Saturday 29 June 2013

The mess we’re in

The banking scandals of recent years have been so big and so complex that it is difficult for most people to grasp the extent of the problem. In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester surveys numerous major scandals, in ascending order of seriousness:
  • Two traditional trading floor disasters – The huge losses caused by Kweku Adoboli, the UBS wunderkind who lost £1.4 billion in 2011, and Bruno Iksil, the ‘London Whale’ at JPMorgan Chase, who in 2012 lost an amount described by his boss Jamie Dimon as ‘a tempest in a teacup’, until it turned out to be $6.2 billion.
  • The downfall of HBOS – The FSA said: “Whatever may explain the problems of other banks, the downfall of HBOS was not the result of cultural contamination by investment banking. This was a traditional bank failure pure and simple. It was a case of a bank pursuing traditional banking activities and pursuing them badly.” Lanchester adds: “In other words, the single biggest factor in the collapse of HBOS was simple incompetence.”
  • The manipulation of Libor – Lanchester observes: “It seems bizarre that something so central to the global markets – $360 trillion of deals are pinned to Libor – should have such a strong element of invention or guesswork. The potential for abuse is immediately apparent.” And abuse is precisely what happened.
  • Criminal acts – Sanctions-busting by Standard Chartered; sanctions-busting and also money-laundering for drugs cartels by HSBC.
  • RBS’s back-end implosion – The bank introduced a software update into its payment system that caused it to stop working. It was impossible to make either payments into or withdrawals from the bank’s accounts.
  • The payment protection insurance (PPI) scandal – Lanchester says this is the biggest scandal of them all – “an industry-wide, systematic cheating of the banks’ own customers”. The cost will be enormous; the latest estimates of the final cost to the banks vary between £16 billion and £25 billion.
Lanchester concludes that the PPI scandal is the worst, not just because of its size but also because it has destroyed banking’s most important asset:
Trust is the banks’ most important intangible asset: if it were lacking, none of us would ever use them for anything, ever. In a sense, trust is what banks do...
PPI was about banks breaking trust by exploiting their customers, not accidentally, but as a matter of deliberate and sustained policy. They sold policies which they knew did not serve the ends they were supposed to serve and in doing so treated their customers purely as an extractive resource. That is why, uncharismatic as it sounds and dreary in many of its specifics as it is, PPI is the worst scandal in the history of British banking: the one that shows just how badly wrong the industry had gone, and just how fundamentally it violated what should have been its basic values. No wonder that there’s been what the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, in the very first sentence of its 571-page report, calls ‘a profound loss of trust born of profound lapses in banking standards’. PPI is the final proof that our banks became rotten.
Even PPI, though, is not the most serious issue. There is a problem so large that Lanchester leaves it out of his account:
Just to keep things simple, I’m going to leave out the biggest of them all, the grotesque toxic-asset and derivative spree which took the global financial system to the edge of the abyss. That was the precursor and proximate cause of the difficulties which are affecting the entire Western world at the moment, but the causal mechanisms connecting the initial crisis and our current predicament are a separate subject. The crisis and its consequences are too big to count as a scandal: they’re more like a climate.
Amongst other things, the “grotesque toxic-asset and derivative spree” dwarfs any sin committed by the last Labour government. That government shares some of the blame for the financial crisis and subsequent recession, but to reduce our present economic problems to “the mess left by Labour” is facile. Anyone who thinks that slogan is a satisfactory analysis is an idiot.

Oh no, it’s Ben Ramm again

This morning’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster included an interview about Vince Cable with two Liberal Democrats, Nick Thornsby of Liberal Democrat Voice and Ben Ramm, billed as “former editor of The Liberal, regarded as being on the left of the party”.

What was not mentioned is that The Liberal magazine is defunct and has been for four years. During the six years it was published, it ran to only thirteen editions. Throughout that time, it had no influence or standing in the party but was merely a heavily-subsidised vanity project.

As Liberator’s Radical Bulletin column reported in this April’s edition:
Eccentric magazine The Liberal has not been heard of for some years. That hasn’t stopped lazier parts of the media continuing to invite the magazine’s last editor Ben Ramm to act as a respected pundit on party matters.
The Wikipedia page for The Liberal states that it “ran in print from 2004 to 2009 and online until 2012”. But its own website states that there is a “new website coming soon” and has a link to the old website, which touts for subscriptions to a magazine that no longer exists.
Even when The Liberal was in print, Ramm was never considered an authoritative spokesperson for the left of the party (or any other section of the party for that matter). If that is what the producers of the Week in Westminster wanted, they could have gone to the Social Liberal Forum or any one of many councillors or parliamentarians, or indeed to that august journal Liberator. Clearly the producers need to overhaul their outdated contacts list.

Friday 28 June 2013

A bizarre obsession with photography

BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs today featured actor and comedian Hugh Laurie.

His selection of music was intelligent and heavily biased to the blues. However, the reason for drawing this programme to your attention is an interesting observation he made:
I heard the other day that there have been more photographs taken in the last twelve months than there have ever been taken, in the world, ever. Because people are now photographing – I shudder to think what they are photographing – everything and nothing. No interaction is deemed to have actually happened unless somebody has a picture of it. Nobody is satisfied with having met a person without having a photograph to prove it. I think that is odd, and I think it’s so odd that it might actually be starting to alter the way we think about each other and the way we think about general day-to-day social interaction.
What prompted this observation was the fact that digital photography has meant there is no longer any escape for a celebrity in a public space. But even when there are no celebrities around, it is notable how people with digital cameras and camera phones seem to be taking pictures constantly, so that they are no longer experiencing life directly but at one remove.

The problem is not photography or even digital photography per se but its incessant and indiscriminate use. As Laurie says, photography has become a curious form of validation of experience. It also makes you wonder what people do with all the photos they take. Digital photography means that people rapidly accumulate vast collections and, since they probably never look at most of these pictures more than a few days after taking them, it would seem that the act of capturing images is more important than the images themselves.

It has reached the point where some restaurant customers consider it quite normal to photograph each dish put in front of them, so that the image rather than the taste assumes greater importance.

It is a strange world where people think of ‘memory’ as something stored on a memory card rather than stored in their brains, and where life becomes something to capture rather than experience directly.

Lib Dem conference sex ban shock horror

The world was rocked to its foundations by news that Liberal Youth has banned shagging at its conference this weekend.

The story was published yesterday by the Blue Guerilla blog under a sensational headline:
EXCLUSIVE: Lib Dem Youth Leaders Impose Shagging Ban.
It was rehashed in this morning’s Daily Star under the salacious headline:
The Star suggests that Liberal Youth has split into two factions, between “budding politicians hoping for an early night kept awake by their randy colleagues” and those who regard the LY conference as “the one and only pulling event in their annual calendar”.

It turns out that there is less to this story than meets the eye. One of the comments beneath the Blue Guerilla blog is from Liberal Youth member George Potter, who dampens down the excitement:
I hate to break it to you but this is old news. Sex has been forbidden in crash since 2009. This announcement by the LY Chairs is just a reminder of that rule.
O tempora o mores! I recall a Young Liberal Movement council weekend in Manchester in 1977, when I entered a large bedroom in David Senior’s flat that was being used as a crash pad. It was like stepping into a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

Not everyone was shagging in those days. There were rival attractions, such as putting the world to rights or heavy drinking or roll-your-own cigarettes (which may have contained more than just tobacco) – or all three. But “hoping for an early night” rarely featured on any conference agenda.

Several participants in this hedonism went on to become respected MPs and councillors (and, no, none of them were those involved in subsequent scandals), so today’s more austere youth should not assume that getting a good night’s sleep is a guarantee of future political success.

Postscript: Apparently the main reason for Liberal Youth’s policy is concern about “child protection”. Liberal Youth has a minimum age of 14 and, while it is necessary to ensure the safety of under-16s (and no one of any age should be subject to sexual abuse), all but a few of those attending Liberal Youth events are over the age of consent. The fact that all participants, irrespective of their age, are subject to worries about “child protection” says more about the current moral panic about paedophilia than it does about any actual risks.

Thursday 27 June 2013

What political genius thought of this?

Yes, let’s pick at some old scabs, shall we?

The New Statesman reports that Danny Alexander has confirmed the student loan book will be privatised. The report explains why this makes no economic sense.

What the New Statesman doesn’t say is that reopening the issue of student loans makes no political sense either. That issue has become a byword for mistrust of the Liberal Democrats. So why revive the controversy?

Oh yes, I forgot. Everybody who used to vote Liberal Democrat is a ‘protest voter’ who can be safely jettisoned in favour of hard-working-centre-ground-alarm-clock-Britain. I hope these imaginary voters will be impressed.

The answer to the Ultimate Question of Europe: 42

We all know what would be Eurosceptics’ answer to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union: “no”. But what is the question?

The question of the question has been raised by Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff, who asks what kind of EU would Britain be choosing to stay in or leave. He points out that, if David Cameron gets his way and there is a referendum in 2017, by then the EU will have changed.

As in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” was 42 but nobody knew the question, so Eurosceptics have an answer but no question.

As Duff says, if you want to resolve this issue favourably, it is better to get engaged in the argument within the EU about the sort of EU we want and the fundamental reforms currently being debated, instead of standing on the sidelines obsessing about an answer to which there is as yet no question.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

A coup against Clegg?

On the Telegraph blog, Bernard Brogan reports that Nick Clegg is “safe”. The “leadership crisis” is over. There will no longer be “a coup at the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference”.

A crisis? Excuse me, but did I miss something? A post here on 16 January explained why it was unlikely there would be a leadership election anytime soon. There has been no ‘crisis’ in the intervening months. The arguments in January’s post remain valid.

But despite the lack of a coup, Clegg is increasingly deserving of one. It isn’t because the Liberal Democrats joined the coalition – the party agreed to that overwhelmingly. And no matter how much you may think Clegg has subsequently made a poor fist of being in coalition, it is hard to see any of his potential rivals being able to make a significant difference at this late stage in the game.

The problem isn’t the coalition but the survival of the Liberal Democrats after 2015 as anything more than a fringe party. Clegg seems to have little idea of what makes the party tick or how its campaigning strength was built. The nature of this problem was revealed in a series of speeches and statements he has made over the past year.

In May, I posted here about Clegg’s statement after the local elections and his speech to last September’s party conference. On both occasions, he said that his way is the only way; anyone who disagrees is simply not interested in winning power. His way is the future; anyone who disagrees wants a return to the past.

He referred to the Liberal Democrats as having been a “party of protest” before he took charge. He travestied party members as people who want to “turn back” and create a “stop the world I want to get off” party. He warned them to “stop looking in the rear view mirror”.

In his speech at the ALDC conference in Manchester last Saturday, he repeated similar arguments. He scorned party members who want to “turn back the clock” and be “the third party forever”, who are calling for “an eternity in opposition” and “hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition”.

These are straw men. We know this because in none of these attacks does Clegg ever name his critics or supply specific references to the speeches or writings where they have expressed such views. These imaginary enemies are conjured up because Clegg needs a ‘defining other’, a pantomime villain against whom he can contrast his virtues. He’d like his audience to shout out, “they’re behind you!” They won’t because they do not share his illusion.

Indeed, following Saturday’s speech, several have censured this smear campaign:
  • Jonathan Calder was depressed by the spin in advance of the speech, which promised Clegg would “take on his internal party critics”, and mocked his “very real fork in the road”. He pointed out that Clegg’s strongest critics are not the dilettantes Clegg would have you believe: “...the fellow Liberal Democrats who are most likely to be critical of Nick’s leadership are precisely those who have lost power under his leadership – councillors and group leaders in Northern cities who have seen the gains of years of hard work wiped out”.
  • Caron Lindsay, usually a loyalist, complained on Liberal Democrat Voice, “we’re not a bunch of unrealistic hippies, you know”. She warned: “Nick ought to realise that if he wants us to do something for him, then inferring that we need to grow up and get real is hardly the best motivational tool, especially when it’s not even accurate. Activists, who are already working hard, are going to think ‘Is that how little he thinks of us?’”
  • Gareth Epps asked on the Social Liberal Forum blog whether Clegg was resorting to “megaphone diplomacy”. He observed that it was perverse of Clegg to lecture members about power at an ALDC conference of all places:  “ audience of councillors is a strange one to lecture about being in power, especially those who did just that successfully for many years before national political trends voted good Liberal Democrats off councils we formerly ran. They are people who have long been a party of Government, who have suddenly found themselves in some cases relegated from first place to third thanks to taking the path Clegg seems to advocate.”
Only one notable commentator excused Clegg’s attacks. On Liberal Democrat Voice, Stephen Tall suggested, “That’s the way you get journalists’ attention, y’see”. If it really were the case that this is merely a PR tactic, it is a stupid one because it is extracting a disproportionately high price in terms of the alienation and demotivation of members. Y’see.

Meanwhile, writing on his blog on Sunday, David Boyle detected signs in the latest issue of Liberator magazine of a change of mood in favour of Clegg, which seems a charitable interpretation. If anything, the mood towards Clegg is continuing to deteriorate. The articles in the latest Liberator by Tony Greaves and Chris White indicate increasing exasperation with a leader who is effectively hollowing out his party.

In Saturday’s speech, Clegg warned that, unless members follow his “very real fork in the road”, “we condemn our party to the worst possible fate: Irrelevance; impotence; slow decline”. In fact, it is Clegg’s disregard for the long-term health of the party as a thriving campaigning organisation that is condemning the party to slow decline.

Clegg likes to lecture members about the ‘realities’ but the problem is that his narrative is remarkably unreal:
  1. Until Clegg became leader, the Liberal Democrats were merely a party of protest.
  2. Until Clegg became leader, the party had no experience of power and no interest in winning it.
  3. The power the party has won is entirely due to a transformation brought about by Clegg. The gains have been made despite the party rather than because of it.
  4. There is only one viable way forward, which is Clegg’s. Anyone who disagrees is backward looking and would rather be in permanent opposition.
This narrative is not just an insult to the party; it is bogus in every respect. Anyone who seriously believes in it is deluded. Anyone who promotes it while knowing it to be false is a liar. Either way, when a leader is promoting such an obviously dishonest prospectus, how can he expect his members to respect him or work for him?

Clegg is not the first leader to try and define his leadership qualities in terms of opposition to his own party. The tactic of making yourself look tough by attacking your own members is straight out of the David Steel playbook. With Steel, it reached the point where his closest allies (led by Richard Holme) worked for merger with the SDP as much as anything to achieve ‘Year Zero’ – to erase the Liberal Party and all those pesky radical activists and start with a clean sheet of paper, so that a centralised party could be run with no interference from the members.

Clegg seems to have reached a similar stage in his leadership, where he can no longer disguise his contempt for his own party. The problem is more acute with Clegg than his predecessors because he’s never assimilated. He joined the party only in 1997, became an MEP in 1999, an MP in 2005 and leader in 2007 – little wonder he’s never really understood the party’s culture. This problem is evident not only in the repeated slurs against activists but also the crass insensitivity on issues such as secret courts and immigration.

So will there be a coup? It is less a question of whether the party wants to get rid of Clegg than whether Clegg wants to get rid of his party.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

When wrong arguments are used for the right cause

The cost of cleaning up Britain’s nuclear power stations is rising and likely to exceed £100bn, reports the Guardian.

The high cost of decommissioning has always struck me as the strongest argument against nuclear power. As costs continue to soar, this argument becomes even stronger. It stands in stark contrast to the claims made in the 1950s when Britain’s nuclear power programme began, when it was said that the electricity would be so cheap to produce that it wouldn’t be worth charging customers for it.

But the main argument you hear against nuclear power is that it is dangerous. This was an understandable sentiment after the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and remains so following the more recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, sparked by an earthquake and tsunami.

However, Britain’s nuclear power stations are generally safe and certainly cause a lot less environmental damage than power stations using fossil fuels. Modern designs of nuclear power stations are becoming safer. But arguing that people will grow two heads has more emotional resonance than the crippling long-term cost, so environmental campaigners eager for a sensational headline will opt for the sexier argument. Unfortunately, once the armies of mutant humans fail to materialise, the environmentalist cause looks weaker and the case against nuclear power is compromised.

It’s the same with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Opposition has focused on the risks of ‘Frankenfoods’, when in fact no evidence has been found that GM foods are dangerous to eat. Still, fear of toxic food is a more emotionally resonant argument than the economic and political one, which was made the other day by David Boyle:
The real question is the monopoly power that GM crops gives to a handful of global megacorps carving up the world’s food production between them... and the income they extract from it, and from the poorest subsistence farmers every time they plant seeds which they used to be allowed to save until the following year.
Again, when people fail to drop dead from eating GM foods, they will gradually accept them and the case against is weakened.

Why do environmentalists indulge in this ultimately counter-productive form of campaigning? The answer is that it raises money. Scare the bejesus out of people and the donations come rolling in.

Environmentalists might argue that they are operating in a world where everything is just surface or in a Daily Mail world where everything is a potential risk, and that their sensationalist public relations tactics therefore represent some sort of realpolitik. In fact, weakening your case in the long term for a tabloid headline in the short term deserves a different word of German origin, Faustian.

Pornography on Radio 4

Yesterday’s edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme Analysis examined the evidence for whether pornography is harmful.

The presenter Jo Fidgen began by describing her liberal dilemma:
I have a dilemma I’d like to resolve... I’m a feminist and a liberal. I’m troubled by degrading images of women but I’m unwilling to condemn private behaviour if it’s not causing serious and direct harm. So I’m looking for hard evidence about the effects of pornography that will persuade me to come down on one side or the other.
I don’t wish to get into that argument here. The programme was a calm, deliberative examination of the issue and the latest research, and you can listen to it online and make up your own mind.

The argument I do wish to get into is how you resolve such dilemmas, and in particular the importance of rationality.

I was struck by the arguments of one protagonist on the anti-pornography side, Professor Gail Dines. Fidgen introduced Dines by explaining that “she doesn’t feel constrained by the research from invoking cause and effect”. Dines argued that the anecdotes she heard were evidence enough, and that it isn’t worth bothering even to define pornography. She dismissed any research that didn’t meet her prejudices as “junk science” and rejected the need for further research, arguing that it is merely an excuse for inaction. For anyone employed as an academic, let alone a professor, these attitudes beggar belief.

Fidgen exposed the weakness of Dines’s case:
[Dines is] a feminist, first and foremost, and it’s that ideology that underpins her search for proof that pornography is bad for women. Now I’m a feminist too, but that strikes me as a risky approach because, if it can’t be proved in a way that would persuade a neutral observer, then she’s lost the argument. I wonder if her case mightn’t be stronger if she dropped her reliance on evidence and instead argued purely on the grounds that she disapproves of the depiction of women in pornography.
That was the approach taken by Professor Roger Scruton, who opposes pornography on moral grounds and thinks that any evidence, one way or the other, is beside the point. Although as Scruton admitted, subjective moral disgust is not a basis for legal bans.

But if you are going to argue from an evidential basis rather than a purely moral standpoint, the belief that feelings trump facts, emotion trumps reason or anecdotes trump research is simply not acceptable. It takes us back to a pre-enlightenment age when behaviour was governed by superstition.

We rightly criticise UKIP and Tory MPs like Peter Bone for their gut politics based on groundless beliefs. We should show no greater tolerance for this behaviour when it crops up on the ‘progressive’ side of politics.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Mark Littlewood too extreme even for Mail readers

My thanks to Liberator colleague Jonathan Calder, who has spotted an article in the Mail on Sunday by Mark Littlewood, which calls for the government to publish the names of all benefits claimants and the amounts they are paid.

It is the sort of shock tactic we have come to expect from Littlewood. But as the comments beneath the article show, this time it has proved to be too much even for readers of the Mail. One of them responds:
For the love of God, what next? Are people on welfare going to be made to wear a large yellow “W” on their coats? Before we send them to the camps? I understand the concern, but this really isn’t the way. Not the way of a freedom-loving, democratic, gentle, tolerant country. And those of you who think it is, be very sure what kind of country you want to live in. Be very sure.
Littlewood, you may recall, used to belong to the Liberal Democrats. He joined the party in 2001 with other former members of the short-lived Pro-Euro Conservative Party after it disbanded. He was employed by the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party as Head of Media from 2004 until departing under a cloud in 2007, after embarrassing the leadership by saying that the introduction of proportional representation should not be a deal-breaker in any coalition negotiations.

He then proceeded to become the leading figure in the small group of right-wing libertarians in the party, as Director of Liberal Vision (which claimed to be a ‘think tank’ but was really just a blog with an accommodation address in a dingy back street near Victoria Station). It was during this time, at the September 2008 Liberal Democrat Conference, that he published a controversial booklet claiming that two-thirds of the party’s MPs would lose their seats unless the party pledged to make tax cuts. This led to a ‘scuffle’ with Torbay MP Adrian Sanders. Littlewood left the party in December 2009 to become Director General of the market-fundamentalist think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

It will be interesting to see what Littlewood’s few remaining libertarian chums at Liberal Vision have to say about this lunacy.

Postscript (1): Even the Adam Smith Institute thinks Littlewood has gone too far.

Postscript (2): Further interesting comment on Littlewood’s proposals from Mike Sivier and James Bloodworth.

The political world of Alan Titchmarsh

Readers of today’s Observer magazine have a treat in store: the profound philosophy of life of the TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh.

It’s in the regular feature titled This much I know, which in Titchmarsh’s case turns out to be not very much once he strays beyond gardening.

Amongst other things, he says “it’s an insult to suggest this is Austerity Britain”, thinks that older women on TV shouldn’t “whinge” about the lack of career opportunities, and sympathises with people who vote for UKIP because there is “a danger of homogenisation in Europe”.

In short, he’s the sort of bloke you meet down the pub who insists his views are “not political, just common sense”.

I’d stick to the hydrangeas, mate.

Friday 21 June 2013

Moral dilemma for ageing hippies

A headline in the New York Times presents ageing hippies with a difficult choice:
Marijuana Crops in California Threaten Forests and Wildlife
Hmmm... Marijuana vs. Trees and Animals. That’s a tough one, isn’t it?

Mad swivel-eyed loons? This time it’s for real...

At first, I was sceptical.

Then, I conceded there might be some truth in it.

Now, it cannot be denied. The Conservative Party really does contain some mad swivel-eyed loons. Today’s Daily Telegraph reports:
Conservative MPs have drawn up an “Alternative Queen’s Speech” with radical policies such as bringing back the death penalty, privatising the BBC and banning the burka in public spaces.
The 42 bills also include legislation to scrap wind farm subsidies, end the ringfence for foreign aid spending and rename the late August Bank Holiday “Margaret Thatcher Day”.
Britain’s relationship with Europe features prominently in the action plan, with draft laws setting out how the UK would leave the European Union and a Bill to prevent Bulgarians and Romanians winning new rights to work, live and claim benefits here from next year.
42 Bills? How did that happen?
All of the proposals were laid before the House of Commons last night after the Tory backbenchers hijacked an obscure Parliamentary procedure by camping out in Westminster for four successive nights.
It is no surprise that one of the Tory MPs behind this coup is the most swivel-eyed of the lot:
Peter Bone, the MP for Wellingborough and one of the architects of the document, said: “This is serious attempt to deliver policies that the British public really want. There are ideas here that could form the basis of a future Conservative manifesto.”
Besides the death penalty, privatising the BBC and banning the burka, Bone and his chums have other demands:
One of the proposed Bills would privatise the BBC, with all license-fee payers awarded shares in the corporation. A separate bill would de-criminalise non-payment of the licence fee.
The programme also includes plans to abolish the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister – a post currently occupied by Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader – as well as legislation to abolish the Department of Energy and Climate Change and reintroduce national service.
This sounds like a Daily Express reader’s wet dream, and indeed that is what it is. So let’s make something clear. The 1950s are not coming back. With the best will in the world, no one, not even Peter Bone with a Tardis, can bring them back. You can legislate till you’re blue in the face, but 42 Bills cannot turn the clock back 62 years.

And there’s another reason these 42 Bills won’t work. Bone claims they are “policies that the British public really want”. But they are policies that only one portion of the British public wants, elderly reactionaries. On any normal actuarial expectation, within twenty years these people will be dead.

Postscript: Jonathan Calder (@lordbonkers) has tweeted some suggestions for what the 42 Bills include:
  • On the new Heath Day bank holiday, you get to sit around looking miserable, until someone you dislike loses their job, then you can smile
  • You don’t have much fun on Major Day, but looking back it does not seem so bad
  • Errand Boys (Whistling in the Street) Bill
  • Cloth Cap (Wringing in Front of Social Superiors) Bill
There are more suggestions at #toryqueensspeech.

Thursday 20 June 2013

In defence of Michael Gove

Everybody hates Michael Gove, right? But if you want to challenge his education reforms, you must do better than resort to tendentious argument.

Frank Furedi has written an interesting article for Spiked examining the fad for ‘Govephobia’. Leaving aside the specific pros and cons of Gove’s reforms, Furedi raises two interesting points.

The first is the sort of bien pensant groupthink that assumes no argument is necessary – just a knowing smirk or a right-on posture will do. This sort of lazy criticism simply plays into Gove’s hands, because it displays precisely the lack of intellectual rigour that he proposes to tackle.

Which brings us to the second point; the anti-intellectualism that makes low demands of school pupils:
The main thing that breeds anti-Gove hatred is that he seems to be really serious about challenging the regime of low expectations in British schools. Consider all the flak directed at him for his attempts to change the history curriculum. If you listened to all the criticisms of Gove’s proposals for improving the history curriculum, you could be forgiven for thinking that history-teaching in schools is flourishing and that British children have a formidable knowledge of their nation’s past events. What people are effectively saying is: ‘Why is Gove messing with our wonderful history curriculum?’
The reality, of course, is very different. As someone who has dealt with undergraduates for over 40 years, it is clear to me that, today, even smart and idealistic 18- to 19-year-olds lack the kind of historical knowledge that is a pre-requisite for studying my discipline, sociology. Not so long ago, my colleagues and I could assume that all our new undergraduates understood the difference between a traditional and an industrial society. We could also expect them to have some clear ideas about the distinction between the pre-modern and the modern. This is no longer the case, because the history curriculum is now more interested in teaching so-called skills than providing pupils with the knowledge necessary to understand historical change.
When our new Childrens’ Laureate says Gove’s proposed history curriculum is not ‘relevant’ to black children, she is expressing the prevailing utilitarian ethos of valuing school subjects for their usefulness only. In this case, what makes history relevant is its usefulness for affirming certain identities. Mobilising history in order to flatter children might play a useful therapeutic role… but the true purpose of a quality education is to provide children with the knowledge and intellectual resources they really need, and to make them understand that such knowledge does not emerge from their experience. It is precisely the capacity to transcend experience and ‘relevance’ that distinguishes academic knowledge from folk knowledge. Those who hate the proposed history curriculum do not believe that most British school pupils would benefit from an intellectually oriented education; and they hate those, like Gove, who believe that they would.
It is this crass attitude towards the discipline of history, and many other subjects, that motives Govephobia. Why? Because if we were to create a school curriculum that was truly devoted to cultivating an intellectual ethos among the next generation, then a significant section of the education establishment would be exposed as emperors without clothes.
As I pointed out in a post here on Monday, the obsession with making things ‘relevant’ does not liberate people but limits their aspirations and so limits social mobility. Whether Gove’s reforms are the best way of tackling this problem is moot but, if you wish to oppose him, there is no excuse for anti-intellectualism or lazy thinking.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

The bizarre case of the ‘disciplining’ of David Ward MP

Attempts to ‘discipline’ Liberal Democrat MP David Ward, over remarks he made on his blog in January about Jewish people, appear to have foundered.

Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine reports in its newsletter today:
Baroness Neuberger and Lord Carlile, who were due to hold a meeting with MP David Ward, in order to ‘re-educate’ him in ‘sensitivity and language training’ apparently no longer wish to do so. No explanation has been given.
The Jewish Chronicle (30 May) reported that this meeting was arranged after a previous meeting had been aborted:
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, deputy leader Simon Hughes and chief whip Alistair Carmichael had originally intended to force Mr Ward to meet the party’s Friends of Israel group to agree “proportionate and precise” language for his future comments on Israel.
But the plan was scuppered when the Friends group referred the case back to Mr Clegg, saying Mr Ward had not removed the original blog. Lib Dem Friends of Israel said this week that it had not changed its position over the MP.
A Lib Dem spokesman confirmed that the disciplinary process against Mr Ward has now been adjourned in anticipation of a meeting with peers Lord Carlile and Baroness Neuberger.
The Jewish Chronicle (6 June) subsequently reported that the Jewish Leadership Council was piling on the pressure because of this delay. An explanation for the delay was suggested:
Mr Ward’s case is thought to have fallen down the pecking order over the past five months as the Lib Dems contended with disciplinary actions against former Cabinet member Chris Huhne, Lord Rennard and MP Mike Hancock.
Now, with the refusal of Neuberger and Carlile to participate, it seems that the party has no idea what to do. But why should it do anything? Ward has already apologised publicly for his remarks and that should be the end of the matter. The continued hounding of him serves no rational purpose. But then the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel has a track record of vindictiveness towards prominent critics of Israeli government policy, so a long-running vendetta is only to be expected.

Postscript (1): A thought occurs. If Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes and Alistair Carmichael can “force” a party representative to “meet the party’s Friends of Israel group to agree ‘proportionate and precise’ language for his future comments on Israel,” can we also expect them to force pro-Israeli representatives to meet Friends of Palestine the next time one of them justifies brutal Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza?

Postscript (2): David Ward has tweeted, “Disciplinary process – next stage.....I am to meet with don’t know who and if I did I must not tell anyone”.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Bilderberg – Lib Dem Mayor signs Official Secrets Act

Dorothy Thornhill, Liberal Democrat directly-elected Mayor of Watford, tells us on her blog that she has had to sign the Official Secrets Act.

The police asked her to do so because they wanted to brief her about security arrangements for the secretive Bilderberg Group, which has just met in Watford. The absurd secrecy about this event can serve only to fuel some of the equally absurd conspiracy theories surrounding the Bilderberg Group. David Icke must be having a field day.

Requests to sign the Official Secrets Act are also absurd. The Act is either the law or it isn’t. Since it is the law, it has the same force as any other law. It is no more necessary for the police to ask anyone to “sign the Official Secrets Act” than it would be for Tesco to ask each customer to sign the Theft Act before they entered a supermarket.

The senior police officer who demanded the signature of Watford’s Mayor is a pompous arse – but not as pompous an arse as the self-aggrandising participants in the circle jerk that is Bilderberg. You can tell how ‘important’ Bilderberg is by the fact that no Liberal Democrats – not even Nick Clegg – were invited to the meeting.

You see, this is where the Liberal Democrats went wrong. They failed to choose as leader someone who belongs to what David Icke says is a secret group of reptilian humanoids that controls humanity.

Reptilian humanoids or not, the heavy policing in Watford for this vanity project has cost taxpayers £1.3 million.

Coalition – The Movie

Last Sunday’s Observer included intriguing news that a TV drama adaptation is to be made of Andrew Adonis’s book 5 Days in May, about the failed 2010 coalition negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

“The hunt is on for stars to play party leaders,” says the report’s standfirst.

Well, casting this drama is fun for all the family. Here are my humble suggestions:
  • Gordon Brown – David Morrissey (who captured Brown so well in The Deal)
  • Ed Balls – Peter Kay (who would bring the right sort of rotund jollity to the part)
  • Alastair Campbell – Peter Capaldi (everyone thinks that Malcolm Tucker is Campbell, so why not?)
  • Peter Mandelson – Christopher Lee (but only because Peter Cushing is dead)
  • Andrew Adonis – Michael McIntyre (looks nothing like Adonis, but can you think of anyone more irritating?)
  • Nick Clegg – Colin Firth (to be cast as punishment for deserting the Liberal Democrats as soon as the going got tough)
  • Paddy Ashdown – Rory Bremner (a dead ringer)
  • Chris Huhne – Leslie Phillips (who has made a career of playing ageing Lotharios)
  • David Laws – Chris Packham (a TV nature programme presenter and not an actor, admittedly, but the resemblance is uncanny)
  • Andrew Stunell – John Le Mesurier (do you think that’s wise?)
(That’s enough cast members – Ed.)

New edition of Liberator magazine

The June edition of Liberator magazine was mailed to subscribers yesterday and will be popping through subscribers’ letterboxes this week.

On Liberal Democrat Voice, there is a summary of the contents, including links to some of the articles.

Not yet a subscriber? Subscribe here.

Monday 17 June 2013

A question of priorities

Today’s second post is also about dumbing down and the BBC. It concerns this evening’s BBC News at Six on BBC1 TV. This was tonight’s running order:
  • The leading news item was the conviction and imprisonment of TV presenter Stuart Hall for sexual abuse.
  • Second on the bill was the G8 summit in Northern Ireland and the civil war in Syria.
Is Stuart Hall really of greater importance than Syria, by any measure?

The News at Six is the BBC news programme most obviously worried about ‘relevance’. This is evident in the programme’s tendency to pad out stories with meaningless voxpops, in the facile belief that its viewers can understand news only in anecdotal rather than conceptual terms.

Even so, this is the BBC, remember, not a salacious tabloid. And unlike the News at Six, on the BBC News website the G8 summit currently leads the Stuart Hall story.

So which of these two news stories is actually more important? You decide.

Dumbing down doesn’t liberate

Yesterday’s Observer included an entertaining dialogue with the art critic Brian Sewell, who contends that the BBC’s factual programmes are “an insult to the nation”.

Sewell may push his point too far but he still has a point. There seems an overwhelming anxiety at the BBC to make everything ‘relevant’ and ‘accessible’. In practice, this means a resort to demotic language and visual gimmicks. The effect is to trivialise important subjects.

This type of broadcasting may seem more democratic and less ‘elitist’ but it is actually the opposite. Dumbing down tells the audience to limit their aspirations. It makes less rigorous demands of them. It tells them that intelligent concepts are beyond their grasp. This does not open up opportunities but limits social mobility.

The BBC’s original remit was not to “give them what they want” but to give them what they never knew they might like. But in broadcasting as in politics, leadership has been replaced by followership. The tragedy in both politics and broadcasting is that decision-makers are mesmerised by numbers. As with politicians and opinion polls, when broadcasters slavishly follow the approval ratings, the result is not a growth in approval but a steady decline in the audience. In their desperation to please, they cannot understand why they continue to lose popular trust.

In the meantime, Sewell ended the discussion by declining to appear in Top Gear’s ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’:
I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’d be terribly rude in the interview.
A pity. That is one bit of dumbed down television that would definitely be worth watching.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Tory cocks

Former Tory MP Jerry Hayes is always entertaining on the subject of his former parliamentary colleagues, and his latest two blog posts show an amusing turn of phrase.

On Tim Yeo:
It’s not often that I am shocked to the core, but the Tim Yeo affair has left my gob truly smacked. Did I hear him correctly on tape boasting that he told a business colleague what questions his select committee was going to ask? Forgive me but if that’s not coaching then my cock’s a kipper.
On Patrick Mercer:
One moment you are cock of the walk, the next; just a cock.
Hayes’s refreshing candour is a reminder of just how stilted most politicians sound nowadays. Better his Tourette’s than some spin doctor’s ‘message script’ any day of the week.

Those Lib Dem peerages in full

A new batch of Liberal Democrat life peerages is imminent once again. A front-page report in today’s Sunday Times headlined ‘Cash for peerages row hits Clegg’ names some of them. (The report is hidden behind a paywall but is quoted by Liberal Democrat Voice and Liberal Burblings).

The wealthy donors accused by the Sunday Times of ‘cash for peerages’ are Rumi Verjee and Sudhir Choudhrie, although the paper reports that Choudhrie has been dropped from the proposed list of peers. Verjee was the subject of another Sunday Times report on 20 January.

Rumours of the new life peerages have been around for at least a year. A list of new peers was drawn up more than a year ago but was shelved when it looked like the House of Lords was about to be reformed. Indeed, so certain of reform was the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Executive that it postponed last autumn’s scheduled election to the party’s Interim Peers Panel.

After the blockage of Lords reform by Tory MPs, the Federal Executive failed to reinstate the election. Meanwhile, rumours resurfaced last November of a new list of peers. This list was shelved for mysterious reasons.

Then this February, we reported the imminent announcement of the list, which included 18 new Liberal Democrat peers. Again, the announcement was postponed for mysterious reasons.

Now, we understand that the list may finally be announced, and it is less than half the length of earlier versions. The Sunday Times says there will be 20 new peers, of whom seven will be Liberal Democrats; the report names six of them:
  • Olly Grender
  • Liz Lynne
  • Brian Paddick
  • Alison Suttie
  • Rumi Verjee
  • Sir Ian Wrigglesworth
From separate sources, Liberator has heard there will be not seven but ten new Liberal Democrat peers. Besides the six people named by the Sunday Times, the other four are expected to be:
  • James Palumbo
  • Julie Smith
  • A Welsh peer (expected to be Christine Humphreys, President of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and a former member of the Welsh Assembly)
  • A Scottish peer (not known; Elspeth Attwooll or Ross Finnie, possibly?)
Whether there are seven, ten or eighteen new Liberal Democrat peers, the creation of yet more new peerages will serve only to further overcrowd a crowded House of Lords. The number of peers will exceed 800, making the Lords the world’s largest legislature after the Chinese National People’s Congress. Perhaps the Lords chamber should be renamed the Great Hall of the People?

Postscript: Today’s Observer has news of a report by the Electoral Reform Society, which predicts that, following the 2015 general election, the number of peers could increase to over 2,000 to satisfy the principle of balancing the number of peers in accordance with the previous election result. This prediction may be an exaggeration, nevertheless the exponential growth of the Lords can only hasten reform.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Vorsprung durch Technik?

We assume that Germans are so efficient that it comes as a shock to discover not one but three monumental cock-ups.

German news weekly Der Spiegel interviewed the architects responsible for three national fiascos – Stuttgart’s railway station, Hamburg’s concert house, Berlin’s airport – and asked them to explain. They blame contractors, clients, national character, changing regulations, and, just a little bit, themselves.

But their professional chutzpah is rather reminiscent of this:

Friday 14 June 2013

Who are these mysterious “Senior Liberal Democrats”?

Those mysterious people, ‘Senior Liberal Democrats’, have been at it again, according to yesterday’s London Evening Standard:
Senior Liberal Democrats want Nick Clegg’s stance on Europe to shift, amid fears that voters will believe him unwilling to offer an in-out referendum on EU membership.
The group warns there is a danger Lib-Dems will be portrayed as not trusting the British public to make a decision on Europe. They say the Conservative Party has stolen a march in painting themselves as the only party wanting a vote on leaving the EU.
A Lib-Dem source said: “The Tories are saying they are the only party offering a referendum and that we don’t want to give people a choice. The danger is the charge will stick.
Who are these “Senior Liberal Democrats”? The Standard describes them as a “group”, then a “Lib-Dem source”. But we are given no clue about the provenance or authority of this source and therefore its credence.

However, the fact that the story rapidly retreats from the plural (“Senior Liberal Democrats” and “group”) to the singular (“a Lib-Dem source”) suggests that this is just one person, and a self-serving and cowardly one at that.

Whoever it is, this self-important “source” should either come out into the open or shut the fuck up.

Postscript: A clue to the anonymous “source” is the news on Liberal Democrat Voice that, with respect to Tory MP James Wharton’s private member’s bill on an EU referendum, “the Lib Dem parliamentary party will decide its position in a couple of weeks’ time”. My money’s on a Liberal Democrat MP who wants to scare his colleagues into supporting Wharton’s bill. Whoever it is obviously hasn’t the balls to express that view publicly.

The wrong conclusion from the Morrissey inquiry

In the 24 hours since the publication of the Morrissey inquiry report, an alarming trend has developed: an expectation of a ‘command and control’ system of party governance in the Liberal Democrats.

On the Daily Telegraph’s blog, Channel 4’s Cathy Newman (who first broke the story of the Rennard allegations) demanded to know why no heads had rolled, which seemed to assume that one person was ultimately responsible and it was simply a matter of deciding who.

On the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog, Melissa Kite made various false and sweeping assumptions about the party, one of which was that change could simply be imposed from the top.

Meanwhile on Liberal Democrat Voice, Stephen Tall quoted approvingly from Morrissey’s citation of the Bones Commission, whose managerialist conclusions assumed that the party could and should be restructured like a business organisation.

The Morrissey report itself included a diagram depicting the internal power structure of the party, which looks like a complicated wiring diagram. This has enabled some people to hold the party up to ridicule for its ‘byzantine’ and ‘labyrinth’ organisation.

The party’s organisation is by no means perfect and is capable of being illogical or unstrategic. However, we need to be clear about certain fundamental and enduring principles:
  • The party is democratic – it belongs to its members, who exercise sovereign power.
  • The party is federal – power is exercised at the lowest practicable level.
  • The party is a voluntary movement – most of the work is done by unpaid volunteers, not employees.
Is this an excuse for sexism or any other form of discrimination? Of course not. The party has a moral obligation to act in an exemplary fashion, no matter how power is exercised.

But we need to be on our guard against anyone who attempts to exploit Morrissey to justify diminishing party democracy. Since the days of Jeremy Thorpe, successive leaders’ hangers-on have argued for centralising power on the spurious grounds of ‘professionalism’ or ‘modernisation’. You can bet they will seize on Morrissey’s criticisms to do so again.

The point of Liberalism is to enable people to exercise meaningful power over their own lives and to influence the world around them. Morrissey should reinforce this principle; ‘people’ means everyone, irrespective of gender or ethnicity or social class. Morrissey should not be used to override this principle; the existence of discrimination does not justify throwing party democracy out of the window.

The point of the Morrissey report is to tackle discrimination, and that should be the focus of the party’s response. On Liberal Democrat Voice today, Caron Lindsay correctly argues that implementation of Morrissey’s recommendations should not mean a power grab from the centre. Nothing in the Morrissey report calls for centralisation, and we should treat with suspicion anyone who suggests that it does.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Why leaving the EU would be counterproductive

Eurosceptics argue that Britain should withdraw from the European Union to gain greater autonomy. But leaving the EU would not achieve this objective.

In a post on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, Seamus Nevin points out that leaving the EU would not only fail to secure what Eurosceptics desire but would likely make the UK’s position worse. Britain would continue to be strongly influenced by the EU, whether it liked it or not, but would have much less power.

EU laws, which the UK currently helps make, are becoming a de facto global standard and cannot be avoided:
EU law has to be negotiated, regardless of whether a state is within or outside the European Union. Strategies which imagine the EU issue can simply be wished away by leaving the Union not only fail to secure their desired result but would, in fact, likely make the UK’s position worse. Note that in exchange for access to the European single market, Norway, whom UKIP cite as a possible model for the UK, contributes to the EU budget and accepts almost all EU regulations yet has no say in forming those regulations.
Although the author doesn’t say so, his article reinforces the point that a desire to withdraw from the EU is not a serious policy proposition. It is an emotional spasm, stemming largely from the widespread feeling among people who are older or less educated that the world has left them behind.

The author argues for a renewed emphasis on reforming the EU from the inside. This is necessary but not sufficient, since it does not address the resentments of people who feel marginalised. We need policies that tackle this alienation by providing wider opportunities and involvement, otherwise emotion will trump reason.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Two disclosures, tucked away

I’ll leave it to others to decide on the accuracy of Helena Morrissey’s report on how the Liberal Democrats dealt with, or didn’t, allegations of sexual harassment, and the validity of her recommendations.

Most of her report deals with allegations about Chris Rennard (which he has denied), though other cases that clearly do not involve him are also included.

However, her report (party statement here; pdf of full report here), issued by the party today, includes an extensive section on how Rennard came to accumulate an unusual degree of power in the party – whether real or imagined – and about what happened when his accusers despaired of internal processes and went to Channel 4 News last winter.

At the time, there was wide criticism of the party’s inept and constantly changing response to who had known, or not known, what and when about the allegations, which was barely got under control after a week of catastrophic headlines on the eve of polling in Eastleigh.

If you thought that was bad enough, what are we to make of this startling aside in Morrissey’s report:
“A self-interested approach would have actually suggested a much quicker response from the Party when it was given three weeks’ advance notice of the ‘controlled explosion’ of the Channel 4 News programme.”
Three weeks? She does not say who gave this warning, but it sounds like quite long enough for some more adequate media response to have been prepared.

The other revelation here concerns shifting attitudes to ‘Rennardism’ – the practice of concentrating resources on target seats to the exclusion of most activity elsewhere. This paid rich dividends in the 1997 general election but, towards the end of Rennard’s era in charge, was coming under question as some felt it was effectively letting the party wither in the rest of the country.

She writes of Rennard’s resignation as chief executive in 2009:
“It appears that Nick Clegg had accumulated doubts about him, which included the harassment allegations and the expenses issue, but also the fundamental concern that ‘Rennardism’ was not the way forward for the Party.”
As far as I’m aware, this is the first time time that any such ‘accumulated doubts’ on Clegg’s part have been referred to in public. But if Clegg felt ‘Rennardism’ was doubtful, has he changed much? It is still widely expected that the next general election, like the last several, will be fought as 70-odd by-elections.

Why have company CEOs become anti-social?

Yesterday, this blog linked to research that proved extremely high pay does not improve CEO performance. But why do CEOs behave worse yet receive more pay?

In the journal Democracy, Chrystia Freeland reviews a new book by Mark Mizruchi, The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, which examines the fundamental shift in corporate culture that took place in the 1980s. Unlike today, big business in the 1950s and 1960s wanted strong government, for “steering the economy and underwriting the well-being of the middle class”:
The business heroes in this narrative are the leaders of the “moderate, pragmatic corporate elite [that] had emerged, based primarily in the largest American corporations” by the end of World War II. This elite and its views were “epitomized” by the organization whose history forms the backbone of Mizruchi’s narrative, the Committee for Economic Development (CED). Formally incorporated in 1942, the CED brought together engaged, moderate businessmen from across the country and advanced their views in the major national debates of the subsequent decades. They were an illustrious group: As of July 1945, the CED’s trustees included a senior partner at Goldman Sachs, the chairman of Coca-Cola, the president of General Electric, and the presidents of the Federal Reserve Banks of Boston and St. Louis.
The CED, in Mizruchi’s telling, thought the days of untrammeled free-market capitalism were gone, and that both private and government-led economic management would be necessary for a market economy to survive. In order to maintain the system from which their privileges derived, they believed it would be necessary to attend to the welfare of the broader population. This meant supporting a high level of employment, the alleviation of poverty, the amelioration of racial disadvantage, and the provision of sufficient purchasing power in the population to consume the goods that American business was so proficient at producing.
This was the creed of the nation’s most influential corporate leaders, a group that supplied Cabinet secretaries to both Republican and Democratic Administrations. Today, with so much of the national economic conversation consumed by the budget deficit and which middle-class entitlements need to be cut to reduce it, that platform would place you on the left wing of the Democratic Party, and no leading business organization would advocate it.
Why since the 1980s has business treated government almost as an enemy? Freeland thinks the answer is one that Mizruchi is reluctant to acknowledge, probably because it is an uncomfortable answer for Liberals. It is an unintended consequence of the cultural shift in the 1960s:
[Mizruchi] doesn’t pursue the truly unexpected and uncomfortable paradox his historical study reveals. When America’s postwar corporate elites were sexist, racist company men who prized conformity above originality and were intolerant of outsiders, they were also more willing to sacrifice their immediate gain for the greater good. The postwar America of declining income inequality and a corporate elite that put the community’s interest above its own was also a closed-minded, restrictive world that the left rebelled against—hence, the 1960s. It is unpleasant to consider the possibility that the personal liberation the left fought for also liberated corporate elites to become more selfish, ultimately to the detriment of us all—but that may be part of what happened. The book sidles up to but doesn’t confront head-on the vexing notion that as the business elite became more open and meritocratic, it also became more selfish and short-termist.
The most wounding criticism of liberalism is that, in liberating the individual, it destroys society. That is the basis of the opposition to liberalism pursued by communitarians from both the Red Tories and Blue Labour.

Liberals (but not right-wing libertarians) understand that no one can be truly ‘free’ without the support of society and community. No one has the ability to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”. Yet because the Liberal Democrats are in coalition with a party that has little time for society, and because Liberal Democrat members pursue the tactics of  ‘community politics’ divorced from the underlying philosophy, Liberals in Britain are vulnerable to their communitarian critics.

A few days ago, David Boyle called for a new kind of Liberalism that emphasises what we share, not merely our individual interests. He is quite right because, as the present economic crisis demonstrates, if liberalism is interpreted simply as an absence of limits, liberty is diminished for all but the wealthiest few.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Executive pay – because you’re worth it

You know those excuses for the obscenely huge amounts of money handed over to company chief executives? It’s a reward for high performance and all that? Turns out to be complete bollocks.

Here’s the abstract of an academic paper published earlier this year, Performance for Pay? The Relation Between CEO Incentive Compensation and Future Stock Price Performance:
We find evidence that CEO pay is negatively related to future stock returns for periods up to three years after sorting on pay. For example, firms that pay their CEOs in the top ten percent of excess pay earn negative abnormal returns over the next three years of approximately -8%. The effect is stronger for CEOs who receive higher incentive pay relative to their peers. Our results appear to be driven by high-pay induced CEO overconfidence that leads to shareholder wealth losses from activities such as overinvestment and value-destroying mergers and acquisitions.
[With thanks to David Grace for spotting this.]

A pro-EU article in the Mail?

Yes, it’s true. The financial section of the Mail on Sunday published a report with the headline:
Staying in the EU is vital for business, warn two-thirds of small firms
Well, it’s in the Mail, so it must be true. But it obviously hasn’t convinced the Mail’s readers, as the pig-headed comments beneath the article demonstrate.

Monday 10 June 2013

Chocolate and politics

The results of a very important election were announced in Saturday’s Guardian. Richard Osman declared the winner of the World Cup of Chocolate.

It wasn’t really a ‘World Cup’, more a British Cup. Osman organised a knockout competition via Twitter between 32 of Britain’s favourite chocolate bars and chocolate sweets.

You’ll have to read the article to find out the winner. But I want you to read it and examine your emotional reactions. You will cheer as a favourite wins through to the next round. You will be outraged when one of your favourites is knocked out. But the point is that you have strong feelings. Admit it, by the end of reading that article, you were already planning a trip to the newsagents to buy a chocolate bar.

Now ask yourself why the political choices put before us don’t arouse the same emotions. Why does a speech by Cameron, Miliband or Clegg not excite similar passions? Might it have anything to do with the convergence of mainstream politicians on the so-called ‘centre ground’? Might it be that the unimaginative managerialism that dominates our politics is insufferably dreary? Might it be that our leading politicians are more the equivalent of a packet of rice crackers than a tube of Smarties?

When the Liberal Democrats work out how they can make liberalism arouse the same passions that people feel about Maltesers or Twix, then the party will be on the road to recovery.

Sunday 9 June 2013

What are Tom Brake and Dan Rogerson playing at?

The Liberal Conspiracy blog reports that Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake has resigned from the Advisory Council of the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative and hawkish think tank, following anti-immigration statements made by the society’s senior executives.

Brake is the first parliamentarian of any party to sever ties with the society. Well done for taking a stand, but what on earth was he doing on the Advisory Council of such a group in the first place? And why is another Liberal Democrat MP, Dan Rogerson, still a member of this council?

And why, for that matter, have we heard nothing yet from the 11 Labour MPs and 4 Labour peers who are still members of the council?

Scientific proof that James Delingpole is an ignoramus

Did you have the misfortune to hear the appalling James Delingpole on this weekend’s Radio 4 Any Questions? As usual, he paraded his ignorance and prejudice about climate change.

As an antidote, do watch and, indeed, relish the forensic demolition of Delingpole by Sir Paul Nurse during a BBC2 Horizon documentary:

(This is just a short extract but you can watch the whole documentary ‘Science Under Attack’ here).

Delingpole later complained on his blog that this interview amounted to ‘intellectual rape’. No James, it’s simply that Sir Paul Nurse is President of the Royal Society and a Nobel Prize winning scientist, whereas you aren’t.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Well, at least the toilets are clean...

Normally, Liberator would not perpetuate health scares published in the Mail. But this one is credible and backed by evidence:
The ice served in six out of ten of Britain’s most popular high street restaurants contains more bacteria than the water found in their toilets, an investigation by The Mail on Sunday has found.
Scientific tests have shown that ice from branches of McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Starbucks, Cafe Rouge and Nando’s all had higher levels of bacteria than samples of water taken from their lavatory bowls. Experts say it could be due to them being cleaned more often than the ice machines.
None of the samples found presented an immediate health danger, but four contained such high levels of microbes the restaurants should be considered a ‘hygiene risk’, according to a Government-accredited laboratory.
Which of these restaurants had the worst test results?
At 22C, Nando’s had the highest bacterial levels. The laboratory’s guidelines recommend no more than 1,000 organisms per ml of liquid. Nando’s had 2,100, McDonald’s 1,400, and KFC 1,100.
Challenged for a response, all the restaurant chains affected promised to take remedial action, apart from one:
A Nando’s spokesman said: ‘We challenge these results and do not accept that they demonstrate any failings.’

Friday 7 June 2013

After Thatcher

In the Times Literary Supplement, Ferdinand Mount (a former policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher) reviews four recent biographies of Thatcher and ends up writing a short biography of his own.

What emerges is that Thatcher’s death has proved a catharsis for her closest allies. They are writing in far more forthright terms than her political opponents, who pulled their punches for fear of seeming disrespectful.

And herein lies a clue to Thatcher’s downfall. She treated her colleagues like shit and most of them ended up loathing her. She was consequently brought down by her own party and not her opponents. Thatcher’s opponents merely disagreed with her, but for her allies it was personal.

Thursday 6 June 2013

Beyond parody

The front page of this morning’s Daily Express is beyond parody:

(Look in the top left-hand corner, where the red button proclaims: “Cheaper than the Daily Mail”. Yes, I think it probably is.)

Bad news for UKIP: the EU defends English

How will UKIP handle this counter-intuitive news?

The translators at the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg have come to the defence of proper English. They have just published A Brief List of Misused English Terms in EU Publications (pdf).

This list is actually not that ‘brief’ – it runs to 58 pages. But it is fluent and succinct, and arranged in a user-friendly format.

The introduction to the document explains why it has been written:
Over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English. It includes words that do not exist or are relatively unknown to native English speakers outside the EU institutions and often even to standard spellcheckers/grammar checkers (‘planification’, ‘to precise’ or ‘telematics’ for example) and words that are used with a meaning, often derived from other languages, that is not usually found in English dictionaries (‘coherent’ being a case in point). Some words are used with more or less the correct meaning, but in contexts where they would not be used by native speakers (‘homogenise’, for example).
It also anticipates an obvious criticism:
A common reaction to this situation is that it does not matter as, internally, we all know what ‘informatics’ are (is?), what happens if we ‘transpose’ a Directive or ‘go on mission’ and that, when our ‘agents’ are on a contract, they are not actually going to kill anyone. Indeed, internally, it may often be easier to communicate with these terms than with the correct ones (it is reasonable to suppose that fewer EU officials know ‘outsource’ than ‘externalise’, for example). However, the European institutions also need to communicate with the outside world and our documents need to be translated – both tasks that are not facilitated by the use of terminology that is unknown to native speakers and either does not appear in dictionaries or is shown in them with a different meaning. Finally, it is worth remembering that, whereas EU staff should be able to understand ‘real’ English, we cannot expect the general public to be au fait with the EU variety.
As an example, the document gives a slap on the wrist to Eurocrats who refer to ‘bovine’, ‘ovine’, ‘caprine’ or ‘porcine’ animals. It suggests they use the more familiar ‘cattle’, ‘sheep’, ‘goats’ and ‘pigs’ instead. And if any feel tempted to refer to a ‘hierarchical superior’, it recommends the simpler ‘manager’ or ‘boss’. As for ‘modality’ (a non-word unique to the EU institutions), that is right out.

UKIP has been silent on the issue of English grammar, probably because it is not one of Nigel Farage’s strengths. As UKIP’s founder Alan Sked explained:
The academic also said that he received letters complaining about the spelling and grammar used in Mr Farage’s election literature.
“There seemed to be a bit of problem distinguishing its from it’s,” Prof Sked recalled, adding that Mr Farage did admit that writing was not his area of expertise.
So the lesson is, when you want to stop Johnny Foreigner taking diabolical liberties with the Queen’s English, don’t bother waiting for UKIP to get its arse in gear – ask a Eurocrat.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

UKIP racism row: latest

The Lincolnshire Echo has breaking news about UKIP Councillor Chris Pain, leader of the opposition on Lincolnshire County Council, who has been accused of posting “racist rants” on Facebook:
Chris Pain has stepped down as East Midlands chairman of UKIP amid a police investigation into racist remarks on Facebook.
He is still protesting is innocence, insisting his Facebook account was hacked. Meanwhile, police investigations continue.

We should not be complacent and assume that such rows will necessarily damage UKIP. The party has been embroiled in various scandals before. Two UKIP MEPs, Ashley Mote and Tom Wise, were jailed for fraud but this appeared to have no effect on their party’s reputation.

Indeed, the prosecution of Councillor Pain may even win support among the sort of people who believe this is “political correctness gone mad” and that UKIP is telling you what the establishment “doesn’t want you to hear”.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

The real reason why Liberal Democrat support is low

We all know that support for the Liberal Democrats remains low. It fell from the giddy heights of Cleggmania to a poll average of about 10% by the autumn of 2010 and has been stuck there ever since.

The question is ‘why’ rather than ‘what’, and simply answering with “the coalition” isn’t good enough.

People’s attachment to parties is a reflection of their values, and one organisation has analysed this in depth: Cultural Dynamics.

The remainder of this post won’t make much sense if you are unfamiliar with Cultural Dynamics’s methodology and its world ‘Settlers’, ‘Prospectors’ or ‘Pioneers’. If so, before you go any further, read this short description of the value modes and this map of value-based politics, then take this online test to discover where you fit, and all will become clear.

Cultural Dynamics has just published a state of the parties analysis, and the problem faced by the Liberal Democrats is stark. As you would expect, of the three main value modes (Settlers, Pioneers and Prospectors), Liberal Democrat support tends to be concentrated among ‘Pioneers’, people driven by individually-based ethics, with some some support among ‘Prospectors’:
Whatever their protestations about being ‘hated less than they were’, our 2012 data shows that the LibDems are in deep trouble.
Mid-2012 data shows their support beginning to concentrate in a small Pioneer rump. Late-2012 data shows an even more dramatic fall in Prospector Now People support, and a further retreat among Pioneers towards Concerned Ethical territory.
Concentration in only one area of the values map indicates that as far as identification with their values is concerned, the LibDems are now a fringe party.
I have long argued (here and here) that the fundamental problem of Liberal Democrat strategy has been a failure to consolidate a core vote, so that the party has no foundation for building outwards. Indeed, the party is hostile to the very idea that not all people are equally predisposed to vote Liberal Democrat (as evidenced by the fatuous slogan ‘We can win everywhere!’). The problem faced by the Liberal Democrats is therefore paradoxical: despite their obduracy, they still have a core vote but, because they refuse to recognise it, they don’t appreciate that they have alienated it or understand why. The Cultural Dynamics analysis continues:
It is hard to see the Liberal Democrats continuing as a significant national force on the basis of our data as they have offended their mainly Pioneer natural constituency so deeply. There are significant tensions within the party that may surface in the run up to 2015. A change of leader and of emphasis may help, but as long as they are in coalition with a Conservative government that is perceived as both incompetent and moving further to the ‘right’ they will not attract a significant Pioneer vote. Prospectors do not vote for ‘losers’ and the LibDem’s Settler penetration is insignificant.
The only way the Liberal Democrats can rebuild support is to accept that they have a natural constituency, understand what makes these people tick, consolidate this core vote and build out from it. Doing so is not contingent on leaving the coalition but it does depend on the party conducting itself within the coalition in a manner that builds rather than loses support.

The strategic priority for the Liberal Democrats is to work out how to win back the ‘Pioneer’ vote but there is no sign of this happening. Instead, we get that wizened old chestnut, the ‘centre ground’, and a reliance on empty slogans about a fairer society and a stronger economy. This suggests that there is not exactly an abundance of master strategists at work.

Monday 3 June 2013

I think, therefore I’m French

The BBC’s Paris correspondent Hugh Schofield has written a fascinating report about the central place of philosophy in the French education system. Why do the French consider philosophy so important?
The purpose of the philosophy Bac is not to understand the history of human thought but to leap into the stream that is the actuality of human thought.
If you learn about what Kant or Spinoza once said, it is not so much to understand their argument as to use their argument.
...the purpose of teaching philosophy was – and remains, in theory – to complete the education of young men and women and permit them to think.
To see the universal arguments about the individual and society, God and reason, good and bad and so on, and thus escape from the binding imperatives of the now – by which I mean the dictatorship of whatever ideas are most pressingly forced on us in the day-to-day by government, media, fashion, political correctness and so on.
This is a very liberating idea – in theory.

You can see the effects if you compare voxpops on French TV news with those in Britain. In France, a person stopped in the street at random and asked for their opinion on an issue of the day always starts off by setting out a premise before explaining a logical thought process and arriving at a rational conclusion. In Britain, you get an incoherent jumble of anecdote, supposition and emotion.

Mind you, the French way can create rigidities in thinking. There is a story (possibly apocryphal) about an EU meeting, where a British representative put forward a proposal. His French counterpart replied, “That’s fine in practice, but will it work in theory?”

Saturday 1 June 2013

The case against blog anonymity

The Liberal Democrats’ official monthly magazine Ad Lib recently invited me to write a short article making the case against anonymity on political blogs.

The magazine has now been published. The original text of the article is reproduced below (although I haven’t yet seen the published version, which Ad Lib’s editors may in their wisdom have altered):
Liberator’s blog ( does not allow anonymous comments, whether pseudonymous or completely anonymous. If you are familiar with political or media blogs, you will understand why. Behind the shield of anonymity, a small but vociferous band of infantile trolls and obsessive bores can ruin it for everyone else.
Comments are frequently obscene (e.g. Guido Fawkes), personally abusive (e.g. Guardian ‘Comment is Free’) or impenetrable banter (e.g. Political Betting). The majority of people find this intimidating and off-putting. They would rather participate in civilised and intelligent debate than a short-tempered, juvenile brawl.
Abusive commenters have certain things in common. They are mostly male. The petulant tone suggests they are mostly young. And they hardly ever use their real, full names, preferring to post anonymously or hide behind a pseudonym.
There are a few people with a genuine reason for anonymity, such as a politically-restricted job. Most anonymous commenters have no such excuse. Their motives are cowardice (because it’s easier to be abusive if your real identity is concealed) or pomposity (because you can acquire unearned status with a bogus authoritative persona).
Would we tolerate anonymous speakers at party conference, their faces hidden behind a mask? Of course not. So why tolerate it online? We need to reject the idea that the internet exists in a moral bubble, beyond the normal rules of human courtesy that apply elsewhere.
Getting rid of anonymity is not a panacea for abuse. But if commenters were obliged to use their real names, they would think twice before being obnoxious.
Whether anonymous comments are allowed is ultimately at the discretion of a blog’s owners. But I would urge owners not to indulge the anonymous. The world of political blogging would be much healthier if participants behaved like grown-ups and used their real identities.
Ad Lib has published another article alongside mine, expressing the opposite point of view. It’s wrong, of course.