Thursday, January 31, 2013


So Much for the Good Times

It's taken my a while to get used to Aditya Chakrbortty in the Guardian but yesterday's piece was a bit of a revelation as well as a clear analysis of just how badly our economy has fared since the late 1990s. It is comforting at times to think these were the glory days, when we all had lots of dosh. But 'Chaks' enlightens us with his expert knowledge. Or rather Manchester University's Centre for Research and Socio-Cultural Change, whose findings reveal that between 1998-2007, the private sector created almost no net new jobs north of Watford.

But surely we were prosperous? No. During the Thatcher and  Blair years 'the amount Britons took out of in housing equity withdrawal outstripped GDP growth'.

'under our two most popular prime ministers since the second world war, the UK was as much housing bubble as actual econom.'

Between 3003-8 the economy grew 11% but for typical British workers outside London, their disposable incomes fell.

But surely the fat cats' did well? Too right they did!. Whilst sales by FTSE companies increased 2.7% pedr year the salaries of FTSE company directors increased by 26% annually above inflation. Instead of directing funds into productive new industries, banks and businesses fuelled ever bigger consumer bubbles and their bosses lined their own pockets. 

So those good old days were a fantasy; we were let down by the private sector banks and businesses and, of course by our glorious peoples' Chancellor, Gordon Broon..

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Cameron's Great Gamble

Most things worth doing involve an element of risk, though sensible people seek to minimize dangerous imponderables. Politics is steeped in risk, but David Cameron has become known as someone characterised by caution rather than a reckless Casino gambling mindset. Yet, by his speech yesterday, he might well have succeeded in placing most of his own and his party's (not to mention his country's) chips on that referendum square. Should he win in 2015 he has promised to renegotiate the terms on which Britain's membership is based and then to present the results to be voted on in a referendum. If the answer is in the negative then a British exit will ensue.

In one bound he has ticked several political boxes. He has delighted his right-wing euro-sceptics 81 of whom voted for an in-out referendum back in November 2011; one of that number now welcomes Cameron as the 82nd 'rebel'. Oh dear! Does he fully realise what he has let himself in for? Martin Kettle in an excellent piece today, thinks the immortal words of Robert Walpole are relevant  when receiving the cheers of the crowd after declaring war on Spain in 1739: 'They now ring their bells, but soon they will wring their hands.'. He also quotes the wickedly perceptive words of Tony Blair
"The British people may have their prejudices, but they get very uneasy when their politicians start to share them."

Lets just list the things which could go wrong for David Cameron as a result of his speech.

1. He has to win the election in 2015. Right now that looks a tall order, especially as he is denied the 20 odd seats redrawing of constituency borders would have delivered.

2. assuming he cannot win outright, he may have to form a coalition again which might well frustrate his objective. Clegg suggests he would still work with Cameron even after his speech but I doubt his party would and I doub Clegg can be taken seriously on this point anyway.

3. The 26 other countries are unlikely to agree to Cameron's agenda of repatriated powers. He has tested the patience of other members for too long for them to feel generous towards us and they m ight just be happy to let us leave- an outcome Cameron certainly does not favour.

4. How much of his demands will Cameron's party accept as sufficient? half? three quarters? All of them? 

5. If not sufficient how will his party react? The Tory party might well split and face terminal decline.

6. What if the uncertainty caused by all the talk about the forthcoming referendum helps ruin the UK economy? Sterling is already weakened by the speech and it seems likely we are already in a triple dip recession.

7. Will the obsession with Europe lose the election for Conservatives as it did in 2001? Micheal Ashcroft has already warned it easily could.

8. What if the 'irreconcilable' core of the sceptics refuse to campaign for a yes and in the event of it being delivered, break away to join UKIP?

9. What if public opinion is dead set against leaving the EU? a recent poll in The Guardian suggested opinion has shifted against any departure and this could continue.Voters do not think the EU is the most important political issue compared with the economy, public services and so forth.

All in all its a huge gamble. Cameron will receive the plaudits of his biliously anti-EU party, will maybe spike Nigel Farage's guns (though I doubt it) and be praised by the  quisling right-wing press, but I reckon there is so much to go wrong between now and any possible referendum date, that I wouldn't put any bets on sod' law not doing for him, his career and his party with him.       


Friday, January 18, 2013


On the EU Tory MPs Have to Say 'We are all Bastards Now'

Poor old John Major has been unfairly labelled a 'weak' prime minister largely because of his right-wing euro-sceptics. When I interviewed John Biffen in the mid 1990s, he reckoned Major 'a very good PM but unfortunate in being in Number 10 at a time when the Conservative Party was ungovernable. Most of us can remember his slightly petulant rant against the 'bastard' euro-sceptics in his Cabinet. Whether the party is approaching a similar state is yet to be revealed but an article in the Economist this week gives us some useful clues.

The journal analyses the different schools of Tory thought which exist on the EU

Europhiles: these are thin on the ground and are limited to Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine and maybe a few more too frightened to declare themselves.

Diplomats This lot want to remain in the EU, fearing that access would be barred to a UK no longer within EU bounds.

Dealers: These seek to re-negotiate terms but are willing to leave if the EU refuses. Fresh Start, recently formed tends to favour this posiiton and has 150 members.

Hikers: This group, numbering maybe 30-40 want to leave right now.

Globalists: these Tories, including some Cabinet members, want Britain's future not in Europe but in new links with Asia  and the developing world.

The Economist might have added that the first two categories art least, favour an in-out referendum on the EU. The weight of opinion in the Conservative Party is forcing Dave to be much more hostile to the EU than he is minded to be. Moreover, he is being assailed by advice from Obama and Merkel plus other EU heads, to row back from any initiative leading to the risk of a UK exit. In addition traditional Tory supporters, the business community are solidly opposed to anything like and exit. And I haven't even mentioned Nick Clegg.

How does Dave square the circle? Search me, but he ought to realise two things: only 3% of voters in a recent poll rated the EU as a major problem and that 80% of referendums end up reinforcing the status quo.  


Monday, January 14, 2013


Ministers and Mandarins in Coalition Clashes

The book written by Robert Hazell and his colleagues on how the Coalition works in practice was based on interviews with participants during the first 18 months of the administration. It reported all was going rather swimmingly within departments. Civil servants were succeeding in working with ministers from two very different parties and all was harmony and agreement throughout the whole gamut of Coalition activity.

Must confess I was a bit suspicious. All those arguments on welfare, AV, the Lords and that tiny little smidgeon of a disagreement: the EU and no problems? All that change mooted to conservative mandarins? Well it was only the first 18 months and civil servants never tell the truth when interviewed but slavishly default to the COI version of our democracy: elected masters and appointed civil servants. But today's Times takes the lid off what has really been going on.
The Time’s two page spread collated views from a wide range of luminaries including Tony Blair (advises Asian heads of government not to follow the British model), Andrew Adonis (‘We have a non expert civil service, characterised by very poor training’); Margaret Hodge (‘there’s a pervading sense that it is not their money…they escape responsibility’); Steve Hilton (‘When you try and make change happen, that’s not easy’); Jonathan Powell (‘The Civil Service is much too closed’)  and Peter Hennessy ( ‘There’s too much management speak. If the Sermon on the mount had been written in Whitehall, none of us would be Christian’).

The trigger for much of this occasionally bilious comment was the recent series of mistakes made over the West Coast Mainline Rail Franchise disaster, the errors made in the ‘omnishambles’ 20012 budget and other mishandlings like that of the ash die-back tree disease. And Sir Keremy Heywood- see above in midst of the Cabinet- scarcely impressed with his evidence on his investigation, at the PM's request into Plebgate; seems he scarcely moved a muscle to really find out what went on and his ignorance of all aspects of the case was astonishing.

The Coalition ministers worry that the reputation for incompetence such mistakes have given has tainted the administration unfairly as civil service shortcomings have mostly been to blame.

‘According to the goverment’s own figures’ says The Times, ‘only about a third of major projects have been delivered on time and to budget. Disagreements are simmering about the way in which Britain should b e run and the scale and speed of reform. A breach of trust has developed in some departments between ministers and mandarins.’   Lord (Peter)Hennessy, doyen of Whitehall watchers, said:

 ‘It’s as bad as I’ve ever known it. The governing marriage between th4e civil service and the politicians is in real trouble.’

Friday, January 11, 2013


Reducing Crime: More Prisons or Less Lead?

Ian Birrell used to write speeches for David Cameron and is clearly a member of that small minority: a thinking Tory. His piece in The Guardian today focuses on prisons He praises the reduction in prisoners over the past year by 3000, though apportioning credit to Ken Clarke, not his hard line recidivist successor, Chris Grayling.

Grayling, is building a new super prison out in the sticks somewhere, suggesting he thinks it will help cut crime>

.As Grayling recognises, there is plenty of evidence that prison is among the most grotesque public service failures. In England and Wales we spend £45,000 a year on each inmate, far more than the fees for a public school like Eton, yet almost half reoffend within a year of leaving the prison gates; in some jails, seven out of ten end up back behind bars. The National Audit Office estimates that the cost of reoffending by recently released prisoners could be as high as £13bn, a crude financial calculation that excludes so many stories of human misery.

'We will suffer the consequences' predicts Birrell. But not if one surprising piece of scientific research proves correct.

This might seem at first sight a ludicrous suggestion: that traces of lead ingested into the bodies of young children, could play a role in the incidence of crime. George Monbiot in The Guardian, 8th January 2013 was himself skeptical:
 “Studies between cities, states and nations show that the rise and fall in crime follows, with a roughly 20-year lag, the rise and fall in the exposure of infants to trace quantities of lead. But all that gives us is correlation: an association that could be coincidental.”

But having studied the thoroughly respectable academic papers on the subject, Monbiot, writes:  

“The curve is much the same in all the countries these papers have studied. Lead was withdrawn first from paint and then from petrol at different times in different places (beginning in the 1970s in the US in the case of petrol, and the 1990s in many parts of Europe), yet despite these different times and different circumstances, the pattern is the same: violent crime peaks around 20 years after lead pollution peaks. The crime rates in big and small cities in the US, once wildly different, have now converged, also some 20 years after the phase-out.”.

Clearly more research will need to be undertaken but, the sudden fall in crime on both sides of the Atlantic has never been adequately explained, even by the most learned criminologists. Could this be the explanation? If it is we might just have to await the healing process of lead exclusion from our environment rather than rely on super prisons and other counter-productive measures.


Wednesday, January 09, 2013


Clegg the King-Maker in 2015? I Don't Think So

After the terrible press the mid-term report received, it was refreshing to read the defence produced today by that doyen of commentators, Simon Jenkins.

Two leaders who have serious differences on many topics still stand shoulder to shoulder on essentials and seem likely to do so for a full five years. They have carved out areas of agreement and disagreement and, like political grownups, have seen that they publicly agree on what currently matters. This is mature politics.On any showing, this has been a rare period of political discipline. The cliche that turkeys do not vote for Christmas is easily deployed: an early election would certainly have hurt first the Lib Dems and now the Tories

Jenkins.praises Clegg's role as party lader, keeping his party in the coalition 'without serious unrest'. He also praises how well the two principals have got on with each other: 'Imagine how long a 'marriage' of Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown would have lasted.' He also praises his forebearance in accepting a range of measures which he must have found distasteful. He sees Clegg's refusal to grant boundary re-drawings- worth 25 seats to the Tories- as a major reason why a Labour return to government is now more likely. Cameron's unwitting help to UKIP also strengthens Lib Dem seats vulnerable to Tory take-over in 2015.

But Jenkins is surely wrong in concluding:

"That, in turn, increases the chance of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, and thus Clegg's survival in office.

I cannot see any way in which Labour would make a coalition deal with Clegg. Labour supporters, not to mention MPs have been incensed by the sight of Clegg, wisely nodding in agreement as Cameron has attacked Labour's record, leadership and much else. A Lab-Lib-Dem coalition might well emerge out of the 2015 election but it will need a Vince Cable, or an exonerated Chris Huhne to be in charge on such an occasion. 

Friday, January 04, 2013


Coalition Conflict and the Chances of new Coalitions

A perceptive piece in the Economist, this week delves into the politics of the coalition. It notes how the two parties, once aiming at a 'not just a new government but a new politics', are now openly 'differentiating', no longer trying to pretend they agree, when they so clearly do not:

'The brave new politics has given way to a cold war between the two sides."

But a rather odd feature has emerged. Whilst party members bicker and point accusing fingers on the benches of the Commons, ministers in Whitehall collaborate within a 'strikingly businesslike atmosphere.'

Conflicts are carefully controlled: last year Mr Clegg even discussed his mutiny on boundary change with Mr Cameron before announcing it. In a sense, coalition discord is the opposite of the internal feud that preoccupied the last Labour government. Supporters of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown fought much harder behind the scenes than in public.

According to The Economist, the Lib Dems aim to paint themselves as " ther conscience of the coalition, restraining Tories from 'Looking after the super-rich while ignoring the needs of ordinary people.' For their part Tories blame their partners for the sluggish economy by resisting deregulation and further expenditure cuts. 

This poses the intriguing question of: if Coalition  MPs disagree so desperately with their ministerial leaders, will they break up way before the election? It's possible of course, but this would create a minority Conservative government at the mercy of a probable coalition (yes, that's the word) of Labour and Lib Dem MPs; I doubt they would risk such a consequence so will seek to keep the deal alive until the very alst minute. 

What I do see looming on the political horizon however, is that the Lib Dems and Labour are still ideologically quite close and once they realise they both dislike Tories for being Tories, they might decide to move against Cameron, either before an election or after should there be another hung parliament. Given the possibility that the Lib Dems might disappear after 2015, I would think there is more profit in aligning with Labour before the election.   . 

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