Wednesday, June 29, 2005


From the folly of Prohibition to ID Cards

One of the most difficult things in politics is deciding if a new measure will be acceptable to the public. Think of the Volstead Act passed in 1919 to prohibit alcohol in the USA. It proved anathema to the voters, gave a lease of life to gangsters and eventually was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. Similarily with the even shorter lived Poll Tax, introduced to a cacophany of camplaint in 1989 and repealed in 1991. In retpospect it seems amazing that anyone could have contemplated passing either law. Yet stranger laws have been passed and accepted. Ireland's smoking ban was accepted by a famously argumentative nation with great complacency and approval if not exactly enthusiasm. Which brings me to the Identity Card issue.

This is supposed to be introduced gradually until 2013 when it is planned it will become compulsory. The idea is that it will help prevent and identify social security frauds and terrorists. But in advance the arguments against it are couched in terms of: efficacy, civil liberties and cost. There are those who argue ID cards did not stop the Madrid bombings though Charles Clarke insists they helped round up the culprits. Suicide bombers though do not respond to threats in the normal way.
Others claim any system of labelling every citizen using high tech means is doomed to failure as experience with computerization in the NHS, Passport Office and Criminal Records has amply demonstrated. Critics also claim the government has no need to know such a raft of intimate details as the data suggested as appropriate for the card's content.
Finally the cost. This was initially estimated at a billion pounds in 2002 when Blunkett's initiaol proposal was made. Now estimates vary between seven to twenty billion and some suggest it could be even higher if things go wrong, as they inevitably will. Pretty good grounds for abandoning the idea it seems to me yet the government seems intent on persevering with this cockeyed plan and ignoring the reasoned opposition with the Conservative and Lib Dem parties, not to mention the great unease in its own.

Friday, June 24, 2005


On Blair, Lying and Political Communication

A politician's main skill in a democracy is that of being able to persuade people. People living together develop 'interests' or things that they want. Left to itself this produces a situation in which groups come to pursue their interests using all means including violence. Democracy, of course, substitutes talk, discussion, negotiation to pre-empt such a breakdown of order. Ability to communicate persuasively is the magic ingredient of civilisation. So politicians are both essential and a necessary evil in that an integral part of persuasion is a tendency to distort the truth so that immediate audiences can be won over. Sometimes politicians are so keen to persuade that they overstep into direct lying as Peter Oborne's recent book The Rise of Political Lying so graphically demonstrates.

This is the context in which Tony Blair's rhetorical abilities have to be considered. He won the leadership of his party in 1994 determined to change it in the teeth of opposition from such elements as the unions and leftwing constituency parties. Inevitably, from the outset, he tended to empahasise one case to his supporters and another to his opponents in the party. So he and fellow+ modernisers claimed that privatised enterprises would be taken back into the public fold when talking to unions but ommitted such an emphasis when addressing those wider audiences who supported privatisation. That he kept so many people happy for so long is a testimony to his skills but inevitably such gifted politicians tend to contribute towards their own demise as audiences overlap and people begin to compare notes.

Blair has often been compared to Ramsay MacDonald, a vain and shallow former leader of the party who ended up jumping ship and working in coalition with the Tories. Many critics see Blair's colonisation of the middle ground as tantamount to the same thing. But I would argue that Blair's outstanding communication gifts make a nearer comparison, The Welsh Wizard- David Lloyd George. Here was a man blessed with an amazing facility to persuade but which eventually produced a majority of people distrusting him, with the result that his political career in office virtually ended in the early 1920s.

Blair's speech to the European Parliament on 23rd June demonstrated to a European audience the same sublime persuasiveness. Many MEPs were wound up to jeer and attack the person blamed(unfairly) for torpedoing the European budget negotiations but he succeeded in disarming them and presenting such a case that many ended up not rejecting but endorsing the alleged Euro renegade. Robin Cook was right to name him as the outstanding political communicator of his generation, exceeded only, perhaps by Bill Clinton when in office. But wheras Lloyd George, and Clinton for that matter, eventually ran out of people whose trust he could win, Blair is not done yet. He is still at the height of his powers and likely to relish being in post for long after Gordon Brown thinks the removal vans outside number Ten are overdue.

Monday, June 20, 2005


Will Labour implode after Blair?

It's hard to resist comparing the faltering progress of the Conservatives with Labour in the mid eighties. One can almost feel the Tories yearning for a Blair type saviour who'll explode onto the scene, drive through the necessary changes and rout the opposition party at the same time. But while the comparison is appropriate to a degree, like most comparisons, it falls down in detail. In the eighties Labour had been routed by a leader who knew what she wanted and to whom the nation was listening. They had to wheel about impotently for many years until a leader and a direction arrived. The Conservatives face a leader who is not listened to by the nation but who is more in tune with it notwithstanding. That he is dominant is more to do with the voting system than the popularity of his policies.

So is it likely Labour will implode into factional introspection once Blair has gone? I don't think so. The chief reason is that Labour has a natural successor in waiting. Thatcher never groomed such a person though there were a number who were annointed by the press as her current 'favourite' from John Moore to Cecil Parkinson and much good it did them. This is not to say that Blair has done much or indeed any grooming of his own. It's just that Gordon was narrowly pipped at the post and has never felt the race was over. Thatcher maybe never felt sufficiently secure to select a successor but, then again, which PM has ever been? Churchill held Eden at arms length for years before letting him commit his signal crime of Suez and enter the old folk's home of retired premiers at perhaps an unseemly young age.

Thatcher's strengths were also her weaknesses. She grabbed the party and shook it up like never before; afterwards it was never the same and has been left floating, unable to find the ground beneath its feet. So Labour is in the enviable position of anticipating-perhaps with some pleasure- a smooth transition to a new leader to be followed by an extended further period in government. For the Tories the agony is likely to continue for a while yet.

Friday, June 17, 2005


Should we lose 'our money'?

Having been away for a week's holiday in one of the EU's relatively undiscovered gems- Corsica- I've been particularly interested in the crisis gripping the organisation over Britain's rebate. This was 'won' by Mrs Thatcher at the Fointainbleu summit in 1984. I recall her grinding on and on about 'our money' until in the end the other heads of government gave in, I suspect just to shut her up and move on to other things. Some claim this a supreme example of Maggie's typical and admirable British obstinacy which won billions for the UK. But such analyses do not measure the cost we later paid in the coin of refusal of the other premiers to listen to Brtitish arguments when adduced by this boring termagent. But at least she won the dosh and that is something which cannot be taken away from her.

But should it now be taken away from us? Most of Europe seem to think yes but Blair has struck back by insisting any examination of our rebate must be matched by reform of the Common Agriculture Policy which pays some 40 per cent of the EU's near 100 billion euro budget on subsidising inefficient farmers in France and Germany by maintaining artifically high prices for farm produce. France claims the rebate might have been justified when Britain was suffering economic problems but not when the UK economy - as Blair was so keen to trumpet during the election campaign- is arguably the most dymanic in the EU.

So why do we think we should keep our rebate? Mainly because we think the same argument still applies. A brief look at the budget contributions of leading EU countries in relation to what is received throws a little light on the subject. The ratios of what is paid out to what comes back in work out as follows(in billions of euros): Ireland- 1.1: 2.6; Germany-19.2:10.3; Sweden-2.5: 1.4; Netherlands-4.9:1.9; and France- 15.2: 13.3. Britain meanwhile has a ratio of 15.1:6.1+5.1 rebate. Even this cursory examination reveals that UKs ratio is less favourable than the others. We receive 4 billion in CAP payments while France receives 10.5. According to my arithmetic there is a case for us to argue though Holland must also feel aggrieved and Germany too as the major source of EU funding.

I suspect that, despite the justice or otherwise of any financial calculations the plain fact of British economic recovery, while refusing to join the eurozone, added to the problems faced by France and Germany make an irrestible argument for some flexibility on our side. In the end, after much armtwisting and grandstanding for domestic electorates, a compromise will be reached which all countries will try to sell to their domestic audiences. Blair will seek to clothe himself in a Maggie Thatcher monogrammed union jack by denying Chirac any diplomatic triumph. We'll probably keep our rebate but it will be reduced and we'll say something to suggest we'll phase it out eventually. Will the CAP be reformed? Too many French farmers depend on it for this for their livelihood but some noises about ongoing attempts to reduce the percentage of the EU budget flowing into such subsidies will be made.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Valedictory + Straw's skill

I was a little surprised at the Guardian yesterday attributing so much skill to Jack Straw's statement on the constitution. All he said was that, despite the negative referendums in France and Holland, Britain did not see it as a completely dead political project. Apparently this assuaged the feelings of those who might have suspected that Britain had actually favoured such an outcome.
This might have helped raise shares in Straw's possible post-Blair leadership competition but I somehow doubt such an obvious ploy will do him that much good. Now I fly to Europe for a week's holiday. Back on 15th June.

Monday, June 06, 2005


Morrison Preferable to Mao

When I was studying government at university we used a text by Herbert Morrison (yes, it's that long ago) which tended to encourage a cosy, Panglossian, 'it all works for the best' view of the constitution. As students we were not all inclined to accept this approach but were more attracted by the scathing critiques offered by the likes of Bernard Crick (another neanderthal name) or Brian Chapman (once a professor at Manchester). But even their strictures were about the detailed efficacy of parliament or the workings of the civil service. The main pillars of the system were regarded as solid as English oaks. Unless, of course, one was a Marxist and wanted to tear down the meaningless democratic edifice which disguised the hegemony(nice Marxist word there) of the property owners which maintained the workers in their positions of 'slavery'.

But Marxism was not for me; partly because I was never a root and branch rebel and partly because my doctoral studies of the USSR convinced me that Marxism was a beguiling diversion which created many more problems than it solved. 'We are not the doctors ... we are the disease' said Alexander Herzen and this summed up my objection to a creed which suggested human nature itself could be altered from without. Stalin was proof that the darker side of human nature will always be the spectre which haunts any political system. Place too much power in the hands of a few - as Marxist-Leninism proposed with its theory of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' - and some gimlet-eyed creature will emerge to sieze control for his own self directed ends.

British history is relatively free of such psycopathy; after King John in the 13th century, monarchs were something less than power crazed. And if they were mad, like George III, they were reasonably harmlessly so. I suppose the key factor was that dynastic power struggles affected only the small elite who competed for control of the state. The people were generally left alone apart from those who had to fight in the private armies of kings and putative kings. A new book by Jung Chang (author of the sublime Wild Swans) and her historian husband Jon Halliday, teaches us how fortunate we have been to escape the ravages of a real madman in contrrol of our state and our destinies. It is called Mao: the Unknown Story (Cape).

The book is not yet widely available in the shops but we know the essence of it from the extensive reviews - Roy Hattersley in Sunday's Observer and Michael Yehuda in Saturday's Guardian. We learn that Mao was no superhero. He had nothing but contempt for the peasantry and was happy to see them die so that he and his forces could survive. His Long March is revealed as a myth - he was allowed to escape by Chiang Kai sheck and thoughout he displayed total contempt for his 80,000 strong army, only 4000 of which made it through to the end. We learn that he revelled in acts of violence, torture and murder and used young women continuously to satisfy his other all too human urges. Two other unsavoury things we learn is that Mao seldom cleaned his teeth, with the result that they were green, and that he went for 25 years without a bath! Being ravished by the great Chinese Marxist must have been memorable indeed.

Virtually all his major decisions proved to be failures. The most spectacular was the disastrous Great Leap Forward when he tried to equal the steel out put of the west via back yard furnaces thoughout the land and produced merely useless pigiron by the thousands of ton. Maybe 30 million died of starvation as a result of this crazy venture. The Cultural Revolution which killed many more millions, was the attempt of a geriatric leader to sustain his slackening hold of power. In other words Mao was probably the most blood soaked power fixated leader in history, responsible for 70 million deaths and who would have calmly sacrificed as many more in a nuclear exchange with the west had he needed to.

By comparison our history of Wars of the Roses and Cromwell's New Model Army, not to mention the din of debate in the Commons and constant back stairs scheming by Mandelson and his ilk, seem the most sedate of vicarage tea parties. Our system is imperfect, as we observed at the last election, which produced a Labour majority of 66 from only 21 per cent of the vote, but we do not have concentration or political re-education camps, nor do we have mobs rampaging the streets intent upon killing anyone with more than a single GCSE. It's a small point perhaps but we should occasionally be grateful for our mundane stability. This historic biography should be read by all young people and all Chinese too (yes, all 832 pages of it) to remind us how cautious, peaceful democracies are always preferable to violent, if in some ways romantic revolutions.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


Come back CND- you are needed

Like most lefty students in the sixties I tended to believe Robert Macnamara was a scheming swivel- eyed son of Satan who was seeking to subdue Asia and embody it into the American Empire. Since then I've seen the remarkable film DVD - the Fog of War - given to me by a friend who bought it for a pound in Malaysia, in which he reflects on how close the world came to oblivion over Cuba and how the Vietnam episode was a symptom of a fundamentally flawed view of foreign relations. Seems like he has either changed totally or we student radicals perceived him imperfectly. As you have probably guessed, I now think the answer lies somewhere in between.

I've just seen him interviewed on BBC 24 hour news and he's been prosletysing his passionate opposition to nuclear proliferation. This, he thinks, is the major problem the world faces, never mind about global warming. The idea that terrorists will soon have nuclear weapons with which to threaten the world, he regards as beyond danger. To hear this eloquent and intellectually brilliant 84 year old, campaigning for the world he must soon leave leaves a deep impression.

He lambasts Bush for pursuing regime change in rogue states, enjoining him to try and understand why such states view the world in the way they do and working from there for a solution. Maybe he's a voice in the wilderness right now but I think MacNamara will have a late career celebrity as a prophetic guardian of the world's future. I do hope so anyway.

CND is not an organisation one hears a good deal about these days. It was an embarrassing badge signifying dubious patriotism for Labour leaders in the eighties and something which Tony Blair did his best to forget or deny. But maybe he should seek out his long lost badge and rediscover some of his campaigning zeal for a cause which is ultimately much more important than regime change in the 'axis of evil'.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


The Future of the EU

It is perhaps a bit too early to look into the future of the EU but maybe a couple of things now seem likely. Firstly, the 'ever closer union' written into the 1957 Treaty of Rome is now of historical interest only. It seems like the voters of France and Holland have indicated a general disinclination to surrender both sovereignty and their views of their own national character. And yes, it could be said that in many ways, the Eurosceptics have won.

Secondly, I suspect that the eurozone's days are numbered. It was always a dubious proposition that so many very different countries would be able to find a common interest rate suitable to their needs and the restrictive euro rules regarding national deficits acceptable. Italy, now arguably Europe's 'sickest man', faces economic decline as its manufacturing markets are ravaged by the emerging giants of India and China. The straightjacket of the euro means that it cannot use devaluation as the antidote but has to face rising unemployment. How long can this last? I suspect the euro will prove to be a brief and unhappy interlude in Europe's financial history long before we get anywhere near considering an application to join it.

So is the EU finshed? No. Far from it. 60% of our exports are to the EU and the single market has brought many benefits to millions of Europeans. This will continue to provide the bedrock of the EU but the euro and other decorations promised by the constitution - a common foreign policy, a single president for a period of years not six months - will never be implemented. Ironic that Maggie Thatcher's passionate objections to the EU have proved to be shared by millions of others. What voters do not properly understand, they most often end up objecting to.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


EU Double Whammy

It's an odd, but basically correct thought, that more people trying to get into the EU club seem to think more highly of it than those who have already made it. Bulgaria and Romania are desperate that the current problems will prevent them squeezing their way in so countries like Ukraine and others in that post Soviet gaggle south of Russia may have to abandon the idea of passing through those exclusive Brussels' portals. It seems Turkey's chances have been finally scuppered by the double whammy delivered by the referendums in France and Holland. The latter was not such a surprise as it has been presaged by several polls but the 62% figure for the Nos was beyond most expectations. Turkey was always going to be a long shot when a mother who appeared on a chat show and talked about her abusive alcoholic husband, could be shot five times on her return by her own son. The place has too many medieval echoes top be a proper part of Europe yet.

Where does this leave the EU? As I suggested in an earlier post, I feel sure it will pull through and that some sort of compromise will emerge. Maybe, as I have suggested, a watered down treaty will be re-offered to voters in the hope that the most important items in the original package can be recycled and put in place. This is a possibility but now that Eurosceptic awareness has been so awakened and reinforced I reckon it will be hard to offer any kind of rehashed draft and obtain ratification.

Are there lessons to be learned? Most assuredly. Prime amoungst them, for politicians is that you can ignore the people some of the time but if you try to do it too often, eventually you pay a very high price. The perception that a mostly unacounbtable elite has been running the European show ever since the fifties has now been widely disseminated and a species of disengagement has appeared which is very similar to the disenchantment over here behind the plumetting turnout figures since 1997.

Should the EU adopt a looser format and forego any further integration? I hope not. One of the most worrying aspects of international life is the hegemony of the US. I find Bush quite scary at times and a strong united Europe can check or moderate our unruly cousins across the Atlantic. A unified EU foreign policy is very desirable from that point of view and a more Gaullist Europe would be likely to set us all at each others throats again.

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