Friday, 17 October 2014

Package "pilgrimage" to the Battlefields

For the past eighteen months or so I've been helping a former colleague and former pupil compile a record of the Old Boys of the school we all attended who fell in the First World  War.  The bulk of the work has been done by the former pupil who, as an ex Chief Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, has considerable investigative skills, so the finished compilation contains an astonishing amount of fascinating detail.

As a "post script" to our efforts the former colleague and I decided to go on a  Battlefields coach tour, which lasted five days and from which we've just returned.  Unfortunately the ratio of travelling time  to time on the battlefields was exceptionally high- two full days of travelling to get there and back, and at least half the time spent on the coach on the two  "battlefields" days, since it was  an hour's  drive from our hotel, in Zeebrugge, to Ypres and Passchendaele on the first day, and a two hours' drive to the site of the Somme battles on the second day.  The third  day was spent on touring unrelated to the battles, but included an obligatory visit to a chocolate factory.

 I strongly advise anyone planning a similar trip to check that their hotel is central to the things they wish to see, and not, as I suspect may be the case on this occasion, the result of a good deal offered by the hotel to the tour company.

I've visited War Cemeteries several times before, normally alone, and found the experience very moving.  Perhaps because of the Centenary of the start of the War there were in this week many school parties.  I'm not convinced of the value of this.  Youngsters  are adept turning whatever they do into a "fun" experience, and who can blame them?  The more appropriate reverence and contemplation are not highly developed skills in adolescence, especially in large groups with mates to impress.  Surely small family groups would be more appropriate.  And surely primary school children are far too young to gain any real benefit.

Allan Bennett has, I believe, some trenchant things to say about touristic voyeurism on the sites of the concentration camps.  I suspect the commercialisation of the battlefields similarly degrades the memory of the victims.

We passed between France and Belgium several times but I never noticed the frontier.  This is what all Europe should be like: a merged Union with different customs and languages*  and free passage from one area to another.  The nonsense of passport checks, carried out by the British Border Agency officials in their  sinister all-back uniforms, before being allowed to re-enter the UK marks us out as the Neanderthals of the Union.

I wonder how many of the two-thirds of our electorate  who failed to vote in the recent EU election, or the third of those who did but voted for the party that wants to leave, realise that the founding purpose of the Union is that their children and grandchildren will not lie under grave stones in a beautifully-kept military cemetery, or have their names inscribed among the missing but "known unto God" on a future  Menin Gate or Thiepval Memorial?

Both Conservative and Labour parties should challenge UKIP not by adopting its policies but by putting forward the positive case for Europe and peace.

*Both Zeebrugge and Bruges are aggressively Flemish.  Having spent much of the last decade trying to improve my French I'd have appreciated some Canadian-style insistence on bilingualism on all signes and descriptions. 

Post Script (added 18/10/14)

The following is a footnote, part of the poem In Parenthesis , the experiences of a serving soldier, by David Jones.  It seems to confirm  my unease about "battlefield tourism."

Cook’s Tourist to the Devastated Areas –

This may appear to be an anachronism, but I remember in 1917 discussing with a friend the possibilities of tourist activity if peace ever came.  I remember we went into details and wondered if the unexploded projectile lying near us would go up under a holiday-maker, and how people would stand to be photographed on our parapets.  I recall feeling very angry about this, as you do if you think of strangers ever occupying a house you live in, and which has, for you, particular associations.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Clegg shows courage, but not enough.

On Sunday Andrew Marr challenged Nick Clegg with the question:  "Surely that means you'll have to raise taxes?"

"Yes, of course!" was Nick's prompt response: no hesitation, prevarication, evasions or avoidance - and he went on to list some of the taxes Liberal Democrats would like to increase  (capital gains tax for one, reduction in pension tax relief for another.)  In this and other interviews Nick showed himself to be direct, honest, brave, informed, unflappable and personable.

This morning a BBC presenter on Radio 4's "Today" programme stated, without any qualification, that everyone acknowledges  further cuts in government expenditure will be necessary after the election, whoever wins.  I sincerely wish that Nick's courage would extend to challenging this unquestioning acceptance of Tory perception management.

In an earlier post I've outlined how the two mildly expansionary Keynesian-style budgets introduced by the previous government actually had the predictable effect of both reducing the government deficit  and generating economic growth, and how George Osborne's "austerity " equally predictably placed this recovery into reverse.

A friend, by no stretch of the imagination a Liberal Democrat, has drawn my attention to this further evidence, from Australia, that Keynesian stimulus of the economy still works.This quotation is directly form an article by Aditya Chakrabortty in September 2013:

Australia is now enjoying its 22nd year of growth: during the Great Recession , the country managed to avoid any recession at all.  How?  By warding off a global downturn with what Nobel prize-winning  economist Joseph Stiglitz described as "probably the best designed   stimulus package of any. . .advanced industrial country, both in size and in design. . . .

Using the cry of "go early, go hard and go households" Rudd [Australia's prime minister at the time] chucked a total of A$52bn (£30bn) into the housing market, into refurbishing schools and roiling out broadband and other public works.  He even dolled out money, in the spring of 2009 giving the typical single worker A$900. . .The result is an economy in enviable nick,(my emphasis - pun accidental but very convenient) especially compared with other rich economies.

So Nick, along with much needed tax rises for those at the top of the tree, and modest tax cuts for those fortunate enough to pay income tax, lets have some cuts that will help everybody (how about VAT back to 15%, which will really stimulate demand) and a public works package which will generate jobs and incomes, increase tax receipts and so reduce the deficit whilst at the same time enabling us to to continue to provide a civilised social security safety-net.

You've shown yourself a man of courage.  Now have the courage of our party's historic convictions.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Render unto Caesar - and prove it

Apparently from today we no longer need to display a colourful tax disc on our car windscreens to demonstrate that we've paid our road tax.  The excuse is that it will save money  (possibly enough to buy a few more Cruise missiles) and the police have mysterious ways of knowing whether or not the tax has been paid.  This happens, presumably, only when the car is stopped by them for some other reason.

I believe the government is still advertising on television to persuade us to dobb in our neighbours if we think they're cheating on benefits. This, I fee,l is disgraceful, (as well as being very un-British - all the best public  school stories denigrate "sneaks") but the tax disc is a well accepted system and I see no harm in enabling our neighbours, and any casual passer-by, to to spot that we're tax-cheats if we display only an outdated disc, or none at all.

Indeed, I'd go further and adopt the French system, which requires vehicles to display not only a tax disc, but also proof of being insured - it's a small square and goes on the other side of the windscreen.  I suspect there are many more uninsured vehicles in Britain than there are untaxed ones, purely because a tax disc has until now to be displayed. And uninsured drivers tax the rest of us by imposing higher premiums on the payers in order to make up for their deficiencies.

On a topic that's only slightly related, it is mooted that the non-payment of the TV licence is to cease to be a criminal offence.  Tories in particular show a sudden and touching concern for the welfare of their fellow citizens too poor to pay their whack - whilst at the same time  voting enthusiastically to cut their social security payments even further.  Decriminalisation of non-payment is obviously a ploy to attack the BBC, who estimate that the change would cost them a £200m a year.

If the government is desperate to cut expenditure on the BBC then they could reasonably stop giving free licences to75+  year-olds such as me who could well afford to pay for one.  This would not involve means-testing:  just don't allocate free licences to those whose pensions or other incomes are sufficient for them to have to pay income-tax.  The same rule could apply to the winter fuel allowance, which one of my friends  refers to as his "winter wine" allowance

Monday, 29 September 2014

West Yorkshire against the bombing.

I'm pleased that my MP, Mike Wood (Batley and Spen) was one of the 43 who voted against the further bombing if Iraq, and note that four others represent constituencies within a ten mile radius of my home, viz:

George Mudie (Leeds East)
Linda Riorden (Halifax)
Barry Sherman (Huddersfield)
George Galloway (Bradford West).

That's nearly an eighth of the total. Perhaps some clever geographer can demonstrate that, per head of population, or per hectare, there's a higher degree of sanity in our patch than anywhere else in the UK.

Whatever the right thing to do in the Middle East, and I'll quote a few suggestions later, there can be little doubt that further bombing will do more harm than good.  There will be the  inevitable killing of innocents (euphemistically described as "collateral damage"),  and many Muslims will doubtless interpret the intervention  as an attack by the decadent Christian West on Holy Islam, thus providing a recruiting sergeant for further Jihadis. Rather than safeguarding our own country the bombing will thus increase the possibility of danger.

As I believe George Galloway pointed out, if further bombing is necessary, then Saudi Arabia has plenty of planes, mostly sold to them by us in order to subsidise our armaments industry.  Someone in the parliamentary debate,  possibly Galloway again, also pointed out that cutting public expenditure (cruise missiles cost $1.2 million each) doesn't seem to be such a priority  when the cause is demonstrating our virility  to our American mentors as it is when inflicting further hardship and  humiliation on the poor. 

So what are the positive alternatives?  I am no foreign policy specialist, but Oliver Miles, a former ambassador, is, and these are taken from a recent article:
  1. Insist on respect for international law;
  2. Hold the door open for negotiation;
  3. Use diplomacy to mobilise support in the region;
  4. Use our "hard earned" American good will to persuade them to recognise Palestine.
Theologian Giles Fraser of St Paul's and Occupy fame suggests financing education for the three million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, where one in five boys receive no education at all.  That might not solve the current conflict but should  make them less likely to succumb to the advances of Islamic State recruitment officers.

Not macho enough for the red-tops, perhaps, but constructive and will at least do no harm.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Shame on the Guardian

My beloved  Guardian has chosen not to print the following:

Letters to the Editor,
The Guardian.                                                                                                          24th September 2014

Dear Sir,

I cannot understand why a newspaper that claims to be on the left does the Tories' work for them.  You allow Larry Elliott to repeat George Osborne's gibe: "Why hand the car keys back to those who drove it into the ditch in the first place?" (A speech aimed away from its audience, 23 September) and John Grace to write: "Not the media Ed [Balls] who . . .helped run the economy into the ditch,          ( Sensitive Ed goes looking for love,23 September) without the slightest hint that both these statements are gross distortions if not downright lies generated by the Tory PR machine.

The truth is that it was the irresponsible behaviour of the banks and financial sectors, deregulated by the Tories, which "drove the economy into the ditch"; that Gordon Brown's prompt action through the G8 in 2008/9 did save, if not the world, then the developed countries' banking systems;  and that as a result of Alistair Darling's mildly Keynesian final budgets, which Balls may or may not have influenced,  the economy was growing and the deficit reducing.

These are the facts which Elliott well knows and if Grace doesn't then Elliott should tell him.

Instead you help to perpetuate Tory propaganda.  This drip drip drip of distortion has managed to put the Labour leadership so much on the back foot that for the sake of "credibility" (credibility for whom?) they dare not campaign for the policies which were working before they left office and would work again.

Five more years of misguided and unnecessary austerity will not, I suspect,  do much serious damage to the quality of life of most Guardian readers.  But it will cause unnecessary further suffering to the bottom 20% of our fellow citizens who are not benefiting much from the present alleged recovery and need the help of the state.

Please, for their sake, leave unvarnished Tory distortions to your predominantly right wing fellows, and give us more of the balanced truth.

Yours faithfully,

Peter Wrigley .

In has excellent blog Mainly Macro, and particularly in yesterday's post, Professor Wren-Lewis of Oxford University uses the term mediamacro: maybe he even coined it.  I take it he means the almost universal acceptance by the media  that balancing the budget in the near future is essential and that cutting public expenditure and the consequent austerity  is a necessary and inevitable part of achieving that aim.  In other words, to ignore the lessons of the 30s, the analysis of Keynes, and the current experiences of other countries.  

 I find it deeply saddening that the Guardian, with its great liberal traditions, has, like the supine Labour Party, given up the fight and succumbed to this ideologically inspired Tory propaganda.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Scottish Independence Referendum: six reflections

So it wasn't "neck and neck" after all, but a fairly substantial majority, 55% to 45%*, for remaining in the United Kingdom.  Nevertheless, Alex Salmond is to be congratulated on two massive achievements:
  • initiating a debate which encouraged nearly 85% of the electorate to turn out and vote;
  • placing devolution for the whole UK, including England, firmly on the political agenda, something the Liberals/Liberal Democrats have been trying, but failing, to do for much longer than the half century that I've been a member.
The campaign has raised some interesting questions.

1.  Salmond was clever in obtaining the right to pose the question, and he rightly chose the one: "Should Scotland be and independent county?" to which the answer was Yes.  Both psychologists and psephologist tell us that, whatever the question, people are more likely to vote Yes than No.    Had the question been : "Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom?" then the majority for remaining in the Union would probably have been even greater.

This has profound implications for any referendum on our place in  Europe.  "Should Britain remain in the European Union?" is more likely to produce the answer to keep us where our future really lies, than, "Should Britain leave the EU?"  Let's hope Cameron or his replacement  is a bit more alert if and when Tory/Ukip mavericks force such a referendum on us.

2. Salmond complains that the Scots were bullied by the Westminster establishment into voting No.  However it is my belief that the aggressive and often baseless threats of the No campaign actually helped the Yes campaign.  Certainly had I been a Scot I should have been jolted into a Yes vote by the patronising and self satisfied emanations from the rUK.   The visit of the three Westminster party leaders would have been a particularly turn-off.  They seemed mainly  concerned with their own international prestige and fear of the humiliation a Yes vote would bring.  John Major's intervention, on a Radio 4 broadcast, was particularly revealing: we might lose our seat on the Security Council, our  influence in NATO and in the EU  would be diminished, we must hang on the Trident at all costs.  None of it  much to do with how best to govern Scotland.

3.  Salmond wanted the option of Devo Max (home rule) on the ballot paper and Cameron turned this down, presumably judging that with only the "all or nothing" options the status quo would win easily.  When this judgement appeared so badly wrong Cameron's offer of Devo Max in the event of a No vote is a particular humiliation for him. Neither he nor the other two party leaders who supported the last minute capitulation appear to have consulted their parties on the matter.  Given the eventual result the bribe was probably unnecessary, and, by guaranteeing the continuation of the Barnett formula, which results  a higher level of public spending per head in Scotland than in Wales or England, along with  legislation before next spring, this panic measure has unnecessarily tied the hands of whatever body is set up to hammer out the details of devolution the the rest of the UK.

4. Devolution of power from Westminster to the nations and English regions is  a complex matter which merits careful consideration, consultation, and examination of how other countries deal with the matter.  The last minute offer of Devo Max to Scotland has pre-empted this, and we shall be lumbered with a piece-meal solution which will probably result in almost as many anomalies as the present hotch-potch.  My own preference would be:

  • Devolution to Wales, Northern Ireland and, say, eight regions of England  on similar lines to what is offered to Scotland.  I prefer the existing economic regions of England to the city regions which have suddenly become topical, as I believe the former will provide a better balance between the needs of rural and urban areas.
  • A Council for England, sited in York, to deal with matters of English law and other truly national domestic issues (eg trunk roads, main-line railways, national parks, environmental issues.)  This could be a fairly minor body and might even be indirectly elected from the regional assemblies.
  • A  Westminster parliament to deal with foreign policy, defence, the currency, the meteorological office, national broadcasting, relations with the UN. EU and other international bodies, with the necessary taxation to support these functions and to provide equalisation grants to the nations and regions.
The above is just a proposal for starters. It is a complex issue, needs a lot of thought, and should not be rushed.

5. For the first time in any part of the UK  16 and 17 year-olds were allowed to vote.  In spite of the fact that a huge proportion of them did, and appear to have been very active on both campaigns, I am not too keen on this reduction.  I have spent most of my professional life  teaching this age group and have gained the very strong impression that the overwhelming majority of them at 16 merely parrot the views of their parents .  By 18 they are beginning to think for themselves but I suspect that most, in general elections, cast their first vote in the same way as their parents..  In the early 20s they begin to be more independently minded.  Hence I think the original age of adulthood, 21, was about right.  Now that it has been lowered to 18 we must accept that, but, in my view, so far and no further.

6.  Alas the referendum genie is out of the bottle and this issue will undoubtedly resurface.  Alex Salmond, in the speech in which he accepted defeat, was careful to say that Scotland has decided against independence "at this stage."  Commentators have talked of the matter being settled "for a generation."  Well, a generation is about 25 years. Let's hope that by then devolution will produce such successful domestic government, and international organisations are  so responsive and effective, that  nationalism is reduced to supporting football and cricket teams and athletes.

*For the record the actual figures are:

Total votes cast:              3 623 344   (84.6% turnout)
Yes to independence:      1 617 989    (44.7%)
No to independence :     2 001 926    (55.3%)

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scottish Independence Referendum: two predictions

Scotland votes Yes or No to independence today.  Here are two predictions.

The first, pretty well agreed, is that the the turnout is likely to be over 80%, a level not reached in general elections in the UK as a whole since the early 1950s, and a staggering increase on the 2001 election, when the turnout dipped below 60%. The reason is fairly obvious: the vote actually counts and every Scottish voter must feel that how they vote will affect the outcome.

Compare that with our general elections, when, with our simplistic first past the post electoral system the outcome in over 80% of constituencies is a foregone conclusion because the seat is "safe" for the incumbent party.  Thus for the overwhelming majority of us the act of voting is merely a loyal but futile gesture in favour of our party of choice rather than something that is actually going to influence matters.  That being the case, it is quite endearing that 60% of us bother to turn out at all.

The answer, is, of course, a voting system based on proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.  This is the system which comes nearest to making every vote count.  I hope that this issue will enter the constitutional discussions which will inevitable ensue in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, which ever way  they vote.

The second prediction is that, although we are repeatedly told that the two sides are "neck and neck" (surely a more appropriate British metaphor than "too close to call" which I believe is something to do with baseball), I expect there will be a larger majority for No  than the opinion polls predict.  Here's why.

There is in our general elections a phenomenon known as the "shy Tory" vote: people who like in public to project an image of being up to date, progressive and keen for reform to achieve a fairer society for all but, in the privacy of the polling booth think of their own wallets, and believing (wrongly in my view) that their economic future is safer with the Tories, forget their reformist zeal and vote Conservative.

There is no doubt that the Yes campaign has gained the progressive initiative in the Scottish campaign.  I had the impression in my brief visit to Scotland earlier in the year that No voters were rather reluctant to display their views, maybe even afraid of intimidation.  But in the polling booth is suspect many will choose to  "keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding someone worse."

I also have a sneaking suspicion that the polls and media exaggerate the closeness of the race in order to keep up the excitement and sell more papers.  Maybe that's too cynical.

We shall see.