Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Love thy enemy

At the height of the civil war within the Labour party that eventually led the creation of the SDP, Shirley Williams issued a warning to anyone complacent about the danger of the extreme left.

‘I was brought up as youngster to learn about fascism. My parents fought against fascism, and they were both on the Gestapo blacklist, so I know something about it. But there can be fascism of the left as well as fascism of the right.’

I was reminded of that quote by events at the Oxford Union yesterday. What we saw was fervent anti-fascists being overtaken by a most fascist impulse. They were so intolerant of those who disagree with them that they were prepared to use force to get there way.

Let’s be clear about this. You have a right to object to Irving and Griffin being invited to speak. You have the right to protest about that decision. But at no point did anyone acquire the right to break the law in order to threaten people attending a perfectly legal meeting.

The views held by Irving and Griffin are indeed reprehensible but this will do nothing to help counter those beliefs. Trying to stop the fascists being heard is a strategy bound to fail. There are a regrettably large number of people who sympathise with them and they will make us hear them one way or another. The way to stop them is not through violent protest but by engaging in the kind of community politics that makes a difference to people’s lives and shows them that there is a real alternative. That requires us to be able to tackle the fascist’s arguments and that requires us to have heard them.

What makes someone a true anti-fascist is not joining unite against fascism or waving placards in the rain but the willingness, simultaneously, to tolerate and to challenge views we find repulsive.

P.S: The best account I have seen of what happend comes from Jonny Wright’s Hug a Hoodie blog. Please do read it, it will be worth your time.

Monday, 26 November 2007

The two faces of capitalism

Why you don't need to be selfish to believe in capitalism.

I wrote this article a couple of months ago but forgot to publish it. I have put it up now because having gone to the effort of writing it, it seemed a shame to let it go to waste. This is why some of it may seem a bit dated.

People who read this blog regularly will know that I do not have a high opinion of Naomi Klein. Her work rests on dubious assumptions and baseless attacks. Her latest article for the Guardian does nothing to change that.

In a previous blog on Miss Klein’s work, I attacked her claim that Milton Friedman was a fundamentalist by saying: “Market fundamentalists do exist but they tend to be marginal figures like Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand rather than the architects of Machiavellian conspiracies on a global scale.” Little did I know that Klein, in fact considers Rand to be an influential thinker whose work has “liberate[d] entrepreneurs to pursue their narrowest advantage while claiming global altruistic motives - not so much an economic philosophy as an elaborate, retroactive rationale.”

Rand is certainly an extraordinary individual. A Russian immigrant to the United States who went on to become a hugely successful novelist and screenwriter, she also created her own political and ethical system with a band of disciples committed to advancing it. According to Rand morality is an illusion and truly great individuals act solely in their own interests without giving thought to the impact of their impact on others. If Rand were indeed typical of free marketers then capitalism would indeed be a dreadful creed. She is anything but. Rand is to capitalism what Osama Bin Laden is to Islam. Her ideas are extreme, intolerant and belong solely to a bizarre fringe. Klein pins her argument for the importance of Rand on her influence of Rand on the young Alan Greenspan. The problem is that he is (to my knowledge) the only policy maker of any note, who could be considered a Randian and even in his case the actual difference that Rand’s ideas have made is debatable. As Fed chair, he seemed less like a market zealot and more of a latter day Keynesian. Rand must have been turning in her grave as time and time again, Greenspan bailed out the US economy with cheap money.

Klein suggests that Rand is merely reproducing the ideas of Adam Smith. The reality is very different. The difference between these two thinkers shows just how little a market economy has to do with amorality. Both Smith and Rand explore how humanity can benefit from the actions of self interest individuals but Rand takes this principal much further. Smith is concerned principally with commerce and industry (his great book is called ‘the wealth of nations’), while Rand makes no effort to set a limit on self interest. Smith’s ‘Theory of moral sentiments’ is a hymn to the value of charity. By contrast, characters in Rand’s books that show generosity are scorned. To see the value of wealth accumulation as a driver of wealth creation does not require you to give up on the idea that in much of life concern for others is a great and noble virtue.

One thing that Klein does not seem to get is that there is a distinction between self-interest and selfishness. It is quite possible to do something that makes you better off but which does no one else any harm (and in fact may be benefiting them). To my way of thinking, this is not selfishness because that requires you to be causing harm to others. This is no semantic difference, it is key to how operates in practice. While self-interest is rewarded, there are laws to prevent selfish behaviour such as lying, stealing, bribery, breaking contracts and using violence. For the market to work there must be legally enforceable limits to the harm people can do to each others. Without them you will have anarchy (or Yeltsin’s Russia as it is otherwise known). This idea was not alien to Smith who imbibed against the power of monopolies, while Rand would doubtless have seen the competition commission as an undue restriction on the strong for the benefit of the weak.

At the root of the different viewpoints of Smith and Rand are fundamentally different views of morality itself. Rand’s philosophy simply turns the world on its head and makes virtue into a vice. Smith is attempting something much more complicated, to set how to create a good society composed of people who are not necessarily good. If we look closely at his famous saying that ‘it is not for the benefit of society that ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.’ We see not a celebration of self interest but a statement of how Smith believed things were. Smith might wish us to be entirely virtuous but he knows we’re not. He understood that to try to build a socialist utopia on such shaky foundations was futile and we would be better off trying to turn mans vices into virtues through the market.

To be a free marketeer a la Adam Smith is miles away from being a cold hearted, Randian sociopath. Trying to win an argument by claiming that your opponents are greedy rather than misguided is low and even Naomi Klein should know better.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

The Shah Lives

Far from protecting Pakistan from extremists General Musharaff’s attack on democracy is making them far more dangerous.

The most perceptive and alarming comment on emergency rule in Pakistan has come from the former cricketer Imran Khan: "When you stop all legal and constitutional ways of people challenging [the president], then the only ones who challenge him are people with a gun". Pakistan is in danger of becoming the new Iran where the closing down of democracy leads to the suppression of liberal and reformist movements and leaves the way clear for a takeover by Islamist extremists.

Anyone in any doubt as to whether emergency rule is aimed at keeping out the militants or keeping Musharaff in power need only look at who the victims of the crackdown have been. We have seen lawyers beaten by riot police, judges under house arrest and the mass detention of opposition activists with no Islamist links. The Taliban by contrast are largely unaffected as they are safely ensconced in their strongholds in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Religious extremists by and large fare better when opposition to the government is outlawed because they can meet and organise in places of worship in a way that their secular rivals cannot. If Musharaff pushes ahead with his desperate attempt to cling to power, he will most likely find that his main rival for power will soon not be Benazir Bhutto but Mullah Omar.

The possibility of an extremist take over in a country with a large stock of nuclear weapons is too awful to countenance and every pressure needs to be brought on Musharaff to restore democracy.

Rose tinted Rivers of Blood

‘Rivers of Blood’ was a deplorable attempt to inflame hostility to outsiders for political gain. Its author deserves condemnation not exaltation.

I am sorry to comment twice on the same speech in as many days but I am really angry. I have just read Simon Heffer’s latest rant in the Telegraph and it has left me with smoke billowing from my ears. Heffer's attempts to paint Enoch Powell as a visionary hero trying to save Britain from being destroyed by immigrant hordes is by turns laughable, infuriating and outrageous. He angrily instructs us to ‘Read the speech. Make up your own mind.’ Well I have and I am at a loss to see how anyone else, who has could be in any doubt that it is a truly shameful speech.

Heffer starts off with familiar claim that ‘Enoch was right’ not only about immigration but also about ‘the British peoples irreconcilability to the EU’ and ‘the destruction of the United Kingdom if devolution was allowed.’ Well last time I checked the UK was still united and still a member of the EU, so I am not quite clear why Mr Heffer thinks this demonstrates insight on Powell’s part. When it comes to immigration, Powell’s apparent Clairvoyance is not much more convincing. ‘We have 52 dead in attacks by Islamist fanatics in 2005 to prove how integration has failed’ exclaims Heffer. 7/7 was a horrendous event but we must bear in mind that it was carried out by just four people. There appalling actions should not and must not overshadow the fact that millions of people from ethnic minorities live peacefully in Britain, following the law and paying taxes. We are still very far from Powell’s predictions of the death of our nation.

Heffer goes on to claim Powell ‘had merely been highlighting the danger of the racism of others’ and to deny that Powell was a racist. For what it is worth I agree that it is unlikely that Powell was himself a racist for the reasons that Heffer presents. What he did do was deliver a speech that set out quite deliberately to associate him with racist sentiments for political gain. It is striking that at no point does Powell condemn racism and in many places he seems to actually condone it. A man who says that ‘in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ is described by Powell as ‘decent.’ The most powerful section of the speech deals with the persecution of an elderly woman by her black neighbours. It is a very emotive story and Powell lingers on it for a while. Yet when he adds in the little detail that she had refused to have black tenants, he does not pause for a second to suggest that this is anyway wrong. Such tricks inevitably left Powell open to charges of racism and justifiably so. Powell must have known this yet he left them in. The only conceivable reason to do so was that he hoped to be associated with racist sentiments and to derive some kind of political gain from that fact.

Probably the most bizarre claim in the entire article comes in a short paragraph towards the end. Heffer writes that: ‘In a smug observation last week, the equality tsar Trevor Phillips congratulated David Cameron on "de-racialising" the immigration question. But who racialised it in the first place? It wasn't Powell. It was the Left, whose aim of destroying our nation state not least by destroying our culture was furthered by attacks on Powell for telling the unpalatable truth.’ This comment moves Heffer from being simply misguided into the realms of the tin foil wearing nut jobs. The left is not on a mission to obliterate Britain or its culture. While you can quite legitimately oppose left wing ideas and policies, doing so on the basis that your political adversaries are the servants of some sinister plot is to lower yourself to Naomi Kleinesque levels of absurdity.

To compound the error he includes no evidence to support the notion that the left are to blame for the connection between race and immigration and he fails to mention that Powell most certainly did contribute to the blurring of the debates about race and immigration. He devotes as much of the speech to talking about racial discrimination laws as to immigration. Heffer tries to bolster his case by pointing out that Powell never says the word race in the speech, when in fact he does. For example, in the section about the harassed pensioner he says that: “When the new Race Relations Bill is passed...” He also talks about skin colour and ‘Negroes’. So to claim that the speech is not about race is bizarre.

It is entirely possible to talk about immigration with talking about race. If you want to see examples then look no further than David Cameron’s speech on immigration last week. The contrast between this and the hateful, provocative rhetoric of ‘rivers of blood’ could not be clearer. The Conservative leader certainly deserves the praise he has received for tackling the immigration debate in such a responsible way.

Heffer suggests that Cameron has ‘wilfully misunderstood Powell’ when in reality it is Heffer with his desire to exonerate his hero, who his mistaken. As Enoch Powell knew all too all well, words are weapons. And on April 20 1968 he unleashed a verbal arsenal against Britain’s vulnerable immigrant communities and the consequences of that callous decision are still with us today.

Anyway must be off, I’ve got nation states and cultures to be destroying....

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The Evanomics of immigration

The BBC's ever informative economics correspondant, Evan Davis has written an interesting post on his blog about the economic impacts of immigration. While being careful not to take sides, he does a good job of slicing and dicing, the more ridiculous arguments of both sides of the debate. This is something that really needs to be done because the debate on immigration too often gets stuck on nonsensical arguments such as 'immigrants taking our jobs' that simply waste everybodies time.

Enoch was right

What Enoch Powell got right does as much to undermine the arguments of his imitators as his mistakes.

This summer, like much of the rest of Britain’s political class; I spent an awful lot of time pounding the pavements of Southall. The by-election that followed the tragic death of Piara Khabra could not have happened in a more interesting place. It did not take me long to realise that this corner of West London was far from ordinary. The local McDonalds sells Halal burgers, while the cinema appeared to show only Bollywood films and the pub by the station proudly declares that it was the first pub in Britain to accept Rupees. The most striking thing though was not the shops but the people. They were with a striking degree of uniformity, well, not white. It became a running joke amongst campaigners that you could spot other activists because they were the only Caucasians you would ever see.

A short visit to Southall should be enough to make anyone greet the statement, ‘immigration has changed Britain dramatically,’ with a dismissive exclamation of: WELL DUHHH! That the inflow of millions of people into Britain has had a big impact on this country is really beyond dispute, yet this is one of the comments that has got Conservative parliamentary candidate, Nigel Hastilow into a spot of bother.

I raise this because Mr Hastilow’s sin was to suggest that what Enoch Powell said in his notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was correct. This provides as good an opportunity as any other to test Powell’s predictions against what actually took place.

So was Powell right? In many important respects he was. But rather than vindicating his argument, that Powell got right a lot of things right serves only to demonstrate how fundamentally wrongheaded the case against immigration is.

An article in the Economist on racial conflict in Britain noted that: ‘In 1985, the MP Enoch Powell issued a prognostication of doom. By the end of the 20th century, he claimed, fully 8% of Britain's population would be black or brown-skinned, and a third of the residents of some cities would be non-white... Few took Powell's forecast seriously. He had been a familiar anti-immigrant bugbear since 1968, when he was exiled from the Conservative front bench for fulminating against “wide-grinning piccaninnies” and seeming to anticipate race war between blacks and whites. Powell's later prediction was almost spot on, though. At the time of the 2001 census, the ethnic minority population of Britain was, indeed, 8.1%. White Britons made up less than two-thirds of the populations of Leicester and Birmingham (and accounted for barely half of all children in those cities).’

What has not materialised are the rivers foaming with blood, the nations on funeral pyres and the other images of doom that Powell conjured up to support his case. Ever the sceptical conservative, he underestimated the basic decency of the British people. Rather than engaging in racial warfare, we have come not only to tolerate but to value these new Britains. While racial violence does exist, it is without a doubt the exception rather than the rule.

To boil this all down to a sentence, Powell was right that vast numbers of people would come to this small island but he wrong that this would lead to disaster. In other words, high levels of immigration have not and will not end in catastrophe.

This should put into perspective recent projected population figures that Powell's present day heirs have predicatably tried to use to portray us as on the road to ruin. Yes, we may see lots of inward migration but if immigration benefits Britain this is something to celebrate rather than fear.

Doomsayers, like Enoch Powell, will always be with us but when it comes to the questions that really matter, they are seldom right.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

When will they learn?

Journalists love to make things simple. They have usually have not got much time to get a point across to their viewers or readers, so nice straightforward ideas appeal. Which is probably why they like to talk about the leadership election in terms of left and right. The problem with useing this as a way to describe the race is that it is not just a simplification but a complete misrepresentation.

Take these comments from the supposedly 'left' wing candidate, Chris Huhne: “I have always been in the private sector and I started a business and built it up. I understand all the difficulties self-employed business people have, because I have been there and done that.”

A Liberal Democrat party under his leadership, he said, would stress the importance of “cutting red tape and keeping the tax burden on people striving for success as low as possible”.

Hardly Bennite is it?

I am not trying to suggest that there is no difference between Chris and Nick because there is. What I would say about them is that there is no ideological gulf between them. This is no Healey vs Benn or even Brown vs McDonnell contest. Rather what seperates Cleggites and Huhnies is more like the difference between Blairites and Brownities (though with less personal animosity). They disagree less on policy and far more on style and emphasis.

Liberal Democrats are not tottally united but neither are we irrevocably divided, in the way that talking about left and right implies.

Hat tip: Lib dems for Chris

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

In Defence of Oxbridge (part I)

Oxford and Cambridge are no British ENA
I have just started a degree at Oxford University and so it feels appropriate to blog a bit about the institution where I now live and learn. Don't worry, these posts are not going to be about JCRs, unions and fellowships but instead about the political questions raised by the existence of 'elite' universities. In another, post I will look at the often discussed issue of the small number of state school pupils being admitted to Oxbridge but for now I would like to examine the other side of the universities. We hear a lot about people trying to get in but very little about what people do after they leave. This is surprising when you consider how much influence these graduates wield. Since 1920 all bar three prime ministers have been Oxbridge educated. So are a huge number of CEOs, civic leaders and senior civil servants.

All this brings to mind the École nationale d'administration in France; which has educated seven of the last nine prime ministers, two of the last four presidents and the vast bulk of ‘category A’ civil servants. The ENA is one of the most criticised institutions in France. It is seen as the creator of a clique of graduates who monopolise positions of power within the French state. Having a ruling class, largely educated in one place has produced a situation where the people who govern France share the same set of basic assumptions about what government does, which has in turn produced a stifling corporatist consensus. It is only with the rise of Nicholas Sarkozy and a government largely devoid of’ Enarques’ for real change to come about. So it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been serious discussion of the ENA being closed. This is something, I would whole heartedly endorse.

Which begs the question if the ENA then why not Oxbridge? Put simply the answer that is that Oxford and Cambridge are very different institutions operating in a very different context and as a result have a far more benign influence. They are larger, more academic and do not hold the ENAs monopoly over access to the civil service. As a consequence they do not produce the kind of governmental group think and systematic discrimination that the ENA does.

At any time there are around thirty-five thousand students studying at Oxford and Cambridge, by contrast only a hundred people graduate from the ENA every year. In this case size matters. The ENAs size means that it is entirely possible for a student to know everyone in their year in a way that is totally impossible at Oxford or Cambridge. So, while there are undoubtedly cliques of Oxford graduates, the universities graduates cannot form a single clique a la the Enarques. The size of the universities also means there is far more diversity within them since they are made up of numerous colleges and faculties each with a different culture and worldview.

The kind of education that the Oxbridge universities provide is also very different from what students at the ENA receive. While Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the Middle Ages to educate monks, the ENA came in to being in 1945 to train civil servants. The impact of this is that students at Oxford get an academic education that is meant to equip them to grapple with intellectual questions. The ENA, by contrast, is much more vocationally orientated aiming to tell its students how to make the trains run on time. It is telling that the ENA does not describe itself as a University but as a school of administration. What this means in practice is that when Oxbridge graduates end up running a government department they will not approach it the way that there Alma Matter taught them to but in a way that is as individual as they are.

It needs to be born in mind that while it is possible to ascribe to ENA a particular political outlook, a sort of soft corporatism, it is impossible to do so for Oxbridge graduates. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Tony Benn all went to Oxford and can hardly be described as sharing a single world view.

Finally, we need to bear in mind that there is a big difference in what life is actually like for graduates of the different institutions. ENA alumni enjoy a quasi-legal monopoly over ‘category A’ placements in the civil service. While many civil service fast streamers are Oxbridge graduates, it would not be unusual to find people from other universities in the program as well. Naturally around 75% of ENA graduates go into the French civil service. The situation at Oxford and Cambridge is very different with graduates going into a vast range of different professions and do not monopolising any single one.

Oxford and Cambridge make a positive contribution to public life in a way that sadly the ENA simply doesn’t. Oxbridge has a long history and with luck will survive long into the future. The ENA has a much shorter history that should not be allowed to get any longer.

Monday, 22 October 2007

My Dreadful Confession

While I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I did nothing interesting enough to be scandalous

Both Nick and Chris are in a spot of bother over dum things they did as teenagers. In Chris’ case it was (probably) writing an article arguing for tolerance of hard drugs and (probably not) taking said drugs. This is the case that is attracting more attention, which is perhaps surprising because the skeleton that has fallen out of Nick’s closet is far more unusual. To quote BBC news, “As a 16-year-old exchange student in Munich, he was given community service after setting fire to a rare collection of cacti in a "drunken prank". In addition to his community service, he narrowly avoided being expelled from Westminster. The presumptive future Lib Dem leader says that: “I did some damage to some plants. I am not proud of it. I think we all have blemishes in our past."

Not me. I am ashamed to admit that but I have been such a goody two shoes throughout my life that there is nothing scandalous in my past I can think of. It is early days, I am only in my fourth week of University. But given that I don’t drink, smoke, take drugs, break the law in any serious way and that my love life has never been terribly exciting, this is a state of affairs I can’t see changing.

Let this be a warning to you all. If politicians are hounded for silly mistakes they made a long time ago then no good will come of it. If people with blemished pasts are put off going into politics then the people left will be a lot like me: dull, puritanical and self-righteous. So, If you don’t want to wake up one morning and discover that I have my finger on the nuclear trigger lay off Nick, Chris, Dave, George, Boris and the rest.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

'The Better you get to know him....'

In todays Observer, Jasper Gerard writes a lengthy interview/endorsment of Nick Clegg. He describes him as the messiah who is 'holding the only map out of the vast wilderness.' This again goes to show that Clegg is a formidable individual who deserves to be prime minister.

The problem that comes up again is the fear that Clegg will be percieved as 'too like a Tory.' Gerard tries to argue against this point by saying: 'The better you know Clegg, the odder it seems to dismiss him as a Cameron manque.' This is very true, I know that Clegg is no Tory and I suspect that a Tory as familiar with his record as most Lib Dem activists are, would be horrified by the idea that this internationalist, champion of social justice is one of them. The problem is that Joe Voter will not get to know Clegg as well as Gerard does. They will not know about his grandparents, his commitment to progressive politics and interest in liberal history. All most will know of him is his face and the odd sound bite and on the basis of that, they may well conclude that he is awfully like Cameron.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Normal service is resumed

Dear Readers,

Sorry for the near month long break in blogging. I've been settling in at Uni and have not had a computer of my own. I am planning to start posting reguarly again.

I have a post planned on the link of (or lack of) between Oxbridge admissions and social justice. I imagine that the leadership election will provide plenty of material and there is plenty of other stuff going on.

Please keep reading.


Friday, 19 October 2007

The power of perception

The downfall of Ming Campbell shows the power of unfair perceptions. The party would be wise to avoid repeating the mistake of picking the candidate we all know is good but who is vulnerable to these unfair perceptions.

Life is unfair or at least it is if your name is Menzies Campbell. He is a man of real talent, conviction and decency. One of the few of todays politicians who deserves to be called a statesman. He would have made a great prime minister. This is not, however, how most people will remember him. Instead the image that is likely to stay in the public imagination is of a doddering old man pointing down a toilet.

The brutal divide between reality and the media generated perception is a wholly awful, fact of political life that we can do nothing about. We cannot repeat the mistake we made the last time, we elected a leader and overlook this.

I have a great admiration for Nick Clegg. He is smart (dummies don't speak five languages), elequont, able to devise good ideas, handsome (apparently) and truely liberal. But I won't be voting for him.

I do have some criticisms of Nick. He made a mistake by not challenging Ming for the leadership of the party and it is to Chris' credit that he had the guts to do so. I also think his support for the replacement of trident was a mistake. Not only was it bad policy but it also hurt us politically because it gave the SNP a wedge issue to use against us. And for all his qualities, Nick is not really a party man, he has in the past shown irritation with activists and he is perhaps less comfortable with the parties traditions than his rival. Huhne is someone who can attend the conference Glee club without looking out of place. I imagine that Nick would rather die than spend hours listening to hundreds of inebriated lib dem activists singing painfully unfunny songs about delivering leaflets (this is a view I share). A leader who activists see as one of their own will find it easier to motivate them and to win back their trust.

This is, however, all small fry. It does not matter hugely. If these were the only problems with his candidacy, I would be backing him. The great obstacle he faces is not down to any mistakes he has made or any personal flaws, in fact quite the opposite. His problem is that ever since he stood for leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron has been doing what is in effect a bad Nick Clegg impression. 'Dave' knew that he needed to appear modern, humane, progressive and above all liberal. His way of doing this was to rhetoric that sounds remarkably like Nick's. The way that they deliver speeches is very similar, making liberal use of Blairite pauses. There is also a certain similarity in their appearance. Nick has also been labelled by the press as a right winger. It is almost certain that he will be percieved as being very close to the Tories.

This perception of Nick as a 'Blue Dem' is of course as far from the truth as the view of Ming as a senile old man in a wheelchair. That will not stop it take taking hold and it will not stop it damaging us.

Anybody imagining that this is not a perception that will stick needs to bare in mind that pretty much the first question Clegg was asked at the press conference after launching his leadership bid was 'aren't you really a Tory?' At a time we are facing a situation of 'differentiate or die' having a leader the press believe is actually a Tory is to say the least a risk.

Fortunately there is another equally talented potential leader in the running. Chris Huhne is one of the are most able MPs. He presents an intelligent case for liberalism, localism and environmentalism with clarity and conviction. His first run for leader broke the tabboo about advocating environmental taxation that had existed since the fuel protests and was an important step in the greening of British politics. His experience in the buisness and the media give him a grounding in the real world and the skills to take on Labour and the Tories.

I am happy to lend him my support. If you would like to do the same please visit http://www.chris2win.org/

Support from strange places

Writing in the Spectator, the conservative (and that's an understatement) economist Irving Stelzer provides one of the most succint and powerful defence of inheritance tax.

An inheritance tax is not a death duty. The slogan ‘No taxation without respiration’ is too clever by half. Even a Chancellor of the Exchequer as powerful as the previous occupant of the office could not get a corpse to sign a cheque. It is a tax paid by the recipient of this income, the inheritor, the lucky winner in the sperm lottery.

Great Stuff

P.S: Hat tip to Iain Sharpe.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

My first political memory

How Major, Attenborough, Blair, Ashdown and Milosevic turned me into a political junkie.

I've been tagged with a blog meme by Caroline Hunt. So I now need to right about my earliest political memory.

I dimly remember news stories and conversations from when I was very young (three or four). I now realise that the things I was witnessing were the 1992 General Election, the coup against Yeltsin and the war in Bosnia but at the time I had no idea what was going on, so these can hardly be considered formative.

The first important influence on my politics was an interest in environmental issues. I devoured nature programs as a child and it was not long before I became aware of the political challenges posed by hunting, the destruction of habitat and, most of all, by global warming.

The first political event that I took a real interest in was the 1997 General Election. Then as now, I was a Liberal Democrat supporter. I had been convinced by an edition of Newsround where children interviewed the three party leaders. Paddy Ashdown was clearly the only one to care about my great passion, the environment. Not that this did him much good as I couldn't vote and at my parents instructions helped to stuff Labour election addresses.

I remember the Dunblane massacre and being very keen on the hand gun ban.

What really turned me into a political anorak was the bombing of Kosovo. The war was an ideal story to draw in an eleven year old; events moved quickly, things blew up and there were clearly identifiable good and bad guys. That we should intervene to save the innocent victims of Serb aggression seemed obvious to me and I became something of an evangelist for the conflict, preaching the benefits of sending in ground troops to my classmates. I listened to tonnes of radio programs about current affairs to find out more about what was going on and what I learnt from them is still the foundation of my knowledge of political issues.

I am fortunate that throughout my life I have had parents, teachers and friends, who were willing to discuss social and political issues with me. Without them my life would have been so much duller.

Monday, 17 September 2007

The least worst option


Northern Rock does not not deserve a bail out but not giving them one could be a recipe for disaster

I wasn't planning to blog while I was at conference but I've changed my mind because of a rather extraordinary sight, I saw this morning. Out hunting for an internet cafe, I passed the Brighton branch of Northern Rock and one of the longest queuses I have ever seen. I had initially opposed the bail out of private bank with public bank but that sight has changed my mind. It brought home to me the danger of financial panics and how important it is we avoid them.

Northern Rock does not deserve a bail out. It took a gamble and lost. Rather than relying as most banks do on a combination of money from individual depositors and money borrowed from other banks, Northern Rock relied almost entirely on the later. This worked fine so long as interest rates in the inter-bank lending markets were low but when the credit crunch pushed borrowing rates up it found itself in trouble. Being so relieant on one source of finance was a risky move and if Northern Rock's shareholders do not pay the price when gambles such as this backfire, then that will have no incentive to be careful how they do buisiness. Economist call this a 'moral hazard.'

However, the queue has made me doubt this logic. We have hundreds of people pulling there money out of a perfectly safe bank. Not only has Northern Rock been declared safe by the bank of england but it has also been given access to the worlds biggest overdraft courtesy of the bailout. These withdrawls are pure panic.

My concern would be that if Northern Rock were to collapse, then people would panic and begin to loose confidence in the banking sector as a whole and we could start to see runs on other banks as well. This could become a particular problem if some of the other smaller banks that have run in trouble also collapsed. This is perhaps unlikely but the result would be so disastrous not just for the UK but perhaps for the world economy as a whole. We should do everything on our power to avoid it, including rewarding careless companies.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Hurray for conference

As a demonstration of political commitment and party democracy, conference is hard to beat.

After I came back from conference last year, I was asked to report for my local paper on what I had seen. I was unsure what to write beyond bland descriptions of what members from my local party had been up to. I was unsure how to get across what it is like to be at conference (while plugging the party.) My solution was to write about why I thought it was worthwhile:

If you had gone down to Brighton last week, you would have been greeted with a surprise: six thousand Liberal Democrats descending on the city for their autumn conference. This year’s conference has been the best attended and most eventful of recent years with many questions about the party’s policies, direction and leadership being resolved. From Charles Kennedy’s return to conference to Menzies Campbell’s triumphant leader’s speech via a defining debate on tax, the conference has not been dull. Next to these important pieces of high politics, the fact that this was my first conference seems rather small but I still hope that my experiences and impressions are informative.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the whole event is just, how democratic the whole it is. The most obvious sign of this is that party policy is decided not by the leadership, as is the case with Labour and the Conservatives, but by party members voting at conference. This gives members a real sense that their views matter and injects a dose of drama into debates, which would otherwise become dull and unimportant.

The other quality that comes across very clearly is the depth of political commitment amongst those attending conference. In a country where more people regularly go the opera than take part in party politics it is unusual to find thousands of people in one place, who are willing to give up a week of their lives to help make political parties, an essential element of our democracy, work. These people are not as all too many people would let you believe, motivated by ambition, greed or any of the other unsavoury traits often associated with politics, but by a sincere desire to improve life in their communities. For this reason conference is a great antidote to the cynicism and apathy that is too often allowed to corrode our political system.

I would stand by that still. Nothing makes me as cross as the claim that people are only in politics for what they can get out of it. People do not go around delivering leaflets in the cold and wet because they are power crazed lunatics but because they believe in something. Individual members can make Change things for the better and a party conference is one of the best places to do it.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

What shock doctrine?


Far from being the Marx of the twenty-first century, Naomi Klein is a conspiracy theorist whose work depends on a partial reading of history and offers no constructive vision.

Leon Trotsky once said ‘war is the engine of history.’ He was half right. The violence, chaos and confusion of armed conflict does indeed frequently result in extremely rapid social change. Trotsky had seen the Russian monarchy swept away and a communist regime erected in its place because of the carnage of the Great War. Where he was wrong was to suggest that it was only war that could cause this kind of change, when any kind of upheaval, be it natural disaster, economic collapse or industrial conflict is capable of changing a nation beyond recognition. Look at any significant change in the course of history and it will invariably involve a crisis of some kind.

This is not something Naomi Klein seems to understand. She looks at the fact that the forward march of the market is linked with a series of ‘shocks’ and sees not a historical fact of life but a conspiracy. She believes that followers of Milton Friedman (who she considers fundamentalists) have ruthlessly exploited shocks like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and the 1973 Chilean coup to force their view on the world. Furthermore, she suggests that Friedmanite policies can only be fully implemented in an authoritarian state. Hardly any of this stacks up.

Crises do not necessarily bring about a reduction in the size of the state. Without the trauma of World War II we would probably never have had an NHS. Without the Great Depression we would never have had Keynesianism and New Deal liberalism. Miss Klein is herself part of a political movement that has its roots in the upheaval caused by the Vietnam War.

Should you use crisis to further your political ends? Klein appears to believe that you should not but confuses the point by unhelpfully eliding the actions of the Friedmanites with people profiteering from tragedies. One is clearly reprehensible, the other is more debatable. If we focus only on people using crises for what they perceive to be the interests of society rather than their own, then Klein has a problem. Is she seriously suggesting that the world would be a better place if Millicent Fawcett had decided in 1917 that because of the war in Europe now was not the time to get women the vote or if Keynes had decided that it was unfair to use the backdrop of the depression to propose his new economic theory? ‘Making the best of a bad situation’ is normally considered a virtue not a vice.

To characterise Friedman as a fundamentalist is a bit of stretch. He is willing to support a large number of measures to support the poor such as state funded schools and a negative income tax. Market fundamentalists do exist but they tend to be marginal figures like Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand rather than the architects of Machiavellian conspiracies on a global scale.

Klein’s association of the market with violence and oppression does not stack up. By its very nature a market economy is less violent than its socialist alternative because it relies on voluntary co-operation rather than the coercive power of the state. The example that Klein relies on for this particular argument is the Pinochet regime in Chile, which is comparatively unusual. This is to my knowledge the only case where a regimes move from a command to a market economy has been accompanied by a significant increase in political violence. By contrast the construction of a command economy has hardly ever been achieved by a liberal democracy; it is almost invariably a product of dictatorship.

Probably the biggest problem with Klein’s work is that for all her evident passion and eloquence, she seems to have no interest of any kind in proposing a positive alternative to the market economy. An article in the Economist describes this flaw rather well:

“What is the superior alternative to capitalist development that Ms Klein proposes? She feels under no obligation to say. It is not her job to dictate to the movement. The most she can do, in all modesty, is to offer indications and observations; the people, thus empowered, must do the rest…Certainly, Ms Klein is for justice, “deep” decentralised democracy (not the false kind currently practised), autonomous spaces and diversity of every kind. All these things can presumably be reconciled with the ambitious goals she would doubtless wish to see pursued in welfare spending, environmental protection and income redistribution—aims which, on the face of it, call for a high degree of centralisation and some reduction in the amount of autonomous space—but readers and listeners are never told how this contradiction might be resolved.”

Klein's work gives a very distorted picture in which all the evil in the world is done at the bidding of Milton Friedman and the dubious record of her own side is never examined. It is ultimately a source of heat rather than light; making people angry but not suggesting what they should do about it. To use another Trotsky quote it is time to send the shock doctrine to the 'dustbin of history.'

Friday, 7 September 2007

The accidental racists

The view that accusations of racism are an attempt by liberals to shut down debate on immigration is wide of the mark. In reality they are our killer argument.

I want you to imagine something. What would happen if the Mayor of London decided that in order to protect the wages of ordinary Londoners, he was going to prevent people from outside London coming to work in the capital? This would be regarded not only as completely barmy but also deeply unfair; Why should jobs in London only be available, when there are plenty of people in the rest of the UK perfectly capable of doing them? Surely, this is a rather nasty form of discrimination? Now replace the word ‘London’ with ‘America/Europe’ and ‘UK’ with ‘world’ and you have a pretty good description of the iniquities of immigration controls.

I raise this issue because on one of my favorite blogs, Dizzy Thinks, there is an entry asking: ‘How can you sell any immigration policy…without being called a racist?’ The answer is that you can’t because these policies are inherently discriminatory. They rest on the assumption that it is legitimate to deny certain rights and opportunities to people solely on the basis of their nationality.

I am not suggesting for a minute that the people advocating these policies are all skin headed neo-Nazis. It is entirely possible to support tougher limits on immigration without meaning to support a racist policy. This is not about the intentions behind a policy but there impact. That is why I am endeavoring to talk about these policies as ‘discriminatory’ rather than ‘racist.’ The problem for these accidentals racists is that many people are going to assume that because they are promoting a policy with racist results that they have racist motives.

A possible response by those who want to reduce immigration is to suggest the fact that white migrants are affected by controls means that they aren’t racist. This is true but it misses the point. They do not necessarily discriminate on the basis of skin colour (though the bulk of people they effect are non-white) but nationality. To suggest that someone opportunities in life should be determined by what passport they hold is no better than suggesting it should be on the basis of their race. Both are largely the result of an accident of birth rather than personal decisions.

Another commonly used to defense is to claim that it is legitimate for us to place the interests of British nationals above those of foreigners because the state’s primary responsibility is to the people that make up the political community. This does not really rebut the claim that immigration controls are discriminatory but instead tries to provide a justification for it and it is not even a terribly convincing one. In the American South during the era of segregation, the state authorities that imposed the race laws were representing a political community composed of white Americans that did not entitle that state to take actions designed to uphold the dominance of the white majority. The states responsibilities to its citizens is not a license to infringe the rights of foreign nationals.

If all people are created free and equal, then jobs should not be denied to talented individuals simply because they are, say, Mexican rather than American. What we have done by trying to block global migration is to reintroduce segregation, only this time on a global scale. It is unjust and should be ended.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

The myth of Zero tolerance

What connects a Scout leader from Manchester with an American presidential candidate?

As strange as it may seem the case of Kathleen Jenkins, a student, scout leader and general model citizen who has received a criminal conviction for putting her feet up on the seat of a train carriage is symptomatic of the way that the wrong conclusions have been drawn from Rudy Giuliani’s battle against crime in the Big Apple. Too much emphasis has been placed on the importance of so called ‘zero tolerance policing,’ the result has been that many policy makers have started to see a focus on minor infractions as a panacea for reducing crime. This has spawned a rash of bad policy, not least Labour’s war on anti-social behaviour.

Zero tolerance policing has its roots in ‘the broken windows’ theory of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. They sought to show that if police were to maintain order then they could not afford to ignore apparently minor crimes. The theory takes its name from a particularly persuasive example the authors produced: "Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.”

The problem with this theory is not so much that its wrong but that it doesn’t get you very far. It is one thing to say that the police should tackle minor crimes, it is quite another to do it. The experience of New York shows how making the decision to implement a zero tolerance policy is far less important than having the means to implement it.

The reduction in crime during Giuliani’s time as mayor is indeed startling. In 1993 there 2420 murders, by 2002 that number had fallen to 909. It is certainly worthy of examination and imitation. What is surprising is how little of the reduction was down to zero tolerance. The drop did not even begin in Giuliani’s term but in that of his predecessor, David Dinkins. Zero tolerance was the brainchild of Giuliani and his police chief William Bratton and was not implemented until they came to power and is therefore highly unlikely to be responsible for the drop in crime.

If not zero tolerance then what? The (in)famous economist and author of ‘Freakonomics’ Steven J. Levitt, examined the drop in crime in New York and concluded that the major factor behind it was a massive increase in the size of the NYPD, which had begun under Dinkins. Put simply having more cops meant that the police were able to catch more crooks.

My local police force is currently so understaffed and consequently overstretched that it often struggles to investigate even fairly serious crimes like theft and burglary. They would only be able to begin tracking down litterlouts by ignoring other more unpleasant crimes. As long as police are forced to prioritise they will never be able to implement zero tolerance effectively.

This is not something our present government seems to have understood. While not giving the police the funding to recruit the officers they need to do their job effectively they have launched endless ineffective crackdowns on anti-social behaviour. The problems with these crackdowns is that they have started from the basis that what was needed was to punish minor infractions rather than a police force that was able to effectively enforce the law.

Apart from leading the government down a blind alley in terms of reducing crime, it has also had an alarming impact on our civil liberties. The search for ever more minor crimes to punish has had lead to criminalisation of many activities such as putting your feet up on the seat of a train that are annoying or distasteful rather than genuinely harmful. This phenomenon is described by Kathryn Hughes in an article for the Guardian:

There is a grave misunderstanding at the heart of all the cross-party rhetoric about stamping down on "yob culture". (Blair may have started it, but Boris Johnson was frothing it up nicely at the launch of his mayoral bid on Monday with that stirring promise to stamp out "casual ... incivility".) Yobbery may seem like an absolute condition, an obvious sin, the kind of thing on which all right-thinking people can agree as they scuttle terrified past a group of hoodies at a bus stop. But the fact is that it is a relative state, dependent on context. One person's loutishness is another's idea of chilling. Or to put it another way, yobbery is what other people do.

The police should deal with low-level crime but not for the reason that the proponents of zero tolerance propose. Only a minority of us will be murdered, raped or maimed but almost all of us will be victims of low level. These crimes have a real impact on many people’s quality of life and their perpetrators have been encouraged by the knowledge that an overstretched police force will be able to do little to stop them. What we need to tackle this blight is not more laws but more police.

Monday, 3 September 2007

The market and the masses

Winston Churchill once said: “Liberalism is not Socialism, and never will be. There is a great gulf fixed. It is not a gulf of method, it is a gulf of principle. ... Socialism seeks to pull down wealth, while Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty.” I was reminded of this quote while reading a comment piece in the Guardian by George Monbiot entitled ‘How the neo-liberals stitched up the wealth of nations for themselves.’ The premise of which is that a group of wicked rich people called ‘neo-liberals’ have tricked everyone into accepting economic policies that have hugely enriched a tiny super wealthy minority while leaving the rest of us behind.

The problem with this argument is that far from just benefiting the super rich, the gains from ‘neo-liberal’ reforms are widely dispersed and extend to even the poorest members of society. They do not benefit from the hyperinflation, high taxes and pricey imports that usually result from the kind of socialist and Keynesian policies that Monbiot admires. While ‘the neo-liberal’ trinity of sound finance, sound money and free trade are of real benefit to the most vulnerable members of a society.

In 1975, New York city was on the verge of bankruptcy. Years of profligate spending by successive mayors had pushed the city further and further into debt and it was now barely able to pay its bills. To avoid a financial catastrophe the city was forced to seek a bail out from the Federal government, the conditions of which was that the big apple had to balance its books. The only way to achieve this was through tax increases and painful cuts in public spending. The services that bore the brunt of these cuts were the police and fire department with predictable results for the safety of ordinary New Yorkers. Where did blame for this disaster lie? Monbiot implies that it lies with the ‘neo-liberals’ in the treasury department who added conditions to the federal assistance to the city. This is a rather strange idea. The city could not indefinitely spend more than it took in, in taxes. At some point the city was going to have to pay its debts, all the conditions did was bring that day forward. Ultimate responsibility for the crisis must lie with politicians in New York, who behaved more like a shopaholic with a credit card than responsible public officials. They pushed the city to the edge and the consequences of their actions should serve as a warning to anyone who believes that sound finance is something that only matters to bankers and accountants.

Inflation is one of the worst curses that can be inflicted on a nation. It pushes every citizen into a constant struggle to get by as the money in their pockets becomes worth less and less. The monetarist policies designed to tackle this great social ill are one of the most controversial but ultimately most beneficial parts of the ‘neo-liberal’ program. The vast majority of citizens suffer when levels of inflation are high because it becomes very difficult to save money and the constant changes in prices make it hard for consumers to compare the merits of different products. The pain is worse for the less well of because they find it harder middle class compatriots to protect the value of their savings from inflation, who can usually move their savings into a more stable foreign currency.

Free trade is often assumed to harm the poor. You would certainly get the impression it did if you listened to the populists who preach the benefits of protectionism but this is not necessarily the case. Free trade enables nations to specialise in the type of production that they have a comparative advantage in and helps to hold down prices by exposing domestic firms to competition from foreign firms. This should boost economic growth and leave the majority of people better off. The more credible critiques of free trade tend to argue that these gains do not spread to the poor because low skilled workers see their wages driven down because many of the industries that created a demand for their labour have been moved abroad. There are at least three problems with this critique. It sees things exclusively from the point of view of developed nations. The situation is rather different in developing world which have been gaining rather than losing low skilled jobs and in an number of cases has seen the gap between rich and poor reduced by international trade. It also sees things only from the point of view of poor workers when many of the poorest are those on living on benefits, who gain from lower prices (which mean that there money will go further) and higher growth (which usually leads to more tax revenues that can be used to pay for more benefits. It also ignores the possibility of redistribution of some of the wealth that is created by liberalising trade.

There is no law that states that because somebody is gaining, someone else must be losing. The huge fortunes gained by the wealthiest members of society are not a sign that the poor are losing out but that society as a whole is becoming wealthier. The claim that those who support the market care only for the rich is a nonsense. We simply think that the best way to help the less fortunate is to give them back the economic freedom that has been taken from them.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Sweeney Vs the Nazis

I have no idea what posses someone to spend their weekends dressed in Waffen SS uniform re-enacting the most bloody conflict in human history. I have even less idea why they would consider it fun. Its tasteless, tacky and not a little weird. It really stretches Voltaire’s principle that ‘I may not like what you have to say but I will die for your right to say it’ to the limit because I really don’t like what they are doing and I would be rather reluctant to die for their right to do it. I will, however, happily write a blog piece defending their rights to do it.

Many European countries, mainly those that formed part of the Third Reich, have laws prohibiting expressions of support for Nazis and denying that the holocaust took place. These laws often include a ban on Nazi symbols and uniforms. There was a recent attempt by the German government to get this ban passed into EU law.

As a student of history such laws alarm me because if you are to have such a law it must cover historians if it is not to have an elephant sized loophole in it. Nazi memorabilia, books and the like are important historical sources. Even Nazi sympathisers have their value. The historian Ian Kershaw, the author of the definitive biography of Hitler, first became interested in the Nazi period after he encountered a former SS officer while studying in Germany and wanted to be able to explain his anti-Semitic rants. If we do not make use of all the sources at our disposal, our understanding of Nazism will be poorer and as a consequence we will be less able to learn the lessons of that dreadful period. And you know what they say about people who do not learn from history.

I am sympathetic to the idea that such a law would protect the feelings of
those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. What they must feel when they see some twerp condoning or trivialising what happened to them is unimaginable but banning things because they cause offence is a dangerous game to get into. A lot of things cause offence to a lot of people. If we can only say things that don’t offend people then we will end up living in silence.

The effectiveness of these laws in combating the far right is dubious. They are as likely to create neo-nazi martyrs as they are to prevent people from being corrupted by propaganda. Austria, the country that locked up David Irving for holocaust denial was also the first country in Europe is also the country where Jorg Haider’s Freedom party got into government. Jean Marie Le Penn was convicted of holocaust denial but still got into the run off of the French presidential election. If we are to beat these fascists then we need to fight them at the ballot box and in debating chamber rather than in the courts.

If free speech is to mean anything then it cannot just apply to views we agree with. Upholding the rights of people like David Irving, Nick griffin and their fellow pond life is not a pleasant thing to do but it is something that needs to be done. Defending freedom of speech is worth doing because it gives you the right to say just what you think of Nazis.

An amnesty: the next best thing

In Britain today there is an underclass of people excluded from mainstream society, who's sole crime is to have sought a better life for themselves and their families. These people are immigrants in the UK illegally and the home office estimates that there may be six hundred thousand of them.

Many protectionists continue to harbour dreams of deporting these people but this is hardly a practical option. Think of how much it would cost, the UK already spends £5bn a year on deporting people and this would have to be increased many times to deport everyone. The last thing overstretched police forces need is to have to spend yet more time chasing immigrants rather than real criminals. Can you imagine how many coaches and planes we would to get these people home? Not to mention all the jobs they are currently doing being left unfilled. It is a crazy idea.

These people are here and they are here to stay. This leaves us with a choice the status quo of six hundred thousand people living in an illegal twilight zone, not paying taxes and working in the shadow economy or do we give these people the chance to end their internal exile.

The amnesty that has been proposed by Nick Clegg over the past few days is certainly a step in the right direction as it would be expected to take a significant number of people out of the illegal underclass and allow them to work legally and pay taxes.

There are, however, plenty of problems. The incompetence of the immigration directorate is so great that they would struggle to administer an amnesty. More fundamentally, it is at best a temporary measure. People will continue coming to the UK as long as there are jobs for them to do and we will eventually have to deal with a new population of illegal immigrants who arrived after the amnesty.

Better by far would be to end immigration controls and stop punishing people for wanting to live and work in a country other than the one they were born in. This would not only allow people to escape from the illegal underclass but put an end to human trafficking, relieve labour shortages in certain sectors of the economy and allow us to take advantage of new skills and ideas.

Unfortunately, free trade in labour is not going to a practical political option any time soon and on the principle that the best should not be the enemy of the good. I am happy to support calls for an amnesty and say: 'keep up the good work Nick.'

Saturday, 25 August 2007

The murder kingdom

In an earlier post on Venezuela I mentioned something about Chavez's regime presiding over 'rising crime.' This turns out to be something of an understatement.

The murder rate has tripled under Hugo Chavez, so that now Venezuela has the highest murder rate in the world. So much for the socialist utopia.

Hat tip: Prospect magazine's fact and figures column.

The Left/Right Delusion

It is almost always a mistake to try to apply the mantra: Keep It Simple Stupid to our attempts to understand the society we live in. Human being are complex creatures and trying to give us all simple labels in the same way one would species of Jellyfish will inevitably lead you to an incorrect conclusions. Perhaps the best example of this is the rather annoying way that every political viewpoint gets classified as either left or right wing.

One of the least constructive lessons of my educational career was an A-level politics class that was entirely taken up with the lecturer trying to convey to the class what the difference between a left wing and a right wing view was. He was struggling because they are purely arbitrary labels with no real meaning: there is no logical reason why wanting to renationalise the railways means that you are opposed to the death penalty. So providing a clear definition of them was something of a challenge.

Thinking in terms of left and right is a certain way to stop political creativity. An effective policy maker should be able to use every tool at their disposal without worrying about whether it is left wing or right wing. The hugely positive reaction to the New Labour sound bite: ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,’ suggests that this is something that most of us instinctively understand.

The idea that all political viewpoints are reducible to two simple opposites encourages the dangerous idea that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ An example of this is are the strange views of John Pilger, which I wrote about a few days ago. I suspect that part of what drives Pilger to the conclusion that the like of Chavez and Castro are good leaders is a train of thought that runs something like this: ‘I am a left-winger who is opposed to American conservatives who are right wingers. Castro and Chavez also oppose these right wingers so must be like me left wingers and therefore friends of mine.’ I would hope that it goes without saying that, this is not a particularly sensible approach.

The terms left and right come from post-revolutionary France. In the assembly that governed France after the overthrow of the monarchy, those who wanted to restore the King to the throne sat on the right while those who wanted to behead him sat on the left. In this context and this context only does right and left make sense. Otherwise it is a nonsense.

The specific context of these terms has become a particular problem as more attention is given to non-western politics. Where as the politics of countries that had been shaped in part by the French revolution could usually be forced into the left and right straightjacket, this became impossible in countries with their own distinct political traditions. Take Taiwan, the main divide in its politics is between those who support independence and those who wish to remain (formally at least) part of China. How can this divide possibly be related to the seating arrangement of a two centuries old French parliament?

As long as people insist in reducing politics to a simple dichotomy the enormous diversity of ideologies, interests and ideas that drives modern politics will be obscured and we will only ever have a partial picture.

Monday, 20 August 2007

They come here, they look after our grannies...

Those who say that this country does not benefit from immigration should really give some thought to what happens when the immigrants go home. Immigrants are such an integral part of our economy and our society that we often stop noticing the contribution they make and only remember if they leave.

An unlikely alliance of the Filipino Embassy, a Conservative MP and the English Community Care Association have highlighted the problems that many care homes will face due to changes in immigration laws that will leave many of their staff unable to get visas.

The problems faced by care homes clearly shows up the myth that the way to manage immigration is for government to try to choose 'skilled' workers to admit and then try to stop anyone else getting. This is the philosophy behind the home offices new points based immigration system that is endorsed by the big three parties. The problem with this system is that low skilled immigrants can also be good for our economy. There are low skilled jobs like working in care homes, being a farm hand and cleaning that have to be done but which few British people will do. Immigrants are often willing to do what seem to them to be well paid jobs and we are mad to try to stop them.

There is a far better system for regulating the the movement of people from country to country. It's called the market and it has shown time and again that it is the best way to control the movement of labour around countries and there is no reason to believe that it cannot do the same for movements between countries.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

The Apologist

Whatever else can be said about John Pilger (and there is plenty to say), he has definitely got guts. His attempt to whitewash Hugo Chavez’s record in Thursday's Guardian is bold, brazen and blatant. He casually downplays, excuse or outright ignores the abuses of Chavez’s regime, while overstating its success and doing everything in his power to make everything the fault of Americans.

In the week that Chavez has declared himself president for life (i.e: dictator), it is extraordinary that Pilger makes no mention of this. Nor for that matter does he mention Chavez replacing the independent judiciary with political cronies, riot police being set on peaceful protesters or the harassment suffered by voters who signed the petition calling for a recall referendum.

What he does manage to include are obligatory references to the Chilean coup of 1973 and the Iran-Contra scandal and darkly hint that there is some comparison between what is going on now and what happen then. The reality is rather different. The United States has not actively tried to overthrow. It is true that that the state department failed to condemn the attempted military coup against Chavez but this a far cry from sending the CIA in to topple the government as would once have happened.

Pilger attempts to excuse Chavez’s attempt to close RCTV on the grounds that ‘80% of TV stations are owned by private companies many of which are hostile to the regime is certainly creative but falls down on many grounds. If the Labour Government in Britain tried to close down the Independent, few would consider it a legitimate defence, if the government claimed: ‘well there are plenty of other opposition newspapers.’ What Pilger also ignores is the way that pressure has been put on the owners of other TV stations to avoid criticising the regime, for example, by passing a law requiring journalists to tell the ‘truth,’ a law which will be enforced by the Chavista judiciary. Pilger’s attempt to suggest that RCTV is being closed down because of its support for the coup rather than its criticism of Chavez, is dubious to say the least. If RCTV’s real crime had been to back the coup then why not punish them at the time rather than four years later?

Pilger is full of praise for Venzuela’s social program and rightly so: we can all support better healthcare and education. Where Pilger’s falls down is when he tries to use these programs to excuse the regimes human rights abuses and when he gives Chavez credit for these programs.

To justify the erosion of democracy and human rights because they have coincided with the construction of new schools, hospitals and universities is no different from claiming that Mussolini’s fascist regime was okay because it made the trains run on time. To follow this line of reasoning implies that democratic government and personal freedom are something that a government can dispose with if it finds them inconvenient rather than a non negotiable part of any just society.

It must also be borne in mind that the reason that these programs have come into existence is not because Chavez is a particularly benevolent ruler or because he has discovered a more just economic system but because rising oil prices have given him more money to play with than previous governments.

It is also worth bearing in mind that his record is a far from unblemished. Crime and corruption are up. Inflation is running at 20% and income inequality is rising.

A particularly cutting analysis of the logic of Pilger and his ilk is provided by Francis Wheen in his book ‘How Mumbo Jumbo conquered the world.’ He looks at Pilger’s attitude to East Timor. For twenty-five years Pilger lamented the West’s failure to intervene to protect the people of East Timor from their Indonesian oppressors. When an Australian led UN peacekeeping force was eventually dispatched to East Timor rather than rejoicing Pilger, condemned the intervention as a sign of Western imperialism. As Wheen puts it: ‘To Pilger … it is axiomatic that the west can never be right.’

Pilger’s conviction that the west is always wrong leads him to believe that only the West can do wrong and therefore that actions committed by opponents of the west are always right. This is a dangerous delusion that leads him to condone actions that run contrary to the values he claims to uphold. Shame on Pilger and shame on those believe his claim to be a fighter for the oppressed.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Strange Fruit

There's an excellent article in todays Guardian looking at the story of Billie Holiday's song 'a strange fruit.' It is written by a playwright who named a play 'Strange Fruit' unaware of the connotations it has for many people. He only found out when he found himself on a long car journey through Alabama with the father of a girl murdered by the Klu Klux Klan. It is a fascinating read and I recommend, nay insist, that you read it.

Friday, 17 August 2007

The vulcan attack on fairness

In an earlier post on inheritance tax, I suggested that we would need to decide: 'do we want a meritocracy or an aristocracy?' I am pleased to see that the Conservative party has made up its mind.

The changes in the tax system proposed by John Redwood's economic competitiveness task force do very little for those on low or average incomes. Instead they are focused on helping the small wealthy minority that pays a considerable amount of inheritance tax or stamp duty on shares. This not only fails to promote social justice but fails to achieve the committees stated aim of increasing 'economic competitiveness.'

One of the big drags on our economy at the moment is the incredibly high rates of marginal taxation that many low income family face due to a vicious combination of paying income tax and seeing the amount of tax credits they can claim drop of as they earn more. This prevents people from moving into higher paying jobs in which they would contribute more to the economy. This would problem seem to suggest that the best way to make our economy more competitive would be to reduce the amount of income tax paid by those on low incomes. Well at least someone has thought of that.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Don't attack Iran

Republican presidential candidate, John McCain is on record as saying "the only thing worse than an attack on Iran is a nuclear armed Iran." I beg to differ.

An attack on Iran would do more than anything else to further destabilise the middle east and strengthen the hand of the hardliners, while making life harder for the coalition troops in Iraq.

At present the Iranian government is unpopular at home and mistrusted at home. It has lost the support of its own people, who are increasingly chaffing at oppressive religious regulations and fed up with economic mismanagement. In much of the Arab world, especially amongst Arab government, Iran is treated with hostility because of its revolutionary designs and its Shia affiliation. A strike against Iran would change all this at a stroke. It would allow the regime to present itself as a victim of aggression, rally support at home and attract support from others hostile to the US. The best way to produce a peaceful relationship with Iran is to encourage reform within Iran itself, an attack would make life impossible for reformers.

Carrying out attacks against Irans nuclear facilities would pose real practical difficulties. They are scattered across hundreds of different facilities and it is doubtful that all of them could be pinpointed. These difficulties become particuarly acute if it is the Israelis rather than the Americans carrying out the strike since they would have to fly bombers across hundreds of miles of hostile territory just to reach their targets.

Iran borders Iraq and if the Iranians so wished they could easily retaliate against an attack by striking out against coalition troops in Iraq. They would have the option of doing so directly with the revolutionary guard or by stepping up their support for the Shia militias. Even if they did not decide to strike back, a recently bombed Iran is highly unlikely to be a constructive force in Iraq.

It should go without saying that any attack would put the lives of civilians and allied military personal at risk.

For me, however, the real problem with threatening military action is that it does not necessarily make it less likely that Iran will go on to develop a nuclear bomb. The possibility that might one day be attacked, is going to make Iran think twice about abandoning a program that might one day produce the most potent form of self defence known to man.

Though living with a nuclear armed Iran would be uncomfortable, plunging ourselves into an ill judged and ultimately counter productive war is not the way to stop this.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Orange book revisited

Anyone who attempts to understand the different factions within the Liberal Democrats by labeling people "left wing" or "right wing" is going to come to some rather strange conclusions. The reality is far more complicated than that and nothing shows this more clearly than the hysterical response to Orange Book.

It was not as many journalists and party members believe a call for the Liberal Democrats to become more like the Conservatives. Instead it is a demand for a return to more fool full blooded liberalism. Its proposals are far less dramatic than often assumed. Much of it is simply a restatement of existing policy, other parts propose things that could be described as 'left wing."

The one truly contreversial policy (in Liberal Democrat terms) proposed in the whole book is the creation of a national health insurance scheme but even this is hardly earth shattering. After all, it would left intact the principle of health care being free at the point of delivery.

Talking about 'local democracy, local accountability and local innovation' as Ed Davey does in his chapter is about the least contreversial that a Lib Dem can do, Nick Clegg's chapter on Europe is little more than a restatement of party policy and Paul Marshall on pensions is not that different from what Adair Turner proposed.

Mark Oaten's plan for more rehabilitation in prisons, a forunner to his plan to 'abolish all prisons,' would normally be considered 'left wing.' As would Steve Webbs call for more state support for families.

Vince Cable's chapter on the economy was widely trailed as a defence of the free market, which it is up to a point. That is, however, far from being the whole story. Dr Cable is a politician all too aware of the fact that there are nuances in any debate. Though he is broadly a free marketeer he acknowledges the need for state intervention in many circumstances. While suggesting we need to cut red tape, he concedes that there is a need for some, well designed legislation and that in some cases it may need to be extended.

Probably the chapter that has the most influence is Susan Kramer's examination of using market mechanisms to combat climate change, which forshadowed the Green tax switch. I doubt this could be seen as reight wing because the defence of the environment is less a question of left and right but of commonsense.

By now it should be clear that there is little that can painted that out and out right wing. So if it is not about creating a right wing party what is it about? The best indicators can be found in the two chapters written by the editors. They constantly refer to Mill, Gladstone, Beveridge and other liberal luminaries and criticise those deviating from the liberal path. In his introduction David Laws attacks those who engage in 'liberalism a la carte' that is 'willing to tolerate illiberal laws so long as they are well intentioned.' The demand for a clear liberal message is not exclusive to the free market wing of the party and does not deserve to be caricatured as "right-wing."

Blinded by empathy

The strategy we are pursuing to protect children is flawed because we misunderstand the nature of the danger they face. A series of high profile but atypical cases have led us to give too great an emphasis to the threat posed to children by strangers and not enough to the threat from their own family.

When I was at primary school, we were constantly warned about 'stranger danger.' This campaign was inspired in part by the murder of Jamie Bulger which had happened a few years before hand. The problem with this is that children are far more likely to be at risk from people they know.

The Home offices figures on homicides amongst the under-16s show that nearly half of them were committed by the victims parents and that an individual is three times as likely to be murder by someone they know than by a stranger. Even these figures do not tell the whole story because if you were to take out teenagers then the portion killed by strangers would fall still further.

Yet it is not the stories of children suffering at the hands of their families that makes the headlines. The murders of the Sarah Payne, Holy Wells and Jessica Chapman and now presumably Madeline McCan are all examples of the minority of cases where the killer is a stranger. This is probably because these cases play to the fears: many parents worry that they will be unable to protect their children, few fear that they will themselves be the source of the danger. It is far easier to comprehend some twisted stranger murdering a child than someone is supposed to love and protect them doing so.

This may be an unavoidable part of life but media attention should not be allowed to dictate public policy or public perception in the way that it all too often does. The revulsion at the murder of Sarah Payne led to demands led to demands for a 'Sarah's law' that would give the public information on the whereabouts of registered sex offenders. Such a law is undesirable for a number of reasons: it encourages vigilante violence, it makes it harder to rehabilitate offenders but worst of all it encourages people to see pedophiles as the 'stranger danger' and consequently lowers our vigilance towards the danger from friends and family.

It is too easy to get pulled in by individual cases. The unfolding tragedy in Portugal is just the latest heart wrenching tale that can distort our view and lead us to make bad judgments about what we should be doing to protect children.

Update: This story has rather been overtaken by events. I think that my main point still stands even if the particular example may not.

Friday, 10 August 2007

The most dangerous man in the world?

We are not worried enough about Hugo Chavez. He may not have nuclear weapons (like Kim Il-Jong), he may not command a mighty army (like Vladiamir Putin) and he may not support terrorists (like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) but that does not stop him posing a real threat to his own people, to his region and ultimately to the rest of the world. He has a weapon that is far more dangerous than any WMD: showmanship. His talent for self promotion has made him the world's leading spokesperson for the anti-democratic populism that his regime practices at home and is trying to spread abroad.

Before we go any further let us be clear about what Hugo Chavez is and what he has done. He first sought power in a military coup and only sought power through elections once this had failed. Once he had gained power, he has been ruthless in ensuring that he would be able to hold onto it. Opposition activists have faced violence, free speech has been stifled and an independent judiciary replaced with political puppets.

This abysmal record should come as no surprise to anyone. For all his talk of socialism, Chavez cannot really be described as a socialist. His cultivation of a personality cult give the clearest indication of the fact that his true ideological home is Peronism. Which is itself modeled on Italian Fascism. He comes from a tradition that is deeply nationalistic and treats democracy, human rights and an open economy as worthless foreign imports.

Chavez's malevolent influence is felt far beyond Venezuela. Candidates modeling themselves on and funded by Chavez have won elections in Bolivia and Ecuador. They have come close to doing so in Peru and Mexico. Venezuela gives considerable support to the Cuba's communist government, without which it is doubtful that the regime could maintain the economic isolation that it uses to cut off its people. He is also more than happy to back Iran's appalling government.This influence is possible due to Venezuela's huge oil reserves, which give Mr Chavez the money to spend on Costa Rican elections, Iranian power stations and London's commuters.

What makes Chavez uniquely dangerous is the fact that he has successfully managed to present his record in Government as something worthy of emulation. Few people look at the totalitarian government of North Korea and wish that there country had its own 'dear leader.' Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's brand of repressive theocracy has a very narrow appeal and is increasingly unpopular even in Iran. Vladimir Putin tends to be feared rather loved by non-Russians. He has shown very little interest in public opinion outside of Russia and its immediate sphere of influence, which is just as well since he lacks Mr Chavez's charisma. By contrast the perception of Venezuela in many parts of the world is that it is an example of a successful socialist economy which has stood up to the United States. This is a model that particularly in Latin America many will wish to imitate.

The reality is, of course, very different. The success of Venzuala's economy is not the result of any move towards socialism. Inequality has actually risen under Mr Chavez and a new class of well connected, very wealthy businessmen known as 'Boligarchs' have emerged. Instead he has been fortunate enough to have his presidency coincide with a spike in the price of oil that has enabled him to pour money into his much vaunted anti-poverty programs that have led to big reductions in poverty. This mirage of success has given Chavez the chance to claim that he has produced a new model of 'bolivarian socialism' that other countries should imitate. The xenophobia and the suppression of political and economic freedom that this ideology implies is a deeply unwelcome and Chavez's role in unleashing it illustrates just how dangerous a charlatan with a bit of luck and a flair for presentation can be.