Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Practical Defence of Monarchy

At every Royal occasion, this week the birth of the future King, It's often asserted that Monarchy is "indefensible". I argue the main victim of the system of Monarchy is the Monarch themselves, and their immediate family. No-one would now design a monarchical government, as they did for Belgium, However many of the countries in the world with the highest standards of living are constitutional monarchies. Norway and the Netherlands, for example are not noted as Totalitarian hell-holes. Luxembourg is the richest per-capita country in the world. Most of the rest are former British Colonies, who have retained the Queen as Head of State. Some are poor, but most on the list remain decent places to live, and many are better than their neighbours. My usual defence of Monarchy is that it clearly ain't broke, so don't fix it.

The most likely explanation for this is that by definition, constitutional monarchies have retained the anachronistic trappings of Medieval and Renaissance kingship means they have gone a long time without revolution. Revolutions are bad, and so post-hoc ergo propter hoc, monarchies are disproportionately nice places to live.

However does some of the explanation go the other way. Is there something about monarchy in a modern context which helps with stability? There may well be.

The Monarch acts as a figurehead in a time of crisis. A constitutional monarch is better placed to do this than a politician. A politician with the strength of will to govern in a crisis is likely to be divisive. This is why Charles de Gaule broke his country's constitution, because his Government in exile did not enjoy universal support of Frenchmen, a country which is on its fifth republic since they committed regicide. Compare with King Haakon VII of Norway who was able to return from Scotland with his troops and quickly and efficiently sweep away the detritus of a Nazi occupation, and which has enjoyed remarkable stability since the split with Sweden (itself now led by King Carl Gustav XVI, and not a known totalitarian Toilet) in 1905 despite the wars which have raged around the country.

The Monarch can act as a "Chairman" in key moments. King Juan Carlos of Spain for all his current extravagances, is popular mainly for deceiving Franco by being named as Heir Apparent, while meeting opposition leaders behind the Generalissimo's back. He rapidly ushered in democracy on the Dictator's death and restrained the military, much to the surprise of the Falangists who thought all along, the Prince of Spain was one of them. Without a king, the end of the dictatorship could have been as bloody as its beginning.

It is often argued that a monarch has a once-only nuclear option of refusing assent to a law, which in the UK at least would trigger an immediate constitutional crisis, which could probably resolved only by a referendum. This power of Veto may (though there's no evidence of this ever actually happening) could be used to prevent the kind of enabling law which allows totalitarians to subvert democracy. Perhaps the mere threat prevents British politicians from even trying.

These benefits listed of monarchy are dependent upon the Country being lucky with the right Monarch at the right time. Spain needed a devious liberal, Norway needed a brave and resolute war leader in exile. However, there are perhaps means by which a Monarchy can directly influence the body politic of a country for the good.

A monarch has a direct interest in stability and continuity. This tends, all things being equal, to lead to better governance than would ideological enthusiasm. Monarchs are likely to urge their Prime Ministers be cautious. The current Monarch of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms, the peerlessly dutiful Queen Elizabeth II has personally known every Prime-Minister since Churchill and has been dealing with affairs of state since the 1950s. Are you telling me a quiet word in the ear from so experienced a Queen is a bad thing, when the Prime Minister is free to ignore it?

It can be argued a Monarch tempers some of the excesses of democracy. If one of the problems of Monarchy is the risk of an idiot on the throne, the problem of democracy is that only power-hungry, manipulative and demagogic will ever reach the top, such is the nature of the system. However even the narcissists who get to the top of the Greasy pole in a Constitutional Monarchy cannot ever hope to be head of state. Indeed far from being head of state, they have to bang their tabs in to the Monarch once a week (in the British system at least) and report to their boss "this is what I'm doing with your country this week". This perhaps engenders a little humility in those who would seek to rule us.

The Royal Family serves the same function as a national soap-opera, giving a group of people we all "know" to some extent to gossip about over the office kettle. This need to gossip seems hard-wired, yet we share few people in common in our big, atomised, impersonal world. It's true, this is the same function that meaningless 'slebs perform in the magazine 'closer', but the interest in the royals is more universal, and may even inspire some to pick up a history book. Everyone knows who the matriarch and the curmudgeon, the wayward uncle and the black sheep of our Royal family are. We all have a little party at royal family events, making them to some extent shared and ours: we're all somewhat invited to Royal weddings. Street parties for the Jubilee brought neighbours together. And perhaps we all feel (we monarchists at least), some of the Joy of the birth of a healthy baby boy. Perhaps the Monarch's subjects are slightly happier as a result of being able to exercise this primeval need?

In a constitutional monarch, it is the Queen or King who is the recipient of the Peoples' nationalist patriotic fervour. There is none left over for mere politicians, who're generally regarded with utter contempt. This British contempt for politicians, who're (plausibly if unfairly) thought of as corrupt and grasping slime, mainly in it for themselves, is a powerful anti-demagogue shield for the UK. The people of the UK will simply not invest their hopes fully in a president or anyone who would seek to be one, and the rallies and bunting put out for US candidates for President utterly mystify most Brits. Thanks to the child born yesterday, I can see the Kings of the United Kingdom stretching into the future until long after I am gone. Perhaps that encourages Britons to think longer-term than do Americans.

None of these effects in themselves are the killer argument in favour of monarchy. Taken together, perhaps they're plausible enough to back up "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".

The little baby boy, born to a young, rich, good-looking couple in London yesterday, whom I am agitating to be called 'Arthur', will one day be our King though given the longevity and rude health of the House of Windsor, it is unlikely I will live to see him crowned. He will enjoy every advantage and privilege his whole life, yet be reminded of that privilege constantly, and learn to be modest, as his Father is. Hopefully he's be as successful in business and charity work as his much under-rated Grandfather, through whose Princes Trust he has a greater understanding of the hardships of the disadvantaged in his country than many a politician. The young man will probably serve briefly and safely in the forces, (a younger brother as the 'spare' will be allowed to take more risk). He will hopefully get to know his peerless great grandmother who still has a good decade left to reign, and be taught follow her example of selfless duty. And hopefully he'll be as much fun as his Great Grandfather.

Ultimately the Monarchy is a decorative bauble on top  of our democracy, but perhaps it's not meaningless. The monarchy, as foundation of the constitution underpins the chaotic, brutal but responsive democracy that  has organically evolved in the UK since 1215. Through the list of Kings and queens, one and a half thousand years of history can be told in a personal human scale, all the way back to Egbert of Wessex, and (through the Scandinavian branch of the family) the God, Woden. You wouldn't design a democracy like that of the UK. A designed democracy looks more like that of the Weimar republic, and that didn't turn out to well, did it? The risks of constitutional vandalism far outweigh the potential benefits.

God Save the Queen.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Democracy, the State and Libertarianism

Libertarianism is the political belief that there is no crime, except the initiation of force or fraud. Philosophically we have much in common with the Anarchists: A belief that much of what a formal state would do, policing and so forth could and should be done without the state doing it. Some deontological libertarians oppose state action wherever possible, arguing that tax-funding is inherently coercive, and should be minimised where possible. I am however a consequentialist libertarian: I am content for things to be paid for out of taxation where the outcome otherwise would be sub-optimal.

Few argue the poor, who are mainly where they are because of bad luck, should go unhoused and without medical care. And as health care insurance would cost most for those who are likely to need it most, and almost everyone will need health care at some time, and whether you will or not is simply not predictable. Taxation in this regard is just a big risk-pool. Private-sector insurance doesn't to solve any extra problems and adds a few of its own. Voluntary insurance adds especially a significant element of free-rider costs: We're not going to deny care to an uninsured car-crash victim. Compulsory insurance is not significantly different to taxation in any meaningful way.

Obviously the state running anything is a disaster as the NHS and the British state 'education' system amply prove, but the state can be an efficient risk-pooler and purchaser on behalf of the population. This is why I favour a Free (ish - I'm not averse to small consultation and prescription charges) at the point of delivery, state-funded health care, but delivered by a variety of providers. Hospitals, clinics and so-forth can be owned by businesses, charities, partnerships and so forth. All the state needs to do is decide what gets funded out of taxation, and what isn't. Then it needs to make payments on behalf of patients. The tax is morally no different to the compulsory insurance required by many countries, and this is what the British are used to.

As for health, so too for education. The state should however get out of provision, being content to operate a voucher program for schools. Everyone gets equal access, and gets to choose which school specialising in which brand of ideological idiocy will get to indoctrinate little Johnny. Of course most people will pick the best, middle-of-the-road school which is local enough to get to, but the competition for students will drive up standards. The other crucial difference is that market systems tend to not have shortages because there is no planning. Markets allocate sufficient resources where it's needed better than any state bureaucrat ever could.

Transport policy: Nothing brings out the sociopath in people more than how they get about. People like roads, except near where they live. They cheerfully speed, yet complain about others doing so on their road. They regard any spending on road/rail/cycle/airports as wasted, unless they themselves use those services, in which case, the spending is grotesquely inadequate, and should be doubled immediately. "For the good of the economy. I'm thinking about others you see." The state therefore has to mediate who gets what transport infrastructure, where and in what form, compulsorily purchasing, where necessary land in order to achieve the greater good. This sometimes requires an initiation of force, otherwise on stubborn landowner can hold up the economic development of an entire nation. It should be hard, and under democratic control, but roads are a another crucial area of reasonable roles for the state.

Everywhere you look, you find a reasonable role for a state. It's just much, much less than the state does currently. Too many libertarians are ideologically committed to no state action. If your intellectual starting point is a state-free utopia, I reject that as completely as I do every other Utopia. Accepting there to be roles for the state is not un-libertarian. In general, I've long argued that Libertarianism is a state of mind, not a practical manifesto for government. I come from the long British tradition of rejecting grand ideas, preferring to ask which is the best on offer. Ultimately, the deontological position is childish.

You cannot persuade people to accept a state-free vision, and persuading people is necessary to get anything done in a democracy. You can persuade people that certain things: what people eat, drink, smoke etc... are none of the Government's business. You can persuade people that the Government doesn't need to own everything or spend 50% of GDP. If you say "let's abolish the police", you won't be take seriously. If you say "Lets' abolish the Department for business innovation and skills" you might be. There's plenty of low-hanging fruit.

Libertarians need to start thinking about where we are right now, rather than imagining some ghastly Randian utopia , with other libertarians over a pint; a utopia towards which no-one sane will want to travel. Just as the fault of every planned system is the fact that everyone imagining one puts themselves in the role of planner, every objectivist, deontological libertarian ranting about a state-free utopia imagines himself in the role of John Galt.  The state is spending 50% of GDP and seriously discussing school lunches and the font on fag-packets. Never has there been more need for libertarians in Government. But the movement needs to grow up.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

State-Funded Political Parties?

No Thanks! And here's why.

At present, British political parties operate on shoe-strings. They have to scrabble round for money. Which means they can't lose touch with people. In Labour's case, they can't get too far from the Unions and their membership. And the Tories rely on their membership and business. This need for money keeps them honest, so long as these donations are in the open, declared and public (which I accept they sometimes aren't.)

Imagine a world where politicians could vote for political staffers to be paid by the state. Anyone think this bill would ever go down? Anyone think it would rise alongside wages? No. It will go from a few million to a hundred million very quickly. A billion would become "the price of democracy".

All state funding would do is support the incumbents against the likes of UKIP (with whom I disagree, but who's right to fight in the arena on a level playing field I will defend to the death). UKIP are building a movement on private donations, and they're able to do so BECAUSE THE ESTABLISHED PARTIES HAVE LOST TOUCH with much of their base. State funding would hamstring UKIP who're successfully stepping into the void left by parties squabbling over a managerialist middle, while preventing the Tories and Labour ever having to engage with their people ever again.

State funding is a solution to a problem that exists only in the minds of people who can only see corruption in a business-owner supporting a party. It says more about the cynicism of the people who support it than about the problems politicians face now.

State funding is anti-democratic, foolish and will more profoundly corrupt the British body politic than any rich man ever could.

Why? Because the state is richer than any man.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Abu Qatada

I'm not a human rights lawyer. So all I have are opinions, which are worthless. One part of me thinks if Abu Qatada is protected by Human rights legislation from Torture, and the fruit from that poisoned chalice, then I am too. On the other hand, taking so long, and so much money to get him extradited to face charges in Jordan seems a little excessive.

In order to do so, there's a possiblity that Jordan has become a better, freer, less abusive place, with a better, more just legal system. The British Government acted within the rule of law, but finally got its way. However the main beneficiaries are well-paid lawyers, and there is an argument that endless, doomed appeals aimed mainly at buying time could possibly be looked at, to see if the huge cost could be reduced.

The ECHR isn't the problem, at least not entirely. Any British Bill of Rights would look very similar. This isn't "europe" opposing the democratic will of the British People. Ultimately you have competing rights: that of Abu Qatada to not be tortured and not face evidence in trail obtained by torture and the right of the British Government to deport a disruptive illegal alien to face trial in a friendly country for terrorism charges. Deciding on competing rights are what courts are FOR. So I feel little anger at how long it's taken, and distain for the more hyperventillating nonsense from much of the right.

Everyone's done their job. Move on.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Labour and the Unions.

Let's take these figures at face value: Trades union membership is rising, even in the private sector and union Barons are trusted more than business leaders. That's perhaps not surprising in the slowest most anaemic recovery on record, one in which jobs are only being created on declining take-home pay. Lower productivity means more jobs, but on lower wages. People's living standards are falling and have been for longer than at any time in recent history. It does not follow that every Union member wants class war. One third of them vote Tory!.

Despite the headline numbers, It still means the Unions are a massive problem for Labour. Over half the electorate remember the 1970s and what untrammelled union power did for the country. There are obvious parallels with the Tories' polling on Europe: The electorate agree with broad Euroscepticism, without being fully convinced with the need to pull out. Europe is still a toxic issue for the Tories.

Unite is the Party's biggest donor, the Unions are responsible for the clearly inadequate Ed Miliband being picked over his much more competent, better looking, less weird and probably better hung older brother. The Unions are trying, openly to get as many of their people into the Parliamentary party as possible, and they're block-buying labour memberships to achieve this end, whenever there's a seat up for grabs. This is what happened in Falkirk.

And here's what they want:
The key policies we want to see trade union activists within the Labour Party fight for at every level are quite simple. It’s about giving workers the right to collectively struggle to change their conditions. We want to shift the balance in the party away from middle-class academics and professionals towards people who’ve actually represented workers and fought the boss. At the parliamentary level the key fight is against the anti-union laws. We have to restore the right to take solidarity action and strike effectively.
They are after a return to class-based politics:
We want a firmly class-based and left-wing general election campaign in 2015. We’ve got to say that Labour is the party of and for workers, not for neo-liberals, bankers, and the free market. That might alienate some people, but that’s tough. Labour has to be a working-class party — a party for workers, pensioners, unemployed workers, single parents, the whole class.
They're absolutely right "that might alienate some people". That is Labour's problem. Their backers, with whom they have an absolutely symbiotic relationship, on whom they are entirely financially dependent, and who have the whip hand not only over the money, but apparently the party membership too, are intent on dragging the Labour party towards a position: representing a shrinking traditional working class, benefits recipients and those paid to farm them and those people alone.

This is a recipe for annihilation in England outside the Northern cities. It's a platform which has seen Labour fail, and fail again. It's only when Tony Blair realised the country (or at least the electorate) was broadly "middle class" that they won three elections on the trot.

Unite are about to put the Labour party out of power for a Generation. And I for one am delighted.

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