Saturday, December 22, 2007

Man of the Year

Iain is right, it should have been Patreus.

I don't think many of us really saw what has been a substantial turn around in Iraq coming. Who would have thought, before the surge began, that we could ever see a sub-headline like this one in the Guardian: "Attacks plummet as Shias join Sunnis in neighbourhood patrols to tackle militants and reunite communities".

Things aren't perfect. Political progress is elusive and there are still some very unpleasant sectarian confrontations going on. It could still go wrong but there is now a very real possibility of a decent outcome in Iraq. That's an amazing achievement.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Germany defends its carmakers

Aston20martin The BBC reports fury in Germany at EU proposals to restrict emissions from new cars:

"German Chancellor Angela Merkel has opposed European Union (EU) plans to cut pollution from new cars, saying it was "not economically favourable".

She said the move would burden Germany and its carmakers disproportionately."

It would be easy to get up on a high-horse about double standards and a German government unwilling to pay the price for action to meet international targets to cut emissions that they've been so active in pushing for. That would be a mistake, though.

The German government should be defending the German national interest. A democratic government should look out for the interests of its constituents. In fact, we should be asking very serious questions about why our government cares so little about our own interests.

There are two key examples here.

The first example is the Emissions Trading Scheme where countries were allowed to allocate themselves emissions allowances. This way of doing things obviously encouraged every country to set the highest allowance they could. Every country then did just that except for the UK. We set tough limits and Open Europe found (PDF) that we ended up paying £470 million in subsidy to other European states. No emissions were cut at all.

The second example is the EU Landfill Directive which was obviously going to hit disproportionately at Britain as we recycle less than other European states. Hated bin taxes are blamed on the European Union but our Government never seriously opposed the Directive that makes them necessary.

With our overly centralised politics public services monopolise the national debate and squeeze out foreign policy. As few votes are at stake politicians attend to their own foreign policy agendas rather than the priorities of the public. Being popular at international conferences makes them feel good but leaves us worse off. It would be better if our politics was a little more German in this regard, if we learnt from L'exception Francaise.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.

Sinclair's Musings - pissing off all the right people since 2006

Well - it appears I've rather upset the MPAC. They don't link to my original fisk and have failed to respond to my charge that they are idiots who don't even know much about Islam itself let alone the wider world. Tony Sharp is also the target for some of their incoherent ire. Tony can handle himself but suffice to say that he is entirely correct that Policy Exchange's attempt to identify an extremist infiltration of British Islam does not constitute an attack on British Islam itself.

Let's go over their charges against my fisk:

"This level of ignorance is one thing but to step from that into the blatantly paranoid hysteria of some nut called Matthew Sinclair is another. The crazed lunatic, walking the streets of a major political party right now, actually claimed we were trying to ‘murder’ the 8 sufi ‘hate preachers,’ who were caught red handed forging receipts, by simply stating we wanted to know who they were!

If the Muslims have an extremist problem its nothing to the one going on within some segments of the conservative party! Or the one going on in this nuts head – now that’s extreme! He is not just a danger to the Muslims, the good standing of the conservative party but worse to himself. Any one who can read words to the effect of ‘let’s find these dodgy Sufi’s’ on a Muslim website, have a panic attack, have to change his underwear, and then start to dial 999 screaming ‘they are out to kill the Sufi’s’ to some poor police officer, is either on drugs or so out of his mind he should be sectioned!"

Lots of invective there. Very little argument - I certainly haven't even thought about calling the police, although I'd think about doing so for protection if I was one of the researchers - except that I shouldn't read their call to "find these dodgy Sufi's" to be an incitement to violence. The problem is that MPAC don't give any other reason why they want to know "every last detail" about these people.

If this happened in isolation it might be taken as innocent curiosity. That they called their attempt to find the researchers a "hunt" would raise some questions even then. However, they are calling for a "hunt" for researchers they accuse of trying "to destroy their own community" after a series of other frightening examples of extremists attacking people they perceive as critics of Islam. Soldiers in Windsor had their property damaged and been forced to move. Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are a couple of famous examples of people who have faced threats of death and attempted assasinations. Rushdie's Japanese translator and Theo van Gogh are famous examples of that threat being acted upon. There are many more examples out there. We cannot naively give the benefit of the doubt to people like MPAC when they go hunting their enemies.

There is a savage irony to their implication that I'm a coward. If I were easily scared I'd have kept quiet, they'd have silenced someone and infringed free speech. That's the existential challenge to our values that these people pose.

Misunderstanding Northern Rock

There are two points surrounding yesterday's events at Northern Rock that really need to be cleared up.

First, the BBC's Business Editor, Robert Peston, is very enthusiastic about Bradford & Bingley's offer to help out at Northern Rock:

"In the worst case of the Rock being nationalised, it could take assets off the Treasury's hands and lessen the very substantial burden and risks for all of us as taxpayers,"

So, Bradford & Bingley are going to take a load of the rather unreliable Northern Rock debt off the taxpayers' hands?  How good of them!  Should Bradford & Bingley shareholders be up in arms about their company's directors using company funds to bail out the Treasury?

Probably not.  The truth is that Bradford & Bingley's directors wouldn't be looking at buying Northern Rock Assets if that move didn't have the potential to be a good deal for the company.  Not because they're bad people but because they have a legal and moral duty to look out for the interests of their shareholders.  So, unless we think the Treasury has somehow outwitted them - an idea so far fetched it would have to be retrieved from the moon - the proper question to ask is:  how are Bradford & Bingley going to get value from a deal for Northern Rock assets?

The answer is obvious.  They'll take some of the best assets - the most reliable mortgages - at a low price.  We'll have a smaller liability but the range of assets that Northern Rock will be left with to pay off its massive debts to the taxpayer will be more than commensurately smaller.

This is particularly worrying thanks to the other big new Northern Rock story.  We've now guaranteed to wholesale lenders that they won't lose money on Northern Rock.  There are two important things to notice here:

1)  Taxpayers are now covering almost all the downside risk.  This is so close to nationalisation that the final taking of the bank into public ownership is increasingly of totemic, rather than material, importance.

Research into privatisation (PDF) for the Competitive Enterprise Institute by Eli Lehrer and Iain Murray seeks to redefine the concept of privatisation and nationalisation in terms of who bears the downside risk as the question "who will lose money if it goes under" is often more important to incentives and real control than nominal ownership.  If we accept Lehrer and Murray's analysis then Northern Rock is already pretty much nationalised.

2)  We've effectively been booted way down the queue of creditors looking to get paid in the event of Northern Rock going under.  When its assets are sold the wholesale lenders will now need to be paid, in order to satisfy the new guarantee, before we are.  With Northern Rock's mortgage book in doubt and plenty of existing claims on its assets - even before any Bradford & Bingley stripping - we should have very little confidence it will be possible to get taxpayers all of their money back.

All in all, the last forty-eight hours have brought a lot of worrying news for taxpayers.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fisking the MPAC

This article (via ConservativeHome) made me more than a little angry:

"You would have to be sitting in a darkened room repeating the name of Allah since 7/7 to be unaware that the new front against Muslims by the Government is
being led by Sufi cults."

Since 7/7? Why exactly is that the date used here as the start of the "front against Muslims"?

Are they acknowledging that violent extremism is the root cause of the problems here, rather than some "Zio-Con" (their term, obviously not mine) conspiracy? If so then I'd congratulate them on the one statement in this entire article that isn't utterly absurd.

Referring to Sufism as a cult is so utterly offensive that if a non-Muslim said it there'd be understandable cries of Islamaphobia. Here it is though coming from the "Muslim" (which apparently means all the Muslims the author likes) Public Affairs Committee.

"It’s an old Russian trick, they used Sufi sects to pacify the Mujahadeen who were fighting for their freedom from occupation. These Sufi cults taught them to forget the world and be content sitting in darkened rooms repeating the name of Allah over and over and over again. The British used it in India too, creating groups who focused on every minor ritual and repeated the words ‘no politics’ over and over and over again…anyone guess who they are?"

Wait. So the same "cults" that are "leading the new front against Muslims" are in fact distinguished by a refusal to engage in politics? Congratulations you idiots you've just completely contradicted yourselves in the space of two pretty simple paragraphs.

The idea that the British "created" Sufism is hard to sustain if the Principles of Sufism were written in the 15th century. Is Wikipedia leading me astray or do MPAC actually know nothing about the history of Islam itself?

"The Sufi Muslim council are the recognisable face of the new Government appointed cults. However there are many Sufi groups operating throughout Britain doing work to pacify the Muslim mind."

The choice of the term "pacify" as their pejorative is unfortunate here. Isn't Islam supposed to be the religion of peace? Is the MPAC's criticism that the Sufis are making Muslims more Muslim?

"Recently these individuals belonging to these undercover cults took one step too far. They teamed up with Policy Exchange a pro Israel right wing, neo conservative think tank, which has gone out of its way to dig dirt on the Muslim community.

One of its attacks led to front page news and headlines across the UK when it claimed that a quarter of all mosques sold ‘hate literature’."

This is the real moment of close to clinical brain death stupidity. Are they seriously responding to a pretty centrist think tank's claim that British Islam has a problem with extremists by ranting about undercover cults co-operating with Zio-Cons? Perhaps they were upset that Policy Exchange were getting in the way of the MPAC's goal of becoming the number one body proving that British Islam has an extremism problem.

"However as we have been reporting on this website, Newsnight uncovered that these Sufi researchers had in fact forged the receipts to prove the case."

This article for the Guardian sets out the real extent of the possible problem with Policy Exchange's work. The allegations are serious but at most they suggest that 20 per cent rather than 25 per cent of mosques have a problem with extremist literature being sold on the premises. The core political message of the report still holds true and is proved prescient daily by the MPAC and their ilk anyway.

To be honest, I wouldn't have bothered rebutting these lunatics. Evolution clearly forgot them so I think it is fair enough that I should too. However, this section changed my mind:

"These Sufi researchers then fled the country to Mauritania for what the Zio-Con think tank called ‘religious purification’!

MPAC now wants to find out exactly who these Sufis are, who are working for the Zio-Con think tank. There were 8 Sufis who worked for them, and all apparently have gone abroad to hide while the storm is raging. They worked, according to Policy Exchange for over a year on the project, so some Muslim out there must have come into contact with them.

Who are they, what are their backgrounds … MPACUK will dig deeper and expose every last detail of the Sufis who tried to destroy their own community.

If you know who they are – please write in and we will expose these men and women for all the Muslim community to see. Write in now and let us do what the incompetent idiots in the Mosque should be doing, protecting our community."

This is a direct attempt to recreate the murder of Theo van Gogh. These people are not just wrong and ignorant. They're dangerous. Their nasty work threatens brave people with death. Of course, it isn't our job to enforce the law upon them if they have broken it by inciting violence.

However, some kind of campaign of peaceful resistance is in order. They've put their e-mail address there for those who wish to lynch by proxy. I reckon we subscribe them to some innapropriate newsletters.

Losing control of the public sector

I really don't think Mike is exagerrating at all here:

"Did you follow that? Cricklade residents (aka the customers) are angry because their local police station is closed- ie if you go there you find nobody manning the front desk, and even if you shout, nobody comes. But rather than putting it right, North Wiltshire's top cop advises them to pretend the station's functioning properly as it is. Otherwise, he says, it will be perceived the residents perceive it's closed, and it will be closed. Even though in real world terms, it's closed already.

Only in Stalin's Russia is such madness possible.

And there's no doubt Stalin would have approved of the commissars' programme to streamline policing by closing stations. As he would have appreciated, manned stations open to the public are a huge distraction for the police. Far more efficient if they concentrate 100% on their core function, which is to carry out orders from above."

Alright, we're not in Stalin's Russia. But there is something deeply dystopian about the mindset at work. Our public services are now beholden to a government machine with almost no connection to the public and their priorities at all.

If you think that we'll be alright because, while we have no direct influence, at least our MPs can hold the public servants to account you'd be wrong. The Government machine is tied up in trying to excuse itself from resigning for endless public service failures that they can't control but also can't disclaim responsibility for without wrecking the vision of an omnipotent state they are so wedded to. MPs outside of this structure struggle to hold it to account. Let's hear from one of those MPs, one of the best, Douglas Carswell:

"The House of Commons is a house of charades; Ministers pretend to make the big decisions and we MPs pretend to hold them to account. Voters give up.

Parliamentary procedure is partly to blame. Debating rules favour seniority over originality, ensuring those with something fresh to say speak last, if at all. It is a tradition for the Commons Speaker to defend the rights of the Commons – when in retirement. If only Mr Speaker was as fierce when in the job. Institutionally flat-footed, Parliament lacks punch.

Fresh into the Commons, and angry about what had happened to kids in my constituency forced out of their special school, I jumped at the chance of serving on the Commons Education Select Committee. Two years, three foreign trips and half a dozen reports later, how much has made any difference? Control over education lies not with politicians promising to improve it, but with unaccountable officials."

This lack of accountability to ordinary people or even the poor substitute of accountability to an adversarial and curious Parliament means endless failures in public sector performance: thousands upon thousands of children missing out on a quality education, thousands upon thousands dead who would have lived with a better health service and our national income being drained in a vain attempt to stop the rot. That's enough to make the state of our public services right now alarming but in the long term social decline - intimately tied up with public service failure - can lead to even darker places.