Monday, March 29, 2010

Not a good name...

I don't know why, but the tragedy of the Catholic church sex scandals was leavened for me this morning when I happened to notice the by-line of the reporter who has been dispatched to cover the scandal of sexual abuse in the Vienna Boys choir...

I am told that Roger Boyes is a very distinguished man.

Unfortunately I have been unable to suppress a fit of the giggles.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Barely worth a mention...

..but the RAF has reported 20 recent Russian incursions into British Airspace.

As I have mentioned previously, several well known British politicians in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have lucrative board positions of companies which are either Russian controlled or which have significant business interests in Russia.

A former KGB officer ("former"?- "once a Chekist, always a Chekist"- Vladimir V. Putin), Aleksander Lebedev is now the owner of a significant part of the British newspaper industry.

Strangely muted comments from journalists on this takeover... I wonder why?

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Taken

Last night Freedom Square here in Tallinn was covered in candles to commemorate those who were taken away from Estonia in the March deportation of 1949.

By that time there had already been a huge death toll and mass exile and forced emigration. Half of Tallinn was still in ruins following the bombing of the city by the advancing Soviet army in 1944. The leaders of the pre-war republic were in gaol or dead- not just the politicians, but civil servants, priests, teachers, in fact any one with a position of any kind of authority.

Then came 1949.

The MGB (the predecessor to the KGB) called it Operation Priboi and they swooped on all three Baltic countries in the few days leading up to March 25th. The rounded up their targets- mostly entirely innocent people, with over three quarters being women and children together with many older people, and packed them into cattle trucks and sent them to the remotest corners of Siberia. Those who survived to return many years later were changed beyond recognition. Often even family members could not recognise those who survived- and many, especially the children, did not return. As always in Soviet practice, records were poor initially and have been lost subsequently. An educated guess is that about 94,000 were taken. A few descendants still eke out a living in far flung corners of Siberia, even after the majority of the survivors were allowed to return in the late fifties, however it is probable that the majority of those who were taken did not survive.

The commemoration was a quiet- even family occasion. A small group listened to prayers. Wreaths were laid. And the whole square was covered in candles.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Russia begins to rattle

I have not been confident of the stability of Russia since the economic crisis broke with full force two years ago. The fact is that Putin has taken a leaf out of Russian history, by centralising power and then decreeing a policy of modernisation- little understanding that the twenty-first century version of modernisation demands decentralisation and flexibility. If Putin is no Stalin or Ivan the Terrible, neither is he the more enlightened despot he would prefer to model himself upon: Peter the Great.

The Russian Federation is so vast that its scale has historically terrified its leaders- repeatedly they have insisted that this territory traversing eleven time zones must nonetheless -quite literally- unwaveringly keep Moscow time. The slightest dissent has been taken as meaning that the huge space would fall into pieces. There is no confidence. The irony is that from the outside, Russia appears so powerful, aggressive and threatening.

Nevertheless, as I have written several times in this blog, the stability of the Putinistas can not be taken for granted. From Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, there have been growing demonstrations against the regime, with the latest and largest taking place yesterday in Kaliningrad. Despite an explicit ban and much harassment by the United Russia appointed governor of the Kaliningradskaya Oblast, several thousand turned up to demonstrate any way. Similar, smaller demonstrations are reported from Vladivostok, Irkutsk, and Archangel. Meanwhile in Moscow a large demonstration nearly brought the notorious Moscow city traffic to a standstill.

It is something of a surprise to see Kaliningrad becoming a focus for discontent: Lyudmilla Putina is from the City, and Vladimir Putin is a regular visitor- not to mention that large military presence that remains in the region. Nevertheless the increasing ease of travel for the residents of the region is enabling them to see the huge progress of their neighbours, Lithuania and Poland compared to the sluggish and backward Russian economy.

If the regime remains stable for the time being, this can not be taken for granted in the long term. As the snow finally begins to thaw after an exceptionally long and cold winter, we can watch the events unfolding in Russia with both hope and trepidation: the usual state of affairs for observers of the Russian scene.

Vince Cable for Chancellor

A few months ago, I heard Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, when asked which party he supported say:

"I support the Vince Cable for Chancellor Party".

The interviewer took it as a bit of a joke- after all there was no such party, was there?

This morning I see in the Independent on Sunday that John Rentoul is suggesting that a lot of voters would like to see Vince Cable as the Chancellor, but he suggests that in order for the voters to get what they want, they should vote Labour.

Oh really?

I thought that was the Alistair Darling for Chancellor Party.

There is indeed a Vince Cable for Chancellor Party- and it is most assuredly not Labour.

More and more people are realising that the Liberal Democrats ARE the Vince Cable for Chancellor Party, and if they actually want the most qualified guy to head the British Finance Ministry, then they should vote for the Liberal Democrats to get him.

You know- I think that Ian Hislop knows this too, even if his interviewer did not.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Liberal Democrats march to the sound of gunfire

As the phony election campaign drags on -and on- a huge number of new pollsters from around the world are descending like flies onto the carcass of the 54th Parliament of the United Kingdom. Polls are being published on a daily interval. Like many things these days it seems to be a case of a lot of data but very little information. We still don't feel that we have a very strong sense of what the result of the vote is going to be. Mostly, this is a function of the way the current electoral system warps the result, so that topping the popular vote does not necessarily mean having the largest number of MPs.

Nevertheless the polls are becoming consistent in a few features: Labour is behind- sometimes, it appears, substantially behind- the Conservatives. The Tories are consistently polling at above a third of the electorate, while the Labour Party consistently polls below this, and sometimes not much more than a quarter of the vote. Indeed the pattern is so consistent for so long, it is hard to read the runes in any other way than to forecast that Labour are headed for a thumping the like of which they have not seen since the 1980s.

However, there is another factor to consider, and this is what is making the overall outcome apparently unpredictable. The 1950s saw the two party system reach its zenith, with high turn outs and over 90% voting either Conservative or Labour. It was at this time that we could talk of governments gaining a majority- i.e. more than 50% of the vote- rather than, as now, a plurality- i.e. merely being the largest party. Indeed the fall in support for either Conservative or Labour is one of the most consistent changes over the course of the last ten elections. This is where the distortions of the electoral system become most obvious. Margaret Thatcher could gain a Parliamentary majority of 43 on a vote of 43.9% in 1979. In 1997, however, Tony Blair could get a Parliamentary majority of 179 on just a slightly smaller share of the vote, 43.2%. Indeed in 2005, Mr. Blair could still hold a larger Parliamentary majority- of 67- than Margaret Thatcher gained in 1979, on only 35.3% of the vote.

All of which is to say that the proportion of the vote matters less than the distribution. In Scotland, the Liberal Democrats do proportionately much better than the Conservatives, because the Liberal Democrat vote has historically been concentrated into certain regions, while that of the Conservatives is more evenly disseminated across the country.

So where is this leading?

Well, although many opinion polls should be taken with a whole cart load of salt, it does mean that there comes a critical point where parties can either win or lose a large number of seats on very small changes in the overall vote. There is the possibility that Labour may be in danger of getting into this position now. Although the surprise of the phony campaign has been how resilient Labour has been in the face of the multiple economic heart attacks now afflicting the UK, the story of the campaign itself could be remarkably different.

A reason for this is that one recent, but consistent, trend in the polls is that it looks very much like the Liberal Democrats are going to enter the 2010 campaign at virtually the same level as they finished the 2005 general election: 22.1%. Why is this significant? Firstly, the party nearly always benefits from the greater exposure that fair broadcasting rules allow it once the official campaign gets under way. The fact is that this election we will finally see debates between the party leaders with the Liberal Democrats getting equal billing with Labour and Conservatives. This can only benefit the Liberal Democrats- short of some unlikely utter debacle- simply by showing Nick Clegg to the British electorate in the same light as his party political rivals, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

So, if the Lib Dems enter the campaign roughly where they finished in 2005, then the party can look forward to an increased level of voter support in 2010. This is not what punters have been forecasting ever since Charles Kennedy was forced to step down just over four years ago.

That begins to make the General Election of 2010 very interesting indeed. The party high command has been extremely astute about the way in which the inevitable "hung Parliament" question- who would you support?- has been finessed. The majority of commentators still cling to the 1950s idea that the ideological battle in British politics ultimately comes down to a choice between old left and old right. They assume that the Liberal Democrats are centrist in this battle, but spend most of their time trying to get an answer to the forced choice question: "are you closer to left or right?". They generally do not understand that the answer is "neither": we oppose the very basis of the question, and with it the two party system that it has created. By saying that -in any event- the choice lies with the voters, not the parties, the Liberal Democrats can now move on to actually discussing why their policies are better- which is what the forced choice question has always stopped them from doing before.

Socialism as a political ideology is bankrupt and has been since at least the end of the Cold War. Tony Blair was only able to win power for his party because he transformed it from being a labour movement representing trade unions to being a vaguely progressive coalition of different social movements. The combination of his own failures in office, not least the Iraq war- and the later advent of Gordon Brown, whose sympathies remained more Socialist, has meant the breakdown of the Blair coalition. Those votes are up for grabs. This is why David Cameron has attempted, only partially successfully, to appeal to former members of Blair's progressive coalition. The problem is that the Conservative brand- indeed the Cameron background- remains unpopular with large parts of the former Blair coalition. It is not the issue of being public school educated- everyone knew that Tony Blair went to Fettes. It is the attitudes of afterwards, and the disconnect between the "Bullingdon" issues plus the Cameron PR background which makes many voters doubt the sincerity of Mr. Cameron's "New Man" credentials (which is why the apparent air-brushing in his poster was such a catastrophe).

So, in fact the 2010 election is turning into a real thriller. Socialism is dead, Brown a liability. Yet Cameron is still seen as insincere and the Conservatives no longer have the novelty interest that they had. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats vote share could get to the point where they make major rapid progress against both parties, but particularly against Labour.

On the eve of the campaign itself, after the absurd months of the phony campaign, the party is in good heart and ready for the fight. The feedback we are getting from our most winnable seats across the country is very positive. The organisation is in generally very good shape, and money and support is flowing in to the party at an historically high level.

The result could even be beyond our wildest hopes.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Calling Time for Parliament

OK, now this ridiculous farce about the timing of the general election in the UK has gone on long enough.

Why on earth should the incumbent Prime Minister have the power to call a general election at any time, up to the date of the final expiry of the Parliament? It is just another piece of the Royal prerogative that has long outlived its usefulness. It is blatantly unfair that an incumbent government should be allowed to decide for itself when its mandate needs renewing, with all the advantage in planning and party expenditure that this allows.

The first sign of a government that is serious about reforming Parliament would be to set fixed expiration dates for each Parliament. At present, the date is movable up to five years after the previous election. In my view, it should be a fixed date every four years. That would allow all those involved in the electoral process to plan their lives, and remove the potential for abuse that currently exists.

Of course, if a hung Parliament does emerge from the next election, then I suspect that a fixed term will indeed become compulsory: if I were Nick Clegg, I would insist that any coalition agreement was allowed to run its full course, otherwise the potential for political mischief by the Prime Minister of the day could be substantial.

Meanwhile, as yet another week passes with no date for the budget and no date for an election, the economic position of the UK grows more grave and the political outlook grows more uncertain. Fixed term Parliaments operate in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: it is long overdue that they were introduced for Westminster too.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Trading Down

The latest UK trade numbers are little short of disastrous.

Despite the fastest and largest depreciation of Sterling in history, British exports in January fell by roughly £1.6 billion: a near 7% fall. The monthly trade gap between the value of our exports versus the value of our imports is now just shy of £8 billion. Exports in January were therefore just below £20 billion, with imports topping £27 billion.


This should not be happening. Britain has deliberately chosen to devalue its currency in the international markets "in order to maintain competitiveness", which is to say to allow us to avoid making the unpleasant decisions that would actually maintain competitiveness.

The spectacular failure that these latest trade numbers represent shows that the policy of the weak Pound is not working. Getting the UK out of this mess just gets harder. It is not the prospect of a hung parliament that is spooking the currency markets, it is the fact that neither Labour nor the Conservatives have any idea about how to address the situation. The Tory policy of a soft Pound has already run its course, while Labour spending policies are destroying the credit of the whole country.

The other day Vince Cable pointed out the instability in the housing market. That now must be a huge concern for the banking system. A slow down in the mortgage credit market is already having a braking effect on house prices. As I have warned before, the market is significantly overvalued on most historic measures when one factors in average historic interest rates. It seems possible, even probable, that the increase in unemployment and the steadily tightening of interest rates will cause a break down- and that would have further negative impact on the UK banking system. These latest trade numbers are a warning that the UK is not able to rebalance its economy and reduce its debts through enhanced earnings. Actual debt repayment is going to be required: and that implies a further significant economic recession.

Some might say that the reason that the UK is not exporting its way out of trouble is because the problems of some Eurozone countries has depressed the value of the single currency. Of course that is true, but Sterling has underperformed even the Euro in recent weeks. Even despite this, even despite every stimulus , the British economy is performing listlessly at best. Our failure to tackle our long term structural problems, our firm belief that adopting the Euro was either impossible or unwise has now brought us to the end of the road.

A full blown Sterling crisis is just around the corner.

By the end of it, the UK will be forced to seriously consider whether going it alone has been a mistake. All those who have been contemptuous of those- like myself- who regarded Euro entry as a positive policy goal for the UK, may now see why we wanted to join in the first place. Of course now, the UK will face at least a decade of major economic restructuring even to get close to being able to join- if we are lucky. Perhaps by the end of it we might be fit to join, but much sooner than that decade, the politicians will perhaps at last understand the fact that the UK paid far too high a price to maintain its independent currency. The next year will see a fall from grace that will challenge every political assumption about currency policy, and may lead to a significant realignment of views across the political spectrum.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Stands Scotland where it did?

Returning to the snows of Tallinn I have been reflecting on the state of Scotland. Spending time in Perth has been a slightly sobering experience- and not just because I have given up drink for Lent.

Perth is one of Scotland's wealthiest towns. It has a rich history and a fine number of interesting and ancient buildings. Attractively situated on the banks of the river Tay, its architecture is almost a visual representation of the Scottish virtues of strength, solidity and planning for the longer term. The wonderful Victorian railway station- stone built- was once a place where you could get to the rest of the country in speedy comfort. The public buildings of the Victorian age reflect a civic pride and a confidence in the future. Looking from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, I detect little of that confidence. The rail infrastructure is slow and decrepit- with even a fast train to Edinburgh taking twice the time of the 50 minute car journey. Once a great trading and market centre for the south Highlands and the political centre of the early Kingdom of Scotland, the city became a white collar administrative centre in the twentieth century. Yet while the headquarters of Scottish & Southern Energy remain in the area, Aviva and HBOS are now shedding jobs and the once thriving whisky business is gone entirely. Meanwhile the former wealth of the agricultural sector is much diminished.

Perth was a place with a rather sporty reputation, particularly for Rugby, where the local public school, Glenalmond, fostered a fine reputation for good players, including the great David Sole, captain of the 1990 Grand Slam winning Scotland side. Yet now the majority of the pedestrians on the street were wan and several were quite remarkably fat. Cicero- being no "Slimcea girl" himself- is not usually censorious about weight, but the scale of morbid obesity on display I find utterly shocking. Young women in particular seem to be quite astonishingly overweight: many are clearly over 100 kilograms, and some I guess may be touching 160Kg-getting close to twice my own weight. It is horrifying seeing so many displaying an utter indifference to their own health, still less their appearance. Sure enough I see the tell tale signs of heart disease- slow gait and breathlessness- even amongst some who are probably not yet thirty. A more hidden epidemic of diabetes and cancer must be under way. In the newspaper, I see pictures of Alex Salmond, and he too seems to have put on an extraordinary amount of fat. A Lib Dem colleague remarks that "Salmond really seems to have pulled the ripcord!", and indeed his buttery features seem to sum up what I see in Perth.

And Perth is a wealthy place- or at least in used to be- and the propensity to be overweight relates to poverty in Scotland, so if Perth faces a health crisis, I shudder to think what Niddrie in Edinburgh or Castlemilk in Glasgow must look like. Booze and bad diet- and continued smoking- is killing Scots, but even worse it is making their shortened lives ones of sickness and discomfort. This is not the recipe for a fulfilled life, and it also has profound economic implications.

Scotland is isolated from the centre of the European market, and the infrastructure- both physical and electronic- is not keeping pace with the rest of Europe. Once Perth station was an ultra-modern transport link point, now it is symbolic of decay. The lack of investment -in hotels (all to obvious where I was staying), in roads, rail and high speed broadband- is eroding the competitiveness of the Scottish economy very rapidly. Watching the number of obviously unhealthy people on the streets really makes me fear for the future.

Even if the infrastructure gaps could be filled, is there anything for investors to come to Scotland for? What happened to turn the thrifty, hard working, thrawn Scots into an open air coronary care unit? The independentistas say that it is because of the "dependency" that the lack of independence has created in the minds of modern Scots, but looking at the blimp-like form of the First Minister, that has got to be garbage. Yet there may be something in the idea of a lack of control or sense of responsibility in ones own life. It is hard not to look at the morbidly obese and wonder what made them that way- and it is a question of mind as much as of body. If mens sana in corpore sano -a healthy mind in a healthy body- has any truth in it, then Scotland is very sick indeed. If the physical health of its citizens is any guide, then the political and moral health of the country must be crumbling too. Certainly the fall of Stephen Purcell, the moon faced leader of Glasgow Council, as the result -we are told- of a some kind of breakdown might not have happened had be been physically healthy.

As I boarded the flight from Copenhagen to Tallinn last night, I was once again above the average BMI of the passengers on the plane; I resolve to continue my Lent diet. I am quite shaken by what I see at home. Reading in a newspaper I hear of a man in Essex who was over 440Kg and needed to be rescued from his house by the fire brigade when he was taken ill. So it is obviously not just Scotland where this sickness is taking place- even if it seemed more obvious in a smaller town like Perth. Nevertheless, seeing women who were probably once very attractive but who are now drowning in lard is horrible.

In the end, people have to decide for themselves and make their own lifestyle choices- and in the USA, obesity is now falling as a result. Scotland, though, does not seem to be turning away from the health catastrophe that we face. In the end it is a matter for the individual, since politicians can only promote and campaign for healthy individual choices- not make them.

In the final analysis, it is up to the individual to make the right personal choices for themselves: and that is the root of all morality and most politics. Perhaps the root of the obesity crisis is that people are not taking responsibility for their own decisions about their health. That does have moral implications, and it profoundly changes politics too.

Personally I think Liberals should talk about personal responsibility more often, it is after all the corollary of the greater personal freedom of choice that we believe is necessary in our society. Freedom without responsibility certainly seems the recipe for an uncomfortable, sick and short life.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Perth: the Fairer City

Day two of the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference has been a textbook display of the virtues of Liberalism. A good and positive speech from Tavish Scott - the Scottish Leader- was certainly very well received, and there is indeed much to be optimistic about. The SNP proposals to reduce the power of local councils in Scotland seems to underline why the Liberal approach towards the Scottish devolution settlement is so much more grown up than the infantilism of the Nationalists. It is ridiculous to oppose a state centralised on London and then propose a state centralised on Edinburgh. The Scottish people grow tired of Alex Salmond's bombastic posturing.

Yet the Conservatives remain totally irrelevant in Scotland , and the rage against Labour grows sharper. Listening to Fred Mackintosh- the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate in Edinburgh South- I feel more convinced than ever that the party will not only hold the seats we have, but make gains as well. Speaking to local people in Perth, there is substantial goodwill towards the party and a few say that they are thinking of voting our way for the first time. Perth, it is fair to say, has not hitherto been a bastion of Liberalism, so I am surprised that when a few people notice my conference badge, instead of the usual indifference or hostile looks, I get a thumbs up from what looks like a group of young farmers.

Conference is usually a time of reflection, but a boisterous Scottish Liberal Democrat Youth event shows that the party is attracting youngsters in considerable numbers. After I address a meeting on democracy a few of them - serious and committed- ask some exceptionally well informed questions.

Now, time for the last afternoon session and then the conference dinner.

Back in the Fair City

At the last minute, I was able to get a connection to Edinburgh so that I could attend the Scottish Liberal Democrats conference in Perth. As always it is a pleasure to see so many old friends. However, this year it is sad to note the absence of Roy Thomson. For more conferences than I can remember, Roy and I have met up- usually at an internationally themed fringe event, and then gone on the put the world to rights over a meal. Roy represented that stolid decency that is the hallmark of the Scottish Liberals and of the North East of Scotland. Roy did so much to promote and improve his home city of Aberdeen, it is difficult to know where to start. A gentle and thoughtful man, he was also a determined and doughty fighter for the causes that he believed in. I find, as I write this, that I am lapsing into cliche, but Roy truly was one of a kind. I think I am not the only one looking over their shoulder and expecting to see him.

As for the conference, I think Roy would be pleased to see Nick Clegg speaking so well yesterday, and even happier to see the good heart that the party is in. There is the very real prospect of progress for the Scottish Liberal Democrats- particularly since, as usual, our political opponents underestimate the determination and resources that we bring to the fight. Speaking to Fred Mackintosh, the Scottish Liberal Democrat standard bearer in Edinburgh South, I learn just how patchy the Conservative so-called recovery is north of the border. The Tories have high hopes in Edinburgh, and yet there is little evidence that Scotland has forgiven them their incompetence and arrogance the last time that they were in office: indeed there is still a significant chance that they will lose the single seat they currently hold.

Now, into the conference chamber...

Friday, March 05, 2010

A Matter of Trust

Several months ago I wrote a series of articles about the dangers that Michael Ashcroft posed to the Conservative Party. I was not alone. The problem of a man who did not pay taxes in the UK nevertheless being nominated to be a member of the British Parliament as a result of his being a major financial supporter of the Conservative Party has always been a spit in the eye of British democracy.

That the Conservatives now claim not to have known until very recently that Mr. Ashcroft has retained his non-dom tax status stretches all credulity. William Hague is either a fool or a liar. He should have known what Mr. Ashcroft's status was or was going to be as a pre-condition to his being granted a peerage. That a peerage had previously been refused simply underlines that care that the Tories should have taken on this issue.

So what does it matter? Surely this is just another storm in a Westminster teacup?

In fact the Conservative embrace of Michael Ashcroft demonstrates why there has been such a failure of trust in British politics. The cut corners and sloppiness that the affair demonstrates not much more than naked greed. The Conservatives will try to throw enough mud at the other parties: Lord Paul, Michael Brown and so on, but the fact is that Michael Ashcroft is different.

Lord Paul has not hidden his tax status, And for all the embarrassment that Brown caused the
Liberal Democrats, repeated investigation has found the party did not act improperly. Yet, if we are to believe William Hague or David Cameron, Michael Ashcroft appears to have mislead the Tories and to have avoided tax of millions of Pounds, despite being a member of the tax raising body of the United Kingdom.

This comes at a time when the British Constitution is at a breaking point. The political class that purports to rule us is more isolated from the rest of society than ever. An entire political clique has no other work experience except the foetid committee rooms of party or Parliament. With no executive experience, they are too incompetent to even be aware of their limitations, or understand the mechanics of leadership. It may well be that Cameron and Osborne, Brown or Darling are full of sincerity about their motives; yet as we are already seeing, they lack the most basic executive skills, vision or understanding to be able to deliver. For that reason, the relatively minor parliamentary expenses scandal has become a major crisis of trust. The British people may tolerate uselessness, but they will not tolerate petty and venal greed.

This is where the Ashcroft affair demonstrates the very worst side of the Conservative Party. For several years, the Tory leadership was warned of the problems that Michael Ashcroft's tax status represented. They chose to avoid the issue, to ignore it and hope it would go away. However the British people has been particularly annoyed by the outrageous expenses claims from hugely wealthy Conservative MPs: the moat cleaning and the duck houses were an overwhelmingly Tory phenomenon. For the Tory leadership, after being pressured for so long on Ashcroft's tax affairs, to deny all knowledge is a scandal. Either they knew and they are lying, or they genuinely did not know, in which case they should have done and are not fit for office.

The British people yearns to trust its leaders, but as the narrowing gap in the opinion polls shows, their faith in the ability of the Conservatives to deliver real change is being truly shaken.

The Liberal Democrats will continue to point out the systemic failures of the constitution. They will continue to make the case for real reform, not just the cosmetic changes of open primaries and other gimmicks. Above all, we will continue to challenge the entrenched self interest of both the Labour and the Conservative Parties. The political class must be overthrown. We can change the constitution now or face non-constitutional even violent challenges in a few years time.

The corruption of money is a threat to freedom already. Real leadership is now needed to restore trust- and that means real and radical constitutional reform.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

What's the big idea?

The Blair decade was supposed to see the end of ideology in British politics. Socialism was dead, and what mattered was what works: managerialism pure and simple. The electorate was invited to choose the party that looked like the most credible management for the country. After all, the cold war - and even the economic cycle of boom and bust- was over and therefore it was simply a question of administration.

As we approach the 2010 election, the Conservatives too seem to be approaching the electorate with the same message: "after the disaster of Brown, you need to change to better managers of the country". However, the Tories beyond articulating a nebulous message for "change", have deliberately avoided putting a coherent set of ideas- an ideology- before the British people. David Cameron bitterly resists any labelling of "Cameron-ism". In that sense he truly has been the heir to Blair, who also resisted such labelling, and indeed in office governed with pure pragmatism.

Yet Cameron's approach has provoked cold fury amongst the right wing of the Conservatives: some, like Simon Heffer have essentially left the party and pour contemptuous scorn on the young politicians who comprise the bulk of the Tory leadership. To be fair, some Conservative front benchers, like Michael Gove, have not been afraid of ideas, and are presenting well worked out ideas. However the bulk of the Tory message is disconnected and often internally contradictory. If the leadership can not articulate clear principles to itself, how can it hope to persuade the electorate to vote for it, or the civil servants to enact the policies, should the Conservatives be elected.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have been refining their policy platform into a more clearly ideological manifesto. The expenses scandal has created a renewed focus on the perennial Liberal Democrat battleground of constitutional reform. Our political opponents have usually derided the Liberal obsession with electoral reform as being purely self interested, but in fact it is not. The fact is that the system does not give equal votes: concentrating power onto the minority of voters who live in marginal seats and ignoring the rest. It is certainly very noticeable that the most egregious expenses cheats represented "safe seats": these are MPs who in the last analysis are accountable to no one except the small number of local activists who select them as their candidate. Lack of accountability fosters corruption in MPs as in Quangos or indeed the rest of administration in the UK. The problem is that each MP is elected as a representative of their constituency and also as a delegate of their party. If one is against any given individual as a candidate, but supports their party, then as an elector one must either vote against the party or vote for a candidate that one does not support. Furthermore, the repeated redrawing of boundaries becomes an exercise in gerrymandering. Far better to have fixed constituencies- Sussex, for example- but variable numbers of MPs. This is why the Liberal Democrats ideologically support single transferable votes in multi-member constituencies. It is a system that allows independents to be elected, that maintains local links and, most importantly that reflects more accurately how people vote. It also solves the safe seat conundrum and therefore makes MPs more accountable.

Now is electoral reform the be-all and end-all of constitutional reform. Parliament is weak in the face of the executive. The Liberal Democrats believe in strengthening the democratic elements of the British constitution -Parliament, including reform of the House of Lords- at the expense of the non-democratic ones, namely the crown prerogative deputed to the Prime Minister. Although we do not share the rabid anti-Europeanism of the right, we do recognise that the European Parliament should be strengthened against the Commission too.

The big idea of Liberalism is accountability, and when one takes this as the guiding principle, it is soon clear which policies the party is likely to adopt.

The adoption of Blairite managerialism has smothered the Conservatives big idea- and that is a recipe for mixed messages and confusion. That this is happening in opposition, never mind government, should be worrying the country, never mind the Conservative Party.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Taking a Pounding

I have been writing for some time about the threat to the stability of Sterling from uncertainty and from the intellectual holes at the heart of the policies of both Labour and the Conservatives.

While I spent much of the day in various aeroplanes, the currency markets did indeed take a sharp kick against the Pound.

This is partly a reaction to the growing uncertainty about the election result. It is also a reaction to the glaring intellectual holes at the heart of the policies of both Labour and the Conservatives. The Markets are deeply unhappy with the two different voices emerging amongst the Conservatives, with neither demonstrating a real understanding of the current economic situation. Now that UK government debt is trading at spreads which already imply that the country has lost its AAA, it is not a surprise to see the currency growing weaker. I expect there will be some volatility this week, while the market wrestles with the real level of risk, however there is little chance that the currency will make a sustained recovery from these levels until at least the general election, and it may lurch south rather dramatically. I discount it to a degree, but there is a growing risk that a full blown Sterling emergency could be just around the corner.

My profound concerns about the state of the country are tempered with a frisson of cold satisfaction, since I had already put my money where my mouth is, swapping half my cash wealth into US$ and €.

No Notes but Nothing to Say

Across the media, David Cameron's speech is examined with all the attention due to the chicken entrails in the auguries of ancient Rome. But in the end I think that the chicken entrails probably carry more meaning than the endless trail of meaningless banalities that Mr. Cameron put forward.

"Vote for change" means nothing if we do not know what will be changed and what will be kept the same. I know that politicians are afraid that if they put forward detailed proposals they will have to face tough questions, but it is not much of a change if they show such cowardice. The reality is that we face difficult times and it is not enough to admit that we face "touch choices" if you are not tough enough to phrase what those choices actually are.

David Cameron increasingly faces an image problem: that he is all public relations spin and no substance. The speech did not address this. Lots of emotive vocabulary: no concrete proposals. Indeed virtually no proposals at all. essentially his speech boiled down to: "Vote for me because I am not Gordon Brown".

As the opinion polls unexpectedly tighten, the Conservatives have got to do better than this.

Though the Tories hug themselves and say that the polls are a bit rogue (which they might well be), they should also understand that if they genuinely represent change, they have to do more than say that they are "for change". Without clear principles, any government will fail. While behind the scenes it does appear that more substantive discussions are going on, the fact is that the leadership lacks the courage of other Tories' convictions.

Without such courage a hung Parliament could become all but inevitable, but any Conservative led administration that emerges will fail.