Archive for the ‘2015 UK General Election’ Category

Brexit and the rise of English nationalism

06/03/2016

A piece discusses the Brexit debate in the UK, “If a sizeable majority of English voters support Brexit in the forthcoming referendum on membership in the EU, the tottering European project of “ever closer union” will have lost its momentum. The EU would stagger on, attempting to weather a refugee crisis, a dysfunctional financial system, a sluggish economy, and threats on its borders, but who would bet on its permanence, let alone on its effectiveness? Many would look back to the prescience of French President Charles de Gaulle when he vetoed Britain’s first application to enter the European Economic Community in 1963: “England is an island,” he said, “sea-going, bound up, by its trade, its markets, its food supplies, with the most varied and often the most distant countries” — marked, in other words, by its difference from the rest of the Continent”.

The piece goes on to make the point that “It is the gut feelings of the people of England that will be decisive. I stress England because feelings here are very different from those in Scotland, Wales, and perhaps Northern Ireland. England is at the core of British euroscepticism: The largest overtly eurosceptic political movement in Britain, the U.K. Independence Party, despite its name, is a largely English party. The largest semi-eurosceptic party, the Conservatives, are also predominantly English. In a recent front-page pro-Brexit editorial, Britain’s Daily Mail roared, bold and in all caps: ‘Who Will Speak for England?’ Without specifically English support, Brexit would be a nonstarter”.

He goes on to make the point that euroscepticism has historically been prominent in Scotland but a change has occurred, “One straightforward answer is the politics of the EU itself. In the 1970s, left-wing politicians and poorer voters in less prosperous areas were suspicious of “Europe” as a capitalist conspiracy set up to serve the interests of big business, international banks, and the political elite. And as prime minister in the 1980s, Thatcher indeed promoted free trade and deregulation with her plan for a single European market. But French Socialist Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, responded with a raft of social and environmental protection measures designed to restrain Thatcherite neo-liberalism, flipping the politics of the EU on their head. The British left was converted to Europeanism — Delors was given a standing ovation by the 1988 English Trade Union Congress — while British Tories took umbrage. Part of the division over EU membership in Britain today, then, is between neo-liberals — strongest in England — who see EU regulations as a dangerous handicap to trading success in a globalized world, and their opponents — strongest in Scotland — who see EU regulations as a defense against predatory global capitalism. But economics don’t fully explain the depth of the resistance to more Europe that many English voters see as a fundamental part of their national identity. For that, we must turn to history”.

Correctly he makes the argument that “It is only in recent years that a distinctly English national identity has resurfaced. As the core of a United Kingdom of four nations, and previously the center of a multinational empire, the English had been happy to be “British.” They had no national anthem other than “God Save the Queen”; the old red St. George’s Cross flag rarely made an appearance. As long as the United Kingdom seemed both united and effective, “England” was a matter of poetry, not politics. But Englishness as a political identity has accelerated as a response to two novelties. First, the rise, since the 1980s, of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, which came up in opposition to the free-market policies imposed on the outer regions, from England, by the governments of Thatcher and Tony Blair. In the hope of calming nationalist demands, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — but not England — were given semi-federal governments, creating a new sense of distinction and difference. People in England began to complain of unfair treatment — about English taxes subsidizing Scottish welfare policies and the like. The second stimulus has been the ambition of European idealists to make “Europe,” and not the nation-state, the ultimate source of sovereignty and focus of citizens’ loyalty. At first this seemed just a matter of rhetoric. But the rhetoric, combined with the legal right it has given to large numbers of EU citizens to live, work, and draw welfare benefits in Britain — but mostly, in fact, in England — has fueled a growing sense that England’s parliament, government, and voters no longer have control over their own borders, laws, or population. It was these growing English grievances that helped propel David Cameron’s Tory Party to an unexpected majority in last May’s general elections; the major themes of his campaign were the Labour Party’s supposed dependence on Scottish nationalist support, and Cameron’s promise to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership”.

Pointedly he goes on “Impatience with the workings of the EU is fueling left- and right-wing populism across Europe — often in forms far more angry and extreme than in England. Yet only in England is there a real possibility of a majority actually voting to leave. Why is England contemplating this bold step, when other large and assertive nations such as the French are not? In part, it’s because the idea of a united Europe fits much better with the broad narrative of history in countries such as France, Germany, or Italy, who naturally feel themselves to be inherently continental. The French often present the whole project of European integration as their own design, traced back not only to Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman in the 1950s, but to Victor Hugo in the 1860s, Napoleon in the 1800s, and the 18th-century Enlightenment. England fits far less easily into this idea of a European destiny — most obviously, as Gen. de Gaulle was aware, because its history is far more global. It’s worth noting, too, that several key EU nations, including France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Ireland, have histories in which great national decisions have been taken by an enlightened vanguard, with the mass of the people eventually acquiescing — sometimes willingly, often not”.

Perhaps the most important point he makes is that “the greatest difference of all is psychological. European integration is a project based on fear. Fear of war, of foreign domination, of civil conflict, of authoritarian government, of Communism. France and the other pioneers in the 1950s feared Germany. Germany feared being hated. Of the newer members who joined in the 1980s and ‘90s, Spain, Portugal, and Greece feared a return to right-wing dictatorship. The Eastern European countries feared Russia. “Europe” offered a new beginning, an escape from the fears of the past. Some of these fears have lessened, but not all. Most moderate people in most Continental countries are genuinely scared of a breakdown of the EU. England is very different: At least half the population is willing to contemplate Brexit. The basic reason is obvious. England suffered far less from Europe’s great 20th-century disasters. It hasn’t lost a major war since 1783, and hasn’t been conquered since 1066. The country’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the EU is found in other lucky parts of Europe — Scandinavia and Switzerland. If large nations like France still fear the ghosts of their history too much to go it alone, many small nations such as Catalonia, Flanders, and also Scotland and Wales, continue to see the EU, whatever its failings, as indispensable to their independence and self-esteem, their protection against big neighbours — including England. In England, on the contrary, many see the EU as such an impediment to political autonomy that they would be willing to face a possible breakup of the United Kingdom by supporting Brexit even as Scottish voters oppose it”.

It concludes “When the campaign begins, the “Out” faction will appeal to history, to ancient rights of self-government, to a brighter future as an autonomous global nation. The “In” faction will revive fears of decline and isolation, arguing that Britain will be more vulnerable, poorer, and less influential should it leave. Much of the discussion will be about bread-and-butter issues — jobs, investment, profits, prices, immigration. But behind this will be the deeper question: Are English voters confident about the ability of Britain — or, if necessary, England, if Scotland goes its own way — to function and prosper outside the EU? Or will they be persuaded that they are too small and too weak? In an uncertain world, the advantage lies with the status quo: Doing nothing seems safer. It may be that a majority of the people of England are inclined to leave the EU, but their politicians and bureaucrats mostly shrink from the task. That English nationalism is on the rise is clear; the results of the coming referendum will reveal whether it has yet to find an effective mouthpiece. If effective leaders emerge during the coming days or weeks, then Brexit is a real possibility”.

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“United Kingdom’s outsized and overleveraged financial sector made the nation suffer disproportionately”

28/06/2015

A report in Foreign Affairs discusses the recent British general election. It argues that both main parties mislead the public about their economic policies.

It opens “This May’s general election wins for British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party confounded opinion pollsters and surely surprised Cameron himself. Despite presiding over five years of budgetary austerity and welfare cuts, a drop in wages by over eight percent from their 2007 peakzero growth in national productivity (which reflects the growth of part-time low-skill employment since the crisis), and missed budgetary targets, the electorate punished not Conservatives but rather their junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, who lost all but eight of their 57 seats in the House of Commons. The Labour Party’s failure to improve significantly on its weak 2010 performance, paired with the quirks of the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post electoral system, did the rest of the work needed to secure a Conservative victory”.

The author correctly notes that “Commentators on the right have been quick to interpret this result as a triumph for austerity politics and fiscal rigour over supposedly anticapitalist (or at least pro-Keynesian) policies advocated by former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who resigned following the results. The Conservatives’ political message throughout the election revolved around the “tough decisions” it had made to cut government programs in order to reduce the budget deficit left behind by the previous Labour administration. Meanwhile, on the center-left, Labour’s failure is seen as proof that it should never have abandoned Tony Blair’s “third way” strategy of socially progressive neoliberalism, which had successfully attracted aspirational middle-class voters”.

He goes on to argue that “A closer look at this election’s results suggests that both of these interpretations are off the mark. Although Labour gained only 700,000 votes since 2010, the true cause of the Conservatives’ success is the spectacular collapse of the Liberal Democrats. By associating with the Conservatives’ austerity policies, the Liberal Democrats forfeited some 4.5 million votes—two-thirds of its vote share. The Conservatives’ real vote share—although the party claimed that it provided Cameron with a mandate to govern—only increased by half a percent”.

As ever in UK politics the major culprit for these skewed figures is the wacky electoral system of fptp, a system that should only ever by used in a two party system. Now however the two party system is dead but the two main parties are trying desperately to cling onto it instead of having some form of PR and a more representative and democratic system of electing MPs.

He mentions that “Cameron’s party may have another five years in power, but the real winners of this year’s election were fringe parties such as the UK Independence Party, which advocates a freeze on immigration and an exit from the European Union, and the Scottish National Party, which wants Scottish independence and an end to austerity. Both of these parties took millions of votes that Labour was hoping to claim, clearing a path for Cameron’s victory despite most of the British public actively rejecting his party’s policies”.

Pointedly he argues that for all the talks about cutting the deficit the Tories did not really do want they proudly said they would, “Despite Conservative spending cuts, the United Kingdom’s deficit was reduced by only half of what the party anticipated when it took office in 2010. The nation’s economy did not start to grow until late 2013, after a panicked treasury minister, George Osborne, relaxed austerity measures. The United Kingdom’s economic problems, the Conservatives maintained, were the result of Labour’s supposed profligacy in running budget deficits during the boom years of the early 2000s, leaving the economy exposed to the financial crisis. This, they argued, made draconian spending cuts inevitable. However, as the crisis hit in 2007, the United Kingdom had the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the G7, lower than when Labour had taken power a decade earlier. And if Labour was supposedly running excessive deficits, the markets remained strangely unconcerned, with market rates on British bonds running close to pre-collapse lows. This left many wondering why the British budget exploded in 2008 and what it might say about coalition rule in the United Kingdom”.

The writer makes the excellent point that “Cameron did not discuss why the United Kingdom’s outsized and overleveraged financial sector made the nation suffer disproportionately from the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Financial deregulation and the unsustainable growth in private, not public, credit fatally exposed the United Kingdom’s banks to the United States’ subprime credit crisis. The collapse in credit growth in 2007–09 hurt the United Kingdom’s budget not because the Labour government was too deep in debt but because the national economy was more dependent on financial activity than elsewhere. By 2007, the British Exchequer was taking nearly 25 percent of total tax revenue out of the financial sector just prior to the crisis, which was a mere ten percent of the economy. With the financial crisis, these revenues plummeted, leaving the government short of cash and needing to borrow heavily”.

He correctly writes that the poor suffered most under the government, “The Conservative–Liberal Democratic coalition diagnosed the nation’s woes as symptoms of Labour spending excessively on welfare and wealth redistribution. The government then set about reducing the deficit by slashing social programs and public employment. Austerity policies very quickly pushed the economy back to a near recession, averted only by slowing the pace of deficit reduction and encouraging private sector credit growth through government guarantees on home loans. The coalition’s spending cuts were never reinstated once the economy began to recover, and its austerity policies were politically selective. Health care and pensions were spared the ax—programs that disproportionately benefit older citizens who tend to vote Conservative. The government focused its cuts instead on the younger end of the working population. Spending on these groups was already lower than on the elderly, which required cuts to be deeper in order to provide substantial savings”.

He concludes “The economic crisis that hastened New Labour’s demise had nothing to do with overspending and everything to do with its uncritical acceptance of twenty-first-century financial innovation and its excesses. Before analysts conclude that Labour has no choice but to shift to the right, we need to remember the lessons of the global financial crisis: a balanced budget will not save a government from the failures of a banking sector that is too big to bail out, and mere economic facts seldom defeat ideologies”.

Blair’s Scottish legacy

24/06/2015

A piece in Foreign Affairs examines the legacy of Tony Blair on the United Kingdom, “In 1998, the British Parliament fulfilled an election promise that then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair had made in 1997 and passed the Scotland Act, paving the way for Scotland to elect its own legislature. In 1999, almost 300 years after the old “Estates of Scotland” were absorbed into the Palace of Westminster, an independent unicameral Parliament returned to Edinburgh. For the next 15 years, the Scottish executive and Parliament focused on the nuts and bolts of institution building and governance. Then, in September 2014, Scotland exploded. The ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) presided over a referendum on national independence that sent shock waves across the United Kingdom”.

The writer goes onto argue “Days before the referendum, with the race too close to call in polling, the Scottish Labour Party scrambled to ramp up a “Better Together,” or “No,” campaign, which received a behind-the-scenes assist from the virtually moribund Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Labour’s performance was feeble. Had it not been for voters’ fears about negative economic repercussions of independence and a rousing 12th-hour speech in defense of the union from former Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown—a Scot with a flair for fiery oratory—the “Yes” votes might have won the day. In the event, the SNP lost the referendum. But the Labour Party seems to have lost Scotland”.

He goes on to mention that “The May 7 British general election thus seems set to rewrite the political legacy of Tony Blair. Up until 2014, Blair—who left 10 Downing Street in 2007 after a decade in power—was credited with putting Labour back in power after years of failure. Blair won three successive general elections by pulling Labour from left to center, by giving more powers to Scotland and other local authorities after decades of centralisation under Conservative Party governments, and by essentially usurping key elements of the Conservatives’ economic and social agenda. His twin goals were to strengthen the Labour Party and to strengthen the union. In 2015, both look weaker than before, and Blair’s political heirs are dealing with the unintended consequences of his policy success. Scottish devolution led the United Kingdom to the brink of dissolution in 2014—and it may well again. Blair’s blurring of the traditional British party distinctions in creating “New Labour” has resulted in one of the most contested and consequential elections in decades”.

He adds that “During his time in office, Blair steadily distanced himself from the old Labour base of rank-and-file party activists who entered politics through the industrial trade unions. He filled his cabinet with technocrats and “professional politicians,” who were elected to safe parliamentary seats in the Labour heartland. Blair and many of the people he picked were socially and educationally similar to their ideological rivals in the Conservative Party. New Labour’s MPs had few roots in their constituencies and very little in their personal backgrounds that resonated with the average voter. Today, Miliband and Cameron struggle to distinguish themselves from each other and a larger pack of political contenders who are widely seen as members of a homogeneous London-centric elite”.

He ends the piece “In the midst of their posturing, Nicola Sturgeon, the new leader of the SNP and first minister of the Scottish Parliament, has been hailed as one of the most charismatic British politicians of her generation. One of Sturgeon’s speeches on March 28 in Glasgow was described by a British political commentator as “the kind of speech . . . that a Labour politician in Scotland would have wanted to make and that a Scottish Labour voter would have wanted to hear.” Sturgeon and the SNP have galvanized voters with their anti–Westminster elite, pro-people message. Other national party players such as Wales’s Plaid Cymru and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which will both gain seats in Westminster, have helped amplify this message”.

He notes that “It is a message that also resonates in England, but for different reasons. In the 1990s, Scots felt detached from London because of Conservative government policies in the previous decade that had concentrated political and economic power in Westminster. Now the English feel detached from London because of the devolution of power away from Westminster. Since 1999, resentment has increased in the English electorate about what is sometimes called the West Lothian question: Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs can vote on all matters affecting Britain, but English MPs have no say in the legislative process in devolved territories”.

Conservative victory

09/05/2015

In a mix of pathetic pleading and bullying in the day before the general election David Cameron has “urged the British public not to “do something you’ll regret” as voters head to the polls for the closest general election in a generation. With the final round of opinion polls showing Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck, the Prime Minister uses a Telegraph interview to urge voters to reflect in the “solemn quiet” of the polling booth before casting their ballot. Mr Cameron says that the 2015 general election will “define this generation” with major constitutional and economic issues at stake for the country. The last round of opinion polls and forecasts from bookmakers suggests that the election will lead to a chaotic result – with Labour and the SNP vying with the Conservatives, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, to form the next Government. Senior Conservatives privately hope that, as in 1992, the opinion polls are not reflective of the nation’s mood and that so-called “shy Tories” or people having last-minute doubts over Labour’s credibility could yet swing behind Mr Cameron. On current polling, the Tories are hopeful of winning at least 290 seats – potentially as many as 300. They require at least 323 seats to claim a majority in the House of Commons and would therefore need the support of at least one other party under this scenario”.

These gains have come at the expense of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems went from nearly 60 seats to less than 10. Reports indicate that “Nick Clegg is expected to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats after the party slumped to its worst ever showing at a general election. After narrowly hanging on to his Sheffield Hallam seat with a much reduced majority, Mr Clegg said he would make an announcement about his future after meeting with colleagues today. Nick Clegg came under heavy fire from Labour, which hoped to decapitate the Lib Dem leadership. In the event, Mr Clegg held on, albeit with a reduced majority”.

At the same time as the Lib Dem wipeout the Labour Party has been destroyed in Scotland. The Guardian reports that the SNP “has won an extraordinary landslide victory in the general election in Scotland after the Scottish National party crushed Labour, inflicting a series of humiliating defeats on the party’s leadership. In a series of dramatic victories for the SNP that left Scottish Labour effectively decapitated and the Liberal Democrats reduced to a tiny handful of seats, Sturgeon’s party was on the brink of securing nearly all of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. The SNP swept aside once-unassailable majorities for Labour with swings as high as 35%, as voters threw out Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, its former deputy leader, Anas Sarwar, and Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish secretary. The avalanche also carried off Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary who had been in charge of Ed Miliband’s general election campaign. He was defeated by Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old politics student who has yet to finish her degree and who is now the youngest MP elected since 1667. Alexander admitted Scotland’s voters had lost trust in the Labour party, which had started the campaign defending 41 seats”.

Related to this is the loss of many high profile names, “During a night that saw the Scottish National Party wipe Labour off the map in Scotland and a huge decline in support for the Liberal Democrats there were many big name MPs that could not hold onto their seats. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander was the highest ranking politician to lose his seat in the general election. The Liberal Democrat, who was at the heart of the coalition government, is one of many who have been ousted from office in the wake of the SNP’s historic landslide. Vince Cable blamed a campaign of “fear” by the Tories for a “terrible night” for the Liberal Democrats as he became the latest in a string of high-profile party figures to lose their seats. The Business Secretary was defeated by Conservative Tania Mathias by 25,580 votes to 23,563 in the seat he had held since 1997″.

The piece adds later that “Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy lost his seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. Mr Kennedy has endured the highs and lows of political life. Having taken his party to its best election result since the 1920s, his leadership ended in ignominy when he was forced to quit after admitting a drink problem. But the Liberal Democrats were not the only party to lose high profile figures. Esther McVey, the Conservatives’ employment minister and one of the most prominent female figures in the Cabinet, lost the key marginal of Wirral West to Labour’s Margaret Greenwood by just 417 votes. It had been a bitter campaign, with anti-Tory activists labelling her “evil in its purest form” and “the smiling, jack-vooted assassin of welfare reform”.

In an image reminiscent of Margret Thatcher’s 1979 victory where she promised to “bring healing” and did the exact opposite, Cameron said that “David Cameron has said he wants to govern for “everyone in our United Kingdom” amid growing fears for the future of the Union after Labour was virtually wiped out in Scotland by the SNP. Alex Salmond warned that Mr Cameron will have “no legitimacy whatsoever in Scotland” after he became one of 56 SNP MPs in Scotland. Only four seats went to other parties. The rise of the SNP saw Labour lose Douglas Alexander, the party’s election chief and shadow foreign secretary, and Jim Murphy, Labour’s leader in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats lost Danny Alexander, the former chief secretary to the Tresury”.

The piece adds “Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and new Tory MP for Uxbridge, said that the Conservatives will need to make a “federal offer” to Scotland. He said: “Everybody needs to take a deep breath and think about how we want the UK to progress. “I think even most people in the SNP, probably in their heart of hearts, most people who voted SNP tonight, do not want to throw away absolutely everything.” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, said that the Conservatives will continue with plans to devolve more powers to Scotland and also press ahead with plans for English votes for English laws. He emphasised that Scotland decided to remain in the Union amid fears that the SNP is now likely to use its mandate to push for a second referendum on Scottish independence”.

A piece notes that “The Conservatives are expected to get a 37% share of the national vote, Labour 31%, UKIP 13%, the Lib Dems 8%, the SNP 5%, the Green Party 4% and Plaid Cymru 1%. Ed Miliband steps down after a “difficult and disappointing” night for Labour which saw Ed Balls lose and Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander defeated by the SNP. Nick Clegg said he would quit as leader after a “crushing” set of losses, which saw Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, David Laws, Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy among a slew of Lib Dem casualties. George Galloway, who was reported to the police for retweeting an exit poll before voting ended, has lost to Labour in Bradford WestNigel Farage has quit as UKIP leader after failing to be elected – although he may stand in the ensuing leadership contest. Douglas Carswell retained his Clacton seat. Conservative minister Esther McVey was the highest-profile Tory loser, defeated by Labour in Wirral West. The Green Party gets one seat after Caroline Lucas retains the Brighton Pavilion constituency she won in 2010″.

 

 

 

Economist 2015:Future of the UK

03/05/2015

In the final report for the 2015 election the Economist considers the future of the UK, “POLITICAL rivals had to admit it: he was perhaps the canniest statesman of his age. He led a powerful, disciplined group of MPs, who, by offering and then withdrawing support from the big political parties, caused havoc in Westminster. He loathed England, seeing it as snobby and imperialistic, and was determined to loosen its grip over his homeland. And in the end his country broke free of the United Kingdom. He was Charles Stewart Parnell, the grandfather of Irish independence. But is it any wonder that Alex Salmond reportedly sees parallels between Parnell’s career and his own? The charismatic former leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) will almost certainly return to Parliament as an MP in May, at the head of a band of separatists. There, like Parnell, he will try to win more powers for his country while steering it towards self-government. Unlike in Parnell’s case, separation might well occur in his lifetime. Indeed, it could happen in the next parliament”.

The piece rightly notes that “When a Labour government began to devolve power to Scotland—and, to a lesser extent, Wales—in 1998, many believed that nationalism would fade away. And for a few years that seemed to happen. But the Scots have come to feel more and more separate from the rest of Britain. Elections to the Scottish Parliament have gradually turned into referendums on the government in Westminster, chiefly benefiting Mr Salmond’s SNP. The party formed a minority government in Scotland in 2007 and swept to outright victory in 2011. The unionist parties in Westminster tried to stop the nationalist engine, promising Scotland more powers over tax and home affairs—and then actually delivering them in the Scotland Act of 2012. But it was too late. Conservative politicians have long been toxic in Scotland, where they are blamed for the decline of heavy industry in the 1980s. But Labour is a spent force, too. The party has neglected Scottish politics, regarding the country as a kind of Westminster farm team. Brilliant left-wing Scots such as Gordon Brown, the last Labour prime minister, and Alistair Darling, the last chancellor, are spirited out to play big roles in London”.

The author makes the excellent point that “In October 2012 David Cameron agreed to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. For many months unionists were complacent: in January 2014 one senior figure in Better Together, the pro-union campaign, told The Economist that the only question was how large the margin of victory would be. But the nationalists ran a shrewd campaign. Scots were assured they could keep everything they liked about Britain, such as the pound, while getting rid of everything they loathed, such as Tory governments and austerity. When a YouGov poll put the nationalists narrowly ahead just two weeks before the vote, unionist leaders panicked. They published a “vow” assuring Scots that they would receive extensive new powers over taxation and welfare if they voted No. Championed in a barnstorming eve-of-poll speech by Mr Brown, this pledge seemed to work. On September 18th Scots voted by 55% to 45% to stay, though the working-class Labour strongholds of Glasgow and Dundee both voted Yes. Mr Salmond resigned”.

The author notes that “Even if support for his party falls back somewhat before the election in May, Mr Salmond will probably lead the third-largest Westminster party and play a pivotal role in the next parliament. He could disrupt the unionist consensus as flamboyantly and effectively as did Parnell”.

Worryingly he argues that “It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the election result does not help the SNP and the broader cause of Scottish nationalism. Another Tory-led government would reinforce the party’s central myth (and it is a myth): that Scotland is starkly more left-wing than England and thus should break free from its right-wing neighbours. A Tory-led government would also hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. That would give Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond a fine excuse to go into the 2016 Scottish elections asking for a mandate for a second independence referendum. Why, they will ask, should Scotland be yanked out of the EU by English voters? A Labour government might be even more dangerous for the union. If the party does not obtain a majority, it might try to govern with the support of Scottish nationalist MPs. Although the two parties probably would not form a coalition, the SNP has declared itself open to an arrangement where it would support a Labour government in budgets and votes of confidence in return for concessions such as further devolution to Scotland. The prospect of a government dependent on a party that is determined to break the union—and under Mr Salmond’s canny leadership determined to use that leverage to secure more spending for Scotland—would almost certainly fuel anti-Scottish feeling in England”.

He goes on to posit that “if the Tories win power, Labour and the SNP will complain that Scots are being sidelined. If Labour wins, the Tories will tell the English that they are being held to ransom by Scots. Both scenarios threaten to plunge the country into a vicious cycle as each attempt to placate one side alienates the other, eroding the assumption of shared interests underpinning Britain’s unitary state. To satisfy resentful voters on both sides, London might have to make the country’s constituent parts self-governing in domestic matters. But even federalism might not hold the union together: support for independence has exceeded 50% in some recent Scottish polls”.

The effects of Scottish nationalism is seen in the wider UK context when he writes “Scotland is not the only place where nationalism has rumbled. The Welsh may not fancy independence (support for it there hit a record low of 3% after Scotland’s referendum) but they do want to loosen London’s grip. Like the Scots, they got a devolved legislature and government in 1998, but theirs are comparatively weedy. In February Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg offered to devolve income tax-raising powers to Wales to move it to the “reserved” model of devolution that Scotland uses (whereby powers are assumed to sit at the devolved level unless specifically withheld for Westminster). Carwyn Jones, the Labour first minister, called this proposal insufficient, huffing that Wales was not being treated with as much respect as Scotland. The prime minister was more cautious about offering the Northern Irish more autonomy. That spoke of doubts over the province’s ability to handle new powers. Profound disagreements over cultural matters like flags, marches and history have paralysed the Northern Ireland Assembly, blocking progress even on humdrum matters like welfare reform. It has fallen to the London and Dublin governments to lead efforts to break it. Even so, most think that Belfast should at least get control over corporation tax by 2017. In January the government published a bill to that effect”.

He concludes “It seems unlikely that the next parliament will see the end of the United Kingdom. Yet before the 2010 election it looked improbable that Britain would be as far down the road to fragmentation as it is now. The past five years have shown that momentum can overcome tradition. If the next five are even half as dramatic, the kingdom will be in serious trouble”.

Economist 2015:Education

01/05/2015

As part of the series on the upcoming election from The Economist, praises the work of the coalition government in education. It begins “IN THE coalition government’s darkest days—when deficit reduction stalled, the economy seemed to slip back into recession, health and welfare reform went awry and continental Europeans vexingly refused to do what the British wanted them to—there was always one point of light. At least school reform was chugging along. It was, indeed, the coalition’s most obvious accomplishment. Every government is determined to transform schools, and almost every government fails. In 1976 the Labour prime minister James Callaghan declared that schools must do more than give working-class children “just enough learning to earn their living in a factory”. Margaret Thatcher and John Major brought in a national curriculum and tougher inspectors. Tony Blair fought to ensure that every primary-school child was at least literate and numerate”.

It goes on to mention “there remained far too many of what one Labour Party spin-doctor called “bog-standard comprehensives”. In office between 1997 and 2010, Labour tried to change that, but its efforts were constrained by the teachers’ unions and by the local education authorities that oversaw almost all schools. PISA tests conducted by the OECD, a rich-world think-tank, reveal the truth: although Britain spends more than most on schooling, English 15-year-olds fare no better than average. And their test results have hardly improved over the years, while countries such as Poland and South Korea have zoomed ahead”.

He writes “To revivify England’s schools, the coalition embarked on a colossal structural reform. Soon after coming to power it changed the law to allow many schools to become “academies”, giving them much greater say over how they spend their budgets and deploy staff. Academies had existed before, but under the coalition their numbers exploded from just over 200 to more than 4,000. The government also oversaw the birth of hundreds of “free” schools, which have the same freedoms as academies but were set up by parents, churches or community groups and are thus, as it were, untainted by a history of local-government control”.

In effect this meant that any regulation of schools, or their quality disappeared and they were free to lower standards further to gain pupils and therefore government money, despite the total absence of regulation.

It adds “Michael Gove, the Conservative secretary of state for education from 2010 to 2014, also pushed through what seemed like endless tweaks to curricula and exams. He toughened GCSEs, which had been prone to grade inflation. Courses have been made more rigorous, though also more parochial and inward-looking (rather like Britain itself in the past few years). There is more British history in the history curriculum, more British geography in the geography curriculum and more emphasis on practical skills in science. Marks are increasingly based on written tests rather than on coursework. All this earned Mr Gove the hatred of teachers, for whom curriculum changes mean holidays spent preparing new lessons. He returned their contempt, sniping at the teachers’ unions and referring to the education establishment as “the blob”. Though he was the government’s most effective minister, he was removed from his job by David Cameron in 2014. He had simply attracted too much opposition”.

To back up this deregulation and for profit motive the author writes that “early evidence suggests that Mr Gove’s reforms are working. A study by two academics at the London School of Economics found a rapid—if small—improvement in test results at secondary schools that became academies. The most startling improvement can be seen at the schools belonging to well-managed chains such as ARK and Harris in London and Perry Beeches in the Midlands. One report for the Sutton Trust, a charity that promotes social mobility, found that the proportion of poor pupils achieving five good GCSEs in the five top academy chains is at least 15 percentage points higher than the average for similar pupils in non-academy schools”.

It notes that “There was a hint, too, of metropolitan bias in the coalition’s reforms. Free schools appear to attract the children of middle-class parents disproportionately. Teach First started in London and has only recently spread to the south and east coasts of England. Yet London and the big cities are not the places that need the most attention. The three local authorities with the worst results in England are Knowsley (a poor, mostly white Merseyside suburb), Blackpool and the Isle of Wight. Such places have few aspirational immigrants and struggle to attract good teachers”.

It adds that “If they stay in power, the Conservatives nonetheless promise to plough ahead with their structural reforms. David Cameron has promised 500 more free schools. The other parties would not reverse course, exactly, but would proceed much more slowly. The Liberal Democrats have argued that money should be spent on repairing dilapidated schools rather than on setting up new ones. Tristram Hunt, Labour’s education spokesman, has criticised free schools for hiring unqualified teachers and for adding capacity where it is not needed. He wants stronger oversight of free schools and academies. Of the Westminster-based parties, UKIP has the most radical education policy. It wants more selective grammar schools—which would return England to a school system it mostly abandoned in the 1970s. Grammar schools are also at issue in Northern Ireland, where many excellent ones have clung on. Sinn Fein, the dominant nationalist party, is against them. So is the Catholic Church—strangely, since many grammar schools are Catholic”.

He notes that “In opposition, Labour has turned against its old policy. It now promises to lower the maximum that universities can charge from £9,000 to £6,000 a year. Ed Miliband, the party’s leader, argues that students are graduating with crushing quantities of debt and points out (correctly) that high tuition fees are not cheap for the taxpayer: student-loan repayment terms are so generous that a large share is in effect forgiven by the state. Labour’s proposals worry university leaders, who reckon that student fees are much more reliable than government funding—which can always be nibbled away in future spending rounds. To add to the uncertainty, many in Labour think the proposal may end up shifting towards a graduate tax if the party wins power. And Labour’s plan is one of its most regressive. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, a politically neutral think-tank, says that, perversely, the move would benefit high-earning graduates more than moderate earners. Those who go into, say, banking tend to repay their debts quickly and in full, so a cut to tuition fees helps them a lot. Others are more likely to have their debts written off”.

It ends “Britain is the second most popular destination for international students, after America. It would probably draw even more had the coalition government not tightened visa rules in an attempt to hit a target of restraining net migration to below 100,000 a year. The country’s universities are popular, growing and often prospering. The main task for their political guardians is not to mess up a good thing”.

Economist 2015:Crime

30/04/2015

An article from a series in the Economist on the upcoming UK election notes that law and order is not a big issue but argues that it should be taken more seriously. However, crime rates are falling to lows despite the savage cuts wrought by the Tory government.

It begins “BRITONS may at last be grasping what has long been true: theirs is an increasingly staid, law-abiding country. The official Crime Survey of England and Wales—which, contrary to what newspapers and opposition politicians say, does not lie—shows that crime has fallen to its lowest rate since 1981. Voters continue to tell pollsters that lawlessness must be going up. But they appear not to believe themselves. In May 2005 crime was top of the list of people’s concerns, as measured by Ipsos MORI, a pollster. It is now tenth on the list. That may be in part because Britons have other things to worry about, like the economy and immigration. And, strangely, the economic slump that began in 2007 may actually have contributed to the fall in crime. Many assumed that lawlessness would soar after the financial crisis, as unemployment rose and welfare cuts bit. Apart from a brief spasm of rioting in 2011, that did not happen. Violent crime has fallen since the coalition came to power, perhaps because young men have less money to go out boozing. Acquisitive crimes such as burglary and car theft are also down, by 14% and 27% respectively (although shoplifting and pickpocketing have ticked up). Anti-social behaviour, once the country’s great bugbear, continues to drop”.

The author writes that the coalition just tried to “save money”, “In one area the cuts have hurt. Prison officer numbers dropped by 41% between 2010 and 2014, and some Victorian gaols have been shut. Yet the prison population is no lower than it was when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came to power. The remaining prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, and becoming more violent. Perhaps more promisingly, the coalition tried to cut costs by outsourcing probation services to private companies, although the extent of any savings—and the impact of the new system on reoffending rates—are unclear”.

Interestingly he mentions that “The most radical reform to criminal justice in the past few years has nothing to do with the coalition. In April 2013 Scotland, then as now run by the Scottish National Party, merged its eight local police forces into just one. Some Scots fear that policing is becoming too uniform and that the police will abandon rural areas. But the reform saved £64m in its first year and the transition has been fairly smooth. Police chiefs south of the border look on enviously. England and Wales plod on with 43 forces, many of them far too small to deal with complex crimes such as kidnap and trafficking. Labour has implied it would ditch the current set-up and move to a smaller number of regional forces, although it has not gone into much detail”.

He goes on to write that “The Conservatives are unlikely to entertain such a reform, partly because it might offend their rural supporters but also because it would entail abolishing their biggest criminal-justice innovation in government: police and crime commissioners (PCCs). These 41 elected watchdogs—one for each police force in England and Wales outside London—were meant to provide democratic oversight for the police. Yet they have failed to grab the public imagination. Fewer than 15% bothered to vote for them in 2012, the lowest turnout in any election since the second world war. When the PCC for the West Midlands died two years later, just 10% went to the polls to choose his replacement. He had argued his job should be scrapped; Labour has promised to do just that”.

He ends “As more Britons go to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and fears about home-grown radicals swell, though, no politician will want to look soft on terrorists. Labour has called for stricter security measures, including the revival of its control orders. On this issue, at least, the politics of law and order may turn into a fight to be toughest”.

Economist 2015:NHS

28/04/2015

A piece from the series of the Economist dealing with the NHS discusses how it has been used in election campaigning. It begins “BRITONS will not hear a bad word said about the National Health Service, but its problems are becoming hard to ignore. A combination of austerity and an increasingly needy population has left it short of money. It also suffers from a kind of developmental disease. The NHS was built in the 1940s, when health care was mostly about treating broken legs and infections in hospital. Its biggest task now is to improve the quality of life of chronically ill old people. The NHS needs to change profoundly while running flat out. Managing that will be a mighty challenge for the next government. In 2010 the Conservative Party put up posters promising the party would “cut the deficit, not the NHS”. The Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition stuck to that promise, yet the health service is feeling the pinch. Although NHS spending has risen by an average of 0.7% a year in real terms, spending per person has been falling in England since 2013”.

The author writes that “The Conservative Party is again pledging to protect the NHS budget if it returns to power, with up to £2 billion extra a year until 2019-2020. Labour has promised to shell out £2.5 billion more than the Conservatives, spending it on new doctors and nurses, although the cash might not be available until 2017-18. The Liberal Democrats plan to spend £8 billion more a year by 2020, the sum NHS executives say is needed, increasing yearly spending after tackling the deficit in 2017/18. If the Tories have a plan to reform the NHS, they will probably keep quiet about it: after all, they spent the second half of the 2010-15 parliament rowing back from an immense reorganisation that they had launched in the first half. This reform, which aimed to stimulate competition and enabled groups of local doctors to purchase services, was unpopular with voters, caused much upheaval and delivered few obvious benefits. The Tory health secretary, Andrew Lansley, was replaced by Jeremy Hunt, who has mostly tried to keep the NHS out of the news”.

He writes that “many think structural reform is overdue. Healthcare is currently separate from “social care”—a catch-all category encompassing mental-health services, nursing homes and the like, which are often run by local councils. Fusing the two seems sensible. And it would probably save money, if hospital beds could be emptied of people who could manage at home with a bit of extra help. Labour has claimed the idea as its own, dubbing it “Whole Person Care”; the Tories quietly back a similar plan by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England. But no party will be drawn into discussing specifics. Moving care into the community might mean closing hospitals, which would be desperately unpopular. And it would not be easy to keep the current service ticking along while the new one is built”.

He continues, “Labour will accuse the Tories of plans to shrink and privatise the NHS. In fact, by signing up to Simon Stevens’ plan Labour has committed to stepping up privatisation, and in any case much of the private provision in the system appeared as a result of reforms launched by the last, Labour, government. Under the coalition, on the other hand, competition has not grown much. The Tories retort that Labour’s line is mere “political posturing”. Polls suggest most people do not much care about how NHS services are delivered, as long as they are good and free at the point of access. The Liberal Democrats are likely to talk about their Better Care Fund, which has managed to shift small amounts of money from the NHS to social care. Nick Clegg is also keen to prioritise mental health. Both ideas, of course, could starve other NHS services of money”.

The piece ends “Conservatives were outraged when it was suggested that Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader, wanted to “weaponise” the NHS as a political issue in the election. But it is already so. Scottish separatists claimed last year that the country must break away to protect its health service from free-market Tories in London. David Cameron has attacked Labour’s management of the NHS in Wales. Every party will wield health care as a weapon, regardless of the strength of its arguments”.

Economist 2015:Foreign policy

26/04/2015

As part of the election special from the Economist, a piece called “Keeping up appearances” argues that with regards to foreign and defence policy no major party is willing to engage with the world properly.

It begins “GENERAL elections are hardly ever fought on foreign policy. Even the exceptions, such as one in 1935, which pitted Conservative rearmament against Labour pacifism, and 1983, in which Margaret Thatcher soared on the back of the Falklands war, were mainly about domestic issues. Yet the absence of foreign policy debate in the 2015 campaign is nonetheless remarkable. That is chiefly because the world is pressing. The takeover of eastern Syria and northern Iraq by Islamic State has produced a jihadist haven, on the edge of Europe, more threatening than anything Tony Blair or George Bush warned of. British warplanes are again bombing Iraq. And whatever government is formed in May, that campaign will not end soon, not least because it has an urgent counterterrorism purpose. Over 500 Britons—including the London-accented murderer known as Jihadi John—are among thousands of young Europeans with the death cult, and Britain’s domestic spy agency, MI5, claims to have foiled over a dozen terrorist plots inspired by it. It cannot be long before one comes off”.

The writer adds “Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have meanwhile stirred the NATO alliance, of which Britain is, even after recent defence cuts, probably the second-most capable member after America. This has raised questions about not merely the scale of the cuts, but also the purpose of Britain’s armed forces. The shrinkage they are undergoing—which by 2020 will reduce the regular army to 82,000 and cost it most of its heavy armour—is based on a notion that Britain no longer faces a serious conventional threat. Yet that is what Russia represents to NATO’s eastern flank. There is more than this for the next foreign secretary to worry about. Among failing states, Libya, northern Nigeria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan all represent particular British interests or responsibilities. Meanwhile Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, Europe’s to regain competitiveness and America’s for new Asian allies are strategic issues Britain is struggling to understand, let alone respond to”.

Pointedly the piece notes that “The world has been busy before, of course, and it is not easy managing a power that is fated—despite Mr Blair’s raging against the dying of the light—to decline in relative terms. These crises nonetheless amount to an important test of Britain’s ambition to be an active, collaborative, medium-sized Western power, which its leaders are flunking”.

The author adds that “The Foreign Office is underfunded and demoralised. The Conservative foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, is a competent manager with little enthusiasm for the wider world (a senior security official describes him as “not exactly a little Englander, but…”) Every other week a retired British general denounces the defence cuts. These were supposed to shrink the defence budget by 8%, but thanks to a historic shortfall of £45.6 billion in the kit budget and a decision to shift responsibility for maintaining Britain’s nuclear weapons to the defence ministry, the squeeze has been closer to 25%”.

Worryingly the author makes the valid point that “Neither the Tories nor Labour appear hugely troubled by this diminution. Bruised by economic weakness, the failures of Mr Blair’s hyperactivity and their own unpopularity, both parties seem increasingly resigned to Britain playing a sharply reduced role in the world—which is much less than the coalition government at first promised. Though it had little choice but to cut the defence budget, the government’s strategy review in 2010 promised a security policy with “no less ambition for our country in the decades to come”—and David Cameron at first seemed to mean that. He founded an admired National Security Council, set William Hague, as foreign secretary, to pep up the Foreign Office, showed enthusiasm for Britain’s military intervention in Afghanistan and launched a new one, alongside France, in Libya in 2011”.

The report adds “Libya is now a mini-Iraq, a source of extremism and regional instability, and Mr Cameron’s new model mainly looks like intervention on the cheap, without responsibility. The alacrity with which the prime minister washed his hands of Libya has done yet more damage to Britain’s reputation in the Arab world. If that suggested a prime minister with a sporadic interest in foreign policy, he has reinforced the impression. History must judge whether he was right to advocate bombing Syria’s regime in 2013, after it used chemical weapons against its people. But it is already clear that, having failed to win Parliament’s approval for that campaign, Mr Cameron has lost much of his former appetite for bold action abroad”.

He concludes “If the Tories return to power, even with a majority, there is no reason to expect a more ambitious or coherent foreign policy. Mr Cameron would remain ready to go to war, but perhaps only if it didn’t involve difficult rows in Parliament or look too expensive. The rise of IS and Russian marauding has made the threat assessment underpinning the strategic review look sanguine; but they have not persuaded George Osborne, the chancellor, against making further cuts to the defence budget. It is already bound to shrink below 2% of GDP—the level that NATO demands and which Mr Cameron endorsed passionately at the alliance’s summit last year. He can do passion, he can do intervention and, with his presentational gifts, he can look statesmanlike at times. But in foreign policy, as otherwise, Mr Cameron lacks the sustained grip that strong leadership requires”.

He concludes “The prime minister’s Europe policy is further evidence of this. Having sworn to stop his party “banging on” about Europe, he was bullied by those same head-bangers into promising a referendum on Britain’s EU membership by 2017. This would be a costly distraction and, in the event of an “out” vote, which Mr Cameron does not want, it would speed Britain’s global decline. (That is even before contemplating the prospect of Europhile Scotland demanding a fresh independence referendum, as it would, and seceding.) An “in” vote looks more likely. Even so, the exercise would cast additional doubt over Britain’s global posture and offend old allies. It already has—as witnessed by Britain’s no-show in a Franco-German effort to make peace in Ukraine. If Britain is feeling increasingly averse to its European friends, the feeling is mutual. Yet if it is not with Europe, where is it? The trans-Atlantic alliance is weakening with Britain’s wilting military punch—America has also warned Mr Cameron against further defence cuts. The Commonwealth, which Eurosceptic Tories dream of refashioning into an Anglophone trading block, is a non-starter: almost none of its members wants that. Meanwhile the government’s effort to improve relations with China and India, though good in itself, has seemed more craven than productive. Irked by its decision to join a new Chinese financial institution that might one day rival the World Bank, America snapped at Britain’s habit of “constant accommodation” to China”.

He makes the point “Labour should not find it too hard to improve on this record. And indeed, Ed Miliband’s refusal to match Mr Cameron’s referendum pledge looks sensible. So does the gist (despite its annoying name) of the “progressive internationalism” outlined by Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary. This would include more effort to build alliances—by which he mainly meant in Europe—and uphold the UN. Europe aside, in fact, there is not much to separate the two parties. Despite his refusal to support action in Syria, Mr Miliband is not flat against force: he voted to bomb Libya and Iraq. Labour shares Mr Cameron’s slightly quixotic commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid. Perhaps Labour would spend a bit more on the armed forces, given its historic reputation for being weak on defence. So the question is whether Miliband would be a stronger ambassador for British values and interests than Mr Cameron has been; and the answer is, maybe not”.

Worryingly he writes that “While instinctively comfortable in Europe, Mr Miliband shows little interest in Britain’s evolving role there, as a big economy outside the euro zone. As Labour leader, he has made only a handful of foreign trips. His critique of British capitalism takes such little note of global trends as to seem naive. Perceived in Washington as the villain of the Syria vote, he faces an uphill road there. “Ed doesn’t really do abroad,” a member of Mr Miliband’s shadow cabinet has quipped”.

Economist 2015:Cuts and savings

24/04/2015

Continuing the coverage of the Economist of the UK general election. It notes the differences of the parties on the economy. It begins “ALL the big political parties agree: Britain badly needs to get its public finances in order. The country probably borrowed about £90 billion, or 5% of GDP, in the 2014-15 fiscal year—more than Italy, France or even Greece. Yet the parties do not agree in the slightest on how much further borrowing ought to fall, or how to bring it down. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010 declaring that deficit reduction was “the most urgent issue facing Britain” and that it should be achieved mostly by cutting spending, not by raising taxes. Barely a month into his new job, the flinty Conservative chancellor, George Osborne, laid out a bold plan to do this. It turned out to be considerably more flexible than he implied”.

It goes on to mention “Osborne set out two targets. First and most important, the structural current deficit—that is, the deficit adjusted to reflect the economic cycle, and excluding investment—would be forecast to be in balance five years in the future. Second, national debt would fall as a percentage of GDP by 2015-16. At the time both targets sounded like a plan to finish the job of deficit reduction in one parliament. A euro crisis and sluggish growth quickly messed it up. The Treasury brought in less tax revenue than it had expected and had to spend more on benefits. As a result, borrowing stayed high”.

The author seems to think that this was all out of Osborne’s control. He could have easily borrowed less or taxed more but instead he was too afraid to do either of these as it would cut against his narrative of “fixing the country”. The result was the worst of both worlds.

The writer does admit that “ever more of the output lost to the recession was written off as gone forever, making more of the deficit look structural. Mr Osborne could have got back on track by cutting spending more deeply or raising taxes. Instead, he quietly allowed the completion date to slip. As long as the job was still forecast to be completed five years in the future, he had not missed his main goal”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Beyond the protective “ring-fence” the coalition erected around the NHS, schools and international aid, departmental budgets have been slashed by 21% on average. Local government is getting by on two-thirds of its pre-austerity budget. Public-sector employment has fallen from 6.3m to 5.4m. Civil servants’ pay was frozen for three years and then rose by only 1%. The government saved about £25 billion from the welfare budget, mainly by limiting annual increases and means-testing child benefit, a previously universal handout. (Other welfare reforms grabbed headlines without saving much money.) But an ageing population and generous increases in the state pension—which accounts for 40% of the welfare budget—have offset these savings. Overall, welfare spending has barely changed since 2010”.
This means that the cuts inflicted were worst on areas like defence, where the UK still insists on thinking of itself as a great power when it is really nothing of the sort. The refusal to cut the international aid budget is laughable but seems to be based wholly on polling data. The refusal of both main parties to cut it and transfer the money to defence or have smaller cuts elsewhere has not been countenanced. At the same time the savage cuts to welfare and the refusal to tax the richest in society has made this “rebalancing” not only immoral but in the long run dangerous. It has transferred vast amounts of wealth to the richest in society in the wrong belief that it will “trickle down” and all of society will therefore somehow benefit.

The piece adds “If the Tories win, Mr Osborne must do it all again. Provided the recovery is sustained, the chancellor wants a £7 billion overall surplus by the end of the parliament in 2020. Current government plans imply a further cut of 16% to departments outside the ring-fence, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank. That will be tough, for three reasons. First, the easiest cuts have been made. It is hard to see local government repeating the big savings made during this parliament, for example: councils will soon run up against their legal obligations to provide services. Reforms to university funding, which provided the bulk of the business department’s savings, were a one-off. Second, holding down public-sector salaries will become harder as private-sector pay rises. Third, the population is older and needier. The NHS says a freeze in its budget will not do—it wants an £8 billion boost”.

He goes on to note that “Labour promises only a surplus on the current budget, excluding investment—which on current plans will be £30 billion in today’s money (or 1.4% of GDP) in 2019-20. The party has not specified when exactly it would achieve this. By contrast, both coalition parties want current balance in 2017-18, which would demand deep cuts for two years. From then on, the Lib Dems would borrow about half the investment budget, putting them, as so often, in a middle ground. The SNP does not want to cut at all, and instead suggests a 0.5% annual boost to departments’ budgets. That would leave a small current budget deficit in 2020”.

The piece concludes “The gap between Labour and the Tories is huge—£30 billion amounts to about a quarter of the entire health budget. The IFS reckons Labour could, as a result, make no cuts and instead raise departmental budgets by 2%. The two parties have not been so far apart on fiscal policy for at least five elections. Labour does not emphasise this difference, for fear of looking spendthrift. But the choice facing voters is stark”.

Economist 2015:Economy

24/04/2015

The Economist has published a series of reports on the UK general election which is to take place on 7th May. The piece begins “LISTEN to a Conservative politician for more than one minute and he or she is sure to utter the words “long-term economic plan”. The slogan is projected behind them when they give speeches and plastered across their campaign literature. It has been shoehorned into any number of policy announcements, no matter how uncomfortably. A scheme to give miscreant drivers 10 minutes’ grace before they are slapped with parking tickets, for example, was said to be part of a long-term economic plan. The phrase bores Tories to tears—yet it might win them the election. Just two and a half years elapsed between the run on Northern Rock bank, which marked the start of Britain’s financial crisis, and the formation of the coalition government in May 2010. In the meantime the economy took a huge hit. From the peak in early 2008 to the trough in 2009, GDP per person fell by 6.9%”.

The author notes “The new government promptly dedicated itself to fixing the resulting hole in the public finances (see article). But the big economic problem was weak demand. Fearing for their jobs, consumers were paying down debt rather than splashing out on new cars or televisions. Businesses were not investing. Unemployment rose to 8.5%—lower than in other wealthy countries, but still painfully high. And many of those in work had too little of it: part-time jobs and self-employment had replaced many full-time jobs. Then, just as things began to look up, the euro crisis crushed Britain’s biggest export market. By 2013 the IMF was complaining that Britain remained “a long way from a strong and sustainable recovery”. Moody’s, a credit-rating agency, downgraded the country’s debt from AAA to AA1, citing “continuing weakness” in growth. And the Labour Party, which had lost economic credibility during the financial crisis, began to close the gap with the Conservatives on economic competence”.

Predictably with the Economist everything and everyone is boiled down to numbers. The fact that the author tries to minimise the 8.5% unemployment figure shows where its priorities lie. The closeness of the Tories to the banking sector, having sold Northern Rock cheaply to Richard Branson and let the taxpayer taken the hit does little to help their economic reputation. At the same time the cuts they inflicted have been criticised on both the left and the right. The real point however was that it was the worst of both worlds. They did not commit fully to their (savage) cuts and have firm ideological principles, nor did they admit that their cutting was mitigated by massive borrowing. They had the worst of both worlds and now are only associated with cuts to the great annoyance of a raft of academic economists and many in the public.

The article chimes with the Tories excuse of blaming the euro zone crisis but the fact that they expected the economy to improve in time for the 2015 general election and held off shows that they are little more compentent than Labour. The veneer of competence given to them by being allied to the banking industry, that supports them heavily, shows their competence is really only a vested interest in the City of London at the expense of a more mature, rounded economics.

The author goes on “Then things began to turn round. The economy grew by 1.6% in 2013. The next year, growth accelerated to 2.8%—faster than any other member of the G7 group of rich countries. On the way Britain created a million net new jobs, taking the employment rate to its highest ever level, 73.3%, and unemployment back down to 5.7%. In January Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, praised Britain’s leadership as “eloquent and convincing”. The recovery would appear to set the Conservatives on course to win the election. Voters often tell pollsters that they are most concerned about things like immigration and health care, but their behaviour suggests economics trumps such worries: Labour won big victories in the 2000s despite dire ratings on immigration, for example. And the public is crediting the Tories. David Cameron and George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, have a 15- to 20-point lead on economic competence over Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader, and Ed Balls, his economics spokesman. But it is not as simple as that, because Britain’s recovery has been so joyless”.

Pointedly the author writes that “Real wages had already been falling for two years when Mr Osborne entered the Treasury. For most of the 2010-15 parliament they continued to decline. This was all the more painful because Britons had become accustomed to steady rises in living standards. From the turn of the millennium to the eve of the crash, real earnings had grown by an average of 2.6% per year. Since then they have fallen by an average of 1.2% a year, putting Britons through the longest period of real wage falls since records began in 1855, according to the Bank of England’s data”.

He notes “Much of this was caused by imported inflation. The tumble of the pound after the crisis made imports more costly, before energy and food prices soared in 2011-12. In the government’s first two years, inflation was more than a percentage point above its 2% target for 22 of 24 months. Little could be done about this: tighter monetary or fiscal policy would have strangled a weak economy and further pummeled wages”.

The piece does make the fair point that “Labour and the Conservatives go into this election talking across each other. The Conservatives argue that the economy is recovering. Labour says that households are struggling. Both are right. Yet this is something of a puzzle when one considers what has driven Britain’s growth over the past few years. A few years ago it was an article of faith among all the major parties that the economy would have to be sustained by something less gluttonous than consumer spending. There was talk of Britain paying its way in the world through stronger exports, and of a manufacturing revival. That has not happened. Instead, the recovery has been domestic. Since 2013 consumer spending has grown at a healthy annualised rate of 2%. Buoyed by the return of consumer confidence, firms have boosted investment in tandem”.

He does thankfully admit that “Another, classically British, stimulus kicked in at about the same time. House prices went up by 5.5% in 2013 and by another 9.8% in 2014. In crowded London they have risen by 27% in the last two years. This made household finances healthier and may have given consumers the confidence to open their wallets. The sober-headed will not celebrate that trend. Young people—nicknamed “generation rent”—find it ever harder to buy a home. To address this, in 2013 the coalition launched a scheme—named “help to buy”—to top up some mortgages with government loans and guarantee others. That, of course, probably pushed prices even higher. In his final budget, Mr Osborne announced subsidies for those saving for a first home. That would be likely to create still more demand. The fundamental problem is too few houses: in the decade to 2014 only 176,000 were built per year on average, when perhaps 240,000 were needed. Antiquated planning regulations constrain supply, especially in the prosperous south-east. Britons are ever more desperate to get on the housing ladder before it is pulled up out of reach. As a result, the Bank of England worries about a debt-fuelled bubble and in 2014 intervened in the mortgage market to curb excessive lending”.

In a damning indictment of the Tories he writes “Britain has returned to its old ways: growth has been led by consumers and fuelled by house-price increases. Net trade has in fact made a slightly negative contribution since 2009, as British firms have struggled to export to a Eurozone that is only starting to recover. British consumers, meanwhile, continue to import aplenty. This, together with a drying up of income on Britain’s overseas investments, has pushed the current-account deficit to fully 5.5% of GDP”.

He ends “A consumer-driven recovery is not necessarily a concern. There is nothing inherently good about exports or inherently bad about consumption. But in the long run, more household spending must be funded by wage rises, not declining saving or a boom in house prices. The next government’s main challenge will to boost productivity rather than demand. That will require careful thought, targeted investment, and an acknowledgment that cutting the budget deficit is not the be-all and end-all of economic policy”.

SNP, holding the UK to ransom

22/04/2015

A report from the Daily Telegraph argues that the SNP are prepared to sacrifice the Armed Forces unless their demand for the abolition of Trident is met.

It begins “The SNP is prepared to paralyse Britain’s armed forces and shut down government departments if Ed Miliband is Prime Minister, the party’s deputy leader has suggested as Labour admitted for the first time that it is willing to do a deal with the nationalists. Stewart Hosie said the SNP will to block defence spending if Mr Miliband refuses to scrap Trident, raising concerns his party will force a US-style government shutdown. Senior Conservatives warned that the move would see troops go unpaid, equipment supplies like tanks and body armour delayed and major projects postponed”.

It adds “While the Conservatives have repeatedly warned of the chaos the SNP would bring to the UK, Mr Hosie’s remarks represent the first time his party has suggested it will try to use its clout in Westminster to put its own priorities ahead of the rest of Britain. Labour accused the SNP of “posturing” and said it did not take the threat seriously. It came as Angela Eagle, the shadow leader of the Commons, confirmed for the first time that Labour is prepared to speak to the SNP after the election to “try and build a majority” and get Mr Miliband into power”.

The report notes that “Later this week he will appear alongside Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to warn of the risks posed by the SNP. Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, will make a separate speech about the threat posed by the SNP on Tuesday”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, will put Mr Miliband and Labour at the heart of her party’s manifesto with a series of policies intended for the whole of the UK instead of just Scotland. She said on Sunday that her party will be in a “very, very strong position” if Mr Miliband is in power as she refused to rule out pushing for another referendum on Scottish independence.  Mr Hosie told the BBC’s Daily Politics that if a minority Labour government fails to reach an agreement with the SNP then it will vote against “any bit of spending” that it doesn’t agree with, such as the Trident nuclear deterrent. He said that the SNP could vote against parliamentary estimates, which legalise government spending commitments, in the Commons”.

It adds “Estimates are normally waved through, but The Telegraph understands senior SNP figures have been in contact with Commons clerks about putting them to a vote. Mr Hosie said: “If we didn’t agree with a bit of spending then of course we could vote against that. I certainly wouldn’t be happy if Trident was renewed.” Senior Conservatives compared the threat to government shutdowns in the US,when Congress fails to agree the Budget. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are barred from working during the shutdown. Grant Shapps, the Conservative party chairman, said: “The SNP are threatening to hold Britain to ransom to guarantee an Ed Miliband government gives them what they want – weaker defences, more borrowing, more debt and more taxes.” In his article, Mr Johnson warns that the SNP are “lefties on steroids” and will form a “calamitous” partnership with Mr Miliband if Labour is in a minority government after the General Election”.

It concludes “Mr Cameron warned that any deal would risk leaving road bypasses unbuilt and hospitals underfunded. Speaking on the Andrew Marr show on BBC One, Mr Cameron said:”This would be the first time in our history that a group of nationalists from one part of our country would be involved in altering the direction of the government of our country and I think that is a frightening prospect. “Frankly, this is a group of people that wouldn’t care about what happened in the rest of the country. The SNP is a party that doesn’t want to come to Westminster to contribute to a government, it wants to come to Westminster to break up our country.””

An excuse for independence?

20/04/2015

An opinion piece from the Daily Telegraph argues correctly that the SNP will go to any lengths to breakup the United Kingdom. It opens “‘The SNP is a social democratic political party committed to Scottish independence.’ That is how the SNP defines itself, and that commitment must never be forgotten when assessing the party and its consequences. Independence is the objective; everything else is just a way to bring it about. So while any other party might regard the sort of general election results the SNP is heading for as a triumph in its own right, for the Nationalists overwhelming victory will be just another step in a longer journey”.

The only question is how would the SNP do such a thing so close after its defeat in the independence referendum. All parties after the failed independence vote said they would deliver more powers to Scotland. If the SNP would be satisfied with this then a compromise could be reached. However it would be unusual for the SNP to do this and end its raison d’etre. If however they push too hard they could get an independent country but at the same time they could fundamentally divided Scottish society for generations to come.

He author writes “How would the SNP use its 40 or even 50 MPs to advance the cause of independence? The answer depends a little on who is prime minister, but perhaps less than many would expect. Yes, another David Cameron premiership would allow the SNP to trade off Scottish unhappiness at being ruled by an English-led Tory party that is still hated by some Scots. But the Labour Party is these days not much more popular with Scots, and its leader Ed Miliband actually polls worse than Mr Cameron. A UK government of either sort can equally easily be portrayed as “the Westminster establishment” indifferent to Scots’ interests”.

The author adds “the SNP accepted some years ago that grievance alone will never lead Scots to independence. Instead of fixating on constitutional principles, its focus is on bread-and-butter politics, trying to prove to Scots that the more they are left to their own devices, the better everyday life is. Since 2011 the party has run Scotland’s devolved government, and winning more money and power for that administration is central to SNP strategy”.

He posits the theory that “The thinking is that the more power the Scotland (and thus the SNP) gets, the more different the country grows from the rest of the UK, the better things get for Scots. So why not take the next step to full independence? So instead of trying to wreck a London government’s agenda for ideological reasons, the SNP leadership (though maybe not some wild-eyed new MPs) would be likely to take a more hard-headed approach: yes, they’d withhold support on key votes if they didn’t get what they wanted. But they’d always have a price, if ministers in London were willing to meet it. Wrecking Westminster for its own sake – even bringing down a UK government — would win fewer votes for the SNP at future elections than forcing Westminster to give Scotland more money and power”.

It ends “And future elections matter very much to the SNP. Winning the Scottish Parliament elections next year matters at least as much as next month’s likely triumph. If the Scots chose a party committed to independence at both UK and Scottish elections, the nationalists would be in a strong position to claim a new mandate for independence – and perhaps even hold a second referendum whether politicians at Westminster agreed to it or not. After all, that was the threat that led to last year’s vote”.

The Tories sink to depths

12/04/2015

As the UK election campaign continues the Tories have openly attacked the Labour leader, Ed Miliband in a highly personal attack.  The Guardian reports that Miliband, “has accused the Conservative party of basing its campaign on “deceit and lies”, in a ramping up of a war of words triggered by a personal attack on the Labour leader by a Tory minister. The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, earlier accused Miliband of planning to “stab the United Kingdom in the back” over the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. Fallon confirmed that a new Tory government would go ahead with the construction of four new Trident nuclear missile submarines to replace the existing fleet, but said Labour would have to abandon any plans to renew the fleet in order to secure the support of the Scottish National party in a hung parliament.  Fallon told the Times: “Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.” Miliband retorted: “Michael Fallon is a decent man but today I think he has demeaned himself and demeaned his office. National security is too important to play politics with. I will never compromise our national security, I will never negotiate away our national security”.

The piece adds “Miliband then went further, attacking the Tories’ campaigning style. “I’ve got to say, I think the British people deserve better than what the Conservative party are offering in this campaign, which is a campaign based on deceit and lies,” he said. The row broke out as Labour prepared to sign off its election manifesto at a “clause 5” meeting of the shadow cabinet together with senior officials from the ruling national executive, the national policy forum and the parliamentary Labour party. The Conservatives said they were moving their manifesto launch to Tuesday, after both main parties announced their intention to publish on Monday. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Fallon said: “We saw in that leadership election just what he would do to his own brother to get into power. People cannot be sure if they vote Labour in England whether they would lose their nuclear submarines because Nicola Sturgeon from the SNP has made it crystal clear she will not support the renewal of Trident.””

The piece adds “Vernon Coaker, who showed his support for Trident by paying his first visit as shadow defence secretary to the Cumbria shipyards that are building the new Vanguard submarines, pointed out that Miliband had already ruled out any concessions to the SNP on nuclear weapons”.

Rather than admit they had gone to far and promise never to stoop to such levels again the Tories stood behind their comments as the day went on, “The Conservatives are standing by an attack on Ed Miliband that Labour said had dragged politics “into the gutter”. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Mr Miliband had “stabbed his own brother in the back” to lead Labour and was now “willing to stab the UK in the back” by doing a deal on Trident with the SNP “to become PM”. Mr Miliband said the defence secretary had demeaned himself and his office. But Prime Minister David Cameron said Mr Fallon was “absolutely right”.

Agonism, which seeks to play out the differences between ideologies respectfully in a democracy, has been destroyed as a result of this. As the reports stated there was little that divide the parties on this issue. Instead the Tories sought to paint Miliband as weak rather than deal with where the two parties have genuine disagreements.

Labour seeks tax justice

10/04/2015

As the 2015 UK general election continues it seems the voters have a stark choice. The Labour Party has said it will abolish the role that allows those that are not domiciled in the UK, and therefore pay no real taxes. The Tories meanwhile have said nothing about the patently immoral rule that benefits only the tiniest portion of the wealthiest.

A report from the Guardian notes “Labour has accused the Tories of deliberately misleading voters by editing an interview with Ed Balls as a row broke out over a pledge by Ed Miliband to abolish the non-domicile tax status for anyone living in Britain for more than three years. The Tories moved to unpick the announcement by the Labour leader by releasing a video of a BBC interview back in January in which the shadow chancellor said that abolishing non-dom status might lead to a fall in tax revenue. But the Tories edited out a crucial final sentence in which Balls told BBC Radio Leeds on 9 January: “But I think we can be tougher and we should be and we will.” Labour seized on the Tory editing of the Balls interview to accuse the Tories of misleading people to defend their refusal to tackle tax avoidance. The shadow chancellor blogged: “The Tories have edited my words from January in an attempt to deliberately mislead people because they can’t defend their own refusal to act on tax avoidance”.

Labour have a point. When the Tories should be agreeing with Labour to abolish this unjust and immoral rule that seeks to have people in London in the hope that their wealth would “trickle down” they in fact are more comfortable to play politics than seek the common good and protect those who do pay taxes and protect the poorest in society.

The report goes on to mention “The row has lit up Britain’s general election campaign after Miliband promised to abolish the non-dom rule, which allows many of Britain’s richest permanent residents to avoid paying tax in the UK on their worldwide income, for those who are based in Britain for more than two to three years. Labour said the rule, introduced by William Pitt the Younger in the late 18th century, has been open to abuse and offends the moral basis of taxation. Everyone who has made the UK their permanent home should pay full UK tax on all their income and gains, Miliband argued”.

The piece adds “George Osborne, conscious of poll findings that the Tories are seen as the party of the rich, realised overnight that he had to tread carefully in response to a Labour plan to crack down on multi-millionaires. Osborne therefore moved to unpick the announcement by saying that Labour was merely planning to tinker with the non-dom tax status on the grounds that the rule would remain in place for beneficiaries who stay in the UK for under two to three years. The Tories then released a video of the shadow chancellor’s January interview in which Balls suggested that abolishing the non-dom rule could lower tax revenues by encouraging some wealthy people to leave the UK. The edited video shows Balls saying: “I think that it is important that you make sure the non-dom rules work in a fair way. I think they were too lax in the past. Both the last Labour government and this Conservative government have tightened them up”.

In an attempt to defend these people who generally do not pay tax and yet use all the services in the UK some have argued that there will be a flight from the UK. However, this argument overlooks the obvious fact that they pay only £90,000 a year, at most, on an income that is millions a year. Whatever “loss” to the coffers of the state would be minimal as so little money is raised anyway. Labour should have launched this policy years ago but all the Tories could do was pick at a few words while avoiding the larger issue.

UKIP expenses scandal

29/03/2015

Allegations of a “serious financial nature” against a UKIP MEP and general election candidate “couldn’t look worse”, Nigel Farage has said. Janice Atkinson, MEP for the South East, was due to fight the Folkestone and Hythe seat on 7 May. She was suspended after a Sun newspaper investigation into an apparent expenses claim by a member of her staff. Kent Police said it was investigating a fraud allegation. Party leader Mr Farage said: “It looks very bad – it couldn’t look worse and I’m astonished by it.”

Intervention of Cardinal Nichols

09/03/2015

A report from the Telegraph details the intervention of Vincent Cardinal Nichols in British politics, urging justice. It opens “The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has condemned the Government for presiding over “shocking” levels of poverty and deprivation. Cardinal Vincent Nichols called on Tuesday for Catholics to judge candidates in this year’s General Election by what they intend to do to improve the lives of the poor. He said: “I’ve commented before on what I believe to be some of the unintended consequences of social welfare reform we see. I repeat; it’s shocking that in a society that is as rich as our there are people, even people in employment, dependant on food banks and hand-outs.” The Cardinal was speaking at the launch of a leaflet being sent to all Catholic parishes in England and Wales, urging members of the church to become actively involved in the political debate in the run up to May’s election”.

The report mentions that “He emphasised that it was the duty of Catholics, and other citizens to engage in discussion, cast their votes and ignore commentators such as Russell Brand, who claim there is no point voting because ‘all politicians are the same’. Cardinal Nichols said: “I’d ask them to pay more attention to me than to him [Brand]. We are citizens and we are called on to take part in society. Stir yourself”.

The piece goes on to state “The Cardinal’s call for more to be done to help the worse off follows a letter issued by the Church of England’s bishops last week, attacking the effect of the coalition’s policies on the poor. In their letter Anglican bishops condemned the legacy of Thatcherism and its emphasis on consumerism and individualism. The 52-page letter was attacked by Conservative politicians as being a ‘shopping list’ of left-wing demands.  Although the Catholic bishops’ letter to parishioners neither attacks nor endorses any party by name, it urges voters to decide on the basis of where candidate stand on the issue of poverty”.

The article adds “In its letter the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales urges Catholics to ask “where does your candidate stand on directly helping the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK and also helping to transform their lives”. Addressing education policy it says politicians should be trying to “ensure the best outcomes for the poorest children.” The four-page letter, 700,000 copies of which are being sent to parishes up and down the country, bemoans the fact that “rising inequality, increased loneliness for older people, job insecurity and over stretched community services” has made life more difficult for many and calls for business and the private sector to do more to meet people’s needs. “The market economy exists to serve humanity. People are not merely economic units to be exploited,” it states”.

The report rightly ends “The Cardinal repeated the Catholic church’s strong support for the living wage, saying that party candidates should be quizzed on their attitude to fair pay. He said that all Catholic organisations and charities tried to ensure not only that they paid their employees the Living Wage, and – in the case of those working in the capital – the London Living Wage, but that the church’s suppliers and contractors did so too.”

 

 

Another Westminster scandal

26/02/2015

Another political scandal has broken, just months before the 2015 General Election.

The report begins, “Two former foreign secretaries are exposed for their involvement in a new “cash for access” scandal. Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind offered to use their positions as politicians on behalf of a fictitious Chinese company in return for payments of at least £5,000 per day. Mr Straw, one of Labour’s most senior figures, boasted that he operated “under the radar” to use his influence to change European Union rules on behalf of a commodity firm which pays him £60,000 a year. He has been suspended from Labour following the disclosures, described by the party as “disturbing”. Mr Straw claimed to have used “charm and menace” to convince the Ukrainian prime minister to change laws on behalf of the same firm”.

The article adds that “Mr Straw also used his Commons office to conduct meetings about possible consultancy work — a potential breach of rules. And he suggested that his Commons researcher had worked on his private business matters, raising further questions. Sir Malcolm, who oversees Britain’s intelligence agencies on behalf of Parliament, said he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world because of his status. He has told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was “quite unrealistic” to think MPs could live on “simply £60,000” a year without looking for extra income. The senior Conservative told undercover reporters from this newspaper and Channel 4’s Dispatches, to be broadcast on Monday night, that he would submit questions to ministers on behalf of a paying client, without revealing their identity”.

Such arrogance shows the level of disconnect between MPs and people, most of whom earn about £20,000 a year. In fact Rifkind’s basic salary is 67k and this excludes the array of directorships that take is salary to the hundreds of thousands of pounds. One could almost be forgiven for voting for UKIP out of sheer rage.

Worse, the piece reports that Rifkind only dug himself deeper, “Sir Malcolm also described himself as “self-employed” and had to “earn my income” — despite being paid £67,000 by the taxpayer for his work as an MP. The disclosure that two of Britain’s most senior politicians are embroiled in a new “cash for access” scandal highlights Parliament’s failure to address the issue which has plagued British politics for a generation”.

The report goes on to mention that “More than five years ago, David Cameron warned that lobbying was the “next big scandal” and promised to tighten the rules — a pledge which has not been properly enacted. Over the past few months, reporters approached 12 MPs asking if they would be interested in joining the advisory board of a Chinese company. They were chosen because of concerns about their business activities. Six of the 12 did not respond and one said his contacts were not “for sale”. Mr Straw and Sir Malcolm agreed to enter discussions with the fictitious Chinese company looking to expand its business interests in Europe. Last year Sir Malcolm registered earnings of £69,610 — more than £1,600 an hour — from his work outside of Parliament, while Mr Straw earned £112,777 from his outside business activities”.

To have to arrogance and greed, or as is more likely, lack of self awareness to think he is self employed while the British state is paying him almost £70,000 is simply stunning behaviour. Cameron was right to warn that lobbying was the next big scandal but in his five years in office has been either too incompetent or too spineless to do anything about it. The only other alternative is that he seems to think there is no problem which only shows how warped his own worldview has become.

The report adds, “Analysis by this newspaper of MPs’ overall earnings showed they made more than £7.4 million from outside work in the past year. The Chinese “company” wanted to form an advisory board. Undercover reporters met Sir Malcolm at the fictional firm’s Mayfair office in January. Sir Malcolm, who served as foreign secretary under Sir John Major, described the access he could offer. He said he could meet “any ambassador that I wish to see” in London. “They’ll all see me personally”, he added. “That provides access in a way that is, is useful”. In a second meeting, Sir Malcolm suggested that he would be willing to write to ministers on behalf of the company without declaring the name of the firm.  Sir Malcolm’s offer to write to ministers without “nam[ing] who was asking” is likely to cause concern because of the rules governing interests when communicating with ministers or officials”.

As if it could get any worse the piece goes on to mention that “During a discussion about the former minister’s availability, he disclosed that he had a lot of “free time”. The undercover reporters met Mr Straw at his office in the House of Commons”.

This comment is not only stupid but dangerous. As well as being an MP where he is meant to scrutinise government legislation, Sir Malcolm, was chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. This committee has the job of holding the security services to account. Having lots of “free time” is a bad sign both for Sir Malcolm and the committee which he is meant to oversee.

The report turns to Straw “The MP explained how he had helped ED&F Man, a commodities company with a sugar refinery in Ukraine, change an EU regulation by meeting officials in Brussels. He also claimed that he had overturned a law in Ukraine that would have hindered the commodities firm operating a factory they had recently refurbished. The law made their activities “completely uneconomic” and so Mr Straw took company representatives to see Mykola Azarov, the then Ukrainian prime minister, in September 2011. “It’s a combination of sort of charm and menace … I mean he [the prime minister] understood.” On Sunday night it was reported that Mr Straw will refer himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner”.

In an attempt to backtrack the article notes that “The spokesman said Mr Straw’s use of the phrase “charm and menace” would have been “colloquial and a purely conversational description of the approach he had adopted”. Asked about Mr Straw boast that he operated “under the radar”, his spokesman said: “This was a reference to his preferred strategy of affecting a change to regulations by discussion and negotiation, rather than conducting a high-profile public campaign.” The spokesman said Mr Straw used his parliamentary office to hold the meeting “to save time” because of his “busy schedule”. The spokesman added that the work carried out by the researcher for ED&F Man “is not paid by the public funds”. Mr Straw said that when he mentioned the £5,000 fee he was giving it as an example and not as part of a negotiation”.

The result of the disclourses was predictable, “Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Conservative MP embroiled in cash for access allegations, is to step down as an MP at the General Election and has also resigned as chairman of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. Sir Malcolm was suspended by the Conservative Party pending an internal investigation on Monday after telling undercover reporters from The Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches that he would use his position as a politician to help a fictitious Chinese company. His decision to stand down as the Conservative MP for Kensington means there will be a contest for one of the Conservative Party’s safest seats. In a statement he said: “I had intended to seek one further term as MP for Kensington, before retiring from the House of Commons. I have concluded that to end the uncertainty it would be preferable, instead, to step down at the end of this Parliament. “This is entirely my personal decision. I have had no such requests from my constituency association but I believe that it is the right and proper action to take. As regards the allegations of Channel 4 and the Daily Telegraph I find them contemptible and will not comment further at this time”.

Pointedly the piece adds “He will also stand down as chairman of Intelligence and Security Committee, the body which oversees the security services, ahead of the publication of a major report into the balance between privacy and security. In a statement, about the committee, he said: “None of the current controversy with which I am associated is relevant to my work as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament”.

The Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband lead the way on this when on Wednesday he said “Ed Miliband has accused David Cameron of failing to live up to “big” commitments in opposition about limiting the outside earnings of MPs, after the government rejected a Labour proposal to ban MPs from having paid directorships and consultancies. In one of his most confident performances at the dispatch box, the opposition Labour leader offered to amend his party’s plans to accede to a demand by the prime minister to ban MPs from acting as paid officials. But Cameron declined to accept the Labour proposal, which is due to be put to a Commons vote late on Wednesday”.

 

 

 

 

 

UKIP takes the long view

18/02/2015

A piece from the Economist notes the rise of UKIP.

It begins “AT FIRST Nigel Farage seemed unwelcome in Rotherham. The leader of the populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) was visiting the hilly Yorkshire town on February 6th to open its campaign headquarters there, but was now trapped inside it. Protesters had gathered outside the front door, chanting and brandishing placards accusing UKIP of bigotry. Passing cars and vans honked, to cheers. But it soon became clear that the horns, and many residents of the town, were for UKIP”

The writer adds that “Opinion polls suggest that one in five Britons could vote for UKIP in the general election on May 7th. Though hugely disadvantaged by the first-past-the-post electoral system, the party could win a handful of seats. By taking Conservative votes in up to 100 others, it could also deny that party a second term. Yet the drama in Rotherham also hinted at a bigger future for UKIP. Long a party of the Tory south of England, it is increasingly one of the Labour north, too. That shift has big implications for its character and prospects. The southern third of Britain’s east coast is generally considered UKIP’s heartland (pushing the point, a Labour politician says it does well where there is good fish and chips).”

Crucially the piece goes on to note that “Margate, a faded seaside resort in the neighbouring seat of North Thanet, shows why the nostalgic party does so well in such places. On the seafront, paint peels off the boarding houses where Victorians once summered. Now divided into cheap flats, many house Poles and Latvians who work as cleaners or at Thanet Earth, a nearby complex of greenhouses. Locals who have lived in the area for decades feel ‘pissed off and alone’, says Chris Wells, a Tory councillor who defected to UKIP last October. Many of these ‘bungalow Tories’, working-class folk who voted for Margaret Thatcher, are attracted by the party’s small-state message and its warnings about the economic impact of immigration, he says”.

However the picture that the author paints of Margate is more relevant than immigration. The ever increasing centralisation of money in London has sucked many of the regional towns around it dry of people. Successive governments, both Tory and Labour, have done little to help people in these towns as they have concentrated on the City and the myth that it was the key to solving all problems. As has been argued here before, immigration is only really an issue during bad economic times but it is made worse by poverty and deprivation. UKIP and other related parties feed on these interrelated issues and make political hay out of them.

The piece adds “far from the Kent coast, another UKIP heartland is emerging in northern towns hobbled by the decline of traditional industries such as coal and steel. If Mr Wells sounds like a traditional Tory politician, Jane Collins, the party’s candidate in Rotherham, sounds like a Labour one. As MP, she pledges, she would focus on “social cohesion”. Perched next to her on a sofa in his party’s besieged office, Mr Farage reels off a list of northern by-elections in which his party has recently come second: South Shields, Barnsley Central, Middlesbrough. All are places neglected by Labour and where UKIP alone speaks to voters’ gut instincts, he claims. Some of them have well-established Asian Muslim minorities that remain semi-detached from their white residents—so concerns about immigration there are more cultural than economic”.

Interestingly the writer notes that “Farage is doing something British political leaders rarely do: thinking beyond the next election. Matthew Goodwin, the co-author of a book on UKIP, says its strategy is to come second in some 50 or 60 northern Labour seats this May and thus be in a position to win them at the next general election. That explains why, though its most immediately promising constituencies are southern, UKIP held its annual conference last year in Doncaster and why Mr Farage will spend much of the election campaign touring the north”.

Worryingly the piece goes on to note, “In the long term, UKIP’s prospects may be best there. Voters who switch from Labour to the party generally remain more loyal to it than do former Tories, observes Mr Goodwin. And as the main anti-Labour force in places like Rotherham it will face little competition. The Tories are electorally toxic and organisationally moribund there; and the Liberal Democrats have been tainted by association with them. If May’s election produces an unstable Labour government, Mr Farage’s party will stand a decent chance of sweeping to victory across the urban north in 2020”.

It is uncertain how many seats UKIP will gain, not many is the most likely answer. However, it will take much longer for Labour and the Tories to undo the years of neglect that have led people in Thanet and Margate to consider voting for such a party as UKIP when what they are really doing is demanding that the political class pay attention to them.

He ends “The success or failure of his strategy is bound to influence UKIP’s ideological direction. A party rooted in economically leftish constituencies where immigration is mainly a cultural issue will be markedly more statist and authoritarian than one rooted in coastal, Toryish seats where it is not—probably excessively so, for some libertarian, pro-market types in UKIP. Tilting northward could leave Mr Farage more powerful than ever, but with a fractious, divided party”.

Welby poses some questions

21/01/2015

An article in the Daily Telegraph has reported on a new book launched as the 2015 General Election campaign begins, informally at least.

The piece starts “Britain under the Coalition is a country in which the poor are being “left behind” and entire cities “cast aside” because politicians are obsessed with Middle England, the Church of England says today in a damning assessment of the state of the nation. In a direct and unapologetically “political” intervention timed for the beginning of the General Election campaign, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, warn party leaders are selling a “lie” that economic growth is the answer to Britain’s social problems”.

Yet the same newspaper defends the fact that the Church of England is a state church. At the same time they moan that the Church of England has a voice in politics. Which is it to be? The other alternative interpretation is that they are against those with religious views having a say in the public sphere at all.

The real reason for the paper’s reaction was the questioning by the Church of England of a bankrupt economic theory that has destroyed the world and brought misery to millions, while making a small elite even wealthier. This is the true reason for the reaction of the paper to the comments by the bishops.

The report goes on to note that the prelates were “Questioning David Cameron’s slogan “we’re all in this together” they condemn inequality as “evil” and dismiss the assumption that the value of communities is in their economic output as a “sin”. Britain, they argue has been “dominated” by “rampant consumerism and individualism” since the Thatcher era, while the Christian values of solidarity and selflessness have been supplanted by a new secular creed of “every person for themselves”. And while London and the South East forge ahead, much of the rest of the country is still “trapped in apparently inevitable decline”, they argue”.

It is true that the South East has been almost recession proof, apart from the parts that are already deprived which will soon be filled with wealthy people and push those who have been living there for years out, but this is not the fault of Cameron per se but is more down to geography and other long held factors that he has chosen not to fix. In reality the point of the bishops is correct. A toxic individualism has prevailed and is bearing its rotten fruit in the form of societal decay and sin.

The piece adds that “The challenge to politicians and voters alike is contained in a new volume of essays to be published next week, edited by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, and including lengthy contributions from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, the former Labour Cabinet minister Lord Adonis and others. It sets out an excoriating critique of a country “ill at ease with itself” amid a widening “gulf” between rich and poor, between the capital and the rest of the country and between politicians and voters. The book, entitled “On Rock or Sand?”, explicitly invites comparisons with Faith in the City, the Church of England report published 30 years ago which was attacked by Conservatives as “pure Marxist theology””.

Yet this is exactly the kind of thing Rush Limbaugh said about Pope Francis. All this has done however is made fools of those who attack the Gospel and its values while they try and defend greed, sin, gross inequality, materialism and excess.

The article ends “The book characterises the welfare state as the embodiment of the Christian command to “love thy neighbour” and warns that people should not rely on what the founding father of free-market capitalism Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” of the market to create a fair society”.

It closes “Archbishop Welby provides a bleak assessment of the economic recovery in Britain claiming that “entire towns and regions” have been excluded and “trapped in an apparently inescapable economic downward spiral”. “Our economy appears to be, in one sense, a tale of two cities – one being a growing and constantly improving London (and the South East generally), and the other being most, but not all, other cities, alike in that they are each trapped in apparently inevitable decline,” he writes. Spending cuts have, he adds, helped widen that gap. “The hard truth is that many of these cities are in what appear to be lose-lose situations”.

The report concludes “But the archbishops go on to reject what they characterise as an obsession with economic growth as the solution to social problems. “There is a general social assumption that the economy has the power to dictate what is and is not possible for human beings,” Archbishop Welby writes. “We believe that if we can fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will automatically follow. “That is a lie. “It is a lie because it is a narrative that casts money, rather than humanity, as the protagonist of God’s story.” Dr Sentamu adds that a post-war vision through which the welfare state and NHS developed has “given way to an individualist and consumerist vision, with public goods such as health … and education … increasingly becoming privatised, where society has become a market society, with everything going to the highest bidder and the poor being left behind in the unceasing drive to increase the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.” Setting out his own vision, Archbishop Welby adds: “Our human journey is not a journey of individuals, it is a journey held in common, and no individual can safely be left behind”.

In a related article, though hardly a surprise, David Cameron defends a system based on radical inequality, mass poverty, unemployment, deprivation and greed, “David Cameron has said that he “profoundly disagrees” with the leaders of the Church of England after they accused the Coalition of creating a country in which the poor are being “left behind”. The Prime Minister pledged to speak “vigorously in defence” of his Government’s economic record after the Archbishops of Canterbury and York accused him and Britain’s other political leaders of selling a “lie” that economic growth is the answer to social problems”.

The sad fact is that all the figures say that Cameron is wrong. They all point to the fact that poverty levels are rising and people are being punished for being poor with all the ignorance that comes with this. They are accused of being lazy but politicians in safe seats with half a dozen directorships to top up their income are in no way fit to judge in such harsh terms the lives of others.

The report mentions that “Cameron insisted that the Coalition has is successfully tackling poverty and that improving people’s lives across the country can only be done when the economy is strong. He said: “Also, we are tackling poverty by giving 1.75million more people a job in our country. Actually under this Government inequality has fallen so I don’t think the picture they paint is accurate. “I look forward to debating and discussing it with them. They have a right to speak out as long as they don’t mind when I speak pretty vigorously in defence of the excellent economic and social record of this government. “The fact is you can’t do any of these things in terms of tackling poverty, growing opportunity, rebalancing the economy unless you have a strong economy and we have restored or are restoring the strength of the British economy.” The Archbishops said that Britain has been “dominated” by “rampant consumerism and individualism” since the Thatcher era”.