Monday 25 June 2012

European parliamentary committee rejects ACTA

The International Trade Committee (INTA) of the European Parliament last Thursday recommended rejection of the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). Although EU ministers have signed up to ACTA, the European Parliament has the power to prevent it becoming binding on the EU. As a result of the strong recommendation of INTA, this seems likely to be the outcome.

What is worrying is that the UK government was one of the signatories in Tokyo in January, even though Liberal Democrats clearly expressed their opposition to such sweeping and ambiguous legislation when the fag-end Labour government pushed through the Digital Economy Act.

Update 2012-07-04: the Parliament did duly follow INTA's recommendation. More detail here.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Lords reform (continued)

One would expect Tories to resist reform of the House of Lords. After all, it was dominated from the start by the landed interest, bolstered later by peerages given to those who had made money in other ways. The introduction of life peerages under Harold Macmillan improved the range of life experiences in the upper house, but made a minimal difference to the overall party complexion. Even the restriction to 92 hereditary peers in 1999 by the first Blair government has not removed the inbuilt Conservative majority completely.

So why didn't Labour follow through on the 1999 measure and, more importantly, why are they resisting reform now? Of course, they dare not say that they are against elections to the Lords. This was in their 2010 general election manifesto after all, albeit subject to a referendum. A non-elected chamber of parliament was anathema to the Labour tradition. Therefore, today's Labour management falls back on the specious excuse that the state of the economy should take priority. As many have pointed out, it is possible for parliament to do several things at the same time and, in any case, there is little scope for fresh debate on the financial situation before next year's budget. Moreover, this parliament may be the best chance for a generation of achieving genuine change. 

The obvious attraction of an appointed House is the opportunity it gives to party managers to bribe with ermine awkward or embarrassing old members to leave their seats in favour of the current favourite son or daughter (literally so, in some cases). The Labour people seem to have taken to the place, and to enjoy the little earner and fringe benefits. Labour has also proved as ready as the Conservatives as rewarding donors with a barony

Another benefit was displayed in the second reading debate and committee stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill: the ability to filibuster. Discipline is less strict in the Lords than in the Commons. The quality of debate has generally been higher than in the lower house, probably because the woolsack has been able to trust peers to use their less limited time wisely. But quality plunged in the winter of 2010-11.  Old Labour hack after old Labour hack stood up to recount their football allegiances, or schooldays, or any matter which would fill time, devoid of relevance to the question before the house and usually devoid of any intellectual content, all in the service of the party which wanted to preserve its over-representation in depopulated Commons constituencies.  Donkeys led by weasels.

This leading article in The Independent gives many reasons why reform is necessary. In the mean time, Lord Steel's Bill would improve the House as it stands.

Update 2012-06-25: Emily Thornberry MP on Radio 4 last night indicated a change in Labour tactics, confirmed in the Indy this morning. They would still like an all-elected House of Lords but will support an 80% elected second chamber. They are not, however, prepared to allow the government a timetable motion which would make passage of the necessary legislation easy. 

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Labour's mumbling idiocies exposed

Together with some other assumptions about the economy, the litany of Ed Balls and Rachel Reeves that the coalition is cutting "too far and too fast" is rebutted in this post by Stephen Tall.

Monday 18 June 2012

Advice to unemployed engineers: learn Portuguese

The old empire is now offering a way out to professionals suffering the worst unemployment in Portugal in a generation. Both Brazil and Angola have seen a reversal of the brain drain as growth in most eurozone countries has slowed to a crawl. Gillian Tett, in a recent FT feature, highlighted the shortfall in engineers in Brazil: 60,000 required annually, while the country trains 40,000 from its own resources.

In the same article, Tett draws attention to a dramatic change in migration in North America. A report by the Pew Hispanic Center states that the net flow of migrants from Mexico to the US has stopped and may even have slightly reversed.

Sunday 17 June 2012

The supra-national EU

Once again ("Sunday Supplement" this a.m.) we heard the complaint from the Europhobes that "we" were lied to about the EU. As I recall, the main liars about the political implications of membership were the faction led my Mrs Thatcher. Liberals, and most supporters in other parties up to the 1990s, were open about the surrender of some sovereignty ("pooling of sovereignty" as the generally-accepted expression had it) to the joint European enterprise. Edward Heath may have played down this aspect later in his career, but he could not have been more clear when he led the Macmillan government's attempts to join in 1961:

The British government and the British people have been through a searching debate during the last few years on the subject of their relations with Europe. The result of this debate has been our present application. It was a decision arrived at, not on any narrow or short-term grounds, but as a result of a thorough assessment over a considerable period of the needs of our own country, of Europe and of the free world as a whole. We recognise it as a great decision, a turning point in our history, and we take it in all seriousness. In saying that we wish to join the EEC, we mean that we desire to become full, whole-hearted and active members of the European Community in its widest sense and to go forward with you in the building of a new Europe

or in his later expression of regret at being blocked by de Gaulle:

The end of the negotiations is a blow to the cause of the wider European unity for which we have been striving. We are a part of Europe, by geography, history, culture, tradition and civilization ... There have been times in the history of Europe when it has been only too plain how European we are; and there have been many millions of people who have been grateful for it. I say to my colleagues: they should have no fear. We in Britain are not going to turn out backs on the mainland of Europe or the countries of the Community.

It would be interesting to know what motivated Margaret Thatcher to support remaining in the EEC in the mid-1970s. There is no doubt that she did. As Michael Cockerell wrote for BBC News, "one of the leading pro-Marketeers was the newly-elected leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher. She turned out in a sweater made up from the flags of all the nine Common market countries and called for 'a big Yes vote for Europe'". (There is a picture of Mrs Thatcher in that very communitaire sweater on the Web site.)

My own theory is that she was acting on behalf of the financial services industry. During her successful career at the commercial bar, she would have forged strong links with the big banks, stockbrokers,  insurance companies and consultancies. These would have wanted to increase their penetration of continental Europe, and would not have been too concerned about later embarrassment to governments of any hue over loss of sovereignty. Hence the concessions made at Maastricht.

Universal human standards

When the radio news reported the massacre in Houla, many of my generation would have instantly recalled a near homonym, Hola. This was the name of a prison camp in Kenya, where an atrocity was committed by guards serving the then British colonial administration. The often-brutal campaign to suppress Kenyan independence, affecting his grandfather, is a reason that President Obama does not share most American politicians' regard for Winston Churchill. Idi Amin was a part of the campaign for a time, as a soldier in the Kings African Rifles. No doubt his barbaric streak was reinforced there.

The authorities in Kenya attempted to cover up the mass killings, at first putting them down to accidental poisoning. Barbara Castle and the Daily Mirror were prominent in bringing the facts to the British public, against strong resistance from the Conservative government. In the Commons debate which resulted, a then government back-bencher, who would later become a ground-breaking minister, made this declaration:

[the government must not] have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home ... we must be consistent with ourselves everywhere ... we cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility. (Hansard 5C, 610.237)

It was by J. Enoch Powell, whose centenary we are marking this weekend.

Wednesday 13 June 2012


Talk of "treachery" over the decision of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party not to defend Jeremy Hunt in today's Commons vote smacks of playground politics. "Nicky's saying nasty things Dave's friend Jerry so he must be in Eddy's gang".

BBC political correspondents are now suggesting that Tory backbenchers will block House of Lords reform in retaliation. To the argument that Lords reform was in the coalition agreement and personal defence of individual ministers was not, they would retort that the coalition only promised a committee, which pledge has been redeemed. The fact that all the party manifestos promised reform of the unelected chamber has passed them by.

Jo Swinson has it right:

I am a reluctant convert to supporting the coalition. Originally, I thought it would be feasible to allow a minority Conservative administration to govern on a "care and maintenance" basis, supporting or opposing them issue by issue. Two factors caused me to change my mind: the punishment meted out by the financial markets to countries whose governments seemed weak, obviously Greece but more appositely Italy; and the strong probability that the Conservatives would engineer a dissolution of parliament over a deficit reduction programme more stringent than the coalition has agreed, to gain an overall majority at the ensuing general election which they could afford to throw money at. (I would like to think that Britain's standing counted for more than grubby party political considerations.)

As it happened, the major silliness of the AV referendum apart, the parties reached a mature and sensible coalition agreement, one which conceded more to the LibDem manifesto than to the Conservative one. This has not been to the liking of more extreme Tories, of whom Nadine Dorries is the most outspoken, but even some Liberal Democrats feel we have given up too much.

There have been calls for more public differentiation by members of both parties. It is clearly essential for the future of the Liberal Democrats that we do this, but we must pick our ground carefully. The application of the ministerial code is a matter where we can clearly state our principles and I welcome the stand that our MPs are taking.

The Conservatives, too, need to set their stall out, threatened as they are on their "little England" wing by UKIP. But they should not go too far. John Redwood, who many might expect to be impatient to move his party to the "right", counselled his more gung-ho colleagues otherwise after the local elections:

The Chancellor is right on Spanish bank debt

The Spanish bank problem is a problem of the Spanish banks, and largely of regional banks at that. It is not right that the Spanish state, whose governments have acted properly from well before the Lehman Bros. collapse in economic situations not of their making, should have their debt burden added to. The latest superloan should have gone to the banks directly, not using Spain's treasury as a conduit. As George Osborne said at a recent conference:

 it was "depressing" that the eurozone authorities did not take advice that they should recapitalise banks directly, rather than funnelling support through the state. "What is depressing ... is that everyone said to the eurozone that if you do not directly recapitalise these banks, if you do it via the Spanish sovereign, then you are not going to convince the market that the Spanish sovereign is entirely credible."

Saturday 9 June 2012

Outsider as Chief Inspector of Constabulary

Mark Pack has drawn the analogy of newspaper people sitting in judgment on newspapers in the form of the press complaints council. The Independent today also supports the appointment of a "civilian". Moreover, it may be factually correct to say that all previous Chief Inspectors have had policing experience, but a look back will show that within living memory it was not uncommon for chief constables of county police forces to have been former army officers rather than policemen. It would be interesting to know whether any of them made it to CIC.

However, the appointment of Tom Winsor is troubling on two grounds. First, he was the author of a report which, while receiving a cautious welcome by politicians, has been largely condemned by the Police Federation. This is not going to make relations between politicians and police easy, as we move in to an era of elected police commissioners. Secondly, the Home Secretary had not thought fit to inform the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee of her decision in advance of the media release. Considering that the committee had been due to interview the preferred candidate next Tuesday (Independent report), this is disrespectful at best.

Blaydon Races

Aw went to Blaydon Races, 'twas on the ninth of Joon,
Eiteen hundred an' sixty-two, on a summer's efternoon;
Aw tyuk the 'bus frae Balmbra's, an' she wis heavy laden,
Away we went alang Collingwood Street, that's on the road to Blaydon.
[Thanks to Wikipedia for the lyrics taken from the manuscript copy] 

 So it's the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first running in song of the Blaydon Races. I was reminded of this only by the coincidence of the announcement of the closure of Armstrong's factory (now part of BAE Systems) this year. Armstrong's is mentioned as one of the waypoints on the bus journey:

We flew past Airmstrang's factory, and up to the "Robin Adair",
Just gannin' doon te the railway bridge, the 'bus wheel flew off there.
The lasses lost their crinolines off, an' the veils that hide their faces,
An' aw got two black eyes an' a broken nose in gan te Blaydon Races.

The Races have been revived ( and no doubt the song has never died out on Tyneside, but I can't remember the last time I heard it on national radio. It used to be a regular request item on BBC record programmes, and Friday night on the Light Programme/Radio 2 would not have been the same without a performance of "Blaydon Races" or "Cushie Butterfield" by Owen Brannigan ably assisted by Ernest Lush (more than a mere accompanist). My post about the song on Facebook recently received only one "like", from a Friend of the same generation as myself. I suppose it is too much to hope that the BBC retained any tapes of a Brannigan/Lush recital. If they have, today would be an appropriate occasion to replay them.