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

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

I'm backing Nick

Nick Clegg goes head to head this evening in a debate on the European Union with Nigel Farage. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm not particularly enamoured by Liberal Demcorats' performance in government.  However I do not hold Nick particularly culpable for our inadequacies.  Rather I think he has and is being badly advised.

 I suppose that's a convenient excuse for the poor performance of any organisation when one wants to remain loyal to the leader, but it has some credence.  Even Ming Campbell, an experienced and sage former leader not prone to scaremongering, has revealed that he felt Clegg surrounds himself with  too many youngsters  without real experience.

Regarding tonight's debate I cannot think of anyone better qualified than Nick to take on Farage and his xenophobic nonsense.  It should be an interesting debate. Both,in their different ways are engaging personalities able to establish rapport with an audience. Both are well informed, Clegg, in my view, with the truth, and Farage with material to support his prejudices.  I anticipate Clegg will "win" hands down.

I do not expect this debate to have much effect on the results of the European election: most people won't be listening. For that matter neither shall I, as this debate is  broadcast only in London, but I'm hoping to be able to catch it on You-tube or some other miracle of modern communications.

The stunning victory I anticipate will probably  not do much to improve the Liberal Democrats' standing in the polls. But I hope it will provide a boost to Nick Clegg's self confidence. He has received far more than his fair share of opprobrium.  It's no excuse, I know, but we are not the first political party to break an election  promise and sadly we probably won't be the last.

But on this wicket he's batting for a policies and principles on which Liberal/Liberal Democrats alone in British politics have an unblemished record. So go to it, Nick: I look forward to paeans of praise tomorrow morning.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Annuities: a liberalisation too far?

Pension pots can be cashed in and splurged on a few cruises or a Lamborghini rather than used to buy and annuity, says the government, because people can and should be trusted to spend their own money as they wish.  Sounds very liberal.

But is it their own money?

There is massive tax relief on pension contributions.  Even for  a standard rate taxpayer every £80 contribution is automatically turned into £100 be the government.  Higher rate taxpayers have to claim but receive even greater contributions from the public purse (for details see hhtp/  As I understand it, if a pension pot is "drawndown" beyond the existing tax free 25% the rest is taxed at the recipient's current tax rate.  Thus it is possible to receive tax relief of up to 45% when amassing the pot, then, by a judicious manipulation of one's apparent income income on retirement, pay only 20%, or whatever is the standard rate, when receiving the jackpot.  I'm sure clever accountants will have no difficulty in devising schemes to achieve this.

Tax relief on pension contributions, at least up to an amount sufficient to provide an income equivalent to, say,  the median wage in retirement,  is logical if the pension pot is actually used for its purpose. If it can indeed be splurged on any odd whim then surely the pension pot should be treated for tax purposes in exactly the same way as ordinary savings.

True, the present market for annuities seems rather cosy and the providers provide massive incomes for themselves in management fees and charges.  The fact that pension pot holders no longer have to use them may sharpen up their competitiveness, but this seems like an inappropriate  hammer to crack a nut.  Surely effective regulation could achieve fairness for the bulk of pensioners without further favouring the already rich.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Meadowcroft on the Ukraine

In an earlier post I admit to not knowing much about foreign policy.  My friend Michael Meadowcroft, sometime Liberal MP for Leeds West, does and has written the following letter to the Yorkshire Post. 
Dear Sir

In my time in parliament, Sir Malcolm Rifkind tended to be a voice of sanity as a Conservative foreign minister. I am disappointed to see that he has now become a cold warrior (Putin must feel pain over Ukraine, March 20).

I am no supporter of President Putin and his militaristic Russian regime, nor indeed of nationalism generally, but your readers need to look at the background to the current serious difficulties in Crimea and in Ukraine generally. The need to view international disputes as the other “side” sees them is crucial and rarely realised. My 50-odd missions to emerging democracies around the world since the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989 have been an extremely steep learning curve in how the West is seen from overseas.

In particular, the West has had no understanding of Russians’ pride in their culture and history. The fall of the Soviet Union was gleefully seized on by the American neocons, aided and abetted by the Thatcherites here, in order to export to Russia and other fledgling democracies the economic failures of their own experiments. Russia needed a new “Marshall Plan” to underpin  the rouble but this was never on the West’s agenda. Consequently the rouble collapsed and we allowed Russia to fall into the hands of the oligarchs.

It was no surprise that the Russian people looked for a strong, nationalist leader to restore their pride - and Putin exactly fitted the bill. Ukraine’s record, particularly since its independence in 1990, has been increasingly unstable and the violent recent coup in Kiev led to an interim regime with a number of extreme right wing members and a very nationalist president. Just about the first action of this regime was to repeal the law that made Russian an official language, spoken as a first language by a very sizeable minority of people in Ukraine. How do you think this provocative action was regarded by Putin?

The west’s talk of “territorial integrity” is ludicrous when just 24 years ago when the whole of Ukraine - Crimea included - was all part of one country: the Soviet Union. Rifkind’s and Hague’s view of Russia’s actions in Crimea is extremely hypocritical when one recalls that just fifteen years ago we actually bombed Serbia to make it let Kosovo become independent, even though it had been part of Serbia for centuries. The outcome in Kosovo has also been unsatisfactory and the West’s actions have simply exchanged discrimination against its Albanian population for discrimination against its Serbian people.

We need a much broader perception of sovereignty and of borders, with a view to resolving problems by assisting acceptable constitutional solutions. Sanctions have little value, particularly when one realises that around one third of our gas comes from Russia.

Yours faithfully

Michael Meadowcroft

I understand that the Crimea  (maybe even the whole of the Ukraine) is as "close" to Russia as Wales is the England.  How would we feel if, had a previous prime minister decided to "give Wales away,"  say to Ireland or France, without so much as a with-your-leave or a by-your-leave, and our present lot had decided to re-integrate it into the UK, in accordance with the apparently overwhelming wishes of the Welsh people? 

We should presumably not take kindly to pompous posturings from Obama, Putin  or anyone else.

I agree that the parallel is far from exact, but, as Michael says, if our diplomacy is to be successful we need to be sensitive to the views the actual participants are likely to have of the situation.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Generation W - or maybe pre-W

This week the Guardian's G2 magazine section is being edited by Generation Y who, I gather, are young people born during or since the 1990s.  They appear to replace Generation X, also known as the Baby Boomers: those born since the Second World War, who, it is alleged, never had it so good and are even now taking more than their fair share of the national income and thus depriving Generation Y, Z et al of decent life chances.

I'm not a Baby Boomer.  Having been born in  1937, before  the War, I'm presumably Generation W, or even pre-W.  I suppose I had a deprived childhood, but I didn't realise it, since everybody else, at least of the people I knew, led a similar lifestyle.  We really were "all in it together."  Designer jeans, or any other sort of jeans, hadn't yet appeared, our clothes were often patched and handed down, our weekly sweet ration was a tube or Rowntree's Cleargums, and when the fish and chip shops proudly announced   "Frying tonight, Fish" (as opposed to just chips ) we were  pretty indifferent as we usually ate only "chips with bits on" anyway. Our ultimate in treats was a dish of tinned mandarin oranges with evaporated milk as cream.  The height of family entertainment was to gather round the one radio in the house to listen to Saturday Night Theatre on the Home Service.

Our junior school classes were unstreamed and mostly 40+.  I supposed we ceased to be "all in it together" when, after the 11+, taken at a different primary school with a warning from our teacher  that it wasn't necessary to wear your best suit, some of us were creamed off to grammar schools and  the rest either stayed on at the elementary school or went to one of Mr Butler's newly-created secondary moderns.  Whichever, there was no shortage of jobs when we finished our education, and if we had chosen a job we didn't like it was not difficult to change to another.

Throughout our working lives the question of redundancy rarely arose and, even if it did it was pretty easy to find another post.  I was lucky to have a job as a teacher which I thoroughly enjoyed, and was able to devote some 97% of my energies to teaching people rather than filling in forms to prove to OFSTED or the like that I'd done it.

I now live very comfortably in retirement with my two index-linked pensions (state retirement pension plus teacher's pension) providing amply for my needs.

I do not, however, accept the charge that I am some sort of parasite robbing Generation Y of its future. That's because I paid for the comfortable situation which I now enjoy.  For most of my working life the standard rate of income tax was around  6/8d in the £; that's 33.3p or over 50% higher that it is now.  In addition my National Insurance Contributions, about 6% of my salary, were deducted every month from my pay, along with another 6% for the teachers' superannuation scheme.  On top of that, though from misguided choice rather than necessity, I paid a massive amount of additional tax and duty to sustain my tobacco habit, fondness for beer, and the luxury of driving a car.

I do not claim that Generations pre-W,  W or X were or are particularly virtuous.  Most of the the deductions made to fund our retirement were compulsory rather than voluntary.  However, it is wrong to accuse of selfishness which is harming the coming generations.  If Generation Y would like in their old age to enjoy the comfort and security that we do they should stop voting for parties which bribe them with promises of lower and lower taxes, and realise that you get what you pay for.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Compettion versus Co-operation

 A friend who is a School Governor circulated the following to his colleagues after in a meeting in January.  He raises some interesting issues, though I wish he'd talked of co-operation rathar than collaboration: sounds less sinister.
Competition versus Collaboration

The Benefits of Competition

1 I, like most school governors, am aware of the frequency that the word “competition”  and the phrase “being competitive” crop up in school governor meetings.   The “framing” (key word !) of the debate leads us to educate  our students for a competitive job market where the better qualified candidate who performs better in the interview (or the selection process generally) gets the job. 

The UK economy needs to be “more competitive”.  It needs to produce goods and services of better quality and at lower price in order to sell in our overseas markets in order to balance our balance of international trade.   No one owes the UK plc a living and it is a hard world out there. We need to raise our game and sharpen our elbows.

The same may be said to apply to schools.  League tables are devised to enable parents (“the consumers”) to compare local schools.   Good schools (high in the league tables) will attract students (“bums on seats”)  and each student brings with him or her a bounty (AWPU or its successor).  Bad schools will either raise their game (i.e. competition driving improvement) or go to the wall.   Parents deserve choice and this justifies the plurality of provision in the English system these days  - community schools, private (so-called “public” schools), voluntary aided schools, academies and free schools.   What a bountiful market in which the consumer can choose!

2.  Does competition have any downsides?  I would argue “yes”. In the case of schools it is possible for one school to become over-subscribed and a neighbouring school to become under-subscribed.
There are awkward “indivisibilities” with  school buildings   - you cannot easily transfer accommodation capacity to a popular school  from a less popular one.  If a school is at its admissions limit you cannot easily slip in another 15 students per year. You cannot easily scale down the size of an “unpopular” school.

In an effort to ensure bums are on seats schools expend time and other resources in “marketing” themselves.   Market demand is fixed (the limited size of the student population) so marketing is necessarily a zero sum game – what my school wins, your school loses – and vice versa.

3 Having reached point 3 I see this memo is in danger of becoming a rambling rant, so I shall try and cut to the chase.  “Competition” can have other undesirable consequences – for example, different nations competing against each other to attract footloose globalised companies to come to them by offering lower and lower taxation of company profits.  Here we have a “race to the bottom”.   Similarly nations might seek to have increasingly more flexible labour markets, meaning worsening conditions of service and remuneration for labour – a second “race to the bottom”.  Both these examples reflect asymmetries in power structures – sovereign nations acting independently have become no match for mighty transnational corporations whilst trade unions have been weakened by changes in the law.  Consequent on these changes are the erosion of the corporate tax base (so that governments have to compensate by, for example, putting up taxation on consumers) and the sharp rise in inequality of income and wealth distribution that has taken place in the last twenty years.

4. We should not forget Tawney's adage; “Freedom for the pike means death for the minnow”.

5.   In 3 above “acting independently” was underlined.  I see a strong argument for nations acting collectively (collaborating) in order to counterbalance the mighty strength of global corporations that would otherwise pay one off against the other.  Nations acted collaboratively at Bretton Woods in 1944 in devising the IMF structure in which world trade successfully expanded 1945 to 1972.   A main rationale for this structure was to avoid the competitive devaluations that had scarred trade relations in the 1930s.

6. What is nearly always left out of the “competition”, “employability” “paying our way as a nation” discussion is any question of what are the limits to economic growth.  In a world of finite resources where the planet is increasingly struggling to act as a sump for the wastes of our growing production, we need to ask “How much is enough?”.  The competitive model is unlikely to give a globally sustainable solution – China, with its high growth of GDP is also the nation with the fastest growing contribution to CO2 emissions.   It is going to take a serious collaborative effort between nations to tackle climate change and leave, for our grandchildren, a world fit to live in – the sort of joint commitment of Bretton Woods.

7.   Clearly there is a place for competition in our world – and also a place for collaboration.  It strikes me at present that these two are “out of kilter” and we need to shift the balance back more to collaboration.  In our meeting in January, in answer to a question, a member  expressed the opinion that collaboration between local secondary schools is less now than a few years ago and this had had deleterious consequences.

Three Afterthoughts:

A . The F1 project in which  our  is entered is a good example of an appropriate balance between competition and collaboration.   The teams compete against each other for the prize on offer.  In putting together their effort the members of a team need to collaborate closely.

B.  Big banks are cheer-leaders for the benefits of competition (the free market model) and in consequence argue for minimal regulation.   However, when it suits them, they will covertly collaborate, as is evidenced by the LIBOR rate fixing scandal.

C. In tackling both the excesses of global capitalism and the challenge of climate change the UK is more likely to make an effective contribution as part of a collaborative European Union effort than on its own. The EU collectively is a big player.  For me this constitutes an argument for continued UK membership of the EU.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Liberal Democrat optimism unbounded

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.

True Liberalism.

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

UK and Ukraine

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
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

Beaten by the banks

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.