Thursday 28 February 2013

Bankers’ bonuses: Liberals 1 Tories 0

The EU proposal to cap bankers’ bonuses has received predictable opposition from David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

The willingness of the Tories to continue to defend the selfish interests of the bankers who caused the global financial crisis seems to know no bounds.

So it is good to hear Sharon Bowles, Liberal Democrat MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s most powerful committee, the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, strike the right note:
“Overall, this is a major achievement for [the European] Parliament, in curbing the culture of quick profit and irresponsible lending that has played such a pernicious role in fuelling Europe's banking crisis.”
Meanwhile, if the Tories are right, and a few irresponsible and overpaid arseholes flee to Singapore or Zurich, good riddance.

Austerity = drop in GDP = rubbish policy

The policy of fiscal austerity has failed throughout Europe. Which radical, left-wing publication has reached this conclusion? The Financial Times (£) [to get round the FT’s paywall, go to Google News and enter the phrase “The sad record of fiscal austerity” in the search box].

The FT’s Martin Wolf is scathing about the European Central Bank’s policies before turning on the UK government:
...the panic that justified the UK coalition government’s turn to a long-term programme of austerity was a mistake. Had its members never heard of the paradox of thrift? If the domestic private and external sectors are retrenching, the public sector cannot expect to succeed in doing so, however hard it tries, unless it is willing to drive the economy into a far bigger slump. While short-term factors have played a real part, it is not surprising that the UK’s recovery has stalled and the deficit is so persistent. It is consequently also not surprising that downgrades are on the way, not that these tell one anything very useful in the case of an issuer with access to its own money-printing machine.
Wolf concludes:
In the long run, the fiscal deficit must close. In the short run, the UK has the chance to push growth. It should take it. So should the US.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Lord Bonkers: Watching the self-appointed detectives

I can’t help noticing that Clegg has been rather down in the mouth of late. In my experience, the best cure when the cares of office are getting on top of you is to curl up with a good whodunit. So this morning I breeze into his office with a selection of the things.

“This,” I tell him, “is one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marples. The old girl’s theory is that you can find every variety of human wickedness represented in the most tranquil English village. Always makes me think of Rutland.”

“And this is a Father Brown. He bats for David Alton’s side, you know, but he’s a wise old bird. Did I ever tell you I knew G.K. Chesterton? I always found him Very Good Value.”

“Now this is rather stronger meat: one of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow books. ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,’ and all that. Have you ever been out in Oakham on a Saturday night?”

“One thing I must emphasise,” I conclude, “is that none of the heroes and heroines is a police officer. They are private citizens who take an interest in solving crime.”

Clegg fixes me with what I think is known as a baleful eye and says a little gracelessly: “I don’t approve of self-appointed detectives.”

Lord Bonkers, who was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10, was speaking to Jonathan Calder.

Trident: the Lab-Con coalition

The Independent reports that the Labour Party “will fight the next general election on a pledge to retain Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent”:
Although some advisers to Ed Miliband want him to opt for a scaled-down, cheaper alternative to the current Trident system, there are growing signs that Labour will join the Conservatives in backing a £25billion “like-for-like” replacement.
The reason for Labour’s likely stance turns out to be Big Willy Politics:
...the Tories’ support for full Trident renewal would allow them to portray Labour as “soft” on safeguarding the nation’s security if the Labour manifesto opts for an approach similar to that of the Lib Dems.
Is that what Britain’s defence policy has come to? Instead of making either party look more manly, it makes both look like complete knob-ends.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

“The biggest waste of money in the EU”

“You know what I think is the biggest waste of money in the European Union of today? That’s the salary we all pay to Mr Farage.”

ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt on splendid form in the European Parliament, taking apart the claims of UKIP leader Nigel Farage:

Monday 25 February 2013

Never mind Berlusconi – what about the Liberals?

The results of the Italian general election are emerging and they are not a pretty sight. In fact, they are a confusing sight, with several dozen political parties fighting the election mostly as part of joint lists, which combined with other lists to form complicated alliances or coalitions. In some cases, parties have split, with members fighting each other on rival lists.

The likely winner (according to exit polls) is the centre-left alliance Bene Comune (Common Good), though the term ‘winner’ here means first place but not an overall majority.

In second place is Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, which has performed better than expected. Although it will not form a government, it will have sufficient power to paralyse any new administration.

Meanwhile, third place (with up to 25% of the seats in the lower house) has been taken by the anti-establishment Movimento 5 Stelle (or M5S, Five Star Movement) led by a former comedian, Beppe Grillo.

Incumbent prime minister and technocrat Mario Monti has his own alliance, which has come a poor fourth.

Who are the liberals and where do they fit in this mosaic? There are two Italian parties in the ALDE Party (the European party to which the British Liberal Democrats also belong): Italia Dei Valori-Lista Di Pietro (Italy of Values) and Radicali Italiani (Italian Radicals). There is also another European party called the EDP (European Democratic Party), which is part of the ALDE bloc in the European Parliament, and it has an Italian member party called Alleanza per l’Italia (Alliance for Italy), as well as some independent Italian MEPs. Then there is the Partito Repubblicano Italiano (Italian Republican Party), which left the ELDR group (the precursor of ALDE) in 2010, having been reduced to an insignificant rump anyway. And there is the Partito Liberale Italiano (Italian Liberal Party), which was re-founded in 2004.

I know, this is starting to sound like the People’s Front of Judea. And if you think that the various liberal parties fought together on the same electoral list, you obviously don’t know Italian politics.
  • Italia Dei Valori-Lista Di Pietro has split into various factions but most seem to have wound up together as part of a left-wing coalition called Rivoluzione Civile (Civil Revolution).
  • Radicali Italiani fought the election on a stand-alone electoral list called Giustizia, amnistia e libertà (Amnesty, Justice and Freedom).
  • Alleanza per l’Italia has, for the most part, fought as part of the centre-left alliance Bene Comune.
  • Partito Repubblicano Italiano contested the election alone.
  • Partito Liberale Italiano (or rather, individuals from the party as opposed to the party as a whole) fought the election as part of Mario Monti’s alliance.
Another Great Liberal Victory is assured, then.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Only in America...

For anyone with $6,000 to spare: a state-of-the-art computerised toilet.

The good news: there’s a jack into which you can plug your iPod.

The bad news: like any computer-controlled device, it can crash. You may have to reboot your toilet.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Charles Bradlaugh – the musical!

Well, not quite. But there is a new play.

Charles Bradlaugh is a hero of several members of the Liberator Collective. He was Liberal MP for Northampton from 1880 to 1891, and an atheist. When he first entered the House of Commons, he asked to be allowed to affirm instead of swearing a religious oath of allegiance. After a protracted battle, including imprisonment and several by-elections, he eventually won the right for members of both houses of parliament to affirm instead of swear an oath. It is thanks to Bradlaugh that non-believers won the right to sit in parliament, and it is for this achievement that he is best remembered.

However, Bradlaugh was also an early campaigner for birth control. Together with Annie Besant, he published a pamphlet advocating birth control and was prosecuted for “obscene libel”. The ensuing trial is the subject of the new play – the National Secular Society has more details:
A new play by Derek Lennard, The Fruits of Philosophy (Such a scandal!) which examines secularism and free thought in Victorian Britain will be presented at Conway Hall on Friday 15 March at 7.30pm.
It is based on the true story of the trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh (founder of the National Secular Society) who were accused in 1877 of publishing “Obscene Libel” – a sixpenny pamphlet advocating family planning and describing contraception.
The play will give a dramatised account of the trial, the scandal that surrounded it, the way it affected the lives and careers of the accused, and the impact on wider society.
Entry to the play is free (book a place here) but there is a suggested donation of £5.

Friday 22 February 2013

Welcome to the pleasure dome

George Orwell is best known for his fiction but his finest writing can be found in his essays and journalism. So it is good to hear BBC Radio 4 broadcasting a selection of these.

Yesterday, one of the essays broadcast was ‘Pleasure Spots’ (radio and text), written in 1946. It served as a useful reminder of why the fashionable political objective of ‘happiness’ is absurd:
Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness. If one started by asking, what is man? what are his needs? how can he best express himself? one would discover that merely having the power to avoid work and live one's life from birth to death in electric light and to the tune of tinned music is not a reason for doing so. Man needs warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security: he also needs solitude, creative work and the sense of wonder. If he recognised this he could use the products of science and industrialism eclectically, applying always the same test: does this make me more human or less human? He would then learn that the highest happiness does not lie in relaxing, resting, playing poker, drinking and making love simultaneously. And the instinctive horror which all sensitive people feel at the progressive mechanisation of life would be seen not to be a mere sentimental archaism, but to be fully justified. For man only stays human by preserving large patches of simplicity in his life, while the tendency of many modern inventions – in particular the film, the radio and the aeroplane – is to weaken his consciousness, dull his curiosity, and, in general, drive him nearer to the animals.
Orwell’s chief fear was mechanisation but a more apt threat today would be the reductionist belief in economism, in which all social facts are reduced to economic dimensions; a stunted view of life in which human experience is reduced to a matter of buying and selling.

Still, the essential point remains the same. Happiness is a by-product of other things and paradoxically, the more we strive for it, the harder it is to attain.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Spectator: "Liberal Democrats are racing certainties to hold Eastleigh"

Conservative weekly The Spectator reports today that the Tories have already given up Eastleigh as a lost cause:
The good news for Nick Clegg—and the bad news for David Cameron—is that the Liberal Democrats are racing certainties to hold Eastleigh in the by-election next Thursday.
But it’s not time to open the champagne just yet. The by-election is not in the bag and money and help are still needed. Also, we may find next Friday morning that the media are not talking about a Liberal Democrat victory but instead a strong third place for UKIP.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

The Land! The Land!

This will come as no news to older Liberals, but the main factor hobbling Britain’s economic prosperity is land. That is the argument of Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform think tank:
The UK’s essentially rigged market for land and its restrictive planning system are as big an obstacle to economic growth as restrictive labour markets and protected professions are in Southern Europe.
The number of new homes built each year in Britain has lagged far behind demand from a growing population for 30 years. Despite faster population growth, house construction is currently running at half the level of the 1960s. At the same time the average size of homes built in Britain is now the smallest in the EU. The result of these two trends has been a steady fall in the amount of living space per head. Property prices relative to average household incomes have come down a bit since 2007, but remain very high. Moreover, the problem is not just restricted to the residential sector: Britain has the highest office rents in the EU. Firms in cities such as Manchester pay more than in Frankfurt or Milan. And transport infrastructure is very expensive to build in Britain, which is one reason why there is too little of it.
Most of us might baulk at one of Tilford’s proposed remedies, which is to build on the green belt. Also, he fails to acknowledge the profligate use of land in British cities (where people prefer to live in a detached or semi-detached house with a garden rather than a flat or town house as in continental cities).

Nevertheless, his basic analysis is sound and the proposed move to a land tax is the single best policy that could be adopted.

Pause, reflect, deliberate, make a pot of tea

This blog post about the Oxford Comma turns into a wider consideration of the poor quality of most writing on the internet:
The internet has a much higher write-to-read ratio than traditional methods of mass content distribution. In television, radio, newspapers, books, film and theatre there is a hard division between a small number of content producers and a large number of content consumers. Not so the internet. Many of us go online with the intention of reading, but before we’re done, we’ve written a bunch of tweets, sent off a comment, or engaged in an all out flame war, almost always in the public domain.
Writing online is so nearly effortless that reading (not to mention reflection, deliberation and thought) has become a chore in comparison. It’s easier to jot off a patronizing, indignant or self-aggrandizing missive than it is to take the trouble to read the whole article or give fair consideration to the author’s perspective. Thus the vicious circle sets in…
Why go to the trouble of producing a balanced or inquiring article for a medium that encourages rapid-fire feedback over deliberation and reflection? And why, in turn, respond to that article with any semblance of balance in a medium that rewards bite-sized bluster over nuance and accuracy? And why, for that matter, bother reading the article at all, when speed is everything, and you’d better get your soundbite in now because they’ll be new outrages to decry tomorrow?
This may be hard for people with a short attention span to understand but, before you ever comment on a blog, read the post in full and any linked content, then pause, make a pot of tea, reflect, deliberate, make another pot of tea, then respond intelligently and courteously. Never mind if someone else gets in ahead of you – your thoughtful comment will look more intelligent than theirs.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

The legacy of the James Bulger case

On the 20th anniversary of the abduction and murder of two-year-old James Bulger, Professor Frank Furedi argues that this tragedy has been exploited to create a thoroughly unhealthy culture surrounding our attitudes to childhood:
The tragic legacy of this horrific murder continues to haunt British society. The immediate response of British society to this shocking event was an understandable sense of revulsion. But regrettably this very human reaction swiftly mutated into one of moral disorientation.
Policy makers, politicians and media commentators played a critical role in inciting this response. Their histrionic and scaremongering response to this event served to distort the perception of the wider public. As a result this unique and thankfully very rare occurrence was widely perceived as a danger that threatened children throughout the land.
This “very rare occurrence” has had a profound effect on parental beliefs:
Research into the British media’s reporting showed the [Bulger] case had a major impact on parents. In a survey of 1,000 parents taken a year after the killing, 97 per cent cited the possible abduction of their children as their greatest fear.
The effects go beyond parents:
British society has become so morally distanced from childhood that it has lost the ability to make a moral distinction between it and adulthood. It looks upon adults as simply biologically mature children, and children as physically underdeveloped grown-ups. This leads to a tragic state of affairs where children’s behaviour is continually interpreted through the prism of adult imaginations. At its worst, contemporary British culture attributes adult motives to children’s behaviour. Consequently, even infants in nurseries are told off for their ‘harassment’ of other kids or for their ‘racist’ behaviour. We live in a world where six year-old children are expelled from school for inappropriate sexual behaviour, where a 10-year-old boy is put on the Sex Offenders’ Register for touching a girl, and where playing ‘doctors and nurses’ is increasingly interpreted as the precursor to an act of sexual violence.
Strangely the myth of the feral child coexists with the powerful counter-myth of the innocent child who is incapable of lying or wrong-doing. Both of these myths are the product of adult fantasy. Both of them express sentiments that fail to grasp the reality of children’s lives. Parents who are continually confronted with engaging and processing these highly polarised myths often become distracted from seeing children for what they are – just children. And that’s the shameful legacy of moral panic created in response to the tragedy of James Bulger.
Ask any parent today about the main dangers to their children and they will invariably cite two: traffic and paedophiles. Yet the number of road casualties in the UK has been in steady decline since a peak over seventy years ago, while there is no evidence of any long-term increase in the sexual abuse of children (which in any case is a crime committed mainly by parents and guardians rather than strangers). Despite this, most children have had their independent mobility severely curtailed.

One suspects that more harm is being done to children by parental paranoia and a morally confused culture than by motorists or predatory sex offenders.

Monday 18 February 2013

The film industry finally runs out of ideas

Hollywood star Tom Cruise visited a curry house in St Albans last August. This momentous event has now been made into a movie:
A video about his curry night has been entered into the inaugural St Albans Film Festival’s short-film competition.
Festival director Leoni Kibbey said: “Everyone in the film is wearing a Tom Cruise mask. It’s very funny.”
I’m sure it is.

The title of the film is not revealed so let us guess: ‘Days of Thunder’?

Sunday 17 February 2013

Market fundamentalism? It’s dead meat

Why is the horsemeat saga continuing to dominate the news?

It was the question posed by Peter Oborne in his introduction to yesterday’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster:
There’s nothing like a story about dumb animals to bring out the most atavistic and juvenile instincts of your average British newspaper reporter. Few stories in living memory have been less significant than the Great Horseflesh Scandal. Nobody has been killed and and there’s no evidence anyone’s health has been put at risk. Not since rival teams of crack reporters from the Sun, Star and Daily Mirror raced around southern Spain on the trail of Blackie the donkey in the early 1980s has a story counted for much less. Yet very rarely since Blackie the donkey has a story been awarded more airtime. Such are the mysteries of modern media and political discourse.
In a sense, Oborne is right. There are no dead or wounded. Nevertheless, the story has touched a raw nerve and the media are not entirely to blame for the continuing public interest.

The reason for enduring public concern is that the horsemeat scandal symbolises a much deeper problem, which is explored in two articles in today’s Observer. Will Hutton sees the horsemeat scandal as a final denouement for Thatcherite values:
The collapse of a belief system paralyses and terrifies in equal measure. Certainties are exploded. A reliable compass for action suddenly becomes inoperable. Everything you once thought solid vaporises.
Owen Paterson, secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, is living through such a nightmare and is utterly lost. All his once confident beliefs are being shredded. As the horsemeat saga unfolds, it becomes more obvious by the day that those Thatcherite verities – that the market is unalloyed magic, that business must always be unshackled from “wealth-destroying” regulation, that the state must be shrunk, that the EU is a needless collectivist project from which Britain must urgently declare independence – are wrong.
Indeed, to save his career and his party’s sinking reputation, he has to reverse his position on every one. The only question is whether he is sufficiently adroit to make the change.
Paterson is one of the Tories who joyfully shared the scorched earth months of the summer of 2010 when war was declared on quangos and the bloated, as they saw it, “Brownian” state. The Food Standards Agency was a natural candidate for dismemberment. Of course an integrated agency inspecting, advising and enforcing food safety and hygiene should be broken up. As an effective regulator, it was disliked by “wealth-generating” supermarkets and food companies. Its 1,700 inspectors were agents of the state terrifying honest-to-God entrepreneurs with unannounced spot checks and enforced “gold-plated” food labelling. Regulation should be “light touch”.
No Tory would say that now, not even Paterson, one of the less sharp knives in the political drawer. He runs the ministry that took over the FSA’s inspecting function at the same time as it was reeling from massive budget cuts, which he also joyfully cheered on. He finds himself with no answer to the charge that his hollowed-out department, a gutted FSA with 800 fewer inspectors and eviscerated local government were and are incapable of ensuring public health.
Hutton points out that a strong FSA, far from being a regulatory burden, would have given British enterprise a competitive advantage:
What the Paterson worldview has never understood is that effective regulation is a source of competitive advantage. If Britain had a tough Food Standards Agency, it would become a gold standard for food quality, labelling and hygiene. British supermarkets and food companies could become known for their quality at home and abroad, rather as “over-regulated” German car companies are, rather than first suspects when something dodgy is going on.
In a companion piece, Jay Rayner points to the “thuggish” behaviour of the big supermarkets:
The horsemeat scandal is not some isolated incident. It is a symptom of a much bigger disease affecting mass food retailing in Britain. (Last year’s row over falling payments to dairy farmers was another.) It is about the way British supermarkets have singularly failed to react to the vast changes to the global food market that they assumed was theirs to plunder by right.
Ever since the banking crisis of 2007/8, it has been obvious that the dominant economic orthodoxy of the past thirty years is a busted flush. And now we have yet more proof of its moral and practical failure.

There is no future in the fundamentalist ideology that elevated markets from a mechanism to a value and, moreover, a value that trumped all other values. The small minority in the Liberal Democrats who continue to seek to push the party further in that direction must be barking mad.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Just when you thought bankers couldn’t get any worse...

Never mind the banks that are “too big to fail”; what about the bankers who are “too big to jail”?

Rolling Stone reports that British-based bank HSBC has just been prosecuted in the USA for the largest drug-and-terrorism money-laundering case ever. But none of the bankers responsible were jailed. Instead, the bank was fined $1.9 billion, equivalent to about five weeks’ profit:
For at least half a decade, the storied British colonial banking power helped to wash hundreds of millions of dollars for drug mobs, including Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, suspected in tens of thousands of murders just in the past 10 years – people so totally evil, jokes former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, that “they make the guys on Wall Street look good.” The bank also moved money for organizations linked to Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, and for Russian gangsters; helped countries like Iran, the Sudan and North Korea evade sanctions; and, in between helping murderers and terrorists and rogue states, aided countless common tax cheats in hiding their cash.
So why no jail sentences?
That nobody from the bank went to jail or paid a dollar in individual fines is nothing new in this era of financial crisis. What is different about this settlement is that the Justice Department, for the first time, admitted why it decided to go soft on this particular kind of criminal. It was worried that anything more than a wrist slap for HSBC might undermine the world economy. “Had the U.S. authorities decided to press criminal charges,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer at a press conference to announce the settlement, “HSBC would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the U.S., the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized.”
Is Lanny Breuer’s dismal assessment correct?
Breuer is saying the banks have us by the balls, that the social cost of putting their executives in jail might end up being larger than the cost of letting them get away with, well, anything.
This is bullshit, and exactly the opposite of the truth, but it’s what our current government believes. From JonBenet to O.J. to Robert Blake, Americans have long understood that the rich get good lawyers and get off, while the poor suck eggs and do time. But this is something different. This is the government admitting to being afraid to prosecute the very powerful – something it never did even in the heydays of Al Capone or Pablo Escobar, something it didn’t do even with Richard Nixon. And when you admit that some people are too important to prosecute, it’s just a few short steps to the obvious corollary – that everybody else is unimportant enough to jail.
If further proof were needed that the present financial system is beyond minor repair, this is it. Politicians who continue to argue timidly for regulatory tinkering as a remedy for the banking crisis either have no clue or no balls.

Friday 15 February 2013

Iraq – ten years on – and the Liberal Democrats

Ten years ago, the last time the Labour Party enjoyed a double-digit poll lead, a remarkable thing happened in the Liberal Democrats, which if certain people have their way will never happen again. It was the story of how a party, from the bottom to the very top, seized the zeitgeist and found itself, somewhat to its own amazement, the right side of an era-defining political moment.

I was one of those (alongside Martin Tod) when James Graham and Donnachadh McCarthy got the party’s Federal Executive to show some leadership, possibly for the only time in the existence of that body. All of us were members of the FE at the time; unfortunately neither James nor Donnachadh are members of the Liberal Democrats any more. (That in itself speaks volumes).

Charles Kennedy had to be dragged, almost kicking and screaming, to the march. However, his more nuanced approach was repeatedly proved right in subsequent political debate. Detailed policy resolutions at both 2002 Federal Conferences (current FCC please note...) set out a composited position. A January 2003 Federal Executive resolution maintained that there was no evidence to justify Liberal Democrats backing a war. The FE then, uniquely, unanimously voted to support a resolution from James and Susan Kramer backing both the march and an organised official party presence on it.

Kennedy’s aides were reportedly particularly nervous at being closely aligned with pro-Palestinian campaigns, some of them tending towards the radical. Co-operation from key party staff to organise the presence was in short supply (with the usual combination of veteran campaigners and young Liberals coming up trumps). Then, after two weeks’ tension, Kennedy said yes to David Frost... and everything changed.

At that time, I was a councillor in West Oxfordshire, and helped set up a local Stop the War group in an area with significant numbers of forces personnel. A public meeting in Witney, at which I shared the platform with one David Cameron, saw some moving accounts from Forces families of the effects of their loved ones serving in a war they could not support. It was thus perplexing that Kennedy insisted, immediately after the invasion, on a position that opposed the war but supported the troops, which was confusing to many and convinced virtually no-one.

And, as James Graham has recorded at some length, the amazing coalition of Liberals of all parties and none rather imploded against a sea of recriminations, largely at the way the party appeared to be instructed to disobey the decision of the party. [The full documents of the recrimination can be spared – for now.] By contrast, very many Liberals old and new felt reinvigorated by the high-visibility campaign.

Ten years on, and it barely seems conceivable that the Liberal Democrats could do another Iraq. Indeed, Nick Clegg and his former strategy advisor Richard Reeves have (overtly and covertly) suggested that all those left-leaning liberals who joined over Iraq should leave the party and go somewhere else. (The fact that many of those instrumental in the efforts over Iraq predate Clegg let alone Reeves in active politics, of course, is clearly forgotten). More sadly, there is no political party to which the vast majority of those people could now turn.

Were fate and international events to throw up a parallel situation today, indeed, what might happen? The answer is far from clear, especially as, since their accession to government, the Liberal Democrats have scarcely discussed foreign policy at all and appear to have largely forgotten about the wider world. One thing is true, though: any military action in the Middle East in particular is likely to be the subject of considerable anguish against the backdrop of an increasingly overtly pro-Israeli Liberal Democrat leadership and the prism of the coalition. The vituperative responses to careless statements from parliamentarians about Palestine, and the almost crazed response to serious challenges to the leadership such as that seen at Gateshead over the NHS Bill, do not give rise to much hope.

One significant test of the party’s international outlook will come when the party follows the Trident alternatives review and decides whether it goes into the general election pledged to a reduced deterrent, or – as a majority of activists currently think – none. A metaphor for the party’s strategy: the squeezed middle ground of centrism, or a return to the radical roots the party has followed since the days of Grimond.

While the need for the party to develop its own economic vision is critical, the dangers to the Liberal Democrats of 2013 posed by international events are great indeed.

Thursday 14 February 2013

New Lib Dem peerages: runners and riders

Liberator understands that a large batch of new life peers is shortly to be announced, probably before the end of this month.

The list will include 18 Liberal Democrats, which implies at least 30 new Conservative peers and over 50 new peers in all, since the ostensible aim is to bring the parties’ share of peerages more closely into line with the result of the last general election. This has a certain logic, although it means the creation of a ridiculous number of new peerages, since each successive general election will require the winning party to leapfrog the others.

It is likely that most of the names on the list will be those held over from last spring, when a batch of new peerages was aborted because Lords reform was on the cards. After those reforms were abandoned, there were strong rumours that the list would be revived and announced in November but it was again shelved, for unknown reasons. It now appears that the dust has finally been blown off last year’s list and a few more names added for good measure.

Needless to say, rumours are flying around about who the lucky 18 Liberal Democrats will be. Here is Liberator’s guide to the strongest contenders...

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Every dark horse has a silver lining

It seems that at least some good is coming of the horsemeat scandal. Shoppers are returning to buying meat from independent butchers:
Independent butchers are... reporting a boost in demand – particularly for processed meat such as mince and burgers.
The Q Guild – which represents 110 of the “highest quality butchers in the UK” said freshly made beefburger sales have increased by up to 30%.
And Roger Kelsey – chief executive of the 13,000 member National Federation of Meat & Food Traders (NFMFT), said there was “definite evidence” consumers were looking for alternative supplies.
He estimated his members had enjoyed a 10-15% boost in their business since mid-January, with anything up to a 50% increase in the demand for sausages, mince and burgers.
Not everyone agrees, though:
The figures are challenged by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents UK supermarkets.
Well they would say that, wouldn’t they? The manufacturers and supermarkets that sold us fraudulently-labelled food have seen public trust plummet over the past month. They must know that the most valuable asset of any organisation is trust, and that applies especially to an industry producing something so vital as food.

Trust is like virginity – once lost it is hard to recover. That won’t stop the food industry avoiding the fundamental problems by spending a fortune on PR. Someone should tell the BRC that denial is not a winning strategy.

Instead, the supermarkets should reflect and realise they have only themselves to blame. First, they screwed down the prices of their suppliers, creating incentives to cut corners. Then they developed lengthy and complex supply chains, which made it more difficult to discover when corners were being cut.

The Liberal Democrats should be using these developments to underline their long-held belief in the virtues of human-scale organisation. It’s a shame the party isn’t making this point.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Woman’s Hour gets it wrong

Who are the 100 most powerful women in Britain? This morning, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour finally unveiled it’s ‘Power List’, defined as “the 100 most powerful women in the UK at the start of 2013”.

Like any good Liberal Democrat, I studied the list to see whether there were any party members included. There is one person with a particularly good claim, Sharon Bowles MEP. She chairs the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, the parliament’s most powerful committee. That makes her arguably the second most powerful woman in European politics after Angela Merkel.

Sharon Bowles is not on the list at all. And neither is Lynne Featherstone, who has played a key role in advancing women’s rights in the coalition government.

But look who has been included. The Queen occupies the no.1 spot, even though she has no real power. The list also includes pop singer Adele, comedians Dawn French and Sarah Millican, and Victoria Beckham.

Who chose this list? The readers of Take a Break? No, it turns out to have been a panel comprising Eve Pollard, Jill Burridge, Oona King, Val McDermid, Dawn O’Porter and Priti Patel, assisted by some unnamed ‘expert witnesses’.

Admittedly, the list takes a broad definition of the term ‘power’, going beyond politics and business to encompass society and culture. Even so, there is a difference between power and fame. To suggest that Victoria Beckham is more powerful than Sharon Bowles is frankly ridiculous.

Spaghetti Bolognese scandal

“Tesco says some of its value spaghetti bolognese contains 60% horsemeat” says today’s Guardian.

It is scandalous that Tesco should include the wrong ingredient. As anyone familiar with Italian cuisine knows, Bolognese sauce should be eaten with tagliatelle, not spaghetti.

Monday 11 February 2013

Kick creationism out of our schools

Where is David Laws when you need him? That’s David Laws the education minister, as distinct from the various other hats he wears.

It turns out that the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum is used in more than 50 UK schools. This curriculum includes a science text book that cites the existence of the Loch Ness monster as evidence against evolution.

It gets worse. ACE also asserts that God is right-wing and that Liberals are the root of all evil. It denies that transitional fossils exist, despite copious evidence to the contrary. It claims that solar fusion is a myth. It claims that evolution is a deliberate lie. And it claims that homosexuality is a learned behaviour.

Despite this, the government agency UK NARIC (which advises on overseas qualifications) has defended its decision to deem ACE’s in-house qualification, the International Certificate of Christian Education, as comparable to A-levels.

In a Liberal society, people should be free to believe in creationism if they want to. But that liberty does not extend to the teaching of demonstrable scientific falsehoods to schoolchildren.

Creationism is not ‘science’ by any definition. Science is a rational and systematic process that builds and organises knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. There is no place in science for dogma, religious or otherwise. And creationism is a dogma that flies in the face of the best scientific evidence we have.

To teach creationism even as one scientific hypothesis among many is therefore gross professional misconduct and should be treated as such. The government should withdraw recognition from ACE’s qualifications and it should ban creationism from science classes entirely.

Sunday 10 February 2013

OUT NOW! New edition of Liberator magazine

The latest edition of Liberator magazine landed on subscribers doormats last week.

If you did not receive a copy, you are probably one of those unfortunate people suffering from LLSS (Lack of a Liberator Subscription Syndrome). Fortunately, a simple remedy is available.

In the meantime, a summary of the latest edition has appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice.

“Lib Dems are still not addressing their race problem”

The Liberal Democrats have little or no credibility on racial issues because they have no black and minority ethnic MPs and have little to say on racial issues.

That is the depressing conclusion of Lester Holloway (a Liberal Democrat councillor in Sutton and an executive member of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats), writing on the New Statesman blog:
In every area of public life – from education, to health, to criminal justice – there are big issues of racial inequality that demand serious policy answers. Yet despite the Lib Dems wearing equality on their sleeves, the party has singularly lacked ideas for tackling these issues.
To help remedy this neglect, the Social Liberal Forum and Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats are jointly hosting a one-day conference next Saturday (16th February) in London. Register online here – all welcome.

POSTSCRIPT: The SLF/EMLD one-day conference scheduled for 16th February has been postponed because of the Eastleigh by-election.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Rutland Italian Ready Meals: An Announcement

We have undertaken DNA testing on our Luxury Meat Lasagne and are pleased to be able to report that it contains no horse.

Interestingly, though, it does appear to be related to Richard III.

EU budget is no big deal

Today’s newspapers are full of hype about the cut in the European Union budget.

“David Cameron last night declared Victory in Europe,” blares The Sun.

“Cameron claims historic victory,” declares the Daily Telegraph.

“Tough-talking David Cameron forces through first ever EU budget cut,” brags the Daily Express.

So let’s get this in proportion. As the leaders of the four biggest groups in the European Parliament reminded us in a joint statement before the budget negotiations began:
  • The EU budget comprises only about 1% of the combined GDP of all the member states.
  • 94% of the financial contributions that the member states transfer to ‘Brussels’ is returned to member states through the various common policies or is spent on development aid.
  • Administrative costs make up only 6% of the EU budget. The idea that taxpayers’ money is swallowed up by an all-consuming Brussels bureaucracy is a myth.
Also, it’s not just size but what you do with it. As the four group leaders pointed out:
The long-term EU budget must provide added value in terms of growth-boosting investment. It must also allow for flexibility, so that the EU can better react and channel funds to where they are most needed – in particular the investments in infrastructure, innovation and skills that represent the foundations for future sustainable growth.
If the budget is cut by 3% but the cuts fall not on agricultural subsidies but on “investments in infrastructure, innovation and skills that represent the foundations for future sustainable growth,” it will not be a ‘victory’ for anyone.

The cheapest item on the shelf does not necessarily offer the best value for money, so we need to hear more about quality and less about quantity.

And before David Cameron counts his chickens, the budget must still win the approval of the European Parliament.

Friday 8 February 2013

Who rates the credit rating agencies?

One of the main justifications offered by the coalition government for sticking to its austerity policies is a fear that the UK would otherwise lose its ‘triple A’ rating from the credit rating agencies.

But why should we trust the judgement of the credit rating agencies? Ever since they gave the thumbs up to subprime mortgages and helped trigger the banking crisis of 2007/8, more and more of their misjudgements have come to light.

The USA is currently being entertained by the Justice Department’s five-billion-dollar lawsuit against one of these agencies, Standard & Poor’s, which is accused of defrauding investors by issuing ratings on subprime mortgage securities that it knew to be misleading.

There is no doubt that the credit rating agencies bear a lot of responsibility for the current crisis, since they certified that very risky financial products were safe investments. The question is whether this was stupidity or fraud.

Either way, clowns or crooks, there is no longer any good reason why these agencies should remain the final arbiters of economic policy.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Left Foot Backward

In today’s edition of the Left Foot Forward blog’s ‘Look Left’ newsletter, Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather has been named as ‘Regressive of the Week’ for voting against gay marriage.

No mention of the 22 Labour MPs who voted against gay marriage, then?

Wednesday 6 February 2013

The real significance of the gay marriage vote

Yesterday’s debate in the House of Commons on gay marriage ought not to have been a seismic event. Social attitudes have changed markedly in recent decades and homosexuality has ceased to be an issue for most people. The introduction of civil partnerships a few years ago, although controversial, passed without the uproar we have seen this week. Yesterday’s vote was not even the final vote on this bill.

What is really going on? Why has gay marriage become such a totemic issue, less for its supporters than for its opponents?

In part, it is to do with the internal politics of the Conservative Party. Throughout his leadership, David Cameron’s strategy has been to detoxify his party. He is well aware of the Tories’ reputation as the ‘nasty party’ and he also understands that social attitudes have moved on. He is economically right-wing but doesn’t see why this agenda should be contingent on attitudes towards sexuality. The political value of supporting gay marriage is therefore symbolic; it is to signal that his party is no longer nasty.

You could say that yesterday’s vote was the Conservative Party’s ‘Clause 4 Moment’. But if this was Cameron’s intention, it hasn’t worked as planned. 127 Tory MPs voted in favour of gay marriage but 136 voted against (with a further 5 registered abstentions), so the opponents cannot be isolated or depicted as an unrepresentative minority. If anything, the Tories’ association with intolerant values has been strengthened.

The real significance of yesterday’s vote is that it is a political watershed. It marks the point when political divisions in Britain ceased to be mainly about economic interests and became more about values. This shift was anticipated in an Observer article by Stephan Shakespeare published during the 2005 general election campaign:
So perhaps what the modern campaign is really about is defining our values. After all, we are now beyond ideology: the left have given up on the idea of total state control, even as a distant aspiration. The right have given up thinking about shrinking the state. The collapse of Rover is a political non-event. No-one seriously proposes a shift away from public services. Instead, there is a new line which separates one side of the electorate from another: recent YouGov research suggests that we no longer range along a left-right axis, but are divided by ‘drawbridge issues’.
We are either ‘drawbridge up’ or ‘drawbridge down’. Are you someone who feels your life is being encroached upon by criminals, gypsies, spongers, asylum seekers, Brussels bureaucrats? Do you think the bad things will all go away if we lock the doors? Or do you think it’s a big beautiful world out there, full of good people, if only we could all open our arms and embrace each other? Depending on which side we take, we regard ‘drawbridge up’ people as unpleasant, or ‘drawbridge down’ people as foolish.
Gay marriage is a classic ‘drawbridge issue’, like the current arguments about the EU. This is why yesterday’s vote was so significant. It is not that gay marriage per se doesn’t matter; it is that something much deeper is going on.

Just as, in the USA, many poor working class people support the Tea Party even though it is against their economic interests, so we will encounter similar phenomena here. As I argued long ago in Liberator in 2004, Liberals need to understand where the new political fault lines are and to be prepared to fight battles about values.

The Liberal Democrats have fudged too often on ‘drawbridge issues’ for fear of causing offence (notably on Europe and immigration). They are missing a trick if they lose opportunities to associate the party unambiguously with ‘drawbridge down’ values. That is why the failure of the party’s MPs to vote unanimously in favour of gay marriage was so damaging.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Gay marriage – never mind the Tories, what about the Labour and Lib Dem rebels?

Most of the media attention regarding today’s House of Commons debate on gay marriage has focused on the behaviour of the large number of Tory rebels. Relatively little attention has been paid to opponents in other parties.

The Huffington Post is one of the few media to cover this angle. For the latest data, however, one must check the Coalition for Equal Marriage’s list. 15 Labour MPs are currently known to be against gay marriage, while at least three Liberal Democrat MPs (Gordon Birtwistle, John Pugh and Sarah Teather) are also opposed. A further seven Liberal Democrat MPs have yet to declare their intentions, so there could be more (those undeclared are Alan Beith, Annette Brooke, Duncan Hames, Charles Kennedy, Greg Mulholland, Robert Smith and John Thurso).

Well it’s a free vote for MPs of all parties, so they can do as they please. But given that the Liberal Democrats (and the pre-merger Liberal Party) pioneered gay rights policies long before they became fashionable, the decisions of any opponents are hard to justify and undermine the credibility of the party on LGBT issues.

John Pugh’s explanation in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s World at One earlier today was incoherent and unconvincing [listen online here – zap forward to 13:30]. It was not at all clear what his call for more “gradual” reform would mean in practice. If he opposes gay marriage on religious grounds, he should just say so, instead of waffling apologetically in a way that will impress no one on either side of the debate.

Gordon Birtwistle, meanwhile, simply asserts that gay marriage is “not on” – whatever that means. Why Sarah Teather opposes gay marriage is anybody’s guess.

Monday 4 February 2013

Why the big banks need breaking up, not ‘ring-fences’

Is George Osborne’s promise of ‘ring-fencing’ within the big banks an adequate response to the corruption and shoddy practices that caused the financial crash? Probably not, if Wall Street is anything to go by.

Greg Smith, a former employee of Goldman Sachs, has just written a book titled Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t properly explain what went wrong, according to another Wall Street refugee Michael Lewis in his review of Smith’s book

In 1989, Lewis wrote Liar’s Poker, a pioneering exposé of Salomon Brothers. And he finds Smith’s book a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, which would have been more useful had it been published before the financial crash.

Lewis gets to the heart of the matter:
Stop and think once more about what has just happened on Wall Street: its most admired firm conspired to flood the financial system with worthless securities, then set itself up to profit from betting against those very same securities, and in the bargain helped to precipitate a world historic financial crisis that cost millions of people their jobs and convulsed our political system. In other places, or at other times, the firm would be put out of business, and its leaders shamed and jailed and strung from lampposts. (I am not advocating the latter.) Instead Goldman Sachs, like the other too-big-to-fail firms, has been handed tens of billions in government subsidies, on the theory that we cannot live without them. They were then permitted to pay politicians to prevent laws being passed to change their business, and bribe public officials (with the implicit promise of future employment) to neuter the laws that were passed—so that they might continue to behave in more or less the same way that brought ruin on us all. And after all this has been done, a Goldman Sachs employee steps forward to say that the people at the top of his former firm need to see the error of their ways, and become more decent, socially responsible human beings. Right. How exactly is that going to happen?
Lewis advocates breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks into smaller units. He concludes:
The ultimate goal should be to create institutions so dull and easy to understand that, when a young man who works for one of them walks into a publisher’s office and offers to write up his experiences, the publisher looks at him blankly and asks, “Why would anyone want to read that?”
This is a somewhat more robust stance than George Osborne’s.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Economics – The Movie

Could Robert Reich’s new movie Inequality For All do for economics what Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change?

That is the question posed by Carole Cadwalladr in an article in today’s Observer. She reports that, far from being dry and boring as you might expect of a documentary about economics, the film is witty and well-made, and picked up the special jury prize at the recent Sundance film festival.

Robert Reich’s books have always been worth reading – and so is his blog. You may recall that, in the 1990s, he took a break from academia to serve in President Clinton’s cabinet.

Reich’s message is that capitalism took a wrong turn at the end of the 1970s. Although the economy kept growing, wages didn’t. Median incomes declined while the top 1% took an increasing share. For a while, the middle classes compensated with various coping mechanisms. More women entered the workforce, creating dual-income families. Working hours rose. And increasing house prices enabled people to borrow. Then in 2007, people ran out of options and the economy crashed. The people who buy stuff could no longer afford to buy stuff.

It ought to be obvious by now that the economic orthodoxy of the past thirty years is like Monty Python’s dead parrot. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. It’s a stiff, bereft of life. It’s shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible.

True believers in ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative) are like the pet shop owner, stubbornly insisting that their economic dogma is not dead but merely resting. It’s tired and shagged out after a long squawk. It’s pining for the fjords. And even when you provide them with incontrovertible evidence that their orthodoxy is dead, they reply that it has “beautiful plumage”.

Let’s hope that Reich’s film will convince more people to give this dead economic orthodoxy a decent burial instead of trying to nail it to the perch.

Saturday 2 February 2013

The Stupid Party presents... a tax on being single

A major news item today is the decision by the government not to give a tax break to married couples. Not yet, anyway. David Cameron is still promising to introduce it at some unspecified future date.

Such a tax break was in the Tory manifesto. It is also in the coalition agreement, although it was agreed that Liberal Democrat MPs could abstain in any parliamentary votes on the issue.

But a major question is being ignored. Why is this policy being described as “a tax break for married couples”? Would it not be just as accurate to describe it as a supplementary tax on single people?

Tax breaks are justified for people who have dependants such as children or elderly parents to care for. That applies whether the taxpayers in question are married or not. There is no justification for giving tax breaks to anyone simply because they are married – yet that is what many ‘angry’ Tory backbenchers are clamouring for.

If Liberal Democrat MPs wish to gain some advantage from their right to abstain, they should challenge these Tory backbenchers to explain why single people should pay more tax just for being single. These Tories should also be asked to explain how the institution of marriage would be strengthened by creating an incentive for people to enter into marriages of convenience simply to avoid paying more tax.

You don’t have to be stupid to be a Tory backbencher, but it helps.

Friends of whom?

Why isn’t there more controversy in the party about Liberal Democrat Friends of China (LDFC)?

It’s one thing to seek to improve understanding of China or provide a rallying point for members of the party from the UK Chinese community. It’s quite another to support the Chinese occupation of Tibet and say that, if the Tibetans don’t like it, they have plenty of other Asian countries they can go and live in.

Worse, when any party members criticise this occupation or the denial of human rights, LDFC condemns them as ‘Sinophobes’, runs a campaign of personal vilification, and tries to hound them out of the party.

Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking that LDFC is nothing more than an uncritical mouthpiece for the Chinese government, or even an arm of Chinese foreign policy.

Except that none of the above is true. I made it up. In fact, there is a fine body called Chinese Liberal Democrats that does none of these appalling things.

But if this fictional account were true, how would you feel? Probably the same way you should feel about Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI).

LDFI defends the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, and never criticises Israel’s continual land grabs and construction of illegal settlements. Indeed, at the Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate in March 2009, LDFI unsuccessfully opposed an emergency motion on Gaza that was critical of Israel’s blockade.

LDFI has also pursued long-running vendettas against Chris Davies MEP and Baroness Jenny Tonge (and one suspects that David Ward MP can now expect similar treatment following his recent ill-judged comments). Open debate and disagreement with opponents are perfectly reasonable. Intimidation and relentless smear campaigns are not (especially as the aim is not merely to silence individual critics but also to make an example of them, creating a climate where everyone else is fearful of speaking out).

Actually, there is no reason for anyone to feel bullied and every reason to call LDFI’s bluff. Although LDFI may put on an impressive act, it is in fact a tiny organisation. It was found seriously wanting when, in 2011, the Liberal Democrats reviewed the status of all the party’s ‘Associated Organisations’ (‘AO’ = a special interest group formally recognised by the party). This review found that LDFI had only 30 members. It recommended that LDFI should have its AO status renewed to 2015 but “subject to submitting a plan [by September 2011] for increasing the membership from the current minimum of 30”.

LDFI’s empty posturing may seem a farce but is really a tragedy, since it leaves an unfulfilled need for a genuinely Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel. A true LDFI would recognise Palestinian statehood as a prerequisite for a just and lasting peace, not claim to be “strongly committed” to a two-state solution while effectively supporting an indefinite occupation. It would support Israeli organisations such as B’Tselem that work for reconciliation, not act as a shameless mouthpiece for the Israeli government. It would be working with Liberal International to support Israeli liberals seeking to rebuild an Israeli liberal party, not spouting the Likud party line.

I’d support such an organisation. I wouldn’t touch the current LDFI with a bargepole. And if LDFI continues to defend illiberal policies while being unable to summon up more than a handful of members, its AO status can no longer be justified.

Friday 1 February 2013

Why not move to Romania?

A Romanian newspaper has responded to the suggestion that the British government should run an advertising campaign dissuading would-be Romanian immigrants from coming to Britain – with a spoof advertising campaign inviting Britons to move to Romania.

“Half our women look like Kate. The other half, like her sister” says one of these Romanian ads.

Romanian and Bulgarian citizens will enjoy the same freedom of movement as any other EU citizens after 31st December, when temporary restrictions on moving to Britain expire.

This has prompted some right-wing tabloids to run scare stories suggesting that millions of Romanians and Bulgarians will descend on Britain the minute the restrictions end.

The number of immigrants is unlikely to match the absurd estimates published by the Daily Express. Even if it did, would the coalition government seriously wish to advertise its achievements by telling the world how awful Britain is?

By ’eck, it’s Abe Lincoln

The new Steven Spielberg film Lincoln has no scenes set in Lancashire. Perhaps it should have.

As the BBC’s Paul Mason points out, Lancashire’s cotton workers, urged on by Liberal MP John Bright, expressed solidarity with the Union’s fight against slavery and its blockade of the south, despite losing work from the resulting loss of cotton supplies.

Lincoln is commemorated by a statue in a square named after him in Manchester:
At a mass meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, on New Year's Eve 1862, attended by a mixture of cotton workers, and the Manchester middle class, they passed a motion urging Lincoln to prosecute the war, abolish slavery and supporting the blockade – despite the fact that it was by now causing them to starve. The meeting convened despite an editorial in the Manchester Guardian advising people not to attend.
Mr Lincoln, in a letter dated 19 January 1863, 150 years ago... replied with the words that are inscribed on his statue:
“I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.
“It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom… Whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”