Monday, 31 May 2010


News of the Israeli seizure of the humanitarian flotilla to Gaza will be controlled by the Israelis, since they have taken over the ships, have transferred the wounded to Israeli hospitals and are moving the entire flotilla to Ashdod. They are already claiming that their soldiers were violently attacked, though what is the boarding of ships in international waters if not an attack - indeed piracy!? We can safely assume that what Israel tells us will be propaganda. Only an international enquiry can establish the truth.

A little history: the UN Partition Resolution of 1947 (which was contrary to the UN principle of self-determination, since the Palestinian majority were never consulted) divided the coast into three areas, only the central one being for Israel. In the subsequent war, Israel grabbed the northern part, as well as Jerusalem and everything else except the West Bank. Gaza became an island, into which poured hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Since the Egyptian agreement with Israel, it has been effectively cut off from the outside world, all movement in and out being controlled by Israel and its Egyptian cronies.

For the three years since they elected Hamas in a process that was attested free and fair, the people of Gaza have been under siege, malnourished and deprived of essential medical supplies and energy sources. Since the Israeli invasion of January 2009, they have not been allowed the materials to rebuild their shattered towns and infrastructure. However, this is only the latest phase of a 62-year torment. Successive Israeli governments have seemed ready to accept only total submission, in exchange for which they offer nothing. There will be protests all over the world against this latest atrocity. Find one near you and join it!

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Philanthropy for the poor

I bought The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists years ago but have not had the courage to embark on its nearly 800 pages. Now I have at last got through it. I nearly gave up after 50 pages, because I found the hero, Frank Owen, rather unattractive. He despises his fellow workers for not listening to his socialist preaching; they are the philanthropists who slave away to provide profits for their masters.

I persisted because the book gives such a lively picture of the everyday life of working people a century ago. It was the world of my grandparents and their brothers and sisters, and what a harsh existence, with unemployment and hunger always round the corner! It makes one realize how different things are now in the richer countries, thanks to what is left of Keynesian economics, progressive taxation and successful trade union action.

But our prosperity is partly bought at the expense of people in the poorer countries, for whom life is still like that of the novel, and whose goods we buy cheaply thanks partly to an iniquitous financial system, which overprices our labour and underprices theirs, allowing America to run a trade deficit of $40 billion and a budget deficit of $1.56 trillion without devaluation. Time for a change!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

That volcano!

It bothered me not knowing how to pronounce Eyjafjallajoekull, so I wanted to buy a teach-yourself Icelandic book. Amazon offered three, so I began to read the reviews. The general agreement was that Glendening's primer was terribly difficult because it expected you to understand grammatical terms like 'nominative' and 'subjunctive'. I suddenly realized how handicapped - sorry, lingusitically challenged - the younger generation of Britons must be. Actually, I already knew it; I even have to teach undergraduates what a paragraph is. Fifty years ago we were taught the grammar of our own language.

That reminds me of my shock in reading a statement of Prime Minister Bliar, who clearly didn't know the difference between 'may' and 'might'. That becomes important when it comes to knowing that 'Saddam Hussein may have weapons of mass destruction' is not the same as 'he might have them'. Clarity of thought, as George Orwell always insisted, cannot be divorced from clarity of language.

There is a lot to be said for the use of a 'dead' language for international relations. As long as people used Latin, everybody knew that it required effort to write it clearly. Now that sloppy English is considered good enough, disastrous misunderstandings can arise, as for example in the argument over whether Israel is required to withdraw 'from occupied territories' or 'from the occupied territories'.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The hollow dollar

At the moment both the pound and the euro are low against the dollar, and the feeling is that they will go down still further. But the dollar itself looks very shaky, with trillions of dollars of public and private debt, so how can it be seen as a refuge? What makes it different is that it is still the international currency. China and the Gulf states and the other holders of dollars don't dare sell them as that would bring down the price of their remaining dollars.

The only way out of this global mess is the creation of a true world currency governed by an international body answerable to an assembly with fair representation of the nations, based not on their wealth but on the size of their populations. Keynes proposed something like this in 1944 but the American government blocked him, preferring a dollar hegemony that would guarantee them economic domination.

While waiting for an international currency and if you can't stand the stress of speculation, for your personal needs I believe it is best buy durable and portable things of lasting value, with the lowest possible transaction costs. Unless you plan to live in one, a house is a bad placement as prices go up and down and the transaction costs are high. Antique jewellery is probably the best bet (but insure it properly!); it has already proved its worth by lasting. It is an ancient answer, but there is no new thing under the sun.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Same old

So they are back, the public schoolboys, plus some public schoolgirls, resuming their right to rule, with help from what was our only radical opposition party. They've promised a referendum on voting reform, but they'll do their damnedest to make sure of a No. What's the betting that the next election will be on a first-past-the-post basis, that the LibDems will be wiped out and that we're in for another 18 years of Tory rule?

In my local constituency there may have been something particularly unpleasant. A friend writes "I wonder if you received any 'church interest' leaflets opposing Evan's religious and ethics opinions? I had heard that the Tories were conducting a rather backhand and nasty campaign with local church organizations highlighting his opinions about abortion etc... but this was only rumour..."

Unfortunately I put all the Tory leaflets in the bin, but it seems plausible in view of the opinion piece in the Telegraph by their religious affairs correspondent, hailing the defeat of Evan Harris as "the best result of the election" and calling him "Dr Death". I note also that the new MP says she is a "lifelong Christian" and spent her gap year on an unspecified mission in the Middle East. Has the Christian Right made it into Parliament? One more step in our Americanization?!

Monday, 10 May 2010

Short memories

Has everyone forgotten that Lord Jenkins, at Blair's request, chaired a commission on electoral reform and that it reported in September 1998 recommending the AV+ system of voting? Why should the LibDem negotiators now allow Cameron to talk about a future commission when we have already had one that gave a clear recommendation? LibDems should not even contemplate coalition with the Tories without a firm commitment to an early referendum on this proposal. Coalition with Labour is the lesser evil.

Jenkins was one of the biggest political figures of his time, remembered especially as the last great reforming Home Secretary. He abolished the death penalty and birching, decriminalized homosexuality, legalized abortion and ended theatre censorship. He was later an excellent Chancellor of the Exchequer. After twice failing to be elected Leader of the Labour Party he became President of the European Commission. In 1981 he was one of the founders of the Social Democrat Party, which later merged with the Liberals to form the "LibDems". He accepted a peerage and was elected Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

Yet here we are only twelve years after his commission's report and only seven years after his death, and everyone appears to have forgotten. Strange, because people still seem to remember the miseries of the 1980s; otherwise how can we explain the fact that two thirds of us voted not to have a Tory government?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Republican Britons

In all the calculations about possible coalitions, everybody seems to think it normal that the Sinn Fein candidates elected on Thursday will not be able to take their seats in Parliament. Little has changed in sixty years. I remember listening to the election results in 1951, when I was twelve, and asking my father why it was that in Northern Ireland, over and over again, we heard that the Sinn Fein candidate had the most votes but the Unionist was elected.

Well now at least we allow the Sinn Fein candidate to be elected, but he or she cannot come to Westminster. And why is that? Because M.P.s have to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown, which of course a republican cannot do. There was a time when the oath had to be sworn on the Bible, which ruled out anyone who was not Christian of Jewish. We changed that, and it would surely be equally easy to change the terms of the oath of allegiance.

This is why we have no Republican Party in Great Britain. Those of us who would prefer to elect a president cannot have our views represented. We cannot even test how many people would vote for such a change. It is one more reason why it is very difficult to call the country a proper democracy.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Hung Parliament

So there we are: we got the hung parliament that we deserve, and now the children are scrapping over who gets to do what. It sounds ominously as if Nick Clegg is going to do a deal with the Tories, which would be iniquitous, since 63% of us voted not to have a Tory government. But then a deal with Labour might be even more unpopular.

Perhaps we should just let the Tories form a minority government. After the ghastly economic events of the next year, whatever party rules will be deeply unpopular, so why not just give them enough rope to hang themselves, and meanwhile renew the Labour Party and rid it of the Mandelson-Blair-Brown heritage?

How pleasant to escape from the turmoil in the human anthill into the little world of actual ants! I have just read E O Wilson's new novel, Anthill, in which 70 pages are devoted to the rise and fall of ant empires. The whole book is a good read, strongly recommended.