Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Vannevar Bush and Theodor Nelson

 - not to mention Herbert George Wells.

This article by Alice on the intellectual roots of the World Wide Web is worth reading.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Tories should not bash trade unions

As I often say, trade unions are a necessary part of the capitalist system. The current spate of anti-TU rhetoric has progressed (if that is the right word) from a justified exposure of the undue influence particular unions have on Labour candidate selection - possibly involving fraud in some cases - to a generalised attack on trade unionism as a whole. The intent is clearly to make "trade unionist" a term of abuse in the public mind. A similar attempt to tarnish "liberal" a decade ago failed, and one hopes that the latest effort will do, too. I would guess that the campaign emanates from Lynton Crosby, Cameron's "attack dog" (or should that be "smoking beagle"?). It certainly looks like a smokescreen to divert attention from the motley vested interests funding the Conservative party.

Anyway, I was going to deliver a long piece about how Conservatives should recall their party's history, but I see that Robert Halfon MP has got there first - and added a few surprising facts about Margaret Thatcher which I was unaware of. His whole piece is on the Total Politics web pages, but these are the key paragraphs as far as my thesis goes:

The truth is that while the Conservative Party has a long history of caring for trade unionists, the battles with Arthur Scargill in the 1980s and the miners’ strikes have clouded many people’s perceptions. I suspect you don’t believe me, but let me ask you this: who first set out to legalise the trade union movement? A Conservative, indeed a Conservative prime minister: the Earl of Derby. And who said that the law should not only permit, but also “assist” the trade unions? It was Margaret Thatcher.

In fact, Mrs Thatcher was a committed trade unionist. The first political office she held was in the Conservative Trade Unionists (CTU). Perhaps because of this she understood very well something that many Tories now forget: that most trade union members are not political. They are commuters, workers, people going about their daily lives. That is why, as leader of the opposition, she fought hard to recruit members for the CTU. It is hard to imagine now, but in 1979, trade union members flew banners in Wembley Stadium that read: “Trade Unions for a Conservative Victory.”

(I would only add that Norman Tebbit, Mrs T's loyal lieutenant, was a member of the airline pilots trade union before entering parliament, and even admitted in a recent Radio 4 programme that he was an admirer of Ernie Bevin, that formidable TGWU organiser.)

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Government borrowing coming down.

A little while ago, I complained about Labour comparing provisional figures for 2012/13 with revised figures for 2011/12, and loudly drawing the false conclusion that government borrowing was rising. It seems that a first correction is already available, but we haven't heard an apology from Mr Balls.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Rise in English pupil premium reaffirmed

David Laws, Minister of State at the Department for Education, today confirmed that the rise in the pupil premium scheduled for 2014/15 in England would go ahead. Presumably an equivalent sum will be added to the Welsh settlement, but I have yet to find whether this will be passed on in the same way by the Welsh Government.

Later: the new rate will be £100 per pupil higher than predicted. David Laws writes:

We may be asking primary schools to aim higher, but we are giving them the funds to do it.  Nick Clegg has today announced the largest ever increase in the pupil premium for primary schools, from £900 to £1,300 in 2014/15 for every disadvantaged child, when the pupil premium reaches the full £2.5billion as promised on the front page of the Liberal Democrat manifesto.  For the first time, primary schools pupils will attract a higher pupil premium – because Liberal Democrats know that making a difference early has the greatest impact on a child’s life.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Sporting bandwagons

I had a little argument with Chris Read on Facebook the other day about politicians latching on to sporting success. The occasion was, of course, the Downing Street photo-shoot featuring Andy Murray. I'd love to know what Murray, who has occasionally shown that he has a sardonic sense of humour, said in private about this circus.

Chris reckoned that this political bandwagoning was a recent phenomenon and I was possibly too quick in countering with Harold Wilson's readiness to milk show-business and sporting successes. (This all turned sour in 1970, of course.) On reflection, Wilson seems an exception. The other leaders of that era - Heath and Callaghan - eschewed such publicity. Indeed, in that silver jubilee year of 1977 when Virginia Wade won Wimbledon, Geoff Boycott completed a century of centuries and Liverpool won the European Cup, I can find no trace of Callaghan associating himself with any of them. Heath was PM when Ann Haydon-Jones won in 1971. In spite of the fact that she had married a businessman and might therefore have played into the Conservative image, Heath did not seize the photo-opportunity. Thatcher would no doubt have used such an exceptional event as a Wimbledon title if she had had the opportunity, but her memorable photo appearances relate to more business-like subjects (e.g. with the armed forces or cradling a calf on a farm).

Looking back further, Angela Mortimer beat Christine Truman* (now Janes) in 1961 towards the end of the Macmillan era. Macmillan did not hold garden-parties even for lions of literature (his main interest outside politics) let alone sportspeople.

There is another aspect to Labour leaders pre-Blair and their relationship with lawn tennis: that of class. Even Wilson would have found it difficult to associate himself with an event contested until 1968 by people of independent means. Both Callaghan and Wilson would surely have known of the way Fred Perry, the son of a Labour MP, remained unaccepted by the LTA establishment even after winning the men's title three times. Association football, the people's game, would have presented no such worries.

Finally, while we are remembering British Ladies tennis title-winners, I must add that Angela Mortimer, Shirley Bloomer (Brasher), Ann Haydon-Jones (twice), Christine Truman and Sue Barker have all been French champions since the war. No British man has been successful in Paris since Fred Perry in 1935.

* Truman would surely have won that year, as she had been widely expected to, if she had not been handicapped in the final by an injury incurred in an earlier round.

Disrespect for MPs

It may seem perverse to criticise the NHS over the border, when we have troubles of our own in Wales, but Jeremy Hunt's performance in the House last Thursday seemed to me an extreme example of government's attitude to the democratic process. His greatest insult was to give no warning to local MPs that he was about to make a statement about changes to hospital services in north-west England. The Hansard report hints at the barely-concealed anger on the part of opposition members. This was not helped by the minister's choosing to evade questions and to mount a party-political counter in his responses.

It would not be surprising to learn that the Department of Health deliberately chose to spring the statement on the House on a day when the revelations about electronic tagging rip-offs would grab all the headlines. If so, the Department's spin-doctors were successful. No doubt north-west ITV and BBC bulletins carried the news, but the Manchester, Lancashire and Cumbria rationalisation was absent from BBC News nationally.

It has to be said that the habit of considering MPs last when releasing information about government initiatives was inherited from administrations going back to 1979, when PR really came to dominate government. Moreover, there are ministers in the coalition whose first thought is not to talk to the media about policy initiatives before bringing them before Parliament. Not all of these ministers are Liberal Democrats and sadly not all Liberal Democrat ministers are blameless. However, there are signs that Speaker Bercow's strong views on the matter are having some effect. Whether this effect will hold as we approach the general election is another matter.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Welfare cuts: the case is not black-and-white

As Stephen Tall remarks, the Conservatives' current campaign demonises Labour and the Liberal Democrats as being on the side of scroungers, based on some rather simplistic opinion survey interpretation. Of course people are going to reply "no" if asked whether the out-of-work should be paid more than those who have a job, or if recipients of housing allowance should be paid for rooms they do not need but this should not be taken as endorsement of other mean-minded cuts which Osborne favours. Tall reckons that the concentration on cutting social spending is a sign that the Conservatives feel they need to concentrate on their core vote.

If the current economic upturn continues, there may be no need for such trench warfare. The electorate if it feels good will give credit to the incumbent parties. Besides, at times of economic well-being people are more generous, less inclined to look around for scapegoats. There is plenty of time for the Conservatives to change tack if they need to, but for the foreseeable future they need to hang on to their party workers in the face of poaching by UKIP in order to hold on in county by-elections as far as they can.

I trust that the next Liberal Democrat manifesto will undertake to reverse the Tory cuts which affect the poorest. However, there is one area which could do with tweaking, and that is the triple-lock guarantee.

Tories inveigh against welfare spending (by the way, when did we accept the American usage which tends to be used abusively, rather like "liberal"?), but the greatest single component of the welfare budget is the state pension. It has long puzzled me why the third lock of the guarantee is a minimum 2.5% annual increase in the pension. There was obviously a need to avoid another 75p moment, something which dogged Gordon Brown. More likely was an assumption that when the credit constipation was over UK would resume GDP growth of 2-3%, so that pension increases in that range could be afforded even if the wages rate and consumer prices indices indicated otherwise. However, several commentators have suggested that the days of GDP growth of more than 2% are over for mature economies and that 1% trend growth is more realistic.

So it would make sense to keep the link to the higher of WI and CPI, but to reduce the third lock from 2.5% to 1%. This change would have made no difference since the coalition came to power nor for the foreseeable future as inflation forges ahead, but when this is under control and assuming that wage rates continue to be constrained, it would seem right not to give us old-age pensioners special privileges over other social security recipients.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Whicker's War over

The sad death of Alan Whicker announced today reminds me of a shameful episode in US history. Whicker was part of the Allied forces liberating Italy via the beaches of Anzio and Sicily. He recalled that after the successful takeover of Sicily, the British were able to establish non-Fascist civil government on the island. For reasons which can only be guessed at, the US insisted that only the Mafia had the ability to organise the post-war island, overruled the British and thus sowed the seeds of trouble for the future of both US and Italian authorities. (It should be remembered that about the only good thing that Mussolini did was to emasculate the Mafia.)

I fear that the same mistake is being made in Afghanistan as the US goes over the head of the elected president to talk to the Taliban and put at risk all the gains which have been made.

Vince Cable: a model statement and answers

Whatever one may think of the policies for Royal Mail and the Post Office (and the decision to split the two and commercialise them was taken long before the current government), Vince Cable's statement to the House last Wednesday was to the point. Beyond reminding MPs that Peter Mandelson had tried and failed to privatise Royal Mail when Labour was in power, it was also devoid of party political point-scoring. His answers to questions were equally pithy and his tone towards the CWU (which is the main union organising in the Royal Mail) diplomatic.

One of Vince's longest answers was significant:

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Some 20 years ago, as Post Office Minister, I tried to privatise Royal Mail. We could not get it through because of Labour intransigence. Labour Members were wrong then and they are wrong now. Has not the only result of the delay been a lack of investment and an inability on the part of this publicly owned corporation to respond to international and technological challenges?
Vince Cable: I know that it is tempting to blame the Labour party for a lot of things, but I seem to remember that the attempted privatisation under the hon. Gentleman’s stewardship ground to a halt because Mrs Thatcher was against it. We have moved on and circumstances are different. Indeed, this is a substantial commitment to making a real success of what the Prime Minister called a very important public service.
Speaker Bercow was moved to comment at the end of the Statement:
Mr Speaker: We are grateful to the Secretary of State and to colleagues. Fifty-two Back Benchers questioned him in 38 minutes of Back-Bench time. If other Ministers were as brief in responding, we would get everybody in every time.
The Statement came immediately after a rowdy Prime Minister's Questions at which David Cameron dragged in repeated attacks on trade union links with the Labour Party, whether related to the question or not. The Speaker clearly lost his patience at one point, cutting off such a tirade:

Q6. [164133] Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Is the Prime Minister aware that there is widespread agreement in this House about the importance of investment in infrastructure and indeed widespread agreements about its job-creating potential? Can he therefore tell us why, after three years in office, employment in the construction sector has fallen by 84,000 people?
The Prime Minister: Employment in construction is currently rising, and the recent news on construction has been very good. That is because we have an infrastructure plan, a fifth of the projects are under way and we have road building at far higher levels than it ever was under the Labour Government. Whereas Labour electrified literally five miles of railway line, we are going to electrify hundreds of miles of railway line. I note that the hon. Gentleman does not mention the fact that he has been paying rent to Unite in his constituency. Normally, it is money from Unite to Labour; in this case, it is from— 

Mr Speaker: Order. I call Mr Rees-Mogg.

I am very much on Mr Bercow's side, as I trust are most followers of Hansard and those tuning in to BBC-Parliament hoping to engage with reasoned debate. However, his conduct is increasingly being seen as a betrayal, an attack on his former Conservative friends and there is already at least one "oust Bercow" club on the government benches. One trusts that the whole House will resist such moves.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Proms budget misdirected

Like Pliable, I believe that the level of spending by the BBC on real music is about right. However, he does a public service with his continuing campaign against the slice of the budget going to star performers (and of course the fees going to their powerful agents). He cites in particular the passing over at this year's Proms of a high-quality home-grown production of Wagner in favour of an expensive import.

But I would go further. In this bicentenary year of both Wagner and Verdi, why is the Proms programme so weighted in favour of the former, when it seems that performances of The Ring cycle have been everywhere in the last few years? Giuseppe Verdi is represented only by The Force of Destiny towards the end of the season and one chorus on the last night. I cannot believe the excuse offered by the organiser, that there are too few Italian tenors available. Presumably there is a glut of Wagner singers.

It is ironic that in this period of revolutions around the Mediterranean, Verdi, who became the artistic figurehead for revolt against the Hapsburgs and also wrote an Egypt-based opera, has been passed over in favour of an apostle for the Reich. (Though Richard Wagner was a socialist firebrand in the earlier year of revolutions, 1848, something he conveniently forgot in later years.)

Would it not have been better if the Proms, traditionally a combination of the popular and the unfamiliar, had introduced some of the lesser-known works of Wagner instead of The Ring and, if there really is such a shortage of appropriate singers in the Italian tradition, performances of Verdi's (admittedly slim) chamber music catalogue?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Ten per cent is not enough

HM Treasury has been seduced by the success of the recent flotation of the Belgian Post Office into pushing for the short-term gain of a ninety per cent sell-off of Royal Mail, according to leaks. The long-term benefit to the organisation and customers alike of real co-ownership (no doubt pressed by Vince Cable and Jo Swinson) is being down-played. I note that the minister in his statement today has still not committed to the proportion of the shares which will be floated on the market, except that it will be a majority.

There will be a future for the Mail, as parcel deliveries are buoyant, making up for the decline in personal letters. Vince Cable restated the government's commitment to the Universal Postal Service.

Post Office Limited, which was separated from the Mail some time ago, may well be mutualised in the future.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Uniqlo in Bangladesh

The discreet sponsor's badge on Novak Djokovic's shirt throughout his Wimbledon campaign intrigued me. I discovered a few days after the final that it was that of a Japanese manufacturer of casual wear, and one with an interesting relationship with Bangladesh. Uniqlo did not sign up to the safety pact drawn up by most other clothing companies with factories there after the Dhaka collapse, but is the first of the big international chains to open stores in Dhaka.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Robert King website

Long overdue, an invaluable resource may be with us soon: http://www.spanglefish.com/neathguardian/news.asp?intent=viewstory&newsid=54156

The bank that empowers poor women is under threat

According to this report, the Bangladesh government last week took the decision to seize majority control of the Grameen Bank. According to the Indian Express, the United States government has publicly expressed disquiet over the moves, but the UK, a fellow-member of the Commonwealth, has not made any public protest. Even more surprising, I can find no record of a parliamentary question on the subject to International Development Minister Justine Greening.

I support the Jubilee campaign, but even more effective than forgiving third-world government debt is incenting people to improve their circumstances by their own efforts. Grameen was doubly effective in that it also empowered women in a Muslim nation. (The bank lends mainly to women. This was as much a pragmatic as a liberal decision; if I recall correctly, founder Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus learned early on that women were much more reliable in their repayments than men.) It would be a major setback for Bangladesh if Grameen were to be neutered - or worse, looted by corrupt ministers and government officials.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Confused Labour

Owen Jones, the Dave Spart de nos jours, wrote in the Indy yesterday:

George Osborne’s political career should be lying face down, lifeless, bobbing in the Thames. His statement last week should have been rebranded “The Comprehensive Review of the Failure of Austerity”. The Tories’ central pledge at the last election, after all, was that the deficit would be erased, wiped out, vanished over the course of this Parliament: there should have been no alleged need for further cuts after 2015.

Either deliberately or out of ignorance Jones fails to point out that the coalition abandoned the Conservatives deficit reduction schedule in favour of a less stringent programme in line with the Liberal Democrat manifesto (and with slightly less front-loading than Alistair Darling's Labour plans).  In other words, the government is doing just what the opposition says it should be doing. Of course, the PM and Chancellor cannot admit to this, because it involves increasing debt until the deficit is eliminated. They do not want to give any more ammunition to the "dries" behind them on the Conservative benches.

As to the 2012/13 borrowing, it should be remembered that the 2011/12 figures have been revised downwards, so that the 2012/13 provisionals look particularly bad by comparison.

Another factor which Jones does not mention is the unexpected severity of the attack on the eurozone from 2010 on, which depressed economic activity on the continent, in turn reducing UK exports and thence tax take.

However, there are limits to what governments can achieve. They cannot provide the dynamic to drive the economy. That comes from entrepreneurs and companies.