THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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March 2008

February 2008

Pupils 'pass' language exam without speaking

Link: Pupils 'pass' language exam without speaking - Telegraph.

I know the main thesis of libertarianism is too tough for most people to accept. We have been conditioned by 60 years of Socialist government to believe that a caring society requires a powerful state. Indeed, most of us hopelessly confuse "society" and "state," assuming that every power given to government will be used skilfully and in good faith. Even if you can't accept that there should - as a matter of principle - be severe limits to state power, perhaps you can accept that there are areas in which the state is simply incompetent? Perhaps we can, case by miserable case, scale back state power?

If exams were set by competing private companies, they would need to be credible in order to build a brand. Some people might - of course - elect to take EaziExam Limited's "chav special" papers, just as some people will (amazingly) buy a Lada. However, everyone would know what such a qualification was worth, when compared with the competing ToughCorp product.

Politicians running a state education system should obviously not be in charge of monitoring its performance. It's simple common sense. If they are, they are bound to rig the statistics. Could  anyone really be so naieve as to expect otherwise? Yet that is the situation in Britain. Through its control of the National Curriculum the Education Ministry has now engineered a situation where you can get an EaziExam® qualification in French, without having written a single French sentence or having been subjected to the "stress" of uttering a word of the language to a stranger. The situation is no better in other subjects. But, unless you attend a private school working towards independent qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate, you have no "ToughCorp" option.

We can argue all day (if you are buying the drinks) about whether the state has a place in certifying the accuracy of petrol pumps or in lecturing children about the dangers of drugs. You may find it hard to accept my view that there is no need for a state education system at all. But surely you must agree that setting exams is outside its competence?

Burning our money: What If There Is No Growth To Share?

Link: Burning our money: What If There Is No Growth To Share?.

When Wat Tyler is on form, the rest of us might as well stay quiet. His "picture book version of the Forsyth Tax Commission Report" should be studied by all. I defy you to read the linked post and retain any shred of belief in the great myth of recent British politics; Labour's "economic competence." In truth, they have taxed and spent, just as they always do. It is the only idea they have ever had and a very destructive idea it has always been.

The effects this time have been masked by imprudent borrowing (by Government and individuals). Cheap credit has made cars and holidays easy to "afford" and the resulting feelgood factor has kept Labour in position for longer than usual. The result is even more damage than they usually do. When property prices adjust to reality, everyone will find themselves as poor as they have always been (but were too busy spending borrowed money to notice). What fools we mortals be.

Do please read the whole thing. And subscribe to "Burning our Money" while you are about it.

Drug smuggling case to be heard without jury

Link: Drug smuggling case to be heard without jury - Telegraph.

JusticeReaders who feel voluntary arbitration on sharia law principles is "the thin end of the wedge" for the future of the English legal system have missed the thin ends of so many more important wedges. Jury trial, for example, was the last English institution in which we could have any confidence. For so long as randomly selected citizens decided guilt or innocence, we had a protection against wrongful conviction.

Apart from protecting us against the cynicism of case-hardened judges and the bias of those selected over a long period for their attractiveness to a politician (and perhaps even on the basis of their political donations) juries provided something more fundamental. What legal historians call "criminal equity" (refusal to convict the "guilty" where the law is unjust) means that a tyrannical government cannot guarantee to enforce its will as long as juries exist. A government criminalising one formerly legal activity per day must always have been painfully aware that criminal equity would kick in.

"Hard cases make bad law" and, no doubt, many readers will feel that there is "a real and present danger that jury tampering would take place" in this particular case. You are meant to feel that way. The option for a non-jury trial was introduced four years ago.  The government has waited patiently for such a good opportunity to swing its axe at one of the key planks of English justice. Rest assured; there is such a "real and present danger" in every jury trial. The relatives of the accused made a point of hanging around in the car park noting the numbers of jurors' cars during the trial in which my wife was a juror last year. The response of the jurors was that of the English yeoman. They came by bus and on foot and they convicted. Future governments will undoubtedly wish to protect such citizens from their own courage. "For your own good" is the mantra of the totalitarian everywhere, from the overly-protective mother to other ruthless dictators.

Note also the phrase "jury tampering." Would you consider a threat to injure or kill yourself or your family to be mere "tampering" dear reader? What this anodyne phrase means is that law and order has so broken down that the government admits it cannot protect innocent citizens doing their civic duty. All the more reason to protect the last effective institution in the justice system - and the only one not controlled by the government which wrought such chaos - I should have thought.

Since the government measures the efficiency of criminal justice by conviction rates (as if a wrongful conviction were just as good a thing as a rightful one) I predict that this first non-jury trial will be hailed a success. Pretty soon, there will be more and more such "successes." One of them, dear reader, may be the trial that convicts you of a crime you did not commit. All of them will help to make English criminal justice the sort of "success" only its mother could love.

Téléchargez votre vin

Link: USBWINE : téléchargez votre vin en direct des domaines.

H/T Croydonian. This really is brilliant.

I am currently ordering a car which has a feature (reporting its tyre-pressures to a dashboard gauge) which, years ago, BMW featured in one of its superb April Fool ads. Now that joke is real. How I love living in an era of technological progress. How I hope to live to report that this one made the transition too!!

Adopt sharia law in Britain, says the Archbishop

Link: Adopt sharia law in Britain, says the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams - Telegraph.

The responses to the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech are more troubling than his words. Emotion has been exceeded only by ignorance. Khalid Mahmood, the Muslim Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, outrageously said:

This is very misguided. There is no half-way house with this... What part of sharia law does he want?  The sort that is practised in Saudi Arabia, which they are struggling to get away from?

Given the gentle tenor of the Archbishop's actual comments, this is demagoguery. The Prime Minister also appears on this matter (as many others) a complete idiot:

The Prime Minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values

said his official spokesman. This, despite the fact that there is no such thing as "British Law"( I leave, for the moment, the more difficult question of whether there is any such thing as a "British value.")

I am a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England & Wales, qualified to advise only on the laws of that jurisdiction. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own, entirely different, legal systems. They are just as alien to me, as a lawyer, as is Russia where I live and work.

There are three families of legal system in the world; Common Law, Civil Law and Islamic Law. England & Wales is (I know it sounds wrong, but "is" is right in this context) a common law jurisdiction. Indeed England is the mother of all common law jurisdictions. Scotland is a civil law state. The most important common law jurisdiction in the world today, the United States of America, has a civil law state operating efficiently within it.

Yet philosophically, the division between the Common Law and the Civil Law may be more profound than that between Christianity and Islam. All of which is interesting (at least to me) but as irrelevant to what the Archbishop said as is the existence (angrily condemned by bloggers unaware they had operated quietly for centuries) of the Beth Din Jewish Courts. As the website of the London Beth Din explains:

In Jewish Law, Jewish parties are forbidden to take their civil disputes to a secular court and are required to have those disputes adjudicated by a Beth Din. The LBD sits as an arbitral tribunal in respect of civil disputes and the parties to any such dispute are required to sign an Arbitration Agreement prior to a Hearing taking place. The effect of this is that the award given by the Beth Din has the full force of an Arbitration Award and may be enforced (with prior permission of the Beth Din) by the civil courts.

That Jews, between themselves, submit disputes to such courts, is no more a threat to our legal order than the secular arbitation courts designed for speedy settlement of commercial disputes. Parties who submit to such courts agree, as a matter of contract, to accept their decisions. The public courts enforce their awards just as they would enforce other agreements. There is no harm in it; no threat to any unique "British values." Indeed, a more sophisticated Brit might think allowing people to order their own affairs was at the core of "British values." No such private arrangement can supplant or override our laws. Any attempt to do so would be overruled on appeal to the public courts.

None of these arrangements, of course, apply to criminal law. The Crown (our quaint personification of the British state) is a party to all criminal cases. When I am eventually prosecuted (as must happen to us all if our authoritarian government continues to make one new crime per day) Her Majesty will prosecute me in her own courts.

Welsh_godbothererThe Archbishop has raised a firestorm, but he advocated nothing more than an Islamic Beth Din. Since (a) this already exists (without the sky falling), (b) the laws of our lands cannot be overridden by it, and (c) it has nothing to do with criminal law, the current Sharia "hand-chopping" hysteria is misplaced. As Dr Williams said in the radio interview, "choice" is important. As long as Muslims can choose to go to the public courts, there is simply no story. Move along now. Nothing to see.

The full text of the unkempt Welsh God-botherer's speech (and a recording of the radio interview which set the blogosphere "off on one") is here. I challenge my more heated blogging colleagues to read it and retract their inflammatory remarks.

Regular readers know that I hate multiculturalism. My culture is entitled to prevail in its native land. Newcomers should respect as I have learned to respect and admire the cultures of the other countries in which I have lived and worked Nor I am any friend of Islamism. I applauded this week in Paris as a French philosopher described it as "the third fascism" (for such it is). But if we criticise Muslims wildly and without justification, we may lose the most important argument of our lives. This is an argument on which the future of our civilisation may depend. We must be honest and true if our criticisms are to prevail.

I have to admit that Dr Williams' naievety is troubling. He is the leader of an evangelistic religion which believes there is only "one way" to God, through Jesus. Why, rather than evangelise the Muslims amongst us, does he pander to them so? How can such an intelligent man so often fail to anticipate the effect of his words? Is he completely out of touch with his confused flock, so badly in need of his leadership?

Perhaps, though, all this is consistent with his faith. After all, Christians, unlike Muslims, follow a naïf.

Liveblogging Philosophy

Bhl Bernhard-Henri Levy is addressing the conference I am attending and speaking of the relationship between America and France.

He told an amusing story about flying with John Kerry's entourage with a view to interviewing him for a book. This was three days before Kerry lost the Presidential election. Time after time he was put off from meeting Kerry by the candidate's minders with such stories as "the candidate is sleeping, but will see you later."

Eventually an American journalist explained to him, laughing, that it would be electoral suicide for Kerry to be seen with a Frenchman at such a time, given how unpopular France is in the States. Only by threatening to issue a press release to Agence France Presse, saying that he could not meet the candidate "because he sleeps all day long" did he finally get his interview.

He then went on to explain that the feeling is mutual. Indeed he said that anti-Americanism is France's "last religion" and tried to explain why. He referred to Rousseau's observation that the citizens of the fledgling America were united only by "un chiffon de papier" (i.e. the Constitution). French thinkers of the time believed that if America were to survive, it would be only as a weak and inconsequential nation. When it became apparent how untrue that was, there was a reaction of anger. He said that the real enemy of the Nazis was America, precisely because it was a nation united by paper, not blood.

All anti-democratic currents in France (e.g. on the "extreme right") are fed by a hatred of America not as a geographical place, but as a metaphysical category. It is a reaction of "French fascism" (i.e. a vision of a nation united by blood ties) against "American populism" (and vice versa).

He said some other interesting and amusing things, for example that:

If there are two people who believe that God has put his finger on their foreheads to indicate that they are uniquely appointed to represent the best in the world, then one of them is a fake. This explains much in our relations.

He believes that the founding fathers of the United States intended, not merely to establish a country free from the tyrannies of the Old World, but to create an exemplar of all that Europe could be without tyranny. He compares that with the French sense of a mission to civilise, which is something they have in common. He quotes Malraux saying:

France is never so great as when she is great for everybody

In conclusion, he said that the tension in Franco-American relations; this sense in each country that the other embodies the worst of humanity - is really all a mistake. France and America share the same values and have waged the same fights, for example against Nazism and the "second fascism" of Communism. He said that France and the USA are now engaged together in the fight against the "third fascism; the fascism of today" - namely Islamism ("not Islam of course, which is a great religion") but the bin Laden perversion. In practice, he said, the "third fascism" makes no distinction between the New and the Old World of the West.

They have declared a total nihilist war, which we have no choice but to wage together.

How very French, that such a view can be spoken so fiercely after such a frank and elegant commentary. The applause was nervous, but I confess to being impressed. Where are such voices in England?

Shall the twain ever meet?

China Today I attended a debate between businessmen and academics advocating investment in China vs India. The audience was told to imagine it had $500 million to invest and must choose between the two countries. I thought the result was a clear win for China, though the chairman diplomatically declared it a draw.

I have a personal interest in this. After Moscow, it is likely that I will move to set up a new practice in another large emerging market, which could easily be China or India (or Vietnam or Turkey or Brazil). From a personal point of view, there is much to be said for all these options. I would be proud to assist the development of the world’s greatest democracy. It would be great -after all my years in Eastern Europe - to work in English in a Common Law environment. India’s legal institutions look like home right now and I share most Englishmen’s warmth towards the country.

IndiaOn the other hand, what a privilege it would be to play even a minor role in the full return to the world of its oldest continuous civilisation. For most of human history, the Chinese were the leaders in business, technology and the arts. Some ideological wrong turns have put it behind “the West,” at least in business, but it is far from clear to me that China belongs there. Its performance in the past years suggests the contrary.

Turkey would allow me to “complete the set” by working in the third of the world’s families of legal system. Brazil has a more appealing lifestyle than any country I have ever worked in (not excluding dreary, puritanical England). My friends who work there speak highly of life in Vietnam too.

The debate was at a higher level than that. The markets are (as we are being forcibly reminded right now by the cleansing fire on the horizon) far from perfect. But billions, nay trillions, do not flow on entirely irrational grounds. My personal career choices will be constrained by the markets’ view of my next destination.

As always, it is quite a shock to hear China and India compared. Business favours China as the next big thing, despite the fact that - as one speaker put it - “the success of your investment will depend on the leadership skills of the 73 million members of the Chinese Communist Party.” The same speaker (a Cambridge professor) went on to praise those skills and the “remarkable leadership achievement” involved in getting China to her present position on the world economic stage. Her “superb infrastructure” was praised time and again although this is a country with piped water to less than 10% of its population and zero political freedom.

India is seen by business as big, messy and anarchic. Her very democracy is presented as a disadvantage, as engaging with the electorate it makes it hard to deliver the roads, utilities and other infrastructure necessary to support development. It is firmly on the “too difficult” pile for many potential investors. Sometimes the hypocrisy of the West can shock even me.

As the crisis in capital markets leads to what one speaker today called “a flight to prime”, it is not as if the world's capitalists will have the resources to hedge their bets on China by investing in India too. Choices will have to be made and, from what I heard today, they will be driven by ease of access and general investor-friendliness as much as by anything else. At the moment, those criteria favour China.

A country, like India, that requires a potential visitor from Russia to give up his passport for as long as 28 days to get a visa, should frankly grow up. International capital flows depend on international capitalists travelling. If an humble lawyer such as I could not contemplate staying in one country for so long, no fund manager with global investments can possibly do so. I have had to cancel my attendance at a conference in Mumbai for just this reason. My choice was to give up my passport for a month in Moscow, or sit in London for a working week to get a visa faster. I couldn’t afford to do either. That's plain stupid.

So is the behaviour of India's legal profession, which will not allow its lawyers to be employed by - or be in partnership with - foreign lawyers. The international law firms are key to foreign direct investment. It's nothing to do with their nationality of origin and everything to do with their presence in the world's key financial markets. The London law firms are not great because they are English; they are great because they support the biggest international financial market. The New York firms are not great because they are American. They are great because they support the activities on the biggest financial market. Deny them access and you tell their clients to "be afraid. "

Funds investing “other people’s money” (quite probably your pension fund, dear reader) must do all necessary “due diligence” (including obtaining legal opinions from serious firms) before committing. The idea that Indian firms, organised as they are along the lines of English dental practices, are going to do that is simply ridiculous. If China and Russia can tolerate the running dogs of foreign capitalism, so can India.

These issues aside, isn’t it sad that capital should favour a communist-led country because of its ability to facilitate the infrastructure required to make investment easy? I have a soft spot for India. I would love to see the world’s largest democracy prosper. Nothing would make me prouder than to be part of that. I hope the competitive pressure from China will force her to get her act together and - in particular - to build infrastructure and speed up decision making.

Her advocates in the debate forlornly tried to make virtues out of India’s failings. For the sake of India’s people, I hope the country can do better than that. For the time being, however, my next posting is far more likely to be Shanghai than Mumbai. I hope this blog can be published from behind the Great Firewall of China.

Liveblogging economics in Paris

E_davisEvan Davis, the BBC Economics Editor is addressing the conference I am attending in Paris. My God, but he’s condescending. He is so used to addressing the peasantry on IngSoc TV that he seemingly cannot adjust to an intelligent audience. The moderator praised him for "making complicated things seem simple," but his style of presentation annoyed the hell out of me. Ignoring the "Play School" tone of voice and listening to what he's saying, however, it's quite interesting.

He is positing three scenarios (and putting a 33% probability on each of them);

  1. Rebalancing: Americans, Brits et al  have been spending too much and saving too little. The Germans, Chinese et al have been doing the opposite. This will now reverse and after a pause all will be well.
  2. Inflation: If you have overgrown the economy "beyond its true capacity" by 2-3% a year for a few years, you get inflation. You need a slowdown for a corresponding period to squeeze inflation out of the system. It limits the ability of the central banks to reduce interest rates. This is a slowdown as medicine and it has to hurt to work. If this scenario is correct, then the mistake we made was to assume that the China effect was permanent not temporary. In other words, we took the price reductions on cheap goods from China as being permanent and adjusted our lives accordingly, forgetting that China's increased output would lead to increases in raw materials prices and other costs.
  3. Recession: Clasically, this is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth, but is better thought of as a vicious circle. A feedback loop of slowdown causes more slowdown and so on. Individuals are afraid of the slowdown they see around them, rein in their spending and save for what seems an increasingly likely rainy day. It’s a matter of “behavioural economics,” where people cease to be rational actors. The confidence factor is crucial and a collapse of confidence can be disastrous. That’s what happened to Japan in the 1990’s and it could be as bad as that for us in the West this time as it was for them, if the irrationality of the downside mirrors the irrationality of the recent upside. The parallels with Japan continue as their slump was associated with the sort of banking crisis we are having now. On the positive side, our banks are acknowledging their losses more quickly and (apparently) more honestly than the Japanese banks which went into denial and consequently leaked bad news over a long time, undermining confidence in the process.

He concluded by blaming the central banks of the world (especially the most aggressive ones, such as the Fed) which have encouraged us to spend to the detriment of our personal balance sheets. First we fooled ourselves with the dot com bubble and then we fooled ourselves with a property prices bubble. We are unlikely to find another bubble with which to make us comfortable with spending money on Chinese goods, however aggressive the central banks try to be.

He took a straw poll of the people in the audience which showed us as divided 50:50 between his scenarios 1 (optimism) and scenarios 2 or 3 (pessimism). He commented that the proportions were very similar when he did the same thing at Davos recently. I fell into the pessimistic camp, but only because he asked it about the Western economies specifically. I am quite bullish about the emerging markets of the world in general, and in Russia/China/India in particular. Davis was inclined to agree, commenting that the "catch up element" in their growth will allow them to do better, although their growth will be slowed by the global slowdown. However while he acknowledged there is a view that  emerging Europe and China have "decoupled" from the United States economy, he remains skeptical, commenting that it's what people want to believe.

Given that he had no view as to which scenario was most likely, it's hard to know how anyone in his audience should adjust their business plans. However, since he gives equal probability to his two pessimistic scenarios, he seems to share my view that the question is (for the USA, Britain and Western Europe, at least) not "will it be bad?" but "how bad is it going to be?"

The UK Libertarian Party

Link: The UK Libertarian Party - Welcome.

Lpuk_001Britain has a new political party, which I am glad to be able to support. Membership is only £10 (though feel free to contribute more). Follow the link for details. There is, no doubt, a long road ahead. Taking on the established political parties, united in their view that the voting public is a mere source of cash for their respective schemes, will not be easy. At least someone has made a start.

The picture shows the new party's flag flying in Second Life, from the stern of my avatar's yacht.

Falling in love again...

My test drive was a most diverting experience. The Granturismo is shorter and narrower than my present car, but the interior is elegant and comfortable. In sport mode, this is a fierce machine. The sense of raw power ("in reserve, of course, officer") is reassuring. Out of sport mode, however, the car wafts around a city in a comfortable, civilised way.

A deal had to be cut with Mrs Paine on her luggage allocation for our holiday trips. She will get to have the entire 260 litre boot (and the custom made luggage) for her clothes, while I make do (even for a fortnight's holiday) with a weekend bag on the seat behind me. That issue resolved, it seems "my car" has finally been made. What a surprise that it should be Italian.

Shame on Porsche, Aston Martin and Ferrari. They make all the competing machinery, but I cannot squeeze into the driver's seat of any of their models. BMW do slightly better. I can get at least get behind the wheel of a BMW 6 series coupe, but I could not drive it comfortably for very long. When I was a young man my height was extraordinary, but I routinely stand in lifts now with two or three European men who are taller than my 2 metres. Humans are getting bigger but, thanks to the new religion of which Al Gore is high priest, serious motor cars are getting smaller.

Earnest negotiations are now underway with Mrs Paine as to colour and interior trim specifications for the car so that an order can be placed in time for delivery before our August holiday trip to Provence. A car like this should really be red or yellow, with spectacular red leather interior. I may have to make concessions to stop her reverting to her default view that I should buy less frivolous machinery She is sensibly concerned that more outlandish colour schemes will attract the attentions of thieves and inspire envy and malice in traffic policemen.

I am not quite sure Mrs Paine fully "gets" the spirit of Italian motoring (her experience sitting behind the salesman as I tried out sports mode didn't help, I admit) but I am sure a deal can be struck. Regular readers know that my current car is called "Claudia", as befits a German beauty. Any suggestions as to the name for her successor?