Thursday, 31 January 2008

Oil in troubled waters

Channel 4 News reported this evening that the UK government is minded to approve an application for oil and gas exploration in the Moray Firth.

This seems to me utterly bonkers. The area concerned is in a Special Area of Conservation due the unique colony of bottlenose dolphins which exist there. They are the most northerly colony in the world and already face significant threats. The Channel 4 report indicated that the dolphins could be particularly affected by the noise of explosions connected with seismic research.

If like me you think this is an outrageous proposal, then you still have time to do something about it. The consultation period on the plans continues until March, so if you want to have your say, then click here.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Hain quits - good riddance

Having called for Peter Hain to go over his deputy leadership election finance fiasco, I'm delighted that he has bowed to the inevitable and finally gone. Better late than never.

I knew he was doomed the moment I saw that Lembit Opik was supporting him.

It's not about sovereignty, stupid

There's something about the whole tedious debate over whether there should be a referendum on the European reform treaty which puzzles me.

It's this: much of the opposition to Europe generally and to the reform treaty in particular centres around the idea of sovereignty and the notion that the UK is somehow losing control of its own sovereign affairs.

But this is mostly tripe. Most of those who make that argument are quite content to give up British sovereignty in other areas where it suits their own purposes, with the clearest example being defence.

If sovereignty is to mean anything at all, then surely it means that a country has the right to go to war as and when it chooses. However, because Britain is a member of NATO, that right is circumscribed, and has been since April 4, 1949.

Under the North Atlantic Treaty, if someone decides to attack, say, Lithuania, then the UK would have to go to war to defend it. That seems to me a far greater infringement of our national sovereignty than ANYTHING the EU has ever done or is ever likely to do. As it happens, I think the principles of collective security which underlie the NATO alliance are sound and the UK should continue to be a member.

But I would have far more respect for those calling for a referendum on the reform treaty or even for withdrawal from the EU if they applied the logic of their own arguments and also called for referenda on the UK's membership of the UN and NATO. But as far as I am aware, no-one is calling for referenda on those. Let's not forget that the British people have never been asked whether they wish to be part of these international organisations, despite the loss of sovereignty involved.

The idea that people wanting a referendum on the reform treaty are concerned about UK sovereignty is largely baloney. It's not about sovereignty, stupid. It's about giving the EU and the government a good kicking.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Scottish Tories ride to rescue of Nats

The Scottish Tories have broken the Trades Descriptions Act. Their full name is the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party - but that doesn't stop them from propping up a Scottish government whose sole purpose is to break the union between England and Scotland.

In today's Scottish Parliament debate on the SNP's budget proposals, the Tories voted in favour of the Nats' spending plans, which passed by 64 votes to 62. The Lib Dems and Labour both voted against, while the 2 Greens again showed what a waste of space they are by abstaining.

I could understand the Tories voting for the budget if they'd got something substantial in return, but they didn't. Their support was bought with a vague and uncosted promise maybe to increase police numbers, but without saying how many, and by an even vaguer proposal to see if there is any scope for cuts in business taxation.

It's not even as if this is a whirlwind relationship, with Scots' Tory leader Annabel Goldie being swept off her feet by her dashing Prince Charming, Alex Salmond. It's been going on ever since Salmond got his feet under the table as First Minister, as this report in the Edinburgh Evening News in June last year indicates.

What is especially galling about this love-in is that before the elections last year, the Tories were accusing the Lib Dems of being prepared to prop up an SNP government or go into coalition with them, as this quote from a BBC report of a debate between the Scottish party leaders a few days before the election makes clear:

But had Miss Goldie detected something in the offing?
"Far be it from me to intrude on this love-in, but Nicol Stephen specifically refused to rule out a coalition with Alex Salmond," she stated.
And replying to a suggestion from an audience member that a vote for the Lib Dems could save the Union, the Conservative head matron stated: "Frankly, I'd sooner rely on a firelighter to put out a conflagration."
For the record, Mr Stephen pointed out that there was no love-in.

In reality, of course, the Lib Dems decided to go into opposition as a deal with the Nats was not possible due to the latter's insistence on wanting an independence referendum, even though there was no majority in the Scottish Parliament for one.

It's the worst sort of opportunism for the Tories to accuse their opponents of wanting to prop up a Nationalist government and then do exactly the same thing themselves, despite supposedly being a unionist party.

But the lesson from this is clear: Vote Annabel Goldie, get Alex Salmond.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

An EU referendum - who cares?

The answer seems to be: almost no-one. Indeed, the number of people who cite Europe as being the most important issue we face has several times within the last year been within the margin of error of zero.

There have been several Lib Dems saying over the last few days that we should have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. But the ONLY people who really give a toss about the EU reform treaty are the Eurobores and obsessives. Most of them aren't going to be voting Lib Dem anyway, so my suggestion to the party leadership is to tell them to take a hike.

But I'm sure Nick Clegg doesn't want to be seen as undemocratic in opposing a referendum. I have the solution. I note that the number of people who say that Europe is the most important issue we face in the latest poll is exactly the same as those who say transport is the most important issue. I therefore propose that we have a national referendum as to whether a new runway should be built at Heathrow airport. Unlike the EU reform treaty, it's a clear-cut issue which people can easily understand. It allows a simple yes/no answer. And it affects rather more people's lives than the non-issue of whether or not the EU should have a foreign minister.

A referendum on Heathrow expansion - you know it makes sense.

More questions over Northern Rock

OK, back down to earth. Vince Cable's reaction to the government's announcement over Northern Rock's debts to the taxpayer being converted into a form of bonds is well worth reading and asks some of the many questions which need to be asked about the proposed rescue strategy.

But there are some more questions which need to be asked. For a start, Vince refers to the profit sharing scheme proposed by the government as being of the order of 5-10%. As the Rock's profits in 2006 were £627m, it's quite clear that even if the bank does manage to achieve that sort of level of profits again in the future (a highly questionable assumption, given its recent history), that is certainly going to make very little dent in the £25bn or so which the government will be guaranteeing through the bonds scheme.

Therefore Northern Rock will have to sell off a substantial chunk of its £100bn+ mortgage and loan assets in order that the bonds can eventually be repaid. But given the difficulties in the housing market and the fact this whole mess was caused by the downturn in the mortgage market in America, I suspect that won't be the easiest task in the world, in the short term at least. The taxpayer is therefore still going to be exposed to substantial risk in the short to medium term, but without the security that full ownership of Northern Rock's assets would bring. It's significant that Alistair Darling was unable to give any indication as to when he thought the government's liability towards Northern Rock would come to an end.

But as well as questions about the implications for the bank itself, there are wider questions that need to be asked. An injection of £25bn into the gilts market is significant and it's worth asking whether there's likely to be any inflationary effect as a result. And it also has to be asked what implications it has for public borrowing and public spending over the next few years, neither of which are particularly healthy at the moment.

All in all, there are more questions than answers for Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Asking for the moon

I wasn't born when mankind first stepped on the moon and I was only a few years old when the Apollo programme was abandoned. So you might expect me to share the same blase attitude which most people have about it - been there, done that, got the moon boots.

But I don't. It remains one of humanity's most stupendous achievements - but more importantly, one which reminds us of what is possible if we set ourselves far-sighted goals and will the means of achieving them, as John F Kennedy so famously did with the moon landings.

My reason for looking at this issue is that I've just been to Eden Court Theatre in Inverness to see In The Shadow Of The Moon. This film is a must for anyone with any interest whatsoever in space travel. In it, the surviving Apollo astronauts (with the notable exception of Neil Armstrong) discuss their experiences of what it was like to be part of the Apollo programme and land on the moon.

We've all seen and heard Armstong saying "One small step, one giant leap" many times, but for me those words can still send a small shiver of excitement down my spine. That is especially true when you realise just what a culmination of effort, enterprise and scientific discovery it represented, as the film makes clear.

But the question it raises is whether we are still capable of such great endeavours. Are politicians today capable of promoting such visionary enterprises, in the way that Kennedy did with his "We choose to go to the moon" rhetoric? Even if they do have such vision, can they back up such plans with the rather large budgets required to realise them, especially when so many people question the benefits of space exploration (although there is quite a large list of scientific discoveries and developments which are attributed to the Apollo programme). In addition, there are quite a few terrestrial problems which seem to be of equal or greater importance, such as the problems relating to global climate change.

My answer is that space travel and exploration must continue to be a vital part of human development and discovery. Yes, it needs to be done in tandem with other challenges (eg climate change) rather than at their expense. Yes, there will be significant costs. But it is something which needs to be done in the spirit of exploration and enterprise which has driven humanity forward over the centuries.

That is why I hope that human beings will soon return to the surface of the moon and that is why I hope within my lifetime to see the first humans landing on Mars.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Michael Portillo and a near-death experience

I've just watched one of the creepiest TV programmes I'm likely to see in a long time, namely Michael Portillo presenting an edition of the BBC science series Horizon.

Entitled How To Kill A Human Being, the programme was an examination of whether it is possible to have a humane means of executing people. Portillo examined the methods currently used in the USA - lethal injection, hanging, electrocution and the gas chamber - and found them all wanting for one reason or another.

In his search for the perfect method of execution, Portillo himself underwent a series of experiments in which he tested out different methods (not to their ultimate point, of course). We saw him spun round in a centrifuge chamber to deprive the brain of blood and then he went into an altitude chamber, to induce hypoxia. This is the starvation of oxygen in the blood, resulting in the person so affected becoming light-headed, unconscious and, very soon after that, dead. But it is apparently painless and Portillo described the sensation as being one of euphoria, even though he was apparently just seconds away from death.

Portillo's eventual 'perfect killing machine' was to induce hypoxia by exposing someone to excessive nitrogen. But when he put that potential 'solution' to one of the USA's leading pro-death penalty campaigners, he was told that the death penalty is meant to be nasty and that if the prisoners died feeling euphoric, that would be an injustice to their victims.

Portillo has done us all a service in reminding us that, no matter how it is carried out, the death penalty is barbaric. Had his 'optimum' method of execution been in place in the UK, I'm sure the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Stefan Kiszko would all have been duly grateful to have been despatched with a feeling of euphoria. They, and other victims of miscarriages of justice, would have had no way back, whether they'd gone by hanging or hypoxia. Portillo himself acknowledges this, saying at the start of his film that miscarriages of justice were the main reason why he switched from supporting the death penalty to opposing it.

But even without that consideration, there can never be a wholly humane way of carrying out the death penalty. If you've been sentenced to die, that in itself creates a real level of mental anguish, as Kenny Richey, the Scot freed from death row in the USA last week, explained when he spoke about being left to rot in hell. That anguish must be all the more intense if, like Richey, you are minutes away from death when you get a stay of execution.

Although Portillo's programme made for very uncomfortable and creepy viewing, in the end it was worth it as it once again showed that execution is undoubtedly barbaric, no matter how it is done. No nation can call itself completely civilised if it continues to allow the death penalty. The sooner it becomes history on a global scale, the better.

Monday, 14 January 2008

It's accountability that counts

Nick Clegg's speech at the weekend on how the Lib Dems might set about reforming public services is a welcome first step from him in putting forward a Liberal narrative about the changes we wish to see. Certainly we will need to give a clearer route map as to how we reach our destination, but the direction of travel is clear.

Clegg was talking about moving towards greater empowerment of people, encouraging a bottom-up approach to schools and the health service, to encourage diversity and innovation. This is not a break with the past, as some have depicted it, but to me is wholly in keeping with the party's traditions, stretching at least as far back as the famous 'Community Politics' resolution adopted by the Liberal Party in 1970: "Our role as political activists is to help people take and use power within their communities." (If you want to find out more about what community politics is, this is an excellent place to start - slightly dated in one or two respects, but still an excellent guide.)

This is not the illusory Tory talk of choice and diversity. All too often that masks choice solely for those with the money or resources to make that choice effective, or alternatively is a cloak for removing services from local control and giving a greater role for central government, as was the case with grant-maintained schools when the Tories were in power. Indeed, much current Tory thinking on education seems a rehash of those policies from the past. Clegg was right to highlight that the Tories are interested only in escape routes for the few, not social mobility for everyone.

Clegg was also right to note that if we are to empower people, a revitalisation of local democracy is a key part of that process, with more powers, more control over their own funding, and greater democracy for local authorities. But that is by no means enough. The liberal commitment to empowering people doesn't just stop at the town hall door. We need to find more ways of involving people directly in the running of public services, and Clegg's 'free schools' idea is one possible way of doing this.

But what will be vital here is ensuring that public services are accountable to the people who use them. There's little point in taking services out of local democratic control if they are then responsible to a vocal minority or a privileged few, and ignoring the needs or wishes of the majority. We must recognise that while local government is far from perfect - all too often it can be remote and bureaucratic - it does at least provide a means of democratic accountability, at least in theory. However, accountability is not the sole preserve of local authorities, and it might well be the case that a school run on co-operative principles (which would be one logical development of Clegg's free schools idea) would be more accountable to the people it serves than local councillors. They are elected to decide a variety of issues, possibly as a result of their party label, and are possibly not very well known in their wards.

Assuming more flesh is put on the bones, I think the Lib Dems are likely to have a coherent and distinctively Liberal take on reform of public services come the next election. Empowerment and diversity are good Liberal themes, but they must also be accompanied by accountability.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Liverpool transformed

I remember my first visit to Liverpool some years ago. It was for an open day at the university, where I'd applied to study politics. I probably shouldn't have gone, as I was feeling pretty ill with flu. I had to get up very early to get the train up from Folkestone in order to be there on time.

When I arrived in Liverpool, I wasn't greatly impressed. Lime Street isn't the most welcoming of stations in the world. I then walked up towards the university, using a route which I was later told by a friend of mine was possibly the worst one I could have taken. It was a wet day, which didn't help. When I arrived at the university, I couldn't find where the hell I was meant to be so, by that stage feeling thoroughly miserable, I headed back to the station and went home.

That was in the late 1980s. If you'd told me then that one day Liverpool would not only be the European Capital of Culture, but would thoroughly deserve to be, I'd have been phoning the men in white coats to come and take you away.

I was back in the city a few years ago for a conference, when it had already been announced that Liverpool would be the Capital of Culture this year. Maybe it was that I was able to appreciate it better, or maybe the city decided to show me a brighter face, but I was rather more impressed than on my first visit. I didn't have an awful lot of time for sightseeing, but I enjoyed the things I was able to see. It left me with a desire to return, which certainly wasn't the case after my first visit. Even then, it was clear that Liverpool was beginning to get a buzz about it again as the preparations for this year's cultural extravaganza were beginning to get under way.

Looking at the news bulletins today (well, yesterday now) about the start of the Capital of Culture programme, it's clear that Liverpool has undergone a real renaissance. Even the leader of the Labour group on Liverpool City Council, when taking part in a discussion on Newsnight, admitted that the city had undergone a dramatic transformation in the last few years. I would suggest that one reason for that is that his party is no longer in power in the city. The Lib Dems have run Liverpool since 1998 and I think deserve a large share of the credit for turning the city around. Unlike in the 1980s, when between them Margaret Thatcher and Derek Hatton ravaged the city and its reputation, the Liverpool I see today is a more confident place with far more going on.

Yes, the city still has its share of problems, and yes, not everybody has yet benefitted from its transformation. There are also complaints that the Capital of Culture has bypassed some areas, although looking at the pretty extensive programme throughout the year, I doubt there'll be too many people who can't find something in it they'll enjoy.

I'll be going to another conference in Liverpool in March (the Lib Dems are holding their spring conference there in the city's newly-built conference centre). I've arranged to go down a day early so I can do a bit more sightseeing and take in some of the cultural events. And I'll probably try and spend another few days down there later in the year. Liverpool is definitely a city which is going places.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Hain must go

It was a muddle not a fiddle which did for Henry McLeish's career as Scotland's First Minister. I suspect the same is going to be true for Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain.

The news that he failed to register with the Electoral Commission donations totalling £103,000 for his failed bid to be deputy leader of the Labour Party is astonishing. When it first emerged that Hain had been having problems with his declarations, it appeared to be an isolated example. I suspect many people thought he was just unlucky and were prepared to let the matter drop.

However, he soon admitted that there were other undeclared donations and now, almost two months later, he's had to admit that there are about 20 donations which weren't declared.

I can't understand why it's taken him so long to discover this. Surely he must have had a list of people who had donated to his campaign and also a list of declarations he had made to the Electoral Commission. Why was it not a simple matter of checking one list against another?

Apparently, people in Hain's campaign team are arguing about who was responsible for the mess. There's a simple answer to that: the ultimate responsibility has to lie with Hain himself. He was the person in charge of the campaign and one of the most basic jobs when running any campaign is to make sure that all rules regarding funding and donations are met in full. For whatever reason, that didn't happen and Hain is the one who has to carry the can.

Hain claims that it was the pressure of trying to combine his government job with running a deputy leadership campaign which led to the chaos. If true, that is a damning indictment of his own abilities. As the old saying goes, if you can't juggle at least two balls, you shouldn't be in the bloody circus. If he's unable to cope with a relatively simple matter like running a deputy leadership campaign properly, then how much more difficult is it to cope with the complexities of the Department for Work and Pensions?

Peter Hain's position is untenable and he must go.

UPDATE: I see Liberal Action has a similar take on the story.

New nukes? No thanks

Today's announcement that the Labour Government wishes to see a new generation of nuclear power stations built in the UK comes as no surprise. Indeed, they have announced their support for nuclear power before, but were forced by the courts to carry out another consultation on the issue as the first was was so flawed. Amazingly enough, their new 'consultation' has reached exactly the same conclusions as their first.

But no matter how many times they announce it, it's still the wrong decision. As Chris Huhne said during the leadership election, nuclear power is a technology which has been tried and tested - and failed. Despite billions of pounds of support from government, nuclear power proved to be much more expensive to produce than other sources of power. It leaves a legacy of nuclear waste which takes thousands of years to deal with. It is not a renewable form of energy, as it is reliant upon a non-renewable resource, uranium.

It's not even as if nuclear power is that good at reducing carbon emissions. Firstly, because of the large amount of energy involved in producing them, it takes quite a while for any nuclear power station even to become carbon neutral. And Greenpeace has estimated that even if the UK had 10 new nuclear power station up and running by the mid-2020s, that would still only result in a 4% drop in the UK's carbon emissions.

If the billions of pounds which it takes to provide new nuclear power stations were instead invested in energy conservation and in a range of renewable energy sources (onshore and offshore wind, wave and tidal energy, solar and geothermal), the impact on the UK's carbon emissions would be far greater. I'm delighted that in his response to the government's announcement, Lib Dem environment spokesman Steve Webb made this point.

Building new nuclear power stations is a waste, in more ways than one.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Deja vu all over again?

A Labour Prime Minister who has led his party for more than 10 years stands down in mid-Parliament. His successor, a former Chancellor who was seen as a long-term rival, is initially viewed as a safe pair of hands but a series of largely self-inflicted political disasters serve to destroy his reputation.

Economically, there is recession in the air and inflationary pressures are building up, thanks in part to a recent significant rise in oil prices. The government wishes to impose three-year pay deals on public sector workers to help deal with inflation and public spending generally is tight.

At the same time, the Conservative leader wants to take the party in a whole new direction and seems to be striking a chord with the public, although there are some murmurings within the party about the leadership. Meanwhile, following recent scandals, the Libs have just had a leadership election, between an up and coming Young Turk and a more established older rival, which the younger candidate wins.

In America, it's presidential election year and a virtual unknown stuns the party establishment by coming from nowhere to secure the Democratic nomination, offering hope to the country after years of discredited Republican rule. One of the main reasons for this disillusion with the Republicans is the effects of a war in Asia, combined with an autocratic and arrogant governing style which many feel has resulted in unconstitutional acts. The incumbent Republican president is also widely seen as an idiot.

Yup, it's 1976 all over again.

And my preferred candidate is...

apparently Dennis Kucinich. Like a few other Lib Dems (most of whom also seem to be natural Kucinich supporters, even if like me they'd probably vote for someone else if they had a vote), I took this quiz and my results are as follows:

87% Dennis Kucinich
85% Mike Gravel
77% Chris Dodd
76% Joe Biden
76% Barack Obama
73% Hillary Clinton
72% John Edwards
72% Bill Richardson
36% Rudy Giuliani
35% Ron Paul
30% John McCain
23% Mike Huckabee
23% Mitt Romney
12% Tom Tancredo
12% Fred Thompson

2008 Presidential Candidate Matching Quiz

I'm slightly surprised that Barack came out just ahead of Hillary, as she is someone I do have a great deal of respect for, even if I don't always agree with her. But having had a look at Barack's website yesterday (yes, I am that sad!) it's clear that if he was a British politician, he'd almost certainly be a Lib Dem. There was very little on there that I'd disagree with, and most differences would be a matter of me wanting to go further, faster.

It's also clear that Barack has managed to inspire quite a lot of people in the last few weeks, although whether he can translate his charm and appeal in the personal 'retail' politics of Iowa and New Hampshire to the more media-based 'wholesale' politics needed to do well in Super Tuesday and in the general election remains to be seen. I would also question whether his often visionary rhetoric (which often reminds me of Tony Blair, which is not a good thing) is enough or whether he needs to demonstrate a bit more substance in his campaign, rather than just relying on being a likeable candidate.

Barack has been a breath of fresh air in the often jaded world of American politics and might well be able to snatch the Democratic nomination from Hillary. But whichever of them does get it stands a very good chance of becoming the first serving member of the US Senate to be elected as President since John F Kennedy in 1960. And either of them would be miles better than any Republican.

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