Sunday, 5 June 2011

Greece Pulls Out of the Euro?

This mistake by the Reuters Exchange Rate made me smile earlier today, mostly because I suspect someone in their office actually played a bit of a joke rather than there being a "programming error" as claimed.

Greece hasn't used the Drachma since 2002 but the error in the programming didn't surface till now did it?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Why I Can't Wait for the Labour Leadership Result

This afternoon we will have new leader of the opposition and frankly I can't wait. The party will most likely remain fractioned whoever wins and with both the Conservatives and Lib Dems in power, Labour will struggle to present any viable alternative. Ok, Tory economic policy is hardly the height of popularity but it sure beats the recklessness of previous administration. No one wants to go back to that.

The main reason I'm looking forward to the result though is that on twitter so many Labour supporters have really pushed the boat out in support of their favoured candidate. When some influential tweeters tried to make Oona King the Labour candidate to stand against Boris Johnson in the forthcoming London Mayoral election we recently witnessed a dramatic climb down when left-wing stalwart Ken Livingstone was (obviously) elected instead (will they ever learn?).

I look forward to later retweeting some of the propaganda that supporters of the losing candidates have put up in the past week or so. The authoritarian left tend to like a battle, even with each other, and some quotes could soon come back to really bite supporters and candidates alike hard on the arse.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

What does Solidarity mean 30 years on?

Thirty years ago in a shipyard on the North coast of Poland, Communism began to fall. Today, Gdańsk shipyard is more likely to host a rock concert than a political meeting and the locals are more concerned about whether the new football stadium will be ready in time for Euro 2012, but the city will forever be associated with the Solidarity movement. As Poland celebrates this anniversary and remembers the impact Solidarity had (and continues to have) in transforming the country from a Soviet satellite state into a fully-functioning EU democracy it is worth asking if similar movements could be as effective across the former U.S.S.R and even further afield.

For those who don’t know, Solidarity was founded in 1980 as a response to the political and social difficulties faced by the Polish government and which plagued the everyday life of Poles across the country. It became the first trade union in the Eastern Bloc that was not controlled by the Communist Party and despite continued attempts to repress and even destroy the group throughout the 1980s; Solidarity grew as a political force and earned the right to contest the 1989 semi-free elections through the Polish Round Table Agreement. As a new and legitimate political party, the group won 160 of the 161 seats available and Solidarity co-founder Lech Wałęsa became the President who presided over the collapse of Communism in Poland. Since the early 90s though, Solidarity has become more of a trade union in the more traditional sense of the word and has little political influence as a party.

Wałęsa unfortunately did not attend the celebrations for reasons that varied from ill-health to making a point against the current political affiliations of the union. However, U.S. President Barack Obama did send a message of support that was read out by the American ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein: "Through the Solidarity movement, the people of Poland reminded us of the power each of us has to write our own destiny. In the face of tyranny and oppression, they chose freedom and democracy and, in doing so, changed their country and the course of history." This raises an important point; Solidarity was always more than just a political party or even a trade union but was a social movement that brought the people of the country together against the U.S.S.R.

Solidarity was strongly influenced by Catholic Social Teaching which is unsurprising given that even today more than 88% of people belong to the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the Pope at the time, John Paul II, was Polish and in a major document called ‘Sollicitudo Rei Socialis’ supported the concept of solidarity. More importantly though, the movement was underpinned by the philosophical teaching of Leszek Kołakowski who concluded in his Theses on Hope and Hopelessness that “the best way to counteract prosecutions is massive committal....thus in the countries of socialist despotism, those who inspire hope are also the inspirers of a movement which could make this hope real”. Or, as it was put in Kołakowski’s obituary: “self-organised social groups could gradually expand the spheres of civil society in a totalitarian state”.

A big idea and one that retains its importance even today for many countries where groups seek social change; especially when we look at the types of state described. Kołakowski speaks of states which have destroyed historical memory, manipulated all information and where memory has been nationalised so that citizens have been robbed of their identity. This could be used to describe a worryingly large number of countries in 2010, including many post-Soviet Republics. In fact of the 15 post-Soviet states, the organisation Freedom House has declared eight not to be free, three to be partially free and only four are considered to be free states.

Some offenders are worse than others though and ought to be highlighted as such. Turkmenistan continued to be controlled by the Communist Party after 1991 and the country soon became isolated and the media strictly controlled. The President died in 2006 and whilst his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, promised reforms including a new constitution, in reality there has been little political reform and most political dissidents are locked up. Meanwhile in neighbouring Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov has been President since 1991 and since then he has stripped all other institutions of any meaningful power and there is no effective opposition. Finally we have Belarus whose President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has been described as ‘Europe’s last dictator’ as opposition is crushed with violence, harassment and intimidation.

The people of these countries, and others like them could learn a lot from the teachings of Kołakowski and the way they were put into practice by Wałęsa. The path to freedom is often long and arduous but the story of a fired electrician in a Polish port becoming President ought to be one that inspires people all these years later and there are indeed modern day examples. The Dalai Lama in Tibet, Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma are all people who deserve our support in the way that Solidarity received widespread support in the 1980s. Wałęsa may not have attended the celebrations at the weekend but that doesn’t mean we have nothing to thank him for and can’t still learn from him today.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Hague, his SpAd and Guido

If this story had turned out differently, Guido Fawkes would have been considered a pioneer of the new age of journalism this evening. However, the statement by Hague and the resignation of Myers has made Paul Staines look very much like the bad guy. The foreign ministers marriage and sexuality have been called into question and a man has resigned for no reason but should we really be blaming Guido?

One of the 'problems' with freedom of the press is that people spout lies, talk rubbish or, as in this case, cast aspersions. Guido's reputation could maybe be damaged if this was a stupid aspersion that has been cast but was it really that big a jump? If you think so then fine, but you're probably not the sort of person who has much respect for the type of reporting that comes out of anyway and Hague himself has admitted that "in hindsight I should have given greater consideration to what might have been made of [sharing a hotel room with my driver]".

Before people once again start condemning Guido Fawkes they need to consider the wider principle. Would you rather live in a society where people were too scared to post this sort of thing? If Guido has truly misjudged this piece then he will suffer in terms of reputation; I doubt that this is the case though.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Andy Burnham comes to Rugby

I am pleased to say that Andy Burnham came to visit Rugby this evening to open a new Fabian Society for Warwickshire. He came across very well and it was intersting to hear him speak on a range of issues. In fact, he was only supposed to stay until nine but continued to take questions from the floor for an extra half an hour.

Of course in a room full of Labour supporters the man from Aintree was hardly challenged and without wanting to flatter myself too much; I think I posed the biggest threat. Nevertheless Burnham covered a range of topics and whilst his approach to healthcare is sorely misguided (a 10% care levy will not provide peace of mind for those who struggle to pay it), his dedication to the issue is admirable. He will be hoping to make the most of Andrew Lansley's decision to scrap NHS Direct after this evening, already saying the health secretary is "is on a vindictive mission to break up the NHS."

Arguably this makes him something of a one issue candidate and his leaflets were plastered with the phrase 'Defending the NHS' which also appears on the side of the 'Burnham Battle Bus'. This is not to say that the former health secretary is actually a one trick pony and he has some nice ideas on other issues such as housing but he needs to show this if he is to become more than 'the other guy'.

I, for example, was more interested in the Land Valuation Tax (LVT) which he set out in an article in the Guardian the other day. My question was that: "Surely such a tax, particularly if it is too onerous, would discourage people from moving up the property ladder and act as a hindrance to first time buyers?"

Andy pointed out in response that the tax would help first-time buyers who would be beneficiaries of the system by virtue of the fact that it removes stamp duty. He then conceded that the tax would act as a disincentive to move up the property ladder but encourages "efficiency in land use" so that big companies cannot just sit on an important piece of land and not use it for anything (a 'land bank'). I'm not quite convinced and the fact that he admits to this disincentive also means less fluidity in the property market therefore higher prices. Then higher prices means higher LVT and people begin to feel the pinch year after year possibly having to then downsize into a house which is too small. There are also other concerns regarding registered land and how the valuation can be done cost-effectively and fairly but I saved those points.

Burnham will struggle to defend his quite radical policies in the face of opposition and whilst he is a nice guy, I feel that a vote for him would signal a return for the Labour Party to the wilderness of the 1980s. Not that Labour should worry as he is the rank outsider and after the leadership contest will most likely make an ignominious return to the back benches.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Peace Talks Resume

It's good to see that peace talks between Israel and Palestine will begin again at the start of September after a two year absence. This won't be easy and will lead to a lot of friction within the traditional debate but hopefully some real progress can be made.

Of course there are many issues that will be almost impossible to resolve and it will be up to Obama, Western representatives and the Arab representation in the form of the Egyptian and Jordanian presidents to ease the process as much as possible.

I don't think it is very fruitful to set a time limit on discussions as this has proved counter-productive in the past but if successful this could lead to greater justice in Palestine and, of course, increased esteem for Obama. On the other hand if the talks prove to be a complete failure this could jeopardise stability in the region and Obama's Presidency....

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Another attack on a prisoner: this cannot go on

Grendon Prison: where the attack happened

First Ian Huntley was attacked when in prison and is consequently suing the prison service and now another, different prisoner, is dead. There are those who say that the people who choose to break the law have no rights but these individuals are not much better than accessories to murder.

Of course one does not wish to jump on the bandwagon of simply blaming the police and there has to be a thorough investigation where the facts are discovered. Once this has been completed though HM Prison Service should not be automatically allowed to avoid any responsibility on the basis that these people are apparently 'scum' or whatever other word the Daily Mail wishes to use.

As soon as a person is arrested he becomes under the effective care of the state; whether we like it or not. After this there is a duty of care which must be exercised proportionately. It is unfair to make this duty too arduous considering limited resources and the traditional legal 'public service' excuse but prisoners do have rights. For a man under the care of the state to be killed in apparently one of the UK's 'safest jail's' is simply not good enough.