Sunday, February 28, 2010

Not just evil but insane

One of the books I have been reading as a form of .... ahem .... relaxation is Tim Tzouliadis's The Forsaken, the painful, indeed horrific tale of what happened to several thousand Americans, mostly ordinary workers, who decided to go with their families to the Soviet Union in the early thirties.

Some were members of the CPUSA, some were left-wing trade unionists, some had simply despaired of getting another job in the Depression or were afraid of losing the one they had. A few hundred went over as part of a deal Henry Ford made with Amtorg to construct car factories in the USSR and produce the Soviet Ford Model As.

Some managed to return; others found that their passports had been taken away and they could not get permission to leave, while living conditions became worse and worse, gradually equalling those of their Russian colleagues and, fist individuals, then dozens, then hundreds started disappearing into the Gulag.

Some survived and returned to the United States to tell the tale. The horror of it lies not simply in what happened to these unfortunate and often naive people but also the indifference shown by the American embassy in Moscow under the infamous Joseph E. Davies and at a time when the State Department was honeycombed with Soviet agents. Yet more horrifying is the behaviour of American fellow travellers and useful idiots such as Paul Robeson, whom Mr Tzouliadis rightly singles out: the man was spectacularly talented and highly intelligent yet his behaviour over the Soviet Union was utterly despicable.

One of the curious aspects of this story is the role of Henry Ford.
Despite a ferocious record of strike-breaking in Detroit, Henry Ford had been only too delighted to sell the Soviets teh necessary industrial blueprings and machinery, together with seventy-five thousand "knocked-down" Ford Model As from the River Rouge plant. It was a deal sweetened by the guaranee of five years of technical assistanc eand the promise of American labour and know-how. The Soviet contract was worth a staggering forty million dollars and, lest we forget, these were 1930s millions, paid for in gold at the height of the Depression.
The logic of the first sentence is not impeccable. Why despite? Ford did not break up strikes for reasons of ideology but because he did not want his factory to stop working. In the USSR, as Mr Tzouliadis mentions later on, strikes for much better reasons than in Michigan were broken up by the Red Army.

As a result of the deal numerous American car workers went to Nizhny Novgorod where the first Ford factory was built. It is not clear how many of this particular group disappeared in the purges but some seem to have managed to return home, disillusioned and miserable. Others stayed on, hoping that the bad conditions will change and disregarding what was happening around them until it started happening to them. By then they had been caught in the trap.

A few more important people went over to help finesse the deal and set up the factory. The first, exploratory group was led by by the engineer Bredo Berghoff, whose reports on Soviet conditions and ability to set up factories were negative and who issed a forceful warning about personal security and the terror, which at that stage was relatively mild.

Ford persevered and got what he wanted: that plum contract. The descriptions of what was actually happening in the plants were horrific with American workers and engineers stunned by the lack of any understanding of basic precautions or of mass production.

The next person to go over was Ford's Chief of Production, Charles Sorenson, who was not greatly in favour of the project but did his best to set up the factory and deal with the unfamiliar situation. When he returned to Detroit he told Ford that he would like to go back to Russia at some later stage to review the project he had set in motion. Ford was adamantly against it:

Charlie Don't you do it! They need a man like you. If you went over there, you would never come out again. Don't take that chance!
Which proves, yet again, the Ford was reasonably well aware of what and who he was dealing with in the Soviet Union. Mr Tzouliadis, to whom much of this story and the surrounding details were new and who is, therefore, more apt to rush into indignation than some people might be, writes:

If Ford's production chief could not be risked twice, no one seemed overly concerned for the safety of the company's present and former employees who would travel to Russia to assemble the Soviet Model As.
Presumably, Ford did not think assembly line workers were particularly valuable, though in actual fact, they were in the Soviet Union of that period. Nor did he care much about them - easy come, easy go. Nevertheless, I think Mr Tzouliadis is unfair to the admittedly ghastly Mr Ford. When he said that Charlie Sorenson would not be allowed out again, he meant that they would keep him there to work and not let him back to the United States. It is unlikely to have occurred even to Henry Ford that at some point in the near future useful workers and engineers would be rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, sent to the Gulag or simply murdered. That would have appeared to most people as completely insane whereas the notion of taking a skilled and experienced production chief's passport away and refusing him an exit visa was eminently sane if somewhat immoral. The the trials of various engineers on trumped up charges of sabotage and espionage, would not have been very well known until it came to the six British ones in the Metro-Vick case of 1933.

This reminds me of one of the crucial episodes in Margarete Buber-Neumann's superlative and harrowing book Under Two Dictators, about which I have written before.

I have to write about this from memory as my copy has been borrowed. Ms Buber-Neumann escaped to the Soviet Union in 1934 with her second husband, Heinz Neumann, Stalin's henchman in the German Communist Party, responsible for the purging of all those members who were not supporters of the Soviet leader. Almost certainly, the Gestapo picked a number of them up in 1933 - 34 on the basis of secret denunciations by Neumann and others of his ilk.

In 1937 both Neumann and his wife were arrested during the purge of foreign communists and the first part of Margarete's book deals with her experiences under Dictator Number One. During her calvary through the Soviet prisons and labour camps she heard that Heinz had been shot, though he had probably been given the fictitious sentence of ten years without rights of correspondence. (Or no sentence at all. Who was there to find out, with his wife in prison?)
In 1939 as part of the agreement with Nazi Germany, Stalin handed over all the German political prisoners and there is a tragic-comic description of their terrified arrival in the land of the Gestapo. The Jews were separated and sent off; the others were sent home with the proviso that they report regularly to the nearest police station.

Margarete was kept back for a very odd reason. The Gestapo officers in charge of the operation did not believe her story that her husband had been shot. Neumann, they reasoned, had been not just a Communist but one of Stalin's most faithful henchmen. Nobody shoots his faithful henchmen. (Little did they know.) Therefore, Neumann must have been sent back to Germany on a secret mission and the best way of finding that out is by imprisoning his wife in Ravensbrück.
Of course, looking at it sanely, the Gestapo was right: why would Stalin have his boy shot? Then again, why would he and his henchmen imprison and murder people who were essential to that economic and industrial development the Soviet Union so desperately needed and desired? It was not just an evil system but a completely insane one.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Let us not confuse things

No, they did not serve tea; they did not serve cucumber sandwiches or buns or scones. No tea was dumped into the Channel. There were no hand-made cool signs, as an American correspondent put it; there were no signs or placards at all. In fact, it was, as the slightly amateurish pictures show, an extremely well attended fringe meeting with an enthusiastic audience, most of whom had come running from other meetings, main or fringe, that a party conference provides. Most of them were going on to other meetings or dinners.

As it happens, I am a veteran of packed fringe meetings. There were the early European Foundation meetings, at one of which every fire regulation was broken and the Head of the Commission's London office, having unwisely left the room, could not be allowed back in as there was quite literally not a square inch of space. "Health and safety" we told him with big grins on our faces and delegates who also could not get in laughed. The Conservatives have always seen themselves as somewhat rebellious as far as the EU is concerned - they laugh at the discomfiture of officials.

Then there were all the Save Britain's Fish meetings at both Labour and Conservative conferences where the full horror of the Common Fisheries Policy was carefully analyzed and dissected to packed rooms. And what good came of it all? We still have the CFP with successive governments whining about the reform that they are working on. The only sensible policy the Conservatives ever had, was discarded by the Boy-King as soon as he became the leader.

Ttoday's event proved something unexpected, however. It seems my history teachers who were told to slant everything towards a Marxist interpretation were actually right: the British establishment does have an uncanny ability to mould and remould itself, to include anybody who might challenge them and to co-opt potential oppositions. We have seen this with the blogosphere, that has been converted into the clogosphere plus a few supporting players with those of us who do not want to be inside the tent ever diminishing in importance. Now we see it with a potential tea party movement. Before it could even start, it was pre-empted by a fringe meeting at a Conservative Party conference, addressed by a Conservative politician and presided over by another Conservative politician, Roger Helmer MEP.

As ever Daniel Hannan MEP gave a stonking speech. He is good like that and if there is a little repetition in what he says that is not surprising. He is making speeches like there is no tomorrow. Once again he made clever jokes, quoted everyone from Burke and the Bible to Maynard Keynes. People were nodding, smiling, listening intently and applauding.

Nothing wrong with what he said either. He explained the power of the Commission and the way the fiscal crisis is being used to push through the notion of a common tax rate. Mind you, when he tried to break people's hearts with the tale of the Commission simply taking over the running of the Greek economy (actually, they have not yet done so), there was a singular lack of sympathy emanating from the audience. Wisely, Mr Hannan moved on.

He spoke eloquently of the control the executive in this country exercises over the budget as opposed to the situation in the United States (and a fat lot of use that has been to them). He is right, of course: we do not have proper separation of powers and as a consequence the government with a decent majority in the Commons will always push through whatever it wants, subject only to scrutiny in the Lords, whom Mr Hannan ignored, perhaps because he was concentrating on the budget which does not go to the Upper House. One wonders whether Mr Hannan would be interested in the idea of unbundling the budget and have the Commons debate individual departments' allocations as they do in the United States. He has never spoken about it.

Then he reminded us that the American tea parties, including the Boston one, relied on English ideas. This is, indeed, true, as are the various references he made to contemporary British politicians who supported the Americans (whom they viewed as British, really) against the monarchy. We can call these ideas Anglospheric and it is a tragedy that they seem to be dying out in the mother country. Mr Hannan's call for them to be reclaimed is entirely to be approved of.

Then we had a good deal of Mr Hannan's own subject - localism and the need to push power down as far as possible, the need to have local governments raising their own funds and making their own decisions, the need to reconnect politics with people. Part of that, he thought should be an annual review of the quangocracy by Parliament. (By the way, the whole quango system was a Conservative invention as a way of removing certain activities from the civil servants. Quangos, one may add, are staffed mostly by ex-civil servants and a permanent quangocracy.)

All fine and dandy. The trouble is that this was not a tea party organized by local activists as they have been doing in the United States for a year or so; it was a fringe meeting at a party conference and that party is hoping to win the next election. Mr Hannan is an active member of that party and eventually he had to face that and talk about what the Conservatives are going to do about all these matters, in particular about the fact that we are Taxed Enough Already.

Mr Hannan was on thin ice as nobody quite knows what the Tory plans are with regards to taxation and public expenditure beyond "being better than this lot". He did fine: told us that David Cameron and George Osborn entirely agree with him; ignored anything to do with the European Union; enumerated various promises Cameron has made on all these subjects avoiding the words "cast-iron guarantee"; and informed us that Cameron has gone further than any Conservative leader in adopting this agenda of reconnecting politics and people.

The trouble with that last point is that there is no evidence for it. Making various noises about Select Committees might be a good thing but this is not an issue that is of direct importance to most people. The point about open primaries, that Mr Hannan has made several times, is inaccurate. They are open in the sense that any local person can vote for the candidate but they are not open as far as those candidates are concerned: to get into the last six one has to be on the CCHQ list, thoroughly vetted and interviewed at least once by the local association. The jury remains out on Mr Cameron's intentions.

What one does hear on many a grapevine that far from reconnecting politics with the people, the Cameroonies find it hard to connect with their own members. If the Boy-King does not deliver that victory there will be a blood bath in the party. The Labour Party hated what Blair did to it but they got the pay-off: three handsome victories. The Conservative Party, by and large, dislikes what Cameron is doing to it and this shows up in the various rows; will he deliver the victory is the question.

In the meantime let me say that I agree with Daniel Hannan MEP: we do need to reclaim those ideas that have been so fruitful across the world where there is political freedom. It is appalling that the country where the Anglospheric ideas of small government, individual liberty, rule of law, rights of property, entrepreneurship and constitutional liberalism were born should be abandoning them. As a step towards reclaiming them some form of a tea party movement would be very useful. But first, we must reclaim the tea party movement like the blogosphere from the political establishment, particularly the Conservative Party. While they control it we shall get nowhere.

A quaint idea but I shall attend anyway

Our American cousins cannot make up their minds whether this will be the start of a British tea party movement or rather a quaint meeting where tea will be served. As it happens, I share their ambivalence.

The tea party movement in the United States, now a year or so old, started as a series of spontaneous local demonstrations, some small some large, with hand-made slogans and posters. It was the expression of real anger from the bottom. As the politicians fumbled their response and displayed their contempt for the electorate, the movement growed and growed like Topsy. It is now a formidable force in American politics and politicians on both sides are eyeing it with some misgiving. Which way will it turn and will it become a serious force in the electoral campaign? Well, in a sense it has, as the Massachussetts result showed but will that last and what effect will it have in November?

Our own beginnings are very different. There was a minute gathering for Thanksgiving Day on Parliament Square but it was cold and wet and dark. We had a lot of fun but its effect was doubtful. Now there is a new beginning in Brighton or so Daniel Hannan MEP tells us. Well, he would, wouldn't he. After all, he is addressing the tea party.

Earlier today Mr Hannan will be addressing a meeting of the preposterous Nothing British campaign whose aim appears to be to give as much publicity as possible to the BNP. And thereby lies the problem. The launch of the British tea-party movement is being organized by The Freedom Association as a fringe event at the Conservative Party Spring Conference. It will be addressed by a Conservative politician and, at a guess, attended largely by Conservative delegates. In other words, a potential anarchic, grass-roots movement has already been hijacked and groomed to support the Conservatives who are not rushing to promise tax cuts should they form the next government.

I shall go anyway and report on this blog about the event. I am rather hoping there will be cucumber sandwiches or, at the very least, buns.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Looks like Lebedev will own the Independent

Russian plutocrat (I love that word and don't feel it is used enough), media tycoon and former spook, Alexander Lebedev is definitely buying the Independent. That was news a few days ago but he and Independent News and Media have now lodged their submission to the Office of Fair Trading.

The BBC Russian Service is naturally quite excited by this development though they describe the Indy as a highly influential British newspaper. Not sure anybody else would agree with that.

As the Guardian puts it
The OFT posting refers to the "anticipated acquisition of the Independent and Independent on Sunday by Lebedev Holdings Limited" but neither INM or Lebedev has given a public indication whether they will announce the deal tomorrow .

Lebedev Holdings recently set up a new subsidiary, Independent Print, at Companies House, which mimics the process that the Russian businessman went through when buying the London Evening Standard in January last year.
Will it make any difference? Somehow I do not think so. Mr Lebedev clearly has a taste for losing money or, alternatively, he thinks anything is better than having it taken away under some pretext by the Russian government.

Anyone seen the left-wing feminists recently?

Readers of this blog and of EUReferendum will know that I am an admirer of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, Editor and Publisher of the Bangladeshi anti-jihadist newspaper, The Weekly Blitz. Actually, I am an admirer of all those who work on that newspaper or write for it. It is easy for me to say what I want to say - nobody is about to arrest me, beat me up, torch my home, destroy my computer. To fight for freedom in Bangladesh is a most admirable thing to do.

Shoaib sent me his latest article about Iran and women, reasoning correctly that I would be particularly interested in the plight of women, not being a left-wing feminist. In his message he called the article Today inside Iran: tears of women. In the newspaper it is called a little more sedately Iran: clerics or pimps? Well, maybe not that sedately.

Among other matters he talks of a slightly unexpected business that the Iranian mullahs appear to be involved in: pimping.
In the 1970s, Bostonians looking for a proverbial good time went to the "Combat Zone" and New Yorkers flocked to 42nd Street; in contemporary Iran, the holy city of Qom is known [unofficially] as a place of "both pilgrimage and pleasure." There, prostitutes wearing veils and even chadors mill about temples or sit together in public courtyards where men can inspect them. Sometimes a male go-between [most of them are clerics]offer "introductions," at which point the prostitutes pull aside their headgear so the potential client can get a glimpse, but the whole process is fairly subtle. For an outsider, it's difficult to pick a street girl out of a crowd. Qom may have become a prostitution hot spot due to the abundance of shrines. Young female runaways with no shelter come to the city knowing they can take refuge at holy sites by sleeping in rooms intended for pilgrims. They have no way of making a living, so after awhile they get involved with the sex trade. The city's young theological students and transient tourists form the main clientele.
Hmm. I wonder if that ranks as high in categories of female oppression as wearing a bikini [the quote from Jamie Glazov towards the end].

There is a good deal more in Shoaib's article. It is long and quite harrowing but for those with a strong stomach well worth a read.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

That's the spirit

Mary Ellen Synon sums up the Icelandic saga (pun intended), the people's opposition to EU membership and the bullying that is being done by the Dutch and, I am sad to say, British governments to bring those people to heel and bankrupt them because of others' greed.

I, too, have been in touch with Hjortur J. Gudmundsson and I asked him if he demonstrated Viking martial arts. For some reason he found that quite funny.

Meanwhile, the Dutch government has fallen because of deep-seated disagreement about Dutch troops (that have performed extremely well according to Michael Yon) in Afghanistan. Yon thinks, incidentally, that the troops are very unhappy at the politicians' attitude and feel that they have been betrayed. (Um, I think that was on one of his Facebook updates. Here is the link to his website, anyway.) Wouldn't be the first time in political and military history. Elections in the Netherlands on June 1. And, of course, elections here on May 6. The Icelanders are not dealing with any permanent or even long-term political entity.

There is a certain lack of understanding

No, I refuse to write about "bullygate" again or about "poor" Alistair Darling being briefed against by Gordon Brown. Allegedly. Or maybe not. Who cares? The Tory politicos, that's who. They still think that they can win this election by telling everyone that Gordon Brown is a naughty man who loses his temper. Well, diddums. We all know politicians behave badly and most of us have realized some time ago that Brown is possibly even more dysfunctional than his colleagues. Possibly, mind you. One cannot be absolutely sure about his colleagues on either side of the political divide.

For all of that, the electorate does not appear to be turning to the Tories or showing any marked affection for the Boy-King of the Party. Anne McElvoy in the Evening Standard finds it all very hard to understand and thinks nobody can else can do so either. By nobody she means nobody in the Westminster bubble that she operates in. Lots of other people outside it can see what the problem is and have noticed that the Boy-King's popularity started plummeting about the time he reneged on his cast-iron guarantee for a referendum on the Constitutional Lisbon Treaty.

Post-bullygate the opinion polls remain stubbornly bad. As ToryBoy blog reports: Tory lead stuck at 6%. That, as someone pointed out to me recently, is almost statistical parity. Things are not good in Toryland and trotting out Daniel Hannan MEP, the token eurosceptic politician is not going to help. In fact, it is not helping. As usual just before an election, Our Dan is everywhere, YouTube, Brighton Tea Party organized by the Freedom Association (surely the whole point of those tea-parties is that politicians did not address them till quite a long way into the movement), all sorts of meetings. It did not work at the Euros; it is unlikely to work in the General.

When one looks at those figures closely, one can see something interesting. Both Labour and Conservatives are down 1 per cent yet the Lib-Dims stay unchanged. Where have those percentages gone? On my reckoning this poll leaves 13 per cent unaccounted for. That is rather a lot of people in a closely fought election. Is nobody trying to find out where they are and what is to be done about them? Any chance of having a break-down of the smaller parties and the don't knows in future?

The Tories, however, are not wasting any time on analyzing such matters. Instead, they are busy assuring themselves that somewhere at the heart of the bad news there is some very good news. Jonathan Isaby helpfully produces lots of figures and swings to show that the Tories are going to do a lot better than the overall country-wide opinion polls indicate. There is no arguing with the proposition that swings are not uniform and certain parts of the country are likely to go more in the Conservative direction than others.

Even these figures are not what one might call absolutely reassuring, especially as the trend does not seem to be in that direction. So, time to call into action the reserve troops, a.k.a. Conservative supporting journalists who will tell us that secretly the party is everything we want it to be.

Step forward Damian Thompson in the Daily Telegraph, who tells us solemnly that Three quarters of Tory candidates want to renegotiate UK's relationship with EU. The only thing that shows is that three quarters of those candidates have no idea still that we do not have a relationship with the EU; we are part of the EU and we are legally bound to obey all its directives and regulations as well as the decisions of the ECJ. Why would anybody want to vote for a bunch of ignoramuses?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

That's another mess ...

One day I shall be able to say that I knew Dan Mitchell of Cato Institute and the Freedom and Prosperity Center before he became a big movie star. Well, a big YouTube star. Don't tell anyone but he is still speaking to me.

Anyway, here he is telling the world about yet another mess governments across the world have created and we, in Britain and in the European Union, have been suffering from this piece of idiocy for some time: legislation against money laundering. Or so they say. Actually, it is legislation to make it difficult for grandparents to open nest-egg accounts for their children and to allow the real baddies to escape scot-free. That phrase is particularly apposite in this case.

So, over to you, Dr Mitchell:

Monday, February 22, 2010

Political titbits

It is entirely possible that you were out having a life this week-end and missed the two British political stories that everybody who does not have a life is talking about. I, too, was attempting to have a life which is why there were no postings yesterday. However, as part of that life I mentioned to someone over a glass of wine that somebody might well put up money specifically to help Nigel Farage against John Bercow in Buckingham.

Lo and behold, Stuart Wheeler has come forward. He is giving £100,000 to UKIP specifically to unseat Speaker Bercow and "has also placed a 4-1 bet on Nigel Farage". I don't share the Conservative hatred for Bercow (let's be honest I don't share anything with the party formerly known as Conservative) but it would undoubtedly enliven parliamentary politics if Nigel Farage became an MP. I dare say other MPs do not share my sense of humour but that is just too bad.

Even if people were out having a life it has not been possible to avoid the saga of Brown's supposed bullying of staff; the strange charity helpline, whose Director saw fit to announce that she had received complaints from Number 10 staff; and the Conservatives' glee that once again they can conduct political campaigning entirely on personal issues and need not think of anything remotely resembling politics.

The Times tells us that there is an atmosphere of fear in Number 10, probably resembling that of the Kremlin under Stalin. Well, maybe not quite. The Guardian, on the other hand, tells us that there are all sorts of peculiar stories about the lady who runs the National Bullying Helpline and whose husband runs a consultancy that advises people how to deal with said bullying for a fee. Some of those who phone the helpline seem to have been directed to the consultancy.

Mind you, the most extraordinary part of that article is the number of anti-bullying charities and helplines that seem to exist in this country. Do we really need them all? And who is paying for them, assuming that they do not all have a helpful consultancy to shell out money?

A few questions arise in connection with this story. Firstly, who works in Number 10 these days? Are they experienced civil servants or snivelly youngsters in their first jobs? After all, one cannot imagine Sir Humphrey or Bernard phoning some ridiculous helpline and complain about bullying.

If, on the other hand, people are sent to work for Ministers before they are capable of dealing with those rather weird personalities, why is there no mechanism such as exists in every private enterprise, through which complaints can be channelled? I recall thinking something along those lines when the Prescott story broke.

Most importantly, one has to ask how it is that the Tories manage the impossible and that is make Brown look sympathetic? The Conservative bloggers are whooping with joy that their party's lead has gone up to 12 points as a result of what they refer to as "bullygate", a questionable assumption if the results are already being published but the truth is that if people were really paying so much attention to this preposterous story, that lead ought to be considerably higher.

Just one more story that should put pay to all that Conservative rejoicing (you can't actually win an election by just saying endlessly that Gordon Brown is a bully): according to Bruno Waterfield, Kenneth Clarke, the arch-europhiliac is being sent to reassure Commission President Barroso that he will have no trouble with any Conservative government. Was Mr Barroso worried? I can't imagine why. It's not as if the Conservatives have any serious ideas of what to do about the European Union beyond accepting their laws and regulations; it's not as if they even understood how the system worked. I suspect that Clarke's trip is a message to the Tory activists. No doubt, we shall go on being told about the importance of voting Conservative if we want to advance the eurosceptic agenda.

UPDATE: It would appear that the lead reported by Conservative bloggers yesterday was wrong. The figures have not changed in any significant fashion and the Tory lead remains a single digit one. I rest my case.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Oh honestly!

First it was Greek MPs proclaiming that Germany should be made to salvage their economy after their shoddy behaviour (in the private sector in a number of countries that kind of behaviour earns you many years behind bars) as a form of reparation for what happened well over 60 years ago and for which they had already had reparation.

Now it is the Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, ordering the National Intelligence Cente (CNI) to investigate whether the Anglo-Saxon media is conspiring to undermine the Spanish economy, as if he needed any help in that. Soeren Kern goes into detail on the story. And I thought our politicians were dulalee.

Small earthquake promised - does not happen

Most people know the apocryphal story of the infamous left-wing (in fact, Communist) British journalist Claud Cockburn inventing the most boring headline he could think of: Small Earthquake in Chile - not many dead. As it happens, I can think of many more boring ones and top of my list would be: Brown does not announce election again.

Non-British readers of this blog (and probably quite a few British ones) would have missed all the excitement (sorry, can't help yawning). Gordon Brown, still Prime Minister of this country, delivered a speech for the sorry excuse for a Spring Conference that the Labour Party has organized at Warwick University.

Why political parties need to have quite so many conferences these days is anybody's guess. Not so long ago a Spring Conference did not figure on the political calendar at all.

But if you must have a conference, however low-key and inexpensive, Warwick University is quite a good place. I have been to a week-end conference there and one of the curious aspects of the campus is that once in it there are very few ways you can get out. So, those unfortunate delegates or members who entered the place had to stay and listen to the Prime Minister and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The speech is, understandably enough, seen as the one that sets Labour's election agenda. It is very difficult to produce ideas when the country is in a mess and your party has been in government for 13 years. Mr Brown is calling on the electorate to take another look at Labour (an unwise suggestion as people who take a close look at that excuse for a government is likely to feel very ill indeed) and to take a second look at the Conservatives (a more sensible idea as anyone who takes a second or a third look at that sorry excuse for a would-be government is likely to feel even more unwell).

Mr Brown proposes as election slogan: A Future Fair For All. This is not only meaningless and unwise in the light of recent figures about less social movement than there has been in this country since the 1960s, it is also very hard to say. I am looking forward to Labout candidates trying to enunciate those words, particularly after a drink or two.

Well, that's enough about the loser in Number 10. Let us turn to the losers on the other side of the party political fence. (Really, this election is going to be all about who is the bigger loser of the two main parties.)

Conservative politicians, journalists, commentators and activists went through a crise de nerfs. Once again, they managed to fall for the not-so-subtle hints that Brown will use the opportunity to announce a March election. Why he should do so, escapes most people's understanding. Equally, why should the Conservatives want an election in March while they are clearly unfit for battle remains a mystery. But one could not hear oneself think from the screams, whoops, demands that Brown show his mettle and call an election, appallingly foul language because he might not .... until this morning when a number of bloggers live-blogged the speech and found that .... nothing much was said about a date, the indication still being that it will be May 6, on the same day as the local elections.

When one discards the hysteria and bad language, what the Conservatives are accusing Brown of is not calling an election a month and a half before the local ones and two and a half months before he absolutely has to. They are also accusing him of manoeuvring to outwit them. Well, colour me stunned: political leader manoeuvres to outwit the opposing party. Hold the front page!

Of course, what is really upsetting all these people is the fact that he has once again managed to outwit them, getting them all worked up about an imaginary date for election and hysterical about the country's allegedly desperate need for it, then refused to play ball. When one considers that the Conservatives routinely describe him as completely stupid and incompetent (he is certainly all of that) as well as probably clinically mad (non-proven) it does not reflect on them that he manages to make them look completely ridiculous time after time. How many "early election announcements" have we had since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister?

Another Hollywood star dies

Kathryn Grayson is not one of my absolute favourites: like many people I find those trills a little hard on the ear though I cannot help thinking that the obituary in the Daily Telegraph is more than a little unkind. (The Guardian is a little kinder.) I enjoyed her version of Lili Vanessi/Katharine in Kiss Me Kate with Howard Keel as Fred Graham/Petruchio. Did the studio really want Laurence Olivier for that role? Thank goodness Ms Grayson's good sense prevailed. Even so, I must admit that the stage production brought over from Broadway in the wake of 9/11 was, in many ways, superior. One got much more of a feel for ensemble work, so necessary for a play. The film is essentially about the four stars with one superlative dance sequence by Bob Fosse. But it is fun, especially in 3-D with the old-fashioned red and green spectacles. And Howard Keel is superb as is Ann Miller in the Lois/Bianca role.

Here is Kathryn Grayson in a less well-known part, singing to Gene Kelly in Thousands Cheer:

Well, I couldn't possibly have her singing the United Nations March, now could I?

Friday, February 19, 2010

It was them nasty banks wot did it

Or so says Chancellor Merkel in somewhat more elegant German than my English is in the title. The message is the same, though: the banks helped Greece to be creative with their accounts in order to go into the euro and stay in it. We knew nothing.

Chancellor Merkel has thus demonstrated that she is, indeed, suffering from that amnesia described by Allister Heath and noted by this blog yesterday. That creative accounting and the international banks' role in it has been known for several years but the other eurozone governments and the Commission chose to turn a blind eye, hoping against hope that this political project will triumph over economic inevitabilities.

When you try to envisage the fall-out from a possible euro collapse caused by all the problems and tensions predicted by sceptical commentators, both economic and political, it becomes apparent that the people who put together this delusional project were suffering from so much hubris that they cared nothing about the consequences. Indeed, they did not think there could be consequences.

Meanwhile, Greek MPs who are refusing to go along with the Prime Minister's somewhat inadequate austerity package, have decided that their best bet is to remind everyone of World War II. They are furious that Germany dares to criticize them for their fiscal misdemeanours and are demanding compensation for crimes committed during the German occupation.

Undoubtedly, there were crimes. The war in the Balkans was nasty even by World War II's standards. But the Greeks are missing two important points: the first is the time for compensation has gone. Chancellor Merkel, the child of post-war East Germany is unlikely to look kindly on such blatant demands; and, furthermore, given the amount of money Greece has had from the EU one way or another, that compensation has been paid in full and then some. Right now, they need more money from the rest of the EU, particularly Germany, and screaming abuse may not be the right policy. It does, however, make them feel that they are full of θυμός or thymos, the courage or spiritedness of the Ancients and makes them forget that they are actually begging those barbarians to come and rescue them. Let us have some sympathy, please.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I am still waiting

Yesterday I attended a conference organized by Legatum Institute about liberty and economic growth. I shall blog on it in detail as there were some interesting aspects to it. For the moment I want to concentrate on the drinks party at the end of the afternoon, at which Daniel Hannan MEP spoke as an expert on liberty and economic growth or, at least, the person who is often invited to speak on such matters.

Our Dan is an excellent speaker - witty, clever, full of quotations from the Bible, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek and many other people. He also attacks all the right objects: the EU, overweening government, politicians who meddle in business and so on. In fact, a pleasure to listen to.

The only problem is his inability to explain how the party he belongs to will deal with all the problems he so assiduously attacks. To be fair, he did admit that his own favoured agenda of localism is likely to get short shrift under a Conservative government but added that David Cameron has gone further than any Tory leader.

The real problem is the European Union. Mr Hannan is against it and has on occasion expressed the view that we should start negotiating our way out. Mr Cameron, on the other hand, thinks that we should stay there because that is where we belong and we can repatriate some powers by some mysterious magical means. When questioned, Conservatives between the two will repeat the same mantra: what is in the past is in the past, we need to deal with what we have and look to the future. Yes, I know it is meaningless but you can't expect these people to think as well as talk.

Mr Hannan took some questions and there was one about that very subject. A very smug looking gentleman asked him what he thought of UKIP taking away Tory votes and whether that was a good thing. Having asked the question the gentleman looked around with a self-satisfied smirk as if he expected to be congratulated on his imbecility. I should like to think that he thought otherwise when he met my stony glare but I am afraid I am probably wrong.

Mr Hannan did not, curiously enough, point out that those votes do not belong to the Tories. Apparently, he sees nothing wrong with people saying insufferable things of that kind. Let me just point out: they belong to us, the voters, and we decide where we lend them.

But Mr Hannan did talk at length at the stupidity of people voting UKIP and splitting the eurosceptic vote while it was perfectly obvious that the only way to advance to agenda was to stay within the Conservative Party as he had done and push that party towards accepting that agenda.

Let us not spend any time on discussing whether it is worth swallowing all the stuff the Conservative Party leadership produces in the hope that the party will some time move half an inch in the right direction. Let us simply concentrate on the core message, if I may use that expression. The only way to advance a eurosceptic agenda is to support the Conservative Party. Could we now have some more or less precise idea of how the said party is intending to advance that agenda. In fact, can we have some idea of what they think the agenda is.

Yesterday evening I put that challenge out into cyberspace. I am still waiting for any replies. Maybe I shall get some on this blog.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Obama effect

Hope and change is working. Take it from me. Every bookshop now has posters of Ayn Rand and copies of "Atlas Shrugged", a staggeringly dull novel, well displayed. (A tip to those who do not know: read Rand's essays. They are shorter and the ideas with which one cannot quarrel, are more pithy and coherent.)

Of course, the fact that we have three socialist main-stream parties in this country helps.

Now we have news that Friedrich Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom" is selling like hotcakes. Heh!

Abkhazia is independent? But of course

Just to show that Abkhazia that famous break-away region of Georgis is completely independent, Russia has decided to establish a military base there. Who the enemy in the Russian President's (Putin's teddy bear) mind is can be worked out quite easily. There really is no point in a military base in Abkhazia unless you plan to invade Georgia again some time soon.
Russia's dominance of Abkhazia has become nearly total, with 4,000 to 5,000 Russian land, air, and naval troops believed to be deployed in the region. Russian forces are building facilities for a naval base in Ochamchire on the northern coast. Moscow has also been granted control over the territory's borders, airport, and railway system.

Moreover, Abkhazia is dependent on Moscow for state aid, and trade, and foreign investment.

Most Abkhaz residents carry Russian passports in order to be able to travel abroad and communicate predominantly in the Russian language. And the Russian ruble remains the territory's official currency.

Also today, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, adopted a statement marking the 200th anniversary of "Russia's patronage over Abkhazia."

ITAR-TASS quoted the document as saying that in effect, the peoples of Abkhazia and Russia form "one people."
And why not? After all, Ukraine and Byelorussia (now Belarus) had their own seats in the UN alongside the Soviet one, even though they were SSRs in the Union thereof. Time Abkhazia acquired its seat.

The Financial Times says that "Moscow tightens grip on Abkhazia". This implies that there had been a loosening of said grip.

RBC Daily, a Russian business newspaper is quoted directly by RIAN [scroll to the bottom of the page]
Russia gaining foothold in the Caucasus

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh will sign an agreement on a unified Russian military base in Abkhazia on February 17. The document will legalize and regulate the deployment of Russian troops in the newly-independent republic.The agreement has a 49 year term with optional extensions in 15-year increments. A similar agreement may be signed with South Ossetia in March.

The six-day war in August 2008 and Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states have led to the termination of previous agreements on collective peacekeeping forces, with Russian forces stationed in the two republics having lost their peacekeeper status.

An agreement was reached last spring enabling Russian border guards to protect the Georgian-Abkhazian border, and in the fall, Russia and Abkhazia signed a military cooperation agreement, which opened the door to building a Russian military base with headquarters in Gudauta. Almost immediately Russian coastal guards began working on a naval base in Ochamchir with patrol boats.

"Now all Russian servicemen from the various units will be part of a unified system," said Akhra Smyr, a local political commentator.

The Abkhazian government traditionally views Russia's military presence as the sole protection against potential Georgian aggression or a new war. However, Smyr does not see any public euphoria about Russian military bases in Abkhazia.

"The signing of the border agreement was accompanied by heated debate on the format of cooperation, the rights to be granted to the Russian military and to what extent they should be subject to Abkhazian jurisdiction. The new agreement's details are still unknown, but some sticking points might spark debate in Abkhazia again," the commentator said.

The new agreement generally fits into both countries' long-term strategies. "The West calls for Russia to backtrack on its recognition of Abkhazia, which is why it is important for Moscow to take root in Abkhazia, to establish institutions and gain a foothold, making the decision irrevocable," Smyr said.

"Abkhazia is wary of Georgia's strategy on the 'invaded territories.' The Georgian authorities plan to work toward a 'peaceful reintegration' of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but once the 'invaders' pull out they will be free to use the army against these 'puppet governments,'" he adds.

"Moscow may now view any aggression against Abkhazia as aggression against Russia, which would make a war with Georgia more legitimate and eliminate the need to find excuses and cite the protection of Russian nationals like in August 2008," added Yana Amelina from the National Strategy Institute.
Must be quite a relief not to have to look for excuses or hand out passports to various people in order to make them Russian nationals in dire need of protection. Next time oil prices fall and President Prime Minister Putin and his teddy bear feel they have to draw attention away from economic problems, the heavily militarized Abkhazia will come in very handy.

ECOFIN stands firm (for the time being)

As the Wall Street Journal reports, ECOFIN or the EU Finance Ministers as the article calls them, is standing firm on the Greek question. Well, kind of. Germany is certainly unhappy at the thought of providing the lion's share of whatever enormous sum Greece will need to be pulled out of this morass only to fall into the next one. After all, this was not supposed to happen. The German people were told quite distinctly that by abandoning their beloved DM they would not find themselves in the position of having to rescue various other countries such as .... Greece.

European finance ministers Tuesday stood firm in their position that Greece must work to narrow its budget gap before they would discuss aid to the country, while Greek workers launched strikes and protests against government austerity plans.

Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic affairs, said after a meeting of EU finance ministers Tuesday that commission officials, along with delegations from the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, would be "on the ground in Athens" in coming days to examine Greece's budget measures.

Mr. Rehn also pledged more scrutiny of financial transactions that Greece may have used to mask its debt burden.

The ministers endorsed a decision Monday by members of the euro zone that Greece be given until March 16 to show progress toward a goal of slicing the equivalent of four percentage points of gross domestic product from its budget deficit this year. Last year's budget shortfall was around 13% of GDP. The EU limit, which Greece has observed just once in the past decade, is 3%.

If Athens doesn't show enough progress by March 16, the EU will demand specific changes, such as new taxes on luxury products, such as expensive cars.

This does not answer certain questions, the most obvious one being how are all these organizations going to enforce their demands in a country whose government either cannot or will not listen to instructions. Another question is whether the bail-out will be limited to eurozone countries or will other EU member states required to play their part "in a spirit of solidarity" as required by Article 122 in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which is part of the Constitutional Lisbon Treaty.

Ambrose Evans Pritchard says in a relatively sensible piece in the Daily Telegraph (though the title and the last sentence are silly) that Greece will not be allowed to vote in the next meeting of ECOFIN when she will be required to report back on the austerity measures and how far they have worked. That will show them! He also adds an interesting comment that bears out this blog's interpretation of Article 122 and the importance of the "spirit of solidarity".
Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the Eurogroup, hinted that ministers have already agreed on a support mechanism, should it be necessary. It will most likely involve by bilateral aid by eurozone states. He said proposals for an IMF bailout - backed by Britain - were "absurd" and would shatter the credibility of monetary union.
That "spirit of solidarity" will probably mean just that: bilateral assistance from other member states under pressure from the Commission. The question still remains: just the eurozone countries or all others on whom the Article in question calls?

I am delighted to point to one journalist who has remembered that much of what is happening now in the eurozone was predicted at the time countries were playing ducks and drakes with their budgets and debt ratios in order to set up that entirely political project. Everyone else, as Allisteer Heath said in his editorial in yesterday's City AM seems to be suffering from collective amnesia.

Even the latest twists – Goldman Sachs helped Greece push some debt off balance sheet and JP Morgan did the same with Italy – are old stories. The Italian transaction dates back to 1995; it was first revealed in 2001 by Gustavo Piga, professor at the University of Rome. A row ensued, with the European establishment cracking down on anybody who dared talk about this; but the full details soon emerged. Italy miraculously cut its deficit from 6.7 per cent of GDP to 2.7 per cent in 1996-97; and the establishment, desperate to pretend that the euro was on track, turned a blind eye to the shameless window-dressing.

Greece’s equally controversial swap trade was first revealed by Risk magazine in 2003. The deal, completed in 2002, allowed Greece to borrow €1bn without adding to its public debt. Goldman sold the swap to National Bank of Greece in 2005. Other banks and countries were involved in similar schemes. Goldman last year tried to sell Greece a different type of plan based on securitisation but this was turned down.

Everybody has also forgotten (so let me “reveal”) how in 1996 the French government was desperately asking every bank for help in “cutting” its deficit. It subsequently grabbed £4.7bn from France Telecom – in return for the transfer of its pension liabilities to the public sector budget. The accounting switch was worth 0.5 per cent of GDP and allowed France to join the euro. The UK government has also long been an expert in camouflaging its debt, thanks to the private finance initiative (PFI) and the ability to keep massive pension liabilities away from the main accounts. At least Gordon Brown never used Greek-style currency swaps; and securitisations were done transparently.
What could I possibly add to that, having written thousands of words on the subject at the time? Oh yes, I know: told you so.

A new blogsite

For those who wish to follow the doings of Lord Pearson of Rannoch. The site awaits the expert hand of a web designer (and one has been lined up) but the content is there and will be updated regularly - more regularly once the election campaign starts.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How far will they go in opposition?

On February 8 Hansard published a Written Question from Lord Stoddart of Swindon:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what will be their response to any proposal from the European Parliament to remove the power of member states to veto decisions of the new European Union financial regulators where they would impact on member states' fiscal autonomy.
To which HMG replied:
The Government have been very clear that no decisions by the new European supervisory authorities should impinge on the fiscal responsibilities of the UK. The Government will oppose any proposal of the European Parliament that seeks to undermine this principle.
That is very reassuring; well, sort of reassuring; actually, let's be honest, not reassuring as well. HMG's track record in "opposing" measures that were then introduced and imposed on Britain does not inspire with confidence.

What happens when the plan is voted through anyway (and Britain can hardly stop it either in the Toy European Parliament or the Council of Ministers unless numerous other countries are on the same side) and becomes EU legislation not to be gainsaid by our own elected representatives?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Silver lining

Iceland is benefiting from the euro-mess that is engulfing Greece, the eurozone, the PIIGS and the whole of the EU in that order. Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson tells us on the very useful EU News blog (he assures me that he will be blogging a lot more in the near future) that Icelandic business is turning away from the notion of EU membership.
New poll which was released in Iceland today shows that about 60 percent of the leading people of Icelandic companies believe that Iceland is better placed economically outside the EU. Only 31 percent think the country would be better placed within it. This is in line with the last polls on the attitude of Icelanders in general towards EU membership.
Well, who wants to end up bailing out those PIIGS?

This makes slightly more sense

A surprisingly amusing blog posting on the Spectator Coffee House outlet (well, really, it is a clog as well) by Melanie Phillips on the twin subjects of the American Tea-Party Movement and Sarah Palin, both dismissed and sneered at by the political elite on both sides of the fence in the United States, only to find both acquiring a hard-to-stop momentum.

Ms Phillips simplifies matters somewhat in that she does not delve into the opposing views various individual members and organizations within the Tea-Party Movement hold of Ms Palin - that would require a more serious analysis of American politics as she is lived. However, the piece ends with a comment that makes somewhat more sense than the call for a European Tea-Party Movement.
In Britain, that core conservative agenda of defending life, liberty and social order (which in turn offers the best chance of success in the pursuit of happiness) is scorned not just by Labour but by the ‘Red Tory’/’Blue Labour ‘hopey changey ‘Cameroons. ‘Core conservative’ voters, currently scorned and abandoned by the Conservative party, are in despair over the non-choice on offer to them at the forthcoming election.

Britain needs its own ‘Tea-Party’ movement to challenge the whole dopey-changey thing here, too.
The whole notion is at least conceivable in a country the roots of whose politics are the same as that of America. In fact, those roots are here, though we have been diligently digging them up.

In the meantime, here is Glenn Reynolds's account of the Tea-Party Convention and the astonishingly optimistic mood of the participants.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

There is no such thing as Europe

How many times does one have to keep repeating that? All right, let me clarify that statement. Of course, there is a Europe as a geographical concept – it is a subcontinent of the huge Eurasian continent. There is also such a concept, though it is hard to define, as European culture, which melds into European history and European thought. One gets into serious difficulties with it as European culture and European thought are so varied in themselves.

What there is not and never has been is a Europe as a political concept. There is no such thing as European politics, though there is, obviously EU politics, a completely different concept, often alien to European history and traditions. Therefore, there can be no such thing as a European Tea Party Movement. Not if ever so many people join the group on Facebook; not if Real Clear Politics or Glenn Reynolds write about it.

It would be pointless to talk about tea parties as a political concept in Europe even if such a thing as Europe existed politically speaking. No-one would understand it. In Britain tea party (as in vicarage, for instance) means something quite different; on the Continent it means nothing at all. In fact, history tells us that on the Continent tax or bread riots tend to have further reaching consequences than the American tea parties have done so far.

The biggest problem, however, more or less understood by David Ignatius on Real Clear Politics is that each country’s problems are separate and different, even though they all share the understanding that the government’s role is to spend, spend, spend, an understanding they share with most other countries in the world. One suspects that, like Henry Kissinger, David Ignatius would feel happier if there were one European fiscal authority – easier to draw parallels, presumably.

What would a European tea party movement oppose? The European Union? Maybe, but it is hardly the biggest spender; its role in the destruction of the economies of European countries is a little more subtle: it used control and regulation to further integration.

Individual governments? Why would a European movement care about individual European governments? I see no point in going on a demonstration that would demand fiscal conservatism from the French or Greek governments. Let the people of those countries worry about that, as long as we do not have to pay.

All this talk of European this, that and the other or European elites, as Glenn Reynolds writes, comes to the same conclusion: we need some kind of a European political entity, a concept many of us radically disagree with. But the truth is that we cannot have a European tea party movement unless we have a European state, a European government and a European polity. People who support or call for a European tea party go along with the notion of a European state.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Marvel Comics are in trouble. Captain America, the hero of thousands of adventures and the idol of tens of thousands of children seems to have gone slighly dulalee. The superhero who fought Nazis, Commies and "took on those who burned the American flag during the Vietnam era" is now taking on .... anti-tax protestors, who look remarkably like the Teaparty Movement.

Anti-tax protestors are America's enemies? What would an eighteenth century Captain America have done about those pesky Bostonians who were chucking tea overboard?
Issue 602 of the comic features Captain America investigating a right-wing anti-government militia group called "the Watchdogs". Hoping to infiltrate the group, Captain America and his African-American sidekick The Falcon observe an anti-tax protest from a rooftop. The protestors depicted are all white and carry signs adorned with slogans almost identical to those seen today in Tea Party rallies like "tea bag libs before they tea bag you" and "stop the socialists."

The Falcon mentions that the gathering appears to be "some kind of anti-tax protest" and notes that "this whole 'hate the government' vibe isn't limited to the Watchdogs." He then tells Captain America that he doesn't think their plan will work because "I don't exactly see a black man from Harlem fitting in with a bunch of angry white folks." Captain America then explains that his plan entails sending The Falcon in among the group posing as an IRS agent under the thinking that a black government official will most certainly spark their anger.
Well, I don't know about Harlem but plenty of Teaparties did have black people attending them. And Asian, and Hispanic and various all sorts.

It seems that, just like the Bostonians, the Teapartiers of today are not taking any of it lying down.

The clear implicit attack on the Tea Party Movement was first noticed by Publius' Forum's Warner Todd Huston. When a minor uproar ensued, Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada spoke to Comic Book Resources and defended the issue while apologizing for the panel that seemed to tie real-life Tea Party protesters to the fictional group depicted in the book.

Saying that he could "absolutely see how some people are upset about this," Quesada said that there was "zero discussion to include a group that looked like a Tea Party demonstration," adding, "There was no thought that it represented a particular group."

Quesada then went on to say that Marvel would "apologize for and own up to" a series of "stupid mistakes" that led to them "accidentally identifying" one of the members of the protest group "as being a part of the Tea Party instead of a generic protest group." He explained that they were on deadline to get the issue to the printer for publication, and in the course of sending it off it was noticed that the signs in the scene contained no words or phrases. He said the editor then asked the letterer to "fudge in some quick signs" and that in the "rush to get the book out of the door," the letterer "looked on the net and started pulling slogans" from signs captured in photographs at Tea Party protests in order to make them appear "believable."

In response to Marvel's explanation and apology, Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips told Yahoo! News that it "sounds less like a genuine 'we're sorry' than it does a 'we're sorry we got caught' statement."

Quite so.

Ido think, however, that these people need to look at some real art in comics. What about the great Captain Euro, the Aryan looking hero of European integration and his arch-enemy, the hook-nosed, semitic looking Dr D. Vider, the businesman and employer of dark-skinned, moustachioed underlings. Here as an introduction to the whole sorry saga of failed propaganda.

For Your Freedom and Ours

At times it is easy to forget what that phrase actually means as it is easy to get bogged down in the nitty gritty (mostly gritty) of daily politics and, almost inevitably, that means Britain, Europe and the United States with the odd incursion into the rest of the Anglosphere and other parts of the world.

But the slogan was in Russian За Вашу и Нашу Свободу - For Your Freedom and Ours.

Let me, therefore, call my readers' attention to a Bangladeshi publication, The Weekly Blitz, whose tagline says: The Only Anti-Jihadist Newspaper Confronting Religious Extremism and Promoting Interfaith Harmony. In Bangladesh. Now that is courage. They also say that the fear none but God, which is just as well because the newspaper and its editor and publisher, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, have had a great deal of trouble from the Bangladeshi military, police force as well as the political and judicial authorities. I wrote about this brave man once before over on EURef (here and here) but his continuing battle needs to be kept in people's minds. He is, after all, fighting for us all. (Which means that I should report a little more often about developments.)

In the meantime, here is a fascinating article by Dr Elie Elhadj on why Arab democracy is an unlikely proposition (well, since you ask, the words used are "sheer fantasy".)

So true

When did I last disagree with anything Victor David Hanson wrote? Hmmm, let me think. Must have been the 12th of Never. Anyway, here he is providing the best and pithiest insight into why President Obama's political behaviour is causing such ructions.
The problem with Obama’s new hedging on taxing those who make below $250,000, or his administration’s taking credit for victory in the Iraq war that they so once fervently tried to abort, or the flip-flop on renditions and tribunals, or the embarrassments over closing Guantanamo and trying KSM in New York or Mirandizing the Christmas Day bomber,or trashing/praising Wall Street grandees, is not that presidents cannot change their minds as circumstances warrant, or even that all politicians are at times hypocritical. No, the rub is that Obama is not merely flipping and triangulating on issues in a desperate attempt to shadow the polls, but he is doing so on matters that he once swore were absolutely central to his entire candidacy and his signature hope-and-change agenda, critical to the future of the U.S., and proof of his opponents’ either ignorance or disingenuousness.
It is always a mistake to pretend that you are the knight in shining white armour who will rid politics of all its incubi, especially if you happen to be a Chicago politician who had risen through the machine with the help of some very dubious associates. Sooner or later the truth will rise up and bite you, after which it becomes very difficult to claim that behaving like a politician is no big deal.

At a lower level the same thing happened to Tony Blair and his government (though the Conservatives seem unable to take advantage of the situation). Back in 1997 I recall saying repeatedly that I did not think it was such a very good idea for Labour to campaign on the whiter than white platform. White tends to go grey very quickly in politics and it then looks much worse because of the promises of being so much cleaner than the other guy. In particular, in was not a great idea to use that as a campaigning slogan by a party where corruption went quite high up. Well, it all came to pass.

Intellectual drift

Yesterday evening I attended the launch of Professor Jeremy Black's latest book, The Politics of World War Two, published by the Social Affairs Unit. [There appears to be no link yet. Professor Black is clearly far too prolific for the internet to keep up with him.]

In his introduction, Professor Black spoke of the differences between conservatives (though he is also a reasonably stalwart supporter of the party with a capital C) and the socialists. Without being anything like a socialist Professor Black expressed som sadness at the thought of the modern Labour Party's intellectual rudderlessness. The cause was that they had abandoned history. The party of Major Attlee and Ernie Bevin, he said, had a clear idea of British national history and traditions. Their understanding was not the same as that of people on the other side of the political spectrum but it was real, nonetheless. There is nothing like it in the Labour Party of today.

That is very true and it is what makes NuLab such a tiresome bunch of utter bores. The trouble is that Professor Black then proceeded to explain that conservatives were very different. To be fair, he did not say that the modern Conservative Party was different but there was a strong implication of it. That, I fear, is simply not true. NuCon, just like NuLab is intellectually rudderless with no understanding of its own or the country's history.

Of course, I am rather looking forward to reading the book. It has a long chapter about World War Two in subsequent history and perception.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The epic bail-out of Greece

We can take it more or less for granted that the euro is not going to collapse this time - too much is at stake for the leading members, Germany and France, to allow that to happen. It was, is and always will be a political project, with no economic rationale and little public support for the obvious next step: complete economic and political union with a government that can deal with such problems as Greece and the other PIGS waiting in the wings. (Seems very unfair on pigs, who are delightful and useful animals.)

The Mises Institute has joined the fray with a thoughtful article on the Greek crisis a.k.a. the crisis of the euro, which explains at length and in detail how the eurozone has been funding Greece and her spendthrift ways for some time. The problem with the article as with most writings on this website is their disdain for things political. They really do not understand why the euro was created, why it will be propped up as long as possible and why the creation of a European government is such a difficult proposition.

Avoiding all the obvious, rather gloating comments (and I do feel a certain amoung of schadenfreude, having predicted many of these developments without being an economist), we need to concentrate on how it will affect Britain. This is what Edmund Conway does in the Telegraph today and he is not altogether sanguine. He also reminds us all that it is PIIGS we are talking about, as Italy is in a bad state as well.

"UK banks" he says, "are exposed to these countries to the tune of 16 per cent of gross domestic product." Whatever happens will affect our economy as well.

While we are on the subject, what is likely to happen?

At the moment, it looks as if the eurozone members (mainly France and Germany) will provide cash for a “firewall” bail-out designed to prevent these countries from toppling, but there are some whispers that Britain may have to make a contribution. These figures might help explain why.
So, not joining the euro has saved us from the worst of the disaster but it is not going to leave us unscathed.

There is, of course, another reason why, despite HMG's wriggling whenever a direct question is asked, the UK is likely to be participating in the bail-out. Article 122.2 of the Constitutional Lisbon Treaty.
Where a Member State is in difficulties or is seriously threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters or exceptional circumstances beyond its control, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may grant, under certain conditions,Union financial assistance to the Member State concerned. The President of the Council shall inform the European Parliament of the decision taken.
One could argue that this particular disaster was not caused by circumstances beyond Greece's or Spain's, Portugal's, Italy's and Ireland's control but, somehow, I do not see that one taking off at the emergency meeting of the EU Ministers.

Open Europe has produced a handy briefing, full of figures, graphs and quotations about the probably bailing out of Greece and why that is unlikely to help the eurozone. True to their usual principles, Open Europe bemoans the fact that the eurozone is contemplating a series of acts that will weaken it and make it less popular instead of introducing some stringent economic reforms.

Their summary also says that of the 10 possible ways of bailing out Greece, most are either illegal or probably illegal (with different Treaty Articles in conflict) and so the EU will have to break or, at least, bend its own rules. I am shocked, I tell you, shocked.

The paper is worth reading, however.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I presume he was joking

During the short debate in response to Lord Teverson's Starred Question on fish discards there was a slightly comical moment. Lord Teverson asked
Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have following their estimate that, of 37,000 tonnes of cod, haddock, plaice, sole, anglerfish and other demersal species caught by English and Welsh registered vessels in the North Sea and south western waters during 2008, 9,400 tonnes were discarded.
A good question though those estimates, I suspect, are a little on the low side. Well what is HMG going to do? Easy, as Lord Davies of Oldham explained:
My Lords, the UK Government are funding initiatives to address discards, working together with the fishing industry. These include limitations on fishing effort, improving gear selectivity and closures that protect spawning and undersized fish. The UK has also committed, with Denmark and Germany, to trial a catch quota management system. Through the review of the common fisheries policy, we are working towards a European discard policy that applies to all member states, regardless of where they fish.
Very useful, indeed, and has been the policy of successive British governments. Sadly, large amounts of fish are still being discarded because they are caught above quotas and cannot be landed. (Of course, large amounts are landed in various places and sold on the black market, but that's another story.)

Lord Teverson was not pleased.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but I am rather disappointed. The Secretary of State for the Environment called last month for a ban on waste food, yet he is responsible for discards whereby we throw away a quarter of our most precious species. Is that not obscene, and should not the UK Government insist, in relation to the common fisheries policy, that like Canada, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand, we should have a ban on discards? Why cannot the EU do that when other nations can?
I trust that readers of this blog have noticed a certain something all those countries listed as examples of good management by Lord Teverson. Lord Willoughby de Broke made the connection clear:
Could the Minister confirm that the countries mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in his second question—countries which all run successful fisheries policies—are all outside the European Union? Would it therefore not be better for this country to follow their path, repatriate the common fisheries policy and run it from the UK in the interests of UK fisheries?
Ah yes, all those countries run their own fisheries policy, something that the Labour Government cannot even envisage and the Conservatives have decided not to include in their election manifesto.

At this point, the Minister made rather a comical comment:
My Lords, there is still the question of who fishes in which waters. The noble Lord will readily accept that the fishing fleet of Spain, for instance, has been significantly expanded in recent years. It is important that we have a common fisheries policy that ensures that the practices that are followed by the Spanish, and to an extent by the French, are the high standards that we are trying to set, particularly with regard to our discard policy for British fishermen.
The Minister or his talented advisers think that the British fisherment should follow rapacious Spanish practices? How very odd. And while we are on the subject, why and how has that Spanish fishing fleet expanded? Did that have anything to do with the amount of Structural Funds the EU poured into the Spanish fishing industry? Not possible.

Nor is it possible that the Minister could say with a straight face in response to the Countess of Mar's very reasonably question about the logic behind discards:
My Lords, the fishermen have to make a living. Their problem is that only certain fish are marketable and economic to land, to say nothing of the fact that new gear tends to catch in its nets a whole lot of sea animals and fish that are really not edible and which are therefore discarded. The noble Countess is right; we want to change the gear that is used so that it is appropriate for the commercial fish to be landed. That is exactly what the British Government are seeking to achieve.
Marketable? Economic to land? Nothing to do with quotas then? Dear, dear. I was not present at the debate so I cannot tell my readers whether the Minister's nose lengthened just a tad but if it did not, Jiminy Cricket was not listening.

While we are on the subject of what the British Government are seeking to achieve, there was a Written Statement [scroll down] on January 21 about the outcome of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council. This is what was said about those negotiations:
With regard to fisheries and the technical conservation measures regulation, council reached political agreement (with the UK and Ireland voting against) on an interim compromise for 18 months only of the current annual provisions governing mesh sizes, gear types and catch composition, having failed to agree the main framework proposal. This was in the context of the impending entry into force of the Lisbon treaty, which would require co-decision with the European Parliament on this aspect of fisheries. An absence of any decision would have left a legal gap on such technical measures from 1 January 2010 given that current measures are in the annual fishing opportunities regulation, which will remain as a council-only decision.

The UK and Ireland worked very hard in bilaterals with the presidency and the Commission to find an acceptable solution. The Commission was inflexible, claiming that the relaxation of the relevant catch composition measures would be detrimental to haddock stocks. The UK asserted that this had no effect on fishing mortality and merely led to increased discarding. Regrettably, the presidency was not able to accept UK and Irish requests and a final compromise was agreed with no concessions offered. Agreement was reached by qualified majority, with the final formal adoption by written procedure by 30 November.
In other words, Britain and Ireland, still the possessors of the richest fishing waters (though not for much longer if the CFP stays in place) were outvoted and achieved nothing. So much for our efforts and influence.

UPDATE: Link at the top has been changed to the correct one.

Something to cheer about

Back in the days I was working for the One London group in the highly expensive and completely pointless London Assembly, I wrote fairly frequently about one particular way Hizonner the Mayor Livingstone spend large amounts of taxpayers' money: the so-called London embassies that he set up in various countries, allegedly to ensure that businesses in those countries knew about London and all it could offer. As one of the biggest of these offices was in Venezuela, I begged leave to doubt the Mayor's good intentions.

The idea, as I pointed out repeatedly, that there are businessmen and women out there who had never heard of London, a city that has had centuries of commercial history, was laughable. Quite apart from which there are various other organizations, starting with embassies and trade delegations, to deal with various issues.

I am pleased to inform everyone that Hizonner the Mayor Johnson is shutting them down. First to go were the ones on the Indian continent, whither many an expensive taxpayer-funded trip had been taken unde Livingstone.

Pippa Crerar, City Hall Editor, does not like this. Maybe she was hoping for a trip or two herself. She maintains that Johnson had promised to keep those "embassies" open, which is not exactly true: he promised to review the situation and a review was naturally going to lead to closures.

Secondly, she quotes dissatisfied "business leaders".
Business chiefs warned that closing the offices to save money would send out the wrong signals to potential investors. Colin Stanbridge, chief executive of the London
Chamber of Commerce and Industry
, said: “It is essential that we maintain offices in Delhi and Mumbai so that we can continue to market London in one of the fastest growing economies in the world. If we are not out there selling London as the best place in the world to do business, our international rivals will be more than happy to fill the vacuum.”

Graham Capper, of business group London First, added: “If representatives and offices in India are adding value then they should be retained — there's no point saving cash by cutting them if it costs us investment and jobs in London.”

However, he said there should be better co-ordination between agencies
promoting London abroad — UK Trade and Invest, the City Corporation, the LDA and Think London, its inward investment agency.
The trouble is these are not business leaders but quango leaders - people who live off the taxpayer (and very comfortably, too) while hoping for those trips. The fact that Mr Capper can list a number of other agencies, all engaged at promoting London, while gobbling up other people's money, disposes of the need for those embassies. Let us not forget that businesses may decide to go elsewhere if they find taxation overwhelmingly high and beneficiaries of that high taxation are hardly in a position to talk. (Though that has never stopped any of them before.)

I am delighted to say that almost all the comments on the article agree with the decision as does the Evening Standard's editorial [second one down] on the subject.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Where does evil lie?

Occasionally I decide to try to have a thing called life. I am not always very successful at my attempts but this evening I triumphed and attended a lecture on art at the newest of London’s venues for art, literature and music (as well as a nice bar and restaurant and an iffy coffee bar), Kings Place. Rumour has it that it receives no subsidy from the Arts Council but runs on the money from various organizations, including the Guardian and the Observer, that have offices in the rest of the building. This will have to be investigated.

The lecture was given by Dr Gail-Nina Anderson and was part of the Talking Art series. Entitled Fearful Images, it was described:
The role of art goes far beyond simply delighting or informing the viewer, and this talk explores a particular strand of imagery designed to rouse a darker emotional response. From Medieval devils to Romantic nightmares, spectral visions to exteriorised neuroses, art has given shape and expression to the things that lurk in those hidden corners we might prefer not to explore. Painters such as Goya and Fuseli call up images intended to provoke a shudder – is this simply sensationalism or do we need to visit the dark side? Does the visualisation of our imagined horrors give them power or put them in their place, and why do we so often find ourselves laughing at what is meant to be scary?
The blurb does not do justice to the breadth of Dr Anderson’s knowledge or her infectious enthusiasm for various works of art, from Fuseli’s The Nightmare to various paintings with grinning skeletons.

I am not about to rehash all she said and would not do so even if I could recall everything. Two points struck me and, surprisingly, Dr Anderson did not seem to make the connection. (Or maybe she is saving it for another lecture.)

Having gone through nightmares, appearances of death (more common in German art of the 16th century than any other, apparently, but that might have something to do with German history of that period), grand apocalypses and the aforementioned skeletons, she came to the idea of evil in art.

Showing some examples of paintings of witches’ covens and other related material, she came to the conclusion that it was well-nigh impossible to paint or draw evil successfully without making it slightly amusing and not just because we all laugh to ward off evil spirits.

The one artist who managed to overcome this problem, she maintained, was William Blake, whose Ghost of a Flea is, indeed, a terrifying picture.

However, at an earlier point in the lecture Dr Anderson showed a couple of examples from Goya’s series, Los Caprichos. Then she added that there are some paintings she cannot quite deal with – she had never given a lecture on Goya’s series, Disasters of War and probably never will.

There was the answer to the conundrum: real evil is not imaginary monsters but what men do to each other (oh yes, and women). That is the real horror we have to face and one from which often escape through grim jokes and laughter. For, as a very knowledgeable person said to me once about the Soviet Union under Stalin, if you did not laugh, if you really thought seriously about what happened, you would go mad.

Second Reading of the Constitutional Reform Bill

Of course this Bill, as Lord Norton of Louth pointed out during the Second Reading, is not going to go through all the stages as there is not enough time before Parliament has to be prorogued. Indeed, his lordship was more than a little displeased with the notion that a Constitutional Bill should be brought in so late in the session. To be fair, he said very similar things about the half-baked constitutional reforms that the Government appears to be playing around with just a few weeks before the session must come to an end.
The Bill may be accused of comprising a set of constitutional reforms which have been put together in haste, have not been subject to widespread consultation, and derive from no clear, coherent approach to constitutional change. The Minister, in replying to the debate, may have in mind making these very points. He would be most unwise to do so because the description I have just supplied applies just as well to the Government's proposals for constitutional change. The Prime Minister has announced a set of reform proposals that appear detached from any process of extended deliberation within government and which relate to no discernible coherent approach to constitutional change. This Bill, like the Prime Minister's proposals, comes at the end of a Parliament when there is no time for either House to consider it in detail.
This martial statement is a little unfair. While the Prime Minister’s proposals do have an air of something that was put together in haste and will be repented at leisure (something that we can say about all the constitutional reforms of the last 13 years), Lord Willoughby de Broke’s Bill has been presented to Parliament before but Private Members’ Bills tend to get fitted in when the Business of the House allows it.

Furthermore, Lord Willoughby in his speech outlined the main theme of his suggested reforms and it seems to be a coherent one:
The thrust of my Bill is the rebalancing of powers away from the Executive and a whipped Parliament to the people. Sir Francis Bacon wrote:

"A country is less free if it is all in the hands of the state".

This Bill will go some way to loosening the state's grasp, and I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.
As it happens, Lord Norton prefers a long and stately process in constitutional reform: lots of consultations, committees, White Papers, Green Papers and so on. He may well be right in essence but it is not seemly for a parliamentarian to dismiss another parliamentarian’s efforts to aid the matter of reform along. It is what parliamentarians are for. But then Lord Norton suffers from a slight problem: he is supposed to be one of our greatest living experts on constitutional law and has been asked by the Conservatives to produce ideas for strengthening Parliament, yet he does not seem to appreciate the importance of our EU membership. At least, not in public.

As Lord McNally, speaking for the Lib-Dims reminded him with less than complete historical accuracy:
I entirely support the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, of a holistic, deliberative and coherent approach to this Bill. The only thing I note as a student of these issues is that the great constitutional advances have been made not by committees sitting endlessly around tables-we have been doing that for the past decade and made very little progress-but by people who believed in certain changes and fought for them. We fought a civil war, a king lost his head, another king lost his throne, we frightened the establishment by revolution to get an 1832 Act, and women chained themselves to railings-one woman spectacularly died-to get votes for women. The idea of constitutional reform being a matter for gradualism and rational debate is true up to a point, but constitutional reform is also made by people who believe in it.
Actually, Lord McNally’s speech was not at all bad, as soon as he stopped putting on his tiresome “man of the people” act. The truth is that he has been a political apparatchik all his life not a man of the people.

As the speech progressed, however, it became obvious that he (or his researcher) unlike the Noble Minister or Lord Henley for the Conservatives, had read the Bill and thought carefully about each article, supporting some, opposing others and remaining cautiously neutral on one or two. The one problem he did not manage to resolve is the Lib-Dim position on the in or out referendum.

He was asked by Lord Pearson of Rannoch:
Will the noble Lord clarify the position of his own party on a referendum on whether this country should be in or out of the European Union? Did not his leader, Mr Clegg, flounce out of the House of Commons because he was not going to get an "in or out" referendum on our membership? When I moved a suitable amendment here, the noble Lord's party failed to support it, so it would be very helpful to your Lordships to know whether the Liberal Democrats now support an "in or out" referendum on the European Union. If they do, they would be with us, of course.
To which Lord McNally returned a rather confused response:
First of all, Mr Clegg has never flounced anywhere in his life. We have said time and again that the Lisbon treaty, as the Conservative Party knows well, was a series of adjustments to EU arrangements to take account of the increasing membership of the EU. It was not the new constitution on which we had pledged a referendum. We have said consistently that if the EU comes forward with major constitutional changes, we will support an "in or out" referendum. It would be dishonest to keep suggesting referenda on changes, which, if they were carried, would cripple the EU, without having the courage to argue the "in or out" case.
It is, of course, easy to be confused about the Lib-Dim policy on practically anything.

Curiously and disappointingly, Lord Henley’s speech on behalf of the Conservative Party was little more than a petulant exercise in foot-stamping.
I accept that every private Member has a right to bring forward a Bill in this House or in another place. I would not want to restrict that in any way. But occasionally, possibly, there is a small element of abuse in bringing forward a Bill, right at the end of a Parliament, which has no prospect whatever of coming into law. It will waste our time on a number of Fridays or whenever when we have to deal with its Committee stage. Its sole purpose seems to be UKIP's general election manifesto.
Responding on HMG’s behalf, Lord Tunnicliffe said very little of any interest. Either he was not given his speech in time or he decided not to look at it before he stood up to deliver it in the House but one did not get the feeling that he actually knew what he was reading from his papers.

His rejection of Article I, withdrawal from the European Union, was not particularly thoughtful:
First, and perhaps least surprisingly given the noble Lord's membership of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Clause 1 would withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union. The Government believe that our membership of the European Union has brought real benefits to the United Kingdom through jobs, peace and security. Through our membership, we belong to the world's biggest trading bloc. Over half of the United Kingdom's trade is within the EU, with an estimated 3.5 million British jobs linked to it. Our membership allows us to live, work and travel across Europe.
In fact, the words “clichés” and “hackneyed” spring to mind. He was challenged on one of the most obviously nonsensical parts of that statement by Lord Pearson:
I wonder if the noble Lord could explain how leaving the political construct of the European Union and continuing in free trade with our friends in Europe would have any effect on jobs whatsoever.
What, I wondered sitting up in the gallery, would the Noble Minister say to that. Well, actually, nothing. Literally. He refused to answer the question and said so. Obviously, this is a painful topic that needs to be referred to again and again, as even the talented researchers in the Minister’s office seem unable to deal with the problem. UKIP PPCs please note.

I hope readers of this blog will take the time to read through Lord Willoughby de Broke’s Bill (linked to above) but I shall summarize the main points:

1. Withdrawal from the European Union as no meaningful constitutional reform can be carried out while we are still in that noxious organization (those words are not in the Bill as that is most definitely unparliamentary language).

2. Repeal of the Human Rights Act as it undermines HMG’s ability to deal with crimes, terrorism and other related matters, as the Conservatives once put it when they played around with the idea.

3. Parliamentary approval for all international treaties and military involvement (though that might have to be honed as some treaties are quite routine and barely need any debate and there many small military involvements around for Britain to participate in).

4. Fewer parliamentary seats – the Bill suggests 250 but others think it might have to be as many as 400. This can be discussed at Committee stage.

5. Fixed parliamentary terms of 5 years but this can be overruled by a vote of no confidence in the government or by a referendum that is properly requested as outlined in later articles.

6. Reduce sitting days to prevent endless legislation either through primary or secondary channels.

7. MPs to have a salary of £30,000 plus expenses of £175,000, properly explained. MPs to be encouraged to take jobs outside their political activity though clearly they cannot be compelled.

8. A referendum on the House of Lords within seven years of the Act being passed, in which there are four options, one being total abolition, the other status quo and two more.

9. The central point of the Bill is the inclusion of referendums in the British constitutional structure, the Swiss model being an obvious one. Referendums will have to be called if 1 out of 60 persons on the electoral register sign a petition to that effect. Clearly, the numbers are a detail to be discussed in Committee. Petitions cannot be run on line as that makes fraud easier. Among other matters that can be subject to a referendum is the question of whether an election should be called between the statutory dates. After all, as Lord Willoughby de Broke pointed out, the Prime Minister intends to have a referendum on whether to change the centuries old first past the post system (though, of course, not on whether the entire constitutional structure of this country should be submitted to the Constitutional Lisbon Treaty).

10. Apart from a few, carefully defined national issues, matters should be handed over to various forms of local government, who should be legislating on them (if they really think they should) as well as raising taxes. Local referendums on various issues should be part of the arrangement.

11. A Royal Commission should be appointed to examine the existing public bodies, quangos, regional assemblies and other such leach-like institutions (unparliamentary language again) to decide, which are essential to the country, which should be kept on national level and which should be handed over to local authorities to do with them as they wish.

All, in all, a rebalancing of powers without the benefit of many committees and consultations. The Bill has now been committed to the Committee of the Whole House.