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.