Sunday, 27 September 2009

German Liberal Democrats poised to join Merkel-led government

Exciting times for the European Liberal Democratic and Reform (ELDR) Party, to which the UK Liberal Democrats belong: fellow-members the Liberal Democrats (FDP) in Germany have done well enough in today's elections to enable the Christian Democrats, led by popular Chancellor Mrs Angela Merkel, to form a government in coalition with them, leaving out the SPD. Yes, Liberal Democrats are going to be part of the German government. Geddit, Jeremy Paxman?

Friday, 14 August 2009

From healthcare to climate bill - not grassroots but Astroturf

Efforts to disguise co-ordinated campaigns by interested groups as apparently spontaneous public reactions are called astroturfing, after the artificial turf used on sports pitches, not to be confused with genuine grassroots. The anti-Obama, anti-National Health Service rhetoric is a case in point. It is diverting attention from what healthcare insurers do not want people to know: medical bills cause more bankruptcies in the USA than any other cause.
Hard on the heels of the healthcare astroturfing we can apparently expect for the rest of this month a series of so-called “Energy Citizen” rallies across 20 States of the USA, to which employees of oil companies and other rentacrowds will be bussed at the expense of the American Petroleum Institute with the aim of influencing US Senators to oppose the climate bill and the Obama administration’s tax increases on the oil industry.
At the rallies, the API participants will push two messages: job losses and energy cost increases. Participants will apparently be given extended lunch hours for this purpose and supplied with free refreshments in the form of junk food and drink.
In a leaked email that I have downloaded, the API has told member companies: “your facility manager’s commitment to provide significant attendance—is essential to achieving the participation level that Senators cannot ignore.”
As I said, consider the source.
Got your pinch of salt ready, everyone?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Consider the source

Earlier this week I read a piece about the “revolting” use of “manipulative language” by the present government in order to “inspire fear” concerning Britain’s food security and prepare us all for Stalinist intervention with a view to imposing vegetarianism. (No, it was not in the Daily Mail: I don’t read the rag.) Naturally this brought on a panic attack, but I managed to recover enough to go online and find the culprit publication apparently referred to.
It is a report by DEFRA which gets right down to business in paragraph two with the sentence: “By any objective measure, we enjoy a high degree of food security in the UK today.” Are you frightened yet?
The report (entitled UK Food Security Assessment: Our Approach, available on DEFRA's website) strikes me as a sober and thoughtful document which is well worth reading by anyone seriously interested in public policy.
On the other hand, dear reader, if you are not seriously interested in public policy then by all means go on believing second-hand, or more remote, regurgitation of what is actually stated. And do by all means blog about it. Just don’t expect me to bother reading it.
While studying for the law, one of the best bits of advice I received, which I in turn like to pass on, was: never cite a case you haven't read.
Moral: consider the source.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

"Corner" is not the name of a size

As a character in the sci-fi novel Perelandra said, "corner" is not the name of a size. So a small event can be a corner for the world. A corner was turned in a Burma courtroom when a small frail lady crossed the room and told reporters that she looked forward to working with them for the sake of her country, freedom and world peace. The small lady brushed off the generals, the sham trial and the sham conviction as if fluff on her collar. She, the convicted defendant, became the judge. It is as if she said the generals will fall, as every tyranny does in the end. How it happens is obscure but fall they will because they have no legitimacy and no friends, and have killed so many good and innocent people. However that may be, the generals are going, and so the small lady did not speak of them, but contemplated what lies beyond, exemplifying the spirit of the Burmese people which I so admire. I think we, as members of the international community, should do whatever the Burmese opposition asks to help bring their freedom about.

Friday, 7 August 2009

The City of London - where all bankers and lawyers are above average?

The Lake Wobegon effect was proposed some months ago as an explanation for Chief Executives' ever-increasing pay in the US. In Lake Wobegon (Garrison Keillor's fictitious town), all the children are above average.
The way it works is that all corporate boards want their executives to be above average. That cannot possibly be the case for everyone, but not to worry. Markets run on investor confidence and perception, so if a company gives its executives above average pay and bonuses, they will look above average, and this will make the company look strong. Hence an upward pay spiral.
Warren Buffett wrote in 2007: "CEO perks at one company are quickly copied elsewhere. “All the other kids have one” may seem a thought too juvenile to use as a rationale in the boardroom. But consultants employ precisely this argument, phrased more elegantly of course, when they make recommendations to comp committees."
Once the public has rumbled this, why don't companies get off the bandwagon and pay their executives a moderate reward for the job? Because, according to the analysis, a company that pays its executives moderately could be perceived as admitting that they are only average or below, which would harm its share price.
Taking this a bit further, it is argued that if lower-paid executives were in fact above average, they would have been poached by a company that is willing to pay more. So any executive that is lower-paid can't be above average.
But, I wonder to myself, as there are only so many banking jobs in existence, and if a lot of them are already occupied by average-or-below executives whose merits have been talked up by means of high pay, who are not going to be fired because that would involve the company admitting having been wrong, nor are they going to move in a hurry since they are already getting more pay than they merit, how do vacancies come up? Over to you, dear reader.
As I see it, the essential problem is that everyone involved in this process treats pay level as evidence of performance quality rather than looking at the actual performance itself. But looking at the actual performance is more complicated and difficult as well as presenting confidentiality problems, so most investors, I suppose, do not bother.
The Lake Wobegon effect has been blamed for the preposterous sums paid to some of the UK's top bankers who, it is now painfully obvious, were in fact worse than useless.
A similar thing happens in both branches of the English legal profession where lawyers with the chutzpah to demand silly money for their services often get it. This is then cited as evidence of brilliance.
It sounds a lot of nonsense doesn't it? Yet it is still happening.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Men are to blame for the crunch? Ridiculous - but hang on, that's what Peston is saying... er...

I would like to know why it was that when Robert Peston blogged on 29th July that men were to blame for the crunch, there was not a peep out of anyone. When Harriet Harman said something not very different, she was scoffed at and insulted. Answers on a postcard please!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

In praise of Peter Weir

Three of my favourite films are on the face of it utterly different, so it was a surprise when i realised that all were directed by the same man. In the first, Witness, an action thriller is metamorphosed into a meditation about simplicity and modernity, innocence and corruption, harmony and violence as a detective is forced by circumstances and his own decency to protect a young boy who was the sole witness to a murder and then has to go into hiding himself among the boy's Amish community that lives surrounded by the American way of life but apart from it. No pea-brained females with bee-stung lips in this film; instead we get a real woman, exquisitely played by Kelly McGillis. In fact everyone seems real. The police officer, played with grit, emotional intensity and depth by Harrison Ford, is trapped in the violent culture he comes from, and blows his own cover by challenging some young thugs who have picked on his Amish party on a trip to the local town. Ultimately in a gripping scene the policeman aided by the boy and the whole Amish community saves the boy and himself from assassins who come to look for them, but he and the woman he loves must part because he cannot cross the divide between the two worlds.
The second film is The Truman Show, which (imho) deserved the Oscar for Best Film but was perhaps meat too strong for the judges. The protagonist (played by Jim Carrey who makes credible a difficult and uncharacteristically serious role) is a young man unaware that he is the only real person in his entire small-town world which is in fact a 24-hour soap opera owned by a corporation and directed by a pitiless apparently all-powerful mastermind (played excellently by Ed Harris). In this world nothing is sincere and everything is fake except the hero. There are multi-layered audiences: the audience in the film, for whom the hero's entire life is TV entertainment, and the audience of the film, who are in on the secret before the hero himself, though its true awfulness is revealed only gradually, such as the moment when he has a domestic argument with his wife who blows her cover by speaking to her minders behind the hidden camera and then resigns from her contract, or the moment when his best friend asks whether he would lie to him - a line which is itself dictated through a hidden earpiece by the Ed Harris character. The film depicts the hero growing in maturity and understanding as cracks appear in the fake world, he gradually perceives the truth and eventually, with the help of a woman who loves him and manages to infiltrate the fake world to reach him (Natascha McElhone) makes his escape to the real world. What is this film about? Obviously it is a metaphor but one that defies definition. A mockery of soaps, of consumerism, of media manipulation, yes, but it also asks what is real, who and what can we trust? It is not really a comedy, either: almost every scene screams, "It's not funny!"
The third film is Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World in which we are in the Napoleonic Wars aboard an English warship. England and France are vying for mastery of the seas. The English vessel is seriously outgunned by a French privateer which is prowling the oceans, but the English commander (played by Russell Crowe) will not give up and admit defeat. Ultimately by a series of brilliant ruses the Englishman wins. However, that is only the bare bones of what the film is really about. It is really about the microcosm of life on an eighteenth-century ship, recreated in minute and often grisly detail, whether accurate in all respects I couldn't say, but utterly convincing. It is also about the Galapagos Islands and an opportunity to make great scientific discoveries missed because the English commander does not understand what they might signify, though his friend the ship's surgeon does. It is also about courage, ingenuity, friendship, music. Or is it about subverting all the norms of a Hollywood film? Remarkably there is not a single female speaking part in the whole film. Or is it about the love of the sea, and of film-making itself? The film is based on Patrick O'Briens Jack Aubrey novels, without being slavishly tied to any one of them. A jewel of a film.
So what do the three films have in common? A world within a world; central characters who are complex and intriguing and re forced to make choices and mistakes; masterly attention to detail; wonderful use of music; rejection of everything shallow and superficial; all these things and more.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

A dishonourable regime

According to many commentators including the BBC, Ahmadinejad's support is supposed to come from rural areas. But the CIA Factbook and other websites say that in 2008 around 68 per cent of the Iranian population lived in cities and the proportion is increasing at about 1.7 per cent a year. This is why I find the current regime's claim that Ahmadinejad won the election in June simply incredible. (The BBC, incidentally, has been very polite about the whole subject of the disputed election, but it does not stop a thinking observer from putting two and two together.}
Since the current regime is perpetuating such an enormous lie without shame, I suppose we should not be surprised that the trials going on today have been rushed to a hearing, doubtless in order to intimidate the population. Footage from inside the courtroom shows huge portraits of elderly ayatollahs hanging on the wall behind the judges as if to emphasise that there is no distinction between the political and judicial authorities.
The current regime is dishonourable and deserves no respect and I do not suppose it will get any from the people, no matter how many plainclothes thugs it lets loose on them.
By the way, I would like to know why the crowd let go the thug who killed Neda, and where he is now and why he is not on trial.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

We are Neda

Today in Tehran tens of thousands of mourners including Mr Mousavi have courageously gathered to remember Neda, who was shot dead by a sniper from a pro-Ahmadinajad faction militia - should I call it the Praetorian Guard? The world is watching.

Three pillars, three fundamental values

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a FAIR, free and open society, in which we seek to BALANCE the FUNDAMENTAL VALUES [N.B. plural] of liberty, EQUALITY and COMMUNITY. By joining the party we all sign up to these words, which commence the preamble to the party's federal constitution. Rather good aren't they? I like them. I like striving for balance between the three values. I have put in capitals the bits that don't get enough emphasis sometimes, yet I have not noticed anyone putting a constitutional amendment to the party conference to take them out. The preamble has lots more good stuff in it, such as that we believe each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long term continuity of life in all its forms. Hear hear. I'm all for that. I don't want to be a tadpole in a pond that's going stagnant. Also we champion the well being of individuals. Hear hear. Should we aim to be like Denmark? So the framers were rather avant garde. You can read the whole thing on the party website somewhere. But the fundamentals are a balance between freedom, equality and community. I feel enthusiastic about that. We should shout about it more.

A liberal response to the global population crisis

To remind you, dear reader, of some excellent policy adopted recently I am posting the following text which was passed unanimously by the Liberal International Congress in May 2008.
"The 55th Liberal International Congress,
Noting that
(1) The human population of the world, currently about 6.7 billion, is more than double what it was in 1960, and is continuing to increase at a rate of an extra 1.5 million people per week;
(2) This rate of increase threatens the sustainability of the world’s resources;
(3) Population increases can enslave people in poverty;
(4) Reproductive health conditions are the leading cause of death and illness in women of childbearing age worldwide; and at least 200 million women want to plan their families or space their children, but lack access to safe and effective contraception;
Recalling that the 54th Liberal International Congress in Marrakech, 2006:
(A) Reaffirmed the absolute imperative at the beginning of the 21st century to raise the living standards of the extreme poor, in particular that half of the global population which struggles to survive on less than $2 per day,
(B) Reaffirmed its commitment to the eight Millennium Development Goals that were adopted by 189 nations during the Millennium Development Summit in 2000, which include the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, the education and empowerment of girls and women, the improvement of maternal and child health and ensuring environmental sustainability;
(C) Recognised that some cultural or religious practices in society hinder the contribution of women;
(D) Recognised that excessive population growth places enormous strains on agricultural land and available nutritional and environmental resources;
(E) Commended both freedom of choice for individuals and equal treatment of all citizens and residents, and non-discrimination;
Believing that:
(a) In order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, especially the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, population growth and sexual and reproductive health and rights also need to be addressed;
(b) In particular, the present rate of consumption of the world’s resources is at odds with the Seventh Millennium Development Goal, namely environmental sustainability;
(c) It is vital to reverse the trend towards a burgeoning human population of the planet if real progress is to be made on the Millennium Development Goals, a better quality of life is to be shared by all, and the threats of worsening violence, epidemics and starvation are to be lessened;
(d) Parents have the human right and the freedom to choose to plan their families and thereby improve their health and quality of life, but there is an unmet need for education, family planning and reproductive health services;
(e) Where such unmet need exists, unwanted pregnancies can be obstacles to gender equality and subsequent social justice, economic growth and environmental sustainability;
Calls upon Liberal International's member parties to urge their governments:
(1) To especially promote the education of girls and women;
(2) To provide full access to comprehensive family planning and sexual and reproductive health services to all those who wish to access these services;
(3) To defend and advance gender equality and to eliminate all forms of discrimination, coercion and violence against women."

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Hush - don't mention the central problem

At a Federal Policy Committee meeting earlier this year I argued that the Lib Dems had a responsibility to talk about the threat to the environment from the growth in the world's population (which has more than quadrupled since 1900), and I mentioned in support that Sir David Attenborough had talked about this issue. To my surprise, I was denounced by another committee member for (allegedly) dragging Sir David into politics.
So even though the denunciation was twaddle, in that environmental science is not politics, and someone of Sir David's national treasure status is way above politics, I won't drag him in. I will just quote what he reportedly said when he became a patron of the Optimum Population Trust earlier this year: “I’ve seen wildlife under mounting human pressure all over the world and it’s not just from human economy or technology - behind every threat is the frightening explosion in human numbers.
“I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more. That’s why I support the OPT, and I wish the environmental NGOs would follow their lead, and spell out this central problem loud and clear."

Friday, 17 July 2009

A small town becomes a signpost

Bundanoon, in New South Wales, Australia, has voted to ban bottled water.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Iran: the minority that will not let go

I am thinking about places in the world where women are oppressed. Iran for example. There, I gather, militia roam the streets intimidating and attacking women who behave or dress in ways of which they disapprove. In my country, such militia would be arrested and tried for public order offences. It is not that the British have no opinions about what is acceptable dress or behaviour in public and what is not. Of course we have opinions. But individuals behave in a way that is their own choice, provided that it does not contravene a specific law, and it may be a poor choice, but it is the individual's and not imposed. Live and let live, and mind your own business, are mottos here. And gangs who roam the streets trying to impose their own ideas on others tend to get arrested.
So what essentially is different about Iranians? I suspect, nothing is. A minority of society suppose they have a superior social and ethical code but that is normal in any society. The trouble is that in Iran, this minority has got hold of the levers of power and they will not let go. This minority is headed by people who claim to have special religious status and authority. How do they reconcile that with what seems from the news leaking out from Iran to be a clear case of electoral fraud? Not to mention the fact that in election after election they have disqualified most opposition candidates? In Britain people who commit fraud get put in prison, religious clerics included.
How these people feel they have the right to tell individual women how to dress and behave is worse than perplexing. To have the self-assurance to feel comfortable telling others what to do, or even physically force them to do it, does not mean you are right. It might be a sign of madness.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Ahem, about Trident, I told y'all so

In today's Times three top military brass including Field Marshall Lord Bramall and two retired generals - write that Trident is - to summarise - dangerous, expensive and useless. "Our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant except in the context of domestic politics," they write. This is the fundamental political point, but Labour and the Tories cannot deliver sensible policy because they are trapped in their self-imposed imperative to talk tough. Outside the Palace of Westminster reality has broken through. Inside, when will it? Which party will be first to break ranks and acknowledge the facts? Lib Dem MPs, are you listening? Read, read!

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Did Israeli politics engineer non-extension of Gaza ceasefire?

A well-informed colleague informed me, and I have checked with reliable sources (including the BBC), that the Israeli military on 4 November seriously breached the Gaza ceasefire when it raided Gaza and it did so again on 17 November. Israel also sealed off Gaza leaving the 1.4 million inhabitants of this densely populated enclave in a dire predicament. My informant adds that on 23 December 2008 the Israeli government received a report from its own advisers that Hamas wanted to extend the ceasefire if the blockade was partially lifted. Ignoring this, the Israeli government launched the current campaign against Gaza. It is well evidenced that Israeli air force personnel had been doing air strikes training for months. I now believe that this current military action was cynically devised for the purpose of exploiting the interregnum between the departure of Bush and the inauguration of Obama and it looks to me as though the attack was pre-ordained whatever Hamas did. I suspect it was launched for the purpose of securing the victory of ex-Mossad hardliner Tzipi Livni (a friend of Condoleeza Rice, allegedly) in the forthcoming Israeli elections.

Meanwhile the Israeli invasion is radicalising countless people into more enemies. I have trawled several Middle Eastern English-language websites including Al Jazeera and it is clear that in comparison the coverage we are getting here in the UK is pretty sanitised. There, the images are of Gaza City against a horizon of smoke and fire; ordinary people distraught at the loss of their homes and loved ones; and worst of all, images of dead, dying and horribly injured children, including a particularly horrific image of the head of a four-year-old girl who was killed. Today's headline is that the number of Palestinian dead has passed 800 and of injured well over 3,000. This military action is not just criminal and murderous, it is stupid, stupid, stupid.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

A committee that's extremely interesting

On 6th January the Federal Policy Committee flexed its muscles in reaffirming opposition to university tuition fees - indeed extending the policy to opposition to part-time and further education fees as well. I was there, and I found it refreshing after quite a long period of that committee being rather tame. It has suddenly become extremely interesting. I don't think media observers really understand how the Lib Dem policy-making process works - they think the MPs do it. Not really. The party constitution is a dull read, but it was cleverly made, and it contains the key to where policy-making power within the party lies. The body that approves policy is the Conference, and the body that supervises policy preparation is the Federal Policy Committee, and the group with the built-in majority on that committee is, or are, the members directly elected by the grassroots. So the policy process is controlled by the grassroots all the way, although the grassroots don't always realise or use their power. But sometimes they do, which is (partly) why this is a very democratic party, and nothing like the Tory party, and never will be anything like it, I am glad to say. A pity the present FPC wasn't in situ when the Trident issue last came up...

Good for you, Nick

I recall the day I told Charles Kennedy, then Lib Dem party leader, at a policy meeting in 2003 that the issue on the Iraq invasion was illegality (though that was not how it was being put at the time) and that despite the awful time Labour and Tory MPs were giving him, he should stick to his opposition. Well, he did, and he was right, and eventually most reasonable people realised he was right. And it was, indeed, an issue of illegality. Now there is a bloodbath in Gaza and the issue is illegality, and this time it is Nick Clegg who is saying what ought to be said. Good for you, Nick. You have the guts to speak out, and even if they give you a hard time now, you will remain right and they will remain gutless and wrong. What is being done in Gaza is appalling. It is collective punishment which was a practice much used by, ironically, the Nazis and was a crime then and still is now.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

The issues are land and water

Years ago a fellow-student at Yale Law School said to me that the mid 20th century was not a good time to set up a racist state. This startling comment returned to my mind as I listened to the radio news of Israel's government sending in the air force to bomb Gaza. In such a densely populated place this was bound to result in hundreds of Palestinian deaths (just over 400 was the last figure I heard - and the injured probably are in their thousands). Spokesmen are wooing the sympathy of the world but this latest action has crystallised my thinking in a way they won't like.
A racial supremacist assumption underlies this offensive, that Palestinian deaths do not count for much. The spokesmen's line is that the issue is Hamas rockets. That is just skimming the surface. The issues are, and have from the beginning been, land and water - the fields and groves that Palestinian farmers had tended for centuries, from which they have been ousted by various means, and the precious freshwater resources that are not enough to supply the ambitions of both the Jewish state and the Palestinian non-state. The injustice that was inflicted on the Palestinians gave rise to Hamas and their rockets.
The bombing offensive is not going to stop the rockets. The only thing that will stop the rockets is justice. Let there be no more lies and obfuscation about the land that has been and still is being illegally annexed by fanatical settlers. Quite simply the annexation must stop and the land must be returned. And there must be equal treatment of all people in the region whatever their origins and religion. If the fanatical elements in Israel will not wear this, then the threat of Hamas rockets will go on and on.
Increasingly I suspect that the increasingly embattled Jewish state may not be viable much longer. Israel has sought to protect itself by militarism, but it keeps making more enemies. The only thing that really protects minorities is the trio of liberty, equality, democracy, not setting up a militarist state. In my view, young Israelis would be well advised to emigrate.