Saturday, October 07, 2006

Straw and the Veil

There is a lot of bluster over Jack Straw's comments on the veil. The claim that this is discrimination is ridiculous: Straw has not disadvantaged anyone for wearing a veil and there is no suggestion he has ever been aggresive in his requests for them to be removed. Equally, the idea that this debate, about whether stopping wearing the veil would be a good move on the part of Muslim women to aid cohesion, can aid the far right doesn't stand up. The far right need integration to be a hopeless cause to justify their desire to keep ethnic groups separate and this is not helped by suggestions of methods by which integration can be advanced.

A simple survey could establish whether Jack Straw is right. Do a survey of non-Muslims and ask if they would feel significantly less comfortable talking to someone wearing a veil. I am almost certain that you would find a massive result in favour of it making them feel less comfortable. We rely on cues in people's facial expression to feel confident that they have understood us. That is why trying to be witty over e-mail is such a risky strategy. Hurting the ability of non-Muslims and Muslims to have a comfortable conversation hurts the everyday interactions which keep a lid on communal distrust. Such distrust plays into the hands of the unpleasant in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Flying Monkey Watch #2

Wicked the Musical is running in Victoria near my flat. I worry about the modern tendency to convince people that children's stories are a legitimate way for adults to spend their time; Harry Potter is for kids and an adult reading it needs to kill their inner child. As such, the idea of this musical frustrated me a little. A friend tells me it is good but I've been skeptical of such claims since people told me Shrek was fun for all ages.

However, I didn't think about the wonderful consequence of a musical set in the Wizard of Oz 'universe'... flying monkeys!


As should be clear I've reformed my blogroll. It is now separated along the lines I set out in my post on blogging. If you want to be added then e-mail me. Also, reciprocal links make me smile.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Conservative Foreign Policy

During the conference William Hague discussed his 'new direction' for foreign policy but unfortunately from his description it didn't sound terribly new.

The discussion of Darfur is starting to sound worryingly like a cliché. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that Britain does not have the capacity to take on another major operation at the same time as Afghanistan and Iraq. That is not going to change for some time after the Conservatives take over regardless of whether or not we make improvements to the armed forces. As such, all we can really do is implore the international community to act. What the world is lacking is not a recognition that Darfur is a mess but the political will from nations with the military capacity to put their forces into a situation which could potentially turn ugly with Al Qaeda already threatening any non-AU force.

The Conservative Party have not, thankfully, taken the unfortunate road of asking what is in the Atlantic alliance for us. All decent nations have a common interest in the security which the US is working to uphold; the question is whether we wish to be a free rider. Choosing to cop out in that manner would be immoral and dishonourable and has, rightly, not been seriously considered by the Conservatives. As there is still a rough consensus within the party that the US is fighting a good fight against Islamic extremism, if sometimes fighting it poorly, our foreign policy will, and should, remain deeply Atlanticist. I'll make the case for the factors which should determine US-UK foreign policy in a post soon but for the purposes of this post it is just necessary to accept that there will be wars in the future and the Conservatives will, ceteris paribus, probably be supporting the United States.

What that leaves us with is the pledge to be a friend, but not an uncritical one, of the US; the pledge to be a liberal conservative. However, this in itself is a tantrum not a policy. Clearly no Conservative government worth the name would start fights with the US for the sake of it. When people talk about Love Actually moments or Michael Howard discusses distancing us from the US what the public heard was that we were planning on doing just that and they were not impressed. Starting fights with the most powerful nation in the world, the strongest nation on the right side of the War on Terror and a long standing ally is no sign of principle. The question which needs to be answered is clearly when, in which circumstances, a Conservative government would be a critical friend of America.

The rhetoric on torture and other infringements of rights was the main hint at an answer here but I'm not so sure that is likely to be effective. In matter of how we go to war and how we execute that war Britain, as the key US ally with its own troops going in, has a reasonable amount of sway. If anyone tells you that we don't point them quickly to the attempt to get a second UN resolution which was at Blair's insistence. However, questions of torture and indefinite detainment are seen by the US, I believe, as essentially their own business. In war and peace-keeping there are Britons making enormous sacrifices which give weight to our opinion; our thoughts on Guantanamo do not have such emphasis.

Attempting to get a second UN resolution was well meaning but misguided. It forced us to have the debate over going to war in a setting where any one of Russia, China and France had the same influence as the US. It meant that the debate over the legitimacy of the war was settled by them and the other members of the security council at that time. The seeking of a second resolution looking like an admission that we should not go to war without French approval rather than an attempt to bring others on board. That and the over reliance on the existence of NCB weapons as the justification for war made a mess of attempts to sell this action to the public and international community.

The attempt at a second resolution was the major British influence on the US and it did involve a spending of credibility we had as a reliable ally. Once we were responsible for the mess of an attempt to go back to the UN our council on other matters was weakened by the question this raised over our judgement. A better case for the way Britain should have used its influence is in the execution of the Iraq war.

This is both where the war has gone wrong, the chaos afterwards, and the reason for public dissaproval. I don't think opinions of the war were contingent upon the finding of weapons of mass destruction as they reached their highest point at the immediate end of the war when WMD had not been found but we did seem to have done something genuinely worthwhile for Iraq and had gotten rid of a genuinely unpleasant and destabilising dictator. The situation soured as it proved difficult to reestablish order following the war and popular opinion followed this deterioration. The reasons for this happening seem best summed up to me in the rules for running a successful peacekeeping force from Paddy Ashdowne that Niall Ferguson quotes in Colossus:

  1. [To have] a good plan and stick to it. This plan needs to be drawn up, not as an after-thought, but well in advance, as an integral part of the planning for the military campaign.
  2. [To] establish the rule of law - and do so as quickly as possible... It is much more important to establish the rule of law quickly than to establish democracy quickly. Because without the former, the latter is soon undermined.
  3. To start as quickly as possible on the major structural reforms - from putting in place a customs service or reliable tax base, to reforming the police and the civil service, to restructuring and screening the judiciary, to transforming the armed forces.
  4. [To ensure] that the international community organizes itself in [the] theatre in a manner that can work and take decisions.
  5. [To establish] an exceptionally close relationship between the military and civilian aspects of peace implementation.
  6. [To] avoid setting deadlines, and settle in for the long haul... installing the software of a free and open society is a slow business. It cannot be done... in a year or so... Peace-keeping needs to be measured not in months but decades. What we need here... is "sticktoitiveness"... the political will, the unity of purpose, and the sheer stamina as an international community to see the job through to lasting success. That means staying on, and sticking at it, long after the CNN effect has passed.
Clearly a worrying number of these lessons were ignored in Iraq. The excessive US confidence that they were liberating an Iraqi people immediately ready for freedom led them to seem too eager to leave which incentivised a struggle for post-US power, to not take security seriously enough near the beginning and to allow a shortage of manpower.

The Conservatives are right to be thinking about the Atlantic alliance and the extent to which it should be critical as well as supportive but I would suggest that we are better placed to influence American conduct in its interventions abroad than its idealistic purity at home. Conservative criticisms of Blair should centre upon his wasting of our important influence on the totem of the UN instead of making sure that the war and peace were fought in the right way.

Policing who you want to Police

It may sound understandable that a policeman of Lebanese origin did not want to police the Israeli embassy while they were at war with his countrymen. War is a rather emotional thing. He felt ill disposed towards Israeli's, made that clear to his superiors and they moved him off the case. As a result of this no one got hurt and there were plenty of other officers to watch over the embassy.

The reason it is utterly unnacceptable is that if he is admitting that the biases emerging from his being anything other than a British policeman and citizen will affect his ability to protect people then how can we be sure this will not feed into his other work? If he sees a Jewish person being verbally or physically abused will he respond as we would expect?

This kind of question undermines the police force as a body of neutral enforcers of the law and turns them into a series of interested groups policing for their communities. Such an outcome will lead to more distrust of everyday policing as an officer's personal biases in every crime are questioned by every criminal and victim. It also strikes at the notion of an equality of justice. This police officer should be told that he is not in the right career.

Gurkhas in Afghanistan

With the Taliban closer than 50 yards, Rifleman Nabin Rai, 20, manning a heavy machinegun on the roof, had several rounds ricochet off his weapon before a bullet went through the gunsight and hit him in the face.

"His commander called for him to be medi-vacced out, but he refused to come down from the roof," said Major Rex. "Later he was again hit, this time in the helmet. He sat down and had a cigarette, then went back to his position."

Makes you feel a bit soft, doesn't it?

Flying Monkey Watch

A team from all over the UK are applying for a license to create a 99% human, 1% rabbit embryo. It will be quickly destroyed but does break down some old taboos in creating a frankenbunny. I find it hard to take these stories as seriously as perhaps they should be. I am willing to accept any research that brings this a little closer:

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Chinese Execution Buses

I'm actually more positive than many conservatives on China and am hopeful that we can avoid a confrontation with them that would be enormously destructive. I'll write a broader post about China soon. However, every so often you get reminders that the Chinese Communist Party is capable of being really, disgustingly, awful.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Cameron's Second Speech

The response elsewhere to this speech has already been positive. There were two things I disliked:

1) The Minimum Wage

The Conservative Party should be highlighting new ways of helping those on low pay which act as a subsidy on their employment and lower its cost rather than a price floor which raises their cost to employers. That way we can spread the responsibility for keeping those in work living comfortably more widely through society instead of punishing employers who employ the poor.

2) The NHS

The principle Cameron set out for why we have the NHS, making it that people do not have to fear the financial cost of illness, was a noble one but is it really only the NHS which can provide this? Are the French, with an insurance based system, excluding more people?

I hope the campaign he is launching to stop NHS cuts is somewhat more imaginative.

Lots of stuff I liked:

1) Foreign policy

Still nothing much that was new but his rhetoric was much closer to the, very convincing, Fox than to the less impressive Hague. Correctly identified that this is not Northern Ireland and these are not people to negotiate with.

2) Crime

Very, very good. Highlighted the right causes of crime, social breakdown, and the right responses to crime once it had happened in making sentences count among other things. I like the Bill of Rights idea and look forward to seeing what the bill they come up with looks like.

3) Civil Partnerships

Highlighted that these should be seen as a celebration of the benefits of marriage rather than as an attack on it as an institution.

4) Tax

Hit the same notes as Osborne.

5) Restoring cabinet government

Very good. A presidential style is a thing to be careful of with the term Cameron's Conservatives being used so often.

Christianity vs. Islam

Good times.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Fox's Speech

Brilliant (this downloads a .wmv file). He described the problem with defence policy and spending which does match up to the ambitions of foreign policy. Set out in certain terms that British troops cannot answer to any body but our parliament. Linked the environmental focus on display at conference to the security costs of large funds being sent the way of oil states like Russia and Iran. This speech highlights the kind of approach I would want to see from a Conservative Defence Minister and recognises that this is one issue where the public really do not want us to go soft.

Hague's Second Speech

Hague restated support (this downloads a .wmv file) for Turkish entry to the EU which I liked. The rest of his time spent on the EU was a reiteration of the solid Conservative European policy which has been unchallenged in the party for some time. He was right to note, as I did a few months back, that Europe faces the dilemma of choosing the function it has fulfilled best, encouraging new countries towards liberal economics and sensible politics, or the function it treasures but has proved least productive with, political integration.

However, the rest of his speech, on the more interesting topic of broader foreign policy, was a statement of conventional wisdom. It contained nothing you wouldn't have heard in Gordon Brown's speech a week ago. This is partly a consequence of the broad consensus in mainstream politics around British foreign policy priorities if not detail but Hague needed to do more. His speech did not contain the 'new direction' he claimed it did and he needs to do more.

Osborne's Speech

"To do things and not just to say things" - Osborne (this will download a .wmv file) has an uncomfortable speaking style.

I think he did well to make explicit that stability over tax cuts is a call for fiscal conservatism rather than socialism, as many have bizarrely painted it. In particular the Thatcher quote is clearly aimed at critics who claim to be Thatcherite while finding fiscal discipline passé:

"I am not prepared ever to go on with tax reductions if it means unsound finance"


However, the big issue this speech did not deal with to my satisfaction was the philosophy that will guide the ordering of priorities when it comes time to decide the shares of growth going to spending or taxation. Clues on a few of the following would be nice: Would an Osborne treasury view public service quality as largely a function of money spent? How important would it see the medium term revenue returns of tax cuts which are costly in the short term as being?

There were hints in discussions of Ireland's low tax economy but this never translated into answers to questions like these and others which are so crucial to the decisions the Shadow Chancellor will face when finally setting out Conservative economic policy in detail.

Timing is everything...

It would appear that my take on the race for UN Secretary General was quickly made obsolete. Ah well.

Monday, October 02, 2006

BBC journalism at its insightful best

This is actually an article about Cameron's using a dishwasher:

"In the latest instalment, David Cameron talks - above the yelps of his children - about his plans to "clean up" politics, as he loads his dishwasher. Would the famously green Mr Cameron not be doing the environment more of a favour were he to wash up?"

Does anyone care? If the option Cameron had chosen were, like the stories of cars accompanying his bike, significantly less environmentally friendly than some presentation of his had suggested or he was choosing to do something out of the ordinary and environmentally harmful, choking a Panda perhaps, then I can see the public interest but everyone has a dishwasher.

"In environmental circles, it's a lively debate."

Dishwasher energy efficiency? Detergent usage? I'd actually suggest it is an interminably dull debate.

"Some argue dishwashers are greener than hand washing because they use less water, detergent and power per cycle. A dishwasher can cut water consumption by up to 80% compared to hand washing in an average household, according to manufacturer Electrolux.

But others argue that when additional factors, such as the manufacture of the unit, the pollution created during distribution and the energy required to make the detergents used in them, are taken into account, it is questionable what is best."

You know what this debate suggests? That Cameron's choice of whether to handwash or use a dishwasher is utterly irrelevant to everyone but boring enviro-nerds who would be trainspotters if they didn't think their job being about the environment made a passion for dull details progressive and cool. If one is marginally more efficient it won't be enough to make dishwashers an important item in energy efficiency compared to, say, insulation so there really is no reason for the general public to care.

"When buying a dishwasher look for the EST's Energy Efficiency Recommended logo or the EU energy label. Compared to a model bought 10 years ago, a new A-rated energy-efficient dishwasher will save its owner £15 each year, according to Friends of the Earth (FoE)."

£15 a year? Score.

Now, we don't have any evidence but given that the Camerons are a quite well off family the energy efficiency of their dishwasher is almost certainly about how old it is. Given they recently moved in it is probably a modern one. However, it honestly isn't that important. This story is a litany of unimportant facts with no bearing on Cameron's environmentalism. It is a distraction from a serious debate on the environment and a bizarre manifestation of the desire to find false hypocricy in political leaders.

Just remember, this story is only possible thanks to the unique way the BBC is funded.

Hague's Speech

William Hague is a great speaker and his latest effort (this downloads a .wmv file) was no exception. It was genuinely funny, superbly timed and weighted and had some great attacks on the Labour record on important issues combined with funny character assassination.

However, that doesn't make me nostalgic for his days as leader. Hague is an excellent speaker but to be a leader requires political judgement in spades and this is what I don't see in Hague to a sufficient level to make a great leader of the Conservative Party. While it is probably true that no one could have won an election from his position the excessive focus on Europe and immigration of his campaign helped entrench the idea of us as a right wing pressure group rather than future government and this was a real harm to the party's prospects.

I'm also not sure about his stances as Shadow Foreign secretary. I disagree with his stance that the Israeli incursion into Lebanon was disproportionate for reasons highlighted by Krauthammer although I do suspect that it was incompetent. The EPP exit delay I am deeply ambivalent about and don't see the delay as being a breaking of a promise. He hasn't been making the noise about Afghanistan that I think he probably should be. The jury is still out on his performance in such a vital role.

David Davis's Speech

David Davis is not a brilliant orator but his speech (this will download a .wmv file) to conference was great. It was, as is to be expected, as conservative a speech as can be imagined with lots of time spent on old Prime Ministers, celebrating the value of freedom and the qualities of Britain. However, it was also a deeply Cameroon speech which went through the need for the party to change with new circumstances and defend the environment. His speech was the point I was making last night incarnate; it was talking about conservative truths but how they must be applied to the new challenges of a changing society. That Davis made such a speech when he could so easily have got away with faint praise or retreated into sniping since last year was an enormous credit to his character.

The Next UN Secretary General

Alykhan Velshi has an excellent article in the New English Review about the race for UN Secretary General. The current favourite, a South Korean candidate, is the candidate of the UN's venal status quo. The Sunday Times article on Kofi Annan this week was a brilliant summing up of the horrible costs of the status quo's corruption and lack of moral fibre. While it calls for some kind of accountability and change Alykhan's plan of action is clearer. His conclusion is that the US should veto Ban-Ki Moon's nomination as Secretary General. However, this is one situation in which Britain has exactly the same power and influence as the US; we have our own veto. Why don't we use it?

This would be a good way for Cameron to turn his rhetoric on improving the international response to crises such as Darfur and Rwanda, where the current UN bureaucracy have so thoroughly failed, into action. As such, it would be a fine initiative for the Conservatives to push for and a great way for Britain to make a difference on the international stage.

McCain's Speech

"You claim the future and you will see more of it than I will but I am content and inspired, in my late years, to know still, as I have always known, that there will always be a Britain and that the future is in the safe hands of the two great peoples who long ago decided to make history... together. Thank you and God bless."

This is the end of McCain's speech (this links downloads a .wmv file). That, and the rest of the last two minutes or so, was a wonderful expression of what the special relationship really means and why the question of "what's in it for us" so misses the point.

Cameron's Speech

I've just finished watching Cameron's speech (this will download a .wmv file) and I thought it was brilliant.

There was some stuff I disliked. I think that the talk of rap music's evil influence on children is a little out of date. Back in the early Eminem days it was the talk of the town but now I honestly don't think there are huge fears about rap music's hold on young people's imagination. Also, I need to look into the detail but European regulation on the chemicals industry has a history of mixed quality at best so I hope the Conservatives have picked the right regulation to strengthen.

However, his assault on Labour's record was superb. All of the initiatives which have been conceived as a press movement and abandoned as unworkable; other initiatives like ID cards which the Conservatives will and should scrap as illiberal and impractical.

His central theme of responsibility, personal, professional, corporate and civic, is a conservative answer to questions which the Left claims only it can respond to on poverty and social breakdown. These are the questions that the British people rightly want politicans to answer. The Cameron project is not about giving up on conservatism as a set of values but about applying those values to the new challenges of today's society. Today's speech made that clear.