Thursday 30 August 2012

Two more cheers for Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg hit the headlines yesterday by proposing that the rich pay an "emergency tax" to help in the  "economic war"  against recession. Predictably the right bleats that that this wouldn't be fair (!!) because the rich already pay a lot of tax, and if we demand that they pay more then they might leave the country.  Well, good riddance: our society would certainly be healthier without them, and I doubt that it would be poorer.

That redoubtable Labour MP Michael Meacher  has analysed the affairs of the rich and points out that the wealth of the richest 1 000 in our society has increased by £315bn over the last 15 years, £155bn of it since the crash of 2007/8.  If they were charged capital gains tax on this at the current rate of 28% it would yield £88bn, enough to pay off 70% of the entire deficit.

Advocating such a measure is not the "politics of envy" as Tories rush to claim, but the politics of fairness. As such I do not necessarily believe that we comfortably-heeled need be exempted from an emergency tax cull.  I should prefer a wealth tax of 5% or so  on my modest savings if that would give the government the courage to fiscally stimulate the economy.  The alternative is, I suspect,  to  see the purchasing power of my savings frittered away by the inflation which will be the almost inevitable result of ineffective  quantitative easing.

So all power to Nick's elbow  in his struggle to make the rich (and comfortably off) share the pain resulting from the bankers' errors and general greed,  rather than dumping the whole burden on the bottom 20% as at present.

Only two cheers for Nick, though.  According to reports he is still wedded to "unequivocal support for the government's deficit reduction plan," apparently blind not only to the predictions of Keynesians that the plan would make matters worse, but to the clear  evidence now that that is precisely what is happening.  Life in the Westminster/Whitehall bubble must be blinkered indeed.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Housing and the economy

The following  facts and opinions were stated on the Guardian's letters page yesterday (28/08/2012)

Last November there were 279 000 long-term empty properties.  Councils should be supported by the government to provide loans to improve such properties so that they can be lived in and let.  Cllr Andrew Judge (Labour.)

Less than a week ago, housebuilders were saying they already had planning approval to cover house building for the next five years or so at the current rate.  Rev Dr Jeyarajan Anketell

Government data shows (sic) that  in 2008 there was enough brownfield land suitable for  housing development, much of it in the south, to build almost 1.5m new homes.  Kate Houghton, CPRE

What is need is for central government to allow local authorities to borrow funds to build new, affordable council housing , without the threat of being forced to sell these council houses at prices below their market value.  Rev Dr Anketell.

With such favourable facts and simple solutions available available, what is the problem?  Implement these ideas and we both solve the housing shortage and start to revive the economy.  Deux coups avec une pierre, as the French would put it.

I am also pleased to note that Cllr Judge (Labour) favours the Liberal Democrat policy of a local land tax. 

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Education: what should we be teaching, and to whom?

The first episode of Radio 4's series Education Debates (last Wednesday  at 20h00, still available on their "repeats" facility) was worth listening to, even if only to learn the astonishing fact that John Humphreys, who chairs the series and has terrified a host of prevaricating politicians on the Today programme, left school at 15 because he didn't like it.

This first programme dealt with what should be taught. Sadly but perhaps inevitably most of the comment from the panel of experts consisted of predictable clich├ęs,  but one splendid head of an 11 to 16 school put up a strong case for vocational education and, rightly in my view, argued that we should stop using the term as an equivalence of  "substandard" and fit only for the thick (though he didn't put it quite so bluntly.)  He pointed out that law and medicine are vocational courses, yet hold a highly respected place in the range of university courses.

Dr Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington college, agreed, and waxed lyrical about a formerly unbiddable youth at the Wellington Academy, which his public school patronises, who was transformed into an enthusiastic and co-operative pupil once he started to learn car mechanics.

However, I have looked very carefully at the Wellington College website and can find no mention of car mechanics on the curriculum  offered there.  Perhaps  Dr Seldon and his governors  regard mechanics as only for  the rude  mechanicals, and not the privileged elite.  However, my computer search skills are not very great, and I may have missed the offer.

According to an article in his mooring's Guardian  A place where vocational isn't a dirty word, the Swiss have a very balanced balanced view.  We should examine what they do and see if we can learn.

Education Debates   tomorrow night at 20h00 will discuss how whatever we think should be taught should be taught.  I shall listen with interest.

Monday 27 August 2012

Cabinet reshuffle.

The current speculation about a cabinet reshuffle demonstrates one of the major weaknesses of British politics: we are far more interested in personalities, who is going "up" and who is going "down," than we are in policies.

However, just to indulge that proclivity for a few sentences, I'm not too keen on the expected return of David Laws to the heights.  He is after all one of the Liberal Democrat  coalition negotiators who failed to spot that a concession to abstain on a rise in student fees was not sufficient when we  had "pledged", oh so publicly, to vote against it, and that a Conservative promise to introduce measures for electoral and House of Lords reform was not the same as a promise to vote for them.  It would be far preferable to bring seasoned campaigners of an older generation: Ming Campbell, Aan Beith or Simon Hughes.  This would add much needed gravitas to the government and take away the impression that the country is being run by a bunch of  inexperienced amateurs.,

Moving on to the much more serious business of policy, it is now perfectly clear that George Osborne's Plan A of ending the recession by cutting back state expenditure in order to allow the private sector to expand is having precisely the opposite effect, as we Keynesians have predicted all along.  The change which would transform both the coalition's prospects and the nation's economic health would be to sack Osborne and Alexander and replace them by Ken Clarke and Vince Cable*.  That will require our prime minister to show political and personal courage.

A friend and former colleague of mine, Stuart Archer,   has just written an (as yet unpublished) essay on the role of public schoolboys in the Great War.  He writes that much emphasis was placed on their sense of honour, duty, patriotism and character.  These young men, often only 18 or 19 were expected to be  " first over the top by two or three seconds, in distinctive uniform and carrying only a pistol and a stick. They were easily  picked off by the enemy."  The subsequent memorials in their public schools " stressed sacrifice and duty, the transfer of skills and pluck learnt in games to the battlefield, and above all patriotism and the desire to serve one's country."

It would be an analogy too far to compare our present circumstances  with the horrors of the First World War, but there is nevertheless a need for courage , and for the sacrifice to be shared by the whole of society, not just the bottom 20%.  So come on, David Cameron, show a bit of the "pluck" you allegedly learned on the playing field of Eton,  be prepared for a bit of embarrassment and loss of face for the sake of the nation, and make that change at the Treasury.

* In his article in the Guardian last week Martin Kettle suggests: "Put Ken Clarke or Vince Cable(or both) into the Treasury. "

Sunday 26 August 2012

Oxfordshire and Cranleigh

There have been no posts for the last three weeks as I've been away on holiday for two of them and spent the third coping with the chores that accumulate in a fortnight's absence.

My first week was spent walking with my Anglo-French friends in Oxfordshire.  The actual walking was something of a disappointment.  Although the villages are pretty  (plenty of thatched roofs) the Oxfordshire countryside is rather flat and uninteresting, made even more-so by the removal, presumably in the 50s and 60s, of many hedges, so that there are now enormous fields with the rights of way running through the middle.  To make things worse the most popular crop seems to be oil-seed rape, which may be financially viable and good for the balance of payments, but is not pleasant to walk through.

Oxford itself, in which I spent a couple of days, is superb: far too interesting to be wasted on the young.  Our party was billeted in a concrete tower-block of Oxford Brookes University - the former Polytechnic.  The accommodation was perfectly adequate, and I know it has a reputation as a very sound university, but I think students there must always feel second class citizens, and those at Oxford "proper" must find the rest of their lives something of an anti-climax - unless, of course they get into the cabinet and are allocated posh country houses.

My second holiday, which followed straight on, was the Cranleigh Choral Week,  again based on student accommodation, but this time in a boarding school (which the present editor of the Guardian attended, but they don't take the Guardian in the local public library.  I have complained to a Surrey county councillor but to no avail).  Two hundred or so singers from choral societies all over the country split into small choirs  during the day to practise and then perform chamber pieces, and in the evening get together to rehearse the major work, this year Mozart's Great Mass in C minor, for performance with a local orchestra in Guildford Cathedral on the Saturday evening.

Cranleigh Choral Week is subtitled the Cranleigh Eating Week, as the food if frequent, ample and very tempting.  In spite of having jogged round Cranleigh School' extensive paying fields each morning I've still put on three kilos in weight.

Cranleigh School's sporting facilities are so astonishingly lavish, as I understand is true of most public schools,  it is a wonder that their alumni don't win an even bigger proportion of Olympic medals than they do.  In the meantime our government continues to exhort state schools to devote more time and effort to sport, and at the same time sells off their playing fields.  You couldn't make it up.

Thursday 2 August 2012

Letting the train take the strain.

During the past three weeks I've used the railway system to whiz up and down the UK three times.  There was a time when I'd have used the car these excursions but now I find motoring very boring, especially on motorways, and am also more aware of the environmental damage caused by one person travelling alone in a car, rather than with lots on a train. In any case, with the right ticket bought in advance, the train is  cheaper.

As with so many other things, it would help to understand the pricing systems the train companies use: different web-sites come up with different prices.  I find the best is called "Qjump."   For yesterday's journey from Margate, where I had enjoyed  the golden wedding celebration of some friends,  back to Leeds, the price for the single ticket (two singles being cheaper than a return) was £24.75.  This included Margate to London, a transfer from Victoria to King's Cross by underground, and then King's Cross to Leeds.  The  standard off-peak price for the first leg, Margate to London, is given as £31, so to go all the way to Leeds for less just doesn't make any sense.  Yes, I know all about profit maximisation through price discrimination, and can even draw graphs to prove it, and I do have a Senior Rail Card which gives me a discount, but the pricing policy seems to be crazy.

As with so much else, and in particular with the banks and insurance companions, I'd prefer a "fair" price rather than having to  spend time shopping around in what seems to be a lottery.

I try to book for the "quiet coach" and sometimes get it and sometimes don't.  I'm not sure which is worse: sitting in the non-quiet coach and listening to all the loud inconsequential yacketing on mobile phones, or sitting in the quite coach and seething with indignation because of those who ignore the rules and yacket-on anyway., and wondering whether or not to do a Linda Snell and admonish them.    I now never  pluck up the courage to intervene.  Some thirty years ago, when just returned from Papa New Guinea and not aware of the changed British culture, I was on a train to Manchester  and did point out very politely to a young man who lit a cigarette that we were in a no-smoking compartment.  He grinned and blew smoke in my face.  Although the carriage was crowded no-one came to my support: a reason why public behaviour has deteriorated. 

Even in the quiet coach one is still subjected to the interminable announcements welcoming new "customers" (why not "passengers?") telling us where we're going,  what's on sale in the buffet car, not to leave luggage in the aisles and remember to take it all with us when we "alight." (Where else is this word still used?  What do ESL speakers and hearers make of it?).  The only really useful information is the next destination, now called a "station stop."   This can be given  electronically on signboards, as it is on the Underground, and this would make the whole journey more relaxing.

After each "station stop" the "on-board crew" offer  to give any help or assistance that may be required, but never give any indication as to where they are to be found.  On one occasion when help was predictably needed  no "crew" was to be seen.  I and many others had reservations for "Coach E" but there was no such coach: they  skipped straight from "D" to "F".  In a version of M Hulot's Holiday we deprived lugged our luggage to the front, in case our coach was there but out of order, and then back to the beginning in case we'd missed it, and then stood on the platform in puzzlement.  Eventually news percolated through that coach E ticket holders with  seat reservations up to number 39 were seated in Coach F, and numbers above 39 in Coach G.  This information was then repeated over the loudspeaker system inside the train at every "station stop" though how people still on the platforms were supposed to hear it escapes me.  The simple solution of having a member of staff standing on  the platform at the spot where our missing coach should be seems to have eluded the  railway management.

Finally, if we must endure all these announcements, I wish someone would tell the announcers that the word "aitch" has no "h" on it.

But enough of these trivialities. Our main lines are swift, safe and reliable, the refurbished King's Cross is a great improvement, if not even now quite as posh as Euston or St Pancras, and I look for ward to the £99b expenditure which will bring our local network up to a similar standard.

PS. Just to prove that I'm not entirely devoted to "grumpy old man" observations,  because of the Olympics there are loads and loads of people in London, in  pink clothes or high-visibility jackets, all terribly anxious to be helpful.

PPS.  But if Boris Johnson is such a clever-clogs, why can't he arrange for Central London to become a "no-fly" zone during the excellent performances at the Globe Theatre, so that  we are not distracted  from them  by the racket of over-flying aircraft?