Saturday 30 June 2012

Rock on, please, Mr Cameron

If David Cameron continues in the same vein as this week he will become the Liberal Democrat's greatest asset. His 17 point plan to curtail welfare benefits reveals that "compassionate conservatism" was always a fa├žade and the "nasty party" lurks strong and virulent under a very thin veneer.  Daftest of the proposals is that to stop all (my emphasis) housing benefit to the under-25s.  That would include those already married or in partnerships, and possibly with children, those who have done what Cameron is fond of calling the "right thing", got on their bikes and found work away from the family home, and the many, especially those brought up in the care system, without a conventional family home.

This outburst is a reminder to the electorate of what the Tories would be like now without their present Liberal Democrat brake, and what they will be like if they ever win an over-all majority.

Way back in the 60s either Professor Titmus of Professor Townsend, I can't remember which, but both respected experts on poverty, wrote that "when the economic history of this era come to be written the problem of the skiver will not merit so much as a footnote,"  Yet then as now populist politicians and newspapers deploy  the myth of an army of unemployed and layabouts milking a system financed by decent hard-working citizens (people like us, as the Daily Mail would imply).  Recipients of welfare benefits are, I am convinced, overwhelmingly decent and desperate to join the ranks of the hard working and well paid, if only circumstances permitted and the economy provided he opportunity.

We must not let malcontents and misfits, who undoubtedly exist but who are a tiny minority, become the tail which wags the policy dog.  Cameron's efforts to deflect the blame for our present economic difficulties from the fat cats who caused them to their most vulnerable victims is despicable.  The Liberal Democrat party should take this Cameron-given opportunity to define the clear yellow water which separates the party of Beveridge from the party of "devil take the hindmost."

The answer to excessive expenditure on housing benefit is not to punish those who can't afford shelter without it, but to build more homes in order to bring prices down and, in the meantime, impose rent controls to curb the excesses of greedy landlords

A further gift-horse is Cameron's pillorying of comedian Jimmy Carr's aggressive tax avoidance whilst at the same time conveniently ignoring similar arrangement by a pop singer who happens to be publicist for the a Tory party, and with no mention whatsoever of aggressive tax avoidance by prominent individuals (eg Lord Ashcroft) and companies who make considerable donations to the  Tory party whilst reducing their tax liabilities by a considerable amount, if not eliminating them altogether.

Surely the electorate must note and take account of such laughably blatentl  hypocrisy.

So rock-on, Mr Cameron, please.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Two more budget failures

1.  Nick Clegg writes to me ("Dear Peter," although we've never actually met):

" As Liberal Democrat Leader I was proud to be putting our long-held environmental beliefs into practice by leading the UK’s delegation ( at the Rio+20 environment summit))and arguing for ambitious targets and agreement."

Meanwhile back at the ranch, as it were, our coalition partners have caved in to the motorist and road haulage lobbies and "postponed" the scheduled 3p rise in fuel duty. The fact that, in his budget speech, George Osborne seemed to be sticking to his guns on this one was  one of only two good feature of his  April budget. (see post of 23rd March) If we are serious about reducing our carbon emissions and dependency on oil we really do have to bite the bullet on this.  Conservatives are ideologically dedicated to the price mechanism and so should use it to "nudge" us away from our cars for personal travel, and from roads to railways and canals for haulage.  The alternatives are petrol and diesel rationing, or leaving our children a planet depleted of resources and poisoned to boot. 

2.  Figures released yesterday by the Office of National Statistics show that public borrowing in May this year was almost £3bn higher than in May 2011.  This is explained by a fall in tax revenues (by just over 7%)and an increase in government expenditure ( by 8%), largely as a result of increased welfare payments:  exactly what any A-level economics text book predicts in a recession. To achieve the coalition's aim of actually reducing public borrowing the government needs to revive the economy through the Keynesian policy  of initiating public works which will then have a multiplier effect through the private sector.  Then, as employment rises and unemployment is reduced, tax revenues increase and welfare payments fall.  QED. 

Perhaps Mr Osborne should take a six months course in one of Mr Gove's traditional schools so that we don't have to re-live the 1930s - or, as a short cut, listen to Krugman, Stiglitz, Wolf, Keegan, Elliot  et al, not to mention Keynesianliberal, who have already learned the lesson.

Monday 25 June 2012

House of Lords or Hunt?

Tufton Bufton Tories are threatening to break the coalition agreement and vote against the House of Lords reform bill.  Their feeble excuse is retaliation for the Liberal Democrats' refusal to support David Cameron's failure to refer Jeremy Hunt to the proper authorities to pronounce on his suitability for making an impartial decision on the Murdoch case, given his proven chummy links with Murdoch and all his works.

Whilst those in the Westminster bubble and a few anoraks outside it salivate on the minutiae of the evidence given to the Leveson enquiry I suspect the rest of us have already come to the common  sense views that:

  • Rupert Murdoch   owns far too much of the British media
  • both Labour and Conservative leaders  have cravenly pandered to him  in order to gain the support of his organs
  • the Liberal Democrats haven't, but probably because Murdoch took the view that we  hadn't much to offer in return anyway.
Although it is right that every nook and cranny of the situation should be explored with judicial thoroughness, and this should continue - democracy should be fair - most of us would probably already agree with the common sense solutions that:

  • no-one should be allowed to own more that a minority percentage of the UK's media -say 10% or 15%
  • such owners should pay their fair whack of British taxes
  • there is a strong case for saying that they should also be British citizens, or at least resident in Britain.
It is also fairly clear that no minister is capable of playing a "quasi-judicial" role impartially:  that includes Vince Cable as well as Jeremy Hunt.  Maybe judges aren't capable either, but at least they are trained to do it.  Consequently for the future such decisions, in whatever area, should be taken out to the hands of ministers and handed over to the judiciary.

Important as the above matters are, they pale into insignificance when compared to the importance of turning the composition of our  second parliamentary chamber  from a rump of people who inherited their places from their ancestors, and others owing their places to the patronage of former prime-ministers and party leaders, into a genuinely  democratic body.

For the Tories to use the "Hunt Affair" as an excuse for blocking long-overdue constitutional reform shows a pettiness more appropriate to the infant-school playground than to members of the the self-styled Mother of Parliaments

Friday 22 June 2012

Education policy by dictat.

I had thought it was R A Butler, among other things one of our greatest ministers of education, who coined the phrase "democracy is government by discussion" but a quick glance at Wikipedia says it was Sir Ernest Barker.  Maybe Butler just publicised it.

Whatever the source, the present Secretary of State for Education,(an example of title inflation?) Michael Gove, seems more interested in dictating educational policy rather than discussing it with those who know what they're talking about.  His ridiculous prescription for he primary school curriculum is the subject of a previous post.  Now, in addition to his covert reintroduction of selection at 11+ via a melange of so-called "free" schools and "academies," he wishes a further sorting of our children into sheep and goats by re-introducing what he fondly believes is a more rigorous "O" level style examination at 16+ for the academic elite.

I've never been much involved in 16+ teaching and examining, and when I have I've avoided course work options as far as I could.  I also prefer examination questions which require reasoned coherent answers rather than the ticking of boxes. I'm quite sure that those involved, and particularly those who do the actual teaching, are perfectly capable of producing a range of examinations to suite various talents and abilities under the same umbrella and without a major overhaul of the system to take us back to what Mr Gove sees as a golden past.

The irony is that education specialists increasingly question the need for any national external examinations at all at 16+.  Now that most young people are required, one way or another, to remain in education or training until hey are at least 18, abandoning national 16+ assessments  would free up schools to concentrate on the excitement and fun of  both  learning and teaching rather than obsessing with grades and league tables.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Impediments to the marriage of true minds.

Outside my work as a teacher, mainly of economics, I've devoted most of my time, energy and enthusiasm to the Liberal/Liberal Democrat Party and the Church of England.  An acquaintance, I think probably a Labour voter, described the current  situation of the former  quite aptly, I thought, when he said that the Liberal Democrats had committed voluntary euthanasia for the sake of the country. But we shall see: even a week is a long time in politics  and a lot will happen in  the next three years.  We may yet revive.

Now, with its almost hysterical opposition to same sex-marriages, the Church of England seems to be trying to commit suicide.  As it happens I am not all that enthusiastic about calling same-sex unions marriage, but my reservations are linguistic rather than moral or legal, as I'm a bit of a pedant and I like words to men what they used to mean.  So "cool" should mean a bit below the "ambient temperature" (thanks, George Osborne) but not quite chilly, rather than "trendy"; "wicked" should mean evil rather than "exciting with a hint of dare-devilment"; and  "gay" should simply mean "light hearted and happy."   However I recognise that languages are living media which evolve and adapt over time, so I must learn to live with changes.

The Church's objections to same-sex unions being called  marriage seem both illogical and rather desperate.  One claim is that, although religious organisations will not be compelled by the law to perform same-sex ceremonies, gay couples wishing a religious ceremony will be able to appeal to that poor old universal scapegoat, the European Court of Human Rights, on the grounds of discrimination.  Well, both the C of E and the Roman Catholics have for decades been refusing  marriage ceremonies to couples where one of the partners has been divorced  without any such litigation. 

Another claim is that marriage is for the purpose of procreation and same-sex couples won't be able to procreate.  Again, the C of E has been marrying women of  "riper years"  in all its existence, as proved by the rubric  in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) which allows that the  prayer that the newly-married couple "be fruitful in procreation of children" shall be "omitted where the woman is past child-bearing."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Church's real objection is that it doesn't like same-sex relationships and sees their recognition as marriage as a further loss of its control over our private lives. After the excellent Jubilee Service in which the Church, through the Bible readings and the Archbishop's sermon, publicly declared its mission to be the promotion of the pursuit of wisdom rather that material wealth, and personal fulfilment through service to others rather than self-aggrandisement, it is regrettable  that we have so soon turned to navel gazing on an essentially trivial matter.

But if and when same-sex unions are recognised as marriage, we shall have to find two new words to distinguish between the two kinds.  If it still has them, this would provided a good subject for one of the New Statesman's competitions.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Blinded by ideology.

Keynes famously said that when the facts changed he changed his views.  Not so Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.  We have now had over two years of so-called Quantitative Easing (QE), an attempt to revive  the economy by printing money.  As predicted by Keynesians, it has not worked (and as observed by Keynes, what was then called "cheap money" didn't work work in the '30s either) because businesses will not borrow to invest if there is no demand. Another problem with this "loose" monetary policy is that the government has no control over what will happen to the money it allows the Bank of England to create.  In Ted Heath's day it created a boom in office prices, in the past two years it has been used to shore up the balances of the banks.

Yet Osborne refuses to learn, either from history or experience, and we are now to have a new version of  QE, conditional on the money being lent to businesses.  The condition  is an admission that "the markets" can not be relied to use this largesse productively  without regulation, but it does not solve  the problem  that businesses will not borrow if here is no demand.  So this initiative is doomed to failure too.

As a monetarist Osborne is hidebound by the mantra that markets with the minimum of regulation provide the "best" solutions  (the very ideology that got us into into the present mess in the first place) and that public sector expenditure is wasteful, inefficient and misguided - hence the privatisations of the past thirty years or so.  He is therefore blind to the solution that the British economy can and should be revived by some good old Keynesian public works -investment in infrastructure, housing on brownfield sites, green energy etc.

Instead we are offered a modified version of a policy that has as already failed  whilst we are distracted  by the "bread and circuses" of Football 2012 and the Olympics.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Gove's proposals beggar belief.

The government which promised less top-down micro-management from the centre has, only some two months after dictating how primary school teachers should teach children to read (see post of 9th April)  now come up with proposals for the primary school curriculum  which are so unrealistic that we must question whether  the Department of Education and its Secretary of State live on the same planet.

Among the most achievable, but pointless, is that children must learn to spell a centrally-prescribed list of words. Since teaching to the test is necessary for a school to maintain its place in the league tables, this will inevitably lead to  less emphasis on the correct spelling of the words the children actually use.

From 2014 all children are to be taught at least one foreign language from the age of seven.  This is to redress the decline of foreign languages taken  in the 16+ and 18+ examinations.  Very laudable, of course. But since this decline has already taken place, one wonders where the government expects to find the teachers to teach these languages in every primary school.  Clearly a somewhat longer time scale is needed.

The teaching of statistics in primary schools is to be slimmed down to make way for more mental arithmetic.  Is this so that the right-wing may more easily fool is into believing their propaganda that the present method of  defining poverty (family income less than 60% of the median) means that poverty cannot be eliminated since there will always be people below the median income? (There will, but they needn't be 60% below it: in fact no-one need earn less than 60% of the median, so by this definition poverty in the UK can be eliminated.)

Most puzzling is that children are to learn "the use of the subjunctive by the end of year 6." Either Mr Gove is completely batty or he has been mis-reported.(  I did after all read it in the Grauniad, but what else could they have meant?)  I'm aware of only two uses of the subjunctive in English.  One is illustrated, I'm assured,  by "God save the Queen," though that has always seemed to me to be more of an imperative, giving God His orders, than a subjunctive, the realm of what might be, hinting that under certain circumstances God might not save the Queen.  The other is the use of "were" rather than "was" after "if", as in "If I were a blackbird I'd whistle and sing."

There's probably more to it than that, and I'd be happy to receive  further enlightenment, so please make full use of the "comments" facility, as I'm fond of arcane information.  So, actually, are many children in year 6, but it's usually more to do with dinosaurs than  the more obscure corners of English grammar.

When I studied French under the old "A" level system, that is, before the introduction of AS and further "top-down" dictation of what should be taught and when, our teacher decided that our class  not capable of coping with the French use of the subjunctive  until the second year of the course. And that's how it should be. The function of the government in education is not to prescribe what should be learned, but to provide sufficient funds for decent schools, and teachers knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their subjects, good communicators and capable of judging what their pupils should learn and when they are ready to learn it.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Thoughts, just for yesterday, or for the future?

The first lesson read at the Queen's Jubilee service was :

Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? Hear, for
I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my
mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words
of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They
are all straight to one who understands and right to those who find knowledge.
Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold;
for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare
with her. I, wisdom, live with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion.
Proverbs 8. 1, 6-12

 The second, read by David Cameron, from St Paul's epistle to the Romans, Chapter 12 vv 1-18 instructs us to "extend hospitality to strangers."

So maybe the City of London (in which the service was held), along with the millionaires in the cabinet, will from now on seek wisdom rather than jewels (or bonuses), and  Theresa May will welcome rather than harass refugees and asylum seekers.

Or maybe we're now back to normal.

Monday 4 June 2012

God Save the Queen, Heaven bless the faith's defender...

As a dedicated Liberal, rationalist and egalitarian I should be a republican and deplore an occasion with celebrates hereditary privilege and ostentatious wealth.  My excuse for supporting our monarchy is that, in the unlikely event of my doing something brave and getting a medal, I should prefer to receive it from the queen or one of her family rather than  from a politician or David Beckham, and were it to be presented by Margaret Thatcher, Tony  Blair or even Charles Kennedy I should refuse it.  So I regret not being physically present at yesterday's river pageant, but did watch most of it on television.

Actually I found it something of a disappointment.  The visual impression was not so colourful as the Canaletto painting of the 1748 event: too bitty, too many boats and not enough formation. The two really impressive parts were the floating peal of bells (an inspiration, I think, and a revelation to most people, I suspect, as to how church bells actually work) and the flotilla, manned by the Sea Cadets, carrying the flags of the Commonwealth.  I looked hard for the flags of both Papua New Guinea and Malawi, two countries in which I've worked, but failed to spot either.  I presume they were there.

It was a particular disappointment not to hear more of the music, especially Handel's Water Music, which was presumably played by someone. On the more positive side  an encouraging aspect was the lack of an obvious police presence and certainly, as far as I could spot, no one visibly toting machine guns. So congratulations to whoever organised the inevitable security precautions so discretely.  I did spot just one helicopter in the distance.  Maybe it wasn't a police helicopter, but it does make you wonder why, at mass gatherings expressing our right to protest rather than to fawn, the authorities find it necessary to have helicopters flying so near and so low that they drown out the speeches. 

There was also a welcome lack of commercial advertising: The only one I spotted was a rather tatty stencil of KPMG on the side of a boat.  Whether there had been orders to cover such adverts , or they just weren't there anyway, I don't know, but it makes a marked contrast with the Olympics, and even the Olympic Torch route, where all domestic adverts have to be obscured,  not because of the non-commercial nature of the events, but to give greater prominence to the "official" sponsors, not least the non-British and unhealthy Coca Cola and McDonalds, and Carlsberg lager.

A major irritation was the vacuousness of the BBC commentators.  We were told endlessly of how "amazing" the event was, how long it had been in preparation  and how there was such a "wonderful atmosphere."  One even described the event as "so democratic."  Why can't they just  describe factually what is happening and who is who, and leave the rest to us?  Come back  Richard Dimbleby, even if his tones were over reverential..

I am not, whoever so devoted a monarchist that I shall watch the pop concert tonight.  Nor am I uncritical.  I'd much prefer a "bicycle monarchy" on the Scandinavian style.  But I shall be riveted to the service in St Paul's tomorrow morning.

Saturday 2 June 2012

"U" turns: flexibility, incompetence or feebleness in the face of bullying?

I'd like to think that willingness to listen and amend proposals in the light of public discussion is one of the strengths of coalition government, in contrast to the "carry on regardless" attitude of governments with a large and docile majority, of which Thatcher and the poll tax is just the prime example.  However, the "U" turns of the last 72 hours seem to indicate either lack of preparation or feebleness in  the face of bullying by vested interests.

The one exception is  the Justice Secretary's watering down of his proposals for certain trials to be held in secret, apparently after internal pressure from Liberal Democrats in government.  This is a move in the right direction, with Liberal Democrats bolstering Ken Clarke's relatively liberal instincts in the face of right-wing and tabloid pressure, though lawyers tell us further moderation is required to preserve civil liberties.

The so called "pasty tax" was clearly the result of lack of preparation, and I feel ashamed that I fell for their explanation, that it was to bring these items into line with fish and chips. Now we discover that that does not hold water, since fish and chips are meant to be sold hot, whereas pasties and sausage rolls are meant to be sold cold, but if straight from the oven may still be warm.  However, estimating whether or not the item was "above the ambient temperature" was both difficult, and pointless if the purchaser intended to eat it cold anyway.  A little preliminary consultation with the industry would have avoided this silliness.

With the reduction of VAT on static caravans I have no sympathy whatsoever .  Why on earth should this industry be exempted from a tax almost every other has to pay?  Many people see static caravans as a blot on the landscape and at least one of my friends would like to see them pay extra tax, if not be banned altogether.  Since, as holiday homes, they are luxuries, they could have been taxed at a higher rate under the old purchase tax system.This turn round is clearly a case of caving in to vested interests.

I find the the climb-down on tax exemptions for charitable donations by the rich  totally unacceptable. For a fuller explanation of reasons for this see an earlier post. The rich, who do quite enough tax evasion and avoidance as it is, should not be able to opt out of paying their share of the less glamorous parts of public expenditure in order to promote their favoured obsessions, which are often of little public value, still less charitable.

The one "U" turn which would be highly desirable of course, is a reversal of the wrong-headed austerity policy, which is hampering the growth which would lead to the desirable reduction in the public deficit.