Friday, 30 August 2013

A reassertion of Parliamentary Democracy.

From 1878 onwards Gilbert and Sullivan's Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, MP has sung:

I always voted to my party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.*

as the explanation and condition of his rise to greatness.

So, for over 100 years until yesterday, have our MPs by and large behaved.  The only significant exception of which I can think is the vote on the Norwegian campaign in 1940 which brought down Neville Chamberlain, to be replaced by Winston Churchill.

Not any more.

Yesterday's defeat of the government motion on Syria, anodyne as it was, is an indication that the era of parliamentary subservience to an over-mighty executive may be coming to an end.  There is, I understand, much talk of the "humiliation" of David Cameron (and Nick Clegg, who toed the coalition line instead of  asserting the independence of the Liberal Democrats or allowing a free vote).

Rather than the weakness of the leaders I should prefer to emphasise the re-assertion of the strength of parliament.  In fact, I believe Cameron showed strength of character.  Instead of the expected obfuscations and prevarications, he declared  immediately after the vote that he would accept the parliamentary view: there would be no British military intervention in Syria.

A further step in the direction of democratic accountability is that we are no long prepared to dance unquestioningly to the Americans' tune. There is much huffing and puffing about the damage to the "special relationship."  Let's hope we can now put this  "fond thing vainly imagined" as Thomas Cranmer might have put it, and surely the cause of much amused embarrassment in Washing-up, behind us and seek such international political influence as we have with our neighbours in Europe and through the United Nations. 

Nine liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government's motion (nearly 20% of the parliamentary party, compared with 30, or 10%, of the Tories).  I was sorry not to see Bradford's David Ward or Leeds's Greg Mullholland among them, nor party  president  Tim Farron or former president Simon Hughes.  Maybe they were among the 14 who "did not vote."

However, we must not forget that the most important issue at stake is not the state of British parliamentary democracy, nor the standing of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, but the plight of the Syrian people and their neighbours.  There may still be a unilateral military intervention by the US  which  will almost certainly  worsen their desperate plight.  The need for urgent diplomatic efforts to stop the supply of weapons to all the sides in the civil war, stop the fighting and restore some sort of peace remains the top priority. 

*HMS Pinafore

Wednesday, 28 August 2013


Liberal Democrat members of parliament have the opportunity to restore some of our credibility by voting unanimously against military intervention in Syria. If that is too much to hope for then at the very least the leadership should remove the three-line whip and allow, indeed encourage, our MPs to vote according to their reasoned conclusions after hearing the debate.

Eschewing  military intervention does not mean the UK  should stand idly by.  There is plenty of opportunity to try to restrict the access of  both sides (or the many sides) to weaponry and ammunition,  from which, one suspects, the British arms industry has already benefited considerably.  Diplomatic efforts  can also be made to bring pressure to bear via the United Nations, through the General Assembly as well as the Security Council. However, even with UN approval it is hard to see how military intervention by "the West" can do anything other than make a bad situation worse.

With or without UN approval, military intervention by the US with the  UK (and France?) acting as acolytes  is most likely to generate Muslim resentment and possibly provoke retaliatory terrorist attacks.

PS  (29th August, 2013)  It appears that Ed Miliband and the Labour Party have forced Cameron to backtrack and at least wait for the report of the UN Inspectors.  Good for them, but, as I understand it, the Inspectors will report on whether or not chemical weapons have been used, but not on who used them, so that may not be much help

Monday, 26 August 2013

Australian elections

A friend of mine, scion of  a prominent Liberal family in Batley in the 1960s and 70s, and now living in Australia, has sent me these detailed views.

Dear Peter,

Oz election?  Apathy, contempt.  But I’d better explain.  Until recently we had two very unpopular major party leaders.  Most people never forgave Gillard for ousting the `people’s choice’ in Rudd, so she never had much chance with the voters, and with half the Labor party factions or the `faceless men’ who appear able to pull the strings in the background.  Rudd made appointments based on ability, rather than balancing factions, and that inevitably led to his initial demise, particularly as he became increasingly autocratic and upsetting many colleagues (as well as the big, powerful mining companies). He did, however, retain popular support as an articulate statesman.  

Equally, the Liberals have a popular articulate statesman in self-made man (via investment banking) Malcolm Turnbull, but he lost the leadership some years ago when his socialist tendencies led to sensible policies not extreme enough for the far-right Libs and he got toppled.  However, the Libs bungled the election and instead of putting one up against him, they put two – Hockey (our local MP) and Abbott.  Hockey and Turnbull split the reasonable person vote, and the 3rd choice Abbott got in. 

 Abbott is bereft of policy, other than saying No to anything Rudd or Gillard proposed, and is an extreme Christian right, 50 years behind the times, climate-change denier, notorious bully, dumb-arsed mysoginist, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-asylum seekers, anti everything except helping his rich mates.  A dickhead, and unpopular as a result. Inexplicably as a former Rhodes scholar, he has severe foot-in mouth disease.  This week’s proclamations: `No man has a suppository of all knowledge’ (a smart arse!): asked to describe a female candidate’s qualifications, he said she had `sex appeal’; and yesterday he pronounced gay marriage as ‘just a fashion thing’. He blames Rudd for the downturn in the mining industry, totally ignoring the global financial crisis that struck everyone including China. 

Hockey is a nice enough bloke, but as Treasurer I wouldn’t trust him to handle the office tea money.  Equally bereft of policy, or a handle on finance. But sadly they’ll win.  The Labor dudes brought back Rudd to limit the damage in marginal seats; he’ll save some but not enough.  The independents who held the balance of power have had enough and retired and their seats will go Lib-Nat, and a lot of the western suburbs `Alf Garnet’ working classes will return to the Libs.  It’s further complicated by the terrible corruption being unearthed in the previous NSW state Labor government, and the current local anti-Labor sentiment in QLD.

Pity is that Rudd looks ineffective as a past PM because he couldn’t get anything through the previous Lib-dominated upper house or past the balance of power Greens.  Hence tax reform, mining tax (tax on super-profits from Australia’s natural resources), Emissions Trading Scheme, etc, all got watered down enough to be ineffective.  Sadly, the fact that Australia evaded the major economic impact of the global financial banking crisis due to past and present Labor government policy has been totally lost.  Rudd’s now even trying to outflank Abbott with extreme right policies, such as doing a deal with Paua New Guinea to take all illegal boat people.

The only good thing about the election is that the ABC comedy teams are out in force, having a field day – brilliant satire, though even they are complaining that with Abbott they can’t keep up with the gaffes.  An election that’s going to be decided in a few marginal seats, which renders the only choice for most of us being how exactly to spoil our ballot papers (I won’t, but it will nevertheless be a protest vote).  When Abbott gets elected, we’re all expecting international embarrassment, and are hopeful that Turnbull’s fans will see him overthrow Abbott, as the Labs did to Rudd and Gillard.


Saturday, 10 August 2013

Green shoots, animal spirits and sober assessment

As snippets of "good news" about improvements in the state of our economy begin to filter through commentators, particularly on the right, are already talking about  the "green shoots of economic recovery."   Given the ridicule which Norman Lamont's use of the phrase  generated way back in the 1990s, this could turn out to be something of an own goal.  Nevertheless, on the radio earlier this week I heard that the Daily Mail was proclaiming  that "Wow!" is now the only way describe Britain's economic vitality.

Keynes spoke of the effects of the "animal spirits" of entrepreneurs on the all-important levels of investment which generate employment and growth.  If spirits are low then investment levels are low and the economy stagnates. But if entrepreneurs are optimistic, then, indeed "Wow!" they will invest like crazy, the Keynesian multiplier will kick in and the economic Nirvana of growth with  full employment will become the order of the day.  (The government's headache then becomes to keep control of inflation and maintain a balance of external payments.)

So the good news is to be welcomed, and we must hope it will be continued and reduce the economic privations which the most vulnerable in our society have been experiencing. Any attempt to preach otherwise would be churlish.

Unfortunately attempts will be made to translate these signs of tentative economic recovery  into applause for a political success for the  George Osborne and the Tory party.  The grim truth is as follows:

  • this is not the beginnings of the  recovery the economy after the financial crisis of 2007-9; the economy was already recovering in 2010 when Osborne and the coalition took office:
  • the policy of "savage cuts" and the increase in VAT, the opposite of what Keynesian policy would advocate, helped to bring this recovery to a halt:
  • the  recession has therefore lasted longer than that in the 1930s and, indeed of any recession in the UK in the past 100 years:
  • Britain's  GDP, and therefore most people's incomes,  still remain below the pre-crash level:
  • by contrast, the US, where the Obama administration,  in spite of obstruction from Congress,  injected a Keynesian stimulus in the order of  $800bn through a combination of tax cuts and increases in government expenditure, has already returned to pre-crash levels
  • so have France and Germany, in spite of the troubles of the Eurozone.
There is no doubt that the right wing press and the Tory spin department will conveniently overlook the above, and  most people  will be happy to forget it if the "good times" seem to be returning. But the truth is that Osborne's policy of "expansionary contraction" has prolonged our recession, not cured it. The suspicion remains that it is not an economic policy at all, but an excuse to shrink the state.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Cole to Cable

 For Cable's response to John Cole's original letter see previous post.

Dear Dr Cable

Thank you for your letter of 26th July, in reply to my earlier letter.  I am grateful that a busy cabinet minister finds time to respond at some length.  I do not wish to extend this exchange beyond your patience or time constraints.  However, I make the following points:

1 I have now re-read your NS article of March 6th which is more nuanced than your remarks in Manchester.  Shall we agree that the article represents your thinking better? 

2 May I draw to your attention a recently published book “”Austerity – the History of a Dangerous Idea” by Prof. Mark Blyth  (publ.  OUP) ?  Mark Blyth is a Scot who currently teaches in the USA but has a strong link to Europe.   He is good at differentiating between the “specific policy positions in particular countries” as your own letter puts it.  His book is depressing in that he concludes that austerity is counter-productive but has an inevitability about it which makes escape  difficult.

3 You state “The world is not in slump”  but an article by   Ha-Joon Chang of Cambridge University (“Guardian”  26th July) points out the degree of slow-down in the last two years.  To quote:  “The other two biggest "emerging" economies, Brazil (second largest) and India (third), have both seriously slowed down in the last couple of years. India's growth rate fell from 10.5% in 2010 to 6.3% in 2011, and then to 3.2% in 2012. The equivalent figures for Brazil were 7.5%, 2.7%, and 0.9%.  There is nothing here to be complacent about – I am sure you are not.

4 I take several of your points in your second substantive paragraph including your analysis of the southern periphery  Eurozone countries and the impact of “German reluctance”.  Most especially I agree wholeheartedly with your estimate of the significance of the trio of UK ailments.  Whilst my thinking remains essentially Keynesian, I do not regard myself as a “facile Keynesian”.  I think my earlier letter indicated an awareness of the difficulties of enacting a full-blown Keynesian reflation.   Like you, I have to balance.

5 There is a possibility I might make it to Glasgow for the Federal Conference, particularly for the debate on macro-policy.  The leadership of the Party looks like being in for a rough ride if it attempts to major on supporting the Osborne “Fiscal Mandate” of his Mais Lecture.  Put another way, Danny Alexander would be well advised to become more nuanced on that topic.  There are other elements of the motion for debate which are more palatable and likely to get widespread Conference support.

Again, thank you for your time and consideration   

Yours sincerely,

John Cole

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Cable to Cole

To read  John Cole's original letter to Vince Cable please click here.

Here is Dr Cable's reply:

House of Commons,
London, SW1A  OAA

26th July, 2013.

Dear Mr Cole ,

Thank you for your thoughtful letter.

I must have explained myself badly.  My thoughts on Keynes et al were more coherently and carefully set out in my New Salesman article of March 6th 2013.  Of course there is a role for government in stimulating  economic activity  as Keynes would have argued (borrowing for public investment).  But the fundamental difference  from the Keynesian framework is that we have a barter (sic)* banking system.  The, mostly, US writers you cite  are not commenting on the UK  but globally where a Keynesian framework  does make more sense.  That is also my my criticism of Labour: their (part) responsibility for the banking crisis.

I have never understood the generalised complaint about 'austerity' as opposed to criticism of  specific fiscal positions in particular countries.  The world is not in slump.  The world economy and trade have been borrowing (sic), out side the EU.  This boom may or may not be sustainable (e.g. in China) but 'austerity' it isn't!  The southern European austerity has to do with  the management of a freed (sic)** exchange rate regime on top of  a fragile banking system.  The German reluctance to help the rest of the Euro zone to 'rebalance' is a key here.  The UK has a unique combination of ailments - a very large fiscal deficit; a badly damaged banking system; a massively dysfunctional housing market  - which helps explain why real recovery is so elusive.

Yours sincerely,

The Rt Hon Dr Vincent Cable MP

*   possibly "battered" was intended.
** presumably "fixed" was intended.

I'll post John's detailed response later in the week, but take issue now with Dr Cable on two points.

First it is rather disingenuous to dismiss the academic support John cites as "largely US."  Of the sources  John quotes Simon Wren-Lewis  is a professor at Oxford and Martin Wolf a contributor to the Financial Times, so both have firm British credentials.  True Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz are based in the US, but both have taken a forensic interest in the performance of  the British economy and written specifically and frequently about it.  Only Richard Koo, a Taiwanese-American now based in Japan, could be regarded as "outside the box," though, in my view, no less relevant for that.

Secondly, I challenge the idea that Britain's "set of ailments" is unique.  At the time of the financial crash several countries, including the US, Germany and France had debt/GDP ratios of the same order as the UK*; the banking system of the US is just as "battered" as that of the UK, and a French bank was one of the first to collapse; and, of course, it was the dysfunctional "sub-prime" loans in the US housing market which triggered the present crisis.

Nevertheless, in this letter and in his New Statesman article it is good to see our Liberal Democrat economic champion at last nailing his colours  to our traditional mast and recognising the need for "a role for the government in stimulating economic activity as Keynes would have argued (borrowing for public investment.)"

* In an article, (23rd February 2013) Wren-Lewis writes: "As Paul Krugman has pointed out many times (Britain's) "debt problem" is seen my many on the right as a useful cover  to reduce the size of the state."  I tend to agree and am saddened that so many leading Liberal Democrats have allowed themselves to be taken in.  From the agenda for our autumn conference in Edinburgh, published today,  it seems that the leadership is intent on bullying the rest of the party into agreeing with them in their delusion.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Pickles and parking.

By chiding local authorities for their parking charges, and suggesting that parking should be allowed on double yellow lines, albeit for only 15 minutes, our Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, breaks two Tory election pledges in one go.  The Tories promised to be the party of decentralising: in the words of David Cameron, to free local councils to "do whatever they liked so long as it's legal."  And they promised to be the greenest government ever.

Parking charges are, in most places, indeed high. That is possibly because, following the Thatcher government's introduction of rate capping, continued by Labour and the present government, and the removal of business rates from local authority jurisdiction, parking charges are now about the only tax over which local authorities have any control.  Even then they cannot use the money as they wish: it must, by central government diktat,  be devoted to road spending.  Maybe that includes public transport which wouldn't be so bad, but I don't know.

The current impotence of local councils with respect to parking, and the consequences of "outsourcing," are aptly described by this splendid paragraph from John Lanchester's, novel, "Capital."*

(His) morning's work began  with a visit to the offices of Control Services,  the company which supervised the borough's  parking.  The contract for  parking had been enforced with such lack of sensitivity, such aggressive pursuit  of the officially non-existent quotas  and bonuses, such a festival of clamped  and towed residents, such a bonanza of gotcha! tickets  and removals, such an orgy of unjust , malicious,  erroneous, and just plain wrong parking tickets, that in local elections  it had cost the incumbent council control of the  borough not once but twice.  And there was nothing the borough could do, because the terms of the contract were  set out by central government, so that there was no effective control, at local level, of this local service.  It was a local government classic: it was a total cock-up...

Sadly, both Labour and the Conservatives now regard local councils as agents of (and, in implementing spending cuts, scapegoats for) the central government, and there doesn't seem to have been as much opposition from Liberal Democrats in government  as might have been expected, given the size and importance of our local government base.

As far as greenness is concerned, surely we should be looking for ways of encouraging alternatives to the use of cars rather than further pandering to the convenience of car drivers and the inconvenience of everyone else: more cycle lanes, more pedestrianised shopping streets, better public transport, "walking buses" and dedicated yellow buses for the school runs, and charges for parking at supermarkets (with the revenues going to the local authority, not the supermarket.)

*This novel, (Faber and Faber, 2012) is a rivetting read. Among other things, it has a vivid section describing he experiences of  an innocent man held for 28 days without charge, on  totally unjustified suspicion of terrorism.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

OFSTED, Estelle Morris and Ted Wragg

Last week the Guardian published a fulsome panegyric by Estelle Morris in praise of OFSTED.   It is, she claims, "the most respected of all the inspectorates,"  has "become a driver of change and force for good," the days when many teachers opposed it " are largely gone"  and  she has talked to teachers who acknowledge that "their inspection, whilst challenging, was a thoroughly professional event that made a real contribution to their school's progress."

Well, teachers, especially those now called "school leaders" and those who aspire to such exalted status,would say that, wouldn't they.

Only in the last few lines of this paean of praise does she mention that "other (teachers) report inspections that were more debilitating than energising."

Estelle Morris was briefly (2001 - 2002)  Education Secretary in the then Labour government until, bravely and unusually for a modern politician, she resigned because she did not feel up to the job.  In contrast, an educationalist who dominated the field for several decades, and who certainly was up to the job, took a very different view.  That was the late Ted Wragg, who died in 2005.  According to his obituary (Guardian, 11 November, 2005):

In columns over three decades...Wragg poured mountains of highly amusing ordure  on politicians and bureaucrats for meddling in schools.  He loathed the inspection regime imposed by the Thatcher and Major governments, and in particular Chris Woodhead, the former head of OFSTED.

Wragg's opinion of teachers contrasts starkly with the distrust shared by successive Secretaries of State including the present incumbent Michael Gove, all  of whom believe that, because they have been to school they know what constitutes a "good ecuation", more often than not a re-creation of what and how  they themselves were taught.*  Wragg's obituarist,  Will Woodard, continues:

Wragg's unashamed view was that most teachers know what they were doing - certainly more than most politicians did.  He was no zealot, and offered even handed views  on such issues as mixed-ability teaching  and phonics, preferring instead  to let individual professionals decide what works for them.

Unlike Secretaries of State, and I suspect, most if not all OFSTED inspectors,  Wragg "kept his hand in  by teaching regularly  in local primary and secondary schools."

The damage OFSTED does is two-fold.  First it acts as what Professor Colin Richards has called "the government's educational police service" to enforce the varying whims of successive political panjandrums.  Secondly it has what economists call an opportunity cost.  Time and energy which teachers could be using to understand and educate the pupils in their charge are diverted to preparing records,  statistics, and lesson plans,  attending tedious meetings and contriving fatuous mission statements (even for each and every lesson - they're called WILFs and WALTs) to placate the inspection system.

In my teaching career, from 1959 to 2003, I'm happy to say that  at least 95% and probably more of my time and energy was, after the first "probationary " year when I was  required to produce detailed lesson plans each week for my headmaster, devoted to reading,  preparation, marking,and actual classroom teaching which was directly and usefully to the benefit of  the people I taught.  Today I suspect the figure is below 75%.

For further comments on OFSTED and a suggestion  on what should happen to it and its inspectors please see my earlier post on

* This trait is not restricted to politicians.  My father, who left elementary school at the age of 13, did not regard anyone as properly educated unless they could recite the rivers of Yorkshire in clockwise order. Alas I could never pass this test.

**  WILFs are "What I'm looking for" and WALTs, I think,  are "What I'm learning today."  In at least one local school these have to be on the blackboard (or, probably now, whiteboard or interactive screen) for every lesson and "school leaders" go on "learning walks" around the school to ensure that they are.  The sad thing is that today's generation of teachers take this nonsense seriously.