Sunday, August 31, 2003

High Toryism at its best. 

In this week’s Spectator Tory Adrian Hilton has written an interesting article claiming that the EU is all a ‘Popish Plot’. Interesting because it is a great example of just how loony the euro-hating parts of the Tory party can be. His basic thesis seems to be that all Catholic politicians automatically follow the line the Vatican sets out and therefore because mainland Europe is Catholic, anybody told the Lutherans I wonder, the EU is an attempt by the Catholic Church to reinstate the Holy Roman Empire. Hence we must run away to the hills, or otherwise the C of E and everything else that is English will be crushed by Rome’s iron fist.

Of course Mr. Hilton couldn't be accused of giving succor to the loyalist gangsters of Belfast and Glasgow who have been beating up Catholics for years. Obviously not, completely different ends of the spectrum, you will be telling me Ann 'lock up all asylum seekers' Widdecombe gives credibility to the BNP next!

I wonder if Mr. Hilton has ever discussed his idea that Catholic politicians are part of pan-European plot to destroy the UK with his party leader? (IDS is an extremely devout Catholic by all accounts).

Saturday, August 30, 2003

More South East bias 

According to the Guardian Birmingham's city fathers are having to go cap in hand to anybody who will listen for money to upgrade Birmingham New Street station. The strategic rail authority has decided its money will be better spent throwing yet more money at London rather than dealing with the most congested station in the UK. As somebody who has lost many hours of his life in New Street I wish 'They' would realise there is a world outside of the south east for once.

I have always maintained that if the Secretary of State for Transport was forced to work from Manchester the West Coast rail line would be sorted out tommorrow. Instead the media and the government keep bellyaching about London, which although its not perfect already has a hell of a lot better transport system than any other UK city I've been through.

Kings of the Road 

CNN is reporting that their are now private cars in the USA than there are people with driving liscences. So say good bye to the two car family and hello to the two car person. Considering that the average American will drive forty miles a day and 91% of workers commute in their own car, is it any surprise they have more than a passing interest in the Middle East?

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Economic Liberalism (just as much fun as it sounds) 

Vivienne has posted a couple of long pieces about what it means to be a Liberal. Although I generally agree with her I don’t think she deals sufficiently with the position of the market in Liberal economic thinking.

For those on the right the ‘free market’ is king; for those on the left it’s the enemy; for liberals it’s a means to an end.

In most cases liberals would accept that the free market is the best model for dealing with capital transactions, so how are we different from those on the right? Well because we mean different things by the idea of a free market.

To a right-winger the free market is a space where buyers can interact with sellers without hindrance from the state. The idea being that competition will mean the lowest possible prices and the best possible quality as buyers will take their custom elsewhere if they aren’t satisfied. This is fine in theory and liberals should seek to harness the power of competition as a progressive force. However, this ‘free market’ is a bit like a football pitch without a referee. The little guy with the great ball control and superior skills is likely to get flattened by the big bruiser with no talent. Or in a real world case Microsoft can get away with selling crap software because it can use its muscle to prevent competitors from getting a foothold.

The liberal idea of a free market is one where the state guarantees that anybody is free to sell their goods and consumers are able to buy whatever takes their fancy. Or to return to our football analogy the liberal sees the State as the referee, and preferably one who has a light touch and lets the game flow.

However this is only true for ‘most cases’. Sometimes the market is not the solution. This is usually in cases where an inability to accesses a service would seriously hinder somebody’s freedom, the classic examples being health, education and security. You can live a full life without a games console; you can’t without proper health care. So in this case the state has to step in and provide for everybody. Whether this is in the form of a monolithic NHS type system, or through subsidy to the private sector like housing benefit; should depend on which provides best value for money.

Which these special cases are and how much regulation the marketplace as whole needs to keep it fair are ongoing debates within liberalism. And this is a good thing! Competition in the market place of ideas is the ultimate aide to progress.

STV for Scotland 

According to The Times Jack McConnell is warming to the idea of replacing the current mess that masquerades as an electoral system in Scotland with Single Transferable Vote (STV). Now the story has clearly been planted to test the water with the Labour rank and file over the border. Seeing as many of them reacted furiously when he conceded STV for local elections as part of the partnership agreement with the Lib Dems it will be interesting to watch.

I was surprised by the negative reaction of the Greens and the Scots Socialists. After all they both officially support the use of STV at a local level, and the Socialists use STV for all their internal elections (I can't find a copy of the Greens' constitution by I suspect they do to.) Their newfound opposition to STV can't have anything to do with the fact they have done disproportionably well out of the present system can it?

What's in a name? 

The Indie carried a piece by Charles Kennedy today on Blair's position and the Hutton inquiry. Now the article itself although sound and well argued is hardly very inspiring, and in fact the only thing that struck me was that he was credited as being the leader of the 'Liberal Democratic Party'. So what you might think, but Charlie leads the Liberal Democrats (thats the party's official name) and for some unfathomable reason it irritates me when the media keeps getting it wrong.

I've also noticed that while Labour always refairs to us as the Lib Dems, most Tories still call us the 'Liberals'. I don't know if that is because the Conservatives are still collectively stuck in the past and haven't noticed the name changed over a decade ago or what. Answers as to what this all means on a postcard please, or the comments thingy below.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Debt Debt Debt and more Debt. 

Today's Guardian is carrying yet another story about how the current debt bubble is starting to get out of controlAs 25% of the people surveyed were taking out loans to cover day-to-day purchases. On Monday Larry Elliot put the case for why the current level of borrowing is a ‘damoclean sword’ hanging over the economy, and I tend to agree with him. There is a chance that even a small raise in interest rates could start an avalanche of problems for the whole economy.

I can’t be bothered going into a whole finger pointing exercise as to whose fault the current bubble is, as it is to my mind it is merely a symptom of a bigger problem. Namely the hyper-consumerism that seems to be the driving force for our whole culture at the moment. At the risk of sounding like a hippie there seems to me to be a serious problem in a society that values the constant and short-term accumulation of things over anything else, to such an extent that people are now mortgaging their futures in order to be able to consume today.

The problem is clear, how to change society so it looks at something other than the short term. If the problem is obvious a liberal solution is not. One could argue the answer is simply to restrict the choice of goods on offer whilst simultaneously reducing the ordinary persons purchasing power, presumably through massive taxation. However, I am no socialist and the idea of restricting people’s freedom to choose is an anathema, let alone the fact of trying to win an election on such a platform.

So I think the solution lies in persuading people of the need to think in a more long term way. Impossible probably but we have to try otherwise one can see our society and even our planet coming crashing down round our ears.

Where to start? Well I think encouraging people to save might be a way to start. The very act of putting a bit away now, so you can spend it later is the antithesis of the current debt boom. TESAs showed that it is possible for the government to encourage people to save and the new baby bonds if designed right might be a way of getting kids into the habit. (I personally started saving to try and get those pigs Natwest used to give away) The problem is not just getting people back into the habit of saving, but in many cases teaching them how to do it for the first time. This means extending the bank network back into the high streets of deprived areas and encouraging the setting up of local credit unions, maybe even local currencies. It will cost money in the short term in the form of government grants but could reap great social benefits.

But these are technical measures and although they are needed and more innovative ones as well what really need is a change of language (as any good foucaldian will tell you language is power). For example our whole political discourse at the moment seems to be about providing more, more police, more nurses etc. etc.; and improvements have to be made yesterday. This is true of all the main parties and is quite simply counter productive. None of them can deliver improvements immediately, and quite simply sometimes less is more.

We, as in the political class as a whole, need to start talking about how we are going to deal with the long-term solutions rather than just concentrating on the here and now. You never know it might just catch on and soon we will all be thinking past our next trip to shops.

Big Brother is in my Tie? 

Tom Watson has been banging on about RFIDs for a while.

My basic position would be that they are fine as long as they are disabled at the checkout, and no personall data is collected. After all until I buy an item it is the shops so I suppose they have a right to track it round their store, and if these are only being used as an anti theft device how are they different than those tags you already see in clothes shops?

So RFID should be stopped at the checkout, and and the placing of reading devices such as whashing machines outlawed. After all I don't want anybody knowing hoe often I wash my socks.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Bring out the Gimp 

Vivienne has written an extremely good piece on what it actually means to be a social liberal. She touched upon the issue of how the law deals with people who enjoy BDSM (Bondage & Discipline, Domination & Submission, Sadism & Masochism).

According to the very nice, if slightly scary, people at b2g (a midlands based support group) who I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of months ago the letter of the law makes most of their activities illegal. Although the police quite happily admit that they have better things to do than chase after consenting adults who are just getting their rocks off, if they are presented with evidence of a crime they have to act. Hence if those kinky pictures you took of you and your girlfriend playing with a wooden spoon ever come to light you wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

As the State has no right to intervene in what two (or more) consenting adults do to each other this position is clearly stupid. It’s a waste of money and criminalizes people just because others have small minds. A classic case of oppression by majority.

But there is a cloud in my utopia; consent is a very fickle thing. What is to stop the wife beater saying ‘she consented to it m’lud’, or conversely somebody having second thoughts after the event and crying foul. There are numerous rape cases with which you could draw an analogy if one wanted. There is also always the potential for things to go to far, either through negligence or somebody getting carried away. Tricky problems for sure and why some progressives oppose liberalisation of the law in this area preferring to rely on the good judgement of the authorities instead.

However, as the men involved in the infamous ‘Spanner’ case found out the authorities don’t always make good judgements, or have an axe to grind (the men involved in the spanner case were all Gay).

So liberalisation of the law to allow a defence of consent seems the most sensible option. The technical difficulties may be hard to overcome and the politics of it fraught, but this is no defence for the criminalizing of innocent people. It is time for us to grasp the nettle (metaphorically or physically).

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Terrordaq 2? 

I am probably stealing James’ thunder here but I was intrigued by terrorbet.com. Now it is probably a piss take but I thought I would run with the idea that it was real.

For those not in the know the idea in a nutshell is the site will let you trade futures (effectively gamble) on when and where there might be terrorist attacks etc. The theory being that the market always knows best (the idea was originally devised in the outer reaches of Neo-Con land) and therefore by tracking the market one will be able to predict when the next 9/11 type event might be.

Setting aside the simple moral conundrum of whether it is ethical to make money out of mass murder (insert joke about multinational of your choice here) one still has to inquire as to what they are smoking? I can see a couple of flaws in this idea.

1) If the police or security services notice a trend that predicts an event, which in the end was the original idea, they will surely move to disrupt and or stop it happening. If they are successful then the people who successfully predicted the event won’t get paid, as it will never have happened. In other words the better the system works the worse the returns for the investors.

2) There will be an awful temptation for people to try and fiddle the system, and this is a market any individual could have a serious effect on. I am not just talking about the nutter who places £5000 on an assassination happening and then takes his rifle after president Bush, but also the police man who notices this and instead of stopping it puts on £5000 of his own money.

3) Terrorbet claims that the financial rewards will be too low to make this worthwhile but that makes the third, and most glaring flaw even worse. The model basically assumes that there will be insider-trading going on. For example an arms dealer who has sold a ton of semtex to a group of shifty looking Irish men might have a punt on the Europa Hotel in Belfast not retaining its façade for much longer. This will start a trend towards buying futures in the IRA. However, such an insider will be taking the very large risk that the NSA or GCHQ won’t be able to spot when they jumped into the market especially with the benefit of hindsight. As Microsoft can tell what colour boxers I am wearing when I sit at my computer, I think there is a fair chance that the NSA will be able to trace anybody who makes a trade. And if the rewards aren’t great this risk seems an even sillier one for a potential inside trader to take.

So to put it bluntly if this isn’t a piss take the idea is bollocks anyway.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Says it all 

"Gays and lesbians in Canada have long-term relationships. They belong to our families and in some cases raise children. They contribute to our communities and pay taxes. This government believes they should also have access to marriage.

Anything less is discrimination."

Martin Cauchon, Canadian Justice Minister.

(Quote stolen from politX full story here)

Washing one's laundry in public 

It seems that all might not be all sweetness and light in the BNP family. The Observer is reporting that the former chair of the party is starting a court action to challenge his expulsion from the party.

As any good Tory can tell you bickering over the leadership in public tends not to be a particularly effective electoral tactic.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Church and State 

The ongoing struggle in Alabama over whether a monument depicting the 10 Commandments as the root of US law can remain in a state courthouse seems to be moving towards its inevitable conclusion. Under a combination of the 1st and 14th amendments to the US Constitution States are prohibited from favouring one religion over others, so once the ACLU started kicking up a fuss there was only ever going to be one winner.

This farce says a lot about the position of religion, and particular right-wing Christianity, in American public life a subject I might return to later. However, it got me thinking about the position of religion in our own country. Despite the anachronistic position of the Church of England in our Constitution, Britain has, thankfully, slowly been drifting towards being a secular society for many years now. Witness the fact that none of the three main party leaders, despite all being to a greater or lesser extent god-fearing men, never talk about their faith. Why? because their spin doctors tell them it would be a turnoff to the electorate (although in the case of IDS his Catholicism might also be a factor).

But all this might be changing, as the Observer revealed at the start of this month the setting up of the Faith Community Liaison Group within the Home office will mean that faith groups, including the anti-gay Evangelical Alliance, will have a say in policy creation.

There are two things that offend me about this plan. First off for a government that is supposed to be promoting equality it seems strange that groups who routinely discriminate against and oppress women and the LGBT community should be given an official position within the process of policy making. Second it unfairly prioritises the views of certain sections of society over others, an anathema to all those of us who believe in democracy. The most obvious group left out is the sizeable proportion of society who would label themselves as being an atheist, why are our views any less important (heck I’ve never heard of anybody crashing a plane into a building for the greater glory of the space time continuum).

It is not as if the Churches aren’t able to get their views heard by government. The C of E was able to have massive loopholes written into the latest non-discrimination regulations to allow them to continue discriminating against LGBT people after all. I don’t begrudge the churches their right to lobby, all though I do begrudge the government for listening to them. After all in a pluralistic society every group has a right to be heard it what makes our system tick. But giving them an inside track is yet another abuse of power by the PM and yet another reason why his ability to mess around with Whitehall and his other royal prerogative powers should be placed under parliamentary scrutiny.

BNP: lives less important than convenience. 

The rush by virtually everyone to make political capital out of the fact that some rail lines are going to be closed over the bank holiday weekend has been particularily unedifying for all involved. Everybody bitches about the poor state of the railways and then when network rail trys to do something about it they bitch some more. I am assuming that the people running the railways have a good reason for picking this weekend to do the work so lets just let them get on with doing their job.

The worst bit of bandwagon jumping has to be this release from the BNP. They seem to be taking the line that their convenience in being able to use the railways is much more important than the lives of those trying to fix the track. A very strange argument for a party that is supposed to represent the ordinary man.

Friday, August 22, 2003

Infighting in the BNP 

It is with amusment that I have been following the BNP's latest falling out over one of their councillors activities at their conference/rally 'Red White and Blue'. It seems that they have taken to settling their difference with their fists, and this has led to 21 year old football hoolligan Luke Smith resigning from Burnley council. So much for the new cuddly image.

Hopefully this means that another seat for the Lib Dems at the resultant byelection and the Nazis will lose their position as official opposition on the council.

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Criminalizing the Young 

A report on BBC's Newsround this evening reminded me how silly parts of the government's new anti-social behaviour bill are. This particularly nasty bit of legislation has been flying under the radar due to the Iraq War and the resulting fallout but really needs some proper scrutiny.

The most offensive part of the bill, to mind at least, is clause 29 that effectively gives the police the power to impose a curfew on anybody under 16. Unlike the power to disperse groups of people also contained within clause 29 an officer who wants to remove a child to his or her place of residence does not even need to suspect that the child involved presents a risk of anti-social behaviour. At least the dispersal power, in requiring there to be a threat of anti-social behaviour, leaves open the possibility of a legal challenge in a case of blatant abuse. Although the test is very weak, it requires that members of the public may be alarmed by the group and quite frankly my group of friends have been known to alarm old grannies due to the amount of same-sex hand holding, at least it gives a sensible judge space to work.

So the Police will have the power to place everybody under the age of 16 under effective house arrest between the hours of 9pm and 6am. I had always assumed that under the tradition of Habeus Corpus one's liberty could only be curtailed if one had actually committed the crime not just fitted the profile of a potential criminal. Unless of course New Labour has made it illegal to be under 16 while I wasn't looking.

I would sugest that everybody under the school leaving age manned the baricades but then that would be tantamount to child abuse according to Oliver Kam

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