Thursday, 27 December 2007

My book of the year

Is Black Mass by John Gray.
For a long time I wondered whether John Gray is a Liberal or not. At the last general election he voted Liberal Democrat, but his views do not fit in easily into the political spectrum and I am not clear at all about how he will vote next time.
His independence from party political allegience gives him the interlectual freedom to go where he likes. For a long time I thought he may be a Conservative, in the past he really was one. Yet his critique of neo-liberalism - which he puts in the same camp of Naziism and Communism is a devestating one and it is hard to imagine he will be conservative again. However what I had in mind was a pre-Thatcherite Conservative attachment to sceptisim, which is something you can still ascribe to him.
Well there is a lot of ifs and buts, but in the end, I will judge from his own admiration of Isiah Berlin and JM Keynes, and my own political bias and call him a Liberal.
Black Mass reveals so much what is missing from contemporary political debate. On foreign policy no one is debating the decline of US and EU power, and the increase in power of China and Russia. It is assumed that the Liberal agenda can still be realised by the Eu and US working together, but even the US is rejecting Liberal values, notably over the use of detention without trial and torture. China and Russia do not believe in Liberal values to begin with of course.
That in itself is only a very small part of the arguments that spring to mind when reading this book.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Girlpower; The pseudo-feminism that ends at 30...

... and only then if you are good looking.

It was a welcome change listening to Today this morning to Germaine Greer being interviewed. The problem with Germaine Greer is that she often becomes the story herself, but in this case it was her opinions that I want to consider.
There are plenty of women who are enthusiatic about the "girlpower" of the Spice girls which surfaced many years ago. The way in which this "power" works is that if you dress in a sexy way, you can get men to do what you like. Well maybe if you are good looking anyway. And maybe you have to spend lots of money on clothes and make up, generating nice big profits for the companies that make these things. Girlpower comes at a cost. And if you are not sure you are good looking, then you may instead become anorexic and die. A rather different kind of girl power I would suggest.
Then of course what do you do as you get older? Girlpower, if it ever helped you before is no longer on your side. The senior jobs are occupied more by men, and at the top almost entirely by men.
Germaine Greer lamented the passing of socialism. In the past, feminists hoped that socialism would put the exploitation and inequality of women to an end.
The question now is how to acheive greater equality in a capatalist system. The problem is that capitalism has a dynamic of it's own that is hard to tame. Even Mrs Thatcher was on the receiving end of her own policies that supported capitalism. She wanted a return to "Victorian Values" - and she admired the Conservative Christain pro-censorship lobby personified by Mary Whitehouse. In fact Mary Whitehouse was mounted a rearguard campaign not only against the BBC but also against the forces of capitalism. In this endeavor she totally failed, the corporate world was more interested in profits than "morals" and has largely got it's way.
Liberals will no doubt raise a cheer for this, we never liked "Victorian Values". However the porn industry is not on balance a feature of a Liberal society to get proud about.
From my point of view, pornography that shows men and women enjoying having sex with each other is fine. More often it shows a more mechanical kind of sex, people who do not care about each other, often being exploited and coerced, and depicting rape scenes. A lot of porn today comes from the Third World, where women can be exploited.
Just as there is an anxiety about men who fantasise about having sex with children, then likewise the same applies to rape. If pornography makes these fantasies more vivid, then the concern should be greater still.
Yet pornography is so popular it is entering the mainstream of our culture. More comodification, plastic surgery and unrealistic depictions of women.
What can be done about it is hard to specifiy. In my opinion the values of untamed capitalism do not match the values of a liberal society, and sometimes they are very illiberal. Many liberals today are reluctant to agree to this, but a clear cut example would be that Liberals cannot support the racism of the fashion industry where Noami Campbell notwithstanding, very few models are black.
As Germaine Greer pointed out, she is getting on a bit now. She is still the feminist of choice as far as the media is concerned, I wonder who will be next?

Monday, 17 December 2007

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Left

One of the hard lessons of leadership contests is that you get nothing for coming second, even a very close second in the case of Chris Huhne, the candidate I voted for. I remember the same feeling when Charles Kennedy beat Simon Hughes in a previous contest, but at least I knew Simon would stand again (unfortunately I did not know he would cock it up, but that is another story).
Even so, Chris Huhne has won some notable victories. Nick Clegg has clarified that he does not support US education vouchers for school allocations. By coming a close second, Nick knows that Chris will have to be an integral part of the Liberal Democrats for many years to come.
Of course it may well be the case that the course Nick intended has not changed anyway. As in the previous leadership elections, the Liberal Left vote was split. Those closely associated with Simon Hughes in his last leadership election bid are the ones I would identify as Left Liberals, although many, including Simon, would not use that description. Some of these MPs are so studied in collective responsibility it may well be that they are no longer on the Left anyway.
It was with mixed feelings that I noted that most of Simon's MP supporters backed Nick Clegg. On the one hand, they may have handed him victory, given the closeness of the contest. On the other hand, Nick may have made committments to them on issues to do with public services that reassured them that "Top down privatisation" is not on the agenda.
I think there will at least be a change in the rhetoric which will not be welcome. Ming Campbell and Chris Huhne accused Labour and Conservative parties of being "The conservative parties". Nick Clegg accused them in a more apolitical sense of being "Tweedledum and Tweedledee".
Comments like these say a lot about the politcal instincts of the leadership candidates. Clegg's position betrays a fear of the Lib Dems being perceived as on the left of Labour, but if on the other hand we are position ourselves as a centre party, how does such a party put across what it stands for in the middle of "Tweedledum and Tweedledee"?
So the concern is will the party make enough sense to the electorate that we can persuade people to vote for it?
Nick Clegg will hopefully come up with some answers to that over the next few months.

New Labour can't face the truth; UK defeated in Basra.

It is right that British troops are leaving Basra. Indeed they should leave Iraq altogther.
But New Labour will not admit to the real reason as to why they have to leave; that the UK has been defeated.
It is because they dare not loose face, the defence minister got what he deserved on the Today program this morning. John Humphries has been to Iraq himself and seen how terrible it is out there; no one is going to pull the wool over his eyes. Unfortunately for defence minister Bob Ainsworth, the Today program allocated a full length timeslot for this interview, so there was nowhere to hide. John Humphries put it to Bob Ainsworth that terrible though Saddam Hussein was, life for the average woman in Basra was better than it is now. This is patently the case, but if the minister were to simply admit to something that is common sense, his position would become untenable as a minister. So he uncomfortably alternated between proclaiming how wonderful it is that Saddam Hussain is gone, but things are not perfect, how the army and police are ready to take over, although their police chief claims the direct opposite (a circle he could not square, no matter how hard he tried). It was a long painful interview, most unconvincing.
Only when Bob Ainsworth admitted that the British presence was becoming a problem did he hint at the truth. If I was interviewing him, I would have said "Oh yes? And how long has the British troop presence been more of a problem than a solution?". No doubt he would have waffled on, but the answer would be obvious; long before today. Another question could have been "So if you admit that the British troop presence has become more of a problem than a solution, then that must prove that we have been defeated in Iraq, and then the comments from the police chief about how desperate the situation is for him makes sense; you left because you had no choice, whether the Iraqis were ready or not".
No doubt when Basra descends further into chaos, there will be those who would say our troops should have stayed longer.
I claim the opposite. I would claim it shows that our troops were wasting their time. They gave the insurgents the opportunity to practice their craft. What better training could they possibly have?
Our troops should have left years ago. In fact they shouldn't have gone in in the first place.

Friday, 7 December 2007

I am not anti-American but...

... but I do not like the term anti-American.
To be "anti-American" sounds like a form of racism. To those who use the term, it suits their agenda very well. How wonderful it is to have a term that conflates criticism of the US government with an insinuation that to do so is racist.
The irony is that the US government uses the term as a justification for them to be anti-everyone else. No one seemed to make a fuss about the US being "anti-French" in the run up to the war in Iraq. Yet with the benefit of hindsight we can now see that the US would have benefitted greatly if they had listened to the French in the first place and not invaded Iraq.
This morning on the Today program I heard it reported that a US government scientist predicted that the US will not reduce emisions of greenhouse gasses for the forseeable future. The US is currently scuppering international agreement on reducing greenhouse gasses. We know that the US president, George W Bush is a fundamentalist Christian who believes in the apocalypse and from his point of view in this context the matter of global warming is irrelevant.
With no leadership from the world's biggest polluter, the consequences of US policy are likely to be disasterous. On top of that, his foreign policy has also been a monumental disaster, bringing us closer to World War 3. Failure in Iraq was predictable, and his plans for Iran - possibly now on hold for an election year - are also very alarming. In addition, the sweeping away of civil liberties so that prisoners can be held for the duration of the "war on terror", ie forever, in Guantano, and where "terrorist" suspects are sent to other countries to be tortured, we see that the US is moving in the direction of a totalitarian state. I choose my words carefully, I am not saying it is a totalitarian state, it has a long way to go before it gets there, and may change direction in the meantime. But the signs are onimous all the same.
Well I still admire Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Al Gore, Joseph Stiglitz and many others. And my distaste for Mrs Thatcher does not make me anti-British.
"Anti American" is a propaganda term, and we should stop using it, and dispute the term when others do use it.

The public sector is getting desperate...

I am truly amazed that the government is giving the police effectively a pay cut, taking inflation into account. A profession that currently cannot go on strike.
I have a lot of sympathy for public sector workers. Particularly those who are employed to save people's lives, sometimes by putting their own lives at risk. The police, the armed services, the fire fighters, ambulance men, social workers, probation officers, nurses immediately spring to mind. Another profession I admire include the teachers, how they can put up with the abuse they get from children I will never be able to work out.
If any of these people get a pay cut, the message being sent out is that the work you are doing is not being valued; you are doing a bad job.
The problem is of course the concern that increasing public spending increases inflation. Everyone seems to be agreed on that, and if true public sector employees will never be properly rewarded for what they do.
Yet as far as the police is concerned, the saving in not backdating is only £40million. In terms of the overall national budget, a tiny amount. How can the government be so mean?
I guess the argument is that it all adds up. The squeeze on public sector pay will be across the board. If you make exceptions, like the police for example, then it won't work.
Personally I still think it is not persuasive. I listened to many silly interviews recently. On the issue of pay for the police, the government minister kept referring to what the police originally asked for, rather than what they agreed from the pay review board. I do not like interviewers interrupting, but there was certainly one needed here.
This morning I listened to a minister justifying a cut in the physics research budget of £80million by ignoring that it was happening altogether. I have some sympathy if it is true that over the years the funding had increased a lot - Today will not report on that when it happens - but all the same, how are research institutions supposed to plan ahead when the funding is so erratic?
Then I heard a senior member of the armed forces lamenting the underfunding of the military. Apparently inflation in the armed services is a whopping 7 - 8%, and of course we are overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As far as the military is concerned - for God's sake lets scrap Trident and not replace it. How on earth are we going to fund the military properly if inflation is 7%?
I dread to think about the future of the public sector. In the past when there was a funding crises, the Lib Dems said they would increase taxes. My instincts are to suggest the same again, but that would be a difficult sell at a time when so many people are in debt. We could tax the rich more - and the Lib Dem Green Tax Switch is designed to do that, but Lib Dem policy is also to tax the poor less so that the overall budget is tax neutral.
So we are looking at public sector cuts. Some cuts are worth it, such as abolishing compulsary ID cards, but I am not persuaded there are enough savings to reallocate resources to where we want them. Once the soft targets are gone, the prospects are of the kind of painful cuts in public sector pay we are now seeing.

Nativity plays - the strangest debate of all?

I have a shocking revelation to make; when I was at school I did not do a nativity play.
Where is this evil school you may ask. Well perhaps I better not reveal too much, but I went to a dubious primary school in rural Essex, followed by a former grammer school not too far from sinful Southend. About 30 years ago.
Thats right 30 years ago. And no one was making a fuss about it then.
Why not? Well I guess as far as the general public was concerned, we did not have the paranoa that many have to today about the rise of militant Islam. And as far as the teachers were concerned, I would guess that they simply weren't that bothered.
If I am right about teachers not being that bothered back then, then it makes sense that they are even less bothered today. As our society has become more secular, that makes sense.
But why consider a reasonable explanation when you have a political/religious agenda to satisfy?
So we have a bazarre debate on this matter today. This morning on the Today program, Trevor Phillips spoke perfect common sense to reassure everyone that the vast majority of ethnic minority people are perfectly happy for Christians to celebrate Christmas and hold nativity plays and have no desire to stop this from happening - indeed many are Christians themselves and are fully involved in it.
What is bazarre is that no one is speaking against him and putting the other side of the argument. Maybe because there is no one?
I cannot think of anyone. So how on earth did this debate ever get started when there is only one side of the argument being put?
I once heard on the radio some extracts of the nativity plays, and they were very entertaining. There are moments when 8 year olds begin there acting endeavors where the results are lets say extraordinary. It left me thinking that nativity plays are harmless fun. I would be surprised if they have much bearing on whether those children will grow into Christians. And it is not exactly one of the 10 commandments that we should have to do this.
I know Christians like to hype up Christmas, although the momentum in do so has been taken over by commercial intersts. Personally I do not find the Christmas story particularly significant. For some Christians it is important because being a Christian is an exercise in believing the literal truth of the Bible. It matters to them that there were 3 wise men, and the rest of the assembled cast. For me I ask the question; how does believing this make you any more of a moral being than you would be otherwise? The answer would appear to be that it makes no difference at all.
On the other hand, the sermon on the Mount really is one of the main highlights in the Bible. The compassion is striking, and the poetry of the words are beautiful. Whether you are a literal Christian, a metaphorical Christian, or like me not a Christian at all, this is one part of the Bible that does deserve attention. Maybe there are extracts from the other holy books that also deserve more attention?

Capitalism's anti-democratic credentials

The famous book by Francis Fukuyama; "The end of history" argued that liberal democracy had "won", communism was defeated, political conflict will die down and everywhere will eventually turn to the US model of government, with relatively minor differences.
Since then many have assumed that a globalised capitalist economy will bring democracy everywhere.
Yet we saw the shambles of the Russian elections recently, and now we see in the African - European summit in Portugal, that African nations are pronouncing that Europe is losing it's influence. African nations prefer to trade with China who do not make demands on human rights.
Russia and China provide an alternative model of economic development. Historically we saw how Pinochet combined an authoritarian state with capitalism, and after many years that succumbed to democracy. Mrs Thatcher also combined capitalism with an authoritarian state. She did not do away with democracy altogther, but she did undemine it.
Today Russia and China prove that you can have an authoritarian state and capitalism. Instead of capitalism bringing democracy, the signs from Africa are that that they are also being influenced by the Chinese way of thinking.
To be fair, the Chinese economy is due for a crash, having grown unsustainably for so long. However the same is true in Europe and the US too, for different reasons and where there has been less growth.
It is not in my nature as a liberal to want to see economic turmoil. But there is much to fear of the consequences if the Chinese model continues to succeed. If Africa is thinking of turning away from democracy and human rights, what about the rest of the world?

Politcal Parties must be state funded

It is the policy of the Liberal Democrats to support the state funding of political parties. Although the party hierarchy is rather coy in saying so. Within the Liberal Democrats there is a lot of opposition to this policy.
But lets look at the options.
Even after passing some rather draconian and much welcome laws, there is still a culture of corruption in Labour. Whoever the new general secretary of the Labour party is will have to put that right. But this puts Labour in a spot; can they really compete with the Tories in their financing, and how would they feel about being more dependent on the unions than ever?
There is less pressure on the Tories. They are even more dependent on wealthy individuals and company donations, but as long as they keep to the law, they are sitting pretty. However they are still vulnerable to charges that doners can but influence.
For the Liberal Democrats the situation is clear. The bias in the system is so bad, particularly against us, we MUST change it.
The status quo is a shambles, and needs reform.
The popular solution as far as the electorate is concerned is to limit large donations, make parties reliant on membership funding.
I see this as a partial solution. It is good that parties are funded by members. But there are 2 problems.
First is that this puts in a bias in favour of the Tories. Their members are richer and will pay more. The beauty about democracy is that everyone's vote is equal, whether you are a millionaire or a cleaner. But when it comes to funding - and possible influence on the political parties, then the millionaire has the greater say.
Second is that the money coming in will not be enough. The Liberal Democrats are currently locked in a vicious circle. If you phone membership, you cannot get through. You can leave a message, but when you get a reply your phone is switched off because you are at work ... it is all very inefficient and the outcome is fewer members. Fewer members means less income. Less income means underfunded membership services.
On a related issue Operation Black Vote (OBV) claims that the Lib Dems are doing the least of all the political parties on attracting black members. When they say it, the implication is that the Lib Dems don't care. Absurd when you consider that our policies have been consistantly the best of all on race relations. The reality is that we cannot match what the Tories are doing as we do not have the resources that they do.
Funding political parties is not about funding gimmicky electioneering - although some money gets spent in that direction. For political parties to connect to the electorate they need the resources to do it.
Those who want membership funding only will see the demise of the political parties as serious organisations.
Many people would appear to want that, but they do not appear to be thinking about the alternatives to democracy; dictatorship or anarchy. You can have that now if you vote for it, but no one does, so is the demise of political parties really such a good idea?
I am aware of the objections;
1/ Why reward parties after they have behaved so disgracefully?
Well if you think they have behaved disgracefully, don't vote for them. That will hurt them. Funding political parties properly in relation to their popularity will still leave them in competition with the other parties. The reward in politics comes from being elected into office, and state funding makes that process fairer.
2/ I do not want my taxes being spent on the BNP.
From a Liberal perspective we would prefer the BNP not to exist. The reason they do exist is because people vote for them. In a democracy you have to be fair. If the BNP go too far and break the law by inciting hatred, then they will be banned. The essence of democracy is that parties give you a choice, some of which you would veehmently disagree with.
On current levels of support, most of the funding will go to parties opposed to the BNP, so the BNP will not benefit from this.
3/ In fact I do not want my taxes spent on anyone.
Well do you want a democracy? If not, why not vote for anarchy or dictatorship? It is true that independents do not get funded, but they could start a political party as well. The problem with independents is that they can believe in anything regardless of the contradictions, and in an election campaign it is hard to scrutenise them properly.

Anyway, what do you think?

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Bush off the hook over Iran

It is true that George Bush looks rather silly at the moment over Iran. Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president had calculated that he could go ahead with his nuclear power program, and the US would not dare to stop him. For the next 12 months at least, his gamble has paid off.
Originally when the US invaded Iraq, they imagined that Iraq would become a prosperous liberal democracy, and then they could march on to Syria and Iran. Iran was the more important target, since it produces more oil.
Since the US bit off more than it could chew in Iraq, an invasion of either country looks absurd. The next best option as far as the hawks were concerned appeared to be to bomb Iran into submission.
But how would that work? Ahmedinejad does not seem to be persuaded that it can acheive anything, and by doing what the US does not want, his prestige in the region has grown.
Well next year is election year in the US, and it is hard to believe that Bush would really want to do anything silly in Iran, undermining the Republican candidates for president in doing so.
Historically when the intelligence services did not deliver what Bush wanted to hear about Iraq, he specifically undermined the intelligence services by creating his own intelligence service, the Office for Speical Plans (OSP) that reported what he wanted to hear, unlike the CIA. The OSP became the cheif source for claims about Iraq's WMD.
Now all of a sudden, the CIA is "trusted" again, and even Dick Cheney is falling into line.
Logically you would have thought everyone would be delighted, Iran is not on the verge of becoming a nulcear power. But there are still some hawks who are screaming, and do not trust the CIA. They still want to attack Iran, regardless of whether they intend to obtain nuclear weapons are not.
I think they will have to wait until they get a new president, 2008 is not going to be their year. 2009 could be a different matter entirely.
So does Iran want nuclear weapons? I suspect every country in the region wants them. Partly for their own security concerns, and partly for the prestige of having them. In the case of the UK, with no security threat, we have nuclear weapons purely for the prestige of having them. Already Isreal, Pakistan, India and China have nuclear weapons, and are potential threats to Iran. And the US is a clear and obvious threat as well. The US would not have behaved in the way it has done had Iran had nuclear weapons, as we see in North Korea.
So we do need to consider how to stop more states in the region from getting nuclear weapons, in case they fall into the wrong hands.
How do we do that? Answers on a postcard please!