Friday, 18 May 2012

Sad news...

I just heard the sad news that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has died. Probably the leading baritone of the 20th century he has given pleasure and joy to millions of classical music listeners across the world. His soft and equally strong voice was simply unsurpassed. I really regret never having heard him while he was still performing (he was billed to sing at a performance I listened to at the Berliner Philharmonie under Pierre Boulez but had to withdraw). 

Still his many recordings will keep the memory of his breathtaking art alive and I am absolutely certain that  people will continue to listen to and appreciate this amazing voice for a long time.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Things that are worth fighting for...

Campaign groups are an essential part of modern democracy and they often articulate public demands well before politicians pick up on them. The Taxpayers Alliance is such a campaign group and its main objective is pretty obvious from  its name. Tomorrow the Group with stage a demonstration in front of the Welsh Assembly against the Carrier Bag charge of 5p which has been introduced a couple of months ago. The legislation has meant that all shops had to levy a charge of 5 pence for each carrier bag handed to their customers. All charges collected by retailers in Wales would then be passed on to charities. 
The idea was that charging for plastic bags would reduce the appetite of the public to use such bags and a reduction of plastic bags in circulation would also lead to a reduction of plastic littering on which local authorities spend about 40 million pounds annually to keep them out of gutters, drains and from the coastline. 
As Tony Blair once shrewdly remarked, there are issues worth fighting for and there are those that are not worth that fight. I think repealing the Welsh Assembly legislation on plastic bags is not a fight any campaign group would want to take up, for mainly three reasons. 
First, the legislation has been passed and is on the statute book. Past experience tells us that repealing existing legislation once it has received Royal assent is fiendishly difficult. The reason is simple: asking politicians to repeal legislation is tantamount to asking those who supported it in the first place to stand up and say that they were wrong. That's not something politicians are eager to do. 
Second, politicians love evidence to support a policy. Although much policy is made on the hoof, they prefer to have incontrovertible evidence to present to the public. Where evidence exists to support a policy, the debate often goes in their favour. The plastic bag charge legislation in question commands almost unprecedented robust evidence: since the legislation has been implemented the large retailers in Wales have reported a drop in bag use by about 90%. It is a tall order to argue against that. Even the argument that small retailers have been hit disproportionately by the measure is difficult to sustain. They had to buy and dispense free bags prior to the legislation, now with a drop in the use of bags, their costs may have in fact gone down, rather than up. 
But the argument that clinches it is the last, third, one. The charges are collected and passed on to charities across Wales. They are by now a substantial part of the charities’ revenue. Anybody arguing against the carrier bag charge will be up against charities that, say support poor old ladies who cannot care for themselves anymore in Aberysthwyth, or, arguably worse, charities that shelter homeless pets. That’s not a fight anybody would be spoiling to have. Charities can be fierce opponents in the public debate and it makes people who argue with them look heartless or callous. 
As Tony Blair said, there are things that are worth fighting for and there are others. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

European politics at turning point?

Whoever thinks that the recent defeat of conservative parties in local and presidential elections heralds the ascendancy of the left should pay close attention to the recent state elections in Germany. The received wisdom would expect an increase in votes for the LEFT party (or 'Linksparty') which has roughly similar policies to the Syriza party in Greece.

In fact however German state elections have catapulted an obscure and hardly 'left' party into the political limelight: the Pirate Party, an amalgam of right wing madcaps and computer freaks. The Left Party failed in all recent state elections to gain parliamentary seats, and dropped well below the threshold of 5 percent.

It seems that the most recent elections across Europe dance to a different tune than that cheerfully offered by Miliband and his socialist colleagues: it is incumbents that are being pushed out of office and the anti-establishment parties that garner a considerable protest vote. Politics and governments across Europe may become that much more difficult as voters look for alternatives outside the conventional party political spectrum.

Responsible politicians in short supply

Many commentators suggest that the exit of Greece from the Eurozone offers her the best chance to emerge from social, political and economic paralysis. This summary in The Observer today of the costs of a Greek exit from the Euro however makes chilling reading. It highlights the immense social costs that Greeks would incur once bailout money from the IMF and Germany would stop.

Vicky Price offers some illustration of the dilemma.

As the leader of the communist movement Syriza refuses to accept the conditions of the bailout, yet demands the continuation of the bailout payments, his willful insistence on clinging to contradictory positions is about to push Greece over the edge of governability. Political responsibility may just be a virtue too far for some opportunistic politicians.

In defence of Nicolas Sarkozy

French and foreign commentators have called it ‘a return to normality’, the election of Francois Hollande, the next French president who calls himself ‘Mister Normal’. But what is normality in the French context? 
In 1995 the French movie ‘La Haine’ came to German cinemas and I was shocked. The poverty and discrimination portrayed in the movie seemed unbearable. The response of the ‘normal’ French political class to the conditions of the underclasses has always favoured two strategies: The main conservative movement UMP would simply refuse to talk about the challenges of youth unemployment, the racial tensions in the suburbs and large scale discrimination of black and Muslim youth, hoping it would go away. 
In contrast, the socialist establishment calculated that if people would work less there was more work to go around for everyone. They coupled the introduction of the 35 hour week with stringent new work laws and more regulation which eventually had the opposite effect: employers ended up with fewer yet well protected employees. Companies would hire less because they couldn’t be sure they could lay off in difficult times. The result was one of worsening unemployment, less access to the labour market while those who were in work enjoyed better protection. 
Fast forward to 2007 and Nicolas Sarkozy who refused to accept the cherished presumptions of French politics. He challenged the political establishment in three respects. First, he would talk about the insidious effect of more protection for those who are in work on those who are out of work. Second, he originated outside the elitist school, ENA, from which practically the entire French political class hailed, socialist or otherwise. And he did not conform to the understatement of power and riches so celebrated by the French left and right. The privileged classes from socialist to the old UMP wing never forgave him for this. 
So this is the return to normality that French socialists and some of the UMP celebrate. It is the re-installation of the old political elite, left or right, that have always harboured a sense of entitlement. And it is a return to the old policies that have been tried and failed for the last 30 years. More protection for workers who are in work, while those who are out of work can only aspire to gain one of those precious jobs that sets you up for life. Last but not least, it is a return to the ‘normal’ way in which the French elite cocoons its enormous power in non-ostentatious manners and portrays itself as ‘one of them’ to the French electorate who can only look on from the outside. 
Yet it is a normality that France will come to regret. What France needs is reforms of the labour market, more flexibility, not less, and longer working lives, not shorter. Sarkozy challenged the French establishment and its sense of entitlement. He has lost the battle (although some commentators for The Guardian arrive at a more balanced view). But if France continues on the path of tried and failed policies it will not create opportunities for the underprivileged classes languishing in the suburbs. And make no mistake, another, far more ruthless, challenger is waiting in the wings, Marine Le Pen. 

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Sarah Lund bows out... sadly

We all have our secret pleasures and so do I, if only it was still secret! When the Danish television series 'The Killing' hit the British screens, it became an instant hit with the viewing public. Sarah Lund, the slightly dysfunctional Danish detective is shortly returning to the screens with the third and last series. You can imagine I am sitting on the edge of my seat already!

Whilst I share this pleasure now with millions of people, it is hard to say exactly what it is that is so fascinating about 'The Killing'. All episodes are filmed in a perpetually rainy and gloomy Denmark and the lead character does not strike you exactly as the most approachable and amiable person. But perhaps that is the key to the success and to the appeal Sarah Lund has across the audiences in Europe. The Danish producers have created a who-dunnit that draws on Danish realism as much as it champions atmospherical mystery.

Sarah Lund in that famous sweater

As the main character, detective Sarah Lund, investigates a murder case, wandering through a vision of Danish society where grey is the predominant colour. Figures that appear black or white quickly dissolve into characters without sharp contours, leaving the viewer hoping for some firm ground.

Yet this refusal to paint social affairs in stark contrasts is perhaps the most appealing feature of 'The Killing'. There are plenty of crime series on TV, from CSI to Columbo, but few achieve the level of realistic sophistication that 'The Killing' offers.

One advantage the Danish producers have over other crime TV series is time. It takes time to explore the depths and shallows of human conduct and the series of 'The Killing' has plenty of it. Where conventional who-dunnits have to wrap up the murder in one episode, Sarah Lund had 20 episodes to solve one in the first series. With each episode lasting one hour, that is a lot of investigative time offering a lot of opportunities to lead the viewers up the garden path!

Wherever the last series will take her, when Sarah Lundt will finally hang up the gun and get rid of her famous jumper in the last and third series, I will miss her dearly.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Election postscript

As some of you know I have been brave enough to stand in the local election last week. We were trounced completely by the local Labour Party. You can see the local results here and a diagramme below. Although the turnout was very low, it seems that the Welsh Conservatives have a steep hill to climb to ensure a good result in 2015 for the general election. 

The impression of a bumbling coalition government in London certainly has not helped but the main reason for the good showing of Labour is a curious phenomenon: although most relevant issues are decided by the Labour Government in Cardiff, the Westminster government seems to get a lot of blame for the deterioration of health services and education where Wales has slumped into the last position amongst the home nations. 

Be that as it may, we now have to live with a Labour Cardiff Council which we faced last time in 2004. At that time, the Labour vote collapsed due to allegations of corruption and mismanagement in City Hall under Russell Goodway. Although I am not a LibDem supporter, I am sad to see the local councillors go since they have done a great deal more for Grangetown than Labour. Under the LibDem council, recycling had been introduced, and the tricky issue of school reforms had been tackled. 

I have no doubt that Labour will do in Cardiff Council what it does best wherever it is in power: precious little. The default position of Labour in Wales has always been not to confront difficult decisions and instead to sit problems out as long as possible. We will see where that takes Cardiff.

Austerity jeopardised

'The tide of European public opinion is turning’ said John Sopel of the BBC yesterday. Reviewing the results of the French presidential elections from the foot of the Eiffel-Tower, most observers in the BBC studio seemed to think that austerity policies, allegedly championed solely by Angela Merkel and the evil Germans, have fallen out of favour with people across Europe. This of course is also the line the Labour Party in Britain has been pushing for months now: 'Austerity does not work and it is time to change course'. As Andrew Neill pointed out to Ed Balls on the Sunday Politics Show yesterday, neither of the Eds has yet said how much this change of policy would cost the British taxpayer. 
The picture is somewhat clearer in France. Francois Hollande has promised his voters two main changes: to reverse the pension reforms introduced by his predecessor and to employ sixty thousand more teachers. While he, like the British Labour Party, has not said how to pay for these changes, Hollande has suggested that the fiscal pact, signed by all Eurozone countries but not ratified yet, needs to be re-negotiated. 

As the sentiment against austerity gains strength across Europe, there are two main arguments about how to finance any policy change. First up is the suggestion made by the pseudo-communist party Syriza in Greece that ‘the Germans’ should pay’. There seems to be little traction with this sort of argument amongst centre-right or centre-left to simply deposit all debt that Greece and other countries have raked up in the last two decades on the German doorstep. However, the argument draws its persuasive force from a powerful source, that 'the rich should pay for the poor'. 

What the outspoken leader of the assemblage of Greek communists Alexis Tsipras does not say, of course, is that any money transferred from German coffers to pay for Greek debt is hardly a transfer from the rich to the poor. More accurately, it is a transfer from those who work hard and have made the difficult decisions about welfare and public service reforms, to a country where most people consider it a crime to pay taxes. 
The second argument finds its latest manifestation in France, articulated by the president elect Francois Hollande. He wants to finance his programme of growth by taxing the rich and by changing the rules for the European Central Bank (ECB) to allow the bank to issue bonds directly. In effect, it would mean that the French government can borrow money without regard to its credit rating. Noticed the trick? Of course, there is no way any country can borrow above and beyond its means, so what Hollande is suggesting is to allow the ECB to lend money to France with Germany underwriting the debt. Lurking in the background is exactly the same mode of thought as in Greece: the ‘rich’ should pay for the poor. 
What do Hollande and ... have in common? Their arguments are animated by the same denial of government responsibility that has brought so much misery to Europeans already. It is a continuation of the old 'spend spend spend' policies that refuse to acknowledge that there is always somebody who has to pay for the debt. The only difference between Britain and the Eurozone is that in the Eurozone it's the Germans who have to foot the bill, whereas in Britain there is no other government that could pay up for us. 
Where does that leave Europe? It seems closer integration of fiscal and political affairs have not ushered in a new sense of responsibility but a new wave of ‘beggar thy neighbour’ approach. Hopefully, Angela Merkel will resist any moves to water down the rules of the fiscal austerity pact. What France and Greece need are reforms to make its industries more competitive and for its politicians to accept responsibility, not another round of ‘free for all’. 

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Delay the Lords Reform!

As the coalition government is stumbling from one mistake to another, it is hard to dispel the impression that most of its wounds are self-inflicted. To add to the list of problems, the government has opened the can of worms again that is the reform of the House of Lords
As many observers of constitutional affairs have noted only half-jokingly, House of Lords reform has been imminent since 1911. In that year, parliament approved the Parliament Act which established the supremacy of the House of Commons. Ever since, politicians and the British public have wondered what the role and purpose of the Lords could be in the legislative process. 

Much ink has been spilled on possible reforms for the House of Lords and many a commission’s report has come and gone. But now, the government is determined this long protracted issue should enter its final phase. In fact, it is so determined to solve the House of Lord issue, ministers will move other legislation out of the way in the House of Commons schedule to make place for reform legislation. Why the haste? 
One reason may be the desire of the Liberal Democrats to secure their legacy before the next general election. Putting in place some of the changes they promised in their election manifesto in 2010 may provide a critical stepping stone for their electoral survival. However the timing of this round of reforms of the House of Lords appears deeply flawed. While few would argue that making the Lords an elected parliamentary body would increase their legitimacy, it is the timing that is ill conceived. 
Scotland’s First Minister has announced a referendum on Scottish independence for 2014. Whether or not Scotland may secede from the Union in 2014, Britain will need a fundamental transformation of its constitutional structure as devolution for the three smaller home nations gathers pace. The obvious means for re-jigging the British constitution would be a federal upper chamber that could ensure regional and national representation and balances the power of central government.
Any precipitate House of Lords reforms however forecloses this option. Once the upper chamber is a fully elected body with the main political parties dominating its composition, any federal solution become unfeasible. Since not much has changed in the last 100 years, chances are we would have to wait another century for a federalisation of the upper chamber. The forces set in motion by devolution may not wait that long.