Thursday, October 29, 2009

Oh, stop your bloody whining...

Oh, stop your bloody whining...

There’s something bracing about the Australian media.

Court rules homosexual complainant a drama queen

A GAY man who claimed he was discriminated against in a small NSW town lost his case after a court found he was just the type of person who thought his rights were always being violated.

They even illustrate the piece with a picture of Daffyd from Little Britain.

New Statesman - wrong in new and inventive ways

New Statesman - wrong in new and inventive ways

In some ways it’s vaguely reassuring that the New Statesman has so publicly disavowed any notion of its being anything other than a propaganda sheet.  It makes it easier to dismiss it when it makes up stories about Barack Obama, or decides that all Tories are irredeemably racist for one thing.  But it’s still a little sad when a political magazine loses its credibility to such an extent that it ends up contradicting itself within the same paragraph.

More wrong still have been the Conservatives, whose economic policies have been as ill-informed as they have been gauche and naive. They have opposed interventionist government and fiscal and monetary stimuli. They have opposed quantitative easing. They have opposed the cut in VAT. They have opposed more government spending. They are obsessed with the growing Budget deficit and advocate paying down debt and cutting public spending, here and now, with immediate effect. True to their Thatcherite inheritance, they have announced that the management of the economy should be through interest rates alone, in defiance of all other mainstream political parties in western Europe.

Well, for a start it’s a tough order criticising the Conservatives for gaucheness at the same time as criticising them for their upper class, Etonian entitlement.  Gauche means lacking in social savoir-faire – not an accusation normally levelled against David Cameron (Eton and Brasenose) If you’ve seen James Macintyre at any social function you’ll have a good idea what it really means – or perhaps if you’ve seen Gordon Brown on Youtube.  I suspect that someone’s ‘how to be a journalist’ book mentioned the importance of the rule of three, and they ended up a bit stuck for a third.  Confirmation of that comes in the very next sentence.  If it is true that the Conservatives have opposed “interventionist government and fiscal and monetary stimuli” (check the three), then how can they have announced that “the management of the economy should be through interest rates alone”?  Reducing interest rates is a monetary stimulus you blithering economic halfwits.

Those who aspire to government should read J K Galbraith's The Great Crash. The echoes with today are unsettling. In the 1930s, world governments cut back on stimulus too soon, with catastrophic consequences. The result was what economists call a double-dip recession, with an intensification of hardship just as optimism was returning.

I’ve commented before that I am effectively an economic ignoramus.  However, here I stand in the presence of a master.  I have read (and have a copy of) The Great Crash, and it’s an excellent book.  But it is an analysis of the, spook, Great Crash of 1929 and not of the Great Depression that followed it.  Hence, its conclusions and maxims do not include a prescription for a Governmental fiscal stimulus.  If that’s what you want read Keynes, with the proviso that you include his requirement that Governments run a surplus during boom times.  Is it too much to expect that a newspaper leader exhorting you to read a particular book should themselves have understood it?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Picking a fight with the EU

Picking a fight with the EU

Let’s face it kiddies, Santa Klaus almost certainly isn’t coming to town.  The Tories have to accept that by far the most likely scenario is that the Lisbon Treaty is ratified by everybody by the middle of next month, and in force as soon as possible afterwards.  The long Tory holding position of hoping for a British referendum on an unratified treaty is not going to hold water for much longer.  Indeed, the Tories are starting to look disingenuous with their vague fall-back position of ‘not letting matters rest’.

So, what are they going to do?  The Grand Old Duke of Cameron has marched his Euro-sceptic troops to the top of a pretty large hill, and simply marching them down again would make him look ridiculous.  There has to be a plan – a plan that involves something of a showdown with Europe, and surely at the least a repatriation of some devolved powers.  These could be symbolic (Charlemagne suggests securing the return of old-fashioned British passports) or more concrete.   Charlemagne’s biggie here is financial regulation.

In their dreams, half our EU partners would like to impose martial law on the City of London, under some French general in a képi. In theory, lots of EU financial regulations could be decided by qualified majority vote. Sane countries like Sweden say they cannot imagine imposing regulations on the UK against our will, because the impact on us is too big. Get that in writing: a political pledge from the other leaders that Britain has a veto on financial regulation affecting the City.

The concept is good here: one of the key concerns of the expansion of powers of the European Parliament is that so many of them are head-bangers on Anglo-Saxon economic liberty.  Listen to the noises coming from the French and the Germans on hedge funds – they want to impose regulations that will effectively kill off the hedge fund industry in the EU.  Since the global centre for hedge fund activity is the City of London, this is massively important.  I don’t think, however, that Charlemagne’s suggestion of a political pledge from member state Governments will be enough.  If the matter can be decided by QMV, then the odds are that it will be, regardless of British objections.

So, Cameron should certainly lobby hard to oppose the introduction of disastrous over-regulation of the hedge fund industry.  But, given that may not prevent its introduction, perhaps he should also make it clear that, were such rules to be introduced, the UK would not apply them.  Hold a referendum on this matter (perhaps bundling in other specific EU regulations that the UK wishes to opt out of), and then introduce legislation disapplying them from UK law.

It’s something of a nuclear option – in theory at any rate.  It opens up the old subject of Parliamentary sovereignty and the possibility of UK law operating in conflict with EU law (which will at least prompt the recall and pulping of a hundred tedious text books, and their replacement with a hundred different tedious text books) and it risks plunging the EU into one of its periodic bouts of internal crisis.  But there’s little doubt that it would be the right move for the UK, and would also be popular.  Despite the wishes of many of us, there is currently little prospect of the UK choosing to leave the EU.  There is even less prospect of our being expelled.  Not only are we one of the three main economies within Europe, but we are also a rare net contributor to the EU.  Not only that, but we have a trade deficit with the EU – and in the increasingly mercantilist economics of the EU they won’t want to sacrifice their export market.

That this would be good for the UK goes almost without saying.  One of our last comparative advantages is our financial sector.  Resisting the imposition of rules that would significantly weaken this advantage is in the national interest.  It would also be good for the Conservative party.  By offering public consultation on the matter it goes some way towards lancing the referendum boil.  By ‘standing up to Brussels’ it keeps the harder sceptics on board.  By making this stand on an impeccable matter of national interest and free market economics it makes it less likely that the old suspects (by which I mean Ken Clarke and probably no one else…) will kick up too much of a fuss.  Since negotiations on hedge fund regulation will be going on up until the election, it can all also be blamed on the Labour Government.  It’s a bit of a result really.

The most likely outcome after grumbling and muttering is either that the regulations against the hedge fund industry are never introduced or, if they are, the UK can opt out from them.  A short, defined fight with the EU that will be good both for the UK and for the Conservative Party.  Everyone’s a winner.  Except Frankfurt. 

Friday, October 23, 2009

Questions to which the answer is no

Questions to which the answer is no

Mehdi Hassan asks, in the New Statesman, “Is Joe Biden the wisest man in Washington, DC?”  Lets have a quick look:

In 1990, he voted against American forces expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. He voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and advocated splitting it into three states along ethnic lines. He opposed the Iraq troop surge of 2007 that pacified the country and rescued the US from the jaws of defeat.

Joe Biden: "When the stock market crashed [in 1929], Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, 'Look, here's what happened."

"Chuck, stand up, let the people see you," Biden shouted to State Senator Chuck Graham, before realizing, to his horror, that Graham uses a wheelchair. "Oh, God love ya," Biden said. "What am I talking about?"

No.  No he isn’t…

HRA, ECHR etc.

HRA, ECHR etc.

Michael White raises a point that I’ve seen a few times now in relation to the Conservatives’ proposal to replace the HRA with a ‘Bill of Rights’.

If a bill of rights does the same things as the HRA and still allows the right to (long-winded) appeals to Strasbourg why bother? If it doesn't, a Tory Britain would have to quit the ECHR and (in theory) the EU too.

This is, to put it charitably, nonsense.  There is no requirement in the ECHR for ratifying nations to embody the Declaration in a domestic statute (which is essentially what the HRA does), only that the abstract rights contained within the Declaration must be protected under the law of the ratifying nation.  Given that one of the prime inspirations for the ECR was the Bill of Rights of 1689, and given that it was largely drafted by British lawyers, there is no real question that British law prior to 1998 was in accordance with this requirement.

If, then, the HRA was scrapped altogether, we would simply return to the status as it was before 1998.  No abandonment of the ECHR would be necessary; no quitting of the EU.  It’s not a complicated point, and someone who likes to play the role of the all-knowing imparter of wisdom as much as White does really ought to know it already.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Loyal Opposition...

Loyal Opposition...

Remember a time in America when the opposition was reasonable and moderate?  When, however, much they might have been opposed to the President’s politics, they respected him for his office, and wished him well for the country’s sake?  No, me neither.  One of the most remarkable things about the Obama Presidency (if you don’t count the Nobel Prize won for 11 days work) has been the new belief of the left that the US President should be above petty personal attacks – they are, after all, attacks on the Commander in Chief of the nation and therefore unpatriotic.

Michael Tomasky is an eloquent example of this tendency.  This column is a perfect case in point: Liberals loathed Bush, but we didn't invoke fantastical fabrications or root our arguments in metaphor instead of fact.

Has he just forgotten the last eight years?  Bush was Hitler, was in the direct pay of Halliburton, was only invading Iraq because of oil/to prove he was a bigger man than Daddy.  We’ve gone through eight sodding years of associated lefty loonies traipsing around with lunatic placards and banners with absolutely no factual basis whatsoever.  And now the roles are reversed suddenly it’s unfair and unpatriotic?  Whatever happened to ‘Dissent is the highest form of patriotism’?

The third point is where the difference enters the picture. As much as liberals despised Bush, people never thought (except maybe on the fringes) that he was secretly out to destroy the US. We felt some of his administration's principles weren't American as we understood the concept (the arrogation of executive power, or the approval of torture). But there was none of this Manchurian Candidate business. Liberals assumed that Bush was doing what he, his team and their supporters believed was the right thing based on their understanding of American values and needs.

Which is also bollocks of the highest order.  If you want some fun, try searching for Bush destroying the US.  You’ll get mainstream Paul Krugman articles as well as the endless Democratic Underground/Antiwar dribble.  Liberals never assumed that Bush was doing what he thought was best for America – it’s a risible suggestion.

It’s one of those irregular verbs: I offer constructive criticism of a misguided administration; you are a partisan opposition supporter; he is a traitor.  Tomasky’s just switched sides, and is finding it hard to adjust.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Doctor's mandate

Doctor's mandate

On the subject of the party conference, there have been mixed reviews for the Tories ‘never going to have had it so bad’ motif.  To my mind, the Conservatives are fixated by two contrasting media images.  The first is the desire to avoid the fate of Neil Kinnock’s shadow budget in 1992 – the one that enabled the Tories to run with the ‘Labour’s bombshell’ poster.  The lessons of this election are burned also into the mind of Gordon Brown, which explains why both parties are engaged in elaborate footwork designed to wring figures out of the other, while being deliberately opaque about their own.

But, as the prospect of victory gets closer and closer, another precedent seems to be focusing Conservative minds: the cover of the economist after Thatcher’s first budget in 1980.  “You Voted For This”.  In other words, the Tories had an explicit mandate to start dishing out nasty medicine.

The next few years are going to be unpleasant by any standards.  Spending will be cut – by more than either party is yet happy to admit.  Taxes overall will rise, though we can hopefully expect something of a simplification.  Hopefully (as far as I’m concerned) interest rates will remain low for as long as possible, but that’s going to be a poor lookout for the retired and those living on savings.  Unemployment, always a lagging indicator, is going to stay high too.  It is going, in other words, to be tough.  The bare minimum that the Tories need if they want to win a second term is a clear doctor’s mandate for their first.  If they had relied on the ‘sunshine winning the day’ routine of a couple of years ago, they would probably still have won the election (Gordon Brown: five more years! being perhaps the worst election slogan in recent history) but the decisions they would have then had to take would have seen them turfed out in short order.

This, I suspect, is why Cameron and Osborne stuck their necks out by presenting a programme of economic pain and an end to big Government – so that when the Guardian and the BBC start to complain they can say “weren’t you listening?  This is what we said we were going to do, and we won an election on precisely this manifesto.”



Well, I’m back.  Annoying to miss this last week, especially the Tory conference, but there we are.  Combination of a baby and a bug…

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The scheme for full employment...

The scheme for full employment...

I love the Daily Mash

Under the Tory plan all those who are deemed fit for work will have their benefits cut and be forced to look for jobs that currently exist only in the mind of Norman Tebbit.

Private training firms will assess all 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit to see what work they might be able to do, which experts say will most likely be assessing people on incapacity benefit to see what work they might be able to do.

Tom Logan, of the London School of Economics said: "By 2014 we should be in a situation where half the country will be assessing the employment capabilities of the other half until they get bored and throw themselves down some stairs.

"They will then join the queue for assessment and will eventually be employed assessing people who have recently thrown themselves down some stairs. And so on."

Friday, October 02, 2009

Michael White: a bit of a tit

I have been coming increasingly to the conclusion that Michael White is a terrible arse. As is the case with that other terrible arse, Simon Heffer, the problem is at least partly with his style of writing. Whereas the Hefferlump writes with his face contorted into a hideous sneer, White has this god-awful patronising de haut en bas style which is as unmerited as it is irritating. Today’s little effort, in honour of the Irish referendum, is a classic of its type.

I like to think of myself as a bit of a Thatcherite on Europe. Partly because it's true, but chiefly because it annoys her Europhobic proteges who are, most of them, too young to remember what a stout European she often was.

It’s true that in 1988 I was a touch too young to appreciate the speech she gave in Bruges, but I wonder if Michael White really does agree with Margaret Thatcher on this:

My first guiding principle is this: willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states is the best way to build a successful European Community…

Indeed, it is ironic that just when those countries such as the Soviet Union, which have tried to run everything from the centre, are learning that success depends on dispersing power and decisions away from the centre, there are some in the Community who seem to want to move in the opposite direction.

We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.

Certainly we want to see Europe more united and with a greater sense of common purpose.

But it must be in a way which preserves the different traditions, parliamentary powers and sense of national pride in one's own country; for these have been the source of Europe's vitality through the centuries.

I’m open to persuasion, but if White really is opposed to European integration and in favour of restoring fuller sovereignty to the member states I’d be a touch surprised.

Now to this constitution business. French and Dutch voters rejected this deeply tedious document, which I read on Ken Clarke's behalf. So Brussels scaled down its pretensions and produced the Lisbon treaty, which enshrines practical advantages – easier voting majorities, a council president etc.

I too read the draft European Constitution (lucky chap that I am, I studied it and sat exams based on it), whose limitations were wonderfully summed up by Charles Moore. The US Constitution’s first ringing words are ‘We the people…’, allowing the reader to understand precisely where conceptual power rests in the US system, and the Government’s relation to it. The European Constitution began “His Majesty the King of the Belgians…”.

I have not, however, and I would be truly astonished if Michael White has, read the Lisbon Treaty. Weighing in at a chunky 287 pages (and still starting with the imprimatur of King Albert, a monarch increasingly without a kingdom) it is written in the following style:

Article 311 shall be repealed. A new Article 311a shall be inserted, with the wording of Article 299(2), first subparagraph, and Article 299(3) to (6); the text shall be amended as follows.

(a) the first subparagraph of paragraph 2 and paragraphs 3 to 6 shall be renumbered 1 to 5 and the following new introductory wording shall be inserted at the beginning of the Article:

"In addition to the provisions of Article 49 C of the Treaty on European Union relating to the territorial scope of the Treaties, the following provisions shall apply:";

(b) at the beginning of the first subparagraph of paragraph 2, renumbered 1, the words "the French overseas departments, " shall be replaced by "Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin" and the words "in accordance with Article 299" shall be added at the end;

(c) in paragraph 3, renumbered 2, the words "of this Treaty" shall be deleted;

(d) in paragraph 6, renumbered 5, the introductory words "Notwithstanding the preceding paragraphs:" shall be replaced by "Notwithstanding Article 49 C of the Treaty on European Union and paragraphs 1 to 4 of this Article:";

(e) the following new paragraph shall be added at the end of the Article:

"6. The European Council may, on the initiative of the Member State concerned,

adopt a decision amending the status, with regard to the Union, of a Danish, French or Netherlands country or territory referred to in paragraphs 1 and 2. The European Council shall act unanimously after consulting the Commission.".

It is simply not a document designed to be read, at least not by a human. The purpose, however, is fairly clear. The Constitution was designed to replace every existing EU Treaty with a new, unified constitutional document. The Treaty is designed to amend every existing EU Treaty, so that the same effect is achieved, without it being possible to determine precisely where and how. There really is no conceptual difference between the two documents, other than the fact the Constitution was inherently honest about its intentions, and the Lisbon Treaty has been designed to hide them.

But is there a possibility that the British public will have a chance to put their view on this unreadable confidence trick? Maybe, if Vaclav Klaus can resist pressure to ratify before a UK election.

German pressure on Prague has been deemed bad form since 1945, so the French will lead the squeeze. My top EU source told me an hour ago that he thinks Prague will sign – "because the pressure will be huge, but Klaus is very obstinate and has links with Cameron."

Links with Cameron? Did you know that? Yes, last month Dave wrote privately to Klaus, either urging him not to sign because Dave will soon be in a position to torpedo the treaty with a UK referendum – or, more prudently, praising his tough stance.

Which version of this under-reported event is true? As Kettle points out, we don't know, because Dave's "Dear Vac" letter has not been published in full, only in selective bits to cynical but credulous news outlets.

Why the fuck should it be published in full (or indeed at all)? The clue ought to be visible – White even refers to it as a private letter. Plus, I’m not sure how far you can push this as an under-reported event, when as White notices, Martin Kettle has a piece on virtually identical lines in today’s Guardian

The paranoid rightwing press, owned by tax exiles, pornographers and other riff-raff (yes, Rupert, I mean you), already suspects a sell-out in the making: that Dave is keen to wriggle out of the commitment he made when running for leader that he would hold a UK ballot if the Lisbon treaty was not fully ratified when he became prime minister.

Quite apart from the hypocrisy of anyone writing for theGuardian criticising the tax-minimising ownership structures of other newspapers - the entire thing is a tax-avoidance scheme – is anyone suggesting that David Cameron won’t have a referendum on Lisbon if it hasn’t been fully ratified? The suggestions are that he won’t have a referendum if it has been fully ratified.

I certainly hope he's trying to wriggle. Cameron has annoyed Angela Merkel and other powerful European conservative leaders by breaking away from their EPP grouping in the Strasbourg parliament and expelling veteran Tory MEP Edward McMillan-Scott for sticking to his/their agreed ground…

But Cameron's tactical pandering to his domestic rightwing, to defectors to Ukip and the BNP, is very short-term and dents his otherwise pragmatic and intelligent credentials as a One Nation Tory – which I am usually happy to take more or less on trust. It is the one seriously stupid thing he has done.

This is, frankly, bollocks. The impossibility of the Conservatives remaining part of the EPP should be apparent from this list of policies that all EPP members must sign up to: an EU foreign policy; an EU seat at the UN, WTO and IMF; a common European income tax; a harmonised European police force; and an end to all national vetoes. The Conservative Party is fundamentally opposed to all of these, and it is simply dishonest to remain a member of a group that has them in their manifesto.

Anyway, shorter version: Michael White is a bit of a tit.

Banging on about Europe

Banging on about Europe

Ah, it feels like it’s never been away.  We’re back to the days of Tory splits and little Englanders, with ferocious ideological battles between heavyweight and serious Europhiles and swivel-eyed Bill Cash-like sceptics.  Happy days for Labour!

Except of course that we aren’t.  There’s a rather nauseating quality about the delight in Labour ranks about the prospect of the trouble that an Irish ‘Yes’ vote in their ‘naughty children, have another go’ referendum today will cause David Cameron.  It was always an uncomfortable position to be in.  To promise a referendum on a new constitutional treaty is one thing (hell, all the main parties did it); to promise a referendum on a treaty that has already been enacted is another.  What would the question be?  What would the result be?  So the Tories have hoped that somehow they could get to the election date before everyone had ratified the Lisbon Treaty.

That looks less likely now, though still not impossible given the attitude of Vaclav Klaus.  But even if the Treaty is ratified and in force before the rotting carcase of New Labour can be decently interred, there will still not be the epic Tory battles over Europe that Labour hopes for.  The Europhile wing of the party is dead.  Literally dead in some cases, politically dead in others.  The continued citation of Ken Clarke as proof that the Tory party remains divided over Europe is like citing Jeremy Clarkson as proof that the BBC is divided between lefties and righties.

We will have to wait and see whether Dan Hannan’s law that no party is Eurosceptic in office will prove true, but all the signs are that the Tory party is more united in its Euroscepticism than it has ever been.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Any suggestions?

Any suggestions?

David Miliband tells Sky News that Labour have a plan for Britain's future that the other parties can't match, and which he can speak about "with confidence and clarity".

"It’s a plan that speaks to our values and our plan for Britain.

"I think that we came here in a spirit of resilience and they’re going away with a song to sing and a hymn to hum."

Nearer my God to Thee?  The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended?  The Nunc Dimittis?