Sunday, 23 January 2011

Free Tibet: putting the cart before the horse

The Han Chinese deserve freedom as much as their Tibetan cousins
The priorities of protest movements never cease to puzzle me. I've never quite understood, for example, why there is such a ferocious movement against Israel - the only functioning liberal democracy in the middle east; invaded repeatedly by hostile and oppressive dictatorships - while medieval states like Iran and Saudi Arabia get away scot-free with hanging homosexuals, stoning women and bankrolling terrorism.

The Free Tibet movement is another curiosity. While no-one more than I would like to see a future in which the Tibetan people are free to rule themselves in a democratic fashion, with free speech and cultural freedom, it seems to me counter-productive to put this before the freedom of the People's Republic as a whole.

Because, as we are increasingly seeing on the international stage, the Chinese Communists are not big on compromise. Once the leadership has decided on something, their position is immovable. Any sign of weakness  or conciliation would serve to diminish the power of the party and, if there's one thing the Chinese Communist party (CCP) is protective of over all things, it's power.

This is, incidentally, why in 1999 they banned a peaceful spiritual movement and have since subjected its practitioners to forced labour, torture and arbitrary imprisonment. The simple fact of the matter is that, with 70 million followers in seven years, Falun Gong had become a potential threat to the party's power and was therefore a 'heretical organisation.' Heresy, one can only assume, against the cult of the State.

The idea, then, that the CCP will ever relent to granting Tibetans even the slither of freedom afforded to their fellow Han citizen-slaves is laughable. That this course of action has gained such currency across the world is largely down to the exhaustive work of the Dalai Llama. In seeking to draw attention to his nation's plight, His Holiness was only too aware of the West's image of Tibet as a mystical and harmonious Shangri-la invaded by the harsh and unforgiving Han.

It is precisely because the Han Chinese are seen as aggressors in Tibet that people forget how brutally oppressed they also are. This seems to have been the case with the protestors greeting Hu Jintao on his visit to Washington last week. But Tibet will only ever be free when the CCP is toppled in Beijing, as was attempted in 1989, and China is transformed into the liberal and democratic state its people yearn for it to be.

The CCP's retort that it is somehow expressing a set of 'Asian values,' different to 'the West,' whereby the wellbeing of the collective is more important than individual human rights can be exposed for the utter nonsense it is with a short trip across the East China Sea. There, what was once known as Free China (before Nixon's cuckold to the mass-murdering Mao Zedong in 1972), is a picture of how mainland China might look today had the Kuomingtang won the Chinese Civil War of 1946-50.

Taiwan, it is true, has not always been a democracy. The first free elections of what is officially the Republic of China did not occur until 1987. But, unlike the People's Republic, the government of the day eventually relented to what had become a mass democratic movement. Since then, democracy and liberty have flourished in this nation whose economy, while mainland Chinese were starving, had already become one of the fastest growing and most developed in the world.

But the plight of the Tibetans and mainland Chinese should not be the only motivation for the toppling of the CCP. China's rise as a world power is now a fact. This week we saw the People's Republic eclipse Japan as the world's second largest economy at a time when the United States is increasingly seen as being in terminal decline.

As Paul Kennedy wrote, the rise and fall of great nations is a relative relationship; new powers rise only as older ones go into relative decline. With China increasingly flexing its muscles in international affairs and exporting hundreds of thousands of 'colonists' to Africa, it may well be they they supplant the United States as the dominant world power.

If this is the case, we have to stop and seriously ask ourselves this question; if the Chinese Communists treat their own people in such an appalling fashion, how then will they treat the rest of us?

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Balls is Labour's greatest asset and its greatest liability

Attack dog: but Balls was the brain behind Brownomics
There has been a curiously mixed reaction to Ed Balls' appointment as shadow chancellor. Some Coalition pundits have been rubbing their hands with glee that the architect of Gordon Brown's disastrous economic policies is once more in the driving seat.

On the other hand there has been a great deal of recognition, not least from George Osborne, of Balls' formidable and single-minded 'attack dog' style. And in contrast to the nice, but clueless, Alan Johnson, his firm grasp of the 'dismal science' means Labour's economic policy has finally, to put it bluntly, grown some balls.

What is indisputable is that his appointment has changed the game entirely. But whether this will play in favour of Labour or the Coalition depends on a number of factors.

The first of these is Balls' relationship with his leader. Had this been David and not Ed Miliband, it is not likely to have been a problem - David would have been in a strong enough position to bring the 'deficit enthusiast' to heel on economic policy and present a united front.

But Ed Miliband has been a weak leader and this will serve to weaken him further. That the forceful and energetic Balls will inevitably eclipse his leader is bad enough. That he will do so convinced of the folly of his position is a ticking time bomb for Miliband.

For while Balls has publicly changed his tune for now, it does beggar the question as to whether he will be able to do so with the gusto he is known for. Will he really be able to fight with such ferocity over something he does not believe in? As Jonathan Isaby suggests, it may not be long before he breaks.

The consequences for Labour are that Miliband, already poorly thought of by the public, is seen as a puppet controlled by his own shadow chancellor. On the other hand, if he sticks to his guns, the pressure between the two may build to the point where it explodes into open hostilities. Both will serve to make the party unelectable.

But of equal importance is the performance of the Coalition. The Conservatives' election campaign, personally directed by George Osborne, was notable for its weakness in attacking Labour's appalling social and economic record over the preceding 13 years. In Balls' appointment to shadow chancellor, they have a golden opportunity to rip apart not just Labour's record, but its ability to learn from the most glaring of mistakes.

As Matthew Hancock points out, Balls was the man who before the crisis built up the biggest deficit in the G7, took away the Bank of England's power to regulate the banks and, at the height of the boom, actually encouraged the banks to borrow more. He, more so even than Brown, was fully convinced of having abolished boom and bust.

If George Osborne and David Cameron do not hammer this point home to the electorate they are making a grave mistake. Balls' bleating about the deficit being cut too soon is exactly what the electorate want to hear given the pain they are suffering and he, more than anyone in his party, will be able to articulate this in a clear and convincing manner.

It is the Government's responsibility to expose this as being as rooted in reality as the rest of his disastrous economic policies. Because for all the Labour leader's talk of 'a new generation' taking over the party, it is apparent now more than ever that it is headed by the very people who led us into this mess.  If they fail to hammer this home they will be giving Labour the break they so desperately need and spell renewed disaster for the country.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Pointless regulation like that of herbal remedies is accelerating western decline

Stifling EU regulation recalls the decline of the great eastern empires
Five hundred years ago, the Chinese and Muslim empires were the richest, most powerful and technologically advanced civilisations on the planet. By comparison, Europe was only beginning to wake from a prolonged period of violence, religious fundamentalism and economic stagnation.

Anybody wishing to know how the tables came to be so spectacularly turned over the proceeding centuries could do worse than read the first chapter of Paul Kennedy's The Rise & Fall of the Great Powers.

The European David was able to so completely outpace Asia's Goliath, Kennedy says, because those great empires had allowed themselves to become ossified and inward-looking through a vast system of bureaucracy, corruption and state monopoly which served to choke not only economic entrepreneurialism but the whole spirit of individualism and adventure.

While Europeans were discovering new continents to colonise and devising ever more advanced methods of blowing each other up, for example, the Ming Emperor banned oceanic exploration and monopolised the production of cannon. In essence, while European civilisation began to sprint, the east went to great pains to stand still.

Bizarrely, Kennedy's conclusion in 1987 was that, in order to continue to compete and hold their own in the world economy, the countries of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) should press ahead with a policy of 'ever closer union' in both economic and political terms.

Nearly quarter of a century on I can't say whether this is still his view but it seems to me that, in following Kennedy's suggestion, the EU is in the process of accomplishing the very thing he said caused the old eastern empires to crumble.

Like Ottoman Turkey and Ming China, power on the continent is being progressively concentrated in the hands of a vast and entirely unaccountable Brussels bureaucracy. An economy that once fed on the competition between states is being steadily centralised through a web of legislative red tape and more and more un-debated, non-mandated 'imperial edicts' are coming from the Commission.

The most recent of these to come into effect (it was decided in 2004) is the directive on herbal remedies. As Daniel Hannan very succinctly puts it, there is no rational reason for banning and regulating such harmless products except to benefit 'big pharma' at the expense of small businesses, which are the driving force of any healthy economy.

And as the BBC reports, many herbalists will simply go out of business as popular products disappear from the shelves either through banned outright or because producers cannot afford the thousands of pounds needed for licensing.

As Mr Hannan says, such a pointless and irrational piece of legislation would never have gone through the national legislatures of Europe. But, like the mandarins of the Great Ming, eurocrats are able to pursue their destructive fetish for regulation precisely because they are insulated from public opinion. But with the eurozone in meltdown, it is precisely the type of enterprises the Commission is putting out of business that are needed to lead a recovery.

EU Commissioners likely assume, as many do, that because western civilisation has been politically and economically dominant for as long as anyone on the planet can remember, it will continue to be so. Indeed, the truly astounding hubris of neoconservatives seems to have played a central role in accelerating US decline through what Kennedy called 'military overstretch.' The ideologically-motivated Iraq débâcle turned a Clinton surplus into a Bush deficit; the economic crisis plunged the knife in and Obama's bizarrely-timed addition of $200bn to the healthcare budget may well spell the last rites of US economy.

As the centre of gravity once again shifts eastwards, it's worthwhile keeping in mind that the Islamic Golden Age - a period when Muslim nations led the world in the arts, economics, industry, law, literature, navigation, philosophy, science and technology - lasted approximately six centuries. And after 500 years, it may well be that western civilisation is leaving its own golden age.

It will not have been immediately obvious to the great scholars and lawmakers of thirteenth century Baghdad that the city, then a leading hub of learning and commerce, would one day become the most dangerous place on earth at the centre of a perennially unstable backwater.

Similarly, it will not be immediately obvious to the legislators and bureaucrats in Washington and Brussels that they are busily accelerating western decline. But at a time when China is buying up European debt and the FT is talking seriously of a US default, people making their voices heard on fiscal discipline and light government - Tea Party politics, if you will - are needed more than ever.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Lib/Con merger? It's not that simple

Cameron & Clegg: peas in a pod, perhaps, but their parties are less compatible
Every so often the press get hold of a political hobby horse and absolutely refuse to let it to go. I'd declined to comment on it before but it seems the prospect of a Conservative/Liberal Democrat merger is something we're not going to hear the end of any time shortly.

The battle lines drawn by Tim Montgomerie between 'Mainstream Conservatism' and 'Liberal Conservatism' seem to have taken root and barely a week passes without yet more merger speculation in the press and words of encouragement or condemnation from politicians.

As always with predictions there's a risk involved in falling on either side of the fence but I honestly don't think it's going to happen. The Cabinet itself, and particularly Clegg and Cameron, seems to be composed of MPs sufficiently on the respective left and right wings of their parties to work well together but the fact remains that an overwhelmingly large chunk of each party detests the other.

That's not to say there isn't an almighty shitstorm coming in 2015 - it just won't be as simple as a merger. From the Peelite split from the Conservatives in 1846 (and their eventual absorption into the Liberals in 1859) to the near-complete disintegration of party loyalties into pro- and anti-coalition camps of 1931 (which, incidentally, gave the Conservatives a whopping 473 seats and a 324-seat majority), British politics has seen its fair share of political shake-ups.

Indeed, it was the most recent of these which gave birth to the Liberal Democrats in the first place. The 1988 merger between the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party (SDP) - which had itself split from Labour in 1981 - was one borne of electoral necessity rather than any great fealty. The conflict between these two groups has never really gone away and could well destroy the party yet.

Indeed this duality is precisely why, since their inception, the Liberal Democrats have never really seemed to stand for anything. And this impression will be magnified exponentially in 2015 by the likelihood that those supporting the Government will vote Conservative and those opposing it voting Labour.

There's a good chance this polarisation will be the end of the Liberal Democrats as a party but it would be overly simplistic to assume that its members will move in the same way as voters, i.e. Liberals to the Conservatives and Social Democrats to Labour.

Granted, the latter is likely. After all the Social Democrats only left Labour because of its lurch to the far left under Foot and Blair essentially refashioned Labour into the SDP anyway.

A Liberal absorption into the Conservatives, however, would not be so simple. While there are strong overlaps in attitudes towards market principles, small government and civil liberties, there are many dividing lines, not least of which is Europe. The Conservative party did a very good job of tearing itself apart over the EU on its own in the '90s and that was with a europhile minority. A massive intake of pro-EU Liberals would make the party completely ungovernable and, were a merger to happen, the new party would just as quickly split again.

So where next for the Liberals? Well, they could do a lot worse than follow their Free Democratic (FDP) partners in Germany and Switzerland and carve themselves into a true liberal party. As George Parker commented in the Financial Times (September 17, 2010);
A classic economic liberal, Mr Clegg admits there is an intellectual attraction in carving for the party a crisper, purely liberal identity, much like that of the FDP - big on free market economics, the environment, internationalism and civil liberties. But he rejects this approach as far too narrow.
More's the pity because this could be the one thing that saves his party and gives it something it has never had - a solid distinctiveness from the other two parties. He'd even have a head-start with the in-party think tank Liberal Vision. In Germany, for example, the FDP are far more market-orientated and socially libertarian than the very 'small-c' and socially conservative Christian Democrats.

And, if coalition politics are a thing of the future in the UK, it is worthwhile pointing out that the FDP have been in government more than any other German party since 1949, despite consistently coming third in elections. This has further encouraged an ideological distinctiveness in the party which, given that it frequently holds the balance of power, can be very influential.

It will also mean the sort of classical liberal policies (and politicians) currently forced to find expression in the Conservative party can be aired without the stigma of the 'Tory brand.' As Winston Churchill, who felt himself forced into the Tory ranks early in his career (over Irish home rule) and later on (after the collapse of the Liberal party in the 1920s) said in 1903, 'I am an English Liberal. I hate the Tory party, their men, their words and their methods. I feel no sort of sympathy with them.'

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Envy: ugly on left and right

Osborne: better his wealth sits accumulating interest or paying someone's wages?
Envy will always be an ugly emotion, whether it comes from hate mail like Socialist Worker or a populist rag like the Mail on Sunday. Highly irrational, it is also very destructive, being an emotion that very easily leads to another - hatred.

As it happens, Socialist Worker have declined to comment on the story Mail editor Peter Wright seems to think worthy of a front page splash - namely that rich people enjoy spending money at Christmas.

I know, it's shocking, isn't it? George Osborne has gone skiing in Switzerland, Zac Goldsmith is in an £8k-a-week Barbados villa and prisons minister Crispin Blunt scandalously paid £22 to attend a New Year's Eve party on the Commons terrace, courtesy of Speaker Bercow.

As ever with envious, hate-enticing trash journalism, what these people should have been doing is never mentioned but if you read between the lines, it is often implied. The results can be as hilarious as they are irrational.

Take, for example, Mr Blunt. The Mail say his presence at Bercow's party was 'an embarrassment in light of the fact that at the same time a riot was brewing at Ford Open Prison in Sussex.' Clearly, he ought to have spent New Year's Eve in riot gear quelling the disturbance himself, rather than doing something so outlandish as enjoying himself.

The party itself was frequently described as 'lavish' - which is bang out of order on a day like New Year's Eve. Clearly the party ought to have employed a puritan sense of austerity with no music, no dancing and nothing more than stale bread and water served at the bar. Just like the good people of Britain.

Of course, that the 'lavish' £22 price tag more than covered the cost of the party, with half the proceeds gong to charity, merited a single line at the bottom of the article as part of the MPs' 'defence.'

In the case of Osborne and Goldsmith, the only implication I can pry out of the article is that they ought not to have spent so much money. Clearly it would be better, in the Mail's view, for them to avoid paying so many peoples' wages with their custom and simply allow their fortunes to accumulate yet more interest instead. Their real crime, naturally, was not allowing themselves to grow idly richer.

This is the real meaning of the term 'we're all in this together.' It was adapted by Cameron and Osborne from very similar words spoken nearly half a century ago by trailblazing monetarists like Friedrich von Hayek and Enoch Powell. It was perhaps not the best campaign slogan, given how easily it has been twisted into ammunition, but its central principle is sound; that every single person in this country has a stake in its prosperity and everyone contributes.

To say I dislike Paris Hilton, for example, is an understatement. I find her incredibly irritating, her influence on young girls frightening and her sheer idleness ingratiating. But frankly, it's none of my business. Her personality is most likely the result of bad parenting - something that permeates all class boundaries - and what she does or does not do with her (or her father's) money is up to them and them alone.

Plus, if I think about it rationally, she probably employs quite a lot of people and her wastrel lifestyle probably pays the wages of many, many more.

One thing I would never call her is 'socially useless.' It's one of the most disturbingly fascistic terms I've heard of late and the sort of thing you'd expect to hear from Mussolini, Mao or Stalin, not the head of the Financial Services Authority. That anyone could even think themselves capable of making such a judgement is bad enough; suggesting the people in question be taxed out of economic existence is plain tyranny.

And as far as class (or any other type of) hatred goes, I'd like to end on a cautionary tale from one TV's greatest creations, Spaced.

Bilbo: I used to know this guy, Minty. He had a dog who he'd train to attack rich people. He was into the whole class-war thing. He called the dog Gramsci after an Italian Marxist. Rumor has it, it could smell wealth from up to 20 feet. The thing is, it all backfired. Minty won 100 grand on a scratchcard and Gramsci bit his knees off.