Friday, June 29, 2007

A Presidency is born??? 

As we await the ‘Word From Gordon On High’ on ‘constitutional initiatives’ a thought on the possible road to a Presidency.

The constitutional convention in the UK is that Ministers of the Crown (however junior) have to be Members of Parliament, either of the Commons or the Lords. In the past when outsiders have been parachuted into government they were given peerages to regularise their positions.

This means that ministers have a certain connection to Party, and a political position separate from their ministerial office. They are also questionable by their own house.

In presidential systems (in the USA and in the French Hybrid) the Presidents are at liberty to appoint people to any post of any persuasion they chose – within the constraints of the power balance. In the USA it is almost conventional for a President of one party to appoint at least one cabinet minister affiliated to the other party.

In the flood of appointments to Team Gordon a number of non-parliamentarians have been tagged with posts entitled ‘Minister’ and so far nothing mentioned about entering the Lords or fighting by-elections. There has however been talk of alternative fora for accountability.

In many ways Blair ran a Presidency rather than a Premiership, and was only really constrained by the internal dynamics of Browns treasury kingdom. Brown will of course make sure that nothing so effective will challenge him in the Labour ministerial tribe. What are the constraints on him emphasising the Presidential trend in UK politics?

In all this ‘talent show’ recruitment are we seeing the final demise of Parliament in day to day politics ( rather on the lines of the London assembly in relation to the Mayor) or will there be a development of effective scrutiny over non-parliamentary ministers?

I think we need to keep very careful watch over this development.

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Controlled explosions 

For those of us wondering what a 'controlled explosion' could possibly be (in bomb disposal terms) this article from a few years ago gives an outline of procedures without giving away any current secrets. (Discussed in terms of the IRA as a threat - amazing how long ago that seems...)

I suspect though that the Haymarket attempted Bomb mechanism will have been dealt with by something like the 'candle' technique using a remote insert. This would have flashed burning aluminium powder through the device, and burnt out the firing mechanism without triggering the main payload. Alternatively the method could be to fire a slug of water very fast into the bomb firing mechanism - the mechanism disintegrates before it can engage and fire. In either case the car (and the forensic evidence) stays largely intact.

Hats off to FELIX - the code word for 321 Explosives Ordnace Disposal!

Incidentally all this anti IED expertise is eagerly sought by the United States for obvious Iraq-related reasons, and at least one commentator suggests that the supply of this expertise to the US forces is a quid pro quo for the US exempting the UK from controlls under the International Trade in Arms Regulations (as agreed in an as yet unratified UK-US treaty).

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

First sight of Tory response on Brown 

Rescued from some doormats as a side-effect of Good Morning delivery in a council by-election today... a Tory 'Good Morning' (they are learning, please note) enclosing a second Tory offering. A very glossy and expensive looking card saying

"Brown in, Prisoners Out"

Attacking Labour for being soft on crime and bungling prisons policy. This looks like a nationally produced effort so watch out for it at other by-elections.

By the way, this by-election is also plagued by the 'England First Party' campaigning against the LibDem council's policy of providing language interpreters where required and moaning about the number of languages spoken in local schools.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

All that water 

Ah yes the floods. Having done consultancy work twenty-odd years ago (for one of the pre-privatisation Water Authorities) on building information systems on flood incidents, this weeks news comes as little surprise. As I remarked before

There is no ironclad criteria for makes a 'floodplain'. Most of the officially delimited floodplains, in planning maps in England anyway, are based on the areas of inundation of the 1947 floods adjusted for the very different experiences of the 1974 floods. Areas that did not flood then may actually be a high risk from flooding. Councillors who sit on Development Control Committees should be very sceptical of precise flood-risk boundaries in planning submissions.

Much of the historic data on floods was lost at the time of the privatisation of the old
Water Authorities when people over 50 were compulsorily retired to 'slim down' the
workforces and too late it was discovered that much flood information had been held
as local lore and not written down... Even the Environmental Agency's Flood Risk Calculator is not the last word.

FOCUS teams in flooded can really help by establishing where maximum water level lines occurred – taking photos for example and keeping a flood diary for their patch (also an useful job for parish councils actually). Could be invaluable if some developer comes along in a few years wanting to build on a site you know got soaked.

Oh and on tornados I highly recommend again the TORRO (Tornado and storm research organisation) site.. amazing data on UK storms.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cabinet and other Government posts accepted 

Yes it has happened – shock offers of government places for people outside the governing party. And they have been taken up. Result – possible disruption for the opposition parties and movements involved.

The Government of France of course, not Irn Broon’s still-fantasy front bench.

President Sarkovsky appointed François Fillon as Prime Minister and they have announced 33 ‘Government Appointments’. The oddities are:

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (previously a Socialist party member). Founder of two NGOs : Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde)

In favour of military interventions – he backed the Iraq invasion of 2003. So just as Blair stands down France finally gets a Foreign Minister who thinks Bush and Blair were right… what does this mean for Brown’s upcoming foreign policy wriggle room?

Apparently Koucher left MSF and founded MDM because MSF finally couldn’t stomach his repeated manipulations in favour of whatever side France supported in various wars.

He was head of the UN Administration in Kosovo ( so Paddy may have had dealings with him during his stint as Bosnia proconsul)

Minister of Defence Hervé Morin (The New Centre Party). Former supporter of Bayrou who abandoned him and set up a ‘centre within the government majority’ party.

Secretary of State to Ministry of Foreign and European affairs Jean-Marie Bockel (up to now a ‘Socialist’, current Mayor of Mulhouse). The entire government foreign policy team therefore is made up of former ‘Left party’ members, but of course under the 5th Republic setup Foreign Affairs are very much the prerogative of the President.

Secretary of State to Prime Ministers Office Eric Besson (Former socialist, quit PS when Royale became Presidential candidate and published hatched job book on her).

Secretary of State to Urban Affairs ministry Fadela Amara ( Formerly a Socialist local councillor. Founder of the organisation Ni Putes ni Soumisesneither whores nor doormats). She is campaigner for the rights of women of foreign origin. Her Cabinet Minister is a raving homophobe who literally brandishes a Bible in parliamentary debates. Should be interesting.

High Commissioner for anti-Poverty initiatives Martin Hirsch (President of the Emmaus Organisation) What this job involves only time will tell.

Minister of Environment. Jean-Louis Borloo (party –a regional ‘radical’ one from the Ventois) Minister of State for the environment, development and ‘sustainable strategies’. An emergency appointment as the governing party member (Juppé) expected to take this on lost his seat and resigned). May be sacrificial lamb for fights on Green issues. This ministry was set up specifically for Juppé to be a super-department on the Deputy Prime Minister lines so like the home life of our own dear Prescott, crossed with the power trade-off from the original Blair-Brown deal. So Borloo may have been selected as expendable when this ministry is gutted. May not be good news for effective global warming policies despite Sarkovsky's verbal commitments to these.

Quite a mash here! The President's own party may not be entirely pleased, so many big jobs going down the wrong pans. More, much more on Eurotrib.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

France again 

The parliamentary results are much less exciting for the new President's supporters than anticipated, and in fact one rather significant change in the ballance of power. If I got the count right, the Presidential block has lost ground and no longer has the 3/5th majority in National Assembly necessary to amend the Constitution of the French Republic. This could upset some Sarko plans and by limiting his domestic manoeuverability even impact on the wider European Constitution dance.

Bayrou's party seems to have ended up with just three seats according to the offical results, but four according to Le Monde. Not very good either way. On the other hand the Front Nationale ended up with none at all.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Arms industry questions around the BAe rumpus 

One thing about the BAe rumpus is that we are making some very, very powerful and well-financed enemies with every incentive to encourage unfriendly activities directed at us.

For one thing, the company (it seems) is planning to buy US arms manufacturers and move the seat of their operations to the USA. The present publicity is certainly not helpful for any such project. Their gratitude towards us may be limited.

Maybe we should be preparing our ground for this. For example by looking at some of the other issues that could be paraded, and making sure we have our responses worked out . Doing so raises some awkward further questions for BAe.

One argument for having a ‘home-based armaments industry’ is that it means we are not subject to manipulation by foreign suppliers in case of some kinds of hostilities.

Argentina would perhaps offer evidence of this kind of supplier interference from its experience in the late Falklands incivilities. Apparently France not only blocked supplies of fifty Exocet missiles already ordered (Argentina had five operational at start of hostilities) and stopped supplies to Peru in case it passed these on to Argentina, but it also gave the UK full technical details of French equipment and how to counter it, and flew a Mirage and a Super-Etendard plane to the UK so that the RAF pilots could practice against them. Very helpful.

The assumption must be that an UK arms supplier would also make sure that UK armed forces had any necessary information to deal with its own equipment and block some details to other customers. Well perhaps not, if Lewis Page is to be believed, at least when it comes to informing UK personnel.. He says that in the recent Balkans campaigns (Bosnia and Kosova) UK forces had to deal with UK unexploded munitions manufactured by BAe. Nothing surprising about that, some munitions do fail. However he says BAe refused to release technical details of fuses to UK UXM clearance teams ‘for reasons of commercial confidentiality’. So the troops had to work out de-arming procedures from first principle. Now if true that is really something… and would an US based BAe be more amenable? (Lewis Page 2006 pp 641-642)*

*( The Lewis Page book ‘Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs’ makes a number of very specific allegations against BAe which I cannot evaluate. I just say we need to be aware that this kind of statement is being made and ask that the Party prepare some navigation guidelines for tackling these alleged issues before the press gets confused.)

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

More than corruption to think about with BAe 

Why on earth did Saudi Arabia buy such a flawed bit of kit as the Tornado fighters and bombers in the first place? That thought is the underpinning of much of the bribery speculation... surely only greased palms could explain such a purchasing decision given the superior equipment on offer elsewhere at the time?

Britain of course itself bought the Tornados and paid thousands of millions over the odds for equipping the RAF. If you accept the arguments in a polemic book* we have to ask whether our defence manufacturing industries are effectively blackmailing British Governments through the politics of job cut threats. Never mind that the armed forces of the crown end up with shoddy UK-built equipment hugely overpriced and decades late.

LibDems are rightly in the lead over the 'bribery is a crime' issue and the Saudi arms deal, and note with interest that theTories are silent on much of this.

Our strength here partly comes because nobody has thought of trying seriously to bribe us - yet. But some of the issues around the deal will hit us in our political target areas - BAe jobs in Bristol for example, not to mention other defence links in Yeovil and Dunfermline.

We are going to have to look seriously at defence procurement policies and why trying to keep 'British Suppliers' in the forefront has cost the UK so dearly. Otherwise the BAe tar baby will stick to us too if we ever get into range of power. Is the purpose of military procurement to get efficent armed forces with modern equipment that can be depolyed nw and the immediate future; or is it to provide massively subsidised civillian jobs in a select range of industries in key parliamentary seats?

* Lewis Page (2006) 'Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs; waste and blundering in the military' Arrow Books. Includes (pp288-289) a skeptical note on LibDem polices and on Paul Keetch.

(According to page at the time of purchase the Tornado fighters did not have the correct radar sytems available and operational, so they were ballasted with concrete blocks in the nose where the radar should have been in order to prerve the aircrafts flght trim. This arrangement was known to RAF wags as 'Blue Circle Radar'. When the Saudis were assessing the aircraft it was in this condition... again why did they even consider it?)

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Polling day approaches in vital vote 

Election fever mounts. Across the world anxious groups of concerned citizens huddle together consulting the entrails as the last opinion polls spew forth, The world’s press and TV and bloggerdom pours forth streams of comment and analysis.

Yes, Sunday 10th June is polling day in the Belgian General Election.

For LibDems maybe even more of interest as the outgoing Belgian Federal Government is headed by one of our European ELDR colleagues who has been in office since 1999. The prognosis is not good – winners this time are expected to be the opposition Christian Democrats.

Belgian politics are of a rainbow complexity to make Welsh Assembly activities monochrome by comparison. For example there are actually two entirely separate LibDem parties (one Flemish, one Waloon) just as there are separate Flemish and Waloon Socialists and Christian Democratic parties. A fair account of all this is on European Tribune.

One interesting theme emerging is the conflict in Belgian Liberal politics between social and economic liberalism, which seems to have led to splits and realignments over the last few years. The place of markets in politics has been a hot issue for the Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten..

Also part of the Flemish party’s electoral problem has been its support for electoral rights for immigrants to Belgium, putting it into hot conflict with the Vlaams Bloc (Flemish Bloc)

All this may be of interest in our own UK discussions… as well as important for our Belgian friends.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Astute - the ongoing Nuclear Navy issue (and the BAe row) 

So how is the Nuclear Navy getting on? We do need to keep an eye on this as at some stage in the future a decision will have to be made by the Party on accepting or not accepting the Vanguard (read ‘Trident’) deployment. Month by month 'new facts' are being created which will make alternative decisons more difficult.

And the nuclear navy is closely linked to the ongoing sagas of BAe systems, the state within the state that constructs these vessels and which is of course embroiled in the Saudi Slush Fund allegations. How much pressure are BAe able to put on Her Majesty’s Government because HMG is totally committed to nuclear propulsion for our submarines and job creation through the naval construction programme, and BAe is the only means they have to carry this through?

The first of the new Astute class hunter-killer submarines that will protect any Vanguard force was launched today, 8th June 2007. They will replace the existing Swiftsure-Class submarines and it now seems also the Trafalgar-Class submarines.

Four years late, the Astute programme is already nearly £1000 million over budget.

The Astute and its sister ships will be able to fire cruise missiles (possibly nuclear armed) – targeting South Africa or Brazil (for example) if needs be from launch locations in the Irish Sea or similar lattitude.

All Royal Navy submarines are nuclear powered. The UK has shunned the alternative of building modern diesel-electric submarines or the new ‘air-independent’ diesel propulsion used in the latest German submarines. These alternatives are markedly cheaper, and would permit the Royal Navy to purchase and deploy more vessels.

A question – by concentrating on building a few very large and expensive submarines is the Royal Navy losing the capacity to operate in the shallower waters of the seas to the east of Britain – effectively placing the responsibility for the submarine defence of our Eastern Approaches waters on the German and Dutch navies with their smaller, cheaper and more numerous vessels?

Since the first duty of the Astutes will be the protection of the Vanguard boats (which will carry our 'Ultimate Deterrent') what possible alternative operational deployments will the Royal Navy be prevented from carrying through because of these commitments? How important are these other defence stances to our security from amilitary point of view?

Are these boats being purchased because they represent the opportunity to maintain a certain kind of industrial capability rather than the best bet for long-term defence capability?

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