Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Sat Poem

I have not yet caught the bus, but we are all here
ready to play our parts: the housewife with her basket,
the barefoot mother nursing her child,
the boy gazing out the window just as later
he'll stare through the smeared pane and catch
the tram's advance, his eyes wide as globes.
The gringo holds his bag of gold dust.
I am next to him, sixteen, my body still
intact when the bag explodes and something
bright as the sun fills the air with humming motes
that stick to my splattered skin. Then the labourer
with his mallet will heave the silver post out of me.
His blue overalls are clean. He is not surprised to find me
alive. Here, in Coyoacán at the stop, where the six of us
wait on a bench side by side, just as we will sit
in the wooden bus, comrades in the morning of my life.

by Pascale Petit

Friday, May 28, 2010

Planet Crisis

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Rational Optimist

Matt Ridley, lanky, diffident, sandy hair, spectacles, author of assorted elegant and successful works of popular science on the subjects of sex and evolution, human virtue, nature v nurture and – his big bestseller – genes, was non-executive chairman of said ignominious institution for the three years before it blew up, and had to be fixed by £16bn of taxpayer funded loans.

He must, therefore, have a few stories to tell. But he can't. Terms of employment, you understand. Thankfully, his new book is original, clever and will – you can just tell – prove controversial enough to compensate for this early setback. Climate change? We can beat it. Population explosion? Won't happen. Cancer, Aids? In retreat. Global food shortage? Already history. Economic depression? A mere hiccup. Peak oil? Really not an issue.

Ridley, you see, has the temerity to believe that life on earth can only get better, and the state of the earth itself with it – not a view, one imagines, guaranteed to win him instant and universal adulation. But we'll get to that later. In the meantime, he's sorry about the Northern Rock business. "I'm truly sorry," he says over coffee in the cafeteria at the Centre for Life, the award-winning life sciences centre in Newcastle he helped found.

"It was an awful time. A fantastically painful memory. There's not a week I don't think about it. But the problem is that every time I try to work out how I can go on the record about it, I end up having to go into detail. And that's what I'm not allowed to do."

It seemed, presumably, a sensible thing to do at the time. Born to a noble Northumberland family (Ridley's father, Matthew, is the fourth Viscount Ridley; his uncle was Nicholas, the late member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet; the family pile, Blagdon Hall, is a Grade I-listed mansion in 8,500 acres) whose fortunes were assured by "a spectacularly successful 18th-century coal merchant", Matt was the third generation of the family to sit on Northern Rock's board.

"I was on the board of quite a few companies in the north-east by that time," he says. "Of course I was unqualified, but the mantra at the time was that banks needed people with independent experience. Those with chairmen who had more relevant experience got into just as much trouble." The main problem was: "Like everyone living in a bubble, you don't know you are."

So Ridley came in for a fair amount of stick for his part in the Northern Rock debacle, not least before a parliamentary committee, where he was castigated for not "recognising the risks of the bank's strategy" and "harming the reputation of the British banking industry".

Other critics, notably the environmentalist and Guardian writer George Monbiot, were harsher, arguing that Ridley's writings promoted a "geneticist's version of the market", amounting to a call for precisely the kind of libertarian, anti-regulation, non-interventionist approach that, applied to banks, had precipitated the global financial crisis. He wanted less regulation, his critics said – and look at the result.

Ridley says that's not the case. It's true that he once wrote, in a 2006 article, that "the more we limit the growth of government, the better off we will all be". But, he says, "I never 'lobbied' for deregulation, let alone in financial services. Writing articles criticising bad regulation in non-financial areas, and criticising excessive regulation – also in non-financial areas – as part of a wider critique of government fallibility is the closest I've come. But I don't call that lobbying."

The whole foul experience, though, undoubtedly helped inform his thinking. Which is what, exactly? How does he justify such immoderate optimism in the future of the species, and – even more immoderate – its habitat? Ridley is, at root, a naturalist. It was the "happy distraction" of bird-watching at Eton that first got him interested in science, and he eventually left Oxford with a DPhil in zoology: "On polygamy in birds, with particular reference to the pheasant."

He joined the staff of the Economist in 1983, and was the magazine's science editor from 1984-87. He then spent three years in the US as Washington correspondent, then returned to Britain as American editor for a couple more. Then he left. "I wanted, gradually, to take over the running of the house from my father," he says. "I wanted to start a family, and to do that in the north-east. My wife [neuroscientist Anya Hurlbert] had got a job at Newcastle University. I opted for a freelance writing career. I was lucky enough to have the means to do it."

His first book (bar a "rather embarrassing five-week job on the election of George Bush") was The Red Queen, about the evolution of sexual reproduction. The Origins of Virtue, published in 1996, traced the evolution of society in genes, animals and humans. The big breakthrough came three years later with Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters.

Appearing just before the mapping of the human genome in 2000, Ridley's book, variously praised as absorbing, lucid, perceptive, exhilarating, stylish, witty and brilliant, has since sold more than 500,000 copies and been translated into 25 languages. He is equally proud, though, of a later book that made a rather smaller splash, Nature via Nurture.

And so to the new one. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves is out this month. It is, essentially, about progress: how, of all the species on earth, only humans have managed so radically and completely to change the way they live. Animals, even the most intelligent ones, have not thus far known "economic growth" or "rising living standards" or "technological revolutions" (or, indeed, "credit crunches"). Why?

"I'd written four books about how similar humans are to animals," Ridley says. "This one's about how we're different. We think we're free agents, but human nature itself is a constant. If you go back 30,000 years or so, you'd find you were on much the same wavelength as the man who painted the images in the Chauvet cave in the south of France. You'd know what he was about, his nature; you'd recognise him as human in every psychological way."

So the question that intrigued Ridley was this: "If people are all the same underneath, how has society changed so fast and so radically? Life now is completely different to how it was 32,000 years ago. It's changed like that of no other species has. What's made that difference? Clearly our genes haven't changed; this process has happened far too fast for genetic change. My answer, bringing together my evolutionary knowledge and a lot of economic reading, is this: sex is to biology as exchange is to culture."

That probably requires a little unpicking.

Ridley's argument is that just as biological evolution depends on sex (because sex is what brings together the genes of different individuals, allowing natural selection to come up eventually with, say, an eye), cultural evolution depends on ideas meeting and – Ridley's term – mating, allowing mankind to come up with, say, chocolate ice cream. Or a jet engine. Or even The X Factor.

And what allows those ideas to meet and mate is our facility for exchanging. Except, of course, it's not just ideas that humans exchange, but things. And as soon as human beings, sometime before 100,000 years ago, began exchanging ideas and things, "culture became cumulative, and human economic 'progress' began," says Ridley, setting his coffee aside, suddenly animated.

"It just dawned on me how unusual exchange is in other animal species – not teaching or learning, as many animals do, but genuinely exchanging. Then you start reading, and you realise Adam Smith had seen this: 'Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.' And you realise, maybe, you could be on to something."

What Ridley was on to was a bold and immensely seductive theory, extensively and elegantly demonstrated over 350-odd pages, with examples from the Stone Age to the internet and Tasmania to Ming-era China. Through "exchanging", he argues, humans discovered what he calls "the specialisation of efforts and talents for individual gain". Specialisation, in turn, encouraged innovation. And innovation saved time, which, in Ridley's thesis, equals prosperity – and rising living standards.

The world, he thankfully volunteers at this juncture, is far from perfect. Millions still live in misery. But the majority are infinitely better off than they were 200 or even 50 years ago: since 1800, average life expectancy has more than doubled, and real income multiplied more than nine times. Even since 1955, people earn lots more, eat better, lose fewer children, are better educated, and own more useful things such as telephones, toilets and fridges.

They are also far less likely to die as a result of murder, accidents, natural disasters and from any one of a whole range of diseases. And that's not just "on average": even including impoverished Africa, Ridley says, it's hard to find any region in the world where longevity, health and wealth haven't risen overall since the 1950s; even the UN reckons that globally, poverty has fallen more in the last 50 years than in the previous 500.

"The fact is," he says, "that the more we specialised as producers, and diversified as consumers – the more we exchanged – the better off we have become. And the better off we will be in the future, because this is a process that doesn't stop. It just trundles along, producing higher living standards, in an inexorable way.

"And if 6.7 billion people continue to keep specialising and exchanging and innovating, there's no reason at all why we can't overcome whatever problems face us – population explosions, food shortages, disease, poverty, terrorism, climate change, you name it. In fact I think it's quite probable that in 100 years' time both we and the planet will be better off than we are now."

Well, it's certainly a tantalising idea. Just a shame no one else seems to believe it.

But that, suggests Ridley, is simply because we are pessimists, on a grand scale. People have been predicting the worst for at least the last couple of centuries – and so far they've always been proved wrong. Growing poverty, worldwide famine, population explosion, imminent pandemics, disastrous resource shortages, thinning ozone layers, Y2K bugs, acid rains: none happened as predicted.

"For reasons I don't fully understand," concedes Ridley, "it just sounds smarter to shake your head when everyone else is clapping. And catastrophe prediction sells: look at any bookshop." Added to this, humans have a selective memory: we like to believe things were better in the past.

Of course, they weren't. "For the vast majority of people," says Ridley, "they were a lot more miserable – lives were harder, poorer, shorter, sicker. We look at Jane Austen on the television and think: the early 19th century looks quite nice. But most of us wouldn't have come anywhere near the ballroom. And even if we had, the body odour would have been terrible."

The underlying point about doom-mongering is that it's all based on extrapolation: if we carry on like this, we'll run out of oil, or paper, or food, or water (or temperatures will rise by 6C) within 20, or 50, or 100 years. Rubbish, Ridley says, briskly: "Of course it's right to say, 'We can't carry on like this.' We can't. But the point is, we don't: we find ways to replace things, to be more frugal, more productive. We shouldn't be saying, 'We can't go on as we are,' but: 'How can we best encourage change?'"

And the answer to that – assuming you buy Ridley's line – is obviously through exchange. So that's it, then? Our salvation lies in free markets? "Ah," he says, taking stock for a moment. "I'm not talking about all markets. I'm talking, really, about commerce." This book – and, clearly, that unfortunate stint at Northern Rock – have taught him an important lesson: "Markets in goods and services are very different from markets in capital and assets."

The latter are "prone to bubbles that pop; the former are not. In fact it's hard to design the latter so they work at all, which is why they need good regulation. I've never argued against that. The former, on the other hand, work so well in delivering efficiency and innovation that it would actually be quite hard to design them so they'd fail."

The key difference, he says, lies in the fact that commerce is "a two-sided thing. I think if you put people in front of some huge temptation where it's possible to grab as much as they can for themselves, almost everyone will. The beauty of commerce is that it mutes that. The chap behind the counter in the corner shop has no interest in short-changing you, because he wants you to come back." Markets in assets are not nearly so sensible.

And these markets in goods and services need less, not more regulation? He reflects again. "There is," he confesses, "an element of the libertarian in this, but I think socially as well as economically libertarian. The conclusion I've reached is that prosperity, enrichment, is a bottom-up process: it relies on people being able to get on and do things. Governments see it as top-down. And they're cautious, they see the bad things that may come of a new technology rather than the good things. A balance needs to be struck."

Not, he hastens to add, that he's opposed to government altogether: "I'm not a great fan of it after the last 1,000 years, but I'm not an extremist who wants rid of it. What we don't want is for the chiefs, priests and thieves to kill the goose that lays the golden egg – which they've often been guilty of in the past.

"And I absolutely see that the process of enrichment produces inequalities, and that a government has a responsibility to redistribute. My objection to redistribution in this country is not redistribution in itself, it's that in the process so much gets trousered by bureaucrats." (In keeping with this view, he says, he's giving away half the post-tax proceeds from his book to agricultural charities in Africa.)

Hence, he says, standing up and loping off to meet the photographer, the Rational Optimist: not because he was born that way ("I'm as low as anyone else at three in the morning"), but because he's looked at the biological, economic and cultural evidence and convinced himself that we can be optimistic about our future.

There are plenty, doubtless, who will think him mad, or bad, or possibly both. It would be kind of a relief, though, wouldn't it, if he was right?

How To Avoid Water Wars

SINCE men fight over land and oil and plenty of other things, it would be odd if they did not also fight over a commodity as precious and scarce as water. And they do. The Pacific Institute in California has drawn up a list of conflicts in which water has played a part. It starts with a legendary, Noah-and-the-flood-like episode about 3000BC in which the Sumerian god Ea punished the Earth with a storm, and ends, 202 incidents later, with clashes in Mumbai prompted by water rationing last year. Pundits delight in predicting the outbreak of water wars, and certainly water has sometimes been involved in military rows. But so far there have been no true water wars.

Could that change as populations grow, climates change and water becomes ever scarcer? Since 61 of the 203 incidents have taken place in the past ten years, a trend might seem to be in the making—especially as some recent water disputes fail to make the list even though their results look grave. One example is the competition for water in Bharatpur, a district of the Indian state of Rajasthan, which has led local farmers to cut off water supplies to the Keoladeo national park. This was, until a few years ago, a wonderful wetland, teeming with waders and wildfowl. Thousands of rare birds would winter there, endangered Siberian cranes among them. Now it is a cattle pasture.

China abounds with instances of water-induced disputation. The people of Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, are far from happy that their water is now taken to supply the capital in a canal that will eventually form part of the South-North Water-Transfer Project. So are others affected by that grandiose scheme. Dai Qing, an investigative journalist who is an outspoken critic of the Three Gorges dam and other Chinese water projects, draws attention, for example, to the complaints of those living along the Han river, who will lose water to the huge reservoir formed by the Danjiangkou dam.

Similar disgruntlement can be seen in India, where over 40 tribunals and other panels have been set up to deal with disputes, mostly without success. The bone of contention is often a river, such as the Cauvery, whose waters must be shared by several states. Strikes and violent protests are common. Indians, however, have yet to reach the levels of outrage that led Arizona to call out its National Guard in 1935 and station militia units on its border with California in protest at diversions from the Colorado river. To this day, American states regard each other with suspicion where water is concerned. Indian states are equally mistrustful, often refusing to share such water information as they have lest it be used to their disadvantage.

Violent incidents over wells and springs take place periodically in Yemen, and the long-running civil war in Darfur is at least partly attributable to the chronic scarcity of water in western Sudan. That is probably the nearest thing to a real water war being fought today, and may perhaps be a portent of others to come. If so, they will be dangerous, because so many water disagreements are not internal but international affairs.

The world has already had a taste of some. The six-day war in the Middle East in 1967, for example, was partly prompted by Jordan’s proposal to divert the Jordan river, and water remains a divisive issue between Israel and its neighbours to this day. Israel extracts about 65% of the upper Jordan, leaving the occupied West Bank dependent on a brackish trickle and a mountain aquifer, access to which Israel also controls. In 2004 the average Israeli had a daily allowance of 290 litres of domestic water, the average Palestinian 70.

Turkey’s South-Eastern Anatolia Project, intended to double the country’s irrigated farmland, involves the building of a series of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; one of them, the Ataturk dam, finished in 1990, ranks among the biggest in the world. Iraq and Syria downstream are dismayed. Similarly, Uzbekistan views with alarm Tajikistan’s plan to go ahead with an old Soviet project to build a huge barrage across the River Vakhsh. This, the Rogun dam, will be the highest in the world, at least for a while, and was expected in 2008 to cost about $2.2 billion, or 43% of the country’s national income. The dam will, it is hoped, generate enough power for all Tajikistan’s needs and have plenty over to export as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan. But since it may take 18 years to fill the dam (compared with 18 days, in principle, for China’s Three Gorges), there may be no water left over, or at any rate not enough for Uzbekistan’s cotton-growers.

International river basins extend across the borders of 145 countries, and some rivers flow through several countries. The Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine and Zambezi are each shared among 9-11 countries, the Danube among 19. Adding to the complications is the fact that some countries, especially in Africa, rely on several rivers; 22, for instance, rise in Guinea. And about 280 aquifers also cross borders. Yet a multiplicity of countries, though it makes river management complicated, does not necessarily add to the intractability of a dispute.

One arrangement now under strain is the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan. This agreement was the basis for the division of rivers after India’s partition in 1947. Having withstood Indo-Pakistani wars in 1965, 1971 and 1999, it is usually cited as a notable example of durability in adversity, but it is now threatened by three developments.

First, India proposes to build a water-diversion scheme in Indian Kashmir that would take water from the Kishanganga river to the Jhelum river before it could reach Pakistani Kashmir. Second, India, which already has more than 20 hydro projects on the three western rivers allocated to Pakistan in its part of Kashmir, is now building at least another ten and has more planned. Each of these conforms to the letter of the treaty, since it does not involve storage but merely run-of-the-river dams, in which water is returned downstream after it has been used to generate power. However, Pakistan is worried about the cumulative effects. When, in 2005, it complained about another Indian hydro project, the dispute went to arbitration. That resulted in a ruling broadly favourable to India which left Pakistan unhappy. It feels that the spirit of the agreement has been breached and the treaty needs revision, partly because advances in technology make it possible to build dams that were not foreseen when the deal was signed.

Third, Pakistan badly needs more reservoirs. Storage is essential to provide supplies in winter (two-fifths of the Indus’s flow comes from the summer melting of glaciers) but Pakistan’s two big dams are silting up. It would like to build a new one in Pakistani Kashmir, but India has objected, and the money is not forthcoming.

Another example, the Nile, looks more worrying but is perhaps more hopeful. The Blue Nile rises in Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands, the White Nile in Lake Victoria in Uganda (into which flow rivers from Rwanda and Tanzania). The two Niles meet in Sudan and flow through Egypt, which gets almost no water from anywhere else. For years most of the territories that now form the riparian countries were under the direct or indirect control of Britain, which was fixated on Egypt. Britain stopped any development upstream that would reduce the flow of water to Egypt and, in 1929, allotted 96% of the water flowing north from Sudan to the Egyptians and only 4% to the Sudanese.

Thirty years later Gamal Abdel Nasser had to make a new treaty with Sudan in order to build the Aswan high dam. It would have made more sense to build a dam in the Ethiopian mountains: not only would the flow have then been easier to control but it would also have been cheaper and environmentally less damaging—and with less evaporation. But demagogues like their own dams. The waters were split 75% to Egypt and 25% to Sudan.

The other riparian states have been unhappy ever since, Kenya and Ethiopia particularly so, and all efforts to draw up a new treaty, fairer to all, have failed. They have not, however, failed to achieve anything. On the contrary, for the past 11 years the ten riparians have been amicably meeting in an organisation called the Nile Basin Initiative, and since 2001 have had a secretariat that deals with technical matters and holds ministerial gatherings.

In this group, irrigation and other projects are agreed on, many with World Bank support. Ethiopia is building three dams, two of them large and one controversial, for environmental reasons; and Egypt will take some of the electricity generated, via Sudan. In this way will two old antagonists yoke themselves together with water, the very commodity that has so long driven them apart. No one would say that a new agreement among all the interested parties is imminent, but, after more than 100 trips to Egypt and Ethiopia to help promote harmony, Mr Grey, World Banker turned Oxford professor, is hopeful. He believes that, in time, Ethiopia could be an exporter of electricity to Europe.

A third neuralgic dispute concerns the Mekong, one of at least eight rivers that rise on the Tibetan plateau, fed partly by melting glaciers in Tibet. The Mekong then runs through China’s Yunnan province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Recently, though, it has been running thinly. Sandbanks have appeared, navigation has slowed, fishermen complain of derisory catches, and the 60m people whose livelihoods directly or indirectly depend on the river are worried. The worst drought in southern China for 50 years is partly, perhaps mainly, to blame, but the downstream users also blame the Chinese government, and in particular the three dams it has built and its blasting of rapids to ease navigation.

China has plans for more dams. It is hyperactive in the world of water, not only at home but abroad—building dams in Africa and Pakistan, looking for land in Mozambique and the Philippines, diverting rivers for its own purposes. Neighbouring states, notably India, are uneasy. Yet the row over the drop in the Mekong seems under control. At a meeting of the Mekong River Commission last month—all the riparian states except China and Myanmar are members—China sent a vice-minister of foreign affairs, who was fairly forthcoming about hydrological data. This was something of a breakthrough, even if he did not offer compensation to fishermen. The neighbours’ resentment has not disappeared, and China will not stop building dams. But a water war seems unlikely.

The most hopeful development is the success of other river-basin organisations like the Nile and the Mekong groups. Such outfits now exist for various rivers, including the Danube, the Niger, the Okavango, the Red, the Sava and so on. In the Senegal river group, Mali, Senegal, Guinea and Mauritania have agreed to disagree about who is entitled to how much water, and instead concentrate on sharing out various projects, so that a dam may go to one but the electricity generated, or a part of it, to another. This has worked so well that the president of the group has established considerable authority, enough to enable him to broker unrelated agreements among squabbling tribesmen.

The co-operative approach has also been successful elsewhere. Thailand, for instance, has helped pay for a hydro scheme in Laos in return for power; South Africa has done the same with Lesotho, in return for drinking water in its industrial province of Gauteng; and, in the Syr Darya grouping, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan compensate Kyrgyzstan in return for supplies of excess power.

The way such organisations work, when they work, is to look for the benefits that can be gained from organising water better, and then to share them. An arrangement can usually, though not always, be found that benefits each state. It may be hard to achieve in a group that includes a dominant member, such as Egypt. And it will also be more difficult in groups that bring together officials appointed politically rather than competitively, on their technical qualifications. In the case of the Indus the two sides’ representatives get along well. The reason the treaty is under strain is that it starts with the water and then tries to divide it equitably. The secret is to look for benefits and then try to share them. If that is done, water can bring competitors together.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Picture Of The Day

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Good Simple Life

Thinking on the person who gave me the book of Selma The Sheep as a present...

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Thursday, May 20, 2010


Align Centre

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

If In Arizona...

Don´t forget your "Gringo Mask"!!

Very useful so the Police with Neo-Nazi powers don´t arrest you!

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Hans van Mierlo (RIP)

The bohemian intellectual and social liberal politician Hans van Mierlo, who has died aged 78 after a pro-tracted illness, was one of the most charismatic figures in 20th-century Dutch and European politics. When he burst into the public consciousness in 1966 by launching, with Hans Gruijters, a new party – Democrats 66 (D66) – it was like a blast of fresh air in the stultified atmosphere of the Hague. He offered a new vision and a fresh approach to politics, which led some commentators to describe him as "the Dutch Kennedy". Unlike the former US president John F Kennedy, however, he never achieved the highest public office and indeed, both his career and the fortunes of his party would prove to be something of a rollercoaster ride.

The height of his achievement was to hold the twin posts of foreign minister and deputy prime minister from 1994 until 1998, in a coalition administration under the Labour prime minister Willem "Wim" Kok. But this was also the period that marked what for Hans was the low point of his public life, when in 1995 Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent the Serb massacre of more than 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina – an act denounced by the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague as genocide.

Born the second of nine children into an affluent, devoutly Roman Catholic banking family in Breda, southern Netherlands, he was christened with the awesomely resonant names Henricus Antonus Franciscus Maria Oliva, a mouthful that was quickly truncated to the nickname "Hafmo", which stuck with him well into adult life, when he adopted the moniker Hans.

He attended three Catholic primary and middle schools before entering the prestigious Saint Canisius College in Nijmegen. After a year of military service in 1951-52, he took up a place at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, although he had just declared himself an atheist, and he spent the rest of that decade reading law.

Hans took advantage of the new freedom to travel that had become available in post-second world war western Europe to get to know France and its culture intimately, even writing occasional columns for a Perpignan newspaper, l'Indépendant. He realised that he was temperamentally far more suited to the world of letters than he was to the law courts, so on graduation he joined the Algemeen Handelsblad newspaper in Amsterdam. At the same time, he became involved in various cultural activities. A holder of the Thorbecke prize for elocution, he chaired a televised Dutch-language dictation competition and sat on various cultural boards, culminating in his chairmanship of the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra in 1999. He wrote a number of stories and a book, The Citizen and Politics (1992).

Hans was drawn into politics largely out of frustration at what he saw as the inadequacies of the traditional Dutch parties in the turbulent mid-1960s, when the Provos counter-culture movement was at its height. The D66 was initially not so much a party as a movement without clear policies, which nonetheless inspired many people, the young in particular. This led to Hans and six colleagues being elected to the House of Representatives in 1967.

The hoped-for breakthrough to become a senior party in government never quite happened, however. When not in opposition, D66 would be condemned to be a minor party in various coalition combinations, its reputation often suffering as a result. When forced to choose which party to back on the first such occasion, Hans unwisely declared: "If I had a gun at my chest, I'd opt for Labour." The party did indeed opt for Labour, but ditched Hans as its leader, though less than a decade later he was back in that position. In 1981 he had a short term as defence minister in a grand coalition of traditional parties, which he referred to as disastrous. The anti-establishment D66 appeared to have become part of the establishment, to the dismay of many of its voters.

Undeterred by political setbacks, Hans nurtured D66 through to a second flowering in the 1990s. As foreign minister, he often attracted attention, for example causing a diplomatic rift with Turkey by allowing a gathering of the Kurdish parliament in exile to take place in 1995. That year, he also infuriated the Chinese by highlighting human rights while on an official visit to Beijing. Human rights, the power of the individual, equality and a passionate belief in the European project were all central to his political philosophy. When the Netherlands held the EU presidency in the first half of 1997, he insisted to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the need to combat terrorism in return for economic aid.

Hans retired from active politics in 1998, being granted the honorific title of minister of state, but he was delighted to be appointed a Dutch government representative to the EU convention charged with the task of drawing up the ill-fated European constitution in 2002. He accepted the challenge, despite the fact that, two years earlier, he had had a liver transplant, made necessary because he had contracted hepatitis C from an infected blood transfusion many years before.

Hans married three times and was twice divorced. He had a son with his first wife, Anna Los, and two daughters with his second wife, Olla van Maasdijk. He spent his last decade with a partner 24 years his junior, the novelist Aldegonda "Connie" Palmen, marrying her last November, by which time it was clear that the end was near. She and his children survive him.

• Henricus Antonus Franciscus Maria Oliva "Hans" van Mierlo, politician, born 18 August 1931; died 11 March 2010

Picture Of The Day

Who in No 10?

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Raven

[First published in 1845]

horizontal  space Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

horizontal  space
vertical  spaceby Edgar Allan Poe

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Good & Shocking Guardian Edito

General election 2010:

The liberal moment has come

Citizens have votes. Newspapers do not. However, if the Guardian had a vote in the 2010 general election it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats. It would be cast in the knowledge that not all the consequences are predictable, and that some in particular should be avoided. The vote would be cast with some important reservations and frustrations. Yet it would be cast for one great reason of principle above all.

After the campaign that the Liberal Democrats have waged over this past month, for which considerable personal credit goes to Nick Clegg, the election presents the British people with a huge opportunity: the reform of the electoral system itself. Though Labour has enjoyed a deathbed conversion to aspects of the cause of reform, it is the Liberal Democrats who have most consistently argued that cause in the round and who, after the exhaustion of the old politics, reflect and lead an overwhelming national mood for real change.

Proportional representation – while not a panacea – would at last give this country what it has lacked for so long: a parliament that is a true mirror of this pluralist nation, not an increasingly unrepresentative two-party distortion of it. The Guardian has supported proportional representation for more than a century. In all that time there has never been a better opportunity than now to put this subject firmly among the nation's priorities. Only the Liberal Democrats grasp this fully, and only they can be trusted to keep up the pressure to deliver, though others in all parties, large and small, do and should support the cause. That has been true in past elections too, of course. But this time is different. The conjuncture in 2010 of a Labour party that has lost so much public confidence and a Conservative party that has not yet won it has enabled Mr Clegg to take his party close to the threshold of real influence for the first time in nearly 90 years.

This time – with the important caveat set out below – the more people who vote Liberal Democrat on 6 May, the greater the chance that this will be Britain's last general election under a first-past-the-post electoral system which is wholly unsuited to the political needs of a grown-up 21st-century democracy.

Tactical option

The pragmatic caveat concerns the danger that, under the existing electoral system, switching to the Liberal Democrats in Labour-Conservative marginal constituencies might let in an anti-reform Tory party. So, voters who share this principled enthusiasm for securing the largest possible number of Liberal Democrat MPs next Thursday must, in many constituencies, weigh the tactical option of supporting Labour to prevent a Conservative win.

Hopefully, if this really is the last election under the old system, such dilemmas between head and heart will apply less in future. For now, however, the cause of reform is overwhelmingly more likely to be achieved by a Lib Dem partnership of principle with Labour than by a Lib Dem marriage of convenience with a Tory party which is explicitly hostile to the cause and which currently plans to redraw the political map for its own advantage. The momentum for change would be fatally undermined should the Conservatives win an overall majority. The Liberal Democrats and Labour should, of course, have explored much earlier and more explicitly how they might co-operate to reform the electoral system. During the campaign, and especially since the final leaders' debate, the appetite for co-operation has clearly increased and is increasing still. Mr Clegg's Guardian interview today underscores the potential for more productive engagement with Labour and is matched by fresh, untribal thinking from his potential partners.

This election is about serious choices between three main parties which all have something to offer. David Cameron has done what none of his immediate predecessors has understood or tried to do: he has confronted the Conservative party with the fact that it was out of step with the country. He has forced the party to become more diverse and to engage with centre-ground opinion. He has explicitly aligned himself with the liberal Conservative tradition which the Thatcherites so despised during their long domination of the party. He has promoted modern thinking on civil liberty, the environment and aspects of social policy.

Mr Cameron offers a new and welcome Toryism, quite different from what Michael Howard offered five years ago. His difficulty is not that he is the "same old Tory". He isn't. The problem is that his revolution has not translated adequately into detailed policies, and remains highly contradictory. He embraces liberal Britain yet protests that Britain is broken because of liberal values. He is eloquent about the overmighty state but proposes to rip up the Human Rights Act which is the surest weapon against it. He talks about a Britain that will play a constructive role in Europe while aligning the Tories in the European parliament with some of the continent's wackier xenophobes. Behind the party leader's own engagement with green issues there stands a significant section of his party that still regards global warming as a liberal conspiracy.

The Tories have zigzagged through the financial crisis to an alarming degree, austerity here, spending pledges there. At times they have argued, against all reason, that Britain's economic malaise is down to overblown government, as opposed to the ravages of the market. Though the Conservatives are not uniquely evasive on the deficit, a large inheritance-tax cut for the very wealthy is the reverse of a serious "united and equal" approach to taxation. Small wonder that the Cameronisation of the Conservative party sometimes seems more palace coup than cultural revolution. A Cameron government might not be as destructive to Britain as the worst Tory regimes of the past. But it is not the right course for Britain.

If this election were a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives – which it absolutely is not – the country would be safer in the hands of Labour than of the Tories. Faced in 2008 with a financial crisis unprecedented in modern times, whose destructive potential can hardly be exaggerated, the Labour government made some absolutely vital calls at a time which exposed the Conservatives as neoliberals, not novices. Whether Labour has truly learned the right lessons itself is doubtful. Labour is, after all, the party that nurtured the deregulatory systems which contributed to the implosion of the financial sector, on which the entire economy was too reliant. How, and even whether, British capitalism can be directed towards a better balance between industry and finance is a question which remains work in progress for Labour, as for us all. At the highest levels of the party, timidity and audacity remain in conflict. Nevertheless, Labour, and notably Alistair Darling, a palpably honest chancellor who has had to play the most difficult hand of any holder of his office in modern times, deserves respect for proving equal to the hour. Only the most churlish would deny the prime minister some credit for his role in the handling of the crisis.

Labour's failings

But this election is more than a verdict on the response to a single trauma, immense though it was. It is also a verdict on the lengthening years of Labour government and the three years of Gordon Brown's premiership. More than that, any election is also a judgment about the future as well as a verdict on the past. A year ago, the Guardian argued that Labour should persuade its leader to step down. Shortly afterwards, in spite of polling an abject 15.7% in the European elections, and with four cabinet ministers departing, Labour chose to hug Mr Brown close. It was the wrong decision then, and it is clear, not least after his humiliation in Rochdale this week, that it is the wrong decision now. The Guardian said a year ago that Mr Brown had failed to articulate a vision, a plan, or an argument for the future. We said that he had become incapable of leading the necessary revolution against the political system that the expenses scandal had triggered. Labour thought differently. It failed to act. It thereby lost the opportunity to renew itself, and is now facing the consequences.

Invited to embrace five more years of a Labour government, and of Gordon Brown as prime minister, it is hard to feel enthusiasm. Labour's kneejerk critics can sometimes sound like the People's Front of Judea asking what the Romans have ever done for us. The salvation of the health service, major renovation of schools, the minimum wage, civil partnerships and the extension of protection for minority groups are heroic, not small achievements.

Yet, even among those who wish Labour well, the reservations constantly press in. Massive, necessary and in some cases transformational investment in public services insufficiently matched by calm and principled reform, sometimes needlessly entangled with the private sector. Recognition of gathering generational storms on pensions, public debt, housing and – until very recently – climate change not addressed by clear strategies and openness with the public about the consequences. The inadequately planned pursuit of two wars. A supposedly strong and morally focused foreign policy which remains trapped in the great-power, nuclear-weapon mentality, blindly uncritical of the United States, mealy-mouthed about Europe and tarnished by the shame of Iraq – still not apologised for. Allegations of British embroilment in torture answered with little more than a world-weary sigh. Large talk about constitutional change matched by an addiction to centralisation. Easy talk about liberty and "British values" while Britain repeatedly ratchets up the criminal justice system, repeatedly encroaches on civil liberties, undermines legal aid and spends like there is no tomorrow on police and prisons. Apparent outrage against the old politics subverted by delay, caution and timid compromise.

There are reservations too, though of a different order and on different subjects, about the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats are a very large party now, with support across the spectrum. But they remain in some respects a party of the middle and lower middle classes. Labour's record on poverty remains unmatched, and its link to the poor remains umbilical. Vince Cable, so admirable and exemplary on the banks, nevertheless remains a deficit hawk, committed to tax cuts which could imply an even deeper slashing of public services. Though the party has good policies on equality, it has not prioritised the promotion and selection of women and ethnic minority candidates.

Matched priorities

Surveying the wider agenda and the experience of the past decade, however, there is little doubt that in many areas of policy and tone, the Liberal Democrats have for some time most closely matched our own priorities and instincts. On political and constitutional change, they articulate and represent the change which is now so widely wanted. On civil liberty and criminal justice, they have remained true to liberal values and human rights in ways that the other parties, Labour more than the Tories in some respects, have not. They are less tied to reactionary and sectional class interests than either of the other parties.

The Liberal Democrats were green before the other parties and remain so. Their commitment to education is bred in the bone. So is their comfort with a European project which, for all its flaws, remains central to this country's destiny. They are willing to contemplate a British defence policy without Trident renewal. They were right about Iraq, the biggest foreign policy judgment call of the past half-century, when Labour and the Tories were both catastrophically and stupidly wrong. They have resisted the rush to the overmighty centralised state when others have not. At key moments, when tough issues of press freedom have been at stake, they have been the first to rally in support. Above all, they believe in and stand for full, not semi-skimmed, electoral reform. And they have had a revelatory campaign. Trapped in the arid, name-calling two-party politics of the House of Commons, Nick Clegg has seldom had the chance to shine. Released into the daylight of equal debate, he has given the other two parties the fright of their lives.

A newspaper that is proudly rooted in the liberal as well as the labour tradition – and whose advocacy of constitutional reform stretches back to the debates of 1831-32 – cannot ignore such a record. If not now, when? The answer is clear and proud. Now.


1st of May: Exploited Of The world, Unite!