Archive for Liberal Democrats

Race Plan by Jeremy Browne.

A  brief review.

I was delighted to discover that I could download this book from the day it was published in the UK.  This was quite an achievement for a UK publisher.  Normally I have to wait several months for British books to appear on the Canadian site.

Jeremy Browne has interesting things to say about foreign affairs. The chapter on foreign policy is both informed and trenchant; for example his contention that our diplomacy in Asian countries is often inept. His overall message is that we have a lot of soft power, and we must use it to promote liberal values in China’s century, both for our own good, and for the preservation of those values in a world in which the dominant world power is a dictatorship.

The rest of the book, however, too often reads as a formulaic setting out of problems and solutions by an ideologically inflexible economic liberal.  Sometimes Browne gives the impression that he hasn’t been prepared to think about the issues he is writing about, other than to place them within the parameters of his ideology.  For example, does it really matter that a minimum price on alcohol would interfere with the free market?  Surely the only important criteria is whether or not it would work to reduce alcohol abuse? Blind adherence to any creed kills common sense.

What I found most disappointing was the almost complete absence of any consideration of the environmental implications of policy:

“The comforting truth is that, just because one country gets richer, it does not follow that one country gets poorer.  Global economic growth is not a zero-sum game: we can all get richer” (my emphasis).

True for Adam Smith perhaps, but not in the world of finite resources we live in now. For some resources it is in fact a zero-sum game: there isn’t enough pasture land for us all to eat red meat, and so if China is going to eat more, we may have to eat less, for example.

Browne’s blind spot on the environment is most apparent when he is talking about Britain’s infrastructure needs. He supports a new airport hub for London, new roads, rail and housing on green belt land — and they’d get it all built so much more quickly in China.  But you can’t possibly understand the complex issues of infrastructure on our crowded island unless you also consider greenhouse gas emissions, smog, preservation of landscape and biodiversity.  If, as a nation, we spend time considering the options and sometimes prefer infrastructure solutions which are not optimal for the economy, but less damaging for the environment, surely that is just our nation practising the same liberal values that he thinks are our strength?

I found parts of the book  just plain irritating.  There is  a section where Browne comes over all Niall Ferguson about our past and tries to out-jingo Michael Gove.  If he did some more reading, he would discover that there are other factors to explain the Industrial Revolution, than our intangible ‘national disposition’, and personally I’m not swelling with pride at being part of a nation that built the largest empire ever known.

The reason that supermarkets ran out of products in the nineteen seventies was because high inflation led to hoarding and runs on food. So  if that does not happen now, it is not an example of how commercial institutions improve their performance; though bread, which he mentions specifically, used to be a morning product, having been baked overnight.  But maybe an ambassador’s wife didn’t do her own shopping often enough to know that?  I remember because I was a grown-up in the seventies, not a schoolboy shopping with his mum.

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The pensioner’s top-up

I’m one of the people who could take advantage of the pensioners’ top-up just announced.  It looks very generous, offering an index linked annuity of 5.84%, compared with the 3.5% offered commercially.

But, the question that is puzzling me is this:  Why would I take advantage of this offer, when the government offers a much better deal through pension deferral, since every year of deferral increases my pension by 10.4%?

I reach pension age on 6th March 2015.  I am entitled to the full pension of £110.15 p.w. So, if I put off claiming my state pension for two years, until 6th March 2017, I will have foregone £11,455.60. But, I will have gained a pension increase of 20.8%; that is £22.91 per week.

Alternatively, if I use the pension top-up scheme to gain an additional £23 a week, the premium I’ll have to pay on 6th March 2017 will be £20,470, more than £9,000 extra for the same result.

So why would I do that? Will someone (Mr Webb?) explain?

It occurs to me I should add some links:

Deferring the State Pension

State Pension Top Up Calculator




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Goodbye 2013 Part 1

Edmonton Alberta, 5.30 pm,  -26°C with windchill, snow.

2013 has been a good year for me personally, though it hasn’t felt like that all of the time. The big event was selling our house in Edmo and buying a coastguard’s cottage in Devon.  I thought it was the right time to sell and move our capital back to Blighty, and for once my financial judgement seems to have been correct.  And we have avoided a lot of the stress of repatriation by selling well in advance of our move next June. I’ve also had a couple of articles published this year, and I’ve got a credit in a book; although my real ambition is to finish my novel and get it published, these small achievements boost my confidence.

As far as politics is concerned, I end the year a far less enthusiastic Lib Dem than I was at the beginning.

There were a couple of things this year that really got to me emotionally.  The first was Thatcher’s funeral.  I loathed Thatcher.  So did a half the population during the time she was in power. There was no way she was entitled to a state ‘ceremonial’ funeral.  It was an insult to great leaders like Wellington and Churchill who had state funerals, and it was an insult too, to great Prime Ministers like Attlee or Lloyd George who didn’t. The funeral was divisive, and reflected badly on the politicians of all parties who attended it, showing them up as shallow opportunists.

Shallow opportunism was also in evidence after the death of Mandela.  It was unfortunate, to put it mildly, that the same MPs who’d fallen over backwards to praise the supporter of apartheid, and bosom friend of torturer General Pinochet, were a few months later wanting to remind the world they’d once shaken hands with Mandela, or if not, knew someone who did.  Mandela’s long march to freedom would have been significantly shorter without the Iron Lady.

Overall, the intellectually vapid and histrionic performance by MPs of all parties in 2013 left a bad smell, and will have done nothing to counter the general cynicism with which politicians are viewed nowadays.

Secondly, I still feel upset about the prejudice being whipped up towards the Roma people. I’m not able to view this issue with emotional detachment.  I’m not sure why: I am not Roma, and my connections with the Roma community are historical and tenuous.  But, I find the hatred being expressed to the Roma both appalling and quite frightening. At the very best, it takes our society back to the levels of prejudice shown against the Afro-Caribbean population in the 1960s.  At worst we are part of a European trend that will end in ethnic cleansing, 1930s style.

And that brings me on to the subject of Nick Clegg. I’ve come to the conclusion that Clegg is just not an instinctive liberal.  Time and time again, when he has to think on his feet, his pronouncements are illiberal, and then have to be corrected at a later stage, if at all.  He had been described as a Europhile Tory, and that is probably correct. His comment about the Roma, quoted by Tanya Gold in her excellent Guardian article this week, was the last straw. It is really shameful that the comment of a Liberal leader gets quoted as an example of racism. I don’t like him as leader of the party.  If we are to continue in coalition, then we need a leader who is liberal to the core.  Until he is replaced, I’m going to be picky about what campaign work I involve myself with.

I end the year despondent about environmental issues. When we get to Devon, we will be retrofitting our cottage to reduce our carbon footprint as much as is practicable, or we can afford; but, it seems a futile gesture; no more than a means of reducing our fuel bills and placating our consciences. With no international agreement in sight that will result in significant reductions in emissions, anything we do as individuals, or as a country, is just pissing in the wind.  In that context the coalition’s failure to live up to its green promise seems almost irrelevant.

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Harper addressing Parliament

Can someone explain why Stephen Harper has been invited to address Parliament?  The last time a Canadian prime-minister did this was in 1944.  Canada had, of course, contributed enormously to the Allies’ war effort, keeping Britain supplied with food and materials via the Atlantic convoys (my late father-in-law took part in The Battle of the Atlantic), and supplied a million troops.

A comparison with WW2 is apt, because the struggle to combat climate change is also a fight for survival, and this time Canada is on the wrong side.  Harper has muzzled his own scientists, obstructs international negotiations on emissions reduction and lies, prevaricates and obfuscates in order to protect Canada’s dirty oil industry.

Inviting him to Parliament makes as much sense, in terms of British interests ,and ethically, as inviting Henrik Verwoerd to invite Parliament in 1962.  Except that we didn’t do that, of course.

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The European Fuel Quality Directive

The following is the substantive part of an email I sent to Norman Baker a couple of days ago:

Dear Norman,


I should have written to you about the Fuel Quality Directive before now.  After all, I am in a unique position as both a member of the Lewes Liberal Democrats, whose MP is responsible for Britain’s vote in the EU on the FQD’s implementation, and a resident of Alberta, home of the tar-sands industry lobbying against implementation.

In 2011, when The Guardian newspaper started reporting that you were going to vote against implementation, I simply did not believe what I was reading. Damian Carrington, who was taking the lead on the issue, is not a journalist whose accuracy I trust (I note in today’s Guardian that, despite reporting on the tar-sands issue for several years, Carrington still thinks that Canada has a president). At first, I treated the reports as so much anti-coalition propaganda, because I could not imagine that you would consider voting against implementation.

I was wrong, but by the time I realized there was substance to the reports, I also knew you were listening to environmental lobbyists, and when you abstained on the vote on implementation I thought you had listened, but were probably constrained from voting for implementation by a promise made to Stephen Harper by David Cameron.  Since it is reported that you may be intending to vote against implementation now, clearly I was wrong again.

These are weak excuses for not having lobbied you on the issue myself, and even though I know that you have spoken with Dr James Hanson, who is a million times more qualified than I am to put the argument for FQD implementation, I want you to know that I think you are mistaken, and are overly influenced by the Canadian and oil industry lobbyists.

If I understand your position correctly (and I’m not sure that I do), you do not want the FQD implemented until it includes all unconventional crudes, not just tar-sands.  Your critics say this will simply push the FQD into the long grass, which is exactly what the oil industry lobbyists want. You deny that this will happen.

I do not know enough about the way the EU works to know whether a no vote by Britain will result in implementation delayed or indefinitely postponed, but two things are obvious to me:

Firstly, the FQD already includes provision for review in 2015, allowing the other unconventional crudes to be added. This undermines your argument, but your only reply is that you have ‘no faith’ in the review.  Why?

Secondly, it is very clear to me, from here in Alberta, that a no vote hands the Canadian Government and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers a propaganda coup.  This may seem unimportant compared with the substantive task of reducing the carbon content of European fuel, but it is not. Canada has no realistic plan for reducing its carbon emissions, and no intention of putting one in place.  It would have to close down the tar-sands industry, and nobody in Canada wants to talk about that – and I mean nobody.  There is an air of unreality about most climate change discussion in Canada that is probably best described as ‘the view from Planet Exxon Mobil’, which infects even environmental organisations. So, for example, we have the environmental group Pembina Institute which does good work on some issues, but on the tar-sands talks about ‘responsible development’.  Dr Hansen will have explained to you that there is no responsible development of the tar-sands; the only responsible course of action is no development at all. 350 org has no local groups in Canada.

There are good reasons for the silence about the elephant in the room.  No Canadian, however concerned about climate change, wants his or her house and pension fund to devalue, or to lose his or her job. In the federal election of 2007 the Liberal Party presented Canadians with a ‘green shift’ manifesto which would have used carbon taxes to shift development away from the tar-sands and into green industries. Even then, the Liberal leader Stéphane Dion denied it would prevent tar-sands development, although it certainly would have done. The ‘green shift’ was attacked, not just by the Conservatives, but by the New Democrat Party, who objected to the cost to middle-class families; not mentioning that their preferred option, of a carbon trading scheme, would only have been cost free if it was also as ineffective as Europe’s has been.

The ‘green shift’ was rejected by the electorate. The Liberal party has been very careful since then never to say anything sensible about climate change, and it was at that point Canada adopted the perspective of Planet Exxon Mobil.

To give one example: Thomas Mulcair, leader of the official federal opposition (NDP), visited Washington in March this year, where he compared unsustainable development to slavery, but found himself unable to say whether or not he opposed the Keystone XL pipe-line, even though it is as good an example of unsustainable development as can be found anywhere on Earth.

To give another: Justin Trudeau, newly elected leader of the Liberals, has supported tar-sands development, saying it should be defended when foreign critics call for a halt.  The Liberal website, nonetheless, states that Canada’s energy policy should be sustainable.

The governing politicians of Canada and the Canadian journalists who support them, use rhetoric that makes it clear that they see the emissions issue as purely one of greenwash. They tend to assume that foreign governments are as cynical as themselves – only paying lip service to the issue as a sop to a tiresome green lobby. I have no doubt that is how Stephen Harper sees David Cameron (perhaps rightly), and possibly you Norman.  A no vote will confirm him in that view.

Moreover, it is possible the vote will take place before President Obama has made a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, sending the wrong message at the wrong time to the USA about the importance Europe places on the issue.

Your advisors may have emphasized the importance of Britain’s friendship with Canada, but true friends are truthful with each other, and in the long run it will not help Canada if it is allowed to continue its delusory path. As you know, Nicholas Stern has recently warned of the risk of ‘stranded assets’, and Canada is at risk of becoming The Country of Stranded Assets. Honest speaking about the tar-sands industry, and a vote in favour of implementation of the FQD,  would be a friendlier act to Canada than giving in to its lobbyists. …………..

There is one point I wish I had included in the email, which is that it is a very strange situation, when a Liberal Democrat MP expresses a lack of faith in the ability of the EU to do what it says it is going to do (carry out a review of the FQD in 2015), but no such scepticism is being expressed by Greenpeace.

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Shall I stay or shall I go?

I’m not very happy about being a Liberal Democrat at the moment, but despite that I’ve renewed my membership for another year.

My unhappiness is for the same reasons as every one else, but especially the support for secret courts followed by the resignations of Jo Shaw and Dinah Rose, and the benefit caps, but I’m not thrilled about the Rennard allegations, the weirdness of Mike Hancock and David Ward, or the Huhne/Pryce trial either.

On the other hand, although I’d voted LD since the eighties, I joined because of Iraq and then stayed because I thought the Party stood a good chance of power in a coalition government. I thought that would be a good thing, because whether with the Conservatives or Labour, it would rein in populist authoritarians  in either party and shift politics to a more liberal centre. The fact is that my dream has come true. However unhappy I am about some of the things done by this government, I’m quite sure I’d be a lot more unhappy if the economic crisis was being managed by a Labour or Conservative majority government.

But the point of coalition government is lost if the Liberal Democrats themselves become Blairite. The fact is that this government can’t do anything without the consent of Nick Clegg, but he chooses some odd places to draw lines in the sand. Why, if he could breach the coalition agreement over boundary changes, could he not refuse to countenance the benefit caps, which have nothing to do with reducing the welfare bill and everything to do with pandering to the maliciousness of the Tory tabloids?  Why the secret courts?

Another reason for staying is Mike Thornton.  I don’t know him, but he strikes me as typical of the kind of hard-working decent local government politician I’ve known and admired in the UK for many years. I was rooting for him during the election campaign.  He was obviously superior to the other candidates and it was great that he won. I also think Norman Baker is a great MP for Lewes, and  I’m keen on campaigning for him at the next general election, as I did for the last one.

Frankly, there is just too much happening in my life at the moment to spare the time to think through the issues.  When my physical health is better, and when I’ve got our house sold, I’ll pay some serious attention to whether or not I want to remain a LD, but it would help if we entered the next election campaign with a new leader.

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Chris Huhne and Shale Gas

I am neither for, nor against, the exploitation of Britain’s shale gas.  I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I think the issue is more complicated than the way it was put by Chris Huhne in The Guardian this week.

There’s the question of whether shale gas is a lower carbon fuel than coal.  There have been two studies by Cornell university which contradicted each other, one showing that shale gas had  higher greenhouse gas emissions than coal, the other that the emissions were half.

This matters.  Firstly,  there’s James Hanson’s argument that to prevent dangerous climate change, we cannot afford to take all the fossil fuels out of the ground. Therefore it makes sense to leave those with the highest carbon content, which means leaving the unconventional oils and coal. So the difference between a carbon content higher than coal and one half of coal, is the difference between leaving it in the ground, and exploiting it.

The level of emissions also affects the viability of using CCS, that is carbon capture and sequestration. In his article Chris Huhne advocates the use of CCS with shale gas.  So far, pilot CCS projects such as the one at Sleipner  seem to be showing that CCS is possible but expensive.  It is only economically viable for fuel sources with relatively low CO2 content (at Sleipner the natural gas has 9.2%), and in combination with a carbon tax. So, if shale gas actually has higher emissions than coal, then it is probably not viable, even with CCS.

Chris Huhne’s article did not mention the question of water use and possible pollution of aquifers.  Possibly he accepts the reassurances of the energy industry on this issue. Personally, I don’t know who to believe. On the one hand, I accept that the campaign against shale gas in North America is characterised more by hyperbole than hard facts, but I’m equally skeptical about the statements from the energy industry.

What concerns me most is the way we seem to be rushing to exploit our shale gas reserves.  It’s not as if the gas is going anywhere, and getting this decision wrong could have serious environmental effects for the UK. I’d like to see a slower and more considered approach; preferably a public enquiry to report on the viability of exploiting the reserves, economic, environmental and otherwise.

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An orange is not a banana.

Like so many other Liberal-Democrats, I was dismayed by yesterday’s announcement to extend email snooping. I checked out the story on the BBC, Guardian, Daily Telegraph and the Independent before I was convinced it was not an April Fool’s joke.

I’m not comforted by Lynne Featherstone’s patronising email,  I’ll put it this way: If I am allergic to oranges, chocolate and bananas, I’m not going to eat an orange just because I’m told it is not a banana or a Cadbury’s flake.

So, being reassured by Lynne Featherstone that the proposed legislation does not set up a database (chocolate), or give access to the content of emails (banana) does nothing to placate me.  I don’t see why GCHQ should have access to any private communications data without being required to show cause.  I don’t agree with the powers that it already has under RIBA, to monitor communications without a warrant, and I don’t agree to them being extended.

I’m very troubled by this issue, because it leads me to question why I stay in the Liberal Democrats.  I care about social justice, but if that were all I’d be in the Labour Party.  However, I’ve always been distrustful of the authoritarianism of Labour, which came to the fore after 9/11. I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats because I trust it on civil liberties issues.  If I’m wrong about that, then what is the point?

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Kanadischen Klimabomben

Austria was one of the countries which voted for implementation of the Fuel Quality Directive, whereas the UK only abstained.  If passed the FQD would effectively put an import  ban on Canadian tar sands oil into Europe.

The environment minister for Austria is Niki Berlakovich, of the Austrian People’s Party, which has a right of centre ideology. After the vote his spokesperson described the Canadian tar sands as kanadischen Klimabomben — “Canadian Climate-bombs”, and described oil sands and oil shale as the energy sources of yesterday.

This is not a party political issue.  It is purely to do with Britain and Europe reaching its emission reduction targets, and also with rightly condemning an industry which is dirty and unsustainable and should be closed down.  I’d like to see the British government condemn the tar sands industry in the same forthright terms as Berlakovich.

I’m relieved that Britain abstained rather than vote against implementation.  Now the vote goes to the Council of Ministers, and I very much hope that, at that point, Britain does the right thing.

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The Fuel Quality Directive (again)

I am simultaneously a resident of Alberta, home of the tar sands, and a member of Lewes Liberal Democrats.  This unique combination gives me a strong interest in the issue of the implementation of the EU Fuel Quality Directive, which should ban tar sands oil from entering Europe, and Norman Baker’s role, which numerous environmental groups have alleged, has been to secretly aid Canada in its attempts to prevent the ban.

In my opinion the campaign against Norman has been febrile and ill-informed, and I would also apply both of those adjectives to Damian Carrington’s reports in his Guardian blog.

I was particularly amused by Carrington’s grudging approval of the UK government’s donation to the Pembina Institute, which he described as an “anti-tar sands” organisation.  Pembina, based in Calgary, only calls for a moratorium on new tar-sands developments, not for the tar-sands exploitation to end. In fact, Pembina insists that the tar-sands can be made sustainable (against all the evidence).  Essentially it inhabits the same alternative reality as the Canadian and Albertan governments, in which you can have your cake and eat it, exploit tar-sands oil and combat climate change. I can understand why the UK might decide to give Pembina a donation rather than another environmental group.  Pembina’s stance means it  gets listened to occasionally, meaning it can influence issues such as environmental monitoring, whereas the other environmental groups are regarded with horror and contempt on a par with Al Qaeda; but describing Pembina as “anti tar-sands” is either ignorant or delusional.

But I digress.

Norman has answered the allegations against him on his website and in letters to the Guardian, and I am satisfied that there were no secret meetings and there is no conspiracy.  However, I still have some concerns about the UK’s position on the FQD implementation, and Norman’s position in particular.  Norman is critical of the methodology which accords a high rating to tar sands oil, but fails to take into account the high emissions of heavy conventional crudes, such as those from Nigeria, Angola or Venezuela. He states:

 I persuaded the British government to put to our EU partners a system whereby all fossil fuel sources were placed in either a high, medium or low band, with specific values being advocated as and when the detailed information became available. Under my scenario, such a value would be given to Canadian tar sands right away but within this banding arrangement that captured all other fossil fuel sources from day one.

Lush portray this policy as “attempting to kill this legislation by delaying it for years”. Yet my officials at the Department for Transport advise me that a banding system could be up and running within six months to a year. By contrast, if the EU fails to put a system in place now to cover all crudes, it is unlikely that the matter will be revisited for years, and all we will have is a specific value for one source that at the moment barely exists, as far as Europe is concerned.

My problem with Norman’s stance is as follows: T&E is an environmental organisation I trust. In its briefing on the FQD implementation it states that the methodology criticized by Norman, will only be in place until December 2015 at the latest, when it will be reviewed –

The proposals also include the possibility of allowing additional default values for higher GHG intensity conventional sources, once the data has been established and if it is proven to be scientifically warranted. Furthermore, the review will allow existing default values to be adjusted in line with the latest scientific and technical information.

Norman claims that the banding system he proposes would take just six months to put in place. thus saving just two and a half years on the 2015 review. I’m not convinced that is worth arguing for.  Even if little or no Canadian tar sands oil is imported into Europe, the ban, as T&E argue, will have an immediate effect on the perceived viability of tar sands exploitation, and discourage investment.

The environmental groups accuse the British government of conspiring with Canada to kick implementation of the FQD into the long grass. I don’t believe that, and nor do I think that it could do that even if it wanted to. At worst, I  think there may be some muddle in the government’s approach, as evidenced by the donation to the Pembina Institute, and influenced  by our close relationship with Canada, and the degree of investment in the tar-sands by British companies, including RBS, BP, and HSBC.

Nevertheless, I believe it would be better if the UK votes for implementation of the FQD now, and not be responsible for any further delay

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