Monday, March 30, 2015

The model for British constitutional reform might be in Helsinki...

I was in Helsinki for a couple of days last week. The Finnish model is the classic Scandinavian social democratic one and it seems to work. A country with a distinct culture, language and patriotism seems confident and comfortable in its skin. A northern land of 5.5m people once subject to domination by much bigger neighbours is now successful as an independent entity. Bit of a parallel there?

I abhor the idea of a separate Scotland outside the UK. But Finland suggests it would work. If I, as a proud Briton not a Little Englander, can accept this then our political leaders need to wake up to the reality. Quite how we keep the UK together whilst keeping Scotland in it I'm not sure. A much greater degree of autonomy for Holyrood. A solution to the over-representation of Scottish MPs at Westminster. A permanent solution of the West Lothian question are part of it. It's taken a while to realise that a part of our nation is essentially Scandinavian! But that is true and it's the start point for what we do next. 

The Scots' antagonism to Westminster that could give the SNP almost a clean sweep in the General Election is a political earthquake. If we want Scotland to stay part of the UK then we need reform - major reform. I would make that an important part of a proper, comprehensive study into Electoral Reform across the UK. The principle of "subsidiarity" - the idea that you take decisions at the lowest level practicable - should drive this. I would delegate almost everything other than Foreign Affairs to Holyrood. Taxation will be a challenge - common rates of VAT and tax allowances across the UK would be essential of course - but there should be flexibility on local taxes.

If Westminister loosens its grip over Scotland there is no reason why it should not do the same for Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. The latter is difficult as we don't have Regional assemblies and the construct of a Region is much less coherent than that of nation. We don't want more Government, just better Government! And we must also have an elected upper chamber if we decide that we need an Upper House at all (not a foregone conclusion - neither the Scots nor the Finns have more than one House!). 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Socialism may, as Jamie Foster says, be "entirely wrong". But in Britain we've never really tried it !

The above Tweet, from one of Twitter's most active members of the political "Right" is rather nostalgic for me. It takes me back to me childhood when my Mum and Dad would express similar thoughts about the perils of Socialism. Neither of my parents was particularly politically aware and they were not activists. They voted Conservative as a matter of course, as did the rest of my family on both sides. My Uncle, however, was an activist and should have been a Tory MP. He was offered a (then) safe seat in Cornwall in the early 1950s but his father stood in his way to protect the family business - a hotel in which my Uncle was the hands on Manager. I think my Uncle would have done well in national politics but he had to restrict himself to Cornwall where he became the long-serving Chairman of the County Council. 

I mention my family because I think that their attitude to Socialism was very typical of much of the Middle Class at the time. They regarded the immediate post war years (the Attlee Government) not with pride but with anger. The problem was "Socialism" - essentially Labour's decisive moves towards "Common Ownership" - Nationalisation. With hindsight, however, this "Socialist" Government  is, rightly in my view, rather more highly regarded cross the political spectrum. Take this for example from a Conservative  writing in 1995:

"Clement Attlee...I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show. His was a genuinely radical and reforming government."

This was Margaret Thatcher's view of Attlee as expressed in her own memoir! So was Attlee's Government as well as "radical and reforming" also "Socialist"? I would argue that it was, but not strongly so. And that further that it was the only truly, but mildly, socialist administration that Britain has ever had. The socialism of Attlee was not particularly extreme. Chips Channon - a Right Wing Conservative writing in his diary of a meeting with Attlee in 1940 said of him "...he seems more Liberal than actually Socialist: but he could never control the energies of his wilder followers." Hindsight teaches us that Channon was half right - Attlee was certainly no firebrand Red and was firmly in the Liberal tradition. But he did "control" the more extreme members of his Party. To such an extent that famously, In 1951, Aneurin Bevan resigned from the government in protest at the introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles. 

The Bevanites never took over Labour except, perhaps, when Michael Foot was leader for three years in the early 1980s. Oddly the leadership of "Red Mike" (as the Tory press didn't call him, but would now!) was the death knell of hard core Socialism in Labour. This was formalised under Tony Blair when "Clause 4" of the  Party Constitution, which called for "...the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange", was abandoned for good. 

In his seminal book "The Future of Socialism" published in 1956 Tony Crosland argued as follows:

"In Britain, equality of opportunity and social mobility... are not enough. They need to be combined with measures... to equalise the distribution of rewards and privileges so as to diminish the degree of class stratification, the injustices of large inequalities and the collective discontents."

The means to do what the Social Democrat Crosland saw as Labour's goal were not traditionally socialist means - the extension of "Common Ownership" played little or no part in them. The way to the victory of the Social Democrats in Labour, of the inheritors of the Gaitskell and the Jenkins and the Crosland tradition, was paved by the Wilson and Callaghan Governments of the 1960s and 1970s. And the Foot period, on the face of it a setback, actually helped as it led to the creation of the "Social Democratic Party" (SDP) which was the precursor of Blair's   "New Labour" in almost every respect.

Margaret Thatcher was as "radical and reforming" as Attlee - which is no doubt why she admired him of course. And without Thatcher there would have been no SDP, no Blair and no "New Labour" . By privatising some publicly owned assets Thatcher did make a major shift in the public/private mix of the Economy. None of these privatisations were subsequently overturned by Blair and Brown. Indeed as David Marquand puts it in his 2013 book "Mammon's Kingdom":

"market principles would reign...supreme..The Thatcher and Major governments bequeathed that vision to their successors; despite differences of emphasis here and there, it has encapsulated the common sense of most of the political class, most of the commentariat and most of the business elite for the best part of a generation."
Another crucial change of the accepted status quo is in regard to social liberalism. When Bevan said in 1948:

"No attempt at ethical or social seduction can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party... So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin."
he was referring to a Conservative Party that was not only deeply resistant to change, and in particular to the National Health Service, but socially illiberal. Intolerance took a long time to fade away - but it did. Some will still call the Conservatives the "Nasty party" - and there are certainly some very nasty people in, though quite a few have decamped to UKIP! But in the main Marquand is right. Labour has not been "socialist" for a long time, and nor have the Tories overthrown such key pillars of our mixed economy society as the NHS . The ideologists of both sides have given way to the pragmatists.

To return to Mr Foster's tweet which prompted these thoughts. He may be right that pure Socialism is "entirely wrong" , but in Britain we can't really say that because its never been tried! I'm not advocating that it should be - I am arguing only that the charge by the likes of Mr Foster and his fellow travellers that Ed Milliband ("Red Ed") is some sort of crypto-socialist is risible.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Guido and Harry's little Tank comes to defend their mate Jeremy.

We live in a country with a decent record of protest. The rights of citizens to march in the streets to oppose what they see as wrongs being done by those in power is part of our (unwritten) constitution. We may disagree with specific protests but most of us would buy the Voltairean maxim "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  So how should we react to the stunt perpetrated by the Right Wing bloggers Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) and his buddy Harry Cole? They used a military vehicle (rather like Gruber's "little Tank" in "Hello Hello") to present a petition with, apparently, one million signatures on it demanding that the BBC reinstate Jeremy Clarkson.

Fawkes is a curious character. He is a militant libertarian and though instinctively conservative he is as critical, sometimes, of the Conservative party as he is of Labour. It is the liberal establishment that is mostly in his sights. When push comes to shove, which it will very soon, he'll probably back the Tories - though he has implied approval of UKIP in the past. He despises the BBC and it is the combination of this, the libertarianism and the wish always to zig when the liberals are zagging that lies behind his armoured car mounted protest.

Jeremy Clarkson is Jack the Lad. The "card" who entertains us with skill, but also with outrage. The skill is undeniable. "Top Gear" is a hugely successful television programme which even those of us who avoid it like the plague must admit has high popular appeal. And it makes lots of money. The "outrage" element of the Clarkson persona is his obvious hatred of political correctness and his refusal to adhere to the behavioural norms that most in public life feel they have to follow. He's not alone in this, but he is perhaps the most visible. And the million people who signed Fawkes' petition no doubt like Clarkson as much for his outspokenness as for his broadcasting talents.

Clarkson' track record - summarised here by Sky - is abysmal. He is privileged and famous, rich and revered, friend of politicians and many in the public eye. Others who have these advantages manage also to be decent people. Clarkson has an arrogance and a contempt for others that is incompatible with his position of privilege. He is not some oddball on the fringes of fame. He is one of Britain's "celebs" and as such, whether he likes it or not, a role model. If he can get away with the things he does and says then why shouldn't I ?

The libertarian Guido Fawkes and his friends seem to believe that Clarkson has the right to transgress as much as he likes - freedom ahead of decency you might say. The Prime Minister, more cautiously, agrees - otherwise why would he publicly support him ? The liberal establishment just doesn't like Clarkson who is a serial offender against their (our) values. Politically we are in UKIP territory here. Indeed Nigel Farage shares many of the Clarkson personality traits and his railing against the "LibLabCon" establishment is similiar to the contempt that Clarkson holds for it. However Clarkson, ever the contrarian, has denied any leaning to UKIP - in an interview with Radio Times he said:

“I’m massively pro-European so it becomes rather difficult to support a party that wants primarily to get you out of Europe. Anyway there doesn’t seem to be a party for UKIP there’s just one man in a Barbour with a pint and a fag"

Jeremy Clarkson pro-Europeanism may seem a surprise (a welcome one !). But it does suggest a  perverse individuality and a refusal to be typecast. It is a shame that he could not combine these admirable qualities with compassion and a greater determination not to offend. He is never going to be a liberal and nobody should ask him to be one. But a bit of "Noblesse Oblige" would not go amiss - and would avert the need for the shadier figures on the Right of our politics  to appear in armoured vehicles to defend him.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The SNP didn't win Scotland. The ignorance and myopia and incompetence of Britain's non nationalist parties lost it.

SNP 42
Labour 11
LibDem 3
Conservative 3

The above is Iain Dale's prediction of the outcome of the General Election in Scotland. 

I have no reason to challenge Iain's conclusions that Scotland is lost to United Kingdom politics. Sadly. Suffice to say this earthquake is the most depressing event in my long life watching the British political scene.

Nationalism is the scourge that brought us unimaginable horrors in the first half of the 20th Century. As Britons, united, we triumphantly fought and won over nationalism. And now our three mainstream political Parties have so failed north of the border that they have conceded Scotland to the nationalists with their snake oil and their myopia and their lies.

 The Tories gave up when Margarat Thatcher decided the Scots were suitable guinea pigs for her ideological experiments. The LibDems gave up by going into coalition with the Consetvatives. And Labour gave up by arrogance. By assuming that their principled position in the #IndyRef didn't need a core underpinning on the ground. That Scotland was theirs and always would be. Remember Labour is in opposition at Holyrood. Labour has been losing Scotland for a decade or more. 

The United Kingdom was at risk at the Referendum. Ironically, despite the "No" vote it is at greater risk than ever now. Thank you Tony Blair. Thank you Gordon Brown. Thank you David Cameron. You've destroyed my Nation. May you rot in hell. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A lovely metaphor for how civilised societies are fairer to those in need.

This wandered on to my timeline on Twitter this morning. I hadn't seen it before. It's very good. Whether we think that the situation on the right is perhaps better described as "Fairness" than "Justice" is open to debate. The words in a civilised society are close synonyms anyway. Justice should always be blind and even-handed whereas "Fairness" does positively discriminate in favour of the disadvantaged. What I like about the metaphor is that there is a strong element of "To each according to need" about it. This presupposes that an external authority of some sort, seeing the tallest boy on a box he didn't need, made the tall boy gave it to the little chap. Or did the tall boy do it voluntarily? Was he being altruistic realising that the small advantage he got from the box wasn't justified if the smallest boy couldn't see at all?

What about ownership? The tall boy perhaps owned his box and he was perhaps being forced to surrender something he owned for the collective good. Three boys comfortably watching the cricket is better than two. The rearrangement for society as a whole is net positive. "Equality" is analogous in this illustration with equal benefits irrespective of need - the "Winter Fuel Allowance" for example which goes at the same rate to all elderly people irrespective of need. Similarly nearly all households must pay for a TV Licence at the same rate irrespective of their ability to pay. VAT and excise duties are the same. Regressive taxation is equal, but unfair. Progressive taxation is unequal, but fair. 

The picture on the left is a metaphor for a society where all are expected to stand on their own feet and have equal resources to do this. The picture on the right is a society where some forego benefits, for whatever reason, in order to help others. The tall boy can still see the cricket, albeit from not quite as high a vantage point. He gives up some utility for the "common good". 

Monday, March 02, 2015

The Great European Disaster Movie - the fightback for the hearts and minds has begun

The Great European Disaster Movie

Many of us who are strongly pro Britain in the European Union have been arguing for some time that the case for Europe needs to be made more strongly. The economic, political and business case is well made, but at a intellectual and  cerebral level. The case against is polemical and made by a direct appeal not to the intellect but to the emotions. And when reason faces emotion it is not always reason that wins. In “The Great European Disaster Movie” the ground has at last shifted. The rational case for Britain in Europe was made by Bill Emmott, Peter Mandelson and others and it was familiar. It was supported by strong arguments from politicians from across Europe. Notably a Dutchman who said “If you felt things were wrong in your Country would you propose the dissolution of your country?” (The answer to his question is, of course, that no rational man would -  but try persuading Alex Salmond or a Catalan nationalist of that!)

Nationalism was very much the elephant very visibly in the room in this “drama documentary”. The assertion that nationalism was the principal cause of the disasters of the years 1914-1945 should not be contentious, and it isn't. That forty years after the end of the Second World War it was still massacring people in the Balkans was a chilling reminder of its dangers. That it is still doing so in Ukraine was another. 

The German woman who showed the medals that her immediate ancestors had won in two World Wars, whilst remarking that there had been no medals necessary  for her or her children’s generation, was an articulate proponent of the peace dividend of European Unity. The Eurosceptics burst onto the social media at this saying that it was NATO or something else that should really be praised. They know that their scepticism has been revealed for the nationalism it really is. The programme was strong on the benefits to Europe of partnership leading to peace, and rightly so. As Churchill put it “Jaw Jaw” is always preferable to “War War”.

If the peace dividend was an appeal to the emotions the solid evidence of cross-Europe partnerships and commonality of culture and purpose was no less so. OK to use the example of the Austrian drag artist Conchita Wurst as being evidence of European unity was a bit over doing it, but only a bit!  The Croatian photographer enjoying the sunshine on a peaceful  island in his country, where once he had photographed dead children as the nationalists fought a terrible civil war, was powerful imagery as well. 

So what are we up against those of us who believe in the European project? The programme makers went to Margate for the answer and followed a UKIP councillor around. Mo, a Daily Mail reading woman of, I would guess about my age (68) was articulate in promoting the UKIP case. As always it was the case against  rather than any sort of case for. We were straight into scapegoating territory here;  the EU, immigrants, the political establishment. It was mind-blowingly ill-informed and dogmatic. And like her Party leader it was an appeal to the gut and to ignorance. There was a brief clip of an assertive Nigel Farage giving his stump speech as well, and very scary it was. He isn't the first British politician to try and scare us – let's hope that like his forebears he doesn't succeed.

“Nationalism brought hell to the people of this region” said the Croatian photographer and so it did. A hell like the hells of the Blitz, or of the Somme. The solution for Ukraine has to be a European solution – which is which that dangerous nationalist Vladamir Putin fears it. Hegel said that “we learn from history that we do not learn from history”. Well maybe so  if the likes of Nigel Farage on the one hand and the petty nationalists of Scotland and Catalonia on the other get their way. The opponents of division are intellectually strong and have the moral high ground, but that isn't enough. There are plenty of those on the right and the left in Europe who want to divide and rule. 

I felt that “The Great European Disaster Movie” was a welcome attempt to get to the  heart of the case for partnership and unity in Europe. The first of many I hope. For too long the appeal to the emotions has been from the antis. The fight back has begun.