Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Mice keep their word, men break their promises

This is the counter-ethical world of Tim Yeo, who has called on the coalition to renege on its promise not to build a third runway at London Heathrow. (There is more in the Daily Telegraph.) Guido Fawkes here and here has drawn attention to the links between Yeo's public statements and his business interests. One wonders whether other proponents of London airport expansion (Grant Shapps,  Sajid Javid & Matthew Hancock, Alistair Darling and most of the last Labour cabinet) also have vested interests. Large construction companies contribute to the Conservative Party. Investment banks would make a turn on providing the capital funds, and we have seen how close leading Labour figures have been to bankers.

There has to be a very good reason for tearing up more of the British countryside, including at least one long-established village community. The current chant is that it would be good for business. But it would not address what has been the major obstacle to business for the last five years: the lack of investment. There is no point in increasing the landing slots in the London area if there is no increase in commerce or industry which could benefit from them.

Another argument is that Britain needs a hub airport on the lines of Paris Charles de Gaulle, Amsterdam  Schiphol and Frankfurt. One wonders how much the increased opportunity for changing planes has given to those cities. By that yardstick Clapham Junction should be the richest area of London and Crewe that of north-west England.

If it is essential for national pride to host the largest number of aircraft movements in Europe, it would make more sense to expand a British airport where there is room to do so with minimum impact on nearby towns and villages. Easy connection to major road and rail routes is clearly important (thus ruling out merging St Athan into Cardiff Airport ;-)). The obvious candidate is Birmingham.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Labour can't complain about borrowing figures

 UK public sector borrowing last month unexpectedly rose. Labour's Rachel Reeves blames the coalition's deficit reduction plan for the reverse, yet Labour's ripping wheeze for raising GDP implies more borrowing.

VAT and income tax seem to be coming in in line with the coalition's plans.The shortfall is largely due to poor corporation tax returns. Labour is silent on means for increasing the tax take from companies, but this is hardly surprising given their cosiness with large corporations during the Blair/Brown years.

I wonder whether something else is happening in big plcs. Corporation tax is due to fall to 23% in 2013/14. Could it be that expenditure is being brought forward while accounting for sales is being pushed back?

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Steam Sundays up the Llynfi valley?

Gary Lewis writes from Maesteg:

 I noticed that there are no trains to Maesteg on a Sunday.
While some may see this as a failure, on the part of the rail operating companies, I see an opportunity.
At the beginning of the month I went along to the Dean Forest Railway, photos of which are on my facebook page. This track run by volunteers, contains some 2.5 miles of track, a number of coaches, a 0-6-0 BR Pannier, a 0-6-0 Saddle Loco, an old Diesel Multiple Unit, and other rolling stock.
Would anyone fancy the idea of having a "Steam Day" in the Llynfi Valley?? Huge amount of track, running from Platform 3, Bridgend Train Station through Tondu, all the way up to Maesteg... In addition, at Tondu, by the Signal Box is some more track, going down past Parc Slip all the way to Pyle.
What an opportunity to bring steam back into the valley for a few Sundays in the summer months.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The railway market and tax farming

Thanks to the Tax Justice Network for pointing out a piece by Mary Beard, drawing an analogy between the tax farming system of ancient Rome (and, if memory of A-level French literature studies serves, pre-revolutionary France) and the financing of the British railway system. (This is sometimes described as Thatcherite, but it should be remembered that it was set up under John Major.)

Professor Beard writes:
The jewel in the crown of Roman private enterprise was tax farming. When the republican Romans wanted to (say) impose taxes on a province, they didn't collect the taxes through state officials, but by offering the tax contract to rival bidding companies -- of "tax-farmers" or publicani (the 'publicans' of the King James Bible). It was a simple principle. The companies offered their bids, waving the figure they would hand over to the Roman treasury for the taxes of the province, and anything else they made in the process of collection was their profit. The higher they bid, the more they had to squeeze cash out of the poor bloody provincials to make any money for themselves (and that meant intimidation, violence, extortion etc ... which wasnt exactly a vote-loser in the ancient Roman province, but was a bundle of trouble for the Roman administration). If they really bid too high, they could come off with a loss.

It seems to me that there is one major (pun not intended) difference between fermiers généraux and publicani on the one hand and the railway pseudo-market on the other: in the former case, money did actually come back to the state.

Hard cases make bad law

It seems that William Hague is threatening the Ecuadoran ambassador with action under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 as a result of his government's decision to treat Julian Assange as a political refugee.

One can question the grounds for granting asylum: Wikipedia describes it as "an ancient juridical notion, under which a person persecuted for political opinions or religious beliefs in his or her own country may be protected by another sovereign authority, a foreign country, or church sanctuaries". Assange is not under threat in his native country of Australia. He is also facing criminal charges, not political ones, in a country (Sweden) which has rather more civic freedom than the U.K.

However, that does not justify taking the drastic step of declaring that the Ecuadoran embassy has been misused to the degree that its diplomatic status can be withdrawn. If the 1987 Act is invoked, UK embassies and consulates, hitherto protected by the Vienna Convention (United Nations pdf here), will be considered fair game by tinpot dictatorships and less-than-friendly governments round the world.

The 1987 was enacted by a Conservative government against the background of the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher by automatic fire from the Libyan People's Bureau. It was obviously intolerable that the "diplomatic bag" should be used to smuggle weapons into the country, but the FO was given more sweeping powers than were necessary. (One wonders whether the Act was necessary in the case of Libya anyway, since Gadaffi had abolished traditional embassies in favour of people's bureaux whose protection by the Vienna Convention must have been a grey area.)

As to Assange, the government should accept the situation. Far better to play the long game. The longer that Assange remains in the embassy, the longer he is likely to be an embarrassment to Ecuador. He is clearly not as ascetic as that other long-term political refugee, Cardinal Mindszenty. Assange's news value will eventually die down and a face-saving formula can be found for his surrender to the authorities.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Making the money flow again

Matthew Oakeshott writes in Liberal Democrat News:

Banks are just like water companies. If they block the money pipes to every business and household, or pollute the reservoirs, the economy chokes and dies. 

He reminds us that he and Vince Cable warned, before the 2007/8 crash, of the insanity of 120% mortgages and the boom fed by borrowing. Gordon Brown, Ed Balls and the City were enamoured of "light touch" regulation. (The same could be said of George Osborne and David Cameron at the time, though they do appear to have seen the light now.) It was really "don't touch" regulation.

There will be no green shoots in the British economy until we make the banks turn the water back on for sound small and mid-sized companies without penal connection charges and running costs.

Lord Oakeshott advocates the full nationalisation of RBS in order to force it to do its basic job. But that seems an extreme option at this stage, since competition may soon cause the high street banks to think again. Michael Robinson, in the second instalment of "Fixing Broken Banking" on Radio 4, expresses the idea that a national cure may be obtained through local action. In particular, he highlights the success of Handelsbanken of Sweden in setting up a hundred local branches (such as Wigan's) in Britain which have returned to the traditional practice of the local bank manager making decisions based on his or her judgment and local knowledge.

The UK banking model of a central program making all the lending decisions based on credit scoring tables, with local staff having to make their branches pay by selling financial products, has been shown to be unsound. There has to be a return to face-to-face banking.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

More wise counsel from Clement Attlee

Tam Dalyell's obituary of Sir Donald Limon, former Clerk of the House of Commons, contains the following anecdote:

I was vexed about press treatment of one of the [Public Accounts] committee's reports. "I commend to you the attitude of Lord Attlee," he replied. "When his press secretary Francis Williams told him, 'Prime Minister, The Times and The Daily Herald are saying dreadful things about you,' Attlee replied, 'Francis, pass me the cricket scores – and the births, marriages and deaths.'" Limon believed politicians should not be unduly upset by press comment. Different days!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Has Cameron done the arithmetic?

The prime minister feels he can afford to disregard the threat from Monday's press conference by Nick Clegg. He has calculated that he can proceed with reduction of the number of Westminster constituencies and redrawing of their boundaries, not to mention imposing his view of what the Welsh political map should look like. He can rely on his 306 members in the House, even those affected by boundary changes, to be loyal on this issue because it is a Conservative one. He can also count on the nine Northern Ireland unionists (including Lady Hermon, who sits as an Independent). That gives a total of 315.

 If (a big "if" judging by their strange voting pattern since the General Election) all the Labour MPs, including the two who have had the whip withdrawn, go into the division lobby with Caroline Lucas of the Greens and all the Liberal Democrats, there is a potential total  against the required subsidiary legislation of 315.
It then gets interesting. Of the remaining 20 MPs, one is Mr Speaker. The five Sinn Feiners have not taken their seats. Can Mr Cameron provide enough sweeteners to the various nationalists to induce  them to support the government, as Labour governments - and John Major - have done before him? What about Naomi Long of the Alliance* and the three SDLP members? They would have benefited from proportional representation for the "Senate" out of the Lords Reform Bill, but that has now been punted into the long grass.

By my reckoning, that just leaves George Galloway (Respect). He could suddenly find himself very popular for a change.

* The Alliance Party is Northern Ireland's equivalent of the Liberal Democrats and has close ties, but Ms Long declined to take the government whip after the coalition was formed.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

What Liberal Democrats are doing in government (continued)

Mark Pack draws attention to the announcement of job creation and retention in a Dagenham company as a result of the coalition's Green Investments initiative, based in Vince Cable's BIS Department. However, look for this positive item in the media and you will largely be unsuccessful. A Web search on "Closed Loop Recycling" and "Guardian" (or "Mirror" or "BBC" or "Telegraph" ...) produces zero results. The latest Independent article I could find was this from 2008. Full marks to the FT for featuring the good news for business last Monday.

Nick Clegg himself said: "The coalition is sometimes presented, in the press, as if it is riddled with debate and division with regard to greening the economy. That isn’t the case.”

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Ninety-one against Nick - and Dave

Mark Pack points out the effect that the Tory rebellion will have in the Lords, as well as in the Commons.  Incidentally, he says that the Conservatives do not have an overall majority in the Lords. This is technically true, but a considerable number of the hundred and eighty-eight cross-bench peers are conservative, even if not Conservative.

As to the withdrawal of support for the constituency boundary review, there is conflicting evidence as to the feelings on the Conservative benches. Sir Menzies Campbell said on the radio yesterday that many of the Conservative MPs he had spoken to were secretly relieved that the cut in number of seats was not going ahead. On the other hand, Guido Fawkes states that even Tories who would see their constituencies disappear altruistically regret that the chop will be deferred as a result of the parliamentary LibDems' decision.

Myself, I believe that the case for getting closer to equal numbers of electors is strong, in view of the anomalies which exist, especially in Wales. However, the reduction of constituencies to six hundred, a figure which was either plucked out of the air as a nice round number or one which gave the Conservatives the best chance of profiting from redistribution, is more debatable. The constituency median size which it produces leads inevitably to geographical anomalies and perhaps the enforced pause will enable the numbers to be looked at again.

Tory opponents of the government stress the link in the coalition agreement to the AV referendum. It cannot be stressed enough that AV is not Liberal Democrat policy. It originated in the Labour Party (see the writings of Peter Hain) and was introduced into coalition talks by Gordon Brown, when it was described by Nick as a miserable little compromise. Nick overstated the case, and it is hard to see how AV found its way into an agreement with the Conservatives, nor why he was in such a hurry to conduct the referendum. The referendum campaign itself was cross-party and organised by an ex-Labour apparatchik. Labour itself turned round and used the referendum as a vote against the budget cuts.

While we are on the subject of hypocrisy, it is a bit rich for the media to complain about the amount of time the coalition partners have been spending on Lords reform when they themselves have blown the disagreements out of all proportion. We certainly should be spending more time correcting lack of fairness in the benefits system. So why are we not seeing more front pages dedicated for instance to the wrongs committed by private companies implementing the Work Capability Assessment? Presumably the Labour-supporting papers do not wish to recall that Labour introduced ATOS and WCA in the first place, while the others regard all claimants as cheating the taxpayer.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Sidelights on Gore Vidal

One of the world's great literary figures died in Los Angeles late last Tuesday. This report in the Irish Independent lists the things he is best known for. The news is not unexpected. He had clearly been ailing for some time, as he himself wryly observed to Melvyn Bragg in one of his last television appearances over here. It is to be hoped that all three of his "South Bank Show" features will be repeated now.

For me, his most considerable work was "Creation", a historical novel which queried the origins of religion and perhaps the reliability of history. It also highlighted a period when, Vidal observed, people started travelling (rather than migrating) in a big way for the first time. This treatment of large themes is the sort of thing that would normally attract the attention of the Nobel committee, but perhaps his other, more controversial writings deterred them from giving the accolade of the Literature prize for his whole body of work.

He famously had spats with many prominent figures in the US. There was an element of homophobia in some of the attacks on him, but the reason for his most visceral loathing, of Robert F Kennedy, remains mysterious. Vidal kept hinting that some day he would reveal what caused the final break-up with Camelot. As far as I know, he never got around to it.

Vidal was an American patriot of a rather complicated sort. He criticised the Establishment, whether Democrats or Republicans were in power. He inveighed against the "American Empire" using military might to extend its power like the barbarian hordes of old (he included the English of the nineteenth century in this category). Being born into the Establishment himself, Vidal's criticisms were all the more pointed - and resented. But I feel that they came out of a desire to save America as much as from a liberal concern for the rest of the world.

Looking for an appropriate footnote, a hurried scamper through Vidal's essays produces this (from "The Twelve Caesars", ?1960):

the surface storminess of our elections disguises a fundamental indifference to human personality: if not this man, then that one, it's all the same. Up to a point there is some virtue in this; and though none can deny that there is a prevailing grayness in our placid land, it is certainly better to be non-ruled by mediocrities than enslaved by Caesars. But to deny the dark nature of human personality is not only fatuous but dangerous. [...] we have been made vulnerable not only to boredom, to that sense of meaningless which more than anything else is characteristic of our age, but vulnerable to the first messiah who offers the young and bored some splendid prospect, some Caesarian certainty. That is the political danger, and it is a real one.

Most of the world today is governed by Caesars. Men are more and more treated as things. Torture is ubiquitous. And, as Sartre wrote in his preface to Henri Alleg's chilling book about Algeria, "Anybody, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner." [Our] great moral task is to hold in balance the angel and the monster within - for we are both, and to ignore this duality is to invite disaster.