Why I implore you to vote today

I don’t think I have ever used this blog to plead for votes before. I flatter myself that I am an independent thinker above being a cog in the party’s press machine. However, as its polling day I hope you dear readers will forgive me a single undiluted, undisguised plea to vote Liberal Democrat.

I ask this because quite simply who sits in the European Parliament matters. Ignore people who think claim it is an irrelevant talking shop. They have either not noticed or have chosen to ignore the treaty changes that mean that little in the EU can happen without its approval. And it will be even more important this time as it is likely that the next President of the Commission will be chosen by the Parliament rather than national governments.

And because the Parliament matters, so does getting Liberal Democrats into it. Leaving aside the pretty basic issue that Lib Dem MEPs work harder than any of their British colleagues, what they represent and the values they champion are essential. For the Parliament will contain many who stand for the exact opposite:

To add to the drama will be the presence in the parliament of so many populist parties, most of them anti-European. These range from far-left, like Syriza in Greece and the United Left in Spain, to far-right, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Golden Dawn in Greece. Britain has the UK Independence Party, Italy has Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and the Northern League. Most central and eastern European countries have populist parties, some nastily racist. The latest polls suggest that the number of MEPs who could be classified as anti-European may rise after the election from about 140 now to more than 200, well over a quarter of the total.

Such parties feed of a sense that Europe isn’t working but make it harder to fix. As the Economist article, I quoted above notes: “these MEPs will discredit the parliament because they disagree with each other as much as with the mainstream, they fail to turn up to vote and they disproportionately fiddle their expenses.” Their desire to thumb their noses at Europe’s elites makes them instinctively hostile to what are often constructive proposals to make the EU work better. And their entire philosophy is misguided: what we need to succeed in a globalised world is to be better able to work together not to retreat into the shells of isolated nation states. No one state can tackle global financial crashes, climate change or organised criminals for whom national borders mean little. Our present situation demands international co-operation and the EU is a uniquely powerful institution for facilitating such co-operation.

Europe thus needs defending from the populists. It needs leaders who understand its value; who understand why Ukrainians will risk so much to belong to it. That’s not the Conservatives: their hostility to the EU is as real as it ever was. It is only the comparison with UKIP’s rabid Europhobia which obscures that fact. Nor is it Labour, who while theoretically pro-European are absent from the battlefield when it’s time to fight for that conviction. The Labour election mailing I received symbolised this perfectly: all mentions of Europe were hidden away on the inside page, while the parts of the leaflet that might actually get read were adorned solely with photos of Ed Miliband trying to look credible and platitudes about the cost of living crisis. Nor is it the Green Party promote which promotes the distracting gimmick of an In-Out referendum and shares many of the populists misapprehensions.

If you want MEPs who speak with confidence rather than fear, for openess rather than isolation and who will champion rather than cloaks their belief in international co-operation, then dear readers voting Liberal Democrat today is your only option.

 

For goodness sake please don’t vote for a Green MEP

The Green Party’s hostility to free trade would if implemented lock the world’s poorest out of the global economy. Thus electing Green MEPs to shape the policies of the world’s largest trade block is a dangerous move.

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Indeed it is but not in the way the Green’s plan to

The European Union long ago became something more than a simple free trade area. Economic integration has now been supplemented by policies that aim to produce a political and social union. That said, the creation of a Common Market stretching from Belfast to Bulgaria which unites 28 countries with a combined population of half a billion is still the better part of the Union’s achievements. It is the project from which everything else originates and preserving it continues to be central to the Union’s work. Therefore, trade policy should be a central concern for anyone considering how to vote in this week’s European Elections.

And that should make anyone planning on voting Green should think again. Their Euro manifesto explains their view that:

…free trade means freeing the powerful to exploit the vulnerable. We see this when chain stores squash local competition with loss leaders before raising prices. We see it between EU countries: the policy of blindness of the Common Market to asymmetry of trade within the EU must take its share of the blame for the European economic collapse. Germany’s trade surplus and Greece’s trade deficit are not unrelated.

We see this exploitation in the EU’s treatment of countries in the global South too, as too often we force them to accept terms which perpetuate their impoverishment. At the same time, trade deals with wealthy countries including the USA and Canada impose policies upon European citizens for which we have never voted.

Greens argue for a different approach. We support fair trade, not free trade. We support the rights of impoverished countries to protect their industries and their workers and to determine their own economic futures. Where goods can be supplied locally, trade for trades sake can be counterproductive – centralising power in the hands of middle-men and depending on fossil fuels. Where goods cannot be supplied locally, we should ensure fair exchange.

I’ve had quite a bit of contact with Green Party members over the years and that leads me to believe that their concern with the poor and the vulnerable is genuine. However, it is deeply misguided to think that the policy which will help them is paring international back to a minimum of “goods which cannot be supplied locally.”

We could indeed manufacture TVs in the UK rather than China or T-Shirts in France rather than Bangladesh but whose interests would that be in? Not customers in richer countries who would wind up paying higher prices. But it would be worse for producers in poorer countries who could no longer exploit the greater purchasing power of consumers in more affluent nations to boost their incomes.

This applies not only at an individual level but across economies as a whole. Being forced to compete not only with domestic but also international rivals means producers have to up their game and become more competitive. It also allows innovative products to disseminate quicker as customers don’t have to wait for a local firm to begin manufacturing them. So rather than undermining poorer countries, open international trade should be mutually beneficial.

So that’s the theory: how does it work in practice? This chart pilfered from the Economist reports a study showing that it is not only rich countries that benefit from membership of the EU and the Common Market but also countries that were relatively poor at the time of their accession like Spain and Portugal.*Greece stands out as a rather spectacular exception though that may have been linked to its joining before it was ready.

 

 

More broadly, the era of globalisation has actually been pretty good for the world’s poor. In the decades after WWII, they generally pursued policies of self sufficiency of precisely the kind the Greens would advocate. And the results were disastrous: while the West and Japan stormed ahead developing countries stagnated with their economies mired in corruption and inefficiency. As this failure became evident these countries slowly began reintegrating into the global economy. When Mao died in 1976, his successor Deng Xiaoping looked to the success of Singapore had had in using exports and investment from overseas to lift itself out of poverty. Following its lead restrictions on international trade were jettisoned to such an extent that companies like Boeing and Coca Cola were allowed to open factories in what remained notionally a communist country. India followed a similar path in 1991 when a balance of payments of crisis forced it to seek a bailout from the IMF. The conditions of this assistance were that India had to open up its economy. The results in both countries were dramatically higher growth rates that pushed down the numbers living in poverty.

In fact, the period since 1991 has seen the proportion of the world’s poor living below the World Bank’s official measure of absolute poverty has almost halved:

This is particularly striking when you consider that global economic growth during this period has actually been pretty anaemic. Throughout this time growth in the developed world has lagged behind the poorer regions of the world. Therefore, the supposition that our era of free trade is benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor flies in the face of the evidence. It has heralded not greater exploitation but the fastest reductions in poverty in human history.

Given these benefits to those in the Global South, I regard the Green Party’s opposition to the Partnership Agreements which reduce trade barriers between the EU and partner countries with horror. The developing world need the barriers to trading with world’s largest economy reduced not increased!

Despite all that free trade has achieved both within and beyond Europe it has few friends. Successive attempts at a new global trade deal have faltered. The great recession has led many to scapegoat foreigners for their problems, a trend which afflicts not only immigrants but also those seeking to export goods. With protectionism on the rise, the last thing we need is to elect more opponents of the free trade to the European Parliament.

 

* the end date of 2008 is relatively flattering as it avoids the Eurozone crisis but as the Economist notes “for most members (Greece, again, excepted) the drop in real output per head since the crisis looks modest relative to prior gains.”

Evangelicalism has not always been synonymous with fundamentalism

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C.S Lewis

I’d not come across Andy Gill’s blog before but then my friend Ed Watson posted a link to this rather good post. Gill takes issues with the “[s]elf-appointed gatekeepers of evangelicalism” who take to twitter to denounce as heretics those who fall outside a definition of evangelicalism ” is becoming so narrow that it really doesn’t describe anyone but themselves [the gatekeepers].”

He points out that many evangelical icons fall short of the standards of ideological purity demanded by such people: St Augustine didn’t believe the world was created in six days, Martin Luther rejected biblical inerancy and Billy Graham thought that non-Christians could get into heaven. Perhaps most striking is what Gill has to say about C.S. Lewis:

Perhaps the most celebrated Christian writer of the last century, C.S. Lewis is respected by most Christians, no matter what theological corner they occupy. And that’s what confuses me. Lewis was no evangelical by the standards of modern evangelical spokespersons. Lewis’ seven-volume, fictional masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia, reveals Lewis’ belief that it is possible for people in other religions to inherit the Kingdom of God without knowing it.1

Lewis also rejects the Penal Substitutionary theory of the atonement, which states that Christ “diverted” God’s wrath toward us and took it upon himself. Instead, in part three of Chronicles, Lewis describes what is called the “Christus Victor” view of the atonement, which holds that the cross is not an image of God’s wrath against us, diverted to his son, but it was the defeat of evil through an act of selfless love. Here is a video of Greg Boyd giving a good description of that view using Lewis’ imagery.

I would suggest that the issue here is that evangelicalism has in the past few decades become the acceptable way of describing fundamentalism. The founders of fundamentalism did indeed identify ideas like substitutionary atonement and biblical literalism as fundamental to the Christian faith. As I think Gill shows, evangelicalism is a much broader and as a result more interesting and credible movement. It should not allow itself to be co-opted as cover for fundamentalism.

Searching for Sugar Man (review)

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Malik Bendjelloul 1977-2014

Normally when I post a review of something on here that’s because I’ve just seen it. Sadly this is not why I am reviewing Searching for Sugar Man. It’s director Malik Bendjelloul has been found dead apparently having killed himself. I confess that until I did not know who he was until I read his obituaries. So I will leave paying tributes to him as a person to others. However, I do want to say something about his work.

In Searching for Sugar Man, Bendjelloul found an extraordinary story to tell. It has two subjects: the first is a man from Detroit known as Rodriguez. He was a singer-songwriter hailed by a number of influential people as the next Dylan. He wrote in a similar contemporary folk style and the same political edge. However, the results are more satisfying. His songs feeling like a balanced whole rather than a vehicle for particular turns of phrase. And they are without doubt beautiful. By rights he should have been heading for a long career of musical success.

Instead, he released only two albums both of which sold poorly and Rodriguez sank into obscurity. He largely gave up being a professional musician and retired to his previous job as a construction worker.

And that would have been that had a copy of one of his albums not made its way to South Africa. There despite the efforts of apartheid era censors it found an audience as young, liberal Afrikaans devoured bootlegged copies of it. The result was that in South Africa and in South Africa alone, Rodriguez’s music was as ubiquitous as Elvis, the Beatles or indeed Dylan’s.

Bendjelloul’s second subject are those South African’s opening up after 1994 as an opportunity to try and discover Rodriguez’s story. This proved an uphill struggle as all they had to go on were conflicting stories about his suicide and the song lyrics. Bendjelloul interweaves their story and Rodriguez’s to great effect.

What he finally winds up producing is a story about the power of music. How it can help us shape our identities and alter worldviews. How songs can take on a life of their own. And even how the songs of construction worker in Detroit can help people an ocean away decide that they won’t perpetuate the sins of their parents.

Next to the loss of Bendjelloul’s family, friends and colleagues the loss of cinemagoers is trivial. Nonetheless, it is real. Judging by Searching for Sugar Man Bendjelloul would have gone on to produce more excellent films and I regret that we will now not see what they are.

The Gandhi family needs to exit Indian politics

The world’s most powerful dynasty needs to relinquish its power or today’s victory for the reactionary BJP will not be reversed in the foreseeable future

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From happier times for the dynasty

 

In India’s first general election in 1952, the Congress Party which had lead India to its independence won 364 out of the 489 seats in the new parliament. Its leader Jawaharlal Nehru became the country’s first democratically elected Prime Minister.

He was undeniably one of the great statesmen of the twentieth century. He was second only to Gandhi in his significance in India’s struggle for independence. His record as Prime Minister was far from unblemished: his socialist policies damaged India’s growth and he lost a war with China. However, he laid the foundation for a secular, democratic and broadly stable country.

Compare that situation with today. In India’s latest election: Congress and its allies look set to win fewer than a hundred seats. It now looks like the Hindu nationalist BJP will win an outright majority: the first party to achieve this in more than two decades. It’s leader the alarmingly sectarian Narendra Modi is set to become PM.

One of the few points of continuity is man Congress was putting forward for Prime Minister: Rahul Gandhi. He’s Nehru’s great grandson.

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“Look Mum, Congress’ political prospects seem to plummeting”

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has now produced three Indian PMs: Nehru himself, Indira Gandhi his daughter and her son Rahul Gandhi.* Rahul’s wife Sonia has been Congress’ party president since 1998 and several other members of the family are prominent players in Indian politics. And some in Congress are now suggesting replacing Rahul with his sister Priyanka.

Kabir Taneja links Congress’ present travails to its domination by the Gandhis:

The creation of this situation for the Congress is the party’s own dynastic structure. A party which itself is plagued by lack of democratic structures within its workings, trying to govern the world’s largest democracy, was always going to be an ardent task. This situation of the Congress and Gandhi family’s control was specifically brought into public debate as whether the party under their leadership was even letting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh do his job.

Evidently Sonia Gandhi was able to control India’s fortunes and misfortunes without being in a public position to be held accountable for. During the press conference held by Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice President Rahul Gandhi to congratulate the new government today, Sonia Gandhi said that the party’s “parampara” (traditions) was one of its biggest assets, and this perhaps indicated that the Gandhi family is still in no mood to dilute their grasp and commit to a more democratic structure in order to pull out the best political leaders from their own talent pool.

And the Congress in fact, does not have a shortage of able leaders; it is whether they are allowed to perform their duties without being bound to the family’s definition and interpretations of their paramparas. For example, a person like Narendra Modi would have probably never been able to reach the top echelons of the Congress party’s leadership as he did in the BJP.

A political party which has decided to remain dynastic and where talent cannot be nurtured unless it was hand-in-hand with whatever the ruling family wants will find it hard to sustain itself in today’s environment. The Congress, despite doing well in its first tenure, needs internal introspection more than anything else. The ills and mishits that have deluged the party since 2009-10 have mostly come from within the party and its ideals than any other external factors.

Congress’s failure has come from the Gandhi family, and it remains to be seen how the party’s other members, loyalists, careerists and dissenters, will deal with such a massive loss and whether they will demand Rahul Gandhi to step away from taking any centric political roles in the future.By the looks of Rahul Gandhi’s body-language and expression during the press conference with Sonia Gandhi, the young scion may just happily abdicate his political responsibilities that his surname automatically gave him upon his birth.

 

 

*The name Gandhi comes from Indira’s husband and has nothing to do with Mahatma Gandhi.

My Agents of SHIELD wish list

AN UNCONVENTIONAL SPOILER NOTICE: Not only should I warn you the reader that I the author may be about to reveal spoilers for Captain America: the Winter Soldier and Agents of SHIELD up to episode 19. However, I should also warn that as episodes are shown several weeks later in the UK than in the US, anyone whose watching in the States could wind up spoiling the final three episodes for me!

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The central character of Agents of SHIELD is a man who returns from the dead. This turns out to be rather fitting because the show itself has demonstrated a rather Lazarus like quality.

ABC has commissioned a second series of Agents. A couple of months ago this would have seemed about as believable as Anthony Hopkins performance in Thor. After the first episode, I blogged that it had “hit the ground strolling” and I wasn’t alone in thinking it was a dud. Critics turned on it and audiences fled. Episode after episode delivered formulaic stories populated by bland characters speaking clunking dialogue. In fact, there was much head scratching as to how the failure proof combination of the massively popular Marvel franchise and Joss Whedon (the genius behind Buffy and Firefly) – which had already produced the Avengers – had indeed failed.

Then what looked like the nail in the show’s coffin arrived. At the conclusion of Captain America: the Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D is dismantled. This left the shows characters as in the words of its lead actor “Agents of NOTHING.” But rather than killing the show, this has revived it. Dealing with these developments has given it fresh impetus and it has at long last become engaging TV. So much to my surprise I am pleased to hear it will be back.

Even more remarkably ABC has doubled down and commissioned a companion series: Agent Carter. This actually sounds more interesting than the main series mostly because of the talent involved: it stars the luminous Hayley Atwell and the writing team behind the excellent Winter Soldier will be serving as executive producers. Plus there is a nice symmetry in having a series that will deal the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D and one covering the aftermath of its dissolution.

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All this said, it’s not a forgone conclusion that a second season of Agents will be a success. It could lapse back into the bad habits that made the majority of the first season such a snooze. Here’s what I would like to see happen to avoid this:

Keep it as a serial

Inherent in my writing a wishlist is that I still think the show has its share of weaknesses. These are broadly the same as they were earlier in the series. What’s made the difference is that rather than being a sequence of broadly freestanding episodes it is now essentially a serial. This has given plots more space to develop, left me keen to come back and see how they pan out, and crucially for the first time given the show a sense that it knows where it is heading. As this is what the show is now doing well, it really ought to keep doing it.*

Cull the main cast

I mentioned continuing problems: this is the main one.

The configuration of the core team was always rather odd. Why were there two stoical, damaged frankly rather humourless warrior-types? And did the show really need three different characters whose main function was to look at computer screens and deliver exposition? On these grounds alone a rejig could be amply justified. However, the more serious problem is that many of the regular cast are pretty mediocre actors.

I’d be disappointed to see Clark Gregg (Coulson) or Chloe Bennett (Skye) leave: they are charismatic actors playing interesting characters. Besides that all the regulars feel expendable. The worst offender, the epically bland Ward, has already been dealt with by making him a traitor. However, it could stand to lose at least one more regular.

A taciturn character is hard but not impossible trick to pull off. Oz in Buffy is a good example of this working: he might be consistently monosyllabic but Seth Green still managed to play him as a multifaceted (and frequently hilarious) character. Sadly May is the opposite. Ming-Na Wen doesn’t have the screen presence or acting ability to make her anything than a void into which the drama and comedy of scenes disappears. She was briefly interesting when there was some mystery about what she was up to. Now that’s been resolved, she’s back to being boring.

Likewise, Fitz and Simmons have their moments but are generally defined by their kooky annoyance.

Whedon is notorious for killing of characters. Agents could do with some of that.

And you never know, now How I Met Your Mother is over maybe Cobie Smulders (AKA Robyn) could Maria Hill as a regular character.

Stop using such crap CGI

They should either use it properly or not use it all! There is no excuse for say those little floating drone things Fitz uses to search buildings. They look silly and that’s distracting.

CGI should either be used properly or not at all!

Link it up with Agent Carter

This surely has to be a no brainer. As I’ve already noted there’s a thematic link between the two series and it seems Agent Carter will fill the gap while Agents takes its mid-season break. Therefore, it shouldn’t be too hard to have the plots of the two shows cast light on each other.

Make it matter for the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe

One of the things I like about the way Marvel handles its various franchises is that it rewards your investment in them. Stories develop across multiple films (and now TV shows) therefore you appreciate them better if you watch the set. However, this hasn’t really applied to Agents because it has tended to react to developments elsewhere in the MCU rather than containing its own ones. It would be good if like the films it moved the story forward.

Keep the UK showings in sync with the US

Since Christmas viewers in the UK have been 3 or 4 episodes behind what’s been going on in America.

Now it’s got good, I’d really like to be able to follow the discussion around this series rather than hiding from it for fear of bumping into spoilers.

 

 

*Whedon fans may have a sense of déjà vu: this is precisely the shift Dollhouse had to make

 

Why in spite of everything I still respect Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg has screwed up being Lib Dem leader but he’s an admirable failure.

Quite a few of my Lib Dem friends who share my discontent with our current leadership have been (with some glee) sharing an opinion piece by Andrew Rawnsley arguing that Nick Clegg’s leadership is again in danger:

In the end, it is Lib Dems who will have Nick Clegg’s life in their hands. For four torrid years, they have displayed a remarkable resilience, an astonishing discipline and an incredible resistance to despair. He is not a religious man, but Nick Clegg is surely praying that his party isn’t about to finally snap.

For all that I share my colleagues’ frustration and disappointment with Clegg’s leadership; I can’t quite share their delight at his potential downfall. I really can’t manage to bring myself to dislike him personally or politically.

I supported Huhne rather than Clegg in the leadership election because I feared that all “most [voters] will know of him [Clegg] is his face and the odd sound bite and on the basis of that, they may well conclude that he is awfully like Cameron.”* But that was a decision of the head rather than the heart. For me the defining moment of that election was when in a Newsnight debate the two candidates were asked if there was too much immigration: Huhne waffled about ‘pressure on public services’, Clegg just said ‘no.’

The following two and a half years seemed to suggest my reservations about Clegg had been misplaced. He was an effective figurehead for the party even before Cleggmania largely rescued the Party from the damage it had sustained in the years since Charles Kennedy had resigned.

But then the Coalition happened. In contrast to the overwhelming bulk of the party I opposed it. But I had to admit that my position – a supply and confidence agreement with a minority Tory government – was the more cautious one and more informed by political calculation. I wanted us to have more distance from a government making unpopular decisions and greater opportunities to disengage. That would have come at the price of being able to implement fewer of our policies.

Going into Coalition wasn’t the only occasion where Clegg has shown such boldness: we could also point to his decision to challenge Nigel Farage for example. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that many of his major mistakes – from giving a pledge on tuition fees which couldn’t be squared with the realities of Coalition, to embracing austerity too wholeheartedly or not checking the details of the Health and Social Care Act – stem from a certain recklessness. And while I might not always be happy with its results as a matter of style I find it refreshing. We live with a political landscape dominated by pathetically limp and risk adverse politicians like Ed Miliband: whose signature policy an energy price freeze will make very little impact, disappears after two years with no lasting impact and potentially damages the environment. The contrast Clegg provides with this kind of crap is welcome.

Of course, others’ anger with Clegg was for rather different reasons. For many people, they see Clegg as a liar and a turncoat for entering a Conservative lead coalition. But that’s hardly fair. Before the election, he had stated that the Liberal Democrats would potentially enter a coalition with the Conservatives. And the Labour Party had warned people that the possibility of Clegg aligning himself with the Tories:

If anyone feels betrayed by what has happened since the General Election, then frankly they should have been paying closer attention before it.

Even that Rawnsley article isn’t all bad news for Clegg. He says that:

I’d assumed that, whatever they said about Mr Clegg in public, it was Labour’s secret desire for him to lead his party into the next election. I’m not quite so sure after Labour’s clunking Clegg-bashing party political broadcast. Perhaps going for him in such a crude way betrayed a Labour anxiety that some of the Lib Dem voters who have switched to Labour might go back. Perhaps they now really want to kill him.

If either they or my own faction within the Lib Dems succeeds I’d see that as rather a disappointment.

 

 

*Yeah, I know