Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Self praise for a budding History genius

Despite the simperingly polite self-doubting approach I try to adopt here (partly through an exaggerated value placed on courtesy, partly through early experience of the utter pointlessness of web-based posturing aggression, partly from a genuine respect for the Socratic approach of starting from doubt), I have a pretty high estimation of my intellectual abilities, most of the time.

Today I got my marks for the Global History Masters that took up most of 2006-7, and I sailed over the distinction level with great ease. I am now for the short term very pleased with myself. And reconsidering History if this foray into policy development goes nowhere.

Doubt is a good thing. The students in class who thought they could declaim on the history of slavery/causes of the Industrial Revolution/worthiness of Qing China after a few articles of reading were the ones struggling to get a good mark. The process of learning the course was one of discovering fresh areas where one had been wrong or misinformed. If you think something is obvious you need to look at it again. The trouble is, History is strewn with 'great' men who did not know how to doubt themselves, dogmatic wreckers and meddlers.

UPDATE: On the comment by jackart to the effect that support of the liberal democrats (or "massive intrusive state", to translate) contradicts my pro-doubt views. The obvious retort is that they are not equivalent, and such an argument could go back and forth playground fashion for, ooh, 20 years or so.

The more sophisticated answer is that the sort of big flabby government we are at risk of in Britain is not the undoubting tyranny I referred to above - the Napoleon Hitler model. In fact, the problem with the way huge flabby British government works is not an absence of doubts. Thousands of pages of reports on pensions, work, climate, schools, hospitals etc are produced precisely because it is a monopoly provider, because lacking no competition means that it has to go to endless self-doubting lengths to get anything done. This is too much doubt and consultation and paper. Beset by lobbyists, responsible to everyone and no-one, it is at fault as much for its vaccilation and inability to do anything quickly (see Crossrail) as for any tyranny.

The alternative model - competitive attempts that prosper or die, launched from below - is far better. no Plan, just a fair scrap between good ideas.

Christ, I'm giving this up, it really does take too much time. Seriously. Bye.

Disappearing from Swing territory

In case anyone cared, or noticed, blogging took a back seat last week as (a) an interesting job opportunity occasioned some deeper research than can be found here and (b) the election speculation put a heavy discount on abstract wonderings about how someone should vote. Another way of saying: if the political scene was about to be thrown up in the air for the next 5 years, the blogs to be reading are those closer to the powers that matter, the Cameroons and Brownites, the Dales, Dizzys, Lib Dem Voices, Conservative Homes, not this sort of thing.

Also, this last couple of months has actually worked. I understand better what I value in a political programme, what turns me off. As at the beginning, the pompous cultural superiority in the middle of the Telegraph is still a heavy disincentive to voting Tory - but I am much more aware, through the pamphlets and publications of the central command, that The Tories Know This. At least, half of them do. Read "from the ashes" and you find a text littered with insightful references to their unpopularity, such as

"Tory pronouncements which had the most positive impact on the enthusiasm of Conservative voters at the last election also had the most negative impact on floating voters". A quote from Ashcroft's "Smell the Coffee".

Which I have been saying for weeks, they have been saying (quietly) for years.

Most of "from the Ashes" appeals to me. The worst piece is ironically from D Cameron, the great communicator, who writes in non-sentences like an addicted speechifier ("Literacy in primary schools. Standards and discipline in secondary schools"). But it is written about with far greater lucidity and depth in the two Liberal Books, the Orange Book and Britain after Blair. Centre Forum's analysis of the Blair years is a far better and more honest appraisal than the usual Tory version, which tends to horribly exaggerate Britain's ills and leave one with the impression of an angry squire looking over his estate and finding annoyance with the unfamiliar looking rabble beyond the gates. If Britain is horribly broken, it was still worse in 1995, before the re-orientation of much tax-payer money towards some clearly neglected public goods. No-one is arguing for a return to 1990's levels of public services.

However, this post is not about to signal a broad applause for Labour. One of the consequences of the Labour conference and its ripples was a real fear of the One Party State, and an insight into what it might look like; the illiberal sight of a horde of Trade Unionite worshippers cheering Gordon Brown against a blue background -if that image was not enough to turn one against the Government, then what else could? The strongest political instinct to be awakened in me in the last few weeks was that favour De-centralization - less targets, less smart-arses at the centre, bullied by public-sector-feeding-trough lobbyists into ever more complicated centrally driven overanalysed 'reforms' and changes, draining the independence and responsibility out of the country. Reading in depth about the Tax Credits fiasco reinforced my disquiet about Gordon Brown's ways and "philosophy". I can't vote for him.

Which means which of the other two parties are best placed to champion the liberal, decentralizing, still caring (because life is unfair), anti-special interest agenda. There is NO DOUBT that a significant wing of the Tory party fulfills a part of this. There is no doubt that a clearly-identified wing of the Liberals do too. Right now, my preference is for the latter, for a few reasons:

- The Tories are still undecided on this route. There is still a large number of them who voted "are you thinking what I'm thinking". I hear convincing anecdotes of their activists effectively thinking "we have to go along with this drivel to get elected".

- Too many of them are personally unappealing. For every Michael Gove (very considered and intelligent at a Civitas lunch I attended) there is a Boris Johnson or worse. And they still like policies like giving billions to happily married people as a reward for being happily married. There are biases in the benefits system, but surely cheaper ways of fixing them.

- The Tories are addicted to the current voting system. They would like to rule the country with 38% of the vote falling in the right way. You still get a sense of their thinking, like Labour, or a god-given right to rule. I do not like this. I would like a situation where the compromises were explicit, argued about in public - in the chamber, in a coalition.

- The Tories' fear of Europe is still too driven by blind hatred and ideology. I think Europe's powers need controlling, but this approach will not do it. It offends my intelligence.

So, for now, I am hoping for a resurgence under a sensibly economically liberal LD party, committed to destroying the DTI and freeing up our schools. If a leftwinger wins over there, Lord knows what I should do.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

David Cameron - like it

Despite the BBC mobile service putting the speech below North Korea's latest unstable promises, the 'news' about Diana, andBush vetoing a bill, his speech once found looks good to me. I think this is very effective:

It wasn't just that we' heard it all before, I mean literally heard it all before. I think actually quite a lot of people in America had heard it all before as well. There were the GP surgery family friendly opening hours, we've had that one three times before; eco towns, four times before; competitive sport in our schools, six times before - and no indication about how any of these things are going to be done. But it wasn't just that. It was the cynicism of it. He told us things that he knows he can't do. British jobs for British workers, it's illegal under British law. Deporting people for gun and knife crime, you can't do that because of Labour's Human Rights Act. I have to say to the prime minister: if you treat people like fools, you don't deserve to run the country, let alone win an election."

Anything that promises to cut central interference into teachers' decisions gets my vote:

We will give head teachers complete command of their schools. If they want to have enforceable home/school contracts which parents have to sign about the behaviour of their children before the children go to school, that's fine. And no ifs, no buts, if a head teacher wants to exclude a pupil because their behaviour is wrecking the education of others, they should be able to do so. The appeals panels have got to go.

I still don't like where they are spending their money, inheritance-tax wise, though I'm sure their focus groups say otherwise. The Indie has a good letter on this. But for now, the Tories are ticking up, overtaking Labour for me. Updating the SWING!

Money is precious

The Tories seem to have found some. They are spending it on (a) people disincentivized from working by the prospect that when they die (usually a decade after retirement) they will be taxed if their estates were worth £250k-£1m and (b) on extra tax credits for couples with children.

Alice Miles' attack on the latter is pretty effective for me. This just seems like fluffing up the core vote to me: makes for an easier conference, a few extremely nice headlines in the Mail and Telegraph, but will it really win over the voters lost to Labour in 1997?

I really want the Tories to do well, push Labour hard, challenge their centralizing ideas, threaten a hung parliament and knock Brown off his perch. The left-wing consensus is going to be impregnable if this is the stuff they throw at it.

Monday, 1 October 2007

George Osborne heads in the right direction

I speak of just one aspect of this story, the idea of a one-off £25k annual sum to the non-domiciled wealthy. I think it is a measured step in the right direction. Not sure about the wisdom of where it may be going, but it is a very clever move electorally. I wonder what the Conservative Home view of this is?

UPDATE: I watched this being attacked (like by a wet sponge) by A Darling, our Chancellor, purely on the basis of it not paying for the inheritance tax cut. Utterly avoided Jon Snow's attempts to get him to explain why they were not doing it. But you could see what the New Labour line on this was going to be - more unfunded promises. It seems rather unfair that NL get to quote "The Treasury" (that non-political body) whilst the Tories have some sweating staffer.

Newsnight was still worse for the Conservatives, confirming how the benefits of the tax cut are just 6% of the richest people, and savaging the "9million benefit from this" line. I can see why there are complaints of BBC bias. But I have never liked inheritance tax cuts. Why not the lower rate of tax instead?

Funny how a story develops. This one, for me, started with "Tories outflank the rest on Tax" and turned into "Tories find money; waste it on tax that only appeals to core vote; get attacked by everyone else; likely to get their good idea nicked since they have now made it acceptable". But I still think Tim Hames is too pessimistic for them. This crew is way more attractive than Howard, IDS or Hague Mk I. Brown is still offputting and surely noone really thinks his leaden announcements over the flood-terrorism-dead-cow summer are signs of reassuring strength. It will be a close to avoid a hung parliament.

UPDATE 2: It seems rich Americans are somewhat more enlightened (to which read: agreeing with me
*) on the subject of inheritance tax. Paid by a small minority of people at the top, repealing it is regressive, and hits the incentive to give money to charity in the will. Which Americans are much better at doing than we are.

*well why shouldn't I act with the self-regarding conceit of a blogger, it seems to be the style