Monday, 28 March 2011

Why the European project is effectively a waste of time and money

Heavily recycling here, an old comment on an old friend's blog. Well, there we are: these views aren't time sensitive.

The failure of the European project is surely that Europe has invested far too much time, money and effort in, essentially, broadening the scope of its remit (and its boundaries) and not enough time, money and effort (to which I should add, most importantly "will") on what business people call "core activity". If the EU (indeed, the UK Government likewise) focused on making things easier and less expensive for people, it would be much more popular and successful. At a trans- or inter-state level, this is going to be about facilitating trade (taxes, standards, tariffs, subsidy and competition management), travel and the fight against organised crime.

This is all best illustrated by the failings of the Euro, which would be a fantastic idea if, as everybody has pointed out, it was actually backed with proper fiscal and monetary mechanisms to ensure it actually works (which, sorry to say, does mean the surrender of more powers - the right ones for once - to the "European centre"). Instead, it'a grand scheme which, intentionally or otherwise, has ended up as a Franco-German tool of domination. What we get, as Dan Hannan usually points out, is a lot of posturing and money grabbing and a general lack of focus on the people of Europe.

Can anybody explain why the Opposition always backs the Government when it comes to military action?

A friend recently asked this question "Can anybody explain why the Opposition always backs the Government when it comes to military action?", to which my response was:

1. They're mostly men.
‎2. They are attracted to politics in part because they like and desire power. War is the ultimate expression of power: the power to give life, the power to take it away - we are moving in to powers of god territory.
‎3. Our "representative" so called democracy is based on the idea that we elect them to make decisions on our behalf. We do not elect them, ironically, to represent our views. This is how Tony Blair justified invading Iraq despite the couple of million people who took to the streets to say "No" to war in Iraq. Being used to taking decisions on our behalf but seldom having to deal with the consequences of their decisions, they believe they are infallible and so feel justified in making decisions that anyone with an iota of sense would shy away from, lacking, as we and they do, any real insight in to the matters at hand.

Developing this:
The Uk has to get out of its habit of interfering in the affairs of other countries. Admittedly, this is hard to do as engaging on any level, even if it's only trade, could be considered to be "interfering" but what I mean is: messing around with their politics. It's not up to us to decide who should rule or how they should rule. If countries like Libya or Bahrain aren't democratic, so be it: that legitimises their people to use undemocratic means to change their governments.

This whole sorry affair has also laid bare the pretensions of, for want of a better description, the Muslim world (or the "Umma", if you like). The UK and the USA (usually justifiably) are attacked for "interfering" but when it comes to the crunch, they are happy to leave it to us (wrongly) to sort out their mess. The Qaddafi State in Libya is not just undemocratic, it's also un-Islamic. So what are the people of the region doing to save their fellow Muslims from oppression? Where is Turkey? What is Saudi doing with all those expensive fighter planes we have sent them, to help sort out Qaddafi? What's that big army in Egypt doing? Nowhere. Nothing. Nowt. Why? Because for all of their self-aggrandising, puffed-up talk of Muslim brotherhood, these governments are venal, self serving, and irreligious.

Good Muslims may hold the notion of the Umma close to their hearts, but their leaders prove time and again that they will use Islam to justify their actions only when it suits them to do so and seldom do so when it conflicts with their self interest.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Egypt first hand

Got back from Egypt last night. Low level protests in Luxor and Aswan much of last week. The much hated Egyptian police were getting a pasting from the stone throwing lads. Most entertaining. The level of protest and popular engagement in Upper Egypt, however, was disappointing and not at all as seen in Cairo, Alex and Suez and looked pale in comparison with, for example, the recent student protests in London. This is perhaps due to the lack of any consistent leadership of opposition and uncertainty about who and "what" may take over post-Mubarak. El Baradai, for example, didn't seem to raise much interest from the locals, who sometimes referred to him as "an American". Nonetheless, I didn't hear one person say anything nice about Mubarak and his cronies either. There will be significant tension between the educated middle class, who want to see Egypt follow Turkey into a West-facing economy (accepting that Turkey may actually be changing to be more significantly Orient-ated) and the fellahin, who are more interested in a moderate Islamist solution, led by the Muslim Bortherhood. Neither position is actually supported by anything resembling "a plan", suggesting a significant ideological/power vacuum may form, which would be deeply destabilising for the country. We must remain optimistic that someone from outside the current political establishment will seize the initiative and set out a constructive plan for transition or else, I'm sorry to say, things are going to get alot worse before they get better. Good riddance to Mubarak though - a fantastic opportunity for the Egyptians to democratically determine their own future though, rather than have the military-industrial complex dictate it for them.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

George Osborne asks the public which services should be cut: some answers

You've got to wonder if this "listening Government" will be any different from all their predecessors, who may have been listening but seemed to be rather hard of hearing. Well, for what it's worth, here's my ideas:

It general, I feel the Government must introduce some sort of litmus test which examines "does this initiative just look good on paper - or appeal to our idealogical leanings - or will it make a real difference?"

Localism, for example. Sounds great and, philosophically, I think it's wonderful. But how many of you think your local authority actually does a good job of organising public services in your area? I'm not saying all local government is weak at delivery but alot of it seems to be. And even if good work is done, is it really good value for money to have all those layers of bureaucracy between the Treasury and the "end user" (er - that's you and me)?

Council tax - what a phenomenal waste of time and money (the calculation and billing and collecting and allocation and redistribution). And it's hardly a "fair tax. Just bang it all in income tax and redistribute it from the centre, to areas where it's actually needed.

Policing - (in cities) sell half the cars and get em on bikes ; give them helmet cameras so they don't have to spend ages writing up (probably rather biased) notes. More time on the beat, less time filling out forms, less wasted overtime.

Prisons - close half of them. Revive that "short, sharp, shock" idea for prisons. Plough most of the savings into making the Probation Service more effective, rehabilitation, remedial eduction. Reduce reoffending and therefore reduce the long-term spend on Justice.

I fear the actual policy wont be as good as it sounds but I actually think streamlining and simplifying the benefits system is very sensible. And I think pensions should be brought into this analysis. I wonder - not having access to Treasury data - whether it would be possible to set a fair National Minimum Income that was aligned with the income tax threshold. In other words, we'd make sure everyone over the age of 18 had an income they could live off (and wouldn't be taxed on) but that that was means tested. So: no pension for people who have enough to live off anyway ; likewise child benefit ; like wise incapacity benefits. (rare) Targeted top up payments (for the disabled, for example) would help people whose unalterable circumstances mean their financial requirements exceed the norm.

Take almost all of central Government (Civil service) out of London. I used to be a Civil Servant. Most of the work done in London could be done elsewhere. This doesn't mean "localism" it just means distributing central government around the UK to support employment outside the overcrowded south east. To be fair, this has been tried but, frankly, minimal effort has been applied to overcome the intransigence of Civil Servants.

And as I understand it, there are nearly enough Lt Colonels working for the MOD for every fighting platoon in the Army to be led directly by a Lt Col. The madness of feather bedding in the armed services just has to stop. Scrap our pointless heavy armour brigades. Get rid of any notion of high altitude bombing (doesn't work, laser-guided or not). refocus the Navy on submarines and amphibious warfare and ditch most of the surface fleet. Dont buy eurofighter etc.

Don't build any more roads.

Invest in local renewable generation of electricity and bring the cost of energy (and, therefore, business) down. More profitable business = more tax +less unemployment.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Dudus, Escobar and the rest

Dudus. This week's events in Kingston, Jamaica illustrate perfectly the corrosive nature of the trade in illegal drugs. Dudus had wealth to spare. He filled the vacuum that the Jamaican Government ignored: the provision of basic social services to a few (impossible to know) who live in the township that surround his homebase. This benefaction bought Christopher "Dudus" Coke champion status amongst a community of Tivoli Gardens.

The violence since the attempt to detain Dudus is directed at the state because it is his drug money that has injected some respite into this desperate and ignored place. A local police stations burn, Jamaicans island wide live in fear of more widespread turmoil. But how and why can the actions of one man whom lives outside the system pose such a profound threat to the most powerful state in the Caribbean?

Dudus follows Escobar. These drug lords are the beggar princes, the Robin Hoods of today. They rob - or sell coke - to the rich and give - a little, to a few - of the poor. In cold terms, his purchasing power in Tivoli Gardens outweighed that of the Golding government. He lives outside the law and the influence he bought and directs over his community threatens because it is meaningful to the many for whom the state doesn't provide protection, education or dignity.

Dudus is wanted for drugs and weapons smuggling. Perversely his ascent has been enabled by the boundless profitability of the drugs trade: a product (coke) in high demand in a rich marketplace subject to highly restricted supply through narrowly limited channels. Every channel to the USA is fought over fiercely and Jamaica has long been an entrepot in the cocaine trade. As under Manley and Seago in the 70s, when Jamaica was rocked by a heady mix of political and trade violence at the dawn of this generation long cocaine boom, the narcodollars seem again to have blurred the boundaries between political and criminal control of territories. One uses their money and muscle to take control of communities, the other provides the security from prosecution and thus the conditions in which the cash can flood in. And, evidently, the deal has gone sour.

The real problem is not in Jamaica or Mexico or Colombia. It is an American problem - at least as far as Jamaica is concerned. The drugs flow one way in the Americas and the Caribbean: north. The USA’s failure to solve its addiction to coke is ripping deeper and deeper wounds into its neighbours. California may tinker with legislation prohibiting cannabis but similar action on coke is unthinkable. While most agree that both supply and demand must be addressed if cocaine use is going to disappear in the USA , it’s the criminality of the supply end that is so disrupting her neighbours. Will the threats to America’s trade and social interests posed by the seething instability in her backyard prompt Obama to scale back overseas intervention against the traffickers in favour of a vigorous crackdown at home?

Monday, 1 February 2010

The old quango chestnut

[With apologies to the blogosphere for my 6 week absence from here. I am sure the words "broadband problems" and "somewhat lazy" say it all]

So, I have been falling back on old, bad habits, and last week was tempted into joining back in with frustratati who pepper opinion pieces on mainstream news sites with their comments. I thought I'd reproduce (and expand a little) on that comment here...

On Friday, Jeff Randall of the Telegraph published an op ed entitled Quangos are a luxury we don't need, and certainly can't afford

Of course, Mr Randall's piece wasn't a serious analysis of the structure of public service management in the UK (and, you know, who can blame him for that) but as I posted in response... "Oh, dear. Daft naivety from Mr Randall." (or a degree of disingenuousness). Jeff uses the example of a current recruitment to the Film Council to expose all that is wrong with the government of the UK and our habit of forming Quangos: "The UK Film Council, a government-backed agency, the role of which is to ensure that "the economic, cultural and educational aspects of film are represented effectively at home and abroad", advertised for a head of diversity"

So I went on to say...

"OK, this diversity job at the Film Council sounds like an expensive luxury but that's one job costing the taxpayer a little over £100k out of the billions spent on quangos: it's entertaining but essentially irrelevant to wider question."

This caused a bit of a stir with one fellow commentator who responded: "Well that makes it alright then. Tell you what, I will jack in my job and breeze along into some quango non-job paying £70k and sit it out until I retire. No-one will notice and I will be essentially irrelevant. You will not mind paying, will you? What sort of planet are you on? You obviously do not work in the productive economy.”

Which rather misses the point: that one pointless job – or even quite few of them – does not undermine the whole point of having quangos. And, really, has this person (presumably in the private sector) never worked somewhere where there are aimless passengers who contribute little or nothing to the company? – I certainly have! Of course, I was being provocative but anyway, here's the meat of my argument....

"So why do we have quangos?

- because (unlike in America) there is a left-right consensus in the UK that "something must be done...." and that that "something" should almost always be done by the government. We - especially our press - BEG for the government to sort out our woes, rather than taking responsibility ourselves and sorting out the problems at a community level

- we can't afford to have all the people who "do the something" for the state on Civil Service t's&c's (although the pensions are now much reduced from what they once were). Quangos (for along time, and under Tory governments as much as Labour) are the third way solution - outsourcing to the private sector is not efficient as high proportion of state investment goes straight to shareholders' pockets

- so we have quangos!

We can have fewer quangos but we will either have to expect less from government or pay more for it.

And, as an aside, this peculiar argument that there is a clear separation of public and private sectors? Do you really live in the UK? The private sector take billions in public finance, through outsourcing of various kinds. The private sector invests in the State through PPS and the like. The private sector includes companies who have virtual monopolies on public services (Thames Water, anyone? owned by.. Macquarries?) Come on, folks! Wake up! Take sniff of reality once in while."

[my comments ended there]

Now, all joking aside, this is really important. Since the Reagan-Thatcher axis (and perhaps long before) we have been sold this axiom: that the private sector is, by nature and design, more cost effective than the State/public sector. Time and again, this has proven not to be the case. There have been successful privatizations in the UK ; there are (still) some State owned organisations to which the State doesn’t seem to have a productive or meaningful relationship (why do we sully ourselves with the Tote, still, I wonder?). Privatising publically owned resources in the UK hasn’t produced a more efficient train service, or better and cleaner water services…etc “The private sector is, by nature and design, more cost effective than the State/public sector” axiom is false ; the private sector CAN produce more cost efficiencies but so can the public sector it’s not the ownership that matters, it’s the quality and aim of the management.

It’s so nice to have one’s opinions confirmed by an apposing argument so I was particularly pleased that another commentator responded to my post saying:

What is the point in the private sector giving the State funds through taxation only to be given it back through outsourcing? A gives to B and B gives it back to A. How efficient is that? [the radar sweep agrees – we could equally well leave these activities to the State. Or not do them at all. Putting these responsibilities in the hand of the private secotr is not a solution]

Private sector companies that rely on State income for their existence are not much different from being a part of the State itself. [the radar sweep agrees – indeed these private sector companies are not significantly different from Quangos – except that they waste our tax money on their owners/shareholders]

And why is the State deciding what needs to be done? Why not leave it to private individuals to decide? [the radar sweep agrees – why do we leave these things up other people?]

The State has got its fingers into so much of the economy that it is extremely difficult, in a practical sense, to separate out those parts that add or create value, in the true sense, from those which are a drain. [the radar sweep agrees – again, they behave just like quangos. Indeed, it would be equally true to say “The Private Sector has got its fingers into so much of Government that it is extremely difficult, in a practical sense, to separate out those parts [of either] that add or create value, in the true sense, from those which are a drain.”]

That's why the UK economy will continue to flounder and why our children's relative wealth will decline consistently for many years to come.” [the radar sweep does not agree – our future depends on good planning and good execution not on a false public/private dichotomy]

Which [leaving aside their final sentence] takes me back to my point. The problem is not whether it is the public or the private sector that does the work of the quangos – the problem is that we in the UK have become dependent on other people doing things for us and look to the State to be the main actor in the execution of that dependency.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Balkanisation - questions not answers

How small can a nation be before it becomes unmanageable? And to what degree can any country be meaningfully "independent"? These questions and how they are answered over the next ten years will form the context for much in domestic and international politics over the next decade. These are themes I will revisit frequently in this blog so I thought I would kick off with some preliminary exploration of the matter.

I read with interest to day that there are discussions about the creation of another new State in that beguiling and incomprehensible wonder that is India, follow hot on the heels of announcement of the creation of the new State of Telangana not much more than a week ago.

I have never understood how India is governed or how its federal structure actually works. What exactly is decided in New Delhi and how and when those decisions filter out to the twenty eight (or is it twenty nine?) States and seven Union territories is somewhat obscure to me, for all my efforts to try to understand. What I do understand is that the division of the sub-continent into States is a process that has been tried and repeated endlessly and seldom, if ever, reaching a satisfactory conclusion. And how should this boundary drawing process work? (sorry to disappoint you but I'm incapable of answering that question)

Should our "administrative units" be defined by geogrpahical boundaries: rivers, seas, mountains and suchlike? And if so, what about the people who live in those mountain areas? Where do they belong? (Kashmir for example)

Should States be founded on racial or linguistic lines? This seems to be the approach currently in favour in India. But does it encourage the division of society on the basis of race or tribe? And does that propel nations along the road towards the kind of conflict that devastated Rwanda in 1994

Or should we look to divide along religious lines, as was the (broadly speaking) the case with the Partition of India in 1947? That spectacularly bloody episode has been the millstone around the neck of progress on the sub-continent ever since

Is there value in tradition? Because Scotland was once independent, politically, of England, should it be again? Even if it is democratically endorsed through a referendum it's unlikely to be huge majority in favour, so what will all the people in Scotland that don't want independence feel? and do? are their views less valid because they are (or may be) the minority?

(and then there are the Balkans themselves, of course...)

For all their failures and the immense challenges of securing consensus, politicians have looked to federal structures (such as the Federal Governments in the USA or India) and conferences and "treaty organisations" (like the United Nations or NATO) to provide fora through which the "big questions" should be tackled. Some appear to work well: the USA seems to function, internally at least, without dangerous internal conflict ; the EU has made a success of facilitating trade and building co-operative relationships. Some fail (Yugoslavia ; the USSR.. and many would say the UN too). And is it strong leadership at the centre that binds federations together? Failure of leadership in federations usually seems to precede their dissolution but doesn't seem to predict it.

So, back to the swirling of tea leaves... how do you think the map of nations will look at the close of 2019...

A greater India (absorbing some parts of its neighbours) or a more fragmented India (or both!)
A carve up of Afghanistan? The emergence of a Pashtunistan?
An Independent Scotland?
Kosovo and Montenegro making it on their own?
The EU finally taking on a role as a Federal government in Europe? or a slow redefintion as a trade and economic foum?
Western Sahara finally disappearing off the map?
The old USSR re-emerging as a federal bloc?

Who knows! Somebody tell me...