Senator Edward Kennedy

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The scale of the BBC's praise for the late Senator Edward Kennedy has been so lavish that it's a wonder they have not been calling for a National Day of Mourning. To me, he was a deeply flawed character.

Yes, he did a bit of good in terms of the Northern Ireland peace process. He started out, of course, as very much on the Republican side, and helping Republican fundraisers. But after one too many horrific IRA murders, just as the peace process was underway, he snubbed Jerry Adams on a visit to the US, and so might well have made the Republicans realize that they could not negotiate through the political process and support violence at the same time.

So give him credit for that. But balancing that small plus is the major minus of Chappaquiddick, where Kennedy seemed more intent on saving his own political skin than his unfortunate passenger's life. Perhaps it was in the genes. His brother Jack Kennedy had some of the same character flaws. But perhaps much of Ted Kennedy's prominence was due to his rich and famous relatives too. Apart from the Pitts and 'Bob's your uncle', we have not had many political dynasties in Britain. Perhaps our system is better at weeding out people who rise only because of family or wealth.

Of course, the BBC talks of Kennedy as a great 'liberal' – and liberal he was, in American terms. But it suggests that Kennedy was liberal in the European sense. One BBC News report even spoke of his liberalism in contrast to 'left and right'. But in the US, liberal and left-wing are the same. And boy, was Ted Kennedy a liberal. For decades he attempted to force a UK-style National Health Service on Americans, despite having no understanding or first-hand experience of how it actually works – or doesn't. American healthcare is rotten, sure enough – over-regulated, run by doctors and politicians, and therefore expensive – but America doesn't need to jump out of that frying pan into the fire of nationalized healthcare. Americans know that, and have turned up in their hundreds and indeed thousands to protest against Obama's healthcare plans in the 'town meetings' that politicians have been calling to try to promote the idea. The plans are getting watered down by the day. I like to think of myself as a liberal. And I resent how American politicians have hijacked the terms to mean the opposite. Even more, I resent how our metropolitan state broadcaster are trying to shoehorn the same usage into the British political debate. Time they were privatized and exposed to some real competition.

Is there a future for fixed-line telephony?

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By 2010, it is expected that more call minutes will originate from mobile phones than from fixed-line connections. Given that mobile phones started to appear in the 1980s - when they were sold by BT’s Cellnet and a very modest offshoot of Racal, called Vodafone - their progress has been remarkable.

Remember, too, that initially mobile phones more closely resembled bricks than the sleek miniature models that are sold worldwide today. Such a quick-moving trend is unusual for utilities. After all, technology in the water sector has barely changed since the 1970s. It also raises the question as to whether there is a future for fixed-line telephony, given that many people - especially the young - far prefer the instant accessibility of mobile telephony.

For BT, the shrinking of the number of the UK’s fixed telephone lines – down from 34.9 million in 2003 to 33.2 million in 2008 - has been compounded by the reduced number of minutes that the average user spends on fixed-line phones. To be sure, BT is investing heavily in rolling out broadband lines in the conviction that it will gain materially from convergence in the communications sector. Equally, with a weak share price – albeit somewhat higher than its low point earlier this year - £10 billion of net debt and a burgeoning pension deficit, BT is not exactly perfectly positioned. And, unlike Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom and, Telefonica, which now owns O2, BT has no serious mobile revenues to generate revenue growth.

Moreover, the march of mobile telephony may claim another unlikely victim. A recent opinion poll suggests that over half of those owning a mobile phone use it as an alarm clock. Perhaps the humble alarm clock will become as dated as the slide rule.

But, even more importantly, is there a future for fixed-line telephony?

Climate change hypocrisy

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Nothing is more hypocritical and immoral than rich Westerners driving their gas-guzzling SUVs emoting about the threat to Spaceship Earth from the millions of Indians who want to drive Nanos. Whilst the salving of their consciences by buying carbon offsets (as Al Gore claims to do every time he jets around the world) is akin to the Papal indulgences sold by the Catholic Church, which allowed its richer adherents to assuage their guilt and ‘fornicate on clean sheets’.

Deepak Lal 'Spiking the road to Copenhagen' Buisiness Standard.

CCTV cameras don't cut crime

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It's official! CCTV cameras do not cut crime. Except possibly theft from cars left in car parks. I said as much in my book The Rotten State of Britain, published a year ago (watch out for the paperback, coming soon).

But now a major (and expensive) study by the Metropolitan Police has come to the same conclusion. There are about a million CCTV cameras in London, and – industry experts estimate – about 3.8 million in the country as a whole. But only one crime is solved for every 1,000 CCTV cameras. The Met figures show that each case helped by the use of CCTV costs about £20,000 to solve.

The rapid spread of CCTV cameras has gone hand in hand with a massive increase in crime, particularly violent crime. People demand CCTV because it makes them feel safer. Unfortunately it doesn't actually make them safer. All it does is subject them to snooping and abuse. Local councils had to be told to cut back their snooping on people they suspected of leaving their wheelie-bin lids open, or letting their dogs foul the pavement. Other officials have used cameras to ogle female airport passengers. Given the number of people with access to CCTV images, it can't be long before we find people being blackmailed over them, as has happened in the US. Maybe it's already happened here too.

While CCTV images may give officials a thrill, the Met study confirms that they are utterly useless in prosecuting cases. Often, the images are not clear enough to make an identification that would stand up beyond reasonable doubt. More often still, the images are not securely stored – so the courts throw them out, on the grounds that they might have been tampered with.

So why do we have CCTV at all? I suspect it's mostly officials covering their backs. If crime occurs and they have done nothing, they will get criticized. If they put up CCTV, at least they can say they made an effort, even though it didn't work out, as it (almost) never does. And for that, we are compromising our privacy and passing more potential power on to the authorities. Not worth it, I would say – if we ever got so much as a national debate on the subject, which of course we won't.

Not-so-amazing ingratitude

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Monday's Times reported that Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, had said Tony Blair was "not as popular as he deserves to be" and had been shown "amazing ingratitude" by his party. 

And I can see why Michael Gove said what he said. His education policies are indeed a souped-up version of the former prime minister's and – needless to say – a little political cross-dressing never goes amiss when there are voters to swing and an election to be won. But I'm also pretty sure that Gove doesn't believe for a second that the British public has much to thank Tony Blair for.

After all, it was on his watch that we got the tripartite financial regulation structure that failed so miserably at the first signs of a crisis. He was in charge when the inflation target was changed from RPIX to CPI, which almost certainly led to interest rates being lower than they would (and should) have been, fuelling our ill-fated credit boom.

It was the Blair government that expanded the remit of regulators to include social and environmental objectives, sparking the growth of a vast bureaucracy and saddling British businesses with a burden that now amounts to more than 10 percent of GDP.

There was the pensions tax grab, which wiped at least £150bn off British pension funds, and wrecked the best private pension scheme in Europe. And there were the endless stealth tax rises, perhaps most notably in National Insurance, where employee and employer contributions rose, the upper earnings limit was lifted above the rate of inflation, and a new band was introduced for higher earners.

Blair's government abolished the internal markets in health and education, before half-heartedly re-introducing them. It wimped out on welfare, asking Frank Field to think the unthinkable and promptly sacking him when he did. And from 2002 onwards, public spending spiralled out of control and debt went through the roof.

Then there was the corruption of the political process, with its contempt for parliament, its spin-doctored, sofa government, its dodgy dossiers and its loans-for-peerages. And of course, there was the unprecedented assault on civil liberties, with habeas corpus, trial by jury, double jeopardy, and freedom of speech all coming under attack.

So am I grateful? Well, no, not exactly.

Which god?

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Republican or Democrat? Heavenly omnipotent being, or all-encompassing government? When you read about the political 'right' in America it is almost always prefixed with the term 'religious'. Yet the same tag could (and should) be placed in front of those often described as liberals* for their unbridled passion for government power over all aspects of life. This is the new religion. A pervasive, invasive power that goes against what the Founding Fathers truly believed the correct role of government to be.

A belief in big government is as bad for everyone else's health as federally sanctioned politics founded on religion. Holding one's beliefs in the vaulted halls of government buildings does not make one enlightened or more virtuous than the man who bends his knee before the altar. There was a reason the Founding Father's called for a separation of church and state juxtaposed with the freedom to worship: they feared a religious tyranny, desiring that no man be forced to believe in something he did not. Obama's health care reforms are just another example highlighting that America is a divided nation with many prepared to resist things they feel are unacceptable (Recent polling suggest that the US is still a conservative nation).

The Constitution in America was set out so that man could live free from interference. Protected from both religion and government. This is now a long forgotten ideal in the US as there are two sides who are committed to imposing their beliefs on the other (with the rest caught in the middle). This is detrimental to the freedom of all. If the Founding Fathers were alive today they would undoubtedly be shocked at what they saw. The relationship between the state and the individual has been overrun by big government, and both liberals and conservatives are to blame.

* The etymology of liberal does indeed mean those who favour government. On both sides of the Atlantic. Not to be confused with classic liberal. (More on this tomorrow).

The NHS debate

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I made a couple of media appearances yesterday to discuss the National Health Service. One of the points I stressed in both was how dismayed I have been by the level of political debate that this row – kicked off by American criticism of the NHS – has engendered.

The fact is that while there have been some improvements in the last decade, the NHS is by no means "the envy of the world". Indeed, on a whole range of indicators – whether it's patient satisfaction, waiting times, preventable deaths, stroke and cancer survival rates, hospital acquired infections, or the uptake of new drugs and technologies – the UK lags behind other European and developed countries.

The health service is hardly cheap either. We already spend £100bn a year on the NHS in England alone, and that figure looks set to continue rising regardless of who wins the next election. To put it another way, someone earning £30,000 a year will pay £2,300 in taxes to support the NHS. We may spend less than the US, but we also spend similar amounts to our European neighbours and get much less for it.

Britain deserves a proper, grown-up debate about its healthcare. But what do we get? Politicians 'tweeting' about how they love the NHS, and accusing anyone who dares disagree of being traitorous and unpatriotic. This is not just cowardly and infantile; it is also dishonest, shallow, and quite frankly pathetic.

Rather than burying our heads in the sand, we need to realize that there is a lot to learn from other countries – like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Singapore, among others – that provide better healthcare than we do. The key is to take the best elements of various systems come up with a reform model that will work in Britain.

A successful reform would likely embrace two key principles. The first is that healthcare is far too big and complex to be run from the top down. The second is that whether you are relying on tax or insurance to fund your healthcare, you can't completely isolate people from the cost of care, otherwise prices spiral out of control. I'll return to both these principles in future blog posts.
 

Fascism and communism: Two sides of the same coin

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In an article in last week’s Guardian, Jonathan Steele objects to the joint condemnation of communism and fascism. The moral he draws is that “History is too complex and sensitive to be left to politicians". Quite right, but it is also too complex to be used to defend a failed political ideology by crudely trying to show that another is worse.

Mr Steele was upset that the “23 August be proclaimed European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, in order to preserve the memory of the victims of mass deportations and exterminations". He felt this Declaration to be an attempt by former Soviet countries to discredit modern communists. Perhaps, but this observation does not mean the politicians are wrong to draw a parallel. It would be impossible to deny that Hitler discredits fascism and similarly the case stands for Stalin and communism. The other countless million murders that have taken place under fascist and communist regimes in other times and places also add to the case for the joint condemnation.

The European Declaration acknowledges the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in which Hitler and Stalin agreed not to attack each other and divide central Europe in anticipation of the ending of hostilities. In 1989, the Baltic Way defied the Soviet Union on the fiftieth anniversary of that pact. Thus, twenty years ago the atrocities of fifty years previous were part of the fabric of the present, as they are still very much in the minds of the people of the region today. Anyone who has visited countries of what made up the Soviet Union is immediately struck by the way in which government and people make every effort to draw attention to, educate and mark the atrocities of communism.

Mr Steele concludes with his fear that, “First they manipulate anniversaries, then they move to textbooks, and the slide gathers speed". Certainly, this is how governments the world over function if they are given control over setting public holidays, education etc. This slide is even more apparent when those in power have little or no limit to their actions; which of course is most evidenced in communist and fascist states, and is also why both these political systems should be comprehensively and unequivocally condemned, either together or separately, but certainly condemned.