Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Well, at least he has principles"

Mostly what I want is for the Labour Party leadership election to be over. I no longer care who wins and by how much, I just want it to be over. Of course, there is some amusement to be derived from the Labour Party, once the proud purveyor of the "white heat of technology" and before that of what seemed like the most advanced democratic ideas marching back into the stone age of state owned economy and women only carriages on trains.

Ah but at least Jeremy Corbyn has principles, I hear from many sides as if that was somehow a good thing. Lenin had principles, I responded to one person who does not like Corbyn's principles but feels the need to acknowledge that he has them. Hitler had principles, said someone else in the discussion. We need to agree, said the first person, that Corbyn does not resemble any of history's great monsters. Ahem, I said, what makes you think that Corbyn would agree with that description of Lenin. He would probably be very proud to hear that people were comparing him to the founder of the monstrous Soviet regime.

Of course, if his principles are those you agree with: renationalization of the economy (hardly possible now), impossibly high taxation, cessation of all educational reforms and support for some of the nastiest oppressive and terrorist regimes, then you are obviously going to be rather glad that he has those principles and will very likely be in a position to do something about them. I notice that people who rejoice in Corbyn's principled stand often refuse to discuss it in any detail and, more to the point, still speak with loathing of Margaret Thatcher, generally regarded as a principled political leader.

So principles one agrees with seem a good thing. Let me just add for the benefit of eurosceptic readers of this blog that Edward Heath had principles, too. They were just entirely the wrong ones but they were genuine, nonetheless. For the benefit of the many Blair-haters I may add that he, too, had principles and his participation in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq was based on his belief in liberal transnationalism. The man without too many principles, Harold Wilson, kept the UK out of the Vietnam war.

The question is whether that is the first thing to look for in a politician. Myself, I prefer to look at his or her political ideas and what I see in the case of Corbyn fill me with horror (on domestic matters) and complete disgust (on foreign ones). A man who habitually shares a platform with known terrorists, anti-Western fanatics, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers (even if his memory sometimes plays tricks on him) is not one whose principles I admire or want anywhere near the top of our political tree.

Nor am I particularly impressed by the principles of a man who, disregarding the tragic experience of the twentieth century, still mouths outdated economic and political principles that have been proved wrong over and over again and have led to economic stagnation at best and poverty, slavery and labour camps at worst. Principles like that we can do without.

Turning to more general matters, let us ask again: are principles and a staunch adherence to them is what we want in a political leader? Some principles, of course, but a complete disregard for anything else produces a politician who disregards the possibility that events and developments will change reality and imposing outdated principles will end in disaster. Such a politician has no interest in the fact that in a complex society different people will want different things and even members of his own party will see things differently. To some extent, of course, a leader has to impose his (and in one exceptional case her) ideas on the party and try to push them through in the country because that seems to be the best thing to do but there is also a need to trim sails and open up to other ideas. Thatcher did rather a lot of that and that is why she was successful on many fronts but, alas, not on all.

When does a principled politician become a narrow-minded fanatic who will push through what he knows is best for everyone at whatever cost? Some people say that Thatcher did that (they are the ones who are rejoicing in the appearance of a "principled" politician) but no serious study of Britain before, during and after her premiership can do anything but agree that by 1979 there was no alternative to serious reforms and that the country, by and large, has benefited from them. There is no need to ask ourselves whether we would benefit from a government run on Corbynite principles - we can look at past experience and know what happened.

And now let me turn the subject around by just a few degrees: Jeremy Corbyn has principles and his politics is based on that. It is also true that his career has not been stellar and all he has done so far is shouted his principles from the back benches, in TV studios (largely RT until a few months ago) and on various platforms, which he shared with highly undesirable characters. Until recently few people knew anything about him beyond a general impression of someone from the loony left. Even now his pronouncements on such matters as the refugee crisis or Britain's membership of the EU (both important issues) consist of little more than predictable platitudes. What will happen to those principles if he does find himself leading Her Majesty's Opposition, having to keep together a fractious party and having to put together policies that can be offered to the electorate? Will the principles survive or shall we see many people weeping over the fall of their temporary idol?

"Land of rulers, land of slaves"

In 1840 Mikhail Lermontov, one of Russia's greatest poets and an army officer, was exiled, after a duel, to the Caucasus where Russia, as is her wont, was fighting a prolonged war against the Chechens and the Dagestani. This was his second exile from St Petersburg, the first being in 1837 after he had written a brilliant and vitriolic poem about Alexander Pushkin's death in a duel.

On his way to the Caucasus Lermontov wrote:

Прощай немытая Россия,
Страна рабов, страна господ,
И вы, мундиры голубые,
И ты, послушный им народ.

My slightly hasty translation of the quatrain is this:

Farewell to you, unwashed Russia,
Land of rulers, land of slaves,
Farewell to you blue uniforms,
And to you, submissive people.

It is hard not to think of those lines as one reads and watches the news from Russia.

August 25 is the anniversary of the protest in the Red Square when, in 1968, just four days after the Soviet tanks had rolled into Prague to put an end to "Communism with a human face" (frankly a silly idea but, as Brezhnev realized, other things might grow out of it), eight people came out to demonstrate their disgust with the action of their government. They carried placards with the old slogan: За Вашу и Нашу Свободу, For Your Freedom and Ours.

They and their comrades paid a heavy price for their stance and their names, Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Tatyana Bayeva, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Viktor Fainberg, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, and Pavel Litvinov, ought to be better known than they are.

Well, time has gone on, the Soviet Union is no more, and the news that came from Russia yesterday on the anniversary of this event was that the illegally arrested Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov and his co-defendant Oleksandr  Kolchenko were sentenced to twenty years and ten years hard labour in strict regime camps for alleged terrorist plotting for which there is no evidence. It is true that they have both criticized the Russian occupation of Ukraine and in the feverish imagination of the Russian authorities that is equivalent to terrorist activity. In fact, judging by the sentence it is even worse.

It seems that the people of Russia have decided not to pay attention to any of these problems and, to be fair, there is now a safety valve for many: if they wish and can raise the money they can leave for the West, something that was not open to them in 1968. Later on, of course, dissidents were either pushed out of strongly advised to leave.

Does anyone still stand up for their freedom and others' in Russia itself? Certainly. We hear about some and we know that these have often ended badly or, at the very least, have had a bad time. As long as they are only individuals the authorities can pick them off; with mass demonstrations they tend to stand back and restrain themselves.

Thanks to Radio Liberty we now have a list of another eight people, so far less well known in the West than Navalny, Politkovskaya, Khodorkovsky, Nemtsov and the Pussy Riot girls, who have dared to say what they thought of the regime, regardless of personal consequences. So far they have had difficulties but are still alive and reasonably well. But, as in the days of the Soviet Union and the dissidents they need to be watched.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Some news from Russia

Some of my readers may have missed the fascinating news we are getting from Russia about the destruction of perfectly good food and some serious grumblings from the usually apathetic population about that. In fact, there have been some questions whether the food might not have been donated to orphanages or old-people's homes. The destruction of food, I suspect, appears as a more heinous crime than the destruction of media freedom in many Russian eyes. (I shall now wait for the various lectures I shall receive on the subject of Russian attitudes.)

On the other hand, I am rather impressed by the sight of Russian patriotic food patrols [same link]:
This week a group of girls in T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Eat Russian" descended on a Moscow supermarket and began scouring the shelves for sanctioned foreign goods. Their raid eventually unearthed some illicit French cheese and bags of German nuts.

"This is prohibited!" the food patriots declared to a somewhat stunned-looking store manager, before slapping "sanctioned" stickers on the items, complete with a roaring Russian bear.

The girls believe the new law will stop such items reaching Russian shelves. Many banned items have entered through Belarus, after repacking and relabelling.

"Now everyone will know that there are sanctions," Anna explains. "If they try to get produce through now, it will be burned."
Iron Felix Dzerzhinsky and his various successors would have approved.

Meanwhile, an Estonian border guard who appears to have been kidnapped by Russian Security Forces while investigating smuggling carried out by members of those Forces, has been sentenced to 15 years hard labour despite the various protests that have poured in from the West. The Russian authorities have just created another martyr for the West to focus on with a second one in the offing.
Kohver's sentence coincided with the climax of another controversial trial, involving Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.

Prosecutors in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia have called for Mr Sentsov to be jailed for 23 years, on charges of organising a terrorist group and planning terrorist attacks in Crimea.
It's like the Russian government does not care what anyone inside or outside the country thinks about it. And you know what? They probably do not though one day they might, when the long-suffering Russian people take to the streets. History has recorded many such events and they were not happy ones.

One would like to think that the first one to suffer (after Vlad himself naturally) would be his adviser Dmitry Peskov, whose affluent lifestyle has been analyzed by Alexei Navalny (whose brother has just been sentenced to 15 days solitary confinement in the labour camp he is in) but I strongly suspect that come the bloodshed, Mr Peskov and his delightful bride will find refuge in .... well why not some choice borough of London? I cannot believe that Mr Peskov has not been stashing some money away in property abroad, just in case.

We were all very excited when Shaun Walker managed to produce a Putin in an animal or water based exploit photo though, thankfully, the man had kept his shirt on. Apparently, there were no amphorae at the bottom of the sea this time. President Putin "submerged on board C-Explorer 3 bathyscaphe into the waters of the Black Sea outside Sevastopol on Aug. 18, 2015, to explore a shipwreck". How could that be managed without Vlad the Great?

And finally, a great story that reminds me of some of the best Soviet ones. Unfortunately, the full story is in the Wall Street Journal, which is far behind the pay wall but the beginning of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's article made me smile nostalgically:
"Where is Garry Kasparov?" asked many Russians recently, when they discovered that the famed chess player was missing from the new edition of a book celebrating the achievements of Russia's largest athletic association, Spartak - of which Kasparov was a member. It turns out that an article about Kasparov had been removed at the last minute. The message was clear: No achievement can trump political loyalty, and for Kasparov, a harsh critic of the Kremlin, the doors to the Russian version of the sports hall of fame are currently closed.
An unperson, by Stalin.

Monday, August 10, 2015

An apposite quote from Lord Acton

Once again, it being the silly season, there are discussions about the need to reform the House of Lords, make it more accountable to the people, make it more democratic, make it representative of the people's will, and so on, just because one particular friend of a former Prime Minister has turned out to be somewhat silly in his behaviour in his own time and at his own expense. I may add that apart from the cocaine nothing Lord Sewel did was illegal though I can't help thinking that the wearing of an orange bra ought to be.

Anyway, I shall write a long piece on the subject very soon. (Really, I will.) In the meantime I was interested to find this quote by Lord Acton from his History of Freedom in Hugh Tulloch's book:
It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason.
As we look at political systems that were built on the concept of the "will of the people" or of one class, we can see that he was right.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Seventy years ago

Seventy years ago the first atom bomb to be used in war was dropped on the  city of Hiroshima, the second one, on Nagasaki to follow two three days later. It undoubtedly ushered in a new world politically and militarily and has remained in many people's minds the pre-eminent example of a war crime. In fact, the casualties incurred by the firebombing of Tokyo were higher and when it came to war crimes, there were many competitors for the title of the worst.

The decision to drop the two atom bombs was taken by President Harry S Truman because he  considered, probably rightly, that the this was the only way to bring the war in the Pacific to an end speedily without further very high American and Japanese casualties. That alternative would have probably meant many more British, Australian, Indian and other casualties.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Classical liberalism and illiberal groups

The latest IEA publication, which I have just finished reading is thoroughly to be recommended. Eamonn Butler's Classical Liberalism - A Primer is an excellent summary of that much misunderstood body of ideas with a good many paragraphs that will, no doubt, appear on this blog whenever I am writing about the need to control governments and legislatures, regardless of how its members get there. In other words, a dictatorship by an elected majority has to be controlled as well as the old-fashioned monarchical institutions were.

The historic sections made me laugh - they reminded me of the tail end of the Whig history that I encountered at my schools but there is nothing terribly wrong there. I would have liked a little more about Mediaeval constitutionalism but Dr Butler had to concentrate on the later ideas as these are of greater relevance.

Nevertheless, my first blog about this work is a critical one. I was a little disappointed with his coverage of classical liberal attitudes to illiberalism, always a tricky subject.

On page 92 the author tackles the subject: Dealing with illiberal groups:
An interesting problem for classical liberals, however, is how they should deal with groups and nations that are highly illiberal. The problem has become more urgent. There have always been religious and political fundamentalists who reject any idea of political, social and economic freedom and who would gladly extinguish our own freedoms if they had the reach to do so. But now, with travel so easy and destructive technologies so obtainable, the potential threat has become more dangerous.
The problem is relatively (but only relatively) easy while we are dealing with those threats from outside the country: after all, not every illiberal state is a direct threat to us except maybe by existing but a number of them are prepared to send our agents in to try to destroy us and we need to be prepared for it now as we had to be prepared in the days when our enemy was Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

What of the illiberal groups that are already here and are trying to subvert and overcome our own liberal ideas (in so far as they exist) or create groups and areas that function or intend to function outside our rules and ideas? While we can all be tolerant of people joining Trotskyite groups if they so wish or go to a mosque that preaches intolerant and hate-filled ideas, what of the move to create sharia courts that undermine the basic concept of equal and clearly understood justice for all, without which free societies cannot function?

Dr Butler does not touch on the subject of sharia but he tries to deal with another serious problem:
On the other hand, many classical liberals would think it right to intervene to prevent girls being denied an education, for example, or to prevent female genital mutilation and forced marriages. These are seen as breaches of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by all human beings.

Classical liberals have no prescriptive answer to such questions. But in general they take the view that state action should be kept to a minimum. Some take the view that we live in a pluralist age, and are mature enough to tolerate different manners and customs, so intervention is generally not justified unless there is some overwhelming ‘public’ case for doing so. Others emphasise that persuasion and debate are more effective at changing minds in the long run. A law against female genital mutilation, for example, is probably less effective at ending this practice than women who have undergone it being free to decide not to inflict it on their own children. It is that freedom that the law should be defending.
He then goes on to discussing what we should do if those illiberal groups should find themselves in position of power or authority. I know some people think that illiberal groups have already taken power and to some extent I agree with that, adding the proviso that we are in a position to change that, should we wish to do so.

What, however, is of such problems as female genital mutilation? Why exactly should it be put aside, not dealt with in legal terms (though it is banned in law despite a certain lack of action)? A classical liberal's core belief that the state must exist in order to protect individuals from direct physical harm inflicted by other people. The immense physical harm that is FGM is inflicted on children, often little more than babies who then suffer from the after effects, both physical and mental, for the rest of their lives. By no stretch of the imagination can one say that they are consenting partners.

Yet. apparently, there are classical liberals who do not think this is something for the law to deal with. One assumes that they do think the law should deal with other methods of child or adult torture but not this. Either those people do not exactly know what FGM is, in which case they should read or listen to accounts or they are prepared, in certain cases, to forget about individual rights and the core belief of equal and clearly defined justice and allow certain cultural groups to stay outside that law. More, they are prepared to abandon the basis of classical liberalism which is respect for the individual in favour of (some) group rights. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not  good enough.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Olympic news

Readers of this blog may be aware of the fact that I am not a great supporter of highly expensive, seriously corrupt international sporting events. In fact, the woes of FIFA made me laugh before muttering that I was shocked, shocked. When will similar woes reach the other appalling organization, the IOC?

While we wait for that we can watch the whole Olympic farce descending into ever more preposterous depths. It is now accepted by almost everyone that the only countries that can hold those terrible Games in future without any trouble are highly oppressive regimes who do not mind using any method to achieve their aims.

Oh, I hear you cry, what of the London Games of 2012? Well, yes, they did not involve much more than putting young soldiers on the streets of London who immediately showed up our slovenly, overweight, rarely polite police force but did no harm to anyone. (And some good to young ladies, I imagine.)

My own memory of those weeks is an almost completely empty city with endless groups of people in preposterous pink and purple outfits who were so bored that they pounced on every passer by, hoping that they were in need of direction. On the whole, I knew London far better than they did.

Stores were also empty, which was very pleasant for the few customers who did go there but I hate to think how much money the likes of John Lewis lost while they kept their flagship on Oxford Street open well beyond usual hours with no visible custom.

We shall go on paying for those Games for years to come not least for the upkeep of the Olympic Village and the stadium, because, among other things we, the taxpayers will be paying for the West Ham move.

Other cities are far more sensible. Boston has just pulled out of the 2024 Olympic bid:
The city was forced to cancel the effort in response to opposition to what The Nation called the “debt, displacement, and militarization of public space” that the Olympics brings to every host city. Basically, the taxpayers and citizens of Boston weren’t in the mood to foot the bill for an enormous party for the richest and most powerful plutocrats of Boston and the United States.
Nor is this the first time. We all recall Oslo pulling out of the 2022 Winter Olympic bid and the news is that the IOC chose Beijing over Almaty for that event. Apparently, there is a minor technical problem still to be solved and that is a certain lack of snow but, hey, if Russia could do it in Sochi, why not China in Beijing?

Not a week goes by without an article or ten to remind Londoners about the glorious Olympics and chivy us to revive the spirit and remember the inheritance. Curiously, those articles do not mention the huge bill Londoners and, indeed, other taxpayers in that country are still facing.

Here is a reminder in the article on Mises Daily about some of the costs other Olympic cities have had to endure:
Meanwhile, the taxpayers in much of the developed world have gotten wise to the high costs and few benefits of hosting the Olympics. Many have seen these photos from the UK’s Guardian which show the state of the Athens 2004 Olympic venues in 2014. The billions of taxpayer dollars spent on facilities have all evaporated, and all that’s left is rusting stadiums and mud-filled Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The Greeks were told back then that hosting the Olympics would be their ticket to a new era of first-world prestige and economic success. Needless to say, such a rosy future failed to materialize. Even less time has passed since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but as these photos show, Beijing’s abandoned venues will have plenty in common with those of Athens in a few years.

And while Brazil looks forward to its own 2016 bid, the Brazilians already are getting a preview of what will become of all those Olympic venues. The World Cup stadiums, built just last year, are already massive white elephants, as Business Insider recently showed. One massive stadium functions as a parking lot for buses. Several more simply decay in the humid Brazilian air.
Who benefits in the long run? Step forward, among others, Lord Coe, who is still competing for positions on international sporting bodies. Nor must we forget Dame Tessa Jowell who has not done badly out of her role and is, at present, the favourite to become Labour's Mayoral candidate.