Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A questionable devolution


Devolution of power and responsibility from Westminster and Whitehall to regional and local government has been part of the Liberal/Liberal Democrat creed for a s long as I can remember.  So I suppose we should welcome the government's decision to devolve a power to local councils.

But what a daft power: the right to close roads and abandon speed limits so as to run motorcar  races.

I've never regarded motor racing as much of a sport.  I acknowledge that driving a  car very fast requires both physical and mental skill, and designing a car that goes very fast requires clever engineering.  But it is a noisy, smelly practice which isn't really much of a spectator sport.  There is a well established Formula 3 road race in Pau and I went to watch it during the "year abroad" of my French course.  The cars zoom past, you wait a bit and they zoom past again, and if you have sharp eyes (which I have not) you may notice that the order has changed.

If some people get a thrill out of that, good luck to them, but it seems a curious area for a government which promised to be the greenest ever to promote.  Surely at a time when we are doing our best to cut down pollution, including noise pollution, and conserve non-renewable resources, particularly oil, we should be taking measures to limit this "sport" rather than promote it.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Scotland too brave.


I've just returned from a week's walking holiday in Scotland, based on Pitlochry. I've made no attempt to carry out a straw poll on the independence issue but have had two in-depth conversations.

The first was with a well-educated professional whom I already knew slightly and whose views on most general issues I respect.  He surprised my be saying he would "probably vote 'Yes'."  His reasons were twofold.  He feared that the the Tories might withdraw the UK from the EU and that would be a bad move for for all concerned.  Better for Scotland to come out of the UK but remain in the EU.  An English friend who has lived in Scotland for several months tells me that that is a view she commonly hears.  His second argument was that he feels Scotland to be a more caring , liberal and tolerant society than England is today, and would be better able to maintain this if independent.

My other conversation was with a man doing some gardening.  Whether that was his job, or he was the owner of the property and doing some tidying-up I don't know, but he was highly articulate and enthusiastically  in favour of the "Yes" campaign.  His main reasons were also essentially twofold.  He wanted to get rid of Trident or any replacement and abandon silly pretences to being an independent nuclear power.  Then he pointed out that in the whole of Scotland there is only one Conservative MP.  Why should Scotland, therefore, be ruled by the Tories?   I was too slow to point out that that was an argument for a better electoral system rather than for independence.

Neither was impressed by my counter-arguments that independence was, apart from the Trident issue, a rather hefty hammer to crack an inconsequential nut. Scotland already has considerable independence (their own legal and educational systems, control over their own NHS.)  If  the vote is for  "No" they will achieve even more, essentially  Home Rule, now called Devo-Max:  for all practical purposes having complete control of their own domestic affairs, including taxation powers,  and remaining with the UK for defence, foreign policy, the currency, the BBC and the weather forecast. Once that had been achieved this it would strengthen the chances of similar devolution to Wales and the English regions (not least  Yorkshire, which I believe has a larger population than Scotland), on the lines of the German Lander.  So a "No" vote would be doing us all a favour.

Without having seen too much of either, I do get the impression that the "Yes" campaign is positive, cheerful and exciting.  Going it alone has panache, a sense of adventure, "Scotland the brave!"  By contrast the "No" campaign is negative, dull and dreary. My English friend tells me that she has heard of people  intending to vote "No" but reluctant to admit it or display their posters for fear of being seen as a pariah by the neighbours.

All in all I get the impression that the debate is on a far more informed,  civilised, thoughtful and factual level than political discussion in England, particularly as  now on Europe or as it was in the referendum for electoral reform.  I suspect that the negative bullying of the "No" campaign is based on the findings of these dreadful focus groups from which the parties now judge what people are really thinking.

In this case I hope they're right, and there will be a narrow vote for "No", but it is sad that a sensible outcome depends on subliminal impressions rather than open debate.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The poor we have with us.


Robert Walker is professor of social policy at Oxford University, and is to publish this month a book called "The Shame of Poverty."

 In a preview Professor Walker  points out that the policy of our politicians of both the largest parties is to demonise the poor.  The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, routinely speaks of living on benefits as "a lifestyle choice" and is determined to weed out "fraudulent claims."  Labour, in its latest attempt to seem  as tough as the Tories, bullies the "young jobless [who] must train or be stripped of their benefits."

Professor Walker's conclusion, based on systematic research rather than saloon bar punditry, is that ""the unusually vitriolic language of British politicians, amplified by the media, serves to open a psychological wound that is never allowed to heal." and that "far from being shameless, people in poverty feel humiliation on a daily basis." 
 
The article reminds me of a speaker I heard many years ago  in the "non-religious" slot of Radio 4's "Thought for the day."   He believed that, beyond the basics, everyone has three  psychological needs:
  • to know that at least somebody (parent, partner, sibling, friend, offspring?) cares what happens to you;
  • to feel that at least somebody, somewhere, has benefited from your having lived;
  • to pay your way.

No one wants to be thought a sponger, and certainly nobody chooses that as a life-style, although they may put a brave face on it if circumstances leave them with no other option.

Our politicians, and especially those allegedly on the left, should take note. Liberal Democrats in government seem remarkable quite on this issue.

We and should remember our heritage as the party of Beveridge.  We once had the courage to adopt, along with the Greens, the  policy of a Citizen's Income.  The Citizen's Income Trust explains how it works and how it is affordable.  Its advantage would be that, what everyone gets, no one can resent.  If some choose to live on that alone, well, that's their choice.

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 http://www.ecotricity.co.uk/

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,www.ectopia.co.uk 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.