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'It was disappointing to see how quickly we adopted the tawdry norms of African and global politics' [Nov. 18th, 2009|05:30 pm]
Battle of Ideas
Andrew Feinstein, former ANC Mp and author of After the Party: corruption, the ANC and Sooth Africa’s uncertain future is interviewed by Sharmini Brookes. Andrew spoke at the Battle of Ideas 2009 debate ‘South Africa: 15 years after apartheid’ chaired and produced by Sharmini.

SB: Andrew, your book After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa’s Uncertain Future is about how you, as an ANC MP and Member on the Public Accounts Committee revealed the corruption behind the ANC arms deal, your disillusionment with the ANC leadership when they refused to cooperate with the inquiry and your subsequent resignation from the government and emigration to Britain. Thabo Mbeki took over the leadership of the ANC in 1997 vowing that South Africa would not go the way of other countries on the African continent and that he would show the world that Africans can govern a democracy. Were you surprised to uncover corruption at the highest level of the government?

AF: Yes, very surprised. I had come to the ANC as something of an idealist (some would say a naive idealist) when working in squatter camps and townships on the outskirts of Cape Town in the 1980’s. I believed that the organisation was fundamentally moral and principled. Of course there were aberrations during the struggle, but I thought they were just that. When I discovered that there had been large-scale corruption by those in and around government in relation to the arms deal I was surprised and deeply dismayed. In addition, Mbeki had spoken of an African Renaissance in which Africa was governed to the highest standards. But then he allowed those around him to engage in corrupt activity of which he could hardly have been unaware. It was disappointing to see how quickly we adopted the tawdry norms of African and global politics.

You say Mbeki ‘allowed those around him to engage in corrupt activity of which he could hardly have been unaware’. Why would someone who is in principle against corruption allow it to go on? Where was the pressure coming from?

The pressure was two-fold: the first was the need to raise funds for the party which was in a dire financial state. When he took over as President of the ANC in 1998, Mbeki was determined that he would do better in the forthcoming election than Mandela had done in 1994. However, the party was virtually skint. Miraculously, by the time of the election we had enough money to hire Stanley Greenberg Associates, a US firm which had run the Clinton-Gore campaigns. This money came primarily from the almost $300 million in bribes paid on the very controversial 1998-99 arms deal. It was the beginning of a trend of the ANC benefitting from corrupt and/or dubious transactions. At the Polokwane conference in December 2007, without presenting written financial statements, the party announced it had a surplus of over R1.5 billion. The second locus of pressure was generated by Mbeki’s primary aim: holding onto power. He created a system of patronage where businesspeople and politicians who were close to him politically would benefit from state contracts and could engage in corrupt activities without consequences, while those opposed to him politically faced the full might of the state. The most telling comparison was between Joe Modise, an Mbeki insider and Defence Minister at the time of the controversial arms deal and his political nemesis, Jacob Zuma. Modise was protected from meaningful investigation by the Presidency, despite his direct involvement in the most corrupt aspects of the arms deal, while Zuma was (correctly) investigated for much smaller scale corruption.

Sadly, Mbeki was prepared to forsake his principled aversion to corruption in order to bolster party funds and maintain his grip on power within the ruling party. This marked the moment at which the ANC lost its moral compass.

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Q&A with John Cooper [Nov. 18th, 2009|04:56 pm]
Battle of Ideas
John Cooper is a member of the criminal and human rights Bar and is considered one of the leading barristers in London. He was recently nominated as Human Rights Barrister of the Year and has just been Instructed to represent some of the families in the NIMROD aircraft litigation in their European court challenge to the Government, relating to violations of Article 2 Right to Life issues. He is also a writer and broadcaster.

John spoke to with trainee barrister and Battle of Ideas committee member Luke Gittos.

Luke Gittos: It is often argued that the jury trial is fundamental to the justice system, with many calling for it to be included in a new bill of rights. Why is it so highly regarded and is it still important?

John Cooper: The jury trial is the most important fundamental of the criminal justice system. Performing jury service is often referred to as the most important civic duty of a member of the public, outside of war time. This is not overstated. The jury allows for the participation of the citizen in the criminal justice process and acts as a vital break upon the State. If the State make an accusation against the citizen, and assert, through a charge, that a citizen should be criminalised, then it is a requirement of any democratic process, that a jury of our peers should decide whether or not the State has proved its case.

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Risky Business: Paul Wilmott on the financial sector and the economic crisis [Oct. 27th, 2009|04:03 pm]
Battle of Ideas
Dr Paul Wilmott is interviewed by Stuart Simpson. Paul is in conversation with Stuart this weekend at the Battle of Ideas festival 2009, where they will discuss ‘Risky Business: does financial engineering add up’ on Sunday 1 November at 9.45pm. The Battle of Ideas 2009 takes place on 31 October and 1 November 2009 at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2EU. For more details go to www.battleofideas.org.uk

Stuart Simpson: As the banks return to profitability large bonuses are returning. Does this mean that the financial sector has turned a corner? Should we celebrate this or are you worried that the lessons of the crisis have not been learned?

Paul Wilmott: No, we haven't turned a corner. And, yes, we should still be worried. The Duke of York said recently that the bonuses are minute in the scale of things, but that misses the point. It's not the size of the bonuses that matters it's the behaviour of the bankers that results from these bonuses. The problem is the way that incentives are still lined up with risk taking with other people's money. Take risks with your own money and maybe make a fortune, that's fine. But risk what is called "OPM" and make a fortune without the possibility of any downside for yourself? That's not right. Even the talk of paying people in company shares has me worried. I can imagine right now that bank lawyers and accountant and quants are devising cunning ways around this.

No one can deny the failures of the financial sector. But are you not worried that bankers are being made the scapegoats in a simple morality tale, where greed and excess lead to failure? If we focus on the behaviour of bankers do we not miss more serious systemic problems that are yet to be addressed?

First of all I've started to explain this as envy rather than greed. I'm trying to promote greed, in moderation, as healthy, a la Gordon Gecko, with obvious evolutionary benefits. And envy, although also of obvious evolutionary benefits, as being its evil, or rather plain nasty, twin. I spoke about this at a conference recently and someone told me this nice Russian tale: "A genie visits a farmer and tells him he will grant him any wish, but with the proviso that his neighbour will get double whatever he asks for. So the farmer wishes to have one eye plucked out." Unpleasant, but it sums up an aspect of human nature that we all recognise. The trick is to set up a banking system, and indeed a political system, that acknowledges the greedy/envious side of human nature and uses it for the good of society as a whole. And as for systemic problems generally, yes there are bucket loads of them waiting in the wings. The world has shrunk dramatically in just the last two or three decades, expect a lot of unpleasantness in the not-too-distant future. Maybe we should treat the banking crisis as a test case for future catastrophes.

If you are not worried about greed and excess per se, what is it exactly about the way in which bankers have behaved that concerns you? After all, a short definition of banking as a practice might be 'taking risks with other people's money.'

They do not make it clear what risks they are taking. They don't know their clients personally anymore, they suffer no downside when things go pear shaped, why should they even care? When lecturing about risk I sometimes ask my audience, usually bankers, whether they will take more risk with OPM than with their own, less risk, or the same. This usually gets a laugh. Some people proudly say they will be more responsible with OPM, some boast that they take more risk with OPM. I've only ever had the correct answer once, and that's "I would take as much risk as I said I would." That's assuming they even have the ability to measure risk, a big assumption and another story entirely.

Isn't that other story key? The popular perception of the City is of a vast casino, where traders gamble other people's money as you say. But a cornerstone of modern finance is the mathematics of risk management. Far from recklessly taking risks bankers have congratulated themselves on their ability to better manage risk. Has the crash of 2008 falsified the assumptions of quantitative finance? Are we not able to measure risk as well as we thought?

Who is 'we'? There are plenty of good risk-management tools out there. But again there's no incentive to use them. The more you know about risk the less you trade and the smaller your bonus.

An important incentive that may be lacking is bankruptcy. Do you agree with Mervyn King that banks should be broken up into safe retail banks and risky investment banks that may then be allowed to fail?

I am happy that Lehman was allowed to fail. But on the other hand saving AIG was the right thing to do. Bankruptcy is a nice incentive, but it hurts shareholders first. Do they know this can happen, and how quickly it can happen? The employees, the traders, the managers, etc. will be temporarily unemployed before moving on to the next lucrative casino. So first there needs to be more transparency, we must know exactly what our banks are getting up to, and, yes, I'd like to see some very safe retail banks that are really, really boring. And second I'd like to see the risk takers, the 'investment' banks, having less power and control over the world economy. As someone who trains more people in risk management and derivatives than almost anyone else on the planet, I'm saying there are too many derivatives around, they are not necessary in the current numbers and are dangerous. That type of bank should be allowed to fail, provided that investors know that this can happen and that such a failure will not bring down innocent parties.
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Martin Bell: 'The House of Commons cannot be trusted to police itself' [Oct. 26th, 2009|04:56 pm]
Battle of Ideas
Martin Bell (left) is interviewed by Angus Kennedy. Martin is speaking at the Parliament: reform or revolution? debate at the Battle of Ides 2009 festival on Saturday 31 October at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU (www.battleofideas.org.uk). His book A Very British Revolution published by Icon is out now.

This is an edited transcript of a verbatim interview for the Battles in print series. To read this and other Battles in print go to www.battleofideas.org.uk

Angus Kennedy: One of the things that comes across very strongly at the beginning of the book is your expression of people's anger at the expenses scandal. You refer to Cromwell's purging of the Rump Parliament.. the lynch mob atmosphere on Question Time, you wrote the book very quickly at the time, in ten weeks or so, do you believe that anger is still there now?

Martin Bell: I believe so, I think it's really touch and go. It's very difficult to know because we are coming towards the end of an 82 day parliamentary recess at a time when many MPs have apparently been unwilling to show their faces in their own constituencies, reluctant to go to Tesco in case someone asks them who's paying for it. I think some of them will hope by the time they return it will have calmed down and they can go back to business as usual. The anger was very real: they have felt it on the doorstep when they go canvassing and so on. I've never known a time when everyone is talking politics. I may be wrong but I think it's still there.

It's happened before though; there seem to be regular expressions of anti-sleaze, of popular anger that pop up from time to time. How significant are they really?

I was the beneficiary of one of them in 1997. But I think the scale is different, we were talking then about two dozen MPs, all Tories as it happened: they all left in one way or another, all except Neil Hamilton and he was deposed. I think this is more serious because this is as it were the entire political class... I think it's the scale that makes this different and the character of it. The phantom mortgages: this is something that if it had happened in a private company or a public corporation; I mean not only would the person involved be straight out of the door but the police would be involved from the start. There are also some practices so distasteful honestly. I mean the idea that an MP because you're elected to Parliament that you can justify having the taxpayer pay your grocery bills - the idea would never have occurred to me. Completely shameless. I never knew about it.

Let's talk about that question of political direction and political leadership because the title of the book, A Very British Revolution, posed a question for me - and it relates to the anger question, where did it come from - is this scandal and how it's been playing out driven by the anger of ordinary people or does it reflect a lack of vision, almost the implosion of the political class? Is it then any wonder that this is reflected in people asking the 'what are you for' question?

They came in on that platform, the promise to clean things up and then they actually ignored it as an issue. If you look at the way that Alistair Graham's Committee on Standards in Public Life was completely sidelined by Tony Blair and I quote Graham in the book saying that his greatest regret was his failure to convince the Prime Minister to put ethical thinking and ethical behaviour at the centre of his agenda. But my first choice for a title was Swindlers' List which I preferred but my publishers thought it was too jokey. But A Very British Revolution is accurate: we haven't had a political revolution since the Civil War, since the Rump Parliament was thrown out and so on. We've always preferred evolution to revolution. And maybe... the revolution has only kind of half happened. The chapter about what happened to the Parliament Standards Bill and its passage through Parliament in the month before the recess, so many of its teeth were drawn, Parliament still retains the essential right of self-regulation.

The parliamentary sovereignty question, how important is that to you: do you see any dangers in Parliament being policed in some sense?

I actually share the view of Peter Oborne, that he'd always been in favour of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty but when he saw what these people had been doing, the answer was that they're not to be trusted. I was for three and a half years on the Standards and Privileges Committee so I saw the regulatory machinery in action and some members of that committee left their party allegiances at the committee room door and others did not... My experience is that the House of Commons cannot be trusted to police itself.

(Photo: Getty Images)

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Alan Miller: 'We don't do McDonald's' - America and world culture [Oct. 26th, 2009|03:01 pm]
Battle of Ideas
America no longer commands the type of adoration that once existed – at least not in elitist European circles. Where once the remarkable story of America wowed the world – with its can-do attitude, where ambition and hard work produced a society that was clearly dynamic with the potential to provide decent living standards to an ever increasing population – these days it is far more common to witness derogatory remarks and snide comments. Sniggering in fact is the order of the day where the United States is now seen as a land of obese junk-eating philistines, who don’t know where the major capital cities of the world are, or even where many countries are on the world map.

The thing is, when reflecting on American contribution to civilization, it is breathtaking just how significant culturally it has been. It is hard not to compile a short shopping list of some of the greatest cultural contributors the world has witnessed, just to underline the point. From Steinbeck and Hemingway to Arthur Miller and David Mamet to film directors John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky we could not imagine a world where “American culture” was absent. Musically we would truly be living in a far duller world – the soaring heights of jazz, the spiritual elevation of the Blues right up to rock and pop, Disco, Hip Hop and Funk we could never begin to contemplate our world without this and so it is also true in classical music, where even in an age of dumbing down American orchestras regularly play to packed audiences.

However, the contemporary popularity of anti-Americanism, is not so much to do with the empirical record of cultural output, rather it is a statement about the very notion that underlines the philosophy that has characterized America. Indeed, in an age where we believe “small is beautiful” and “less is more” the bold outlook of the American Dream is now seen as a real problem. Where once society believed we could innovate, design, build and manufacture our way to overcoming obstacles, today we have come to view these very things as the heart of the problem itself.

So, the popular disdain that has become fashionable towards America represents far more our cynical and parochial view towards human achievement itself. Of course it is far easier to guffaw at a generalized notion of “ugly, overweight and stupid Americans” than to begin to unpick why it is we have become so disillusioned with the idea of human progress and ingenuity.
In an age where the popular vocabulary at school and in business encourages us all to limit our “carbon footprint” and that we need to ensure there are limits to growth and “Sustainable Development” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) the very idea at the core of the American project is seen as being thoroughly flawed. In truth of course, there have always been severe limitations on the ability of America to deliver on the promise of the American Dream. However today, we are more likely to entertain the idea that humans are the problem on the planet and the pernicious anti Americanism really represents a nasty anti-humanism.

In the “age of Obama” one may believe that things will perhaps be a little different. After all, if such an intelligent president, a law professor who also happens to be black can make it there, well surely that is a sign of a changing nation. The thing is however, society’s contemptuous regard towards America also infects the elite in America and represents the idea that humans are a mad and bad bunch that need to put the brakes on. While China and India are now making significant inroads in to impacting the world, the one thing that does seem to be universal is the outlook that people are a problem – and not a solution.

The idea that homogenous, gluttonous, ridiculous America is chomping its way through the worlds’ resources and blindly exporting a culture of ignorance is just plain stupid. However, the underlying values that inform it, degrading humanity’s ability to improve the world continually through our intelligence, creativity, development and aspiration is a far more serious issue. It is something we need to address and challenge immediately.

Alan Miller lives in New York and London, is Director of The NY Salon www.nysalon.org and co-Founder of London’s Truman Brewery and Vibe Bar. He is speaking at The Battle of Ideas Satellite event 'We don't do McDonald's': America and world culture at University of Notre Dame London Centre on Tuesday 27 October at 7pm. For further details go to www.battleofideas.org.uk or call 020 7269 9220.

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