News from British and Canadian Conservatives

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Burma and its lessons for the world


I often complain that the rights culture is getting out of hand. It seems that everyone is looking for someone to sue when their "rights" have been infringed, but no-one is prepared to fulfil their responsibilities to the wider community. The current situation in Burma is a reminder of what Human Rights really mean. This Reuters image demonstrates the total lack of respect that the Burmese military junta has for its people. A country where, there have been no elections in 14 years (and it had been 30 years since the previous election). A country where, when the opposition wins said election, the government decides to ban the opposition and carries on regardless, despite winning only 2% of the seats. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition who remains under house arrest, is a potent symbol of the struggle against oppression and it's hard not to admire her enormously.

Burma's problems are considerable. Who can say whether democracy would even work? There are 135 registered ethnic groups, with countless languages and eternal struggles between them. Without the strong hand of a military dictatorship, it could all come crashing down into a hideous civil war, as happened in the former Yugoslavia. But that doesn't excuse the excesses of a corrupt and imoral regime, where sex is a tool used to control the population and many minority groups including Christians and Muslims suffer under the state.

So what is the answer? I believe that it is exactly the kind of situation where a constitutional monarchy can hold the answer - although it depends very much on the monarch. The great shame in Burma's case is that the country was a fully-functional monarchy prior to the 19th century colonisation. The struggle between Britain and France had turned Burma into a strategic possession, which Britain could not resist. The royal family was removed to India, where they are shadows of their former selves. There are members of the royal family now living in Burma who are Burmese to the core and could be the long term answer which can create the stability desparately needed in a third world democracy. Even that may not be enough to stop the break-up of the country along ethnic lines, but that may be the best solution for all, if it can be achieved peacefully.

It's hard to see what the world community can do for now. The Burmese government seems to disregard the UN. There are already sanctions against the country, but the only people who suffer are the people at large. Long term sanctions are not a solution, as Iraq showed. Invasion of Burma also seems an unlikely option. The only way that things will change is if Burma's neighbours unite in their opposition to its Human Rights abuses. At present, both India and China tend to support the existing government. I don't know the reasoning behind that, especially in the case of India - the more I hear about that country's politics the more concerned I become.

In terms of the long term future of the world, as China and India increasingly become the global powers, their world view will be important to us all, just as American policy dictates to the world today. If both are willing to support the kinds of abuses we all hear about in Burma, it does not bode well for the future of the world. There are some who see a need for the west to band together through the EU etc, but I think they have it all wrong. We need to break down the cultural and economic barriers between ourselves and the rising powers, rather than seeking to polarise the world in readiness for a new Cold War.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Invicta hit home form

Folkestone Invicta are celebrating their first home victory of the season after beating Billericay 3-2. The points come hot on the heals of Saturday's first home point, with a 1-1 draw against Harrow. Invicta are now up to 8th in the Ryman Premier, and it's been a few years since we've managed such a good position!

Up to now, Invicta's season has been looking rather strange. We have the best away form in the league, with 3 wins from 4 games, yet prior today we also had the worst awy form in the league. That's the unpredictability of non-league football for you! Let's hope that today marks the turning point. It's still very early in the season, but we're only 2 points off a play-off place (having played one more game than most teams above us, admittedly). Could Invicta finally make it to the Blue Square South for the 2008 season?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Washed up in Brighton

I've been amazed at how little coverage the Lib Dem conference got this year. Normally, they manage to make quite a splash and punch above their weight for a week, leading to a mini-surge in their opinion poll rating. There are normally some miraculous gains in the local council by-elections along side that publicity. Yesterday, I was keen to see the results of this week's by-elections to test my belief that the Lib Dem conference had been their worst that I could remember. I thought it might just be by own bias, so I wanted to see the results in black and white. It turns out that I was right, the Lib Dems did slip back in the by-elections. Admitedly, the Conservatives didn't fare well generally either, with Labour still gaining from Blair's departure.

Today, YouGov's opinion poll has given further hard evidence. The Lib Dems' conference really has been a wash out in terms of publicity. The only things I can remember from the news were Nick Glegg saying that hard working families should pay more taxes, Lord Rodgers saying Ming's got to go and Ming putting in a performance worthy of IDS in his defence. Not exactly what the Lib Dems would have hoped for.

Of course, circumstances were against the Lib Dems to an extent. The Northern Rock fiasco dominated the news, pushing a conference held by a dwindling group of also-ran politicians led by a leader who's well past his sell by date down the news agenda. However, surely no-one had a more obvious platform from which to tackle the government's inept response to the crisis and hold them accountable for their past mistakes. A better organised conference could have gained positive publicity from the issue. Instead, the party is left looking out of touch and irrelevant. I can't believe that with a gathering of so many Lib Dems not one of them managed to hitch themselves onto the bandwagon - Kennedy and Ashdown would never have missed such an "opportunity!"

By election results:

Birmingham Brandwood: Lib Dems down 4.78% (fourth behind the BNP), helping Labour to gain the seat from the Conservatives

Nuneaton & Bedworth Abbey: Lib Dems lose to Labour, down 21.6%, behind the BNP

Southend-on-Sea Shoeburyness: Lib Dems down 9.99% to just 3.37% (66 votes), behind the BNP. Independent gained the seat from Conservative

Pembrokeshire Pembroke St Michael: Conservative gain from Lib Dem, down 28.87%

The Lib Dems either didn't contest the other seats, or had not previously contested them. Overall, it was a good night for Labour and a bad night for Conservatives, who lost three seats, offset slightly by the gain from the Lib Dems.

Did the wise man built his house upon the Rock?

The headlines have been dominated by the perilous position of the Northern Rock bank over the past fortnight. In the wake of the credit crunch caused by the Sub-Prime Mortgage scandal in the US, they were finding it increasingly difficult to sustain their business model.

There has been much debate over the past few days, since the Treasury stepped in to guarantee all savings held with the bank and the Governor of the Bank of England has come in for criticism in sections of the press which are willing to submit to the "official" Brown line. I have to say that I can't see ths situation in the same way.

Firstly, it seems to me that the Governor of the Bank, Mervyn King, is entirely right in his assessment of the situation. You can't have the government propping up a bank in a competitive market. It sends out entirely the wrong signals to the others. It encourages risky investments, which are not a sustainable foundation upon which a successful economy can be built. Ultimately, if enough people decide to take the risk, the burden on the taxpayer will be huge. In a private business, such massive liabilities would be clear to all, as they would have to appear in the balance sheet. Past experience demonstrates that the government's books are not so clear. The massive liabilities which already face the government, through off balance sheet Public-Private Partnerships, the off balance sheet Network Rail financial guarantees and the massive off balance sheet public sector pensions liabilities. Combined, these already add up to approaching £200,000,000,000. The new guarantee of all savings up to £100,000 will push that liability up by a figure I could only guess at. It has been widely reported that Northern Rock holds private savings valued at approximately £24,000,000,000 but they are only a small player. The Big Five (Lloyds TSB, Barclays, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland/Natwest and Halifax-Bank of Scotland) and the other smaller institutions will push that up to an astronomical level, probably several times the existing unstated Government liabilities.

Of course, it's not really the Government that is liable - it's you and me, the tax payer.

So how did we get into this sorry state? There are two lines coming from the Government, seeking to push the blame on to everyone but themselves. The first is that the situation started in the US, is totally out of their control and could not have been forseen. Except, it was forseen, by very many. Economic analysts have warned of the dangers of our debt-driven economic growth for years. I myself expressed concern as a mere A Level economics student. The Conservatives have raised the point on numerous occasions, both in Parliament anf on the campaign trail. And perhaps most significantly of all, Eddie George, the previous Governor of the Bank of England, warned on the unsustainable position years ago. Reputedly he threatened to resign over the issue, but ultimately he went at the end of his contract.

The second line of attack which I have seen in the left-leaning sections of the blogsphere blames Margaret Thatcher. What haven't they blamed her for, even 17 years on?! Again, this is nonsense. The Thatcherite reforms to our financial systems in the 1980s were perfectly sensible. They ended the out dated nanny-statery that did all the thinking for us. It stopped telling us how much we could borrow as a nation and how much we could spend abroad, allowing us to make decisions for ourselves. It is quite clear that Gordon Brown, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister for more than a decade, has been in a position to undo anything he considered to be wrong with that. Instead, he has chosen to encourage wreckless borrowing. The introduction of new, easier bankruptcy proceedings means that you can now leave bankruptcy within just a few months, and you can often avoid it altogether through CVAs and such like. That removed the stigma from wrecklessness upon which the system relied, and now we're reaping what Brown has sowed. For now, Brown has averted the inevitable disaster and financial meltdown through an uncosted and unsustainable guarantee. He has simply delayed the inevitable and ensured that when we fall, the fall will be even more catastrophic.

4 weeks to go

It's amazing how time is flying by. It's now 9 months since I proposed to Corissa at Canterbury Cathedral and there's less than a month left before we become Mr & Mrs Hassett. It's been a busy time - hence a lack of blogging - but also a fun experience. In the last week, we have had our banns read for the third and final time and submitted final numbers to the Hotel Burlington and paid for the reception. I've also had to rebook our honeymoon, as I was informed on Thursday that our chosen hotel is closing down on 25th October, half way through our stay! Thankfully, we've been offered the choice of two other excellent hotels which are actually more what I was originally looking for.

It's been hectic in other ways too. In the plus column, I've received by payout from my Saga shares, after the merger with the AA. In the minus column, I had to cancel my credit card after I discovered £131.25 of unauthorised payments. My bank are investigating those, but they seem particularly odd to me. I'd never consider commiting credit card fraud, but even if, in some parallel universe, I did, I'm sure that I'd only risk it for something more worthwhile than £131.25 worth of curry!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

www.Iwantareferendum.com

Please join me in supporting the I Want a Referendum campaign, which is working to ensure that the Government keeps its promise to give us a say on the EU Constitution.

As most other EU leaders have acknowledged, the new version of the Constitutional Treaty is essentially the same as the original. It would mark a further substantial transfer of power from the UK to the European Union. This Government promised us a referendum back in 2004, but is now trying to deny us a say.

If adopted, the Constitutional Treaty would mean that in future new powers could be transferred to the EU without the need for any more new treaties. Further powers could be simply transferred gradually to the EU, with no public debate. In other words - this could be our last ever chance to have a say on the future of the EU. We must not miss it.

To show your support for the campaign, just click on the following link and add your name http://www.iwantareferendum.com/sign.aspx

Many thanks

Monday, September 03, 2007

Rating airlines between England and Canada

Given the number of times that Corissa and I have flown between England and Canada over the past few years, I thought it would be good to tell people about our experiences of different airlines. We've flown on most of the carriers operating the route - only Monarch and Zoom have not yet had the pleasure of our company on board - so here's the verdict.

1. British Airways

Undoubtedly the best service of any of the operators, but rarely the cheapest. It's always worth a look though, as there have been occasions where BA have been cheaper than the others, and sometimes the difference is negligable (even pennies)! BA's seats are the most comfortable and you can expect a reasonable selection of entertainment. The food is also better than you can expect on other airlines. It's also regular, as are the drinks, which is particularly important on long-haul flights. I've also flown BA World Traveller Plus (to Chicago, rather than Canada, admittedly). It's not much more expensive for that bit more precious space and comfort - I managed to sleep so well that I didn't have jet-lag.

2. Air Canada

Unsurprisingly, the second best airline is the only other scheduled operator. It's worth shopping around for Air Canada fares - it can often be cheaper to book through bmi, their partners in the Star Alliance. Air Canada isn't quite up to BA. The seats aren't quite as comfortable, and I didn't get much sleep on the return overnight flight. The service was good though. The food was quite reasonable, although not quite as good as BA's and the drinks were still regular.

3. Air Transat

Generally, Air Transat are quite a bit cheaper than the scheduled operators, but that isn't always the case. If you're flexible with your dates, I'd certainly recommend that you look at the scheduled operators closely, as you can often pay less for a better service. This is a much more cramped option than the scheduled operators, and the seats seem to be shaped for some kind of alien life-form, making them less comfortable. The seats don't recline much, as they're packed in tightly, and the head rest is not quite right. The arm rests only lift part way too, so you have to leave them down unless you have removeable arms yourself! The entertainment consists of small communal screens which are barely visible from some seats. It's hard to see the safety demonstration, let alone the films. Not that it's worth watching the films generally - Firehouse Dog and the Astronaut Farmer this year! They sell you headsets or adaptors to use your own headsets, but I found that you can use a single pin headset in the two-pin socket without difficulty. I wouldn't recommend this flight for travelling to the west of Canada, particularly as the return is overnight and you've got no chance of sleeping. For flights to the east, which are considerably shorter, I'd certainly consider using Air Transat. I was unlucky to be next to a very large lady on my flight to Toronto this year, but that can happen on any airline and it would have been quite OK otherwise. The food is not bad actually, but is not a regular as I like. I'd recommend taking food and your own water to snack on in between meals. Also, the in-flight water tastes really strange, with a horrible, bitter aftertaste.

4. Thomas Cook

Utterly awful airline that I wouldn't even recommend to my worst enemy. The flight is a form of torture - I'm waiting to see the MD in court at the Hague for human rights abuses. If they treated animals they way they treat people, there would be protest and prosecutions. I used the to fly home from Calgary last month. It was my first time using Thomas Cook, and will be the last if I can help it. I was lucky to have an empty seat next to me - I really don't think I'd have made it if the plane had been full! The food is the worst of all the airlines by a margin. The entertainment is better than Air Transat's, as you have personal screens and a selection of films, programmes and games - although many of them require you to pay a £5 supplement to view! You will need the entertainment though, as there's no way you'll get to sleep without drugs, which I don't like using. You have to pay for their headsets with two pins, but again I found that my one pin headphones did work, and there was a good selection of programmes, including old episodes of the Vicar of Dibley and various US and UK programmes as well as films. The premium films included The Queen. I don't know why The African Queen was classed as premium though - it's on television all the time! Now for the bad bits. Uncomfortable does not begin to describe the cramped seats, particularly if you have a window seat. They have to put the boxes to control the seat-back seats somewhere, and they chose to put it under the seat where your feet normally go. Obviously, no-one told them that you need to put your feet somewhere. Throughout the journey, you can only move one foot! I couldn't even spread on to the seat next to me confortably, as it was shaped for there to be two people, of course. The service is not as good either. If you want a drink, you can expect to have to get it yourself from the "bar" at the back of the plane. They actively promote their free water, but it's certainly not a selling point, although it tastes better than Air Transat's. How are you supposed to go and get water if the person in the aisle seat is asleep? It's bad enough not being able to go to the loo, but no water either is like torture. When I did venture off to find water, the hostesses were more interested in chatting amongst themselves than telling me where I would find the "bar", which is actually a jug on a small shelf in the area passengers aren't normally allowed into! When they did finally drag themselves away from their conversation, the glare and abrupt "can I help you" made me feel that the only reason that she spoke to me at all was that she felt I was listening in on her conversation! Corissa's experience was made worse by the plane breaking down in Gatwick on its way to pick them up. The flight was delayed by sevaral hours, while they waited for the plane to be fixed. Charter Airlines keep costs down by not having spare planes like the scheduled operators. Despite the delay, they carried on serving the same food at the same points of the flights, meaning that Corissa was treated to a full meal late at night, having already needed to eat dinner before boarding, and then breakfast just before she landed, which was mid afternoon! That doesn't help to dort your body clock at all. If they'd altered the food schedule a bit they could have served breakfast at breakfast time and a meal at lunchtime, allowing passengers to try to sleep. On the plus side, my luggage was on the carousel before I got there, and I didn't dawdle! We had sat on the tarmac a while though, as we were in the cheap landing slots of course, and had to wait for Easyjet to vacate our gate.

The verdict

The above are based on experiences that Corissa and I have had on flights, and others may have very different experiences and/or opinions. Between us and friends we have all reliably found Thomas Cook to be the worst option, and I'd strongly recommend avoiding them for flights to the west of Canada at least. The east is a much shorter flight, so it may be OK, but I'd avoid the window seat like the plague. If you will have a baby on your lap, you really should avoid the charter flights. I can't imagine it would be comfortable on any plane, but I'm sure I'd die on a charter flight!

I really think that it is worth paying the extra for scheduled flights to the west. In future, we will do our best to fly BA or Air Canada to Calgary. There's often not much difference in price, and sometimes the scheduled airlines are cheaper than the charter ones. For Toronto, the flights are shorter so, as long as you don't have a baby on your lap you could go for charter flights, which do tend to be significantly cheaper.

You can also fly indirect. Corissa has used Northwest a couple of times. However, out of season they normally cancel the most direct route which requires only one stop and transfer you onto another route with two stops, which makes for a long journey. You do get to stretch your legs though! I can't comment on Monarch or Zoom, as I've never used them.

Frequency of service

The flexibility of the airlines varies a lot. Air Canada have the most frequent service. They fly every day, sometime more than one flight per day in high season. BA are not far behind on that count, with flights daily in season and most days out of season. The charter flights are much less frequent, by Monarch, Air Transat and Thomas Cook have reciprocal agreements. You can book them all through www.canadianaffair.com, meaning that you can travel out on one airline and back on another. That means that they have services most days in the summer, and a few times a week in winter. Monarch only fly in winter - for the skiing - and Thomas Cook only seem to fly in summer. Zoom also only fly on certain days, but they have no reciprocal agreement, so are not as convenient. I've never managed to get flight with them when I need them, but they run some good promotions if you can get them. With the charter airlines, you find that booking separate one way flights in each direction is a lot more expensive than booking return flights through either Zoom or Canadian Affair, so mixing Zoom with other charter flights is often an expensive option.

Brown bounce looking flat

I've said before that there's not much that we can take from opinion polls at the moment. The Brown Bounce was inevitable - the only surprise to me was that it was not very big compared to the Major Bounce in 1990. The latest polls are already suggesting that the bounce is on the wane, with ComRes putting Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck on 36% each (Labour down 1, Conservatives up 2, Lib Dems down 1).

The Lib Dems are still trailing in all the recent polls, with 13-15%. I suspect that there are various factors in their low rating. They've been pretty quiet over the summer and Ming still isn't making as much impact as either Kennedy or Ashdown managed, but I think that the main differences are outside his control - the change of Prime Minister has meant that Labout have dominated in terms of media attention, and has partly neutralised the issues which were driving traditional Labourites on the left to the Lib Dems. The impact of Iraq as an issue is also waning, as the invasion drifts out of peoples' immediate memories, and many people blamed Blair rather than Labour.

As for the Conservatives, there has been much talk of a lurch to the right. That's the spin that Labour are frantically applying, with the assistance of certain sections of the press, mostly on the left. On the other hand, others on the right are pointing to rising Conservative support to suggest that voters are coming back to the party with the tougher rhetoric. Personally, I don't particularly buy the claims of changing strategies. We all knew that there would be a Brown bounce, and I'm pretty sure that Conservative HQ will have expected much worse than we've actually seen. The phoney war against Blair was all about decontaminating the Conservative brand, so that people who were natural Conservatives but were turned off by the nasty image would sit up and listen to what we have to say. It seems that it could be working. The Conservative image is now much more positive than it has been for some time, and real Conservative policies like supporting the family and being tough on law and order are now coming to the fore. I'm certainly feeling quite positive about it all.

EU Referendum

In a significant softening of the government's stance, Gordon Brown has refused to rule out holding a a referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty today. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband had earlier been more forthright in refuting calls for a referendum, arguing that the European "constitution" had "been abandoned and the new institutional reforms, which protect British sovereignty in vital areas of national interest should be passed or rejected by Parliament".

Of course, Miliband is talking utter nonsense, as usual. Gordon Brown certainly won't sanction a referendum if he can get away without having one. He knows that he would lose, by a wide margin.

I was planning to blog about this today, and on getting home I found that I had an email from www.proreferendumrally.co.uk, who are planning a demonstration with casting of ballots on 27th October, one week after the Lisbon Summit. Unfortunatley, I won't be there, as I'm getting married on 20th October, and then I'm off on honeymoon. Fortunately, the event is billed as the launch of a "rolling thunder" campaign extending well into the new year. I've signed up as a supporter and offered to help in Folkestone. I hope that you will offer your help where you live, and join the protest if you can!

NDP belongs in the Royal Tyrrell Museum

The NDP government of Saskatchewan has shown itself to be a relic that belongs in a different era. The party's support of the Wheat Board's monopoly in the barley market is the economics of failure, as demonstrated in England in the 1970s and the old Eastern Block until the 1990s. The overwhelming majority (79%) of barley farmers want the monopoly scrapped so that they can trade their goods on the free market, so why is the government of Saskatchewan so opposed? Thankfully, the Conservative federal government of Canada and Progressive Conservative government of Alberta are more forward-thinking. Both support the liberation of barley markets. So they should. The current system penalises efficient farmers to protect inefficient farms, stymying innovation and raising prices for the consumer. I've always been shocked at the prices of basic foodstuffs in Canada, and hope that the federal government will win its fight to dismantle the monopoly on barley and then move on to tackle similar out-dated practices in other markets, including wheat itself.

The price of economic failure:

A loaf of fresh bread will set you back by about £2 in Calgary. A similar loaf costs just 60p in England.

Saskatchewan will head to the polls within the next few months. It's time to consign the NDP's failed, socialist economic policies to the history books.