Friday, 23 December 2011

Our right to the Falklands is about democracy over nationalism

'Sorry, Mr Falkland Islander, YOU don't get a say'
If you're unfortunate to know any lefties you'll know that hypocrisy and a lack of consistency are things that seem to follow them around. Take the Falklands, for example.

As supposedly good democrats, it ought to be self-evident that the lefty mind would support the islanders' right to self-determination and to live under a system of government of their choosing.

As supposedly opponents of the kind of nationalism which led Europe into two of the most destructive wars the world has ever seen, too, it should seem obvious to any fool that those on the left would be the first to condemn the attitude of successive Argentine governments towards the islands.

You'd think so. But you'd be wrong.

It is a symptom of the irrational mind that emotion takes precedent over logic and, unfortunately, most lefties you will speak to go completely against their supposed political ideals when it comes to the status of the Falklands for three reasons.

Firstly, the presence of some 22,000 British-descended islanders (some 70% of the population) are a residual reminder of this nation's imperial past and, as imperialism is bad, so therefore must be the continued British presence there.

Secondly, the islands were successfully defended against a quasi-fascist military junta 30 years ago by Margaret Thatcher. Despite the obvious antifascist angle to this, Margaret Thatcher is Satan's bride, so therefore her enemy must be pure of heart and therefore supported.

Thirdly is that age-old leftist malady - which even George Orwell looked down on among England's intelligentsia - that of self-hatred projected into hatred of country.

(Just to remind you of that quote, from 'The Lion & the Unicorn', he wrote: "It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual would be more ashamed of being caught standing to attention during God Save the King than of stealing from a poor box.")

Spearheading this leftist insanity is, of course, Barack Obama who - when not making ludicrous statements about the importance of his presidency - has consistently taken the Argentinian side of the argument against his country's oldest and most loyal ally.

Some have speculated that Mr Obama's coolness to Britain stems from the experiences of his grandfather in colonial Kenya and a resulting hatred of the British Empire and the UK generally. Well, this is exactly the kind of irrational thought I'm talking about. No rational person could support Argentina's claim to the Falklands - let alone the leader of the free world.

Let's consider the facts. The Falklands have been under British sovereignty since 1833. Prior to that date, they were disputed by Britain, France, Spain and the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (a precursor to the modern Argentine state). They were also uninhabited.

That was 179 years ago. It's rather like Britain maintaining its claims to the throne of France (which was an embarrassment, quickly dispensed with, even in George III's day). Indeed, this country easily has greater claim to sovereignty over the United States than Argentina does over the Falklands.

The fact is the people on those islands are British citizens. They identify themselves as British and want to stay British, under a British government. That is why David Cameron has declared he will never surrender sovereignty. Unlike the Argentines - who still pine, with an ugly nationalist fervour, over a set of rocks they had scant claim to 200 years ago - we know this is about democracy. Not nationalism.

In disregarding this, and siding with the tyrants of South America, Barack Obama has shown himself to be not only against the very founding principles of his country but of a threat to the peace of the world as well. November can't come soon enough.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Is Lord Oakenshott a racist?

Lord Oakenshott: seems to think racial slurs against eastern European are just fine
There's a nasty strain of racial superiority in this country when it comes to the subject of our eastern European neighbours. To many people it seems as though our brothers are a kind of subhuman race of vodka-swilling, Jew-baiting fascists, incapable of any sort of humane or rational form of government.

It's become all too easy to make this sort of comment in Britain without any consequences and, from most people, à la Borat it can be easily shrugged off. Not that it makes it any better, but it's usually meant in jest. But for a man like Lord Oakenshott to make such a slur, in all seriousness, on Sunday morning television is truly disgusting.

On the Politics Show this morning, the Liberal Democrat peer said the Conservatives had lost influence in Europe by leaving the European People's Party and joining with 'the headbangers in eastern Europe' - adding he would have much preferred us to be discussing with 'our friends and allies in western Europe'.

For one thing, this is hardly a very 'European' attitude to take - that somehow easterners are barbarians outside of western European civilisation and ought not to be around the big table.

While it can be said there exists a certain severity to eastern culture not seen here in the west, this is largely because it is a region which has witnessed the most brutal and bloody repression under successive mad tsars, kaisers, führers and commissars.

However, one consequence of this - and in direct contradiction to the racist view of eastern Europeans - is a strong sense of discipline east of the Oder which we in the west trail far behind.

It is the reason for that region's spectacular economic growth and, it is worth pointing out, for the popularity of easterners amongst our country's employers and home improvers. Yes, they may demand less pay than British workers, but they work bloody hard for it.

And, as I have pointed out before, these 'headbangers' in the European Conservatives & Reformists Lord Oakenshott so offensively refers to are major parties in their respective countries. Law & Justice is currently the second largest party in Poland, as is Civic Democracy in the Czech Republic.

Both have spent a great deal of time leading their countries. Even the smaller Latvian For Fatherland & Freedom party - an easy target if ever there was one for idiots like Oakenshott - are members of that country's government (and, in any case, since a recent merger it is called National Alliance).

Secondly, it does seems as though this kind of prejudice is all too easy to get away with because its recipients happen to be white. I can hardly see such a slur getting away without any comment were the 'headbangers' Lord Oakenshott referred to of a different colour. Could one ever get away with saying 'the headbangers of Sub-Saharan Africa', for example?

And the tired old argument - used by Oakenshott and presenter Jon Sopel - that Cameron withdrew the Conservatives from a place of influence in the EPP is absolute balderdash. This country has never had any influence in Europe.

In so much as it did is down exclusively to Margaret Thatcher's handbagging and stubborn refusal to compromise this country's interests. Britain's relationship with the EU has always been that of a leech and its host and this was no different under europhilic prime ministers like Blair.

What appears to confound these people, too, is that the decision to withdraw from the EPP was one of principle. It is a federalist party. The Conservative party is not. It believes in the 'social market economy'. Conservatives believe in the free market. What is astonishing is not so much that the Conservatives left but that they had remained members for so long.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Rome and Athens have exposed the weakness of parliaments

Try as they might, these two men are constitutionally unable to outrun their electors
One of the more frequent fallacies you hear from monarchists to justify such a bizarre institution is that it helps maintain stability and constitutional government by placing the head of state above politics and above the reach of the people.

The strict non-intervention of British royals in political matters does give the illusion of ensuring this but it is important to remember that this convention has absolutely no legal standing and there is little, if anything, to stand in the way of its suspension and the ability of the monarch to use her enormous political power - including choosing her government.

So it has always baffled me why so many republics in Europe (there are 24 of them) chose constitutions which are essentially based on where ours found itself at some point in the nineteenth century. 

Like us, they have popularly-elected legislative assemblies from which the head of government and cabinet are drawn and which, in the absence of a monarch, also elects a politically impotent head of state.

But the serious weaknesses in this sort of constitutional arrangement (which is favoured by Republic) was exposed last month with the toppling of democratic governments in Rome and Athens and their replacement with unelected 'technocrats'.

Like ours, there is nothing in the Italian constitution which stipulates that ministers must be elected members of parliament or even members of parliament at all. And, while the Greek constitution stipulates that the prime minister must be a member of parliament, in the event of a prime minister's resignation (Article 38), its use of language is unclear about his successor.

These glaring democratic holes were thoroughly exploited by eurocrats as a means of installing undemocratic governments favourable to their cause and it comes as no surprise that Mario Monti was once an EU commissioner while Lucas Papademos was vice president of the European Central Bank and governor of the Bank of Greece during that country's transition to the euro.

Contrast this with the constitutional arrangements in France and the United States. These two revolutionary republics have heads of states that are elected by the people rather than parliament - an arrangement which stems from a muscular belief in those countries of the sovereignty of the people.

Now, I'm no fan of Nicolas Sarkozy or Barack Obama - they both represent the kind of corporatist capitalism I loathe - but you cannot dispute they are the people's choice and, because this is mandated in  clearly written constitutions, they cannot be removed nor replaced by any other authority. There can, in essence, be no surer guarantee of popular and national sovereignty over foreign tyranny.

In a nutshell, this makes what has happened in Athens and Rome impossible in Washington and Paris. It is, however, entirely possible in the UK - even more so, in fact, given that our want of a written constitution means it is pretty much whatever the House of Commons says it is.

Do keep this in mind if you ever have to suffer the pontifications of a constitutional monarchist or, by the same token, if you ever feel the desire to support Republic.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

This euro crisis was designed

Two heads of government have now been removed, not by their electors, but by Brussels
I have never been one for conspiracy theories. To my mind there is always a danger to retroactively fitting events together and seeing, in disconnected circumstances, a pattern of consciousness and intent.

But, as I have watched with horror the fallout from the euro crisis over the past few months, I have been unable to resist the thought that the devastation we are seeing, both to our economies and our democracies, is not the product of human folly but of deliberate and intrinsic design.

We already know that the euro was never intended as an economic device - which is just as well because the economics of it are insane - but as an inch towards political union. Jacques Delors, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder, among others, are on record as saying as much.

We also know that eurosceptics like myself (though, I regret, not myself as I was only 14) argued against the single currency on the basis that it could not possibly work without fiscal - and that is to say political - union between its member states.

This was, of course, dismissed as nonsense by those in favour of adopting the euro, who professed it to be purely a tool for promoting trade between the nations of Europe, for stabilising markets and for generally increasing the wealth of all who adopted it. Who could be against that?

But, as we have seen these fictitious sweeteners fizzle away like sherbet in a can of coke, I cannot bring myself to accept that the designers of the euro did not see it coming. They could not be that stupid.

Consider the way events have swung in the federalists' favour. The bubbles of the PIGS nations (which may become PFIGS if, as is feared, France follows suit) - themselves spawned by artificially low interest rates - have burst, sending forth bloody entrails of poverty, the scale of which has not been seen since the war, to rain down upon their citizens.

Illegal bailouts follow illegal bailouts, all the while inflating the scale of the eventual catastrophe, as political disorder breaks out among those nations' taxpayers as they watch billions of euros funnelled to greedy and foolish bankers while they foot the bill.

And lo! When it is finally recognised that bleeding the patient only serves to weaken him further, what gallops forth as the solution? Yes, our old friend, fiscal union. Polticial union. Federalism. Mo' Europe, mo' Europe, mo' Europe!

And, as with all great crises, further centralisation is demanded. As the voices of Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy have crumbled, those of France and Germany have been raised to deafening levels. Chancellor Merkel, in particular, holds immense political power and used this hideous strength to scotch a Greek referendum which had already been announced.

The heads of government of Italy and Greece have now been removed, not by their electors, but by Brussels. And, even more alarming, their successors - the extreme europhile economists Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos - are not only members of no political party, they have never been elected by anyone in their lives.

Papademos, now prime minster of Greece, is still not a member of the Greek legislature and Mori, favourite to fill the now-vacant Italian premiership, was only last week appointed senator for life by President Napolitano - himself elected, not by the Italian people, but by parliament.

It is a fait accompli. The founders of the euro understood its inherent contradictions. They counted on them. And the medicine they knew they could prescribe was the very pathogen which caused the disease in the first place. Ever closer union, the relentless, piecemeal, march towards federalism and the final extinguishing of democracy in Europe.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Cameron's 'soggy' attitude

'Keynote': unlike Boris' speech, Cameron's was muddled, overdrafted and uninspiring
As a conference virgin, there wasn't a great deal I could compare this year's gathering to - other than a few distantly recalled TV soundbites - but I'd say it's telling I spent the vast majority of my time in the Freedom Zone.

Organised by Simon Richards of the Freedom Association, the events took place entirely outside the security zone and were notable for their focus on actual discussion and on topics banned in the official site - namely Europe, scrapping the 50p tax band and how to more radically reduce government spending.

So it came as little surprise to me to hear, from the press as much as fellow delegates, that this had been the driest, most controlled and lobby-dominated conference yet. Still, as a fresher greatly enjoying what is still an intensely social (and alcohol-fuelled) occasion, I had few complaints.

That is until Cameron's speech. I forgave the snore-inducing 'business forum' before Osborne's speech as I'm told it occurred because he was running late. The very idea a Conservative party could orchestrate such a horrendously dry and scripted non-debate as part of Plan A (forgive the pun) was nonsense, I thought. An inverted pyramid of piffle, if you like.

But I was horrified by the Mao-esque, choreographed propaganda of Cameron's pre-speech 'warm-up'. If his intention was to make me incredibly angry with him before he'd even stepped on stage, he succeeded with flying colours.

The showcasing of his National Citizen Service project was incredibly twee and presented by a man who had not only convinced himself it was 'the most important decision by any government in the last 50 years' but who pronounced the word 'think' 'fink' - not something I ever though I'd hear at a Conservative conference. It was reminiscent of the most boring and oppressive school assembly.

And then there was the speech itself which, I have to agree with the Left on this one, exposed Cameron's inner Flashman - that arrogant, condescending, paternalistic aspect of his character that has been growing in confidence of late.

How dare he, I thought, tell us Britain has a 'can't-do sogginess'? Really, Flashman? As a journalist I spend a great deal of my time speaking to small business owners and the one thing they all tell me is they're dying to grow their way out of our economic malaise. They regale me with their grand designs for that second shop, for taking on more employees, for making that push to go regional.

And what is it holding back their 'can do' attitude? Tax, Mr Cameron. Tax. They can't open that second café because of punitive business rates and they load more work onto already stretched staff rather than employing more because of expensive National Insurance commitments.

Yet tax wasn't mentioned once. That doesn't sound like 'doing everything in our power' to create jobs. But then, that's the problem - Cameron has fallen for that great delusion of governments - that they even have the power to 'create' jobs. All they can do is remove impediments and the way to do that is t cut taxes.

Then of course there was the painfully feigned frustration over Brussels diktats. Followed - hilariously if it wasn't so depressing - by the bizarre claim that the British government was going to single-handedly reform the entire mechanism of the European Union. It was head in hand time.

I don't believe for a second Cameron thinks he can reform the EU. And I don't believe he's really all that frustrated by emails about getting diabetics off the road. He knows the only solution to the problem of the EU is an in-out referendum. A move Flashman has explicitly ruled out because he knows as well as Joe Public what the outcome will be.

And referring to the difference between private and state schools as 'apartheid' was unforgivable. My jaw genuinely dropped at that moment.

I found it interesting, too, that Cameron mentioned the fuel duty reduction. I would have been embarrassed to. Reducing the cost of fuel by 1p for one day is not something to boast about. Particularly when 80% of the total is tax.

Overall the speech was rambling, unfocused and, frankly, a downer on what had been an otherwise wonderful week. A massive contrast to Boris' early morning slot on Tuesday which so electrified the audience. Focused, powerful, unscripted, amusing and sincere - they were the words of a man who was proud of what he had achieved, believed in where he was going and didn't need an autocue to do it. Here's hoping Toby Young doesn't lose his bet.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Europhiles must not be today's Bernard Shaws

Sayle's parents' beliefs made them apologists for Stalin. Europhiles must not do the same.
I once saw an interview with Alexei Sayle in which he tried to explain why his staunchly Communist parents so idolised a mass murderer like Joseph Stalin.

It wasn't because they were bad people, he said, but rather because, like many on the Left from their generation, they blinded themselves into a state of wilful ignorance.

Evidence of the dictator's cruelty was there for people who wanted to see it but, for them, the idea of a truly socialist state - a worker's paradise free from the chains of capitalism - was far too precious an idea to be spoilt by the grim reality of gulags, mass executions and squalid living conditions.

George Bernard Shaw, another of Stalin's 'useful idiots', made a similar mistake in swallowing whole the carefully-orchestrated fantasy world he was shown on a visit to the USSR in the 1930s.

For him it was proof there was a bountiful alternative to capitalism in the dark days of the Great Depression; for millions of Soviet citizens, it meant poverty, torture, persecution, famine and death.

Writing in The Times, Anthony Brown described today's useful idiots as those - The Guardian and the BBC included - who make excuses for Islamists out of sympathy for their shared rabid anti-Americanism.

But a similar parallel, in my view, has been the slavish defence, by those who desire closer ties with Europe, of anything the European Union does - no matter how undemocratic, destructive or insane - and calling anyone who opposes it xenophobic, fascistic or mentally ill.

For them the repudiation of nationalism, the formation of closer trading ties, or the avoidance of war are all noble enough virtues to ignore the shocking lack of transparency and accountability in the European Commission, the active contempt shown for the democratic process when referendums give undesired results and the manner in which the euro is rapidly hurtling the world toward its next great financial crisis.

Readers of this blog will know I am not entirely opposed to the idea of a federal Europe per ce. I'm something of an agnostic to the idea and like to think that, in the true spirit of Toryism, I look at any such development on its merits rather than a purely ideological stance.

But I set my face like flint against everything the EU in its current form represents. In my view European unification, like that of Italy and Germany, requires the heartfelt support of its people to work; it has their contempt. It would have to move forward by entirely democratic means; it does not. Its raison d'être would be to improve the lives of its constituent peoples; instead it impoverishes them while serves an invisible bureaucracy and vast corporations.

But the inability of our present political culture to accomodate both europhilia and a contempt for the EU within the same movement was demonstrated painfully by the abject failure of Libertas - Europe's first transcontinental party - to make the slightest dent in the 2009 European Parliament elections.

So it is with delight that I read the deathbed conversions of prominent europhiles Max Hastings and Matthew Parris today (which you can read here and here). Both have spent all their adult lives arguing for further European integration and labelling as bigots all those who stood against it.

They ought to be applauded for, while finally coming round to how enormously destructive the EU has been, clearly not changing their beliefs on the wider goal of European unity. Guardianistas and these politicians (hat tip Daniel Hannan) would do well to take note.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Labour 'attack dog' is chasing its own tail

Shaun Woodward: with a butler and seven houses, is he a Tory secret agent?
I have an early Christmas present wish for this year. Namely, that this Labour leak, revealed by the Observer, is not a hoax.

Written by ex-Tory MP Shaun Woodward, its stated aims are to turn Labour's campaign towards presenting David Cameron as 'recognisably rightwing' and an 'old-style, traditional Tory.'

Apart from the cries of 'no shit Sherlock' already doing the rounds on the Comment is Free, it seems incredible to me that Labour feels it has a winning formula in attacking some of the Government's most popular policies.

According to the Observer, the prime minister is seen as having 'abandoned the centre ground' and adopted a more 'orthodox conservative' approach to law and order, immigration and welfare.

Perhaps it is his butler and several multi-million pound properties that have obscured his view but, deliciously, Woodward appears to have identified the three policy areas that chime the most with working peoples' views.

As someone who's spent a lot of time living and canvassing in a former mining town, I can say with confidence these issues - second only to the money in peoples' pockets - are of paramount concern to the ordinary voter.

They see the police as being soft on crime, particularly when drug-related, and are well aware of the sea of paperwork drowning their local bobbies. They were egging on the Government to use water cannon against the rioters and are also intelligent enough to see immigrants being drafted in to fill job vacancies that Housing Association idlers next door can't be bothered to do. They're sick of working hard for very little while some people watch Sky all day with their taxes.

Or perhaps it's an inside job? Perhaps Woodward has, in fact, been a Tory spy all these years, giving a helping hand to an already feckless party by destroying itself from within? After all, he himself concedes:

There are fears that some of the rightwing rhetoric employed by the government in recent months may chime with large sections of the public, as it did in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher's premiership.

Now why could that be? Margaret Thatcher was an immensely popular prime minister for two reasons. One, because of her handling of the economy. Two, because she was - at least in her first two terms - remarkably in tune with public opinion. To say she was a populist would be unfair, but she knew what people wanted and what was important to them.

Labour's refocus, therefore, represents something of an ideological defeat. They know people dislike the Government for cuts being imposed on local councils but have abandoned this line of attack because they still lack a credible alternative. And, since the US had its credit rating downgraded, their argument has lost whatever little force it had.

This is doubly good news as, like Tim Montgomerie said on the Today programme this weekend, Cameron will be judged primarily on his handling of the economy in 2015. The rest is all gravy.

Thanks to Mishap Miliband, however, that could turn out to be very tasty gravy indeed.

Friday, 5 August 2011

The welfare state is unravelling

David Willetts: believes the solution to the pensions time-bomb is to make the old pay more
When I was a college psychology student, the conclusion presented to us at the end of our studies on the NHS was that it had become a victim of its own success.

Its achievements - in practically wiping out many debilitating diseases, vastly increasing life expectancy and growing, without any apparent limits, to encompass all conceivable elements of health, from gluten intolerance to 'depression-related' boob-jobs - meant, in addition to a declining birth rate, it had become unable to support itself.

Yesterday's revelation, that there will be 80,000 centenarians in 30 years and a staggering 510,000 by 2066, extends this argument far beyond the NHS, however. The very same malady afflicting the health service - too much of a good thing - has become an existential crisis of the welfare state itself.

Before I continue, it's worthwhile defining the welfare state, in contrast to a social security safety net. The latter, the best examples of which can be seen in Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States, is a system whereby the state does little to nothing to support individuals in the course of their lives but is there to catch them if they fall on hard times.

This is generally defined as something that could happen to anyone against their best efforts - i.e. rendered unable to work through an accident, bankrupted by a failed business venture or bearing very disabled children.

A welfare state, by contrast, seeks to assist all citizens - not just the weakest and most vulnerable - 'from the cradle to the grave'. Hence why, before the Coalition Government repealed it, we had the grotesque situation in this country of millionaires receiving universal child benefit payments.

But, with astronomical levels of debt, a ballooning deficit (despite 'cuts' made by the Government), the relative economic decline of the west and an increasing population with a declining number of working-age people means the size of the state is going to have to shrink to an unprecedented degree - the only question is when, and where.

The answers given are very revealing about human nature, the culture of this country and the inherent weaknesses of democracy. The solutions given in answer to the question of more centenarians, for example, have been exclusively aimed at the elderly themselves - as though they are an alien species that can somehow be treated in isolation.

Hence The Times reported that 'academics and some politicians' - including cabinet minister David Willetts - believe 'society would benefit if fewer benefits went to the elderly and there was more spending on the young'.

Translation: take from the weak, the dependent and infirm and give to a group of people who, by definition, are strong, independent and - given half a chance - the wealth creating demographic of our society.

Other suggestions have been that, to support those living past 100, the retirement age ought to extend into people's 70s and beyond or that workers should simply save more for their retirement. There is some merit in the latter suggestion but many people cannot do this and it is by no means an adequate solution in isolation even for those who can.

At no point has it been suggested that the way to support, with dignity, those who have literally given their lives in service of society and the state is to drastically reduce the scandalous amount of public spending elsewhere.

How can it be just that we are effectively talking about plunging the elderly into even greater depths of poverty while the state is still so morbidly obese with waste and unnecessary, even counterproductive, spending?

How can this be in any way defensible when we are spending billions of pounds on families in a very different demographic - in which no-one has ever worked and have no intention of doing so - to have a house, an income, free medical care and support for as many equally parasitic children as they like, all on the public purse?

All while we require an ever-increasing flow of immigrants to do the jobs these leeches feel are beneath them - many of them taking two, even three, jobs at a time - such is their extraordinary work ethic. This country is notorious for allowing - even encouraging - people to get something for nothing and yet, astonishingly, our 'best minds' are suggesting it is the elderly that ought to pick up the tab.

Why are we not talking about scrapping child benefit? Of abolishing maternity and paternity leave? Of privatising the NHS and opting for a cheaper, more effective, system of state-backed insurance (à la Germany and France)? Of privatising schools and instituting a voucher system? The Coalition Government has taken tentative steps to strip the system of incapacity scroungers and save £3.75bn in the civil service but there is far more to do in closing the £80bn black hole in supporting future pensioners (i.e. us).

Unfortunately, the likelihood is, these things won't be discussed. The reason is mainly down to human nature and its corresponding expression in the political process. Generally speaking, facing a catastrophic situation, people will tend to ignore it until the shit really hits the fan by which time, of course, it's too late and everyone's absolutely covered in shit.

Witness every single stock market bubble in history, the absolutely insane policy of the last 70 years of borrowing and spending without giving any thought to how the money would be paid back and the fact that European politicians are systematically driving the whole world back into recession through their stubborn refusal to abandon the euro.

Witness, too, the ease by which politicians - Labour ones in particular (Gordon Brown) - can bribe electors into voting for them with promises of yet more state spending. This gives rise to a situation in which no party would dare suggest the kind of spending cuts that are actually needed because their opponents would merely deny their necessity and steal the election.

Funnily enough, this didn't seem to be the case before universal suffrage. Even the Labour party was built on the idea that, if you did not work, you did not eat. Those who were too idle to do so - and thereby pay into system - would receive nothing out of it. Its founders were very clear in seeking to build a political movement for 'the respectable working class'.

Victorian prejudices, you might say. But as yet another shockwave smashed through the stock exchanges of the west yesterday, our whole system of credit-based finance and debt-fuelled public spending is staring down the barrel of a gun. If we - bankers, politicians and voters - continue to blindly make the same mistakes of 1929 and 2008 and kid ourselves into falling for the same old fantasies, as we clearly have, we may well find ourselves sliding backwards, as civilisations have before us, to a very grim - you might say Victorian - future.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

As usual in Europe, ideas prevail over reality

Angela Merkel: Europe's pragmatist, Britain's ideologue
Europe's problem, from a liberal point of view, has historically been a weakness for the abstract over the pragmatic. Romantic ideals have often taken priority over everyday realities; utopian futures over the here and now and 'the people's will' over the rights of the individual.

Despite the best intentions of eighteenth/nineteenth century thinkers and their 'enlightened despots', the longed-for Rechtsstaat ('legal state') never really materialised across the channel; its core principle - the rule of law over arbitrary power - so often pushed aside by sexier, more colourful and heroic ideas.

Indeed, not all that long since two of those grand ideas tore the continent apart, we are seeing very similar ideological fervour, wearing slightly different clothes, in the EU. Ever closer union between member states has taken priority over all other concerns; the most absurd expression of this being the euro.

While Europe's weaker economies slide ever further into destruction, threatening to take the rest of the continent with them, and the writing on the wall - to those rooted enough in reality to read it - is that the single currency ought to be abandoned and the bail-outs cease, Angela Merkel emerges from crisis talks to speak in abstractions and plain falsehoods.

Overriding the more rational regions of her mind, the German chancellor spoke not in terms of hard fiscal realities but with statements like 'It is our historic task to protect the euro' and 'Europe without the euro is unthinkable.'

All nonsense, of course, but the worrying thing is that this woman is supposed to be Europe's pragmatist. That even she, at a time of grave financial crisis, invokes lofty ideas of manifest destiny and a romantic attachment to what most people see as little more than bits of metal and paper shows how little continental politics has changed.

Its historic inability to fully understand the concept of the rule of law, too, has been on full display. Whenever you hear term from Brussels apparats and continental leaders, it's almost uniformly used to express the enforcement of the law. The Anglo-Saxon concept that lawmakers - even when making laws - are bound by a higher law than themselves has never really sunk in.

Hence you have Daniel Hannan's oft-made (and oft-ignored) point that the Greek and Portuguese bail-outs, apart from being ruinously expensive and making the inevitable default even worse, are illegal under none other than European law itself.

Yet, as usual, laws are bent and selectively ignored to fit the circumstances instead of the other way around with legislators assuming that, because they make the law, they are not bound by it. It's the same sorry story over and over again.

In The Road to Serfdom Friedrich von Hayek wrote that 'The possession of even the most perfectly drawn-up legal code does not [...] provide a substitute for a deeply rooted tradition' and, true enough, these constant repetitions demonstrate quite clearly that Europe - a continent which saw off its last dictators just 35 years ago in the west (Caetano and Franco) and 22 in the east (if you don't count Alexander Lukashenko) - is never too far from discarding democracy and the rule of law in favour of 'higher' ideals. Like, say, ever closer union perhaps.

Britain would do well to take this crisis at the heart of the European project as an opportunity to follow the example of our friends in Switzerland - that ancient haven of continental law and democracy - and negotiate a free trade settlement outside of the European Union.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Since when did MPs decide a company's executives?

Is the PM's insistance Rebekah Brooks resign a sign of 'social market' euroconservatism?
I'm beginning to worry about how much I despair at the direction our political culture is going. I keep thinking I'm getting steadily more like Tom Travers from P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves books; ranting and raving about civilisation at the dinner table and blaming everyone from Disraeli to Magnus Maximus for its decline.

But what 'interesting times' we live in. Only five years ago the idea of a US debt default would have been inconceivable. Yet now, twenty years since its victory over the Soviet Union, the great colossus may finally be crumbling under the weight of its own gargantuan public spending.

The European project, too, has reached new levels of insanity. Whole nations are being offered as sacrifices to the Jovian euro in a vain attempt to save that doomed currency; all the while Brussels demands austerity-stricken member states cough up not only for Greek, Portuguese (and, soon, Italian) bailouts but for an increase in the EU budget itself.

Can you blame a man for thinking the west is going to the dogs?

So it was with another sigh of despair that I witnessed yesterday's PMQ's. Tim Montgomerie may have judged Mr Cameron's performance to be 'prime ministerial' (presumably he means for a change) but all I saw was the leaders of two parties swinging their penises around over an issue which, as far as I understand the constitution of this country, has absolutely nothing to do with them.

The prime minister is a consummate actor and his faux anger over Rupert Murdoch's sheltering of Rebekah Brooks came in stark contrast to his performance last week in which it was only the leader of opposition who was calling for her to be issued her P45.

This is a position I can forgive from Mr Miliband. He is, after all, a Labour politician - a left-wing one at that - and socialists have always had great difficulty distinguishing the pale of their authority. But to hear a Conservative prime minister call for the resignation of an executive from a private company worries me.

It is not because I disagree with him - personally I see it as disgraceful that Ms Brooks remains in her position while News of the World journalists lose their jobs - but because it is entirely inappropriate for him as a legislator to be calling for such a thing.

Perhaps MPs still feel giddy from calling for the resignation of bailed-out bank execs - a position they were fully entitled to given the banks were all but nationalised - but this is an entirely different situation. This is not China and legislators have no place interfering in the internal affairs of a private company.

Even where a crime has been committed, as it clearly has by someone in News International, this is firmly within the sphere of the courts and law enforcement agencies. This separation of powers is the cornerstone of our constitution, the guarantor of our liberties, and what gives business owners the confidence to trade on these shores.

This whole argument may seem petty - after all, Mr Murdoch is perfectly entitled, and highly likely, to ignore the hot air escaping from the country's top legislators. But, if the demands are toothless, what was the point in making them?

'I've made very clear she was right to resign that resignation should have been accepted,' Cameron said. 'There needs to be root and branch change to this entire organisation'. 'He is right to take the position that Rebekah Brooks should go,' Mr Miliband follows. What is the point of this conversation? Other than to erode the most sacred boundaries of our constitution? It's like two old women chuntering over the price of beef.

A frequent criticism levelled at PMQ's of late is that this most important duty the Commons performs - holding the executive to account - has lost all substance and has descended into 'Punch & Judy' politics. Yet, even though the two leaders are in agreement here, it is just as bad. It may not be a slanging match but it would be difficult to argue it is anything more than idle, hyperbolic, gossip.

That is not what we pay our legislators for and they should stop overstepping their mark with populist chit-chat and leave business to businessmen and criminal investigations to the law.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

When did elitism get such a bad name?

Ken Clarke & Lord Judge: did public school make them better or worse at their jobs?
I am an elitist. There, I said it. More than any other label - whether it be liberal, Conservative, Thatcherite, or libertarian - this word defines what I most believe in and strive for in politics.

In my opinion, elitism is a key factor in what makes civilisations great, what enables them rise to the highest pinnacles of knowledge, scientific progress, enlightenment and - crucially - good governance.

It is, however, a highly misunderstood and much-abused term. Particularly to those on the left, it has come to mean entrenched privilege - the reservation of certain positions of authority to a narrow slice of society on the basis of high birth rather than ability. It has become a term of abuse and derision that, like many Marxist ideas, has begun to poison the political mainstream.

But this is not what elitism means and I am fairly confidant in my assertion that such a situation no longer exists in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the horrific outcome of leaving an army solely in the hands of incompetent and sometimes insane aristocrats during the First World War soon put pay to the last remnants of that eighteenth century system.

And, as the twentieth century progressed, more and more was done to ensure the highest, most important and most demanding offices of state were reserved for the most able and highly educated - whatever their origins. One of the most visible manifestations of this was grammar schools - institutions, enshrined in the 1944 Education Act, which educated the most intellectually able 25% of the population on the basis of an examination rather than high birth or ability to pay. That is elitism.

Those who support grammar schools and lament their passing argue they were powerful tools against smashing entrenched privilege - throwing open access to Oxford and Cambridge for the brightest among the working classes and enabling them to rise to occupations and social standing far above their birth. Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, William Hague and Michael Howard are notable success stories.

So, naturally, I was horrified by Wednesday's cover of The Times, which reported - and supported - the notion put forward by 'leading figures' that English judges were 'too male, too white, too elitist.' In this context, 'elitist' was taken to mean the 'stranglehold' of those who had risen to the profession from successful advocacy at the bar and, earlier in life, from excellent academic institutions - quoting the figure that 75% of judges went to private school while 81% attended either Oxford or Cambridge universities.

I don't want to speculate on how much the first figure may have resulted from the decline of grammar schools but, concerning the second, shouldn't we be glad the majority of judges come from our two greatest universities? Isn't that what they're there for - to produce the brightest and best? And, personally, I can think of no more appropriate place to find future judges than the bar.

The central fallacy in all the arguments put forward, however, is that they all accept the current judges are doing an excellent job. Neither Lord Falconer, Lord Collins nor The Times argue that a more 'diverse' judiciary would do it any better. The Times leader, for example, is unequivocal: 'The current ranks of the judiciary include some of the best minds of a generation' yet still nods in agreement that judges ought 'to look and sound more like the people coming up in front of them'.

Lord Falconer, too, perfectly encapsulates the idiocy behind the whole argument by opening his column with: 'Our judges are honest and of high quality. But they do not reflect the society they judge'. Through the entire newspaper, not one person gives a rational reason for why the composition of the judiciary ought to change. They push for it merely for the sake of it; because, in the lexicon of today's establishment, the words 'diversity' and 'representative' have become synonymous with 'good' while 'elitism', 'white' and 'male' have come to represent all that is evil.

The argument, of course, then boils down to this; we should not choose individuals purely on the basis of their competence, suitability and excellence in their field but on the chromosomes they were born with, the colour of their skin and who their father was; that all high offices of state must become microcosms of the wider population for no other reason than 'because'. As former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, adds: 'It does no good to the wider system if you appoint someone to improve diversity but they are not up to it.'

One would hope sense will be seen before any real damage can be done. Baroness Jay, who is chairing the inquiry into just why the judiciary is staffed by such highly-educated and successful judges, appears to subconsciously agree with me, writing: 'The judiciary is one of the three power bases on which our whole system of government depends. But a judiciary is only as good as the people appointed to its most senior positions.' I can think of no better reason to keep things exactly as they are, your ladyship.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

You can't avoid a hangover by carrying on drinking

Barroso and Rompuy: from 'managing decline' to 'accelerating destruction.'
This blog has often pondered on the question of how the Islamic world, once the most enlightened, scientifically advanced and wealthy civilisation on the planet, could have become a by-word (however lazy) for poverty, despotism, intolerance and all-round backwardness.

Think it can't happen here? Think again. Societal collapse is often such a protracted process that few even notice, let alone accept it, but the study of declines and falls - from Edward Gibbon to Niall Ferguson - are very clear on their cause; a combination of declining civic virtue and growing government interference.

Few now deny that the west is in decline relative to the new power and wealth of the east but some saw this - and a more absolute decay - sooner than others. In his 1918 Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler saw around him a society in which logic and reason had been sacrificed for an unattainable goal and, after the war, Evelyn Waugh bewailed what he felt was a coming 'dark age of the common man'.

Europe, as the oldest custodian of western civilisation, is naturally the most at risk and there is a mounting body of evidence which suggests we are well on the way, after 500 years of global dominance, to following our middle eastern neighbours. The present crisis over Greece and the euro is quite the most perfect illustration of this.

Already in Europe we have allowed a caste of largely unelected rulers to emerge at the pinnacle of a system that is willing to sacrifice absolutely everything - democracy, the rule of law, even a whole nation's livelihood - at the altar of an idea that, at every available opportunity, people overwhelmingly vote against.

Not that there is much reason behind domestic economic policies, either. At a time when the United Kingdom owes a crippling £4.8 trillion in debt, for example, the government has committed itself to twice as much spending in two eurozone bailouts than it has saved through cuts to public services. At the same time, it has led the country into yet another costly desert war in Libya.

And yet even this insanity is not quite enough for some people. Public sector employees are now striking because they believe themselves to be so special that their gold-plated pensions ought to be excluded from changes taking place in the private sector - at great public expense, of course.

And only a month ago - as damning revelations were made about the future cost of elderly care - Ed Miliband criticised the government for its attempts to reduce the deficit by warning that his children's generation risks becoming one which will not become richer than its parents' and would 'bear the burden' of the government's decisions - presumable intimating that more government spending was the solution.

Well, they're bearing a burden, alright. A great deal of fuss has been made lately about the amount of money young people will have to borrow if they choose to go to university but this completely ignores the fact that every child born in Britain today already owes £17,000 before its first day of life which - when the hangover finally does come - will have to be paid through astronomically higher taxes and even more greatly reduced public services.

And Mr Miliband's colleague, Tristam Hunt, compared - almost to the point of comedy - the government's spending cuts to the misery of the Victorian workhouse. But what he and Miliband seem completely unable to comprehend is that their addiction to more and more and more public spending as the solution to all ills is the single most likely thing to return our society to that nightmare scenario - a future in which the state is so bankrupt, so owing in debt, that it is forced to discard all provision for the poor, leaving them once more to fend for themselves.

It's an old adage, certainly where I live, that the best way to avoid a hangover is to keep on drinking. But any sensible person knows this not to be the case - each drop makes the inevitable pain even worse one it arrives and, if you do manage to avoid it, it's because you're dead.

Given that the present cuts, though painful, will not even pay off a penny of our £4.8 trillion debt and the government has decided to borrow an extra £485bn, it's worth keeping this in mind.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Big Society up north

Chapeltown Baths, near Sheffield, shows amazing things can happen when the state steps back
It’s a phrase that’s in danger of becoming a cliché in today’s media and, to be fair to my fellow journalists, people do say it a lot. It generally goes along the lines of ‘this Big Society thing? We’ve been doing it for ages.’

It’s a good line - and I have to admit to quoting it once or twice myself - but I’m quite certain David Cameron is already aware of the fact. The point of the Big Society, as far as I understand it, is not to take credit for these people’s invaluable work but to encourage more than the current handful to take part in it.

Of course that doesn’t stop people - particularly in this neck of the woods - using the old ‘fig leaf for cuts’ argument. But a thing to remember about Barnsley is that, rightly or wrongly, it is a town heavily dependant on public spending and, with swingeing cuts to council budgets beginning to be felt, its removal is having a marked effect on many peoples’ lives. But, like great bush fires, it is often from the greatest devastation that the strongest shoots will grow.

Take, for example, one of Barnsley Council’s most unpopular decisions of late - the closure of three loss-making public baths and leisure centres across the borough. One of these fell on Penistone - a Tory heartland (and island in a sea of red) - where a few of the rural town’s residents had an idea: if it’s closing, why not run the leisure centre ourselves? Wasting no time, they have already been in talks with the council over devising a business plan for a not-for-profit company and reckon they can have the doors open again by autumn.

It was not an original idea, however, and the fate of Chapeltown Baths a few miles down the road has greatly buoyed their spirits. The 50-year-old building was itself earmarked for closure as long ago as 1995 by Sheffield City Council but was taken over by a similar band of concerned residents.
More than 15 years on, it is still run by the same community foundation - an impressive achievement.

But what is truly remarkable is that it is doing so far better than the council ever did. As chairman Kath Burgess told me; more people are using the baths, its workforce has tripled and - most importantly - annual turnover has increased. Where the council saw only desert, the community has made it bloom. And, interestingly (though this will come as no surprise to business owners), it is the perennial insecurity of the enterprise that Kath attributes to its success.

“We’ve increased use and turnover,” she said, “but that’s because we’ve had to. We’ve had to look at everything we use - space, energy, staffing - and ask ourselves how we can make it more efficient. We’ve put in energy efficient lighting, utilised rooms for meeting areas, a solarium, exercise rooms, holistic therapy, a gym - we’ve added a few strings to the bow all to bring in a secondary income.”

Survival is one of the most powerful motivators for a business and, where the entrepreneur is sustained by the promise of financial and personal success, not-for-profit enterprises like Chapeltown Baths can be driven by the sincere desire of its stakeholders to preserve a much-loved pillar of their community.

This is what the Big Society is about - not just alleviating government coffers at a time of austerity but giving people greater control of the services they use and, as often follows, improving them, too.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Guess who?

It's often said children have a depth of perception that we as adults lack.

They are also generally more honest than the rest of us, having not yet learnt the more delicate arts of tact and politeness, preferring to call things as they see them.

That being the case, I will draw your attention to the delightful picture opposite (click for a larger view), drawn by little Charlie Warner, of Patcham House School, Brighton.

One would be forgiven for assuming that Charlie was illustrating an edition of Roald Dahl's 'The Witches', what with that evil grin, those menacing eyes and generally horrifying complexion.

In fact the subject of Charlie's portrait is none other than his local MP and Green party leader, Caroline Lucas. You can find it on her website here, under portraits.

Bravo, Charlie. You have shown most eloquently that a picture does, indeed, paint a thousand words.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

This is no time to be conservative over Lords reform

Lords reform: it makes no sense to falter at the final hurdle
As someone who is generally supportive of the Conservative party and who would quite happily describe himself as a Burkean/Pittite/Peelite Conservative, it may surprise some to hear me say I have always considered conservatism to be an idiotic inclination.

The important distinction here is, of course, the lower or upper casing of the letter 'C'. Conservatism, with an upper case 'C', is a uniquely Anglo-Saxon ideology that developed at the end of the eighteenth century out of a desire to see liberal changes to government, society and the constitution enacted through a cautious, carefully considered process with a high premium placed on the wisdom of the past, the value of tradition and the stability of tried-and-tested institutions. It has no immediate corollary in Europe.

Lower case conservatism, by contrast, is characterised by a stubborn, unthinking, resistance to change of any sort. It permeates all areas of society and, while we're on the subject of the eighteenth century, is illustrated no better that in the Church of England's attitude to wigs.

There is no greater stranger to reason, no more dogged enemy of logic than the attitude of clergymen at both ends of the century to its most recognisable aesthetic feature. At the end of the seventeenth century, when wigs were becoming popular, they were denounced as ungodly. Yet, although the fashion was abandoned shortly after the French Revolution, they continued to be a familiar feature of clerical attire well into the next century.

Unfortunately we are now seeing the very same thing from the Conservative back benches over reform of the House of Lords. As Daniel Hannan rightly points out, the very same arguments used against removing hereditary peers in the 1990s are now being resurrected to defend the raft of quangocratic life peers that were supposed to have destroyed the House.

Personally, I believe the hereditary nature of the House of Lords was one of the great accidental triumphs of the British constitution, providing Parliament with a ready-made chamber of independently wealthy peers with a strongly-imbued sense of history, duty and patriotism; largely free from corruption, patronage, the need for a state salary and even, to an extent, the party whip. Most of all, however, these people were highly educated, with the time to seriously and deeply consider and revise legislation proposed by the Commons. They also served as the living embodiment of the medieval roots of English rule of law and democracy.

But that's beside the point - we no longer live in a society in which the hereditary principle is a widely accepted form of government (one could even say it hasn't been so for the last 100 years). That being the case, it is pointless to cling onto this swollen (do we really need 789 peers?) House of cronies who have achieved their positions largely through their closeness to the government of the day.

Baroness Ashton is a case in point. This woman, a lifelong quangocrat, has, through her appointment to the Lords, managed to rise to one of the most powerful positions in the European Union despite never having faced either the British or European electorate. Of course, that says as much about the EU as it does about the Lords, but here is another analogy - the European Commission demonstrates amply that politicians chosen by politicians representatives do not make.

There have also been rumblings against the use of proportional representation to elect senators to the successor House. However, it only makes sense that a scrutinising chamber ought to be representative of as many differing views as possible in order to greater improve legislation that will have likely been passed by a single party majority in the Commons.

And, despite what Robert Halfon MP says, the Single Transferable Vote system proposed by the Government will not 'replace one form of patronage with another.' As the white paper states, 'Under STV, votes are cast for individual candidates rather than parties, and candidates are elected on the strength of the votes they secure as individuals.'

It's also worth considering the fate of other appointed upper houses in the Commonwealth. In Canada, the Senate has been treated as the national problem - a quandary on par with the hereditary Lords - for most of its history. In New Zealand, the Legislative Council was abolished in 1951, leaving the country with a unicameral parliament and, therefore, no check on the excesses of the lower house.

In Australia, by contrast, senators have been elected since 1901 and, after 1948, by proportional representation. The Australian Senate is actually more powerful than the House of Lords, though it is still  a principally scrutinising chamber, and there do not appear to have been any constitutional contests between it and the House of Representatives which, we all now know, is elected by the Alternative Vote.

Let's not end up like Canada or, God forbid, New Zealand. The Mother of Parliaments deserves better than this. Rather than clinging to a miserable little compromise (to borrow a phrase) let us move forward into this exciting constitutional development, to settle this question once and for all and to do it properly. But, if we are to be conservative, I would, in line with article 151 of the draft Bill proposals, beseech the reformed House to maintain the ermine robes used for new members and the opening of Parliament. Some traditions are just too stylish to dispose of.

Monday, 2 May 2011

There is no 'progressive majority'

Who was the 'progressive': free trade MacDonald or protectionist Baldwin?
Anti-Conservative prejudice is nothing new in British politics, though it has to be one of its odder characteristics. It continues to colour the judgement of certain people, for example, to the extent that they revolt violently over Tory policies that are near identical to those they acquiesced under Labour (NHS reform, tuition fees, top-up fees etc).

And, yesterday, Chris Huhne joined with lefty trolls Caroline Lucas and John Denham to urge voters to rig the electoral system against the Conservatives, on the basis that they have never polled more than 50% of the vote in any of the twentieth century's general elections bar two - 1900 and 1931 - and that therefore the majority who didn't vote for them ought to be the ones forming a government.

Their claim about this lack of majority support is, of course, correct but they omit to mention that the Conservatives are the only party ever to have polled 50% of the vote in the twentieth century (and in 1935 and 1955 they still polled more than Labour and the Liberals combined).

Even in 1945, Clement Attlee only managed 49.7% - meaning, by Huhne's own logic, there was a majority in the country against Labour's 'cradle to grave' welfare state, NHS and mass nationalisation and that it ought never to have taken place.

Their assertion, too, that 'the Conservatives have dominated our politics for two-thirds of the time since 1900' is on shaky ground. That the party has spent only 49 of those 110 years in government appears to have completely eluded them - as in any healthy democracy, the tables in fact turned a great many times.

The first ten years, for example, were still very much in the shadow of the Liberals' welfare reforms, while the decade following the Great War saw the reins of government swapping with each election between blue and red. This itself was followed by a long period of three-party coalitions stretching to 1945.

Then, of course, the following three decades were wholly dominated by Attlee's landslide Labour victory. The Conservatives not only declined to reverse the Attlee reforms but swallowed the new consensus whole - adjusting their public spending commitments accordingly. Indeed, the only period one could credibly claim as Tory-dominated was the Thatcher consensus after 1979.

But of course, Huhne, Lucas and Denham are not talking about Labour or the Liberals respectively - it's far more convenient for them to speak in terms of an imaginary 'progressive majority' between those parties, the nationalists and the Greens.

Indeed, their entire argument rests on the seriously flawed assumption that - despite the coalition serving evidence to the contrary - Tories are irreconcilably different from all other parties and that Labour are the Liberals' natural partners.

But this beggars the question as to why, if they are so similar, they have not worked together more often in the past and why, on the occasions in which they have (March 1977 to June 1978 for example), the relationship has broken down so quickly. Furthermore, why did one half of what is now the Liberal Democrat party (the SDP) split from Labour in the first place? And why have none of them ever gone back?

The whole thing rather flies in the face of Charles Kennedy's rhetoric early in the last decade that the Lib Dems were neither to the left nor the right of the political spectrum - that they opposed much of both Labour and Conservative policy because of the uniqueness of their ideological viewpoint. It also ignores the fact, highlighted by Tim Montgomerie, that a substantial number of Lib Dems, when pressed, see themselves as closer to the Conservatives than Labour, particularly in the south.

Hence, of course, why a coalition deal with the Conservatives was so relatively easy to hammer out. Both parties found strong common ground on the issues of civil liberties, choice in public services, localism and reducing bureaucracy - all things Labour had comprehensibly failed to deliver - while the Lib Dem policy of increasing the income tax threshold to £10,000 proved extremely popular with the Tory grassroots.

But this all really boils down to the question of what 'progressive' actually means. For example, it's not entirely clear - given modern attitudes to the subject - who was being 'progressive' on the issue of free trade in the 1920s and '30s; Labour and the Liberals for supporting it or the Conservatives for opposing it? And were the Conservatives being 'regressive' when, with a 103-seat majority, they extended the vote to all women in 1928? Or, indeed, a large swathe of the working class in 1867? (Huhne does, but that's because he doesn't believe these things actually happened).

No, the root of the matter is statism, pure and simple. The lowest common denominator binding Labour, anti-Union nationalists, loopy Greens (who want to stop you going abroad on holiday by the way) and some Lib Dems is higher and higher state spending. Meaning, of course, that they are all in favour of higher taxes and/or more public borrowing (though the latter, as we are seeing, inevitably leads to the former).

It is for this reason that the Conservatives will never go away and, despite the best hopes of these doppelgänger democrats, will never be permanently excluded from government. In the end the issue is, indeed, the economy, stupid and - even in 1997 - there is ample evidence to suggest voters wanted Conservative policies - sound economic management, prudence, a tough line on law & order - without the Conservatives, whom they had come to despise for their hubris and 'sleaze'.

But, in the 88 years since their first government, Labour have yet to prove their economic competence and have managed to consistently leave office with unemployment higher than they found it. The voters know this and, I can guarantee, a lot of Lib Dems know it too. And I wager it's the reason Germany - which has one of the most representative voting systems in the world - has had more conservative-led coalitions than any other.

Monday, 25 April 2011

I don't want a Prime Minister ashamed of his roots

Class guilt: why Margaret Thatcher quickly disposed of 'toffs' in her cabinet
It's telling that Edward Heath, a shameless liar as well as a spineless administrator, was acutely sensitive of his lower middle class upbringing. His father was a carpenter and his mother a maid, both with Kent accents, which was sufficiently embarrassing for the young Oxford scholar to leave that institution with a very peculiar mode of speech - possessed of 'strangulated' vowels and 'unique' pronunciations brilliantly satirised in a Monty Python sketch.

The woman he despised, by contrast, never shirked from drawing attention to her upbringing. For Margaret Thatcher, starting life as the daughter of a Grantham grocer was the source of her relentless work ethic and ambition, as well as a useful tool in demonstrating to the electorate how, unlike those 'not so grand grandees', she knew what it meant to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps - something she was determined to make it easier for others to do.

Her successor, John Major, continued this ethos - famously fighting the 1992 general election, atop a soap box, under the banner What does the Conservative party offer a working class kid from Brixton? They made him Prime Minister. The third in what would go on to be a 40-year dynasty of 'grammar school' party leaders, Major was the very epitome of what the post-Thatcher Conservative party stood for - a socially mobile meritocracy based, not on patronage or 'positive discrimination', but on hard graft and ambition.

That being the case, there is something particularly reprehensible about shame of lowly beginnings. It is comparable to Sayeeda Warsi chowing down on bacon to prove she isn't a Muslim - to do so would be a tacit admission that there is something fundamentally shameful about her Pakistani background. One ought to be proud of one's roots and it is, to my mind, no lesser folly to be ashamed of humble beginnings as it of ethnicity.

But neither do I see a distinction between that and shame of noble blood and privilege. Where Heath was widely mocked for his faux upper class demeanour and rightly despised for the contempt he nursed for common people, 'Call Me Dave' Cameron has been ridiculed for his pathetic attempts to disguise his background of actual privilege. But the fact, demonstrated by Labour's massacring in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election, that the only people prejudiced enough to hold it against him are a minority of very vocal and spiteful leftists appears to have escaped the Prime Minister.

These increasingly desperate and altogether confusing attempts to prove to Guardian readers and socialist 'workers' he really is 'one of us' - and certainly not a millionaire cousin of the Queen - are getting beyond a joke. And, while initially refusing even to attend a royal wedding in tails for fear of appearing posh may seem trivially ridiculous, the complex behind it is far more serious.

In a Guardian article last week, Alexander Chancellor - himself an Old Etonian - sums up Cameron's thinking perfectly. He said: "If he were going to come across as a new type of compassionate Conservative in sympathy with ordinary people's needs and aspirations, he would have to seem as far as possible like one of them. So he gave up hunting and shooting and his membership of White's Club, and took up cycling and other environmentally friendly pursuits instead."

The supreme irony being, of course, that it was the Conservatism of such 'ordinary people' - lower middle class, grammar school educated politicians, like Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit - he has been so desperate to move away from. In seeking to craft a more 'compassionate' Conservative party, he has in fact taken it back to a time when it was led by people just like him - Old Etonians, landowners and aristocrats - the last of which were Harold Macmillan and the 14th Earl of Home in the early 1960s.

Margaret Thatcher disposed of such upper class cabinet colleagues very early into her premiership not, as Mr Cameron might have us believe, because their upbringings might make them callous to the concerns of commoners, but because of the very opposite - it made them too 'wet'. By her 1983 election victory, none remained in any positions of great power or influence, with the exception of her deputy, Willie Whitelaw, who became Leader of the House of Lords after his ennoblement to Viscount.

She did this because the 'class guilt' of these large landowners prevented them from making the difficult decisions which, while in the longterm interests of the country, would cause a great deal of suffering in the short term. Their privileged upbringing - of never having to work for their positions - made these grandees acutely sensitive to criticism where the lives of 'ordinary people' were concerned and this, together with a sense of noblesse oblige towards the less fortunate, meant they were entirely ineffectual in dealing with the grave crises faced by the country at the beginning of the 1980s - as they had been 10 years earlier under Heath.

David Cameron has sought to circumvent this problem (he has, to be fair, been remarkably consistent in his tough economic line) by simply refusing to acknowledge his past in the vain belief that, if he does so, it might simply go away. But guilt is a difficult thing to vanquish and, like a weed, if it is suppressed in one area it invariably arises in another.

For Mr Cameron, this has meant pandering to the left in areas of policy outside economics, presumably to somehow 'balance out' what he no doubt feels are the frightful things he has to do to get the country's economy back on track. Consistant with his early rhetoric as leader, he has continued to distance himself from the core values of his party and - until the howls of criticism became too loud - its greatest peacetime prime minister.

Of course, when he was elected leader, the left wailed a chorus of 'the Old Etonians are coming', assuming, as only the irrational mind of prejudice would, that a raft of 'anti-poor' and 'reactionary' policies would follow. But, as it happens, we have seen a plethora of socialist policies and proposals spring forth from this tortured conscience - all-women constituency shortlists, gender quotas for boardrooms, the enactment of Labour's Equality Act, compulsory tests for pre-school children and their parents, right down to his truly astonishing admission on Friday (hat tip, Peter Hitchens) that ‘I think we know in 1997 the country needed change' - which sounds very much like a veiled confession to me.

Who knows, perhaps history will look kindly on Mr Cameron. Like John Major, he may well come to be regarded as a man who, despite the odds, managed to bridge, not only two warring sides of his own party, but a coalition government, all the while navigating the country through a severe economic downturn and - perhaps - securing a second term at the polls.

I sincerely hope this is the case and do not doubt the Prime Minister is up to the job. Where I have my doubts, however, is the state his guilty conscience will leave this country in - if not economically, then socially - when that second or third term expires. I also wonder what sort of example he is setting the country when it comes to pride in one's heritage.

Everyone knows you're posh, Dave, and, other than a few bile-filled lefties, nobody cares. So stand proud in that tailcoat at the royal wedding - chat to the Queen about how great it is you're both related to William IV. Just stop pretending you're something you're not.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Lib Dems: the opposition party

Labour in 1983: wedded to inter-party conflict - and the opposition benches
There's something of the Greek tragedy about the Liberal Democrats. A fitting fate, you might say, for that most European of British political parties but their present predicament of being torn apart by that which they desired most - namely, government - is irresistibly reminiscent of King Midas.

The shock of Cleggmania, too, (in which the party actually superseded Labour in a couple of opinion polls) and its crashing obliteration at the polls is just another rerun of the classic Lib Dem 'so near, so far' melodrama. And, while the millions of cold feet at the ballot box were arguably not their fault, Lib Dems, like the great panda, seem to have a curious preponderance towards their own demise.

The party's Liberal predecessors were masters in this regard, of course; having cast Liberalism into the political wilderness some 90 years ago. And, while it's true there are a number of historical factors behind their third-place relegation, it is fair to say many of these were, if not orchestrated by Liberal politicians, certainly exasperated by them.

At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, the party's predominantly middle class leaders consistently ignored calls to increase the representation of working people in the party and to field working class MPs. Naturally enough, these activists eventually decided they had had enough and established the Labour Representation Committee, in 1900.

Given the political context of the time it was an understandable, if not entirely agreeable, position for these bourgeois industrialists to take and the LRC could have withered into historical insignificance. But, rather than ruthlessly wiping out a rival (as Labour would do 20 years later), the Liberals actively nursed the LRC's nascent spark with a Lib-Lab electoral pact in 1903 that increased the number of socialist MPs from two to 29.

This was done just as the party was beginning to tear itself apart over the issues of Irish Home Rule, 'new' and 'old' Liberalism and, later, coalition with the Conservatives. The latter would eventually broker a formal split of the party into two camps; one under Herbert Asquith and the other under David Lloyd George. 

The two factions reunited under the banner of free trade for the 1923 general election - which produced a hung parliament - just in time to be superseded by Labour as Britain's principal left-wing party. But, despite having only 33 fewer seats, Asquith decided to support a minority Labour government rather than force a Liberal administration. The following year the party's representation in the Commons collapsed from 158 MPs to 40.

What sort of a party would pursue such fevered, kamikaze tactics, I hear you ask? Well, as the Lib Dems were declared the legal successor of the Liberal party in 1988, I can say with confidence it is the very same party that is, even today, plotting to cast itself back into political purgatory.

The 'big tent' organisation of both Labour and the Conservatives has prompted many a political commentator to question what exactly is the point of the Liberal Democrats but you really do have to ask yourself what purpose a party serves when it seems so offended by the idea of political power.

Vince Cable is the absolute living embodiment of this poor, confused, mentality. It really is very difficult to understand what exactly he is hoping to achieve by constantly undermining the government in which he serves (see here and here). 

In the most remarkable flouting of collective responsibility, he has egged on the Prime Minister to sack him by calling him 'unwise', bragging with the most astonishing hubris that he can 'bring down the government' and declaring he would quite happily leave office as to do so would double his income.

Such an ostensibly intelligent man ought to know there is only one outcome from such childish behaviour: oblivion. His exit from the Cabinet - either through his own doing or the PM's - will result either in being ignored by his party colleagues as a once-promising embarrassment or, if they follow him, by the wholesale massacring of Lib Dem MPs in a general election the Conservatives would, given Labour's highly opaque alternative, almost certainly win.

Lib Dem councillors, too, seem possessed by an Ouroboros complex of failure. There is such delicious irony, for example, in former Liverpool Council leader Warren Bradley urging Nick Clegg to leave the coalition to 'regain the party's independence' when his party has campaigned for almost 100 years on changing the voting system to one in which coalitions, and thereby compromises, would be guaranteed. It seems to have escaped Cllr Bradley, too, that his party would be the junior partner in these coalitions in perpetuity.

Lib Dems like Cable and Bradley need to grow up and decide whether they wish to remain in the real world and continue to exert the disproportionate influence they have over coalition policy - while respecting collective responsibility and that sacrifices must be made - or go back to their beards and sandals; to a cosier world where they can continue to make outlandish promises on abolishing tuition fees without ever having the inconvenience of being called to account on them.

The choice is yours, fellas.

Monday, 28 February 2011

260 days without government: such a bad thing?

After six months, Belgians may be wondering why they need a government
It never ceases to amaze me how ungrateful we British can be to a nation that gave the world waffles, fries, praline, Tintin, liver pâté, Früli beer, Henri Pirenne, Soulwax and the humble sprout; but Belgium continues to receive a bad press in this country.

And the sheer frequency of unchallenged non-truths and irrelevancies that make their way into print is really quite shameful. 'It's not a real country!' they cry. 'They don't even speak the same language!' others are known to shriek. Well, quite right, but then neither do the Swiss, Canadians, Russians, Chinese or Indians. I'm not sure many would argue their homelands aren't 'proper' countries.

Belgian history, too, is often the subject of some pretty whacky interpretations. The last time the press were egging on the Vlamingen and Walons to part company, there was no shortage of hacks making it known that, anyway, Belgium was 'artificially' cobbled together by the Allies in 1814 as a buffer state between France and her eastern neighbours.

What utter codswallop. Belgium came into being in 1830 as a result of a popular Catholic revolution (beautifully captured by painter Gustave Wappers) against the Protestant Dutch king, Willem I, under which they had actually been made subject to by the Allies in 1814.

True, the sudden appearance of this new nation was very convenient to Britain and the European powers who still feared France, and was probably the reason why it was recognised so quickly by pretty much everyone except Willem, but that does not excuse the complete fabrication of a country's history.

Forgotten too, is the fact that, although Belgium sprang from a largely (though not exclusively) religiously-motivated uprising, it was forged into a secular, liberal and (by the standards of the time) democratic state under a constitutional monarch. Like the United States, it was founded on principles and ideals rather than on ethnic identity. Not too shabby for the early nineteenth century and certainly deserving of our respect.

Of course, today, Belgium is a very different place from the 1830s. A largely non-religious country, the ties that bound its French- and Dutch-speaking inhabitants are not what they once were and the now-federal state does not even have any pan-Belgian parties. This, together with a system of proportional representation for parliamentary elections, has contributed to numerous political crises of late and increasingly lengthy periods where there is no government at all.

The latest of these interregnums broke a new world record ten days ago, when it hit 249 days, trumping post-democracy Iraq's 248. But the question to ask is, is it really such a bad thing? After all, the foundations of Belgian society have not come crashing down, there is no looting and rioting in the streets, the buses and trains still run - things are carrying on as normal.

Perhaps every country ought to go for these periodic 'holidays' from government - it would certainly go a long way towards demonstrating just how pointless these endless, money-burning 'initiatives' and 'new deals' really are. Daniel Hannan suggested a very similar thing to expose the irrelevance of the European Union but this principle really could be applied to any government.

It is certainly needed in this part of the world. An unfortunate aspect of our political culture is that politicians are expected to constantly look busy and, as such, are encouraged to encroach further and further into our lives and spend ever more of our money on nonsense.

You may remember that, during the election, when Boris Johnson was refusing to be brow-beaten by Jeremy Paxman, Paxo used his get-out-of-jail-free card by retorting 'haven't you got a city to run?' Priggish as it is, this is an unanswerable question for a politician, so Boris shuffled off, dejected.

That Paxo was able to get away with this shows the sorry state of out political culture - decades of statism have led us into the terrible mental trap of assuming that, without the constant direction and supervision of politicians, our infrastructure and services would simply fall apart and that, consequently, all our problems are remediable by these great caesars.

It's a curiously Stalinist political outlook - "a light is always on in Stalin's window" as Russians were once told - but this is the type of (fictional) dedication we appear to expect from our politicians. There was a quite perplexing outcry in some circles, for example, when Boris revealed he would continue to write a weekly column for the Telegraph after he was elected mayor.

That this takes him probably an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon is irrelevant to these people - he was scandalously taking the time to do something unrelated to his position, which was apparently self-evidently damning.

Just as much tosh is the supposed shame of Nick Clegg forgetting he was 'supposed to be running the country' while David Cameron was in the middle east; instead going to Davos. It was not believed that he could do this from his Blackberry.

But why not? Did anyone notice society collapsing while the PM and his deputy were out of the country? Did the wheels of government suddenly grind to a screeching halt? Did Ed Miliband organise a Gaddafi-esque military coup? Of course not! Cameron and Clegg are not czars, caesars or kings and this country fought for centuries to set in stone the principle that the realm ought never to be run by one man.

So I say rejoice in lazy politicians! Take comfort in their absent-minded sense of duty! And delight in their inability to agree on a cabinet! Because if they're not in parliament, or in Number 10, they're also not doing either of two things: poking their noses into your business and burning your money. That, I'm sure you'll agree, is no bad thing at all.