Archive for January, 2013

Cameron and Osborne: Are They Losing Wheels?

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

There is a feeling of government by disconnection creeping over the country. It is not the detail or the individual policies. It is down to two issues. Europe and the economy. The two Es.

Europe is going through transformation pangs, self inflicted economic issues and problems of integration. Not one of these is within the remit of the UK to influence, since all stem from the idea of a currency without a government, which can be traced back to a Mitterrand day-dream to curb German domination. It did not work. Germany dominates Europe, but the currency, or better said, the consequence of the currency, is a big mess. The UK is not in the currency, so it is a spectator. Nobody knows how the euro members are going to finally resolve their problems or who will stay in the euro. This may be all, some, or none.

Until this is known, pontificating about Britain’s relationship with a new Europe of unknown shape is pointless. It is like choosing a hat without a head on which to put it and without knowing for what occasion it will be worn. At best it whimsical but to most it is silly. Cameron’s speech, in the current financial context and driven solely by Tory splits, was as pointless as a silly hat. The context, of course, was the announcement not long after, that the UK had achieved a contraction in the last quarter of 2012, over the whole year there had been nil growth, and government borrowing as well as spending was rising and above target.

Nobody in Whitehall can possibly pretend that this is where the government wanted to be, nor that it is other than something approaching a disaster. The plan is not working. There is no growth and there is no plan for growth, just a few measures here and there which my help. The real economy has suffered while QE has fed property prices in the south east and share prices on the stock market. This has been good for the rich and bad for everybody else.

Unless Cameron and Osborne sort this out, what they, their rebel beck bench MPs, or their (elderly) activists think or plan or wish for, will be neither here nor there. 2015 will be another electoral defeat for the Tories.

Cameron: The Speech At Last

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Only one thing is for certain about David Cameron’s speech. He would never have made it at this time but for the divisions in his own party. Everything else is unclear. What changes does he actually want? Will the other members agree to real negotiations or just offer a fig leaf to mask Cameron’s difficulties. Will this declaration now help or hinder business, slow or boost the recovery? What is the future shape of Europe likely to be anyway and which parts do we not like? Might this uncertainty push the Scots to vote for independence and their own Euro membership? Will the Tories be given the chance or will they lose power anyway in 2015?

Having poured all that cold water over his effort, this blog acknowledges that it was a courageous speech, well argued and delivered. It was crafted  to appease his rebels, outflank UKIP and appeal to frustrated English nationalism. There was a message for Europe; part reason, part conciliation, part threat; but in the end what is all this about?

Only a fool can doubt the historic success of the European Union. Hundreds of years of wars and bloodshed climaxed in the twentieth century with slaughter on an unimagined scale. The EU is a massive political success and if peace saves lives, but at the price of piffling regulations about trivia, who would argue blood spilling is better? Why is Britain always moaning?

Simply put Britain is an island, not physically a part of the European continent and does not see itself as European, nor has it ever done so. It has historically harboured very little appetite for European conquest beyond the fall-out from the French connection of the Plantagenets. Its ambitions lay in building an empire based on commerce and trade across the rest of the world. It engaged in Europe to support the weakest against the dominant power of the hour, whether France, Germany or Spain, or the political outreach of the Roman Catholic Church. It saw itself as a neighbour who had a right to intervene if stuff happened next door, which it judged to threaten its interests. Europe has for long recognised in Britain a neighbour of whom account must be taken and from whom, in a crisis, aid will be sent forth. No power has won a war in Europe when its enemies included Britain.

Now Britain has no empire, its wealth is much depleted, yet its voice continues to ring shrill in the world narrative of human affairs. The question raised by Cameron’s speech is not so much whether Britain wishes to stay in Europe. It is actually more whether Europe wishes Britain to remain. This question, Europe, convulsed by the trauma of sorting out the euro, cannot at present answer, because it does not yet know what its own federalised shape will be, when and if the currency is secured. When the moment comes to choose, it will see it in a stark and scary terms; accept the counterweight of Britain and her nagging, or accept the reality of German domination  of a Europe without her. On that will depend whether Cameron, if the British electorate give him the chance, negotiates his way to a worthy prize or a doleful fig leaf.

Algerian Trauma

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

The drama of life and death taking place in the Algerian desert has dominated the news and the government over the last few days. Britons have died, perhaps fewer than feared, but too many none the less. These victims were not military personnel, but civilian oil workers. Each death leaves a family shattered. It is final. There is no way back.

It is not surprising therefore that the approach of western governments to a hostage crisis, is to play it long, whilst preparing in depth. All were taken aback by the speed and ferocity of the Algerian military action, about which they were informed but not consulted. There is a feeling in Whitehall that perhaps more lives could have been saved by a different approach. Ministers are careful not to criticise the Algerian authorities, yet the hint is there to be spun by commentators.

This is misguided. Algeria has perhaps the best equipped, organised and trained special forces in the region. They have fought and won a long and costly civil war against extremists. They were dealing with an enemy for whom life is cheap and death a glorious reward. There was a substantial economic risk if the gas plant was damaged and put out of action. The militants were about to send some of their number, with their hostages, into the deep and inaccessible desert.

Faced with these significant challenges, the Algerian authorities judged it right to attack. Lives were lost, but let us not forget, lives were saved. We should not criticise, because we cannot say, because we do not know, what an alternative course would have yielded. We do know the Algerian government acted in, what in its judgement, was in the best interests of everyone and we should be grateful to them.

On a wider point we might spare a moment to observe that increasing instability in the region is becoming ever more obvious following the fall of Colonel Gadaffy. When Assad goes in Syria and with Egypt not yet stable after Mubarak, one wonders at the quality of thinking in western foreign ministries and if everyone is clear what it is they are wishing for.

Heathrow: Coping with Snow

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

The scenes of hundreds of people lying on the floor trying to rest after hours of delay to their flights because of snow are truly shocking. In a world shrunk by air travel it is simply unacceptable that this appalling confusion is the repeated consequence of a snowfall in the London area. This was not a blizzard or a storm. It was a perfectly average winter snowfall of modest levels by even European standards. Why is it, therefore, that the management of Heathrow cannot cope?

When it comes to coping with adverse weather, Great Britain is an international joke. Heathrow is a hub airport. It cannot collapse because of  weather which would not even merit comment at any of several competing European airports. The Spanish owners must be told to raise their game or face serious sanctions. Meanwhile any suggestion that it would be a good idea to add another runway to this mismanaged facility is just plain barmy.

Cameron and the EU: A Poisoned Chalice?

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Cameron’s much delayed, over spun and partially leaked speech on Britain and the EU has been delayed as the nation waits in anxiety for bad, perhaps very bad, news from Algeria. Although this is right and proper, the unavoidable postponement can only feed mounting uncertainty about the future direction of the UK economy.

It would be a fair summary to say that most people see the benefits of Britain’s EU membership; some businessmen find European regulations irksome; sections of the media are hysterical in their opposition to an institution or grouping which has brought the longest period of European peace in history; and, and this is where Cameron comes in, the Tory party is racked with disagreement and split from top to bottom.

At this time, when the re-organisation of the Euro area is at last getting under way to create an effective means of running the single currency, without which there will be no economic recovery in the EU and when the UK economy remains bumping along the bottom, no rational Prime Minister, who had control of his destiny, would set out to make a speech about something which has not happened, may never happen and if it does with what effect cannot yet be foretold. Sadly Cameron’s destiny is with the Tory party and although he is the leader he has lost effective control. Thus the big speech.

Clearly there will have to be some treaty changes if the expected move towards a more federal and less democratic government structure is put together by those members of the euro who wish to remain in it, which may not be all of them. Nobody knows for sure if this will happen, nor for certain if the euro will survive and if so in exactly what form. It is known that change is coming and that such change must affect the nature of the relationship of non euro members to the EU as well as the relationship of the euro members. So far missing are the framework, the objectives, the structures, the mandate and the intended outcome.  There is no more point in making a speech about so much uncertainty than there is in making one about colonising the moon.

European leaders, Washington, the CBI and myriad others, whose lives revolve in the reality outside the Tory party, are dismayed by the timing and sentiment of what our prime minister is trying so unsuccessfully to get off his chest. However none of these pose the dire threat of an unforeseen outcome. This is what looms in the mist ahead.

If Cameron stirs up uncertainty about whether Britain may leave Europe, the hand of Alex Salmond in the independence referendum for Scotland will be hugely strengthened. It then becomes entirely possible, even likely, that Scots will vote for independence in order to gain their own membership of the EU as England leaves.

No longer will it be Great Britain. Instead Little England. Even Andy Murray will be gone.

Gay Bishops

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

From Australia

The position of the Church of England, after the latest announcement that clergy in civil partnerships can become bishops if they promise to be celibate, is literally preposterous. Having made a complete fool of itself over women bishops, it now reveals itself, yet again, to be an organisation seriously depraved by an obsession with sex and an assumption of authority over issues in which it has no business.

Sexual drive is a fundamental part of the natural order of things and way outside the influence of the Church. It has no more authority over people’s sex lives than it does over the weather. These are not issues in which it can directly interfere. It can teach, but without any justifiable or credible authority other its own theology, that adultery, divorce, or other social events are either good or bad or forgivable within its terms. What it cannot do is to determine the sexual terms of relationships conducted within its rules. If clergy, male or female, are in civil partnerships or other lawful relationships, it follows that these must have a sexual dimension. That is wholly proper, right and healthy.

Religious celibacy is one of the unhealthiest and most discredited lifestyle prescriptions ever devised. It flies in the face of nature. It is responsible for the fact that in any line-up of perverts and abusers, celibate clergy number among the most prolific. It has nothing to do with any reasonable interpretation of clean living or example. It does, and has done, vast and irreparable harm.

Either the Church of England pulls itself together, to behave with responsibility in the areas where it can and should be active, whilst controlling its obsession with sex and sexual orientation, or bit by bit it will lose all its authority and slide out of the serious business of the nation, in which it enjoys  unique constitutional privileges. If it continues to behave like an irrelevant clique of busy bodies and reactionaries it will become one. If in doing so it labours under the false assumption that it speaks for a God in whom any sane, healthy or compassionate adult would wish to believe, it will be deluding itself.

Its demise will be fully deserved.

America And The Fiscal Cliff

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

From Australia

The headlong dash to the fiscal cliff has shuddered to a messy compromise at the very edge. America’s dysfunctional system of federal government has managed to cobble together a deal which has brought relief to the markets. Politicians of all sides preen themselves for behaving like statesmen and women in the national interest. But what has happened in reality? It is called kicking the can down the road. And the can? The can is a spending programme chronically too high and a revenue base which is too low. Its no big deal. If you spend what you do not earn, you borrow. If you go on doing it for too long, at worst you go bust and at best you stagnate, crippled by servicing a debt mountain too big to repay. America is still firmly set on this deadly course.

At the margin is how fast and how deep you should cut and by how much you push up taxes and for whom. But this is marginal tuning of a grand master plan. America has no such plan agreed nor will it be able to find consensus for for one which will work in its current political orientation. One or other party will have to triumph at the mid-term polls before that can happen, so at best the future offers two years of faltering  management of the world’s largest economy.

The baddies in this whole issue of a divided America are the Republicans. This is not a partisan observation, but a commentary on the recorded facts of history. The Reagan doctrine that if you cut taxes, especially for the better off and increase spending without regard for deficits, this would promote growth and cascade wealth from the top of the economy to the bottom, has not worked. This is not surprising as it has never worked in all history and is economic nonsense. It also is socially unjust. Finally it implodes in either economic disaster or social upheaval or both.  Yet this has been the dogmatic economic policy of the Reagan, Bush I and Bush II presidencies. A peep at the figures reveals that all these catastrophic deficits are down to the Republican years. Clinton was a pause of better housekeeping. By Obama things were almost beyond recall.

This bonkers neo-conservative twisting of mathematical certainty into an illiterate economic theory has cost America its place of unchallenged world leader, perhaps for good. Wealth brings power; America is now the worlds largest debtor and debt brings obligation. Trying to use a flamboyant and excessive military to supplant wealth does not bring power; it breeds fear and envy. This is not what the American dream is about. It is not what the founding fathers had in mind. It is not how Americans wish to see themselves. This is most definitely not where the United States of George Washington, modified by Abraham Lincoln, was supposed to be headed.

But all is far from lost. There are three priorities. To advance steadily to a balanced budget, to pay down debt and above all to modify the Constitution to enable decisive Federal government to function within prescribed limits; this is not the same as a structure so checked and balanced that meaningful economic government  is all but impossible without a very significant political tilt one way or the other. Democracy is about constructive tension between competing ideas which drives decision, not balance which assures stalemate.

America can fix all this, but it must make a prompt start. Time is no longer on its side.