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>Guns ‘n Ponies: Christmas shopping sees sun set on liberal values


Newly minted Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg may think we’re a nation of untapped liberal and progressive sentiment, but when Christmas shopping in Brighton I mugged by reality. It’s not unpleasant and is less hellish than I imagined and all the toyshops are conveniently clustered in the mall that is slowly swallowing up the town centre. But, alas instead of looking for Pinkie Pie pony, I find myself drawn to the array of toy weaponry in Gamleys, which includes not only swords and ray guns, but also a life-sized orange-and-yellow plastic double barrelled shotgun for the aspirant bank robber. Most other toyshops, it’s true, are far too politically correct to have such things – or perhaps it doesn’t sell well in Brighton, where a Green councillor has just romped home with a huge vote in a by-election .

Coming from redneck (or should that be blue-neck?) mid-Sussex, however I feel an involuntary twinge of envy for whichever gun toting eight year old is going to lay his hands on this mini-arsenal. My own parents in the 1970s ,very responsibly, made Santa leave all firearms hanging in his grotto, but as George Orwell says ‘toy pacifists just won’t do’. My job in Gamleys, however, is buy up a selection of princesses and ponies – what have we done to encourage such gender stereotyping? – and I efficiently do before heading out onto the freezing seafront just in time to catch the sun going down.

Julian Baggini speaking on Radio 4’s Start the Week – and in a forthcoming article in Prospect – claims to detect less the liberal England Nick Clegg hopes to tap into, than robustly (if reasonably) communitarian society with a tinge of moderate nationalism. Czech-style national liberalism, if you will. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of the conservative communitarianism Prospect seems to push – especially when (as very often) it is incongruously packaged as part of some a progressive, modernizing agenda, rather than just the extended political holding operation that British politics seems to consist of these days, but Baggini’s argument seems reasonable. Certainly, there are a few shotgun wielding lecturers, who may need watching…

>Will Europe’s real liberals please step forward?

>An interesting discussion of the similarities and dissimilarities between Britain’s Liberal Democrats and Poland’s Civic Platform

(PO) written by Ed Maxfield appears on the Lib Dem Liberal Voice website followed up by very intersting and intelligent discussion of the highways and byways of – that lost tribe of European politics – the liberals as European party family. Given some less than liberal social position and desire for a flat tax revolution, it strikes that PO are more Cameroonian conservatives minus the upper class social baggage, or perhaps an equivalent of the party that would emerge of the dull kaleidecsope of British (actually English) party politics got shaken up and some of the more assertively free market Lib Dems teamed up with some of the more socially liberal, decentralist Tories to form a kind of Blue-Orange Alliance (interestingly, the campaign colours of both Civic Platform and fellow Czech liberal-conservatives/conservative liberals in the Czech Civic Democrats) . I guess that would leave the hang ‘em and flog ‘em rump of the Tories as a kind of English nationalist Law and Justice party. The analogy, of course, breaks down because of the strength of the British social democratic left, which – despite a close shave in 1983 – has refused to go down the tubes electorally in the manner of post-communist parties in Poland, Slovakia and (possibly) Hungary.

>Sucked into a democratic black hole


Surfing the web after an exam board made bearable by biscuits and tangerines on the house, I come once again on Ivan Krastev on comes up with a typically barbed commentary about the ‘black hole’ of populist politics in CEE. The basic picture presented is less than original (and I suspect less than true) – populist bad guys like Robert Fico and the Kaczynski are stalking the region driving off decent liberals like himself from office and influence. I did, however, like the usual cynical-cum-ironic take with CEE seen as more akin to France, and perhaps more the France of the mid-19th than the early 21st century. True, there are differences

In France, pensioners are beneficiaries of the status quo, and so never protest; in central Europe, pensioners are the losers and so protest all the time. Moreover, in Paris almost everyone is frightened by the invasion of the fabled Polish plumber, while in Sofia or Warsaw the public is indifferent or at least less hostile to the invasion of the French banker.”

CEE liberals are, however, like their mid-19th century French counterparts in wishing to bypass and restrict the democratic influence of the market-hating masses through the introduction of limited suffrage. These days – in fact as J.S. Mill realized, even in those days – that couldn’t mean anything is crude as a property qualification, but a cut off based on education and a notion of citizenship based on ‘capacity’ (that favourite EU buzzword) rather than rights. Krastev then hits the bulleye, astutely noting that

“It is perverse but true – in this age of democracy, elites in Europe are secretly dreaming of a system that will deprive irresponsible voters from the power to violate the right of wisdom. At the same time most citizens are convinced that they have the right to vote but not the right to influence decision-making.
The outcome is politics where populists are becoming openly anti-liberal, and elites are becomingly secretly anti-democratic. What central Europe is lacking is genuine reformism: the kind that is responsive to the demands of the people without falling victim to populist primitivism. This gaping black hole in the national politics of the member-states, more than anything else, threatens the European project today.”

He is thinking of Bulgaria and CEE, as coursem – where as we know populism is vapid, anti-elite but is basically ‘centrist’ and moderate, not the Neanderthal force Krastev rather crudely outlines which , if not ‘genuinely reformist’ and hooked up with society in the way he enviages, seems able to deliver some of the goods some of the time. More irksomely still (although as good CEE modernizing liberal he doesn’t say it) his comments could, I suspect, also apply to established West European and North American democracies rather than just being part of some post-accession, post-communist malaise.

>Wot, no Portuguese liberals?

>Stumbled across in interesting academic blog essay on the non-emergence of a liberal party in Portugal by a University of Sussex PhD graduate.

>A liberal helping of democracy? Perry Anderson on Putin’s Russia

>A Petya Federov, seemingly a Russian based in London, has thoughtfully posted an article (part 1 and part 2) on his blog about Putin’s Russia from the London Review of Books by veteran New Left intellectual Perry Anderson . Slightly to my surprise, Anderson clearly knows Russia and its politics and culture very well, although the reported ideas of Russian thinkers he is familiar with are rather more interesting than his own. Slightly conventionally, his focus is on the fate of Russia’s Western oriented liberal intelligentsia, who played such a prominent role in perestroika, allied themselves with Yelstin’s flawed reform coalition and were then marginalized – or corrupted – by the evisceration of the public sector, the rise of trash commercial culture and the semi-authoritarian ‘virtual politics’ embodied by the Putin era. Some well educated Russia (ex-?) intellectuals write detective stories (Boris Akunin) or serve in the legions of cynical, well paid ‘political technologies’creating the stage front for the grim pantomime of Russia politics. Oh horror.

However, the most interest aspects of the article from an academic point of view was Anderson’s dissection of the conflict between the ‘national’ (actually in Russia, more the ‘imperial’) and the liberal, which has some distant echoes in the travails and compromises of liberals in CEE (the long march of Hungary’s Fidesz under Orbán; the embrace of traditional Czech nationalist paradigms by Václav Klaus and the Civic Democrats in the late 1990s and – I dare say – the difficult relations between liberalism and nationalism in Serbia or Romania). Some of the more interesting parts (for me) are excerpted below

“ Fifteen years later, what has become of this [pro-Western, liberal] intelligentsia? Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century – and for long periods been its virtual raison d’être.With the arrival of neo-liberalism, this universe abruptly collapsed. By 1997, budgets for higher education had been slashed to one-twelfth of their late Soviet level.
For a time, even with shrinking sales, the better newspapers provided a lively variety of reportage and commentary, in which many good journalists won their spurs. But as factional struggles broke out in Yeltsin’s court, and the grip of different oligarchs on the media tightened, corruption of every kind spread through the press, from back-handers and kompromat to abject propaganda for the regime. In this atmosphere, a race to the bottom followed, in which the crudest tabloids, devoted to sensations and celebrities, predictably won out. Meanwhile, the print media as a whole were losing importance to television. Initially a dynamic force in awakening and mobilising public opinion – it played a key role in the overthrow of the old order in August 1991 – Russian TV started with a high level of professional skills and public ambitions. But it too sank rapidly under the tide of commercialisation, its most-watched programmes descending to levels of crassness and inanity rivalling deepest America
The spectacle of this migration into a universe of shady banking and trading, ‘political technology’ (campaign-running and election-fixing) and public asset-stripping, in turn affected those left behind. Others, who had specialist scientific skills, got better jobs abroad. In these conditions, as the common values that once held it together corroded, the sense of collective identity that distinguished the traditional intelligentsia has been steadily weakened.The result is a cultural scene more fragmented, and disconnected, than at any time within memory.
Outside, the Tverskaya with its boutiques and chain stores sets the tone. The culture of capitalist restoration looks back, logically enough, to the object-universe of late tsarism, whose garish emblems are everywhere. Moscow retains its autumnal beauty, even if as elsewhere – Weimar or Prague – too much new paint tends to coarsen older buildings rather than reviving them. But now it is enveloped in a smog of kitsch, like ancient regalia buried within a greasy wrapper. The city has become a world capital of bad taste, in which even the postmodern can seem a caricature of itself. All this physical trumpery reflects the dominant landscape of the imaginary. Within a few years, Russia has spawned a mass culture fixated on postiche versions of the dynastic past. The country’s most successful author, Boris Akunin, writes detective novels set in the last third of the 19th century. Among other stirring deeds, his upright hero Erast Fandorin thwarts a plot to hold the coronation of Nicholas II to ransom.
The poverty of all this retro-tsarist culture reflects the impossibility of any meaningful repossession of the world of the Romanovs. The old order incubated a rough-hewn capitalism, but itself remained patrimonial to the end, dominated not by merchants or industrialists, but nobles and landowners. No living memory connects with this past: it is too different, and too remote, from the present to serve as more than vicarious pap. The Soviet past, on the other hand, remains all too immediate, and so in another way unmanageable. With few exceptions, the intelligentsia repudiates it en bloc. The population, on the other hand, is deeply divided: between those who regret the fall of the USSR, those who welcomed it, and those – perhaps the majority – whose feelings are mixed or ambivalent. The Soviet Union was not the Third Reich, and there is little sign of any Vergangenheitsbewältigung along German lines. In the culture at large, the tensions in social memory have produced a patchy amnesia.
Economically, culturally, psychologically, the Russian intelligentsia has been pulled apart by the changes of the last fifteen years. The term itself is now repudiated by those for whom it smacks too much of a common identity and a revolutionary past: contemporary intellectuals should shun the suspect traditional term intelligent in favour of the neologism intellektual, of healthier American origin, to denote the new independent-minded individual, distinct from the collective herd of old. Such dissociations themselves have a long history, going back at least to the denunciations of the radical intelligentsia by Vekhi, the famous symposium of writers on the rebound from the 1905 Revolution, who might now be called neo-conservative, but were then nearly all liberals. Today, vigorous questioning of the self-images of the contemporary intelligentsia can be found across the spectrum, but attacks on its historical role again occur mainly in liberal journals – the debate in the autumn in [critical intellectual journal] Neprikosnovenny Zapas is an example. But their context has altered. The events of 1991, not those of 1905-7, constituted the first revolution liberals could call their own. Politically, how then does Russian liberalism stand today?Hostility – often, in private, verbally extreme hostility – to Putin’s regime is widespread. But of public opposition there is little. The reason is not only fear, though that exists. It is also the knowledge, which can only be half-repressed, that the liberal intelligentsia is compromised by its own part in bringing to being what it now so dislikes. By clinging to Yeltsin long after the illegality and corruption of his rule was plain, in the name of defence against a toothless Communism, it destroyed its credibility in the eyes of much of the population, only to find that Yeltsin had landed it with Putin. Now, with a mixture of bad conscience and bad faith, it struggles to form a coherent story of the change.
It was clear from the very beginning of the August overturn that a test of the new Russian liberalism would be its handling of the nationalities question, where the old – Vekhi and its sequels – had conspicuously failed. During the first Chechen War, it acquitted itself honourably, opposing Russia’s invasion and welcoming its acceptance of defeat. But the second Chechen War broke its moral spine. A few protests continued, but by and large the liberal intelligentsia persuaded itself that Islamic terrorism threatened the motherland itself, and had to be crushed, no matter what the cost in lives. A year later, America’s own war on terror allowed a gratifying solidarity with the West. Today, few express much enthusiasm for the Kadyrov clan in Grozny: most prefer to avoid mention of Chechnya. Leading courtiers of Yeltsin, still flanking or advising Putin, are more outspoken. Gaidar has explained that it is difficult for outsiders to understand ‘what the aggression against Dagestan in 1999 meant for Russia. Dagestan is part of our life, part of our country, part of our reality’ (sic – Russians make up 9 per cent of the population). Thus ‘the issue was no longer the Chechen people’s right to self-determination. It was the question of whether Russian citizens should be protected by their own government.’ Chubais has been blunter: Russia’s goal in the new century, he recently declared, should be a ‘liberal empire’.Such views are naturally welcome enough in the Kremlin, though these particular voices are something of a liability. Around the regime, however, are more credible forces, recruited from the democrats of 1991, who provide it with critical support from a distinctive position within the liberal tradition. Grouped around the successful weekly Ekspert – a business-oriented cross between Time and the Economist – and in the back-rooms of United Russia, their outlook could be compared to Max Weber’s in the Second Reich. The fall of the USSR was, they believe, the work of a joint revolt by liberal and national (not just Baltic, Ukrainian or Georgian, but also Russian) forces. But under Yeltsin, these two split apart, as more and more Russians with a sense of national pride felt that Yeltsin had become a creature of the Americans, while liberals remained bound to him. Putin’s genius, in this version, has been to reconcile national and liberal opinion once again, and so create the first government in Russian history to enjoy a broad political consensus. The market-fundamentalism and retro-Communism of the 1990s, each now a spent force, are no longer alternatives. In bringing calm and order to the country, Putin has achieved ‘hegemonic stability’.By their own lights, the intellectuals who articulate this vision – typically from scientific or engineering backgrounds, like many novelists – are clear-eyed about the limitations and risks of the regime, which they discuss without euphemism. Putin’s style is to give concessions to all groups, from oligarchs to the common people, while keeping power in his own hands. He is ‘statist’ in every instinct, despising and distrusting businessmen; though he does not persecute them, he affords no help to small or medium enterprises, so that in practice only the huge raw materials and banking monopolies thrive. Politically, he is a ‘presidential legitimist’, in a Congress of Vienna sense, and so will respect the constitution and step down in 2008 – after choosing his successor.
Those who have cast their lot with hegemonic stability risk repeating the trajectory of the original liberal intelligentsia under Yeltsin, who kept thinking that their advice and assistance could steer him in the right direction, only to find that he gave them Putin, under whom they tremble. Unable to come to terms with their own responsibilities in backing the attack on the White House and the fake referendum on the constitution, with all that followed, they are now reduced to complaining that a ruinously Sovietised Russian people have proved incapable of accepting the gift of democracy ‘we were striving to bring them’. Today’s national-liberals are more lucid than the democrats of the 1990s, but it is not clear that they have much more real influence at court than their predecessors. If one of the candidates they most fear – the defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, or even the pallid premier, Mikhail Fradkov, for example – were to be put into the Kremlin, they could find themselves in much the same situation as the limpets of Yeltsin. They hope it will be someone more amenable, like Putin’s other favourite, the first deputy premier Dmitri Medvedev, whose task is to give a socially caring face to the regime. But they will have no more say in the choice than other citizens.Historically, Russian liberalism came in a variety of shades, and it would be wrong to reduce them all today to the pupils of Hayek or Weber. Amid the different adaptations to power of the period, one mind of complete independence stands out. Tall but stooped, almost hunched, with the archetypal bookish look of a scholar, in a square, squinting face lit up with frequent ironic smiles, the historian Dmitry Furman is of White and Red descent. His grandmother, who brought him up and to whom he was always closest, was an aristocrat, his grandfather – the couple were separated – a high Stalinist functionary, who even as a deputy minister lived quite poorly, devoted to his cause and work. Furman explains that he grew up without any Marxist formation, yet no hatred of Communism, regarding it as a new kind of religion, of which there had always been many sorts. After graduating, he did his research on religious conflicts in the Late Roman Empire, and then became a specialist in the history of religions in the Academy of Sciences. He never wrote anything about contemporary events, or had anything to do with them, until perestroika.When the USSR collapsed, however, he was virtually alone among Russian liberals in regarding the overthrow of Gorbachev as a disaster. For a year afterwards, he worked for the Gorbachev Foundation, and then returned to the Academy of Sciences, where he has since been a researcher at the Institute of Europe, and a prolific essayist on the whole zone covered by the former USSR. He has perhaps the most worked out, systematic view of post-Communist developments of any thinker in Russia today. It goes like this. The country is a ‘managed democracy’: that is, one where elections are held, but the results are known in advance; courts hear cases, but give decisions that coincide with the interests of the authorities; the press is plural, yet with few exceptions dependent on the government. This is, in effect, a system of ‘uncontested power’, increasingly similar to the Soviet state, but without any ideological foundation, which is evolving through a set of stages that parallel those of Russian Communism. The first phase sees the heroic destruction of the old order, a time of Sturm und Drang – Lenin and Yeltsin. The second is a time of consolidation, with the construction of a new, more stable order – Stalin and Putin. The leader of the second phase always enjoys much broader popular support than the leader of the first, because he unites the survivors of the original revolution, still attached to its values, and the anti-revolutionaries, who detested the anarchic atmosphere and the radical changes it brought. Thus Putin today continues Yeltsin’s privatisations and market reforms, but creates order rather than chaos. The successor to Putin in the third stage – comparable to Khrushchev – is unlikely to be as popular as Putin, because the regime, like its predecessors, is already becoming more isolated from the masses. Putin’s high ratings in the polls are entirely a function of his occupancy of the presidency: the rulers of Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan – Nazarbaev or Aliev – can match them, because their systems are so similar.
Might not nationalism provide such a basis [for regime renewal after Putin], if it is not already doing so? Furman dismisses the possibility. Russian nationalism is too low-powered to take the place of democracy as a legitimation of Putin’s rule. It is not a fanatical force like the nationalism that sustained Hitler’s regime, rather an impotent resentment that Russia can no longer bully its neighbours as it once did. The current campaign against Georgians is an instance: an expression of the frustration of a former master-people, that has now to treat those who were once its inferiors as equals. The result is a pattern of sudden rages over minor issues, explosions that are then as quickly forgotten – disputes with Ukraine over this or that dam, clamours over Serbia, and so on. These are neurotic, not psychotic symptoms. Such petty rancours are not enough to found a new dictatorship. That is why legitimation by the West remains important to the regime, and is in some degree a restraint on it. Since it has no ideology of its own, and cannot rely on a broken-backed nationalism, it must present itself as a specific kind of democracy that is accepted by the G7 – Russia as a ‘normal country’ that has rejoined Western civilisation.
Asked his view of Pipes’s diagnosis of Russia’s deep political culture – no popular understanding of democracy, or rule of law; tyranny always preferable to anarchy – Furman answers matter-of-factly: yes, it is more or less accurate, but Pipes is wrong to think this is uniquely Russian. It is a very widespread political culture, which you can see throughout the Middle East, in Burma, in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. We should not whitewash or embellish Russian political culture, but we should also not think of it as exceptional. Nor is it correct to imagine that there has been any significant revival of religion in post-Communist Russia. The Orthodox Church has been absorbed as an element of national identity, and officiates at baptisms and funerals. But not weddings – sexual life is completely secular – and rates of regular attendance at church are among the lowest in Europe.If the second phase in the cycle of managed democracy is now coming to an end in Russia, what of the third and fourth phases, comparable to the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods under Communism? The whole cycle, Furman replies, will be much shorter – not seventy, but about thirty years. We are probably at midpoint right now. As for the future: the Russian intelligentsia was briefly in power in 1991, but its ideology was primitive and its outlook naive. So when the democracy it wanted was discarded by Yeltsin, the defeat of democracy was the defeat of this intelligentsia too. Only when Russian intellectuals have produced a self-critical assessment of this experience will it be able to develop new and sounder ideals for the future.This is an impressively level-headed diagnosis of the country’s condition. Its limitation lies in the unargued premise of the argument. Managed democracy à la russe is tacitly viewed as a transition that, with all its warts, leads towards genuine democracy. Within the very sobriety of the scheme, a hopeful teleology is at work. Only one terminus is possible: the liberty of the moderns embodied in the Western Rechtsstaat. Realist in its judgments about Russia, the model is idealist in its assumptions about the West. Certainly, the two remain very different. But can the differences, and their direction, be captured by Furman’s implied dichotomy? For who imagines the political systems of the West to be ‘unmanaged’ democracies? Their own regressions are not factored into the evolutionary scheme. The idealising side of Furman’s construction exposes itself to the tu quoque retorts with which Putin and his aides now relish silencing criticism by the West.”

Anderson then goes on to review Alena Ledeneva’s How Russia Really Works, whose conclusions he finds too sanguine, and Andy Wilson’s Virtual Politics which he finds ‘searing’ and slightly more to his taste, although this sits rather oddly with his earlier argument that we should examine Russian society more than the state. He finishes by noting Russia’s demographic crisis and the country’s unpredecented geo-political weakness in facing a strong EU to the West and a rising China to the East. On the other hand, Will Hutton predicts trouble for China and the CIA research has seriously entertained the break-up of the EU’s semi- confederal system as a contingency to be considered, so perhaps Putin’s successors will have the last laugh. Certainly, they’ll have enough gas and oil to keep the lights on.

>Reform in post-accession CEE: long unwinding road?

>I get to chair an interesting seminar presentation from Prof Geoffrey Pridham of Bristol University at SSEES on post-accession ‘conditionality’, although as transpired from presentation and questions this might be better thought of as monitoring or transparency via a large number of different actors (European parliament, local media and NGOs, domestic oversight institutions set up to meet the acquis but now flexing their muscles, rather than the formal, bureaucratic oversight of the European Commission seen in the accession process. The big question is if (and how) the reforms (supposedly) enforced by the EU conditionality will unwind. The coming to power of the populist-nationalist government of Robert Fico in Slovakia and the similarly extremist backed minority coalition formed in Poland seemed a sign of such unravelling, although Geoffrey’s stress was on more on the culture, values and commitment of local elites than electoral politics. In this perspective generational turnover – indeed any kind of turnover of communist-era elites in the judiciary and elsewhere – is a key mechanism of change.

Sketching out hypotheses for the fate of EU backed reforms (institutional inertia; path depednet-style lock-in; social learning; domestic pressures for rollback) he paints a mixed picture based on the experience of Slovakia and Latvia, where – according to much conventional academic wisdom – the pressures exerted by the EU during accession process displaced the illiberal democracy of Vladimír Mečiar and dampened down the inherent potential for ethno-national conflict in a society where some 30 per cent of the population is composed of Russophone minorities. For me the most interesting aspect of the talk was the way it filled the post-accession hiatus with some structured ideas and hypotheses about the EU-domestic politics relationship and, in particular, its view of elites and outcomes as more important than formal institutional building per se in the post-accession domestic arena. Here Geoffrey seems close to the ‘elite network state’ concept of Anton Steen, rather than the checklist of formal institutions set up to meet the acquis (used by Anna Gryzmala-Busse in her (admittedly differently focused) work on politicization of the post-communist state).

In truth, ‘euro-realists’ like Václav Klaus could be found arguing for the need to customize the acquis well before accession and questions have been asked as to whether conditionalitiy was in, fact, not a myth. Wade Jacoby’s innovative study of different policy sectors highlights the uneven nature of the acquis, conditionality and implementation and studies of regionalization – admittedly, a hot (well, warm) topic in the region before accession got going have stressed how the acquis was simply instrumentalized and/or potemkinized in ongoing domestic struggles. Here James Hughes, Gwendolyn Sasse and Claire Gordon’s Europeanization and Regionalization in the EU’s Enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe : the Myth of Conditionality (Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) is well worth a shufti.

>UK Liberals’ Estonian ‘Cheeky Boy’ may have hidden political depths (honestly)

>I’ve always had a sneaking regard for the Liberal’s Northern Irish-born, Estonian-descended MP for Montgomeryshire in Wales, Lembit Öpik. As well as unusual family and political origins on the Celtic/Baltic fringe and some standard praiseworthy Liberal Democrat concerns with keeping rural post-office open and civil liberties, Öpik combines a eccentric range of personal and political interests: hang-gliding (which nearly finished him off), caravaning (he is a parliamentary consultant to the Caravaning Club of Great Britain), regular appearences on TV chat and talent shows (he plays the harmonica and does a decent stand-up routine) and appeals for increased spending to detect asteroids on catastrophic collision course with the Earth. He also seems to specialize in bringing the political kiss of death to other Lib Dems, having backed alcohol-impaired Liberal leader Charles Kennedy to the last last year as all around were finally giving up (Kennedy resigned) and then backed Lib Dem President Simon Hughes in the race to be his successor (whose chances promply collaped after relevations of hypocritically concealed bi-sexuality – Hughes was first elected to parliament in 1980 in a by-election which saw his Labour opponent subjected to some of the most virulently homophobic campaigning ever seen in Brtitish politics)

Interestingly, although Britain’s best known Estonian – he speaks the language fluently – and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Estonia, his voting record and webpages show Öpik somewhat inactive on (East Central) European issues. He does, however, seem to have a weakness for Eastern Europe and kitsch pop music. Not only did he attend the Eurovision song contest as a guest of Tallinn City Council in 2002 – the only recent Estonian related entry in the Register of Members’ Interests – but he is in the news once again for having dumped his fiancée, Welsh TV weather girl Sîan Lloyd for one of the Cheeky Girls, a UK-based Romanian kitsch pop duo – who I had never actually heard of until the Guardian Online (who else?) broke the story. Not sure whether to be proud or ashamed of that.

Öpik is not really taken seriously by some of the more worthy and staid Liberal Democrats – “Anyone seen an asteroid?” a card carrying Lib Dem academic immediately commented when I mentioned Öpik in his presence last year. However, the piccareque, self-deprecating, media-hogging personality must it seems to me, in part, be cultivated and seems to be to be a potentially valuable political asset. Lib Dem MPs tend to rely on local bases and individual votes far more than those of the two large British parties and a colourful personality can shore this up as surely as grassroots constituency work. Both London Mayor Ken Livingstone and now booze-felled former Liberal leader Charles Kennedy (“Chatshow Charlie” ) built up personal followings that enabled them to outmanoevre duller, more standard politicians in their party establishments by developing the same kind of never-boring “cheeky chappy” image. I’m sure – politically speaking – we really haven’t heard the last of Lembit.

>Liberal democracy: the heat is on

>A thought provoking article by Stephen King (the HSBC economist and columnist, not the horror writer) in a The Independent (6 November) about green taxation and the prospects of averting catastrophic climate change. Taking the liberal/economic view of climate changes as an externality that has be factored into individual economic decisions, he points out that taxation does work, but very slowly and not on the scale required for climate change to be addressed in time (as set out in the Stern Report). Smoking has been reduced by half over about 40 years as taxes have crept up, but there the individual has a direct personal interest in not becoming ill – whereas climate change really only bites 2-3 generations on – and the reduction achieved is still less than the 80% cut in global carbon emissions required.

The real issues, as the article, bleakly highlights, is that climate changes is a giant collective action problem – the tragedy of the commons writ very large indeed – which requires states and individual voters/consumers to subordinate their immediate interests to those of future generations and the global population as a whole. The chances of this happening, King convincing suggests, seem minimal, so we are likely to be heading for a bad global scenario in 50-100 years time. As in many collective action problems, some actors (US, China, India) count a whole lot more than others because they (will) emit more. US votes in elections – mainly in a few swing states and districts – have disproportionate weight in deciding about us all.

And the political consequences? Diminishing economic growth and social disruption implies conflict, radicalisation and perhaps resort to authoritarian solutions. Although Green politics in Europe is libertarian, anti-statist and generally politically right on, the political logic of coping with climate change (or its consequences) seems to imply a strengthening of political authority, growing inequality (green taxes on consumption are, after all, flat – hence regressive; development in poorer countries may add to climate change etc) and – as George Monbiot has spotted – the Wellsian prospect of a kind of world government, more likely perhaps to take the form of world governance, as bigger states imposing their will on smaller, taking action on climate change but at the price of entrenching their dominance and privilege.

The Pentagon, of course, got there before me in a widely publicized 2003 report focused on US security needs, but I guess the message is that eco-liberals might need to be as worried about the growth of state power and the future political environment as they do about the physical environment. On the other hand, Liberals from Mill to Hayek have cultivated a professional pessimism about global trends driving the rise of new forms of authoritarian and usually been only half right… Indeed, perhaps the late 21st century will just be the same as the late 19th or the late 20th – a few wealthy fortress like islands of political liberalism in an otherwise poor and illiberal world.

>"New elections please, duck" say Polish liberals

> Despite the conventional wisdom about flat, stunted civic societies in Central and Eastern Europe, as Petr Kopecký and Cas Mudde suggested in an excellent edited collection a few years ago (Uncivil Society?, Routledge, 2002) waves of civic mobilization do break over CEE fairly regularly. These days, more often than not, however, they are semi-orchestrated by liberal and right-wing parties trying to depict opponents as authoritarian throwbacks threatening democracy against whom a ‘new 1989’ is needed. The militant right-wing Hungarian protest culture – which first emerged in full view with the founding of the ‘civic circles’ movement in 2002 after the right narrowly lost elections and has gained a new lease of life with the Hungarian Socialists PM’s unwisely candid remarks that he had lied to win the election about a ‘fucked up’ economy (A European Commission report confirms Hungary has the worst fiscal stats in the EU – those other neo-liberal refuseniks, the Czechs and Slovenes do quite badly as well).

Now, reports OpenDemocracy, Poland’s liberal Civic Platform (OP) party is co-ordinating citizen protests to press ahead with a scheduled parliamentary vote on holding easrly elections against the wishes of the conservative-nationalist government of the Kaczynski brothers (President and PM respectively) which also includes the ultra-conservative League of Polish Families (LPR), who also do their own in right-wing Christian line counter-protes. The minority coalition was recently unstuck by the secret taping of an injudicious attempt to ‘buy’ an MP from another party (a practice not totally unknown in Czech politics, although despite murky accusations hard evidence has never emerged) Playing on the Kaczynski surname and Polish word for duck, the movement has the witty slogan “Sorry, Kaczory, jutro wybory!, which (I think) means”Sorry, ducks, elections tomorrow”.

>For Heaven’s sake

Another of the Czech Republic’s small liberal parties – the Liberal Reform Party (LiRA) attracts my attention. LiRA is a small Brno-based libertarian outfit led by the very energetic former Civic Democratic Alliance-member Milan Hamerský, which boasts one elected representative Brno Senator Jiří Zlatuška, the former Rector of Brno’s Masaryk University (who, one suspects, would probably have won as an independent).

LiRa, which will do well to pass the 1% barrier in next month’s elections has a rather different approach to the ‘New Freedom Union’s’ candid endorsement of the right to be a loser. In what I first thought was a sponsored link to a travel agent, tts web site promises Heaven on Earth (see above) seemingly in the form of a tropical island.

In practice, not unlike the dying Freedom Union, the party offers a scrappy, bullet-pointed programme of tax cuts, subsidy slashing and tuition fees (not an obvious voter winner with the New Political Generation the party is seeking to promote), albeit with the added novelty of leaving the environment to the free market to sort out. Perhaps the island represents the Czech Republic after global warming has set in…