Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A lie told often enough...

Ed Miliband: despite appearances, this man is no stranger to manipulation
One of the first things you learn in journalism is that there is no such thing as truth. In any given situation you've only really got peoples' opinions to go on and these more often than not conflict with each other.

That is, of course, a mantra to make your job easier but you could easily read it literally. After all, philosophers have long contended that everything we experience is governed entirely by the way our senses are interpreted in the brain - and that these can be easily manipulated.

It is therefore entirely possible that an isolated brain in a jar could be fed electrical impulses identical to those of touch, motion, taste and sight and experience them as though it were in a body. Theoretically, this could be happening to you right now but you have to ask yourself, does that make it real?

This isn't an existentialist blog and it's not my place to even attempt to answer such a loaded question but I'm becoming more and more convinced this principle is the basis of much modern political discourse.

You could argue that, with the amount of time we spend watching TV, playing video games and surfing the net, reality is something we are becoming increasingly detached from. I'd say the Internet is the principal culprit here but I've read on more than one occasion soap actors telling journalists they've been berated by members of the public for something their screen character has done - as though they were one and the same person.

Politicians, I am sure, are acutely aware of this and waste no opportunity in exploiting it. Ed Milliband is the latest in a long line to do so with his banning of the word 'Coalition' among his shadow cabinet colleagues. His logic is that if they say 'Tory-led Government' often enough, it will become the truth, for the simple reason that people will believe it, regardless of its accuracy.

It's up to you to make up your own mind, of course, but the evidence suggesting the Coalition is an equal, or at the very least, proportionate partnership is compelling. And it is worth pointing out the Liberal Democrats already have a disproportionately high number of Cabinet members.

Tim Montgomerie compiled his own comprehensive stock-take of Tory concessions to the Liberals (and vice versa) and the Telegraph tapes, if nothing else, do show Liberal MPs at least believe they have a great deal of leverage (see here and here). And you could very well go on to say, as many Tories have, that Vince Cable's retention as Business Secretary is proof of this co-dependency.

Of course, politicians deploying proof by assertion is nothing new. It was used with frightening success in the United States by the Bush administration in linking Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden - a partnership so ludicrous as to be about as likely as Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sharing a bath.

And so it will continue. Labour have already shown themselves to be completely devoid of any alternative to the Coalition's policies, despite shallow bleating to the contrary, so its unsurprising they should attempt to bend reality into something slightly more in their favour.

I feel Daniel Hannan, as a good Whig, would say the British people are far too smart to see through such nonsense but I am a little more sceptical. This is, after all, a nation which swallowed hook, line and sinker similar garbage along the lines of 'no return to boom and bust,' 'sharing the proceeds of growth' and the idea that throwing vast quantities of money at public services constitutes 'investment.'

Naturally I hope I'm mistaken in my pessimism. If I am, expect voters to reward Milliband with a resounding Tory victory in 2015.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Who do your children belong to?

Children: do they belong to you or the State?
Speaking as an Ulster Unionist MP in 1975, J. Enoch Powell said, "until the Conservative party has worked its passage a very long way it will not be rejoining me." I have to say, I'm beginning to understand how he felt.

Just as I am beginning to sympathise with those people I previously wrote off as nutters for saying British politics essentially involves the transfer of power from one social democratic party to another.

You see, at the age of 25, I have never conscientiously lived through a Conservative government, nor experienced, as so many have done before me, a party with my support so utterly turn their backs on the ethos with which they won it.

In a way I feel sorry for them in the cabinet. Scarcely six months in power and already they have succumbed to the lobbyists and the chatterers. Or was that the plan all along? Looking back, it seems as though the election campaign was based on one overriding assumption. That the quest for power so often constitutes a defeated resignation to what is perceived as inevitable. Reduced to a single phrase, 'better us than them.'

So what am I getting at here? Well, I forgave over Europe - it seemed perfectly reasonable to me to put off any confrontation while the deficit was a priority and europhiles lurked in the cabinet chamber. I wrote off the absurdity of keeping the 50p tax band a little longer as another vote-winner on a subject with which the public has previous little knowledge. I even overlooked Theresa May's 'Harman Lite' attitude to equality due to what I am now convinced is a curse on the Home Office.

But I nearly jumped out of the bath on when I read about Frank Field's child poverty report, which The Times claims has the support of the Prime Minister. It recommends children should have compulsory tests in 'cognitive, physical and emotional behaviour' and that parents themselves should be tested on how much time they spend reading to their child, teaching them the alphabet and helping them to make friends.

Most galling of all, it recommends mothers be assessed on their mental health and whether they 'bond well with their children.'

Now, he may be a maverick, but Frank is a still a Labour man so this statist, intrusive, blatantly fascist document does not in itself surprise me. What shocks and appalls me is that it has the backing of a supposedly Conservative prime minister.

I'm reminded of a certain Conservative poster from 1929, though it clearly hasn't rung any bells with David Cameron. It states: 'Socialism would mean inspectors all round. If you want to call your soul your own, vote Conservative.'

Chilling words, alarmist you might say, but were they not prophetic? Are we not, in this insane obsession with equality, condemning ourselves to a future of slavery, where all aspects of life are monitored and recorded in an effort to achieve the impossible?

There is a reason Sir John James Cowperthwaite, financial secretary of Hong Kong from 1961-71, steadfastly refused to record statistics in the colony. Statistics are fuel for egalitarians; egalitarianism demands state control and state control is only a whisker from tyranny.

The truth is, equality is an absolute. You cannot have more or less equality - people are either equal or they are not. In this country we pioneered the idea that all men, regardless of their social standing, were to be considered equal before the law. That is an absolute and one that is it be ardently admired. We pushed for equality of opportunity and there is now not a position in the land a British child cannot achieve - even, as Kate Middleton is finding, Queen of England.

The trouble is, this isn't enough for some people. For them, the only equality worth pursuing is equality of outcome and this feverish obsession has spread to all parties of government. They justify the expansion of the state into peoples' daily lives as part of their crusade to reduce the gap between rich and poor - to make them 'more equal.' But we already know this to be impossible, making absolute equality the only logical goal.

But history has very capably demonstrated that the only way to achieve this is to reduce all citizens (save a pampered elite) to slaves of the state. It was pushed to its horrifying extreme in Cambodia during the 1970s and it can still be seen, to a lesser extent, in North Korea today.

I had the displeasure at college of having an openly and unrepentantly Stalinist sociology teacher. We had a number of arguments and the hatred she was teaching pushed me to change classes but what absolutely appalled me was her assertion that parents do a terrible job of raising their children and that all responsibility should rest with the state.

So, when you're taking that parenting exam a few years from now, ask yourself this: who do your children belong to? You? Or the state? Because if these proposals become law, it may no longer be up to you.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Calm down, dear

Student protesters: had they read the Bill, they might not have been so angry
How would you like to start your working life with up to £40k of debt? This is a question NUS President Aaron Porter asked young people last month on the eve of the first wave of student protests.

It came as Lord Browne recommended the Government allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year for tuition fees - a doubling of the current maximum that many will take up due to the massive cuts in their budgets.

The answer any sensible person would give is, of course, 'no thank you' but you could say that about anything related to money - nobody wants to stump up if they don't have to, it's human nature.

But let's take a good look at what exactly has sparked all the rage, hatred and violence spilling out onto our streets because, I have to say, I have as yet to hear a credible case against Lord Browne's proposals.

That Britain is in £4.3 trillion of debt is an inescapable fact. That this situation is becoming unsustainable and desperate is another. That cuts in public spending must be made to alleviate this is the most important.

Higher education is expensive. If you want to give people a top-class education you need money for good lecturers, high-tech facilities, research programmes and so on.

The state can no longer afford to contribute the lion's share, meaning the people who actually use the service have to stump up.

Here are some more facts - the money can be lent to you, it has no interest added and you only start paying it back in minuscule proportions once you can afford to do so.

Much more favourable terms than if you want to buy a house, for example, where you will borrowing well over £100,000 at often rather high and variable interest rates. Something most people manage to do without getting upset and smashing up police vans.

Furthermore, banks aren't particularly sympathetic to your ability to pay back a loan. A student loan, on the other hand, is paid back in direct relation to income. If you earn under £21,000 and university clearly hasn't worked for you, chances are you'll never pay back a penny.

If you do earn over £21,000 then the chances are you'll barely notice the repayment coming out of your account (at 9% of your income) and there isn't even any interest added until you earn £41,000 at which point you are - well done! - very rich indeed and really shouldn't mind.

Now, the NUS website isn't particularly useful at explaining why this is a bad thing. It seems to treat opposition as self-evident and thereby not worthy of debate or mention.

But perhaps the most frequent, and bizarre, argument is that higher fees will somehow 'put poor students off' university altogether.

Where is the logic in this? For starters, the poorest students currently have their fees paid by their local education authority, which will continue under the new proposals. Secondly, regarding debt, they would only start paying it off once they weren't poor anymore, so what is the issue?

There also appear to be some unusual moral objections.

Sally Hunt, the seemingly confused general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), for example, told the Guardian: "The extra fees being forced on students and their families is money universities are being denied by government. It's a simple case of robbing the public to plug a government funding gap."

Eh? Where does she think the money came from in the first place? The printing press? Magic? Taxation. A good a euphemism as any for robbing the public in my book.

This is, in fact, fairer because people who do not choose to go to university are no longer paying for those who do.

It is clear that the thrust of the protests, particularly the violent ones, are coming from ideologically motivated groups and individuals exploiting both ignorance over the proposals and the generally rebellious nature of youth.

It is worth asking the question, too, of why tuition fees were introduced in the first place - so more young people could go to university. A vote-winner, sure. But are we really better off for it?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Votes for prisoners: another string to the extremists' bow

Nottingham Prison: not cozy enough for you? How about a vote?
I'm not a person prone to melodrama, but the Government's decision today to bow to the European Court of Human Rights' (ECHR) ruling on votes for prisoners had me with my head in my hands. It's not that the thought of murderers, rapists and paedophiles deciding the Government of this country deeply offends me; nor that I felt nauseous watching a man convicted of hacking his landlady to death with an axe celebrating with 'champagne and a spliff.'

What concerns me the most is I believe I have just witnessed the final death of the British constitution. We English have always taken pride in bringing the rule of law to the world - the idea that no citizen, not even the legislators, of a nation are above the law. That any legislation passed must be in accordance with the constitution, which is protected from political interference by an independent judiciary. It is also a system based on negative, rather than positive law - i.e. only what you cannot do rather than abstract rights concerning what you can do.

In the United States, this concept was fine-tuned to near-inviolable perfection by the Founding Fathers. But while the Americans have a written, clear and concise constitution to refer to, in Britain we do not. As such, this makes it exceptionally easy to defile. It has become, in effect, become whatever Parliament declares it to be, which is about as far from the aforementioned principle as you can get.

A consequence of this is that Parliament has been free not only to allow laws from outside the United Kingdom to have jurisdiction here, but to actually give them supremacy over decisions made by British judges and politicians. There are those that argue this is technically treason. Indeed, the UK's accession to the Council of Europe in 1950 was the first time any foreign authority had jurisdiction over these shores since Henry VIII broke ties with Rome in 1534.

That decision laid the foundation for our whole concept of the nation state - that political decisions ought to be made by those elected by the British people and those alone; that no legislation contrary to the law of this land be passed and that this law be protected by an independent British judiciary.

Of course, this is anathema to the European Union, whose repeated promises never to infringe upon the rights and independence of nation states have been shown by the passage of time to be blatant lies. But the trouble is, this has nothing to do with the EU. The ECHR is an organ of the Council of Europe, which an entirely separate organisation and, unlike the EU, does not even have a Parliament by which the citizens of its constituent nations can voice their concerns.

This means the rage of both Labour and Conservative MPs, not the mention the British people, will go unheard and unheeded. Even the prime minister of this country has said the thought of giving murderers the vote makes him 'physically ill', yet we are told there is nothing we can do about it.

The politicians hate it, the lawyers hate it and the people hate it. But we are told that leaving the European Convention on Human Rights is impossible and that we shall just have to live with the fact that our Parliament and courts are completely impotent against this entirely unaccountable body.

What madness is this? Well, I worry it resembles very closely the madness seen in Europe during the interwar years. It was not long after the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that people began to realise they had made a mistake in shackling Germany to such punitive reparations and loss of sovereignty.

The Germans, naturally, hated it from the beginning - they rightly contested the absurdity that they should be held entirely responsible for the war, both in moral and monetary terms. They also opposed the limits on their armed forces as an infringement of their sovereignty and deeply hurtful to German national pride. The Treaty was very unpopular with British politicians and voters and, by the 1920s, the revanchist French were about the only people supporting it.

Despite this, the very simple solution of unilaterally abandoning a treaty that everybody believed to be punitive, unfair and self-defeating was seen as impossible. As it was beyond discussion and beyond negotiation, the cause was left to the lunatic fringe. As it turned out, repeal of the Treaty of Versailles became the Nazi party's most effective recruitment tool and vote winner.

The silencing of any debate on immigration and the EU are today what Versailles was in the 1920s. The BNP are entirely aware of this and will exploit it in every way possible to attain power. They will do so not to protect democracy, but to destroy it. If David Cameron is serious about democracy and popular sovereignty, his government will grow some balls, leave the European Convention on Human Rights and hold a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the EU. It troubles me to say this but I shan't be holding my breath.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Welfare dependency: we're all in this together

"Where's my child benefit cheque?"
I'm one of those very odd people who gets rather excited by maps, though hopefully not quite so much as to disturb one's reasoning powers (as Salisbury said of Rhodes). I'm also a big geek when it comes to history, so as you can imagine I almost soiled myself when I first came across Collins' Atlas of World History.

Among its many fascinating insights into human development, the book holds the following explanation of the difference between British and European industrialisation in the nineteenth century;

While in England private investors were generally able to raise the capital to found new business undertakings and public works without government assistance, pioneer entrepreneurs on the Continent frequently had difficulty in securing the funds to build factories and modern machines. Consequently the state played a more important role than it did in England in fostering industrial expansion.

In one paragraph you have the reason Britain was able to become 'the workshop of the world' and a global power extending her influence to its four corners. It was that very Victorian spark that Margaret Thatcher so desperately tried to reignite in what had, by 1979, become a hopelessly socialised country. It was that Protestant work ethic, that vicious self-reliance and famed stiff upper lip of the British middle class.

But how the mighty have fallen. It seems, for today's middle class, all that talk of grit and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps was just so much hollow tosh. And, of all people, it took a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer to expose them for the hypocritical benefit junkies they are.

You really have to ask yourself what business the state has in paying £1bn a year to families already earning upwards of £44,000 per annum. But the very fact these people reacted with such horror and outrage has to count as one of the Labour party's greatest achievements. Like a smack dealer offering free samples to get people hooked, they have made the middle classes as addicted to the withered bosom of state handouts as the underclass they despise.

And just as the dealer's new addicts provide a guaranteed stream of clients, so Labour's tax-and-spend benefits guarantee millions of votes. It's the primary reason Labour have a near-monopoly on deprived inner-city constituencies; though nobody has ever answered the question of why, no matter how long they're in power, things never improve.

The army of quangos created under the last government have had a similar effect on business - a sector which, by its very nature, ought to be self-sufficient. Yet we are told on an almost daily basis that private sector jobs are reliant on the public sector.

Only today Ed Miliband has criticised the government for axing an £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters which, we are told, needs funds to manufacture parts for new nuclear power plants. Again, this socialist, statist expansion has twisted out of all recognition what ought to be a basic principle of business - if it is a profitable enterprise, funds will become available.

Indeed, it seems as if the entire world has been turned on its head. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would ever see not just a Labour opposition, but unions and the far left defend state benefits for the rich.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber captured beautifully the lunacy of the mood by reversing those words the left have taunted the Conservatives with for decades. No longer  'for the many, not the few', 'for the millions, not the millionaires'; left-wing opinion has been brought full circle with those bizarre words 'welfare for all, not just the poorest.'

Friday, 8 October 2010

Revolutionary justice

Alan Johnson: the face of a new generation, apparently
What a difference a week makes. No sooner does David Cameron reveal the true extent of his Government's radicalism than Ed Miliband's 'new generation' is exposed as the tired old re-run that it is.

While a shadow front bench sporting the likes of Alan Johnson, Caroline Flint, Ed Balls and - above all - Peter Hain can only churlishly lay claim to renewing the youth of the Labour party, the Conservatives have emerged from Conference showcasing a renewed sense of revolutionary zeal.

And while it did not escape the press that Mr Cameron's speech contained no new policies, the purpose of such a move may well have.

Six months into Government, Mr Cameron has shown himself to favour a more collegiate form of government than his immediate predecessors (and, indeed, Margaret Thatcher) as well as a more efficient one - why announce ten meaningless initiatives when you can elaborate on solid policies?

And after a fluffy, vague and rather disappointing election campaign, he has finally allowed his party to get back to doing what they do best - speaking plainly on common sense.

At the top of this parapet, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has returned his party to something it has not done since the days of Mrs Thatcher - speaking the mind of the working man.

The Daily Mail headline Don't have children unless you can afford to pay for them will have chimed with millions of low-income workers tired of working for a wage which is then taxed to a pittance in order to support the workshy, the lazy and the irresponsible.

Commenting on working class swings to the Conservatives in 1964, Enoch Powell quipped that "In the end, the Labour party could cease to represent labour. Stranger historical ironies have happened than that."

As ever, the man's startling prophetic intellect was correct - no longer the party of the thrifty and aspirant worker, Labour has transformed itself into a pressure group for State expansion, representing the two groups in society that have a stake in it - the scroungers and the public sector.

It seems, too, that the left have very little defence against a Conservative party in such populist mood, ceasing to make all intelligible sense and almost deliberately sabotaging their every move - it happened with Neil Kinnock in the '80s and it is happening again with Miliband.

A party with nothing to say has opposed the removal of child benefit for high earners simply for the sake of it, while its leader demonstrates his very liberal interpretation of the term 'a new generation' by making a 60-year-old Blairite ex-minister with no economic experience Shadow Chancellor.

At the same time, the Government has announced a radical simplification of the benefit system, a stinging attack on 'no-win no-fee' health and safety litigation, a cap of £500 a week for families on welfare and the removal of teachers' 'no-touch' rule in schools.

Mr Cameron has finally articulated the vagaries of the last five years into hard, popular and common sense policies at a time when Labour seems determined to self-destruct. If he keeps his resolve, his party could well win the next election outright and keep Labour out of office for a long time to come.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Blog sabbatical

As I have just recently become a 'proper' journalist, this blog is going to be gathering dust for a little while as I settle into the job.
Handling a district edition of the Barnsley Chronicle is certainly a lot to get used to and the workload, together with learning to drive, means I simply don't have the time (or peace of mind) to regularly update this blog.
At a time when Tony Blair is back in the news and Wyclef Jean is running for president of Haïti, it pains me to do this, but musts are musts and obviously my job must come first.
I look forward to returning to these pages in the not-too distant future.

Monday, 14 June 2010

A digital election?

This year’s election was touted as an ‘anything can happen’ event and, true to predictions, there were more than a few surprises. Before polling day we had the first ever televised leaders’ debates, resulting in a surprise surge in support for the Liberal Democrats, consistently beating Labour to second place in the polls.

And the surprises didn’t stop there – once the election was called, the Lib Dems actually lost six seats, while the Greens had their first ever MP elected in Brighton Pavilion. We saw the first hung parliament since 1974, the first coalition since 1945 and the first significant number of Liberals in government since 1932.

But the excitement of these truly historic events meant another precedent was largely overlooked – the election was also the first since the appearance of social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, while YouTube had existed for barely two months at the start of the campaign.

Not that this got past mobile phone network Orange. They felt confident enough to call it the UK’s first ‘Digital Election’ and commissioned a report to investigate.

Simon Grossman, Orange’s Head of Government Policy said: “It’s amazing to think that in the last election in 2005, the likes of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and smartphone apps didn’t exist, or held very little resonance. It's clear from this research that the use of technology by the political parties has made politics more accessible and interactive– and ultimately more interesting to a younger audience.”

Their research showed almost a quarter of young people aged 18-24 were actively engaged in the election through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, with eight in ten expressing an interest. This is despite the age group being the most traditionally associated with voter apathy.

More than 65 per cent of Facebook users in the UK are under the age of 35, with almost two fifths of these between the ages of 18 and 24. And, according to CheckFacebook.com, the site represents for more than three fifths of internet users in the UK.

The huge potential of these numbers was not lost on the Electoral Commission, who worked with Facebook during the campaign so users signing into the site would be asked whether they had registered to vote. If they clicked ‘no’, they were redirected to the Commission’s website, where they could do so online.

And with such a huge ‘market’ for votes, political parties have wasted no time in getting involved – more than a quarter of a million Facebook users have signalled they ‘like’ the pages of one of the three main political parties and/or their youth movements.

The Conservatives appear to be leading on Facebook with 115,550 supporters, followed by the Liberal Democrats with 96,500 and Labour trailing behind with less than 64,600.

The Tories also lead in Twitter’s parliamentary presence. According to @tweetminster, out of the 195 MPs currently using the service, 40% of these are Conservatives, with 38% Labour and 16% Lib Dems.

But with great opportunities comes great scope for embarrassment. Gordon Brown received a stinging attack by then-cabinet minister Hazel Blears with her “YouTube if you want to” jibe after the PM spoke to the country through the video website.

This was itself ripe for parody, with one blogger (keeptonyblairforpm) adding “The lady’s not for gurning” - a reference to the many uncomfortable and inappropriate smiles Mr Brown made throughout the broadcast.

But although the internet appears to have successfully mobilised the youth vote, it does still beggar the question: if this was, in fact, the ‘Digital Election’; why did it take a TV debate for Nick Clegg to get noticed?

Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics at Sheffield University said: “Much of the political content on the internet is just preaching to the converted. I just don’t believe the vast majority of people have any time or interest in Twitter or blogging – it’s a bit more middle class really.

“But public interest in the debates was absolutely incredible. Peoples’ views were altered by the expenses crisis, giving Nick Clegg an open goal. Before the debates, the public had never really understood what the Lib Dems stood for.”

Nonetheless, the influence of digital media is growing – in April 2009 it was blogger Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) who ended the career of Gordon Brown’s special advisor Damien McBride, by posting leaked emails McBride had sent on plans to smear senior Tories and their families.

But blogger Harry Cole (aka Tory Bear), 24, admits this power is aided by traditional print and broadcast: “Blogs have more power now, and any MP would be foolish not to take them seriously. They can bring you down. There is also more media attention, as the blog entries and tweets on Twitter end up across the papers. They are now part of the news cycle.”

Sarah Baumann, 23, a Labour supporter from Leeds, agreed, saying: “Politics has been able to extend its reach to the previously apathetic or disenchanted voters through social networking sites, forcing all candidates to confront the murky issues within their manifestos.”

But some young supporters dispute the idea of a ‘Digital Election’. David Grundy, 25, a Conservative supporter from London, said: “It didn't change that much in actual campaigning, apart from making it faster to organise campaigns and canvassing events. Facebook is not all that useful in gauging support either because it is very skewed towards younger people, some of whom can't vote and the rest who can't be bothered.”

It is clear that, while the power and influence of social media in politics is growing, it still has far to go where traditional media and campaigning techniques are concerned.

In a perhaps unintentional echo of Karl Marx’s famous maxim on philosophers, Stephen Shakespeare (@stephenshaxper), CEO of YouGov, tweeted a warning to ‘Digital Election’ enthusiasts on May 11: “Twitter makes politicians seem more accessible. To matter it needs to change their behaviour.”

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A Tory case for STV

Five years from now Britain may well find herself with a new voting system - the Alternative Vote. I will oppose any move to this system up to and including the referendum which the Government has committed itself to hold. It is a frankly stupid system, somehow managing to take all the worst aspects of first-past-the-post and proportional representation, whilst being even less proportional than the former.

If, however, a change is made, it may whet the appetite of the electorate for further electoral reform, possibly to the Liberal Democrats' preferred choice - the Single Transferable Vote system.

I will not pretend to have any idea how this system works because, to be honest, you would probably have an easier time trying to explain advanced quantum theory. What I do know is this: it is the best true converter of votes into seats; it works rather well elsewhere in the world; it could very well renew peoples' confidence in their vote.

Everybody knows at general elections there are millions of votes wasted. Tory votes in inner cities, Labour votes in the country and Lib Dem votes practically everywhere. In many constituencies you only have a choice between red, blue and gold, regardless of whether you actually agree with any of them.

And who cannot sympathise with the 7,780,949 people - over a quarter of the electorate - who voted for the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 only to be rewarded with a meagre 23 MPs? This was only an 11-seat improvement on their 1945 result, when they polled only 9%. Such an outcome is a mockery of democracy.

Many argue that a truly proportionate voting system would create perpetual instability and a lack of any clear, decisive direction in policy. I have to admit, I used to hold that view myself, arguing that only the stability of a semi-presidential republic could make it work. But as we have seen, not only is coalition government stable (because it is in both parties' interests), it also prioritises the national interest over party ideology.

And the Germans seem to make it work pretty well. In the Bundestag, 299 deputies are elected by party-list proportional representation and 299 by first-past-the-post. Since the first elections in 1949, this has produced a surprisingly stable pattern of government.

From 1949-66 the Christian Democrats formed coalitions with the Liberals. From 1969-82 the Liberals instead backed the Social Democrats and from 1983-98 the see-saw returned to Christian Democrat/Liberal government. Gerhard Schröder made history by leading the first ever SPD/Green coalition between 1998 and 2005, but last year's elections brought back the familiar Christian Democrat/Liberal partnership.

In fact, the so-called 'grand coalitions' between Christian Democrats and the SPD, which are forced into being after a hung parliament, have only happened twice in seventy years - in 1966 and 2005. Not a bad record.

So what of the advantages? The last seventy years of British politics, and the last thirty in particular, have tended towards long blocks of large-majority, one-party government. And let me be frank here: this has been wrecking our country.

Many Tories use Thatcher's glorious majorities as an example of why FPTP must be saved - such herculean vision, determination, and grit may not have been possible under STV. But what they are forgetting is that the Thatcherite project, glorious as it was, only really came into being to mop up the almighty mess Labour had plunged this country into in 1945.

Labour's enormous landslide after the war meant Attlee was able to charge ahead with his socialist programme of nationalisation despite the fact that 45% of the country voted against it. It took thirty years, two Tory landslides and 18 years of one-party rule to reverse the rot, though this in itself ended up creating almost as many problems as it solved. Not least of these was New Labour, who proceeded to do the exact same thing for the next 13 years.

I predict an STV-elected Senate will indeed replace the House of Lords in the course of this parliament and hopefully the results of these elections will make an STV-elected Commons irresistible. Conservatives need not fear this - this election has shown us that Liberal Conservative coalitions are viable and stable. And who knows? Changes in voting patterns as a result of STV may even put a Tory/Ukip coalition on the table. I can't see many of the grassroots opposing that.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Liberal semantics

Could liberal be the most abused word in the English language? It's one of those terms that, though once having a very fixed and definite meaning, has become everything to all and something for everyone. A semantic slut, if you like.

This confusion appears only to exist in the English speaking world, however. While in Canada, Britain and America the word is often used as a vague, wooly hold-all term to denote a sort of 'socialism-lite', its meaning is very different in Europe (and to some extent Australia).

It was a time when both liberals and socialists - as different as night and day in their objectives - were kept out of the conservative and often absolutist establishment in Europe. In Britain and her dominions however, they were the establishment.

The European tradition of Liberalism, best demonstrated in parties such as the German Free Democrats ('Die Liberalen') and the Swiss Free Democrats/Liberals ('Les Libéraux-Radicaux' in French) is something which simply does not exist in British politics.

These parties are what you might call Thatcherite on economic policy and individual responsibility (Guy Verhofstadt, three-time Belgian Liberal prime minister was called 'Baby Thatcher' in the 1980s), but at the same time very socially liberal and committed to the welfare state in a way British Conservatives find very difficult.

This is in contrast to the German right's dominant Christian Democrats, who are far more conservative on social issues and only grudgingly, suspiciously supportive of free market economics. They are also the Conservatives' official 'sister' party.

It is for this reason that the great liberal economist F. A. Hayek added Why I Am Not a Conservative to the end of his seminal work The Constitution of Liberty - once hurled onto a table by Margaret Thatcher to the words 'This is what we believe.' It opened with the words;

At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same side as those who habitually resist change. In matters of current politics today they generally have little choice but to support the conservative parties.

This distinction is simply not present in British politics - both traditions find their home under the umbrella of the Conservative party, meaning that I - a liberal at heart - am in the peculiar position of potentially sharing a platform with people who think Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman are the new messiahs.

More confusing still is the idea of the Liberal Democrats being in the same European party as the above-mentioned Swiss and German Free Democrats. It simply makes no sense. This blog has commented before on the Lib Dems being dominated by social democrats, and the party has major ideological differences with its classical liberal European counterparts.

One can only assume they are part of the European Liberal Democrat & Reform party simply through a case of semantics. A lazy association, if ever there was one, to pair ex-Labour and Social Democratic politicians with 'Baby Thatcher'.

If there is to be a wholesale shake-up of British politics in the coming years and if we do, after all, end up with a system of proportional representation - I dearly hope some of these semantic confusions will be cleared up, not least because it will give voters a much clearer idea over what they are actually voting for.

NB - an amusing and illuminating quote from former Tory MEP Edward McMillan-Scott in March of this year: 'From being a liberal Conservative I have become a conservative Liberal.' Quite.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

A Victorian coalition?

George Osborne's address to the CBI last week, while fairly predictable in most respects, was notable for one brief point he made. Gideon, no doubt bigging up the merits of coalition government and the parties' common ground, appeared to suggest both parties had spent the 2005/10 parliament rediscovering their nineteenth century roots.

For the Conservatives, the middle-class brashness of Thatcherism had given way to the far more aristocratic and Etonian niceties of Disraeli's 'One Nation' Conservatism, he said. As for the Liberal Democrats, Clegg's 'Orange Bookers' had jettisoned the party's 'woolly' liberalism and social democracy, embracing that great colossus of Victorian political history, Gladstonian Liberalism.

Just imagine what that could mean, for a moment. The nineteenth century consensus consisted of free trade, balanced budgets, low public spending, low taxes, small government, responsibility and self-reliance. Where Gladstone and Disraeli differed in actual policy, these were not so highly irreconcilable (asthey were) that they could not be ironed out. We could, for example, be in store for a glorious yet moral foreign policy, with a Liberal laissez-faire tempered by a Tory paternalism - though these may, admittedly, end up being the other way round.

Whether this is the case remains to be seen, but it does pose some striking questions about why the Liberal Democrats exist at all. If the above description sounds familiar, for example, it is because we have seen it before - it is essentially Thatcherism without the circumstantial things Thatcher had to do to reverse the post-war Socialist consensus (privatisation, trade union reform etc.) Indeed, in John Ranelagh's Thatcher's People (1991), Thatcherism was described as "essentially common ground between Conservatives and Liberals in the nineteenth century."

If Clegg & co. have no issue with this then, it does bring one to question why they haven't simply joined the Conservatives. Their europhilia need not be an issue - they do, after all, have Ken Clarke in the cabinet. Lord Heseltine (another europhile and former National Liberal) was on TV only the other day describing how he used to tell Liberal voters the only difference between them was that Tories win.

There are those Liberal Democrats, too, who have shown themselves to be far more at home with Labour and therefore completely undeserving of the word 'liberal.' It is perhaps not as well known as it ought to be that the Lib Dems are essentially a coalition between Liberals and Social Democrats (indeed, when the party was formed in 1988, its first guise was as the Social & Liberal Democrats). These are political traditions from entirely opposing philosophical foundations.

So where are we heading? Will British politics be 'coming home', with Liberals and Conservatives as the two major parties and Labour a distant third? I for one would be very supportive of such an outcome, where politics - as in the US - becomes less a struggle over ends (socialism and capitalism) as means.

Things could go either way, though. We may well see the disappearance of the Liberal Democrats, with the Liberals in the party flocking to the Conservatives and Social Democrats to Labour. The latter in particular would not be all that surprising (not least because Paddy Ashdown has long entertained the thought) - the Social Democratic Party was founded in 1981 because of Labour's then-leftward lurch. But Tony Blair reversed this, realising everything the SDP had set out to achieve with New Labour. It's aims have become redundant.

The historic outcome of this year's election has reminded us that British politics is forever in a state of flux. The relative stability and predictability of the last sixty (and especially thirty) years is by no means the norm of our political tradition, as anyone familiar with nineteenth and early twentieth century politics will know. It's very possible that 2015 may be an even more exciting election year than 2010 and, given the political turmoil of that century, the coalition may leave a very Victorian legacy indeed.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Why support the Liberal Conservative coalition?

May 7 was an awful day for me. Having stayed up all night for the election results, my early hopes were dashed in the afternoon as word got out to our claustrophobic computer room at Norton College, Sheffield that the Lib Dems were in talks with Labour.

The unreal possibility of Gordon Brown somehow clinging to power, hanging precipitously by his badly bitten fingernails for another five years in Mugabe-esque fashion was enough to make me consider moving to New Zealand.

I moped for the rest of the day in deep despair, mulling over and over in my head how this could possibly have happened in a democratic country. Suddenly I felt a thunderbolt of sympathy in my breast with all those multi-coloured revolutionaries who fought back against the betrayal of a stolen election.

So imagine my joy that evening as events so quickly unravelled, like dominoes tripped by a chance gust of righteous wind; Brown resigned and a formal Liberal Conservative coalition was announced within the hour.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! (to quote Edward Heath) - for the first time since I was 11 years old there was a Tory at Number 10. Those two years of campaigning, of slogging from one end of Yorkshire to the other were not in vain.

And in the aftermath, it seems we really have entered a brave new world. Not only is this just the third two-party coalition in this country since 1837, but it seems our politicians' promises of a 'new politics' were actually in good faith. Sacre bleu!

The Liberal Conservative coalition (can we set the Peelite/Whig government of 1837 is a precedent?) currently enjoys a 75-seat majority in the House of Commons and, after the Clegg-Cameron love-in, seems to be working well. There is a strong personal chemistry between the Prime Minister and his Deputy and the parties seem genuinly united on issues surrounding deficit reduction and civil liberties.

Yet there are those, inevitably, who oppose the coalition. They do so stupidly and irresponsibly. The Tory right wail of watered-down policies while the Lib Dem left hiss at a misplaced sense of betrayal. The press - already bored of such a historic event - cannot wait to sink their teeth into a 'cabinet splits' story.

But what will they achieve with such whinging? The collapse of the coalition? And then what? Chaos. The pound would collapse, Britain's credit rating would evaporate and we may very well find ourselves in such a pitiful state as Greece. Or with a Labour government . Not that the eventual outcome would be any different.

The Liberal Democrat-aligned think tank Liberal Vision did a good job of rubbishing the persistant delusion of a Lib/Lab 'progressive alliance' three days ago and in so doing drew attention to the many attitudes and policies the Liberals have in common with the Conservatives.

Both parties campaigned on the issue of decentralisation and slashing bureaucracy, giving power back to the people to manage their own lives - anathema to Labour ideology.

They were the only two parties who campaigned during the election to rapidly reduce the deficit by making savage cuts and both criticised the careless, runaway public spending of Labour over their last two terms. I had honestly expected us to be campaigning on this point alone, so was pleasantly surprised.

It's often forgotten, though, that the Liberals have seen eye-to-eye with Conservatives on economic matters a number of occasions in the past. As far back as 1955, they opposed rising trade union power, as this video and this document demonstrate. I have in the past also made the point that the Liberals proposed a 50% top rate of income tax in 1979 when it was still 83%. It would not fall below 60% under Tory rule until 1988.

Significantly, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are absolutely committed to civil liberties where Labour has carelessly ridden roughshod. This is illustrated no more clearly than in the presence of a 'Great Repeal Bill' in both the parties' manifestoes.

And on Europe? Much has been made of the Liberal Democrats' almost fanatical europhilia next to the Conservatives' suspicious euroscepticism, but many seem to have overlooked Nick Clegg campaigning for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU during the election. Can't see many Tories arguing with that!

So, why support the coalition? Support it because it is a coalition for freedom, for independence, for democracy, for stability, for localism, for streamlined government and - by making the Liberals a party of government again - for annihilating Labour.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Two socialists, one bottle

Europe has had an interesting double-act on his hands during the economic crisis, though not a great deal of attention has been paid to it.

On the surface there are many similarities. Britain and Spain both have socialist prime ministers, both of whom were in office well before the crisis struck and both of whom present themselves as the best people for the job of handling the mess they did more than a little to inflame.

Unlike the Greek socialists, both Gordon Brown and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero are in the difficult position of not being able to blame their predecessors for the almighty mess their countries are in. Zapatero has led his Socialist government since 2004 while Brown has effectively held the reins of the British economy since 1997. No escaping that one then.

But differences between the two become more apparent the further you dig. A feature in Monday's FT explained how "Spain was one of the few countries to run a budget surplus during the good times [and] entered the crisis with a low level of government debt - even now, at more than 55 per cent of GDP, it is 20 percentage points below the eurozone average"

The great difference between the two though comes, alas, from what they are actually willing to do about it. For Zapatero, the crisis gave a cold sobering slap in the face to a government that was riding on an artificially-induced post-euro euphoria. He now openly talks of 'austerity' and 'cuts', admitting that necessity commands he must do the unpopular but right thing.

What is Brown's answer? Mo' spending, mo' spending, mo' spending!

While his iberian counterpart talks frankly and honestly to the Spanish people about the hard times ahead, Brown prefers to hide his head up his own backside while criticising the leader of the opposition for saying the same thing. No wonder Ellie Gellard wanted to get rid.

This behaviour represents two things. Firstly, Labour's inability to engage with voters in an adult manner - why speak honestly when you can dangle debt-funded welfare treats infront of the electorate? Secondly, Brown's infamous inability to make tough decisions.

To his credit, Zapatero has excelled on this front, despite having a great deal to lose. The Spanish general elections are only two years away and, like Labour, the Spanish Socialists rely heavily on the trade unions, who are not going to be happy.

Undeterred, Zapatero told the FT (emphasis added): "We've just taken difficult decisions. Raising VAT, I can tell you that's not something that's been done to get people applauding us. You just have to look at the reaction of public opinion. From here to the elections our policy is going to have to be one of austerity and cost cutting ... There is no other way."

Can you imagine such talk from Brown? No, of course you can't. His claim to be a conviction politician has been exposed as the biggest single lie of his premiership (start as you mean to go on they say...)

Speaking of which, I couldn't help reading Zapatero's austerity plan without thinking of that other great conviction politician Brown facetiously compared himself to. Could this socialist be a Spanish Thatcher in the making?

The prospect is certainly an amusing one, but the evidence is compelling. Zapatero told the FT he plans to raise VAT, confront unions over labour reform, raise productivity, increase flexibility and emasculate the bureaucratic and spendthrift regional governments.

The idea of a Thatcherite socialist might sound something of a bad joke, but Zapatero's steadfast ability to look reality in the face and make tough fiscal decisions shows the only joke in the room to be Gordon Brown.

Another four years of Labour however would not be at all funny.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Even the Blair years showed the benefits for all of low taxes, so why are we going back?

Henry Campbell-Bannerman said in 1903 as Liberal leader of the opposition: "To dispute free trade, after fifty years' experience of it, is like disputing the law of gravitation."

At the time he was railing against the Tories' colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain calling for protectionist tariffs.

The Conservatives have since learned from their mistakes regarding protectionism - we are now proudly a free-trade and free-market party, carrying the torch of classical Liberalism into the 21st century.

The Liberal Democrats seem to have forgotten these lessons they once so passionately taught us, while Labour seem to be suffering from learning difficulties.

Take for example the 50p tax rate, introduced this month. One financial crisis is all it took for Labour to return to their old unfounded, disproved prejudices regarding taxation.

Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson's incremental reductions in the top rate of tax from 83% in 1979 to 40% in 1988 cemented the growth of the British economy after the Thatcher years (with a minor blip in the early '90s) and greatly increased the wealth of the nation.

Figures published in yesterday's Financial Times from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) show how this new orthodoxy continued under Blair and, crucially, remained the most effective means of redistributing wealth.

The IFS contrasted Labour's taxation plans in the 1992 election under Neil Kinnock and John Smith with the actual results under Blair and Brown between 1997 and 2010.

As alarming then as it sounds now, Labour planned to impose a 50p tax rate for all earnings above £36,375 - that's still only £56,000 in today's money. Yet by their own figures, the poorest in society could only hope to gain an extra £2 a week.

By contrast, since 1997 the poorest two deciles of society have seen their incomes rise by more than 10%. For the richest, their incomes have shrunk by around the same amount.

To dispute low taxation then, after thirty years' experience of it, is like disputing the shape of the earth.

But the first economic crisis Labour have had to deal with since the one they created in the '70s has exposed them for the flat-earthists they are. They simply cannot learn from their mistakes or, it seems, their successes.

As a small aside, the Financial Times claimed on the same page that levels of disposable income have greatly declined under Labour. According to the report,

The slowdown in household income has come as the population has increased fairly rapidly, but also as wages and salaries have been stagnant in spite of big rises in profits at companies.

Could this slowdown be a consequence of the minimum wage? After all, if firms have to pay their employees more, they are going to employ less of them. This increases unemployment (and with it, benefit payments) while those who are in work are heaped with greater and greater responsibilities - most likely less productively because of the stress they are under.

Businesses, refusing to see their profits shrink, come under pressure to compensate for this through further firing, slave-driving and generally treating their staff badly, perpetuating the cycle.

The minimum wage may go up every year, but it would not surprise me if the £5.80 received today is worth less in real terms than the £3 workers would have received before 1997.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

No, this isn't 1979, but it is close

I recently came across a left-wing Twitter post which criticised the deliberate association of today's strikes with those of the infamous 1978/79 'winter of discontent.' To be sure, it's an entirely fair point - there were some 29 million working days lost to industrial action in 1979, with only 760,000 in 2008. We can hardly complain.

Unpopular as the BA strike is, it's highly unlikely this election will be fought on the issue of the unions as it was before Margaret Thatcher's landmark victory. That said, while the scale of the issue is far smaller than it was 30 years ago, the old trends are still visible.

Again we are seeing militant unions conspiring to damage and defeat a democratically-elected government (does that include Gordon Brown?) it disagrees with. Friday's Financial Times speculated that the timing of the RMT and TSSA's Easter rail strikes (in which only a fifth of services will run) was calculated to 'maximise the political embarrassment to the government' by beginning on April 6 - the day the election is expected to be called. Hardly uncharacteristic for the openly-Communist general secretary of the RMT, Bob Crow.

One of the great themes of the 1979 election and indeed the 1984/85 miners' strike was the undemocratic nature of the unions. Five years earlier Edward Heath fought, and lost, the 1974 general election on the question of 'who governs?' - such was the union stranglehold on the workings of government.

Surely the most enduring legacy of Margaret Thatcher's premiership is this has not been an issue for almost a quarter of a century. The principles of Parliamentary supremacy, the 'open-shop' and democratic ballots for strikes have been firmly established.

But it would be foolish to think that these issues have gone away for good. The planned rail strikes threaten to leave only a fifth of services running up and down the country on the basis of a 54% vote for industrial action. Given the overtly political timing of the strike, it does call into question the authority of the unions to take such a measure.

I am sure I am not alone in saying that unions ought to be exclusively economic organisations - that their very existence as political bodies challenges the legitimacy of Parliament and the democracy we have worked so hard to develop and - uniquely in Europe - keep over the centuries.

So while party funding is still a hot topic in Westminster, it is worth asking whether it is desirable or even morally just to have one of the leading parties in British politics bankrolled to the tune of 92% by a handful of trade union bosses - whose representativeness and own coffers are highly dubious.

Francis Maude made the point two years ago that union members are generally not given a choice over whether they wish to pay the 'political levy' to the Labour party and while only half of their members tend to vote Labour, it is not unusual for the unions to claim that 100% had coughed up.

This is a highly undemocratic situation comparable to the 'pocket boroughs' of the eighteenth century. The political levy is essentially a life-support machine for Labour no matter how unpopular they become, made worse still because of the backhanded way in which it is collected.

It is conceivable that, were it not for union funding, the party would have been permanently annihilated as a political force in 1983 under a wave of Tory and Alliance votes. The SDP-Liberal Alliance did, after all, collect more than 25% of votes cast in that election.

While I doubt the Liberal Democrats are exactly popular with readers of this blog, I challenge anyone to argue that they could be less disastrous for this country than Labour have been in the last 70 years.

After all, Lord Harris did say in 1990 that Thatcherism was 'more or less common ground between Conservatives and Liberals in the nineteenth century.' And whatever else you may think of them, at least the Lib Dems take civil liberties seriously.

Back to 1979 though, there are further parallels. The recent collapse in the Tory lead over Labour has led to expectations that May will produce a hung parliament. Ignoring the fact that political betters seem to disagree, it is worth looking at the polls in the run up to the May 3, 1979.

In the BBC's 'Decision '79' election coverage, David Dimbleby opens with the following statement;

Tonight we might still be reporting a walkover for the Conservatives and Mrs Thatcher, but the polls narrowed a good deal as [the campaign] went on. It may be that we see a straight Tory victory but it is possible we could find the Tories not winning the 318 seats they need if they are automatically to form the next government. There's even an outside chance, depending on how the smaller parties do, perhaps of Mr Callaghan remaining in Downing Street, perhaps even as leader of a coalition ... There was a lead at the very beginning for the Tories of over 20%, then at one point a very slight Labour lead.

As it happened, Margaret Thatcher won the election comfortably with a majority of 43. The rest, as we know, is history. She went on to win every future election she fought, with  landslide majorities of 144 and 102.

The lesson is, don't be too disheartened (or encouraged - Kinnock) by pre-election polls. They quite often mean nothing.

While we're on the subject of elections though, David Cameron has himself admitted that the party requires a swing larger than any in any election since 1931 to win a workable majority in May.

Well, let's take a look at that election. Stanley Baldwin led the Conservatives to a blistering 324 seat majority, while a discredited and divided Labour lost no less than 255 of their MPs. This was, by the way, in the middle of the greatest financial crisis the world had ever seen - sound familiar?

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Europe's balkanisation has already begun

'The sick man of Europe' is a term that has been used to describe, among others, the late Ottoman Empire and Britain in the 1970s (incidentally during Labour's last tenure of government).

I would say this term is no longer relevant - Europe is itself the sick man. In the last six months we have seen strikes and riots rock the continent as the EU's rigid economic system struggles to cope with the financial crisis; we have seen a quangocrat and a 'low grade bank clerk' elected by nobody to represent us; and democracy trampled on in another Brussels power-grab.

We have to ask ourselves how much longer we wish to share membership of an organisation which has, on one extreme, a socialist government that has handled its finances so poorly that it is on the verge of bankruptcy; and on the other a corrupt billionaire plutocrat who, apart from owning large swathes of his country's media, has made himself essentially immune from prosecution while conniving with his equally repulsive counterpart and friend in Moscow to persecute the family of Alexander Litvinenko.

Thankfully David Cameron, Václav Claus and Michał Kamiński already asked themselves this question, taking the courageous decision to form the European Conservatives & Reformists Group.

It would be interesting to see how bad things really have to get before any of these men wholeheartedly put their weight behind outright secession.

In the case of Italy the 'European pattern' is disturbingly familiar. The Prime Minister can now legitimately claim he is too busy to attend court hearings in which he is being prosecuted, making him effectively above the law. This is remarkable because the Italian legislature actually handed him this immunity on a plate.

The parallel with the Roman Senate sycophantically ceding more and more of its power to the caesars is disturbing, but accurate. As President, the Communist Giorgio Napolitano ought to step in, but has so far done nothing. Those monarchists who claim the Queen would refuse to ratify any undemocratic or unconstitutional legislation would do well to learn from this - Napolitano's role is essentially the same and just as toothless.

Berlusconi's flagrant abuse of his position highlights the weakness of the European Union but also its own superficial commitment to democracy. A body which forced the Irish to reconsider their decision on the Lisbon Treaty is unlikely to make its voice heard over the collapse of the rule of law in Italy. The concept has simply never gained any currency in Europe.

Though, harrowing as Italy's situation is (Tatiana Litvinenko's "I thought Europe had 100% rule of law" ought to be invoked at every session of the European Parliament), it is Greece that runs the risk of seriously destabilising the continent. The question over whether to bail out the country with taxpayers' money has already caused conflict between member states and resentment among their electorates.

Of all publications, it was the Independent that ran a piece on why the euro was to blame for the strikes that exploded over Greece and Europe earlier this year. The following paragraph, a stinging indictment of the single currency, is worth printing here in full (my emphasis);

During the relatively benign economic conditions that marked the first decade of the euro, fast growing economies such as Spain were able to enjoy the advantages of currency union, such as low interest rates, but allowed their prices and costs to gradually rise, leaving their economies uncompetitive by comparison with nations such as Germany. Traditionally, that cumulative build-up of cost and price differences would be dealt with by devaluation of the currency, but membership of the euro removes that flexibility. Thus Ireland, Greece , Spain and others are undergoing what economists euphemistically call "internal devaluation", slashing wages and costs and, if necessary, allowing unemployment to climb to record highs. The problem raised by the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz among others, is that those deflationary polices threaten to shrink their economies even more, triggering an even more urgent budget crisis as tax revenues collapse and unemployment payments rise.

I couldn't have put it better myself. Though perhaps more ominous was: "The democratic strains in nations that had been ruled, well within living memory, by fascist leaders or the military are growing."

It appears that the Federalists have learnt nothing from the Balkan conflict. The horrors of war and genocide in the former Yugoslavia ought to have taught the world, and especially Europe, that forcing people even as ethnically similar as the South Slavs into one political entity serves only to exasperate the differences between them.

It is one of those bizarre twists of history that a people who fought so bloodily to tear the Yugoslav union apart should be striving so hard to join a new one in from Brussels. The Yugoslav wars have shown us that multiethnic unions without dictatorial lynchpins like Tito make nationalism and ethnic conflict more, not less, likely.

So it is with great sadness that I receive the Liberal MEP and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's announcement that "The ultimate consequences of identity politics are the gas chambers of Auschwitz" (thanks to Dan Hannan for drawing attention to this). More still to hear that this Nazi analogy is frequently thrown at eurosceptics in Brussels.

The sad thing is the Federalists really cannot see what they are doing. In binding nations with very different economies into a single currency with single interest rates they are manufacturing financial collapse and industrial unrest - fertile soil for for nationalism and extremism to grow.

Worse still, their efforts to redress the problem are fermenting resentment between member states and their electors - who they have already shown their contempt for by their shameful dismissal of Lisbon referendums.

I know I will be mocked for predicting the EU causing the next European war and honestly, I pray that I'm wrong. But Britons should bear in mind that where, in the past, we have always had the option of staying out of such conflicts, we are now directly involved. Right at the heart of Europe, as Tony Blair used to say.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

'Health and safety gone mad?' No, just a fatal lack of faith

This morning I was quite irritatingly refused entry to a First bus in Sheffield on account of my carrying a medium black Americano from Caffè Ritazza. Despite the cup having a cover that was almost préservatif in its covering, I was not allowed to enter the vehicle. The driver, very apologetic, threw his hands into the air pleading ’sorry, it’s health and safety!’ while directing my eyes to a helpful no-food-and-drink logo.

It was a minor inconvenience and looking back I should have known better, so I will refrain from using such cliches as ‘hell in a handcart’ and ‘nanny state’ (though this didn’t stop my friends from teasing me with them on Facebook) – I still managed to get to college on time, after all.

But what stuck with me after as I sat back down in the bus shelter to a little more Vampire Weekend (which incidentally is very relaxing) was the resigned sense of powerlessness I observed from the bus driver. That look of frustration as he had to bypass his own common sense for the sake of this increasingly sentient monolith of instruction.

Health and safety, innit? It’s telling, in my view, that the term in itself is often enough to explain why these events occur. It’s almost personified. ‘It’s health and safety.’ Read that back – it doesn’t even make sense. Who is this health and safety?

Now, at this point I would accept your scorn – going off on one about a slightly delayed bus journey is just silly. It would say more about myself and my frame of mind than what I’m attempting to write about if that was, indeed what I was writing about.

But that is not what I’m writing about. In fact the ‘cult of health safety’ is not what I’m writing about either. What I am, in fact, writing about about is this peculiar distrust of common sense that seems to have crept up in the last decade or so. About that fundamental lack of faith in people and their abilities which James Purnell recently criticised his own party for a fortnight ago.

The pitiful irony is that such slavish and unthinking subservience to health and safety rules and regulations – which exist to protect us – actually puts lives in danger. In outlawing discretion and personal judgement it puts otherwise responsible adults into the mental framework of children. In situations where peoples’ lives are on the line, this becomes deadly.

A chilling example of just this occurred in Ayreshire, Scotland in 2008; the inquest of which was reported in The Times yesterday.

Alison Hume, who had fallen down a 60ft mine shaft, was left there for four hours after emergency services arrived because health and safety rules specified that the lifting gear used to lower a firefighter down to her was to be used only by firefighters.

As such, a mountain rescue team were called to get her out. A paramedic who volunteered to treat her was also prevented from being lowered in. In the end she died of a heart attack as the mountain rescue team brought to the surface – six hours after falling down the shaft.

This should not have happened. Christopher Rooney, the first senior firefighter on the scene, told the inquest that ‘on the basis of the manpower and equipment available’ it would have been possible for the firefighters to bring Ms Hume to the surface themselves, without having to wait for the mountain rescue team.

So why was Ms Hume – a mother of two – allowed to die? For the sake of a human life, would it really have been such a crime for the firefighters to use their discretion, their responsibility, their common sense and heroism to break the rules and bring her up themselves?

Dominic Lawson once wrote that when all conduct is made enforceable, the ability for people to behave a certain way purely out of moral choice and conscience is removed. The net effect of this is that otherwise reprehensible behaviour becomes defensible with the get-out ‘it was within the rules’.

Lawson was speaking about MP’s expenses at the time, but the same principle applies. Though in this instance something far more precious was lost and, unlike taxpayer’s money, it can never to be replaced.

Friday, 26 February 2010

The left will always have a selective open mind

Picture the scene. A Labour education minister smugly glides into a special press conference, knowing they're about to release something big. The room buzzes with a frustrated energy. Pens scratch nervously against their pads in anticipation. The minister produces his paper and with tender glee proceeds to revolutionise on the spot our whole perception of how our children should be educated.

We should take a few lessons from Buddha, he says. Teaching our children to meditate would give them the power of clear, focused thoughts and inner quiet. He adds that we should utilise what we know of psychology - letting children know why they feel the way they do gives them the opportunity to control it when needed. All this would help them become more confidant, responsible and creative adults.

Surely liberals, teachers and arts folks would go mental for this wouldn't they? It's a crying shame no party has ever considered it.

Except the thing is they have. Unfortunately it was proposed by Michael Gove, the Conservatives' education spokesman, meaning that the left have blindly torn it to pieces like the nest of vipers they are.

Now I admit to being no regular reader of the Independent. But I was shocked and appalled by the close-mindedness of the paper's columnists last week. I had always viewed the Independent as a 'progressive' paper (for better or worse), yet here were it's chief writers ridiculing what may be the most progressive proposals for our education system in half a century. And all because they came from the wrong party. Worse still, they proposed nothing more than business as usual.

The lesson from this is clear: if the Cameroons are serious about these radical policies then they should stick to them and implement them with vigour. However, if these spangly education and co-operative plans are a ploy to woo left-leaning voters and institutions then they are making a mistake.

Such a half-hearted commitment to what are essentially high-risk strategies would cause them to be implemented in a cackhanded way for people who never supported them in the first place. It would be a disaster.

The interesting thing is that the Conservatives are taking up policies that have traditionally been the preserve of 'libertarian socialists' of the far left. People like Noam Chomsky and the hoards of 'Black Block' marchers that gather in Trafalgar Square every May Day. For make no mistake - it is the statist Labourites and left 'liberals' that are the 'small-c' conservatives here.

It is not as though this is without precedent. There was an attempt in the 1830s to forge an alliance between 'paternalist' Tories and Radicals - two diametrically opposed factions - to protect the poor from what they saw as the wholesale exploitation by the newly-enfranchised bourgeois Liberals.

It was not a success primarily because the Whig government of the time - keen to keep power after so long out of office - implemented workplace regulation of their own. But the opportunity was there. In 1975, Tony Benn and Enoch Powell shared a platform for the 'no' vote in the referendum over the Common Market.

And while the Conservatives have been trying on Tony Benn's clothes, former Work & Pensions Secretary James Purnell revealed some of his own libertarian sympathies in The Times last week by criticising Labour's statism and calling on politicians to 'trust the people' - a longstanding Tory slogan.

One passage was particularly striking, in which Purnell could seriously have been reading from a Cameroon pamphlet: "People can be disempowered if society discriminates against them, if the market impoverishes them and if the State bullies them. The State can help them to be powerful in respect of all three. But we have other tools than the State."

'There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the State' - can you tell the difference?

He goes on to ape another well-established Tory attack: "Some of the critique of choice on the Left has been distrust of the people, dressed up as a fear of inequality. Saying we can’t have choice in schools because only the middle classes would use it betrays contempt for our voters."

Purnell's article ought to interest Conservatives because it highlights some of the common ground between 'libertarian socialists' like himself and free-market libertarians such as Dan Hannan. It identifies clearly our shared belief in liberty and peoples' right to organise themselves as they see fit.

Whether left or right, we should be working together in fighting against the statist 'small-c' conservatives such as those in the Cabinet and in papers like the Independent. Against those who would prefer to cling to the crumbling, failed system of their political friends than embrace the progressive policies of their enemies.

Tony Benn said not too long ago that issues unite people, whereas ideologies divide them. With the spectre of a hung parliament looming, we would do well to follow such advice.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Don't cry over Cadbury; there are far greater institutions under threat

The sale of Cadbury last week to US 'plastic cheese-making' conglomerate Kraft has resonated an astounding level of emotion (and news coverage) amongst the proud chocolate-loving peoples of Great Britain. And rightly so. Cadbury is a national treasure, a shining and very British beacon for responsible, philanthropic entrepreneurial capitalism.

In a way I suppose we hoped it might never happen. We wanted to believe that this proud company, founded by those good Quaker types in 1824 would limp on through the recession and recover its strength on the other side. It's been through worse, right? One hundred and eighty-four more years!

Sadly, it was not to be. Comparable perhaps to the grief of a family who have just lost one of their own to a new life in the colonies, we have had to accept that Cadbury is now essentially an American company. Goodbye, old bean. You are now to Kraft what Rowntree Mackintosh is to Swiss giant Nestlé.

But hang on a minute... We still have Kit Kats don't we? You can still buy tins of Quality Streets with the famous Mackintosh toffee penny, right? What are we so hung up about?

Well, I can't put it as well as Boris Johnson, but there are two primary concerns I believe may explain why Kraft's bid has been so unpopular, not least with Cadbury itself. One is that Kraft was seen as being unlikely to respect the ethos of the company and would meddle in its working practices, perhaps laying off workers in the process.

Another is that the much-loved Cadbury recipe would be tampered with, perhaps into the fatty, sugary mulch that so excites the over stimulated American taste-bud; turning it into a cheaper, lower quality product.

What do those Yanks care about our chocolate anyway? They're only concerned with balance-sheets right? I too have had such a worry. After all, I was only three years old when Nestlé bought Rowntree Mackintosh, but I swear Yorkies didn't taste so much of sugar and lard when I was a nipper.

There is another dimension to this matter however, a concern I happened to catch broadcast on BBC News following confirmation of the sale. This concern quite rightly revolves around the concerns of Cadbury's staff, who - with the changeover - are fearing for their jobs and the working practices they have become accustomed to.

But we've covered this already. The angle the BBC put on the matter was that, with so many British firms now in foreign hands, the country is losing control of its economic levers. Their claim is that British workers would be vulnerable to Kraft laying off foreign rather than domestic workers - that, in a way we would be relinquishing our ability to control our employment statistics and even the welfare of our own people.

Oh dear. This smells suspiciously like 'British jobs for British workers' again. The foul stench of that national socialism the BNP have made so much their own of late. That populist drivel the Prime Minister was so keen to associate himself with in 2007, then drop like a lead balloon following the fascists' endorsement.

But this is beside the point. What really stings me is the gross hypocrisy of this position. Why is it that the BBC are so happy to present the sale of Cadbury to an American company in terms of a loss of control over the economy to foreigners - an issue of sovereignty if ever there was one - yet fail to report how busily engaged we are relinquishing far more important economic, financial, even democratic controls to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels? To report one at the expense of the other is simply madness.

Madness perhaps, or ulterior motive. Is the BBC's position really about sovereignty? Is it really about job losses when the EU is threatening our ability to control inflation and interest rates? Depriving us of the right to self-regulate the lynchpin of our international economy?

Or is that they do not report our loss of sovereignty to Brussels because, like Labour, they have resigned themselves to discarding democracy in order to stealthily impose their shared agenda onto the British people?

As Roy Hattersley explained in 1992; 'Labour has converted to Europe because Europe has converted to socialism'. Perhaps what he meant was that Labour has sold its soul because Europe has converted to socialism.

How has this country got to such a point? Only last week the press also saw it fit to publicise the views of a surgeon so lacking in respect and understanding of the basic foundations of liberal democracy that, with an entirely straight face, he called for the banning of butter.

What madness is this? What fever hangs over the minds of our broadcasters? I was initially rendered speechless, yet even now find it difficult in mustering the words to counter such an insane argument. The totalitarians among us must be absolutely elated.

It's a sad irony indeed that the liberalism of the 1960s which so raged against the 'ban this filth' Mary Whitehouses of this world should have bred such a socially intolerant and reactionary political class today. The unholy alliance of the far left and extremist muslims is an acute example of this.

What has happened to liberty? To democracy? To 'trust the people'? Are these just fusty old eighteenth century ideas? I tell you, if the Conservatives cannot in government invigorate our democracy, reclaim it from Brussels and reverse this totalitarian nanny culture at home then I am afraid to say they have very little use to us at all.

"Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad."

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it”

It is often said that in politics, personal attacks surface when the party or politician in question has nothing new to bring to the table - that they have neither coherent policies nor any remaining means of defending their position. How true this is of Gordon Brown and his beleaguered Government. Today we saw, yet again, the now rather tedious spectacle of the Prime Minister evading questions by personally insulting the Leader of the Opposition, this time on the somewhat trivial subject of whether or not his election poster had been airbrushed.

Putting aside the fact that it is very difficult to find any photographic close-up these days that is not touched-up, or indeed of the desirability of such a course of action when your face is being enlarged to around a hundred times its size; the Prime Minister's statements have a double-edged irony. The first is that these trivial side-tracks are coming from a man who we have all seen dismiss attacks by David Cameron over the cohesion the Government by claiming that he is not concentrating on the 'big issues'. The second of course is that in doing so, and so visibly displaying the Government's complete poverty of direction and ideas, he is exposing himself to that insult which he so often levies at David Cameron - that he has no policies and is simply unfit to govern.

But where, I believe I am right in saying, the Prime Minister distinguishes himself from all previous Governments is that this poverty of ideas has led to the increasingly frequent spouting of clear, obvious and really rather large lies from the Cabinet benches in a frenzied attempt to cling to power. I believe I am also right in saying that this is a most disgraceful and rotten way to conduct Government, one that does however have a precedent with the Prime Minister's predecessor surrounding the motives for entry into the Iraq War.

One of the largest and, to my mind, most baffling of Labour lies being peddled at the moment concerns the Conservatives' plans to abolish inheritance tax below £1 million. I would very much like to write at length on this particular point, were it not so self-explanatory. Kicking off the Labour election campaign early in the year, Ed Balls claimed that "They [the Conservatives] want to have an inheritance tax cut which goes to millionaires" - an impossibility surely, given that the qualification for this particular tax cut is that one is not a millionaire. However, it appears that this claim is so radically departed from reality that it has caused a collective silence on the minds of those who hear it. The lie is simply so huge that nobody dares to challenge it.

Another example was the bizarre spectacle this afternoon of watching the Leader of the Opposition attack the massive budget deficit Labour had incurred between 1997 and 2007 - the largest in the industrial world he said, and the reason why Britain was so hard hit by the financial meltdown - only for the Prime Minister to reply by claiming the exact opposite. The United Kingdom entered the recession with the lowest public debt of any industrial nation he said, and that is why the Government has been able to help so many families and business get through the recession.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is very deliberate. Call me an insane conspiracy theorist if you wish, but the New Labour machine has been characterised by, if nothing else, its extensive use of spin to get away with saying that black is indeed white. It does not take a massive stretch of the imagination to construe that this army of spin doctors may use psychological methods of deception - such as those championed by Derren Brown - to mislead voters. Indeed, they would not be doing their job properly (one I do not believe ought to exist) if they did not.

One example of this deliberate misleading of the electorate is the bizarre contention that the recent expenses scandal warrants changes to the constitution of this country. There is simply no connection between the two. It is an out-and-out lie as much as that which attempted (and succeeded) in forming an imaginary link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Both the US Government then and the UK Government now have exploited a catastrophe to further an entirely separate end.

It was The Times that yesterday claimed "The fall-out from the expenses scandal has shaken Parliament and called into question the way the Commons works." Why? How has it done this? The expenses scandal was committed by individual MPs abusing a system of financial renumeration for their own ends. Those to blame are the MPs themselves and those members of the Fees Office who thought it pertinent to authorise such blatant abuses of that system. Even if one were to argue that the system was to blame, there is still no link here to the constitution of this United Kingdom. Furthermore, as the Commons have now voted on a new expenses system, the matter ought surely to be laid to rest.

However, this Government clearly has too much to lose from leaving the matter there. They are perfectly aware that, facing electoral armageddon, a change in the voting system of this country would allow them to cling to power, most likely in coalition with the Liberals who have supported ailing and unpopular Labour Governments so many times in the past. It is a proposal that has, as far as I am aware, no popular clamour and would be pushed through Parliament in the most disgraceful of circumstances for the most perverse of intentions.

Yet, Brown knows now as much as Bush knew then (or at least their advisors) that a lie which so obviously contradicts the available evidence and is so departed from reality, repeated enough times becomes accepted wisdom. Perhaps millions of Americans still believe that the United States invaded Iraq to fight terrorism, despite in doing so toppling a dictator who loathed jihadists and creating Islamic terrorism where it had not hitherto existed. There is no difference in the principle of these two deceptions.

The supreme irony of course, is that our Prime Minister was no. 2 in a government which not only pledged to abolish boom and bust (thereby creating one of the most dramatic "busts" in living memory), but which was also elected in 1997 on the ticket of a new, open and transparent politics. They have either failed spectacularly on both counts or have built the last 12 years of administration on two twin pillars of treachery. Whichever it is, they are continuing to do so with more vigour each passing day. A general election is required now to remove this discredited Prime Minister of a discredited Government - voters would do well to do so, if only to assert their authority and righteous wrath. Let us all pray however, that a Conservative Government lives up to its promises where Labour's has not.

"A lie told often enough becomes the truth"
- Vladimir Lenin

“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it”
- Adolf Hitler