Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Brown to the IMF?

Should Gordon Brown be appointed as head of the IMF? This should really be a question that answers itself. Sean O’Grady has a good run down of some of the reasons why he shouldn’t be here and Chris Giles explains why he won’t be in any event here.

The first problem is that it simply doesn’t pass the laugh test: Brown invented the tri-partite regulatory system that proved such a disaster; he presided over the largest peace-time deficit in British history; he failed to put into place even the most basic plans for the reduction of that deficit and, further, advocated increasing it still further. He was, perhaps, the least emotionally intelligent Prime Minister of modern times (Heath might run him close here) and was notoriously bad at working outside a small group of hangers-on.

He was also a tribalist to the very core of his being, every plan and policy being chiefly designed to screw the Tories. The idea that David Cameron should now expend international political capital in an almost certainly doomed attempt to install Brown in a comfortable retirement job is laughable.

It is also a testimony to the remarkable insularity of the British press and political classes. There was never a chance that the IMF job would go to a Brit, least of all one with as much baggage as Brown. Cameron was right to dismiss it, and if he couldn’t resist taking one last slap at the political corpse of his old rival well, who’s to blame him?

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Christ but the AV referendum is depressing. Every time I think that I’ve decided on voting one way or the other, the sheer limitless crassness of their campaign turns me straight off.

Temperamentally I’m probably in favour of keeping First Past the Post. It’s straightforward, easy to administer and it’s what we do already. But one look at those sodding posters of a newborn child needing an incubator or a battle-weary veteran needing body armour and my Vote No tendency melted away. How sodding disingenuous can you be?

So. Yes it is then. Except, aaargh, no it isn’t. Not only do they have the brain-destroying tactic of persuading me to vote Yes on the grounds that Stephen Fry and Benjamin bloody Zephaniah will (I’m a Londoner so was spared the ghastly Tony Robinson) but they put all this crap in a letter marked P&C and ‘Important Documents Enclosed’.

More fundamental than all this froth, however, is the fact that almost no claim made by either side stacks up. Lets have a run through them, No first.

1. AV means that people get more than one vote

Superficially appealing this one, together with the old Churchillian line about the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates. But it’s more a semantic point than a great point of principle. AV is an instant run-off, and in the final round of voting no-one has more than one vote.

2. AV will help the BNP

Funnily enough, I think that this argument is probably right, but for none of the reasons that people like Baroness Warsi are saying. In terms of winning seats, AV would be disastrous for the BNP – because they are, lets face it, pretty unlikely to make many peoples’ second preferences. How could it help them? By allowing people to make a token first preference vote for an unelectable candidate as a protest. Will it happen? Not to any great extent, but there it is. Partly right, but mostly wrong.

3. AV will be expensive/complicated

AV is certainly more expensive than FPTP – but that’s only because the counting process is that much longer. It doesn’t necessarily need electronic counting (Australia doesn’t), and it needn’t end the drama of election night (Australia again). It is, once again, a minor complaint masquerading as an issue of principle.

4. ‘Winners’ will lose

Well, that’s rather the point isn’t it? That someone who has ‘won’ an election with only 32% of the vote (Alan Reid up in Argyll & Bute) might actually have lost a run-off with his closest rival. This is less a criticism than a statement of the difference between the systems.

And that’s been more or less it. There have been no really positive reasons to vote No, other than the ‘it’s simpler’ one discussed above. So, it looks like a nailed on vote for Yes right? No.

1. FPTP is not proportional, and thus not fair.

Maybe not, but it’s an odd argument for an AV campaigner to make, given that AV is even less proportional.

2. An end to safe seats

You see this one a lot – but a truly safe seat is one where the MP regularly gets more than 50% of the vote. That’ll still be a safe seat under AV. For a ‘safe seat’ to be challengeable under AV the incumbent must be getting below 50% of the vote but still be comfortably ahead of any challengers. In those cases, it’s extremely unlikely that he’d fail to pick up enough second preferences from somewhere to get over the line. AV doesn’t affect safe seats, it just changes the dynamics of marginals.

3. MPs will work harder

This is linked to the safe seats point above, and is equally tendentious. The temptation for lazy MPs is in ultra safe constituencies – and they are unaffected. As a further point, I’d like to think that MPs should be kept pretty busy by Parliamentary duties – the extra work envisaged here is of the constituency social worker variety.

4. AV is an “overdue upgrade to our 19th century political system”

Well, the UK only implemented a universal FPTP system in 1950. AV was introduced in Australia in 1919. Incidentally, and in another spasm of annoyance with the No campaign, whoever persuaded Niall Ferguson and David Starkey to sign a letter saying that the UK has never in six centuries given “one person’s casting ballot greater weight than another” should be given a slap.

I actually have to stop doing this. It’s just too depressing. We have, essentially, an Iran-Iraq War scenario on our hands. I always vote, I’m too much of a geek not to, but I honestly have no idea which way I’ll go this time. If they want my vote, I’d recommend both campaigns to shut the hell up, because I suspect I’ll end up voting against whichever the last campaign I heard from.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Apologia pro Imperia nostra

There’s been something of a kerfuffle about David Cameron’s remarks in Pakistan regarding Kashmir. From the Mail we have The 650m apology; from the Telegraph Peter Oborne issues the ringing rebuke that No apology required; from the International Business Times we have the pretty blunt Britain to blame for Kashmir strife, other global conflicts: PM Cameron.

So, David Cameron went to Pakistan, accepted the blame for the Kashmir dispute on Britain’s behalf and apologised? Um, no. Here’s what the PM actually said in response to a question on Kashmir.

"I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place,”

The issue of Kashmir is a running-sore for Indo-Pakistani relations. It has also previously soured diplomatic relations between the UK and India notably, as Wintour & Watt pointed out, under the last Labour Government with both Robin Cook and David Miliband coming a diplomatic cropper on the subject. (That article is interesting in another way, referring as it does to Cameron’s visit to India last summer. There is clearly a Govt policy not to intervene on Kashmir, either in India or in Pakistan.)

Why, then, does Cameron apologise for Britain’s role? Answer: he doesn’t. He acknowledges responsibility for it, a very different thing. Britain was not, of course, solely responsible for the chaos of partition as a whole, nor the eventual position of Kashmir afterwards. Indian and Pakistani politicians (and the Maharajah of Kashmir too) played their parting the story. For maximum historical accuracy, it would have been better if Cameron had said ‘partly responsible’. But his statement remains historically accurate and politically relevant. Britain is uniquely poorly placed to intervene in the Kashmir dispute precisely because of its historical role in it.

What else might he be thinking of when he refers to ‘so many of the world’s problems’? I can think of two such examples immediately. Israel and Zimbabwe. Britain was responsible (although again, obviously, not solely) for the creation of the state of Israel, both through the Balfour declaration and through the administration of the Palestine mandate. This acknowledgement of responsibility though hardly equates to an apology. Equally, Britain has a degree of responsibility for the current state of Zimbabwe, though as with Kashmir its historical role makes any current intervention hugely problematic.

The problem, I suspect, is that we prefer our politicians not to speak obvious truths. We then, of course, complain when all they say is anodyne and inoffensive.