Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Cameron round-up

This supposed round up of links is really just a barefaced plug for this. Dave, Nice but Knave, leader of Liz's oppo, has clarified his new statement of values a little for us. Compare it to the less accurate BBC version here.

See also

A nice angle from Femme De Resistance:

Apparently, this is also related:

Friday, February 24, 2006

Romans in Britain

Spoiler warning for Romans in Britain and Edward Bond's Lear

At the after show talk, the director Sam West, the crew and the audience were quite clear that this is an anti-war play. I wonder. There are some nice comparisons with Edward Bond's Lear, performed in Sheffield the previous year. (Lear is only loosely based on Shakespeare's King Lear.) Both occur to a constant backdrop of war, both happily kill off characters as soon as you start to identify with them, both are brutal, both feature madness. Yet Lear works. It identifies the madness of the king with war in the country; it leaves the audience two steps behind in wondering which war is being fought at any time and who is on which side. It invites the audience to see if they can tell the difference between war and insanity. Romans is a light comedy by comparison.

Both end with a seemingly futile death, which is perhaps not supposed to be futile. Lear, having regained relative sanity and lost his power, attacks the Wall (Berlin wall idea) single handedly with a sledghammer and is shot. Major Chichester 'fesses up to the IRA, after seeing the ghosts of the Saxon invasions of AD525 - the events of each period happen on the same stage around the corpses of the other. Was he just mad? Was it a ham-fisted olive branch? Was it a suicide driven by racial guilt? I found the whole episode rather pointless.

The politics of this play would certainly have been shocking in 1980, with the troubles looming large. Today, a pro-war British play would be shocking, even more than an anti-war Hollywood movie. It asks us to compare the British in Ireland to the Romans in Britain, or the Saxons in Britain - but the comparison is so feeble that a transfer to Iraq wouldn't have worked. It contains powerful representations of the inevitable brutality of occupying armies; a fair share of comedy, and a fine Julius Caesar. Is this enough to make it an anti-war play? Perhaps. Yet the suggestion is that peacetime was pretty brutal too. What did the Romans ever do for us? This question was asked, Python notwithstanding.

To be an anti-war play, it is not enough to say that war is hell. All but the neo-cons know that. Not enough to portray unsympathetically the shocking ordinariness of the troops: Roman, British or IRA. You have to say that no (or not enough) good will come of it. The wars in Lear lead the country from one tyranny to another, via bloodbaths. That's how you do it.

Tags: , ,

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More on the Project Mk II

Mat has responded to my previous blog here. So I will try to do the whole idea a little more justice.

This project is talked of in some corners as a negative anti-New Labour project, and in others as a positive campaign for liberty and consitutional reform. First some background: New Labour, what is it?

We all know about the abandonment of clause 4 and the embrace of privatisation and PFI. That's not what we were talking about. But the second plank to regaining electability for Labour was this: Be tougher on crime than the Conservatives, no matter how irrationally vicious they become; never stop doing this. This was well underway in the mid 90s, driving Michael Howard to the right, Howard presumably expecting Labour to bottle at some point. If only.

Labour had to be tougher, not just matching the Conservatives, to overcome the suspicion that they were instinctively a load of bleeding hearts. Clinton had successfully done much the same. Labour activists largely went along with it even if they didn't like it because it was a small enough price to pay to win, and to make some progress in other areas with greater popular appeal.

Terrorism today is an extension of crime then. This government will seek to be and appear tougher than the Conservatives on terror. Measures such as "glorification" may be more appearance than actuality, legislation as press release, but where there is substance it is just as irrational. This leaves Cameron with the same problem that Howard had in the 90s. He could play a game of chicken with liberty by pitching right, or he can leave the issue alone. The Tories do not have the same intrinsic weakness on crime, so don't need to pursue the same strategy. I don't see any particular advantage in their pursuing a more rational crime or terror policy, like Oaten's. So I don't expect them to do it - they are nothing if not the Daily Mail brigade. They could pitch right, but I expect them to play it safe and focus on other issues. Either way, Cameron's overtures to the Lib Dems are a ploy.

That understood, what are we talking about? A campaign for liberty and constitutional reform? Liberty meets Charter 88. Sure, go for it. An electoral campaign? Yes, of course, Liberty/C88 should get stuck in at election time. But it will need more popluar support, not just a majority, but enough to outweigh the strength of feeling that the politics of fear can deploy. Support beyond "the chattering classes" - which I think is beginning to happen, but has some way to go. Is this a campaign to defeat "New Labour" in the sense of the crime and terror part of the project to make Labour electable? Sure, but let's be clear: That aspect of New Labour is a normal ingredient of the Conservative Party. Labour may be giving the executive all sorts of dangerous powers, but I still fear the Conservatives getting the chance to use them.

We are faced with suggestions like this:

1. Getting Labour out (campaigning methods and tactics)
2. Keeping the next lot in order (Constitutional stuff, what are we after?)

What are we after!? Are Lib Dems short of policy on constitutional "stuff"? Do the Tories support ANY of it? Have I woken up on a different planet? And having policy for how to keep the next lot in order is a long way from actually having a constitution and bill of rights in place.

So, the idea that Cameron may be willing (!) and able (!) to deliver Tory lobby fodder in favour of measures to undo some of Labour's spin-motivated idiocy and entrench democracy and civil rights is provoking. But it is up to him to convince me of it, I am not going to start convincing myself of it by making plans for it.

Of course there are liberals within the Conservative Party, and in the Labour Party. It would be nice if we could work together in a common cause, but guess what? Other issues matter to people too. People are in other parties despite their illiberalism presumably because of these other issues, or because they like bigger parties with greater immediate prospects of power. I see no compelling reason for a campaign that is specifically anti-Labour, as opposed to pro-liberal and pro-Liberal Democrat. So what should this campaign be for? For all these bloody liberals to join the Liberal Bloody Democrats!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

But what are you FOR?

The idea of organised anti-New Labour tactical voting has come up. Oh dear. James Graham is spot on.

When somebody tells you that the enemy is X, they are asking two things: First that you define yourself by what you are against. Second to turn your back on all your other enemies.

Does an anti-New Labour alliance include the Conservatives and Old Labour? Yeah, right. New Labour is just a name for the Labour Party. There is only one.

Of course it is possible that Cameron would be significantly better than Brown. Possible, but most unlikely. I started this blog to vent on the subject of Cameron. And I have started another to mock him.

There are many decent people in the Conservative Party, but there are many nasties too. So I have no inclination to give them a hand up. I am rather enjoying their plight, grinning smugly at Cameron's desperate spin, rolling on the floor laughing at every flip flop. Don't stop me now.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Any Questions, Stannington

An audience member in tonights episode of Any Questions, I feel oddly qualified to comment on it, although I heard nothing you listeners of the electric wireless didn't.

The most notable thing was that on most issues the whole panel seemed to agree, and nobody defended the government. Everybody agreed with Lord Turner on pensions before he even spoke. Ed Vaizey, even had the enormous cheek, for a Tory, to suggest (correctly) that any reformed pensions should be the property of the individual to stop the state raiding the kitty. (Again.)

Ming Campbell was excellent of course, on the question of C of E disinvestment in Caterpillar, which prompted the usual arguments about Israel and Palestine, which I dare not comment on. Vaizey seemed to endorse the ludicrous position that considering any policy of the Israeli government unethical was anti-Semitic. Frankly, if this is the case, most of the Jews I know are anti-Semitic. Ming pointed out that questioning the policies of the Israeli government does not make you anti-Semitic any more than questioning George Bush's policies makes you anti-American.

And on Guantanamo Bay, and on the glorification of terrorism Ming was excellent. Dimbleby attempted on occasion to challenge a panellist with the government's position on some issue, a noble effort. But with Diane Abbott representing Labour and largely opposing the government, the whole program was somewhat surreal. Much as I'd like to think that there is a popular consensus that the government is getting things wrong, we are not quite there yet. You would have thought that a program like Any Questions ought to have a pro-government voice on it - so that the government's best arguments can be defeated, of course.

Tag: Any Questions

Monday, February 13, 2006

On prosperity...

Inevitably when people debate an ism, differences will be exaggerated due to different impressions of what the ism in question is about. We've had this lately over economic liberalism. What does it mean? Is it necessary? Etc.

So, weighing in: economic liberalism is broadly speaking, the idea that it is good for people to have money that they are free to spend. That is, that prosperity is good. And it is quite evidently true: prosperous countries and individuals have more freedom, better health, better environments and so on than poorer countries and individuals.

This is a crude mini-definition, and a different slant to Rob Knight and Femme de Resistance, who I agree with. But I think it would be illuminating to go through some of the positions opposed to economic liberalism in this sense.

First, there is a socialist objection, based perhaps on Marx's theory of value, that A's prosperity means B's poverty - that the two are inextricably linked. This is simply an error, except in one respect: positional goods - the ability to buy, say, the nicest house in the neighbourhood. If you become richer than me then you can buy it and I can't. But this sort of positional movement is morally neutral - it doesn't change the totality of good outcomes.

Next, Greens frequently believe that prosperity is bad because it leads to environmental destruction. Again, they are wrong. There may be specifics of some activities causing both, but it is not destruction of the environment that adds value. Where the good of prosperity conflicts with the good of the environment, there is a social choice to be made, but this doesn't make prosperity any less good.

There is a tendency towards asceticism in much religious thought. While as an individual choice, your asceticism is none of my business, it is possible for the values to leak into judgements about other people. The idea that it is alright to be poor is a dangerous one. If you believe it, listen to "Common People" by Pulp until you change your mind.

So, moving on a little, there is then the view that my prosperity is good and yours is bad, so my objectives should be to maximise my prosperity at the expense of yours. There are three examples of this that I can think of.

The first two are Class War fought on behalf of a) the poor and b) the rich. To many people these are precisely what politics is about, and so liberals are accused of being non-political. Class war from the left has now largely been abandoned, but there are still elements of it coming from the right, from the 'nasty party'. It is by no means a dominant theme of the Conservative Party, but that party is still the party for nasties to join, and it is the place to go if you want to hear loathing and contempt for ordinary people expressed. And there are a few businesses, Poundshops and sweatshops, that would prosper less if people prospered. So there are likely to be some interests against any liberalisation, right and left, because the general prosperity would increase at the expense of their own.

The final example is illustrated by a story about a class of students in the US being offered two choices: a) that the US economy should grow 1% and the Japanese economy 10%; b) that the US economy should shrink 1% and the Japanese economy shrink 10%. A majority chose the second option. It is seeing national wealth in positional terms - probably based on the Hegelian view of the glory and inevitability of war; that all actions on the international stage should be seen as a continuation of war by other means. A hideous, right-wing, misanthropic position.

To me, this opposition to economic liberalism clarifies nicely what economic liberalism is about. And where does it come from? Not just the "left", but out of 6 examples, there are 2 from the left, 2 from the right, 1 from Greens and 1 from religion.

None of these objections to economic liberalism hold any water as far as I can see. Does this mean we should always pursue the most economically liberal policy? Of course not, it is a good thing, but not the only good thing. In general there is a synergy between the liberalisms, economic, social, political and personal. But sometimes there are conflicts and social choices to be made. The levels of taxation and provision of public services is the most obvious. The use of regulation to achieve social and environmental objectives is another. These are trade-offs between different desirable objectives, proper questions for democratic debate and honest differences between liberals. Appealing to first principles, to isms, tells us nothing.

Tag: economic liberalism

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Those cartoons, published in Egypt

It turns out that those cartoons were published in an Egyptian newspaper in October 2005, during Ramadan. A defence of that blog is here.

I find the arguments of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maryam Namazie compelling. Ali writes

There is no freedom of speech in those Arab countries where the demonstrations and public outrage are being staged. The reason many people flee to Europe from these places is precisely because they have criticized religion, the political establishment and society. Totalitarian Islamic regimes are in a deep crisis. Globalization means that they're exposed to considerable change, and they also fear the reformist forces developing among émigrés in the West. They'll use threatening gestures against the West, and the success they achieve with their threats, to intimidate these people.
and Namazie

I must admit, those of us who have fled the Islamic Republic of Iran are very familiar with this outlook on things. Cultural relativism's equal opportunity for all values and beliefs has often been shoved down our throats by many of the very same politicians, publishers and editors, telling us time and time again to respect 'our' culture and religion though it has been imposed by sheer force.

Now this racism of lower standards and relative rights regarding Islam is being applied to the European press as well! Beware!

This is the old chestnut of cultural imperialism versus the racism of low expectations. We can't win. But we can support people who have high expectations of their own cultures.

Tags: Jyllands-Posten cartoons

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Voting for Ming

This has been a very difficult decision for me, but I will be giving Ming my first preference. Simon and Chris, I feel are both activists' candidates. Simon appeals to the left of the party, and Chris to radical liberals. (The right, if it exists, must keep quiet, as usual, for shame). So Chris appeals to me, very much. He could be the son I never had, had I no son already, and were I 40 years older. But I see in Chris some of the things that would make me a less than ideal leader of the party - such as giving the impression of focussing on the issues rather than the audience while speaking.

Ming's appeal is not to activists in any particular wing of the party, but to the country. This is the issue. Not who said or did what about Charles Kennedy, or how big somebody's majority is, or what leader might come next and when. Such things are the fluff of leadership contests, brought out by people who have already made their minds up for other reasons.

It is unfair to Chris. He has shown balls by standing and set the agenda of the campaign on policy. But this isn't about policy. And of course part of the reason it is so ballsy and so impressive is that he isn't the best candidate. The British love of the underdog is at work here. But life is unfair, and politics doubly so. If you look like a movie bad-guy and sound like a bank manager, it is unfair these should count against you. But they do.

It has been asked on the blogs whether the public are tired of conviction politicians like Blair, Bush and Clinton and are now ready to be led by policy wonks who will talk about the issues more. I'm afraid this is wishful thinking among us policy wonks. Policy is not what people look for, but a feeling of shared values. Chris simply doesn't connect with people well enough, save for us few freaks who intellectualise politics. He explains policy brilliantly and will be a great asset to the party. But that is not the leader's job.

And in focussing on policy Chris has sent a particular message: he cares about the things we care about - the environment, civil liberties, localism - more than the big issues for the general public: the economy, health, education and crime. To raise its game, this party must be consistent in its message and priorities and not focus too much on the sort of policies that get our activists excited. Chris is right in our comfort zone, and that is not what we need. I would like him to be the right choice, but that doesn't make it so.

Moving on to the other parties: Gordon Brown is the wonk to Blair's values and he will suffer for it. If we elect another wonk, the danger is that Brown and Huhne will send the public to sleep talking policy leaving Cameron to clean up. It is essential that we contrast with Brown as well as Cameron, and Ming is the man to do this. To be clear: Ming contrasts better with both Brown and Cameron than Chris does.

Not policy, but values, conviction, gravitas, these are what matter. Because Ming doesn't reflect the interests of a section of the party's activists, he is the more uniting force. He shows the greater consistency of message, the better support and the more character. This is why it has to be Ming.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Let's live for ever

Start the week starred the well known somewhat cranky gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, who predicts that some people alive today will live to the age of 1000 thanks to rejuvenation technology. I glanced at some of de Grey's writing about a year ago and concluded that he was exaggerating the potential somewhat.

However the most interesting response to de Grey is opposition. Other panellists responded "why should we want to live to 200", "what is wrong with frailty?" and talked about overpopulation. I think these responses - which I shared the first time I considered this issue - are not only missing the point but are frightening. All medical technologies could be similarly doubted, and it would be hideous to do so. What de Grey anticipates are medical technologies so effective they make our present technology seem like leeches and a hole in the head. We are largely resigned to dying in our first century, this is better than spending a life in fear of death. But it doesn't mean that death in the our first century is desirable.

If you don't want to live to 200, you can take the way out any time you choose. We find suicide terrible, but perhaps we should find natural death terrible, and respect the chosen death after a long life, celebrating the fact that nature did not intervene sooner.

But what about overpopulation? What about healthcare, including the costs of and access to longevity technology? What about pensions? These will be significant challenges, but not so significant I think that we should seek to kill everybody off at the age of 80 by suppressing the technology.

Longevity will harm annuity returns. People will have to work longer, and probably draw down their pension funds rather than buy annuities. This will happen anyway, it is just a matter of degree. But the drop in annuity returns will come before the technology because the market will see it coming.

Access to healthcare? Doubtless the treatments will be expensive. Again, this is a problem we have already. There is an insatiable demand for healthcare and a limited budget. However reformed and well funded a NHS is, there will always be good treatments it cannot afford. But generally the NHS can afford them eventually. So what is new?

Overpopulation? It seems misanthropic even to ask the question. The population booms that have occurred in each country roughly around the time of industrialisation result not from the fact that people started breeding like rabbits - they always had - but from the fact that they stopped dying like flies. Birthrates would eventually adjust to restore balance. We are still dying like flies, just not as infants any more. We should expect significant longevity gains to result in another temporary population boom. Like industrialisation, a permanent benefit for a temporary cost.

And we see this misanthropy already when people talk about the 'problem' of there being a large number of pensioners. The correct word is 'triumph'.

These are significant challenges, for sure. But opposing the technology is the moral equivalent to shooting pensioners, or bombing the ballroom at Blackpool Tower. De Grey may be optimistic, but these questions will arise one day. Let's welcome them when they do.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Eco-taxes and ashes

So Chris Huhne's manifesto is out. I was waiting for this point to look at the issue of eco taxes in more detail and contrast Chris with Ming. I don't mean to suggest that policy is the main factor when choosing a leader - it isn't - so it is a little self-indulgent of me to focus on policy. On the other hand if there are signs of an ability to construct a compelling narrative that would be a big factor.

Unfortunately there isn't much detail that we haven't already seen. Chris argues that "the money raised should go back to those most in need, including the rural communities that rely on cars." This is very much the correct sentiment in my view, but there is a conflict here with the commitment to revenue-neutrality. For eco taxes to be revenue neutral, they must be matched by tax cuts not spent on compensation packages. How many of the "most in need" will be taxpayers? Which taxes, exactly, should be cut only in rural areas?

That this is only one part of a bigger manifesto, relatively unexpanded, suggests that Chris may realise that he has over egged this one. I think he has.

Chris said on Question Time yesterday that we can't tackle global warming without reducing our energy use. Well this isn't strictly true. We could generate as much carbon-free energy as we want, if we were willing to pay for it. If fossil fuel prices rise further and stay high we will probably do this anyway. But the likelihood is that they will not rise fast or far enough to make the economic case for investment in renewables and nuclear not just competitive, but compelling.

Chris's preferred argument against nuclear is the economic one. It is a good argument, but where is the joined up thinking? If we make fossils more expensive to combat global warming, that will change the economics of nuclear. What then?

So how about Ming? I largely agree with James Graham's analysis, although I would defend Ming on road user charging. Contrary to what James says, lack of public transport options is a serious urban problem in much of the country. Bus fares in Sheffield's private monopoly are out of control to the point that if there are 3 of you, take a taxi. "All road user charging does is make roads more economically efficient." All!?!?! That's a great thing. And it will improve urban air quality, which has an immediate impact on health and morbidity. Civil liberties are a concern with nationwide road user charging by satellite, but they will probably have all the speed cameras wired up to do the same job by then anyway so it won't make any difference. But "a case to consider the expansion" is not "charge for every inch of road with satellite monitoring".

On the other hand I don't agree with James and Ming on carbon accounts. There isn't a fixed amount of carbon to go round, and if there were rationing still wouldn't be efficient. What there is, is a relatively fixed environmental cost to emitting it. A simple tariff would correct this and save us the bureaucrat's wet dream of individual carbon accounts.

Anyway. Neither man is entirely convincing on the policy detail. (Meaning neither entirely agrees with me.) But more importantly, what is the story? Chris's story is the old doom 'n' gloom: talking about the Gulf stream and so on. This goes in the 'about fear' category. The fears may be justified, but I would prefer to be positive. Ming doesn't have a story to his environment policy. He rather sits on the fence. He equivocates, or recognises the nuances, depending on your perspective. The story is that Ming's story is about something else.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sackcloth and eco-taxes

Simon Mollan has clarified his assertion that eco-taxes are "sackcloth".

Oddly, however, the arguments he goes on to make are about social justice, not prosperity in general. Yes, pensioners, students and unemployed people will be hit by fuel taxes. Perhaps there will be specifics in the Huhne manifesto as to whether all these groups will be compensated. Even so there will be winners and losers, but if that were going to stop us we would never change tax policy at all.

Simon also argues that "a certain amount fuel consumption is inelastic – both for business and people, and therefore increased taxation will not have the behaviour altering effects that Huhne thinks it will have." Yes, I agree. I have low expectations of eco taxes to change behaviour. They will a little, but lets not forget the good they do by raising revenue.

"In this scenario ... business will be less competitive..." Well obviously, if any particular tax is too high, there will be a cost to prosperity. (But not to overall competitiveness because exchanges rates will adjust.) But within a fairly wide range one tax can be substituted for another will little overall effect on prosperity. If we are already at the point where energy is so expensive compared to, say, labour or land, that economic choices are being grossly distorted, I would like to hear the case made before damning eco-taxes.

And although I am doubtful of the prospect of eco taxes changing individual behaviour an awful lot, they can change investment and lifestyle decisions in the long run, and investment in renewables is what we want.