Sunday 29 June 2014

Cameron contrives UK's humiliation

The Times is said  to have once headlined a story: "Fog in Channel -  Continent isolated."  A similar, doubtless apocryphal, story speaks of a proud mother watching her solider son marching past with his squad and remarking: "They're all our of step but Jim."

With similar self-centred blindness,  Cameron's defeat, by 26 to 2, in his opposition to the proposal to adopt Jean-Claude Juncker as the next president of the European Commission is hailed as a triumph by Britain's sycophantic right-wing press.  Truly a triumph of perception management.

Cameron's first, and now little reported, mistake was to take the Tory's MEPs out of the European Parliament's major Centre-Right grouping, the EPP, and into an obscure and very right wing party which I believe Nick Clegg once described as a "group of nutters."  Now, being no longer a member of the EPP Cameron  complains of their choice, when, of course, had his group remained a member he would have had the opportunity to influence it.

He and his supporting press chorus conveniently forget that the EPP is still the largest group in the European Parliament, and therefore their choice is certainly a move in the direction of making the EU more democratic, a direction which we claim to favour.

The second error is the unpleasant personal nature of Cameron's attacks.  Mr Junker may not be many people's first choice as guest at a dinner party, or even a kitchen supper,  but Cameron should realise that  the infantile  antics of House of Commons PMQs is not everybody's, or even most people's, preferred mode of conducting politics.

In Europe, coalitions are the norm and "quiet calm deliberation" is the preferred mode of making progress.

Much play is made for the need for reform of the EU.  Well, everything could be improved, and I could give a list. But in my view the EU works pretty well.  From the sublime avoidance of major wars to the less consequential by very pleasant and welcome cleaner beaches, cheaper mobile charges, strengthened equal pay legislation,  cleaner air, more recycling, better labour protection and enhanced social welfare, support of student and apprentice exchanges, to mention but a few, what's not to like?

Mr Cameron would be well advised to turn his attention to UK, which in my view is much more dysfunctional,  with its growing inequality, potentially explosive housing boom, increasing homelessness, and judicial system which far too often imprisons the innocent and seems unable to pin down some of its more richly resourced customers, again to name but a few.

These are the things of which Cameron is "in charge" and no perfidious foreigners are preventing him from tackling them.

Thursday 26 June 2014

In praise of . . . ECOTRICITY

Yesterday the Guardian had to retract its claim that  the Big Six energy suppliers were to be investigated for "alleged collusion" [ in fixing their prices ].  No they aren't.  It's "tacit co-rdination" which is to be investigated.  Collusion is illegal, but,apparently, tacit co-ordination isn't.

So there you are. A nice reminder that Adam Smith's dictum of 1776:  People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices," remains highly relevant.

For many  years  I've been buying my electricity, and for a few years now my gas as well, from Ecotricity.  Our affable meter reader told me that, on his round, there were only two of us. The other I happen to know: he's a former Liberal Democrat colleague who's now prominent in the local Green Party.  However, the meter reader tells me that there are now  "one or two more" of us dotted about.

Originally the Ecotricity deal was that they would match the price of the lowest of the Big Six in the area and, of course, put more effort into building and obtaining their energy form renewable sources than the others.   Now the deal is even better: they undercut the Big Six on price while at the same time obtaining  over two thirds of their power from renewable sources.  The national average is only just over 10%.

And things will soon  get even better.  Ecotricity spends £265 per customer per year on building new sources of renewable energy.  Their nearest rival in these stakes is SSE, which spends less than £100.  The others lag even further behind. With this level of investment Ecotricity aims to be able to provide 100% Green Energy by 2015.

For more information see

I assure readers I am not being paid by Econticity for this plug.  I also acknowledge that the information above  is from their own publicity, and am not so naive as to assume that it may not be just a teeny-weeny bit biased in their favour.

But transferring to Ecotiricty for all your energy supplies does seem to me to be a no-brainer.

If you do, and you quote RAFE-GBL7B I may get a voucher to spend at their Ectopia shop, which, among other things, sells fairly traded food.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Prescient Roy Jenkins

I have just finished John Campbell's very detailed and highly readable biography of Roy Jenkins.  Campbell admits to being a Jenkins fan, but even so appears to give a "warts and all" account.*

The published extracts in the Daily Mail  and  reviews in other newspapers  made great play of Jenkins's various sexual peccadilloes, but theses are a very minor part of the book: indeed hardly mentioned after the early chapters.  Clearly newspaper editors and reviewers were motivated by "what sells papers" rather than balance.

However, without claiming any sort of balance, I was particularly struck by the following:

1. (pp126/7). In an article for Tribune  in 1951 Jenkins advocated  the taxation of wealth.  By today's standards his proposed rates were draconian, ranging from 50% on "private fortunes" of £20 000  (approximately £1m at today's values) to 95% for £100 000 (£4m or so today ) and above.

The work recently published by the French economist Thomas Picketty  shows Jenkins was on the right lines. Vince Cable's proposed "mansion tax" is a timid step in the right direction.  More boldly, but still relatively modest, I should like, in addition, to see an end to the exemption from taxation of capital gains on principal private residences.

2.  (p638, in a footnote)  Jenkins is described as an "unapologetic Keynesian."  Whilst conceding that "crude Keynesianism" might have some limitations, "it was a great advance on crude pre-Keynesianism."  Jenkins hoped that  "the world economy [would not be] ruined by [Keynes's] denigrators. "

Well, Osborne and Co have had a good try.  As proof of the pudding, Obama's "stimulus bill" in the US, modest as it was, promoted a mild recovery there some three years ago, whilst Osborne's expansionary fiscal contraction has delayed Britain's faltering recovery until now.

3.  The final chapter of the book goes into some detail on Jenkins's attempts, with Paddy Ashdown, to promote a "project" which we Liberals understood to be  "realignment" of the left.  It is pretty clear, however,  that Jenkins, having brought the SDP out of the Labour party, now wanted to take the Liberal Democrats back into it, a rather more complete absorption than I suspect most Liberals, and I hope, Ashdown,  had in mind.

Tony Blair's succession to the Labour leadership was thought to enhance the possibility of the implementation of the project, and there was even speculation of a few Liberal Democrat seats in the cabinet, and PR, even if Labour  won an overall majority.  As it happened, Labour's majority was so overwhelming that Blair lost interest in the project, and in PR.

There's a challenge to counter-factual historians here.  Would the Labour governments of 1979 to 2010 been less disappointing  (to put it mildly) if Blair had kept his word? Would the rolling back of our welfare state under Cameron and Osborne, and the dire  effects of "expansionary fiscal contraction,"  have been avoided?

Over to you, Liberal History Group.

*  Campbell points out that Jenkins rarely wrote for the Guardian: they didn't pay enough!

Thursday 19 June 2014

Good-bye Paxman: no regrets.

I was unable to keep awake long enough to see Jeremy Paxman's final exit from Newsnight last night but I shed no tears at his departure.

He has made his reputation as an extremely well prepared and thorough interviewer, but is in fact a bully.  He knows that he can be as rude as he likes, both verbally and with exaggerated facial expressions (sneers, eyes rolled up to the ceiling), knowing full well that the interviewees, some would say victims, are unable to answer in kind.

Hitting those who are unable to hit back is the tactic of the bully from the playground onwards.

It is true that we need to move on from the days of my youth when public figures  were asked, reverentially and in hushed tones, if there was "Anything else you'd like to tell the public, Minister?"  It's also necessary to persuade those politicians and others  who are so clearly "on message" and monotonously repeating the mantra their party or departmental line, to deviate from their prepared script.

But surely this can be done without being rude. Democracy is government by discussion, which should be carried out in a civilised and respectful manner on both sides.  

Paxman and his producers may take the view that this would not produce exciting television.  But the audience for Newsnight has dropped by a third in the past few years.  Paxman and his imitators should reflect on this. 

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Knife crime: which twin is the Tory?

Forty-four years ago to the day, on the 18th June, 1970, I first stood for parliament in the Liberal interest.*  I can't remember now whether it was slightly before or after that general election that we used the campaign slogan "Which twin is the Tory?" a parody on an advertising slogan which promoted  the advantages of a home perm called "Toni" compared with a more expensive permanent wave  from a professional hair dresser.

Our point was that there was nothing much to choose between the Conservative and Labour parties, and the only real and progressive  alternative was the Liberal Party under the radical leadership of Jo Grimond.

Sadly, disillusioned voters can now complain, which good reason with regard to economic policy, that there's now nothing much to choose between all three major parties.

However, yesterday's vote in the House of Commons, when Labour and Conservative MPs combined  by 404 votes  to the Liberal Democrats'  53 to support mandatory jail sentences for anyone caught twice in possession of a knife, demonstrates that in social policy we continue the Liberal tradition of policies based on reason.

Whilst Labour seem just as much in hock to populism and tabloid sensationalism as are the Tories, Liberal Democrats point out that there are all sorts of reasons why someone could be caught with a knife for the second time, (not least having it thrust on them by an older or more astute gang member when the police are spotted,) and are prepared to trust our judges to make rational decisions in the light of the evidence they have heard.

That's what judges, juries and courts are for.

* Although we didn't actually win, we took comfort from the fact that we polled just over 15% of the vote and were one of only a handful of consistences where Liberals increased both our total vote and percentage share.  It was necessary to seek such consolations in those dark but optimistic times.  Could be something similar in 2015, but without the optimism.

Monday 16 June 2014

World Development Movement: what's in a name?

In the UK we have the rather shifty idea that changing the name of an organisation will  either eradicate the memory of past mishaps or breathe new life and zeal into it.  The classic example of the firmer is our Windscale Nuclear reactor, which after a  disastrous fire which subjected the surrounding area to nuclear contamination, had its name change to Sellafiled.  (Happily other nations haven't caught on, and Chernobyl remains Chernobyl, Fukushima Fukishima and Bhopal Bophal)

Of the latter the the most widespread example is in schools, where perfectly respectable former primary and secondary schools, of which the name tells you  all you need to know,  now disguise themselves  as Free School, Academies, Business and Enterprise Colleges and Lord only knows what.  Of course it is far easier for governors and "senior management teams" (formerly heads and deputies) to spend weeks haggling over names that to tackle the much more difficult but pertinent issues  of how to improve attendance, learning and behaviour.

Sadly this name changing disease has infected the voluntary sector. The World Development Movement was set up half a century ago to raise awareness of poverty in less developed countries and to highlight the issues which help to keep poor countries poor and rich countries rich. I have been proud to be a member and to campaign on its behalf almost from the beginning. and we've had some notable successes, most famously the Pergau Dam judgement,which highlighted the illegality of the Thatcher governments use of Britain's  aid budget to build a dam of questionable value in order to secure an arms deal.

Now, after fifty years of developing a highly respected and recognised  brand name  some whiz kids currently at the top of the organisation feel we should change it to Global Justice Now.  I have written to protest, and received a long explanation from the Director explaining why it's really a good idea, because some people think "Development" implies a wicked capitalist organisation out to exploit the weak.

 Our "subtitle, "Justice for the World's Poor," which is added to our logo (I would include that here to prove my point, but can't persuade my computer to copy it) makes it quite clear what we are about, and the possibility of confusion with an exploitiative multinational is negligilbe.  If there is confusion than it wouldn't take two minutes to point to our sub-title and explain what we are really about.

As for the proposed name, it is even more subject to misinterpretation.  "Justice" for many will imply judges, courts, imprisonment without trial, etc (all, of course already covered by Amnesty) and, even if it is recognised that we mean Economic Justice the addition of "Now" makes it a nonsense.  There is no way  that economic justice can be achieved "now", if ever.  With the best will in the world it will take years.

As with schools it is easier to haggle over names than to get on with the job for which WDM was created, and which remains as urgent as ever. I hope some WDM members will read this and put a stop to this silly waste of time and enegy. 

PS.  For a different dimension on the World Cup see:

Tuesday 10 June 2014

British Values and Michael Gove

Some twenty  years ago  (or maybe thirty - how time flies when you're retired) some politician was sounding off about how immigrants to Britain should adopt British values.  Someone with a foreign-sounding name wrote to the Guardian asking exactly which British values he and his compatriots should  adopt.  Was it having the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe?  Or putting their elderly relatives in homes and forgetting about them?  Or maybe sending their sons to rampage around Europe in support of their football teams whilst getting plastered on lager and vomiting in the gutters?*

Yesterday, in response to the Education Secretary Michael Gove's demand that all schools should not only  "respect" British values, but actually "promote" them, the Department of Education has  issued up-to-date clarification.  British values are: democracy, liberty and tolerance.

To claim that these values are uniquely, or even especially, British, is a ridiculous conceit.  They are surely universal values, upheld at least in theory by every member of the European Union and espoused by the United Nations.  Sadly, respect for human rights is curiously  absent from Gove's list.

The values of my childhood and adolescence were largely gathered from middle-grade literature.  I never took the  Boys Own Paper but, like many of my contemporaries,  voraciously consumed the Biggles adventures of W.E.Johns, the Scout and Sea Cadet stories of Percy F. Westerman, and of course the public school tales  which appeared weekly in the Wizard and Hotspur.  From these we learned that the clean- limbed British lad was expected to be modest, honest, have a penchant for the underdog, be a good sport and, of course, a good loser.

These values have been turned on their head.  Rather than being modest, unassuming and mildly self-deprecating, our young people today are expected to shout about their achievements, and  exaggerate them on their CVs, job and university application forms.  The ultimate ambition of many appears to be to achieve fame (or notoriety) via reality TV shows in which those with the loudest mouths win.  Quietly understated competence is out of fashion, winning is the goal,  and losers, good or otherwise, are just that - losers.

Then, of course, we were taught proudly that we had no need of officious legalities to ensure our integrity. An Englishman's** word was his bond.  Indeed, that was the motto of our world-renowned stock exchange.  A handshake was all that was required to secure trust. Today, however, lying and cheating are endemic, apparently throughout the financial sector, and not least in our political system, where hypocrisy, dissimulation and misrepresentation, called "perception management", are the expected norm.

Our penchant for the underdog has also gone by the board.  If we follow the example  of Mr Gove's government we are expected to  revile , denigrate and punish those less fortunate than the norm, especially if they have come from another culture in search of a better life or are fleeing from oppression. 

Finally, and perhaps trivially, good sportsmanship seems to have gone our of the window too.  I'm no sports fan but I understand our sporting heroes routinely "dive" in order to secure a penalty; prance, gestiulate and hug each other if they do something good; challenge the decisions of umpires and referees; and, even at cricket, fail to "walk" even if they are obviously out. What has happened to the modest nod to the crowd on scoring a goal, or casual wave of the bat when applauded for a century?

The restoration of the values of my childhood will not be achieved by government edict, inspections without notice from OFSTED or any other bullying, but by a change in our culture.  This needs  needs an example from the top.  How about less concern with  fancy salaries, an end to bonuses and more trust of people to do a fair job for a fair day's pay, and more honesty and modesty from our political elite?

*  Today's paper (11th June) reports that we also have the highest level of obesity in Europe: 64% of British adults are classified as being obese or overweight.

**Although not specifically included, we assumed that this applied to English women, and the Scots, Welsh and Irish as well.  The Irish also had charm.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Happy (re)Birthday, Keynes

I am grateful for Prayer for the Day (about 05h43 on BBC Radio 4) for pointing our that today, 5th June,  is Keynes's birthday.

For almost half a century Keynesianism has been "out of fashion" in British and American universities.  I remember when the rot set in, in the early 70s when a lecturer in our Saturday morning three times a year voluntary in-service training sessions organised by our local Economics Association mentioned the new obsession with the Quantity Theory of Money coming from Chicago and dubbed its follwers the "Freedmaniacs"

Unfortunately the Keynesian levers  in public policy were becoming less effective, largely through abuse - used for winning elections rather than trying to moderate the swings of the trade cycle.  In Britain the Labour Government, with Denis Healey as Chancellor, was the first to abandon them in 1975 and adopt monetarism. In the universities econometrics also became fashionable, students were bombarded with fancy algebra divorced from reality, and one after another definitions of the money supply were introduced to prove that control of it was absolutely the only way to control the economy, which should otherwise be left to the magic of unbridled market forces.

Astonishingly what has been described as this  "intellectual talibanism" has survived even the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent world economic crisis.    Light began to dawn towards the end of 2013 when students at Manchester University (what better place for an economic revolt?) complained that their lectures never even mentioned the crash or attempted to analyse its causes, but continued to churn out the same old algorithms, divorced from reality. These studnets set up their own Post Crash  Economics Society, called for an end to the prevailing monetarist hegemony and organised their own evening classes to discuss bubbles, panics and crashes.

Despite something of a stet-back in Manchester (I believe one the rebellious lecturers has not had his contract renewed, and one course introduced into the official curriculum has been discontinued) by May this year their revolution had spread to economics faculties in 19 different countries.  We could be on the way back to a a subject called "political economy" which relates to other social sciences,  recognises that we humans are an odd lot who do not always act according to mathematical rules, takes note of what is actually happening in the world and, when the facts change, changes the theories.

Unfortunately clever students may still be tempted to ignore this real world and try to make a fast buck using High Frequency Trading (HFT) in the City and on Wall Street

Tuesday 3 June 2014

The case against HS2

Christian Wolmar is hoping to be Labour's candidate for the next election of Mayor of London.  This may excuse the large amount of London detail which gives his article in the London Review of Books, "What's the point of HS2?" a  somewhat discursive nature.    However, extracted from his attempt to show his familiarity with the London scene, the meat of his arguments against HS2 are powerful and I summarise them as follows:

1.  The original argument for HS2 was environmental: that it would cut down on carbon emissions. However, given that 57% of travellers would be transferring from the conventional rail, which because slower uses less fuel and so is less environmentally damaging, and only 16% would transfer from car or plane, then the high-speed line is "as likely to increase carbon consumption as reduce it."

2.  HS2 connects with only a limited number of cities, but will take passengers from the trains that now also connect with other centres.  Services to these other centres may therefore be reduced or not maintained at all, thus  reducing "interconnectivity."

3. The fastest Virgin service from London to Birmingham  takes 82 minutes: HS2 will reduce this to 49 minutes.  Even at the 2011 estimate of £17b this is a very expensive way of cutting 33 minutes off the travel time.  (This argument was quickly ridiculed and dropped) .

4.  The next argument in favour was based on capacity.  Trains on the West Coast mainline are apparently very overcrowded.  However, this is the result of Virgin's pricing policy, with massive differences between peak time and advance purchase off peak tickets (£113 to £19 for Euston to Manchester).  Long distance peak time trains  leaving Euston  are on average only 52% full.

5.  The economic case for HS2 is based on  a gross overestimation of the likely growth in demand, using  the extrapolation of present rates of increase  for the next 20 years.  There is a track record  (pun is mine, not Wolmar's) for this among railway buffs: HS1 was predicted to carry 25 million international  passengers  by 2006 - it did not reach even 10 million until 2013.

6.  The cost-benefit analysis used rates the value of  time lost whilst travelling at £36.96 per hour for railway passengers (compared with £44.69 for someone in a taxi and only £17 for someone on a bike!  Cameron beware.)  Whatever the rate, this ignores the fact that, with modern electronics, businessmen can and do work on trains.  In fact, shortening the journey time may actually reduce businessmen's productivity.

7.  The Department of Transport demands that the scheme should reach at least a minimum benefit:cost ratio of 2:1.  At the present estimate it is 2.7:1, but only 1.7:1 for the first London-Birmingham stretch.  By contrast the Department of the Environment requires a benefits:cost ratio of 8:1 for flood defences.

8. HS2 was originally meant to connect with Heathrow airport.  This has now been abandoned, but the route is still determined by this earlier  aspiration.

9.  HS2 was also originally meant to connect to HS1.  This too has now been abandoned and travellers from the Continent will have to trundle their luggage for half a mile along the Euston Road, to get from St Pancras to Euston Station.

10.  The final argument is that HS2 will reduce the North-South  Divide. But what centres outside London need is "interconnectivity"  between themselves. Since HS2 connects with only Birmingham,and eventually with Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, and often with "parkway "stations requiring road journeys to city centres, this is no great improvement.  Indeed, interconnectivity could even be reduced. (See point 2)

 I apologise to Mr Wolmar if I have distorted or misrepresented any of his arguments, and urge those interested to look at the original article (link above)

I claim no railway or transport expertise, but my own view (not  based solely on my experiences of the overcrowded Trans-Pennine line) is that if it does anything at all, HS2 is more likely to suck energy and enterprise out of the Northern Cities and turn to whole country into a suburb of London.

Wolmar mentions as an alternative the work of "two experienced engineers, Quentin Macdonald and Colin Elliff."  I have met Mr Macdonald, a fellow Liberal Democrat, heard him present their  ideas and  find them very convincing. Their scheme, High Speed UK (HSUK), achieves 11 times the connectivity of HS2 because their new build railway acts as a new high speed spine to the existing network, interconnecting with it no less than 55 times.  The result is that for intercity journeys within the geographic scope of HSUK, journey times are reduced by an average of 40%.  Because they need less new build railway and less tunnelling HSUK is 25% cheaper than HS2 and avoids the Chilterns AONB.  Their proposals are clearly set out on their website: