Friday 31 May 2013

Pilgrim's Regress: UK faces both ways.

Our politicians and media are outraged that the wicked Spanish (and possibly the Portuguese as well) are refusing to honour the Ehic card (which used to be the E111 form) which guarantees access to health services at the same level of nationals to innocent and trusting British citizens travelling within the European Union.  What perfidy.

At the same time our government is being arraigned before the European Court of Justice for its failure to honour the EU commitment that social security benefits should be available to to all EU citizens working in other EU member countries on the same basis as nationals. Our Secretary of State,  Ian Duncan Smith, vows that he will "fight every step of the way" to preserved Britain's practice, initially introduced by Labour, of treating other European nationals differently.

It is now a commonplace that our politicians routinely blame "Europe" for rules against which the media stirs up antipathy.  The rules regarding equality of access to social security were agreed by all 27 member states, including Britain. The government and media are forever spouting about British "values."  What about an Englishman's word being his bond? 

And we should also remember that equal access to social security benefits are a valuable safeguard for the thousands of  British citizens working in other EU countires, just as much as the Ehic card, if honoured, safeguards  UK tourists.

Monday 27 May 2013

No to the snoopers' charter

I have just returned from  a week's walking holiday in the Isle of Anglesey (well worth a visit) so was too busy yesterday trying to tidy my garden to take much notice of the news.  However, my friend John Cole caught an interview with Ming Campbell which prompted him to write the following letter.

Dear Sir Ming,

I have just heard you being interviewed on the "World at One"   Sunday 26th May.  The topic was the possible responses to the murder of the Drummer in Woolwich and whether "the snoopers' charter" should be pulled from the long grass and enacted.

I e-mail in order to offer my congratulations and thanks that you took a considered, proportionate and liberal line in response to some fairly robust questioning.

You will recall that the interview included a conversation with Michael Howard, who was fully supportive of extending surveillance.

The interviewer further made the point that Labour luminaries such as John Reid and Alan Johnson had lined themselves up in favour of an extension of surveillance - and hence were on the same page as Michael Howard - as is Lord Carlisle.  From this it was implied that it is only Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats who are holding up the show.  (I thought your comments in relation to Lord Carlisle's contribution were beautifully measured)

If, prior to today, a Liberal (or Liberal Democrat) party did not exist, then it would have been necessary to invent it. Someone - or some party - needs to stand up in the defence of our freedoms and human rights.  Henry Porter in today's "Observer" makes the liberal case very eloquently.

So, to repeat John's comments, if the Liberal Democrat Party didn't exist we'd have to invent us.  The Labour and Conservative spokespersons seem to be going out of the way  to emphasises that, but for the Liberal Democrats, the "snoopers' charter" would be implemented and the media seem to relish emphasising this.

This will doubtless do us electoral harm, as the numbers who give  the preservation of civil liberties a high priority are probably quite small.  But that is often the price for being right.  As the  adage attributed to Pastor Niemoller puts it:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me

Friday 17 May 2013

Ten reasons to be (politically) cheerful.

A friend who has spent much of his life campaigning for the  Labour Party, and then what he believes to be truer socialism, has now given up in despair and dismisses as pointless  every attempt at progressive political initiatives.  He is the Private Fraser of the proletariat::  "We're all doomed."

Before I pluck up the courage to challenge him to think of at least three things to be pleased about, I thought I should first of all try to think of at least ten of my own. Here they are:

  1. I live in a country to which people want to come rather than one from which they want to leave, or even escape.
  2. * I can go wherever I want in my country without the permission of state officials and without having to carry documents to prove to them who I am (and, by implication, that they have given me permission to exist.)
  3. ** We now have a fixed-term parliament.  The absurd convention by which one of the contenders can fire the starting gun for an election when s/he thinks s/he has the best chance of winning has been abolished, and not before time.
  4. **  My retirement pension is now linked to wage inflation, price inflation or 2.5%, whichever is the highest.  Post Mrs Thatcher it was linked to price inflation, which was often well below wage inflation, so pensioners fell behind in the share of national prosperity most had worked to create.
  5. **  Income tax has become more progressive, with the marginal rate raised to 45%.  Yes, I know Gordon Brown  put it up to 50%, and in my view it should have stayed there, but Labour  were in power with massive majorities for 13 years, and  for all  but the last four weeks of their government the marginal rate stood at a lowly 40%.
  6. * Tax evasion and avoidance by wealthy individuals and, particularly, multinational companies, have moved up the political agenda and there are real signs that governments are going to try to tackle them. If  all individuals and companies  paid their fair share of taxes we could expand the welfare state and defeat Beveridge's "Five Giants" without inconveniencing anybody.
  7. ** Although there are disputes about how much is "new money," the pupil premium ensures that more of the education budget goes to the pupils and schools in most need.
  8. *  The government is sticking to its promise to devote 0.7% of our National Income to assisting the development of the poorest countries.  Again, about time too, as the promise was first made back in the 1960s.
  9. ** Our rights and liberties are still protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, which British lawyers helped to write, at the instigation of, among others,  Winston Churchill..
  10. ** Shared paternity and maternity leave gives greater opportunity for new parents to jump off the consumerist treadmill for a while and devote themselves to the important things in life.
*    At least partly due to the presence of Liberal Democrats in government.
**  Mostly or even entirely due to the presence of Liberal Democrats in government.

I should be interested to hear of any further additions to my list.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

The next coalition negotiations

Former  SDP/Liberal Democrat but now Blairite Labour Peer Andrew Adonis has written a book, "Five days in May," in which he describes, from the Labour Party perspective, the hapless discussions with his former party on the remote  possibility of a Lib-lab coalition  after the 2010 election. Based on his experience of the total unpreparedness of the Labour Party for such discussions, he very sensibly suggests that all parties should prepare their positions for negotiation in the event that the next election produces a balanced parliament in which no party has an over-all majority.

Fine as far as it goes, but in my view it is equally necessary  to dispense with the expectation that, when there is a change of government , the old prime minister leaves No 10 by the back door and the new one moves in by the front on the very day after the election, or as soon as possible thereafter.

In his interview with the Guardian to publicise his book, Lord Adonis speaks of "the extent to and market  pressures  forced a rate of deliberation  that now seems simply reckless"  during the coalition negotiations of 2010. 

How true, but even when there is no change of government, it is foolish and unnecessary to expect the prime minister, old or new, to make crucial decisions regarding the composition of the next government whilst in a state of exhaustion after a gruelling election.  After all, in the  the United States three months is routine whatever the outcome.  In many counties when a balanced parliament ensues negotiations can continue for months without any breakdown in confidence. 

In Britain I suggest we now adopt a convention by which the former government, defeated or not, continues as a "caretaker" period of at least 10 days after an election.. Even when there is a "decisive" result this will give time for the wining party leader to form or reform the new government after proper reflection.

After a balanced result there will be time for more careful consideration of proposed coalition agreements  and so avoid the obvious flaws in the present one: in particular the assumption by Liberal Democrats, understandable but now seen to be naive,  that in agreeing to put forward proposals for both electoral and Lords reform the Tories would actually vote for them.

In addition to making the contacts suggested by Lord Adonis, Liberal democrat  "apparatchiks" should now be working with those of the other parties to seek agreement to such a convention, which should be announced well before May 2015, and apply whatever the outcome.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Immigration and Employment

 Nigel Farage  insists that Ukip is not recist, merely concerned for the efects that immigration has job opportunities for we Brits.

Well,  I suppose there are a number of high-flying bankers, including Adair Turner perhaps, who are a bit miffed that the Governorship of the Bank of England has gone to a migrant.  However, Mark Carney is White and for all I know may also be Anglo-Saxon and Proetestant,  and maybe Canadians don't count in Ukip's lexicon of migrants: more like kissing counsins. 

Similarly there may be some top-notch business executives who wince when a lucrative chief executive post goes to a foreigner, but this cohort use the international nature of their calling to justify the enormous “compensation” they demand, so they can’t expect to have it both ways. (Polly Toynbee has repeatedly pointed out, though, that the international demand for British executives is not all that high).

The international market of academic posts is surely seen as a plus rather than a minus, and UK academics are in a strong position in this market because so much of the World's higher education is in English.

At the more modest levels the situation is by no means as clear-cut as Ukip and the tabloids would like us to think. Immigrants are, by definition, much more geographically mobile that native workers. They have, often temporarily, cut their ties with their home countries and so are unlikely to be particularly bothered as to where they work in the UK. So they take jobs, sometimes for short periods only, where native workers, with perfectly understandable family ties and local connections, may be reluctant to move.

Immigrant workers are for the most part young and healthy so make few demands on the welfare and health services, and probably pay their taxes much more dutifully than some international companies. They add to demand so create jobs (plenty Polish grocery stores have sprung up in my area in the past few years, adding further to the cornucopia of Asian outlets and restaurants which have been established for much longer) and many repatriate part of their earnings to relatives back home; a plus for our balance of payments (which no longer receives anything like the attention it should.)

There can be no doubt that some migrants take jobs which could have gone to native workers, but the major cause of domestic unemployment is lack of demand, which the government should be, but is not, tackling. Rather the reverse.

Two positive economic actions which should be taken by the government in relation to migrant workers are:

a) Much stricter regulation of the ominously named “gangmasters.”
b) Much more energetic policing to ensure the payment of the minimum wage, if not the living wage.

Maybe these will  feature in today's Queen's Speech. 

Monday 6 May 2013

Ukip councillors

So, the United Kingdom Independence Party  has won 147 seats on our county councils.  I wonder what they're going to do?  I've never served on a council, but I understand that the work, though important, is mostly tedious and time-consuming, and that  flashes of political excitement are rare

These 147 proud bearers of the Ukip standard will soon find that their county councils do not have the power to withdraw from the European Union, or even call a referendum on it.  I suppose they could, in a fit of pique, refuse to accept any of the  EU's regional development funds.  Nor have the county councils the power to to send immigrants "home."  Indeed if they tried that in this area they would find that to the overwhelming majority of the people they appear to be unhappy about this is home, and they have thick Yorkshire accents to prove it.  And the 147 can't even impose their regressive "flat rate" taxation ideas (shades of Mrs Thatcher and the Poll Tax?) as the only tax coucnils can vary, the council tax, is tiered.

A few years ago there was a similar wave of support for the British National Party (BNP) and a few, I think three, were elected to our council.   They soon found that the council's responisilites had litttle to do with their prejucices and, I believe, made few contriutions, soon stopped attending their committees, and either failed to stand again or lost their seats.

With European elections due next year on a crude form of proportional representation I expect the  surge of fascination with Ukip will last at least until then.  As Daniel Trilling in the New Statesman puts it, their leader Nigel Farage brilliantly articulates their saloon-bar version of politics:

  you can’t say what you think in your own country any more, grasping politicians bend over backwards for minorities but do little for the majority, taxpayers are being leeched off by benefit scroungers, and so on.

but on the ground his foot-soldiers will soon find that local politics are neither to their taste nor relevant to their cause, and will fade away as did their BNP predecessors. 

That does not mean to say that Ukip will not have performed a useful function.  There is a   "clowns in British politics" syndrome and it is  exmaplified by Prime Minister's Questions and similar parliamentary slapstick, which spills over into petty  point scoring in the media. The way poicitics is at present conducted in the UK deservedly leaves a large number of people indiferent and nourishes the belief that the parties are "all the same", that none of them is to be trusted,  nor is even capable of changing the way things are.

The remedy is not for the major parties to mimic Ukip but to engage in serious, honest and constructive debate.  Ukip have made progress because neither the Conserviatives nor  Labour have ever articulated the positve case for Europe.  Rather both have fallen into the lazy  but populist trap of using the EU as a conveninet whipping boy to blame for any unpopular measures or events.

The Ukip surge provides an excellent opportunity for Cameron and Miliband to join forces  with Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats and, rather than trying to match Ukip's xenophobia, make the positive case for constructive engagement in the greatest political adventure of the last 60 years.

Thursday 2 May 2013

Local (?) Election Campaign

There are no local elections in my area today.  It should be the year to elect our county council but it was abolished by Mrs Thatcher.  That demagogue for democracy didn't like what the county councils were doing (most had Labour majorities) so she finished them off  "at a stroke."  The most well-known  victim was the Greater London Council  (GLC) lead by Ken Livingstone, but all the other Metropolitan County Councils went as well, including ours in  West Yorkshire, heir to the great West Riding County Council and its internationally admired  Director of Education, Sir Alec Clegg.

So the local election campaigns have more or less passed my by.  I missed the BBC's "World at One" interview with Ed Miliband on Monday, in which, when asked, seven times I believe,  if cutting VAT now would mean  short term increase in borrowing, he failed to answer.  He's since admitted that was a mistake.

I caught all of Nick Clegg's interview on Tuesday, in which he batted reasonably well, apart from one reference to "clearing  up the mess left behind." At least he didn't say "left behind by Labour" so perhaps that's a useful step in the direction of "left behind by the havoc resulting from the neocon deregulation of the financial markets introduced by the Tories."

I caught the tail end of David Cameron's interview, in which he protested that not all lhis cabinet were "posh boys from Eton" - William Hague went to a comprehensive.

But what have these issues, weighty and otherwise, got to do with local government? In partiular how are local councils,  going to continue to provided decent services, some of  which they are legally bound to do, whilst bearing the brunt of the austerity cuts imposed on them  by Westminster?

These interviews, and most of the media reporting  (A Ukip candidate has been sacked for giving what looks like a Nazi salute - he says he was gesturing for his mobile phone) relate to national rather than local issues.  Why do our national politicians connive in this?  Why don't the party leaders say:  "No, the people you should be interviewing about local elections are our leaders on the Local Government Association."?

We shall not get decent local democracy as long as  the ego-trippers in the Westmister Bubble highjack the publicity as well as the powers that rightly beong to our local politicians.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

More hints for Michael Gove from Central Africa.

Whilst rummaging amongst my MalaĆ”ian memorabilia for the previous post I came across the following.  Hastings Banda was the dictator at the time.

Ministry Circular 8/22 of 27/7/72.

Following His Excellency the Life President's direction that the progressive and modern methods of teaching and practice should cease forthwith  in all sxchools and colleges it has become necessaty to give guidance  . . . .in order to ensure that all teaching and learning is done in the traditional manner. . . 

. .  . His Excellency the Life President expressed dissatisfaction with the modern approach to teaching.  Much concern was felt  that there had been a fall off in educational standards . . . because of progressive methods  of teaching and organising classroom work. . .


a) Modern approach.

Here a child is allowed to work alone, or with other children, on what he finds interesting.  What he does not find interesting he is allowed to drop.  He is not supposed to be told exactly what he should do.  The teacher is supposed to stimulate interest in worthwhile things.  For example, Mathematics, or Science, arise from various situations.  Except for occasional story-telling, singing and movement, class instruction is out.  

The curriculum  is "child  centred."  The needs of the children  are never expected to be subjected  to that of the adult.  The consequence is supposed to be that children will evolve an interest in their studies, a free initiative, spontaneity, curiosity, etc. 

 In practice the majority of teachers have, however, lost control of the situation.  The pupils have continued to gain an upper hand and order and discipline  have been steadily deteriorating.  Knowledge has been unsystemised  and linked in rather a desultory fashion.  As a result standards have fallen in schools where  this approach has been adopted..

b)  Traditional Approach.

Unlike the modern approach there is no room for  permissiveness in the traditional approach to teaching.  The children are not permitted to do whatever they want.  Learning is a mastery of the subject matter.  Knowledge is systematised  and syllabuses and text books are logically organised and expected to cover the subject-matter adequately.  Nothing is left to chance and teachers issue clear instructions in connection with all aspects  of learning.  Learning being a master of the subject matter, pupils  are highly disciplined  and the teaching is done thoroughly.

In accordance with His Excellency the Life President's directive the Ministry has taken steps. . .(A)ll modern mathematics in primary and secondary schools should be stopped and all modern mathematics text-books withdrawn forthwith.

 I'm happy to offer the above to our Department of Education and Skills free of charge.  Save them a lot of time.