Saturday, August 30, 2008

The sweet smell of consistency

Stage 1: Sunny Hundal writes a post which says that making unscientific allegations that Gordon Brown suffers from a specific mental illness is the lowest possible form of politics practised by right-wingers.

Stage 2: Sunny Hundal writes a post which unscientifically accuses a right-wing blogger of having a specific mental illness.


Friday, August 29, 2008

Sarah Palin

Miss Wassilia 1984
So, McCain has apparently made his call for Vice President - and it's a genuine surprise. Whereas the name of Joe Biden gradually surfaced as the front-runner (and was eventually leaked, forcing the Obama campaign to send that text message at 3am) the choice of Sarah Palin has pretty much blind-sided the punditocracy who were expecting Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty - both of whom could be considered safe choices.
Choosing a young and fairly inexperienced woman (gasp!) is a risk. She'll be up against Biden in the debates, who was a US senator when Palin was 9 years old, and her general political inexperience is worse than Obama's - she was elected Governor of Alaska in 2006. However, it's going to be very hard for Obama's campaign credibly to push the experience point and at least Palin has executive experience - the only one of the four to do so. She's going to go down pretty well with the heartlands too, being pro-life and as that infallible guide, Wikipedia, has it
she hunts, eats moose hamburger, ice fishes, rides snowmobiles, and owns a float plane. Palin holds a lifetime membership with the National Rifle Association. She admits that she used marijuana when it was legal in Alaska, but says that she did not like it.
Bit of a fox too, which never hurts...

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Diligent this, but perhaps a little unsettling.

I just popped into Google on my way to scan Paul Staines' Wikipedia entry.

Each to their own, but surely there are better things to do with one's Friday afternoon?


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Convention time

So, despite the wobble in the polls, the media are still hot for Obama, and the Democrats in general. No surprises there: they always are. But there is just the suspicion that the frantic bigging-up of the speeches at the Convention have a trace of desperation in them. Obama's supporters in the media so want him to be a runaway success that they will push that message regardless.
Look at Michael Tomasky here today:
I can't convey in these few hundred words how brilliant Clinton's speech was. Let me just say that every sentence flowed perfectly from the one preceding it and that he was in masterful control of the text. Best single line to me: "People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power." But quoting that line out of context tells you nothing. It was part of a testimonial to Obama's judgment that no speaker at this convention had yet delivered and that every attendee yearned for.
I heard snippets of Clinton's speech this morning, and I noted the endorsement as being "Barack Obama is qualified to be President". Yee-haw.
Incidentally, and hilariously, Tomasky is almost correct about that Clinton line about the power of the American example. No speaker at this convention had delivered it. But Joe Biden did, in the 2004 convention, in precisely the same terms. The biter bit, given Biden's predilection for plagiarism...
And as for Biden's speech itself, once you get past the toe-curling opening, what were those shattering foreign policy denouncements?
Let me ask you: whose judgment should we trust? Should we trust John McCain's judgment when he said only three years ago, "Afghanistan—we don't read about it anymore because it's succeeded"? Or should we trust Barack Obama, who more than a year ago called for sending to additional combat brigades to Afghanistan?
McCain was making a point about the media's habit of focusing only on failure and ignoring good news stories. Now Afghanistan is more difficult, there's a lot more news coverage. That'sa different point to greater troop deployments. And are we talking about surges here? No? Why ever not?
Should we trust John McCain's judgment when he rejected talking with Iran and then asked: What is there to talk about? Or Barack Obama, who said we must talk and make it clear to Iran that its conduct must change.
Now, after seven years of denial, even the Bush administration recognizes that we should talk to Iran, because that's the best way to advance our security.

Talks without pre-conditions? I don't think so. And that's what Obama was after.
Should we trust John McCain's judgment when he says there can be no timelines to draw down our troops from Iraq—that we must stay indefinitely? Or should we listen to Barack Obama, who says shift responsibility to the Iraqis and set a time to bring our combat troops home?
Now, after six long years, the Bush administration and the Iraqi government are on the verge of setting a date to bring our troops home.
All of them - like Obama wanted? Or a gradual reduction in troop numbers as ther Iraqis take over - as McCain advocated. The reality is rather closer to McCain's stance than Obama's - though I guess we should be glad the Democrats are talking about Iraq again - the reductions in violence have rather shut them up.
And that was it - the great foreign policy expert's critique of McCain consisted of an irrelevance and two misleading comparisons. I'm yet to be persuaded by McCain (hell, I've yet to hear anything about him, it's like there's only one candidate in these elections) but there's been nothing to make the heart race from the Democrats...

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Slavery and education

I suppose the fact that children are to be taught any history at all is cause for modest celebration - especially as it isn't about the Nazis or Henry VIII. however, the news that slavery and the British Empire are to be compulsory parts of the curriculum makes me a little uneasy. There are a couple of reasons for this; the first is that slavery impacted upon Britain remarkably little. The numbers of British people directly involved in the slave trade, whether in shipping the poor slaves across the Atlantic or using slave labour on plantations in the British West Indies, was so low. There were no slaves in England after that remarkable judgment by Lord Mansfield in the case of R v Somerset "The air of England has long been too pure for a slave, and every man is free who breathes it." So, while the slave trade was an important aspect of world history, I'm not sure that it's a central facet of British history.
Equally alarming is the context in which it is proposed that it should be studied.
Children will study the development of the trade, colonisation and how slavery was linked to the British empire and the industrial revolution.
Well, the thing is that the slave trade has very little relation to the pattern of British colonisation - in 1807 when the trade was abolished, British colonialism was located predominantly in India, with the West Indies already being marginalised. African colonialism came much later, and European settlement was focused in the south and east - not the west where the slave trade was centred. Equally, what we really know as the British Empire was a creation of the mid-to-late nineteenth century more than the 18th. By the time the flag was flying and the map was being painted pink, the relation of Britain to the slave trade was in spending massive amounts of money - more according to some than was earned in the trade - in trying to stamp out the global trade.
More importantly, despite the Marxist view that the industrial revolution was brought about by the surplus profits of the slave trade, there simply isn't the evidence to support this. Even at the peak of the trade, the money it was bringing in was marginal at best. Stanley Engerman, professor of economic history at Rochester, has calculated that the contribution made by slave sale proceeds to the British economy in 1770 - at the height of the trade - was a mere 0.0054% of National Income. The point here is that this is contentious economic history and certainly not settled historical fact - the teaching of the industrial revolution should really not be taught as an adjunct to the slave trade.
The impression grows that this is a bit of what John Howard used to call 'black armband history' - the telling of history specifically to make us feel bad for our wicked past.
The initiative's learning project manager Ruth Fisher said: "There's a lot of mis-education about slavery and it hasn't really been taught in schools at all.

"It's quite interesting in terms of today's history and what students need to know about the past to understand the present.

"You can't really talk about the history of the British empire without discussing this part of history."

She also suggested the sheer impact of slavery on the British economy and how involved it was with slavery has often been underplayed.
Well, as I've pointed out, there's a reason it's been underplayed - it wasn't all that significant. The slave trade and slavery in general are far more important in studying the history of the United States - a society and a history in which slavery was a massively important factor - than they are in the history of Britain. Teach children about the Empire by all means - it's hard to comprehend any British History after about 1750 if you don't talk about it - but don't pretend that slavery is all that it was, or that the slave trade is what has driven modern Britain, because it wasn't, and it hasn't.

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Because I have a mind like a badly packed box room, I am constantly being reminded of things. Writing the phrase "you would, wouldn't you", for example, has fired a dormant neuron into reminding me of the linguistic butchery imposed by the British army on Hindi. Over the centuries of British involvement with India, hundreds of Hindi words entered the wider British vocabulary - pundit, pyjamas, bungalow, gymkhana, cummerbund - all sorts. The soldier's vocabulary was much more affected, with hundreds of Hindi, and half-Hindi phrases being inculcated into the language.
Some of these were job-specific. The binky nabob, for example, was the officer in charge of artillery. The bhisti was the chap who carried water to the troops - like Gunga Din. The nappy-wallah was the chap who came round and shaved you in bed - before you woke up. You'd go and take a decco of the terrain (unless you were in East Africa, in which case you'd take a shufti).
But a lot were rough and ready adaptions of Hindi grammar - chota, meaning small, could be adapted into chota peg (a short drink), chota wallah (a short person), chota sahib (a short Brit) - anything you needed. Since wallah just means person, it could be stuck on anything. Members of the Temperance Movement were bun-wallahs; army chaplains were god-wallahs. Some were mangled adaptions of the original: cushy comes from the hindi for pleasant, even goolies is taken from Hindi - gooli: a pellet.
And why did I start off on all this? Because soldiers would say tum lakri, lakri tum? Tum is Hindi for you; lakri is Hindi for wood. How the babu-jis must have winced.

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Rather an odd way of putting it...

When I heard that there had been terror arrests in Blackburn, I obviously assumed that these were connected to Islamist groups plotting another spectacular. I mean, you would, wouldn't you? The conjunction of terrorism and Lancashire leads one to one obvious conclusion. So I was surprised when I read the front page of the Telegraph to see this:
Fourth man held over Brown death threat
Police investigating an alleged threat to kill the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, have arrested a 25-year-old white man.
An unusual identifier you'd have thought, but perhaps he, like those nutjobs in Denver, was a supremacist or an extreme nationalist or something. In fact it's only when you click through to the story (where the 25 year old white man has become a 25 year old man) that you see what the story is about:
Anti-terrorism sources have indicated that the arrests related to a statement on an Arabic language website,, which often carries messages from senior members of al-Qaeda.

The message, in English, appeared briefly in January and demanded the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the release of radical clerics from Belmarsh prison in south-east London.
It said if there was no co-operation "al-Qaeda in Britain will target all the political leaders especially Tony Blair and Gordan [sic] Brown".

Do you think there might be a slightly more relevant identifier that could be applied to this 25 year old?

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The sweet taste of ball-tampering

So, in Marcus Trescothick's new book, he has admitted that he used to suck Murray mints in order to keep the ball shiny. Cue predictable outrage from Damien Fleming, who says that this ball-tampering plain and simple - and thus contrary to the laws of the game. The laws aren't clear on this point - and it may be that sugary saliva is only a less obvious form of scratching the ball with a bottle top. I doubt it though.
It's a shadowy little area, and people have tried pretty much anything you can think of over the years. Sun cream or vaseline (to stop sweat from dripping into the eyes) have long been used for precisely this purpose. Even Brylcreem was supposed to be pretty effective, but don't tell KP for God's sake - his hair's only just got back to normal as it is.
At least England won by doing it I suppose. Mike Atherton tells a story about how, during the dog days of his England captaincy, he sent the twelfth man to provide sweets to the team to help keep the shine on the ball. He returned with Orbit chewing gum. Sugar-free. We couldn't even cheat properly in those days.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Sharing the proceeds of growth

Well, it looks like that's an idea whose time has come and gone. It's easy to explain why the Conservatives tried to make the line stick - it's both intellectually coherent, and avoids the perennial Labour talking point - if the Tories plan to tax less, what would they cut? The problem with it, of course, is that it assumes a growing economy. The news that the British economy is now stagnant is going to be electrifying for British politics. For Labour, obviously, it's disastrous. The last card in the deck for Brown was his stewardship of the economy. Current figures are going to expose that for the over-blown sham it always was - as Fraser Nelson outlines here.

That phrase - Brown's bubble - is a good one for the Tories. It ties the country's economic problems firmly to the man lagely responsible for them. It doesn't, however, answer the question of what they're going to do now that the central plank of their economic policy has been overturned. Those of us on the economic right of the party would urge them to start talking more and more about the disastrous state of the public finances - and the inevitable need to start tightening the national belt. Any idea of a Keynsian fiscal stimulus has been blown by the Labour Government's traditional profligacy with our cash over the last decade - another point that should be hammered home by the Tories.

Ultimately I suppose I'm saying that the Tories - and the public - are going to have to accept that there isn't any more money for freebies. That nice little soother of a policy has had its day, and it's time for some less sweet tasting medicine.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Obama - McCain

Sorry for the prolonged absence - I haven't been kidnapped by the Russians, it's just that life's a little busy just at the moment. Besides, the domestic political scene is just so tedious at the moment. Whenever something dramatic happens - such as the Foreign Secretary making an almost unconcealed bid for power - you think 'surely this is the moment that Brown will have to do something!' And it isn't. He's just squatting in place apparently without the first idea of what to do. Ho hum, it's probably going to stay like this all the way up until 2010.
Across the pond it was beginning to look as if things were equally predicatable. The beatification of Barack Obama, the lacklustre campaigning of John McCain, the stagnant economy, unpopular Republican incumbent - all these things seemed to indicate an easy Democrat victory in November, an impression underlined by Obama's big poll leads. And yet there are several reasons for doubting this scenario.
Polling: recent polling has shown a dramatically tighter race, with some even showing McCain leading. Even more interestingly, it's far from unusual for the Democrat to be leading over the summer - Kerry was regularly outpolling Bush in 2004, in polls in 1983 Mondale was massively outpolling Reagan. Obama's early leads are, on this reading a) drying up, and b) unimpressive/irrelevant anyway.
The Media: Almost every article I read in the UK about the Presidential race seems to be an 'expose' on how McCain, despite his slavish following in the media, is really a neocon/zionist/racist/whatever. Yet it's reasonably clear that it is Obama who has, so far, been the subject of more hagiographies. Apart from the famous Chris Matthews leg chills, there's been article after article proclaiming him as wonderful and serious and statesmanlike and so on - regardless of what he actually says. Look at this in the New Statesman:
What we saw in Obama and McCain, in brief, was the cerebral versus the visceral. McCain, as a seasoned politician, knew instinctively which questions presented him with the opportunity to make political points and launch into anecdotes favourable to him - and when to be short and sharp. Obama did not, and instead did something politicians rarely do: he tried, to his cost, to answer questions straightforwardly.
But that went down with a resounding thud. Asked, for example, at what point a baby is entitled to human rights, Obama launched into a confusing ramble: "Well, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade. But let me speak more generally about the issue . . ."

Whatever that answer is, it's not an example of a politician answering questions straightforwardly.
Exposure: I said in my last piece on Obama that a whole lot of people are going to be really disappointed when they discover that Obama really is just another politician with a nice line in speeches. The problem he is having now is that he has received so much exposure that people are starting to believe this now. His honeymoon period seems to have worn off before he's even got to the Convention - let alone the election. In fact the media hero-worshipping may have done exactly what McCain needed: turned the election into a referendum on Barack Obama.
So, it isn't all over. Despite the fundraising and the sports stadia full of supporters, Obama is, for the first time in his political life, in a real battle against a serious Republican opponent. The new focus on foreign policy in the Caucasus will inevitably play more to Republican strengths than Democrat ones - and perhaps most important, Obama is now so high on a pedestal that there's really only one way for him to go. The form book may say Democrat, but the parties have done what they do best - the Republicans have picked the candidate most likely to win and the Democrats have picked the candidate most vulnerable to losing.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Impressive contortions

What exactly has been happening in the Caucasus over the past week is far from clear. However, the most likely series of events is as follows: Georgia sends troops into the semi-autonomous region of South Ossetia (whether in reaction to provocations, or simply in an attempt to reverse the course of South Ossetian independence is not clear); Russia responds by bombing Georgian towns and villages and by sending Russian troops, artillery and tanks first into South Ossetia and Abkhazia and then, as Georgian resistance is brushed aside, into Georgia itself; the Russian fleet moves into positions off the Georgian coast, sinking Georgian shipping; finally, with the Georgian army effectively neutralised, Russian forces occupy parts of Georgia as peace deals are hammered out.
In other words, in reaction to Georgian activities in South Ossetia - which is after all a part of Georgia, and not Russia - Russia has invaded Georgia, massively reduced its military capacity and occupied its territory. If the Republic of Ireland had invaded first Northern Ireland, and then the mainland United Kingdom after the UK sent troops to Ulster, would that make the UK the aggressor? I simply don't see it.
Which isn't to say that I'm not impressed at the verbal gymnastics shown by those who believe that Russia is really the innocent party in this. Take Mary Dejevsky in the Indie today.
They began with the repeated references to Russian "aggression" and "invasion", continued through charges of intended "regime change", and culminated in alarmist reports about Russian efforts to bomb the east-west energy pipeline. None of this, not one bit of it, is true.
When a foreign power sends troops into a neighbouring country, in contravention of that country's wishes, that is an invasion. It's definitional.
Take "aggression" and "invasion". Georgia declared itself to be in a state of war with Russia. War, regrettably, is war, and a basic objective is to reduce, or destroy, the enemy's military capability. This is what Russia was doing until it accepted the ceasefire. The positions it took up inside Georgia proper can be seen as defensive, not offensive. Gori houses the Georgian garrison on South Ossetia's border.
Yikes. Georgia declared itself to be 'in a state of war' with Russia after Russia had sent thousands of troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia and had shelled, bombed, and otherwise reduced Georgian towns and positions. It was a description not a declaration! And saying that the invasion and occupation of another country is defensive is a bit of a semantic push as well.
If you exclude Chechnya, which Russians have always regarded as part of Russia, then neither Putin, nor Medvedev, had sent troops outside Russian borders before this point.
Well, I'm pretty sure that's not true - there were after all Russian soldiers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia before the latest contretemps. And they're in Sudan too, though I suspect Dejevsky means simply that Russia hasn't invaded anyone in the last 8 years - unless you count Chechnya, which is a bit of a big exception. And anyway so what?
The Kremlin would probably be delighted if Georgians eventually punished their President for his misguided enterprise, but Russia seems to accept that Georgians decide what happens in Georgia.
You what?! Pretty clearly they don't do they? Isn't that rather what this entire invasion is about? That Russia believes it has the right to decide what happens in Georgia, whether you believe it is Georgian membership of NATO, Georgian control of oil pipelines or Georgian treatment of ethnic minorities that set the Russians off.
Why was it so difficult for outsiders to believe that Moscow wanted precisely what its leaders said they wanted: a return to the situation that had pertained before Georgia's incursion into South Ossetia – and does it matter that its intentions were so appallingly misread?
Mary Dejevsky, author of such pieces as Russia would be more dangerous without Vladimir Putin; A fight with Russia we cannot hope to win; Putin's handover of power is no mere sham (how's that one looking by the way?); and the sort of boiler-plate ne plus ultra of Don't blame Russia - it's our fault as well clearly has something of a mindset when it comes to Mother Russia. If she can't see why we might profitably treat with caution the avowed motives of Putin's Russia, I suspect she looks a little harder.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgia v Russia (cont.)

Taking a slightly more detached view of what is happening in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia a couple of points spring to mind. The first is about ultimate culpability for this. Whether Saakashvili stupidly tried to assert military dominance over what amounted to a Russian protectorate enclave within Georgia, or stupidly reacted to Russian provocation from that enclave, it is clear that it was a pretty grave blunder for Georgia to attempt to enforce its sovereignty over South Ossetia. One can argue that democracies shouldn't have to watch their step for fear of being invaded by neighbouring states, but that would be pretty naive. That said, of course, this line of argument is akin to the argument that the drunken girl in a miniskirt is responsible for being raped. Ultimately, the culpability for the invasion of Georgia by Russian forces is Russia's. [UPDATE: Not that that stops that old fraud Seumas Milne from making precisely this argument - beautifully captured by Mr Eugenides.] [UPDATE 2: the metaphor spreads But to suggest that he somehow got what he deserved is tantamount to saying that a woman who dresses in a miniskirt and high heels and gets drunk in a bar one night is asking to be raped]

The second thought that occurs is that this invasion shows up the relative emptiness of 'soft power' in comparison to the old-fashioned military kind. Shuttle diplomacy, talks about talks, hard words in the Security Council - all these are totally irrelevant in the face of a power that is prepared to use its military power in pursuit of its national objectives. You might say that this is a point that has been proved before - by the invasion of Iraq, say. There's a fair point to be made there, although I would just point out that before that invasion, the many-spoked wheels of international diplomacy were turning for a long time. The re-assertion of Russia's power, even if still only on a regional basis, has significant implications for the future of global diplomacy - and no-one's going to be quite sure what they are until the dust settles.

One last thing - those people who believe that the United Nations is the supreme moral arbiter in the world: how do they feel knowing that they have left their consciences in the care of Vladimir Putin?

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The Aussies have been having a pop at us for Andy Burnham's typically inane boast that Great Britain would win more Olympic medals than Australia. Apart from the usual soap-dodging routines and the 'whinging poms' bit (here's a tip - mention Bodyline or Clive Woodward and see how long an Aussie can whine for. Gripes: it not just what Australians make wine with) there's a rather odd tirade about the British motor industry.
Britain once spent even more on its motor industry. Billions every year. They gave us the Morris Marina and Ford Cortina, and an industry that in the past few decades has utterly collapsed.

We won't say UK athletes will perform as badly as a Marina. That isn't possible. But 41 medals?

Hmm. Here's a truly great Australian car of that period, the 1970 Hillman Hustler:
mmm, beige

And here's a horrible product of the useless UK car industry from the same time:

Ahh, the Spitfire...

On sporting matters I'm prepared to accept that the Aussies have our number - but in motoring? Only if you'd rather buy a Holden Commodore than an Aston Martin DB9.


Monday, August 11, 2008

South Ossetia today - where tomorrow?

One of the advantages of reading the economist every week is that, when a foreign policy crisis flares up in the Caucasus, you know where it's happening, and at least have a vague idea of why. Indeed, last Friday, as Russian planes invaded Georgian airspace, the new edition of the economist landed on my doormat, including a story about South Ossetia, and why Georgia was getting increasingly paranoid. It concluded that war could be a matter of days away.

Russia's actions in South Ossetia are opportunistic and self-aggrandising - classic power politics of the kind we were assured didn't happen these days. Since the wave of mini-revolutions in Russia's near abroad, the Kremlin has felt increasingly threatened by the presence, on its borders, of democratic (well relatively), pro-Western regimes. Quite what it is threatened by is something of a mystery - unless it really believes that the West is preparing military strikes against it. Be that as it may, two things should be appreciated by the West. The first is that there is little, on a practical level, it can do to assist Georgia now. That chance came and went with the stalled NATO expansion plans.

Helen Szamuely has written an excellent guest piece on Iain's site about the dangers of appeasement. Sadly, this is a case where we look back on a decade of foreign policy and identify it, post factum, as being appeasement. We are too far down the line to intervene in this directly for two reasons. The first is simply that we don't have the capacity to get into a shooting war with Russia. With troops bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO, which means principally the United States, doesn't have the men or materiel to prosecute a major land war. The second is that we don't have the will. Does anyone really want to go to war with Russia? A country that possesses nuclear weapons, and a pretty sizeable conventional capacity to go with them? Not many takers for that I'd have thought.

This sounds like a counsel of despair, and in a way it is. However, if any good is to come out of this, we must act on this as a wake-up call. Apart from offering Georgia all diplomatic help possible - which should go without saying - the West, and NATO in particular, should take steps to ensure that this can't happen again. This means a progressive embracing of Eastern European states into NATO where possible, and an increase in a European and US military presence (at the request of the state in question obviously) in areas that look threatened. Georgia is the prime example of such a threatened state. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been the targets for Russian destabilsation since the end of the Soviet era. There are others though. Trans-Dniepstra in Moldova is the other most obvious target for such Russian action - we need to ensure that we are not caught napping next time.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Collapse of stout party

So, what really did kill the old Liberal Party? The aforementioned Dangerfield concentrates on the years 1910-1914, and looks principally at matters of high politics - Ireland, emancipation and taxation. But this doesn't fully explain the party's terminal collapse from a position in 1906 where they won damn near 400 seats, to 1918 where, even counting both the Lloyd George Coalition Liberals and the Asquith Liberals, they were down to 160. By 1922 they were reduced to a split total of 115.

So what killed them? The most immediately obvious factor is that they were split into two factions, driven by mutual loathing, led by David Lloyd George and HH Asquith. The split had its basis in the coalition politics of WWI, but was sustained at least as much by mutual antipathy as by real policy division. When the party was united again in 1923 (after the eclipse of Lloyd George) they managed 30% of the vote, and nearly 160 seats.

But in the intervening years, the Liberals' position as pre-eminent party of the left had been supplanted by Labour. The widening of the franchise, and the growing power of the Trade Union movement, coupled with the death of Edwardian deference, killed the idea of the paternalist Liberal Party as speaking for the working class - the working class wanted a party that would be of the working classes, not merely for them. The split in the Liberal Party accelerated its supplanting by Labour - and it's failure to form a Government when asked in 1923 confirmed that Labour had become the sole effective opposition to the Conservatives. In the 1924 election that followed Ramsay MacDonald's short-lived administration, the Liberals won only 40 seats. Irrelevance and obscurity were to be the fate of the Liberals for much of the rest of the 20th century.

Linked to this was the collapse of Liberal finances. Two elections in swift succession gutted their parlous accounts, leaving them unable even to contest many seats in 1924. Their former strongholds in the Welsh valleys and Scotland fell to the Labour Party, their sole identifier - as the Free Trade party - became irrelevant once the Tories dropped their Imperial Preference idea. They were bankrupt, both financially and intellectually.

Is there anything here that could be seen as foreboding for today's Labour Party? The financial question must certainly be a concern - especially if a new Tory Government acts to sever the intravenous drip supplied by the Unions. But the situation is not yet as black as all that. First and foremost, and despite the squabblings between Brownites and Blairites, the party is not ruinously split. There is no question that the Labour (Miliband) Party will contest the Labour (Brown/Balls) Party at the next election. That alone should be a comfort.

Related to that point is that there is no obvious successor as principal opposition from the left. The Liberal Democrats are still stuck in a push-me-pull-you struggle over whether they are a party of the soft-right, or of the centre-left. They are uncertain whether to risk their southern seats in an attempt to supplant Labour in the north, or to turn their fire on the Tories.

The big area of worry for Labour, however, is that they now look vulnerable everywhere. With Wales and Scotland turning increasingly to the nationalist parties, and England becoming overwhelmingly Conservative, where will Labour win their seats? What is a safe Labour seat these days? But then, whether the nationalists can continue to consolidate popularity if Labour join them in opposition must surely be another matter - there must at least be a chance that Labour can rally those who are opposed to 'London' Government, but don't quite want to go as far as full independence.

The immediate prospects for Labour look pretty bleak, but I wouldn't have thought that it was time to call the end of the Labour Party just yet. When a credible contender for leftist opposition makes its presence felt - whether that contender is the Liberal Democrats or not - that is when Labour should have existential worries. For now, they should focus their attention on whether the next General Election is a defeat or a humiliation.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

The dangers of doing a Dangerfield

Well, a premature Dangerfield at least. His seminal work, The Strange Death of Liberal England, has exerted a morbid fascination on political historians ever since. It charted the political destruction of the Liberal Party, describing how it managed to deconstruct from an enormous political victory in 1906 up until the outbreak of World War I. It's a very readable book, standing up to the test of time remarkably well, and it identifies (from memory, I'm not going to read the damn thing again, and anyway I'm at work) four principal reasons for its demise - rebellions over taxation, Ireland, the suffragettes and the Trade Unions.

Ending as it does in 1914, the book doesn't really address the two biggest factors in the death of the party: the most immediate being the impact of the Great War, and perhaps the more final being the Liberal Party's failure to adjust to the expansion of the franchise and the concomitant rise of a more explicitly socialist party. Outflanked on the left, and facing a terminal squeezing its soft right - scared into Tory arms by the threat of a Labour Government, the Liberal Party finished bankrupt, excluded from all but a handful of Celtic fringes.

Heady stuff, and a great title. But the Liberal Party is the only one of the three great political parties that have governed Britain since the birth of party politics that has actually died. The catchiness of the title, and the apocalyptic nature of the story has tempted commentators to look too hard for comparisons. Today we have the Adam Smith Institute (and numerous columnists as well) querying whether the Strange Death of Labour England is at hand. They do well to be cautious - as they point out it's not so long since Geoffrey Wheatcroft's book, published in the aftermath of the 2005 election, The Strange Death of Tory England. One review comments on how

Journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft explores the reasons behind the slow decline of the British Conservative (Tory) Party, once the undisputed mistress of the British political scene, now reduced to a rump of quarrelsome, factional schisms, disunited, directionless and with no sense of being able to return to power.

Doesn't look quite so prescient now does it?

Politics is a changeable game - today's accepted status quo was unimaginable yesterday, and might be unthinkable tomorrow. Labour look doomed under Gordon Brown, and Miliband would in all probability be little better. But Arma-Gordon shouldn't be called just yet. Dangerfield, after all, wrote his book in 1935, when there were a grand total of 21 Liberal MPs. Labour's not there yet.

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So, after a string of disappointing results and after his previously impregnability began to look more and more like a liability to his team, he looked into his heart, found that not only was he no longer right for the job, but the job was no longer right for him and did the honourable thing.

Perhaps Gordon should have a word.

Poor old Michael Vaughan - proof that no matter how fine a leader you are, you need to maintain your personal performances or you're toast. His career will forever be marked by that glorious late summer of 2005, when he ran tactical rings around Ricky Ponting, and England deservedly won the Ashes. But there will be a lot more glories in the Michael Vaughan memory banks - that staggering series of eight consecutive test victories; consecutive series wins over the West Indies, New Zealand, West Indies, South Africa and Australia; taking the almighty Australian attack for three scintillating hundreds in 2001/2.

It might not quite be all over just yet - though it's hard to see him forcing his way back through weight of runs for Yorkshire, the hard grind of unwatched county cricket not exactly playing to his strengths. But if it is, it's best to remember him at his best - lacing the ball through extra cover with no apparent effort.


Friday, August 01, 2008

It's not the despair...

In the words of John Cleese from Clockwise, 'It's not the despair, I can cope with the despair - it's the hope I can't stand.' Watching England at cricket over the last few years has given new meaning to that. Today, while Kevin Pieterson was at the crease, looking a million dollars, there was a possibility that England might set South Africa at least a reasonable target.

And then he was out, miscueing a biggie over long-on, and it looked like a miserable capitulation was all set to happen. And then Paul Collingwood, who is in utterly miserable form, averaging about 9 in first class cricket this season and probably on his absolutely last chance as an England cricketer, played unquestionably the innings of his life - unbeaten on 100 at the close.

There are all kinds of courage, but one of the most impressive is standing up when your future is on the line and performing to the limit of your ability. I thought Collingwood's reselection was a great big blunder, and his first innings confirmed that to me. But I have been proved utterly wrong, and have been glad to have been proved wrong.


Hari on economic history

Johann Hari has written a piece arguing for a global system of tariffs and trade barriers designed to protect emerging market economies. This might be considered a bit 'Forward to the 18th century comrades!' so in order to protect himself Hari has based his argument on the historical benefits that protectionism has given its proponents. And he's thrown a bit of a doozy. Leaving aside the tear-jerker intro about a poor little Peruvian girl who has to live by scavenging rubbish, Hari proposes that emerging markets should espouse protectionism and that those who propose free market economics are wrong.
To help Adelina [that poor little Peruvian], we need to start with a basic question: how do poor countries turn into rich countries? The institutions that dominate world trade – especially the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – have a simple answer: all markets, all the time. They tell poor countries to abolish all subsidies, protections and tariffs that protect their own goods. If you fling yourself naked at the global market, you will rise. If the poor countries disagree, they are cajoled to do as we say.
There's just one problem: every rich country got rich by ignoring the advice we now so aggressively offer. If we had listened to it, Britain would still be an agrarian economy manufacturing raw wool, and the US would be primarily farming cotton.
The historical heavy lifting is carried out by two case studies: Britain up until the nineteenth century, and South Korea after the Second World War. I'll address South Korea in a separate post, but I'm going to look at British history first - since I know what I'm talking about.
Until the Tudors, Britain was a backward rural country dependent on exporting raw wool. Turning that wool profitably into clothes happened elsewhere. Henry VII wanted Britain to catch up – so he set up manufacturing bases, and banned the export of wool, so clothes were manufactured here. It's called protectionism. His successors kept it up: by 1820, our average tariff rate was 50 per cent. Within a century, protected British industries had spurted ahead of their European competitors – so the walls could finally be dismantled.
This is joyfully, blissfully wrong in almost every particular. The English (Britain not of course existing save as a geographical abstraction until the 18th century) wool trade was indeed a profitable one, but the quality of English woollen cloth was famous from Roman times onwards. To state that all England exported was raw wool is absurd. To state that all clothing was manufactured overseas is ridiculous. It is certainly true that Henry VII significantly increased export tariffs on wool, but he did so largely because foreign demand for English wool was considered to be so high as to be virtually price inelastic. The tariffs were raised mainly in order to pay for the increase in the Royal Navy and the army. However, Henry VII banned the sale of wool only to the Netherlands - in 1494 - while England was at war with them. Indeed so much was there not a ban on the raw wool trade, that Henry's treaty with Florence creating a market for English wool is considered one of his greater achievements.
Apart from Hari's lack of knowledge on Tudor trade policy, he is right to describe medieval economic policy as based on protectionism. And also right to state that by 1820, average tariffs in Britain were 50%. But where he goes spectacularly, unbelievably wrong - so wrong that it is hard to believe that it is accidental - is his next sentence: Within a century, protected British industries had spurted ahead of their European competitors – so the walls could finally be dismantled.
What Hari has done, by jumping from 1820 to 1920, is miss out two coterminous periods: Britain's period of greatest growth in wealth and prosperity and Britain's adoption of free trade policies that made this growth happen. Turning from my poor analysis to one of the better British economic historians - Peter Cain - it is possible to see that British tariffs vanished almost entirely between 1846 (with the repeal of the Corn Laws) and 1860. The walls were pulled down some 20 years after Hari's airy 'within a hundred years'. To add a nice touch of irony, 100 years after Hari's start date, 1920, saw a time when free trade had lost its popularity in Britain, and there was a serious movement to re-impose protectionist barriers.
Now, simply because Hari isn't a historian, indeed wilfully misstates and misleads in his historical analysis, is not to say that his economics are wrong - but he should examine the principles of free trade a little more carefully before dismissing it as a rich man's argument against poor men. Gladstone was a free trader because he believed protectionism was an argument for special interests - the agricultural lobby, the industrial lobby and so on. I am painfully aware that, despite my pitiful A-level, I am not an economist. I'd like to think that I am an historian. It's pretty clear that Hari is neither.

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