Friday, 8 January 2016

Re: The Cobden Centre - The Government Must Stop Printing Phoney Money

Dear Dr. Richard Ebeling, 

You write in the Cobden Centre blog: "In a free society, people in the marketplace should decide what they wish to use as money, not the government."

But we do, do we not! I certainly feel free to use cowrie shells, but find GB£ more convenient at home and pesos more convenient in Mexico. 

In my book, anyone who thinks it would be 'better' to let the rich and powerful freely exploit the poor is either mad, or disgusting. The question is where to draw the line, where to intervene, and where to let greed drive innovation (as it undoubtedly does).

Yours sincerely, Ian West
Ian West, c/o Meza, General Cano 79-202 , Mexico DF 11850‎, Mexico. 

Herbs and herbalist's

In August 1964, freshly graduated in botany, I was staying with my aunt and uncle in Edinburgh while attending the 10th International Botanical Congress, held that year in Edinburgh. It amused me to see the herbalist's shop on the corner opposite the old medical school, as I came and went, attending sessions of the congress nearby. But I had a far more picturesque encounter with Napier himself a few days later which it has been my pleasure these last fifty years to recall and (whenever possible) to recount.

     After the congress finished, not wishing to hang around under the feet of my kind but busy hosts, I decided to visit another uncle who lived at Lochmaben and, being inclined at that stage in my life to solitary walks, I decided to walk down through the border hills. I would travel light, with a tooth brush and a notebook in an old meal-bag and sleep rough when night fell, seeking shelter only if the need arose. Ah, youth!
    I set out across the Pentland hills on a sunny 13th of August, amused at the shooting parties with their tweeds, dogs, guns and hampers, and descended to the Tweed at Neidpath Castle around 4 o'clock. I crossed and rested awhile on a shingly spit, to soak in the tranquil beauty and to marvel at my good fortune. There was only one other human in sight, but his strange behaviour aroused my curiosity; he proceeded down the spit at a slow pace stooping frequently. I went over and quizzed him, whereupon he explained that he was gathering yarrow, a year's supply, for he owned the herbalist shop that had piqued my interest earlier in the week. Useful, I learned, for colds, hay-fever, toothache and baldness. I told him that I was a botanist, was interested in the flora, and had seen a good amount of yarrow on my way thither. Had I, he asked, seen any Euphrasia? He usually managed each year to find what he needed, but this year he was short of dainty little "Eyebright", essential for making up his eye ointment. I confessed I had not, and mused privately for a few moments on how the appearance of plants had suggested their various uses.
     Refreshed and grateful, I wished him goodbye and set off southwards up the Manor Water to sleep eventually on a bed of bracken by a ruined castle.

Ian West, c/o Meza, General Cano 79-202 , Mexico DF 11850‎, Mexico. Tel: (+52) 55 527 14740

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Negotiate with Syria

Negotiate with Syria

I should like to draw attention to my post of 11 March 2012 (Assad and Syria); it does not seem to have been overtaken by events, and is today (24th November 2015) as relevant as ever.

Last year (23 Nov 2014) I wrote an open letter to Assad (shown below) which still seems to me a workable approach to negotiations between the current Syrian government and the UN or NATO, or whoever thinks they should be consulted concerning the internal affairs of Syria.

Dear President Bashar Al Assad,

If I were a member of your negotiating team I would be inclined to argue:
[1] The Assad regime is still the legal (and de facto) government of Syria;
[2] It subscribes to the UN charter, and believes that the charter explicitly limits the interference by other countries in Syrian internal affairs;
[3] Syria has conceded that chemical weapons are very widely abhorred and that those have been voluntarily eschewed by your government;
[4] You warn against the view that the democratic form of government, evolved over the last 300 years in certain Atlantic countries, is necessarily successful in other countries;
[5] You could point out that the legal ‘right’ of Cromwell to kill King Charles I, or of the USA to usurp the governance of Hawaii, rested on the power of arms, and was in no way democratic;
[6] You would like the United Nations to accept the legitimacy of your regime "as being the government most favoured among the alternatives by the people of Syria";
[7] You would like the support of the UN in preventing arms trafficking and the infiltration of insurgents across Syrian borders;
[8] To obtain this co-operation you concede that an internationally supervised plebiscite be held to obtain the views of legitimate Syrian nationals to confirm (or negate) the legitimacy of the Al Assad government.

Yours sincerely, Ian West


Thursday, 26 March 2015

A Humbling Thought

A humbling thought

   Despite the hectic traffic on the slip road to the M1 motorway, I spotted, and swerved slightly to avoid, a mother duck followed closely by a clutch of day-old ducklings; fluffy and confused, but trusting. She clearly wanted to cross the six lanes of traffic that separated her from the other side. Some instinct must be telling her that she has to find water in the next few hours; perhaps she can smell it, perhaps she knows to go downhill, but somehow she has concluded that the other side is better for her and her novel (and doubtless unexpected) companions. Constantly glancing over alternate shoulders, she steps tentatively into the traffic then as quickly retreats.
   What must the little chicks be thinking? Imagine cracking open your shell and stepping out into the sunlight, knowing so little, yet knowing with certainty one big thing: "Follow close to that duck, that strange but reassuring shape."
   Mother duck (we suppose) has never been here before; took no classes in motherhood. To fly would be for her so normal, and so easy, and she would find water in minutes. However, indistinctly but inescapably, she knows that flight is inappropriate while she has these six fluffy little followers, to which she is so strangely bound. What a heavy responsibility! These may not be thoughts exactly, but she  experiences two conflicting impluses. It is no wonder she tries again and again to fight a passage through the thundering traffic.
   How different it is for us, with our complex brains, speech, primary and secondary education, books, the internet and the experience of hundreds of generations to guide us! We do not need to head off in the wrong direction time and again, in obedience to an impulse we cannot voice, and cannot even locate.  And yet we do it.
   Is that not a humbling thought?

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Darby and Joan

Darby and Joan

When I arrived after my 3 mile walk, there were only two other customers at the Blue Bell. I met the first soon after I arrived.

The door of the gents eased open and in shuffled a head of snow-white hair, a neck, the shoulders and torso of an acutely bent and elderly gentleman; probably 6 foot when straight, but that would have been twenty, thirty, forty years ago. "This is the rush" he said in a pleasantly articulated, cultured and resonant voice, as he shuffled into position. "Well, you made it" I replied, fielding this unexpected greeting as best I could. I left him to it and headed off to the bar to order my half of 'Original', noticing as I passed, a lady at the table by the window. She was of an age with the gentleman, but more
frail; motionless and transparent like a glass galleon. The gentleman gradually returned and sat down. Every minute or two he addressed a conversational remark to his wife, which I could not help overhearing: about the coffee, about the meal at the 'Bow Wine Vaults', which was probably their best, and  at the 'Bromely' which was probably their last at that venue. This point he repeated, as though some extra sadness attached, but one I could not guess.   All to little effect. Comparing the gold-wrapped chocolate mints with some at home was his most successful venture, and drew from his wife a murmur of agreement. He went to pay the bill at the bar, commenting cheerfully on his progress, his willingness to help out financially, his "little something for those who contributed 'at the coal-face'", his wallet, his sticks. Could he please have the bill back from the till so that, in years to come, he could resolve potential arguments with his wife over what they had eaten, that day at the Blue Bell?

It seemed she had exhausted her quiverfull of repartee earlier in the marriage; but her husband played on as much for the gallery as for himself; perhaps he had been a barrister. I felt sucked in, by his need to talk, and being intrigued by his cultured accent I asked if they were from Melton. "Oh no! We lived for 50 years in London, where I made a little money; not much but enough. We are both retired", he explained, helpfully. "In fact we are both a little doddery". "Very
doddery", corrected his wife. There seemed to be a game afoot concerning the chocolates. "I shall eat one of mine." he said at one point. A few minutes later, he asked, with a touch of sharpness, "Have you eaten your second?" "No" she replied, lifting her hand to show him the evidence. I felt this might be the latest round in a long-running contest. It was not much, but it gave them something; a bond. "Well, we should go." he said, without moving. "I think I shall put my coat on", she replied, also without moving. "Come", he said, "pass me your coat." and he helped her on with the nearest sleeve. I got up and helped her find the other sleeve hole with her glass-like left arm. "I half hoped a gentleman would come to our assistance", he offered, and thanked me for talking to them. I left them sitting there like Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for something; energy perhaps. I did not feel I could wait with them, for that energy might take some time

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Weighted Voting

Weighted Voting

The idea of giving unequal weights to the several voting members of an assembly is not a new idea; rather it is an old idea that fell out of fashion. It was practiced by the Romans, in Germany pre-1870, and in Sweden, until 1918.[1]  In Britain, graduates of universities exercised a privileged extra voice in the House of Commons by a different mechanism, in that there were extra MPs elected only by graduates (wherever they might live) in addition to their constituency vote. Thus Oxford and Cambridge universities elected two members each until 1950. (Other English universities shared 2 Members between them, as did Scottish universities.)[2]  In all these cases the bias of the voting power of citizens or MPs was towards privileging certain classes at the expense of other classes. The present conception of democracy requires us to count each citizen as of the same value as every other, and these preferential biases have all been abolished.
The suggestion, recently beginning to be discussed, of Proportional Representation by Weighting Members [3,4] has the opposite objective. It recognizes that approximately half of the votes cast in British parliamentary elections are essentially wasted, in that they are not successful in electing an MP, and are therefore not represented in the House of Commons. It sees this wastage as contributing to the conclusion that voting is pointless, a conclusion that will be disastrous to democracy. The voting preferences (as to Party) of all those wasted votes are all known and it is a simple matter to take account of those preferences. The mechanism is discussed elsewhere [3,4].

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

38 Degrees and Political Engagement

I enjoyed watching the hour-long grilling that David Babbs (Executive
Director of 38 Degrees) was given by the "Political and Constitutional
Reform Committee" in March 2014 [1]. He acquitted himself well. But so
did the chair (Graham Allen, MP), who acquitted himself perhaps even

Graham Allen repeatedly pointed out that there is a great difference
between negative and positive comments, criticism is easy but what we
need are constructive ideas; and he pleaded several times for a more
'nuanced' approach from 38 Degrees. He emphasised the distinction,
often overlooked by the media and the public, that Parliament is
weaker than generally thought, and Government is much stronger. In our
form of parliamentary democracy we elect MPs, the Queen counts heads
and selects a Prime Minister to form a government, which then governs
for the next 4 or 5 years. The MPs do essentially nothing. It seems
that David Babbs' position is that "MPs are pompous, self-indulgent,
self-interested people who ignore their constituents." This may be
true of MPs in 'safe seats'. But it is certainly not true of marginal
MPs, who work fantastically hard for popular approval. So the proper
objective for 38 Degrees is to turn safe seats into marginals. Perhaps
we need proportional representation. (Or see 'weighted members' [2])
In the rare cases where the election of an MP depends on their
reputation for listening to their constituents during those 5 years of
a parliament, there might be some point in the 38 Degees position; but
in most cases MPs are voted in very largely on party lines and party
manifestos, even in marginal seats. But not every citizen wants his
voice heard in Parliament; some would be quite happy if the MPs were
indeed delegated the task of doing the thinking, and analysing, and
weighing up.

We are told that to fight a seat at a general election costs some
£34,000 [3]; not of course in direct election costs for that is capped
at under £1000, but in lost salary, and the 2 years traipsing that
precede the election. Such a cost will put most people off standing
unsuccessfully more than once. This makes the backing of a party
machine an essential allay, with all the evils that this entails.

Most of those on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee who
attacked 38 Degrees (in the person of David Babbs) showed up rather
badly as self-important and unable to listen to criticism. But there
were one or two exchanges that suggested that David Babbs also was a
little deaf in that regard. Tracy Crouch (MP) pointed out that with
power comes responsibility, and asked that 38 Degrees use correct
nomenclature to show that they were attending to detail; she objected
to the use of slang terms like "Gagging Law", and "Bedroom Tax".

David Babbs replied adequately on "Gagging Law", to the effect that he
thought it a more exact name than "The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-
Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill". Yet it is an
over-simplification to say that this is a bill designed to 'gag' lobby
groups like 38 Degrees. Most democrats would strongly approve of a
limit to the promotional expenses permitted [a] candidates, [b]
parties, and [c] lobbies. The proposed legislation limits the amount a
lobby group can spend on a campaign to £450,000. The novel positions
of 38 Degrees is that it can mobilize the support of enormous numbers
of people. They argue that with 1.5 million members the £450,000 limit
represents only 26p per member; in other words the gross cost of a
campaign should be divided by the number of citizens involved. Good
point. Nuanced, if you like. "What" (someone asks) "does the proposed
legislation mean for Free Speech?" Nothing, I would suggest, provided
citizens speak for themselves, and do not simply add their signatures
(or email addresses) to the ideas of others.

As to 'Bedroom Tax', that seems an even more acceptable shorthand for the "under-occupancy penalty" than the "Gagging Law" case just discussed. But I am not against the penalty in principle, though I see that it causes hardship in the short run and in many special cases. Councils suddenly need smaller houses at their disposal, and that will take time. On the other hand, failure to cap the 'bottomless pit' of the Social Service budget plays straight into the hands of the 'cutting party'; the party of small government. I suggest we have to
think much harder about our fundamental rights before we go
protesting. Do we have a fundamental right to a free house? It sounds a very funny idea to someone who can just about remember the workhouse system of poor relief. We certainly have the right to offer assistance to a needy neighbour, but it is not so clear that we have the right to force others to pay; that is up to them, surely. The difficult job of Government is to find a level at which a majority of the country is willing to pay. The current method in Britain is the occasional general election. It might well be that great lists of email addresses, for and against each issue would be a more focussed method. But I have not yet seen an online campaign that attempted to lay out one tenth of the necessary argument.

So, please: nuance, accuracy, thought, particularly positive thinking, and thinking for oneself. And beware of sloganizing.