Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Inflation and hypocrisy

In the budget today, the Chancellor announced that inflation this year is expected to be between 4 and 5%, and that it is hoped that it may come down to around 2.5% next year. Even if you believe the Chancellor (and I don't), and the prediction for 2012 is achieved, it is still above the level requiring Mervyn King to report to explain himself.

The Tory party like to portray themselves as the party of those who are self-reliant, who want to contribute to society rather than only take from it, and who want to make the most of themselves. Self-reliance means saving for difficult times. This includes making provision for old age. But the Chancellor's willingness to inflate himself out of the national debt is confiscatory with respect to just those people. Ordinary savings offer rates of interest which are way below the rate of inflation, and what meagre income that is received, even though much below the amount necessary to match inflation, is still taxed. Similarly, capital gains on savings investments are taxed even though, because of inflation, the gains may be entirely illusory: this is because the Chancellor is not prepared to index capital gains against inflation.

The Tories were supposed to raise the inheritance tax threshold. They haven't done it. They were supposed to replace the Barnett formula with a needs based grant distribution system for the UK. They haven't done it. On the last of those, this was also matched a Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment, so there is no excuse.

As it happens, for reasons explained in earlier articles in this blog, I do not support replacing the Barnett formula. The Barnett formula has the great advantage that it operates, so to speak, without human input: find out how much is voted in the annual Appropriation Acts for functions relating to England in any year on matters devolved elsewhere, and you then know exactly how much is to go to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in that year. On the other hand, a needs based formula will be subject to annual arguments about relative assessments of need (which over time is likely to act to the disadvantage of those in England, because if the UK government acts neutrally as it ought to, there is no one to stand up for their interests).

Equally I do not support raising the inheritance tax threshold: I see no reason why children should expect to inherit their parents' wealth as a matter of right.

The point arising from this is not that the Tories' policies are necessarily wrong (they are on inflation, not on the others), but that the Tories are untrustworthy. They knew the economic condition of the country perfectly well at the time of the last election. If they didn't think something could be afforded then they should not have promised it. The Labour party, if in government, would probably have followed all the same steps on these issues. However, they would not have (and did not) promise anything different.

To make matters worse, some Tory policies seem to me to be bound to fail. The NHS reforms if implemented as intended will lead to unaccountable decision making by people it will be impossible even to identify - but it is doubtful those reforms are implementable. The Big Society as explained so far seems to have turned out to be a means of confiscating dormant bank accounts in England to make up for shortfalls in local government spending. I think that the policy on student fees for higher education is wrong and I think the Tories misunderstand the resentment at grass-roots level about the unfairness caused by only those students living in England having to pay the higher fees. The single policy which may have beneficial impacts and go some way to meeting manifesto commitments is the Localism Bill (in which I think there are some genuinely good things).

If the Tories end up with a reputation of being untrustworthy, as it seems to me they deserve, this will store up trouble for them for the future. The plan may be that as the next election approaches a pre-election budget will issue enough goodies to the Tories' natural supporters as to cause them to overlook their failure to meet their past commitments. That calculation may be wrong. Their natural voting supporters may not be fooled twice, and if AV were to arrive UKIP may well steal part of the Tories' lunch box. (Again, to avoid misunderstanding, readers of this blog will know I am opposed to UKIP policies on the European Union, but they are a threat to the Tories.)

Monday, 21 March 2011


I have been listening to the debate in Parliament on Libya this afternoon and one could almost have gone back to debates of 150 years ago. There are echoes here of France and Britain's past involvements in Africa. Neither country could it appears resist the opportunity to appear on the world stage one last time. Given that both are now much less important (and capable) militarily than they used to be, it felt quite odd. And given that the need to reduce the deficit has been the reason given for many of David Cameron's government's domestic policies, what exempts this latest appearance on the world stage from the same deficit-led restrictions? No one in the debate in the Commons appears to question the assumption that Britain's tax payers must play a leading role in events in Libya.

At least this venture is probably legal so far (on some reasonable definitions of "legal"), but I have other practical misgivings. These stem first from my gut feeling that no one has a monopoly on morality (why Libya, which at least makes some attempt to promote its own version of equality so far as gender is concerned, and not, say, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain which are just as dictatorial and whose police states are equally without democratic credentials?); secondly, from my suspicion that the UN mandate to protect civilians is bound to lead to "feature creep" and is even now becoming seen as a mandate for regime change; thirdly, from my feeling that transitions to democracy have to come from within rather than from the outside; and fourthly, from doubts that there is a properly formed strategic view about the long term.

On the first and second points, Gadaffi probably is a criminal and probably did authorise implicitly or explicitly the bombing of the aircraft which crashed at Lockerbie. He probably did implicitly or explicitly lay down the ground rules which led later to the death of PC Yvonne Fletcher. He has very probably been responsible for many other deaths. But these are not the bases for the current intervention, and were they to be there would be an even stronger stench of hypocrisy given Tony Blair's and Gordon Brown's subsequent cosying up to him.

So, what is the sub-text to this? Is it to see that the provisional government at Benghazi takes over the mantle of government in Libya, and if so to what place will that lead and by what means have Britain and France acquired the right to decide that (it certainly falls outside the UN mandate)? What if the provisional government does not succeed militarily and the UN mandate to protect civilians just leads to a stalemate and a long drawn out civil war? Are there to be elections, and if so what will secure them and what will follow them? At what point will David Cameron think that the objectives have been achieved, and what will he do if it appears that an Islamist government may succeed Gadaffi: does he think that in that eventuality he has the right to intervene further to prevent that and, if so, does he think he will succeed, and what happens if the UN just cuts him off at the knees at that point?

And what happens if the UK's current floating military capability of one and a half aircraft carriers, two months' supply of paper darts and a few assorted support warships isn't enough to deal with the problem?

If one is optimistic, maybe the provisional government in Benghazi might quickly succeed in conquering Gadaffi's forces and Libya might end with a national government that is uncorrupt, respects the human rights of its citizens and makes some moves to democracy. A successful operation by Britain and France together may lead to the emergence of workable foreign policy structures within the European Union and the emergence of a military establishment to serve it. Any of those optimistic hopes for the Libyan situation could fail to eventuate, which could in turn derail such optimistic hopes for the European Union.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Census forms

Like many others I have just received my census form to complete, or rather to keep until I know my circumstances on 27 March. It is a while since I last filled in one of these, and maybe my memory of the last occasion is clouded, but it seems quite intrusive.

What to make of the ethnicity questions? If you think of yourself as "White" you have four options (if you are in England at any rate, I have no idea what happens in other parts of the UK). These are (1) "English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British", (2) "Irish", (3) "Gypsy or Irish Traveller" and (4) "Any other ...".

Leaving aside the point that as I last understood it England, Wales and Scotland are all in Great Britain (Northern Ireland technically is not) so the juxtaposition between the two seems somewhat odd, what are these descriptions supposed to mean in terms of ethnicity? These are after all ethnicity-specific questions, as there is a separate question about how you would describe your "national identity" which includes similar choices.

The easy option, the first one, seems a bit of a cop out and lacking in romance. Family folklore has it that as well as coming from the then indigenous population in Sussex, we have Huguenot input (from which the family name derived) and also some North African (Berber) pirates who happened to land and settle in the south-west of the country after one raid too many. It is said that everyone has an Irish great grandmother and that is probably also the case of me, and it is certainly true of my children via my wife.

Like 90% of the rest of the population, to fulfil my duty to truth and completeness to Her Majesty's Government I will probably have to put an entry under "Any other" as "Mongrel". Faced with these intrusive questions, I encourage others to do the same.

Come to think of it, a new "English Mongrel Party" sounds quite attractive, as a kind of ethnically inclusive party that most other UK parties seem to lack, with their post-imperial echoes. We could have St George as our patron saint, one of legends surrounding which is that he came from North Africa and therefore might be a distant relative, although if he existed at all I accept that it is more likely that he came from Palestine but, hey, there is probably some of that in me and most others as well. St George is suitably ambiguous on ethnicity.

At any rate, Archbishop Sentamu has been banging on about it again and he has always seemed quite a cool dude to me, and refreshingly unpredictable.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Law making for Wales

So people in Wales have voted for the Welsh Assembly to have law making powers under Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 similar to those of the Scottish Parliament, and the UK follows its rudderless voyage to ever greater fragmentation.

With Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland now with their own parliaments, it probably makes it impossible for there to be another Welsh or Scottish Prime Minister until the position of England is dealt with (there has never been a Prime Minister from Northern Ireland): although how much of that is the lingering memories of Gordon Brown, which will fade over time, or a permanent feature, could possibly be argued about (I suspect it is a permanent feature). It also makes it inevitable that the UK Parliament will become ever more England-centric, given that that is now the geographical unit with which the large majority of its business will be concerned, and their is little point in some of the politicians in the devolved nations making the snide remarks about that which have been emanating from those such as Carwyn Jones, who is unfortunately not a Welsh leader in the same league as Rhodri Morgan. The people in each of those devolved nations have after all voted for the arrangements now in place.

It also throws into focus the self-serving arguments of the Labour Party last month, that people in Wales should have greater representation in the UK Parliament per head than people in England, notwithstanding that around 80% of the legislation in Parliament will in the future relate to England only.

As a unionist I have to say I fear for the future of the United Kingdom. We have a ramshackle constitution, one of the main foundations of which now appears to be the maintenance of structures which will enable those in the current main UK parties to hang on to power in England, even if they have now lost power on domestic matters elsewhere. There seems to be no blueprint for the future, no plan as to where this is all leading us. Devolution may be a process and not an event, but there needs to be some common understanding amongst those in the UK about where it is taking us.

A propos of which, where is Nick Clegg's commission on the West Lothian Question, which was originally intended to be established last autumn? Well, at least the commission, if it is set up, will now have a position with respect to Wales to work on.