Friday 23 December 2011

France v Britain in the relegation stakes.

The indignation of some of France's leaders that France rather than the UK should be singled out for possible downgrading by the ratings agencies has some justification, as figures published in last Saturday's Guardian (17th December, 2011) show. According to these figures France's current budget deficit for 2012 is predicted to be a "mere" 4.63% compared with the UK's 7.01%, and her total Debt/GDP ratio at 83.5%, is very comparable to the UK's 76.9%. France's inflation rate is predicted at 1.4% compared with the UK's 2.4%. (As a holder of savings I hope they're right and that the UK's inflation rate will come down, though I'd clearly be better off holding my modest wealth in France rather than the UK.)

Other figures, taken from the CIA's World Fact Book which I'm assured is reliable on these matters, throw up further interesting comparisons.

The level of investment, so very important for future growth and productivity, is 19.3% of GDP in France, compared with only 14.7% in the UK.

In spite of the fact that the UK has experienced a massive devaluation of the £ in the past few years, which the much-vaunted non-membership of the euro permits, our current balance of payments deficit is still slightly higher, at a dollar equivalent of $56.19bn, than that of France ($54.4bn), where the membership of the euro prevents such tactics.

Curiously, given France's boasted devotion to equality along with liberty and fraternity,their Gini co-efficient (a measurement of equality) of 32.7 is not much better than the UK's (34). However, only 6.2% of France's population live below the poverty line, compared with 14% in the UK. (I'm not quite sure how these two figures can be reconciled.)

So there's not all that much to chose between the performances of the French and British economies, although socially the French seem to do rather better. However, for me the "killer statistic" is that the French government takes 48.8% of GDP in taxation, (compared to 40.4% in the UK),with which it finances among other things, a health service with excess capacity, working fountains and beautiful municipal gardens in almost all towns and villages, and generous welfare payments to cushion the trauma experienced by unemployed people and others on benefits. Our monetarist mantra preaches that such a high tax take would be ruinous to innovation, growth and competitiveness, would drive all entrepreneurs out of the country and bring the economy to a virtual standstill. That little theory, like so much else of monetarist dogma, just doesn't seem to hold water.

I am genuinely puzzled as to why, given their gaffes on the credit-worthiness of Icelandic banks and the US sub-prime market, so much notice is taken of the assessments of these agencies. It has to be remembered that they are financed by the very organisations, primarily financial instructions, which they rate. These make their money by speculation. If markets are stable the opportunities for speculation are very limited. Hence it pays the agencies and their paymasters to throw as many spanners in the works as possible.

Surely the answer is to ignore these commercial agencies and replace them with an independent agency without a financial axe to grind, funded internationally through the UN.

Saturday 17 December 2011

A Christian country? No.

Although firmly on the right David Cameron seems to have spent the last week clomping around with two left feet. First he quite unnecessarily upsets our European partners (and three cheers for Nick Clegg in his attempts to undo the damage.) Now he risks aggravating all those with non-Christian faiths and those who aggressively hold no faith by his equally unnecessary claims that Britain is a Christina country.

What we really are is a country with a Christian heritage. We can be proud of that if you like, though I am suspicious of pride in something for which you have no responsibility. But equally we most certainly have no need to apologise for it. Two of our major holidays, Christmas and Easter, are Christian (there used to be a third, Whitsuntide, until Harold Wilson shifted it) and so they should remain. Sunday, the Christian Holy Day, is our national day of rest (or was until greedy capitalists eroded it in order to make more profit,) our four national "protectors" are Saints from Christian history or mythology, and may that happily continue.

But to bang on and on about our being a Christian country is simply to imply that those who don't subscribe to the traditional faith somehow or other don't quite belong, and even caries overtones of a threat that they must "must conform or else."

Even to claim that our values are specifically Christian is a nonsense. Although English common law is based on the Ten Commandments, these we hold in common with Judaism and Islam so there is nothing exclusively Christian about that. But the principles of decent behaviour: integrity, fair play, generosity, kindness, concern for others, and particularly for the underdog. are common to most if not all religions and non-religious codes of behaviour.

It is not churlish, I hope, to point out that these virtues are not particularly evident in modern Conservatism as it was practised under Thatcher and now under Cameron.

A virtue that is not perhaps evident in most religions is tolerance, but that is a virtue which can be claimed as part of the British heritage, and is one of the great glories of the Church of England. Cameron's remarks do not help nurture tolerance and respect for others, but rather give encouragement to those even further to his political right.

Monday 12 December 2011


As Tony Benn was so fond of pointing out years ago, the British media, and, indeed, many politicians themselves, prefer discussing personalities to what he pronounced as the "ishues" at stake. Things have now changed for the worse, in that the future of the coalition now joins the mix of who is up, who is down and who is out.

To take personalities first, after last month's Autumn Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which he was forced to announce the many indications of the failure of his economic policy, true there was some discussion of alternatives to the policy, but also much speculation of how the statement affected George Osborne's chances of becoming Tory leader in, say ten years' time. At a time when the economic débâcle is seriously affecting the well-being of about a quarter of our population, and the future of probably the majority of our young people, it is astonishing that intelligent people, and expensive media, can waste time on such a frippery.

Like most Liberals and Euro-enthusiasts I regard David Cameron's use of the veto last week as a further and foolish step which will place Britain more firmly in the EU second division. As Paddy Ashdown put it in Sunday's Observer: "We have tipped 38 years of British foreign policy down the drain in one night." Again, true, there is discussion of the economic and real long-term political consequences of Britain's being "outside the room" where serious decisions are made, but, again much of the discussion centres around the personalities and future of the coalition.

Not only is this discussion superfluous at this stage: much of the reportage seems designed to maximise differences rather than report the facts calmly. The BBC's website over the weekend reported that Nick Clegg had issued a devastating attack (or words to that effect: I did copy them and print them out but the printer malfunctioned so I have to rely on an inadequate memory) when closer inspection of the story revealed that Clegg has not said anything publicly a all, but "sources close to him" revealed that he was "disappointed."

Now that Clegg has spoken publicly I admire his measured tones, and the fact that he and senior colleagues are making attempts to contact other European leaders and trying to ameliorate some of the damage. Yet even the formerly friendly Guardian has the front-page headline: "Clegg lashes out at Cameron..."

How on earth can we have responsible political discussion, concentrating on the real issues, with friends like these?

Saturday 10 December 2011

Archbishop of Canterbury and the Riots

When talking or writing about the causes of his summer's riots it is perhaps best to avoid the word "understanding." This word is taken to imply sympathy with he rioters and promote shrieks of indignation and vigorous assertions that it is not the rioters but the victims who need sympathy. Of course they do: no one has ever claimed that they didn't. So, in terms of Rowan Williams's very preceptive article on the causes of the riots (see the Guardian, 6th September: "We must prove ourselves to those with nothing to lose")I will think of his views as an "analysis."

The article drips with intelligent comment: "Too many of these young people assume they are not going to have any ordinary, human, respectful relationships with adults...Too many of them feel they have nothing to lose because they are told practically from birth that they have no serious career opportunities....These are not people who live complacently in a culture of entitlement*..."

The Archbishop goes on to write of the need of dependable family backgrounds which help young people to "take certain things for granted, so that they know they don't have to fight ceaselessly for recognition" and, bless him, that "we should be challenging an education philosophy too absorbed in meeting targets to shape character." He admits that "solutions will have to emerge slowly as we try to redirect a whole culture."

There are however two things with which I disagree: actually two words. Dr Williams writes of "unavoidable austerity" ahead.

Unavoidable? As has been hammered away by Nobel prize winners Stiglitz and Krugman, ex MPC member David Blanchflower and commentators such as Larry Elliot and Martin Wolf, among others, the UK's government debt is not at extraordinary levels, we are not in the same boat as Greece and so there cuts in public expenditure are not "unavoidable," they are ideologically driven. The correct approach to avoid further recession is for the government to spend more, not less.

Austerity? I define austerity as having to ration the essentials. Cutting back on the number of foreign holidays, making the car last a little longer, reducing the number of meals out, maybe drinking Languadocian wines rather than Bordeaux is not austerity. But it is in areas such as these that the majority of us will "tighten our belts" if we need to.

Unfortunately for the past 30 years, since the imposition of monetarist policies, some fifth of our population have suffered from real austerity: they have had to make choices about the basics, and in some cases do without some of them. Alas, the government's policies seem likely to increase this proportion to a quarter.

This punishment of the already poor is quite unnecessary. There are many solutions if we are prepared to share the problem and be "all in this together." For example, the closing of tax loopholes and the imposition of a wealth tax would ensure that this quarter could be brought back into the mainstream of a very comfortable society, and at the same time could close the current public deficit about which the government claims to be so worried.

* The Archbishop is far too Christian to say so, but I suspect he may have in mind such people as former members of the Bullingdon club.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Police and rioters

The publication of research into the thinking and motives (or lack of it and lack of them) of the summer rioters stimulated horrifying pictures of apparently mindless vandalism and thuggery on our television screens last night. The point of the research was that the views of the rioters had not been, but needed to be, heard. This does not, of course, condone their thuggery or justify the breakdown of law and order.

A common theme expressed from all parts of the country was antagonism towards the police.

It is a cliché of the left in Britain that most evils in our society can be traced back to Mrs Thatcher. This is unfair. After all it was a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dennis Healy, who introduced monetarism, and a Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who began the authoritarian centralisation of our educational system.

However, my own personal unease about the police and their methods goes back to Mrs Thatcher and the miners' strike. I can still picture in my mind police being bussed from other areas to "keep order" outside closed pits, and, from the safety of their buses, taunting the striking, and thus unpaid, miners by waving through the windows their five pound notes from overtime pay. Miners bussing themselves to other areas were illegally stopped on the motorways. It was at this point, I believe that the police ceased to be seen as agents of the public and guardians of the peace, and became an arm of the government attacking what the government, but not most of the public, saw as "the enemy within."

This breakdown of trust and respect has been fuelled by numerous other incidents: trials rigged and people convicted on false evidence (eg the Birmingham Six); vital evidence mysteriously lost when the police themselves are accused (if I heard him correctly the Tottenham MP David Lammy claimed on TV last night that 300 people had died in police custody and not one police officer has been convicted as a result); decent citizens exercising their legal right to protest "kettled" for hours without water or lavatories; police identification numbers hidden during such protests; police helicopters deliberately circling over the platform at political rallies so that the speakers could not be heard; the running sore of "stop and search" targeted at the young black and Asian communities. It is even argued that the police response to the original disturbance was deliberately held back as a message to the government that police numbers should not be cut.

I acknowledge that the police have a difficult job , that they are exposed daily to insult and possible danger, and I should not like to be one. However, dificult as it may be, the police need to make a determined effort to try to restore "Dixon of Dock Green" relationships.

One of the greatest tributes paid to the quality of Britain's civilised society is a story told by Desmond Tutu. As a young black man studying theology in London he claims that he and his black colleagues would often ask a policeman "the way" even when they knew exactly where they were and where they were going, just for the sheer joy of the experience that not only did the policeman not arrest them or demand to see their passes, but actually called them "Sir!"

This is a mountain the police need to start climbing.

Monday 5 December 2011

Some practical ideas

When Guardian columnist Deborah Orr appeared on Newsnight a few weeks ago as the token Liberal Democrat her performance was embarrassing to say the least. However, her ineptitude is redeemed by a splendid article on Saturday 3rd December entitled "Any one got a clue how to make things better? Well yes, actually, I have..."(sorry, the link thing is not behaving itself) with six very practical suggestions as to how the pain of the present economic situation could be spread more fairly and used positively to build a more equitable society. The article is well worth reading but if you haven't time then her suggestions are, briefly:

1. Concentrate on work sharing rather than sacking people or making them redundant.
2. When people can no longer afford to pay their mortgages, rather than their being turned out on the streets, Local Authorities should take their houses into joint ownership, let them live there as tenants, and thus increase the public housing stock.
3. Banks compelled to write off debts should have 100 year bonds in return. (I don't quite see how this would work but am sure M/s Orr will explain it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he's interested.)
4. Local companies, co-ops, mutuals and charities should have priority in local and national government procurement.
5. Companies registered offshore should not be allowed to have "free" labour on government work-experience schemes.
6. Offshore companies should have to pay an annual levy to compensate for the education their workforces have received and to which they haven't contributed. The income from the levy should be used for further education and training.

M/s Orr concludes her article: "This is no time to be backward in coming forward with ideas," a refreshing approach compared with the present negative and destructive policies. Let's hope Liberal Democrats in government will adopt it.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Are you H - A - P - P - Y?

In the past 48 hours keynesianliberal has passed another milestone and received its 2 000th "pagehit." This is an average of just over 30 "hits" a day, which is quite gratifying, but still nowhere near the "big time." I remain disappointed that I haven't been noticed or recommended by Libdemvoice but, even if readership is modest, feel a certain satisfaction in having my views on record, though, unlike Harold Wilson, I cant remember the time and date of when I said, or in my case, wrote, what.

I am proud to stand by my very first post, written before the 2010 election and pointing out that, as far as the UK is concerned, talk of a financial crisis is a Tory con to excuse and justify their ideological project to roll back the state. They have been very successful, both in their attack on our public services and in apparently persuading the majority of us that it is both necessary and inevitable.

The most viewed post continues to be "An airy fairy measure," now with over 800 "hits", though I suspect the "hitters" think it is about something other than its actual subject, the measurement of the UK's level of national happiness. As it happens, the results of the UK's first official survey on this, instigated by David Cameron, was published this week at a cost of £2m. Apparently, when asked how we feel about various things on a scale of 1 to 10 we come out with an average of 7.4.

Since I qualified in and earned my living through social sciences I cannot decry the value of such surveys, but I stick with the conviction that there are many more concrete measures of the overall health (and happiness) of our society: stability of marriages and partnerships, proportion of the population in prison, suicide rate, level of mental illness and depression, teenage pregnancies, unemployment rate and measure of equality (Gini coefficient), to name not a few.

An agreed index based on these could be used internationally, and also at the beginning and end of each government's period of office, to measure both comparative standards and real progress. As it is, we're left with vague allusions to Britain's good old Dunkirk spirit in the face of austerity. Comforting, but not really very useful.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Some green shoots...?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's autumn statement does contain some signs of green shoots, not, alas, of economic recovery, but of a change of direction. Public investment is to be ploughed into upgrading some of our motorways and the railway network (including the electrification of the TransPennine route.) The money involved is peanuts compared with what is required, and much less than the amount of public expenditure that has been cut. In addition the extra spending on real investment will not come on stream for several years, (though doubtless consultants will gobble up their fees fairly quickly) whereas the cuts were and are heavily "front loaded." Even so, it is good to see signs of a change of heart, however small.

I have believed from the beginning that the Tories' public austerity policy is ideologically driven and not a matter of necessity. I suppose, to do them credit, that they genuinely believed, against all the odds and Keynesian teaching and supporting evidence, that state expenditure was crowding out private enterprise, and that if the state were cut back the private sector would expand and fill the gap. I do not believe that they deliberately set out to create misery among such a large proportion of the population.

Unfortunately, now that their policy is plainly demonstrated to be wrong, it is difficult to see what they can do without loss of face. These minor touches of the Keynesian tiller are welcome but they are not enough. However, I cannot see how the blustering harangues of Ed Balls will either bring about a more robust change of heart or convince the public that Labour's economic competence is superior. We are locked into a form of adversarial politics which may be fun for the participants in parliament (Labour members seemed to enjoy receiving news of economic failure, rather than be distressed by the consequences for the constituents for whose welfare they are so keen to seem concerned in other circumstances) but precludes changes which common sense demands

One thing that could come to and end is Liberal Democrat distortions of the truth in order to justify Tory folly. A letter from Danny Alexander to Liberal Democrat members repeats the tired old mantra of *the terrible legacy left by Labour" (it wasn't, it was left by the recklessness of the bankrollers of the Tory party, the financial sector) and that the Tory austerity programme is *sheltering households and businesses across the country from the worst impact of the (credit) storm" (it isn't, it is the relatively modest level of our long-term debt and the existence of a lender of last resort which makes our borrowing status secure).

Happily Alexander does not repeat another red herring put about by Osborne, that his policy is thrown off course by the crisis in the Eurozone. Admittedly the situation in the Eurozone doesn't help, but Osborne's policy was failing long before the Euro crisis broke. Another distortion of the truth which has come to Osborne's rescue is that UK interest rates are low as a result of his austerity programme. They are, but not in the way he would like us to think: bond yields are low because the returns from the depressed economy are even lower.

I suspect that few readers plough on to the end of a long post, but a not unexpected disappointment is that the government has not had the bottle to resist the calls for the abandonment of the 3p per litre rise in fuel duty. In this area the coalition is as supine as Labour, and claims to be the "greenest government ever" are, if not yet on the scrap-heap, at least severely dented.