Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Housing crunch

It is good to see that sense has prevailed over VAT on park homes. There has also been a logical compromise over VAT on hot baked food, if one that may be difficult to enforce. However, the publicity over the latter has obscured a more pernicious planned cut by the coalition, that in the rate of housing benefit, for the reasons given in this article.

That shows up the priorities of the popular press and the official opposition. Labour MPs and journalists are not going to face the day-to-day problem of keeping a roof over their head, but begrudge the extra pence for a hot pasty.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

European project bonds

The Danish presidency of the EU does seem to have fulfilled the "mission statement" of prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, to combine economic responsibility with growth.  Denmark is claiming a result in obtaining agreement to a pilot project of European project bonds. It is difficult to cut through the bureaucratic language of the official announcement. It appears that the project will make money available for enterprises which will be profitable, but not in the short term which appeals to the commercial market.

This is a welcome weapon in the fight against economic stagnation. The concern is how quickly it can be brought to bear; it's clearly something that was needed from 2009 onwards.

Friday, 25 May 2012

If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between

Thanks to Liberal Democrat News for the tip about LSE's online archive of political posters and cartoons from 1892-1910.

The campaigner of today would not be able to get away with the explicit xenophobia, if not racism, of some of the Conservative posters, but the strategy of appealing to the ordinary voter's fears has not changed. Interesting that the term "radical" which is now a badge of honour (unless applied to Islam, of course) occupied the same place in Edwardian Britain as "liberal" does in US politics nowadays. The Liberal posters hammer the theme of free trade, and its benefits for the pockets of ordinary people, but there are also attacks on privilege and the hold the established church still held over schools. Then there are the promises of old-age pensions and cuts in income tax for wage-earners (both delivered, I believe) in this poster which were echoed in 2010.

If you don't recognise the personalities depicted in the cartoons (and surely only political history anoraks will), there are helpful notes. I think the compilers missed one reference, though: in the Unionist cartoon attacking Campbell-Bannerman's gardening skills, the title appears to be a reference to a music-hall song made popular by Gus Elen at the end of the 19th century:

Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden And Chingford to the Eastward could be seen Wiv a ladder and some glasses You could see to 'Ackney Marshes If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between

(A later recreation by John Foreman is on this record.)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Mark Pack recently posted a recommendation, one which I was happy to endorse, to watch "The Best Man", which has been released for home consumption. (By the way, I apologise for an error in a comment I made on Mark's blog: Gene Tierney played a Washington hostess in "Advise and Consent", which has a similar background - and is also recommended.)

Another classic which has received a wash-and-brush-up is Powell and Pressburger's "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp". Some of today's star professionals contributed to a recent discussion on Radio 4's film programme. It has been said to be Britain's "Citizen Kane", but this is misleading. It is similar in its scope, and covers much of the same time period, but the background is entirely different. While the Welles film is dominated by the main character and explanation of his psychology, "Blimp" is as much concerned with events and attitudes to them. There is a recurring theme of hero Clive Candy's obsession with the various incarnations of Deborah Kerr, but there is no attempt at explanation.

I hasten to add that I was a babe in arms when the epic film was first released, but I did see what may have been its first restoration when it was shown on BBC-2 in the early 1970s. My recollections are based on this and a re-showing a few years later. What struck me the first time round was the creative use of Technicolor, which must have been an expensive investment for a British company at the time. The framing contemporary war-time scenes  are realistic (like the muted tones of Fred Zinnemann's "Julia", but few other Hollywood films until then) but in the flashbacks the colours are manipulated to reflect or perversely to contrast the current situation. If I recall correctly, there is a near-Expressionist World War One scene in heightened colour.

Apart from the production values and the outstanding performance by Roger Livesey in the star part (how fortunate that the Archers' original choice of Laurence Olivier fell through), there are also the ironic touches. The English governess that Candy loves and loses to his enemy, and later friend, the aristocratic Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff becomes an enthusiastic Nazi supporter.  Candy prides himself on Britain's honourable conduct of war, but he is unwittingly given key strategic information obtained by less than ethical means - and the opening scenes show him caught out by gamesmanship by his opponents in a war game.

I'm saving up my pennies.

Monday, 21 May 2012

A scoundrel wrongly convicted?

In a piece in the Independent headed in the print edition "What exactly did he do for Gaddafi? His secrets will now go to the grave with him", Robert Fisk writes:

So the old scoundrel has died. Midday Tripoli time, at his home, peacefully, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, after a long struggle with cancer, "bravely borne" no doubt. But "scoundrel", nonetheless, not because he arranged the Lockerbie bombing Рmany have the gravest doubts he ever did Рbut because he was a member of Gaddafi's intelligence services and no-one who served the Great Leader as a "mukhabarat" agent had clean hands. If he was wrongly convicted, what did he do in the service of his master? Clich̩ time: his secret dies with him.

Maybe it will now be impossible to find out what crimes Abdelbaset Ali did commit in the service of his dear leader, but surely the chances of establishing the truth of Lockerbie sank not with his death, but with his repatriation. Alex Salmond was disingenuous when he stated that conspiracy theories were now debunked. Few people seriously believed that the man was not suffering from the cancer that finally killed him. The doubts were whether that entitled him to be released, and why he should forgo the second appeal against his conviction which the Scottish criminal convictions review body ruled that he was entitled to. The Indy's timeline is instructive.

Not called to account

Last night, Radio 4 should have broadcast a programme in the "In Business" series, "Called to Account". Peter Day was to have reported on why the world's four leading accountancy firms - Price Waterhouse Cooper, KPMG, Ernst & Young and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu - are allegedly facing increased scrutiny from financial authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.

This programme was replaced at fairly short notice by something that seems to have been thrown together in a hurry about the possible exit of Greece from the euro zone. Given that there has been speculation about  a return to the drachma for months, if not years, and that a decision on this will not be made until the results of next month's Greek elections are known, there was hardly an urgent need for a programme on the subject. More suspiciously, the promised iPlayer version of "Called to Account" has not appeared.

My suspicion is that the programme has been not just injuncted by one or more of the firms, but super-injuncted in that the BBC has been forced to conceal the existence of the injunction.

Danny Alexander must be feeling justified

Mark Pack cites a Times report:
Britain’s only listed accountancy firm is to close its specialist tax division in a move that will be regarded as another victory for Revenue & Customs against tax avoidance by the rich.
RSM Tenon said yesterday that it would stop offering products through its Premier Strategies division because recent moves by the Government to clamp down on what it perceives as aggressive tax avoidance had made the tax planning business too difficult and risky. Chris Merry, Tenon’s chief executive, said: “The market for specialist tax has changed dramatically over the past few years as the Government has tightened legislation. Tailored tax-saving products have in the past had a strong audience, but have become much more difficult to offer.”

Monday, 14 May 2012

BBC Young Musician

It's always reassuring to have ones responses as an amateur critic confirmed by the professionals. Jessica Duchen echoes my feelings and more in her piece about the BBC Young Musician contest just ended. In particular, she confirms my feelings about the way Ms Barbour-Condini communicated a joy in music rather more than the other finalists :

"The most daring choice as outright winner would have been Charlotte Barbour-Condini, who made history by being the first recorder player ever to reach the final. Talk about a natural musician: Charlotte has everything - charisma, assurance, tremendous musicality, the bearing and spirit of a mature artist. At least she can reap the benefits now of national TV exposure without the pressures of having won outright; she is apparently just as good at the piano and the violin (!), so she has a little time to choose her direction. Yesterday was her 16th birthday. She will be fine - and will probably remain the most interesting of them all."

Monday, 7 May 2012

Bicentenary of a Liberal poet

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Browning.  When I was young, he was best-known for the "Pied Piper of Hamelin", which probably every English schoolchild (and probably those of most other English-speaking nations) was exposed to at some time. Later, his "Men and Women" was one of the set books for the A-levels I sat. (It would be interesting to know whether he still forms part of every child's education.) I came to see a more rounded picture of a serious-minded poet, with his dramatic monologues, but who saw himself as part of the Romantic movement, while also experimenting with verse-forms and indulging in outrageous rhymes ("Hugues" and "fugues" come to mind). He also had a gift for the memorable phrase: "Oh, to be in England" and "When the kissing had to stop" are his. There are almost four pages of Browning quotations in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. If he had a blind spot, it was his contempt for technology which after all had largely provided the wealth of the Victorian age and of many of the leading Liberals.

He did write a verse justification of his being a Liberal. The sentiments are admirable, but it is not great poetry. It seems to me that when he was being high-minded, he descended to mere grandiloquence.  Browning's best poems were written when he was relaxed, or personal.

My favourite is "Love among the ruins", which must have been inspired by a classical Italian ruined citadel, but which could equally suit an ancient Welsh hill-fort. The final stanza is timeless.


Just over one hundred years later, his only son, "Pen" Browning, died in the July of 1912. Although Pen didn't need to earn a living, he became an accomplished painter - perhaps too accomplished. One recalls his father's poem, "Andrea del Sarto" inspired by the artist senza errori"Vespers" , "The Delivery to the Secular Arm" and the ubiquitous "Before a Mirror" show a virtually photographic ability, at a time when such faithful reproduction of subjects was going out of fashion.

Friday, 4 May 2012

The coalition must not lose its nerve

The local election results will put pressure on the government to change its financial strategy, but to do so would produce no immediate benefits and may well spook the lenders on whom the UK economy depends. The cuts in government spending (or, rather, reductions in the rate at which the deficit and borrowing are increasing) have been decided upon. While these are more front-end loaded than Liberal Democrats and Labour would have wanted (the "too fast" of the Labour mantra), they have been set in train and it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. It is worth repeating that the cuts planned by Labour in 2010, those in the Liberal Democrats' manifesto, and what the coalition has actually implemented are all in the same region. 

The UK government should at least wait to see what growth measures the new French president, to be elected on Sunday, proposes and what the international financial community's response to them is. The preliminary verdict is adverse. 

I agree that VAT should be cut. Being a regressive tax, it should be cut when we can afford it. But cutting it now would have the short-term effect of sucking in imports, worsening our already enormous trade gap, and a temporary cut would be more trouble to small business than it was worth, as Labour's experiment in 2009 showed.

The point is that the recovery is under way. It may not seem like that to the people who have lost their jobs in the wave of cuts scheduled in the aftermath of the 2008 financial melt-down, but full-time employment is going up, exports are going up and the mood of many industry leaders interviewed after the March GDP figures were released is remarkably upbeat. There are even signs on the high street that confidence is returning. Round here at least the number of boarded-up shops is reducing.

The recovery is slow and the check caused by the attack on eurozone countries slowed it up further, but it is there. There are also measures in the UK programme which will stimulate the domestic economy, like the railway electrification programme, but these will take time to work through.

There is just one thing that the government can do which would have an almost immediate effect: force banks to increase their lending to small businesses, and to reduce the punitive interest rate on business loans.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Fracking meeting

There will be a consultation meeting, sponsored by the Department of Energy, in the Dyfatty Centre, Swansea, from 17:30 on 19th May.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Don't stay at home tomorrow

It is important that voters do not let the opinion surveys published by the press put them off voting. The result in your local ward is more likely to be determined (quite rightly) by local issues than by national trends. Polling by newspapers always underestimates the support for Liberal Democrats, smaller parties and independents anyway. This may reflect the survey methods, but I suggest that it is also down to bias in the way that the questions that are asked and the results are presented. There is no UK national newspaper which is committed to Liberal Democracy and there is a distinct Labour bias to the major South Wales newspapers.

So don't be put off by the headlines. Where there is a contest, there are no foregone conclusions. Come out and vote!

Another benefit of a non-Labour government

Before the last general election, I posted about the implications of what was already obvious, that the largest party would be the Conservatives but that they would not have an overall majority. I suggested that we could support a minority Conservative government on three fronts which would not be possible with Labour: sound finances (obviously), decentralisation of government and restoration of individual freedoms. As it turned out, we were virtually forced by the international financial situation to form a binding coalition, but the predicted benefits have largely come forward. The last of these emerged earlier this week in the form of the Protection of Freedoms Act.

Peter Black has more details and Jonathan Calder relays comments from long-time supporters of civil rights.