Wednesday 20 July 2011


The public exposure of the cosy links between News International, the police and politicians is very important and we must hope that when the present furore subsides laws will be passed to place a maximum on the amount of the British media owned by one institution, to ensure that owners pay their appropriate taxes in Britain and that meetings between influential persons at a high level are open and properly logged. The first two are easy, the third admittedly a bit tricky, but if they are tackled our democracy will emerge much the healthier.

And that's it. Do we really need all the current fuss, day after day on the pages of our newspapers, dotting every "i" and crossing every "t", and hour after our on radio and television? It's something we've all known about for years, it's good that the issues have come out into the open and that the boil can be lanced, and a little bit of dancing on the News International corps is perhaps understandable, but we must retain a sense of proportion. How many have died as a result of it, compared with the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and are dying at this moment in Somalia? Is it really more important for our Prime Minister to return from Africa to deal with this "little local difficulty" rather than to support our aid efforts in that sad continent?

The great danger is that our chattering classes, when the drama fades and the circus moves on, will kick the issues into the long grass and nothing much will change. I firmly hope that the apparent alliance between Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and the rehabilitated St Vincent de Cable will stick this one out to a successful conclusion.

However, we must remember that even if we achieve what we've learned to call "media plurality" that doesn't mean we shall have a balanced press. The Daily Mail and Express will continue to pour out their anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-feminine anti- welfare, anti most things decent poisons and people will continue to buy them. This is one area where consumers still call the tunes.

The parties themselves need to abandon feeding the media with confrontational sound-bites and concentrate on patiently expounding their alternative policies. That's an essential part of the "new politics" we were promised.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Shock Horror: Torygraph preferred to Guardian

I've spent a long weekend "down South", principally to see the Globe's production of "Much Ado About Nothing." Now that I've looked at them I see the Telegraph's reviewer shares my almost undiluted enthusiasm. Alas the Guardian's critic has sneering criticisms and accuses the actors of "playing to the gallery" (or, in this case, the groundlings.) In my view there is nothing "self indulgent" about the superb performances of the two leads, Charles Edwards as Benedick and Eve Best as Beatrice. I'm sure we shall hear much more of both of them.

Anyone who was badly taught Shakespeare at school and thinks it's "boring" should see a Globe production. It is amazing that plays written four hundred years ago can be received with so much unreserved enthusiasm and give so much pleasure to a modern audience.

Since the theatre is open to the skies (as in Shakespeare's day) the plays are marred by intrusive aircraft noise. Why can't the authorities (Boris Johnson?) issue instructions that aircraft are not to fly within, say, two miles of the Globe during performance times?

Thursday 14 July 2011

Vince Vindicated

No one can have watched yesterday's TV pictures of David Cameron and Ed Miliband lambasting into Rupert Murdoch without a high degree of cynicism, since they and their parties have kowtowed to Murdoch in order to curry his favour over such a long period. Vince Cable,the one politician who is on record of having got it right from the beginning (and been downgraded for his pains) received no mention at all in the bulletins I watched. Alas in politics there are few rewards for being right, but if Vince is experiencing a smug glow of self-satisfaction at the moment it is well deserved, and I hope the public will eventually come to appreciate this.

It could be argued that had the Murdoch media ever taken much notice of us we would have kowtowed too, but James Pericval's post on LibDem Voice details a long period of Liberal Democrat attempts to curb his undue influence, so the party too can pat itself on the back.

I suspect that this whole episode has been of more interest to the chattering classes than the general public, who seemed quite happy about phone hacking and dubious practices as long as they were restricted to celebraties and politicians, and only became roused when "ordinary" parents of murdered children and soldiers killed in action became targets. The danger now is that the circus will "move on" and the current indignation will fade without effective action being taken.

We now need laws which firmly restrict the ownership of any British media to a minority percentage, say 20%, and that ownership should be restricted to those who pay taxes in Britain.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Cotton on, America

I hadn't until now realised the immense power of the blogosphere. Yesterday at 06h31 I posted a demand that the banks should retain cheques as a means of payment: by lunchtime they had caved in. Wow. Let's hope there is similar quick action on the far more important subject of today's post.

For some reason which I don't understand, but it is quite flattering, there are almost as many (4 847) "page-hits" for this blog from the US as from the UK (6 241). So today's post is aimed at our American readers.

British readers will be familiar with the statistic that each European cow receives a daily subsidy equivalent to $2.2, which is rather more that over 1bn of the world's population have to live on, and is something that we in Europe need to work on. The Traidcraft organisation, which practises and promotes fair trade (commerce equitable in France) points out that the US government has subsidised its 3 500 cotton farmers to the tune of $24bn over the past 9 years. If I've pressed the buttons of my calculator correctly that's an average of over $700 000 per farm per year, though in fact the bulk of the subsidy goes to the largest 10% of the farms.

The result is that the US is able to flood the world market with artificially cheap cotton, the 10 million or so African cotton growers are unable to compete and remain in abject poverty.

These subsidies are ruled illegal by the World Trade organisation , of which the US is a member. Yet the US likes to present itself as the world advocate and guardian of democracy and the rule of law.

So, American readers, the Farm Bill is presently being re-negotiated by the President and Congress. Please campaign vigorously for an end to this illegal practice which comforts a few of your rich but makes millions poor and undermines your efforts, through generous aid, to eradicate world poverty.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Insensitive Banking

An open letter to Lloyds TSB.

The Customer Services Manager,
Lloyds TSB.

Dear Sir,

Yesterday I tried to pay for the renewal of my car insurance over the telephone using my current account debit card. Even though I gave all the numbers and other information correctly, twice, the payment was refused. I could not understand this as there were and are ample funds in my account to meet the payment. Fortunately I possess a credit card with the Co-operative Bank and payment on this was accepted without demure. Had it not been I should have had to repeat the tedious negotiations with Saga, the insurers, to get them to honour their promise to match a lower "like for like" quotation and send them a cheque (which, for the moment is possible, but for how long?)

Later in the day I received an automated telephone call purporting to be from you and asking for information about my account,card and personal details. I responded to some of these but then became suspicious and, mindful of your repeated assurances that the bank would never ask for certain information, rang off. I was also worried that if the call were genuine and I answered all the questions correctly the payment would be actioned and I would end up paying twice for my car insurance. As the call was automated it was not possible to explain this.

I then rang your call centre to check on this automated call, and, after much pressing of buttons and listening to recorded messages at my expense on a premium number I was able to speak to a person, who assured me that the automated call was genuine, confirmed that there were sufficient funds in my account to honour the payment and gave no adequate reason that that I could see for refusing it. I recall with some nostalgia the happier days when I could ring my own branch, and would not have to go through a great deal of rigmarole to identify myself as I had grown up with some of the staff and some even recognised my voice.

I am grateful that you have measures in place to prevent my money being spent fraudulently by someone else, but suggest that you amend these as follows to achieve a system more sensitive to the needs of your customers, viz:

where you feel a payment is unusual impose a delay rather than a blank refusal;

check using a personal rather than an automated call;

restore the ability for us to telephone our own branches;

retain cheques as an alternative method of payment.

Although I am long retired I like to think that I retain most of my faculties and am able to deal with such unfortunate episodes without too much distress. However, there are many in my age group, and perhaps in others, who would find such episodes disturbing and confusing.

I look forward to receiving your initial response and your assurance that the above suggestions are receiving sympathetic consideration.

Yours faithfully,

Sunday 10 July 2011

Democracy gives way to Management

Ed Miliband has a achieved a minor "clause four" moment by persuading the Labour Parliamentary Party to let him rather than them choose the members of the Shadow Cabinet. True the Shadow Cabinet elections were messy, to some extent divisive, and to some extent emphasised personalities rather than policies, but they were honest in that they revealed the true nature of the Labour Party, as, like all parties, a coalition of opinions. The Miliband move is an attempt to present the party as a streamlined, obedient and homogeneous entity, which it isn't and shouldn't be.

The move also enhances the power of the party leader above the other senior members at a time when I believe we need a return to collective leadership and collective responsibility. It was for this reason that I opposed the idea of "leaders only" debates before the last election. We should have had a series of debates between the principal spokespersons of the parties, culminating in a debate between the leaders.

Rather than the Labour party falling into line with the others in giving the leader the right to appoint the cabinet or shadow cabinet unfettered by the demands of democracy, for the other parties to adopt elections would do more for the health of our democracy. This is a further step towards a presidential system and away from a parliamentary system and is to be regretted.

On page 198 of his Liberty in the age of reason the philosopher A C Grayling describes the thesis that:

...the enlightenment philosophers sought to rescue people from the arbitrariness of royal or priestly power and to replace it with rule by reason....All that happened was an increase in influence of technical elites. The world, in short, became the fiefdom of managers (his emphasis.

Miliband's moment is a victory of the managers and presentation gurus over the rough and tumble of healthy democratic debate.

Friday 8 July 2011

Shocked! (?)

There is a classic film, I think it is Casablanca, in which most of the action takes place in a bar/gambling club which is regularly frequented by the chief of police.However, activities of the club became politically incorrect (maybe the Nazis invade, or something, I am not good at remembering the details of films,) the club is raided by the police, and the police chief claims to be "shocked" at what he finds.

I am sure there is a great deal of this, often less convincing, play acting in the almost universal expressions of surprise and horror at the antics of the Murdoch press in general and the News of the World in particular (and how many other newspapers? Let's hope the Guardian is squeaky clean.) By accident or design the Guardian's publication of the revelations at this time has succeeded in delaying the decision on News Corporation's bid to gain an even greater share of BSkyB. However, we are solemnly told that Mr Hunt must follow the law and can take into account only media plurality and not whether or not the organisation is a "fit and proper person" to control a further large lump of the media.

If that is the case than we believers in the rule of law must accept it. As Shami Chakrabati pointed out at this year's Liberty AGM, "Unpopular people have rights too." However, in other circumstances, from dangerous dogs to police bail, if parliament doesn't like the law it doesn't hesitate to rush to change it. So if a change in the law is required to stop Murdoch, then let them get on with it.

Monday 4 July 2011

Care Cap

From time to time the media publish shock-horror stories that people are having to sell their houses in order to fund their elderly care. I can see a difficulty if one partner not needing care still lives in a house which is too small to "downsize" from and there are no available council flats, but otherwise what's the problem?

I can see no reason why the state should pay for someone's elderly care over and above £35 000, as proposed by the Dilnot Commission, so that the rest of their personal wealth can be passed on to buy advantages for their children and grandchildren, or even the Battersea Dogs' Home. The concept is even more absurd when we recognise that the wealth contained in a house is largely unearned. My own house has increased in monetary value, through no effort of mine, by 600% since I bought it 25 years ago. If some or all of that accrued value is needed to pay for my personal care in my latter days, so be it.

The real difficulty in this area is to distinguish between medial care, which should be free at the point of use as part of the NHS, and personal care, which, in my view, should be paid for by those who can afford it.

In a related area, I see no reason why the rise in value of a "principal private residence" should be free of capital gains tax. If it were not, that could help stabilize the property market and slow down the rise in property values, a major cause of inequality.

Once again our society seems to be going out of its way to cosset the "haves" whilst continuing to hound the "have-nots."

Sunday 3 July 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn

When DSK was arrested I was walking in the Isle of Wight with a group of French friends. Without exception they all (even two who said they preferred Sarkozy to DSK - so much from French rationality) agreed that he had probably been set up. There was even a suggestion in one of the papers that a UMP apparatchik had reported the incident before it had actually happened.

Speculation that DSK may now run as socialist candidate for the French Presidency is surely premature. After all, the charges still stand and he has yet to be tried and may yet be found guilty.

If the charges ore withdrawn that could be the worst possible outcome for all. As the Guardian pointed out when the alleged rape was first reported, whereas in law the accused is innocent until proved guilty, and only if the accused is proved guilty does a punishment follow,in politics the mere fact of the accusation caries its punishment.

Whatever the outcome I doubt if DSK can recover from this episode. The only positive result could be an improvement in the high-flying Frenchmen's attitude towards women and their concept of sexual "conquest."

Friday 1 July 2011

More on Pensions

I have been away for most of the week, in Bruges (which t seem to prefer to be called Brugge) so I'm missed most of the debates and comments leading up to yesterdays strikes. What little I have heard has not caused me to change my views as expressed in an earlier post. However, I'd be interested in further and better particulars on several aspects of the situation:

1. Pensions for retired local government employees are "funded", which I understand to mean that their contributions were invested (doubtless much of them in the National Debt), and that the funds are in credit and projected to remain so, so there is no immediate question of these pensions being unaffordable or a burden on the taxpayer (except for the issue of contributions being free of tax, which I'll comment on later.) Why therefore, does the government have to interfere? Surely it is up to the fund managers to make any adjustments necessary as a result of great longevity.

2. Pensions for teachers (and for civil servants too, I believe) are "unfunded." Our contributions were used to finance current expenditure (and thus reduce taxes for all, not just the teachers)and our pensions are paid out of current taxation. Everyone, private sector included, has benefited from the lower taxes this has made possible in the past. It is not, in my view, and ideal scheme, but I believe the Hutton Report estimates that the amount of current expenditure required to finance the scheme, will, as a proportion of GDP, peak soon and then fall.

3. In the good times private sector pensions could be far more generous than the maximum of 40/80ths of final salary we teachers receive. (I believe civil servants get a higher ratio.) Is one of the reasons so many private sector pension schemes are no longer viable that they took "pension holidays" when the stock exchange prices were soaring, and now find themselves short when the boom has come to a halt.Are not their problems of their own making?

4. However, I do feel that, especially at the higher levels, many in the public sector have broken the "public service covenant": that we would work for relatively modest salaries for which we are compensated by relative job security and a comfortable pension (and, if you are at the top of the tree, some fancy title such as a KCMG) This covenant has been broken by public servants at the higher levels demanding remuneration equivalent to the private sector but without the risks.

5. In addition to paying teachers' and others pensions directly, current taxpayers fund pensions by forgoing the tax on pension contributions. According to a letter from a Declan O'Neill in yesterday's Guardian, in 2009 this tax relief cost the treasury £37bn of which 60% went to higher rate tax payers , with 25% going to the top 1% of earners. Surely there should be some limits. We need to get "back to basics", recognise that pensions are to avoid penury when one's earning life is over. Thus I have no quarrel with pensions based on average rather than final salaries, and in my view tax relief should be allowed on pension contritions only up to the amount that would provide a pension pot which would pay out the equivalent to the median wage.