6 intentionally controversial ideas for new Lib Dem policies


I wasn’t at Lib Dem conference last week – Bournemouth is quite a way from Hanoi – so I had to settle for experiencing it vicariously. That’s a shame because it sounds it sounds like it was actually rather pleasant.

Writing in the Independent, Daisy Benson seems to suggest that it may actually have been too pleasant:

…looking at our agenda this week there is a retreat to old comfort zones. The issues we’re discussing are far too safe. Many of those, such as housing and the NHS, have been debated many times before. We are simply restating old policies.

Even in the discussion on the refugee crisis, an area where our new leader Tim Farron has led the public debate, as one new member reflected: “It was boring – everyone just agreed on everything.”


As controversial as the Orange Book was at the time, it stimulated debate and got members thinking critically about policy matters. We don’t need a new Orange Book, but what we do need is a set of thought-provoking ideas learned from the crucible of government, and from the public.

So in that spirit here are 6 policy ideas that meet the following criteria:

  1. a) In my opinion, they further Liberal Democrat aims, objectives and values;
  2. b) To my knowledge, they have not been Liberal Democrat policy before; and
  3. c) In my estimation, they will upset a fair number of Liberal Democrat members.

Three seem thoroughly sensible to me. I think a couple are probably right but I have misgivings about them. One is quite possibly mad. I’ll let you decide which are which.

1. Shred the planning system

The idea: Under the current structure, local councillors make convoluted plans and then sit on planning committees and make rather arbitrary decisions about whether or not applications comply with those plans. Instead, we ought to have a minimal set of transparent rules and give the role of deciding whether or not they have been complied with to an independent tribunal.         

Why it is desirable: If you constrain the supply of something, its price will rise. That will transfer wealth from those who want to buy that thing to those able to sell it. Unfortunately, in this context that means making the old and rich better off at the expense of the young and poor and thereby accomplishing the opposite of what anyone interested in equality should be aiming for.

Furthermore, while it’s true that decisions to build, alter or demolish a building will often generate externalities, the way the current system tries to manage them should unsettle liberals. For good reasons, we usually separate the role of legislator and judge. Yet in the planning system councillors perform both roles and as a result often wind up making what are effectively judicial decisions with electoral considerations in mind.

The result is a system wholly lacking a sense of proportionality: more tall buildings might be bad for the views of London but they’d be good for the people and businesses who would no longer be excluded from the city by high property prices. And that’s to say nothing of the ‘bland agricultural land conservation scheme’ AKA the Green Belt.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it:     There’s a long and ignoble tradition within the party of equating liberalism with localism and localism with maximising the power of local councillors, who not co-incidentally are a key part of our activist base. Many Lib Dems might also fear that they’d no longer be able to harness NIMBY sentiment as part of their local campaigning.

2. Determine school admissions by lottery

The idea: If a school is oversubscribed decide which children to admit at random rather than with catchment areas, admissions exams or by looking at the parent’s religion. 

Why it is desirable: It creates parity between middle and working class families. Buying a house in the catchment area, paying for Tabitha to be tutored for the 11+ and buttering up the local vicar are equally impotent to change the outcome of a lottery.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it: See the above point about a desire to maximise the influence of councillors. Plus there’s probably a reasonable correlation between being a Lib Dem voter and living in the catchment area of a good school. And to be fair, there are practical difficulties that would need to be worked through. It’s also rather counter-intuitive that the way to make school admissions fair is not to try and match the right student with the right school.

3. Stop exempting family firms from inheritance tax

The idea: Currently private firms – most of which are family run – can don’t count towards the value of an estate when determining the amount of inheritance tax due on it. We should start including them.

Why it is desirable: The UK has an unusually high percentage of family run businesses. It is also a productivity laggard. These two facts are not unrelated: the fact your Mum or Dad was a good manager does not mean you will be.

However, the exemption provides incentives for families to continue managing businesses themselves. Removing, it would encourage more family firms to become companies that separate management and ownership. That in turn allows them to bring in professional managers selected for their ability to do their job rather than their bloodline.

There’s also a good argument that both equality of opportunity and outcomes probably suffer when some people have multi-million pound businesses dropped in their lap’s tax free.

It would also raise around £250 million.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it: It’s politically risky. The losers will easily be able to spot they are losers and change their votes accordingly. By contrast, the benefits will be diffused across everyone in the country.

4. Abolish tax subsidies for corporate borrowing

What is the idea: If a company wishes to raise money from investors there are essentially two ways it can do it. Firstly, it can issue debt either by taking out loans or selling bonds. In this scenario, in return for their money, investors receive the right to be repaid a set amount of money in the future. Alternatively, it can sell part of itself by issuing shares. Here, the investors hope to eventually make back their money by taking a share of the company’s future profits. While they serve the same basic function, for tax purposes they are treated very differently. Companies can treat the interest payments on their debt as expenditure, which they can deduct from their profits and thereby reduce their corporation tax bill. But they can’t do that with dividend payments. This effectively creates a subsidy for corporate debt.

Why it is desirable: Removing this subsidy would encourage companies to borrow less and instead rely more on selling shares. This ought to make the economy more stable. The value of a company’s shares fall in tough times. By contrast, their debt repayments remains fixed. With the same liabilities but less opportunities to earn revenue to cover them, other things being equal, more debt will increase the risk of companies going under. In this way, tilting the balance from equity to debt is likely to increase the severity of a subsequent downturn. Untilting will therefore promote stability.

There would be other benefits too. Banks are the principal issuers of debt and therefore the primary beneficiaries of any subsidy on it. Abolishing that subsidy will reduce their role in the economy. It would shut down the wheeze Starbucks uses to go tax rate shopping.

In addition to that it would raise colossal amounts of revenue.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it: It can be perceived as unfair to firms that are too small to issue shares and therefore have to rely on borrowing.

There’s a problem once again that the policy is counter-intuitive; because the value of shares fluctuate they look less stable than debt and encouraging more of them to be issued seems like it should make the economy less rather than more stable.

5. Commit to negotiating for free migration zones

What is the idea: In recent years with global trade talks stalled, countries have instead reduced trade barriers by striking smaller deals on a country to country or regional basis. I wonder if a similar approach might help make progress on immigration. If public opinion, is unwilling to countenance a general opening up to migrants, perhaps our government could negotiate the removal of immigration controls for citizens of certain countries on condition they do the same for British citizens. Free movement of people within the EU provides a precedent for this.

Why it is desirable: It may represent the path of least of resistance when it comes to liberalising immigration. Migrants from countries economically and culturally similar to the UK don’t generate the same kind of anxieties that immigration generally does. And the reciprocal element would provide an additional benefit to point to.

The obvious countries to make such agreements with would the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. While citizens of these countries have a relatively easy time getting into the UK – and British citizens have a relatively easy time getting into them – immigration controls are still a burden that could be done without. For starters, they involve a lot of bureaucracy. And they can generate strange incentives. Take for example, an Anglo-American couple I lived with for a while. In order to get permanent residence in the each other’s countries they postponed settling permanently in one country and instead moved across the Atlantic at regular intervals.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it: It would strike many as unfair to scrap barriers for rich Americans who generally don’t really need to emigrate to the UK rather than for poor Syrians or Ukrainians for whom that might be a life changing opportunity. In addition, some of the more ardent Europhiles within the party might object to anything that looks like a rival to the European single market.

6. A soft power push

The idea: ‘Soft power’ was a term coined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye. It essentially describes the power a country wields by being liked rather than feared. It represents the ability to persuade rather than pressure.

Why it is desirable: For the first time since the Cold War, there is a viable contender to liberal democracy as the organising principle for societies. Russia and China are devoting significant resources to their own soft power pushes. Confucius Institutes are proliferating and Russia Today – sorry RT – is hiring more journalists to produce Putinite propoganda. While these regimes may not be actively trying to export their system of government like the USSR did, liberals should still find their new ideological assertiveness alarming.

In particular, we ought to be concerned about their efforts to tilt international organisations away from a concern with the rights of individuals towards the rights of states. For example, Russia has been trying very hard to prevent the UN recognising LBTQ rights as human rights. To offset this there needs to be a countervailing soft power push from more liberal states.

Fortunately, this is a domain in which the UK excels. In fact, it may well have more soft power than any other country. We should aim to preserve and even accentuate this edge. We ought to being encouraging more foreign students to study at British universities, nurturing rather than constraining the BBC and pumping money into the British Council.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it: Soft power is still power and power plays are a zero-sum game. When Ukrainians decided they wanted their country  to be more like Europe and less like Russia that weakened Russia. Lib Dems are not instinctive Kissengerites and this way of looking at the world would make many in the party uncomfortable.

In addition, the idea of using British soft power to promote liberal values depends on the UK being protected by American hard power and America is an uncomfortable topic in the Lib Dems. The party was almost uniformly opposed to the Iraq War and to post 9/11 abuses like Guantanamo Bay and Rendition flights. But not everyone saw it the same way.

Some within the party recognised that it is hard for a global behemoth – especially a wounded one – to move without destructive missteps. Others saw the damage the US was doing as evidence of a moral equivalence between the it and its competitors and concluded that it was the real threat to international stability. Those in the later camp would not appreciate essentially acting as cheerleaders for America’s preferred international order.

Sicario (review)

This sombre, sinister ballad of an idealistic FBI agent out of her depth may be the most powerful indictment of the War on Drugs since the Wire.

The initial conceit of this blog was to share striking or interesting facts, so here’s one. Since 9/11, the conflict in Afghanistan has transfixed the world’s attention. Yet it seems quite possible that more possible that more people have died in violence linked to Mexican cartels. We often talk about drug dealers engaging in ‘turf wars’ but in Mexico the analogy to an actual war has become horrifyingly literal. The death tolls not only matches a more conventional conflict but so do the arms involved: assault weapons, rocket launchers and high explosives. It is hardly surprising that both the Mexican and American governments have turned to their militaries to counter the threat.

This is the menacing backdrop to Sicario, the new film by director Denis Villeneuve. It follows an FBI agent played (excellently) by Emily Blunt as she gets drawn further into a mysterious and ethically dubious scheme orchestrated by a pair of shady ‘consultants’ played by Benicio Del Torro (also great) and  Josh Brolin (the best of that impressive trio).

That synopsis makes it sound like a run of the mill thriller but it’s more sophisticated than that. The film seems to have been partly inspired by Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Sicario is clearly reminiscent of her style. Villeneuve shares her flair for cinematography: which shows in everything from the beautiful shots of the arid desert to a pivotal sequence that plays out in infra-red and night vision. And the consistently gritty and realistic tone similar also mirrors Bigelow’s recent work. The action sequences emphasise tension over pyrotechnics. This is especially true of an electrifying sequence in which a convoy of Federal agents take a senior cartel figure from Juarez – until recently the ‘murder capital of the world’ – to the US, all the desperately trying to spot the ambush they know is coming.

But where it really departs from the conventional thriller by opting for a story that is designed to make us uncomfortable. The steps we’d expect to go through on route to our heroine’s eventual triumph are scrambled or missing altogether. Characters refuse to develop into the archetypes we expect and until the end are tough to make ethical judgements about. Villeneuve seems to have consciously crafted this as a film that’s impossible to relax into.

That’s to be commended. There are many aspects of the situation in Mexico that Americans should not be comfortable about – at least not without having considered them first. A real life scandal in which members of the ATF allowed hundreds of guns to fall into the hands of arms dealers, so they could see if they fell into the hands of cartels – they did and were used in numerous killings – indicates that, as the film suggests, some parts of American law enforcement have dubious notions about what is morally acceptable in their fight against the cartels. It’s also unsettling to wonder as Sicario does whether having used assassination, torture and mercenaries to fight terrorism in far away countries, the temptation to use them against an arguably more menacing threat on America’s doorstep might prove overwhelming. Finally, at a point where Donald Trump has re-energised the nativist elements of American politics by railing against the injuries Mexico has apparently done the US, it has to be worthwhile to get Americans to consider the harm they might be doing their neighbour. In particular, isn’t it predictable that when a large rich, country is tough on drugs but lax on guns then heavily armed criminals in the poor nation on its border will be the ones to supply the suppressed demand.

My writing about Sicario that way makes it sound hectoring. Actually, it’s the opposite. It poses questions rather than answering them and does so as part of an engaging story that’s present with some impressive performance and amazing cinematography.

Summary: 8/10 – it’s not an easy film to watch but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Note: I normally include trailers as part of my reviews. In this case, I chose not to because both of the trailers for Sicario were rather spoilery for my taste. Nonetheless, if that doesn’t bother you here’s the best one.

Everest (review)

Despite a spectacular setting and cast, Everest is ultimately underwhelming.

There’s a question that is likely to have occurred to anyone who’s ever seen a ‘cabin in the woods’ type horror film: instead of waiting to be murdered, why don’t the hapless teen victims just get the hell out of there? The fact the characters ignore every human’s primal ‘flight’ reflex seems to defy credibility. The response of the protagonists in Everest is no less mystifying. Yet these characters are based on real people who facing real peril doggedly fought to face it for longer.

More than two hundred people have died trying to climb the world’s highest peak. 14 of them in a single day in 1996. Everest  is a fictionalisation of that tragedy. It follows two teams of climbers as they make the ascent to the summit and towards disaster.

This is inherently interesting subject matter. Man vs nature is a narrative theme as venerable as storytelling. And mountaineering has been used to make impressive films before, my favourite example being Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Touching the Void. And what is more there can be few more dramatic backdrops than the Himalayas.  Everest does about as good a job of showing this natural beauty as it can without actually flying you out to Nepal and the vistas the filmmakers capture deserve a short film of their own. And that’s supplemented by the more down to earth but still impressive spectacle of a cast that includes Jake Gyllenhal, Jason Clarke, Josh Brollin, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Debicki.

Despite all of this, Everest doesn’t quite work. It has a certain gravitas but it’s borrowed from its setting, the real life tragedy that inspired it and the respect the audience has for the actors they are watching. Little of it is earned by the film in its own right. For reasons I cannot quite identify the presentation feels quite pedestrian and the film does little to make itself more compelling than a BBC4 documentary about mountaineering.

I also found that the question I posed at the start – why the hell they don’t just turn back – bothered me throughout the film. It ultimately made it hard for to relate to the characters I was supposed to be fearing for. The screenwriters make some attempt to use a journalist within the group to interrogate their motivations for taking such astonishing gambles but ultimately was is not enough.  Death seems a high price to stand atop any rock even one magnificent as Everest.

Summary: 6/10 – A reasonable effort but one that gets by more on quantity than quality.

Guess who’s back…

My spoiler rich review of Doctor Who‘s assured and unsettling return.

If one was to write a formula for a Dr Who scene what would it include? There’d be a repelent monster of course, there’d be an other worldly setting that also looks like somewhere in Wales, perhaps there’d be a child in peril – Dr Who has always been sappy about children – and of course the Doctor not only to save that child but also to inspire them – because if there’s one thing the show’s even more sentimental about than children it’s hope!

And in the opening of the Magician’s Apprentice that’s precisely what showrunner Stephen Moffat gave us. We begin with soldiers running through a muddy, Somme like battlefield. There’s a steam punk feel: the soldiers are armed with bows and arrows and are being hunted by laser shooting bi-planes. Then we focus in on a single soldier peering into the fog. “Was that a child?” he asks a comrade. He runs after whatever he has seen and calls out to the figure to stop. He does and it is indeed a child – a boy of perhaps 12 or so. The comrade tells the solider to leave now because the enemy is closing in but he tells him it will be alright and he will “catch them up”. By now any seasoned Dr Who fan knows it will definitely not be alright.

“It’s OK, I’m not going to hurt you” the soldier says and we know from his demeanour he means it. The ground begins to shake. The soldier looks first to the floor and then to the clearly terrified boy. “I think we’ve got company” says the soldier before asking “do you know what hand mines are?” The boy – his alarm clearly growing further – nods weakly. “Well in that case you know you’ve got to stand absolutely still” warns the soldier. “Ever seen a hand mine?” he continues jovially, perhaps thinking this will reassure the boy. It doesn’t work. His eyes are now locked on the soldier’s feet, in an expression of even greater terror. The soldier looks down and sees a hand is protruding from the mud and has grabbed his foot. He begins trying to offer reassurance but as he speaks the ground opens up and with startling rapidity he disappears into it.

The camera cuts first to the boy recoiling and then back to the ground. We start to hear a horrible low squelching sound and then an army of hands starts to rise from mud. If that wasn’t unsettling enough it soon becomes apparent that in the palm of each hand is an eye. They turn to look at him. The now utterly desperate boy screams out for help.

Then something in the air changes. We hear it first in the music, the mixture of gusts of wind and violins playing weird low tingling notes stops and the strings begin to play deep, resonant notes. That thing in the air is clearly hope and we Whovians know who represents hope in this ficitional universe.  Something flies through the fog towards the boy and lands at his feet: it’s a sonic screwdriver. And then we hear a familiar voice: “your chances of survival are about 1 in a 100. So here’s what you do? You forget about the thousand and focus on the 1.” The Doctor has arrived to save the day.

He tells the boy to pick up the screwdriver and begins telling him about the sonic corridor he’s created which is allowing them to speak even though he’s 50 feet away. This is Dr Who, there’s going to be plenty of mumbo jumbo science! The boy asks who he is. The Doctor replies with some patter about being lost on the way to the bookshop. Trust the Doctor to make light of a desperate situation!  He asks: “which war is this? I get them all muddled up?” The boy looks puzzled and replies “it’s just the war”. The Doctor then asks what planet they are on which confuses him further. In a renewed attempt at reassurance the Doctor says “I try not to understand, it’s called an open mind!” That leads into a pep talk about the choice the boy needs to make: to live or to die.

Moffat has built a moment that’s almost painfully Whovian: the Doctor will – with a bit of whimsy and an assist from Murray Gold’s grandiose soundtrack – inspire an innocent to survive and we can all feel warm about it.

And then he suddenly and grotesquely inverts it. The Doctor asks the boy to tell him “the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today.” The reply comes back “Davros”, followed by ever more desperate pleas for help, ending with an accusative cry from the boy that “you said you would help me”.

It’s a brutal, smart and daring way to begin a new series. It is steeped in the show’s mythology calling all the way back to the Fourth Doctor deciding whether to destroy the Daleks at their moment of creation and pondering

if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives… could you then kill that child?

Yet it jars us out of the complacent assumption that we know how Doctor Who plays out: our hero is supposed to defy impossible choices not sacrifice children to their harsh logic.

It’s quite a tribute to Moffat’s talents that after such a bravura opening the rest of the episode didn’t feel like a letdown. It moved along at quite a pace and with plenty of creepiness mixed more than a little black humour – much of it provided by Michelle Gomez reprising her role as Missy. And there’s also the pleasantly discombobulating sight of Peter Capaldi essentially doing a David Tennant impression. That all led to a confrontation with a terminally ill Davros and a brutal cliffhanger. It was probably too brutal. Moffat may defy the show’s formula for a scene but this is still Dr Who and not Game of Thrones. Does anyone really think he can leave Missy and Clara dead, and the Tardis destroyed? Therefore, we know some timey-whimeyness will have to come along and make things less devastating. I found this certainty prevented the episode’s climax from generating the kind of dread it was supposed to. By contrast, something less brutal, which could therefore potentially be allowed to stand, might actually have been more horrifying.

Nonetheless, the Magician’s Apprentice and especially its opening sequence was a fantastic way for Doctor Who to return. If this kind of quality can be maintained throughout the series then it will be a treat.

What I wrote about Piggate (in 2007)

I don’t think there’s any question that David Cameron’s student days were more colourful than mine. According to a book serialised in the Daily Mail: his antics included drug taking, membership of obnoxious drinking societies and, most strangely, putting his penis into the mouth of a dead pig. By contrast, I became a local councillor and wrote a blog.

One of the posts on that blog reflected on revelations made about Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, who were at the time competing for the Lib Dem leadership. Clegg was accused of having set fire to a rare cactus collection, while Huhne had apparently written an article praising hard drugs.

I didn’t think lingering on such incidents was wise:

The presumptive future Lib Dem leader says that: “I did some damage to some plants. I am not proud of it. I think we all have blemishes in our past.”

Not me. I am ashamed to admit that but I have been such a goody two shoes throughout my life that there is nothing scandalous in my past I can think of. It is early days, I am only in my fourth week of University. But given that I don’t drink, smoke, take drugs, break the law in any serious way and that my love life has never been terribly exciting, this is a state of affairs I can’t see changing.

Let this be a warning to you all. If politicians are hounded for silly mistakes they made a long time ago then no good will come of it. If people with blemished pasts are put off going into politics then the people left will be a lot like me: dull, puritanical and self-righteous.

Today I’m less sure that I would survive unscathed if for some reason the press did decide to rake through my entire life – a brush with mental illness does that to you. But that hasn’t changed my conviction that dwelling on politicians’ misspent youths is a bad idea.

I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if the Daily Mail circa 1960 or so had found out that Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland had been lovers in their student days. It seems unlikely that either man’s career could have survived the revelation and their contribution to public life – including the legalisation of homosexuality and a big increases in access to higher education – would have been at best delayed.

Besides the narrowing of talent this process potentially leads to, it is prurient. The Cameron story is a good example. It’s classic Daily Mail: allowing its readers to vicariously experience debauchery whilst hypocritically feeling smug about being better than the people involved.

And it’s not really fair. The David Cameron who studied at Oxford is not the one whose Prime Minister today. That goes beyond the idea of ‘learning lessons’ and into the very structure of the brain:

…the changes that happen between 18 and 25 are a continuation of the process that starts around puberty, and 18 year olds are about halfway through that process. Their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. That’s the part of the brain that helps you to inhibit impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal.

And the other part of the brain that is different in adolescence is that the brain’s reward system becomes highly active right around the time of puberty and then gradually goes back to an adult level, which it reaches around age 25 and that makes adolescents and young adults more interested in entering uncertain situations to seek out and try to find whether there might be a possibility of gaining something from those situations.

Therefore, it is the most outrageous and stupid traits of a young person that are least likely to persist into proper adulthood. A fully developed pre-frontal cortext will generally inhibit molesting a pig’s carcass or burning down cacti.

Besides these general problems, there’s one specific to this story: it is quite possibly untrue. It originates with a book by Lord Ashcroft, who is apparently angry at being scorned by the PM. Neither Ashcroft nor his co-author Isabel Hardman Oakeshotte has direct knowledge of the pig penetrating incident. Rather they claim to have been told about it by another person present who claims that someone else has a photo of it. The fact that this single unsubstantiated source subsequently became an MP, given his social mileu presumably a Conservative one, is used to lend their account weight. However, many of Cameron’s fellow parliamentarians harbour ill will towards him and election to the Commons does not exempt one from the human tendency to mis-remember and embellish. Unfortunately, such lurid stories have a staying power independent of their accuracy: the story about David Mellor having sex in a Chelsea shirt was pure invention but it’s still the main thing most people – myself included – associate him with.*

So I cannot share the glee of many others at Cameron’s humiliation. Even if the pretext for it is genuine – quite an if – it’s undeserved. It is trivial, malicious and unnecessary. Cameron was an adolescent when his alleged misdemeanors took place. Ashcroft, the Mail’s editorial team and most of the tweeters wetting themselves with mirth about ‘piggate’ are adults who have no such excuse.

*Not I must say that I feel much sympathy for Mellor. However, I feel Cameron is in a rather different position.

Update (19:55 21/09/2015) I’ve corrected a mistake regarding who Ashcroft’s co-author is.

The best things I’ve read recently (19/08/15)

The fallacies of multi-taskers, Republican voters and Francis Fukuyama.

Multi-tasking: how to survive in the 21st century by Tim Harford

There is ample evidence in favour of the proposition that we should focus on one thing at a time. Consider a study led by David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah. In 2006, Strayer and his colleagues used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare the performance of drivers who were chatting on a mobile phone to drivers who had drunk enough alcohol to be at the legal blood-alcohol limit in the US. Chatting drivers didn’t adopt the aggressive, risk-taking style of drunk drivers but they were unsafe in other ways. They took much longer to respond to events outside the car, and they failed to notice a lot of the visual cues around them. Strayer’s infamous conclusion: driving while using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Less famous was Strayer’s finding that it made no difference whether the driver was using a handheld or hands-free phone. The problem with talking while driving is not a shortage of hands. It is a shortage of mental bandwidth.

Yet this discovery has made little impression either on public opinion or on the law. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is an offence to use a hand-held phone while driving but perfectly legal if the phone is used hands-free. We’re happy to acknowledge that we only have two hands but refuse to admit that we only have one brain.

Regicidal Republicans (the Economist)

…while Republican voters are exceedingly angry and mistrustful, their lynch-mob rage is selective. Mr Carson could hardly be less fiery (though he primly disapproves of many things), yet he is surging. And the same conservative activists who disbelieve the establishment on all fronts are startlingly willing to give outsider candidates like Mr Trump, Mr Carson or Ms Fiorina, the benefit of the doubt. So highly trusting are rank-and-file Republicans that—to the despair of pundits and fact-checkers—they shrug when Mr Trump refuses to provide any details about how he would handle foreign affairs, breezing that once he is president: “I will know more about the problems of this world”. Nor do they seem fussed to be told that Ms Fiorina’s time as a CEO was marked by massive job losses, after a bungled merger. A fourth anti-establishment candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, seems able to tap into this mood of strangely extravagant trust, by playing up his credentials as a serial rebel and critic of party leaders in the Senate.

Republican primary voters are not in a revolutionary mood, then, but a regicidal one. They think their rulers are corrupt, inept and mendacious, if not actually treasonous. But they are at the same time ready to swoon before new rulers promising to fix America in an instant. The key credential required to earn that trust is a lack of experience. Will those outsiders disappoint their followers in their turn, triggering a still deeper loss of public trust? Probably. This is going to be a bumpy year.

It’s Still Not the End of History by Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee (the Atlantic)

If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama’s legacy, the unresolved problem of “the liberal identity” was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can’t tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators.

Why Newhaven should go ahead and put up a statue of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh was not a monster like Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. It’s quite reasonable for Newhaven council to accept the Vietnamese Embassy’s gift.

Coming soon to an obscure English port town?

Coming soon to an obscure English port town?

I generally do not follow the local politics of East Sussex and people generally do not feel the need to educate me about it. Nonetheless, a number of people have sent me links to stories about a particular decision made by Newhaven Town Council. So here, for what it’s worth is my take on it.

The Vietnamese Embassy in London has offered to have an eight foot statue of Ho Chi Minh built and erected in the port town of Newhaven (population: 12,250). For a time, Ho was a pastry chef working aboard the ferry that ran between Dieppe and Newhaven. The embassy wants this to be recognised and to that end has already supplied a plaque, which this statue is supposed to supplement.

This has drawn criticism from the local Conservative MP, Maria Caulfield, who said that:

“A statue when the town is in such need of regeneration is not the best use of money wherever it’s coming from… The other issue is, is Ho Chi Minh a man we should be commemorating?”

She described described Ho as:

a deceased communist dictator who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

None of which is terribly convincing. The statue is not a poor use of money set aside for regenerating Newhaven but a reasonable way of spending the money allocated to the Vietnamese Embassy for promoting Vietnam-UK relations.*

Nor is it correct to characterise Ho as a monster. That’s an unusual stance for me to be taking: I find it odd how far it remains politically correct to play with communist iconography, especially given our (justified) intolerance of fascist symbols. People wear t-shirts with, for example, hammer and sickles or Che Guevara on it without giving it much thought. The Cuban regime is praised for its healthcare in a manner reminiscent of the way Mussolini used to be praised for making the trains run on time. And a shockingly large number of westerners are unaware of the enormity of the crimes committed by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.

However, I don’t feel that Ho belongs in that rogues gallery. Which is not to say I would count myself as a fan. He picked the wrong side in the Cold War, advocated an economic model that has proven itself to retard growth and inaugurated a political system that to this day fails to provide democracy, human rights or the rule of law.

But that he’s a far more humane figure than say Mao. In a biography of Ho, the French historian Pierre Brocheux describes a meeting between the two men during which:

Mao applauded the brutality of counterrevolutionaries inasmuch as the Chinese revolution had benefited from the massacres carried out by Chiang Kai-Shek. Ho reacted by saying that killing was not moral and so justifying it was equally immoral. Mao responded, “He kills, I kill, it’s not a matter of morality.”

At which point Mao’s protégé Liu Shaqoi apparently began lecturing the Vietnamese leader on why morality itself was an “anti-Marxist” concept.

Despite having this desire to avoid bloodshed, it is true that bloodshed certainly occurred during Ho’s time as leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Nonetheless, it seems a stretch to hold him personally responsible for it or worse still to imply that he was its architect.

I am assuming that Caulfield’s claim that he was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths refers to the land reform campaign that took place in the aftermath of the French defeat. They were certainly violent – though whether there were hundreds of thousands is debatable – but whereas Mao would probably have intensified them, Ho attempted to rein them in. On February 8th, he issued a decree likening the brutality of the methods used to root out landlords to those deployed by the French and Japanese during their occupations of Vietnam. It’s hard not to conclude he should have done more, earlier to prevent this violence but that’s a different kind of culpability from the one Caulfield seems to be implying.

This point applies with even more force to the later stages of his presidency. It has generally been assumed that he continued to direct policy until his death in 1969. A rather different view has rapidly gained credence thanks to the work of Dr Lien-Hang T. Nguyen. In a sharp break from previous American-centric histories of the war, she used archives in Vietnam to show how decisions were made in Hanoi. Among other things, she discovered that those decisions were emphatically not being taken by Ho. Instead, over the course of the 1960s his eventual successor Le Duan had seized control of the party apparatus and confined Ho to the role of figurehead. She has written that:

The quiet, stern Mr. Duan shunned the spotlight but he possessed the iron will, focus and administrative skill necessary to dominate the Communist Party.

[He] constructed a sturdy militarist empire that still looms over Hanoi today. [His] hawkish policies led North Vietnam to war against Saigon and then Washington, and ensured that a negotiated peace would never take the place of total victory.

Mr. Duan ruled the party with an iron fist and saw Ho and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, renowned for defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, as the greatest threats to his authority. He sidelined Ho, General Giap and their supporters when making nearly all key decisions.

In 1963-4, Mr. Duan blackmailed Ho into silence when the aging leader opposed the controversial decision to escalate the war and seek all-out victory before American forces could intervene. And in 1967-8, there was a large-scale purge in Hanoi when Ho, General Giap and their allies opposed Mr. Duan’s plans for the Tet Offensive. Although the southern war initially rallied North Vietnamese to support the party, it soon became a quagmire. Mr. Duan and Mr. Tho reacted by creating a garrison state that labeled any resistance to their war policies as treason. By increasing the powers of internal security forces and ideological police and subjugating the southern insurgency to Hanoi, they were able to wage total war at their discretion until 1975.

So can Ho can largely be acquitted of responsibility for the most brutal aspects of communist rule.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the he was not operating in an environment that was exactly favourable to benign and gentle government. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was not obviously more oppressive than the American backed government in Saigon or the neutral monarchy of Norodom Sihanouk that ruled neighbouring Cambodia.

And Newhaven Council should not forget some the commendable aspects of life:

  1. He led the movement that ended nearly a century of pernicious French Colonialism.
  2. He was a British ally in the fight against Japanese militarism.
  3. His abhorrence of violence appears to have gone beyond the theoretical and to have guided his decision making. We’ve already seen that he had misgivings about the bloodshed that would result from an all out war with the Americans and he repeatedly risked his popularity and position to try to achieve independence without going to war with the French. That he failed says more about French intransigence than it does about him.

So if anyone from Newhaven is reading, my advice would be to go ahead and put up the statue. Ho is certainly not beyond reproach but he’s not the villain your MP thinks he is. He is definitely an important and interesting figure, and his link with your town is part of its history. There’s nothing in his record that requires you to snub a nation of ninety million people.

*Though I might suggest that using the money to put in a place a system that allows people to pay for their visas by card as well as cash do more to achieve that objective!

Why Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence begins with a quote from America’s

Or how America missed a chance to prevent its war with Vietnam, 20 years before it began.

September 2nd 1945

Seventy years ago today Ho Chi Minh stood in a large square in central Hanoi and delivered a statement proclaiming that Vietnam was now independent of its French rulers. It began:

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

Ho Chi Minh read the proclamation of Vietnamese independence

Ho Chi Minh read the proclamation of Vietnamese independence

That initial sentence is striking. The United States and the movement Ho Chi Minh led would shortly come to view each other as enemies, a situation that would last for half a century. The conflict between them would leave millions dead. Yet Ho began telling the world about his new nation not with a quote from Mao or Marx but Thomas Jefferson.

The immediate reason why he did so is clear: he was highlighting a mismatch between how the Great Powers had treated Vietnam and the values they supposedly espoused. Yet while he was straightforwardly condemning the French as hypocrites ‘who had acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice’, he doesn’t direct that kind of anger at the US. The implicit message to the French is a statement ‘these are your values, you have not lived up to them.’ The message to America seems more like a statement ‘these are your values. Will you live up to them?’ Note, for example, his statement later on in the proclamation that:

We are convinced that the Allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.

The hopes America represented

Ho’s optimism about the Americans helping Vietnam gain its independence was not without foundation. The Vietminh resistance fighters he led had co-operated with the Americans to fight the Japanese and Vichy French forces occupying ‘Indochina’ (modern day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). Indeed, Ho had actually spent time in a Chinese prison after being captured trying to make contact with American officers stationed there.

Furthermore, the US was not a friend of European Imperialism. It owed its own existence to a war of colonial independence. It had done all it could to push the Europeans out of Latin America. Ho had been in Versailles when Woodrow Wilson had advanced his view that there must be:

a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.”

Recently deceased US President Franklin Roosevelt seems to have been emphatically opposed to the reimposition of French rule in Indochina to which he partially attributed the decadence that allowed the Germans to so easily defeat France. He had repeatedly floated the idea that Indochina should be placed under international trusteeship as a step towards its eventual independence.

And pragmatically, at this stage American diplomatic support was the only kind of meaningful international support Ho’s Vietminh forces could hope for. While in later years they would receive masses of military aid from the USSR and China, that was emphatically not available in 1945. China was still under the control of the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek. Thus neither the Chinese nor Soviet communists had a way to get arms into Vietnam. So it must have seemed reasonable for Ho to look to the US as Vietnam’s most likely ally.

The road to hell

But it was not to be. Roosevelt’s plan for a trusteeship was rather half-baked and easily brushed aside. The lead in South Eastern Asian military operations was taken by the British rather than the Americans. With an Empire of their own they were trying to maintain, they were much more sympathetic to French aspirations to retain control of Indochina. When they entered southern Vietnam to disarm the Japanese forces based there, they brought French soldiers with them and predictably they began attempting to reassert colonial control.

There was also a shift in Washington. Roosevelt passed away and his successor Harry Truman was much less viscerally anti-colonial. And with the Soviet Union establishing its own empire in Eastern Europe, American policy makers felt much less able to be sanguine about Vietnam potentially turning red. So when in 1950 fighting broke out between the French and the Vietminh, the Americans backed the French, providing them with arms, supplies and money to prosecute the war. This seemed like a smart move in the battle against communism: it both would help the French prevent a Vietminh victory in Vietnam and so make them grateful to the US and more likely to co-operate with it against the Soviet Union. It was thus seen as a way of shoring up the anti-communist fight in both Europe and Asia.

In fact, it would fail on both accounts. By 1954, the French had been defeated and the Americans would increasingly be pulled into fighting themselves. Even that would not be enough to prevent a communist victory but it would create spillovers that destabilised neighbouring countries. That allowed the genocidal Khmer Rouge to seize power in Cambodia and murder millions. And in 1966 President De Gaulle, who as leader of the WWII era Free French had been more adamant than anyone that the French should reclaim its colonies withdrew France from NATO. And TV pictures of napalmed children and reports of American soldiers massacring civilians wrecked the US’s reputation in Europe as it did around the world.

The alternative

This disaster could have been pre-empted all the way back in 1945. Europe (and especially the UK) was in sufficiently desperate need of US economic and military support that it would have been in a position to bargain for Vietnam’s freedom. It is true that this probably would have resulted in a communist takeover of the country but it would have been far better for US foreign policy that this happened in 1945 with their acquiescence than in 1975 against their bloody opposition. It is even possible that the US might have been able to forge an alliance with the newly free nation. That might sound fanciful but it was actually a common pattern during the Cold War. Communist regimes that had gained power through their own efforts rather than those of the Red Army often turned on Moscow: Yugoslavia did so in 1948 and China did in so in 1972. Certainly, reaching an understanding with the ideologically flexible Ho would have been easier than doing so with his more doctrinaire communist successors. And whatever else had turned out differently, it is likely that Cambodia would have been spared the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule. While communism might well still have spread to the country, the chances were slim of it doing in such a uniquely genocidal form without an equally unique set of circumstances preceding it.

September 2nd is a day of celebration in Vietnam, where it is the national day commemorating its independence.  It is also the day when Britain and America celebrate ‘Victory in Japan day’ commemorating the end of the brutal war in the Pacific. That most certainly is an event worth celebrating. But perhaps, we should also use this day to contemplate how our two nations wasted an opportunity for peace for the sake of a French colonial project whose time had clearly passed.


I am indebted to Ho Chi Minh: A Biography and Indochina: An Ambigious Colonization by Pierre Brocheux along with Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam by Lien-Hang T. Nguyen.