Saturday 21 July 2012

They're beginning to see the light.

As I've been holidaying for much of the past week (see previous post) I haven't been able to keep a close eye on the news, but I did pick up  that he government is, at last, about to instigate some Keynesian pump-priming.  I hear that £9bn is to be spent on the improvement of the railway network, especially here in the north, and there is to be a boost in house building.  Perhaps it is churlish to ask:  "What took them so long?" as  precisely these and similar measures have been advocated by umpteen distinguished economist, plus his blog, for the past two years and more.

I hope the £9bn is in addition to the proposed expenditure on the high speed line from London to Birmingham, which I think is a silly prestige project rather than a useful addition to the infrastructure ( the money should be transferred to the rest of the network) and that the housing will be mixed, with a high proportion of "affordable" homes, and largely on brown-field sites.

There is some vagueness as to where the money is coming from. I hope not too much time is wasted in trying to fudge the sources so that it appears not to come from the government.  We certainly don't want any more ridiculous PFI projects, from which the private sector creams huge amounts from future generations of taxpayers. There are also worries that the projects will not begin until 2014, which will mean the multiplier effect will not kick in until well beyond half-way through the decade, by which time the long-term unemployed will have been unemployed for even longer, and the huge percentage of young people without jobs will have been kicking their heels (or worse)  for yet more of what should be the most exciting time of their lives.

Nevertheless, it's a start.  Let's hope we hear much more of it.

Friday 20 July 2012

Billy Elliot

There have been no posts for a while as I have been spending a week with friends near London.  Among other things we saw the musical version of "Billy Elliott", all of us for the second time.  The advantage of this live show over the film is that the dancing cannot possibly have been faked, speeded up or otherwise technologically advanced: these amazing actors really are achieving these impossible-looking feats before our very eyes.

 In the version we saw Billy was played by a child of 11.  It must be daunting to achieve so much at that age and still expect that the rest of life will be "up" rather than flat or even downhill.

"Billy Elliot" has many themes but to me the most poignant is the clash between the miners and the police.  I suspect that, when social historians come to study British society in the second half of the 20th century they will see the miners' strike of 1984/5 as the point when the gradual social improvements of the post war era went into reverse and we began moving towards a less cohesive, more antagonistic society.

If Margaret Thatcher is given a state funeral, and there is a sense in which, as our first woman premier, such recognition is merited, I hope one of the TV Channels shows "Billy Elliot" at the same time, as a reminder of the damage she caused.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Labour should blush with shame.

The push-me-pull-you antics of the Labour Party yesterday on Lords' reform showed British politics at its worst.    It is not surprising that 91 Tories voted against the motion for reform.  After all, the preservation of privilege and clinging to things past are core Conservative traits.  Nor do I feel that Mr Cameron's failure to haul them into line is a sign of his weakness and a betrayal of the coalition cause.  In general I believe  spirited independence among MPs rather than slavish obedience to the Whips is to be welcomed and hope we shall see more of it on other issues 

What is disgraceful is that the Labour Party, allegedly progressive, should vote for the reform but be whipped against the timetable motion that would make reform possible: to will the end but not the means. Their published reason was that the programme motion provided for only (sic) fourteen days of debate.  Just how much do they want on an issue which has been on the agenda for over 100 years, and intensively discussed in the past few months?

Clearly their motive (apart from perhaps a few who fancied being Lords themselves, with a £300 a day attendance allowance, a political after-life and a fancy title for the rest of their days) is to embarrass the coalition and take a swipe at Nick Clegg.  We rightly deplore short-termism in financial affairs: it is equally deplorable in politics.

In choosing Ed Miliband as their leader Labour appeared to be putting the compromised New Labour years behind them and setting out on a fresh and radical path.  This tatty tactical "victory", in reality a defeat for their principles, will be recorded as a shameful episode in their history.

In the wider field, the whole episode does further damage to the health of our democracy.  It would be foolish to suppose that many more than we political anoraks have been following these events with much concern, but what confidence can the electorate in general  have in a political process in which all three parties promise House of Lords reform in their manifestos, but then the process is abused so that the promised outcome is frustrated.  This adds further fuel for the cynicism which is rapidly becoming the dominant political creed.

The one person coming out of the debacle smelling of roses is Nick Clegg.   Regular readers will know that I am not prone to shower him with excessive praise, but he has stuck to his beliefs and principles whilst his fellow leaders, Cameron slightly and Miliband considerably, are tarnished. This shameful episode could yet well rebound to his credit.  As Wimbledon showed, and the Olympics are likely to show, Britain warms to an plucky underdog who fights to the finish.

Monday 9 July 2012

Armed forces reform

My own experience of the armed forces is limited to membership of the school cadets back in the 1950. Among other things I learned how to perform  an "about turn on the march" and discovered to my surprise a couple of years ago that I can still do it, whereas an ex-regular soldier friend couldn't.  Maybe he concentrated on more serious military matters. 

Another ex-regular friend who was a parachutist but was invalided out after an accident when his parachute failed to open,  has this to say:
Generally, I am of the view that we should avoid killing, or harming, any living thing, including people. When we are threatened we should use our influence to avoid a conflict, and use compassion to encourage others to abandon the will to fight. 

That said, my view is that the British Army should be capable of protecting our interests and defending our way of life from those with more questionable values, wherever and whenever that may be necessary. Defence being the operative word, and not pre-emptive. Our forces must also be ready to adapt to changing circumstances, and be planning and ready for worst case scenarios. Anything less than that is highly irresponsible. I am not convinced that the current plans would meet this criteria. There are several possibilities, such as the invasion of the Falklands, civil unrest and natural disaster, that in my view un-acceptably rely on the good will of other nations, with different priorities. 

Having served in the Army, I also realise that there is a lot of dead weight to be shed before the organisation could be described as lean and efficient. The combination of the four services to establish joint working procedures and training facilities is a great idea, and this will provide financial efficiencies. Reducing the number of injured and unfit personnel is also a good idea, provide they are properly looked after, replacing them with fit and capable new recruits. 

However, the plan to rely more heavily on the reserves, recruiting on a huge scale, is unrealistic. I was an Army Recruiter in 2011, and recruiting for the TA is very difficult. No matter how many billions you pay a civilian company I do not believe they will achieve the level of manning they require for their plan, or achieve the kind of training and commitment that is given by a full time professional force. It would be far more efficient, and cheaper, to keep the regulars.

Personally I feel we should be working towards the day when  all national armed forces are assigned to the United Nations for use as an international police force.  We have a long way to go.

Friday 6 July 2012

Their word no longer their bond

About the only thing on which I agree with Michael Gove is that children should be encouraged to learn poetry by heart at school.

Here's a "poem" I learnt at primary school in the 1940s which I can still recite from memory, though perhaps with not 100% accuracy:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their soul.
Who steals my purse steals trash.
Tis something, nothing.  Twas mine, tis his,
And has been slave to thousands.
But he who filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enricheth him,
But makes me poor indeed.

It is, I believe, a speech by Iago from Othello. Its relevance to today cannot be overstated.  Successive governments have fallen over backwards to try to preserve London as a pre-eminent financial centre.  Now our "good name", the proud boast of the City that "My word is my bond" has been blown by  traders whose greed has been granted unbridled scope by politicians obsessed by the myth of the efficacy of unregulated markets. 

Now we need to "rebalance" our economy and learn to earn our national living in more honest ways.  It will be a long struggle.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Two contrasting sets of facts

!.  According to Tuesday's Guardian (03/07/12)  "the Queen costs every man, woman and child in the UK 52p over the year..." (page 4 of the main section, article by Caroline Davies).  In the same edition  (G2, pp6 to 9) Aditya Chakraborrty tells us: "Each  man, woman and child  in Britain has already handed over £19,271 (to bail out the banks)."  That last figure, by the way, is not   French style nineteen virgule 271 pounds, but nineteen thousand, two hundred and seventy-one pounds, or £84, 792 per family, hard-working or not,  if the "average" is still two adults and 2.4 children.

Whereas the expenditure on the Queen, if otherwise injected into the economy, wouldn't have made much difference, if that almost £20,000 per person had been judiciously fed into the economy with, say, higher unemployment and welfare benefits; rises for the low paid in "care for the elderly" systems, local government and the NHS;  directed into the rebuilding of the infrastructure, development of green technology and mixed housing on brown-field sites;  and loaned for investment to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) via one of the banks that the government actually owns, we should already be soaring out of recession.

Instead the banks remain in, in fact are in even deeper, crisis, and the recession has become "double dip" with few signs of any revival.

2. In last Saturday's Guardian (30/06/12) an article by Jonathan Freedland points out that that 1,292 people were jailed for their part in  last summer's riots, many of them in overnight courts set up especially for the occasion.  How many people have been jailed for their part in the festering banking scandal?  Well, there was Nick Leeson, but that was in a previous crisis.  Any others I may have missed?

On Monday we learned that Mr Marcus Agius, Chairman of the Barclays board, had decided to resign.  Yesterday we learned that he had decided to unresign, and Bob Diamond had  resigned instead.  Let's hope that's not the end of that. I don't recall any rioter being let off by promising to resign from his gang. But so far there have been no courts, overnight or otherwise, convened to deal with the perpetrators of the financial wrong-doing "pour encourager les autres."  Instead the powers that be are still squabbling about whose fault it was, what sort of enquiry to set up, and even if there has been a crime at all.

In this as in so much we are not "all in this together."  Have the authorities demanded of our "cousins" at American Embassy that Bob Diamond's passport be confiscated so he can't skip off to the US and avoid any consequences of his actions, or lack of them?  Have his assets, or at least those not already stashed away in a tax haven,  been  frozen? Have there been any dawn  raids on the houses of the various wheelers and dealers who may have been involved  so that they can be questioned in police custody  and, if necessary, refused bail pending their trials?

 I neither approve of nor even condone shoplifting, , theft, rioting or any other unlawful behaviour, but if the sufferers at the bottom of the pile in our divided and unequal society decided to help themselves to a few of the goodies so flaunted in our rich economy, on the grounds that "if they can get away with it, why shouldn't we?"  I'd understand.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Referendum on Europe: the real distraction from the real issue.

I suspect that many of the Neanderthals calling for a referendum on our membership of the European Union are the same ones who claim that now is not the time to reform the House of Lords because the issue would distract parliament from serious and contemporary matters: ie the economy.

Just to deal with the Lords/Economy issue first, this excuse is a nonsense:
  • parliament is well able to do more than one thing at once
  • opponents will always argue that "now is not the right time" 
  • parliament already spends too much time on new laws, often formulated in haste and regretted at leisure (eg the Dangerous dogs Act)
  •  and new laws will not revive the economy: what will is Keynesian pump priming, which doesn't require new laws but political will.
Now to the Europe/Referendum issue. The case against referendums in representative democracies is clearly set out in most of the standard text-books.  Briefly

  • it is extremely difficult to select a fair and unbiased question.  This was particularly true in our recent referendum on electoral reform, where most of us in favour felt that we were campaigning for a second-rate system (AV rather than PR by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies).  Similar difficulties arise with the proposed referendum on Scottish independence (should "home rule" be included as a second option?), and those who dislike the result of the 1975 referendum on Europe now claim that they didn't understand for what they were voting.
  • it is difficult to achieve a fair and balanced debate.  The pro-Europe case in 1975 was supported by all three main political parties and very generously funded by the European Community. Tony Benn and his cohorts were heavily out-gunned. It is also difficult to deal with lies and distortions.  These were blatant, and admitted to after the campaign, from the anti-side in the electoral reform referendum.  The anti-reformers also had a more skilled campaign, better literature and, I suspect, much more money.  The anti-Europeans would probably say much the same about 1975.
  • the government that calls a referendum usually does so, not because it wants the peoples' answer, but to get itself out of some political difficulty.  This was certainly true in referendum on continued membership of the EEC in 1975, when Harold Wilson was faced not only with a split party but also a split cabinet.  Today David Cameron real aim  is to provide some "red meat" for his Euro-phobes in order to persuade them to continue to support the coalition, and to give comfort to those of his MPs who feel their majorities may be nibbled away by UKIP.
  • referendums do not provide answers "once and for all."  Those who lose continue to nag for another.
  • and finally, just to bang the chauvinistic drum for a change, referendums are simply not British, as the great Clement Atlee asserted, but devices used by by demonic (continental!) leaders to create a myth that they have a personal relationship with "their" people (to paraphrase slightly Professor Black of Exeter University.)

Unfortunately the crisis of the Euro  has given George Osborne a popular and convenient scapegoat to which he can ascribe  the failure of his economic policy.  This is, of course, nonsense: his misguided  policy of cuts and public austerity was failing and doomed to failure long before the difficulties with the Euro (caused by the same"light regulation" and over-confidence in the banking system which caused the crash) emerged.  His policy also relies on export led growth.  As in the 1930s, this is unlikely to succeed when all other countries are in depression and also trying to "export their unemployment", But to cut ourselves off from the market which takes more than half our exports would make his policy even less likely to succeed.