Category Archives: uk
What headline fits the announcement of Mrs Thatcher’s death? Maybe that best-known misquote.
Thatcher was the only prime minister in my lifetime, and (along with Attlee) one of just two in living memory to have done anything substantial and positive for the country. Like Attlee before her, she came to a country in deep crisis, and took decisive and necessary action to confront the most pressing problems of her time.
For readers too young to remember, Britain in 1979 was in the depths of a crisis not entirely unlike Greece today (imagine yourself a Greek prime minister now)! Post-war reconstruction had morphed into chronic profligacy, taxes (on everyone who worked) were astronomical, and government spending was mired in corruption. Yes, an element of that has returned today, but not on a remotely comparable scale (well, except for that deficit). Digging us out from that mess was never going to be pretty, but against all expectations she had the guts to take on that herculean task.
Her defining characteristic that resonated with my generation and social circle was meritocracy. Born a grocer’s daughter and brought up above the shop, she rose through life on her own merits. She had no truck with unearned privilege, and that made her many enemies amongst those with power and influence. Nor with the politics of envy that would arbitrarily “level down”. She neither supported nor attacked privilege itself, but came down hard on the abuse of privilege. An ideal role model for my cohort at Cambridge when we voted to disaffiliate from the (then-)loony-left National Union of Students and even elected a paid-up Young Conservative as president of our own students union. By her time the bastions of privilege included the trade union movement (whose leadership were of a generation brought up in a very different world and still fighting the battles of the pre-1939 era) and the institutions of the post-war state that had become corruption-magnets. Such an overprivileged leader as Blair or Cameron trying to take them on would’ve been a sitting duck for class warfare.
OK, she had the advantages of her generation: an adult life in the wake of total war, meaning lots of reconstruction work to generate productive economic activity, and the demographics of “dead mens shoes” opening exceptional opportunities for a man (or more rarely a woman) of merit to rise rapidly through the corporate ladder or other walks of life. By the 1980s that window of widespread opportunity had closed to a tiny crack as a generation that hadn’t had to fight in total war were in the positions above us. She instead pushed an entrepreneurial culture, which was not easy to get to grips with for those of us who’d been brought up in a culture where a popular word for entrepreneur was ‘spiv’, and emphatically NOT something to aspire to.
She led us out of the disaster of the 1970s, but did she also lay the foundations for today’s troubles? In part I think she did. Hers is the culture (reinforced by her successors) that blames the EU for so many troubles, yet could be relied on to veto or sabotage any serious attempt to improve its institutions and practices. Housing in the 1980s was a disaster, though to be fair the worst of that was a legacy of earlier policy coming home to roost. She did (belatedly) lay the seeds for improvement and the ‘golden age’ of the mid-late 1990s, but also for the greed and profligacy that followed it (though not for the disastrous outcome).
What about the central accusation, that deregulation of the city led directly to the Blair/Brown bust? I’d say she’s guilty of that only in the sense that Attlee was guilty of the 1970s bust: a failure to anticipate that the institutions shaped in her time would grow into monsters in the hands of incompetents. The credit bubble of the 2000s that led to the bust was the very antithesis of monetarism, as is clear from a graph of money supply growth shooting up into double-digit real inflation (albeit masked by the rise of cheap manufactured imports in a meaningless price index, and creating “feelgood” by flattering GDP and other measures of national wealth).
I need to wrap this little piece up at some point. So let’s finish with a quote from the words of wisdom from which my title is misquoted:
… I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation …
 Excluding Churchill, whose greatness (such as it was) was thrust upon him by circumstance of war.
 Albeit with serious blind spots: she continued to pour taxpayers’ money into the bottomless pit of the car industry known at various times as British Leyland, Austin, Rover, MG, Jaguar as it came back to the taxpayer for more bailouts every few years just as it had done since the 1960s. That was indeed obvious at the time, and I can see no explanation for not letting the market work.
 Not that either of those disasters would’ve had the guts.
Parliament today has held a long debate on legalising “gay marriage”. Strong opinions on both sides, commonsense on neither – at least so far as I’ve heard reported.
What an utterly bizarre waste of time. How the **** is marriage any of the government’s business? It should be neither legal nor illegal: it should just be there for people who want it and churches/etc who are happy to marry them.
Marriage is a historical and religious tradition. For participants it’s a personal and/or religious statement. For the law to poke its nose into that and confuse it with legal rights and obligations is Big Government gone mad – the kind of thing this government is supposed to be against.
Where the law might legitimately have business with peoples relationships is where there are joint commitments and obligations. Children, obviously, but as soon as you widen the relationship net you could be looking at business partners, or people sharing a house and mortgage. And that begs the question: why does the law discriminate against units of more than two people, or against close relatives who can’t marry but might very well lead interdependent lives? The victims of serious discrimination are these ladies, whose rights got lost in the stupid confusion of law and marriage.
Exercises in futility seems to be a bit of a theme of the current government. They’re also (less controversially) changing the rules of succession for the monarchy in the name of equality. I find it hard to imagine a more glaring oxymoron than “equality” in that of all contexts!
 If you accept, as I don’t, that the act of marrying should confer the kind of special privilege they wanted to share.
Government reveal plans to extend HS2 (the UK’s bid to install fast trains such as exist in more developed parts of Europe and Asia). Fast trains from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
Since these are already among our fastest lines, one might suggest there are altogether more deserving candidates for major upgrade. For example, lines between Southwest England and anywhere else are truly dire as soon as you get west of Exeter. But they tell us this is more about capacity than speed, and outside of holiday season it’s true our lines are less overloaded than some of those serving the HS2 destinations.
What about the HS2 itself? The HS2 destination with which I’m most familiar is Sheffield, where I lived and worked for some time. Sheffield is one of the major cities of the industrial north, and will be served by the Leeds branch of HS2.
In my time there, Sheffield was the northern end of a mainline service via the East Midlands to London, and a station on the “cross country” mainline route from southwest England through Bristol and Birmingham, and north to York, Northeast England and Scotland. What it lacked were comparable connections to nearby major cities: Manchester was a scenic but very secondary route through the Peak District, while the Leeds journey was ugly, slow and hideously uncomfortable. Both routes were a sick joke in the context of the size and importance of the cities they link.
So at least the HS2 connection to Leeds should be a real and big improvement. Except, it isn’t quite that. The station won’t be in Sheffield city centre, it’ll be at Meadowhall, which is convenient for nothing but the motorway. So that makes two journeys with a change at Meadowhall, which would seem to lose most of the benefit. The East Midlands station looks even worse: a station midway between Nottingham and Derby serving
There are valid reasons to site airports in inconvenient out-of-town places. Doing it with railway stations seems perverse, losing one of the major advantages of rail over air. Will anyone really benefit in Sheffield, Nottingham or Derby?
Oh, erm, and what about the Nimbys? Can’t blame them for kicking up a fuss: they’re laying down a marker for compensation. But some of the commentators in the meeja (notably whinging MPs) are just beyond ridiculous.
Is today’s Sir Humphrey a complete idiot, or are our politicians deliberately picking a fight with the Court of Human Rights?
I suspect the latter. To pick such a fight may be no bad thing, but they’re going about it the wrong way. Don’t just ignore the court on an issue that can painlessly be fixed. Tackle it much earlier in the development of some dubious issue, and build alliances. Maybe in the first instance do it by supporting some other government’s fight over a suitable issue.
The court says that a blanket ban on prisoners voting is a violation of their “human rights”. Government sticks its fingers in its ears. Hardly anyone wants to give prisoners the vote, and opinions divide, with a suspected majority supporting the government.
But wait a minute, this whole conflict is based on a misrepresentation. The court hasn’t said “give prisoners the vote”, nor even “give some prisoners the vote”. It’s just said “don’t operate a blanket ban”. Even if our politicians are too dumb to see the obvious solution, it can’t have escaped Sir Humphrey – unless of course the meritocracy has vanished from his job and an idiot has been appointed on some politically-correct anti-elitist principle.
Why not just give the responsibility to sentencing judges? Let the removal (or not) of the vote be a decision for the judge in every conviction (and not just those involving prison). Keep the status quo as a default, so if a judge says nothing about the vote then the convict loses it while in prison but keeps it while in the community. Surely that removes the blanket ban – thus satisfying the court – without making anything worse than it is, or even losing face!
Tomorrow is polling day, to elect police commissioners in England and Wales.
Having elected people in this role is new: this will be the first time we’ve done it. And it’s been remarkably quiet, with little news coverage and even less campaigning. One could be forgiven for ignoring it, or just not noticing it.
I will cast my vote. What persuaded me to take the trouble to find out about my local candidates was seeing who is against the changes. Specifically, former police chief Sir Ian Blair – who was The Liar’s chief henchman and spearheaded our rapid move towards a police state in the first decade of this century. When Blair urged people not to vote, that was enough for me: by voting I express my opposition to the police state.
In the absence of more detailed information, I was able to inform myself a little about the candidates using the police elections website. For some inexplicable reason we seem to have far more candidates here in Devon&Cornwall than anywhere else. Although there’s an element of “say what they’ll want to hear” in their election material, there’s sufficient information to conclude that some candidates appear better than others.
Q: What’s the difference between Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine?
A: Lord McAlpine is alive to defend himself.
Probably not the only difference. But had McAlpine not been alive, where would his name be now?
To recap the story as it stands today: McAlpine briefly stood accused of kiddy-fiddling, based apparently on the word of one unreliable witness (“victim”) given credence by a BBC programme. The witness has now withdrawn the accusation on the basis of mistaken identity leaving no case against him, and the BBC with some serious egg on its face and a director general fallen on his sword.
The original accusation turns out to have been worse-than-flimsy: the police interviewed the “victim”, showed him a picture which he identified as his attacker, and then told him the picture was McAlpine?!!??! How the **** did that turn into a story worth taking seriously? The late, great Arthur Miller had the answer, and so do we if we call McAlpine’s accuser “Abigail”. Though that too would be inaccurate: pointing the finger at one man is not the same as kicking off the whole witch-hunt, and that’s been happening for years (as witness the absurdity of the red tape binding any adult contact with children outside the family context).
As for Savile? I have absolutely no idea: I never saw him or his TV programmes when he was alive, and I hadn’t even heard of his charity work until the whole kiddy-fiddling story suddenly filled the “news”. Noone is defending him, and there are hundreds of accusers against him: doesn’t all that put his guilt beyond doubt? It’s even been suggested his body might be dug up: a witch-hunt has turned into an exorcism!
The sceptic should at least question whether the case against him is proven. And I can only conclude that the evidence falls short. Most if not all of it is heavily tainted by compensation: if the powers-that-be had been interested in the truth, the very first thing they needed to do was rule out this expectation of personal financial advantage to his accusers!
And as to why noone is (so far as has been reported) defending him, Miller again has an answer: who wants to share Proctor’s fate? In the thick of a witch-hunt, even the wronged McAlpine wouldn’t dare say a word against his accuser lest he be reviled as insensitive to a victim. How much less then would anyone dare question a Savile-accuser’s
compensationreward, let alone defend him?
Today’s news: London Metropolitan University loses its license to sponsor foreign students to enter the country. It seems they’ve been found guilty of substantial abuse of the system, with the implication that they’re taking money from bogus students whose real purpose is immigration.
Whereas London has several well-respected establishments ranging from regular universities to specialist academies, London Metropolitan University isn’t one of them. I find it entirely plausible that they’re abusing the system, have ignored warnings (even thought they were calling the government’s bluff), and have failed to put their house in order. It’s also perfectly plausible that it’s a border agency cockup, or elements of both, but for the purposes of this post we’ll discount that possibility.
In view of protests about this coming from academia and elsewhere, perhaps it needs someone to say that this is exactly the right action to take. The country is far too overcrowded to take unlimited immigration, and the government has to set and police rules to limit it. But higher education is a highly successful export, and it would be wrong for government to choke it with excessive red tape. Universities should be free (indeed, encouraged) to recruit genuine students from around the world without onerous restrictions such as quotas. That means it must be up to each university to take responsibility for the student visas it sponsors. For the government to police immigration policy without heavy meddling implies it must have the ultimate sanction of withdrawing a license, and it must be prepared to use it.
With a bit of luck, this serves two purposes. It stops one offender, and fires a warning shot in the direction of anyone else who might be tempted to abuse the system.
The downside to it is collateral damage. First, the direct effect on genuine foreign students: I hope all innocent victims will be provided for and can get the degree they deserve with minimal disruption! Second, the effect on other universities, if it causes a loss of confidence amongst foreign prospective applicants. I suspect the latter may be the biggest worry for many, but it should be alleviated if appropriate arrangements can be made for all existing students. Except of course, bogus students who are flushed out might seek to spin stories of persecution, and it seems likely some of them might get the ear of the media.
Elitism is a dirty word in the UK today. Well, at least borderline, though far from universally agreed. It is fashionable amongst our politically-correct chattering classes to sneer at anything associated with an ‘elite’ – real or imagined. Fortunately the fanatical extremes of Mao’s China or the world’s theocracies have never prevailed here, but there are certainly people here who’ll think the worse of you for having been to an Ivy League university (you’re privileged, that’s unfair), or for preferring good music to whatever happens to be in “the charts” (you’re a snob).
Now we’ve just held a huge orgy of the ultra-elite, yet somehow that’s OK: most of those same chattering classes are celebrating it. Dissidents who decline to celebrate may have their own bandwagons (the hype, the barefaced fraud over costs, the disruption to life), but the event’s inherent elitism isn’t one of them. Somehow, physical prowess and sporting excellence are OK where intellectual prowess and academic excellence are deeply suspect.
That is, until now. It seems some killjoy has done a bit of digging, and found that the olympics are elitist after all. Not for the obvious reasons, but because too many of our successful athletes come from privileged backgrounds. Worst of all, they went to fee-paying private schools. It seems olympic success, just like academic success, can be bought by parents for their offspring. Whoops!
A moment’s thought should tell you that’s blindingly obvious: parents who pay high fees in preference to a free alternative expect something for it, and they’re not entirely mistaken. Indeed, barriers to entry to many elite sports are inherently much higher than to elite universities: you don’t aspire to something unless you have at least the facilities to practice it! Among my own cohort, elite universities were an aspiration for some, elite football for others, but olympic sports such as swimming/watersports, anything equestrian, or winter sports were simply unthinkable: they’re not for the likes of us!
Anyway, now that the Olympics are officially elitist, will we start sneering at them as a bastion of privilege, too? I don’t think that’s likely, but it does look like a riposte for when the forces of Political Correctness want to interfere with our top universities on the grounds that they select on academic criteria.
More interesting would be if it can provoke a debate that’ll eventually highlight the total absurdity of an education policy that allows schools to select pupils (commonly at age 11) on a wide range of different criteria such as sporting or artistic prowess (along with some that are altogether more dubious), but at the same time explicitly forbids selection on academic merit!
How quickly they forget!
It’s less than a year since most of our biggest retailers and dairy processors got stung with big fines for fixing the market for milk. They had manipulated the market to overpay producers and overcharge consumers. Now they’re doing exactly the same again, as the militant wing of the producers lobby applies pressure to pay them above market rates!
The underlying problem appears to be that most of the media and government always take the producers side. Indeed, our supermarkets stand more-or-less permanently accused of screwing their suppliers, and have faced one price-fixing investigation after another. So it’s all the more ironic that the only actual wrongdoing happened when they gave in to pressure from the farming lobby (which included media and indeed government of the day) and overpaid in 2002/3.
So far this time round it looks a lot like a repeat. Militant farmers blockade someone and issue press releases “we’re being paid less than the cost of production”. Media parrot the press releases without any questions of the kind they’d ask any normal business (“can’t you reduce those production costs? For example, keep that range rover a second year before replacing it?”). Indeed, media go even further: sometime they positively incite further “direct action”, for example in an interview with one of the militants on the PM programme on Saturday. If you want to listen, it’s near the beginning, but this link is probably only available for a few days now.
Why does this farmers lobby (unlike most trade unions making similar demands) always have the media so firmly on-side? Could it be because of the association of farmers with landowners: the old aristocracy whose privilege cannot be questioned? If upstart newcomers benefit, that’s by-the-by, and as for tenant farmers (the ones who really aren’t rich), higher prices will just enable their landlords to charge higher rents, and vice versa, in the medium term.
Who will get fined this time round? Apart from the long-suffering consumer, of course. Fortunately I’m a lot richer than I was in 2002/3: milk is one of many things I can easily afford now but had to do without most of the time back then.
 Of course not every farmer has a new range rover every year: most of them are busy getting on with the job. But it’s precisely the kind of production cost that enables them to ‘prove’ they’re making a loss.
Latest news: South London NHS trust declared bankrupt. Unaffordable PFI liabilities blamed.
Setting aside the apportionment of blame (PFI liabilities were presumably one ingredient in a toxic mix), PFI liabilities more widely are being reported as a huge proportion of UK off-balance-sheet public sector debt, and thus a great pillar of the overall debt burden. How has it come to this?
The original rationale for PFI was a good one. Put the risk of cost overruns with the contractor, and it takes away the race-to-the-bottom where the contract goes to whoever can put in the most unrealistically-low bid, and raise it only when the contract is secured. The idea that contracts inevitably go ten or twenty (even 100 in murkier corners) times over budget really shouldn’t be the norm. Indeed, shouldn’t even happen in politically-driven vanity projects like the olympics, but that’s clearly too much to hope.
Trouble is, it became a vehicle for magic money: a manifestation for our times of Mephistopheles’ credit bubble. Public sector commissions new projects, but hides the cost off-balance-sheet. Current incumbents build empires: bask in the glory of shiny new hospital (or whatever). By the time the emperor’s wardrobe malfunction can no longer be hidden, it can be made someone else’s problem. If indeed the idea of payment ever crossed their mind in the first place.
Now, someone tell me what’s wrong with a simple solution: at the same time as a PFI contract is signed, issue a bond to cover the cost over the lifetime of the project? Such a simple act of keeping the liabilities on-balance-sheet could prevent abuse, while retaining the genuinely useful aspect of the PFI concept. Of course the financial wizards won’t like it (they lose a fun and profitable toy), nor will politicians and civil servants deprived of their ability to raid the future without telling the beancounters. So a good outcome all round: just need to rewind that time machine a few years.
 Googling the story of Mephistopheles’ brilliant boom-and-bust based on credit notes for as-yet-undiscovered mineral riches that, when discovered, would rightly be claimed by the Emperor, finds an interesting essay. One that not only tells the story, but claims that this part of the Faust story has been more-or-less systematically dropped since 1945, and so is not widely known. Interesting insight or nutjob conspiracy theory? Maybe both? Here’s the story: read it and judge.