Monday, 27 April 2009

David Cameron's speech: The Age of Austerity

If you're curious to know what David Cameron actually said in his 'new direction' Spring Forum speech (but are intimidated by reading the full text) here is the video answer.

I find it encouraging.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Recession: Keeping up appearances

Dizzy raised an interesting question earlier this week. 'Where is the recession?'

Many commenters agreed that signs of poverty, despair and social disruption are hard to spot. This failure to observe the tell-tale symptoms of recession could be middle-class Nelsonianism. However, in this recession, the middle-classes are apparently being hit as much, or more, proportionately as the labouring class. We should all be able to witness and tremble at the stone-faced skeleton figure of Mr Recession stalking amongst us, swinging his merciless scythe. But that's not the way this recession looks or feels.

There are a number of possible answers to this conundrum.

1) Let us not forget, as if we could, that our government has gone to great lengths – in fact lengths that may be unprecedented in the history of mankind – to make us feel as if nothing too dramatic has happened to our lives. One of the reasons government borrowing is reaching such staggering proportions is that this government is unwilling to allow public services to decline – at least until the general election absolves them from further responsibility. To take the least partisan description I can, Labour feel their proper role is to relieve the population from acute pain. As long as they have done this they will feel satisfied they can claim their Brownie points. It will be left to others to deal with the chronic long-term pain their short-term, pill-popping remedies cause.

2) Middle class professionals are being hit hard, but the middle classes do not complain. An analysis in today's Telegraph shows that, to date, the professional classes are indeed the hardest hit by redundancies. Property related professions are the most affected, with the number of architects claiming unemployment benefits over the past year increasing by 860%. Following behind are town planning technicians (696%), construction managers (581%), chartered surveyors (464%), town planners (425%). HGV drivers make an appearance amongst the redundant professionals with a 379% increase in Job Centre attendances. But solicitors, lawyers, judges and coroners follow just behind with a 371% increase in benefit claims. (Bankers are not mentioned, perhaps because they are unwilling to be classified.) The point to remember behind these statistics is that professionals are programmed to look on the bright side of life. It is a middle class trait not to reveal desperation. Keeping up appearances is vital. So is providing a sense of encouragement to family and friends. Many may also have a savings buffer, for the present, which can delay the full impact of recession while family life is re-engineered.

3) Those affected on the high street are mainly small independent entrepreneurs. The Telegraph survey shows only a 20% increase in unemployment claims from this class. But this is unlikely to reflect the true impact of reduced income on such businesses. Small business persons are inventive and resourceful. They operate on day-to-day market risk principles of counting pennies and employing minimum staff. They have no union or collective voice: representative bodies, such as FSB, FPB and chambers of commerce, are mainly discreet lobbying organisations. Moreover, the profile of inner-city small business persons has changed considerably over the last thirty years. Many have origins in other countries, such as the Indian sub-continent or the Middle East, and run family businesses. They also have large extended families, good contacts with local ethnic communities, and know well from experience how to stretch a reduced income to feed many mouths.

4) The labouring classes once were used to working for large industries that never collapsed. They began aged fifteen or sixteen and kept going in the same company or industry until official retirement, or forced to retire sick. But that was decades ago. Since the 1980s, when nationalised industries were privatised and unproductive industries closed, hands-on labouring workers have become used to employment through contract work. Living with employment that offers no long-term guarantees has become a fact of life. This recession presents greater employment challenges than for a dozen years, but the principle of natural job insecurity is one they have had to come to terms with over many years.

5) Many people who can still afford to pay for their homes are benefiting from collapsed interest rates through tracker mortgages. Those who benefit are naturally remaining pretty quiet about this windfall (in contrast to savers), and are probably stashing this cash beneath the mattress as a resource for harder times ahead.

6) Credit cards have not been banned and remain an indispensable means to multiply reduced income, albeit at near-criminal exorbitant rates.

So the conclusion to the conundrum of the 'absent recession' seems to be that it is still mainly a middle class affair and the pervading principles of Hyacinth Bucket ensure that not everything is quite as it seems.

How long it will be until barren streets populated by angry dole claimants and burning braziers offer an air of community menace may depend on how long the recession lasts and the strata of society it eventually affects. Unless, perhaps, we've all become middle class now.

Update 26 April
One glaring omission from the above that deserves mention, of course, is the size of the public sector payroll. Official statistics (ONS) put this currently at about 20% of total employment. One can expect this to be a protected sector at least until the middle of 2010. But, in addition, the scale of outsourcing to the private sector should not be overlooked, which was expected to reach £64 billion in cost this year.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Sexed up evidence

Alastair Darling is accused of sexing up evidence that our economy will grow by 1.5% next year and 3.5% thereafter.

"You can grow your way out of a recession you can't cut your way out of it," he responded.

"Over the past two years I have ensured that annual borrowing has grown from £34 billion to £175 billion. That's a fivefold increase," he boasted.

"Over the next two years this government will borrow more than every government added together over the past 315 years," he crowed.

"What's more, we are now witnessing the fastest growth in unemployment in the nation's history," he added.

Finally, stepping beyond his brief, he reassured the public that all measures would be taken to locate known weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

(All washed up) and Nowhere to go

It feels like the countdown to the general election has begun. Not in the number of days, but in the number of further accusations of sleaze, corruption, failures of management or policy that Brown, his party and government attract before the election is finally called.

Unusually for Brown, the McBride affair struck home so directly he was unable to declare as usual that responsibility lay elsewhere – resulting in his eventual, reluctant "sorry".

But the electorate is not fooled by his regular absence from responsibilty for the state of the nation's affairs.

McBride focused attention on the clunking fist style of Brown's and Labour's governance that denies room to criticism, principle and basic democracy.

Alice McMahon pinpoints the trouble with the Labour party in her resignation from the party on Saturday. Never a fan of New Labour, she has been a confirmed left-winger and anti-war campaigner, criticising Labour's alliance with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But now her criticisms are more personal. "I can no longer be a member of a party that at the leadership level has betrayed many of the values and principles that inspired me as a teenager to join."

She says she was sickened by the recent smears of Conservative politicians and their families. And at local level she cites the treatment of Janet Oosthuysen, a prospective Parliamentary candidate in Calder Valley, who was deselected by the National Executive Committee last year. Such party bullying and irregularities are raised again this weekend by suspected candidate vote rigging in Erith and Thamesmead.

"My final reason for leaving the party is because it is no longer democratic. The personally vindictive, dishonest, campaign played out on the pages of the tabloids by certain Labour Party members was despicable."

So that's the view of a former MP and dedicated Labour party member for fifty years. She joins seven out of ten grassroots members who have also left the party over the past ten years.

Not everyone shares the politics of Alice Mahon. But very many people can see the cynicism, dishonesty, bullying and lack of principles that riddles the executives of the Labour party and its government as yet more reason to deny it electoral support at the coming local elections and in twelve months time.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

All washed up

"I am sorry about what happened."
We are sure he is.

"I was horrified, I was shocked and I was very angry indeed."
We are very sure that, when he read of Guido's revelations of the scandalous activities in the Cabinet office, he was.

"I think the most important thing we do is reassure people everything is being done to clean up politics in our country... I take full responsibility."

Cleaning up politics in our country is a grand ambition, Mr Brown. Will you be calling a general election? Unfortunately, Mr Brown was silent on this matter.

After 12 months more of the Nasty Party inflicting pain and poison on our country, surely, things can only get better.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Dog eats dog

Yes, it's a dog eat dog world.

Shock, horror, and great disgust cry the tabloids, broadsheets and broadcast media: they who have all too often been fed at the hands of the vile spinner, Damian McBride.

But what was the actual sequence of events that led to Guido's headline-topping slur story hitting the paper presses?

According to The Telegraph, it was it that first broke the story. But since no-one of importance seems to read the former Torygraph any more, anyone might be forgiven for thinking it was the Sunday Times and News of the World that jointly claimed the scoop.

Apparently, Guido had already been seeking a buyer amongst several 'Fleet Street' organs. Although this revelation from the Telegraph's Christopher Hope might seem embarrassing to Guido, I'm personally entirely sanguine and real-politik about earning money from the keyboard, when one can (as Dr Johnson might have said).

Far more disconcerting, but no less surprising, is the subsequent action of The Telegraph towards Guido's story. Having rejected a deal with Guido, it went ahead and printed the story on Saturday anyway, after first presenting the details to Number 10. A distressed Guido (for we presume it is actually he) left a message at My Telegraph that the organ "revealed sources, broke a confidence, breached a signed non-disclosure agreement and behaved like patsys for McBride".

Scurrilous behaviour is it not? And all to be the first to reveal McBride's plan to publish ... scurrilous stories.

And while on the subject of The Telegraph's priorities: what on earth was Janet Daley thinking of with her item yesterday titled, 'No need to demand an apology: Gordon Brown is damaged beyond repair'. According to Janet: 'Apart from the obvious virtue of giving the story another day or two of media life, what exactly would be the point of this? Mr Brown is now damaged beyond repair.'

Janet, you need to get out more or find a circle of friends nicer than McBride's patsies. Of course the individuals smeared by this affair need a bloody apology!

Believe it or not, life is not all about political strategies. There are human beings with families at the end of Number 10's sordid tales. At least Gordon Brown, being the master of PR spin, has delivered something that is the nearest to an apology they'll actually get.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Brown and Hitler - is there a link?

I listened yesterday to a review of a new film about a young German writer approached by the Nazi propaganda machine because they thought his appeal would be useful to them. He was flattered by their interest and promises of support. But soon he regretted selling his soul to the Devil with no means of escape.

Derek Draper's attraction to the realms of power was rather different. He deliberately sought out the bright lights and important personalities for his own ego and self-aggrandisement.

Damian McBride, on the other hand, was the regime's propaganda agent – Draper's handler. But considering the depth of slurs and lies he was prepared to inflict on the regime's opponents (while sitting in the Prime Minister/Chancellor's office) it might be appropriate to describe him as the Devil's agent. This would, of course, make Gordon Brown the Devil himself.

This is an extreme point of view, undoubtedly. But while reflecting on the significance of Slurgate in our political process, I've been drawn by the potentially narrow line between a self-justifying authoritarian government using propaganda slurs to discredit opposition and the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and any number of other evil dictatorships.

In Britain, we have freedom of the press, even greater freedom of the blogosphere and a history of vibrant but stable democracy. We're not about to allow ourselves to be taken over by a vicious totalitarian political regime. But that is not the point.

The current regime allowed a cabal of propagandists (some as inner circle as it gets ) to prepare an operation that would publicly release a stream of slanderous lies about the political opposition. These techniques are on the wrong side, by a very long way, of the spectrum between open democracy and vile tyrannies we've witnessed in the past – many of which used such methods to justify eliminating not just political opponents but swathes of their own population.

Thankfully, disgust at the revelation of the depths to which Brown would sink is almost universal. His attempts to spin our media have turned all of it against him.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Student politics

There's nothing I can add to the McBride of Dreapergate affair. I regret to admit there is some lurid fascination in watching this grubby business take its toll of its own proponents. Like watching armed bank raiders jump into a faulty stolen car and plough at speed into an unforgiving brick wall.

But this is not the type of politics that gives me any intellectual pleasure. I would describe it as like the worst kind of student politics were it not so serious, emanating as it does from the Prime Minister's right hand.

Perhaps this is just what we might expect from the dying days of those managing the NewLab project. As the tawdry self-serving edifice crumbles down about their ears, they rely on the only consistent feature throughout their administration: that of truth-denying spin. But with no further hope of spinning their way out of their national political disasters, as a last gasp they turn their dark arts onto the opposition. "If we're sinking then we'll take the opposition down with us."

It's tawdry, sick and not worthy of the title 'politics'. And I wish I could just leave that as NewLab's appropriate epitaph.

But over at our friend Donal Blaney's Blarney there's more student politics going on.

I do hope Donal doesn't spend his days trawling through Facebook looking for victims for his clunking fist, as his latest target suggests. So far, whatever his errors, I think the young undergraduate, who is the focus of Donal's latest attentions, manages to stay on the moral high-ground against threats of expensive legal action from the Blarney man.

Donal can do as he wishes, and he usually does. But I've no time for irritating, poisonous, personality-based student politics – from left or right.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Police operation floored

Some years ago, if top secret documents concerning active anti-terrorist operations had inadvertently been revealed to agents of the MSM, the news organisation concerned would contact Scotland Yard or the Home Office, a meeting would be arranged and the information effectively returned.

Whether or not the incident would be reported might depend on negotiations. If reported, the senior officer involved might or might not be named. Undoubtedly, the detailed nature of the documents would be protected to ensure police operations were not disturbed.

Today, digital cameras and computer enhancement leave sensitive documents vulnerable. More relevant still is the loss of monopoly of print and broadcast news organisations, thanks to the Internet, with both contracted and freelance journalists also active participants in online blogs.

The consequences are at least twofold: a) establishment forces find it increasingly hard to hide their activities from the wider media. b) those establishment forces seeking to protect us can no longer trust the wider media to maintain secrecy over sensitive operations.

This last consequence seems to have been the cause of the hurried police operations yesterday to arrest potential terrorists under surveillance before details of the policing activities might be revealed. Their investigations were undoubtedly compromised as a result.

All of this may or may not have a message for libertarians. While I sympathise considerably with many libertarian objectives, I always fail to accept it as a 'true' philosophy because it delivers up so many 'exceptions'.

In this case, of course, harm to others could undoubtedly have been caused if full details of the police operation had immediately been revealed and the terrorist suspects escaped.

Nevertheless, the consequences of unmediated media, while desirable as a whole, raise challenging issues about our collective security.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Rules and regulations

Regulation has been in the spotlight for many months. Has there been too little or too much? Has it been misdirected? Has it just failed to be properly followed and enforced?

On the right of the political spectrum we tend to believe market forces are sufficient to regulate bad practice. But in the recent banking fiasco trust in self-correcting markets failed because the toxic elements seemed on the surface to be invisible.

On Saturday evening I began to suffer from a bout of food poisoning. Perhaps I'm particularly prone, but I seem to succumb to these painfully toxic events two or three times every year.

The first target on which I pinned the blame was a mini pork pie bought at M&S Brent Cross that afternoon, which settled in my stomach like a lead balloon.

However, health regulators say they rarely accept consumers' own attribution of the cause of their pain. The most common food bacteria take 8 to 72 hours to multiply in the gut before they start producing their unpleasant symptoms.

This would mean that the most likely cause of my toxic gut was the flame-grilled chicken burger served on a heavy wooden board that I enjoyed in the sunshine outside a small north London bistro on Friday afternoon.

Marketeers say that the larger the retailer the more we can trust the quality of its products. Bad publicity can do far more damage to a business with many outlets than to a small individual retailer catering to passing trade.

The toxic element in the trades widely engaged in by the banking industry originated with nameless hedge fund operatives inventing faulty risk algorithms that were then endorsed by supplicant credit rating agencies. Thus the health properties of the derivative products that then flooded financial markets were never questioned. And regulators fell into line with the apparent market wisdom that all would be fine.

The lesson seems to be that the precautionary principle is a good one. But we need regular reminders that the best precautions involve considering and applying fundamentally basic rules, even when we don't expect market failures.

If the staff at the bistro I attended had followed the basic hygiene regulations they had surely been taught, I wouldn't now be suffering the toxic consequences of their omissions.

Market forces will produce a correction in the end. But to avoid the interim outbreaks of unforeseen pain, people simply need to stick to obvious, sensible rules.

Friday, 3 April 2009

The depressing reality

Given he held a bummer of a hand, Brown would be right to feel pleased about the outcome of his summit. He managed to turn the cards round into a not unsatisfactory show.

The 3000 words of the closing communique amount to one gigantic spin. But that's poker. And we all appreciate a positive shine when the alternative could be immeasurably gloomier.

The participating countries remain with the not insignificant domestic problem of managing the consequences of the financial and economic crisis in their own inimitable way.

But at least we now know that 19 of the world's largest economies – plus the remainder of the EU and several global finance institutions – are jointly agreed that global trade should be supported and no nation, within or without their number, should be abandoned if they threaten to sink.

Since, apart from the direct contribution of a very few wealthy countries, this global financial support is to be achieved by more fiscal sleight of hand, nobody will be unduly inconvenienced and several developed countries will be fortunately saved.

On the broader front, all this G20 really does is send a long term message to global markets that the world's richest nations do not intend to let international trade permanently decline. And where pockets of severe financial instability arise they are prepared to support individual countries through the crisis.

This will make no imminent difference to the negative economic situation faced by Britain, the US, Germany, France, Japan or most of the other highly developed nations. In particular, Britain and the US, where the finance industry has been most exposed, still have to find solutions to their own banking crises.

When, and whenever, the toxic asset overhang they're holding can be resolved, it will provide an immense boost to the objectives set by the G20. But that's an issue the G20 didn't even touch.

So as an upbeat symbol in a time of crisis this G20 looked like a good one. But like an exotic holiday, it will soon be just a memory. We and our great leaders must return to the depressing reality of a long recession.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

And now ... back to the recession

Thank goodness the G-jamboree is over. Didn't they realise we're in the middle of a recession?

I listened to the post-G comments of that wise man, Bob Geldof. An extra $1 trillion resources for the IMF to distribute: means an extra $1 trillion aid.

So there we have it. Gordon Brown has called the world's top leaders together to finance the passion that's always most dear to his heart – Overseas Aid.

Well, good luck to them – the poorest countries, low-income countries, emerging economies and developing economies. I suppose someone will pay.

Hang on a minute ... aren't we in the middle of a recession?

Fraser Nelson tells the real story.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Sour gripes?

"Mine is like this. Sarkozy's is like that!"

"Non. You pay for the Cognac otherwise I leave."