Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

‘The Europe Dilemma’, by Roger Liddle

2 October, 2015 Leave a comment

europedilemmaIn September 2016, the referendum on United Kingdom membership of the European Union is likely to be held. With less than twelve months to go, The Europe Dilemma: Britain and the Drama of EU Integration by Roger Liddle, published in 2014, is valuable reading. He provides insight into how Britain’s relationship with European institutions has affected both parties. At the date of its publication, the travails of the Conservative Party was Liddle’s main focus in his conclusion; while they are still more likely to suffer internally from divisions on Europe, the debate within the Labour Party has reignited since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, notwithstanding his recent commitment to remaining.

Lord Liddle is an unashamed europhile, whose major regret is that Tony Blair (whom he advised on European affiars) adopted an obsequiousness towards the Murdoch press that led to the United Kingdom’s non-participation in the euro single currency. In his analysis, living within the euro would have forced a tighter fiscal policy on Britain, and slowed the decline of British manufacturing.

Liddle’s case is that Britain’s leaders from Macmillan on let their country down by not participating as they could have in the European project. He argues that Britain paid a continuing price for its late arrival. Not only were they perceived with wariness by the original members, but they lost the opportunity to shape the Common Agricultural Policy, which would later become a source of grievance for the British. In Liddle’s view, the same could be said of their approach to the euro, where Britain lost an opportunity to steer it in their favour. Rather than viewing involvement in the European Union as an important venture in global politics, in positive terms, British politicians consistently talk of standing up for national interests. Liddle analyses the attitudes of the two major parties towards Europe from the 1960s to the time of his writing, both in government and in opposition, with particular spotlights on the 1975 referendum held by the Labour government on whether to remain within the EEC, and the failure of the United Kingdom to join the single currency.

David Cameron called the referendum in response to pressure from within his own party, from UKIP outside, and from the eurosceptic press. If Cameron is a moderate on Europe, Blair was an enthusiast. Yet he found himself pushed into taking stances he could not have desired. He did not stand up to those who were less committed, many of whom were part of the New Labour project. For example, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisted that there would have be a referendum on the 2004 Constitutional Treaty, which Blair initially resisted, it being less important in substance than either the Single European Act or the Maastricht Treaty. This public pledge led to the referendums in France and the Netherlands, which scuppered the Treaty (though it was substantially reformulated in the Lisbon Treaty).

Liddle also highlights Blair’s weakness against Brown, allowing him to set the terms for any entry into the single currency. It is clear that Blair had begun to have doubts about Brown as a successor, yet was unwilling to confront him in any serious way. Liddle marks out as the great conundrum of Blair’s premiership, that “if Brown was so unfit to be prime minister, why did our hero Blair allow a situation in which that became inevitable”. If instead of simply demoting Robin Cook from the Foreign Office in 2001, Blair had switched his portfolio with Brown’s, to have a more committed europhile in the exchequer, he might have achieved the legacy he intended of bringing Britain into the euro.

However, Blair receives praise for his commitment to enlargement, and for waiving the 7-year derogation on the free movement of labour (which the Irish government under Bertie Ahern did too, to its credit). Unlike the Labour Party that fought the 2015 election, Blair continues to affirm the merits of this policy. Liddle writes that is “depressing that the entire British political class has run away from explaining the benefits of eastern migration to economy and society”.

Liddle is naturally more critical still of Cameron, in decisions such as Britain’s opt-out of the Stability Treaty, of which he writes that it “did wonders for his rating in the party and the country, but at the price of severe damage to national interests”. His Bloomberg speech, in which he announced his intentions to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU, paradoxically couched Britain’s in more positive terms than anything from a Tory leader since Major in Bonn in 1990. Cameron now finds himself looking for a symbolic gesture to present to the British public in a referendum, just as Harold Wilson found presenting a change in New Zealand milk quotas as a significant renegotiation. I would also speculate that Cameron is privately more open to immigration than his push to drive down numbers entering Britain would suggest.

Cameron should not believe that by putting this referendum, which he hopes and expects to win, that he will settle the European question for a generation, or give him rest from the anti-EU sections of his party. Such are the lessons of history from the Labour Party; eight years after holding a referendum in which two-thirds of voters supported remaining in the EEC, the party stood in the 1983 general election on a platform of withdrawal, and had lost many of its more pro-European members to the newly formed Social Democratic Party (later to join with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats). It took many years for the Labour Party to resolve these internal battles in the New Labour project.

The New Stateman asked this week, Can anything sink the triumphant Conservatives? With Labour out in Scotland, thanks to the SNP, and undergoing an identity crisis since Corbyn’s election (watch Shadow Justice Secretary Lord Falconer outline the differences he holds with his party leader, and these tensions are there across the shadow cabinet), it might seem like the Conservatives are indeed in for a few years of plain sailing. But if anything can put them off course, it may be this referendum, and the divisions within the party, whatever the results.

Do check out Liddle’s book over the course of this debate!


Immigration and Islam

3 January, 2010 Leave a comment

In his recent book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Christopher Caldwellcaldwellreflections describes what he sees as the problem Europe faces with the recent increase in Muslim immigration and how it has changed our continent. For a conservative writer from the Weekly Standard to invoke Edmund Burke in his title, it should a clearly significant work.

While dealing with the question at length, he offers few solutions. One might expect in a book such as this that there might be a short summarizing chapter asking where we should go from here. Early in the book, he does praise the merits of the points-based system of immigration, and his chapter Europe’s Crisis of Faith, Mr Caldwell targets what he sees as the fluidity of moral precepts in European countries. This, indeed, seems to be his ultimate thesis. He writes, “When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter”.

Caldwell certainly makes a valuable argument that we should recognize that immigration did not happen in the way that was expected, and that the needs that existed after the Second World War do not still need to be fulfilled by continuing immigration. Continuing immigration is sometimes justified as a solution to Europe’s demographic problem, where with an aging population and declining birth rate, we will soon have a problem paying for social welfare and pensions. Of course, the immigrants themselves will surely claim the same benefits when they retire. What we will need to implement to tackle this problem is an increase in the retirement age (the health of a 65-year-old has improved dramatically in the years since social welfare provisions were implemented) and a reduction in state pensions (lifetime earnings have also increased, so that people should be able to save more for their retirement). Such practical suggestions are lost on Caldwell, which even if they would not tackle the problem, they would alter incentives. European countries should also consider the levels of unemployment benefit, and could legitimately strengthen provisions on years of residency for qualifying eligibility.

His response is that of a social conservative. He blames the rise and success of Islamic extremism in Europe on our cultural uncertainty and lack of strong values. He criticizes an informational video by the Dutch authorities for immigrants, explaining Dutch laws and customs, for the fact that it asks immigrants to handle the country’s moral peculiarities, specifically showing a gay couple expressing affection in public. But this is a norm in the Netherlands, and there is no reason this should be hidden from immigrants till after they are settled in the country and then notice what they deem to be moral laxity. He misses the fact that in modern times, Europeans can be secular while maintaining links with their older culture. He wonders how the Italian Oriana Fallaci can threaten those who harm Florentine landmarks such as the Santa Maria Cathedral given their religious meaning. Such a feeling is not a break from any European secularism, but something that people can and do feel strongly about for cultural reasons.

Caldwell makes a valid case that we can’t expect Islam to experience an Enlightenment if we aid in shielding it from the criticism of a latter-day Voltaire. But the response to this should not be a fearful consolidation of the right, to see the progress of Western civilization as at fault. Europe’s intellectual tradition is one of slow change in response to circumstance, something that could be interpreted as relativist if one wishes to be derisory, but more properly reflects a cautious conservatism. European politicians and intellectuals need to put the moral case for a liberal secular capitalist pluralist society. We do need to be clear about where we stand. There should be no special provisions or protections for beliefs, and to that end, we should go the way of implementing laws prohibiting blasphemy. The laws in European countries should make it clear to immigrants that they cannot expect to change the rule of law as it exists, but that they are otherwise welcome. And, while recognizing the Continent’s Christian heritage, we should not ignore, as Caldwell does by asserting that our views of human rights have exclusively Christian origins, its pre-Christian philosophical and political tradition, of Aristotle, Perikles and Cicero.

The book is, of course, ostensibly about immigration, and the problem with Islam. But it is Europe’s cultural response that is Caldwell’s concern. His use of statistics also show a certain disconnect throughout the book. He cites the low levels of support among Muslims for operations such as the Iraq War, while acknowledging only briefly the low (if not quite as low) levels of support among the population in general. Towards the end of the book, he mentions the fact that 90% of Spanish voters disapproved of the Iraq War, but he fails to make this connexion when relevant.

In discussing the declining strength and increasing moral weakness of Christianity, he wonders why it is we hear of converts from Christianity to Islam, but not vice versa, suggesting that it is lack of conviction of Christians relative to Muslims, and the general decline in the West. But later he mentions that there have been thousands of converts to Christianity from Islam, but who have kept quiet about it because of the reaction in Islamic communities to apostasy.

He makes the claim that it is clearly a failing of democracy if majorities in opinion polls favour a reduction in immigration, as if a question like this should be a litmus test in a tradition of representative government.

In a few odd pages, he justifies the anti-immigrant policies of each a series of the extremist parties in Europe. He defends Vlaams Belang’s policies as they are in a context of general Flemish separatism and nationalism (of course the Nazi’s anti-Semitism was only in the context of their general German nationalism). He claims that we Jörg Haidar could not have been an absolute bigot because he created links with Col. Gaddafi, with whom he found common cause on anti-Semitism. And the Danish People’s Party is ok because one of its senior members is a lesbian bellydancer.

In as much as we need to have this debate about immigration and how to tackle the changing demographics in Europe, Caldwell’s contribution is useful. Of course we need to address the oppression of women, whether honour killings, genital mutilation or forced marriages. And we cannot allow terrorist groups to organize within our country. My criticism is not of the real cause for concern presented by Caldwell and others. But a confident response need not be a conservative one. Whatever marginal increases there have been in religious identification there have been in Europe recently, we should not expect to see any significant return to religious faith. So we cannot rest our hope there. We must be confident in a neutral application of the rule of law, and be proud of our democratic traditions, if we are to set out a message as to what Europe is, and what it should remain.

On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

31 December, 2009 Leave a comment

In 1859, 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) published On Liberty, one of the finest expostulations of individual liberty in political philosophy. Mill was someone whose words in the years since his death have been expropriated by both socialists, who emphasize his ideas on collective ownership of firms, and by conservatives, who emphasize his suspicion of the state. While he does offer a lot to many political traditions, he should still be regarded primarily as a liberal, given his continual emphasis on the importance of the individual as a political and moral agent in society.

On Liberty is, of course, most famous for his delineation in Chapter One of the role of society in restricting the actions of individuals, with what has become known as the harm principle:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

His words have since been appealed to in opposition to laws regulating private actions and speech. Read in context of the work as a whole, it is clear that Mill was cautious not just of the arms of the state itself, but also of society in general, which in the later Victorian era had become exceptionally moralistic. It had taken on a very middle-class puritan outlook, and he was critical of this attitude of social conservatives even when they did not specifically manage to get the point of legislating against what they determined as vice. He strongly defends freedom of opinion and expression, but his justification is more on the usefulness of alternative points of view in challenging received opinion than on the simple right of the individual. In his defence of freedom of practice and custom, he asks his English reader to consider their position in another society with different customs and taboos, which it would surely be wrong to compel them to follow.

Mill was no armchair philosopher. From early in his life he showed his deep concern for society through his actions. Richard Reeves, in his biography Victorian Firebrand, describes how at the age of 17 he found the corpse of a newborn infant, and from then realized how important education on birth control would be to the lives of the working classes. He distributed literature on birth control, contravening laws on obscenity and spent two nights in jail. At the same time, he strongly believed that parents, and not the state had a deep responsibility for the children they had borne. In Chapter Five of On Liberty, he believed that the state should require a certain standard of education, but that it should be “fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent”. While he did accept that the state should pay for the education of the children of those who could not pay for it, his beliefs that parents should be responsible for providing for their offspring were such that he argued that beyond those who could not provide for them should not have the right to bear children, something few who have a followed him could stomach, following the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). While still on the subject of education, he anticipated Milton Friedman’s school vouchers in arguing against a state school system, saying that “a general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”.

His own family and personal life was interesting. He was subject to a harsh educational regime by his father, the philosopher James Mill (1773–1836). In his Autobiography, he recounts beginning to read Latin at eight, and Greek at an earlier age, and reading many of the classic works in the original language at that age. He asserts his belief that any child subject to such an education at that age could learn as he did, in line with idea of the blank slate, where the capacity of our minds are not determined at birth, something I would highly doubt. He never got a chance to try such methods with any child of his own, being in a long-term relationship with a married woman. He met Harriet Taylor in 1830, married since 1826 to John Taylor. Harriet and John Stuart soon fell in love, but her husband remained alive till 1849, John Stuart and Harriet marrying in 1851, when she was beyond child-bearing age.

Mill also served a term in parliament from 1865 to 1868, and was an active voice, speaking strongly in favour of the Union in the American Civil War, in defence of the life of condemned Fenians, and on suffrage reform. His greatest parliamentary legacy was the beginning of the campaign for political equality for women. He moved an amendment in 1867 in a debate on the Reform Bill to change the word ‘man’ to ‘person’. He viewed the position of women in most households as an anomaly akin to slavery, “not felt to jar with modern civilization, any more than domestic slavery among the Greeks had jarred with their notion of themselves as free people”. He was critical of the Reform League for the aim of manhood, rather than universal, suffrage.

He had ideas on voting reform that received very little popularity, specifically the idea that votes should be given in according to the degree of education. Every ordinary unskilled labourer would get one vote, a skilled labourer would have two, and so on, so that lawyers, doctors, clergymen and artists would get five or six. Proposed when those at the bottom end of the scale had no vote at all, this was better than nothing, but was unlikely to appeal to many. He also opposed the secret ballot, believing that people should be able to account for their votes.

He also voted against the abolition of the death penalty, arguing “what else but effeminacy is it to be so much more shocked by taking a man’s life than by depriving him of all that makes life valuable”, and was an advocate of compulsory military service, so that there could be an army called at any time if necessary, without a permanent force, believing the latter more likely to be oppressive.

In economic terms, Mill was clearly a classical economist. He opposed progressive taxation, “to tax larger incomes at a higher percentage than the smaller is to lay a tax on industry and economy and to impose a penalty of people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbours” and he criticized the paternalistic nature of factory legislation, creating “in the minds of labouring people the persuasion that it is the business of others to take care of their condition”. In his later years, however, he supported the rise of the working classes, believing that they should seek to own the sources of labour collectively, through cooperatives. Given changing times he lived in, it is difficult for any contemporary political tradition to claim his views wholesale, though with this mix, he fits most closely with the Liberal Democrats, as one would expect. He has served as one of the great influences for those across the political spectrum, and his ideas remain a yardstick by which people seek to justify their political actions.

The Decline of American Liberalism, by Arthur A. Ekirch

22 December, 2009 Leave a comment

This book, written in 1955, recounts the history of the United States from the perspective of the declining importance and success in politics of the liberal tradition as expounded by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Prof. Arthur Ekirch (1915-2000) praises the liberalism of eighteenth century political thought, and how the American Revolution was clearly a liberal one, where Washington did not become a Caesar, a Cromwell or a Napoleon. The American revolutionaries were conscious of the need to avoid replacing the military rule from Britain with a domestic equivalent.

Prof. Ekirch sees the decline of American liberalism beginning effectively from the end of the Revolution, with a brief life under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the book, he holds agrarian Jeffersonian liberalism as the ideal. He quotes Jefferson, in a sentiment that typifies the principles and attitude of the book,

Government should not only be prohibited from interfering with the rights of individuals and from creating a large bureaucratic class who could live at public expense … The greatest of all dangers to democratic freedom and equality was the use of political power by an aristocracy, a bureaucracy, a mercantile oligarchy, a pressure group, or any other minority interest in order to increase their wealth or to obtain the privilege of living parasitically on other men’s labor.

He chastises attempts by the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to aid business in the early years of the new state. The book, however, should not bee seen as a diatribe by a pseudo-libertarian small government conservative, as gives more space to a criticism of the Alien and Sedition Acts instituted by President John Adams’ administration in 1798, and heavily attacked by Jefferson. Then Jefferson’s own two terms show the difficulties even true liberals have in governing true to their principles, particularly in light of the nationalism provoked by the continuing Napoleonic wars in Europe.

Ekirch believed there was promise in President Andrew Jackson following in the Jeffersonian tradition, but this was ultimately confined to the sphere of economics. “Retaining only its economic program, the Democratic party of Jackson worked out an alliance among southern slaveholders, western expansionists, and the urban and immigrant masses of the North. National unity was thus preserved at the price of liberal values”. Then followed the single greatest example of the decline of American liberalism, in the perpetutation of the practice of slavery, and the extent to which the country had to go to end it. In the case of the Civil War, while Ekirch does give voice to pacifists, he does not write against it, as he does other wars. He does, however, lament the illiberal practices by the government during the time of the war, such as conscription, arbitrary arrest and the seizure of property.

Ekirch’s argument really takes hold recounting the years after the Civil War, when with nationalism the scope of the government grew significantly, and with it the possibility of patronage and favours. He recounts the corruption of the Republican Party in the postwar years. He is also of critical of the Reconstruction policy, “based on force and military occupation of the former Confederacy, was the opposite of liberal”. But there are times when a liberal needs to use coercion, and had they ensured that there would be a democratic society based on liberal values, then I think it would have been justified. The real fault was that the policy of Reconstruction was often times triumphalist and not being directed on liberal ends.

He is strongly critical of the Populist movement, who began in years from 1887 to institute segregation laws in railroad travel and the beginning of the Jim Crow Laws. As poor white activists sought greater political power, they used this to assert a higher place in society than the black population. This time also saw the rise of protectionism, with the Morrill Act from 1862. The Republican Party, as the party of big business, were all too happy subsidize and protect the business and trade of their supporters. During the same period, the native American population lost their separate nation status, with an act of 1871 stipulating that no more treaties be made between Indians and the Federal government.

For much of the late nineteenth-century years, the Republicans were more likely to interfere in the economy, with the Democrats taking a classical liberal approach. This saw a break when President Gover Cleveland, hitherto known as a liberal, used Federal forces to break the Pullman Strike in 1894, led by Eugene Debs against private railroads. The criticism of Theodore Roosevelt’s nationalist outlook is interesting as he was frequently cited by Sen. John McCain last year as his favourite president. In a speech on praising state education, Roosevelt said that “the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable”, as McCain spoke of patriotism and the virtue in serving a purpose higher than oneself.

Liberals saw hope in the election of Woodrow Wilson in1912, but were to be disappointed by his eventual entry into the First World War. He initially received the support of many liberals, for his entry into the War, but when this did occur, there was a growing resentment at the illiberal policies of the war at home, particularly in terms of conscription and censorship. The description of these years again brought to mind recent years, with a war ostensibly fought on liberal grounds leading the government in an illiberal direction. Similarly the reluctance of Republicans to criticize Democrats for entering a war was to reoccur when LBJ started the Vietnam War.

Ekirch shows a particular respect for Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party, who was imprisoned in 1919 for his opposition to the draft during the war. President Wilson proved particularly vindictive in his case, and it took the election of a Republican president, Warren G. Harding, to commute his sentence and invite him to the White House.

President Harding’s return to normalcy was not to see any revival of liberalism, as the 1920s were to witness a rise in anti-immigrant feeling; a resurgence of racism manifested in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan; a constitutional prohibition of alcohol; laws on sexual vice; the prohibition of narcotic drugs (which of all these, is the one to remain to this day); censorship of books and film; and the increase in the brutality of police techniques. There was not even the trade-off for a classical liberal of free trade, as the GOP returned to its old policy of higher protective tariffs.

He sees Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victory over Herbert Hoover as inevitable given the circumstances, but condemns the way the New Deal created institutional framework to the advantage of big business. Ekirch is critical of the way the US prepared for and fought the war. Here he is speaking as a pacifist; as a European pleased on balance with the outcome of the Second World War, I cannot go as far as he does. But he is right to condemn the treatment of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were citizens, sent to government detention centres, and of conscientious objectors (of which, the author’s biography at the end reveals, he was one, sent for two years to a public service camp).

The ten years between the end of the War and writing his book provided ample further material to account for the declining force of liberal ideals in government, with the way the Cold War was being fought and national loyalty required. Spending on security continued to be high, the Secretary of State was for the first time a former professional soldier, and freedom of speech and association was curtailed for communists. There was some good, however, in the righting of the ancient wrong by the beginning of granting political liberty to the black population. Still, government exercised greater control over education, with laws to fire teachers who would not swear an oath of loyalty to the nation. Sen. Robert Taft was particularly adamant in his opposition to this practice, and Ekirch is critical of liberals for leaving this role to a conservative.

Ekirch’s work here is certainly thorough, cataloguing the encroaching role of the state in all the time since the United States’ independence. He is to be commended for truly taking a universal approach to liberalism, not confining it simply to a single issue such as the economy or war policy, and also for seeing those as different in other aspects as Eugene Debs and Robert Taft as intellectual allies depending on the cause. My one criticism is that he does not give enough room for a discussion of the movement for racial equality, and of the racism of politicians such as Woodrow Wilson. I would certainly recommend it, though it is difficult to come across, as it was a book I had to order in from the Independent Institute in California.

The Bankers, by Shane Ross

7 December, 2009 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago now, I read Shane Ross‘s recent book, The Bankers, which I would recommend to anyone curious as to why the banking and financial crisis was so much worse here than in most countries.

Problems arose because both government and the banks were happy with a situation with only nominal financial, and the implicit assumption that they would help each other out if needed. While the regulators were supposedly independent, Sen. Ross shows how the cosy the relationship was between them and bankers. He opens with what he dubs the bankers’ last supper in Novemer 2008, to mark the retirement of the chairman of the Financial Regulator, Brian Patterson, where many of the major figures of Irish banking gathered. The event was hosted by Pat Farrell, president of the Irish Banking Federation, who also happened to be a former Fianna Fáil general secretary. Here we had a perfect case of the culture of the time, where bankers, those were supposed to regulate them, and actors in the political process mixed freely without any presumption of conflict.

Fianna Fáil doesn’t come out well in the book. In a chapter linking the triumvirate of bankers, developers and Fianna Fáil, Ross shows how entrenched property developers were as part of the party’s establishment in recent years. In the run-up to the 2007 general election, Bertie Ahern addressed the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and one of those on the guestlist for the Irish delegation was property developer Sean Dunne. Dunne has had a long-standing relationship with Fianna Fáil, and his personal assistant, Anto Kelly, was a campaign manager for former Minister and Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue.

Or the Bailey brothers. Michael Bailey was famously reported by James Gogarty in the Planning Tribunal as answering “Will we, fuck” when asked if they would get a receipt for the payments they made in 1989 to Ray Burke. Justice Feargus Flood concluded in his interim report of the Planning Tribunal in 2002 that this payment had in fact occurred. To Fianna Fáil, that made little difference. They were as welcome as ever to the party tent at the Galway races, and that year Tom Bailey took time off work to canvass for the party in Roscommon. To Brian Cowen’s credit, the party tent in Galway has since been closed.

It was, of course, because they were in power that Fianna Fáil received such support from developers, but particularly because of the tax breaks for construction, which the Department of Finance had not even properly costed. These incentives artificially extended the boom years, and according to John Fitz Gerald of the ESRI, made a hard landing more likely, which had since proved to be the case. Similarly, warnings from UCD economist Morgan Kelly were also ignored, who showed that the trend in property bubbles in every economy since 1970 would predict anything other than a soft landing. I don’t mean to be partisan here, to isolate criticism of Fianna Fáil, but this is how it was. One might wonder if Fianna Fáil were more corrupt because they were in power more, or in power more because of their underhandedness and corruption. There are instances of the same with Fine Gael, who during their short stint in government from 1994 to 1997 had no difficulty finding builders to donate to clear their loan, and AIB and Ansbacher cleared a loan of £200,000 of Dr Garret FitzGerald which he had lost on shares.

Though it is what I took most from it, this book is not fundamentally about this corruption from the political side of things, but it does show how bankers managed to have such a free hand. The political process supported a system propping up their cronies in the banks and regulators. It is not a surprising statistic, given how used we have become over the past year to such facts, but John Hurley, Governor of the Irish Central Bank till a few months ago, earned more in 2008 than Ben Bernanke, Governor of the US Federal Reserve, who still has the power to set interest rates. Though not set by the public sector, the pay of the top Irish bankers is equally worthy of scrutiny. To take as an example, Brian Goggin, former Chief Executive of Bank of Ireland was paid €4 mn in 2007 and €3 mn in 2008, high even relative to his equivalent in the more successful Lloyds TSB or Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. There is no reason to believe that the shareholders of the bank had to pay Goggin such a sum for fear that he would be snatched by a firm outside the country. Because this salary was possible with the cosy cartel of the banks supported by the taxpayer with an implicit guarantee from the government, which became real from last year, this is very much our concern.

With the government happy to see the steady trickle of revenue from stamp duty, they did little to discourage the 100% mortgages that have now left householders across the country in negative equity. We had a system of regulation that noticed none of the backdealing and switching of loans that was taking place, such that until October 2008, no bank was fined, while the Regulators found reason to fine The Irish Times and Phoenix €10,000 and €5,000 respectively. It was also a system that saw at times directors of AIB and Bank of Ireland on the board of the Central Bank.

I could go on. I’ve picked here only a selection of the facts that make it little wonder that the system went as it did. Ross does see a measure of hope because of our fortune of having Brian Lenihan, rather than one of the other members of the cabinet, as Minister for Finance. He rightly praises the departure he has made in recent appointments, such as choosing Prof. Patrick Honohan, an outsider to the old banker/regulator circles, to succeed Hurley as Governor of the Central Bank. Lenihan’s main obstacle to fiscal rectitude are his cabinet colleagues, all too eager to criticize the findings of the McCarthy Report. But Ross is strongly critical of NAMA, describing it as a bailout for the bankers.

My only minor criticism is the extent to which Ross involves himself in the analysis. As a journalist and Senator, he has been a voice in this period. While he does acknowledge (on p. 162) that he did not have the foresight to realize the perils of holding cash in Irish banks, in mentioning that our rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in June 2008 was part of the reason, as well as our bank guarantee, that we had lost favour in Europe, he does not mention his own advocacy of a No vote on that occasion. This is a minor quibble, and one of this nature is bound to occur in a commentary from someone so vocal. It is clearly well researched (and as a matter of full disclosure, I should add that I was working with Shane Ross while the finishing touches were being put on it), and stands as an entertaining, well paced and informative account of what went wrong with this sector of the Irish economy.