Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tax the Rich

A good slogan, isn’t it? Trips of the tongue. It’s about time we made more of it. Here’s why.

This past week has seen the LibDems hit the headlines for our green tax policies. Well done, Richmond, for getting a positive press for their plans for variable residents parking permits (here in Oxford charges for parking outside your home – of the flat-rate variety – are an imposition of the Tory County Council). And over this weekend, many a kagooled activist up and down the country will have been spotted persuading an unwary public to join our green tax switch. A success it was too, by all accounts.

The decision to run the campaign now, days ahead of the publication of the aptly-named Stern report, was a master-stroke of timing. And I’m sure we’re all proud to be in a party which continues to put the environmental agenda at the heart of our identity. It’s the right thing to do – but it’s not enough.

Media coverage, like the planet itself, is hotting up, but in that feeding-frenzy, we’re not going to be the main beneficiaries. The dour and the flighty alike are rushing to paint themselves green – and we might wonder what the country’s done to deserve such a ghoulish Halloween spectacle. That aside, there’s no doubt Messrs Brown and Cameron both want to be seen to be keen to be green. The Tories have called off their mythic exploration for clear blue water, but now all three major parties seem to be ready to splash around the same, suitably stagnant, green water. And when that happens, I doubt we’re going to be written up as the pyranhas in the pond. It’s more likely that we’ll get drowned out in the stampede to watch the bigger fish.

It seems to be an ineluctable law of politics that we can’t be the electoral winners in a tripartite consensus. We might scream and shout that our policies are a deeper shade of verdant than the other lots’ – and that they are, sure enough. But that alone won’t make us distinctive: the party that’s greener than the other two while, at the same time, not disappearing into loonydom is hardly a no-brainer of a USP.

What we already have and what continues to mark us out from the other two parties is our commitment to progressive taxation. Just as we’re proud of our green identity, we should boast that we remain the only big party willing to be honest about how much good services cost. We’re the opposite to the archetypal cynic: we know the cost of everything, but we equally know their value.

This is not one more plea to return to an upper rate of 50% income tax – that debate’s done and dusted, and there’s no need to fight yesterday’s battles. After all, the detail’s there in the Tax Commission proposals – those with really high incomes will be paying their fair share. But we must make that explicable to everyone so that it’s clear that, as Ming puts it, we’re a left of centre party. Tax as a means of redistribution is a mark of our fight for social justice.

Without green tax policies, they’re wouldn’t be a world to inhabit. Without redistributive tax policies, they’re wouldn’t be a society worth inhabiting. So let’s get both messages across in the coming months and years.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Milton's paradise where there's no such thing as society

Being new to this game – actually, I see that I’m not yet twenty days old in blogworld – I’m not yet clear about the rules. What counts as success? I wonder whether it’s about how many comments get posted. If so, after the initial kind words, my postings have bombed. Though, in defence, I could say look at the quality not the quantity. That’s particularly the case for the intelligent responses to my explanation.

Tristan took exception to my side-swipe at Milton Friedman, and then he had heavy-weight backing from Oxford's own liberal socialist. They really do deserve a response. What’s at issue is whether the Nobel Prize winner for Economics (1977) can be considered a liberal. He certainly would self-identity as one of us liberals, but many have taken that claim as rhetorical positioning. And after all, if we accepted what people say about themselves, we’d have accepted Vladimir Zhirinovsky as a true Liberal Democrat. But let’s give the suggestion a bit more thought.

You could construct a radical revisionist reading of Friedman which would allow us to adopt him into the liberal family. In Capitalism and Freedom, he claimed to be wanting to reduce government interference in the economy, but he did see an important role for the state. It was the government which must regulate businesses and that could be a very large job in Milton’s paradise. For, as Friedman notoriously asserted the social responsibility of a company is to maximise profits. If that's all businesses have to think about, the state is going to have a time-consuming task on its hands keeping the corporations on the straight and narrow.

But Friedman's claim is one that more enlightened business-leaders would now reject. After all, a company’s reputation affects its profits, and that reputation isn’t defined only by the hard skills of selling goods and taking over rivals. It’s also about what the experts call either social capital or goodwill. Down the road from Oxford, at Henley Management College – the oldest business school in Britain – there’s a research centre devoted to the issue.

What, in a nutshell, happens is that, in arguing for a balance between small government and free individuals, Friedman forgets about society. He doesn’t reject the concept entirely, but it’s an impoverished version of society where the only meaning of ‘value’ is the price you see on the packet.

It’s ideas like Friedman’s which are behind that most infamous political statement of the Eighties: Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing as society.’ To be fair to her (and I’m not sure why we should considering the damage she did to Britain), the context of what she said suggests she was a victim of bad phrasing. The surviving devotees over at the Thatcher Foundation have generously allowed you to judge for yourself. What she was actually attacking was reliance on state intervention, but the force of her phrase seemed to sum up the soullessness of her brand of Conservatism: what was lacking – as in Friedman’s writings – is an understanding of the social context in which each individual exists and constructs their personality.

So, no, I can’t be persuaded to imagine Friedman is an honest liberal, no more than I would grace Margaret Thatcher with that accolade.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Finland, we salute you

Finland's hitting the headlines (and you don't hear that often said). The BBC have just caught up with our European colleagues' penchant for the prisca lingua -- and aren't quite sure what to make of the Finnish rendition of Elvis. They also provide a link to the Latin newsletter of the Finnish EU presidency (very kind, thank you) but seem to have come to the conclusion that the Finns are somehow crackpots.

First of all, it must be said that their newsletter is hardly Ciceronian in its style -- it reflects instead the Vatican fashion for neologistic Latin. At the same time, their country's love affair with the language of consuls and emperors is, despite what the BBC seems to think, hardly the fad of a new millennium: they have been running a weekly news-bulletin in Latin since 1989. Good for them, if it wakes us out of our comfortable assumption that everyone else will speak English, if only they would try.

And, anyway, Britain itself isn't above a bit of dabbling in the old Latin lingo: it's from here that children's heroes, from Winnie Ille Pu to Henricus Potter, via Alicia in Terra Mirabili and Urus nomine Paddington, have been exported around the world. But, it must be admitted, we can't be held responsible for one of my bookmarked pages: the on-line encyclopaedia, Vicipaedia.

You wouldn't have expected me to let this opportunity pass to mention some hard-core Latin websites. The internet is wonderfully egalitarian in allowing even the languages of the dead to live on -- how liberal. All I need to add is: legite feliciter, eruditissimi lectores!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Journos and that nice Mr Putin

A bugbear of mine which I expect will get a frequent airing on this blog is how the British press tends to be not just insular but parochial in its coverage. Squashed between the home news and the sports section, there are usually all-too-few pages about what’s happening in other parts of Europe, and even less room for events further afield. The story with which I’m about to regale you gives one small example of the contrast between British newspapers and their continental counterparts. But it also deserves a higher profile than it seems to be received for other reasons.

It’s about what could be called Mr Putin’s ‘Yo Blair’ moment: the occasion, on Wednesday, when the Russian President continued talking to his guest, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, at the end of the press conference without realising the mike was still live. Nice Mr Putin rounded off the diplomatic occasion by mentioning his Israeli equal, even nicer Mr Katsav, who is in a little spot of bother over accusations of sexual assault. Putin’s reported words were along the lines of: ‘Wow, what a man. He raped ten women. We’re all jealous of him here.’ His 'joke' was apparently met with raucous laughter all round.

The story became headline news in the Italian newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, on Friday and it was on their website that I first saw it. To be honest, I found what I read incredible and wanted to find confirmation but when I did a quick search that morning, I could find no mention in English. Checking again, I find that it was reported in The International Herald Tribune on Thursday. In Britain, however, it only made The Guardian website in the middle of Friday afternoon, and the BBC then picked it up that night. Since then, there have been mentions of it in some of the print broadsheets, but I am surprised it hasn’t received more coverage.

As the news couldn't but give space to the EU summit on Friday where Mr Putin urged the leaders to import more state-owned Russian oil, you would have thought this would have provided an interesting sidelight. You would have also imagined that the resonances of the original ‘Yo Blair’ overheard conversation would have got the journos thinking. And there is a parallel: as that recording confirmed what we feared about George W’s head-bangingly simplistic take on Middle Eastern politics, so Mr Putin’s throwaway remark – and the reaction – is very revealing. That the President should show a sensitivity to political correctness that makes the late Alan Clark look like a dainty flower of a liberal is perhaps in itself not a surprise. But Putin was expressing a machismo which found a ready audience among those around him.

We already knew that the chief ot the world’s one superpower can think only with his balls. Now, it's confirmed that the world’s largest country is run by a man who thinks you judge a man by his balls. And those around them seem to want to play in the same sandpit. With all that testosterone pumping round at international summits, what chance progress?

Isn’t this something worth a discussion in the British press? Or have the journos here, noting what happens to recalcitrant journalists in Moscow, decided it’s safer to be parochial?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Where have all the Tories gone?

In my favourite weekend paper, The Financial Times, the death of the Tory party is announced. Well, not a complete demise – paralysis is confined to certain limbs, in particular the North-East of England, you will be relieved / disappointed / utterly uninterested to learn. This is a media-take on a new report from those clever girls and boys at Unlock Democracy, which is Charter 88 for the Noughties.

As always, there are questions over methodology – the report may actually paint a rosier picture than is the case, as it is necessarily biased to the responses received: what about all those constituency parties that couldn’t even find someone to hold the pen? And I’m also interested to know why our own party was more active than the others in responding – a sign of our vitality or that LibDems are more naturally inclined politely to comply with requests for form-filling?

But what struck me is that, in this new political map of Britain, Oxford would seem to have ended up in the North-East. We live in a county which has Tory MPs for whom the adjectives 'high' and 'flying' could have been invented - not to forget Boris Johnson and Tony Baldry. But within that county exists a rosebud (for all you Citizen Kane fans) of a Tory-free haven. The Witney wonder (as you’ll remember, it’s wonder as in wonder what he stands for) really has a credibility problem in his own backyard. He may claim to be the Tory Blair – I think that title’s already taken, Dave – claiming to provide a Conservative party for all but here in his own county, his success is confined to the countryside.

There have been no Tory councillors representing Oxford wards or divisions for several years. The last time there was a Conservative, there was just one and she fled to Wales before her time was done. What’s more, there appears to be very little Tory party organisation in this city. Whenever there’s a by-election, they have to parachute in their activists, including the Leader of the County Council – and still they come third or fourth. Even the address of Oxford East's Conservative Party is at Watlington, some ten miles from the constituency.

The Leader of the County, known to his friends as Kaiser Keith, and incidentally my parents’ local councillor (he should be proud), would dearly like to make a break-through in the city. Quite understandably, considering the Conservative mandate to run the County has this credibility problem, being seen as the imposition of the shire on an unwilling urban centre. But, it seems, their party just can’t create the organisation here. And, in truth, they are not helping themselves by making foolish decisions that just increase Tory unpopularity in Oxford.

Now, those who pass for campaigning gurus among them may decide that they can do without the university town. After all, they’re gunning to win back control of the Vale of White Horse Council in 2007, which covers Abingdon and the surrounding area and they realise they have a fight on their hands as the LibDem administration has been successful and popular. Shrewd tactics might convince them to accept the status quo and leave Oxford a Tory-free zone where the occasional appearance of Mr Cameron is met with wry amusement. But that would be poor strategy for them: how can they convince the country that they can govern when even in Oxfordshire they’ve forgotten what it’s like to represent a city?

Unlock Democracy has provided interesting data, organised by regions of the country. But much more worrying for the Conservative party than losing their presence in any one particular geographical area is becoming aliens in one type of settlement – the cities that drive our economy and society. Personally, I would rather like to take on a serious Tory challenge here. But I’m not holding my breath.

What a way to save the planet

Woke up this morning to the 8:30 thud of the post on the doormat. It's all addressed to Cllr D G Rundle (the other blokes, Mr D and Dr David, they're much less popular). But, look, the Cllr's cheating -- there are three identical envelopes here. Open them up and they all begin:
18 October 2006
Dear sir / madam
Please find enclosed copies of Thames Valley Energy Centre's poster promoting the availability of energy saving information packs...

So, an organisation where the morning's mantra will be 'think globally, act locally' very thoughtfully have used three envelopes and nine pieces of paper when one copy in one envelope would do. At least when Oxford's recycling revolution arrives at my doorstep -- under Labour, the city waited years for it, under the LibDems it's happening in a matter of months -- I will then be able to recycle all of it. But if to reuse is better than to recycle, better still not to use it in the first place. You'd have imagined the well-meaning guys at this not-for-profit organisation would have thought of that. But they are based in Mr Cameron's sleepy town of Witney -- something fitting there.

They go on to say 'it would be greatly appreciated if you could display these in prominent positions, maybe at your local surgery where members of the public can view them.' I don't own a surgery -- I'm not that sort of doctor -- and, frankly, councillors sitting in a cold hall on a Saturday morning waiting for the one habitué of these occasions is far from the most efficient way to keep in touch with local people. I will ask for the posters to be put up on the new notice boards around the ward, but the best way I can help publicise what I'm sure is good work, despite their slight accident with an over-eager mailing list, is to mention it somewhere that people might just read, or even make a link to their website. Oh look, it's already done. I hope they're grateful.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Who's calling Ruth Kelly a bigot?

If The Observer is to be believed -- and I accept that that is 'if' written in metre-high letters -- there is internecine conflict in the Cabinet. Not, in itself, much of a revelation, but the latest spat makes Northern Ireland look like an ecumenical bun-fight. Legislation for gay rights is, we're told the, casus belli with (in 'The Now Show's' inimitable phrase) the headboy, Ms Kelly, on the side of Banquo's not-yet-ghostly presence (aka the Prime Minister) fighting against such shocking novelty.

We don't know much about the details, we don't know if it's all cooked up -- and let's face it, this year's silly season has gone on as long as the preternaturally extended summer -- but, somehow it rings true. Not the Papists versus the Prods analysis but, frankly, Labour's failure to embrace gay rights to the full. There's nothing new there. If you think back, you might remember that New Labour were more interested in taking up parliamentary time discussing fox hunting rather than legislating on an equal age of consent. Great sense of priorities.

I know people in the gay community who don't see their sexuality having any bearing on their political outlook. If that's how they want to see it, that's their choice. But we still live in a society where prejudice remains engrained -- both sexist and heterosexist. The present government has done something to improve the situation, but it has been so slow, so grudging, it's hard to credit them with recognising this must be a priority.

Nor, I will admit, are all in the LibDems utterly blameless: there are those who have baulked at the natural justice of an equal age of consent but, then, they are nowhere near the Shadow Cabinet. And, what's more, support for these causes is enshrined in our constitution: no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. Politically, it's a matter of pride to be in the only one of three main parties with that explicit commitment but, for our society, it's sad the other two parties have failed alike on this crucial issue.

An explanation, at last

The time has come to explain this blog's name. Some, I’m sure, have been waiting with bated breath. I should start by saying the my first idea was mores liberales. But that looks on screen like a case of Manuel’s Fawlty English. There are certainly mores liberales in heaven and earth than some would credit. But the Latin noun ‘mores’ is also an English noun which you’ll recognise – customs or habits. And so, with a slight change of case in order to avoid confusion (for that we would not want, would we?), we have: ‘about liberal habits.’

I see at the back of the class an objection from our Blairite friend in Liverpool. He’s waving his arm about, eager to make his point –‘but liberalis isn’t the same as liberal.’ Thank you for that intervention and it is a point well-made. It is here that the dread e-acute word makes a re-appearance.

For, the term liberalis comes from a time when there were free men and those not so free. A liber was a free man in contrast to a slave. ‘Liberalis’ and thus liberal is merely the adjective which derives from that. Even in the classical world, however, a ‘liberal custom’ was not just what a free man would do, but what he (excuse the gender imbalance for the moment) should do. It was implied that a free man should act in certain ways and, most particularly, be educated in certain skills. The concept is still with us or, at least, with our American cousins when they talk of the liberal arts (which we call the humanities, as in those skills which are needed to achieve the full potential of a human – a very Renaissance concept).

But, as everyone is now free, what is liberal is what is suitable for every individual. Quite so, but let’s not lose sight of how recent that insight is. And here’s the point: go back to John Stuart Mill, writing On Liberty in the 1850s, and you’re in an era where the majority still lacked the vote. He might have wanted to alter the gender imbalance by ensuring both sexes had the vote, and he might have been in favour of universal suffrage but he wrote in an age where only the few were ‘citizens.’ And all citizens, he said, should be entitled to debate any issue, as long as they had informed themselves. That is, all citizens should be educated – and the State should compel that education but not be, he suggests, the main provider of it.

So, this brings us back to that feared e-acute: if those who can (and should) be fully involved in political society are the ones who are informed enough to add to the debate, then few would be allowed. Mill was the voice of a liberalism before democracy was achieved. Half a century later and the debate had moved on: the issue becomes how to ensure that everyone can engage in political society, irrespective of their background. Liberals recognised that, at times, that could only be achieved by the intervention of the state. Liberalism, in other words, is about achieving an equality of opportunity and striving for social justice through all the means available.

The reason for this long posting may now be clear: it’s to make it clear, early in my time here, where I stand politically. Mill is a formative influence on Liberalism, but he can not be its guiding light. Later thinkers from T. H. Green to L. T. Hobhouse should take the credit. When the Adam Smith Institute praises my ward colleague, he’s right to take umbrage at having given succour to the suckers. Their idea of ‘classical liberals’ [sic] is an impoverished concept, still-born when the term was invented. They talk of liberals when they actually mean libertarians. But, as we accept, ‘liberal’ has historical resonances of freemen, but certainly not of Friedman.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Spoofing the Witney wonder

Spare a thought for my ward colleague, Cllr Tall. Ever ahead of the game, he was hot off the mark when Webcameroon hit the blogosphere to universal delight (for which, read derision). Stephen constructed a vidcast of deft satire and received for it plaudits from all quarters. Except perhaps that moment when his chest-hair gets rather too free an airing. His take gained a sort of cult following.

But now, nigh on a fortnight later, here comes along another elected representative, someone who's never been heard off even (one suspects) in parts of deepest Brum. He produces what can only be described as a pale imitation of the Tall chef-d'oeuvre. And what happens? It's all over BBC online, and headline news on Radio Four's PM.

When the history entitled Failed Renaissance: ten years in the demise of the Conservative Party, 2005 - 2015 comes to be written, maybe this incident will receive the humblest of footnotes. The author could gather together all the spoofs of the achingly hip-hoping podcasts of the Witney wonder (as in: wonder what he stands for) and then the seminal influence of Stephen's vidcast would finally be acknowledged. That might cheer him at a time when mid-life crisis is liable to hit.

Some might say it raises questions about the Westminster village's priorities when they give room for a non-entity of an MP over the man who was the finalist of the New Statesman's New Media awards and named LibDem blogger of the year. Then again, maybe Stephen has received too much exposure already. Like his chest-hair.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

About a dead language redivivus

I’ll be honest, the title for this blog wasn’t my first choice. When the other Headington councillor first offered to help me shuffle my superannuated (by his standards) way into the third millennium, he held out the possibility that I could be in vino veritas. That would be my style – and would probably reflect my state when posting late at night. But somehow that didn’t happen. I can only assume that it’s already been bagged by AA blogging backsliders or some other distinguished outfit.

At this point, and before I go any further, I should probably enter a caveat for the sake of the vast majority of the world for whom Latin is a dead language with significantly less chance of breaking out of its coffin than Uma Thurman in Kill Bill II. In one of my other lives, away from politics and the needs of Headington, Latin happens to be the main language of the books that I research. I confess it: Latin’s my second tongue. Which may leave you wondering which is my first.

I share with you – and only you, it’s to go no further – that nugget because it would only be natural for some to be sitting there and thinking ‘what a poseur with that de haut en bas manoeuvre'. In short, who can blame you if you’re about to splutter the e-acute word. And to élitism I intend to return. But my point is that Latin touches all of us, from the jeunesse dorée to hoi polloi. With some state schools recognising Latin is a good way to teach grammar skills, it’s not the preserve of the privileged. And a phrase like ‘in vino veritas’ isn’t hard to understand, if we only think laterally – first word, English, second word sounds like wine, third word, might that have something to do with verity? In wine, the truth. Or you can’t lie as well when drunk. How true. Our venerable vernacular is suffused with Latin (like this sentence). Those who haven’t learnt a word of the lingua franca can still have fun with it. I need no further proof of this than the posting on her blog of one who dons the imperial purple of New Labour: no Latin to her name, but she can still make a rather good joke, replacing the moribus of this blog with moribund.

But I digress. I was here to give the real translation and explanation of de moribus liberalibus. Then, eventually, we will get to politics and the e-acute word. But it seems I’ll just have to post again – probably when I’m viticulturally inspired.

Monday, October 09, 2006

It's hello from me, not from him

So, yes, this thing does fly in a virtual sort of way. Thank you, to all of you, of various hues, who have welcomed me to this rarified atmosphere of yours. And to those smarties who have noticed that my first posting was from my ward colleague: a chocolate Euro awaits each of you for your perspicacity.

I realise the apparent interchangeability of David and Stephen, and Stephen and David, could raise existential questions about identity and the representation received by the good burghers of Headington -- all of whom, whatever they vote, each of us, with our county colleagues Altaf and Gail, serve to the best of our abilities. If I say we aim to provide a seamless service, you might think I'm intending to set up a rival to Sketchley's. And, anyway, being good liberals, we pride ourselves in sharing principles but differing in idiosyncracies.

So, for those of you who want a shorthand guide to telling the difference between Headington city councillors, he's a ready reckoner:
  • if it's spouting Latin, it's not Stephen [nota bene: there may be exceptions to this rule]
  • if it's gallantly saving a fainting lady, it's not David (sad to say)
  • if it starts talking about the Renaissance in a mesmerising fashion, it's not Stephen
  • if it looks as if it could be in a boys band, it's not David
  • if it's got a glass of whisky in it's hand, it's not Stephen
  • if it's got it's shirt off, it definitely isn't David
And, for those of you who really imagined that Stephen wrote the last blog, rather than posting it for his inexperienced colleague: have you seen his list of favourite films? Casablanca, I grant you, but Escape to Victory? At least he doesn't mention Mary Poppins.

From now on, let me assure you, all postings will not only be written by me but posted by me too. But don't let that put you off...

Sunday, October 08, 2006

How Martin Scorsese got me blogging

Sunday night and I am just back from the cinema and Scorcese’s latest offering, The Departed. A film about cops going undercover of master criminals and criminals going undercover as hot-shot policemen – about rats, in short.

We have rats in politics; defectors they’re called, but as a good Liberal, I wouldn’t recommend the sort of treatment that is meted out to them in this film.

It is, by no means, a classic in the realms of, say, Taxi Driver or even (a personal favourite) that ever-so-unScorcesean period drama Age of Innocence. But it has Jack Nicholson showing he really can still act, Matt Damon proving that the fine performance he turned in for Syriana was not a one-off and Leonardo diCaprio – well, even he acted well.

But, you’re quite right to ask, whether that has anything to with my liberal inclinations. Tenuous any link would be – except this: at one key moment in one of the denouements to the film (it is two-and-half hours long, it’s allowed more than one), some in the audience sponataneously cheered and clapped.

Now, that never happens in an Almodovar film. It was a reminder that a flat screen can create three-dimensional engagement and connexion – how can everyday life compete? Most of us prefer the fantasy worlds we create to the quotidian ‘reality’ we breathe.

As an alien to this universe called blogosphere, I have to wonder whether this is another chance to escape rather than to engage. Is it a process of conjuring up an audience in the solitary typist’s mind for them to pretend they are actually involved in a conversation?

Or (hello) are there any readers out there? Is there any ‘you’ to whom I addressed the first sentence of this paragraph? Can, to be blunt, this sort of communication compete in a world where there are so many more attractions?

I ask because I am very keen for those of us who hold elected office (however lowly it might be) to do all we can to use every means we can to connect with the communities we represent. Will I be able to do that through this medium?

I can’t wait to find out – if there’s anybody there.