Laugh for the Day

11 08 2011

Check out “An Open Letter to David Cameron’s Parents” by blogger/comedian Nathaniel Tapley. I like the bit that points out that while Cameron engaged in a minor bit of rioting himself as a young man, he escaped punishment by the Oxford police.  Tapley reminds us that many of the politicians who are criticizing the rioters are themselves guilty of all sorts of ethical transgressions.

Why Britain has a coalition government and Canada does not

12 05 2010

Consider this scenario. A general election gives a centre-right political party the largest number of seats in the House of Commons, albeit less than the majority needed to pass laws. Doing what is customary after an election defeat, the incumbent government, which is a centre-left party, resigns. The leader of the centre-right party forms a coalition with the third-place party. The coalition produces a stable majority and gives the third-place party several seats around the Cabinet table. The coalition agreement is slated to run for five years.

This scenario has recently unfolded in Britain. David Cameron now leads a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. In contrast, coalitions are very rare in Canada.  In the Canadian election of 2006, Stephen Harper ‘s Conservatives got the largest number of seats but less than a majority. Rather than forming a coalition to produce a majority, he opted to govern as a minority, securing the support needed to pass each piece of legislation on an ad hoc basis. The result has been chronic instability and a second general election that largely duplicated the results of the first.

Palace of Westminster

Why didn’t Stephen Harper arrange a coalition instead of governing with a minority? Why didn’t he do a David Cameron? The differences in personality between Harper and Cameron may be factor.  As well, the ideological gulf separating the Canadian Conservatives from their only realistic coalition partner, the hardcore socialist NDP, is far greater than the distance between the British Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. However, the major reason Harper did not negotiate a majority coalition relates to history. Canada has a long history of fairly successful minority governments and almost no history of coalitions. In contrast, Britain had coalition governments for part of the 20th century, albeit none of them were in living memory, the last coalition having come to an end with the Second World War. The wartime coalition led by Churchill left a fairly positive impression with British people—after all, it had dealt with an existential threat to Britain.

Parliament Hill in Winter

The only real coalition in Canadian history, the Union government of the First World War, is tainted in the historical memory by its association with Conscription and linguistic conflict. Minority governments have fared better in Canada than in the UK. The Pearson government in the 1960s had a productive legislative record and Pearson is now regarded as one of the greatest Canadian Prime Ministers. Even Stephen Harper, a Conservative, compares himself to Pearson.


The last minority government in Britain, which existed for a few months in 1974, was a dismal failure, although it must be said that governing Britain in 1974 would be far more challenging than governing Canada in the 1960s, when the economy was booming.

British people have experience with coalitions because the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all coalitions. Indeed, power-sharing was central to the deal that created the Northern Ireland assembly. No province in Canada has a coalition government, although there was a coalition government of sorts in  Ontario between 1985 and 1987.

Another key difference between Westminster and Ottawa is that nationalist parties are a minor force in UK politics (the Welsh and Scottish nationalists have only a handful of seats, as do the parties that want Northern Ireland to leave the UK). In contrast, there is only one nationalist party in the Canadian parliament and it has lots of seats.

For Canadian reactions to the coalition in the UK, see here, here, and here.

Nassim Taleb Speaks About His Conversation With David Cameron

12 05 2010

David Cameron (above) became Prime Minister of the UK last night. The more I hear about Cameron, the more impressed with the guy.  What sort of man is Cameron? Cameron rebuilt the British Conservative Party by moving it to the centre and by embracing environmental issues. In fact, Cameron argues that conserving the planet should be a conservative priority. Another clue to Cameron’s character is his reading habits. I recently learned that Cameron has read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is one of our generation’s leading thinkers. Actually, Taleb is probably the world’s best example of a public intellectual since John Maynard Keynes. Taleb is a bestselling author, a university professor in risk engineering, a philosopher of science who works in the fields of probability and statistics.  He is also a Wall Street hedge fund manager or “quant” with a proven track record of success.  Among other things, he predicted the 2008 sub-prime meltdown.  He reminds me a little bit of Keynes in that Keynes was an active stock trader as well as being an academic economist.

Taleb has had some very intelligent things to say about how we manage risk as a society. He has invoked the precautionary principle in explaining why we should act to avert climate change even if all of the science isn’t. He draws fascinating parallels between different types of complex systems– financial, social, the climate in the course of articulating a _radically_ conservative view of the world that is based around disturbing existing systems as little as possible. Taleb’s theories suggest that the so-called conservatives of the United States are not really conservatives at all because they are willing to countenance massive man-made change in the climate.

It turns out that David Cameron has had a long conversation with Taleb. I’m pleasantly surprised that a working politician would read books of the sort Taleb writes and then take the time to invite the author for a conversation.  Cameron is a truly impressive figure.

In this clip, Taleb talks about his conversation with Cameron.

Here, Taleb explains his term Black Swan.