21st Century Danegeld
And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
"I have often been called a Nazi, and, although it is unfair, I don't let it bother me. I don't let it bother me for one simple reason. No one has ever had a sexual fantasy about being tied to a bed and ravished by a liberal." PJ O'Rourke, Give War a Chance
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 . 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…