Thursday, June 30, 2011

Here we go again

Apparently, David Cameron and his party are on a collision course over Europe. So says the great Ben Brogan so it must be true. Or not.
Does crisis bring opportunity? This is the question that is dividing the Conservative Party on Europe. On one side, there are those who see the slow implosion of Greece and the turmoil across the Channel as a heaven-sent chance to achieve a grand renegotiation of Britain’s membership. On the other, are those for whom the crisis is, above all, a threat to our economy that needs to be managed. For them, the idea that in any circumstance – let alone the present mess – the EU would contemplate indulging British fantasies of partial withdrawal is laughable.

The debate is potentially explosive, as it pits David Cameron against a new breed of hard-headed Tory MP, most of whom are members of the vast new intake that poured into Parliament last year. Yet few will have noticed that this discussion is under way, so desperate is the party to avoid being discovered having an argument over Europe. Indeed, one of the features of the Tories in coalition has been their silence on a matter that once defined them. A brave few, veterans of past battles, carry the standard of defiance against the relentless advance of European rule, but they are marginalised, derided by the leadership as barmy and shunned by their newer colleagues who want nothing to do with the toxic arguments of previous generations of parliamentarians.
The truth is that reorganizing the EU would be so difficult and complicated that it is probably not worth attempting, especially, as its aim is a long way from what most Conservatives think it is.

It is my experience, acquired over many years of discussions and debates, both public and private, with Conservatives that the overwhelming majority of them (say, 98 per cent) have absolutlely no understanding of how the European Union is structured, how it legislates and how that legislation and regulations are implemented in the member states. They, therefore, produce all sorts of comments along the lines quoted by Mr Brogan, all of which have just one aim: the presentation of the Conservative Party as the one and only truly eurosceptic political organization in this country, for which all "true" eurosceptics should vote. Sadly, ever more people find this notion ludicrous but not hacks on the Telegraph, including the great Mr Brogan (and, dare I say it, the great Mr Hannan.

Let me add, in case, I have not made my opinions on the subject crystal clear, that, in my view and in the view of many real opponents of the European Union, the same notion is the real purpose of the two (so far) campaigns for an In/Out referendum. By fudging the two ideas, withdrawal and a referendum, the campaigns will, it is hoped by various supporters, convince potential voters that they should rally round the "eurosceptic" politicians in the main parties, most of whom just happen to be in the Conservative one though one or two are Labour.

Which brings me to this hint-hint-nudge-nudge piece in the Express (a firm supporter of that referendum) that tells us on the basis of another wink-wink-know-what-I-mean-know-what-I-mean piece in the Spectator, that there are Cabinet members who end all discussions allegedly in the manner of Cato the Elder, with the words "well, the only solution is to leave the EU".

Well, now, how convenient. Of course, we do not know whether this is true or, even if true, serious and not a half-hearted joke. But it does show, does it not, that the only way real eurosceptics can achieve their aims is by supporting the Tories. And if you believe that, I have a bridge you might be interested in buying.

Let me say it again ...

.... because it cannot be said often enough: those who strike, demonstrate or riot for more state control and more redistribution of wealth by the state, whether in Athens or in London (where the inevitable Socialist Worker posters are much in evidence) are NOT anarchists. They are not anarchists of any kind, not even Bakuninites (and those are close to socialists); they are not anarcho-syndicalists, let alone anarcho-capitalists. One reader of this blog has suggested that they should be called anarcho-statists. Said reader is right but Prince Kropotkin is spinning in his grave.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My first reaction was a groan

Really, I thought, as I looked at the front page of City AM, this is not what I expect from a more or less reasonable newspaper. The Evening Standard has long given up any pretence of being one and its purpose seems to be to run endless campaigns to help or save somebody who is having a bad time. Furthermore, as I have pointed out before, people seem to support all these campaigns with great vigour without ever asking themselves whether the previous similar one had achieved anything worth writing home about. But City AM?

It has proudly announced that Michael Gove is backing their campaign "to improve financial literacy by boosting the number of students who study further maths at A-Level". In fact, this campaign makes some sense in that the drive is to ensure that there are more teachers teaching Further Maths to A level, thus ensuring that more people study Maths or related subjects at the better universities whose Maths departments are filled with foreign rather than British students.

Moving on from there, says Allister Heath, editor of said publication (and a friend), we must eliminate or, at least, greatly diminish the innumeracy and fiscal illiteracy that is "rife in this country". At least, unlike the Evening Standard, City AM does not scruple to lay the blame where it belongs: the educational system, the schools and the teachers.

As outlined by Mr Heath the campaign is targeted and focused as well as hard-hitting. One can support it with ease and I hope businesses do. I am a little less impressed by what, according to the BBC, Mr Gove actually said. It seems that, instead of concentrating on the quality of maths teaching and the need for better school and university qualifications in the subject, regardless of the pupils' background, Mr Gove once again waffled about making Maths compulsory up to the age of 18 and lamented, as he frequently does, the low level of maths teaching in this country as compared with that in East Asian countries.

The problem is, Mr Gove, that if the standard of maths teaching is low up to the age of 16 and not very high at A level, making something that is not good enough compulsor for more pupils is not the answer.

Nothing much has been solved

The Greek Parliament has voted narrowly for a, so far unspecified, austerity package, the details of which will be voted on tomorrow and after that the main problem, that of implementation will come to the fore. Meanwhile, the 48 hour general strike with some attendant violence is continuing. The people of Greece or those of them who can be bothered to turn out on a demonstration when the weather is nice and the beaches call, say that they owe nothing and will pay nothing and the government has no right to sell anything or, indeed, introduce measures to control the debt. In fact, the funders of the Greek several decades long jamboree have no right to demand any conditions on heaving more money over.

This blog takes slightly different views from other eurosceptic outlets. In the first place, the idea of a general collapse across Europe or, even, just the eurozone (not that riots in Greece will cause that as they are historically too common) does not appeal, possibly because of a somewhat wider knowledge and experience of what that sort of collapse entails. People should not assume that the nastiness they see whenever there is a riot somewhere is somehow limited to other people - riots are riots, revolutions are revolutions and real poverty, unknown in this country for many decades, are not pleasant occurrences.

Secondly, this blog has limited sympathy for people who think that the world owes them a living, whether they are school leavers in Britain, people who borrow money from banks with no real intention of repaying it, or the population of Greece. As it happens, they do owe the money and when you owe money you have to pay it back; if you want to borrow more, you must abide by conditions lenders will impose. This should apply to Greece as much as it applies to Sub-Saharan and other developing countries, with the difference that, by and large, the people of Greece have had more of the bonanza that has been pouring into their country than the people of many developing countries.

Those who think that the Greek Parliament should not be imposing austerity measures or selling those extensive state possessions might like to produce some real alternatives. (Just saying we ought never have got to this situation is not good enough. I, too, have been saying that and am one of those who were abused in the late nineties for insisting that the eurozone was unsustainable. The Greeks did not listen, the East Europeans did not listen and our own establishment did not listen. Well, we told you so, but the situation exists and something needs to be done.)

In the meantime City AM has an article that is, unfortunately a little sloppily written. A Legal Battle Could Yet Sink The Greek Bail-Out says Craig Drake.
ALTHOUGH the Greeks will vote today on the adoption of austerity measures, that vote could mean nothing if a court case launched by a group of five German citizens derails Germany’s financial contribution to the bailout. The group, led by Peter Gauweiler, a member of parliament for the Christian Social Union (CSU) party, includes legal academics led by Nuremberg constitutional law professor Karl Albrecht Schachtschneider. They argue that the bailout is unconstitutional both in German and European law.
It goes through the various Articles in the German Constitution that make German funding of the Greek bail-out essentially unconstitutional and, above all, Article 125 of the Lisbon Treaty that specifically prohibits any bail-out of an EU member states either by the EU or other member states. Though, as we know, Article 122.2 can, with a little fudging, be said to allow just that.

Mr Drake thinks that the legal challenge will fail but in the worst traditions of British journalism, omits to mention certain key facts, such as where exactly is the challenge mounted: the German courts, the German Constitutional Court or the ECJ. It makes a lot of difference.

Bloomberg answers the question as well as explaining some of the background in a far more pithy fashion. The case is in the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe and it is, in fact, not a new case at all but, just as I suspected as I read the article on the tube, one that has been around for some time and was mentioned on this blog almost a year ago.

As the Bloomberg piece says:
The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe will hear oral arguments in three cases over the issue on July 5, the court said in an e-mailed statement today. The cases were brought by a group of academics and lawmaker Peter Gauweiler.

“In this lead case, the court for the first time decides in the main proceedings on constitutional questions relating to the Greece aid and the Euro-rescue package,” the court said. “There are many additional cases pending over the issues which will be ruled on subsequently.”

The German high court has drawn criticism for not acting on the suits swiftly on the suits, which were filed in the first half of 2010. The judges declined to issue emergency orders blocking the aid package for Greece in May 2010 and the euro- area rescue fund in June 2010 and didn’t schedule a hearing on the main legal questions in the cases until today.
The likelihood is that the case will fail but one cannot be too certain. Craig Drake's comparison with the badly argued challenge mounted by Stuart Wheeler in 2008 against the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty does not stand. I am sorry to have to say this because, on the whole, I like City AM.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

She DID get the job

IMF appoints France's Lagarde as IMF Managing Director.

Another brief comment about the House of Lords

Readers of this blog will know, firstly that I work for various peers in the House of Lords and, secondly, that I do not think the progressive undermining of that institution's position and activity by various governments is in this country's interest.

It always astonishes me that people who ought to know better call for a fully elected Upper House, arguing that somehow, miraculously, that will solve all our problems, make governance more democratic and improve the work of the House of Lords (or Senators as they would be called).

The most obvious response to that is a question about the elected House of Commons. Is it really more democratic, transparent, efficient than the House of Lords? It is elected but, strangely enough, it appears not to know what its constitutional role is. Why would a fully elected House of Lords be any different?

Then there is a question of the peers' independence, particularly those on the Cross-Benches, something that seems not to be well known to the vociferous critics. This morning I attended the Service of Thanksgiving for the life of Lord Monson, where one of the eulogies was spoken by Lord Montgomery, who told us with great delight about Ivan Monson's continuing battle as a Cross-Bench peer, often though not always supported by others, for the various causes, all to do with individual freedom, throughout his stay there.

In a fully elected House of Lords there will be no Cross-Benches, no independent peers, no independent thinking, voting or behaviour at all. There will be no detailed analysis of legislation (done without any salary being received, something else that will change) as all peers will behave just as MPs and the more political members of the Upper House do now: they will obey the Whips and the Leaders.

What matters is the role of an institution and the activity of its members, not the shibboleth of whether they are elected or not. Obviously, the main House has to be elected if we want to preserve any illusion of political accountability. But the necessity for two elected Houses, especially if other reforms do not follow, remains unproven, except for those who think political life has to be controlled by the main parties and their organizations.

Probably she will get the job

As this blog has pointed out before, whenever there is a sex scandal in high places, the job subsequently goes to a woman. Therefore, it seems very likely that Christine Lagarde will get the job at the top of the IMF. Now we get news that the US backs her candidacy against potential challengers from other countries, some of which are developing. I think she'll get it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

And the President of the European Central Bank ...

.... will be the Italian Mario Draghi, after some more shenanigans.
The 63-year-old economist and banker has been given the post for eight years and will replace current ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet, who steps down on Oct. 31. His appointment had been thrown into doubt with the refusal of another Italian, Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, to step down from the ECB executive board. France, who would have been left without representation on the board after the departure of Trichet, previously implied that it would not back Draghi for the top job unless Bini Smaghi was replaced with someone French.

Initially, Bini Smaghi -- who is not due to leave his post until May 2013 -- refused to yield his position. But European sources said Friday that he had assured EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he would relinquish his role in the coming weeks.
Chancellor Merkel insists that no pressure was applied on Signor Smaghi; or if it was, it would in any way endanger the ECB's independence. Well, she would say that, wouldn't she.

Will this make any difference? Unlikely. It looks like Greece will receive a second tranche of other people's money, will promise to mend its ways and will ignore all those promises. Until the next time, which will come very soon.

A blog that is well worth reading

Alan Craig's name is not as well known as, perhaps, it ought to be. He is the man who led the battle against the East London mega-mosque, a battle that seems to have been lost as planning permission has been approved of. But to some extent the battle was won as the vast building will not be constructed in time for the 2012 Olympics, which was the original aim.

The sect behind the mega-mosque is Tablighi Jamaat, which originated in South Asia and has particularly harsh views on the position of women (as well as the Infidel). This is what Mr Craig has to say and he is not inaccurate:
Originating from South Asia, Tablighi Jamaat is the most successful Islamic missionary group on the planet and the UK is one of their prime missionary targets. During the recent public inquiry into the use of their West Ham site, the sect’s trustees explained how they reconcile their active promotion of wedding ceremonies with the fact that theirs is a male-only mosque. At the ceremony the marriage contract is signed solely by the bridegroom and the father or brother of the bride. The bride does not sign it. She does not even attend her own wedding.

The Planning Inspector, blinded and biased by his profession’s multi-cultural mores, subsequently reported (here) merely that “the highest standards… of inclusion for women… are not being achieved” at the male-only site (yes, he really wrote such tripe, check it out: para 77) and that the all-male mosque is “generally an inclusive environment”! Troglodyte Saudi authorities that bar female car drivers within the regressive Kingdom can eat their hearts out: this bride-ban is happening in 21st century London apparently with the active connivance of UK authorities.
When shall we hear from the feminist organizations of this country about this outrage. Or about the other one Mr Craig writes about on his blog, the bullying of a Bangladeshi Christian pharmacy assistant?

My own association with Mr Craig is through work on Baroness Cox's Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill about which I have yet to write. Mea culpa. I am delighted that he has a blog of his own as well as a column in The Church of England Newspaper. I strongly recommend the blog to my readers though I know that not all will agree with everything Mr Craig says. He would be the first to support people's right to disagree. Go for it.

ADDENDUM: Alan Craig disagrees with me on one important point and says this:
Actually the battle against the mega-mosque is far from lost; in a sense the battle proper has yet to begin - when we see the full plans published later this year.

However we have lost a preliminary planning skirmish - which no doubt has encouraged and emboldened the mosque proposers. We won the argument but lost the decision - this time round.
Well, he will have the full support of this blog. A city that has as many mosques as London does, has no need of a mega-mosque, let alone one where women are not allowed to sign their own marriage agreements.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

This and that

Why, readers might ask, does she not write more about the European Union? Is that not the most important issue around? Well, yes and no. There are many issues and I have been a little remiss in handling most of them. As for the EU, well, the more I see soi-disant eurosceptics and the more I listen to their bleating, the more I think that maybe it is time either to retire from the fight or join the other side. Probably I shan't do either but it is very tempting, particularly when I see those ridiculous campaigns for an In/Out referendum, which we are bound to lose or listen to vacuous MPs.

Enough already. Let us turn to some other issues. It is summer so the Gaza flotillas are about to set off. Everything we said last year can be said this year, with additional references to the Arab spring that seems not to be resolving into high summer but has caused a great many casualties in various Arab countries as tyrannical dictators (no, it is not a tautology) cling on to power by slaughtering as many of their people as they can manage.

Syria is a particularly good example, as the Irish Examiner points out.
If the Assad regime were deposed, it would represent a major setback to both the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. Conversely, Lebanon’s March 14 democracy campaign and the Iranian Green Movement would be emboldened by the overthrow. Since March, 1,400 demonstrators have been killed by the Syrian security forces. Assad says his people love him and promises change but the reality is bullets in the backs of women mourning their sons.

The Assads have, successfully, put down dissent before. In Hama, upwards of 10,000 people were massacred on Daddy Assad’s orders in 1982, many times more than infamously died in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps the same year.

Following in his father’s footsteps, the current Assad deployed his air force against the Kurdish minority in 2004. Scores were killed and thousands were arrested and tortured. Nevertheless, somehow Assad – like the younger Gaddafi — has managed to create an image for himself as a good guy in bad guy’s clothing. He behaves like another Gaddafi but Hillary Clinton calls him "a reformer".

The fear is, of course, that if Assad went, the Muslim Brotherhood would take over. But in the Syrian case, unlike Egypt’s, is that necessarily a step backwards? It’s tempting to think it would be a good thing if Assad were allowed to cling precariously to power. But history suggests dictators like Assad become externally aggressive in response as they try to earn legitimacy in their citizens’ eyes. Right now, compelled to devote his energies to staying in power, Assad has little time to stir up fires elsewhere. But for how long?
A nasty, bloody regime with many links to terrorists organizations and a tendency to ... well, not to put too fine a point on it, massacre the people of Syria.
The more immediate question is, why is the MV Saoirse and its assorted passengers heading for Gaza and not the Syrian coast? Surely, if anyone could use some solidarity right now, it is the Syrian opposition forces who are being murdered on a daily basis?

Yes, Israel is maintaining a sea blockade to prevent the smuggling of Iranian weaponry into Gaza. But can we really blame them? Ireland has special reason to understand the need to prevent the entry of weapons by sea for terrorist purposes, having had the experience of the IRA’s attempts to import arms and explosives on ships from Libya in 1973 (the Claudia) and 1987 (the Eksund), and — with Martin Ferris’ help — on the Marita Ann from the US in 1984.

As the deputy director of the Red Cross in Gaza stated in April this year: "There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza." But there most certainly is a humanitarian crisis in Syria. The Gazan economy is clipping along and tonnes of consumer goods and food arrive daily. For sure, life is probably not very pleasant there by our standards but the oppression comes from the ruling Hamas regime, not Israel which pulled out every last settler and soldier years ago.

So how about it, Fintan Lane, Barry Andrews, Sinn Féin, and your far-left buddies? Why not divert a couple of hundred miles north to Latakia where President Assad is mowing down his own people because they dare to demand dignity and democracy? Surely, there is no contest in terms of suffering?
One could and should address the same question to all those who are setting out in their flotillas to demonstrate something or other by sailing to Gaza.

Phyllis Chesler has harsh words:
These self-styled activists and presumed anti-racists are slumming, partying, cruising for cheap thrills and even cheaper publicity. They yearn for cut-rate, no “burn” glory. They are ultimate conformists, careerists, “making their bones,” adding to their activist resumes by sticking it to the Jews. This is meant to prove that they are brave and principled.

In essence, they are engaged in a highly self-destructive form of political theatre: they are concretely manipulating symbols in the same way that Osama bin Laden did on 9/11. In the name of “caring,” these activists are surrendering to the most dangerous totalitarian and misogynist Islamist regime—but in the name of “freedom” and “justice.”
Indeed. And they also have a tendency to whimper when Israel exercises every country's right to defend itself. And, of course, none of them have the slightest idea of what the situation in Gaza is really like or who is really oppressing the people of Gaza. Hint: the Israelis are not there but Hamas is.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has backed Syrian tyrant Baby Assad (to distinguish him from previous Syrian tyrant, Daddy Assad), naturally enough, since he has been their patron and supporter for many year.
Hezbollah has thrown in its lot with Assad against the Syrian people, supplying gunmen to execute Syrian soldiers who refuse to take part in the killing of Syrian citizens. By siding so unequivocally with the Alawite dictator over his captive, predominantly Sunni population, and in a dispute that has nothing to do with Israel no less, Hezbollah has exploded its carefully constructed image as the standard-bearer for the Muslim common man against the Zionist enemy. Outraged Syrians are now being filmed burning posters of Hezbollah’s chief, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
The big question is will either Baby Assad or Hezbollah or the two together instigate a war with Israel in order to take away attention from internal dissent of both country and organization?

ADDENDUM: Another excellent piece on the subject, this time by Kevin Myers, one of the sanest journalists around (though he is in Ireland not in Britain). He asks quite rationally "How can do-gooders possibly think that Gaza is the primary centre of injustice in Middle East?". He is, as all decent people must be, stunned by the visceral hatred Israel excites in people who ought to know better (for example Brian Keenan who was held hostage for four years by Arab terrorists).
But how can anyone possibly think that Gaza is the primary centre of injustice in the Middle East? According to Mathilde Redmatn, deputy director of the International Red Cross in Gaza, there is in fact no humanitarian crisis there at all. But by God, there is one in Syria, where possibly thousands have died in the past month.

However, I notice that none of the Irish do-gooders are sending an aid-ship to Latakia. Why? Is it because they know that the Syrians do not deal with dissenting vessels by lads with truncheons abseiling down from helicopters, but with belt-fed machine guns, right from the start?

What about a humanitarian ship to Libya? Surely no-one on the MV Saoirse could possible maintain that life under Gaddafi qualified it as a civilised state. Not merely did it murder opponents by the bucketload at home and abroad, it kept the IRA campaign going for 20 years, and it also -- a minor point, this, I know -- brought down the Pan Am flight at Lockerbie. Yet no Irish boat to Libya. Only the other way round.
One reluctantly assumes that these people are not motivated with feelings of humanitarian charity towards Arabs but something very different and far more pernicious.

Sanity in sight?

As predicted, Geert Wilders has been acquitted of hate speech and discrimination (whatever that may mean). Lots of links but here is an American one that is relatively objective. Bloomberg mentions in the first paragraph that this farce has lasted for three years. Mr Wilders's comments "fell within the bounds of legitimate political debate", according to the judge. And so I should think. Ed West is absolutely right: the mere fact that this trial took place is a disgrace. One can only surmise that the Dutch legal system has nothing else to deal with.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Are they going to draw a line?

There is a general acceptance that Geert Wilders will be acquitted tomorrow on all charges after 29 months of legal struggle, which occasionally tipped over into black farce. Radio Netherlands gives quite a good summary of the developments here, explaining that, in the end it is the Dutch legal system that has found itself on trial.
Judicial system damaged
In the end, it was not Islam but the Dutch judicial system that came under the spotlight during the course of the trial. Three developments in particular have damaged the credibility of the judicial establishment.

First, the ruling of the Amsterdam court to prosecute Wilders was controversial in and of itself. The court made the ruling only after a special team at the national public prosecutor’s office had repeatedly decided not to prosecute Mr Wilders. This exposed an internal struggle between the district court and the justice ministry.

In that struggle, Amsterdam won the first round by forcing the trial to take place. But the justice ministry pushed back. They assigned two members of that same special team to conduct the prosecution at the trial in Amsterdam. Thus, Geert Wilders’ prosecutors were already on record as opposing his prosecution. And, indeed, during the trial they used the same argument, calling for Mr Wilders to be acquitted.

Attempt to silence Wilders
The second development was brought on by Mr Wilders’ defence. He and his lawyer have claimed that this trial is a politically motivated attempt to silence him. A strong accusation. But this claim became more plausible when the initial three judges hearing the trial were ruled to have demonstrated possible bias against Mr Wilders.

The trial had to resume with three new judges, but not before the Amsterdam district court went through an intensive process of self-reflection and public criticism.

That leaves the third development, one which again put the judicial system in a bad light: ‘the dinner’. For a few months, the trial focused on a social gathering involving the judge who wrote the decision to prosecute Mr Wilders and one of the three expert witnesses called by the defence. Allegations of witness tampering were shown to be unfounded, but the judge, and by extension the entire Amsterdam district court, came out looking naïve and amateurish.
Al-Jazeera agrees that Mr Wilders is likely to be acquitted. Their view is that the ending of this case will not end the debate about freedom of speech in the Netherlands (and, indeed, why should it?).
Whatever the verdict will be on Thursday, it seems clear that the debate about the limits of freedom of speech in the Netherlands will not be over.

Bas Paternotte, a political journalist for HP/De Tijd magazine and a frequent contributor to the highly popular right-wing shock-blog Geenstijl, argues that the Dutch political climate has shifted significantly over the past years.

"Fifteen years ago, Hans Janmaat [another extreme-right Dutch politician] was convicted for saying he wanted to abolish multiculturalism. Last week, the government said that multiculturalism has failed and that it will cut financial support for minority target groups. This is an evolution in thinking and political action and maybe the trial against Wilders is part of that same evolution."
This blog has followed the Wilders case (here, here partially, and here) as well as writing about Mr Wilders's electoral success, the attacks on him that, shamefully, included ones from the British media and his visit to Westminster to show his film Fitna to MPs and peers. Any reader who wishes to revisit those stories can follow this link.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Irwin Stelzer sees only darkness at the end of the tunnel

In fact, he sees no tunnel at all, merely darkness in this article in today's Evening Standard. What can be done?
Greece matters because it has brought the eurozone to a crossroads: allow the southern members to exit or form a euro sud; continue to transfer income to them; or form a fiscal union with Brussels controlling the tax and spending policies of the eurozone member states.

For now, the policy is to keep Greece afloat until something turns up, some language that will make a default not a default, and some definition of "voluntary" that will allow Greece and others to coerce lenders into extending loans at below-market rates. George Orwell long ago warned that slovenly language "makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts".
How true, how very true and how many times have we told them so?

Not that Britain is going to escape the troubles and, indeed, we know that already.
That seems to describe what is going on at the highest policy levels in euroland. And lest you think this has nothing to do with Britain, think again. The euroland 27 can outvote the 10 European Union members who decided to stay out of the eurozone. The 17 meet to set economic policy without consulting the 10 euro-shunners.

They are already calling for more relaxed EU regulation of banks' capital requirements but more stringent regulation of the parts of the financial sector in which Britain excels. Staying out of euroland no longer ensures avoiding the consequences of its flawed structure.
And if you think that wonderful new "eurosceptic" intake of Conservative MPs will save us, think again.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Could somebody send this to the Boy-King?

As it happens I don't know the little twerp's Prime Minister's e-mail address, so I have to ask other people to send this on. By this, I mean Roger Kimball's excellent article in which he compares Rick Perry, Governor of Texas and possible candidate for the position of Republican challenger next year, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a man who has caused more trouble in modern history than almost anyone else without ever dirtying his hands.

To start with, Dr Kimball points out:
Here’s an statistic worth pondering: 45 percent of net U.S. job creation in the last two years comes from Texas.

Yes, Texas: the state that is the poster child for right-wingery, the state with no state income tax whose population is growing at about 1000 per day (see a connection?) while bankrupt behemoths like California are bleeding jobs and people.

There are a handful of other places in the U.S. where job creation is rife. One of them is Washington, D.C., where an exploding government bureaucracy has also led to the creation of many jobs.

Many public-sector, i.e., tax-payer-funded jobs, that is. The jobs in Texas are overwhelmingly private-sector, i.e., wealth-creating jobs.
Governor Perry has, apparently, called for Texans and, in particular, those who create jobs in the private sector and make Texas such a rich and attractive state, to stop apologizing for wanting to stop the "entitlement mentality".

Sounds good to me. It is the mentality that is the problem, the notion that somehow or other one is entitled to some sort of a hand-out and if anybody suggests otherwise, they are evil, satanic and generally unpleasant. It is, according to some people, "fascist" to suggest that people who cannot afford to rent or buy expensive accommodation should not do so but buy something cheaper rather than demand money from the state to make up the difference.

All that is by the by. What I should like somebody to drum into the Boy-King and, indeed, other politicians who profess to be Conservatives, is the following:
We do not yet know whether Rick Perry will be running for president. I hope he does. He would inject a few red corpuscles into the mix. And his acknowledgment that it is pointless, indeed counterproductive, for conservatives to cater to liberals accords with Dr. Kimball’s first rule of political strategy:

Conservatives do not win elections by pretending to be liberals.

It is a curious fact, well worth pondering, that the converse is not true: conservatives do not win elections by pretending to be liberals, but liberals often win elections by pretending to be conservatives.
Got that? Conservatives do not win elections by pretending to be soft leftie liberals (in the modern American sense of the word, which is, in fact, highly illiberal).

Osborne is off the hook for the time being

This morning the Telegraph trumpeted that George Osborne our Chancellor of the Exchequer in the strange world we live in, was going to get tough:
George Osborne, the chancellor, will tell EU finance ministers in Luxembourg today that Britain does not intend playing a part in any new aid package for Greece.
As one reads the article, though, one finds that the decision is not actually Mr Osborne's.
Germany and France have signalled that there is no reason for London to pay a share of a repeat bailout, likely to be finalised within weeks and for a similar sum as the first.

At today's talks in Luxembourg, Mr Osborne is expected to say that the issue is one for the eurozone alone.

Britain's only potential contribution to bailing out Greece again now comes from its shareholding in the IMF, in the form of loan guarantees which would only be called in if Greece defaults.
Meanwhile, the IMF is urging the Eurozone (or possibly the EU) to go on pouring money into Greece, who seems curiously reluctant to do anything to help itself, relying possibly on yet more bail-outs. Furthermore, says the Acting Head of the IMF (there was a spot of trouble with the man who is supposed to be making these comments) further integration is needed.
The fund added: "Rapid implementation of the commitment to scale up the European financial stability facility and a further extension of its potential uses would sent a much needed signal that member countries 'will do whatever it takes to safeguard the stability of the euro area'. In this context, it will be essential to bring the unproductive debate about debt reprofiling or restructuring to closure quickly, and avoid and impression that the European stability mechanism will be conditional on debt restructuring."
Nevertheless, the Finance Ministers have decided to wait and see. In particular they would like to see some of those proposed austerity measures and selling of state assets, that the Greeks keep demonstrating against, actually being put into place.

Euro zone finance ministers have postponed a final decision on extending 12bn euros ($17bn) in emergency loans to Greece, until it introduces further austerity measures.
The ministers said on Monday that they expected to pay the next tranche of a 110bn-euro bailout package, backed by European Union and the International Monetary Fund, by mid-July.

Greece has said it needs the loans by then to avoid defaulting on its debt.

Keeping up their pressure on Athens, where public opposition to austerity has been growing, the ministers insisted that disbursement would depend on the Greek parliament first passing laws on fiscal reforms and selling off state assets.

"To move to the payment of the next tranche, we need to be sure that the Greek parliament will approve the confidence vote and support the programme, so the decision will be taken at the start of the month of July," Didier Reynders, Belgian finance minister, said after the meeting in Luxembourg.
Mr Osborne must be relieved.

The answer

How silly of me not to think of Mr Google when I posed my question, encouraging readers to guess when a particular comment was made and in connection with whom. Those who guessed before or instead of discussing the matter with Mr G. came up with interesting replies (though I am still trying to work out what this comment means: "1946, Hitler/Nazi Germany, presumably talking about Churchill?". That got me well and truly confused.

However, it is clear that unless one happens to know or confers with Mr G. it becomes very hard to work out as the parliamentary comment could have been made about HMG and, especially, about the Foreign Office (now Foreign and Commonwealth Office) at any time in the last 200 or 250 years, perhaps more, which ought to be something we should all consider with due seriousness. In other words, it is not the people who are there now who are the problem but the whole institution in general.

And the answer? It was Lord Charles Beresford MP, speaking in 1902 in a debate on the following motion [scroll down for Lord Charles's fascinating contribution]:
That a sum, not exceeding £35,150, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1903, for the salaries and expenses of the Department of His Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
Now that I think of it, there has been an important change: Parliament no longer debates individual departments' budgets and, therefore, has no opportunity to criticize or analyze their performance. That, I can't help feeling, is a great shame.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Further to those plastic bags

As readers of this blog know, HMG is still assessing the various aspects of EU involvement in the burning question of whether plastic carrier bags should be banned throughout its fair domain. It's as well that the EU's own decision making machinery is so slow and ponderous - after all, they still think they live in the 1950s - because evidence is coming in that the shibboleths of yesterday are the fishwraps of tomorrow.

Thanks to one regular reader I can link to an article that is, admittedly, several months old but is pertinent to the issue.
Unpublished Government research suggests the plastic carrier may not be an eco villain after all – but, whisper it, an unsung hero. Hated by environmentalists and shunned by shoppers, the disposable plastic bag is piling up in a shame-filled corner of retail history. But a draft report by the Environment Agency, obtained by the Independent on Sunday, has found that ordinary high density polythene (HDPE) bags used by shops are actually greener than supposedly low impact choices.

HDPE bags are, for each use, almost 200 times less damaging to the climate than cotton hold-alls favoured by environmentalists, and have less than one third of the Co2 emissions than paper bags which are given out by retailers such as Primark.

The findings suggest that, in order to balance out the tiny impact of each lightweight plastic bag, consumers would have to use the same cotton bag every working day for a year, or use paper bags at least thrice rather than sticking them in the bin or recycling.
I see the report has remained unpublished.

May they continue to be independent

Today is Iceland's Independence Day, which celebrates the creation of the Republic of Iceland, separated from the Kingdom of Denmark, in 1944. May this island with its splendid history continue to be independent for many many years to come. This blog salutes the people of Iceland.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Try to guess ...

... when this was said and about whom. A hint: it was spoken by an MP in the House of Commons during a debate on foreign policy. Guess the date and who X might be. Answers in a later posting.
They all wanted a better understanding with X, but how was it to be brought about? X's policy was based on the giving of assurances, and there was no case in the history of X with regard to assurances where they had not been broken when X was in a position to do so. He did not blame X; X's Ministers were very clever. But he blamed our FO for listening to their assurances, always knowing that they would be broken.
Approximate date and identity of X, please.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some exciting news

Every now and then the BBC produces some really exciting news like this story of the completion of the dictionary of Akkadian, the language spoken in Mesopotamia and extinct for a couple of millennia. There is also a recording of one of the scholars having fun trying to speak it.

And the answer is?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon, a man who appears frequently on this blog, put down a perfectly reasonable Written Question:

To ask Her Majesty's Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord Henley on 6 June (WA 57), what assessment they have made of the proportionality and subsidiarity of a European Union-wide ban on plastic bags.
The Written Question to which Lord Henley had replied on June 6 had been:
To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the possibility raised by Mr Janez Potocnik, European Union Environmental Commissioner, of a European Union-wide ban on plastic carrier bags.
Well, it is hard to tell from the Ministerial Response what the assessment might be:
The Commission is currently consulting on a number of possible options for the reduction in the use of plastic carrier bags.

We will be engaging in this consultation.
Right, so what is HMG's assessment of the rules of proportionality and subsidiarity involved? Or in other words, should the matter of plastic bags be an EU competence or, for that matter, though that is not part of this question, government competence at all? Who knows? Not Lord Henley, who produced the following response, drafted for him by his very fine civil servants:
We are currently assessing the options proposed in the Commission consultation on a reduction in the use of plastic bags. These issues will be considered as part of the government response.
How long will they go on assessing?

Bishop Nazir-Ali on Shari'a and Western legal structures

I shall be writing more about Baroness Cox's new Bill that has had its First Reading in the House of Lords but, first, here are a few quotations from one of its supporters, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, formerly Bishop of Rochester.

Bishop Michael, as he seems to be known by many, is highly knowledgeable about Islam, its history and theology as well as the legal structures. As a Christian convert in Pakistan he experienced many problems in Pakistan and has little sympathy with those who consider Shari'a law to be either inevitable or acceptable as either part of British law or as a parallel system.

These quotations come from his chapter in a book edited by Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney, Shari'a in the West. The chapter has a suitably scholarly title: Islamic Law, Fundamental Freedoms and Social Cohesion: Retrospect and Prospect.

The quotations come from the end of the chapter after a fascinating historical overview and analysis of the subject:
In the West today, Muslims, along with other religionists, enjoy the right to practise and propagate the faith. Their religious leaders, moreover, should be free to guide them according to the tenets of the faith, and this includes the Shari'a (as codified by the various schools of law, with their differences and similarities). We must also expect that Muslims will seek to influence public policy in accordance with the teachings of Islam.

There is, however, another side to the coin. The autonomy of the public law of the land must be upheld. In most Western contexts this law is derived from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as interpreted and clarified by aspects of the Enlightenment. The Shari'a even if influenced by the laws of Byzantine, is actually founded on quite different assumptions. Its recognition or incorporation into public law could cause not only confusion, but an undermining of the fundamental assumptions undergirding the general law. Family law, for example, is often mooted as an area of Islamic law that might, somehow, be recognized by public law in the West. But what would be the consequences? I noted earlier the unequal position of Islamic women in the context of divorce. Similar questions would arise with respect to the custody of children, the laws of inheritance and of evidence, the legality of polygamy, and so on.

To repeat: Muslims should be free to order their lives, including their family lives, according to Islamic teachings. As with other communities, there may be arrangements for the restoration of disputes which arise within Muslim communities. They should not, however, take on a quasi-legal form, nor can their jurisdiction be acknowledged in matters that are for the courts to address. If any question arises about the fundamental rights and responsibilities of a citizen or resident, there must continue to be free access to the courts to enable such matters to settled in accordance with the law of the land. The possibility of some persons, such as women or young people, being coerced into accepting the decisions of so-called Shari'a 'councils' or 'tribunals' has to be monitored carefully. Moreover, it should not be possible for the structures and institutions of any religion to deal with criminal matters - domestic violence and rape come to mind here.

We have noted the difficulties surrounding the operation of Islamic finance in Muslim countries, let alone in the West. Once again, Muslims should be free to comply with Shari'a teaching on this subject and financial institutions can offer products that Muslims judge to be Shari'a compliant. But equally again, any dispute must be settled according to the commercial law of the land.
One can see even from those few paragraphs that many problems and difficulties can arise from trying to ensure freedom of religion and religious practice as well as equal rights and duties, regardless of gender or religion. Bishop Michael is unequivocal on his opposition to the incorporation of Shari'a law "into the public law of states, or of groups of states (such as the EU)". He also opposes the creation of a parallel system of courts, tribunals or councils that decide according to a parallel legal system. On the whole, I think, given his knowledge and understanding, I would rather take his opinion on the subject than that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who can, at best, be described as somewhat naive.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Still no government

One year on Belgium still manages with a caretaker federal government. Not that it matters - there is the other government, also in Brussels.

Monday, June 13, 2011

One day we shall get there

Andrew Klavan happily enumerates the recent victories by the new media and losses by the old one. He compares it to the American Revolution and the fight against the British Redcoats (though omits to mention that the war was in many ways a civil war between American colonists, many of whom remained loyal to the Crown). Let us disregard the contentious historical parallel and look at the present. Klavan is right - there have been several notable victories and they were important. On this side of the Pond we have a long way to go.

For a secret organization ...

... the darn thing is far too open.

Hands up all those who mutter "Bilderbergers" whenever they like to produce a group of secretive, sinister individuals who meet regularly and plot to overtake the world, in which they have not been terribly successful as the world does not seem to be run according to anybody's ideas of what is right, not even, I imagine, those of a bunch of high-flying CEOs.

Some years ago a friend who was then an active member of the Conservative Party, bemoaned the fact that Prince Bernhardt did not have that first meeting in 1954 in the Palm Court Hotel or some version of Astoria. After all, who could find the Palm Courters or the Astorians sinister?

This year, too, the secret list of the secret attendees at the secret annual conference seems to be available. Indeed, there is a Wiki entry for those who have attended in the past. The meeting with some names is being reported in Bloomberg Business Week and in the Guardian among many others. On Friday InfoWars published the full list of official attendees but warned us in sinister whispers that some people might attend without putting their names down on the list. Phew! Thank goodness something remains secret.

I must admit that, as usual, the names of attendees are unsurprising - senior politicians and businessmen to a man and woman. I did wonder about the presence of everybody's favourite military man/human rights activist/media analyst Rory Stewart. Why him?

Will anything transpire from this meeting? Will the economic crisis be solved? Or will it, on the other hand, become worse? Will any governments be overthrown? Who knows? I can predict with certainty one thing, though: anything that happens will be blamed on the Bilderbergers. Or AGWM. Take your pick. As for me, I am watching the Knights Templar. Now, there is a secretive group that is poised to take over the world. Why they should want to do so, I have no idea but mark my words ....

Saturday, June 11, 2011

An excellent analysis

Irwin Stelzer is an astute man but a kindly one. Well, he is kindlier than I am, but I suppose that is not saying much. He has, on the whole, been ready to give the Cleggerons the benefit of doubt but he seems to have reached the end of that road and says that the electorate will do the same very soon, despite the May 5 results that were favourable to the Conservatives.

His gripe with the government is one that is a familiar refrain on this blog: a complete lack of coherence at the heart of it, not because it is a coalition of two somewhat dissimilar parties but because the Conservative leadership is incoherent in its approach to most major issues. (Make that all major issues.)

Take the much touted policy of localism:
One of the best of those intentions is to devolve power from Westminster to local councils. There is, after all, an entire chapter in the Conservative canon about pushing power down to the unit of government closest to the people, and further to "local councils, communities and neighbourhoods and individuals", to cite David Cameron's statement when launching the agenda to implement perhaps his noblest vision, the Big Society. But this government is not engaged in a theoretical exercise: it is dealing with decades in which local governments have become increasingly infected with left-leaning, expansive and intrusive attitudes about the proper role of government; in which councils have become dominated by apparatchiks rather than by citizen-politicians modelling themselves after Cincinnatus; in which multiculturalism and relativism have become the received wisdom. In short, the government is not engaged in the rather standard and oft-practised process of moving the line that separates the powers of central from local governments a few millimetres to the right or the left, a periodic feature of democratic government. It is engaged in a revolution, an attempt to reverse powerful habits of mind and peel away institutional barnacles in which the existing local ruling class has a major stake. Revolutionaries do not succeed by delegating power to those whom it wishes to weaken or destroy. They succeed by recognising that the facts on the ground are nothing like those theoreticians imagined when they called for devolving power to the smallest unit of government. There are times — such as these — when powerful leadership from a democratically — elected centre is necessary to get the nation's business done, being careful always not to cross the line that separates such as Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher from Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler.
Readers with long memories will recall that it was this problem with local education authorities (LEAs) that led to the creation of a centralized curriculum, which has not been much of a success.

Mr Stelzer is absolutely right: there is no point in talking about localism if that means handing more power to people who are determined to prevent any loosening of the state's grip on social life.
This is one policy area in which the government is being crushed under the weight of its incoherence. It wants to devolve power from the centre, and it wants to direct newly scarce resources to purposes uncongenial to those to whom it is devolving power. If withdrawing some vital service prevents a cut in executive salaries; or funds construction of fancy, very green offices for councillors; or permits the hiring of a "head of strategic commissioning" at £79,000-£87,000 per annum, surely no one can doubt the wisdom of such a move. And if a civic group appears and volunteers to run a community centre on a self-funding basis, why permit such an intrusion on the government's sphere? Better to close it than to allow creeping privatisation.

You can't have decentralisation of power to a bureaucracy that quite naturally believes its pay cheques are top priority if you also want to keep libraries open; you can't hand the power to distribute pain to politicians who value easing the social problems of transgender citizens over well-lit streets; and you can't rely on the emergence of a disinterested band of politicians to challenge the entrenched bunch after so many years when the public has had no experience of a better way of running a town, and sees only short-run loss from transferring power to Burke's little platoons, if any such have survived the past decades of local misgovernance.

Despite such examples, the government sees no inconsistency in pursuing both the goal of decentralisation and the goal of resurrecting civil society. But, as in the words of the popular song, "It's gotta be this or that."
There is incoherence in many other policies. (What kind of government cuts defence back and promptly goes to war?)Naturally enough, Mr Stelzer concentrates on economic policies, attitudes to the fiscal sector (a dislike characteristic of safe-playing civil servants and people who live on inherited wealth) and entrepreneurship.
In short, the government is currently promoting an incoherent mix of policies designed to

-shore up the banks while draining them of capital

=reduce risky lending while forcing banks to lend tobusinesses at rates some analysts say do not reflect the risks involved

-encourage financial firms to set up shop in Britain while taxing their staffs more and limiting compensation

-foster small businesses while effectively precluding them from participating in the programmes aimed at helping them

-failing to exempt them fully from excessive regulation and Treasury harassment.
Read the whole piece.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Another campaign

Oddly enough, this is not about yet another campaign for an In/Out referendum. So far there are, to my knowledge, only two though we don't hear much from one of them. My views on that subject are fairly well known though I don't seem to have lost any friends over that. One person has taken to ignoring my presence, clearly because of my lack of enthusiasm for the enterprise but I can live with that.

The Standard newspaper is running yet another one of its huge and, apparently, hugely successful campaigns, this time to get London reading. Yes, indeed, this is the outcome of that report (mentioned here) that told us about one third of London's children leaving primary schools without being literate (or numerate). They cannot read, write or count.

The campaign appears to be highly popular (though, of course, one cannot trust newspapers) which has made me realize that there is nothing people in this country love more than a campaign. The outcome is of lesser import and that is, undoubtedly, what the various charities, NGOs and the whole aid industry rely on. As, indeed, do those two campaigns for an In/Out referendum.

Over the last few days we have been told that the campaign is backed by the Duchess of Cornwall, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, assorted writers and journalists and the usual job lot of celebrities, including someone who is a judge on the X-factor (no, not her). People are giving money and volunteering to be hear children in primary schools read. Google has given money. Hizonner the Mayor has gone one better and has started a fund for literacy and numeracy.

My immediate question was "what about those infamous CRB checks that prevent people from volunteering to work with children and disabled people?" but that was not mentioned till today in a letter. Well, what about them? Will the urgency of the crisis make HMG decide that not everyone who wants to work with children is a paedophile or will all these volunteers be turned away?

The last time the Standard ran a campaign it was to help the "dispossessed" of London. They collected something like £1 and a half million, had Prince William for a Patron, lined up lots of celebs and politicians and produced a number of poorly explained hard-luck stories. Since then they periodically mention some success stories of people who have been helped by the big fund and are now sorting their lives out. Obviously, one is glad about that but I would like to know what happened to the bulk of the money and how many people who were helped did, in fact, sort their lives out.

Now we are back with stories of children who are poor, have English as a second language, have no books (though lots of electronic gadgets) in their homes, and so on. We are all at fault, it is a problem for all of us, we must all help.

What all these lengthy articles, calls for help, satisfied comments about the wonderful generosity of Londoners (which is true) try not to deal with is that little problem called primary schools and an even bigger problem called primary school teachers.

In the first article two schools in West London were compared: they had not dissimilar social and linguistic complement of pupils, yet one had children reading novels and poetry by the age of 10, the other turned out a very large number of complete illiterates. The difference: the first school used traditional methods and allowed no excuses, while the second one relied on endless electronic gadgets, iPods to take home and spent a good deal of time whining. Are we to draw any conclusions? Goodness me, no. Hastily, everybody agreed that what works for one school may not work for another.

Since then only the Bishop of London, while re-enforcing the view that we should all get together to beat this scourge, also firmly added that church schools had a very high level of literacy. Yet, church schools take pupils with all social and linguistic levels.

I am all in favour of people not thinking that the state will solve all problems and trying to solve some themselves either through volunteering or giving charitable donations. But we cannot get round the fact that we do have a highly expensive national education system. Many millions of pounds are spent every year on our primary sector. (Just how many millions is very hard to find out without a great many questions, which I might persuade a member of the House of Lords to put down.) Yet, we seem to accept that only children who have books at home and whose parents read to them can learn to do so themselves. What enables them to learn to count is even less clear. Dare one ask what the point of all those primary schools and their teachers is?

So here is a deal: not only I but a number of my friends and allies (though not in those referendum campaigns) will volunteer to read in primary schools but on the following conditions: that clear budgets are published for the primary sector, that those budgets are cut back according to the amount of core work that is outsourced to volunteers and that teachers whose pupils consistently fail to learn the three 'R's get fired with immediate effect. Deal? Oh yes, and get rid of those stupid CRB checks.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How can one be so heartless?

How can one be so heartless as not to laugh when yet another Conservative Minister pronounces stupid things? This time, it is Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield and Secretary of State for Foreign Aid International Development. Now there is a job we could so easily do without.

Some time in 2004 when Mr Mitchell became Shadow Secretary of State for International Development I went to a talk he gave, which was moderately interesting. He seemed to think at the time that the way forward for developing countries, particularly in Africa, was through trade and one can hardly argue with that. I do not recall him making any but the vaguest suggestions about changing various problems around the Common Agricultural and the Common Fisheries Policies; in fact I do not recall him even mentioning those noxious structures. His most important contribution was the need for African countries to lower trade barriers and for trade between those countries to develop. This, again, is not something anyone can argue with, though there are reasons for those trade barriers and import tariffs being so high, an obvious one being that import taxes are easy to collect in countries where the tax base is low and money received by the government through aid means no need is felt to rectify the position.

The main problem with that idea was that Mr Mitchell seemed to be under the impression that Britain could somehow impose this policy on African countries and to create a Pan-African Trade Area. (I did write about the meeting at the time on my previous bloghome.)

Mr Mitchell was not challenged much, partly because there seemed no possibility at the time of him putting any of his ideas into place for some length of time and partly because most people thought it was great advance to have a man in that position who seemed to understand the importance of trade in development.

That did not last long. As we can see here he was instrumental in setting up those ludicrous trips by various Conservative politicians and activists to Rwanda to do various bits of work such as construction. At the time a number of people pointed out that, perhaps, they should have sent qualified managers and engineers and hired local labour to do the work, thus strengthening economic development. (Yes, as a matter of fact, I wrote about it at the time, as well.)

Then he became involved in the row about the BBC Gaza Appeal and seems to have forgotten all he ever knew about trade being a better way of developing than aid. Now he is Secretary of State for Foreign Aid International Development and is responsible for such brilliant ideas as "a guarantee that British legislation will be amended to ensure that Britain's aid contributions will be maintained at 0.7% of UK GNI (Gross National Income) by 2013".

Among other places aid goes to countries like India, Pakistan and China who manage to maintain large armies, nuclear weapons and develop space programmes. It also goes to countries whose kleptocratic rulers never need to look to their own population for money or support. And, of course, there is the problem - indeed, it seems to be the only problem for some people - that with those threatened cuts in the public sector, handing money over to other countries is a tad illogical. We are back to Peter Bauer's comment (which, apparently, he could not recall making) about the poor of the rich countries subsidizing the rich of the poor countries.

Mr Mitchell is now in hot water for a particularly fatuous comment. It seems that far from complaining about the idea of sending tax money to countries like India or, for that matter, Uganda, we should be proud of our non-achievements - we can become an "aid superpower" and what more could one ask from life.

Not everybody is happy with this notion and some are very unhappy with the suggestion that the corrupt, disruptive and counter productive aid programme that has managed to keep African countries in poverty and helped to line pockets there and in India and Pakistan (to name just two) is something to be as proud of as we are (mostly justifiably) proud of our armed forces.
Tory MP Peter Bone said: ‘The idea that we are going to be a world superpower in overseas aid – I have no idea what that means. It is the sort of complete tosh you would expect from a Labour minister.

‘The Coalition Government is losing the plot over this – they are totally out of step with the public mood.

‘It is all very well talking about the pride we have in our Armed Forces, but the fact is we are increasing foreign aid by £4billion at a time when our Armed Forces are being dramatically cut.

‘The priorities are all wrong – that money should be going to our Armed Forces, because they are the best at doing overseas aid.’

Fellow Tory Philip Davies accused Mr Mitchell of presiding over a ‘vanity project’.
He added: ‘We shouldn’t be judging our effectiveness by the amount of money we are spending – that is a socialist way of looking at things.
Those are surprisingly sensible comments, given that they come from Tory MPs. I particularly like the one about not judging effectiveness by the amount of money we spend. Indeed, it is a socialist way of looking at things but then, that is precisely what we can expect from both sections of the Cleggeron Coalition.

What I find very disappointing (well, more annoying than disappointing as I expected nothing else) is the reluctance to broach the whole subject of whether foreign aid is a good idea from anybody's point of view. Indeed, on a number of forums I saw the inevitable comments from those who criticized Mr Mitchell about not minding foreign aid if it was properly accounted for; about the most important point being that we are cutting back, allegedly, on other spending as if it would be perfectly acceptable to send those vast sums to corrupt leaders if we were not; and, inevitably, the faux-heart-rending sob about how cruel we are not wanting to help poor people in need.

As ever, nothing will be done beyond a little tinkering at the edges, until the issue is faced properly. May I suggest a course of reading by various African writers and analysts, such as those published on African Liberty or Imanighana? Something might filter through.

Will it make any difference?

The New York Times discusses whether the fall of Strauss-Kahn (or DSK) will make any difference to gender relationships in France. (Story covered on this blog here and here.) There is an odd question that arises in my mind. There is no doubt that the macho attitude is there and sexual misbehaviour (by which I do not mean affairs but actual attacks on women) are ignored or have been until now, as the forced resignation of George Tron demonstrates. Yet there seem to be more women on higher levels in politics in France than here. How is that to be explained? I would also be interested to know whether there have been any serious comparisons between the level at which there is a glass ceiling in business in France and in Britain.

Before anybody accuses me of something I am not guilty of, I must point out that I do know and have written about the truth of what women's lives are in certain other societies and in Islamic countries and communities. Nevertheless, not everything is perfect in the West either.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What is actually wrong with them?

Warning: this is a musing sort of posting (though not necessarily amusing) about the Cleggeron Coalition and the general situation. I hope people will pile in but I also hope that the discussion, if there is one, will become reasonably constructive.

Earlier today I attended a talk and a discussion about the Coalition government, one year on, led by a well known journalist. As Chatham House rule was operating and it was not in Chatham House itself, which tends to leak like a sieve, I cannot go any further in identifying either place, organization or person. But I can use material gathered and can certainly put down my own thoughts on the subject.

One odd idea that cropped up is the fact that, one year into opposition, the Labour Party has still not been able to find any feeling or words of humility or acceptance that their 13 years of government was a monumental failure on almost every front. This is remarkably different from the Conservatives who went into opposition in 1997, having left a relatively (no more than that) healthy economy and having actually passed a number of reforms in their 18 years that have improved the situation in the country and have, mostly, survived. Much was left undone but that was not the reason why the Tories went into a full-scale self-criticism mode. For some reason, they accepted and internalized the criticism levelled at them by the left-wing bien-pensants, the media of which the BBC is the finest example and numerous vested interests that they were the "nasty party". What exactly, asked the speaker, is nasty about wanting to control public spending, improving public services and strengthening law and order? These are or ought to be popular policies and the alternatives (as advocated by numerous members of the Cleggeron Coalition) are paid for by the electorate.

Far from arguing that point, the Conservatives have been grovelling and beating their collective breast about some unspecified crimes against the people, who were, on the whole, left better off at the end of the Conservative government, though the public sector was not reformed or improved and, sure enough, we are paying for that now.

We can all recall the Conservative discussions as to what should be "their Clause 4"; what should they discard from what had been, let us face it, a victorious collection of policies the way Labour had discarded a backward looking idea that had made the party unelectable for almost two decades. Apparently, the Conservative thinkers (and I use the term losely) could not see the lack of logic there and spent no time explaining how very successful some (not all) of their policies had been.

The speaker, who, being a journalist, was relatively sympathetic to the government's travails but thought that Cameron was shaping up to be a good Prime Minister, without defining or explaining any of that, nevertheless, admitted that a golden opportunity to explain the real situation and to present the electorate with some hard truths immediately after the election when people were receptive to those and to the idea of radical reforms, had been lost.

One reason, as we now know, why that opportunity had been lost and radical reforms not presented in a coherent fashion was that very few of the incoming Ministers had any blueprints for what they wanted to achieve. That goes for the Conservatives who expected to be in government as much as for the Lib-Dims who did not.

The general opinion round the table was that it would have made no difference had the Conservatives won a majority as they seem to be as much in favour of big government policies and green energy, which is likely to increase people's bills considerably as well as showing no understanding of future demands and supply, as the Lib-Dims.

The national debt is rising and there are no obvious cuts in government spending. In other words, a bad situation is being made worse, despite the curses and plaudits heaped on the government for being heartless destroyers of the public sector.

Incidentally, I think it is time we responded to all those who were calling on us to preserve the public sector and, above all, the NHS with a direct comment about them simply wanting to preserve jobs rather than provide good care. Let us go into attack and point out that it is people who campaign for the preservation of the NHS who do not care about patients as long as they can keep all those jobs behind desks. That, after all, is what preserving the NHS is about; oh and about ensuring that the big pharmaceutical companies that have a cosy relationship with the management do not lose their monopoly of supply.

My own contribution was two-fold, neither particulary original. In the first place, I cannot understand why people refer to the Conservative Party as being eurosceptic. Apart from the odd mumble about "not accepting further integration" just before they do, and "fighting for Britain's interests" just before they abandon them, there has been no sign of any coherent thinking about the European Union and Britain's part in it, let alone any real opposition. As a result of it, we see no sign that anybody in the government actually understands the catastrophic developments in the EU that may well engulf this country; developments, I may add, that were predicted by a number of genuinely eurosceptic economists who were comprehensively ignored by the Conservatives as much as any other major party.

That took me to my second point: what is so disconcerting about this government and the Conservative Party is the lack of any political framework within which they operate. There is no background understanding or ideological underpinning to their activity. What is it they actually want to achieve? To reduce the deficit? Well, fine but then they should look at all the spending and, above all, start thinking what kind of society they want at the end of it.

What, among all the plethora of government activity, is the task of the state (defence and law and order spring to mind) and what should the state start disengaging itself from? What sort of healthcare do they want to achieve - do they want people to be in charge of their own healthcare as far as possible or do they simply want to save money on the NHS? The latter cannot actually be achieved without the former.

As for education, Michael Gove's famed reforms seem to be as much of a dog's dinner as all the other reforms. The free schools are not exactly free in that they do not really control the conditions of entry and have to stick to the examination boards and their ever dumber curriculum. In any case, they are not going to be more than a drop in the ocean.

Grammar schools are off the agenda and the mere mention of the word vouchers gives government ministers the vapours. Recent shock-horror articles about the level of illiteracy in primary schools do not shock anyone who has looked at the subject. Year after year we have seen the results of ever higher examination rates and heard the complaints of potential employers that our school leavers are illiterate and innumerate as well as often unemployable; year after year we have heard complaints from secondary school teachers that before they start teaching subjects they have to teach 11 year-olds basic literacy and numeracy because the primary schools have not done so. Melanie Phillips caused a scandal by her book All Must Have Prizes a decade and a half ago.

The problem is only partly to do with the number of children who arrive to this country not speaking English as even the shock-horror articles have admitted. Still less does it lie with so-called poverty. Children who get free school meals and are thus counted to be poverty-stricken seem to possess a good many electronic gadgets as, yet again, the articles in the Standard and the Daily Mail admitted.

Nor it it the fault of the Labour government though they have not made things much better. I well recall taking a top primary class at the time of John Major's government with its "Baker days" of evil memory to the Museum of London. The school was mixed with a fair proportion of children who had free meals but that is not, in itself, an indication of anything much. There were very few children who arrived at the school without being able to speak English at all, thought there were quite a few who also knew another language, which is not usually considered to be a disadvantage. Yet, to my stunned horror, nearly half of the 10 and 11 year-olds could not read. They read the first two letters of a word and tried to guess the rest, the way 5 year-olds do when they are just learning. When I raised the issue with the head teacher, my complaints were dismissed with a few breezy comments.

The point is that there is no coherent idea of what we want our education system to do and to achieve any more than there is a coherent idea of what we want our defence forces to do and achieve and what we would like to see in many other sectors. It is not altogether surprising that the Conservatives who are doing relatively well in the opinion polls and did surprisingly well in the recent local elections are not really very popular either. They are not seen as being any different from either Labour or the Lib-Dims, though the latter have lost any popularity they ever possessed. But that does not seem to bother them any more than the fact that they are not on the way to achieving any reforms or presenting any solutions to the thornier problems we face. As long as they can get enough votes to stay in government, nothing else matters. It is, of course, up to the electorate to disillusion them on that score but those kind of shifts take a long time and the asinine behaviour of what ought to be the obvious alternative, UKIP, does not help.

We all miss Peter Bauer

This blog's views on international aid are known to all its readers and go back further than two weeks ago when Melanie Phillips, apparently, pronounced very similar opinions on Question Time. All of us who have seen the futility and, indeed, harmfulness, of international aid (formerly known as foreign aid) have been influenced by the pithy and lucid arguments advanced for many years (to no purpose, in his own view) by Peter Bauer, later Lord Bauer.

Here Tim Knox, Acting Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, reminisces about the great man and insists that his arguments are more valid now than ever before. I always found Lord Bauer's heavily accented pronouncements perfectly intelligible but, maybe, I have more experience of accents than Mr Knox does.

Sums it up

As ever, Day By Day gets it right: