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It Is Not ‘Mission Accomplished’ In Libya

By Leslie Clark
October 22nd, 2011 at 11:10 am | Comments Off on It Is Not ‘Mission Accomplished’ In Libya | Posted in International Politics

We can all rejoice that the Arab world has lost another brutal tyrant despite the grizzly manner of his downfall. But only the most politically jejune would say ‘freedom’ has arrived in Libya.  

Drawing on his experiences in Bosnia, Lord Ashdown has stated that the rule of law is the most important factor for building the peace in Libya:

The establishment of the rule of law – perhaps even martial law at first – which then develops over time into a reliable legal, judicial and prosecutorial structure based on the cultural norms of the country, is the essential framework for the security people need and for economic activity.”

And as he says, “elections can wait.”

There is far more to democracy than the mere act of placing a cross in a box. Unbelievably for a tribal country that has no history for democracy, Mahmoud Jibril believes Libyans should be able to vote within eight months.

A sustainable democratic future not only requires the rule of law but a sizeable propertied middle class, a free press, political pluralism, an open market economy and a flourishing civil society. That will take decades to come to fruition. Libya won’t be transformed into the Norway of North Africa anytime soon.

It’s hardly ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Libya.

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Peter O’Bore’s Erroneous Comparison

By Leslie Clark
September 23rd, 2011 at 2:10 pm | 9 Comments | Posted in EU Politics

Political discourse is full of unhelpful comparisons: shrieking keffiyeh wearing activists like to demonize Israel by comparing it to Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa and unlettered Eurosceptics (usually found skulking the Telegraph’s comments section) like to compare the European Union to the USSR. Pro-Iraq War Tories had the impertinence to dub Charles Kennedy ‘Charlie Chamberlain’ in the lead up to the 2003 invasion. And not to revert to easy-Lib-Dem-clap-on-Question-Time mode, we all know how that turned out…

So those uneasy with inappropriate analogies must have been taken aback by the Centre for Policy Studies publication ‘Guilty Men’ (if you don’t want to read the whole thing, you can view a brief précis at The Spectator website).

The term ‘Guilty Men’ of course refers to the classic text of 1940 that condemned fifteen British public figures for their appeasement stance against Germany throughout the 1930s. The journalist Peter Oborne and his colleague Francis Weaver have appropriated the term for their critique of British pro-Euro public figures of recent decades. Today’s ‘Guilty Men’ include Danny Alexander, Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown, Ken Clarke, Will Hutton, Michael Heseltine and Nick Clegg amongst others.

In the foreword, Peter Jay justifies the title:

In choosing the title of their book from that famous earlier study of national betrayal by the nation’s élite, the authors of this book  have chosen well. Like the appeasers, those who after 1950 worked to deliver their country into the hands of a foreign power…” (piii)

Eurosceptics may have the upper hand given the current political and economic turmoil unfolding in the Eurozone but that is no excuse for historical ignorance by applying such a loaded term to Europhiles (even if they have indulged in some unsavoury character assassinations in the past).

All in all, there isn’t anything particularly revelatory in the book. We all know about the Beeb and FT’s pro-Europeanism just as we know that The Daily Express, The Times, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Sun are not too keen on the whole project.

Oborne and Weaver’s work is also based around a number of counterfactuals such as:

Mr [Danny] Alexander ran the pro-euro campaign, and had he had his way would have steered Britain directly to economic catastrophe.”

Yet it is just as easy to respond with another; that is, if the criteria set out at Maastricht had been adhered to, then the Eurozone would not have been in the mess that it is in.

Invoking Churchill in their final chapter, they call on a number of British politicians to come out and apologise: “Top of the list comes Tony Blair, who during his party conference speech of 1999 implied that Conservative euro-scepticism stood  in the foul tradition of South African racism. There can be no  place in our national debate for this kind of cheap and debased argument, which sadly poisoned so much of the British debate over the single currency.” (p65)

But come on Mr Oborne, just look at your title. Are Europhiles analogous to the Nazi appeasers of the 1930s? Really?

Just what do we mean by ‘media plurality’?

By Leslie Clark
July 11th, 2011 at 2:08 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in BBC, Culture

LV has already posted on the quite unbelievable News of the World (1843-2011) closure. It goes without saying that I also found the paper’s phone hacking activities to be abhorrent and beneath contempt. I won’t mourn its passing.

Notwithstanding what has already been said here and elsewhere, I feel that most of the wall-to-wall coverage has been motivated as much out of moral revulsion over the latest allegations as just another opportunity to berate the evil omnipotent figure of Rupert Murdoch for what he is and what he stands for. To borrow a phrase from the Labour frontbench on the nature of government cuts, it’s ideologically driven.

Take for instance Lord Puttnam’s article yesterday in The Observer. The Labour peer believes that Murdoch has become too powerful to the extent our harming our democracy and should be prevented from creating a “licensed monopoly” through completion of the BSkyB deal. Is Murdoch’s empire really that much of a colossus compared to its rivals?

In one respect, it is. Puttnam draws attention to the disparity of income between Sky and the BBC: “In 1997, BSkyB had revenues of £1.72bn, or 63% of the then BBC licence fee income. In the most recent year for which accurate figures are available, Sky’s turnover was £5.9bn or 163% that of the BBC.”

It should be remembered that the total income of the BBC is of course much more than that raised by the license fee alone, standing at £4.79bn according to recent figures.

However, what Puttnam neglected to mention is that the BBC’s income is assured vis-à-vis the license fee (translation: a de-facto universal and inegalitarian tax) whereas Sky’s income is not (subscriptions will doubtless be affected by squeezes on household income or any future reduction in TV advertising by firms).

Please don’t read this as some Mailygraph style rant against the Beeb. Unlike Charles Moore who dedicated his weekly Spectator Diary column as a crusade against the BBC, this will be the last time I post about it. That’s a promise. I value a great deal of the BBC’s output but it is the element of compulsion I’m uneasy with: if you want a telly, you’ve got to pay your TV license or face prosecution. Conversely, nobody is compelled into buying a Sky subscription package.

Moreover, if one compares another set of figures relating to total news consumption, the BBC is dominant by a country mile – 39.3% compared to the 22% combined figure for News Corp and Sky.

So who’s the most powerful and influential now, eh? Is the BBC not a threat to plurality?

If Lord Puttnam is so concerned with licensed monopolies and plurality, why is he not calling for the break-up of the BBC? If he’s so concerned about the “Stasi activities” on behalf of the NOTW, then he should also attack Google (so far, he’s only whinged about them not paying tax). I find it hard to believe that News International have been afforded the same level of government contact as Google has had in recent times.

Or, is this just another case of a politician obsessing about Murdoch’s apparent supernatural powers of political puppetry, influencing the masses to vote accordingly? Labour still can’t be smarting from The Sun’s infamous 1992 front page (not to mention their most recent political defection away from their party), surely? Murdoch backs winners. It is that simple. The only party that hasn’t demeaned themselves by Murdoch derriére-licking has been the Liberal Democrats. Hello self-righteous moral highground, we’ve missed you!

For many like Lord Puttnam, ‘media plurality’ simply means the retention, if not extension, of the BBC monopoly coupled with the ostracism and marginalisation of any news medium that does not conform to their worldview.

Greece Is The Word

By Leslie Clark
June 24th, 2011 at 10:31 pm | 3 Comments | Posted in Economics, EU Politics

How to solve a problem like Greece? Former queen of daytime chat Fern Britton was flummoxed on the BBC’s Question Time on Thursday night. And like David Mitchell, I don’t really know either. However, on the wider issue of the durability and endurance of the European Single Currency – and to evoke that quote widely attributed to Mark Twain – some obituaries are prematurely written. Even as early as the turn of the Millennium, the late Milton Friedman prophesied its demise.

But claims of the Euro’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The current membership may change slightly with the most damaged economies perhaps opting to revert to their former national currencies, or in another scenario we could see the emergence of two monetary unions: a ‘Debtor €’ comprising the Med countries and a ‘Creditor €’ including Germany and other low-inflation states.

Personally, I’ve felt largely ambivalent on Euro membership. The fanatics for and against frequently bore me and the whole debate is couched using hyperbolic language. Nonetheless, I don’t think the Euro per se is intrinsically flawed or irredeemable. In the case of Greece, Europe would have been a lot better off if it had stuck rigidly to the rules set out at Maastricht, thus avoiding premature or inclusive membership.

Greece consistently breached the 3% deficit limit even prior to the current crisis and went unpunished despite the legal duty to comply with convergence criteria. Their unreformed public sector and high and unstable rates of inflation should have raised eyebrows prior to Eurozone accession. It is widely recognised that they were economical with the actualité and massaged the figures in order to meet entry requirements, something acknowledged by the former ECB Chief Economist Otmar Issing:

When I worked for the ECB, I suffered every time countries didn’t meet the criteria. Greece cheated to get in, and it’s difficult to know how we should deal with cheaters…There should have been better monitoring, better scrutiny and more sanctioning. This crisis wasn’t unavoidable.”

As in any other private members club, individuals are obliged to abide by the rules. Accepting EMU rules, devaluation or inflationary monetary policy were no longer avenues the Greeks could go down. They did nothing to lower their public debt but instead went on a spending binge. It does not seem fair or just that taxpayers’ money is being moved from countries who stuck (by and large) to the respective criteria to those who did not.

European leaders should not use the Greek crisis purely as a catalyst for more integration which would only further embitter sceptical national populations but rather to end the slack monitoring of the fundamental rules of the club.

Other Member States should not end up with a hangover for a party they did not attend.

Industrial Relations – Part Deux

By Leslie Clark
June 17th, 2011 at 1:09 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in coalition, Industrial Relations

My last contribution on industrial relations law didn’t go down well in some quarters. C’est la vie.

However, it couldn’t escape my notice that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander had some pretty strong words for the trade unions and the inescapable nature of public sector pension reform today. Although he did not call for minimum turnouts for strike ballots, a few snippets of an article he penned for a newspaper ahead of his key speech to the IPPR are worth highlighting:

It is unjustifiable that the taxpayer should work longer and pay more tax so that public sector workers can retire earlier and get more than them…There is an indisputable case for reforming public sector pensions. They must be affordable, not just now but in the decades to come; and reform must be sustainable and correct the huge unfairness on the taxpayer and on low-earning public sector workers…

But particularly relevant to what I said yesterday:

It is disappointing that a minority of unions seem hell-bent on premature strike action…They are misrepresenting the Government’s position and feeding their members scare stories…

A strike now might be in the interests of the union’s boss, but it is not in the interests of its members. Only one in five members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union voted on Wednesday for strike action – the vast majority realise that such a step is unjustifiable. My message is: don’t let the union bosses sacrifice your pension for their political ends.”

I welcomed Alexander’s resoluteness in seeing reform through, painful as it may be, especially in light of some of the Coalition’s recent U-turns on policy. Whilst the calls for retreat are likely to grow even louder, change is desperately needed and it is in the long-term national interest to see things through.

Reading his piece, I was reminded of what Hal Varian, the Chief Economist at Google, said a few months ago on a similar issue, “Unions have the same problem that democratic governments have: they have a tendency to sacrifice the well-being of future generations relative to current generations, since only the current generation is able to vote.”

Let’s just hope that Alexander lives up to his words. Luckily, I believe he is imbued with the same qualities as Scotland’s other national drink – he’s made in Scotland from girders.