Monday, August 29, 2011

Grand Designs, Iron Age style

Ros and I are still in Scotland, minding our own business and doing some tourist stuff, and yesterday was an opportunity to 'stretch the legs' of our trusty hire car, as we set off out of Perth to the north-west, up the A9 and then off towards Loch Tay, following the river.

Our destination was the Scottish Crannog Centre, just outside Kenmore, a village where the Loch becomes the River. Now, as you all know, a crannog is a small, reclusive member of the weasel family, and extremely hard to spot in the wild.

Actually, a crannog is rather more interesting than that. A crannog was a circular dwelling, built over water, connected to the land by means of a raised walkway. In itself, the notion of building over water is quite unusual, but given the relative levels of technological advance, it would be difficult enough now, but without heavy equipment, significant levels of manpower and metal, it would seem like a challenge too far.

Steve, our guide, took us out to their reconstruction, and explained how they worked. The first task was to sink around 120 poles, each up to forty feet long, into the silt at the bottom of the loch, set in four concentric circles. Next, you built a wooden platform, made of logs with a smaller diameter, before building a circular building on top, using more poles, hazel wicker panels and bracken stems to make something recognisably like thatch. Incredibly effective, amazingly resilient, there is evidence of crannogs pretty much everywhere in Scotland.

I do find myself wondering one thing though. Building over water is very complicated, so why not build a house and dig ditches around it? However, once built, a crannog was sturdy, easily secured and convenient for trade. And someone had had the intellect to see the idea and to design a solution.

Not so clever, we twenty-first century folk, methinks...

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Kickstart 2012...

Yes, it's that time of the electoral cycle when councillors start to think about getting re-elected, and the enthusiastic start thinking about how they might get elected. In other words, time for Kickstart!

Now you may be wondering, why is Mark talking about this? After all, there aren't elections in Mid Suffolk next year, and the County isn't up until 2013. So, obviously, I'm at a Kickstart event... in Perth... sitting next to Caron Lindsay.

Alright, time to be honest. I am at a Kickstart event, in Perth, and I am sitting next to Caron Lindsay, but it is all rather accidental. You see, Ros has spent the last two days visiting BBC Scotland, so it seemed logical to spend the weekend up here. Ros posted on Facebook that she was in Scotland and, almost immediately, word of Kickstart came back.

Given that we're staying in Perth, the opportunity to drop in and say hello was pretty tempting - we still like you all, after all - so here we are. And it's very nice.

Having faced the electorate in May, and having watched from afar as our Scottish colleagues took a thorough kicking, expectations for 2012 are muted. That said, there's a good crowd here, they're in pretty good humour, and there's a sense of almost bloody-minded determination to carry the Liberal Democrat banner, come what may. I'm therefore confident that, regardless of the outcome next year, they'll have given it their best shot.

And for those of you south of the border with elections in 2012 who haven't booked for Kickstart in Birmingham (25-27 November), why not go to the ALDC website and register now?...
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Friday, August 26, 2011

Net migration goes up, Conservative policy credibility goes down...

The news that net migration into the United Kingdom rose by 21% in 2010 is another reminder why a 'get tough' policy on immigration is so easy in theory, and so futile in practice.

It is wonderfully ironic that the key factors leading to the increase were an increase in migrants from the A8 Group in the European Union* (up from 5,000 to 39,000) and a significant decrease in the number of people leaving this country to live and work elsewhere, exactly the factors that Governments can't actually control.

In this light, the Conservative policy of reducing net migration to tens of thousands is looking increasing like something designed to win arguments rather than actually changing anything. But then again, I said that last year... before the election. And, of course, nothing is being done to address the issue of those here illegally, except perhaps to give some of them an amnesty.

Ironic, really, given that the Liberal Democrats took so much flak for suggesting an earned route to citizenship for illegal immigrants in this country, an option which meant that those seeking to take advantage would actually have to do something in order to benefit.

Sometimes, being right isn't the same is being popular. And you know something, in this instance, I'm perfectly comfortable with that...

* the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Thoughts from the Train: if further proof were needed that we're not Tories...

Welcome to the delayed 12:15 departure from Peterborough to Edinburgh Waverley. A surprisingly decent glass of riesling gewurztraminer by the left hand, I find myself struggling with the second Times Killer Sudoku, so why not give the world the benefit of my opinion for a change...

One of the biggest advantages of being a Liberal Democrat is that, when exposed to Conservative stupidity, you are more likely to understand why it is stupid and the contradictions that exist in their 'thinking'. The likes of Tim Montgomerie (for example) are, thanks heavens, very vocal but not terribly thoughtful when it comes to civil liberties. Ironic really, as they're the first to exclaim their belief in freedom.

And so I'm rather pleased that young Mr Clegg has chosen now to nail Liberal Democrat colours to the mast of the good ship 'Human Rights'. Freedom is difficult. As a decent, law-abiding taxpayer, I want to be free to go about my decent, law-abiding, tax paying activities, free of undue interference by the State. I want the law to be applied without fear or favour, I want the guilty to be punished appropriately. However, I also understand that I have responsibilities too. There is, I would suggest, a balance to be sought.

A framework of rights is therefore helpful, and the European Convention on Human Rights, strongly influenced by English law as Nick points out, is a good starting point. However, there is a catch (there so often is, I fear) - those rights have to be universal, or they are transient.

That means the right to trial before a jury of your peers, it means the right to know what information is held about you by the State or by private organisations, it means that the democratic process is respected, even if you don't particularly like the outcome. And that's where I differ from my Conservative 'friends' (they hate being referred to as friends, which is the main reason I do it).

Conservatives don't get that, which is why they want an example made of looters, or why they believe in making it harder for Unions to take industrial action. You see, the universality of human rights they believe in only applies to those that they approve of. In fairness, Labour take a similar view, supporting human rights for whoever the Daily Mail approves of.

So, someone has to point out that human rights are not a 'thief's charter' (as Jack Straw so disgracefully described the Human Rights Act), or an annoyance and a barrier to a smaller state (pick a Conservative, virtually any Conservative). It might not be a comfortable place in the face of the assault from both left and right, but it is the right place to be.

However, someone has very kindly brought me another glass of that riesling gewurztraminer, so if you'll excuse me...

Rhapsody in blue (paint)...

Of course, being half-Indian, I have the advantage of a heritage where a great civilisation was being developed whilst you were all painting yourselves blue and thinking that this was the height of fashion. Don't think that I pity you for it. But really, painting your politicians blue is so... well, yesterday.

Seriously though, whilst I am vaguely sympathetic with the urge to protest, throwing blue paint at Nick Clegg probably won't have the desired effect. Indeed, it's hard to imagine something less likely to achieve anything.

I've seen this sort of thing before, and it screams out one message, "I don't want to listen to you, I don't have an argument, I just hate you.". It is, after all, so much more easier to convince someone of the error of their ways by assaulting them. Best of all, it tends to engender a degree of sympathy amongst those who might not agree with the victim, but acknowledge his right to hold an opinion.

The fact that the attacker was a former, if short-lived, member of the Party who, if the press are to be believed, joined because he was opposed to neo-liberalism is all the more depressing. Liberalism isn't about liberally spending other people's money, it's about providing individuals with the platform to take control over their own lives. But that's a difficult message, so much more complex than "No Shock Doctrine for Britain!".

Liberal Democrats don't actually enjoy cutting things. I for one didn't enter into politics to take things away from people but if you've got to make cuts, better by far to do it thoughtfully rather than repeat the Greek experience.

However, I suspect that the attacker will shortly experience a 'shock doctrine' of his own. The public are in a mood for retribution, and he may well see the inside of a jail cell. I wouldn't be terribly surprised to see him expelled from the University of Glasgow either, although it would be a high price to pay. You see, just as borrowing to pay for your day to day expenses means that one day the money runs out, there comes a day when you have to take responsibility for your actions.

So, young Mr Rodger, I hope that it was all worth it. Imperilling your career prospects, your education (you haven't borrowed too much money to pay for it, I hope) and your freedom wouldn't be something I'd recommend, but you're a grown-up and you knew what you were doing, didn't you?...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Message to Conference Office: Look. I'm not coming. Get over it...

There are moments when, as an officer of the Party, albeit a Regional one, that even I become irritated by the actions of someone who should know better. And so I dedicate this to someone called X (Ros thinks that she should be allowed anonymity, she's polite and well brought up like that) - I know no more than that about the woman who tried to ring me today.

I have decided, as regular readers will recall, not to go to Federal Conference. My heart isn't in it, it's expensive and, well, isn't that enough? Therefore, I haven't sent my photograph to Conference Office so that I can be vetted for an event I'm not going to. I've had the e-mails reminding me and studiously ignored them. Because I'm not going, right? (And yes, I know that I should just in case I change my mind, but I do have a life...)

However, the telephone rang at home today. I wasn't there - it's a Thursday and I was at work. However, (un)fortunately for the caller, Ros was at home, and answered the phone as would any polite, well brought up person (apart from my kid brother, but that's a lovable quirk of his personality...). The person at the other end of the telephone asked if she could speak to me, and Ros very courteously (because she's polite and well brought up) explained that I was at work and couldn't come to the telephone, but asked whether she could help (she's my wife - I trust her with this stuff. Besides, I trust her to run the country, so a phone call is clearly within the compass of her skill set).

X - for it was her - seemed surprised that I wasn't about (I've got a job, and whilst I note that there are 2.5 million unemployed in this country, I'm not that unusual, am I?), but explained that I had not sent my photograph in and that, if I didn't, they would cancel my registration.

So Ros courteously explained that I wasn't planning to come to conference, and therefore probably wouldn't be sending in a photograph (Ros has sent hers in, just in case - she's organised like that, as well as being polite and well brought up...). She was therefore somewhat surprised to be told that I should have told Conference Office that I wasn't coming.

And you know something? I'm not surprised. I'm annoyed. I'm still vaguely irritated that I have to go through a  police check in order to attend my own Party's conference (I grudgingly accept that it has to be done but...). And now, apparently, I have to tell them whether or not I can be bothered to turn up, even though I've paid for both conferences and have the right to turn up if I feel like it.

So, X, I'm minded to submit my photograph, not because I intend to come, but because I don't particularly like to have someone talk to my wife, a former Party President no less, as though she, and I, are obstacles to the smooth running of Federal Conference.

Rant over.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

When ladybirds attack...

Interestingly, Southwold appears to have suffered from an overnight rain of ladybirds. They're everywhere.

I wonder if it is in any way related to the presence of a bloody great nuclear power station down the coast...

Abandon the 50% tax rate? So, what's the trade off, Mr Osborne?

The advantage of having been around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth is that a 50% rate band isn't that exciting. I am old enough to have assessed people using six different rate bands at once - the then basic rate plus 40%, 45%, 50%, 55% and 60%. And in those days, only fifteen or so years ago, I would calculate your tax bill on the basis of the information you gave me - none of this self assessment nonsense. Indeed, there were still amendments being issued where tax was chargeable at the now unthinkable rate of 83%, and my more experienced colleagues had assessed the investment income surcharge of 15% on top of that.

So, let's not get too carried away by the supposed outrageousness of a 50% tax rate.

However, we do need to be a bit smarter about taxation in an increasingly international economy. People do have a choice as to where they live, and the tax rate is a factor. Don't get me wrong, that is not to say that one should kowtow to the wealthy minority. Instead, we need to think about tax fairness.

For example, is it fair that, for every £1 that a 50% taxpayer pays into their pension fund, the Government matches it, whereas for every £1 a basic rate taxpayer pays into their pension fund, the Government chips in just 25p? Is it right that the Government offers incentives to wealthy people to invest in things that will hopefully be profitable anyway? Indeed, UK tax policy over recent years has been part social engineering and part trickle down economics.

Perhaps it would be better to withdraw the 50% rate band whilst reducing the relief available to those investing in new enterprises. After all, corporation tax rates are already being reduced, meaning that successful companies can pay out more in dividends than was the case previously. And if the impact of the 50% rate is as small as George would have us believe, reducing the benefits to higher rate taxpayers would allow us to increase personal allowances, thus taking more people out of tax, and reducing the amount to be paid back in tax credits. In turn, this would reduce the number of people administering the tax credit system, reducing the cost to the state further.

Everyone's a winner. Well, not exactly, but it's a good first step towards a fairer, more transparent, tax system. Now, where was that draft for a flat rate tax system?... 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside...

Or, perhaps more appropriately, bureaucrat interrupted. Yes, I'm back on holiday again, after my plans were somewhat disturbed by rioters. No, we didn't have any in Paradise-sur-Gipping, but Ros did have to go back to listen to the Cameron statement.

We had planned to spend last Wednesday night at the Swan Hotel, Southwold, eating good food, drinking good wine and doing seaside a la bourgeoisie. If you know this part of the Suffolk coast, you'll know what I mean. The fish and chips has beer batter from the Adnams Brewery in the town, rock is discreetly purveyed and there is a pier, but it is Victorian rather than old-fashioned. However, it was too awkward for Ros to get back to London, so we postponed - until today.

So, welcome to the promenade, with the North Sea gently nudging the beach. I've left Ros to drift off to sleep whilst I take the air after a dinner of quail and guinea fowl, accompanied by a very pleasant bottle of semillon from Western Australia and followed by an excellent cheeseboard. And I've got to tell you, this is very nice. And dark. But that goes without saying, I suppose.

And it is all rather unexpected. You see, I am experiencing a curious sense of existential certainty. I am, whisper it quietly, strangely content. Life is fun and I have learned to potter. I could do this, or that, but I don't have to. It is all very curious indeed.

But anyway, welcome to Southwold. It is really rather lovely in a gentle, undemanding sort of way. With the Adnams brewery in the heart of the town - 'beer from the coast' as it is marketed - it is a vaguely working town, but rather a long way from anywhere 'big'. The nearest railway station is at Halesworth, with its train service every two hours and then an irregular bus service between there and here, making it relatively inaccessible. Our hotel, owned by the brewery is a Georgian building and not exactly cheap - actually, prices are more like London in high season. It is very nice though.

Instead of tacky bed and breakfasts on the sea front, there are private homes, some of which can doubtless be rented. But it is quiet and relaxing - I even saw a rabbit on the promenade a few minutes ago. I can see a few lights out at sea, including what looks like a trawler, catching something that might appear on a dinner table somewhere in the town in the next day or so.

And it is nice to have the time to sit and think...

Monday morning: on my way to work

Friday, August 12, 2011

It's that awards time of year again...

It's summer time, with the Conference season approaching, and a blogger's mind turns to thoughts of... well, 'glory' isn't really the right word, so we'll try 'recognition'. Yes, it is that point in the cycle where people are called upon to decide upon the best blogs and vote in the Total Politics Blog Awards.

You can vote here, if you're interested...
There are those who blatantly solicit votes - we know who you are - and those who think that the whole thing is slightly absurd. I fall somewhere between the two, perfectly happy to receive your votes, but long enough in the tooth to know that, for the most part, the ranking of a particular blog depends on whether or not, at the point when votes are being cast, the author has managed to attract some attention.

For the really successful bloggers, the building of a readership base over months and perhaps years will ensure a good showing. As for the rest of us, a relatively small number of votes one way or the other may make the difference between a top thirty position and a less exalted ranking.

In 2007, I reached the giddy heights of fourteenth best Liberal Democrat blog. Now it may have been a coincidence that, as voting opened, I wrote a piece about an emerging Conservative stance on divorce and the family in which I performed the equivalent of open heart surgery on my first marriage and its (with hindsight) inevitable demise. Whilst it wasn't intended to be a 'look at me' piece, and I stand by every word I wrote then, it certainly did impact on the votes my little blog gleaned.

The next year? I was gone, outside of the top fifty. My blogging hadn't changed much, either in style or volume, but there wasn't the same spark. I was back in 2009 though, and hung on in the mid-thirties again last year.

So. we'll wait and see how it goes this year. And if you want to recognise this blog by voting for it, thank you very much. I promise not to let it go to my head...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: House of Lords to be recalled tomorrow

Word has just reached us that Ros is being recalled for an emergency debate to follow statements from both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

More news as it comes in...
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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

For Pity's Sake, Can We Stop Reacting to the Violence and Start Responding to It?

As a recently exiled Londoner, someone who has lived in some of the city's more 'lively' boroughs - Brent and Southwark - I have sat in front of my television screen watching with increasing frustration as talking head after talking head has added nothing useful but filled airtime conjecturing about the impact of this, or the cause of that, creating an atmosphere of tension and fear in the minds of ordinary Londoners.

My mother, thankfully safe in her North West London home, has taken the remarkably sensible view that, until trouble comes her way, she isn't going to worry about it, and if it does, she'll deal with it then. In the meantime, she wants the police to arrest the criminals and the courts to punish them.

And she's right. At the moment, I don't care why these people are on the streets, I don't want to hear their justification, I want them to stop... or be stopped, if need be. And then, when ordinary people feel that the situation is under control, and can venture out into the streets in safety, we can look at the root causes.

So, until then, it would be nice if politicians like Ken Livingstone stopped telling us that the Government is to blame - these people haven't suddenly drawn the conclusion that looting and arson are legitimate overnight - and people like Darcus Howe stop making wildly inaccurate accusations about the actions of the police. Oh, and by the way, Darcus, this has nothing to do with events in Syria (one of the most stupidly insulting comparisons I've heard for many a year).

And it would be even nicer if the media stopped asking stupid questions and stuck to reporting the facts. Because it is facts that we need, not the theories of whatever person fancies fifteen minutes of fame...
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Partisan politics makes us all blind...

I've been a member of the Party for quite some time now. I joined the Union of Liberal Students in 1984, and have paid an annual subscription ever since. And I've been fairly robust in my belief that my cause is a just one, and that any other political stance is, if not wrong, then just not as good. And we, as political activists, tend to paint our rivals as 'the other', someone to be opposed, beaten, bested, whose arguments should be shot down, in part because they aren't us, even when we sympathise with their stance.

That easy generalisation tends to prevent us from interacting with our political opponents, thus building the barriers a little higher. But I was reminded recently of the futility of taking such a simplistic view of politics. I met a young man recently, a keen activist in another political party. I assumed that there would broad areas of disagreement between us, on the basis that if there weren't, one of us was in the wrong Party. And it wasn't going to be me, was it...

As we talked, it became clear that we didn't actually disagree on very much, indeed, on those issues where we perhaps thought that there might be a difference, we found ourselves agreeing not just on the ideas but the philosophy of why they were good ones. It was all slightly perturbing, or at least, it would have been had it not been for the fact that he seemed like a really nice guy. He cares about his community, he wants to do things properly, he seems genuinely intrigued by the experiences of others, all of the things that I might be impressed by in a Liberal Democrat. It's just that he isn't one.

And afterwards, I reflected on our meeting. The media in this country has created an image of three political parties, filling three discrete parts of the political spectrum, and without crossover. For if there is crossover, the Parties risk losing their identity, and what would be the point of them then? It must be us versus them, red versus blue, yellow versus blue (or red), Orange Booker versus social liberal, whatever, anything that creates an easily reportable sense of competition.

And yet, in a pluralistic political arena, building coalitions of interest on specific issues is the key. Liberal Democrats working with Conservatives, as we are now, or with Labour, as we might in the future, or even now, working with those on all sides who share our vision on one subject, seems to be more likely to achieve real change. Sometimes, that coalition of interest might even work against us, or exclude us. We aren't, after all, always right.

So, perhaps we ought not to play the media's game, and just get on with trying to change our society in an way that invites everyone to talk to us, to build the relationships that allow us to gain each other's trust. And that way, we might see ideas for what they are, and not for the nature of their exponents.

Monday, August 08, 2011

This is going to sound like goodbye...

It's been a bit hectic over the past seven years. Having returned to UK party politics after a number of years on the sidelines, I threw myself into the deep end and hoped that an inability to swim wouldn't be fatal.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAnd now I know the result. Six years as a Regional Officer, three years as first consort to the candidate and then  to the President, an election campaign of my own and all manner of stuff besides, left me seventy pounds heavier and vaguely annoyed that, despite the fact that I know that I'm making sense, people who should be paying attention aren't, this causing me grief in attempting to make up for their inadequacies. I've also begun to forget that Liberal Democrats don't have a monopoly on virtue.

Meanwhile, the rest of my life is happy, rewarding and increasingly seductive. I do things that are, whisper it softly, fun. I don't spend my weekends attending stupid meetings of English Council, or feeling guilty that I haven't carried out some task that nobody actually cares about but really ought to be done. Best of all, when someone tells me that it would be great if I did something that would help them out but does nothing for me, I simply don't do it (unless, like Auntie Helen, I like them). I don't have to do bureaucracy, but can instead think about stuff, the bigger picture, why the sky is so blue, random things that intrigue me.

This week, I'm on holiday. Now, for those of you that know me, you might expect there to be a big metal tube with wings involved, as Ros and I jet off to somewhere unexpected. Not this time. Instead, I'm having a Suffolk week - I'll tell you all about that another time. It's gentle, and we're catching up with old friends, seeing parts of the county I haven't seen before, visiting some of the places that make our little corner of rural England so special. And I'm not missing you. Not 'you' as in individuals - I'm rather fond of some of you, for different reasons - but you, as a Party. I'm still a liberal, I'm still a democrat, and I'm certainly not handing in my membership card, up for renewal in January.

But I'm a bit burnt out. I should have realised this, when faced with the task of getting my photograph submitted, I just didn't get round to it. Booking a hotel just seemed like an expensive hassle, for an event I wasn't thrilled about. So, I'm not going. I'm up for re-election as Regional Secretary in October. But actually, I don't want to do it anymore. So, I'm not standing for re-election.

Politics has been my life for seven years, and it has lost some of its appeal. But I am still a Parish councillor, something which gives me a great deal of pleasure, I have a life which has put a smile back on my face, I have my Suffolk activities, my family and my work with Unlock Democracy, a job which remains curiously fulfilling, and, most of all, I have Ros.

So, it's time to interact with the Party on my terms for a bit, to take a deep breath and slow down to a pace more of my suiting. There are some things that I'd like to do, if people will let me, and we'll see how those pan out. And, of course, I'll still be supporting Ros in what she does - and very important that's going to be too - so I'm hardly retiring into obscurity.

And then I'll be back, possibly with that slightly bemused look as I potter about, but with a twinkle in my eye, a smile and a kind word for my friends, and a proper sense of proportion for the vagaries of party politics.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The sky is falling, the sky is falling... perhaps...

The news that Standard & Poor's has downgraded the United States long-term credit rating should come as no great surprise to those of us who have observed the slow-motion car crash that is Capitol Hill over recent years. The creation of two 'great' parties, each of whom have a base of support with nowhere else to go, scrabbling to garner the centre ground by painting the other as extremist and dangerous, combined with a political architecture that protects the minority at the expense of the majority and has almost as many checks and balances as the Federal Constitution of the Liberal Democrats, has led to a poisoning of the American body politic.

And it is this poisoning which is at the core of the downgrading. As Standard & Poor's report says;

"The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year's wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and, as we see it, the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently. Republicans and Democrats have only been able to agree to relatively modest savings on discretionary spending while delegating to the Select Committee decisions on more comprehensive measures."

The fact that an organisation can describe American government as less stable, less effective and less predictable is not particularly surprising. After all, it is true. How many other developed countries would bicker and squabble over such a fundamental issue as the ability of the state to finance itself? You might expect that of a sub-Saharan borderline failed state, but the United States, the cornerstone of the world's financial and trading architecture?

With the tax and spend wing of the Democrats on one side, and the 'never knowingly use a fact when a slogan will do' Tea Party on the other, and the moderates on the Republican side held hostages by a bunch of small/no government zealots, there is no ability to form a consensus, let alone one that can achieve 60% of the votes and overcome the legislative hurdles that exist.

It is interesting that the Chinese should now get involved in the debate, angrily denouncing the Americans for their dependence on debt. After all, owning someone's debt gives you power over them, a fact that has gone unnoticed by many Americans as more and more of their sovereign debt ends up in the hands of people who have little interest in democracy, freedom and the American way. Indeed, nearly 30% of American debt held overseas in held by China and Hong Kong, some $1.3 trillion as at December 2010, 10 % of the overall debt level.

It makes the position of the Coalition government look, in relative terms, rather reassuring. There is no suggestion that our long-term credit rating is under threat, and we remain one of the shrinking number of nations with a AAA rating - a point that Vince Cable was quick to emphasise today, linking it as he did to the fact that we are part of the Coalition.

Time for Vince's Plan A+, methinks...

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Why I'm not entirely against the death penalty

I don't know, you step out of the rat race forever and people start an argument over the death penalty, of all things. The death penalty? For pity's sake, we're in the midst of an economic crisis, and people want to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic all of a sudden. Deep sigh...

However, for what it's worth, I'm not against the death penalty full stop. Unlike Spidey, who countenances the death penalty for serial child killers, I have a rather quirky view - I believe that there should be a right to opt into the death penalty for those found guilty of murder, regardless of the circumstances of the offence.

After all, many liberals support the notion of voluntary euthanasia, the ultimate in self-determination, if you will. So, why not allow someone found guilty of murder to decide whether or not they would prefer to have the State enable them to die? Yes, there would have to be safeguards - a psychiatric evaluation to ensure that the individual is of a fit mind to make the decision rationally, no public execution, no witnesses apart from medical observers.

You see, I don't believe in justice through vengeance, and I do fear miscarriages of justices - the Birmingham Six, anybody? - so the idea that the State might choose to take a life is one that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

And, I have to admit, I am slightly puzzled by the identity of the person promoting the campaign to restore the death penalty. Guido claims to be a libertarian, yet wants to give the State - the State, for crying out loud - the right to take human life as a deliberate act. Now I tend to think of young Mr Staines as an opportunist first, a reactionary second and an unreliable source always. After all, anyone who employs Harry Cole isn't interested in fact-based research anyway.

But one does wonder if there is more to this than meets the eye. If Parliament was to be persuaded by the public that the restoration of the death penalty was a good thing, it would mean having to negotiate our position in the European Union, assuming that we then wanted to remain. Is it Guido's intention to force us out? I don't know, maybe I'm learning to think like him (I do hope not!).

And that's why I am critical of Guido. He believes that murderers should, effectively, accept responsibility for their actions. Yet, at the same time, he was declared bankrupt, thus avoiding responsibility for his debts, and maintains his website offshore, making it virtually impossible for anyone to hold him accountable for inaccuracies. Hardly taking responsibility for your actions, is it?

As for the evidence in favour of the efficacy of capital punishment, I'm yet to see any that convinces. The United States retains the death penalty in a number of States, yet has a far higher murder rate than the United Kingdom does. Murder is still, thankfully, rare in this country, with the sort of cases that are front-page news here barely noted in Chicago, Los Angeles or Washington DC.

So, I'll leave the grandstanding to the blogosphere's resident agent provocateur, and concentrate on a nice week ahead enjoying the best that Suffolk has to offer, as well as celebrating Ros's birthday...

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

HMRC performance unacceptable - but are you getting the service you deserve?

The Treasury Select Committee's recently published report on HM Revenue & Customs has pulled very few punches indeed. Our poor performance, combined with a sense that we make it difficult for people to communicate with us, risks the currently high levels of voluntary compliance.

Now, you will note that I have taken their criticism at face value which, given that I work for HMRC, puts me in a slightly awkward position. But I'm not going to attempt to rebut their claims, for two reasons - firstly, that the evidence supplied to the Select Committee by those giving evidence to it speaks for itself, and secondly, I work for HMRC (had I already mentioned that?) so any Liberal Democrat won't believe an 'official' statement, and the rest of you hate/fear us (delete as appropriate).

I will, instead, bring to your attention a number of points designed to make you (hopefully) think.

At the moment, there is tremendous pressure on resources in government, and as one of the greatest costs is people, cutting staff numbers is seen as being highly desirable. This is a perfectly legitimate stance to take, after all, when times are hard, government has to demonstrate that it is seeking greater efficiency. The Coalition Government is proud of its record in cutting spending, and it does need to balance the books. Whilst tax rises might do part, or all, of the job, they are not popular. Thus, spending cuts must pick up some of the slack.

However, whilst one arm of government is taking pride in cutting costs, another is complaining that HMRC is failing to provide a quality service to the public. In order to drastically cut staffing levels, a significant part of the administrative burden has shifted from us, the so-called bureaucracy, to you, the so-called customer. And funnily enough, because it is what we do all day, we're quite good at it. On the other hand, if you do it once a year, you're less likely to be. I get trained (theoretically) when things change, you almost certainly don't.

For just this reason, you may well decide to engage an accountant, someone who may well know more than I do - although I am surprised at how often that assumption is demonstrated to be erroneous. In return for taking the burden out of your hands, you reward them.

In other words, you pay them for a service that we used to perform. It may be that their cost is less than the additional costs of having us do it, although I doubt that too (have you seen how much accountants earn?). So, whilst you are potentially charged less by the State, you may have higher overall costs. You pay your money - literally - you take your choice.

My Liberal Vision friends will doubtless approve of this, as it fits with their view of the State and its role. However, someone running a small business, paying what they might see as a disproportionate amount of their income in order to comply with the requirements of corporate tax law, might see it differently. And trust me, they do.

The temptation is not to bother, or to do it yourself, probably badly. That introduces risk, both to the public purse in terms of revenue lost and additional costs in chasing returns and payment, and to the economy, whereby voluntary compliance becomes less commonplace and the market is distorted by the potential competitive advantage gained by those who do not comply.

So, there is a serious issue here, although it may have, in part, passed the Select Committee by. The irony should not be lost by any of us... 

Monday, August 01, 2011

Election Rules for the East of England - second draft

Alright, so as I mentioned last night, I needed to produce some election rules. What do you think of these?...

The East of England Region Liberal Democrats are determined that elections for regional posts shall conducted in a manner that is democratic, accountable, inclusive, fair, robust and manageable.

Appointment and powers of the Returning Officer

The Returning Officer shall be appointed by the Regional Executive, and shall have the power to administer the elections as he or she feels fit, subject only to the Rules as laid out below, the requirements of the Constitution and natural justice. Guidance will be provided in written form to the Returning Officer by the Regional Executive.

How do you become a candidate?

Nominations will close at 2 p.m. on the day of the Annual General Meeting. Self-nominations shall be permitted.

What are you required to do as a candidate?

Manifestos shall be submitted no later than ten days after the declaration of poll, i.e. by the end of the tenth day after the Annual General Meeting. They shall be submitted in PDF or Word format. Candidates for Officer positions shall be entitled to one side of A4, candidates for other positions one side of A5 in landscape format, for ease of manifesto booklet production.

What are you not entitled to do as a candidate?

1. Defame or denigrate any other candidate.
2. Spend more than £50 on campaigning materials.

What will be provided to candidates?

Candidates for officer positions will be entitled to issue one e-mail to Regional Conference voting delegates, to be issued by the Regional Party at a mutually agreed time. Candidates shall provide forty-eight hours notice of their wish to use this facility, providing the text to be issued at that time.

Right of appeal

Any person believing there to have been a breach of these Rules, or of the Constitution, shall have the right of appeal to the Regional Management Committee.