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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?

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. Participan…

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 be…

"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 B…

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…

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 gri…

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 jud…

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 hea…

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 stand…

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 wit…

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 th…

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!

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 wa…

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 …

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.

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…