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.