liberty but in anarchy. These actions undermine freedom in the name of irrational beliefs.

Today’s story is a defeat for reason and for freedom. I hope it proves to be a rare one.

Friday, 15 December 2006

The lifestyle police are on the prowl again

Between the overweight, smokers and those who are fond of the sauce the social moralists are busy these days. Indeed, they’ve still managed to find time to berate parents, the indolent and various other groups too. It seems there is no rest for the self-righteous.

Today it is fat people whose lifestyles are under scrutiny. A team of public health professionals including Sir George Alberti, the Government’s national director for emergency care, and Laurence Gruer, director of public health science at NHS Health Scotland, have written in the British Medical Journal that large-sized clothes should have a fat-help line phone number printed on the label, sweets should not be available at checkout counters, fatty food should be taxed, urban roads should only be allowed if cycle lanes are built in, and a centralised agency should be set up to coordinate all aspects of obesity.

This is a shame. The issue that the report addresses is a serious one: while obesity is a sign of the success of our society – far fewer people die of diabetes than of malnutrition in the world – it is now one of the major health risks in Britain. Some of the proposals make a degree of sense but need thinking through better. Others, however, are misjudged, paternalist and judgemental.

Regular health checks for primary and secondary school leavers make some sense, but it would be better to ensure that children saw their GP regularly (and more than twice) than to send health inspectors to schools. Prohibiting all road building that does not factor in cycle lanes looks good on paper, but cycle lanes of the sort most common in Britain – a painted strip 18 inches from the curb – are unsatisfactory. Real cycle lanes need to be as distinct as the road is from the pavement, but this would incur huge costs. It is unlikely that the presence of a British-style cycle lane is going to tempt many out of the car and onto the bike; carbon taxes are more likely to achieve that!

While both these suggestions are worthy, however, others are less so. Creating a centralised agency is the knee-jerk reaction of the prominent bureaucrat, the professional expert and the righteously indignant. Far from centralising policy and decision making, what is needed is more focus on the individual and more tailored local provision. Taxing fatty foods is an example of nannying: the State’s role is to protect people from one another, not from themselves, and the taxes will be either ineffective or punitive, serving nobody but the Chancellor and probably hurting poor people who are best placed to decide how to allocate their own meagre resources.

As for sowing health advise into clothes above a certain size, one might as well print the word “Fatso” on the label, and ask the buyer to apologise for using up so much space as they hand over payment. The labels, far from providing useful information to those who do now know where to look for help (WeightWatchers and the family GP are both pretty well known), will act merely as a badge of shame, undermining people who are happy with their shape and further depressing those for whom it is a cause of upset.

The authors of this report are correct to say that “pull yourself together” is not an adequate response to obesity. Neither is finger-pointing. The responses that this problem requires are far more complex and far more subtle than can be achieved by a creating a new quango and handing down policies from the centre.

Too much freedom and accountability

Credit where credit’s due, the Labour Government has done some very good things since it was elected. Sadly, most of those were in its first term, and the best was within its first week. I genuinely believe that had Gordon Brown resigned after one week in office, having handed control of interest rates to the Bank of England on his sixth day, he would forever be known as the greatest Chancellor Britain has ever had. Instead, he will be known as the man who wrecked the public finances and raised taxes to their highest level in a quarter of a century.

Another of those great innovations were the Freedom of Information Act. It is a commonplace of democratic societies that for the citizens to hold the executive to account, information must be available for them to examine. The legislature has had this right for a long time through parliamentary questions (usually written and rarely the stage-managed Whitehall farce that is Prime Ministers’ Questions). All governments curb this right with qualifications – one can hardly expect MI5 to reveal what’s in its filing cabinets – but the general principle is that information is available unless it meets a specific exemption category.

One thing that should not affect this right is whether the executive believes that the enquiry is a good use of public time and money. It is implicit in the fact of the Act that it is a priori in the public’s interest that the time and money is made available to providing the information, because the public’s interest is served by the executive knowing that its records can be scrutinised.

But one can have too much of a good thing; the public interest can be served too well. How is a government to function when pesky journalists and politicians keep digging up the dirt hiding in their files? Occasional requests by people affected by a particular policy may be tolerable, but these researchers and campaigners who are a constant thorn in the side of government need to be curbed. After all, the government knows best; that has always been part of the Labour mantra – at least, when they are in government; when they are out of government that is because it has been captured by special interests, or the voters have succumbed to lies or selfishness or ‘just don’t get it’.

So to its eternal discredit (and this government has been eternally discredited by many of its policies over the years) it has announced today plans to curb its own Freedom of Information Act. It is looking to include officials’ time in the calculation of the cost of responding to a request, which will mean that many more requests – and particularly the complicated ones that journalists submit – breach the £600 limit over which requests may be turned down. If one involves enough officials or pays them a high enough salary, almost any request could be shot down in this way. Another suggestion is that ‘serial requesters’ (the FoI equivalent of nuisance callers) should be limited to only a certain number of requests over a certain period. So, for example, repeat offenders with nothing better to do than harass hard-working government departments such as, oh, say the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Guardian or a political party, will only be able to put in a limited number of requests a year (and yes, the do intend to lump organisations together, rather than count each journalist individually).

In truth, this is evidence of the yawning gap between the high principles that Labour espoused ten years ago and the sordid reality of a decade of power. No longer are they scalded by opposition and keen on open government; now they are burnt by sleaze and scandal and keen to be able to hide behind the veils of Whitehall. Freedom of information is not just any law, like licensing hours or the speed limit, that can be debated and amended every few years by parliament to reflect the will of society. Freedom of Information is a fundamental liberty, without which we cannot hold our executive to account. And as with all infringements of liberty, one has to ask what the tyrant is trying to achieve; or in this case, what are they trying to hide?

Save me from incentivisation!

Can anybody help me?

I'm desperately trying to find another word to substitute for "Incentivising". A colleague came across this foul neologism, and I am struggling to find a word with which to replace it.

I am stuck between "encourage" and "reward", and need something that captures both concepts.

Please. For the love of English! Somebody help me!!

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Why I take no joy from Tony Blair's shame

So far Liberal Democrat bloggers appear to have been remarkably quiet about the announcement today that the Prime Minister has been interviewed by police over the "cash-for-honours" scandal. Perhaps this is wise. Until we know the outcome of the investigation, it is too early to crow.

Actually, I doubt very much whether I will ever manage a sense of schadenfreude over this issue. The fact that a serving Prime Minister has been questioned by police fills me with a sense of great sadness and some degree of shame. Where even lesser-ranking Labour dignitaries to face trial, let alone be found guilty, it would be a lasting shame to our country and its political system.

One of the reasons why Britain has done so well economically over the past quarter of a century is that we are known internationally as a place where business is transacted honestly, free from the corruption that blights so many other jurisdictions. This is why another, unconnected story, fills me with equal concern. The Attorney General announced today that the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into corruption relating to BAE's Al Yamamah contract has been discontinued. The reason given was that it was in danger of harming Anglo-Saudi relations, and implicitly our chances of future arms sales.

I have never been one of those who believed that we should not sell arms internationally, or that the Saudi's were beyond the pale (I would happily sell them aircraft, but would draw the line at items that can be used for internal repression or torture). But the cancelling of this investigation also suggests that Britain is prepared to tolerate corruption if the price is right.

These two stories, coming as they do on the same day, can only harm our image internationally and (imperceptibly, because such damage is always harder to discern than the obvious quick-win) impact upon our economy. Perhaps more seriously, it damages a reputation for honesty and integrity of which we can be justifiably proud.

Iraq, the media and the war on terror

Matthew d’Ancona, editor of the Spectator, gave a speech yesterday at Policy Exchange at which he launched a pamphlet entitled Confessions of a Hawkish Hack – the media and the war on terror. He was also interviewed by the New Statesman’s Martin Bright. In what was a generally thoughtful and at times pessimistic discussion, perhaps the most interesting feature was that both the right-wing Mr. d’Ancona and the left-wing Mr. Bright admitted that that they might yet be proved wrong regarding their positions (respectively pro- and anti-) on the “War on Terror” and the Iraq War.

Those of you who now dismiss everything that supporters of the war have to say as though their every utterance is forever tainted should look away now, for this discussion is not for you. It is about you, however, for one of Mr. d’Ancona’s main themes was that one tragedy of the Iraq War is that it has undermined –perhaps destroyed – our society’s ability to engage in much-needed debate about the war between Islamic fundamentalism and Western values.

Mr. d’Ancona’s argued that Tony Blair’s decision to publish the Iraq Dossier both confused intelligence (the art of assessment, interpretation and educated guesswork) with spin (the art of presenting maybes as definites) and made the justification of the war rest on the existence of WMD, rather than Saddam Hussein’s violation of 12 years of Security Council resolutions. “Iraq” had now become shorthand for everything that is wrong with the New Labour project, and for its ultimate failure.

The result was that the much more important debate about how we confront Islamists bent on establishing a global Caliphate (an attitude that some American’s have taken to describing, quite accurately, as “Islamo-fascism”) is now framed in simplistic terms that paint everything as black and white and uses one single battle as a yardstick for the wider debate.

The question one is asked as a matter of course is “Where did you stand on Iraq?”, and how one answers is taken as indicative of where one stands on everything else, and whether one’s judgement is worthy of consideration. Mr. d’Ancona did not use the simile, but it would be like judging one’s position on the liberation of Europe by asking whether one supported the Battle of Arnhem.

Mr. d’Ancona’s fear is that we may be losing a war that many of us refuse to accept exists. While he recognises that “War on Terror” is a vague and unsatisfactory term, he questions what alternative President Bush could have used after 9/11: to name Islam even in context would have stoked the crusade fallacy Bin Laden would have us believe; to refer to it as merely a crime would not have satisfied the horror felt around the world. The enemy certainly views it as a war, and its plans span generations.

“This is the cold sweat war” in which the terrorist first spreads fear and then discord; we fight amongst ourselves, both between and within democracies. Meanwhile governments face the pressure to appear constantly new, constantly interesting, so that priorities become lost in “the quest for the daily mandate”. Governments have become subject to a form of ADHD, constantly flitting from one policy area to the next, frantically legislating and politicking, and journalists are party to it; they demand hyperactivity because it feeds their thirst for rolling-news.

The West is suffering from its own consumer culture (there d’Ancona would agree with both the domestic left and the Islamic far-right). If we don’t like a product we take it back and throw it away. This is liberating where MP3 players and mobile phones are concerned. With political parties it is harmful, and in foreign policy it is disastrous. Politics in general and foreign affairs in particular require strategic thinking; a sense of what we want at the finish and how we will get there. The key to strategy is that we stick to it even when faced with tactical setbacks; Tobruk didn’t make us abandon the North Africa Campaign.

Too many in the West now think that once the “Two madmen” that led us into Iraq have left office we will be able to put the sordid chapter of their folie à deux behind us and return to the norm of peace. This is wrong. “Modern conflicts are not trials of strength but of will”. This war, with a strain of Islam that teaches that the West is decadent and must be overthrown and which trains our own citizens to be its foot-soldiers, will grind on long after Blair and Bush are gone. The question is, do we have the patience we need to save our civilisation?

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Labour Party in panic over party funding plans

Sir Hayden Phillips’s second interim report on party funding has been leaked to the BBC, and it contains bad news for Labour.

Sir Hayden appears to be leaning towards capping donations at £500,000, and reducing that cap over four years to just £50,000. This would be hard for the Labour Party, as it has less high income donors than the Conservatives, who have been calling for a £50,000 cap for this very reason. How it would leave the Liberal Democrats is known only to Cowley Street insiders.

However, it is in the following section that Sir Hayden strikes at the heart of the Labour Party. With impeccable logic and no sense of the political ramifications involved, the former Permanent Secretary at the Lord Chancellor’s Department has declared that “I see no reason why donations from trades unions should be exempt from the cap”. This, and another suggestion that trades union members should be allowed to opt out of donating part of their subscription to the Labour Party, could deal a fatal blow to Labour.

Labour has traditionally relied heavily on trades union donations. If these are now capped at £50,000 it will cripple them financially at a time when they are £23.4 million in debt. More importantly, it will break the unhealthy grip that trades unions have over Labour Party policymaking, effectively freeing the party once-and-for-all from the rent seeking of these particular special interest groups.

If proof of the significance of this were needed, it was provided by John McDonnell MP, so far the only Labour member to announce his candidacy for the leadership (his slogan: “Another world is possible” – and he should know, as he must be living on one if he expects to receive anything other than a drubbing).

McDonnell claimed that the party would react with “fury” to this independent review, and that there would be “uproar” at the next National Executive Committee meeting. According to McDonnell, trades union donations are the “cleanest money in politics”, and at a time of Labour sleaze should be welcomed. Presumably, he thinks cash-for-favours is somehow better than cash-for-peerages.

While there are important liberal questions about limiting how individuals dispense with their money, this is probably a good policy. Individuals will still be able to finance their own campaigns that support particular issues and so guide the decisions of electors but their power over elected officials will be greatly reduced. Even if Labour can survive the financial pain these proposals will cause them, Sir Hayden will have provided a great service to democracy.

Goodbye Europa – reform or die

Last night I attended a lecture hosted by Policy Exchange at which Alberto Alesina launched his new book, co-authored with Francesco Giavazzi. The English title is The Future of Europe: Reform or Decline but it’s more exciting Italian title is Goodbye Europa?

In light of yesterday’s speech by Sir Menzies Campbell about Europe, and my own comments about the need for humbler, more liberal European Union, Professor Alesina’s comments were particularly germane.

He began by noting that between 1945 and 1985 Europe’s economy outperformed that of the USA as it emulated American technology and methods, eventually averaging 75% of American GDP. However, most of this was due to the high relative productivity of European workers – our Continental cousins may not work as long as Americans, but they are more productive when the do – and since 1985 Europe has begun to lose its edge. In future, as total productivity is further eroded by high unemployment (including the effect of demographics), short working weeks (that pesky Working Time Directive) and long holidays, Europe will begin to slip back. He observed that in 1950 Italy’s GDP per capita was 30% that in the USA, whereas in 1990 it had reached 80%; it is now back at 1970s levels and he predicts by 2030 Italy’s relative GDP will be back down to its level in the 1950s.

Professor Alesina was clear about what was needed – and what was not! European economies must liberalise trade in goods and services as a means of liberalising their labour markets. They should allow immigration, especially from areas with “high human capital” (i.e. educated Eastern Europeans), promote (but not subsidise) research, reform welfare and enhance competition. They should steer clear of pumping extra cash into universities, or obsessing about infrastructure, the Growth and Stability Pact, or further integration – especially in social policy.

This will not be easy, for some of our European neighbours are not natural liberals. He cited a University of Maryland study that noted that whereas 73% of Americans and 67% of the British said that they believed the market was the best way to structure an economy, in Italy this was only 59% and in France only 36%! (Interestingly, the highest level of support for the market, at 75%, was to be found in nominally-communist China).

Professor Alesina and the other speaker, Ludger Schuknecht of the ECB, both argued that gradual, piecemeal reform was ineffective. Mr. Schuknecht provided evidence that “timid reformers” had seen little or no change in their GDP growth rates, whereas “bold reformers” had seen GDP growth rise by more than 50%.

The message was clear. European economies need bold, liberalising reform. Whether they get it, however, is another matter.

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Reform in Europe should be at core of Liberal policy

Sir Menzies Campbell (I can’t bring myself to call him “Ming”) has given an interesting speech to the Centre for European Reform in which he calls for a rebalancing on Britain’s relationship with the US and reform in the EU.

I have written elsewhere of the need to be an honest friend to the US, supporting them when they are right but telling them frankly when they are wrong. It is Sir Menzies’s comments on the EU that I wish to examine here, for they mark an important shift in emphasis which I think the Liberal Democrats should note and adopt more widely.

His main point, that “The EU would better reflect its peoples’ priorities if it stuck to legislating only when necessary”, is one with which I agree wholeheartedly. At Harrogate last year I attended a fringe event where Nick Clegg asked what the EU would need to do to better reflect the needs of its citizens. My one-word answer was “Less.”

The European Commission exhibits a tendency common to like all bureaucracies, and especially those also granted executive power: a drive to expand its powers. This is catagorically opposed to what we, as liberals, believe.

There is no need for the EU to interfere to regulate individual member-states’ labour laws, VAT rates or manufacturing standards. Indeed, Sir Menzies is wrong to suggest that “Harmonisation” to set common standards on cocoa solids in chocolate and the volume of lawn mowers are welcome policies that allow British goods to be sold abroad. Rather, they undermine the point of competition, which is that all products are different and consumers make informed choices. Perhaps a Parisian has a taste for Cadbury’s, or an Italian is prepared to put up with a noisy but cheap fly-mo. Bureaucrats in Brussels do not need to regulate at this level; consumers will regulate for them by eschewing products that do not meet their needs.

As for that excrescence know as the CAP, if farmers need subsidising that should be a decision taken by national governments. Those that wish to prop up inefficient farms should be free to do so at the expense of their own taxpayers. Those that would rather let their farmers struggle – and in many cases thrive – in the market should equally be free to liberalise their markets and cut their taxes. There may be a single-market/competition issue here, but basic liberal economics tells us that the main benefits of trade come from imports rather than exports; frankly, I would be happy to see French taxpayers subsidising my Brie and Bordeaux.

So I welcome Sir Menzies call for a Powers Audit to decide what should and what should not be decided at a European level. Had this been the aim of the European Constitution I would have been all in favour of it (though sadly it looked more like a means of extending Brussels’ powers rather than limiting them, which is the proper role of a constitution). In fact, I would urge Liberal Democrat colleagues to go further. While championing the opportunities that Europe offers, we must be honest about its failings and unstinting in our call for reform. Indeed, rather than allowing our opponents to paint us as “Pro-Europe” we should make the point that we are pre-Britain, and what is best for Britain is a liberal Europe.

So we must be at our most voluble when we are calling for reform, just as we are within our own nation. Let the electorate hear us demand not just a stronger Europe, but a more humble one; a Europe that trusts individuals, devolves decision making to the lowest possible level, frees markets rather than binding them in red tape, and so thrives through diversity.

Brown’s retrospective taxes are affront to the rule of law

I’ve been stung!

I’d better declare my interest now, as I believe one should be open about one’s interests. A few weeks ago my wife and I bought two airline tickets to Cape Town. Gordon Brown has since announced that people like me – airline passengers who bought their tickets before this month’s pre-budget report – will be taxed. This gives us no option to change our behaviour to avoid the tax – unless we sacrifice the £450 ticket to avoid the £20 fee – so not only is it unfair and arbitrary, it will not in any way reduce carbon emissions.

The Times reports that “Airline passengers face long delays at airports from February because check-in staff will be required to collect the increase in departure tax announced last week. More than seven million people had already booked flights before the announcement in the Pre-Budget Report that Air Passenger Duty will double from February 1. Those passengers will have to pay the extra tax when they check in for their flights.”

This is a blatant violation of the legal principle that laws must be prospective. By applying this new tax ex post facto to airline tickets bought before the pre-budget report, it has denied purchasers to ability to make informed decisions knowing in advance how the Government would tax their activity. Those who have bought airline tickets in all innocence prior to the pre-budget report are now landed with extra fees that they could not predict – indeed, that they had every reason to assume would not apply, as ex post facto taxation violates the principle of the rule of law.

It is an excellent example both of the Chancellor’s lack of principle and of his mendaciousness. The alleged justification for this tax hike is to reduce pollution caused by rising air travel. But those who bought their ticket prior to the pre-budget report could not predict the new tax and so it can have had no impact upon their decision. Thus, in its retrospective application, it is merely another arbitrary expropriation of private wealth without justification on either environmental grounds or on the principle that taxes are applied generally.

Applying this new tax retrospectively is another example of the Chancellor’s arbitrary seizure of private wealth.It is an entirely unprincipled effort to make a seemingly randomly selected group of citizens help finance his public spending profligacy. That I am one of those caught in his web is my bad luck. I hope those more fortunate than I will nonetheless share my disgust.

Monday, 11 December 2006

State education condemns millions of children to the scrap-heap

The failure of Government policy on education was highlighted today in two reports. In one, literacy expert Jean Gross suggests that poor literacy is costing the State £2 billion a year in lost earnings and additional public expenditure. Meanwhile, figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that there are 1.24 million people aged between 16 and 24 who are not in work, training or education, a 15 per cent increase since Labour came to power. The figure is worse for 16 and 17 year olds, where the increase has been 27 per cent.

This comes as no surprise when one considers that the OECD estimates that around a third of school leavers in the UK are functionally illiterate, ranking below such countries as Finland, the Czech Republic and Portugal. It doesn’t need to be this way; Sweden regularly achieves a 100 per cent functional literacy rate.

It does not take a genius – or even a degree of literacy – to recognise that these two factors are linked. Most people would expect to be able to read and write before they leave primary school, yet a huge minority enter secondary school completely unable to cope with the demands. These are the children that become disaffected and give up on an education system with which they cannot cope. Two in every five school children leave without any worthwhile qualification. With little prospects of a job in an age when Britain is a developed, information-driven service economy, they drift into unemployment, and from there to drugs and crime. It is no coincidence that while one in three school leavers cannot read and write, in our prisons the statistic is seven in ten.

If after eleven years of compulsory education the State cannot impart the most basic skills necessary for 21st century life – literacy and numeracy – it is time to accept that State education is failing. While the best performers in the OECD survey were the highest spenders, overall there were no correlation between expenditure and literacy. Rather, the problem is in a system that lumps children of all abilities into one, uniform type of school, prioritises the choices of bureaucrats over those of parents, stifles innovation among teachers creates no incentive for success.

The solution is more competition, performance related pay, parental choice and autonomy for schools that wish to innovate. The State’s role is to ensure that education is available to all irrespective of wealth or background; that does not mean it needs to provide education itself. This will be best achieved by giving parents the spending power, allowing the money to follow the pupil, while schools compete on quality and on specialist provision to cater for the needs of the children they wish to serve. With power in the hands of parents and schools competing for children, the quality of service will rise. In education, that means more literacy, a stronger economy and less crime.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Ideology trumps journalism in BBC debate on “ethical shopping”

You know you’ve touched a raw nerve when everybody attacks you. So Kendra Okonski discovered when she was interviewed on the BBC this morning. The Environment Programme Director at the International Policy Network had been invited to appear to discuss a report in The Economist about the contradictions within the ethical shopping industry.

According to The Economist, organic production is less intensive than production that relies on chemical fertiliser, and so requires more land. Thus a greater reliance on organic production would require turning more of our natural environment into cultivated farmland. Ms. Okonski noted on the BBC that UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimate that to turn the world’s farming over to organic production would require additionally farming an area of natural habitat size of South America.

“Fair Trade” is equally misguided. While it may demonstrate a caring heart that a consumer buys a product at above the market price and transfers the premium to the poor farmer, this is nothing more than a form of charity channelled through the purchase of tea, coffee or some other commodity. Prices are low because of overproduction – there is a glut of coffee on world markets, for example. “Fair Trade” encourages farmers to continue to supply an over-produced commodity where they would be better off shifting to producing different commodities. This further depresses the price, hurting those farmers not receiving the so-called “fair” price.

As for the new fad for locally produced food, as over half the “food miles” added to UK food production are generated by the purchaser, and most people live nearer the supermarket than the farmer’s market, buying locally can actually result in adding more food miles to a product. Furthermore, farming locally is inefficient: it uses less energy to raise lamb in New Zealand and fly it to the UK than to raise it in Britain, because farming in New Zealand is less energy intensive. The fad for local food is actually old-fashioned protectionism masquerading as ethical shopping.

The Economist has always produced articles under its title without naming contributors. Thus we have no idea whether Ms. Okonski contributed to the report. The BBC invited her to comment on the report, however, so one would have expected her to be treated neutrally. Sadly, it was not to be. Both Ms. Okonski and the Economist had clearly hit upon a sensitive subject at Broadcasting House. After her first comment, BBC presenter Susanna Reid flatly contradicted her: “No!” she said, dismissing Ms. Okonski’s opinion, before arguing the counter case. As the BBC had also invited another speaker to put the supposedly ethical case, this was unnecessary; Ms. Reid’s role was to facilitate the debate rather than take sides.

At the close of the item, Ms. Reid was seen to pull what one can only assume was her “What was all that about?” face, before moving on to advertise the following programme, Saturday Kitchen. There, chef James Martin – who was drafted into the programme after the infinitely superior Anthony Worrall Thompson defected to ITV – and his two guests proceeded also to rubbish the evidence and research of international institutions, think tanks and the media. Presuming that neither Mr. Martin nor his fellow chefs have a PhD in Environmental Science or several years experience in a research institute, one can only assume that they were pontificating about something of which they knew nothing.

If consumers are to make choices that are really environmentally conscious and serve the interests of the world’s poor, they need to be better informed. This requires serious debate. Sadly, serious debate is difficult on the BBC when the ill-informed but nonetheless entrenched opinions of its staff are challenged. Universal condemnation often confronts those who make unorthodox and challenging suggestions. The more roundly these new ideas are condemned, the more carefully they should be examined.

Friday, 8 December 2006

Can't count. Won't count.

The Government response to the Ofsted Childcare Register consultation contains an excellent example of the Government's Orwellian double-think.

Compare these two sentences from adjacent paragraphs, referring to the same proposal in the original consultation

52. Most respondents agreed with the arrangements...

53. 21% of respondents agreed that the requirements strike the right balance. 4% agreed strongly. 27% disagreed with the proposals. 26% disagreed strongly. 16% had no strong opinion.

Now, I know mathematical standards are falling, but surely our schools can teach that 27+26=53, and that as such most people disagree with the government's proposal.

In fact, over twice as many disagree as agree. But that would necessitate the Government changing its mind, and that was never the point of the consultation.

Pre-Budget report is final nail in Stern coffin

Just weeks after the publication of the Stern Review into the economics of climate change, the author has quit the Treasury. Sir Nicholas Stern, Second Permanent Secretary and a former head of the Government Economic Service, will leave in March for a new job at the London School of Economics.

Sir Nicholas was brought into the Treasury in 2003 as part of an effort to wean Gordon Brown off political advisers. It was hoped that he would add some genuine, impartial economic advice. But this entailed a few too many home truths; Treasury insiders have said that Sir Nicolas’s long-term growth predictions were not as rosy as Mr. Brown’s.

On Wednesday the Chancellor gave his pre-budget report to the House. The environmental measures were weak – road transport is still the cheapest it has been for a quarter of a century – and it is believed that Sir Nicholas had to fight hard even for these.

The pre-budget report is the final nail in the coffin of Sir Nicolas’s efforts to inject some greenery into this Government. Brown’s unwillingness to move from taxing work to taxing pollution shows him to be unimaginative and unconcerned with environmental issues.

Sir Nicolas’s departure also highlights the Chancellor’s dislike of advice from beyond his inner circle of acolytes. Any hopes that the era of sofa government will end with Tony Blair’s retirement look sadly misplaced.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Labour's election strategy - threaten the voters

The Labour Party has come up with an interesting new strategy for the Scottish elections: threaten the voters.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are facing a drubbing from the Scottish National Party (SNP), due to a combination of high oil prices and anti-incumbency feeling. The Conservatives continue to carry no weight north of the border.

The prospect of Gordon Brown taking over from Tony Blair just in time to see his party mauled in his home country and its new First Minister threatening a referendum on secession is causing panic in Labour ranks.

The response from countless cabinet ministers at the Scottish Labour Party conference has been to suggest that if Scotland votes in an SNP government it will threaten the heavy dose of subsidy that Scots enjoy at English taxpayers expense. Scots receive on average £1,500 a head more than in England, which partly explains why over half their economy is built on the public sector.

It seems pretty unlikely that the Scots are going to warm to a Labour Party that is intent on reminding them of their dependency on Sassenach largesse. Gordon Brown’s premiership looks like getting off to the worst of starts.

Faint praise from The Economist

The Economist gave faint praise to the Liberal Democrats in its article on party funding this week.

Describing the loans parties had taken out, it said "Labour owes £23.4m, a sum that exceeds... its spending... in last year's election campaign. The Conservatives have piled up even more debt, worth £35.3m... The Liberal Democrats are in the happier position of owing only £1.1m."

Sadly, the dire state of the two main parties' funding suggests that the chances are growing of their using their power to oblige the taxpayer to provide them with cash directly. They will argue that to save politics from the grubby world of donations and loans, and the influence they buy, parties should in future receive direct funding from taxpayers.

One cannot help but wonder, as our venal leaders feather their own nests, whether what the parties really need to save them from sleaze and corruption is a some honour - and not the kind that gets doled out in return for a loan.

Crime is not “Anti-social behaviour”

The BBC reported today (6 minutes and 10 seconds into the One O’clock News) that 55% of offenders are ignoring their Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), 35% repeatedly. Yet as the footage (6 minutes and 47 seconds) in the report demonstrates, the behaviour being exhibited may be anti-social, but it should not be being dealt with by using behaviour orders.

Breaking into cars; smashing window; throwing rocks at vehicles and passers by; theft: this is not “Anti-social behaviour”, it is crime. Children committing these kind of offences should be arrested and prosecuted. It is not necessary to send them to prison or a young offenders institute – adult prisons are already bulging with men who were given custodial sentences in their youth. But it is not enough to slap ASBOs on children who have been committing serious criminal offences.

Instead, they should be arrested, prosecuted, and then given community sentences. Hard, disciplined and valuable work to improve their local community – cleaning up litter, clearing graffiti – would be more effective than a paper ban on visiting the local park, and less likely to lead to further criminality than a custodial sentence. They should also be made to make recompense to the victims of their action, making them apologise to their victims and listen to how much distress they caused. Young offenders also need more effective social work and constructive activities. Most of all, they need to be given a sense of responsibility.

Shaun Bailey, a youth worker with the charity My Generation, whom the One O’clock News interviewed, was scathing of politicians attempts to understand the causes of crime: “‘Understanding the causes of crime’ is years long. We’ll never do it, because we live in a PC world where we can’t address our real issues… family breakdown, poor unemployment prospects, the fact that we live in a prevailing situation, now, that says that everybody’s a victim. Everybody’s a victim. Until we break that, we say to people ‘Actually, you need to raise your own personal standards’, then we’ll never deal with these problems.”

This is unexpected stuff from somebody who works closely with troubled children. Usually one associates youth workers with a mentality that blames structures and circumstances for criminality, rather than individuals and the choices they make. But Mr. Bailey is correct. While poverty, family breakdown and poor school performance present children with challenges, these do not in themselves cause anti-social or criminal behaviour. Many children do not turn to crime; some become leading lights in their community or go on to be very successful.

If we are to break the ‘cycles of deprivation’ that confront us, we certainly do need to tackle the problems of inner-city schools, urban blight, unemployment and youth poverty. But we also need to stop making excuses for the selfish and harmful choices that some people make. Individuals must take responsibility for their actions. It is essential that this is taught at an early age.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Moon shot makes Trident look like a bargain

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

So John F. Kennedy told a special joint session of Congress on 25 May 1961, and there was much rejoicing. I wonder if they would have been so pleased had they known that the Apollo Programme was destined to cost $135 billion (2006 dollars)?

One thing is for certain. The programme was not value for money. It has been over thirty years since anyone has been back. Apart from a few marginally interesting lumps of rock and an above average film starring Tom Hanks, we have little to show for it. Some of the technology has been used elsewhere, but it would have been cheaper to aim specifically for that technology than to go to the moon to justify it; it’s like justifying the 2012 Olympics on the grounds that it will regenerate East London.

But governments have never let something as mundane as thrift or prudence stand in the way of a costly boondoggle. So, with the scar tissue now barely perceptible on the fingers of the American taxpayer, NASA has announced that it is time to spend another $100 billion planning an initial return to the barren lump of rock. Planning, mind! The actual mission will cost more. And this time, they’re staying. The stuff of science fantasy is coming true as a genuine Moon Base Alpha is to be created. Hundreds of billions of dollars will literally go up in (or rather, on) flames.

And what vital purpose is this base going to serve? Why, it’s going to prepare the way for the first ever manned trip to Mars! I have no figures on what this will cost, but I cannot see how a moon base and a Mars-shot can cost less than $1 trillion. Admittedly, man may not walk on the moon again until 2020, and maybe man won’t set foot on Mars before (for an off-the-cuff date) 2046. But were my back of an envelope guesstimates to be correct, that would entail spending $25bn a year over the next forty years.

I cannot help thinking that there must, must be something better on which to spend a trillion dollars than sending men somewhere that is better suited for (cheaper, more effective) robots. In fact, would the US Government not be better off not spending it at all. Republicans are supposed to believe in small government and fiscal prudence; Democrats in social welfare. But the lure of the boondoggle is always too great for politicians.

Environmental hysteria poses real challenges

Tristan Mills’s excellent article on Environmental Hysteria highlights his concern that our future – even a future where we counter or adapt to global warming – is in danger. “We need sensible debate, not hysteria,” he writes. “We should not dismiss someone because they go against the orthodoxy, we should listen and argue based upon evidence.” I heartily agree.

One of the greatest dangers that we face as a society today is the polarisation of debate and the demonisation of opponents. In the environmental arena, this has manifested itself in virulent attacks on those who question the received orthodoxy. For example, to argue that Bjørn Lomborg was wrong and to point out errors in his work would have furthered debate and aided our understanding of environmental challenges. Instead, opponents brought a case in front of the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty in a deliberate effort to destroy him and his career. The lesson of this action was clear: heresy will lead to trial by fire.

Indeed, like a fire, a lot of the environmental debate has generated more heat than light. This is a tragedy, for no matter what the truth, it will not be found in closed-mindedness. At all times, all progress has begun with people who demurred from the orthodoxy of the day. Whether their opinions became the new truth or merely helped sharpen the arguments of those who were right all along, they served mankind. Thus I not only defend the freedom of speech but positively encourage it. I would urge a rational debate with David Irvine as much as I would have with Galileo; it was on a thousand years of tyranny that the great liberals cut their teeth.

I have found myself on the wrong end of this. Having questioned environmental hysteria myself, I have been branded a global warming sceptic (or sometimes, more strongly, a denier) and given the look that left-wing friends usually reserve for oil barons and Americans that vote Republican. In fact, I have never denied that planetary average temperatures are rising, that the effect may be anthropogenic or that it may lead to negative effects. What I have done is argue that we must still entertain the debate, that dirigiste solutions should not be our first recourse, and that there may be more urgent emergencies facing the human race that deserve priority. But nobody is listening; they think I drive a Humvee.

I’ve probably done myself few favours by adopting the Devil’s Advocate approach and confronting my interlocutors with counter-arguments rather than discussing the issues in the round. That is a matter of style, and perhaps one I need to address. Nonetheless, I would have hoped that people whom I called friends would have been capable of engaging in a mature debate.

Having said this, there is an important lesson for us all, and it is not just one of style. Those who wish to promote discussion are becoming victims of “triangulation”, a devious stratagem that involves associating an opposing view with other views that are so outlandish that third parties are alienated and so give you their support. The enviro-fascists (by which I specifically mean those who would use authoritarian means to pursue their environmental agenda, or conversely those would use the environment as a fig-leaf for tyranny) would like nothing more than to paint liberals, genuine sceptics and the open-minded as short-sighted carbon-junkies in league with Big Oil or blind to the obvious truth.

As a result, those who would question environmental orthodoxy – because they doubt the science, the risks, whether it is a priority or simply whether the solutions prescribed are the best available – are in danger of ending up on the wrong side of the history. For the sake of all our futures, they need to recapture the intellectual high ground. For those who question the very fact of environmental danger, only sound evidence and rigorous method will provide protection. For those who accept that there is cause for concern but who would seek to change priorities or approaches, it is important that they stake out their own ground within environmentalism. For both groups, a steely determination will be needed if they are to weather the storm of protest that will engulf them.

In this bitterest of public debates, emotion is running high. If we are all to prosper into the 21st century, heated words call for cool heads.

Text someone to tell them that reason has triumphed

Conspiracy theories and irrational fears irritate me, so it is with a sense of enormous joy that I read today that another Frankenstein delusion has been disproved.

An article on the Journal of the National Cancer Institute has conclusively disproved any link between mobile phone use and cancer.

This is no small study. 420,000 people who began using mobile phones between 1982 and 1995 were studied over 22 years; they had on average used their mobile for 8.5 years. The size of the sample enables incredibly accurate prediction. A control sample would have expected 15,001 cases of cancer, but in fact the group had a slightly lower incidence, with 14,249 cases of cancer being recorded.

The report concludes that “We found no evidence for an association between tumor (sic.) risk and cellular telephone use among either short-term or long-term users. Moreover, the narrow confidence intervals provide evidence that any large association of risk of cancer and cellular telephone use can be excluded.”

Perhaps we can at last put this ridiculous fear of science to bed. The future’s bright; the future’s orange!

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

The tyranny of the majority may condemn us all to gridlock

The Number 10 petitions website continues to fascinate me. I have resisted further temptation to sign up to stuff, even the delightful suggestion that we replace our stolid national anthem with Gold by Spandau Ballet.

Since my earlier criticism, which was picked up by Peter Riddell in The Times, I continue to be concerned that petitions imply apparent support for opinions with no opportunity to register dissent. However, this is not the end of the story. The petitions page could, in theory, garner in excess of 30m signatures for a particular policy. Would the Government then be compelled to legislate? If so, could this usher in the tyranny of the masses?

As a liberal I am concerned that democracy not excuse tyranny. The fact that a majority want something does not automatically justify it, especially if it is detrimental to others.

The petition that is concerning me at the moment is the most popular by far, out-polling even the repeal of the Hunting Act. An impressive 15,493 signatures have so far been appended to a petition calling upon the Government to Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy.

The thinking behind this petition is confused and wrong. The text of the full petition states that “Road pricing is already here with the high level of taxation on fuel. The more you travel - the more tax you pay.” While this does address the global environmental cost in the form of the carbon and other pollutants produced, it does not address the other main environmental concern – congestion. It is as expensive for me to drive a mile across the Highlands as it is across Piccadilly, yet roads in the Highlands are far more costly per mile facilitated as they are rarely used, while urban driving causes more lethal pollution (it is concentrated and hovers around pedestrians and residential properties) and slows other traffic, costing time and thus money.

Then, in a startling example of counter logic, the petitioners conclude “Please Mr Blair - forget about road pricing and concentrate on improving our roads to reduce congestion.” In fact, only road pricing can reduce congestion, because congestion is a natural by-product of free access; consumption unlimited by cost will expand until the consumer can gorge no more. Compare two other commodities: Britain has been awash with food since the Corn Laws were abolished (a bout of ill-conceived war-rationing aside) because we pay per loaf, but every year we are issued with hose-pipe bans because we pay a flat fee for unlimited water. As long as we can use the road without having to pay for it, we will use it without constraint.

An what about road improvements? Transport policy has always been a shambles as it has failed to compete for tax-money with more immediate concerns (health, education, war). To forestall one traditional liberal comment, Land Value Taxation would go part way to convincing those who benefit to fund infrastructure. But there is still a compelling case for the user to pay, at lest for the running costs if not for building in the first place (in fact, few infrastructure projects and no railways can be built if they rely on recouping their costs from users, as the stories of Railtrack and the Channel Tunnel both amply demonstrate).

Sadly, this argument has yet to be broadly accepted. Too many people in Britain have become used to free and unlimited road use. Thus, as with so many other “free” services, we are bedazzled by the joy of unlimited consumption to the point of being blind to the real costs that appear in the gap between our gross and net salaries.

Thus I fear Number 10’s petitions page. Government has a duty to lead, and with its decision to consider road user pricing, this Government has shown uncharacteristic leadership. Yet it has form for caving in to populism. I would love to sign a counter-petition to debunk the growing impression that people oppose road user pricing. But if I am in the minority I hope the Government still presses ahead. It is effective, it is efficient and it is fair.

Over-regulating the smallest of businesses

As most fellow bloggers will agree, blogging does not pay the rent. Man cannot live off Ad Sense alone (a few of the blog-illuminati aside), and like most of us I have a day job. I try to keep it away from this site, however, lest my bosses take umbrage.

However, as a policy analyst in a business that is receiving increasing attention from the Government, I do come across some excellent examples of how government undermines small business.

Take today’s story. Childminders – as you may know – are self-employed individuals that care in their own homes for other people’s children. They are regulated by Ofsted and are usually allowed to care for up to six children under 8 at any time. They are the ultimate small business: one estimate found that barely half turn a profit. The Government is keen to promote childcare in general, both because it enables (particularly lone-) parents to return to work and because good quality childcare can help boost the cognitive and behavioural performance of children from poor backgrounds.

Yet childminders are constantly being strangled by petty regulations. A childminder contacted my employer today to complain that her local council had decided to start charging her to remove her household rubbish because she was conducting a business out of her premises. They were only aware of her existence because she contacted them to ask for a larger wheelie-bin. Many large domestic households do this, but this particular council likes to check why a larger bin is needed. When they discovered that she cares for a handful of other people’s children for profit in her household, they deemed her a business and are threatening to charge her accordingly.

This is an execrable example of over-regulation. Though she does conduct business in her house, it is still a domestic premises. It has not been re-designated for planning purposes; she is not VAT registered; and the waste she is producing is no greater (or qualitatively different) from what would be produced if she had a large family. Yet short-sighted bureaucrats are prepared to hit her with unnecessary and costly extra fees because their rigid rules pay no attention either to the specifics of her case or to the broader objectives of national or even local government.

This is not an isolated example. Other childminders have been told they have to meet the same kitchen standards as commercial premises, even though they are only preparing meals for a handful of children, much as my mother did for twenty years without Government interference. One can imagine the above council also requiring those of us selling items on eBay to pay commercial rates for refuse collection too – all those jiffy bags clearly put us in the same category as Primark and the cement works!

Small business in Britain is being increasingly squeezed by well-meaning but ill-conceived regulation. This focus on the little things is damaging important, over-arching objectives: competitiveness; child welfare; liberty. It stems from the unwillingness of those in authority to trust individuals to do what is in their best interests, which is generally what is in everyone’s best interests – a bad business would be a bankrupt business very quickly. Instead of letting individuals make these judgements, Government seeks to judge for them, but because they cannot be everywhere at once they must do so with blanket edicts that undermine the greatest asset in our society: the enormous amount of information that is distributed among individuals.

This is hard to change; Governments of all stripes struggle against the temptation to meddle in our affairs. Se be glad you’re not making a profit out of your blog. If you were, the bureaucrats would be after you!