Saturday, 19 April 2014

Evanagelical Cameron on the wrong path

In the 1990s I used to lead walking tours in the beauty spots of Britain for a company, now sadly defunct, called English Wanderer. Many of our group members were from abroad and one very personable young man from the Low Countries, Belgium I think, explained to us that he was a teacher of non-confessional ethics.  In his country schools each had a "slot" when the various priests, ministers, imams and rabbis came in to give religious instruction to their flocks.  His job was to teach ethics to those pupils who had, or whose parents had, no attachment to any religious group.

One of his approaches was to ask his pupils to invent a game, or take an established one such as football, devise or describe the rules, and from there discus  why there were rules, their purpose, how the players should treat each other, the role of the referee and linesmen etc., and how to deal with the players who infringed the rules.  From this they would then extrapolate to the rules necessary for a functioning society.  I'm sure he had many more imaginative ways of introducing and developing the subject but that's the one I remember.

David Cameron claims to be evangelical about the Christina faith because of the role it plays in "helping people to have a moral code."  For those who retain their faith I'm sure it does, but since the vast majority appear to abandon their belief in a supernatural being etc at around the time they stop believing in Santa Clause*,  if our morality is based on prescriptions  form "outside," along with consequences in an afterlife, then out goes the basis for our morality.

Whilst conscious of the massive historic contribution the churches have made to the development of education in this and other countries, I think the time has now come, in the UK at least, to abandon both government support for faith schools and religious instruction in any school.  The replacement of the latter should be courses in non-confessional ethics, which should give a more permanent and deep rooted basis for how we should behave to one-another and our environment.

A Non-confessional ethics course can be found at:,d.d2k

Unfortunately it has the tag of "European" attached to it, so it may not appeal to UKIP or hard-line Tories.

*  Strangely they seem to retain their belief  in astrology.  An editor of one of the newspapers involved in the phone hacking trials said recently that he paid the astrologer more than the reporter who allegedly hacked the phones.  It would also be interesting to know how and why so many young British Muslims appear to retain their faith, mostly with good consequences, but some, with tragic ones.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Mansion tax proposal revised, but not revised enough.

Harold Wilson had a phenomenally good memory and, whenever a good idea came along, he was usually able to say that he had proposed that very thing umpteen years ago in a speech on the Xth of Y in  Ztown  at 2.30 in the afternoon.

I cannot compete with that, but, now that the Liberal Democrats have decided to abandon our proposal for a Mansion Tax  and substitute an additional Council Tax Band I can reveal that I wrote to Vince Cable  with that very suggestion over two years ago, viz:

                                                                                                27th September, 2011.
The Rt Hon Vince Cable M.P.

I believe you were too dismissive of my suggestion, put to you at the Guardian debate last week, that, instead of a Mansion Tax, we should simply slap a few more Council Tax bands on top of the existing ones, which in England  presently stop at Band  H (over £320 000.)

My argument is that your proposal of a tax on “mansions”  worth over £2million (though I preferred your original proposal of over £1m, from which our party cravenly back-tracked) is politically unpopular because it is both a new tax, and appears vindictive  in singling out the very rich indeed whilst letting those almost very rich indeed off the hook.

The advantages of extending  the  Council Tax bands are that:

  1.  It is merely an extension of an existing tax, and
  2.  It would apply progressively to the very large number of houses valued at between £320 000 and £2m (and why stop at £2m?) 
Your objection, given at the debate, that the largest part of such an extension would accrue to a handful of wealthy London boroughs is invalid, in that there are plenty of houses worth more than £320 000 outside London – there are even some here in Kirklees.  The excesses of revenue received by more wealthy areas could be re-distributed to poorer areas by an equalisation scheme.

The only valid objection I can see to this proposal is that, ideally, it would involve a re-valuation of all properties, from which, because it was misrepresented as a precursor to increased council taxes, the Labour government shied away.  However, we are the party of honest politics, so should get on with it.  If we too , choose to duck this issue, then it should not be beyond the wit of your civil servants to impute a 1992 value to all properties worth above £320 000 at 1992 prices.

Of course, as good Liberals we should see this as a temporary measure pending the long overdue introduction of site value taxation on all land.  This will probably require a government in which we Liberal Democrats are the main party, so may be some time off.

Yours sincerely,

 Dr Cable's department claims  to answer letters within 15 days but have yet to receive a response.  However, if the Department has moved at least partly in my direction  I suppose I prefer that to  a fulsome evasion.

Unfortunate the new proposal, as far as I can tell (there was only a brief comment in last night's news and nothing as far as I can see either n today's papers or on the party website) is a change of name rather than the Full Monty.  There is to be not a series but only one additional tax band, for the +£2m mansions, so nothing for the  £320 000 -£2m sub-mansions, and no mention of taxing empty properties or, better,  a land tax.

Still, in the UK progress comes slowly ( a century after  the first reform the House of Lords is better but still undemocratic) and this is a step in the right direction

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Palatable state funding for political parties.

Last week Andrew McDonald, on stepping down from his post as head of Ipsa, the body which scrutinises parliamentary expenses, called for greater state  funding of political parties, but acknowledged that this is unpopular witht he pulbic.

In addition to its unpopularity, a danger of further taxpayer funding of political parties is that, freed from the necessity of raising money from their members and supporters, the party organisations become more and more detached from the public and operate in their own little bubbles.  Some years ago Professor Stein Ringen, in an article in Liberal Democrat News,  proposed a way round this. Put simply, parliament decides the total amount of public funding needed, divides this by the number of the electorate, and issues  a voucher for that amount to each elector.

Thus if we assume for simplicity that the total amount is £60m, and the electorate is 30 million, then each person on the electoral roll receives a voucher for £2.  Party members and committed supporters promptly send this off the the headquarters of the party of their choice and it is cashed in by the Treasury.  The "plague on all your houses" brigade throw theirs  into the fire.  The majority pop it behind the clock on the mantelpiece, or, if more sophisticated, in their pending tray, and it is up to the party activists to canvass them and persuade them that it is to their party that the voucher should be given.

In this way the parties still have to "earn" their money  by keeping in touch with the electorate, and public resentment at further state  funding is reduced becasue each individual can decide to which party, if any,their portion of the money is going

This seems to me to be a slendid method of killing two birds with one stone: finding an accptable  method of financing our democracy and forcing we party activists and enthusiasts to increase our contact with the public we aspire to serve.  

Monday, 7 April 2014

Other Financial Instiutions

The banks, quite rightly, are reaping much of the opprobrium for our enduring economic difficulties, but it is becoming increasingly clear the lots of other  financial institutions (OFIs in the jargon) share much of the responsibility.

A couple of weeks ago the much mocked Revd. Paul Flowers, former chairman of the Co-op Bank, pointed  out in an interview on Newsnight that the bank's takeover of the Britannia Buildings Society, a major source of the bank's difficulties,  had been give the OK by three separate accountancy firms, including the Co-op's own, which I think he said was KPMG.  Are these independent private sector firms to be made to pay compensation for their errors?  It appears not.  Come to think of it, neither were the credit rating agencies, Standard and Poor et al, when they gave their AAA ratings to the Icelandic banks et al.

In the privatisation of 60% of the Royal Mail, the government took advice from no fewer than seven merchant banks, including household names such as Lazards, Goldman Sachs, UBS, Merrill Lynch and Barclays.  Their recommendation of a price range of 220p to 330p per share remained unaltered  in spite of the fact that the offer was 24 times over-subscribed.

Any moderately competent A-level economics student could draw you the graph illustrating  excess demand (though the page of the exercise book  might not be wide enough to accommodate the length of the horizontal axis) and tell you that this was the result of the price being well below equilibrium.    They would have been dead right.  Within days the share price rose to 610p  and, in spite of Vince Cable's dismissal of this as "froth" it remains at around 540p, still 66% above the price at which they were bought. It is estimated that the government lost £750m in one day's trading.

Yet for this advice which a pupil in the lower sixth could have bettered Lazards alone received £1.5m, and total privatisation costs, including accountants, lawyers and the inevitable PR advisers, was £12.7m.  Who is holding them to account?  In which court are they to be sued?  From which professional association and guarantor of competence are they to be expelled?

None of the above excuses the the government's culpability in other malfunctions of the sale.  Bizarrely  some of the banks advising on the price also had preference for an allocations of the shares:  that more or less defines "conflict of interest."  Of the 16  institutional bidders who were given preference because they were expected to take a long term interest in the future of the privatised company, six have already flogged off all their shares and by January 2014 only 12% of the company's shares remained with these "priority investors." Were no guarantees asked for?

Any school responsible for this accumulation of blunders would be put into "special measures" if not closed down entirely with the "senior management team" and chair of governors barred from future involvement in the sector. But these OFIs, along with the banks, continue to operate and award themselves bonuses, and our government sails on, proclaiming success.

You couldn't make it up.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Shhh . . .0.7% aid target achieved.

"Whisper it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon" but the UK has finally reached the target of devoting  0.7% of our GDP to aid development in the poorest countries.

We originally signed up to this target, set by the OECD, in 1969.  At the time I joined a campaign, largely organised by the churches, to gather signatures for a petition to urge the government to meet the target  with the utmost dispatch.  In those pre-internet days gathering signatures was a bit of a slog but we worked together to try to achieve, I think, a  million.  This was only the second example in the UK of ecumenical co-operation in the post-war period: the first was an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the cinemas opening on Sundays.

In our area we proudly gathered in one of the local parish churches to present our bit of the petition to our MP, Sir Alfred Davies Devonshire  Broughton, (Labour), who commended us for our zeal  but told us not to be too idealistic because  he had personally seen the gold-plated bedstead of some African president..

Whereas the achievement of most government targets is trumpeted from the rooftops, publicity for this one is reduced to a report of a Tweet from Nick Clegg in  tiny column at the bottom of page 16 of yesterday's Guardian.  Such discretion is presumably  for fear of upsetting Tory backwoodsmen, many of whom are not so keen, and boosting the followership of Farage, who believes that the money would better be spent on sorting out our own floods.

The "gold plated bedstead" grumbles continue, with someone pointing out that some of the money is actually spent in this country, on "global citizenship lessons in Scottish school" and the government department responsible for administering the aid, DfID, has received an "amber warning" from its watchdog that there should be much more impartial analysis of the effectiveness of its projects. Neither of these criticisms  is quiet as disconcerting  as the  Thatcher government's spending the aid money on building an airstrip big enough for military aircraft in the Falklands  should the need arise, or on the construction of the uneconomic Pergau Dam in Malaysia in exchange for an arms deal..  We are moving on.

After 45 years of campaigning on this topic, I am pleased and proud that the UK finally joins that tiny band of countries. Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and Luxembourg, who form the élite G0.7 club.

And hats off to David Cameron for facing down his xenophobes and letting it happen.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Euorpe - the "vision thing" is lacking, Nick.

In an earlier post I predicted an overwhelming victory for Nick Clegg in his debate on Europe with Nigel Farage, and then had to record my disappointment that, at least according to the earliest poll, he had "lost" by a lowly  36% to Farage's 57%.

Most commentators concede that Nick had the edge on logic, facts, figures and style.  Why then did Farage "win" such overwhelming support in spite of his distortions, misrepresentations and bombastic bluster?

I think it is because although Nick had all the technicalities at his fingertips he projected  no vision.  By contrast, Farage has a vision.  It is a distorted, impractical and unrealisable vision, looking back to a "better yesterday."  As one Guardian columnist put it:  "He's younger than I but has the political perspective of my grandfather."

Impractical or not, this vision has appeal to the many who feel "left out" of the current political process, ignored by the "chattering classes" and lured by the delusion  of a monocultural, monolingual, (white?) Britain in which we "do as we damn well like" and "to hell with the rest of the world."

In the next debate Nick needs to "lift his eyes unto the hill."  Yes, jobs, exports, the economy are all important, but he needs to enthuse us with the glorious achievement of a voluntary association of  28 formerly warring and sometimes despotic  nations now all democracies, all respecting the rule of law and human rights, and pooling their sovereignty to work together for a fairer, more sustainable  future in which these rights, liberties and aspirations are both respected within the community and offered as an example  to the rest of the world..

Some task, I know, but he's a personable lad and could give it a go.

From time to time this blog is "noticed" by the Liberal Democrat powers that be and recommended.  When that happens the readership doubles.  Let's hope this happens to this post, and someone tells Nick.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Primo Levi, Pista - and Generation Y

I have just discovered, rather late in the day, I admit, Primo Levi.  I found this short extract from "The Truce" very poignant.

After his release from, or rather abandonment in, Auschwitz, and various experiences in Russia and Eastern Europe, Levi, and his companions are coming to the end of a slow circuitous railway journey back to Italy.  A group of other ex-prisoners and "displaced persons" stays together in one  wagon, but there are occasional departures from their company, and some additions, one of whom joined them, apparently simply  because a member of the group has been kind to him and given him some bread.

Nobody knew [the other new guest]; he was a robust youth, barefoot, dressed in a Red Army  jacket and trousers.  He spoke only Hungarian and none of us were able to understand him . . . He was well received; one more mouth to feed was not a worry.  He was an intelligent, cheerful boy; as soon as the train started he introduced himself with great dignity. His name was Pista and he was fourteen.  Father and Mother?  Here it was more difficult to understand each other;  I found a pencil stub and a piece of paper, and drew a man, a woman  and a child between them and said "Pista"; then I waited.  Pista turned grave , and then sketched a drawing which was all too painfully obvious:  a house, an aeroplane, a falling bomb.  Then he cancelled the house, and drew a large smoking heap beside it.    But he was not in the mood for sad things; he screwed up the sheet, asked for another and drew a cask, with remarkable precision:  the bottom and all the visible staves in the right perspective; then the hoops, and the hole with the tap.  We looked at each other, puzzled: what did the message mean?   Pista laughed happily; then drew himself next to it, with a hammer in one hand and a saw in the other.  Hadn't we understood yet?  That was his trade, he was a cooper.

Everybody like him immediately; moreover he tried to be useful; he swept the floor every morning, enthusiastically washed the bowls, went to fetch water and was happy when we sent him "shopping"  to his compatriots at the various halts.    He could make himself understood in Italian  by the time we reached the Brenner; he sang beautiful songs of his country which no-one understood, and then sought to explain them with gestures, making us all laugh wholeheartedly, himself most of all . . .We asked him why he had come with us, what brought him to Italy; but we were unable to understand, partly because of the difficulty of conversing, but above all because he himself did not know.  He had wandered around stations like a stray dog for months; he had followed the first human creature who had looked at him with pity.                              
                                                                                        The Truce, pp408 -10;  Abacus edition, 2013

I gather one of the main tribulations of Generation Y is that, because of unemployment and soaring housing costs, many are  having to live with their parents until they're in their 30s.  Tough, but if they read the above it may help them put their problems into perspective