Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Is "neoliberalism" a real ideology?

A ‘neo’ is someone who pretends to be something, someone who is at the same time inside and outside of something; it is an elusive hybrid, a straw man set up without ever identifying a specific value, idea, regime, or doctrine. To say ‘neoliberal’ is the same as saying ‘semiliberal’, or ‘pseudoliberal’. It is pure nonsense. Either one is an favor of liberty or against it, but one cannot be semi-in-favor or pseudo-in-favor of liberty, just as one cannot be ‘semipregnat’, ‘semiliving’ or ‘semidead’. The term has not been invented to express a conceptual reality, but rather as a corrosive weapon of derision, it has been designed to semantically devalue the doctrine of liberalism.

Mario Vargas Llosa, “Liberalism in the New Millennium,” in I. Vasquez, ed. Global Fortune: The Stumble and Rise of World Capitalism, Cato Institute Washington DC, 2000, p16.

Friday, 7 December 2007

State funding of political parties both wrong and dangerous

Following on from Geoffrey Payne’s article about state funding of political parties, I’ve written a rather vast fisking. So lengthy is it that is enables me to trim it down to form a new article all of its own about that most hideous, awful and self-serving of ideas: state-funding of political parties.

State funding of political parties simply ingrains existing power and privilege. It is the ultimate reward for incumbency. What is more, it is a classic subsidy, with all the negative effects that result. If a politician suggested that Morrisons should receive state funding because they have fewer customers than Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda they would be laughed out of The House. Yet these self-same politicians that object to subsidising private companies are far more enthusiastic about subsidising their own organisations. One might think that this exposed a conflict of interest!

If a political party can’t attract the necessary pounds to operate then it deserves to go to the wall. Surely the demise of failing parties is creative destruction, and a failure to attract donors and members a sign that the rot has set in to a failing party. What is more, it is extremely dangerous. Forty years ago Labour and the Tories competed to lard business with subsidies with the effect that they ruined our economy. Do we really want to do the same with out politics?

If it seems that all politicians are self-serving, then it is equally hard to shake the feeling that the Lib Dems support for this is related to the fact that they feel hard-done-by in the donation game. Yet ironically the evidence suggests that we do well as a party despite our relative poverty. The fact is that in 2005 the Labour and Conservative Parties spent £18m each on the election while the Lib Dems spent a paltry £4m, yet the votes that were cast for the Labour and Conservative Parties were only 8m each compared with 6m for the Lib Dems. That says to me that money has a lot less to do with results than people think.

In fact, I would go further. Our support for proportional representation is based on the fact that we get a lot of votes but not many seats. Our concern about funding marches uncomfortably next to this, because our argument for PR is based on the evidence disproving the suggestion that the other parties are gaining unfair advantage from their donors.

There is often an attempt to use the freedom of speech argument here, and it usually revolves around the BNP. High-minded as liberals are, we have always been willing to support the right of those with whom we disagree to voice their opinions and stand for office. But to go from that to state funding is grotesque. If the BNP have support then they should be able to survive on donations. If they cannot garner that funding, then their support is clearly (ballot) paper-thin. People may as well spoil their ballot paper or – if they really want a thug for a councillor – put up a candidate themselves (it is free, after all!).

Taxes should pay for public goods because they are the most efficient means of doing so. By comparison, individuals should pay for individual goods on a user-pays basis. While political parties are undoubtedly necessary and inevitable, that does not make them public goods in the economic meaning of the term. Rather, they are like the Church: it may save us all from damnation, but its funding should still come solely from the believers!

So there you have it: my usual critique. But just for fun I’m going to do that all-too-rare thing and propose an alternative. I should add that I came up with this on the back of a fag packet this afternoon (figuratively, of course, as I was in a public place at the time!) and I’m putting it up for comment and debate rather than tabling it as a policy motion. But here’s a thought:

How about all donations being channelled though the Electoral Commission so that all are anonymous. Of course one could say one will donate half a million quid in exchange for a peerage or a British passport or an exemption for my sport to continue to advertise tobacco, but as long as the party to whom one has made the promise receives more than half a million pounds in the year, they’ll never know whether one was telling the truth or lying through one’s back teeth to curry favour. So much for the power of patronage!

Friday, 30 November 2007

Lessons from Rwanda V: Recognise a mistake and react quickly

When Gen. Dallaire was first sent to Rwanda to plan the UNAMIR mission, he was told by Maurice Baril, the senior military officer at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), not to recommend a brigade-sized deployment (4,000-5,000 personnel). The UN finally settled on 2,500, but it took many months to approach full strength, and even then the quality of the troops was mixed and lacked logistics support – they had too few vehicles, almost no working Armoured Personnel Carriers, only a couple of helicopters for only a part of the mission, and no heavy lift capability. As the war recommenced and the genocide began, rather than reinforce the mission, the UN wound it down.

A fortnight after the bloodshed had begun, and with tens of thousands already slaughtered in the streets and tens of thousands more cowering in UN compounds being protected by lightly-armed troops and unarmed military observers, Gen. Dallaire again reported to the DPKO:

“I received no solace when I raised the reinforcement option. Maurice [Annan and
Riza] simply responded that I should not expect anyone to wade into the mess in
Rwanda. The reinforcement option would never see the light of day, and that was
it… Early in the morning of April 22, [my military assistant] brought me… Security Council Resolution 912. The Council had finally voted for the skeleton force option. The resolution’s phrases were pure UN-ese: ‘…having considered…express regret… shocked… appalled… deeply concerned… stressing… expressing deep concern… concerns… strongly condemns… demands… decides… reiterates… reaffirms… calls upon… invites… decides to remain actively seized of the matter.
“As I write these words I am listening to Samuel Baber’s Adagio for Strings, which strikes me as the purest expression in music of the suffering, mutilation, rape, and murder of 800,000 Rwandans, with the help of the member nations of the only supposedly impartial world body. Ultimately, led by the United States, France and the United Kingdom, this world body aided and abetted genocide in Rwanda. No amount of its cash and aid will ever wash its hands clean of Rwandan blood.” (Shake hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda, Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, pp322-3)
The slaughter would go on for 100 days, yet 15 days in the UN passed up the opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of lives. Both Dallaire and Colonel Luc Marchel, the Belgian contingent commander, are clear that with four or five thousand well-equipped troops they could have imposed order on the warring parties and intervened to stop the slaughter. Marchel goes further: had the NATO nations that evacuated their troops in the second week then transferred the 1,500 well-equipped Belgian, French and Italian troops (plus 250 US marines to which Dallaire refers), “It was enough people to cease the situation inherent and to save the peace and to save the life from thousands of human beings.” (Frontline: The Triumph of Evil, interview with Col. Luc Marchel).

Marchel’s solution (I have not yet reached the conclusion and established whether Dallaire agrees) is “to have a standing force ready to move and ready to be on the ground as soon as possible.” But as even he admits, “we need a political will.” It is unlikely that national governments will hand their troops over to the UN with a clear writ to use them as they will, but if they would at least be more willing to deploy them when emergencies arose – be more willing to expend “blood and treasure” for the sake of peace and humanity – such terrible crises could be avoided in the future.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Lessons from Rwanda IV: force discipline is essential

In any multinational mission, it helps if there is a clear chain of command and all the national forces are singing from the same song-sheet. Sadly, that all too often fails to happen. UK and Canadian and Dutch troops in Southern Afghanistan have taken the brunt of the fighting there because other NATO nations refuse to deploy their forces to the South, to engage in peace enforcement or (in the case of the Germans) to leave their compounds after dark.

One particular problem is when national contingents contact their home nations to seek clarification of (or over-ride) the orders of their commanders. This, and some simple cowardice, hamstrung UNAMIR’s efforts in the opening day of the Rwandan genocide:

“[Brigadier General] Henry [Anyidoho, deputy force commander of UNAMIR,] was totally frustrated with the Bangladeshi troops. Their APCs [Armoured Personnel Carriers] were either mysteriously breaking down (we later found out that the crews were sabotaging the vehicles by placing rags in the exhaust pipes) or they couldn’t be reached (a confirmed tactic by some of the crews was to move a short distance from the headquarters, shut down the radio and return later, claiming they had been held at a roadblock.) Those who actually arrived at the place to which they had been sent exhibited a lack of zeal in pursuing their missions.

“A mob of angry locals, fired up by extremists, were blocking the entrances to the Amahoro Staduim complex [which was the UNAMIR force HQ and main base, and] to which thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were attempting to flee. Henry kept urging the Bangladeshi [contingent of UNAMIR] to clear the area, but their commander was not responding to his orders and was seeking direction from Dhaka. The couple of APCs that had returned to the stadium were sitting idle while Kigali Sector was pleading for them to respond to calls for help from other UNAMIR personnel and Rwandans at risk. I ordered Henry to inform the Bangladeshi commander that he was contributing to the potential deaths of Rwandans and UNAMIR personnel and that he would be held accountable. That night I found out that he had received direct orders from his chief of staff in Dhaka to stop taking risks, stay buttoned down, close the gates and stop carrying Rwandans in the APCs. He did exactly as he was ordered, ignoring the UNAMIR chain of command and the tragedies caused by his decisions.” (Shake hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda, Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, pp243-4)
Lest the reader think that this was a problem among the developing nation’s troops alone, however, Dallaire was equally scathing of aspects of the Belgian forces that were his most capable troops. Upon arrival the Belgian Para-Commandos, fresh from Somalia, were caught “bragging at the local bars that their troops had killed two hundred Somalis and that they knew how to kick ‘nigger’ ass in Africa” (p112). Later, during a visit from the Belgian army’s inspector general and the commander of the Para-Commando Brigade from whom the troops were drawn, Dallaire “broached the serious deficiencies in leadership, discipline and training of the Belgian battalion… Belgian soldiers were often frustrated by the patient negotiations required of peacekeepers… They saw themselves as the crème de la crème, as vastly superior soldiers to their UNAMIR colleagues. They seemed to view the mission as a sort of Club Med assignment…

“There had been dozens of incidents of disciplinary infractions. The Belgians were constantly being caught out of bounds in nightclubs that had been restricted for their own safety. They drank on patrol and got into barroom brawls…dancing and drinking in… the local hot spot, with their personal weapons… The Belgians often refused to salute or pay proper respect to officers of other contingents, especially officers of colour. There were Belgian soldiers who went absent without leave to Zaire and got up to heaven knows what until they were detained by the authorities…
“At the beginning of February, on of my Belgian patrols had roughed up [a senior Rwandan army officer and leading hard-liner, and later a] group of Belgian soldiers in civilian dress forced their way into the home of one of the heads of the extremist CDR party… assaulted him in front of his family… and, just before they left, one of them aimed a gun at his head and warned him that if he or his party or the local media ever again insulted or threatened Belgium, Belgian expatriates or the Belgian contingent of UNAMIR, they would return and kill him.” (ibid. p182-4)

Later, these men would order the murder of ten Belgian prisoners.

These contingents were not uniformly terrible: he describes both the Bangladeshis and the Belgians as “immensely impressive” for an operation they conducted before the conflict began (p195); Colonel Luc Marchal, the senior Belgian officer and Kigali sector commander, “understood and lived the mission” and stayed on for an extra six months following Dallaire’s personal request to the Belgian defence ministry (p205-6); and the Belgian troops who died during the mission “were and remain heroes of Rwanda” (p240).

But all too often a failure to treat the mission and its commanders with the same military professionalism that soldiers and officers would automatically show in a national operation hamstrung the mission, undermined the safety of UN personnel and abandoned Rwandans to their fate.

Not candidates but leaders: The London leadership hustings

Tonight’s London hustings were excellent, and there is no doubt that the Liberal Democrats, no matter what their individual views, can rest assured that their next leader will take the party forward into a positive future. Having lured many bloggers to the pub, I’m hoping that at lest some of them will have taken the night off and not blogged yet, so I’ll get my comments in first. (Fat chance!).

The more interesting part of the evening was undoubtedly the speeches; the answers to questions from the floor (and this blogger was cruelly ignored) were less (though still) edifying.

Chris Huhne “won the toss” and got to speak first, and started with a (populist, if only because I’ve heard it so often in the last few weeks) “Draft Vince” gag – which, to be (un)fair, is an easy crack once nominations are closed. He then proceeded to give one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard him make, and easily the best I’ve heard this campaign.

Chris started by stressing his liberal values and the need to set the tone for C21st; the Tories and Labour having no big ideas or radical solutions. Brown was the “Patron saint of tax accountants”; Labour had required real talent and hard work to engineer the first bank collapse in 140 years; Labour are a corrupt party, every one of their >£1n donors having received a peerage or a knighthood; he emphasised the David Abrahams case. As for the Tories: David Cameron was a career politician with no background outside politics, unlike Chris, who has an extensive pre-politician career; and Labour and the Tories were now one-and-the-same, and what Britain needed was “not a third conservative party but a first radical party.” He emphasised that a rich society should be a fair society, and that tough choices were necessary (such as abandoning Trident so as to fund our armed forces better). He stressed the need to end child poverty which blights the future chances of all the 3.8m children born into poor families. Sadly, he then re-used a tied old Huhne line: “Not just the open road…. but the fair start.”

Here a pause is required. Both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne were guilty of re-using old lines. I joked to Mrs. Polemic that Nick would begin his speech by saying that “I want to lead the Liberal Democrats because I want to live in a more liberal Britain” but he surprised me by leaving that quote to the end. Chris cited not only the above well-used line but also the old chestnut (re-cycled from his last bid for the leadership) about changing “not only the faces in the back of the ministerial limo” but also the whole nature of politics.

Chris also pushed the anti-school choice and anti-social insurance line, one which I must admit makes me cross. He stressed “If I am elected leader there will be no question that journalists will be confused about where I stand”. This is a reference to articles about Nick in certain newspapers. Ignoring my own proclivities, this is a clear attempt (used by Chris before) to position himself as opposed to something of which he has accused his opponent, but which Nick has consistently denied supporting. It is therefore a false issue that he is using as dog-whistle politics, and it makes me very uncomfortable.

Chris went on to emphasise his belief that climate change is the “greatest challenge of our time”, and that we were mortgaging our children’s future by ignoring it; it was the central theme of his political life. He noted that the Lib Dems had been setting the political agenda and winning the4 argument on this issue for some time. To conclude he stressed his ambition willingness to take risks, (confusingly) that “boldest measures are also the safest” (I really have no idea what that means) and reiterated (with that limo comment) the desire to change the system.

It was the best I have ever heard his speak, and as I noted to Mrs. Polemic as Nick stood up and had to wait for the applause to die down, “That wasn’t a candidate’s speech; that was a leader’s speech”. I felt like it was Thursday at the Autumn conference. As somebody who was previously strongly in the Clegg camp, I was genuinely impressed and thought that that was going to be a hard act to follow.

So when Nick stood up to speak (without notes), and had to wait for the applause do die down, I did think that something more than the average was going to be called for. What we were then treated to was the most passionate, most impressive and most convincing speech that I’ve heard from any would-be or actual leader (and I attended the leadership hustings in the same room nearly two years before).

Nick started by using the “Friends” line (all speakers at conference seem to address their audience as “Friends” or “Conference” and I suspect that there is a code to it that is lost on me, though I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that one hails from the Liberals and the other from the SDP – if others can correct me I’d welcome the knowledge) and warmed the room with a couple of jokes. He was altogether more jovial, though an MP noted to me afterwards that joking at the expense of the journalists wasn’t his cleverest move.

But, having clearly learned from his Question Time experience, he then launched directly into the passionate politics that has previously served him so well in this campaign. Some of it was a bit familiar, but what was clever was his deliberate use of London as an example: replacing his already-used example of the 14 year life-expectancy gap between Sheffield’s richest and poorest with Newham’s 16 years; the third of London’s children in workless families; and yet the amazing diversity in London (he also referred to the “arrogance about what is wrong” which I totally failed to understand). He was ambitious for our party, and wanted within two years to break the two party grip on elections. But we needed to start from where people were, not where we though they should be; we needed to be a party of hopes and dreams; of ideas and genius.

He then when to define five key policy areas that would shape the future. These were:

1) The “Epidemic of Powerlessness” that saw people shut out by the giganticness of both government and business; where (doing a classic Clegg and citing a personal example to highlight a point) he described the elderly couple that had struggled just to have a phone line in their house moved; where government advises us to shred our bank statements and then loses 26m people’s bank details; and (most importantly) where power should be handed not just “from Whitehall to the Town Hall” but also beyond to individual
2) “Social stagnation and exclusion” that led to unequal life expectancy and school performance based upon starting circumstances, that (and here I confess I’m sharpening his sound-bite) state schools “suck up the disadvantaged kids and pit out disadvantaged adults”; he would spend more money on less advantaged children to ensure that all got a decent education.
3) “Fear”, an issue the Lib Dems may have neglected and which affected the poorest most of all; and which required us to find practical solutions to real day-to-day problems
4) the environment (spreading good Lib Dem policies among Vince Cable and Norman Baker as well as Chris Huhne, diluting his opponent’s record), where we had spent too much time hectoring individuals while business, government and local authorities had to take a lead; and
5) Globalisation, which he noted (correctly) brought both positive and negative effects but which he (wrongly) would seek to “limit and control”. He was correct to note, however, that unaddressed, globalisation could lead to disenfranchisement, thence to apathy and so open the door to extremism. This had to be countered.

Nick concluded by noting that “Liberalism was the creed of our age”, that he was proud of our past but wanted a better future, and stressed that third place was not good enough. It was a winning speech, and the applause was deservedly prolonged.

Inevitably, after two such good speeches, the question-and-answer session was less good, and undoubtedly both need to learn to tighten up their answers. Having waxed above already I may leave that until tomorrow, but the Q&A did not change the overall sense of success – though it helped clarify particular policy issues. It was Nick’s night – no doubt about it – but whoever wins, the Lib Dems will have an excellent leader. Neither of them sounded like candidates this evening; they both sounded like leaders.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Lessons from Rwanda III: A crushing lack of political will

“Rwanda was on nobody’s radar as a place of strategic interest. It had no natural resources and no geographical significance. It was already dependent on foreign aid just to sustain itself, and on international funding to avoid bankruptcy. Even if the mission were to succeed, as looked likely at the time, there would be no political gain for the contributing nations; the only real beneficiary internationally would be the UN. For most countries, serving the UN’s objectives has never seemed worth even the smallest of risks. Member nations do not want a large, reputable and strong United Nations, no matter their hypocritical pronouncements otherwise. What they want is a weak, beholden, pathetic scapegoat of an organisation, which they can blame for their failures or steal victories from.

"Worst of all, I suspect that some of these powerful nations did not want to get involved because they had a firmer grip on the threats to the Arusha Accords than did the rest of us… [T]he permanent five of the security council, all had fully equipped and manned embassies in Rwanda, including both military and intelligence attaches… [T]hese nations either new in detail what was going on or were totally asleep at the switch. I firmly doubt they were asleep.” (Shake hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda, Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, pp89-90)

This is a damning assessment. Rwanda was so unimportant that even though the leading nations in the international community knew what was brewing, they did nothing to bolster the UN peacekeeping mission. Rather, they continued to starve the UN of the resources and political will it needed to do its job properly, primarily because a successful UN is a strong UN, and a strong UN not in these nation’s interests.

Dallaire was, of course, a long way from New York, and can only guess at the motivations of the great powers or their knowledge or motivations. But it is pretty clear that he was never given the resources he needed to do his job; not one whole battalion of troops was contributed by any nation, and one cannot simply add units from different nations to make up a whole. While the nations may not have known the full extent of the horror planned, it is clear that they were playing fast and loose with African lives. Eight hundred thousand of those lives would be lost.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

What I believe in a (slightly spooky) nutshell

Sometimes I struggle to explain why I am a liberal and what it is all about.

That might sound crazy, but the conversation almost always either gets lost in blue-skies philosophical maxims ("the greatest amount of individual freedom possible that does not constrain the freedom of others"), or else becomes bogged down in specifics (school choice; welfare reform). I guess the fact that I'm usually in a pub does not help, but the simple explanation has always failed me.

Thanks to Rob Knight (who takes his lead from The Devil - read into that what you will!) I am remineded that at the heart of liberalism is self-ownership: "I own my life and all that results from it. Therefore nobody may take my life or its product from me, nor impose their will upon me; neither may I do so to others." Tristan Mills mentioned this six months ago, but it seems it takes a cartoon to help me remember.

This 8 minute Flash film sums it up brilliantly. Sadly, it is also slightly spooky: as I commented to Rob,
"I agree with everything they say, but I do feel like a 6 year old in Brave New
World, getting my latest lesson in how to be a constructive citizen. Pass me the
Still, it's a good basic introduction to the premis of liberalism. Having explained the bases, it should be easier to move on to the specifics without assuming I'm mean, selfish or a Tory.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Praise doesn't pay for flak-jackets, Gordon.

"I have nothing but praise for our armed forces..." said Gordon Brown today, responding to criticism of his miserly defence budget.

I'm sure that the army will welcome the praise, but it would be nice if he had explained where they can trade it in for the equipment that they so desperately need. Not at the MoD, obviously.

Perhaps if he had said "I have something other than praise..." the army might have felt a little less abandoned.

Lessons from Rwanda II: A half-hearted commitment gives a half-baked outcome

Too often we hear the cry that "Something must be done", but all too often what we do is more about making ourselves feel better than allieviating the problem. We want to feel that we've done out bit, but we lack the necessary committment to do it properly. We do a half-harted job, and when the chips are down, we run away.

Thus, while the UN were planning their mission to stabalise Rwanda and uphold the peace, the member states were not really committed to the task.
'...the hard-liners I had met on my reconnaissance of Rwanda had attended the same schools that we do in the West; they read the same books; they watched the same news; and they had already concluded that... the West did not have the will, as it had already demonstrated in Bosnia, Croatia and Somalia, to police the world, to expend the resources or to take the necessary casualties. They had calcultated that the West would deploy a token force and when threatened would duck or run. They knew us better than we knew ourselves.' (Shake hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda, Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, p79)

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Lessons from Rwanda I: "Situating the estimate"

I have started reading Shake hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda, by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire. As head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), he was the man who was left holding the ring while the UN and its member states turned their back on the Rwandan genocide.

Having skipped over the fist half century of his life at a mercifully brisk page a year, on p56 he describes how from day 1 his peacekeeping mission was hobbled. He was asked to prepare an assessment for a mission to support the newly signed Arusha Accords, but describes how the head of the Military Division of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations
'...told me not to come back to him with a request for a brigade sized mission.
His words were roughly "This thing has to be small and inexpensive, otherwise it
will never get approved by the Security Council." I was taken aback. He was
asking me to "situate the estimate," as we say in the military, to design the
mission to fit available resources rather than to respond to the actual demands
of the situation we were being sent to assess.'
I've several hundred pages left to read, but I already know that Gen. Dallaire spent six weeks during the genocide begging his superiors to give him just a single brigade, with which be believed he could stop the slaughter and save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Sadly, the United Nations does not lend itself to swift, decisive action. For that, nation states are still required, perhaps forming (none-too-fashionable) "Coalitions of the willing".

And as George Santayana noted, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Lib Dem drinks: leadership hustings debriefing

Lib Dem leadership hustings debriefing

...because when it’s all over bar the shouting, where better to shout than The Prince Arthur.

Tuesday 27 November, after the leadership hustings and round the corner from the Friends' Meeting House.

Whether you are a Cleggite or a Huhnie, undecided or disaffected, if you can fight your way past the LDYS kids handing out badges and avoid the unprecedented approachableness of the two candidates in the lobby, come to The Prince Arthur at 80-82 Eversholt Street, NW1 1BX and discuss the leadership, the future direction of the party and our electoral chances…

…or, alternatively, house prices, I’m A Celebrity and England’s new footballing lows.

(When I write “footballing” the spellchecker tries to change it to “mothballing” – now there’s an idea!).

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Newsnight: Head-to-head with Clegg and Huhne

One of the downsides of being married is that one is never the first person to post about a recent event. (There are fringe benefits, however). So I imagine that the LibDemosphere is already awash with accounts of tonight’s Newsnight, however, where Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne battled it out in a leadership special.

It began pretty painfully. Having shunted us to second billing after Alistair Darling lost the personal and bank details of half the British population, we were then met by the two contenders failing to agree on who should start, so that Jeremy Paxman was obliged to ostentatiously “toss the Euro” to see who should begin.

Chris won, and began with his one minute speech in which he stressed the need to be radical, to give away power, to decentralise, to be “Fairer and Greener” (remember that one!), and stressed his ability to get our message across. He appeared a little hurried; a little tense. Nick was calmer and better prepared, and began by explaining that he did not want to be leader because it was an end in itself, but because he wanted to be part of a liberal society, “to make politics less boring” and to “speak like a human being.” Oh, and make Britain “fairer and greener”. I feel they rested my earlier case!

On the question (so oft repeated) as to whether anybody should care, Chris pointed out quite fairly that his background in economics is extremely germane; we are undoubtedly entering into a period of economic stability where are leader with a sound understanding of economics will be needed. Nick, on the other hand, emphasised the need to reach out to the non-voting 40 per cent, a plea that carries much emotional but little practical weight (remember, three quarters of them weren’t voting 30 years ago, either).

Paxman then resorted to his favourite leadership head-to-head tactic (and one I actually enjoy) which was to ask for straight answers to straight questions: the “yes or no” round. I preferred Nick’s answers for the same reason that I preferred Alan Johnson’s in Labour’s deputy leadership: he gave the succinct answers requested. Nick categorically ruled out in one word adopting school vouchers (the fool!), while both agreed to rule in Trident “right now”, but Huhne waffled whereas Nick was succinct. On tax, Chris stressed the desire to see “broader shoulders bearing more of the burden” (which one assumes is not-very-complex code for more “progressive” taxation) while Nick emphasised the reduction of taxes on income and the shift onto environmental taxation (which some might argue was Huhne’s home ground).

On immigration, however, Nick put a ball firmly in the back of my net and that of many Liberal Democrats: asked whether there had been “too much immigration into Britain” he stated categorically no. He is of course correct. But I was very disappointed by Chris’s answer, that while immigration had been good overall, some communities had suffered from too much, too quickly. It was particularly worrying that he cited workers in his Eastleigh constituency that had had to deal with increased competition, as though they should be protected from outsiders coming into their town to compete with them for business. This had the whiff of protectionism about it, and contrasted with Nick’s explanation that the problem with immigration was that resources were not provided to local authorities by government (which is too slow to recognise population shifts in towns and districts), that they were not required to learn English, and that a lack of exit controls meant that we had a distorted image of who was in our country.

On the Euro, both agreed that Britain should not be a member now – which is orthodox Lib Dem policy – and neither wanted to get dragged into discussing future coalitions. Chris suggested that electoral reform would lead to a more sensible approach to partnership politics, while Nick got a little shirty with Paxman (which I quite enjoyed).

To conclude, both said that they liked each other personally and, when pressed, Nick said that the “Calamity Clegg” dossier was mean but that he could put it behind him, while Chris said that he took full responsibility, that he apologised, but that it had been drafted by a junior member of his team. Both promised a place in the future shadow-cabinet to his opponent.

While not hugely informative on substance (a couple of issues aside) it nonetheless was clear who won on style. This was summed up best by Mrs. Polemic – so far a Huhne fan – who was fairly frank towards the end in recognising that “Clegg’s wiped the floor with Huhne, hasn’t he?” The question was rhetorical, and justifiably so. I don’t know if this performance alone will have swayed her, but it may have swayed some. I’m looking forward to the hustings more and more.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Grab a cigarette paper, I think I can see a gap!

Yesterday, the BBC published a round-up of the policies of the two Lib Dem leadership candidates. I was surprised at quite how close they are to one another. Indeed, it reminded me of John Major’s quip following Tony Blair’s statement that his three priorities would be “Education, education, education”, that the Conservative government of the time had the same three priorities, but in a different order.

So for example, under the rubric Constitution we read that Nick Clegg “Believes coalition government is only possible after electoral reform [and would introduce a] Freedom Bill to roll back ‘unnecessary, outdated and illiberal’ legislation like ID cards…” and would enable parliament to set aside time to consider petitions. By comparison Chris Huhne, along with enabling petitions to trigger referendums, believes that “Proportional representation [is a] prerequisite for any talks about partnership government [and would introduce a] Freedom Bill to repeal ‘unnecessary and illiberal legislation’.” Oh, and they both support a fully elected House of Lords.

And under Housing Huhne believes “Councils should be allowed to build more houses ... Three million homes should be built in next 10 years”, in stark comparison to Clegg’s desire to “Free councils to build 100,000 affordable homes a year, pushing up total housebuilding [sic.] to 3.3 million in 10 years.”

Well that’s helped me make my mind up. I’m off to man the barricades for whichever one has the warmest handshake at the door outside the hustings.

They both also support more money for schools (which makes a pleasant change from the platform of “Less money for schools” which every other politician has cried during their election campaigns) and to reach out to uncommitted voters (the willow-the-wisp of that elusive 40 per cent, the lumpen masses who could sweep us all to power if only they could be motivated by an inspiring leader).

Even where there are differences, they are more minimal than the various camps are suggesting. Nick believes that we need to maintain our nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip in future multilateral disarmament talks (and he should know, having been a negotiator in previous talks), while Chris believes that we should maintain “a minimum nuclear deterrent...” while at the same time “rejecting Trident” because it would “tie us irreversibly to dependence on the United States”. The BBC list (itself probably drafted by the two camps following a request from the Beeb) places the importance of localism in tax-raising for Clegg and planning for Huhne.

On only a couple of areas do big differences appear to emerge. Nick has already fathered a policy that commits the Lib Dems to more “managed migration” [sound of head thudding repeatedly against wall], Chris appears to have been far stronger is suggesting that he would be tougher on non-EU immigration if it could be shown that this was leading to rapid short-term effects. So shocking do I find this that I feel the need to point out that I have not seen this policy first-hand from the Huhne camp; I am willing (almost eager) to believe that his position has been misrepresented.

But basically the two are disturbingly close together. This was summed up on Question Time when a member of the audience asked what the differences were between them on tax, to which they replied there was none. That was the end of that discussion. Both have of course explained that they are standing for the leadership of the same party and as such are bound to have much in common, but personally I have been frustrated by the lack of really radical thinking and genuine debate. In part I blame this on Chris’ apparent tactics of attempting to undermine Nick by demonising him and those around him for having dangerously liberal ideas: this has forced Nick back towards the party’s comfort zones; back towards the median voter. But I also suspect that even without the alleged dirty-tricks campaign there would have been an inevitable self-censorship by both potential leaders, recognising the sad reality that it is easier to alienate a voter than enthuse one.

The result is that we have missed a golden opportunity to have what the Liberal Democrats sorely need: a real debate about the soul of our party that would clarify that much-needed narrative that we are trying to formulate. Instead we must resort to looking for differences between the two large enough to slip an voting paper into.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Calamity Clegg?

To my intense irritation, I managed to miss the first ten minutes of the Politics Show, which meant that I missed the first half of the Liberal Democrat leadership special, where John Sopel spoke to both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne in a head-to-head. Others will have to tell me whether I missed the best bit, but the half I saw was interesting enough.

I came in just before Sopel produced a document entitled Calamity Clegg, that he claimed was an attack sheet produced by Huhne’s office in which it accused Clegg of flip-flopping, saying different things to different audiences and of failing on key policies. Chris of course denied any knowledge of it, but then proceeded to argue that much of what it said was true. What is noteworthy is that he did not say “I’ve no idea what that is, John, but it is not something I commissioned, I have nothing to do with it, and as such I have no intention of discussing a document I have not seen and for which I bear no responsibility.” Perhaps that is because he couldn’t. There ensued the bitterest argument between the two that I have yet heard.

Chris accused Nick of being vague on Trident and of refusing to rule out European social insurance and school voucher models. Nick rebuffed these accusations extremely strongly, arguing that Chris’ own stance on Trident was unclear (he suggested Chris supported building an new missile system) and said that he had been entirely clear on the question of social insurance and vouchers, neither of which he proposed. Notably, Nick mentioned at least twice that he had explicitly ruled these out the previous day (Saturday 17 November) in a private conversation with Chris, but that Chris was deliberately ignoring this; Nick also said that he was clear about this on his website and in other sources.

I think this is a shame. Partly, this is because I believe that social insurance and particularly school vouchers are worth examining, so it is frustrating to hear policies that I believe would improve services and empower individuals being dismissed by both potential leaders. Others however might be relived, so what individuals think about the specific policies is not so important. What is a tragedy is that Chris, by using the suggestion of liberal alternatives to state provision as a weapon with which to beat his opponent, has made it now impossible for either leader to ever consider them. Whether or not the policies would benefit people, it behoves our leaders to be open-minded and willing to examine new evidence as it comes in. By closing down even consideration of alternatives because it serves their personal ambition and vanity does not do any favours to the leadership, the party or the people we are hoping to serve.

Nick’s counter-attack was equally ruthless, it must be said. He accused Chris of deliberately inventing non-existent differences between them so as to create avenues for attack: in effect, lying about Nick’s beliefs or campaign. This follows Chris’ efforts on Thursday to damn Nick by association, suggesting that because one of Nick’s main supporters was David Laws, Nick could not be trusted. Interestingly, the document had been produced just after Sopel had asked Chris whether Nick would be a good leader, to which Chris replied “Yes, but not this time.” As a result of this argument, Nick escaped ever having to answer that question.

Overall, Nick was far calmer and in control of the situation today, while Chris looked more on the back foot than he had on Thursday’s Question Time. However, this was at least in part because it was he whom Sopel had accused of underhand tactics. Chris came out of it looking shifty, underhanded and bitter – perhaps because most of the senior party figures and the press favour his opponent. Nick by comparison looked like he was frustrated by the cheap tactics that the Huhne camp was employing and would rather get on with the important matter of… well… leading the party.

Overall, Chris appeared focussed on undermining Nick; and in the process did harm to our reputation as a party. It is interesting that on Thursday David Dimbleby asked Nick Clegg how he would respond to the reputation of the nasty party. Had I been in Nick’s shoes I would have replied “Not being a Conservative I cannot comment on their reputation”, but if Nick’s answer was less quick and less witty it might be because he was painfully aware that after losing (ejecting?) two leaders in two years, and with David Cameron doing so much to appear cuddly that I expect him any day to dress up in a bear costume, that reputation is passing our way. Today, Chris appeared to be pouring fuel on that fire.

If there is truth in Sopel’s accusation, and that document is real, or is indicative of the campaign the Huhne camp is leading, then the calamity Clegg presents is one for Chris Huhne alone, whereas the tactics Chris is employing to win the election render him a liability.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Fascists for freedom

Okay. This is weird.

I was just checking out the Stormfront website (as you do!) and at the bottom I saw a banner advertising Ron Paul for President.

Now, as I understand it, Ron Paul is a Libertarian. As a libertarian, Mr. Paul would undoubtedly uphold the right of bigots, fascists and neo-nazis to shout whatever they want as loudly as they want, to preach hate to their shrivelled hearts' content.

He would also strip away border controls and allow millions of hard working hispanics into America, along with anybody else who could afford the airfare, didn't expect any welfare on arrival and were willing to pay some very low taxes. I've not looked to closely into Mr. Paul's campaign (I'm as far away from Texas as he is from the presidency) but he would probably also slash defence spending, and he would certainly not pass any laws banning inter-racial marriage. Indeed, he would uphold the freedoms of people of all races.
Now, we know fascists are idiots, but advertising their worst nightmare on their own website takes the biscuit!

Friday, 16 November 2007

Question Time: Head-to-head with Clegg and Huhne

There were few surprises in tonight’s Question Time. A Liberal Democrat leadership special, it saw Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne answer questions from an audience that was half Lib Dem supporters and half not. Both started by praising the former leaders, Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell, and both sought to fight for the middle ground, not of British politics, but of Liberal Democrat opinion.

In fact, in one sense the night was a fascinating example of Median Voter Theory, with both trying to appear most like most Lib Dems, so as to attract the most votes. In this respect, Chris Huhne undoubtedly has an advantage. Nick Clegg has in the past discussed policies and associated himself with more liberal and more individual-empowering (what I would call libertarian and what others might call Right Wing) ideas, whereas Chris, while also having written for the Orange Book and supported some liberal policies, has not allowed himself to be typecast. It was interesting – and discomforting – that Chris tried to damn Nick by association (“We are judged by the company we keep”) by pointing out that one of his supporters was David Laws, who has written positively about social insurance and school choice.

Unsurprisingly, Nick came across as frank and open, while Chris came across and earnest (“We will do thing differently because we are different”). Chris was replete with sound-bites that he had clearly prepared (which I will highlight below). He spent most of his time positioning himself: he was anti-Trident; he claimed to have originated the policy of setting a date for withdrawing from Iraq. Nick was forced onto the back foot early on when David Dimbleby raised a critique he had made of Chris 18 months before.

On the question of coalitions, both were less strong than they could be. Of course both refused to state with which party they would prefer to deal in the event of a hung parliament, but as a result both appeared to be avoiding answering the question, rather than explaining why they could not answer. Nick appeared to fudge, while Chris suggested that a Purple Coalition between the Tories and Labour was a likely prospect, as the two tried to squeeze the Lib Dems out of government. In fact, this is an extremely implausible suggestion for the very reasons that Chris raised when discussing the results of such an outcome: the upshot would be that the Lib Dems would be strengthened by being seen as the real alternative to the cosy Tory-Labour consensus. Nonetheless, Chris persisted in suggesting it was possible, which I think lacked credibility. He kept referring to himself as a “First, Best Liberal Democrat” and noted that our current electoral system “stinks”. Nick argued that the Lib Dems should not be seen as an “annex” of other parties but should seek a more liberal world, and interestingly (though without presenting any explanation) suggested that we might be two elections away from the end of the two party “grip on power”.

Where I think both failed here is that neither made two crucial and honest points: firstly, that decisions on coalitions must depend entirely on how liberal the other parties are prepared to be in the programme they are willing to propose for a coalition government (put simply, we will ally with the party that is prepared to join us in the most liberal coalition), and second that we would have to be guided by electoral reality (if one party won 300 seats and another 200, we would have to at least give the larger party first refusal). Both fluffed this issue, and I was surprised and disappointed that they did.

The first real policy spat started with Trident. Accusations began to fly as Nick accused Chris of being willing to build a new generation of missiles while Nick would prefer to keep all negotiating options open as we go into the 2010 disarmament talks; while Chris denied this and suggested that we would be better spending the money on equipment for troops rather than new nukes. Chris made a bid for the anti-American vote by arguing that Trident wed us to the United States and somehow suggesting a link between this and the Iraq war – a suggestion that does not bear up to scrutiny. But he made a good point about Pakistan in saying that if we support President Musharraf we might end up repeating the mistake we (the UK and the US) made when supporting the Shah or Iran in the 1970s.

The spat over, the question on what the Lib Dems would say to a voter seeking lower taxes was a damp squib. Both agreed flatly that they completely agreed with one another that Lib Dem policy presented a lower and fairer tax burden, and that was that. Dimbleby moved on.

Asked how we should tell them apart, however, both resorted to listing their curriculum vitae, which pointed out that both had lives and careers before politics – a strength which both bring to the House and to the Party and which help make both more rounded people and promising potential leaders. This was Nick’s big moment, as he chose it to deliver his haymaker – a big, impassioned speech about why he went into politics: his “Anger that so many children go through the day without getting a hot meal”, the fact that poor people in Sheffield die 14 years earlier than their rich neighbours, his opposing to the war, the extra money for the NHS that has been wasted, the to 15-20 per cent of children who leave school unable to read and write.

This highlighted one of Chris’ main challenges as a potential leader, which is that while he undoubtedly feels just as passionate as Nick or anybody else, he often fails to express it; to convey it. Nonetheless he did make an emotive plea for the party to prioritise equality (“a fair start and an open road”) as well as liberty and opportunity – a position with which many and probably most Liberal Democrats would agree. He is undoubtedly genuine in this and sees this (whether correctly or not I do not know) as a difference between him and Nick. Where he was less honest, however, was in his criticism of “Top-down market solutions” to public sector efficiency problems. This is a remarkable comment for an economist: the whole point of the market is that it is bottom up; individuals express their will by allocating their resources themselves, rather than having them allocated for them by officials. As a paean for more localism it had a certain internal logic, and will appeal to Lib Dem voters. But it missed the fundamental point that empowering individuals improves the services they and everybody else enjoys.

As the programme wound down, the gaps narrowed again. Both utilised state schools (who, now in politics, does not!) and opposed raising the compulsory education age to 18 (though it was interesting to note that Chris had misunderstood the proposal, suggesting that it would not benefit those like his son who were less academic and would benefit from an apprenticeship, which is in fact one of the government’s routes through training for over 16s). Chris said that he shared Gordon Brown’s ambition to match the average spending on state pupils to that of private pupils – a noble goal, but an impossible one, as private education is largely used by those who are prepared to spend above the average; a rise in state spending will merely reduce the size of the private sector and raise the average cost. Neither was clear enough here: compulsion is a daft idea; all young people should have access to education, but none should be forced. The option to defer that education should also be considered.

On voting ages and the failings of David Cameron, both were in agreement; on the best qualities of the other, a love-in ensued. It ended a bit suddenly and unsatisfactorily. Neither delivered the knock-out blow, though if anything I think Chris Huhne did himself more favours, for while I question much of what he said and of what he did, his deliberate efforts to place himself “to the Left” of Nick and so perhaps closer to the median Lib Dem voter may nonetheless be successful. Only time, Sunday’s Politics Show and the forthcoming hustings will show. Oh, and the vote itself, of course.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Isolation or engagement?

Tristan Mills’ provocative article on whether Milton Friedman should be castigated for engaging with Augusto Pinochet, and the Reason Magazine article that (I presume) inspired it, have raised the broader question of the extent to which we engage with, or isolate, unpleasant, illiberal and undemocratic rulers.

For brief context, Milton Friedman once met the Chilean autocrat for an hour, and following that meeting wrote him a two-page letter in which he proposed means by which the Chilean government (then under the control of the military dictator) could improve Chile’s economy. Furthermore, the Chilean economics ministry was heavily influenced by “the Chicago boys”, a handful of young Chilean economists who had participated in an exchange programme that had enabled them to study at Chicago University under Friedman and his colleagues. The consequence was that Chile adopted relatively liberal economic policies while at the same time suffering political tyranny.

The controversy surrounding this has several strands, not least the fact that both economic liberalism and nationalist/military dictatorship are frequently described as “Right Wing”, and here they appeared to march hand in hand. Ignoring for the moment the fact that the confusion is derived from the limited analysis resulting from trying to impose a bipolar model on a multifaceted world (I hare argued that a tripolar model provides a better explanation, but ultimately any model is bound to be limited in comparison to the complexity of the real world), there is undoubtedly uncontrolled glee that those on the “Left” who oppose both fascism and economic freedom should find some apparent link between the two – the smoking gun of “conservative” politics. And to be fair, with the abundance of opportunities for liberals to point to countries where socialism and tyranny have coexisted, one can understand their relief at having at least one counter-example.

Friedman of course denied any such link, as both Tristan’s and Brian Doherty’s articles make clear. For most, however, the main criticism of Friedman is not that his policies brought great harm to the people of Chile – an argument that only a few die-hard anti-capitalists make, and which requires a refusal to compare long-term growth rates and poverty reduction among South American nations. Rather, the criticism is that Friedman was willing to talk to Pinochet at all, that he advised him, and that he did not take the opportunity to criticise the regime. Doherty sympathises with this:

“He did not choose this as an opportunity to upbraid Pinochet for any of his
repressive policies, and many of Friedman’s admirers, including me, would have
felt better if he had… Friedman’s decision to interact with officials of
repressive governments creates uncomfortable tensions for his libertarian
admirers; I could, and often do, wish he hadn’t done it.”

This raises the question, previously raised by Richard Nixon and relevant today in the context of Iran and North Korea: To what extent should we engage with unpleasant regimes? Should we trade with the Soviet Union? Or isolate the Taliban? (You will note that I am assuming a degree of consistency that does not apply in practice, as the juxtaposition of these two examples make clear).

On the one hand, the argument is that we should make a stand and show our disgust for these regimes. They are evil and we should have nothing to do with them; indeed, we are complicit in their crimes if we work with or associate with them. A secondary argument is that the wealth created strengthens the regime. We have seen this in the past with calls to boycott South African and Israeli oranges, and more recently with calls for British businesses to disinvest from the Sudan and Myanmar.

The counter argument is that it is engagement that weakens these regimes by showing the citizens that there is a better alternative. If the Soviet Union was such a worker’s paradise, why did the workers have to eat American butter? And once the workers were trading the Red Army uniforms they were given during conscription (which the United States had long ago stopped imposing on its citizens – thanks in part to a campaign by Milton Friedman) for Levi jeans and other western products which to us are common but to them remained luxuries, could the end be far away? By comparison, sanctions generally hit the poorest first – it was in Soweto rather than in Cape Town that the pain of the South African boycott was felt hardest – and also empower the dictators – it was not the West that starved a million Iraqis with an inadequate Oil for Food programme, but the fact that the $46bn worth of imports were distributed by Saddam’s henchmen based on political criteria rather than need.

Friedman’s argument was in the same vein. Whether he approved of Pinochet’s regime or not (and his writings represent one of the strongest and most eloquent explanations of the benefits of freedom written in the 20th century), he knew that he would not prevent a single disappearance by castigating the tyrant, either to his face or in writing. But by proposing an alternative economic model that empowered citizens and created prosperity, he would not only alleviate the suffering that resulted from poverty, but also create the conditions where political freedom would flourish. For both Friedman and Hayek (his contemporary and another liberal economist and philosopher, though they theories of the two differed) demonstrated that tyranny is an inevitable consequence of central planning, while political oppression is far harder (perhaps impossible) to sustain if the economic levers of control are not in the hands of the state.
Another study (the citation for which I can never find) has noted that there is a correlation between wealth and political activism; that as citizens become richer the likelihood of protest in the face of political oppression increases. If so, enriching the people is itself a weapon in the armoury of freedom. And as for the claim that the wealth strengthens the regime, it is worth noting that Pinochet may have done better by his people economically than his interventionist neighbours, but he still lost the 1988 plebiscite in which he sought to renew his term in office. The liberal economic policies in Chile did not earn him praise; they merely unleashed a taste for freedom.

There are no hard-and-fast rules, of course, and sometimes it may be necessary to isolate a dictator or make a stand. But by-and-large is seems that engagement is more effective than sanctions. And if there is one thing of which we should be sure, it is that ideas should always be shared. This holds powerful lessons for today’s governments: sanctions in Cuba, Iran and North Korea have undoubtedly lengthened and deepened poverty, while failing to undermine and perhaps buttressing their terrible regimes. The same may very well be true of the Sudan and Myanmar, and should cause us to question calls for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics in China.

Friedman was right to offer his wisdom to all who would listen (and he advised Communists in China and Yugoslavia as well as fascists in Chile and Brazil). He was not showing his support for the regime; just trying to help its people in the only way he could. In other theatres, in other ways, we should try to do the same.

Rape, politics and populism

It is fair to say that nobody is going to feel much sympathy for the poor rapists, whom the Tories targeted in yesterday’s announcement. They plan a review of sentencing – “review” being political code for “lengthening”.

There may very well be grounds for a review. If Theresa May is correct, sentences have been falling over the past three years; if this is due to changes in, or poor application of, the law then a review is warranted. Similarly, if Mr. Cameron is correct that “as many as one in two young men believe there are some circumstances when it's okay to force a woman to have sex” then there is an urgent need to tackle the causes.

I have two reasons for feeling uncomfortable, however.

The fist reason for concern is that being tough on criminals is to politics what a steep gully is to water; it is the path of least resistance. Few people have any sympathy for criminals, and rapists in particular engender very strong feelings of anger among large numbers of people. It is thus all-too-easy to achieve what political analysts call “valancy”, a sense among people that a politician thinks like they do, by taking a tough line on crime.

We have seen the upshot of this after ten years of Blairism (which if it exists as a philosophy at all is the belief that the primary goal is to remain in power, from which good must eventually follow). On average a new crime was created every day during the Blair years; there are 170,000 new pages of law; and our gaols are now bursting at the seems because of longer minimum sentences. Yet there is no evidence that we feel safer.

Which brings me on to my second reason for hesitancy: that one cannot change attitudes through legislation. I agree with Mr. Cameron that it is appalling (and indeed shocking) that up to half of young men think that a circumstance could exist where it would be acceptable to force somebody to have sex. However, I think the point is both a wider and an older one; that there are still many people in society who think that it is acceptable to use force to compel others to do anything. Rape is a particularly unpleasant example, but there are plenty of other instances where people are forced or bullied into obeying others. It is this general attitude that we should be addressing; rape is merely one symptom of a more prevalent disease.

Yet, as I have argued before, the law is not the solution (though we must in the meantime criminalise such behaviour so as to protect citizens both through incarcerating the abusers and deterring those who might abuse). People do not change their attitudes because something becomes illegal; indeed, legislation is only necessary because people have not been persuaded. What is necessary is to address the root causes – the beliefs of those who believe that force is justified in getting what they want. Unsurprisingly, the coercive power of the state will not achieve that goal.

So while I agree with Mr. Cameron that school is a perfect environment to address these attitudes, I would hope that our education establishments would go beyond focusing on sex education, and instead address the whole issue of freedom from compulsion, to instil in our children an understanding of why it is wrong to force people to do things against their will.

In the meantime, by all means address low conviction rates or inadequate sentences that result from failures in the system. But do not make political capital out of seeking to be seen to be “tough on crime”. Toughness may win the brief adulation of voters, but in the long run what they want is to be safe and secure. That would be popular without being populist.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Is a lack of evidence enough reason to ban GM crops?

When I heard yesterday morning that the Government consultation on genetically modified crops had closed, and that the issue was therefore back in the news, I knew that the Lib Dems were about to shoot from the hip again. And Chris Huhne has duly delivered:

“Ministers should not give any go-ahead for commercial planting until they can state confidently that GM varieties would not contaminate non-GM foods and that they are safe.”

This seems a strange inversion of liberal philosophy. The first principle of a free society should surely be that everything is permitted unless it is explicitly banned: we may later debate what is forbidden (e.g. murder) and what is inviolable (e.g. expression), but if we err towards the Napoleonic model whereby everything is forbidden unless it is explicitly sanctioned our society is not free, it is permitted.

So it is mistaken to argue that something should be banned until it is proved to be safe. On the contrary, it is those who wish to ban something upon whom the burden of proof should rest; the reactionaries and conservatives should be able to demonstrate that harm will result from the planting or consumption of GM crops before we even consider a ban.

The alternative is based on the ‘precautionary principle’, which in its 1992 formulation states that “'Where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”. But the precautionary principle was supposed to address issues where there was broad agreement though debate still continued; it was formulated to justify ignoring the objections of a small number of dissenting scientists.

Now, however, it has been corrupted to suggest that “'Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall be used as a reason for postponing measures that are aimed at achieving non-environmental goods.” In other words, whereas it once overcame fringe objections, it now elevates them to such a status that they are given a veto.

So a “crack-pot global warming skeptic” can be ignored, but a “crack-pot GM food skeptic” must be obeyed.

This is of course rank hypocrisy and demonstrates one of the more malign effects of the rise of Green thinking. “The environment” (in this case, a rather idealised view of the environment) becomes a higher goal, the service of which overrides other goods such as freedom, progress or prosperity. It does not need to be this way, however. It is entirely possible to protect our environment without resorting to double standards or demonising human activity.

There are two other arguments that are used to oppose GM crops: that they will cross-pollinate and so contaminate other, more “organic” crops; and that the majority oppose GM and in a democracy a majority should prevail. These at least deserve a second look, but under careful scrutiny they, too, fail.

Cross-pollination raises the classic debate about externalities: to what extent should Farmer A put up with the unintended by-products of Farmer B’s operations. In this case it is a zero-sum game: one cannot set a price on the organic nature of Farmer A’s operation, so one cannot price Farmer B’s externalities. However, it does not follow that Farmer B should be banned from planting GM crops. After all, one way or another, the freedom of one farmer is limited. Which farmer’s freedom is curtailed is a philosophical and moral question. To my mind, it is Farmer B who should be free to plant her GM crops, for two reasons.

Firstly, while there is a chance that Farmer A will see his organic crop contaminated, the probability is lower than the certainty that Farmer B will be prevented from planting GM crops if the government intervenes; the latter definitely results in curtailed freedom whereas the former may not (it is up to Farmer A to then assess his risk). In addition, it is possible that Farmer A could separate and destroy any contaminated crops and retain the GM-free crop for sale (though in practice this probably, at least currently, presents difficulties).

Secondly, the externalities of Farmer B’s operation are an unintended by-product; she is not actively seeking to inconvenience her neighbour. By comparison, Farmer A is actively seeking to prevent Farmer B from planting GM crops by using the power of the state. Deontologically, Farmer A’s deliberate assault on Farmer B’s freedom is less justifiable than Farmer B’s accidential affect on Farmer A’s.

As for democracy, Friends of the Earth claim that 95 per cent of the 11, 676 respondents to the consultation opposed the growing of GM crops in the UK. This may seem an overwhelming number, but it represents just a tiny fraction of the citizen in the country. This highlights one of the misunderstandings about government consultations: they are a means to better inform decision makers, not a straw poll of opinion. In a consultation, the views of ten ignorant people should count for less than one informed person. In a representative democracy, we choose decision-makers whose instincts and integrity we trust, but we delegate to them because they have the time to look into and understand a subject. If we do not like the decisions they make we can sack them. The alternative, direct democracy, leads go decisions being made by the most motivated, the most organised and the best resourced. Rather than the government of the people, by the people, for the people, it becomes government of the busy, by the bossy, for the pushy.

Here it is worth noting that Friends of the Earth may have had a hand in the imbalanced results: The BBC reports that “80% [of the responses ] were in the form of stock letters or petitions, which conveyed a ‘basic disagreement’ with Defra's proposals…” It is of course very easy for a membership organisation such as Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace (or the British Legion or Amnesty International) to mobilise its supporters, especially if they include a pre-written letter on their website or a card in their next mailing, to which members need merely attach a signature and a stamp. There is no Friends of the Farmer, Friends of the Scientist or Friends of the Consumer to run a counter campaign; even where such organisations exist (for example, the National Union of Farmers or Which?) their interests are broader and so their members will not automatically coalesce around an environmental question.

The fact that the consultation is not democratic is only half the story, however, and here I would remind Mr. Huhne that he is a Liberal Democrat. The fact that a majority objects to something is not in itself reason to ban it. Fifty years ago a majority were probably (and a hundred and fifty years ago certainly) repelled by homosexuality, but that did not justify a ban, which liberals led a noble campaign to repeal. Today we can find majorities in favour of banning all sorts of things that minorities might wish to do. A liberal democracy is not a majoritocracy – and there is a reason why nobody has ever bothered to find a more euphonious word for such a dangerous idea – and it is democracy that should serve freedom rather than the other way round.

To prohibit the planting of GM crops because of an overly cautious approach to scientific advances, pushed by special interest groups, would not even be justified if the ban were supported by the majority, which has in no way been proven.

It is therefore wrong to impose such a ban in general – and that’s even before one begins to consider the science and polices around this specific issue!

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Weimar Zimbabwe

Usually, when one thinks of Zimbabwe, it is fascism that comes to mind.

A demegogue leader; a repressive police state; an internal racial minority (caucasin, this time, rather than semitic) scapegoated and used to divert the anger of the masses... The parallels with Nazi Germany are legion.

Yet Hitler was at least able to keep the currency stable (I'm prepared to be corrected by any Economics History experts out there, but I understand that part of Hitler's appeal was that the Reichsmark kept its value).

By comparrison, the Papiermark was the currency that people would take into the bakers in a wheel barrow, only to emerge with bread and a bag full of papiermarks. Friedrich A. Hayek needed 200 pay rises in eight months (yes, that is more than one a day!). People demanded their wages in the morning, because by the evening they would be worthless.


Or if you can't, read the article in the Times about the economic meltdown now underway in Zimbabwe. One quote stands out as an exemplar of what hyperinflation entails: "Golfers buy their mid-round drinks at the start, because prices will have risen by the ninth hole".

Mugabe isn't even a competent dictator. The end can be only jsut around the corner.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The environment and liberalism

Joe Otten recently summarised the various chapters of Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century (aka. the Huhne Manifesto?). Joe has generally been sympathetic to the “Social Liberal” argument, though as a member of the Sheffield Hallam constituency party one should not take his views on any particular issue for granted.

The focus of Joe’s attentions is liberal environmentalism, so the environment chapter in that book was bound to peak his interest. I’m not going to repeat Joe’s summary here, but I am going to raise three points that I made in response to his post.

Firstly, too many environmentalists are willing to throw away progress – both material and political. This is partly because of a misguided belief that environmental degradation is an inevitable consequence of economic growth, itself an echo of long-standing Romantic critiques of the Enlightenment and the fear of progress and change. Just as population growth did not exhaust our capacity to feed the people or increase their material wellbeing, so it does not automatically have to toast us in an ever-hotter atmosphere. There are alternative means to generate energy and there are technological solutions to rising levels of CO2. Those who want to halt or reverse economic growth are usually fired by either a combination of a Romantic and a quasi-religious view of an Arcadian alternative, or by other ideologies that have found an new justification in environmental extremism.

Secondly, the critique of the focus on economic growth statistics is correct, but only so far. It is true that growth statistics are not particularly useful or enlightening, but there is no doubt that over time we live demonstrably better lives as our economy expands (Layardian happiness research not withstanding). Indeed, much economic growth new results from services rather than manufacturing, which are often (though not always) low-carbon activities. (As an interesting aside, try finding a verb to apply to economic growth that is not a metaphor for either power or transport!). One obvious except is transport, but this highlights one fundamental difference between liberal and Green environmentalism. The Greens want to discourage travel; liberals seek more environmentally friendly transport. At the core of this is the liberal belief that mankind can shape a better future and the Green nihilism that sees humanity as a negative influence upon the planet.

When Greens (which I use here to refer to authoritarian and fatalist environmentalists rather than the Green Party, though there is obviously a huge overlap) criticise modern society, they often accuse it of concentrating on the “bottom line” to the detriment of everything else. This is a critique they share with socialists. It is pure guff. Take our supposedly “Capitalist” society as an example. Taxes are inherently harmful to labour, to profits and to economic growth, yet we tax profits and labour very heavily precisely because we put short-term welfare gains above long-term welfare gains. Similarly, we burden businesses with regulation because we consider other factors (notably but not solely environmental ones) to be of importance alongside wealth creation. I have argued before that we over-regulate and over-tax, but neither I nor anyone I know suggests we should have no regulation and no tax; profit is only one driver in society.

The key is to set rules that clearly guide everybody and lead them to make sensible decisions about the environment. This is traditional liberal ground, if slightly re-emphasised. The value of the environment is not inherent but comes from the fact that it sustains us and gives us pleasure; consequently our impact upon the environment impacts upon the freedom of others (the quality of your life being reduced if I pollute the public spaces). This is classical liberal stuff, and the solutions can be equally liberal. We need clear rules that apply equally to all and do not discriminate: for example, we should tax petrol and congestion rather than cars; we should tax aircraft fuel rather than passengers; and we should tax the carbon produced in electricity generation rather than banning incandescent light bulbs.

The point is that dictating to people how must they lead their lives will inevitably lead to arbitrary decision making that will be partisan and will miss the target (e.g. penalising those who buy big cars even if they don’t drive them very much). It will also cause a huge backlash: nobody likes to be told what to do, let alone told to feel bad about what they have been doing for years, which is why there is such a strong anti-environmentalist movement. The Greens have brought it on themselves (and the rest of us).

By comparison, factoring into the price of things the ecological as well as production costs (“capturing the externalities”, as I said on Friday just one second before I lost my audience) will enable government to reduce overall emissions, while allowing individuals to decide how much emitting is worth to them. That ensures that those who value emitting most can emit at a price, while those who value it less will emit less. Economically this results in an optimal distribution of resources (in this case, the limited capacity the earth has for more greenhouse gasses); socially this creates a free society where everybody is then free to pursue a better life as long as it is not at the expense of others.

Surely that’s a liberalism on which we can all agree.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

You know you've lost the battle for hearts and minds when...

...you get accused of releasing man-eating badgers among the local populus.

My apologies to anybody who has already seen this three month old article, but I've just come across it (during some casual investigation into the genus Meles).

British jobs for British workers?

The Government are wiping statistical egg off their faces again.

Up until this week, we were being told that only 0.8 million foreign migrants had come to work in the UK, while the labour market had grown by 2.7m new jobs. Now the Government has had to revise both figures, admitting that in fact 1.1m new migrants had entered Britain, while only 2.1m new jobs had been created. Far from creating "British jobs for British workers," it appears that Gordon Brown has been creating British jobs for foreign workers.

Except that it's all tosh, of course.

For one thing, Gordon Brown has created only about a couple of hundred thousand new jobs, largely by employing new civil servants, nurses and other public sector employees. Most of the 2.1m new jobs were created in spite of Labour efforts rather than because of them. They are private sector jobs, and a good job too.

But what of Brown's supposed crackdown on migrant labour? Does it matter that 52% of the new jobs have gone to migrants? And who is to blame?

The crackdown on migrant labour is boneheaded Labour nonsense and should be treated with disdain. A real policy of creating "British jobs for British workers" would be illegal under European law, and even if one would rather be out of the European Union it remains an ignorant and self-defeating policy. 1.1m workers are 1.1m workers, whether they come from Portsmouth, Poland or Peru. As long as they work hard they are creating value for the whole community; as long as they earn and spend they are creating jobs for other - mostly British - people; and as long as they are paying taxes they are contributing to the schools and hospitals that we all use.

That these "British jobs" could have gone to "British workers" is of course true, but it is not as though British workers could not have filled them. There are 1.65m unemployed in the UK, and one has to wonder why so many remain unemployed if we have had to import 1.1m workers from abroad to fill the vacancies. The explanation comes from debunking three myths:
  1. Jobs are not created by ministers and civil servants. They are created by businesses that can see a way of turning labour into profit. If they can hire a person and generate more capital than they need pay in wages, it is worth their creating a job. Those jobs were potentially there as long as people were willing to work at that price. It is the availability of foreign labour prepared to work at those prices that created those jobs.
  2. Britain's unemployed were more than welcome to apply for those jobs. Many may have done so; many more did not. There have been numerous managers interviewed for TV and the papers who have stated that they have offered jobs in areas of high unemployment for years and local people have not applied.
  3. We would not have created 2.1m jobs if 1.1m foreigners had not come here to work. As noted above, they spend their wages in our shops, require us to hire our teachers and use products made by our manufacturers. A significant part of those 2.1m jobs are feedback; many of those 2.1m exist because othes within that 2.1m (including within the 1.1m) exist;

The simple truth is that as long as we pay people not to work, we will need to import foreign labour to do the jobs that British people are unwilling to take on. On any day in the UK there are approximately two thirds of a million job vacancies. The problem in the UK is not too many foreign workers; it is too many British people who are not willing to take the jobs that are available.