Friday, January 30, 2009

21st Century Danegeld

The middle east is a very complex problem, and temperatures run high.
However there can never be any excuse for anti-semitic actions, words, attacks or commentary.
Further, the broadcasters, celebrities and politicians who mask, hide or deny that anti-semitism (as distinct from anti-Israel or pro-Palestine) in rhetoric, signs and behaviour is endemic in the protests and demonstrations on the Middle East, are complicit in the action and, worse, hide the true animus behind much of the protest.
It must be made clear that the British Crown will have no truck with anti-semitism, that the state and its broadcaster will at all times report what happened, not what it wishes had happened, and that those Like Lord Ahmed who claim representation of an opinion and then seek to threaten, bully and bludgeon their way over our historic rights to freedom of expression and speech should be villified privatem et seriatem.
Let people debate the issues, but let the people see who is really on each side, and what they are really saying.
Let us enforce the principles of free speech, with disregard for those who believe that all they have to do is threaten us we will concede rather than stand up for our principles - for if we do not value them why should they?
Let us understand that if we fail to stand up for our way of life, then we invite catastrophe, for by weakly allowing ourselves to be bullied in the interests of multi-culturism / ethnic sensibilities or some bizarre socialist-islamist alliance, we are paying out 21st century Danegeld...
IT IS always a temptation to an armed and agile nation,
To call upon a neighbour and to say:
"We invaded you last night - we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away."

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:
"Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away."

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray,
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:

"We never pay any one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost,
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!"

Doomsday 2

Conhome have a piece trailing the possibility of an incoming Tory administration effectively holding an audit of the last 10 years in a bid to get everything out on the table.
There are the usual mixed bag of comments - from the sensible to the stupid by way of missing the point.
My view is that such an audit is essential:
1) The Tories would be a turn-around administration, and in the same way that a corporate rescue team's first action is to take stock and understand the problem so too should Cameron and team. Those Conhomers urging immediate action miss the point that before we can take action we need to understand the boundaries of movement, and the practical priorities
2) It would be sensible to reset expectations - we want a long term, and people have short memories. A sensible and fair audit which for example brought PFI spending on balance sheet would do much to underline the challenge that the new Goverment faced
3) It would be politically powerful - showing the extent of the damage that Labour had wrecked on the economy, and provide the counter-point to left-ist for the first period of Government. For this reason, I would suggest that where possible an independent auditor (ONS?) was used, and it should report to parliament (doing that body no end of good in status terms)
Finally, any audit would prove that... we cannot afford the New Labour Nation State and have to go back to the future!

A Question for question time

I don't watch Question time much these days - I have to get up at 5.45am, and this militates against latish night tv.

Saw a bit last night - it was up in Scotland so everyone was doing there best to strangle their vowels and invent words like 'youse'.

Thing that struck me (along with just how utterly, utterly sanctimonious and awful Lib Dems are) was that I don't understand why the BBC put comics, pop fiction authors, musicians etc on the panel. Now, I am not saying that it should just be politicians and journos - I am interested to hear businessmen on some subjects (Justin King of Sainsburys was excellent on the economy) and it would be good for example to have social workers on the panel in some cases. However I am less interested for example in Justin King's foreign policy views, or a social workers views on the economics of recession. I am never interested in hearing the views of comics etc on anything. They have no inherent experience or exposure that makes their commentary informed - might as well get a man in from the pub.

Why bother with them?

UPDATE: 3 line whip takes a similar line on the simplifications, idiocy and irrelevance of the comic panalists and extends the point with an observation on the mass stupidity of the audience. FA's views on the mass vote will the subject of a post at some point...

Send in the clowns

Iain and the Coffeehouse amongst others have flagged the story of Martin Linton, Labour Member for Battersea, Balham and Wandsworth. In brief Linton, who claims to oppose the third runway at Heathrow voted with the Government for the runway because after 12 years in the House he got confused.
I see 2 readings. Either he is happy to sacrifice his principles and more importantly go against commitments made to his constituents to vote slavishly for the Government; or he is a fool (possibly actually both.) In any event he is unfit to hold office.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Unelected, unaccountable.

Ken Clarke was apparently on traditional barnstorming form in the Commons yesterday.  But then Clarke against Ian Pearson has a rather lop-sided look to it.  This is a genuine problem that Brown has had since ascending to the Premiership – his cabinet has been woefully thin on Commons presence.  The ‘big beasts’ of the Brown administration – the Milibands, Darling, Cooper, Balls and the like – are not particularly impressive Commons performers in the Heseltine/Clarke/Howard mould – or even the Reid/Blunkett/Prescott/Cook mould.  Brown himself usually comes off second best at PMQs, where his training as Chancellor has left him prone to sorghum yield statistics and an inability to change direction swiftly.

Of course, there is now a reassuring competent performer back in the Cabinet in the form of Peter Mandelson.  He’s a very effective debater, with a slightly comic-book sinuousness and pantomime villain sinister quality – it’s a shame he shaved of his moustache, as he can’t now twirl it in a dastardly fashion.  But, of course, he’s not in the Commons.  No more is Shriti Vadera, who has been Brown’s primary adviser for years.  Nor is the new City Minister Lord Myners.  Lord West, Lord Jones – whenever Brown has looked for talent he has had to do so outside the confines of his Parliamentary party.  This is understandable on sheer quality grounds, but, as David Cameron says, it’s not a good thing for democracy.

It is, however, symptomatic of Labour’s general contempt for Parliament.  Both Brown and Blair have appalling voting and attendance records; both have presided over a culture where nothing is ever announced in the chamber; neither have any respect for the role of the Commons in Government, seeing it as a nuisance at best.  The return of Mandelson is, to some extent, an exception to the general rule here, given that he was an MP and has been parachuted back in again as an expert politician.  But the proper place for the Executive is predominantly within the Commons where they can be held to account.  The debasement of the Upper House by this Government has all but emasculated it as a genuine revisional chamber – and the willingness of Labour peers to accept cash in return for amending legislation is, as FA said, less of a surprise than a confirmation.

It is to be hoped that Labour’s neglect of, and contempt for, Parliament is rewarded fittingly at the next election – in opposition they might just rediscover the importance of being able to hold an over-might executive to account.

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In our next story, pigs airlift snowballs from hell

Amazing. The Independent has published something I agree with - this is as rare as hens teeth, though not quite as infrequent as discovering fact-based economics in a Polly Toynbee piece.
It concerns the House of Lords, and the statement in question is this:

...yet some wider perspective is important in considering the future of the second chamber. It is important to remember that many peers do much good work painstakingly picking through the legislation that is sent up by their professional colleagues in the Commons. When they come across something wrong-headed or dangerous, they send it back. And most of them perform this service for no salary. The lords have certainly proved their worth as a revising chamber in recent years. Last year, the House rejected the Government's legislative plans to detain domestic terrorist suspects for 42 days without charge. In 2005, the law lords ruled that the Government's internment of foreign terror suspects was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The argument for completing the reforms set in train a decade ago is strong. At least a proportion of peers should be made democratically accountable to the electorate, but a wholly elected chamber would be a mistake. The last thing we want is another chamber of professional politicians. It is worth asking whether the House of Lords would have proved such a stubborn check on the Commons over the years if it had been full of individuals keen to secure party funds for re-election? It is unfashionable to speak of non-partisan public service in the present cynical era, but there is still a place for it.
See - amazingly level headed for a paper that pays the wages of such pond life as Johann Hari and the Ghastly Ghastly Robert Fisk.
I also (shame! shame!) agree with Craig Brown, er I mean Simon Heffer, when he says that the instruments exist to resolve this issue - the attainder laws (unless the Reptile dips into his considerable store of legalknowledge and corrects me) would be perfect for the task of removing their lordships styles and privileges.
They lack a little what-not though - personally I believe that we ought to mug up on how Lord Cochrane was stripped of the styles of the garter including the snapping of spurs and the casting down of his coat of arms and I think he was chucked down the stairs of St Georges Chapel in Windsor (or maybe his personal standard was or something).
And whilst we are about it, why stop with the chaps in trouble now? 10 gets you 1 that in any labour appointment since, ohhh, ever, the peer will be grasping, have achieved little or nothing of note, fail to appreciate the position of the house and especially if appointed since about 1996 will have their position having either bought it, been bought off by it or given it for services to the worst administration since, well, Wilson. Let's have 'em all out.

Better policies for a Greater Britain and I offer 'em up free an' gratis as part of my campaign to go Back to the Future.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Back to the Future 2

This picture (thanks Guido) illustrates the general thrust of my recent comments: all the money that paid for New Labours ideas, policies and initiatives has gone.

In fact, actually, it never really existed.
Time to have an election, throw the Bums out - and go back to the future

dog bites man

I wish I could say that I was surprised by the cash-for-laws story, however, I fear that a story whose sub text is 'corrupt life-long labour political operator with no history of having a real job cashes in for personal gain at the expense of institutions that have served Country well for decades' is the dog-bites-man scenario par excellence.

Removing all new labour sponsored peers and peerages is but a small addition to the task awaiting a Conservative administration as it brings us back to the future.

Back to the future

In one of my few posts, I posited that in effect many of the developments of the last 10 years would need to be unwound - that as they had been built on economic proceeds that did not in fact exist, they were unaffordable.
With the ICM poll confirming the new trend, and the possibility that we are drawing nearer, 1 day at a time, to a new dawn of Conservative Government, I believe it is time for the Tories to commit to a thorough audit of the books, a huge effort to determine the true state of the nation, to bring the PFI spending onto the books and demonstrate the huge cost of public administration.
When an appalled nation realises the full measure of debt, the fact that 49% of the economy is state spending, the fact that we each work for the state until June, the full measure of the future tax burden, and the gravy train that the employees of the state and that grey new middle ground of 'public sector consulting' have been travelling on - perhaps then we will be able to take the hard choices, roll back the frontiers of the state and say "Yes, we can do better and we will do better if only we can do things in a different way".
Perhaps when the election comes, and the work of a Conservative Government starts, we will undo the follies of the last 10 years and at last be able to go back to the future.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Time, Gentlemen, please

With all the fuss about the bbc - 'stars' boycotting it (should decrease their apparent market value anyway making them cheaper when they come crawling back), and being attacked from all sides of the DEC ad debate - surely the time has come to realise that there is no longer any place for the BBC.

Break it up! Spin off its commercial arm, open up its spectrums, flog its commercial formats such as East Enders Street, Snooks and Dr Why, close down its 24 hr rolling 'news' channel, terminate its expensive, ego-maniacal personalities from Ross to Paxman via Humphreys. Let them go out and start afresh - on channels where if people want to hear what Michael Crick believes will help the Labour Party get elected / the mad right wing ravings of um, er - well there must be one on the BBC - then they will pay for it.

This modest proposal would remove the artificial inflation in wages, remove the artificial focus on funding around BBC offices, smash the stranglehold that the BBC has on small production companies, destroy a monopoly, and add another layer to the bonfire of placemen, quangos, self-appointed establishment and bien-pensant half wits who have fed off this country these last 10 years and for whom the reckoning is coming...

New Labour, 1995 - 2008

This is the single best piece I have read on the impact of New Labour and its economics on 'people like us'

Key quote:

"The astonished children of Britain's upper-middle class started to talk about the vertiginous gap between the "haves and the have yachts". It was not only that they could no longer keep up with the Joneses - or the Abramoviches or Mittals, as their more successful neighbours were more likely to be called - they could no longer keep up with their parents.
Unless they were working in the City, they could not think of living in the type of homes their parents had brought them up in, or sending their children to the type of schools their parents sent them to. As one complained: "A generation ago it didn't make much difference what one's chums did, whether they went into the army or the City or publishing or whatever; but now it's a make-or-break decision."
Couples from the old bourgeoisie worried about how much they needed to earn to become like their parents - an ambition which would have appalled them when they were teenagers but was now looking more desirable by the day. What was the cost of a house in a plush area, a manageable mortgage, regular foreign holidays and places in smart schools for their children? The breathtaking annual income of at least £250,000, and preferably £500,000, the Sunday Times told them in early 2007. If they wanted to be truly rich and afford the central London townhouse with Brit Art bric-a-brac on the walls, holiday homes in exotic resorts, access to a private jet and accounts at the chi-chi stores, they would need to make at least £2.5m - preferably £10m. Rachel Johnson, who reported the findings, wasn't exactly a poor little match girl. She was the sister of Boris Johnson, who became the first Tory mayor of London in 2008, but she concluded: "When I look around my normal, as in non-City, contemporaries they are all working their socks off, hamster-wheeling, both the husband and the wife (only one in 10 women of working age can now afford the luxury of staying home unwaged to raise her children). They are raiding their parents' nest eggs to keep their heads above water, remortgaging their houses to pay the school fees and, if they go abroad at all, they head off to eco-turismo communities in Sicily where several families share a swimming pool (if there is one) and all eat pasta together. As the super-rich are getting richer all the time, they are driving up the prices of the things that we middle classes used to be able to afford on one income, but now can't manage with two."
In a wicked world full of suffering, the complaints of the shabby genteel were not pressing concerns for busy people with limited supplies of compassion. Nevertheless, I thought them worth listening to because I have found as a journalist that spectators on the edges provide the best descriptions. They have the access to a privileged milieu, and can see what outsiders cannot; but unlike the truly privileged, who socialise only with fellow insiders, they are not lulled by routine into thinking that the freakish is normal. In the case of the bubble world of 2007, the dazzled and envious commentaries of those on its margins also performed the essential public service of blowing away consoling illusions. "

The bit that he missed is that it is these guys who will, through the raised taxation of their incomes (as compared to the capital-rich have yachts) bear much of the pain of fixing the problem.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gone to the dogs

What in the name of buggery hell has happened to the Telegraph? It has fired half its writers, the good half naturally, and appears to have surrendered its opinion pages to Brownite true believers and Simon Heffer (who’s fictional anyway). Just look at the ridiculous Mary Riddell today, even the headline is absurd.

Gordon Brown should try harder to inspire us in these hopeless times.

Inspire us? Seriously, what is she smoking? And the next line made me snort coffee through my nose.

He needn't dazzle us with words, he can actually do something to improve our lot, says Mary Riddell.

Dazzle us with words? Brown? It is to laugh.

No politician has produced a better idea of how to save the economy, least of all David Cameron, whose attempts to talk down confidence are shabbily reckless.

In the same edition of the Telegraph is a piece by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who at least has some economic credibility. In it he says the following:

Britain has foreign reserves of under $61bn dollars (£43.7bn), less than Malaysia or Thailand. The foreign liabilities of the UK banks are $4.4 trillion – or twice annual GDP – according to the Bank of England. The mismatch is perilous.

It is why sterling has crashed 10 cents from $1.49 to $1.39 against the dollar in two days. The markets have given their verdict on Gordon Brown's latest effort to "save the world".

He goes on to say:

The core of countries deemed safe is shrinking by the day to a half dozen. Sadly, Britain is no longer one of them.

David Cameron isn’t talking down confidence, he just isn’t being blindly Pollyanna-ish. We’re completely Mottramed, and its largely Brown’s fault. And no amount of garbled soundbites and unconvincing smirks can disguise that.

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Bailing out the banks

There is now a serious cry from the left (and not just from the left) that the entire British banking sector be taken into state ownership, ‘nationalised’, in order to prevent its complete collapse and to ‘restore lending’. Without needing to go to Randian levels of objectivism, there are a few obvious arguments against this. The first is, as John Gapper points out, that Governments do not have a good track record as bank owners. Seumas Milne unwittingly demonstrates why here, while attempting to discount the possibility of politically directed lending:

In any case, public ownership doesn't imply political control of individual loans, though it does offer the chance of steering finance into more productive and socially valuable parts of the economy.

You may have noticed that the second half of this sentence explicitly contradicts the first. But then, as the second string to this argument goes, the private sector have hardly demonstrated terrific ability in its handling of the banks has it? Well, no they haven’t – although it’s worth pointing out to those salivating for show trials and the prosecution of CEO Byng that the cause of the financial crisis has been a repudiation more of financial whiz-kiddery than it has been of capitalism or free markets. And apart from that, the fact that private sector management has made a mess of things absolutely does not mean that the public sector would be any better. British Leyland ringing any bells here?

In fact lets have a little case-study, for we do after all have a nationalised bank in Britain at the moment. What's happened to Northern Rock's lending patterns since it was taken into Public ownership?

Since nationalisation, the Rock has not only sought to deter new customers by offering a small and uncompetitive mortgage range (it does not have a single tracker deal), it has also tried to encourage existing borrowers to leave by refusing to cut its standard variable rate in line with falls in the official Bank rate.

The resulting speed and scale with which the Rock's loan book has shrunk has been dramatic. In 2007, the Newcastle-based bank was the country's fifth biggest lender with gross mortgage lending of almost £30 billion. Last year, this fell by 90 per cent to about £3 billion.

There is an intellectual dislocation between the arguments over what caused the credit crunch, and the proposals to get us out of recession. The credit crunch, it is argued, was caused by too much lending, based on too little capital – exaggerated by the utter collapse in asset value of much of the banking sectors’ assets. So in order to get us out of recession the banks need to lend more. Well, you cannot simultaneously expect the banks to increase lending, shore up their balance sheets and ‘pass on’ interest rate cuts that bear no relation to the cost of the banks’ borrowing – it’s impossible. Burble on about ‘greedy’ bankers and ‘irresponsible’ hedge funds all you like, but don’t simultaneously demand that they lend you money at lower rates than they themselves can borrow it.

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Guest post: In with the new...

A guest post on the inauguration of Barack Obama

I wish new president Obama well. I am immensely proud of what America has achieved today (though I am not American myself I always felt like one). Electing a black president is no small feat. And a good president too. Had I had a chance to vote I would have voted McCain for many reasons I will not spend time with now (foreign policy, Iraq, trade above anything else). However, as McCain said in his beautiful concession speech, Obama is now president of all Americans. And so far has conducted himself very well, coolly and calmly and gathered a good team around him. He is starting as a centrist. So because his policies and his position promise well, I indulged myself in the great spectacle of the presidential inauguration. Only in America can they do it like that. Emotional, patriotic, elevating. Obama delivered as well: he is a good orator, a man of character and had a good speech to work with. So well done so far and good luck.

The comments and the reports were not so good though. I think some fawning is allowed, but there are limits. The media treated Obama with kid gloves during the campaign, and we knew it would continue to do so during the very long honeymoon. But what went on whilst watching the news on different channels was a bit much. Little criticism if any at all, high expectations, and already an endless stream of justification for any failure or mistake the president might make in the future. Above all, so the narrative goes, he can always blame his predecessor, and if that predecessor is Bush (W.) then even better.

The treatment of Bush has been incredibly unfair to say the least. But I was expecting some grace from the great and the good of political commentators, newsreaders and the rest of them (the same grace Bush has shown to Obama during the transition – which by the way the Republican handled incredibly professionally compared with how the Democrats behaved in 2001), but almost every commentator enjoyed blaming everything and more on Bush and his policies, whether domestic or foreign. Any intervention started with a variation on the ‘after the disaster of the last eight terrible years’. No recognition of what he has achieved, what he tried to do (and was worth doing) and did not achieve, and what he managed to avoid. The list of successes is not short – to those who can remain objective. Another time I can argue and suggest an explanation why Bush has such a low rating and why most believe he has done so badly. But here I will simply say that I wish the chattering elite and their media spokesmen (and –women) learned from their new hero and give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and stop their childish attacks on the outgoing 43rd president. In time I believe some recognition of his achievements will be finally given, especially if President Obama continues as he has started and does not rashly jettison some of the successful policies undertaken over the past eight years.

So good luck President Obama and God bless you and the great United States of America.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What we do now...

As Fraser Nelson points out, the global markets view of the UK's creditworthiness is now the same as its view of RBS's. Dire. Unless something happens (and in fairness I cannot think of what that something might be) the UK will lose its AAA rating - which happened to Spain today. This makes everything worse for everyone of us - as the cost of debt rises and this wretched Governments only answer to our problems is debt.

In the short term though, we need to look hard at how we manage ourselves and accept the fact that we have a public sector and consumer protection-culture that we cannot infact afford. Only by harsh action can we downsize the non-productive so that it can be supported by the productive.

What does this mean? It means awfully hard choices, and some easy ones:

- we cannot afford any flagship IT programmes, be they NHS, ID cards, anything;
- we cannot afford public sector pensions - the schemes must be closed down now;
- we cannot afford any quangos, including some of the 'good' ones like visitbritain - close 'em;
- we cannot afford to pay any EU-levied fines;
- we cannot afford to meet 'green' targets;
- we cannot afford beefed up health and safety and sadly equality laws;
- we cannot afford the minimum wage;
- we cannot afford the HIPS tax on house sales;
- we cannot afford new legislation in the exception of emergencies;
- we cannot afford so large a civil service;
- we cannot afford so many MPs;
- we cannot afford a 'supreme court';
- we cannot afford the costs of the human rights act;
- we cannot afford the London Mayorality;
- we cannot afford present levels of NHS spend;

In short, we cannot afford many of the 'advances' of the last 10 years, and none from the last 3 years - they will have to be undone. Like house prices, the economics they were predicated on didn't exist.

Only a massive shrinking of the state can shorten this recession by reducing the amount of money taken for unproductive purposes - though it will cause a rise in unemployment in the immediate term. This is a critical time - for siren voices on the left will start talking about the unique opportunity to deliver a re-ordering of society. If they win, and we increase the unproductive, then we really are in the world of Atlas Shrugged.

Labour ran in 1992 and 1997 on the slogan '24 hours to save the NHS', the Tories need to start to campaign for a general election on the slogan '6 months to save the UK'.

My fear - that Brown hangs on til 2010
My question - who is John Galt?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Labour List

It’s been covered quite a bit now from the right-side of the blogosphere, by everyone from Iain to Guido to Dizzy to Uncle Tom Cobbley and all, but I thought I’d just add my two penn’orth, having now got onto Labour List and read some of the posts, as well as the associated puff-pieces that have cropped up.

First impressions are, I have to admit, not good. Draper doesn’t really seem to know quite what he wants the site to be. The talk has all been about how Labour List should be a home for Labour activists – like Conservative Home. But then it’s also been that “the new site is designed to counter what he calls the "Tory trolls" who dominate the weird world of virtual British politics”. Well, which? ConHome isn’t an attack blog by any stretch of the imagination – it varies between a sort of Tory vade mecum for announcements, speeches and rumours (basically Tory Diary) and a more thoughtful series of postings predominantly on what the Tories ought to be doing (Centre Right). It’s not designed to excoriate Labour policy – there are other blogs that do that.

Iain’s is the one that will get mentioned instantly, largely because of his media-appointed role as godfather of Tory bloggers. But Iain’s site isn’t really an attack site – it’s more like what it says it is, a diary. Sometimes you get ‘what I did on my holidays’ posts about Audis, weddings and meetings, sometimes you get gossipy pieces about who said what to who, sometimes you get links to articles he’s written about policy or personality. But what they all are is written by him – Iain’s personality pervades the site.

For true attack blogs go to Guido (more or less vicious political gossip, from an essentially nihilist view-point. It’s a bit inaccurate to describe this as a Tory blog – more like an anti-politics one), or to Dizzy (geeky but perceptive), or the Devil’s Kitchen (really anti-politicians with extra swearing). But all of these are personal sites. Labour List isn’t – it’s a collective effort. So lets look at a collective effort, not on the right this time.

Liberal Conspiracy (must get round to linking…) is a collective blog started by Sunny Hundal. I think the aim is both to attack Tory and Labour illiberalism (rather vaguely defined) as well as to spell out progressive, liberal ideas that should be implemented. I admit I’ve yet to read a piece saying ‘the Tories are right about…’, but it isn’t a fierce party loyalist. It is, in fact, rather good. If occasionally a little humourless.

So there we are: four models of political blogging. The directory, the diary, the demolition derby and the (um…) discussion. And all of them are independent. All of them criticise their own party. And that tends to be what makes them interesting. I rarely want to read articles by politicians – you know what they’re going to say before they say it (Boris being the obvious exception). It’s when writers kick against the pricks and explain why their own side is wrong that it gets interesting. And Labour List? Well it is that most tedious incarnation – an officially approved site. How dull is that? Which would you rather read, Tom Bower’s unauthorised Brown biography, or Robert Peston’s?


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Social Immobility

One of the great cornerstones of the 1997 Labour administration was meant to be greater social mobility. Indeed, the entire New Labour project was an exercise in breaking down traditional barriers – in part epitomised by the uneasy relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

It is increasingly apparent that the Government’s original noble ambitions have not only failed to be achieved but their clumsy attempts at levelling the playing fields have been responsible for a decline in the much vaunted social mobility.

The abolition of the assisted places schemes for fee-paying schools and the introduction of university fees are, to my mind, unforgivable derogation from their aims. The latter particularly has had the dual effects of saddling all students with an added £10,000 of debt and ensuring that those from the poorest backgrounds are deprived access.

Irrespective of Liam Byrne’s fatuous and meaningless promises of “investing in aspiration”, the core of all social mobility (beyond success in quiz shows) is education.

For me, and I’m aware other contributors here may have differing opinions, the answer is a return to the grammar school system. Grammar schools lifted people from backgrounds which meant they were unable or unwilling to access fee-paying schools – all that was required was intelligence. At the risk of exaggerating their Utopian credentials, they created an environment where academic achievement was encouraged and where background and class were largely irrelevant.

As with almost all policies, there was and would be a modicum of interference with its natural workings by well-meaning but wealthier parents but this could be counteracted by a focus on innate ability rather than exams for which coaching is more effective (for example based on teacher references and the testing of maths and English rather than verbal reasoning and knowledge of history or classics).

As to the other great question, how would the 75% who fail to get in benefit, the answer is three fold. Firstly, the current comprehensive system is an undisputed failure and the reintroduction of grammar schools will rapidly help the top 25% and do little or no damage to the prospects of the rest. Secondly, their creation could be complemented by sister schools (including even the Government’s beloved academies) which focus on vocational skills. Finally, there could be increased mobility between grammar and secondary schools which would serve to drive standards in both institutions. Also, and I admit this might be a hard sell, there might be some merit in focusing on those sections of society which favour hard work over indolence, achievement over failure and endeavour over languor.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Is there any other politician, in this country or in any other, who could come out with a line like this?

On Mr. Johnson's desk sits a tabloid cover mooting a possible June 4 poll. I point to it.

"Bring it on!" says Mr. Johnson, lighting up. "My message to Gordon Brown through the Wall Street Journal is: You great big quivering gelatinous invertebrate jelly of indecision, you marched your troops up to the top of the hill in October of [2007]. Show us that you've got enough guts to have an election June 4. Gordon: Man or Mouse?!"

At least someone’s still having fun.


American driving priorities

As a consequence of the news indicated below – that chez Reptile is going to be blessed with increase in the Spring – I was compelled reluctantly to sell my car. A two-seater MG is all very well for Dinkys, but that lack of a rear seat, and a boot just large enough for two bottles of wine, would be tricky to maintain with a baby requiring more associated baggage than Kitchener did on the way to Khartoum. Given that I was never going to succumb to cliché, and thus was desperate to avoid buying a Golf, I settled on the only slightly less wildly impractical Alfa Romeo Brera, which at least has rear seats, even if only babies can fit in them. In choosing it I was guided by a variety of things, but I’ll admit that the look of the thing was pretty much paramount – I mean just look at it.

Apart from this there were elements like performance, efficiency (we went for the diesel in a vain attempt to prove responsibility) and price. Very grown-up it was, even if we have gone for a rather indulgent option.

We obviously didn’t even consider an American car. And the reason is that they seem to be designed for people from another planet. For example look at this. They are just starting to sell the Astra in the States. It’s a sensible small saloon, economical and perfectly adequate in most ways. And what is the first complaint levied against it in a review?

•Astra's main cup holder is so far back on the center console it's behind the driver. Even if you don't drink much while driving, the test car's console was so small that the cup holder needs to be handier for cellphones and other normal kit.

Cup holders? That’s it? Who the fuck cares? Who needs 28 cup holders in a car? What’s wrong with you people? Anything else?

•The clock's a 24-hour, military-style readout (4:30 p.m. is 16:30, for example). That's hardly a deal-breaker, maybe even better in some eyes, but it's another reminder that Americans weren't top-of-mind during development.

Oh well, a deal-breaker then. Somewhere else in the article, a pretty long way down is thrown in, as an aside, that the Astra drives oh-so-nicely. That's the Euro factor that could make you forget niggling annoyances. But the drive’s not what’s important – that’s cup-holders and analogue clocks. No wonder that they’re selling only about 1,000 Astras a month so far. And we’re surprised that Detroit is vanishing into the past at a rate of knots? Bring it on I say, at least we might get some more interesting American cars.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Selling ciggies to the Vietnamese

If, as is expected, Ken Clarke does return to the political front line in the near future, expect a tidal wave of opprobrium hurled at him by commentators, bloggers and, probably, the Labour Party because he makes his money selling cigarettes to Vietnamese children. Except that he doesn’t any more. Sam Coates has spotted this:

Except for one fact: the Register reveals Ken Clarke doesn't work for BAT any more. In fact, he quietly retired from the role at the end of April.

My first thought was that this was deck-clearing, but April looks much too early for it to be more than a co-incidence. I suspect that the line will be used regardless of its accuracy in any event.

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Heffer on racial sensitivity...

There are times, I have to admit, when I begin to wonder whether the character of ‘Simon Heffer’ isn’t really an elaborate hoax. He is, after all, so fantastically unlikely. A sort of less plausible (and less enjoyable) Peter Simple. Recently Craig Brown admitted that he had secretly been writing Heffer’s columns all along. But I’m not sure. Brown is a satirist with a delicate touch – a rapier, not a bludgeon. He surely wouldn’t have blundered with a parody as grotesque as this on Saturday?

Did the Beeb need to bowdlerise Buchan?

About once a year I watch television, and this time it was the BBC’s new take on The 39 Steps. My colleague Rowan Pelling has already pointed out that Hannay lived in an Art Deco building, of which there was none in 1914. I was shocked by his wearing a white tie with a dinner jacket, which even a bounder in those days would not have done. But I also noticed how the story had been politically corrected: Buchan’s original disobliging references to “dagoes”, Jews and other foreigners having been eliminated, together with the magnificent moment when Scudder tells him, “You’re a white man!” Viewers could see the programme in low or high definition. Perhaps they could also have a channel where they could see it as the author intended.

Even Simon Heffer would not be able to combine the crashingly pompous and the racially antediluvian with quite such clunking magnificence. You can imagine a team of writers giggling as they wrote it, wondering whether this was the moment they got exposed as a hoax.

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Fiscal stimulus

A quick word on the subject of fiscal stimuli.  It has become part of the Brown central line that ‘the entire world is in favour of a fiscal stimulus’ and that therefore any move by the Tories to reduce any part of public spending will be going against the opinion of the globe at large.  It’s an argument made by Steve Richards here:

As Barack Obama prepares to make a massive fiscal stimulus and other countries follow suit, Cameron is virtually alone arguing for a spending cut without specifying where the axe would fall.

Now, Richards is rather missing the point here.  Cameron is not looking (yet at any rate) to cut spending in order to reduce borrowing.  He’s is aiming to cut spending in order to fund a tax cut.  Both tax cuts and public spending are a form of fiscal stimulus.  Transferring money from one to another is not acting against the principle of a stimulus.  In fact it’s entirely possible to argue, and I think right to do so, that to transfer money from public sector spending back to the pockets of the people will have a positive impact on the economy, and therefore increase the impact of the fiscal stimulus.

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Toynbee and economic illiteracy

The Tories’ plans for a tax cut on savings have the benefit of feeling right.  Interest rates have plummeted in an attempt to recover from the costs imposed by excess borrowing – punishing the thrifty to protect the ill-disciplined (and I speak here as a prime representative of the latter category).  It seems only just therefore, that incentives to saving be introduced, both to compensate savers for the collapse of their earnings, and to encourage a more prudent ethos in the future.

What it isn’t, of course, is a panacea to the economic downturn, nor a complete answer to the question “what would you do?”  In fact, at a total cost of only some £5bn or so it’s not enormously significant to the Treasury – though it would be pretty significant for those living of savings income.  That’s a pretty good combination as it happens, though Polly Toynbee is enraged by it.  As so often with la Toynbee it’s not entirely clear how much of her fury is genuine, and how much a sort of tribal reaction.  Lets have a look anyway.

In fact she spends the first half of her article more or less acknowledging the force behind the Tory arguments – the piece is littered with “He is right…”, “On the face of it, Cameron should walk it with constant finger-pointing…”, “Superficially, he has all the best lines…”, “It chimes with commonsense instinct…” and the like.  But she needs to demonstrate that, even though it might sound reasonable and plausible, it is, of course, “part populism, part poison and part snake-oil.”  So she has a go at that, arguing that to make cuts, any cuts, in public spending is “economically illiterate” and runs contrary to the sainted Keynesian economics that were last tested to destruction back in the days when she failed her first-year exams at Oxford.

She focuses her fire (such as it is) on what will be the Government’s main line of attack – any cuts in public spending will affect ‘frontline services’ and will make matters worse for everyone.  The Tories have pledged not to cut health, schools or international development – and this means it will cut business, work and pensions, transport etc.  Disaster, doom, gloom and so on.

But there is one area that the Tories could very profitably examine for spending cuts: quangos.  As has been said repeatedly by the right-wing of the press and the blogosphere, massive amounts of money are spent on rule by quango: £124bn in 2006, and much more now.  Total Government spending for last year was in the region of £557bn.  For Toynbee to state that savings of $5bn cannot be found is the far side of ridiculous – less than 1% of a budget is a rounding error, not a series of unaffordable slashes into the ethos of the public sector.

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Avancez a future!

 Well, another year beckons us onward.  Though there's a certain groundhog familiarity about the headlines so far: crisis in Middle East; Labour says that Tories will slash public services; another high street retailer goes into administration; things continue to be unable to get worse in Zimbabwe …

But it's going to be all change one way or another this year for me at any rate.  Whether or not Brown goes to the country, regardless of how long it takes for the left to become disillusioned with Obama (or has that happened already?) the home affairs of the Reptile will be altered beyond recognition in the Spring.  Expect more posts at 4am, and for them to make much less sense as, sleep-deprived and impoverished, I plant my genetic footprint on an unsuspecting world…