Monday, December 24, 2007

Forgiveness and healing at this season 

So this is Kukios, Christmas Eve for all you non-Lithuanians out there, the day when the traditions are to remember the dead and to heal the living. One of the advantages of being the heirs of the last European culture to be converted to Christianity is that the older midwinter roots of this sort of tradition are rather more clear.

The key event really is the Christmas Eve meal. The tablecloth is laid out on fresh hay so that the family animals are symbolically part of the festivities, and a place is laid for anyone absent, family or friend, especially those who have died recently. This is THE great family gathering. At midnight each person at the feast goes round to each of the others asking forgiveness for any hurts or slights given over the year.

In that spirit forgive me for any electronic toes I have trodden on over this years digital politics, or otehr online or political infelicities.

Sveiku Sventu Kaledu viskas.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

So how was it for you? 

Now that the Leadeship Election is over and we begin to scratch our comfort zones... a chance to reflect on what it is like to be on the receiving end of an election campaign.

Did loads of leaflets help you make up your mind? Was it a personal insight from a comment by someone you knew? Did the blogs push out your boat? How about the webcasts? Or did a single ten-second taster on TV settle your mind irrevocably?

We are usually in the position of dishing all this out. Maybe we (the lucky people not actually on one or other of the campaign teams who actually had to make up their minds during the campaign) can think of ways of refining our general campaign strategies.

Do we make easy assumptions about what works and what does not?

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Conclusion number 1: an awful lot of people are very bad at predicting election results. Best to bear that in mind come next May :-)
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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Lembit and an impact 

Lembit gets some humerous attention in his life, but one of his specials subjects may put him in serious news come January.

Yes it is the danger of an impact from an asteroid or comet, with the news that an asteroid is fairly likely to crash into a planet on January 30th 2008. Fortunately, this is into Mars not the planet hosting Estonia, Moldova and Montgomeryshire.

The Red Planet may find itself in the cross-hairs next month.
According to
Space.com, scientists at the Near Earth Object Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory believe a newly discovered asteroid has a 1 in 75 chance of hitting Mars on January 30.

They quote astronomer, Steve Chesley, as saying ,"These odds are extremely unusual. We frequently work with really long odds when we track ... threatening asteroids. We know that it's going to fly by Mars and most likely going to miss, but there's a possibility of an impact"
Halfway between Earth and Mars, the asteroid, known as 2007 WD5, was discovered in late November and initially estimated to have a 1 in 350 chance of making impact. However, as new observations were made, the odds increased and scientists expect them to grow even more next month.

Of course there is still the Aphrodite question for the Earth in 2029 or 2036

Let’s hope that this January news does not lead to unseemly competition between Lembit and Nick for press attention, as allegedly happened some years ago in another leadership era:

"THERE'S something of a stand-off between Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy and the party's excitable MP Lembit Opik over the future of Planet Earth. Opik, you'll recall, wants the government to trackasteroids heading for the planet. And his crusade has been boosted by news that an object from outer space has just missed Earth.

There are those who think Opik is off his rocker and Kennedy may well be one of them because he is still showing no signs of supporting him. Their chillinessdates back to a party conference when Kennedy missed out on headlines because Opik was monopolising the media with asteroid talk. "I was gettingthe same coverage as the party leader and I think he still remembers that,"Opik tells me."
--The Mirror, 25 June 2002

The Truth is out there somewhere…

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Not a leg to cook 

I want turkey drumsticks this year. Not a whole turkey. This is for reasons of cooking a carnivore option in the spare oven space of a largely vegetarian seasonal meal. And the carnivores concerned prefer the dark meat to the breast meat anyway.

So I must be in luck, given the modern supermarket habit of selling prepared turkeys with just the breast and wings. Must be lots and lots of drumsticks going cheap on the side, you would think.

Er, no. Much trawling and asking of questions of bemused shop staff found nothing. So this morning I abandoned my TESCO/Waitrose/M+S dominated trade zone to make a very very early morning Co2 generating trip to a high street with two traditional butchers still open. And actually managed to find drumstick and turkey thigh packages that I can adapt.

Where ARE all these drumsticks going? And can it really be that the Market Mass of The People really prefer the bland white meat to the tastier brown meats of the turkey?

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Last 'Post' on many borders tonight 

Back in 1945 my mother swam the Elbe to escape the oncoming Soviet army and find refuge in British held territory. Europe was a place of fear.

At midnight today (20 December 2007) the Schengen agreement that allows for free passage –without need of passports- across national frontiers within most of the European Union is extended to include her native Lithuania (and eight other countries including Latvia and Estonia). What an extraordinary contrast in 60-odd years.

This is going to be a bit of a challenge for our new LibDem leadership team as of course there are public fears associated with this move, with which we have to deal. And as far as I can see, our own party policy is hardly in line with embracing Schengen for the UK. We remain outside.

But I am still slightly breathless at the extraordinary changes engineered within the developing European Union, a place of hope.

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All to easy to get impermissable with donations 

Laughing at the Tory problems with ‘donations’ in Whitney is OK ( and the cause of the Tory upset was, it seems, accepting money from a long-time overseas resident who hasn’t been on the UK Electoral Register for yonks. So fair cop). But we do need the proverbial eternal vigilance in our own backyard. The rules can be diabolically complex.

Take for example the events in the local association of ‘an MP’. A personal and professional friend of the MP made a substantial donation paid monthly by standing order and this continued happily for some years, all properly accounted for. However the donor moved out of the member’s constituency to live and work in London. Quite properly the donor de-registered from the original Electoral Register, but because of difficulties finding permanent housing in London did not at once re-register in London.

At the end of the accounting quarter in which the de-registration occurred, the standing order payment became impermissible. And even if a new registration had been validly made elsewhere later in the following Quarter, no donation could be accepted for those three months.

Fortunately the amount of the donation was large enough to be noticed by officers of the Region, who contacted the local party of the MP concerned telling them to refuse the donation until the electoral registration situation was regularised. Even more fortunately the regional Officers insisted this be done despite indignant shrieks (‘bureaucracy gone mad’, etc) from the local party Officers. Otherwise we (yes it was one of our MPs) would be up in lurid neon lights right this moment for accepting ‘impermissible’ money. But the problem affects ALL donations by standing order however small…

Other difficulties of this nature arise when local associations boundaries change ( thus changing the boundaries of the accounting units under PPRA) which on occasion has led to perfectly valid donors suddenly being un-validated through getting left behind administratively. Still more problems come when local party boundaries do not coincide with local authority boundaries, so monies from Councillors have to be juggled between several pots. It is rather easy to make ad-hoc sharing arrangements that in fact create what should be a new, separate, accounting unit that needs its own PPRA report – even through every penny has in fact been in good faith declared otherwise.

This is the time of year when local party treasurers have to finalise the returns that form the basis of PPRA reports. Good luck to them all, and lets hope they can all sail through the reefs and shoals of the law down the legal navigable channel.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Healthy relationships and our political future 

Very interesting points by Liberal Revolution (Lessons from identity politics).
The conclusion – be ourselves, act normally.

Good advice this for relationships of many kinds (marriages, ‘significant otherhood’, membership of political groups, even 'blogger swarms').

Looking at my friends and family over the years one indicator of a rocky relationship stands out. It is when one or more of the partners spend much of their time trying to second guess in advance what the other partner wants, moulding their behaviour and statements on these guesses and suppressing their own personalities .

This goes way beyond being sensitive to the others. It leads to a kind of stunting, in which the partners forget to bring the richness of their own lives and experiences to the life of the relationship. At worse one dominating partner can manipulate and diminish the other by being slippery in response to the guesses, forcing the other always to be off-balance. This enforces a lowering of mental health well-being for all in the relationship.

In any political party there are many many relationships. Can we build up a culture where we value richness and assertiveness and so support mentally healthy interactions?

The advantage for the LibDems is that our natural way of thinking does in fact tend to support healthy approaches (we don’t always live up to this of course). So we have much to gain personally and politically from being ourselves and acting normally

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is the UK economy facing a long bout of 'anglo disease'? 

Has the UK caught ‘Dutch Disease’? No, not ‘Dutch Elm Disease’ but the economic catch-22 identified by the Economist to describe the impact of revenues from natural gas on the industrial economy of the Nederlands in the 1970’s. There is now an argument that the UK has suffered a similar hollowing-out of the economy through the dominance of the financial services sector in our economic life and that this will weigh us down for decades to come.

The general claim is that where one economic sector offers exceptionally high profit opportunities, it can squeeze out investment in other sectors. Also the heightened economic activity tends to strengthen the currency, putting weaker economic sectors at an economic disadvantage. OK if this leads to a permanent establishment of comparative advantage, but should the favoured sector go to decline then the economy in question is left with reduced continuing comparative advantage and a need for pretty painful adjustments.

This it is asserted happened in the Nederlands with the boom and decline in the production of natural gas, and the Nederlands is still allegedly experiencing a structurally weakened economy in the aftermath.

Over in European Tribune there is a series of postings by a French Economist asserting that the Financial Services Industries in the UK have (because of there historic superior profitability) led to a similar hollowing out of the UK economy. In a real credit crunch that cracks financial Services bubbles the UK will be left with a seriously weakened economy overall because so many of our otherwise continuing ‘industries’ are not competitive. This he calls the ‘Anglo Disease’.

That there is a serious problem is widely acknowledged, see the Financial Times for one mainstream comment ( ‘The UK Economy is vulnerable’ ). The Eurotrib analysis takes this even further to suggest much longer term dire consequences..

This is rather controversial. But it is worth looking at the figures shown in the postings and thinking about this possibility.

Mind you as I commented over in ‘Eurotrib’:

…. part of me does think back to the history of French comments on the 'English' economy'.. for example....

“The bank of England is destroyed: its fake currency shrinks to its real currency.. its credit lost; its resources annihilated; and general terror...”

That is from the "Memoire sur l'Angleterre" the 1773 document laying out the hoped-for results of the French strategy of subversion in Britain's colonies in North America. Enthusiastic hopes of a collapse of the 'un-natural English economy' have surfaced many times over the centuries in France... Let's see how the present situation evolves.

Reference: Memoire sur l'Angleterre (1773) in Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres, Memoires et Documents: Angleterre Vol 52 Fol. 180-223. Cited in I. and R. Tombs 'That Sweet Enemy' pp168-9

One thing is sure though – having an economic shaman currently in charge of government policy is not encouraging..

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The credit crunch - private parasitism on the public purse? 

The idea of nationalising Northern Rock gets a cool comment in an article by Ann Pettifor (Globalisation: Sleepwalking to Disaster) posted in ‘Open Democracy’.

Pettifor calls attention to the analysis by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association that in the second half of 2007 the value of Credit Default Swaps (really a form of insurance) was $43.5 trillion - that is about £21,000,000,000,000 sterling give or take a few tens of millions between friends. Which is twice the value of the US Stock market and three times the GDP of the USA.

On Northern Rock she says:

Private gains and public losses
The tide of “easy money” daily drains away from the stricken mortgage-lender Northern Rock and other financial institutions. This bank was chaired until recently by
Matt Ridley, a rightwing libertarian who once wrote that "governments do not run countries, they parasitise them”……
The management and shareholders of Northern Rock have built up £40 billion ($80 billion) in
liabilities, mainly to British taxpayers. Alongside the apparent
bids for the company - from Virgin and the private-equity firm Olivant among others - the option of the Bank of England to "nationalise" it, and therefore "socialise" its liabilities - is being actively promoted. In that case, the burden of its rescue would fall on British taxpayers. That has not stopped investors entering the fray and blackmailing both the government and the Bank of England for more money.
The crisis of Northern Rock has exposed many persistent delusions about capitalism, among them one recycled in openDemocracy by Roger Scruton: it is one of capitalism's strengths "that, when investors make mistakes, they pay for them" (see the tenth comment

Not so. While gains by banks and corporations are inevitably privatised, their losses are often nationalised (read socialised). The true parasites reside in the private sector.

The debate on all this will be quite heated I think.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Kosovo, that name again 

Alas Kosovo (or Kosova or Kosove) is coming back into the hot news again. It is clear that the new government in Prishtina will declare independence from Serbia soon, and may only have delayed for a few weeks through frantic appeals from the European Union - effectively to delay secession and the probably inevitable start of a war until after the 2007 Christmas Holidays.

The mess and uproar in early January 2008 will be impressive. It looks as if this will be the first complex of foreign policy choices facing our new party leadership.
Can we marshal some context and expertise from our own ranks and contacts to help with this debate and necessary quick decisions?

There are few (probably no) information sources accepted as dispassionate by all sides in this situation. The best known UK book, (and the one I have read most closely) is probably that by Noel Malcolm ‘Kosovo – a short history’ which is denounced by enthusiastic Serbs as anti-Serbian.

What does seem to be clear is that ‘the Situation’ is not a centuries old Moslem-Christian matter. It is also clear that some participants in the upcoming mess, from several sides, will work very hard to make the contrary opinion the conventional wisdom. And in the present bear-pit of sensitivities this may be an inflammation too far. Plus with Putin’s Russia likely to be assertive on Serbia’s side this time many bets will be off.

Just to illustrate the delicacy in terms here - ‘Kosovo’ is the Serb form of the name. ‘Kosove’ – spelt with an umlaut over the ‘e’ - and ‘Kosova’ are the Albanian forms, the first being the ‘indefinite article’ form of the noun and the second the ‘definite article form’. Apparently choice of the article form has explosive political connotations in Albanian language contexts…

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The passing of a Peacemaker 

Most of you probably never heard of Steve Williams, but you should.

Steve and his wife Sue were the Resident Friends at Quaker House Belfast during the most explosive stage of the recent Troubles. They created an island of calm in which people literally violently opposed could start to make some kind of other contact. To the end of his life Steve was quietly discreet about his dealings with such people as Gerry Adams and various Loyalist Paramilitaries…

Someday the work of such quiet background peacemakers will be recognised and properly celebrated.

Steve and Sue also worked in other trouble spots such as the Caucasus regions of the former USSR. An account of some of their work is in their book ‘Being in the Middle by Being on the Edge’.

Steve died very suddenly at home this week in Milton Keynes. Celebrations of his life will be on Friday 14th December again in Milton Keynes.

As a way of summing up their approach to their work, here is what Sue wrote about Quaker peace work in 1988…

Establishing pacifist credentials has taken us collectively a long time, and entailed quite some suffering. How can a group without hierarchy or creed demonstrate that it will not participate in war and 'fighting with outward weapons'? Only when individuals, one after another, across time and space, live out their convictions, so that choices made in different situations still seem to come together as a pattern. Amazingly, we are now widely known as people who will not fight in wars. Not only this, we are almost as widely known for having intervened in wars to try to alleviate suffering on all sides...

Beyond the general notion of pacifism, the situation here has lent a special urgency to our reputation for harmlessness. By this I mean that, as a Friend, I am not only unwilling to serve as a soldier, but unwilling to take up arms in my private capacity. This may not sound like much, but it puts me in a special relationship to political leaders here: they believe that I will not kill them. And they don't believe that of everyone they meet. More to the point, they accept that I don't want them dead, even when I disagree with them. And this too is something they cannot take for granted. It is surprisingly freeing for all of us. I'm sure they don't want to kill me, either.
So I feel free to agree with them sometimes, disagree sometimes, without worrying about who else I agree or disagree with in the process, and taking for granted that neither of us wishes to kill the other.

(QFP 28.37)

We will miss Steve in the troubled years we have ahead. He and Sue followed the Quaker advice to ‘Live Adventurously’. (Advices and Queries 27). A hard and sobering example to follow.

Steve, thank you for your life.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Hazlenut spread and our 'candidates differences' 

There are –it is claimed- clear differences, it seems between Nutella (the hazelnut-based spread) as sold in Germany compared to that sold in France. This (subtitled) Youtube offering has an explanation..

… and in my Friday afternoon doziness the clip looks a little like a critique of Internal Party Elections…

Mind you as one commentator objects , “La nutella italiana è la migliore!!” But in this contest there is no third party even though it is originally an Italian product.

It may not even be the candidates, sorry products, that differ rather the use made of them Germans keep Nutella in the fridge, French on the kitchen shelf.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Future is NOW 

A more difficult choice than I expected. But now to vote, and the clinching reason much the same as it was for Cicero.

The future is now, not a bit further on across some bridge starting from the Kennedy era. The ‘New Leader’ will have to go straight in on December 18th and play the innings of a lifetime. We have an unexpected and glorious middle-order knock from Vince Cable to give us momentum and credibility. Chris Huhne is ready to do the job now. We should support him and get on with it.

The media and our opponents will try to baseball-cap our new leader at the first opportunity, trying to trip him up in contradictions and hesitations. I am sure Nick can and would overcome this onslaught, but much more confident that Chris will eat any attacker alive and carry the battle to them from the off..

I have been unexpectedly impressed by Nick Clegg and for me the single most exiting idea to emerge in this campaign is in one of his speeches; and several other ideas really hit the nail as to what the party needs to do. I hope we can build on this – and it will possibly be easier to follow up this and other initiatives if they are not seen by the media as ‘Leaders dictata’ but earn support on their own merit. Just as Chris’ environmental policies did after the election of Ming.

I delayed voting until now despite my early commitment as I wished to give each candidate the chance to evolve and challenge me (and give Nick respect and the chance to change my mind). But time to mark the Big One on the paper. It is for Chris. And so to the post (stamped of course).


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Feisty troublemakers for positive change 

On the day that Parliament solemnly debates the notion of christianophobia, a question : why are some people of faith so fragile in beliefs that any slight, however small, is devastating?

A question asked in this Liberal meditation by an US Catholic who is taking in her stride the release of the first film of Philip Pullmans ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. Some see this film (and even more so the books) as a deliberate desecration of Catholicism and demand that all Catholic parents make sure their children do not see it. But Mary Elisabeth Williams says:

My daughters go to school with kids who are Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and atheist. They know that people believe and don't believe in different things, and I'm raising them to respect that. If faith is so fragile that it can be shaken by the introduction of challenging ideas, what good is it?....

I want my children to understand that human beings and institutions are fallible. That sometimes those who claim moral authority can traffic in corruption and abuse.

I want them to be angry at every wrong perpetuated in the name of God. To question authority. To be feisty troublemakers for positive change….

… I hope that my daughters will find contentment and community in their religion. But I would
rather they grow up to be kind, generous unbelievers than sanctimonious, blindly dogmatic Christians.

Actually ‘Feisty troublemakers for positive change’ is quite a good head-up for a political programme…

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