THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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December 2009

Bad law corrupts

Elin Nordegren could be paid more than $50 million extra for sticking with Tiger Woods - Telegraph.

If Elin Nordegren divorces Tiger Woods, I shall be impressed. She is a wronged woman. He has humiliated her. If she has fallen out of love, she cannot be blamed. If she takes the money her pre-nuptial agreement entitles her to, I can't blame her for that either. Her children are the children of a wealthy man and - while there is no reason to suppose Tiger Woods would not look after them properly - she's entitled to make sure.

That she has been consulting lawyers about a possible divorce in California - a state with which she has only a tenuous connection - suggests she is considering a more aggressive approach. Perhaps, in her humiliation, she is looking to hit her husband harder. Yet, such are the puritan sensibilities of his sponsors, a divorce will (ludicrously) cost him hundreds of millions. So greed would seem a more likely motivation than punishment. Neither is particularly edifying.

That her husband's lawyers are offering her bribes on his behalf to remain married is disgusting. A marriage in which such offers are possible is already dead. There is no respectable justification to make such an insulting offer and certainly none to accept it.

Matrimonial law in the West pollutes male/female relationships. It insults women by suggesting - despite all the struggles of feminism - that they are mere dependants. It ignores their abilities to earn and undermines their obligation to take responsibility for their own lives. By presuming that custody of children should usually be given to the mother, it pressures loving fathers and tempts mothers to make use of access to infant children (which should be an absolute right for all family members - grandparents as well as fathers) as a negotiating point.

It makes rational men afraid of commitment, especially if they are wealthy or high earners. Tiger Woods is a talented man with huge earning capacity. Erin Nordegren is an ex-nanny. He had to spoil their romance by negotiating a pre-nuptial agreement. He would have been a fool else, but such an action can only make a marriage more likely to fail. It plants seeds of doubt when all should have been sweet, confident bliss. The long-standing position of the English Common Law that prenuptial agreements were void for the "public policy" reason that they undermined marriage acknowledged that. As a libertarian, I don't think the state should intervene in private arrangements such as marriage at all, but if it does get involved it should certainly not be to undermine them.

The law in its current form risks making whores of respectable women. Arguably, it risks making something worse. In the discussions about this high profile divorce case, I have seen it suggested that prostitutes have a higher moral code, because they respect their customers' privacy and do not sell their stories to the press. That is unfair to many honourable women who have been sincerely in love with married men, but it is suggestive of the unfortunate attitudes that such laws promote.

Good laws forbid bad behaviour and encourage good. By this test, our divorce laws are very bad indeed.

From my new home

I moved into my new apartment in Shanghai yesterday and, as this is the first post from there, I have raised the new masthead. Sadly, my virtual private network doesn't work yet so - as Typepad and other blogging platforms are blocked here - I have write-only access to my blog. I can post, but I can't see what I have posted! If you see typos or other errors, please do point them out to me by email so that I can remedy them.

I shall not be posting about politics or society in China. Not only do I know too little to comment intelligently, I am only a guest here. As such, I consider myself bound by the laws of hospitality. Having observed that rule in Russia for 7 years, I guess I am now at liberty to comment on events in that country. I shall give some thought to that. Essentially, however, the Last Ditch is about civil liberties in Britain. If any government has cause to be offended with me, it is likely to be my own!

Posting will be light until I sort out my VPN access, not because I can't post but because I can't read many of the sources from which I get my news and ideas. I hope fellow-bloggers will also excuse me if I don't comment on their blogs for a while. Right now, I can't read them (except RSS feeds) so - although I may be bursting to do so - I am unable to chip in.

My new neighbours have kindly invited me to their Christmas party tonight, so the adventure of life in a foreign land begins. New places, new people, new ideas.

Oh dear oh dear oh dear

The Misanthrope - Keira Knightley's West End debut - Telegraph.

Well we Paines enjoyed each other's company, and the rapid reviews in the taxi home were fun. "I have never seen a corset sag before", "my that's a clavicle and a half, she'll have his eye out with that", "she needs more pie and less pilates" were good samples of the female Paines' reactions. The play, however, is trash and the performances were strained in the extreme. Ms Knightley needs the 40 optical pounds added by a movie camera to be attractive. Damien Lewis, a fine actor stuck in the shallows, went over the top heroically and must have wished he was facing machine gun fire not an audience squirming with embarrassment.

Overall, the play was poor, trite and tedious. The rhymes were schoolboy stuff and the best laugh came when Alceste observed (if memory serves);

"They will speak praise of a pile of shit, If they've dressed up and paid 50 pounds for it"

Quite. I have been disappointed in a theatre before, but on this occasion I felt I had been mugged.  The piece was difficult in the original, precisely because all the characters are intentionally unsympathetic. In the modern version, they are simply tedious Guardian-reading whingers. We could not wait for it to end.

Don't go. Life is too short.

Why can't Cameron close the deal?

Gordon Brown tells Labour party to get set for snap election - Times Online.

It is incredible that there can be any doubt about the outcome of the next election. Labour has brought us, as it always does, to the edge of the economic abyss. So far from being, as Brown claimed, best placed to ride out a global recession, we are the last G20 nation to emerge. Our debts are high and mounting. Labour is playing politics with our children's and grandchildren's future. They should be unelectable not just for next year but for all time. So why do voters hesitate?

Labour are playing the class war card and Cameron is visibly flinching. Boris Johnson swatted Andrew Marr aside this morning by responding to the absurd class war "Are there enough Etonians in the Shadow Cabinet?" question by asking Marr which school he went to. Why can't Cameron come out fighting? For that matter, why can't he laugh off these absurdities as Johnson can? Why, for the love of all that's holy, is he allowing Labour to set the agenda with talk of non-doms?

It's hard not to conclude that he lacks a political killer instinct. He's a well-educated mediocrity. He's just not good enough.

On the road again

I and my worldly goods are on the road. We shall not be reunited for a long time. The movers in Russia need a copy of my work permit for China before they can despatch them, which will take months to arrange.This small matter seems to have been overlooked by my colleagues in charge of logistics.

Fortunately, the apartment in Shanghai is fully-furnished and the landlords have agreed to leave their stuff there until mine arrives. Still, it will be odd to think of Mrs Paine's and my belongings (especially our small but treasured art collection) languishing in a Russian warehouse long after I have left the country. It's all insured, but if I had wanted the money rather than the objects, I wouldn't have bought them.

I had two wonderful farewell parties in Moscow; one with my clients and one with my team. My colleagues gave me a magnificent gift; a movie they hired a professional production company to make at our offices - starring them. It's witty, warm and parodies peoples perceptions of Russia, while making various references to my own quirks. They premiered it at the client party last Tuesday night and presented me with a signed shooting script (in Russian), one of the costumes and a brilliant book of production photographs. I have been showing it to everyone I can. It's brilliant and made an amazing, highly personal gift. I was (and am) very touched.

The following night, we had a final drink at a Moscow bar and a wonderful time was had by all; certainly by me. I have great photographs that I will treasure all my life. I shall miss Moscow and my Russian friends; they have great style and are very kind and thoughtful when it comes to such occasions. Despite its reputation, "the Slavic Soul" is not all dark; trust me. If you have a Russian friend, you have a real friend. I am a lucky man and shall study deserving. Certainly, while aware she too has her quirks, I shall always speak in Mother Russia's defence when she is defamed by the ignorant.

For now, I am in England for some work but - more importantly - to celebrate Mrs P's birthday with the Misses P in London. We are all theatre lovers, so our celebration revolves around Le Misanthrope, with Keira Knightley, at The Comedy Theatre on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, bright and early, I shall haul my own age in kilos of luggage to Heathrow. I shall attend a meeting of my China board in Amsterdam before continuing on to Shanghai and new adventure.

I shall raise the new masthead of The Last Ditch then, with my first post from the Middle Kingdom. In the meantime, posting will continue to be light.

A curious "logic"

Darling announces one-off shock tax to 'break bonus culture' | UK news | The Guardian.

Sources close to our glove-puppet Chancellor (quite possibly so close as to be the hand wiggling his implausible eyebrows) observe;

"Salaries have got out of hand. They have been paying themselves like football stars."

What kind of a society do we live in where it's taken for granted that a nitwit with a knack for ball control is so obviously worth more than the intelligent men and women looking after the investments that fund our pensions, life assurance, etc?

I do not quarrel with the remuneration the market doles out; irksome though it is that it values Terry Wogan, Chris Evans and Jonathan Ross - men possessed of nothing but cheeky charm - more than someone who creates employment in several countries while generating millions in invisible exports for his own. Let's just say that I regard the following statement (about football players or BBC presenters) as being of equal (i.e. zero) moral value;

"Salaries have got out of hand. They have been paying themselves like investment bankers."

If the government persists in pandering to popular prejudice in this way, it will find itself governing a country that can't afford to pay its idiot entertainers as much as they and their audiences think they "deserve". Then they will be able to provide neither bread nor circuses.

Onwards and Eastwards

DSCN0438The Last Ditch was conceived in and has been mainly executed from my apartment in Moscow. It has been my home for four of the seven years I have spent in Russia and I am fond of it. I find myself strangely reluctant to leave, but tomorrow my bed will be packed with the rest of my things and will begin the journey to China (on a very slow boat indeed, as I am told not to expect to see it for 8-12 weeks!).

My home in Shanghai is about the same size and objectively more attractive; certainly more luxurious. Yet a new apartment in a high rise in a sunshiny city cannot have the atmosphere of a pre-revolutionary Russian building. This place (in the same block as the Supreme Court) must have lived through many horrors before I brought my joys and sorrows here. Known as "The House of Two Lions" (because of the guardian statues at the front door) it is opposite the Belgian Embassy, fifty yards from bustling Novy Arbat. It has been a great home for me as I enjoyed a great adventure. Not only did I see, as I never hoped as a boy, the fall of the Soviet Union. I have lived in its former heart; the capital of a nation as warm and friendly as its climate is harsh and forbidding.

I never thought I would say it. As a child of the Cold War, Moscow gave me the creeps for a long time after I moved here. But I love this city and shall miss it. I am glad to have been able to call it home for a while and delighted with the friends I have made.

Every decent hotel in town is booked up (recession? what recession?) and so I shall spend my last two nights in some Georgian establishment near my soon-to-be-ex office. No doubt I shall sleep in a smell of barbecued meat and strong red wine, having drifted off to the sounds of food being noisily escorted to the table in traditional style. There is a leaving party with my clients tomorrow night and with my staff the night after, so blogging will be light.

Anyway, I shall think of my last night in Moscow as this one; the last in the place I have felt so much at home, and the first home of The Last Ditch.

Let the debate continue

Stephen Fry provides support for my thesis that atheists tend to be "a" a particular "theos." Fry is not just an atheist from the Christian God, but from the Catholic version of Him. He is, like me, a Protestant Atheist.

This speech (from a televised BBC World debate) is a powerful condemnation of Roman Catholicism, but with as many undertones of Protestantism as Atheism, and as much of what might be called modern European "Anything-but-us-ism" as of rational thought. I particularly enjoyed what I hope was the irony of a gay man using the words "This is not natural and normal, ladies and gentlemen" to condemn the way the Catholic Church selects its leaders. I do think devout Catholics should think hard about his final point, however;

"Do you know who would be the last person ever to be accepted as a Prince of the Church? The Galilean carpenter; that Jew. They would kick him out before he tried to cross the threshold. He would be so ill-at-ease in the Church. What would he think of St Peter's; what would he think of the wealth and the power and the self-justification and the wheedling apologies."

Perhaps it is the Protestant Atheist in me that feels if I am wrong and Jesus returns one day to Earth, he will not preach at St Peter's or, for that matter, at St Paul's. He would be far more likely to appear in an eccentric, simple, unadorned church in a poor community.

Yet I can't support Fry when he derives from that the notion that the Church is wrong to accumulate (or, having accumulated, wrong not to give away) wealth and power. Churches, other private institutions and wealthy individuals form an essential counterweight to the most dangerous accumulation of wealth and power in any society; the state. Without such counterweights, we are all at its mercy. The increasing confusion of "society" with "state" in our thinking is precisely because our government's power over our lives is increasing exponentially. Soon, everything outside government will be too trivial and weak to be considered.

Not only is it therefore consistent with a Church's mission to accumulate wealth and power, it is essential. The Catholic Church may have done the bad things Fry condemns, but it also protected dissenters in Soviet Poland, and played a huge part in the fall of Communism. It could have done neither, without wealth and power. The important thing, as with all wealth and power, is that it is deployed for good and not squandered (here comes my inner Puritan Atheist) on the gratification of the Church's leaders. Fancy traditional costumes apart I see no particular reason to suspect that of the Catholic hierarchy. They deploy pomp and ceremony, as do all centres of power, to increase their influence on the thoughtless masses. It would be surprising if they didn't, and even more surprising if the thoughtful were impressed - so where's the harm?

Fry damns the Church by association, talking of the cruelties of Catholic education, as if no other education providers were ever cruel. He uses emotional language, for example renaming "child abuse" as "child rape", very like an effective preacher. He presents himself as living proof that gays are not, per se, "disordered, morally evil" individuals, referring to his loving nature and speaking of his charitable works. As if all who do good are not also (in the Church's terms) sinners. As if no sinners ever thought kind thoughts or did good deeds. It's a good speech, with well-made points. I very much enjoyed it, but in fairness to my Catholic friends, I tried to examine it for the cheats and tricks to which I would have cried "aha" if Fry were my political opponent. As indeed judging by such clues as his demand for the Church to give up its wealth and return its art treasures to the countries it once "raped and violated," I very much suspect he is.

I would be fascinated to know what my readers think.