Monday, 10 March 2014
You have to hand it to us: given the state of the polls (down to 10% in one of them this weekend) and our already greatly reduced representation in local government, the enthusiasm of our Spring Conference in York this weekend surpassed all rationality. If politicians in general live in a "Westminster Bubble" we Liberal Democrats live in a special helium-filled hubble-bubble of our own.
In both the main conference and fringe meeting I sat through hours of constructive and humane discussion on crime and criminal justice, evidence based educational reform (the best education spokesman of all the parties in the last 30 years, Phill Willis, described Gove's antics as "educational homoeopathy"), constitutional reforms for the next government (STV for local government, naturally), the preservation of human rights through the ECHR: and of course we banged on and on about the glories of the European Union. We are the "Party of IN" and no messing.
It was all wondrously exhilarating and convinces me that, in spite of our determined identification with Osborne's misguided economic policy, I'm definitely in the right party.
No to Orange Book Liberalism.
In contrast to the above the most depressing meeting I've ever attended in my 50+ years as a Liberal was dominated by the exposition of neo-liberal economics expressed by Jeremy Browne MP.
"The right has won the economic debate over the last 30 years," he proclaimed. No mention that deregulated market forces crashed most of the developed economies, including ours, in 2008, and we have yet to recover.
"Free market forces are generating spectacular growth in the third world." When challenged that they are also generating increased inequality and that that the lack of regulation and protection led to disasters such as the collapse of the Ran Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh and the deaths of over 1000 people he gave the bizarre response that he'd rather live in South than North Korea.
The alleged virtues of the neo-liberal mantra of deregulation and the automatic superiority of the private over the public sector were reeled off by a Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue with no mention of the failures of G4S, Railtrack et al. Evidence based economics it was not..
Although one member of the audience did, rather rudely, describe this economic analysis as "bollocks" he did not, alas, receive a round of applause, or even a subdued murmur of assent, form the rest.
There are two dangers here. One is that we should be recognising the complementary natures of the private and public sectors rather than seeing them as black and white alternatives. The other is that proponents of an economic philosophy come to believe their own propaganda, regardless of the evidence.
Two caveats on Clegg.
Nick Clegg gave a class act in is concluding Leader's Speech, particularly the first half of it. Unfortunately he still persists in referring to Labour's having trashed the economy (the true cause is the irresponsibility of the financial sector made possible by the deregulation introduced and applauded by the Tories) and he concluded by calling for a huge Liberal Democrat vote to keep Britain great and punching above its weight.
I do wish all British politicians would stop this grandstanding. I'd settle for a fairer, moderately competent, tolerant, welcoming, friendly and caring country prepared to work with others to encourage these blessings in the rest of the world.
Thursday, 6 March 2014
I know little of the history, sociology or ethnic make up of Ukraine and have never claimed much expertise in forging policy. My reactions are therefore very general and commonplace.
I think it's a bit rich President Obama pontificating about Russia invading somebody else's sovereign territory, and a bit pointless William Hague pontificating about anything at all. I note that the ousted Ukrainian president was democratically elected and that the West is less enthusiastic about the sovereign choice of the people when it produces a Yanukovych, or Hamas in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
From the following, which appeared on Facebook by someone who is, I believe, a Ukrainian,.I gather some of the protesters have more in common with the Nazis than with John Stuart Mill.
|Kit Mlynar-Sax shared a link:
"Ukraine and the "Politics of...":
"""Let’s see if I got this right: Right-wing nationalist mobs overthrow
an elected president in Ukraine after seizing government offices at
gunpoint. Other nationalists (different nationality) seize Crimean
government offices at gunpoint. The US press tells us the Ukrainian
fascists in Kiev are Good Guys and the Russian fascists in Crimea are
Bad Guys. I hope I’ve got this right, because I don’t want to
accidentally support the wrong fascists." Greg Palast |
(Don't bother with the links: they haven't transferred.)
I would make just two serious and, I believe, informed points.
- Democracy involves far more than elections, particularity if they're carried out using the simplistic "first past the post" system. Other vital ingredients are the rule of law, respect for and protection of minorities, a free and balanced press and an impartial judiciary.
- Should we want it, Britain has influence on international affairs only through the international organisations of which we are a member: principally the European Union, the United Nations, Council of Europe, NATO and the Commonwealth. Ukip and others who would like Britain to abandon some or all of these and go it alone should realise that the spoutings of a British foreign secretary outside these organisations would have much less impact than his reasoned contributions to the debates within them.
Saturday, 1 March 2014
When I travelled regularly by bus to one of our local universities (I was studying French as a retirement hobby) I was often dismayed by the calm way the rest of the queue accepted the situation if the bus didn't arrive. I by contrast grumbled loudly, sent off letters of complaint and received free ride vouchers for compensation.
Sadly I now find that a similar placid acceptance is my response , or lack of it, to appalling service by the banks. I have a savings account with Lloyds. It pays a pathetic 0.5% interest but if I don't renew it at the end of each year this falls to an even more pathetic 0.2%. Lloyds appear to feel they have done their duty to me by sending me a reminder, but some two months before the year expires, presumably in the hope that I'll forget.
Fortunately I made a note in my diary so remembered, to be told that I didn't, as in the past, need to close and then re-open the account: it simply need to be "refreshed." In my former "missing bus" mode I should have protested vigorously, explained to the clerk that I realised it wasn't her fault, but would she please tell her manager that I found this unacceptably and that I expected the bank to look after me, a loyal customer for over 50 years, and not hope that through my forgetfulness they'd be able to make more money out of me.
But I didn't: I am now overcome by "bus queue" apathy and accepted the situation meekly.
Whilst some retired people lucky enough to have savings enjoy keeping a lookout for the highest rates and switching accounts in order to take advantage of them, I suspect that most are like me and would simply like to find a bank which, even if it didn't offer the very best rate, would treat us fairly and not place us on the back burner if we took out eyes off the ball. No such bank seems to exist, and the mutuals don't seem to be any better.
Someone with the energy of youth should raise a stink. Come on UK Uncut: Help the Aged.
Tuesday, 25 February 2014
The Fairtrade Foundation, of which I am an enthusiastic supporter, has pointed out that, whilst the prices of most foodstuffs have risen by nearly 80% in the past ten years, the price of bananas has halved. The reason is that supermarkets are selling bananas as a "loss leader" which is putting the squeeze on banana growers "making it impossible [for them] to build up resilient businesses and trade out of poverty."
The Foundation has asked the Business, Innovation and Skills Department, headed by our own Vince Cable, to refer the matter to the Competition and Markets Authority. Ah, says the Department, "It is not our policy to get involved in price-setting. The price that people pay at the checkout is down to the supermarkets."
Things were different, of course, when our own farmers were involved, and a concerted campaign forced the supermarkets to stop selling milk as a loss-leader and compelled them to pay our dairy farmers at least the cost of production.
Yes, I know that British dairy farmers are living on the edge, I'm an avid fan of The Archers, but Liberal concerns for human dignity have never stopped at the shores of these country, and Caribbean and other banana growers probably have an even more vivid idea of what that edge feels like.
So "Action this day" from this Liberal Democrat lead department, could be of great benefit to some of the poorest people in the world. They're probably "hard-working families" as well, so our Conservative colleagues would approve.
Post Script (added 3rd March)
An article in last Saturday's Guardian by Patrick Collinson spells out how useful the Fairtrade system is to banana growers. It also points out that Starbucks supports Fairtrade coffee plantations, a redeeming feature and some compensation for their not paying their fair share of taxes.
Thursday, 20 February 2014
From the number of unsolicited offers I receive whenever my house or car insurance is due (how do they know?) there's plenty of allegedly competing firms in the insurance market.
It is part of Tory philosophy that competition between private providers is the best way to ensure that the customer receives the best possible deal at the best possible price, and that interference from the government, or regulation (the famous "red tape" that they are so dedicated to cutting) can only hinder the efficiency of the market.
Why, then, has the government found it necessary to summon the bosses of the insurable companies to Downing Street to ensure that the sufferers from flooding are treated properly? Is it just a PR stunt , or, when it comes to the crunch, do they have no confidence in their own market dogma?
Economic right-wingers are fond of quoting the great Adam Smith in support of their doctrines. Perhaps, at heart, they agree with him when he recognises the need for market regulation, as when he writes: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices." (The Wealth of Nations, page 116, Everyman's Library edition)
One contrivance to raise, if not their prices, at least their profits, is the apparently universal practice of the insurance companies of providing only premium telephone numbers for claimants to contact them on. This is a disgraceful extra imposition on people already suffering from huge inconvenience, stress, and probably ultimately, financial loss. Claimants can of course avoid this charge by using the http://www.saynoto0870.com/search.php website, but it would be a helpful touch if at least some of the companies sharpened their competitive edge by publishing non-premium landmine numbers up front.
Tuesday, 18 February 2014
I have considerable sympathy with Alex Salmond's view that the forces of reaction are using "bully boy" tactics in the debate on Scottish independence. First there was the threat to take Royal Navy shipbuilding orders away from an"independent" Glasgow on the spurious grounds that we couldn't rely on a "foreign country" to supply our defence requirements; then the unanimous declaration by all three major British parties that an independent Scotland would not be able to keep the pound, no ifs, no buts, no discussion; and now a declaration by José Manuel Barroso that it would be "almost impossible" for an independent Scotland to be a member of the EU.
The first threat is a nonsense. We rely on the US for Trident (though many of us think it is a pointless waste of time and money) and I believe the British army still uses a Belgian rifle. I'm curious to know how Barroso was recruited to the "No" campaign: you'd think this was the sort of domestic argument in a member country that a civil servant would keep out of. It would be fair enough to say that membership would not be automatic and need to be negotiated, but clearly the EU would be desperate to retain the membership of a rich country like Scotland, even if only to obtain its supplies of whisky without paying customs duties.
Clearly the argument that a currency union between two countries is unworkable is absolute nonsense, given that across the Channel there's a currency union of 18 countries. I don't claim that the Eurozone is working without difficulties, but we can learn from their mistakes (notably the lack of a "lender of last resort," which sterling has and would continue to have in the Bank of England.) And it's worth remembering that when the Euro was created we British could buy one for 70.5p (£1= €1.42); today, according to this morning's news, we'd have to pay 82p (£1= €1.22). In other words since the creation of the Euro the £ has lost value compared with the it by 16%. Not all that wonderful a currency. (The loss of value of the £ of my childhood compared with the $US, when with reasonable accuracy we could refer to 5/- (25p) as a dollar, beggars belief.)
I regret that Salmond has not had the courage to stick to his original preference, which was for Scotland to join the Euro. I know that would be a very daring policy at the moment, but at least if Scotland joined it now, at the current exchange rate, they'd have the advantage of the rUK, who will doubtless come scurrying to join the currency within the next 20 years, by which time the pound will probably have reached parity with the Euro, a depreciation of of further 18%.
The irony is, of course, that this bullying, from Westminster in particular, will probably strengthen the "Yes" vote in Scotland. That would be the likely reaction of any sturdy Scot. Although the current polls still show a healthy majority in favour of the "Better Together " option, all the movement since the beginning of the campaign has been towards "Yes." An inept campaign by the "Yes" cause in the electoral reform referendum led to the overturning of a two to one majority in favour of reform. Inept campaigning by the "No" campaign could easily turn the majority against Scottish independence into a "Yes."
That would be a pity, because in my view the solution for the future of Scotland, and indeed the rest of the UK is not on the ballot paper. That is Home rule, or what is now called "Devo Max."
The Liberals tried to offer Home Rule to Ireland three times (1886, 1893 and 1912) and each time it was scuppered by the Tories (who, democratic, law-abiding, upright and patriotic as they claim to be, actually called upon the British Army to mutiny if the will of the Commons were implemented). This stupidity led to a century of bloodshed in Ireland, and that, indeed, may well not yet be over.
While similar dire consequences may not develop in Scotland whatever the outcome of the referendum, to me the ideal solution is for Scotland to have complete autonomy, including taxation, over domestic affairs, with the UK remaining responsible for foreign policy, defence, the currency, BBC and meteorological office. (I've always felt it a bit mean that the BBC no longer broadcasts the weather forecast for the Irish Republic.)
Similar devolution should be enacted for Wales and the English Regions - Liberal/Liberal Democrat policy for as long as I've been in the party, and we should be saying so loudly and clearly.
That would, of course, mean a parliament for England, which should be in York.
Post Script (added 19/02/14)
One of the fears among progressives about Scottish independence is that it would condemn the rest of the UK to a permanent Tory governments. Apparently this is not the case. A letter in the Guardian from Byron Criddle of Aberdeen University claims that: "Of the nine postwar elections after which Labour formed the government (1945, 1959, 1964, February and October 1974, 1997, 2001 and 2005) the party would without its Scottish MPs have had Commons majorities in all but the 1964 and the two 1974 elections." Well, that's some consolation if the Scots vote "Yes."
Wednesday, 12 February 2014
During the First World War, when the Russian Army was facing devastating setbacks, Tsar Nicholas II took personal command. We know that happened to him and his poor country. Let's hope the consequences of our prime minister's bold step in taking command of the floods crisis are less dire, both for him and the UK.
Although we've had a lot of rain my bit of Yorkshire hasn't yet been much affected by flooding. I can therefore study the situation from the security of a warm dry house and feel rather detached from the problems. This enables me to muse rather airily on what the situation tells us about the reactions of the people affected and what they tell us about our politics. I freely acknowledge that my thoughts and feelings might be very different if I were personally affected.
Firstly, I do wonder, perhaps unworthily, if there would be quite so much fuss made if the affected areas were in Barnsley or Bradford rather than the prosperous south (though I'm not all that good at geography, maybe the Somerset Levels aren't all that prosperous.)
Secondly, the people who have been affected do seem to come over as a lot of complainers and moaners. In an article in this morning's paper Simon Jenkins mentions just one phlegmatic lady who staggered a reporter looking for yet more complaints by saying : "I't's a flood, just one of those things." Otherwise the "blitz spirit" seems remarkably absent among the victims, though not it seems among the hundreds of volunteer helpers.
Thirdly, the bickering among the politicians, desperately trying to shift the blame, and unblushingly distorting the truth as to who has cut expenditure on flood defences the most, does them little credit Chris Smith comes out well in my view, and Eric Pickles looks even more foolish that usual. However, the childish and disingenuous squabbling further undermines the confidence of the electorate in politics as it is currently practised.
Fourthly, austerity is suddenly swept aside and, says Mr Cameron: "Money is no object" in helping with flood relief. What is needed will be provided, never fear. Business are to be excused business rates, households given up to £5 000, though I'm not clear whether this is protect their property against future damage rather than compensate them for losses in this one. But most (I know, not all) of the houses seems pretty substantial, in areas where house prices have rise substantially over a long period. If they've lived there for any length of time many owners will have amassed tens,maybe hundreds, of thousands of pounds of value for no effort on their own part. And most (again not all) will be insured for the damage done. Is there to be an "Upper Capital Limit" (£16 000 ) or Lower Capital Limit (£10 000) below which one must reduce one's savings in order to qualify for other forms of welfare? Could this largesse be better distributed? I can't help thinking that many of Britain's "Benefits Street" inhabitants would be able to rebuild their lives, never mind their properties, with an unmerited windfall of £5 000.
Fifthly, that the problem has arisen at all is a reflection of our stupidity. For half a century or more we have forced politicians to peddle the myth that we can have a vibrant state without paying for it. In addition we have been conned into believing, as Jeremy Paxman reminded us last night, President Reagan's sneer that "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" are the most dangerous nine words in the English language. So we've seen the state rolled back, put a party into government which promises for ideological reasons to roll it back further, believed all that nonsense about the private sector giving better value for money than the public sector, and then seem surprised that, when we need it, the public sector is not sufficiently robust to give us the help to which we feel entitled..
Finally and most shamefully, the Daily Mail has launched a petition ". . . calling on Government to divert foreign aid to flood-hit British families."