Monthly Archives: January 2010

Thoughts: The Blair Perfomance

I actually ‘won’ a ticket for the afternoon session.   I got excited when it arrived in the post only to find on closer inspection that it wasn’t for the main room, but a ticket for the viewing gallery. i.e. the chance to watch it next door on a big screen.  I decided to save the five hour return journey and put my feet up and watch it on Sky.

I’m prepared to accept his word on a couple of points (thousands aren’t!):

  • He genuinely believed that Saddam had WMD.
  • He genuinely believed he was acting in the best interests of the UK.

I also totally get his point that at the end of the day he had to make a judgement, and he did.

What bothers me though is the lack of recognition anywhere that those beliefs and that judgement, although sincere, look to have been wrong.  It mystifies me that he kept trying to get the panel to ‘ask the 2010 question, not the 2003 question’.  The 2010 question he wanted asking was about a ‘hypothetical world’ where Saddam had WMD.  The 2010 question we are all asking is the real world question where Saddam did not have WMD.

The thing that really, really bothers me though is this:  When you are a leader, yes, you have to make judgements.  You make judgements (hopefully) on data more than instinct.  In national security issues the data you rely on for the judgement calls is ‘intelligence’.  Let’s say that the Inquiry decides to cut Blair some slack and say that given the intelligence he was given at the time, the call was reasonable.  He had to trust the intelligence that proved wrong.  If I was Blair my fury with intelligence services would know no bounds.  For the hundreds of millions of pounds we spend on our intelligence they got something we had been on the case of for over a decade dreadfully wrong.  The consequences of their failure was:

  • Millions (billions?) spent on a war
  • Huge loss of life of Iraqi Civilians
  • Significant loss of life from our own armed forces
  • Distraction from the task at hand in Afghanistan
  • Removal of the one regional counter-weight to the ambitions of Iran
  • The entire quartermaster stores of the Iraqi army passing into hostile militias to be used god knows where
  • The radicalisation of certain British youth introducing a new domestic front for terror

But on the plus side we did get Saddam.  Not sure the debit and credits work in our favour though.

So given the consequences of this judgement, I am baffled that the chap who provided the data to the PM from which he made his judgement, John Scarlett – instead of getting hung out to dry – gets promoted.  As with Goldsmith the questioners gave Blair a chance to hang some of the blame on them and he loyally stuck up for them.  The mind boggles.

Anyway, I stand by my predications as to the Inquiry’s findings: HERE

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View on Legality of Iraq War: 2002

Sometimes you find something fascinating in your personal archives.  Given Tony Blair’s evidence today I searched my hard drive for anything I had written on Iraq and found this 2002 letter to my then MP:

16th August 2002,  To:  Colin Challen MP

–cut—-

Saddam Hussein is a butcher.  He is a madman.  He shows scant disregard for common humanity.  He has proved in attacking his own people in Halaja in 1988 that he is willing to use weapons of mass destruction.  He proved in his invasion of Kuwait he has no respect for the norms of international behaviour.  He has proved throughout his reign of internal repression he has no respect for international expectations on human rights.  On balance, Iraq and the world would far be better off without him.

I therefore have every sympathy with the Bush regime that the ‘ends’ of a regime change within Iraq is desirable.  My issue is with the ‘means’ of achieving that ‘ends’.

Since the end of the second world war international law has developed to allow the use of force in (broadly) only one of two circumstances: self-defence or with the support of the United Nations Security Council.  The world has been more secure for the development of these rules.  It was the international consensus on exactly these principles that originally gave such weight to the international effort to remove Saddam from Kuwait in 1991.

Before nations reached this understanding justification for resorting to state violence was broadly understood to lie with ‘Jus Bellum’ or ‘Just Cause’.  This dates pretty much to the Crusades.  The problem with this is that “Jus Bellum” has no arbitrator.  The victor will always declare a “Jus Bellum”.  Hitler certainly saw a “Jus Bellum” in taking on Poland for instance.   Yet it seems the US administration is hell bent on taking us backwards to this medieval concept.  They are convinced of the morality of their case and will push ahead regardless.

I reiterate that I agree that in isolation there is a strong moral case.  However, for the love of god, can they not think through the consequences of setting this precedent?  When the only remaining super-power abandons a ‘norm of international behaviour’ then that norm can no longer be considered to be part of the fabric of international law.

Once this genie is out the bottle, what if China sees a clear moral cause in stopping Taiwan?  What if India sees a just cause in taking out the Pakistan leadership?  Do we really have no joined-up thinking on this?

The Prime Minister has been a remarkable and brave ally to our American friends since that terrible day a year ago.  In observing his response throughout I was genuinely proud to be British.

Sometimes though, a friend needs guidance.  Sometimes, a friend needs restraint.  Sometimes speaking ones mind can be a greater show of true loyalty than blind obedience.  I pray all those who influence the Prime Minister will impress upon him the importance not to sleep walk into a war.  I pray that he will use the influence and trust he has with the US administration to put forward another way.  If the moral case for removing Saddam is so compelling then take it to the UN, get approval, and use all the might at our disposal to get the job done.  If the UN cannot be convinced then may I suggest that we take a step back.  The sum intelligence and consideration of all other nations is probably wiser than we give them credit in our western arrogance.  If there is not support for our ‘cast iron’ moral case then maybe the case isn’t as strong as it seems to us here and stateside still so angry about events last year to those who can remove emotion from their thinking.

The undoubted benefit and extra security brought by the US unilateral forced removal of Saddam to the globe, would in my opinion be dwarfed by the insecurity created by the abandonment of international law and a return to a ‘might is right’ nuclear era of international relations.”

—————————————

On the one hand I am amused at myself for thinking that a letter to a backbench MP was a constructive use of my time.  On the other I find this pretty strong reading.  Between my writing this letter and the start of the actual War – Tony Blair somehow managed to convince me that we ‘had to do it’ – and somehow his ‘trust me Tony’ chutzpah had me as a supporter by the eve of the War.  I’ll watch proceedings today with great interest and try and figure out how he managed to do that.

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Is Cameron Missing a Trick with Twitter? Is he heck!

Yesterday, David Cameron received a direct appeal from Conservative Uber-Blogger Tim Montgomerie to take up Twitter.  You can watch the question and response here.  Yet more pressure on the Tories to play ‘catch-up’ with this medium came with this report referenced in yesterday’s FT.

Whilst I have nothing but respect for Montgomerie and his ability to use the internet to enthuse & engage Conservative activists I think he’s dead wrong on the value of Twitter.  Cameron is right not to waste his finite time on this fad.  Cards on the table: I’m a relative newbie to Twitter, I resisted the hype for a year or two but when I started blogging I joined hoping to drive some traffic to this blog.  I suppose from that point of view it has been successful. I haven’t sussed it out all the etiquette yet, but there are a couple of things I have learned – all of which for me suggest DC should stay away:

  • The oft-published league tables for ‘number-of-followers’ are nonsense – any quick Google search will show you how to quickly ‘buy’ followers, and there is a juvenile (yet compelling) culture of ‘I’ll follow you if you follow me’.  Look at the million plus followers C grade Radio 5 DJ Richard Bacon has signed up.  If you believe the headline then one in sixty people in the UK is clinging to his every 140 character utterance.  If you actually look at his account you have to scroll through literally thousands of Far Eastern sounding names before you find a single person who appears to be a potential 5-live listener.  Either he has a huge cult following in China and the Philippines or his PR agency have recruited a decent ‘follower farmer’.  It can only be a matter of time before the Media suss this out and ‘number-of-followers’ stops being a measure of digital credibility and gravitas – and actually becomes the reverse.  You also need to drop the assumption that because someone ‘follows you’ they actually bother to read your tweets.  A quick look at a sample of twitter accounts shows many follow hundreds or even thousands of people.   Once people are following that kind of volume, you realise your most profound tweets are lost to many in the sheer noise of the place.

The magic is having quality followers not the quantity of them.

  • For Cameron a ‘quality’ follower would be a swing voter who is only following a handful of other people. The reality is that most people on Twitter are either IT Geeks, Media/Marketing Types or Political Animals – the vast majority of this crowd are dead set in who they will vote for. Those who aren’t political are unlikely to be inclined to follow Cameron.  He would either be preaching to the converted or the lynch mob.
  • Staying off also avoids the potential banana skin of the ill-advised tweets after a shandy or two. I actually follow our local Labour MP in the hope she drops a clanger.

It is therefore simply not a good use of the man’s time and a distraction from methods of campaigning that could engage the people he isn’t currently reaching. Don’t get me wrong Twitter is a neat communication technology and it has its place – but it aint the game changer its proponents think it is and DC is right in sidestepping it.

All that dissing Twitter said, if anyone wishes to follow me I’m @guythemac – I tweet rarely, and only use it to draw attention to new material written on here – I’m sure most of my few tweets are drowned out in the ether – but that’s OK –  I have some time to waste – David Cameron does not.

*This article is a tidy-up of a response I left on Conservative home – that debate there can be seen here.

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Childcare Vouchers: What Will the Conservatives Do?

Childcare Vouchers:  What Will the Conservatives Do?

As innovative tax breaks go the one I always loved the most was the childcare voucher scheme.  Now this isn’t just because I was once an enthusiastic recipient (consider my interest therefore declared), it was because I loved the principal of the thing – of all government attempts to socially engineer through the tax system this was the one that hit the mark:

  • Vouchers mean you can assure that the tax-break really is used for the purpose it was intended.  This isn’t money direct in the bank account like every other benefit and government hand-out – this is the right to buy, from pre-tax pay, a voucher for a specific purpose.  Unlike, for instance, child benefit which has nothing to stop you spending your eighty quid a week or whatever down the bookies rather than feeding your child – if you don’t use childcare  you cannot gain any fiscal advantage through the existence of this scheme.
  • These vouchers can only be spent on OFSTED approved childminders or nurseries.  Whilst you and I may, or may not, have philosophical reservations about the burden OFSTED places on pre-school providers we taxpayers have now invested a great deal of our money in setting up this inspection regime.  We therefore have a right that we benefit from our investment.  Personally, I would wish for lighter regulation for this age-group, but any regulatory regime is only worth jack if people work within it.   If there are not incentives to work ‘legitimately’ then you will always have people working outside of the regime and a skewed market.  Linking the ability to receive voucher payments to compliance obviously improves compliance dramatically.  This is a good thing.  How we lower the bar of compliance requirements is a debate for another day.
  • Because the money can only be spent on childcare (per above) – you guarantee jobs for tens if not hundreds of thousands in the childcare industry.  Those folk who work at nurseries or as independent childminders  provide a valuable service – and also, obviously, pay tax on the money they earn through receipt of vouchers making the overall cost to the taxpayer less that it may seem at face value (more on this point in a moment).
  • The pre-school providers funded in part through this money are largely private, this gives parents greater choice and a more efficient market bringing overall better quality provision.  This competitive drive for quality can only be in the best interests of our infants.
  • Having private companies administer the back-office side of the scheme kept the administration costs down through competition.  Again, a win for the taxpayer compared with other policy implementations.

It is now a few months since the Labour party scored a whopping own-goal by announcing they would dump this, possibly one of their best implemented ideas.  The first toe-dip in the language of ‘class war’ ahead of the election was probably the branding of this a ‘posh-parent tax-break’.  The spin seemed to be ‘Why should Joe public subsidise the childcare of accountants and solicitors?   We’re in a recession, we have huge debt, this is one area of spend that can go.’

The masses arose.  Web forums like ‘mumsnet.com’ showed a level of digital militancy that caught ministers on the hop.  A U-Turn came.  Of sorts.  In the unlikely event Labour win, the scheme would remain with tweaks.

Dumping the vouchers was a stupid idea on both a political level and for macro-economic reasons.

  • For many so-called ‘middle-class’ women even very high earners, the sheer cost of weekly childcare (well over a hundred pounds a week in most cases) made the choice of going back to work uneconomic without the tax discount.  If woman are not going back to work you get less tax revenue from their earnings – the money forfeited as income tax revenue would likely be more than the amount sacrificed to provide the break.
  • To compound this the fall in demand would inevitably result in a loss of jobs in the child-care industry with a consequent loss of tax income and increase in welfare burden from those child-care assistants impacted.
  • We go on and on about trying to create a society where families make their own choices about the way they balance work/life and that we should shy from the automatic assumption that ‘Mum stays at home’.   Instead we have been angling for a time where mum (or dad) can stay at home if they want to OR if they want to return quickly to their career then there is no monetary barrier to returning to the workplace.  This policy was the enabler of that choice-led ideal.

Admittedly, the voucher scheme did have one valid flaw which does leave it open to charges of unfairness.  The Achilles heel was that it was entirely optional for employers to provide it.  Big forward thinking employers did.  Most small companies, presumably put off by perceived red-tape, did not.   That you do or do not get such a tax advantage depending on your employer doesn’t seem quite right.  The answer though is not to simply close the scheme – no, the answer is to extend it. The take-up level by employees at companies that did offer the scheme was high enough to prove the popular demand.  It cannot be beyond the wit–of-man to empower the private administrators of the scheme to collect national insurance numbers of those buying the vouchers regardless of employers and then providing the data on the actual vouchers bought back to HMRC for future reimbursement through the tax-code or some similar simple innovative solution?  I came up with that with about five seconds thought, it may have flaws – but I am sure bright people put in a room for a few hours could come up with a way that would work.

In all the talk this week of cuts – and I do not dispute the need for very many, very swift, very deep, very painful cuts in public spending– I am still not clear where the Conservative Party stands on this particular area.  I can come up with many ill thought out tax breaks which miss the mark and are ripe for the axe.  This is not one of them.  The Party would be foolish to swing at it.

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Million Pound ‘Crowd-Source’ Website: Not as Crackers as it May Sound.

Recently the Conservative Party has been trying to convince the public that it ‘gets’ the internet.  The best example is Maude’s Conference announcement that much more government spending would be published on the net so an army of “armchair auditors” could find the dodgy or wasteful and bring to account.  Make no mistake, it is a cracking idea and should be adopted by every party.

However, there’s a less favourable response to Jeremy Hunt’s recent attempt to move in this space.  Jeremy says a Conservative Government would pay a million pounds to the company that produces a website successfully engaging the public to provide instant feedback on policy initiatives.   It’s an open competition and any company – big or small, can enter. The belief is that the ‘Wisdom-of-the-Crowds’ will help avoid the policy banana skins you fall victim to when in a Westminster bunker sunk in ‘groupthink’.  Labour has given us textbook examples of what needs avoiding – think the ten-pence-tax-band, the Ghurkha saga, Childcare vouchers etc.

Predictably, this idea has been seen by the media as less ‘cracking’ and more ‘crackers’.  In typical discussions on the proposal the word ‘gimmick’ is bandied about freely.  Howls of “X,Y or Z Website already do this” are used to then make the point that the Conservatives don’t even understand what is already out there, “waste of taxpayers money” is another accusation from the Labour camp (irony noted). Without a loud challenge to the naysayers it has the whiff of an own-goal.   It should not have.  This is an idea with genuine merit. The cheap shots are a reaction to the headline without reference to detail.

The devil is, of course, always in the detail.

The inspiration for the ‘competition’ is the fabled ‘X-Prize’ foundation.  This has proven that you can drive innovation (at low cost) through competition.  Its first famous success was a prize for a privately built ‘spaceship’ that could reach orbit.  Now that sounds ‘crackers’! – but it worked.  A small company working in a small hanger in the United States managed what twenty years earlier had taken super-powers significant parts of their GDP to develop and still defeats many nation state-funded space programs today.  With an eye on the prize, an eye on a tight budget, and without the politics and grandeur that stick to state funded programs – they innovated, accelerated and delivered.

The critical success factor was in the detail of what you needed to do to claim the prize.  It wasn’t about drawing up plans for a spacecraft.  It wasn’t about building a mock-up.  It was about building it, launching it and doing it.  In short: delivering it.  No delivery, no prize.  And it wasn’t about a one-off either.  To claim the prize you had to put three people into space, in the same machine, and bring them back in one piece twice in two weeks.  Any cost of failed development was shouldered by the private enterprise – not the taxpayer.

And so it can be with this ‘crowd-source’ government prize.  Get the right criteria in place before the million can be claimed and you have it cracked.   This cannot be about simply knocking up a website with ‘Web 2.0’ or social media features.  It can’t be about just naming the technology or ripping off an existing platform and rebranding it.  No – it has to be about ‘delivering it’.  So to claim the prize, you should have to have something like the following auditable criteria met (I’ve plucked the numbers from thin air by way of example):

  • 250,000 UK taxpayers as registered members.
  • At least 25,000 unique visitors a month for a six month period
  • Mechanism built in to ensure ‘trust’ (perhaps similar to ebay user ratings)
  • Watch system and checks and balances built into identify and catch and attempts to manipulate the system (which defeats deliberate attempts from the judges to manipulate the system)
  • Ease of use (could be demonstrated by requiring 100,000 of your registered users clicking to confirm that they believe the site is worthy of the prize – with any inducements for clicking leading to disqualification)
  • 24/7 uptime of 99.99% over a six month period

And you can add and add criteria to the list.  You could happily have very many websites co-existing for years as they tried to hit all the required performance indicators – the only winner in the development period would be the taxpayer.  It would cost us nothing, the government would be getting the kind of voter input it could only previously dream of and when there is finally a winner it would have a solution they would be far, far cheaper, far more stable and far better user-tested than any other government IT project.  A million pounds really isn’t very much at all in the scheme of Government IT projects.  This could easily represent the biggest taxpayer ‘bang-for-buck’ in recent history.

So Jeremy, ignore the naysayers – press on with this and let’s prove that perhaps the Conservatives really do ‘get’ the internet.  Your success or failure will rest entirely on those claim criteria…. get them right prove the naysayers wrong!

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British Media’s Oh-So-Predictable ‘Outrage’ at UK Readiness for Freak Snow

“[…] for Northerners snow is something to skive for and go sledging in while for Southerners it is a ‘national emergency’.”*

*Slightly misquoted from the book “Pies and Prejudice.” By Stuart Maconie

The first dump of proper snow each year is a very easy time to be a UK news editor.  The story has already written itself many times over the preceding years;   “Britain Woefully Unprepared for Cold Snap” is the headline followed by pages of:

  • outrage at lack of salt or gritters;
  • closed schools;
  • musings that Switzerland or wherever copes so much better with so much worse;
  • forecasts of the devastating economic damage that the nation will endure because thousands like ‘Mrs Jones from Guildford’ could not get to their job as a receptionist at the dentists or whatever.
  • Etc. etc. –

Given this current freak cold-snap is of a severity encountered once every couple of decades the newsmen can wallow  in a dreamland of subtle variations on the above being spawned from  copy-paste then minor edit of articles from last time around.  It’s a similar news phenomenon to the annual “GCSE Results at Record Level – Accusations of Dumbing-Down” circus.  I’m convinced most news editors book their holidays for the third week of August and leave that one pre-written on the deputy’s desk before they set off.

Anyway, I tend to be a bit more philosophical about snow in the UK.  When people predictably lament our lack of preparation I wonder – what do they really want?  Do they really wish us to spend an equivalent percentage of GDP on snow preparation that the Canadians or the Swiss do to cope with the few days a year we get hit?  If so, which services are cut or which tax do we raise to fund this elite snow-disaster-management hit-squad?

And the people who are moaning loudest – can I just check that they have taken personal responsibility for shovelling their own drive and steps?   And heaven forbid, while they were at it – have they actually thought of gritting their own street immediately beyond the boundary of their dropped kerbs or are they just sitting on their backsides moaning that big government only does the main roads?

Actually, on that last point I will join the curmudgeons and moan about the vanishing yellow or green grit boxes that used to be on every street so we could help ourselves.  These have vanished over recent years almost in direct proportion to the increasing prevalence of the view that for every ‘problem’ there is a government solution, as drilled into us by New Labour.

That aside, I’m going walk my daughter to the childminder then work-from-home today.  I can’t see the point in putting myself or anyone else at risk by setting off to the office.  My wife, who is a hospital doctor, doesn’t have the luxury of that choice – so she used healthy common sense and set off very early.  Once out of our side-street the roads were clear and she got to work quicker than normal thanks to gritted roads and lighter traffic.  All power to our supposedly ‘unable-to-cope-with-the-snow’ council for that one.

For everyone who is wound up I suggest you copy the kids enjoying their day off school and treat snow a bit like other annual inconveniences such as flu and food poisoning.  The difference is that if you get out on your sledge, build snowmen and have snowball fights then this ‘inconvenience’ can be enjoyed.  In a word Britain, pun fully intended:  Chill!

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