Saturday, May 05, 2007

Congratulations Tony

Huge congratulations to Tony Sharp. He was elected as the councillor for Brickhill. Well done!

Local Elections: Backlash after successful elections

Where I live, in Letchworth, is part of a solid Conservative parliamentary constituency. North Hertfordshire has a Conservative majority of nine thousand, it trebled at the last election. However, Conservative strength in the constituency is traditionally a result of a lot of rural or semi-rural areas. Letchworth area council used to be Labour run with some Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives barely getting a look in. That has almost completely reversed over a number of years.

Now, two areas are solid Conservative. Letchworth South East is reasonably safe. Letchworth South West, where I live, got huge majorities this year. It is very, very solid even by the standards of a true-blue constituency. However, the other wards in Letchworth are more problematic.

Letchworth Wilbury had always been Labour. Conservatives who stood there were practically paper candidates. Then last year one of them won. Letchworth Grange is another surprising area for the Conservatives to do well. Finally, Letchworth East has had one of its two councillors as a Conservative for a few years but is generally Labour. All of these were being defended.

We had all-out elections thanks to some boundary changes. These changes strengthened Letchworth Grange and South West but hurt East and Wilbury. In the final result the Conservatives lost the councillors in Letchworth Wilbury and East. In Letchworth Grange they gained a councillor and came close to getting a third and making a clean sweep.

Now, to the point. I don't think this was all about the boundary changes. It looks like there is a serious danger for Conservatives who have succeeded in traditionally Labour areas. If you have surprised people and won a seat you were not expected to win in a previous year you can see a rapid reverse. Labour voters may have assumed their ward was safe and not turned out. They then see that their area is not as safe for Labour as they thought and turn out in far greater numbers.

We could see this happening more often in the future with the Conservatives winning in so many traditionally Labour areas. The new councillors may need to work hard to hold onto their new seats.

Little Bits of Good News

I brought a load of change that I had been slowly collecting in my flat back to Letchworth. In the Sainsbury's here they have a machine that, in exchange for roughly an 8% cut, counts it all and gives you cash. Even after their cut my big bag of change came to just over ninety-five pounds!


Friday, May 04, 2007

Local Elections: The Minor Parties

First, the UKIP. I have no idea what happened to them. Their website seems proud of the races where they've come second which is hardly inspirational. I can't find any reporting about them by searching Google News. Unless DK corrects me I'll assume they've gone nowhere. Some of them are literally going nowhere after getting kicked off a train for being unpleasant and rather racist.

The BNP appear to have had a genuinely mixed bag. They are making advances in some new areas but suffering where they already had seats. It's nice to think that people do at least learn some kind of lesson about what they get in a BNP councillor. It isn't the Labour Party their grandparents voted for.

I'm not going to comment on the Scottish and Welsh elections as there are people better qualified to do so.

The big news on the minor party front in England is the Green Party. Just looking at where they've gained councillors, Brighton for example, underestimates their impact. I was at the count in North Herts and Green voters were being found everywhere in large numbers. In one seat they got over six hundred votes. They appear to really be going places. I don't think it has yet sunk in that they are going to be big news in future elections, possibly at the next General Election.

The big question is who they will take the most votes from. Conventional wisdom would be that the Liberal Democrats will suffer, that would fit with what has happened this election. However, we had a lot of multiple vote wards and I was able to watch who people were mixing Green candidates with. It wasn't always the Liberals. Quite a few Labour and Conservative voters were also flirting with the Green Party. The Greens are the minority party to watch.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats have confirmed their status as a minor party in this election. We don't have three-party politics in the sense of three potential governments and this election has demonstrated that. For the Liberal Democrats to lose so many candidates at this stage says dismal things about their chances at the General Election. I can see a few possible reasons for this. First, and probably most importantly, there is the classic squeeze when one of the main two parties has their act together as the Conservatives do at the moment. Second, the Greens may be hurting them more than the other parties. Third, they are an absolute shambles at the moment and it isn't all Menzies Campbell's fault. A new leader can give them dynamism but it can't resolve the immense tension at the heart of a party trying to be a libertarian alternative to the Conservatives and a social democrat alternative to Labour.

I see no prospect of any serious challenge, in England, to the two-party system. While other parties can affect the chances of Labour or the Conservatives they cannot aspire to government themselves.

Local Elections: North vs. South or Urban vs. Rural

It has long been the conventional wisdom that the Conservatives need to do better in the Northern cities. However, this begs a question. Not all of the North is urban and not all urban areas are in the North. Is the Conservative problem urban or Northern performance?

I think these elections answer that question. We would expect that if the problem were primarily the North we would see more progress in Southern areas not already voting Conservative.

In the North the Conservatives have done rather well. They have gained councils and councillors.

By contrast, look at places like Stevenage (a city in all but the technical sense) where the Conservatives have stood still despite it being surrounded by blue councils. Cambridge still has no Conservative councillor. I think that we were led astray by the strong Tory performance in London at the last General Election. That suggested that the North was the problem rather than urban areas in general. In reality it may just have been that London is exceptional.

I'm unsure why the Conservatives have such a problem gaining traction in urban areas. However, the geographical picture is becoming clearer. The rural areas are voting Conservative across the country, the urban areas are still largely Labour strongholds and the main battle is in the suburbs, whether these are the edges of cities or small towns in their own right.

Local Elections: It's gone well

Predicting before the local elections Sean Fear suggested on ConservativeHome that the Conservatives were likely to gain 500-750 councillors. This was a relatively optimistic prediction with most suggesting we'd be doing really well if we gained more than 600. Now we've come out with 875 don't let anyone tell you it isn't damned good news.

Equally, he predicted we would gain control of 18 councils. We have gained 38. I don't mean to get at Sean Fear, he was closer than most predicting these polls. I only use his numbers to highlight that we have comfortably beaten even an optimistic prediction of how we would do. There is a lot of talk of a modest Conservative success that isn't backed up by in the council elections at all.

Finally, most importantly, is our share of the national vote. In this the target was absolutely clear. Get 40% of the national vote. That is the number you need to get a workable majority and become a government. We got 41%. There is a lot of work to do before the next General Election but we are getting the kind of support that can translate into victory.

The Scottish and Welsh elections didn't go so well and are the fly in the ointment. I'm poorly qualified to discuss these but they are less relevant to national politics. It would seem to boost the argument for a new, separate, Scottish Conservative Party though.

Finally, Gracchi's assertion that the numbers now don't mean much because people just vote against the government at this stage of the cycle can't be sustained. While things will change before the election this is not purely a transient protest vote. If it was the Liberal Democrats have done well and instead they've completely collapsed with the loss of 242 councillors.

Labour doing poorly, the Lib Dems collapsing, huge numbers of new Conservative councillors and councils. I'm celebrating.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

How about we kill everyone. Just to be sure.

The Great Global Warming Omni-Justification climbs another mountain of implausibility:

""China is already doing a lot," said Hu Tao, of China's State Environmental Protection Administration. He said China's one-child per couple policy introduced in the early 1980s, for instance, had a side-effect of braking global warming by limiting the population to 1.3 billion against a projected 1.6 billion without the policy."

I'd like to say this is as far as I expect things to go but I doubt it will be long before this guy is held up as a green hero:

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What is England?

I saw the film This is England yesterday evening and am still trying to get my head around it.

The core of the film was a very touching emotional story. This was the story of a young boy alienated from his peers and finding refuge and a fragile happiness in a skinhead gang. This is an interesting tale. It also forms a very interesting look at the banality of evil. One, well told, example of the mundane and dismal ways people end up in the position of evildoer.

In the central role of the boy, Shaun, Thomas Turgoose is brilliant. Equally, the rest of the film is well acted and the emotions are very human. Had this film confined itself to being an emotional story I would have come away very impressed. However, it also contains constant references to the Falklands. So many of the main film's scenes are bookended with radio or TV news reports from the war. Clearly, these references to the Falklands are more than just context.

Here I am going to have to confess to a genuine uncertainty. The Guardian review sees the references to the Falklands as being an example of the confident eighties that the characters in the film have no contact with. This take on the film doesn't seem justified though. At one point a Union flag held by a National Front demonstrator is actually faded into one carried by a soldier in the iconic images of the forces in the Falklands. Throughout the film it seems to be trying to draw parallels between the National Front and the patriotism of the Falklands War. At the end of the film Shaun throws a flag of St. George into the sea which suggests a rejection of patriotism in general. I could be wrong. Other reviews don't seem to have noticed this theme. However, I cannot account for the film's use of the Falklands in any other way.

Equating patriotism and fascist racism is a dire message. Clearly the love of their country felt by most Britons at the time of the Falklands, a war with huge public support, was entirely different to the racial hatred espoused by the National Front. To equate the two is either to attempt a crude and unjustified smear upon patriotism or to diminish the awfulness of the National Front's ideology.

This message is so distasteful it ruined, for me, the climax of what is otherwise a superb emotional story. Go and see the film for yourself. I hope I'm wrong and that someone will explain how. If so I might see This is England on DVD and feel better about it.

Just what does George Monbiot want us to do about climate change?

This article by Dan Savage for Slog at the Seattle newspaper The Stranger doesn't so much fisk a Monbiot article for the Nation as point out what he actually said. The ridiculousness of his ideas almost speaks for itself. First, Monbiot repeats just how much CO2 a plane produces. However, he then compares it to other modes of transport.

First, biofuel:

"Forests in South America and Southeast Asia are being cleared to plant palm oil, sugarcane, and soya for transport fuel… [But] the production of every ton of palm oil results in up to 33 tons of C02 emissions, as trees are burned and peat is drained. This means that palm oil causes up to ten times as much global warming as petroleum."

Hydrogen fuel cells:

"Jet engines can run on hydrogen; however, because it is a far less dense fuel than kerosene, the planes would have to be much wider to carry it. This means that they must fly in the stratosphere—otherwise they’d encounter too much drag. Unfortunately, the water vapor produced by burning hydrogen in the stratosphere would cause a climate-changing effect thirteen times greater than that of an ordinary plane."

Go by train?

"Though trains traveling at normal speeds have much lower carbon emissions than airplanes…. energy consumption rises dramatically at speeds above 125 miles per hour…. If the trains are powered by electricity, and if that electricity is produced by plants burning fossil fuels, they cause more C02 emissions than planes."

Those self-satisfied French with their spiffy high-speed trains aren't so green after all. This also seriously undermines a proposed central plank of the Tory environmental strategy.

Passenger ships are an awful idea:

"Passenger ships appear to be even worse for the environment than jets…. [The] Queen Elizabeth II, the luxury liner run by Cunard, produces 9.1 tons of emissions per passanger on a return trip from Britain to New York. This is 7.6 times as much carbon as you produce when traveling by plane."

You know what's left? Zeppelins. Blimps!

They produce very little CO2. However, it'll take forty-three hours to get from New York to London on one. Don't even think about visiting Australia. Oh the humanity!

What that really means is that there isn't an effective substitute for flying. Air-fuel is already more than expensive enough to encourage efficiency savings. This is a key rationale behind the huge and therefore very fuel efficient per passenger Airbus A380.

As such, the only way new taxes on aviation can have any effect is if they just make us travel less. Stay at home except for when we take a slow train to the next village. This is a pretty dismal idea. It is a reversal of the great broadening of people's horizons and shrinking of the world over the twentieth century. It is also a high price to pay for the gesture that is any emissions curb without an international agreement.

That is why people like Monbiot need to overstate the extent of the threat posed by global warming. They need to make out the threat to be so severe no one pays attention to the price we're paying for averting it.

Police Raid Animal Rights Extremists

The news, reported in the FT, that there has been a significant raid on animal rights extremists is very welcome indeed. Too often these terrorists have been allowed to operate without proper sanction. Their tactics are utterly gruesome and deplorable. Grandmothers bodies exhumed from their graves and stolen. Cleaners or contractors with only the most tenuous links to animal testing companies abused. Aids infected needles posted to researchers. Animal testings firm's staff's children hassled at school. A legal industry prevented from doing good work testing drugs that will save lives.

Animal rights extremists have the same contempt for democratic decision making and lack of scruples as Islamist terrorists. They don't operate with the same destructive scale which makes them less threatening but that doesn't mean their violation of the rule of law isn't serious. They are both utterly wrong and pursue their objectives in a completely illegitimate matter.

There aren't that many of them so this number of arrests should manage to make a pretty serious dent in their operations. It's great to see the police finally succeeding in taking serious action against them. Things are getting better:

The latest figures from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry showed a sharp drop in attacks in 2006, with no personal assaults, 50 instances of damage to property, 20 visits to employees’ homes with civil disturbance and six abusive or threatening letters and text messages.

For too long animal rights lunatics have been allowed to hound an industry whose achievements Britain should be proud of. It is great, great news we appear to have turned the tide.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Shortlisted for an Award

This blog is on the ConservativeHome shortlist for Best Young Conservative Blog. Huzzah!

More on the UKIP Option

Arguing with DK is like playing with fireworks in a munitions dump. You risk an explosion but can be assured that the ensuing carnage will, at least, be memorable.

I think we have informally agreed to differ on the actual question of whether or not the EU can or should be reformed and made a worthwhile institution. However, the argument as to whether even a Euronihilist such as DK should vote UKIP still has some legs. I appear to have detonated him somewhat in my latest treatment of that debate.

I'll get two things out of the way before I make my main case:

Firstly, the accusation I'm avoiding the debate. I'm really not. I did read the Nameless One's response and I'm sorry I didn't get around to responding to it. However, it doesn't address my case. While one Conservative activist can't change the party's collective mind one UKIP activist can't make a stuff of difference either. The question is where an individual, or a group, can be most effective in advancing their position. Equally, I didn't address DK's paragraph from the post responding to Jackart because he hadn't addressed the possibility of changing the leadership rather than changing the existing leadership's mind.

Secondly, the comparison DK makes repeatedly to the Labour party. This is very stretched. The Labour Party emerged out of the decision of a pre-existing mass movement to create its own party. It took from its union founders a stable source of funding and a huge pool of activists. The UKIP has no such advantage and is genuinely building from scratch.

Okay, down to the main case. I'm going to sum up the pros and cons of two approaches to advancing the Euronihilist position. Both have as their objective the eventual election of a government that will take Britain out of the European Union. Both will need to convince enough of the electorate to form a government and that means, in practice, that the Conservative membership will need to be convinced that leaving Europe is the right position for a party to take and that this is a priority. First, I'll summarise what each scheme consists of and then I'll go over their advantages and disadvantages.

The UKIP Option

Form a new political party and have as many EUNihilists as possible join it. Use that party to try and scare the Conservative leadership into taking your position. Hope that the Conservative Party membership go along with this change out of loyalty and a closet support for the UKIP's objective. If the Conservative Party will not change then slowly break it and hope the UKIP emerges as the new right-wing party that can challenge for government.

The BOO Option

Stay in the Conservative Party or whichever party, with a serious chance of gaining power, will best advance your beliefs. Put the time and money that you would have spent on the paraphenalia of the new party into building organisations and a persuasive case against the EU. Don't worry too much about convincing the leadership in particular. If they can't be convinced change the minds of the membership and then they can, through a leadership election, convince the party.

Advantages to the UKIP Option

  • No need to compromise, vote for and support a "best alternative" party you still disagree with on important issues.
  • You might threaten the leadership into changing their position and shortcut actually convincing the Conservatives.

Disadvantages to the UKIP Option

  • It pisses off loyal Conservatives and turns them off the EUnihilist message.
  • A huge amount of money and time is spent on the paraphenalia of the party (election deposits and the like) instead of on the actual business of convincing people.
  • Minor parties always attract a disproportionate number of weirdos. These discredit the cause.
  • As the UKIP are a minor party (1% of the electorate) a Conservative leadership working to defend their votes would do just as well to cast the UKIP as crazies as it would to appease them. This can be effective because there are plenty of crazies within the UKIP for them to point to.
Advantages to the BOO Option

  • In the meantime you can get a better chance of a Conservative government which is relatively Eurosceptic and otherwise sound compared to Labour or the Liberal Democrats.
  • You have a lot more EU nihilists voting in Conservative Party leadership elections, potential leadership candidates know this.
  • You can attempt to convince other Conservatives as an ally instead of as an enemy. Look at it this way, do you think that most Americans will listen more openly to Barack Obama or Saddam Hussein telling them the Iraq War was a bad idea?
  • If you succeed then you will have actually convinced the Conservative Party rather than having scared them into line.

Disadvantages of the BOO Option

  • It could be that the Conservatives just can't be convinced. In that case the cause is probably hopeless but you could dream of non-voters riding to your aid. They won't as they're mostly utterly uninterested in politics rather than being some angry, anti-EU coherent multitude but the possibility might be a comfort in fringe politics.
The balance is clearly with not forming a new party. It is with attempting to convince people either within the party or outside it but without forming an opposing camp in the form of a new party. This is the approach that right-wing groups have taken on other issues and it is far more effective.

Possibly the Most Experienced Panel Ever Assembled on the Future of British Foreign Policy

Yesterday evening I went to see a debate at the LSE on the subject “British Foreign Policy – Challenges facing the next Prime Minister”. The speakers were Lord Owen, Lord Howe, Lord Hurd, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, Gideon Rachman and Dr. Robin Niblett. The first four are all ex-Foreign Secretaries. Lord Owen from 1977 to 1979 was the only Labour Foreign Secretary on the panel. Lord Howe was Foreign Secretary from 1983 to 1989 after having been Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lord Hurd was Foreign Secretary from 1989 to 1995 straddling both the Major and Thatcher years and the end of the Cold War. Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP was Foreign Secretary in the later Major years. Robin Niblett was an Executive Vice-President of the Institute for Strategic Studies in the United States but is now returning to become head of the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. Gideon Rachman is the Financial Times’ Foreign Affairs Correspondent.

In short, it was an absolutely spectacular panel. I’m not sure there has ever been a collection of speakers assembled for a single meeting quite so well qualified to talk about the prospects for British foreign policy in the coming years. All six were fitted into an hour and a half including questions at the end. It was a stunning concentration of wisdom and intellect. I’ll go through what they said, reconstructed from my notes I’m afraid, in order and then conclude with a few short comments of my own. This is something of a report in place of this blog’s traditional focus on analysis.

The event was convened to support a book “British Diplomacy – Foreign Secretaries Reflect” released in March and based on an earlier series of lectures at the LSE. If this short event was anything to go by the book is well worth a read.

Lord Owen

Lord Owen discussed the framework of British foreign policy. He argued that we needed change to ensure that the Prime Minister was properly kept in contact with the foreign policy establishment. He split his case into two key changes.

First, he described how it was necessary to abolish the new secretariats and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff and reinstate the old cabinet secretary with full access to the same intelligence as the Prime Minister. His case was that the new arrangements had been conceived to give Blair freedom. However, they had, instead, managed to make it that there wasn’t anyone able to give Blair the benefit of the experience and knowledge of Foreign Service officialdom. This meant that Blair did not have the advice he needed at crucial stages of his time as Prime Minister.

Second, Owen contended that Blair was too attached to the Presidential style. Instead of being prepared by the cabinet before summits he discussed foreign policy on first name terms with the President. Owen argues this informality further hurt the extent that Blair could benefit from the quality of the British foreign policy establishment.

During the questions Owen revealed that he is the only one of the panel who was in favour of the Iraq war and remains convinced the fundamental logic behind the war was good. His case is that British diplomacy failed because it did not properly “play its hand” and ensure that the Iraq War was conducted as well as it could have been. In particular, he argues that when the US State Department’s plans for the post-war were discarded unceremoniously by Rumsfeld’s Defense Department the United Kingdom could have played a key role in getting them taken up again. Owen described the State Department as desperate for our Foreign Office to write an eloquent case for proper post-war planning and against lunacies like disbanding the army and attempting to DeBaath Iraq. We never made that case and the consequences were dire. Had Blair and the political framework been better at involving the foreign office the war might have gone very differently.

He hoped Brown would not make the same mistakes.

Lord Howe

Lord Howe first noted that he agreed with what had been said by Lord Owen. This would become a theme through the evening as the different former secretaries agreed with each other on a great many issues. This might tell us something about the effect the pressures of the role of Foreign Secretary can have in shaping someone’s opinions. He was sceptical that Brown would get right what Lord Owen had described Blair getting wrong. His understanding was that Prime Ministers tend to form a more authoritarian approach to their cabinet during their time in office. As Brown has already been in office for ten years before becoming Prime Minister this does not bode well.

His introduction, by Professor Christopher Hill as chair, had mentioned his rupture with Thatcher at the end of his ministerial career. He implored us, at the start of his speech, to pay more attention to the fifteen years in which they worked together, “longer than most marriages these days”, rather than the period of their “divorce”. Later on he expressed enormous admiration for her as a leader. This speaks volumes to his character.

Lord Howe’s central case was on our relations with Europe. He argued that we faced a choice between attempting to maintain our status as a great power and making the contribution of a great nation. Certain brilliant leaders, such as Churchill or Lady Thatcher, had enabled us to act as a great power once again but it was not something that could be sustained. We keep on trying to remain a great power because, since the Second World War, we have “lost our pride but kept our conceit”. This conceit led us to be disdainful of the movement to co-operation within Europe, believing that as a great power we were above it.

Howe’s manifesto was for us to undertake far greater co-operation with the rest of Europe in the field of defence and foreign policy. His case was that it was our conceited staying out of Europe at its inception that had meant we were unable to prevent the creation of the worst aspects of the European Union such as the CAP. He implied by this that by avoiding such conceit in the future we could ensure that European co-operation was of a form more to our liking.

He described China and India growing not just in their power to change the world but their wisdom in doing so. To highlight their progress he pointed out that at the last Indian election a Hindu lost and handed power to a Roman Catholic who then gave up the position to a Sikh who was duly made Prime Minister by the President, a Muslim. In the face of these new powers he argued that our contribution would only be felt if we acted like a great nation, and co-operated particularly with other European nations, instead of continuing the conceit of behaving like a great power.

Howe concluded that by co-operating with Europe we might have made a difference to the rush to war with Iraq. He described how Blair had received two standing ovations from Congress where even Thatcher had only received one. He suggested this kind of treatment can affect a Prime Minister's judgement.

Lord Hurd

Hurd’s theme was humanitarian intervention. He saw this as being in a process of flux as international law would respond to rather than dictate the choices made by the international community in the coming years. The question of when states were justified in violating another state’s sovereignty would be settled by practice rather than theory.

He described a waxing and waning of the popular appetite for humanitarian intervention in response to the success and failure of particular interventions. Intervention in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone appeared successful. The costs of not intervening were made clear in Rwanda. This appetite for humanitarian intervention was then given a severe knock by Iraq and the apparent inability of Western intervention to bring stability.

Hurd proposed a response to the crisis in Darfur as a case study for the way ahead. Armed intervention would probably not be a solution as it might cause as much harm as good in such a complicated situation. Selective bombing would be ineffective. Economic sanctions coupled with dialogue had to be the way forward. He described the key as being the diplomatic effort to convince China that its investments in Sudan would be safer if it were to help curb the regime’s behaviour than if it attempted to block all action and let the humanitarian catastrophe continue.

Interestingly, Hurd singled out the ICC for criticism. He argued that indicting people like the Sudanese leaders before peace had been achieved prevented important trade-offs being made between peace and justice. Northern Ireland had proven the importance of being able to make that trade-off.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP

Rifkind’s central case was around the relationship with the United States. He made two points before getting into his main arguments.

  1. Blair looks a lot like Neville Chamberlain. Of course, he cannot be accused of attempting to appease evil. However, in the same way he sought to be his own Foreign Secretary. He also had the same supreme faith in his own persuasive abilities. Rifkind cited Blair’s, bizarre in retrospect, attempt to convince the Syrian party to change fifty years of foreign policy and support an invasion of Iraq just before the coalition went in as similar to Munich.
  2. Being close to the President would usually be very popular with the public. Since the Second World War the British public have generally been instinctively supportive of a close alliance with the US. This is no longer the case and we don’t know if that is a temporary or lasting change.

In discussing the special relationship he started out by looking at where Brown would start. He noted that there was no way Blair could have gotten his parliamentary party behind the Iraq War without Brown’s, at least tacit, support. Next, he described how Brown could not simply wait for Bush to leave as our general election would not take place long after the US Presidential race.

Rifkind described Blair’s key failure as his unwillingness to openly challenge Bush when it was necessary. He also quoted Sir Christopher Meyer, ambassador to the United States at the time, as saying that Blair hadn’t been forceful in private either. Restoring the capacity of the Prime Minister to challenge the President without giving comfort to our common enemies when necessary was the crucial task facing Brown when he became leader.

Disagreement would not need to have a catastrophic effect on the special relationship. Thatcher and Reagan had been very close but had disagreed over Grenada. Britain did not join the war in Vietnam and this did not kill the special relationship. Finally, Lord Hurd disagreed with the United States over its approach to the former Yugoslavia and was, despite this, later urged by the US to become the next leader of NATO.

In particular, one stand he wanted to see the United Kingdom take was against the doctrine of pre-emptive war.

Robin Niblett

Niblett started out by discussing the context the next Prime Minister would face. The United States, post-Bush, would be on the defensive which would make the United Kingdom’s relationship with it more complex. However, whoever replaces Bush in the White House, the UK and the rest of Europe will still have to grapple with the change in US perspective post 9/11. The Americans will still see the War on Terror differently to the Europeans.

The European Union will face difficulties too thanks to the failure of the constitution. However, it will be pulled into acting in foreign policy by crises in which it is the best placed to respond. Niblett argued that Britain could no longer be a bridge between the United States and Europe following Iraq and would have to recognise that its positions on most pressing international issues were European.

Either way Britain would be responding to an increasingly complex external situation. In particular, stalling democratic progress in Russia and rising powers changing regional balances of power. These and other changes make the international situation far more complex.

Gideon Rachman

Gideon Rachman started out by asking whether the special relationship would be rethought. Essentially, this would come down to whether the damage to public perceptions of American leadership by Iraq would be temporary or lasting. Back to the Second World War there had always been a far greater level of trust in American leadership, rather than European, in the event of a crisis. Will this balance of public opinion be restored?

Next, he challenged Rifkind and described how Blair had been faced with a ‘with us or against us’ challenge by Bush. That made disagreement far harder than in the cases Rifkind cited. We responded with ‘with you’ as a part of our general post-Suez judgement that we could not effectively act independently of the super-power. The question was whether we would form a new response to the post-Suez world.

However, he cautioned that the French response of building up the European Union, which might be able to act independently of the superpower, was also in trouble. When it had tried to rally European nations in opposition to the Iraq War it found it could not lead them. Europe was divided and would not be led. Rachman argued that frustration at this was behind the failure of the Constitution in France.

This led on neatly to his discussion of why Britain might also face problems with a European co-operation in foreign policy which had been supported by many of the other speakers. First, he argued that while a partnership of equals might be an enticing alternative to a subordinate position in alliance with the United States it could turn out to be a partnership of rivals. There are serious disagreements not just in opinions about foreign affairs but of interests between the European states. Second, a common foreign policy would require majority voting and European states will not accept the risk of being forced into a foreign policy they dislike.


One questioner argued that Blair’s European policy had been successful. Rifkind responded to this by citing three of Blair’s European priorities: joining the Euro, approving the Constitution and support for the Iraq War. Blair failed to get anything close to his desired objective on any of these priorities.

Lord Owen was asked about Iraq and argued that the fundamental logic was good. However, it had been the “most bungled” operation since Gallipolli. He still did not believe it had been doomed to fail but had been doomed by bad decisions.

Niblett saw no prospect that Latin America would rise up the United Kingdom’s list of priorities although it might get more attention under a European foreign policy. Howe said that Brazil was caught between the high growth states like India and China and the rich states of the West. It was only included as a BRIC country because it was felt Latin America should be in there somewhere and could not really justify its place alongside those states in terms of geopolitical importance.

On Turkey the panel was supportive of its entry to the EU. Rifkind argued that Britain could see all the benefits of Turkey joining but not the big negative, as other states saw it, of Turkey making integration harder. Rachman cautioned that migration from Turkey would become a huge political issue if it moved nearer to joining the EU.

Hurd argued that the test of a European foreign policy would be its response to Russia. Whether European states could collectively resist Russia’s attempts to exercise leverage through its natural resources or would continue to go, individually, to Russia and plead for special treatment. He thought Putin marked something of a return to reality after the days of Yeltsin and the privatisations to oligarchs but that it was unclear how far the return to autocracy would go.

On Kosovo Hurd argued that we should back the plan for Kosovan independence. He also described how Russia’s response would tell us a lot about where that regime was going. The response could be noisy but transient or more hard-line. Owen argued that accepting Kosovan independence was simply a realpolitik acknowledgement that the Kosovan Albanians could take independence if we didn’t give it to them. Rifkind argued this was an example of how, once a war was begun, you could easily lose control of where it went. The NATO action in Kosovo was not undertaken to create an independent Kosovo. Finally, Rachman expected a relatively hard-line response from Moscow.


I think that Rachman established well the limitations of European co-operation in foreign policy. Howe’s speech was one of the most interesting but he did not properly address these limitations. It would seem that co-operating with European states will have to continue to be the ad hoc process it is today for the foreseeable future.

Owen’s arguments for restoring cabinet-style government in foreign policy were very persuasive and one hopes that Cameron, in particular, might adopt his recommendations. Cameron has come out in favour of a more cabinet-oriented position in general and Owen’s recommendations might suggest how that could be achieved.

The biggest disappointment, for me, was that no one was making a strong realist, national interest case for the future of British foreign policy. Hurd argued that the Iraq war hurt the general case for humanitarian intervention but I think Somalia was even more damaging. Somalia demonstrated that when national interests are not at stake Western states struggle to sustain public support for a war involving casualties. Purely humanitarian missions were always fragile and those opposed to them, as the Janjaweed in Darfur would be, will know that if they cause casualties a humanitarian force can be made to withdraw relatively easily. No one was making the case that the best way forward for British foreign policy was a hard-nosed, George H. W. Bush style approach.

It is expecting too much of a single hour and half discussion by any panel that it should resolve the question of the future of British foreign policy. However, the panel at the talk yesterday evening clearly made some very interesting contributions to that ongoing debate.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Dude takes on the UKIP

Most of the Dude's network in the blogosphere are UKIP supporters so he's looking a bit besieged at the moment having made the case for the Tories over the UKIP. He essentially makes the very sensible point that, even if you prefer a more right-wing stance, Cameron clearly is very different and preferable from a right-wing perspective to Labour. As such, a Conservative vote is a vote for a more right-wing politics whereas to vote for the UKIP is to "look like ridiculous lefties (revolutionary Trotskyite alliance, Socialist Peoples' party, Communist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Workers party etc... ad infinitum) each with their own religious belief in their solution to societies ills". Needless to say I agree.

My recent work campaigning ahead of the local elections has reinforced to me the advantages of having an established party. The network of loyal activists that encourage turnout beyond the ideologically committed. Even if the UKIP were the right way to go it would have to start from scratch. By contrast, trying to convince the Conservative membership from within, who can then vote in the leadership UKIPers want, seems far more profitable. Imagine if the UKIP budget, its activists and supporters energy, had been channeled into a campaign to persuade Britain and the Conservatives we should leave the EU. Couldn't it have achieved far more? Couldn't it avoid undermining the chances of a right-wing goverment?

I'll go through a few of the arguments made by the Dude's detractors. I won't cover everything as I don't think it's necessary.

First from Trixy:

"The Tories aren't in the magic 40% target in the polls, despite many efforts by Cameron to use 'Words that Work'. Like 'Blue Labour'."

Cameron hasn't used the words Blue Labour. For the obvious reason that he is a Conservative and does not want to lead the Labour Party.

"But bearing in mind that the EU make 75% of our laws, including our international trade policy, transport policy, are interfering in health and education, control immigration, whether or not we can deport foreign criminals, are trying to bankrupt the City of London, employment legislation including how many hours a week someone can work, and are even having an effect on how often rubbish is collected, then I suspect that some people would class it as a 'big' issue. And tax is also another vital issue, because fiscal policy is effective, especially on a microeconomic level. And Government doesn't work unless people pay tax into the coffers for their public services."

This meme of "most of our laws come from Europe" is just silly. Not all laws are equal. Some laws have huge effects and some have relatively minor ones. It seems pretty evident your average Westminster Law has far greater effects on the UK than European Law which is usually concerned with minor clarifications of standards. Even within "EU Laws" there is considerable flexibility for our parliament. As such, we don't regulate the number of hours a person can work. Anyone looking at what the UK parliament has been up to over the last decade and concluding it has been of no importance would be deluded. Clearly, therefore, Westminster elections are vitally important.

On tax. Cameron's promise to share the proceeds of growth and, therefore, reduce the size of the state over a parliament would be a massive change from the trend over the last decade. That would be a hugely important difference between him and Labour. I'm not happy about the current Conservative approach to tax either. I don't think the Party is doing what it can to sell tax cuts. However, it clearly is still the low tax party. Of course, you don't need to trust a Conservative on this. Labourites constantly accuse the Conservatives of wanting to cut spending (and taxation).

"Yes, this comment did rather confuse me. Why on earth would I not want to vote for a party which represented my views? How does wanting the people who make the decisions governing the way that I and my friends and family live be accountable to the very same in any way extreme? And more to the point, how is that 'leftie'? Whilst I understand the author is of the political right, surely hurling around insults should be a little more accurate?"

Our electoral system gives a massive advantage to unity and, therefore, encourages compromise within political movements which is a very good thing. It gets people used to the fact that they won't get everything they want in politics. Democratic politics will always require a spirit of compromise and our electoral system incentivises that spirit through first past the post elections.

It is characteristic of "lefties" to be less willing to compromise within a political movement. This is generally caused by a greater tendency among the left to utopianism. The British right has long been successful by being far more united than the Left. This gives a huge electoral advantage and is a key reason the twentieth was a conservative century.

"But people aren't doing well. People are monumentally pissed off, which is why voter turnout is down, minority parties are getting more votes and, importantly, huge numbers of British people are leaving because they are sick of the way the country is being run, and the direction is being taken in. Cameron has not reached the magic 40% in the polls, which, with this government, he really should be doing."

Low voter turnout doesn't necessarily indicate dissatisfaction. By not voting one concedes political judgement to others which suggests a certain confidence in how things will turn out. Low turnout could also be a result of a decline in civic virtue and the belief in a duty to vote which means the irrationality of voting in general (your vote is secret and no election is decided by a single vote) is creating more of a problem.

In terms of the magic 40%. Be careful of throwing rocks in a glass house. At 1% the UKIP has a fair way to go to catch the BNP or the Green Party never mind the Liberal Democrats or the serious parties. The Conservatives, by contrast, are the most popular party in the country.

"The Shadow Chancellor has made it perfectly evident that he doesn't get the link between expansionary fiscal policy and economic growth."

The UKIP are Keynesians?

On DK's response:

Firstly, in his title he asserts his is the principled position. It isn't. A person with principles will make the decision most likely to lead to actual results as close to those principles as possible. If someone votes UKIP even if they know this will make it more likely a Labour government they dislike more than the Conservative alternative will get in that isn't being principled. It's moral vanity. It is putting your own ideological purity above getting the best possible government in line with your principles.

"What, precisely, is Cameron's problem? The vast majority of the people in this country are, at the very least, EUsceptic (can anyone point me to that recent poll showing 69% or something?); why, if he is EUsceptic, does he not adopt this obviously vote-winning position?"

All the evidence is that it isn't vote-winning. After all, the UKIP is stuck behind the BNP and Green parties whereas the Conservatives are more popular than Labour. You would expect the UKIP to at least be going forward if they were the only ones with a real vote winning position.

"The local elections are not going to control who runs the country; it isn't even really going to determine what your local council does: your council depends on the generosity of this NuLabour government for 75% of their funding."

They do have substantial leeway over what they do with that funding.

St. Georges Day

I took this picture on St. Georges Day on a walk into Letchworth town centre. I was planning on using it that day but didn't have the right kit with me to get it onto the computer. It was a grey day but the Cross of St. George was flying proudly and Letchworth was really looking its best. It was a heartening contrast with St. Georges day so poorly recognised elsewhere.

I think the biggest reason for low recognition of St. Georges Day isn't an unwillingness by the English to be openly patriotic. Look what happens during international football tournaments, flags everywhere. It isn't the lack of official sanction such as a day off work. St. Patricks Day doesn't involve time off work, at least in the UK, but people still pay attention.

The problem is that there isn't anything you're supposed to do on St. Georges Day. On St. Patricks day you don't have to feel guilty about your binge drinking. On St. Davids Day there are daffodils, roses aren't exactly in season in April. What we need is an idea of what a person can do on St. Georges Day to celebrate their Englishness.

Best idea I've had so far is drinking in a pub garden. Requires better weather than we had where I was this year but it is very English and very measured compared to the raucousness of the Irish. However, I think something more creative and different is in order if we can think of it. Something literary perhaps. Any ideas?

Some people...

There are some great people out there in the nascent UK left-wing blogosphere. There are some enthusiastic but intellectually suspect hacks. Equally, it has its objectionable moments. No pursuit as open as blogging is ever going to maintain a uniformly high standard. There is no quality control. The right-wing blogosphere contains much the same assortment and only in our partisan moments would we seriously think either is, in general, much better than the other. The right-wing blogosphere is just a lot bigger and more active so there is a larger cream in the crop.

However, what the right-wing blogosphere doesn't have is this craven obsession among some of its supposed leading lights with 'exposing' the other side of the blogosphere. There are two left-wing sites dedicated entirely to trying to expose Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes. Guido's approach to blogging is fairly extreme and I understand how he can provoke a strong response although Guido 2.0 still seems rather over the top. With Iain Dale though this looks like a very bizarre obsession.

I've been caught up in this to a certain extent. Last night I linked to the exchange Iain Dale quoted between a US general and a reporter. Apparently that exchange, which I've received over e-mail before as well, is an urban legend. Any civilised person, seeing Iain Dale make this mistake, would respond the way Gracchi did in the comments on my post:

"Matt have you seen this apparently Dale picked up an old hoax from the internet."

It isn't important. Iain wasn't claiming any particular significance for this item. It was just a clever little joke about gun control. However, the mighty blogging minds over at 'Iain Dale's Dairy' have added it to their house of cards. "Way to boost the credibility of British political blogging, Iain." They cite its spread through the blogosphere as evidence of some kind of unthinking loyalty to Iain Dale.

All Iain did was receive a funny e-mail and publish it up on his blog so others could enjoy it. Which they did. Not fact-checking that e-mail doesn't tell you anything about his fact-checking process for important stories as mistakes in those stories are important and Iain will treat them differently. Those of us who linked to it just thought it was a clever little joke. Its true origins are a minor issue and making a mountain out of such a tiny molehill suggests obsession.

The rest of the 'Iain Dale's Dairy' site looks just as weird. They have an entire section about "Iain the Spammer" which seems to be based around a single set of e-mails sent to some bloggers in January 2006 letting them know that his blog had been relaunched. This is ridiculous. It really isn't important whether Iain Dale has technically been spamming or not. Anyone who can't see the difference between sending messages to a relatively small (there is some dispute about whether you can count the total number on one or two hands) number of fellow blogs asking for links and the 'spam' that really troubles people is an idiot. Proper spam is sent to thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of people. It is sent to market a product (this is important to the actual regulation). It is utterly indiscriminate (I get quite a lot in Chinese). It often offers something unpleasant like illicit prescription drugs or pornography.

I don't think it is remotely credible that Tim Ireland et. al. are actually remotely upset at the inconvenience of Iain Dale's e-mail over a year ago. Certainly, they don't appear to have made a fuss at the time. They're just inventing problems to justify their obsession.

They are offended by the media's understanding of Iain Dale as a 'blogging expert'. They sound jealous. He may not have been blogging forever and he makes no claims to technical expertise but neither are really what blogging is about. Blogging does not require technical knowledge. It requires having something interesting to say that people will want to read. In that Iain clearly does have something of a track record. All Iain ever does with his status as blogging expert is evangelise for blogging and try to convince more people to take it up. Those who follow his advice will make of it what they will but if Ireland is really representing the interests of blogging he should recognise that it is a good thing they are getting involved.

Finally, sock puppets. This windmill has been tilted at more than any other. The freedom of the Internet will always provide an avenue for weirdos to express themselves. The problem those weirdos face is that most people will avoid them like the plague for being weird. Comments sections on large sites attract these people because it is a way to piggyback on another's popularity. I know people who want to post anonymously because they value their privacy and I don't want to force them to register and maybe "accidentally give themselves away". Equally, many people will only comment very occasionally and I don't want those who visit my site to have to do anything more than write their message before they can give feedback. They might conclude it isn't worth the bother which would be a shame. I'd guess that Iain Dale, with a relatively large casual readership thanks to his blog being well known among non-bloggers, doesn't want to discourage casual commenters either.

All Iain can do is remove unpleasant comments when he sees them or when they are pointed out to him. This isn't an exact science because the line between offensive and not offensive isn't that clear. Some comments are clearly offensive but many are just a bit bolshy and can be taken in good fun. Calling someone a 'nihilist' for example is a bit strange but not offensive. That he sometimes fails to remove posts that should be taken down does not mean he isn't quite entitled to prevent you commenting on every single post to try and divert discussion back to the same issue (how is Ireland's criticism of Iain's blogging technique relevant to a discussion of Peter Mandelson and David Cameron). Ireland seems to expect that Iain should do nothing all day but cater to his obsession.

I keep coming back to obsession for a reason. Tim Ireland is obsessed. I think that is important to point that out because otherwise we might let one man's obsession, shared with a few others, produce lasting division. That might make reasonable debate across ideological lines far more difficult which would be tragic.

The Daily Show on Celebrity Earth Day Sanctimony

Via Play Political, this is great. Particularly the throwaway line at the end - "It's a shame cars don't run on cognitive dissonance". Inspired.

The Best Comeback Line Ever

Iain Dale has a great quote from an old ABC interview. It is an exceptional comeback line but not the best as far as I'm concerned. I'd give the title of Best Comeback Line Ever to this:

"Gladstone: Mr. Disraeli, you will probably die by the hangman's noose
or a vile disease.
Disraeli: Sir, that depends upon whether I embrace your principles
or your mistress."


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Those savages are bloody savage…

Gracchi is troubled by the moral character produced by capitalism. He is attracted to the promise of left-libertarianism. This is the promise of a revival of history by a worthy challenger to the eminence of capitalist liberal democracy.

His critique of capitalism is that it creates an ego-driven society obsessed with the judgements of others. This obsession undermines the independence which capitalism is supposed to create and fatally undermines the project. Chris Dillow has responded by questioning whether this is really a result of capitalism and arguing that it is a result of hierarchy itself. I think that this criticism is probably valid although it underestimates status as a part of the human experience.

The idea that an obsession with social status is a creation of capitalism is clearly false. Stoicism is one of the older classical philosophies and its texts, Aurelius' Meditations are a good example, place great importance on fighting status-obsession. The Taoist texts place a similar importance upon not relying on the judgements of others to legitimise your existence. Unless these philosophies were tilting at windmills this problem is not new with capitalism. I suspect it is older than civilisation. Some of the oldest humans found in archaeological work possess tools and weapons far too large to be practical for use. They were status symbols on the modest scale allowed by a society without the means to produce BMWs and customised number-plates. Humans have been status-obsessed since, to paraphrase a Brass Eye joke, long before we evolved. Your average ape or dog has a fine understanding of status and hierarchy.

If capitalism hasn't created status-obsession has it increased its extent or made it more socially harmful?

I doubt it. Gracchi’s evidence is rather weak on this score. He points to statistical increases in depression and other mental illness. This is subject to serious measurement problems. What might have been viewed as unhappiness in another age is depression today. Also, the welfare state increasingly provides benefits to many of those depressed through the incapacity benefit system which provides an incentive for those unwilling to work. Comparing rates of depression over time seems unproductive. Even if depression is rising there are plenty of other possible causes.

Celebrity culture is status-obsession writ large. However, if it replaces some, more personal, status competition it does not necessarily mean more status-obsession. In a society with reduced transport costs and easy communication all manner of things are writ large, spectator sport or books. This is the super-star phenomenon which has been much studied in economics recently. Harry Potter is an example of this tendency in action. This is not intrinsic to capitalism and is not necessarily harmful. If the average Heat reader can get their fill by seeing some, well compensated, celebrity idiot fall they might be rather more co-operative with those around them.

I would argue that in general capitalism has channelled status-obsession to more useful endeavours than in previous ages. Early humans with oversized axes fought and killed to prove their strength and worth. Today’s BMW drivers have usually been very productive. They have probably increased the wealth of others and materially furthered the human condition. While Alan Sugar may try to banish morality from his business his companies have still done morally fine things like bettering the condition of thousands of employees.

Before capitalism most earned their status through heredity alone. Now, even the poorest can (even if they usually don’t) wind up rich and few inheritances are too large to be wasted or lost to idiocy or misfortune. This has to somewhat reduce the hopelessness of the condition of being at the bottom of the status pile. This is the reason almost every section of the political spectrum sees social mobility as important. While it has been in decline recently this has to be kept in perspective. Capitalism exhibits high levels of social mobility relative to most societies in the world today and historically.

In socialist societies, without the alternatives of capitalism or feudalism, status-obsession was more often focussed on politics. This led directly to horrific abuse. Wild Swans and the other telling accounts of living in these societies describe exactly the same petty jockeying for position as under capitalism but with the stakes massively increased. Every minor dispute was no longer a private matter of the disputants own social clout and private interests. The clunking fist of the state was constantly being enlisted to the service of one side or another with utterly inhuman results.

The definition of freedom that Gracchi cites is troubling in itself. He takes a definition from Skinner of a complete independence of decision making. As a right-conservative I am probably the right person to make the problems with this clear to my newly left-libertarian friend. I am pretty certain that only the Overman would count as free under Gracchi's interpretation of Skinner's definition. Nietzsche’s work is fascinating and every thinking person should make at least an attempt to grapple with it. However, I don’t think Nietzschean philosophy is one to order a society by. The kind of complete moral freedom and independence that Gracchi is arguing for is meant, at best, for those, almost certainly of snow leopard rarity, who if given the freedom of the death of all social restraint will not revert to savagery.

Social standards and pressure can be abusive and stifling but, in general, they are the forces that maintain civilisation. Of course, as Gracchi's quote shows Rousseau had no problem with this. He disliked civilisation and thought that the savages that would take its place would be deeply noble. Gracchi is relying upon exactly the same notion that if we rid people of civilisation they will respond to their newfound freedom with nobility. The problem is that they probably won’t. Savages are savage. Life without restraint is nasty, brutish and short. Human weaknesses, as I hope I’ve illustrated for status-obsession above, are not created by civilisation and without it they run wild. I think social conservatism has a persuasive case that members of the modern underclass are the savage-savage reality of the utopia Rousseau promised. Without the check of capitalist individual responsibility or moral restraint the result is broken families, abuse and chronic unhappiness. If left-libertarianism relies upon Rousseau’s conception of the noble savage then it will not survive contact with the real world.

As such, all societies need to limit freedom as Gracchi defines it. I would argue that the best measure of their success is not whether they can end facets of human nature such as status-obsession, religion and moral weakness. Humanity will always contain the seeds of both good and evil. The proper challenge is to make the best of all facets of our nature. If capitalism channels status-obsession into an imperative to satisfying a consumer want, as it has with Alan Sugar, then it has been gloriously successful. Western societies, when successful, use a combination of law-enforcement, legal opportunities for advancement and, perhaps most importantly, social judgement to ensure that greed is channelled into productive activity rather than unproductive activities like graft or good old fashioned raiding. If Gracchi wishes to embrace left-libertarianism he should ground his support in some case that philosophy will be better than capitalism at ordering a society of humans. The Roussauvian case that if we free them of civilisation men will turn to angels cannot be sustained.

I don’t think that Gracchi has yet identified a candidate for the ideology that can challenge capitalist liberal democracy. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think such a challenge exists. The great legions of the counter-revolution are already aware of a new ideological threat to the West. There was a memo. We are marshalling our strength once again. The Tranzis are in our sights.