Friday, March 28, 2008

Meanwhile in eve-of-poll Zimbabwe 

With the elections in Zimbabwe on March 29th, the website of Socwanele, the Zimbabwe Social Action Support Group, gives sombre latest information. Particularly striking is the google map of election violations that include:

Voter registration problems
Food supply (cutting off ‘opposition’ areas)
Unlawful detention
Vote buying
Political violence.
Political cleansing

This political cleansing story as an example, from Umguza district near Bulawayo:
two little sisters are in primary school. They're only 11 and 13. But outside school they were confronted by a gang of men armed with axes and clubs. The men told them that they would be killed, and their bodies burned to ashes... They told her that anyone who belonged to the MDC faced death if they didn't run away.

The Zimbabwe Today blog (Moses Moyo) reports that Zimbabwe military are massively on the streets. He ends this posting by saying:

Finally, just a few hours before the polls open, may I express a personal wish. I hope and trust that all my fellow citizens who can will turn out to vote tomorrow. Afterwards, when the results become known, please be careful. We live in dangerous times.

Some people out there with Zimbabwe keyboards have incredible courage. It puts this UK blogging, and delivering FOCUS leaflets in the rain, in sharp contrast.


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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sarkozy, ou le nouveau Lamartine 

The last time any French government made a particular strong point on being positive about Britain was during the Second Republic of 1848-1852.
Indeed it was the most anglophile administration in French history, even including the period of the establishment of the Entente Cordiale. Much talk about learning from British institutions, working together, and adopting similar commercial and economic strategies. Britain was for almost the only time in French history described in positive terms, and held up as a model to be copied.

The poet Alphonse de Lamartine was effectively head of government in the chaotic five-member executive and specialised in ringing declarations of intent including some of the most Liberal propositions ever floated in mainstream French politics..

Despite (or possibly because of) this rhetorical attempt to shift French foreign and domestic policy the Republic collapsed into the authoritarian nationalist and state-sponsored economic backwaters of the Second Empire. Lamartine was forced into an obscure retirement.

Visiting President Sarkozy of France is using his time here to make positive statements about ‘working together’ with Britain, and even (so far) avoiding comments about the food.

I hope that both he and Brown (or at least their respective advisors) are familiar with the entertaining book ‘That Sweet Enemy’ and are working on ways to avoid the worse of the stereotypes we have of each other. A necessary humility to underpin any ‘entente formidable’ or even ‘amicale’. Back home though, we can expect Sarkozy’s opponents gleefully to exploit the gut-distrust of the French political groupuscules towards ‘Anglo-Saxon liberalism’. Tests will come when the President has to match actions with words.

‘Voyons voir’ as my relatives in Burgundy say.

Reference: Robert and Isabelle Tombs ‘That Sweet Enemy; the French and the British from the Sun King to the present’ otherwise sub-titled ‘a history of a love-hate relationship’. See here for a review.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Fleashing out Liberal musings 

Its not easy being Liberal, and we have to struggle on with public debates that ignore or travesty our views. So we should celebrate columnists like the Observers Simon Caulkin who often raise and illuminate arguments that resonate with us. Take this for example:

….the public sector is in the grip of a central planning regime of a rigidity and incompetence not seen since Gosplan wrote Stalin's Five-Year Plans…name another government since Leonid Brezhnev's that prescribes 198 targets for local government, numbers and postings of junior doctors, reading methods for teachers in primary schools, cleaning techniques used in hospitals
and how GPs should organise their appointment diaries.

(198 reasons we are in this terrible mess. Observer, 9 March 2008)

But there is more. Caulkin is also scathing about a private sector where

…market rules are so degraded that it has become the role of companies in the real economy, some built up over decades, to act as chips tossed around by high rollers in the City supercasino.

The central point of the column is to discuss a theory put out by the late great Jane Jacobs on two approaches to economic and social organisation. Each is upheld by a distinct ‘moral syndrome’.

commerce thrives on a syndrome of honesty, competition, respect for contracts, initiative and enterprise, optimism, thrift, willingness to collaborate and agree, and avoidance of force.
The other syndrome, which Jacobs dubs the 'guardian' syndrome because it derives from territorial protection, by contrast emphasises loyalty, honour, tradition, prowess, exclusivity and the distribution of largesse. Trading is anathema to it.

We need both Caulkin says, agreeing with Jacobs,

…the disastrous results of the GP contract can be traced directly to the government's determination to turn an essentially guardian organisation into a commercial one….The point about the syndromes is that one isn't better than, or replaceable by, the other: they're symbiotic. It follows that the ability to navigate between them, maintaining their integrity but knowing when to switch, is vital. If, as Jacobs suggests, such a capability is a mark of civilisation, we can only conclude we are going in the opposite direction to what New Labour intended: backwards.

The whole thing needs to be read. Interesting to do so while digesting the points made in Nick Clegg’s latest Conference speech…

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A very thoughtful analysis of great value.

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Oh My Oath! Even higher status than an ASBO. 

So OK you have a bunch of 18 year olds lined up to be initiated into 'belonging and commitment' by taking a personal oath of loyalty to the Monarch. And at least one refuses.

What happens then? What is the status of those persons? Is it recorded on their national identity database that they are oath refuseniks? Do they suffer any reductions in their citizenship status as a result? Are they to be barred from getting student loans or grants?

Remember we are not talking about people getting naturalised, giving up one allegiance and taking up allegiance to this country. We are talking about people born with the pains and pleasures of UK-ness who have a right to citizenship.

In the glorious tradition of the law of unintended consequences we have found that the ASBO, for some people, becomes a kind of battle honour, a mark of status gained by putting up defiant fingers to 'authority'. I suspect that, for the rebellious and uproarious, 'oath-refusal' might be an even more potent tribal marker.

And on a sober note, being a Quaker I cannot as a matter of conscience take any kind of oath at all. Quaker teenagers commiting to this tradition will likewise not be able to swear allegiance in the way suggested. So the young people for whom I have some care in my Quaker Meetings are directly threatened by this notion.

I do wish some people would actually be proud of the relaxed and civilised way we manage some things in this country instead of being Daily Mail panicked into pseudo-patriotic stunts.

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Why does this story make me think of the film Starship Troopers!?

We will soon be nicely boxed into citizens, those who have earned the right to the full benefits of the state, and civilians who decline on grounds of faith or belief to adhere to the demanded norm.
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Friday, March 07, 2008

We need Liverpool Nemawashi after Referendum upsets 

Being leader will give Nick many opportunities to learn and reflect on exciting situations and work out better ways for comfort zones (including his own) to be challenged.
So after the euro-vote pains let’s hope for some Nemawashi at Liverpool Spring Conference.

As noted before, in terms of Japanese traditions of decision-making, Nemawshi means the process by which everyone affected by a prospective decision works through in advance what the implications are and accepts the necessary consequences for their own actions and behaviour.

I noted before that “One of the disciplines of Nemawashi is knowing that you cannot ever get complete agreement from all participants on the final goal for a serious action. What you can get however is an ‘agreement to proceed’, to move on to new ground and learn from what taking that new ground implies. Building up an ‘agreement to proceed’ gives an organisation great strength and helps establish the possibility of further ‘agreements’.”

I hope Nick and the Parliamentary leadership will be thinking in this manner. It plays right into Liberalisms strengths after all…

On the substance of the Referendum business. One problem with our Referenda policy evolution was (I think) that a quick decision had to be made just before last Autumn conference when the Ming Leadership was on precarious grounds and serious debate would have been seen as preparations for a coup. Then a final decision had to be made before this Spring conference by a new leadership which has not had a chance yet to interact with Conference and concerned party members outside the leadership election tramlines. Minimal Nemawashi in other words. So it goes. But not again please.

(Update: as usual, Alex Wilcock gives thoughtful context in depth to these issues... )

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