Monday 31 October 2011

Plot for a radio play

I offer his plot gratuitously to any author writing for Radio 4's Afternoon Theatre.

Scene 1: Heaven.

God notes with approval the work of St Paul's Institute in debating and producing reports on a "more excellent" New World Order, but fears few people are listening. He calls on His advisers, and they decide to inspire groups of young, trendy and attractive activists, good communicators all and with similar aims, to hold demonstrations.

Scene 2: major cities in the World.

Activists get together, not necessarily recognising that they are being inspired by God. They decide to take on the principalities and powers of the financial world whose activities are making poor people poorer. The London activists decide on a demonstration outside the Stock Exchange.

Scene 3: the London Stock Exchange.

God hardens the hearts of the Stock Exchange Council, so that they refuse to allow the activists to demonstrate outside their Exchange. God then inspires the activists to move to nearby St Paul's Cathedral instead.

Scene 4: Heaven

God rubs His hands in anticipation. Surely this combination of youthful enthusiasm combined with the intellect and wisdom of the current leaders of His church in England will make everyone listen and His Kingdom "on Earth as it is in Heaven" for which thy all claim to yearn will be established any day now.

Scene 5: The activists set up camp outside the Cathedral.

Scene 6: Huge numbers of police arrive to "protect" the Cathedral but a holy priest asks them, with an ironic twist, to move on.

Scene 7: The English speaking world enjoys the irony, which is well reported, and recognises that the Church is on the side of the poor.

Scene 8: Heaven.

God pats his stomach in satisfaction: the plan is working and the "Kingdom on Earth" may be just around the corner.

Scene 9: the Cathedral Chapter House.

The principalities and powers of the ecclesiastical establishment fail to recognise that his opportunity is heaven sent and, like the principalities and powers of the financial world, decide to put short-term financial gain before the long term achievement of the Kingdom they espouse. However, they realise that action against the activists will be unpopular with the masses. They recall the example of Pilate, and decide to shift the blame elsewhere, in this case onto the most popular contemporary scapegoat, "health and safety regulations."

Scene 9: outside the Cathedral.

God's senior representative in London, to whom few people listen, bizarrely offers to be the mouthpiece of the demonstrators if only they will go away.

Scene 10: Heaven.

God sighs. He is back where He started. He accepts the failure of his cunning plan, and calls his advisers to devise another mysterious way, His wonders to perform.

Scene 11: conclude as you wish.

Sunday 30 October 2011

100 Economists and Plan B (1)

I haven't actually read these proposals which I understand are set out in today's "Observer" but one of our "followers" Phil Pavey, has this to say in a letter with he hopes wil lbe published in tomorrow's "Guardian." I headline it s (1) as I'm sure I shall have something to add myself when I see the proposals. (I don't take the "Observer" as it takes me all weekend to read the Saturday "Guardian.)

Plan B’ published by 100 prominent economists in Sunday’s Observer deserves the support of all my fellow Liberal Democrats. The current government policy of cuts to halve the deficit in four years is about as sensible as sacrificing everything to halve your mortgage in four years. The degree of resultant self-deprivation would be likely to harm your health and so destroy your ability to earn and pay down your debt. In May 2010 the Liberal Democrats reverted to the fiscal orthodoxy of Montagu Norman which caused the agony of the 1930s. They should heed this Plan B which recognises that the deficit is only the symptom of the real problem, which is a recession and 2.5 million people in enforced and expensive idleness.

Yours sincerely


Saturday 29 October 2011

"Stand up, stand up for Jesus..."

Thank goodness there is at least one senior clergymen of the Church of England prepared to "Stand up for Jesus" or, more prosaicly, for what Jesus stands. The protest immediately outside St Paul's was a heaven-sent (you can take that literally or metaphorically) opportunity for the Church to demonstrate its relevance.

Rather than grasp the opportunity to show the Church as faithful to the teachings of Jesus, our leaders, with the exception of Giles Frazer, have emerged tainted with hypocrisy. The initial appeal to "health and safety", an attempt to shift responsibly reminiscent of that of Pilate, is shown to be false as the Cathedral has now opened with the "camp" still there. Subsequent official statements showed the Cathedral management's primary concern to be their loss of income.

How different would be our Church's reputation if the Frazer approach had been followed, an accommodation made with the protesters for ease of access, and the Church seen to be a willing partner in promoting a debate on the creation of an economic order based on something other than short-term greed and self aggrandisement. After all, isn't that one of the principal reasons for its existence?

Happily our current top cleric, Rowan Williams, does have the courage to wrestle " against the rulers of the dankness of this world." Unhappily there are rumours that he is contemplating jacking it in and retreating to the relative peace and calm of an Oxbridge college. I hope he will tough it out (just as I wish Ming Campbell had toughed it out), but if and when a vacancy at Canterbury arises, I'm sure Giles Frazer will now be in the frame.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Lower case liberal's halo dimmed

Ken Clarke is often lauded, or dammed, as the fifth Liberal in the cabinet, but his decision to impose mandatory minimum sentences on certain crimes is a sad reversion to the Tory stereotype. With all their faults we have an experienced and generally competent judiciary, and it should be up to them, not politicians seeking to appease the Daily Mail, to decide, having heard all the evidence, what punishment, and rehabilitation, is appropriate to each individual criminal. There are always exceptions to prove any rule.

Measures to increase the certainty of getting caught, rather than simply ratcheting up the punishments, are the way to reduce crime. Clarke's earlier remarks about trying to develop constructive ways to reduce the numbers in prison, ("an expensive way of making bad people worse" to quote an earlier Tory,) are more appro0riate for a liberal, even a closet one.

Tuesday 25 October 2011


In the Epilogue to his one-volume gallop through English history Simon Jenkins, having discussed "game changers" such as Cromwell, Walpole, Chatham, Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone and Lloyd George, concludes (p354): "If there is one hero in this book, at least until the twentieth century, it is parliament."

His conclusion could doubtless be debated by historians, but there is no doubt that Parliament has played a crucial role in creating our present society. If we are to continue to develop our society on liberal and tolerant lines, parliament, rather than allow itself to be sidelined, should continue to be refreshed, reformed and made relevant to contemporary conditions.

An important first step has been made in this direction by the long-overdue achievement of a fixed term for parliaments. Further reforms are needed to:

*further enhance the power and importance of committees;

*reduce the number of MPs committed to supporting the government because they are on the "payroll";

*turn question time, for ministers as well as the prime-minister, into genuine question and answer sessions instead of a bear-pit exchanges of insults;

*and, of course, electoral reform, choosing members by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies rather than the present largest minority system.

Jenkins takes the view that England has thrived in the past because, essentially, we have developed through representative democracy, however imperfect, rather than populism or charismatic leadership.

Modern communications technology makes populism superficially attractive, and moves to have directly elected mayors and police commissioners place the emphasis on personalities and encourage the promulgation of simplistic and normally erroneous solutions to complex problems. There is already far too much emphasis on the personality of the prime-minister and too little on other ministers, their policies and collective government.

I hope at least one MP in yesterday's debate had the sense to argue that we should not be having any referendums at all, on Europe or any other issue. Referendums have been correctly described as devices used in less democratic countries to obtain spurious legitimacy. They should have no part in our representative parliamentary democracy.

Monday 24 October 2011

Happy United Nations Day

Today is United Nations Day, though no-one seems to be taking much notice. During the first 20 minutes of the Six O'clock News on Radio 4 this morning it wasn't mentioned, nor in the review of the daily papers.

The 24th October marks the anniversary of the signing of the Charter of the United Nations, and in 1971 the UN requested that it should be observed as a public holiday by all United Nations member states. I'm not aware that any country does, so here is an opportunity for those so desperately anxious for Britain to give a lead actually to give one. Much more sensible, forward looking and constructive than the Neanderthal proposal to transfer one of our May bank holidays to Trafalgar Day.

The UN is imperfect and desperately in need of reform but it is our main hope for a replacing the force of arms with a worldwide rule of law. Measure to focus on its aims and to try to re-create the vision with which it was created would be a constructive contribution to the building of a more civilised world.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Anti-capitalist or Pro-Justice?

The Lord Mayor of London, is reported to have complained that the protest outside St Paul's Cathedral is not a positive protest for jobs but " 'anti-this' and 'anti- that' (so) it's difficult to get a handle on how to respond." (Guardian 22/10/2011). This is not Boris Johnson but a Sir Michael Bear, who is Lord Mayor of the City of London. According to its website he is elected for one year, though they don't say by whom, and is, they claim somewhat improbably "apolitical."

According to Polly Toynbee's summary in the Guardian on 18/10/11 (yes I know that if I were a half-decent observer I should go for primary sources, but I haven't time) the occupiers believe;

1. That the cuts are neither necessary nor inevitable.
2. That regulators should be independent of the organisations they regulate.
3. That our democracy should represent the people rather than corporations.

and they support:
4. Global tax justice.
5. The strike by public service providers on 30th November.
6. The student strike on 9th November.
7. Actions to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment.
8. Actions to end wars and arms dealing.

That sounds a pretty positive manifesto to me and I subscribe to most of it. (I have reservations about the public service strike, which seems to be mainly about pensions, but that's a subject for another post).

In my view the Church would be fulfilling its mission of trying to bring about the Kingdom "on earth as it is in heaven" if it were solidly behind the movement rather than hiding behind weasel words of "health and safety." I also regret that the BBC reports the "health and safety" issue as a fact rather than an excuse.

Friday 21 October 2011

Church puts Mammon before God.

When Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, asked the police rather than the protesters to "move on" last week I felt proud to be a member of the Church of England. Now, apparently, the Church has changed its mind and the Dean of St Paul's, Graeme Knowles, has asked the protesters to leave. He is reported as citing "health and safety" as a reason, but is also concerned that access for potential visitors could curtailed (and in half-term week they can be a nice little earner.)

As the protesters seem a reasonable and peaceful lot it should not be beyond the wit of the two causes to negotiate an impediment-free passage so that the Cathedral can collect its whacking entrance fee.

There is little point in the Church reciting, or in St Paul's case, singing beautifully, every day about "putting down the mighty from their seats and exalting the humble and meek" if, when a group unites to try to do exactly that, it is they, rather than "the rich" who are "sent empty away."

Thursday 20 October 2011

Yet another vote of confidence in Keynesianism

My very good friend TGE John Cole, MLE, has pointed out via an Observer article by Bill Keegan on the 16th October (sorry,can't get the link ting to work)a pamphlet (hurray, it is now) by Oxford Professor Simon Wren-Lewis entitled "The Case Against Austerity Today." This pamphlet is only nine pages long, is highly readable and highly recommended for anyone who needs authoritative academic assurance (rather than taking Keynesian Liberal's word for it) that the government's present policies are misguided and dangerous, and that the alternative of a Keynesian fiscal stimulus in the UK is urgently needed, perfectly possible and, indeed, the only sensible thing to do.

Happily for those suffering the worst from the present ideologically motivated cuts, and particularly the near one million young unemployed, there are signs that at least the Liberal Democrat part of the government is beginning to see the light. Vince Cable now admits that a double-dip recession is more than possible and there is talk of expenditure on the infrastructure.

The reasons given for a possible change in policy are the problems of the eurozone and the "unexpected" rise in energy prices rather than an admission that the policy has been wrong from the start. However, we can forgive a face-saving formula if the correct policies are now implemented and hope that, although late, they are not too little.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Testament of Yoof, 3

For the background to this post please see Testament of Yoof 1

Fourthly, a Liberal is a Rationalist.
He will base his arguments on facts rather than emotion. He thinks with his head and not his stomach. Thus he is not hampered by delusions of imperialistic grandeur, nor attachment to a dogma that is already out of date. Hence to improve industrial relations he advocates, along with Co-ownership, Works Councils, rather than silly threats of penal sanctions against Trade Unionists which experience in other parts of the world shows simply do not work.

Well, forty years later I certainly stand by all of that, though once again it is interesting to see the emphasis on industrial relations, indicating a time when manufacturing industry was a much more significant part of the economy.

Around that time I was studying some social psychology and came across a thesis that purported to show that about 25% of the population were rational altruists. If I remember correctly the point of the thesis was that this 25% remained constant whether the populations were measured at age 25, 35, 45 etc. so, if rational altruism is equivalent to maturity, then we don't mature with age. A longitudinal study was required to confirm whether or not the composition of the 25% remained constant.

Be that as it may, I have since believed and still believe that most of those 25%, rational in that they were prepared to work things out rather than stick to tribal loyalties, and altruistic in the sense that they were prepared to give at least some consideration to the welfare of society as a whole rather than pursue mere self-aggrandisement, were and are potential Liberal voters. Of course, in order to garner their permanent support we need to tell them what our beliefs and principles are as well as prove ourselves worthy and successful "pavement politicians."

Unfortunately there are still a lot of "delusions of imperialistic grandeur" around, hence all the huffing and puffing about Dr Fox's antics being a "threat to national security," though I suspect the Labour leadership, if not their followers, have abandoned much of their "outdated dogma." Equally unfortunately, although Tony Blair toyed for a while with the "stakeholder society" industrial and commercial partnership has made little progress, and, alas, we don't now hear much about it from the Liberal Democrats either.

My own belief remains that a revision of company law, so that all firms are required to take into account the interests of their workers, customers and the communities in which they operate, is still urgently needed. As long as the profits of shareholders remain the sole formal objective of operations we shall not create a society "at ease with itself."

Sunday 16 October 2011

A more robust, and a more enlightened, age?

From page 212 of Simon Jenkins's "Short History of England":

"The so-called south Sea Bubble burst in September that year (1720) and stunned the nation . Thousands, mostly in London, were ruined and the Riot Act had to be read in the lobby of parliament. Stanhope ("first" minister) had a stroke in the House of Lords. The postmaster general took poison and the chancellor of the exchequer...was thrown into prison. It was proposed that bankers who had loaned against the (South Sea Company) shares be 'tied up in sacks filed with snakes and tipped into the murky Thames.'"

And also perhaps more enlightened. From page 216, quoting the younger Pitt:

" (is) dangerous to our liberties and destructive to our trade to encourage great numbers of our people to depend for their livelihood upon the profession of arms."

Messers Fox and Werritty please note.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Unequal Britain

A few days ago I read that a Lord Hunt of Wirral is the "front runner" to become Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. I am sure he is eminently qualified for the post, which doesn't seem to me to require any particular expertise (it can't be al that difficult to decide whether something is genuinely in the public interest, or just of prurient interest to the public and therefore likely to sell more newspapers) but am appalled that if he gets the job he will be paid £170 000 a year for a three-day week.

Lord Hunt of Wirral is 69 years old so presumably already receives his Old Age Pension of £102.15 a week (£160.65 if he has a partner), assuming he has a full record of stamps. He will receive his £200 winter fuel allowance and free bus pass whether he has paid his stamps or not. In addition he is a former Tory MP so will have a generous pension for that. He is also a former Minister and may even get more pension for that - I don't know. In addition, Lord Hunt of Wirral is a member of the House of Lords, so can claim £86.50 for every day he attends (I believe he doesn't have to do anything - just sign the book) plus an overnight allowance of £174 as he lives outside London, which, being "of Wirral" he presumably does.

So what on earth does he need an extra £170 000 a year for, over £1 000 for each day's "work" even if he does three days for every week in the year? Even more intriguing, since all his needs are already more than comfortably supplied, what on earth is he going to do with it, other than shore up further advantage and privilege for his children and their children if any.

Perhaps I'm being unfair and he'll give it to Oxfam, but it seems to me a nonsense for the public purse to lavish further wealth on the already well-heeled whilst expecting job seekers to fire off application after application for non-existent jobs and remain keen, enthusiastic and dedicated while they survive on £67.50 a week.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

UK Crisis? Maybe... but where's the real crisis?

In an article on the effects of the economic crisis on the morale of we UK citizens Guardian columnist Marina Hyde uses such phrases as "weird formless terror," "the horrors still to come," "the cataclysmic event around the corner," and "vague inchoate dread." Little is to be gained from this wild exaggeration of the true state of affairs. Even if our economy will take several years to return to our 2008 level of output (when. as I recall, we lived extremely comfortably), we continue to be extremely rich. With a bit of courage from the government and a modest bit of sharing no one need suffer at all. If some of us need to start shopping at Aldi rather than Sainsbury's, tough, but there's absolutely nothing to justify M/s Hyde's hyperbole, and the Guardian should be ashamed for printing it.

Unfortunately large parts of the world are suffering genuine hardship from the financial crisis. The World Development Movement ( out that that, when the housing bubble burst in 2007/8, the get rich quick monetarist "masters of the universe" turned their attention to speculation in food futures. As a result the prices of cereal crops have risen by 80% or so:a minor inconvenience for us, who spend around 10 to 15% on our incomes on food, but disastrous for those in the poor South, where families typically spend over 50% of their incomes on food, and amongst the very poorest, 90%.

As a result, many parents cannot feed their families. Children, already undernourished and with few reserves, are dying. This generates genuine "inchoate dread." Instead of making such a fuss about what, with sensible policies which we are rich enough to implement without difficulty to ease our own situation, our politicians should be taking urgent steps to haul into line the speculators whose greed and amorality is causing genuine, present day "horror" among millions of the most vulnerable.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Quantitative Obstinacy

About 20 years ago someone, (I forget whom, but the quote used to appear on NUJMB economics exam papers,) said that trying to steer the economy using monetary policy only was like trying to play golf using only one club.

Not only is it a "one club" policy, but it is an ineffective club. Expanding the money supply, which is what we used to call Quantitative Easing before this fancy new term was coined, is an ineffective method of stimulating the economy for two reasons and, in the current circumstances, is also highly dangerous.

It is ineffective because:

1. There is no guarantee that the money will be used for useful employment-creating purposes. When the Heath government tried it in the early 70' it mostly went into a commercial property boom. In 2008 the banks used the money to shore up their balance sheets rather than lend if for investment. What lending there was went largely into speculation in commodities rather than real investment.

2. Keynes likened monetary expansion as a means of economic stimulation to pushing on a piece of string. In the more prudent 1930s households would not borrow if they could see no means of paying back. That may be less true today, but, even without David Cameron's non-exhortation, households may be more concerned to pay off their credit cards rather than take out new debt.

More crucially, then and now firms would not borrow to invest if they see no demand. Large firms are apparently awash with cash at the moment but will not use it for productive investment when all the signs are for a world economic slump.

Quantitative Easing is highly dangerous because, if an when the economy does pick up, the excess money is likely to lead to high inflation. The 1950s explanation of "Too much money chasing too few goods" precisely describes the likely situation. Of course, if the Bank gets its timing right and does some nifty "quantitative tightening" that problem could be averted, but timing is not one of the Bank's strong points.

The obvious alternative solution is, of course, Keynesian government spending on public works: the infrastructure, green energy, clearing brownfield sites, social housing... and, if they can't think of anything better, burying the pylon lines. This policy would ensure that the money was spent on useful productive projects and also that most of it remained within the economy and, when workers obtained employment they would spend their wages and create additional demand via the Keynesian multiplier effect.

The government ignores history and has obstinately excluded this fiscal option. There are, perhaps, signs of a change of heart, and it may be that George Osborne's wheeze of "credit easing" is a method of squaring the circle and putting money where it will do most good without losing face. We shall see.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Reform of Second Chamber

According to Unlock Democracy a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament is at present considering reform of the second chamber and graciously requesting submissions from we, the public, which, again according to Unlock Democracy, must be both electronic and on paper (presumably just to make life more difficult). We have until 12th October.

The easy way out is to go to this site to answer an electronic questionnaire, and this site to send them a letter.

If you're short of ideas, my own submission was along the following lines.

Dear Committee Members,

I believe that a fully elected second chamber is the only legitimate authority in a modern democracy. The method of election should be different from that of the Commons. Whilst the Commons continues to use the largest minority system (misleadingly known as FPTP, but, if you think about it there is no post)I suggest PR by STV in constituencies based on the Wales, Ireland and Scotland, plus the regions of England.

Should the Commons adopt STV then the second chamber could use an open list system. The closed list system should not be considered as that tilts the balance of power in favour of the parties rather than the electorate.

As the Commons now has a fixed term of five years I suggest eight for the the second chamber.

If it is necessary, in order to persuade opponents to get rid of the present anachronism, to have some appointed members, then these should be no more than 20% of the membership. They should be selected by an appointments committee which contains no politicians and is as far as possible devoid of political influence. Anyone who has ever held or stood for election to public office should be ineligible for selection. The second chamber should not be a refuge for retired or failed politicians.

I believe the second chamber should be called a Senate and we should stop talking about the "reform " of the House of Lords. We want to replace it, not reform it.

For the time being the powers of the second chamber should remain as at present, with a commitment to revise them in, say, ten years' time, when we see how the new system is working.

Yours faithfully,

Please feel free to adopt or amend any of the above, and add comments for the benefit of others, but do please write, before 12th October. While the Tories fool around with the alleged effects of cat ownership on deportations it is important that some of us get on with serious politics.

Monday 3 October 2011

Mansion Tax or more Council Tax bands?

The following letter is self-explanatory:

27th September, 2011.
The Rt Hon Vince Cable M.P.

Dear Vince Cable,

I believe you were too dismissive of my suggestion, put to you at the Guardian debate last week, that, instead of a Mansion Tax, we should simply slap a few more Council Tax bands on top of the existing ones, which in England presently stop at Band H (over £320 000.)

My argument is that your proposal of a tax on “mansions” worth over £2million (though I preferred your original proposal of over £1m, from which our party cravenly back-tracked) is politically unpopular because it is both a new tax, and appears vindictive in singling out the very rich indeed whilst letting those almost very rich indeed off the hook.

The advantages of extending the Council Tax bands are that:

1. It is merely an extension of an existing tax, and
2. It would apply progressively to the very large number of houses valued at between £320 000 and £2m (and why stop at £2m?)

Your objection, given at the debate, that the largest part of such an extension would accrue to a handful of wealthy London boroughs is invalid, in that there are plenty of houses worth more than £320 000 outside London – there are even some here in Kirklees. The excesses of revenue received by more wealthy areas could be re-distributed to poorer areas by an equalisation scheme.

The only valid objection I can see to this proposal is that, ideally, it would involve a re-valuation of all properties, from which, because it was misrepresented as a precursor to increased council taxes, the Labour government shied away. However, we are the party of honest politics, so should get on with it. If we too , choose to duck this issue, then it should not be beyond the wit of your civil servants to impute a 1992 value to all properties worth above £320 000 at 1992 prices.

Of course, as good Liberals we should see this as a temporary measure pending the long overdue introduction of site value taxation on all land. This will probably require a government in which we Liberal Democrats are the main party, so may be some time off.

Yours sincerely,

Vince Cable's department promises a reply within fifteen days. Watch this space.

Saturday 1 October 2011


This is a post-script to the previous post, Upwardly Mobile Tadpoles.

One of things things I do in order to try to keep senility at bay is try to memorise things. For many years this took the form of brushing up my schoolboy French, but that has now been put on the back burner (mettre en veilleuse)at a disappointingly modest level. Now my efforts centre round taking small parts with not many lines in plays.

In between plays I've been brushing up on selected verses of Gray's "Elegy", one of the poems I "did" for "O" level. This stanza, slightly amended, is, I think, highly relevant to the equality debate:

Let not th'Ambitious mock our useful toil,
Our homely joys and destiny obscure;
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

In a word, in a truly egalitarian society, "all sorts and conditions of men" (and women)deserve, and will receive, respect.