The voice of young liberal democrats

Why Ethics Alone Can’t Save The World by londonliberal
December 10, 2007, 10:14 am
Filed under: Economy, Liberal Democrats, Uncategorized

Green is the new black. Any government that wants to get re-elected and any political party that wants to usurp them is putting the environment at the core of their rhetoric and political campaigns lest they find themselves in a perpetual political wilderness. This is of course as far as it goes. The government commits itself to drastically reducing carbon emissions at Kyoto only to see them rise; David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives, rides his bike to work only to have his car follow him; whilst the Lib Dems, despite consistently saying the right things on the subject, are unlikely to find themselves challenged to put them into practice any time soon.

Why is this the case though? The electorate can spot hypocrisy when they see it and they don’t settle for rhetoric without action when it comes to issues like the economy and terrorism. Hence successive governments introduce whatever measures are necessary to address them whether this means taking on powerful trade unions or moving to jail people without charge for six weeks. Quite simply, the answer is that as high as the environment may poll on any survey of voter priorities, few people are prepared to make the sacrifices entailed by a committment to save the environment. Few people are willing to sort their rubbish into recyclables and non-recyclables or to forgo their plastic bags and bottled water. Even fewer are willing to sacrifice their cheap flights abroad. This of course is no revelation. It is taken as a given that the only way to force the government to put its money where its mouth is is to launch a grassroots movement and turn Britain Green from the bottom upwards.

So, activists, concerned citizens and even a few well meaning politicians set about winning people’s hearts and minds and exploiting the sensitive ethical dillemnas that are intrinsically, although by no means exclusively, linked to the problems of climate change. These include the perils of buying cheap goods highlighted not just for the damage their importation does to the environment but also for the manner in which they are manufactured. Thus, clothes from Primark are condemned for the carbon footprint they leave after being shipped from abroad whilst perpetuating child labour in the Far East. Plastic bags are reviled not just because they take centuries to decompose but also because of the pictures of small animals dying in their droves after ingesting them.

People who show little regard or knowledge of these problems are often held in such contempt -especially by many members of the party to which I belong, the Liberal Democrats- that their actions appear both incomprehensible and unjustifiable. They find it unfathomable that anyone could hold any higher priority than the safety of the planet; that anyone would even think twice about paying more for their clothes and their food if it meant minimising their carbon footprint and putting the sponsors of child labour out of busniness at the same time.

I am always instinctively wary of such people who look down on others and say things like: “I can’t understand why they would do this”. In a single sentence, they dismiss the circumstances of such an individual and emphasise how they would never do the same, subtly concluding that the only variable factor must be that they are just a better person. Add to this that many of those leading these ‘grassroots’ movements come from privileged backgrounds where the costs of food and clothing don’t need to be carefully considered, and indeed weighed up against each other, and the picture becomes clearer. Consider further the fact that those who currently benefit the most from cheap clothing, food and air travel would suffer the most from restrictions on these things whilst their richer counterparts would barely even feel a tickle let alone a pinch and the challenge of forging a coherent plan of action becomes greater still.

Celebrities are frequently the worst offenders when it comes to this, not to say that a political opinion should be disregarded just because it comes from Hollywood. That said, I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at pop stars who fly thousands of miles to hold concerts aimed at raising awareness of Global Warming. Others lecture the masses on the perils of climate change, stopping only to sip from their plastic bottles of water shipped directly to them from the far reaches of the earth. Similarly, even for those whose actions are consistent with their actions, no good deed goes unpunished. In the mid 1990s, according to UNICEF, a boycott of Nepalese carpets hand made by child labourers led their employers to go bust and fire all their workers. Consequently, over 5,000 Nepalese girls went from being child labourers to being child prostitutes.

Another obstacle to concerted action to tackle Climate Change in the UK is the overwhelming sense of futility felt across our small country, that without the co-operation of the biggest pollutors, namely the U.S and China, anything we do is rather inconsequential. This fatalism is not wholly unreasonable either. The biggest pollutors in the world are the most reluctant to do anything about it with the Bush administration only just beginning to concede that global warming may just be a problem after all. In addition, all things being equal even if the UK was to go carbon neutral overnight, any benefits to the environment would be quickly offset by China and India.

In sum, only a far-reaching, legally binding multi-lateral effort would prevent the efforts of the most dedicated activists from going to waste, protect the most vulnerable from the fallout and justify the most hefty sacrifices. So, I urge my fellow Lib Dems to forgive me when I say: don’t blame individuals, especially those who struggle enough with the everyday circumstances of life, for the failures of government. As for the government, although they have the power and indeed the duty to tackle climate change, they are not omnipotent and have re-election and international power politics to contend with. Furthermore, as pressing as climate change is, it is not as immediate a threat as an asteroid or a tsunami even if it is of far greater proportions. Rather, to paraphrase that great source of modern political wisdom, ‘The West Wing’, only two things can force a government’s hand: politics and money.

History shows that economics is indeed the key to energy efficiency, particularly in the United States. Currently one of the most woeful polluters in the world in spite of the growing acceptance that climate change is a man-made phenomenon which requires urgent solutions, in the eight years between 1973 and 1981, when Climate Change was not the serious consideration it has now become, energy consuption per unit of GNP actually declined by 18%. This was achieved thanks mainly to President Jimmy Carter’s reforms such as creating the first cabinet level Department of Energy which oversaw a centrally co-ordinated shift from oil to alternative energy; amendments to the Clean Air Act which forced auto-makers to improve the energy efficiency of cars across the country; extra layers of insulation built into new houses to cut gas bills and tax breaks for people using solar power to meet their energy needs. What prompted such sweeping reforms? A severe oil crisis and the prospect of an immediate economic catastrophe as a result.

Now, it is familiar tensions prompting another push towards energy efficiency in the United States whilst carbon emissions trading, an initiative pioneered by the European Union, is offering a cash incentive for companies to take action. These markets, like any markets however, require greater regulation to ensure their aims are actually achieved – a critical article in the Economist some time ago highlighted how lapses in regulation of markets such as the Chicago Climate Exchange have led to the undermining of its environmental credentials as loggers plundering the Amazon rainforest get rich off the scheme by using ethanol powered trucks. Nonetheless, the benefits are there to be reaped.

So, whilst well meaning people may say that ethics are the key to recycling, at the end of the day it’s money that makes the world go round. In time, money can make the world go green too.


We Need a New System not New People by georgeinwashington
November 25, 2007, 8:04 am
Filed under: Liberal Democrats | Tags: , , , , ,

Gordon Brown’s response to crisis week, “Sorry, I will change” is symptomatic of what is wrong with the government of Britain today and why I support the Liberal Democrats, the only party who actually seems to understand that Britain’s problems are deeper than people and personality.

Britain today is run by a bureaucratic government with all accountability concentrated in political figures who’s constant rotation serves only to distract the general public from the real problems at hand, and provides a veil of democratic accountability.

Take the current fiasco with the loss of personal data by HM Customs and Revenue. Even if the the discs were not lost by a junior employee as at first claimed, why is the Prime Minister now taking the blame. After all with issues facing today such as environmental catastrophe, a war in Iraq and a financial system in crisis, do we really expect the Prime Minister to be keeping a close eye on data security policy for customs?

We should instead recognise that the vast majority of the business of Government is not carried out by 22 Cabinet Ministers, but by half a million civil servants. But with these 22 being the only democratically accountable members of the government, we tend to focus all of our attentions on them. In the end the solution boils down to a question of what we want our elected our representatives to do, to manage government directly or to oversee government.

Presently we have a system of government that does neither, no Cabinet minister, splitting her time between constituency, parliament and the ministry can hope to have a full grip on what is going on in her department. At the same time, by acting as a representative of that department, and her fate being tied to it, cannot provide vigorous oversight.

Our only hope is to reorganize our government, a good first step should be to disassociate parliament, from the government. Why should we be satisfied with part time, inexperienced, political hacks as leaders. Why should the Prime Minister not be able to appoint outstanding people from outside of parliament or his party to the most important offices in the land? To give an example, Nicholas Sarkozy’s Foreign Minister is the founder of Medicines Sans Frontiers and a member of the opposition Socialist Party. Secondly why should people like the Foreign Secretary, also have to deal with their constituent’s planning permission applications? I am sure they have other things to do.

Having the heads of ministries have this responsibility be their only full time job, would make them more accountable, whilst removing them from parliament, would also free up parliament to provide better oversight.

If we carry on decapitating the political leadership every time a crisis occurs, we will make no progress in achieving what should be the goal of government, good government.

Liberal’s European Russian Roulette by georgeinwashington

I just can not find it within myself to understand the Liberal Democrat’s insane policy towards Europe. In supporting a referendum on membership of the Union we are risking the biggest policy disaster of a generation and playing into the hands of the lunatic elements of the far right. This policy is just stupid.

As a pro European party the leadership seem to be banking on the fact that they will win any election on EU membership. This vote will validate membership and silence the far right. In the end it will be a positive thing for Europe. The tactic is nothing more than a game of chicken, with the winner taking all and the loser crashing and burning. It is nothing less than irresponsible.

The latest eurobarometer polls show that 39% of people in Britain view EU membership as a good thing and 30% as a bad thing. This is shaky ground to hold a referendum on, notwithstanding the fact that with a media establishment strongly opposed to EU membership any referendum will be a tough battle and victory by no means certain. Yes, pro EU parties are overwhelmingly in the majority in parliament and UKIP is insignificant but that is because for voters Europe is a marginal issue. However this makes a referendum even more dangerous those who are anti EU tend to be much more vocal and motivated. By isolating a marginal issue for the majority of voters in this way a referendum on Europe risks being won by a narrow margin by a minority of hard core right wing activists getting out the vote.

The result of a lost referendum will be catastrophic. Leaving the EU would jeopardize security and police cooperation putting us at greater risk of a terrorist attack. We would put at risk millions of jobs and the health of the economy, through disintegrating our economy from our largest trading partners. In terms of foreign affairs, the UK will see itself quickly fading into irrelevance.

Some might criticize my argument as anti democratic, what can be more democratic than a referendum? What could be more democratic than a referendum after all? Well they would be wrong. Firstly it is not democratic to have a small elite in the media coupled with a small minority of hard core racists, mobilize against the best interests of the people.

Secondly, we have fallen into believing the tory propaganda that the EU is poses a serious constitutional change to the UK and so it needs to be validated by the public. The EU is an intergovernmental organization. A highly developed one indeed, but still, not a government or a nascent federation. This is important to understand because it means that all power still rests with our national elected officials. The greatest PR coup of the right was to convince the British people that every new expansion of EU cooperation was a hand over of power to Brussels.

Nothing can be father from the truth. Through the council of ministers our ministers have a veto on all matters of importance and an effective veto on all unimportant measures. Decisions made in Brussels are approved and passed by our elected officials, and if someone has a problem with a certain law, they should take it up with their government and not with Brussels.

Demands for a referendum are not present because the EU is expanding its power, they come from people who only think that it is. Fed by propaganda from a few who are following their own agenda. In fact the new Treaty introduces many additional checks on power.

If the EU did pose a fundamental shift in the structure and functioning of our democracy, I would support a referendum also. Indeed fundamental constitutional changes should only be made with the consent of the people, but on more minor matters there is a reason why we have representative democracy. In this case the Liberals are simply fighting the wrong fight.

Chris Would Tear Up The NPT by georgeinwashington

A number of comments on my last post drew me also to the completely illogical policy of Huhne’s nuclear policy, and since I have been criticized already for attacking Clegg’s policies I hope this post will go some way to prove my independent spirit.

Chris says that the UK should scrap trident and decide whether we should decommission entirely or keep a smaller deterrent after the non proliferation talks in 2010. He also argues that we should be less dependent on the United States militarily.

The implications are clear, if we were to have a “smaller deterrent” Britain would have to develop an entirely new generation of nuclear weapons.

No matter what the outcome of the talks in 2010, it is inconceivable that they will not prohibit the entirely new development of new nuclear weapons systems. Therefore if Britain attempts to do this, it will tear up the regime from the moment of it’s conception. Secondly the development of an entirely new system would most probably require testing violating the comprehensive test ban treaty.
This claim that this new deterrent will cost less is just plain stupid. For now the UK is entirely dependent on the US for Trident, the missiles are built maintained and designed in the US. This would mean that the UK would have to pour literally billions of pounds into research and development, before we even started building the weapons.

Chris also seems under some delusion that the UK possesses some sort of massive nuclear arsenal, he talks in his policy on nukes that Trident was built to counter the Soviet Union’s potentially massive use of force. Currently the UK has 48 nuclear missiles and probably around 200 warheads. It also only has one submarine on patrol at any one time. It is difficult to see what the point would be of reducing this stockpile drastically as this already makes the UK one of the smaller nuclear powers. By contrast the US has some 7,500 missiles.

Both candidates, whilst committing to the NPT are publicly advocating positions that would undermine it. If they are committed to a goal of universal nuclear disarmament, they will have propose their ideas for a fundamentally system, or pay more attention to the current NPT. Most of all they should credit the public with a little more intelligence.

Liberals Could Learn a Lot From Old Man Biden by georgeinwashington

At the latest democratic debate last night once again it was the rank outsider Joe Biden who impressed me the most. His arguments, that were at the same time compelling, intelligent, clear and original displayed just the kind of thinking required in the White House. His statement that he was running not against Hillary but to be leader of the free world and his thirty some years on the Senate foreign relations committee shows that he understands the responsibility to act responsibly that the President of The United States has to the world and not just to his own people if he wants to ensure peace on Earth.

On complex international issues, Joe Biden has the depth of understanding to be creative and cogent. British liberals could learn a lot his arguments and would do well to listen to him. In trying to present a clear alternative to Labour and the Conservatives we too need to have the same courage to present ideas that break the mold of convential wisdom and attack the heart of an issue.

To give one example, Iran, which has become an obsession of the current US administration. In order to avoid looking weak, many Democrats have avoided taking on Bush’s sabre rattling and 75 Senators the other week voted to designate Iran’s Revolutionary guard as a terrorist organisation. Last night the candidates were asked whether the would give a guaruntee to the people of the US that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon. Biden’s answer was magisterial, reminding people that more important than that was to make a commitment to protect the American people, and an preemptive attack on Iran to stop Iran gaining nuclear weapons could be far more dangerous to the people of the United States as it would likely bring chaos in Pakistan, a country with an already substantial nuclear arsenal. The genius of Biden’s answer was to take the reasoning for why an attack would be a terrible idea out of the abstract and emphasise how it would affect the personal safety of people living in the States.

By contrast the Lib Dems statements on Iran have implored the US government to show restraint and have talked about how threatening force is not the best way to dissuade the Iranians. All true, but firstly why are we concentrating on the US and not forcefully attacking Brown for supporting such a strike. According to Seymour Hersh, Brown this summer had told Bush privately that he would support a strike against Iran. Secondly although it is true that threatening force would not be the best idea to disuade Iran, it would be much better make the argument in terms of the effect it would have on the safety of Britons. Although the issues in the Middle East are interesting in themselves, and the Lib Dems have consistent been right were it matters, we have also been poor at answering the question, how does this effect me? And in the end, this is probably the most important question in politics.

Many of the issues facing Britain today are too facing America, whilst we would do well to concentrate our focus on pressuring our own government, at the same time we can learn a lot from the US political dialogue happening in preparation for the coming presidential elections. I enclose Senator Biden’s full answers last night below.

Lib Dems, The Suggestion Party by georgeinwashington
August 21, 2007, 12:22 am
Filed under: Foreign Affairs, Iraq, Liberal Democrats, Party Matters, US/UK relations

When Ming Campbell took over the Liberal Democrat Party, he stated that we would no longer be making polite suggestions from the sidelines but hammering on the doors of power. Todays letter from Ming to the PM sadly showed that there has been little change in this direction. Far from hammering down any doors down, Ming “urged a reappraisal” of strategy, he asked the government to think again.

Whilst I am not against polite political discourse the time to ask the government to simply think again has long passed. They should have thought again before the conflict, they didn’t and after four years of failure it is time to start demanding action.

This requires more than a letter to the PM asking him to reconsider his Iraq strategy. We need to propose a credible and workable alternative. To think of bigger solutions than a simple request for a redeployment to Afghanistan. This debate is already happening in the US with presidential candidate Joe Biden proposing a federalising of Iraq into three entities, like the Dayton agreement that brought peace to Bosnia. Despite the fact that Senator Biden is not one of the front running candidates in the election his ideas are now being adopted by the others. The same Senator Biden, in his capacity of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met with the Ambassadors of the Permanent members of the Security Council where they supposedly all agreed to support a UN sponsored Peace Conference if the US proposed one.

Although the war has been deeply unpopular we in Britain can not escape the fact that we stood side by side with President Bush in his march into Iraq and continued to say nothing during the catastrophic errors in the occupation that have left an incredible mess that is Iraq today. Responsibility and leadership now demand that we make some contribution to its solution, at the very least diplomatically. Why is Britain, as a major partner in this war suggesting the same or proposing a peace conference itself as a permanent member of the Security Council.

If the Liberal Democrats could come up with some dynamic and innovative solutions to the problems in the Middle East, rather than asking the government to do it for us, we would be seen more as capable leaders rather than a party of polite suggestion, and if we can manage to do that, we will be far more likely to be hammering on the doors of power in the near future.