Wednesday 30 January 2013

What Leeds really needs - and it's not HS2

I cannot work up much enthusiasm for the HS2 project, and that's not just because I'm unlikely to be still alive by the time it reaches here.

Recalling that the original estimate of the cost of the Olympics was £2.9 billions but they eventually cost over £9bn (and they then had the cheek to claim that they had come in "under budget" because the budget had been revised - Orwell thou should'st be living at this hour) I don't put much faith in the estimated cost of £30bn.

Even if  the Olympic achievement is repeated the target completion date, some 20 years hence, is met,, who is to know whether or not  a super-duper arterial railway line will be of much use to anyone in 20 years' time?

This is a classic example of misguidedly wanting to "keep up with the Joneses."  True, most of our continental neighbours have high speed trains, but Germany, France and Spain are large countries, and we are a tiny island (as opponents of migration never hesitate to remind us.)  And the small European countries have land borders which join them to the bigger ones, as we are now joined by the Channel Tunnel, HS1.

In the meantime, there is plenty of infrastructure improvement, here in Leeds, the rest of the North and elsewhere, which could be started now, create employment now, stimulate the economy now and bequeath to our children and grandchildren a healthy, convenient,  environmentally-sustainable, people-friendly transport system rather than an expensive white elephant.

Most of the following projects are "shovel ready" so that the much needed economic stimulation could start tomorrow - well, at least shorty after Easter.  Leeds needs its  Supertram, a project which was planned then abandoned only a few years ago, parts of the A1 still need bring up to Motorway standard, the Northern rail network is desperately in need of modernisation and modern rolling stock, the commuter lime between Harrogate and York is archaic and still dependent on semaphore signalling, which may sound romantic but is hardly tops for safety.

Essentially, we need to be thinking in terms of bringing our provincial and inter-city transport systems up to date, with better East-West connections, rather than trying to convert the entire country into a suburb of London.

And if all that isn't enough, some of the cash saved by abandoning this prestige project could be used to provide some decent cycle lanes, separated from faster traffic by a kerb or some other sort of barrier.  Because bikes may be a more appropriate form of transport in the energy-strapped and polluted 2040s than super-duper trains.

Monday 28 January 2013

More positive economics.

A critic of John Cole claimed he was too negative in his essay, posted here a few days ago, so he now adds  the following:

Whilst I believe there is a real probability of the UK going “to hell in a handcart” if current policies are pursued and inequalities are not addressed, such a outcome is not inevitable, given certain changes. As I see it, in very broad terms, the following needs to happen:

There needs to be a change in UK fiscal policy so that, in the medium term , a Keynesian fiscal expansion is pursued. I see this as happening over a 3 – 5 year period, with a view to getting a recovery in the UK economy so that aggregate demand increases, employment rises, consumer spending recovers, confidence increases and the government's tax take increases. Possibly an increase in government investment in pubic infrastructure is the most effective stimulant to start this process – those public investment programmes which bring a legacy. “Take care of unemployment and the budget will take care of itself” said Keynes. As the economy recovers and real incomes rise, it is easier to start stripping out the structural deficit from the budget and balancing it, hopefully at the full employment level.

Secondly, getting the UK economy on the mend by judicious use of Keynesian policy is easier and far more effective if all other members of the G20 are doing the same – and beyond the G20. The world economy requires a co-ordinated response from the developed and developing nations. If the UK hopes to recover partly by exporting more, then our export markets need also to be in recovery phase with rising demand for imports from the UK. Autarky and “beggar my neighbour” policies will be wholly counter-productive. The growth of international trade in the 1960s and 1970s greatly assisted the growth of national economies. Nation states (and blocs like the EU) must synchronise their fiscal recoveries.

Thirdly capitalism has to be reformed in all sorts of ways – a huge topic and only just touched on here. Whilst there needs to be rapid growth in the recovery phase (the 3 – 5 years I mention) beyond that there are arguments for a reduced preoccupation with growth, certainly in the developed world. Populations need to focus more on quality of life and less on their material standard of living and firms within the economy need to serve that end. But “good capitalism”, as described by people such as Will Hutton, involves a fairer balance of power between capital and labour. Such a change will see an increase in the share of wages in national income and a reduction in the share of rents and profits. This in turn will contribute to a fairer distribution of income – although there may still be a role for fiscal policy to bring about greater equality of final income. The sort of inequality described above in the first part of this piece is not just socially unjust, it also has adverse economic consequences within the UK.

A way has to be found of sharing out work more equitably. I have argued for the intrinsic desirability of people having more leisure time and chances to self-educate, enjoy culture and warmly socialise. However, if a side effect of fewer industrial working hours being worked is a slowing in the growth of output of consumer goods, some of this may be offset by a growth in leisure industries since people have more leisure time to themselves.

For perhaps 90% of the populations of the developed and developing world the changes I have hinted at in the previous two paragraphs will require a huge change of mindset. Across all populations there will need to be a re-thinking of values. However, for the top 5% of income-earners and wealth-owners my prescriptions are likely to be particularly unwelcome. These are the people who, at the moment, “call all the shots”. These are the “serious men” who set the conventional wisdom. The status quo suits these people all too well as the vast majority of increases in income and wealth are funnelled in their direction. (2010 figures for the US economy show that the top 1% of Americans in that year saw their incomes grow by 11.6% whilst the growth in income for the remaining 99% was 0.2%). The current political systems in both the USA and the UK suit this top 5% given that both systems allow campaign contributions to buy influence in conservative political parties. Most newspapers, too, fall in with the conservative line and help set the agenda in favour of the conventional wisdom.

So there is a way forward. We are not condemned to go to hell in a handcart. But all the changes in policy I have outlined above need to be enacted together. And we need also to have an eye to the environment and to inter-generational issues like pensions and care for the elderly. In my view the big task is to wrestle public policy from the plutocracy which has been in control for years and establish a genuine democracy

Saturday 26 January 2013

The turn of the economic policy tide? Or maybe not..

Nick Clegg now admits that the cuts in the coalition's investment expenditure may have been too severe, a Tory MP on BBC 1's "Question Time" agrees with him, Boris Johnson calls for an end to the "austerity rhetoric"  and the figures show that for the last quarter of 2012 the UK economy shrank.

In any sane world this would now lead to an urgent  reversal  of economic policy.  Keynesians, from this humble blog to distinguished  Nobel prizewinners, have been saying  for the last two and a half years that the austerity programme would lead to economic stagnation or worse, others, including the IMF, have eventually  joined in the chorus, and the results confirm our views.

There is no economic difficulty in reversing the policy.  My own version of a plan B  was published on this blog in August 2011 and I stand by it.  Briefly, and with one or two modifications in the light of current circumstances:

  • projects for the improvements of the existing infrastructure (filling up the many potholes which will be left when this snow melts, improvements to the northern rail network, expenditure on schools and hospitals, measures to clean up the beaches, countryside and   urban areas.) These would have a much more immediate Keynesian multiplier effect than fancy projects such as the HS2 railway, where much of the early expenditure goes on land purchases and lawyers' fees;
  • massive investment in housing, both improvements to make empty properties habitable and new housing  on sites where planing permission has already been given.  There is absolutely no need for scrapping planning regulations to stimulate the housing industry.  What is lacking is the demand.  This can be stimulated by a combination  local authorities house building for letting, along with affordable mortgages from one of the largely state-owned banks;
  • reversal of cuts to the probation, revenue collecting,  border agency and other essential public services;
  • investment in green technologies and energy sources;
  • investment in  universities and the arts,  sectors  where the UK still has international competitiveness;
  • expansion of genuine craft based apprenticeship schemes and technical training;
  • a cut in VAT back to 15%, balanced by a land value tax, or its less comprehensive  poor relation, a mansion tax.
No problem if the government had the will.  I hope it is not true (I know a lot of Conservatives who are really very nice and well-meaning) but, given Osborne's arrogant refusal to face the evidence and change course, it is hard not to suspect that the Cameron-Osborne strategy has not failed but succeeded:   that their real policy is to roll back the sate and hand over more and more provision to a profit hungry private sector, and that they  have used  "unavoidable austerity in order to austerity to the deficit"  as a heaven-sent excuse.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Europe, referendums and delusions.

In his memoirs, published 1979, Jo Grimond, the most impressive  of the post war leaders of the Liberal party, who had served under Montgomery in he liberation of Europe, wrote:

It is... no service to Churchill's memory to suggest that but for him we might have surrendered. And, of course, once America joined in the war, let alone Russia, we were bound to win.  If anything is remarkable, it is remarkable that it took so long.  Yet we came out of the war being told that we had saved the world by a unique act of courage against fearful odds.  We naturally became convinced that the world must see that we were natural leaders of the West entitled by our deeds of valour and skill to rest on oars as far as work was concerned  and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours.(Memoirs, p99)

Nearly 70 years after the war's end such hubris is still around and it fuels David Cameron's speech.  The wonder is that our European partners show us so much patience and tolerance.  We can only hope that Cameron has privately told the other European leaders not to take any notice of his arrogant  posturing: that it is purely for home consumption and that he doesn't really mean it.

Clearly the Tories have serious domestic difficulties over our membership of the EU, with their irrational "Little Englander" right snapping at their leaders' heels and UKIP breathing down their necks, but they have only themselves to blame.  Since Conservative prime ministers Macmillan tried and failed , and Heath succeeded, in negotiating our membership  they have never given it unequivocal support.  Labour  have nothing to be proud of either.  Having re-negotiated the terms and held a referendum in the 70s (which voted to stay in by a ratio of  two to one) they campaigned to withdraw in the 80s, and their current position is befogged with evasions.  For both these parties Europe has been a scapegoat to blame rather than an ideal to support.

Only the Liberals have been enthusiastic supporters of the European ideal  from its inception, but our voice has been drowned by the timidness of the other parties and the violent opposition of the overwhelming majority of the press, the owners of which (the now disgraced Murdoch, Conrad Black recently released from prison in Canada, and Lord Rothermere) are all violently anti the EU.  However, the Liberal Democrat leadership is not blameless.  For some reason or other we have at some stage promised an In-Out referendum.  Now Nick Clegg is trying to cloud the issue by saying this would only take place if there are significant changes in the Treaty.

Even with this reservation this is a nonsense. We are a parliamentary democracy and we elect our representatives, at least in theory  respected citizens whose judgement we trust, to make these decisions having pondered all the arguments.  The recent débâcle of the AV referendum shows how difficult it is to conduct a mature and balanced debate. The fact that, if it takes place, this will be the second time we have renegotiated the terms and then had a referendum, shows that referendums do not settle things "once and for all."  The argument that many (David Cameron?) were not alive or  old enough to vote when the last referendum was held is specious: we do not hold referendums for every generation to give their opinions on Magna Carta, the Bill of rights, or whether or not cinemas should be allowed to open on Sundays, (the only other issue on which referendums have been held throughout  the UK).

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Facts and figures

My friend Jaime, who occasionally comments on this blog, has introduced me to the f:following:

This is a blog by an economist called Frances Coppola, who is a "whiz" with statistics.  The whole of the above link is well worth a read, but two of her charts stand out for me.

 If M/s Coppola is is to be trusted, and I think she is, this chart, which measures public debt as a %ge of GDP, confirms the point of view expressed in this blog since its inception: that Britain's present public debt is relatively modest, nowhere near what it has been historically, and that comparisons with Greece and other ailing economies are spurious.The Tory excuse, that savage cuts are necessary to maintain confidence in our public finances, is clearly a lie but, for them, a welcome excuse to implement their ideology of rolling back the state.

This second chart measures total public spending as a %ge of GDP.  Once again there is nothing particularly alarming or abnormal about it.  It includes spending on "the Welfare State" and exposes as a lie that welfare spending has soared out of control, so that  a safety net at a civilised level can no longer be afforded.  The present savage cuts in "welfare"or, if preferred "social security" are plainly unnecessary and again ideologically driven.

I hope some leading Liberal Democrats will pick up on M/s Coppola's blog, take note, and stop mouthing untruths to justify their abandonment of the traditions of Keynes and Beveridge.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Puzzlement and Pain

My friend John Cole has sent me the following essay.  It reflects my views exactly and is packed with supporting evidence.

Is there a lack of joined-up thinking in how we run our economy and our lives?

My comments, which are largely critical, apply in the first instance to the UK but I suspect apply even more strongly to the US economy  - and to a lesser extent to the other G7 countries.

In 1930 Keynes was looking 80 years ahead to a time where productivity would have increased to such an extent that a perfectly acceptable material standard of living for the whole population would be available on the basis of the workforce working just three hours per day.  Materially there would be enough for everybody, plus far greater opportunities for leisure. People would have the time and the energy to socialise,  educate themselves and engage in and appreciate the arts, literature, music etc.

In those 80 years gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has grown even greater than Keynes had predicted.   What has not happened is the reduction in hours worked.  Yes, there has been some reduction  (from 48 p.w. to 35 p.w.) but not the reduction to 15 p.w..  Partly this is explained by the increase in consumption opportunities.  Large sectors of the UK and the US populations have become obsessed with increasing their material standard of living which might show itself in a large home, more domestic appliances and luxuries, a better car, and a second car, two foreign holidays per year and possibly a second home in the country – or a flat “in town”.

These last-mentioned luxuries are sometimes called “positional goods” by economists, I think because they help flag up our position in society.  Possessing them, you can favourably differentiate yourself from those who lack them.  You establish your place in the pecking order.  Consumption becomes competitive – not just “keeping up with the Joneses” but exceeding them.

In the standard nuclear family (mum, dad and two kids) if father's earnings were not enough to pay for that second car or foreign holiday, then mum went out to work.  As pay differentials grew and the top 10%  enjoyed incomes which accelerated not just in  absolute terms but relative terms, the remaining 90% struggled, if not to keep up, at least not to be left too far behind.  So hours worked did not fall as predicted by Keynes – and more families had two sources of income.

“Aspiration” in the 1980s and 1990s all too often became degraded into a narrow and individualistic materialism.  “There is no such thing as society”.   The glue which bound the UK together which had been strong in 1945, became weaker.  One way of marking personal success was to buy a private education for your child  and seek your health treatment via BUPA – two more “positional goods” for our collection. Once the wealthy  had  “gone private”  the voice arguing for quality public provision was weakened.   The NHS and pubic education lost powerful advocates because the wealthy no longer used these services and had become more interested in tax  subsidies for the private sector (see charitable status for Eton and Westminster, to name but two).

All the while, on the supply side, private sector firms sought to innovate, develop new products  in the hope of constantly expanding sales.  Our nuclear family was encouraged to consume more and more by a barrage of advertising.  Spiritual and community values became crowded out by a insistent materialism with its  display features.  The new was venerated whilst repairing and re-using the old was seen as out of date.  Too much was simply discarded and not re-cycled.  Our natural resource use might have been rather better.

So, where are we in the UK in 2013?

We are, for the third time since 2008, sliding into recession, due largely to a wrong-headed economic policy.  We are getting out of this recession  more slowly than any recession/depression in the last 200 years – we are still not back to where we were in 2008.  In consequence there are 2.5 million people out of work with over 1 million being youth unemployment.  For every job vacancy within the economy  there are eight potential applicants.

Against this backdrop the coalition government is insisting that all people on disability benefit be re-tested to see whether they are fit to work.  Many are the mis-assessments by Atos (the private sector company charged with the assessment task)  and patently very sick people are being classified as fit to work and being sent out, unsupported, into a hopeless labour market.

Youth unemployment is being masked by the number of  17y.o. and 18 y.o.  who remain in education, which might not be their first choice but saves them being categorised as NEET  (not  in employment, education or training).  Others do leave school and go on to government funded training schemes  which raise their skills, qualifications and confidence but lead all too rarely to  full time, secure employment at the end of the course, because the jobs are just not out there. Or rather, one job for every eight applicants.

(Recent reports highlighted the rising average age of police officers, due to the ban on recruitment for two or three years by many forces. Similarly many Fire Authorities have not recruited in the last three years.  Here are two avenues into employment and careers which have been closed off to today's young.  Note also that this change in the age profile of policemen and firemen will impact on the agility of the forces and also, in the long run, contributions to the pension pot).

At the other end of the age range the age at which the old are entitled to claim their pension is being raised.   The old are being required to work longer.   Given greater longevity, this makes sense – but  it has the consequence of not freeing up vacancies for the young who are looking for work.   Is this joined-up thinking?

Some people capable of working have no work. Others work part time – but would like longer hours.  Yet others are “under-employed” because they are in jobs which do not use their skills to the full – the graduate who is shelf-filling in ASDA.  At the other end of the scale are people who are choosing to work 60+ hours per week – big-hitting lawyers or tax accountants who are totally driven.  There are families where both parents work full time in order to maintain their hold on positional goods. A fair amount of work is being undertaken in the economy – is it too simplistic to say that the work is not being shared out equally – or fairly?  And there is much more work to do which is not getting done because, to give just one example, local government is being starved of funding by a government and a society which regards taxation as a loss rather than the source of funding for meeting collective wants.   Our “possessive individualism” is getting in the way again.

Finally, what has happened to the distribution of income and wealth in our society?  Since 1978 in particular, the distribution of income has become much more uneven, with the top 10% increasing their income much faster than the bottom 50%.  (In technical terms the Gini coefficient – a measure of inequality – has risen from a score of 26 to a score of 35 from 1978 – 2011).  The majority of the UK's increase in real GDP   in this period has gone to the top 10%.  The distribution of wealth and changes in that distribution tell a even more uneven story. In 1973 the top 5% of wealth holders owned 47%  of all wealth.  In 2003 the share of the top 5% had increased to 57%.   In April 2012 the Sunday Times “Rich List”  showed that the richest 1,000 persons in the UK, , just 0.003% of the adult population, increased their wealth over the last three years by £155bn. That is enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30bn to spare.

(In the USA the unevenness of income distribution is even more marked.  In 2006 the twenty five highest paid hedge-fund managers received $14 billion income between them.  This is three times the collective salaries of all the school teachers in New York City)

Wilkinson and Pickett, in “The Spirit Level” and other writings, have made a compelling case for more equal societies being healthier societies. It is not just physical and mental health, it is stronger social capital and greater community cohesion.  Just one indicator of this is lower crime rates.

By seeking to emulate the USA, by allowing the growth of inequality, by failing to share out work more equitably, by following a wrong-headed fiscal policy, by allowing the atrophy of our social institutions and collective bonds,  the UK is in danger of  going to hell in a handcart.

John Cole    18th January 2013

Friday 18 January 2013

Cross purposes

I have mixed feelings about the decisions  of the  European Court of Human Rights on the rights of Christians to wear crosses.

The ruling against the nurse who wanted the right to wear a cross on a chain round her neck while on duty is surely correct.  The court decided that the hospital's regulations  for preventing infection were more important than her right to declare her faith in the manner she wished.  In fact, the nurse had turned down the hospital's compromise solution, that she should clip her cross to her name tag, which suggests that she was more interested in making  a challenge than in finding a solution.

The decision to permit a British Airways staff member to wear her cross publicly while on duty is more problematic.  The reason given was that her right to proclaim her faith is more important than BA's uniform rules.  I'm not so sure.  In the staff member's favour, she is a Coptic Christian, and it may be an important part of Coptic tradition that a cross should be publicly displayed.  In addition,  since to identify oneself   in Egypt as a Christian is  dangerous, it may well also be an expression of the lady's pleasure in living in a tolerant country where advertising her faith would not lead to her risking being murdered.

But where will it all end?  Is the same right to be extended to to the police, army, fire brigade, other organisations with uniform or dress rules?  As far as I know, apart from bishops, who customarily wear a pectoral cross, there is no tradition in Western Christianity,  Roman Catholic or Protestant, that requires adherents to wear,  publicly or even privately, a cross. Yet there's now a distinct possibility that the more aggressively evangelical of our brethren (and sisteren) will seize on this ruling and demand the right be extended to them.

Anyone who's ever been deputy head of a secondary school with uniform or dress regulations will know that, however reasonable and democratically arrived at the rules are, some smart Alec, or Alice, will push them beyond the boundary of what was intended .  The ECHR's ruling exposes all organisations with uniform or dress rules to unnecessary harassment.

As it happens, my "daily portion" this week (which I read in French  pour faire avec une pierre deux coups) has covered the First Epistle of St Peter, Chapter 3, which contains the injunction:

"(Your) adorning, let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart,  in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God a great price."

Now, that is part of our tradition, or should be..

Sunday 13 January 2013

A poignant letter.

The following letter appeared in yesterday's paper. In my view it says it all, and deserves a much wider readership than that of the Guardian.  If anyone knows how to put it on facebook or something else widely read, it would be a service to civilisation to do so.

   A lifetime's journey from postwar hope to impotent rage

As a middle-class, white, half-Welsh woman of 92, I was in on the birth of the social contract (Suzanne Moore, G2, 10 January). I am already struggling with impotent rage as I witness its bland destruction. I was a civil servant in London in 1942 when the Beveridge report came out. We read it all avidly as a heartening message of hope for a better future. Bombs had been falling mainly on docks, railways, industrial areas and the poorer parts of many towns. The blitz had revealed dramatically the appalling inequalities in British life. The wartime coalition government laid out the practical ways we should go forward in peace. We all voted in the landslide Labour government of 1945. Admittedly, many people assumed that Churchill would still be prime minister and were surprised that meek Mr Attlee was leading us into our brave new world. But he did.
My husband had survived years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, so the continuing food rationing seemed a feast to him. We had our first baby the year the wonderful new National Health Service began. I am told by an elderly doctor that we never could have afforded the NHS, we were more bankrupt then than we are now. It always had to be supported strongly by the government and wanted by the people.
I watched Frank Skinner recently on TV say that he thought the NHS was Britain's greatest invention and that was confirmed last summer with Danny Boyle's moving pageant. It seems a wicked irony that our bunch of ignorant millionaires, in two years, have sold off large parts of our dear NHS, not just to Americans, but to those very same rightwing insurance millionaires who fought so hard to prevent Obama's attempts to improve their own health service.
I've spent the last 50 years futilely protesting against nuclear weapons (starting with a small women's march in the rain in May 1957), assuming that our basic social contract was secure under any government, and voting Lib Dem at elections. I was so heartened by Danny Boyle and the 70,000 happy volunteers that I stupidly thought there might be some change of heart in central policies. So, still remembering those hopeful 1950s, where am I to put my failing energies now?
Anne Piper
Wytham, Oxfordshire

Well, I shall continue to put my energies, also failing, into the Liberal Democrats, but with a heavy heart and a fervent wish that those now leading us would listen to the party, remember our roots, and take note of public opinion outside the Westminster bubble

Friday 11 January 2013

Privatised probation

The announcement from the Department of Justice  that large chunks of what remains of the probation service are to be privatised is another example of the triumph of ideology over evidence.

The highly publicised failure of the private sector company  G4s to provide the necessary security for the Olympics, and the  way in which  the public sector army stepped into the breach at the last  minute and did a superb job,  should kill once and for all the notion the private sector is inherently and invariably more efficient than the public sector.

The private sector probation companies are to be paid by results, which necessitate the setting of targets.   Yet this very month a report about the NHS is being trailed with shows that targets in that service demoralise the nurses and forces them to take more note of the demands of managers than the needs of patients. So the probation "industry" is to be target driven  at the very time when further evidence demonstrates that targets distort outcomes, and not in the interests of the clients or patients.

In an attempt to make the privatisation proposal more palatable it is suggested that some of the contracts will be given to charities. Most charities are small, and since they won't get paid until they can demonstrate their "success," that is, some twelve to eighteen months after having undertaken the work, most will not have the financial resources to make the "bids."  Hence this is another example of handing over swathes of public provision to big business.

It is painful to see yet another aspect of our  civic society, carefully built up over the years, dismantled and handed over to organisations motivated only by profit.

Another dubious proposal  from the Department of Justice is that several small prisons are to be closed as uneconomical, and replaced by a big new one  designed designed to hold 1 000 prisoners, which will presumably enjoy "economies of scale." Yet the evidence is that ex-prisoners from smaller prisons have a lower re-offending rate than those from larger ones.  Once again the short term  financial "bottom line" is given priory over a more successful  long term outcome.

Thursday 10 January 2013

The poor we have with us always.

Commentators are pointing out that what we used to call "social security" we now refer to by what they regard as the more pejorative term of "welfare."   I personally find little difference in the two terms.  Welfare, in the sense of "well being"  can be a very positive term, and work itself brings a good deal of welfare: a sense of purpose, of  self worth, usually social contacts, a pattern to the day,  and, above all, an income.

Like any other terms, both "on the social" and "on welfare" can be used pejoratively if the speaker or writer intends, and certainly the Daily Mail, Daily Express and I suspect, The Times and Telegraph hack away at this implication until the association with malingering becomes accepted .  But in my childhood in the 1940s and 50s it was still quite common for those  "thrown on the sick" or receiving a pension to talk of going to the Post Office to collect their "Lloyd George", and neither the speakers not their hearers thought this was in any way demeaning.  Rather they honoured the founder of the system, and I believe there was a hint of pride in belonging to a society that was civilised enough to provide for the sick, aged, disabled or those between jobs.

The Tory attack on the social security system will, I believe and hope, rebound on them, because it has generated a  discussion which has unearthed a lot of rather surprising facts which should dispel much misplaced prejudice.

The following have been picked up at random by me from the papers and casual listening to the radio:

  • social security may be the largest item of government expenditure, but nearly two thirds of it is on pensions (received, and paid for over a long working life, by people like me.)
  • only 3% of the expenditure is for unemployment benefit (now rather grandly called "Job Seekers' Allowance")
  • fraud accounts for only 0.7% of expenditure.  This, to be fair, amounts to around £1billion, which is a lot of mony, but not nearly as much as the estimated £70 billion lost annually in tax evasion.
  • in the past, social security payments have been increased at the same rate as prices, whereas wages have risen faster than prices.  Consequently, whereas unemployment benefit used to be approximately one fifth of the average wage, it is now barely one tenth (actually 11%).  Hence the argument that benefits should not rise faster than wages is "specious" (a useful work I picked up from a caller to "You and Yours.")
  • £71 a week, the current rate of JSA, is not a lot on which to live the Life of Riley.
Both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are to be congratulated on dissociating Liberal Democrats from the Tory (and Labour!) division of the working population  into "strivers" and "skivers," but I should like to see us distance ourselves completely from this attack on the welfare state we founded, and on those who suffer most from the the economic crisis caused, not by the unemployed, but by men (mostly) in full-time employment and on salaries beyond what for most of us are the dreams of avarice.

Saturday 5 January 2013

Non-writing of contemporaty events.

We are used to the idea of the re-writing of history and the brushing out of persona no longer regarded as politically acceptable, but the rewriting, or rather non-writing, of contemporary events receives less attention.

The expiration of the 30 year embargo on the release of UK Cabinet documents has produced lots of re-runs of Margaret Thatcher's tub-thumping speeches, along with Michael Foot's surprising acquiesce, flaunting determination to defend British Sovereign Territory, the Falklands, and their inhabitants so touchingly loyal to the British Crown, from invasion by Argentina

At around the same time, some 30 years ago, arrangements were being made to hand over Hong Kong to Communist China.    This, were were told, was an entirely different matter, as Hong Kong must legally be handed back since it  was held only on a 99 year lease, and Chris Patten, complete with a colonial governor's  feathers in his hat (much to the amusement of his then adolescent children) was sent there to negotiate the details and  to preside over the hand-over ceremonies.

This, however, was only part of the truth,  The complete story, that it was the so called New Territories, Kowloon, which were held on a 99 year lease, and Hong Kong Island itself was  British Sovereign Territory, just as much as any other part of the globe which used to be painted red. Indeed, it is probable that the legal claim to Hong Kong Island was stronger than the disputed claim to the Falklands.

I do not, of course, blame Mrs thatcher for taking the pragmatic  decision not to declare war on  China in order to defend Hong Kong and its loyal citizens from subjugation to the Communist yoke,  but the full facts do put a different slant on the gung-ho decision to go to war with Argentina.

Similarly the recent death of the US General Norman  Schwartzkopf has generated paeans of praise for his successful leadership of western troops in the 1st Gulf War.  Little mention has been made of the fact that, a few years earlier, he had also stormed with his US troops  into the Caribbean island of Grenada. maybe not still  British Sovereign Territory, but still a member of the Commonwealth and one which retains  the Queen as Head of State.  Apparently, not only were Her Majesty's Ministers in the UK not consulted about this invasion, our "cousins" didn't even bother to inform them.

Again I do not criticise the British government for not declaring war on the U.S for this affront to Her Majesty 's subjects, but again the incident throws light on the inconsistency of our indignation, as well as the character of the "special relationship" with the US.

Now that the current Argentine president, this time democratically elected, has once again raised the issue of Argentine's claim to what they regard as their "Malvinas" our doughty prime minister has promised 100% backing to the islanders so long as they wish to remain British, an issue on which they are to hold a referendum shortly.  

One inconsistency that is being reported (see the Guardian leader, 4th January)    is that no such backing is being given to the Chagos Islanders, turfed out of their Sovereign British Territory  some forty years ago to make way for a US military base, and who would, if offered a referendum, undoubtedly vote overwhelmingly to go back to their homes.  I hope some MP,  keen on more honest politics,  will pick up on this  and prepare a parliamentary question to explore how Cameron will deal with this piece of hypocrisy.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Civic Pride

As part of my New Year celebrations I went with friends to see a stunning performance of The Nutcracker by Northern Ballet at Leeds Grand Theatre. Afterwards we went for a meal at a city centre restaurant.  I can't remember the restaurant's name but it was housed in an imposing building, overlooking City Square, which was formerly the Crown Post Office.  The current Post Office has now been shifted to a corner  of a nondescript shopping mall.

Closer to home, in Batley, what was formerly the Post Office, another impressive  building next to our Carnegie Library, and overlooking a market square which would be regarded as pretty were it in France or Greece, is now an Italian restaurant, and the Post Office has been shifted to a grubby building slightly off the town centre.

Then, a few weeks ago, orders were sent from the Department of Education that all schools are now  to be built to a utilitarian and cheeseparing tenplatee which I've just  learned to think of as "brutalist."

Our Victorian forebears were infused with national and civic pride which, among other things, was lavished on public buildings.  The splendid town halls of Leeds, Huddersfield, Sheffield,  Liverpool and Manchester are just some example, and Batley's isn't too bad, though it started life as a Mechanics' Institute.

 The movement of great state and local government  institutions from these imposing manifestations of pride is just another example of the public squalor which is now deemed necessary  to maintain private affluence.