Monday, March 30, 2009


Smith should not Resign over the Porn Films but....

Does Gordon always scowl so fiercely when his Home Secretary is at the Despatch Box? I'm betting he will be for quite a while, if he doesn't actually sack her after a decent interval has elapsed since his routine expression of full confidence in her. Much worse to my mind is the other cloud hanging over her. The citing of her bedroom in her sister's London place as her 'main residence' while claiming big bucks for her constituency home may be within in the letter of parliamentary expenses law but it sure as hell is not within its spirit.

Now we learn of the blue movies watched by her husband.I have nothing against anyone watching such material as I cannot see what harm it does anyone outside the tiny religious few who would prescribe our sexual and viewing habits. The fatal flaw is that it makes her husband look sleazy and his wife extremely embarrassed by association. I feel truly sorry for her as the red-top hyenas tear at her reputation and authority; she is quite innocent of any blame and her husband has stepped up to apologise anyway.

The Guardian today does not call for her resignation but it does cast doubts on her suitability for her post. It defines the 'really urgent story' to be:

about a low-grade minister in a high-grade job

It's always hard for us on the outside to judge how good ministers are: some clearly have force and competence while others just seem to be good at acting competent while we have to await civil servants' memoirs to find the real story. As far as I can discern Jacqui Smith is not very effective as a communicator; that's not the whole job obviously but it's the most important one. I don't think she should resign over trhe porn films; the housing question might prove to be another matter. Nor would I be surprised if Gordon quietly reshuffles her to the back benches in the summer.

As The Guardian says, she has become a 'liability'. What emerges more graphically for me though, than anything else from this sad episode is how urgently parlaimentrary esxpenses need to be reviewed and brought in line with most other custom and practice in the public and private sectors.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Jersey and Guernsey Contemplating UDI?

Devolution in the UK might have been introduced in a rather cackhanded way-why didn't anyone think though the West Lothian Question for example?- but it has provided a precedent and template for other bits of the UK who might wish to delcare UDI. We know Mebyon Kernow thinks Cornwall should be independent and there are occasionally murmurs of a parliament for Yorkshire, though no other part of the UK has seriously suggested it might want to hive off on its own.

So that's why I was fascinated by the article by Martin Kettle yesterday when he suggested that Gordon Brown's stated G20 objective of bashing tax havens is being taken seriously by Jersey and Guernsey:

In both Jersey and Guernsey, for example, the possibility of a declaration of independence from the UK is a very live issue indeed; legislative preparations are well advanced and could be triggered if London attempted to interfere with the islands' low tax regimes.

This raises the question of what kind of legislative restructuring do the Channel Islands have in mind? Is it a 'devolution' model? Or is a 'complete autonomy' model? Either way it would provoke a major constitutional crisis which would also have security and foreign policy implications.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Gilt Markets' Failure is Worrying

A posting on Bloomberg seems, even to my untutored economic understanding, to be potentially devastating for Gordon Brown and his lieftenant Darling, not to mention the rest of us.

The U.K. failed to find enough buyers for 1.75 billion pounds ($2.55 billion) of bonds for the first time in almost seven years as debt investors repudiated Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s plan to stem the worst economic crisis in three decades....Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government plans to sell an unprecedented 146.4 billion pounds of debt this fiscal year as Europe’s second-largest economy grapples with its first recession since 1991. Demand hasn’t fallen short at a sale of regular U.K. government bonds since 1995.

In other words, we tried to borrow money and it seems our credit is seen as so dodgy nobody wants to lend us anything. Given Brown's policy is to spend his way out of the crisis on borrowed money this could be very bad news indeed. Especially coming on top of Mervyn King's warning to the Chancellor not to indulge in a give-away budget and the Treasury's consequent embarrassment. Vince Cable was able to (just about legitimately) use the colourful metaphor of the Bank of England driving its tanks up the doors of the Treasury.

Was King's warning a reflection of his inside knowledge of how bad things are? Or did his warning scare of lenders, fearing UK credit is now shot? Time will tell on that, but poor Gordon, returning home from Latin America might have to sort out that begging bowl lest used by Healey back in the 1970s when we went to the IMF for more money.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


The Spirit Level Proves the Left's Critique Right

To the left, though it hasn't come out so well, is the front jacket of The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket. I realise I'm a bit late on it-it's already been widely reviewed- but I've been reading it! I happen to think it's one of the most important books to come out since The Future of Socialism in the fifties; I'd go further and say it's more so. The latter book posited some theories about good governance from left of centre, the latter effectively proves the left's critique of modern society is correct: relative inequality is extremely harmful and at the root of most of our major social problems. Rightwingers will hate this, of course, and I've yet to read a response to the book from this quarter. So what's it saying?

First of all, the authors are not head-banging lefties. Wilkinson is a long-time epedemiological medical researcher and widely respected; Picket is of the same discipline and based at York University. They offer evidence from a series of longitudinal studies which show how closely certain conditions correlate positively with relative social inequality. Let's dip into a couple of them.

Low Levels of Trust: The book shows how countries with low relative inequality(e.g. Japan, Scandivavia, northern Europe) have high levels of response to the question 'most people can be trusted'-about 60%; while those with high inequality(US, UK, Portugal, Singapore) register lows of in one case 10%. Near identical graph profiles result from asking the question in states of the US: high values in low inequality states like New Hampshire; very low in the like of Mississippi and New York.

Mental Health: The Daily Mail recently led with the story that one in ten of children aged 5-16 suffered mental illness. It's worse than that though: about a quarter of all people in the UK and USA suffer similar maladies, compared with only 10% in Japan, Sweden and Germany.

The chapters continue relentlessly to illustrate, via scatter graphs, these astonishingly high correlations. We see it with drug abuse, physical health and life expectancy, educational performance(as we all know), teenage births, violent offences, incarceration, social mobility, even obesity. And, mark this, even the rich have more mental illness and lower life expectancy is high inequality countries. The USA in the 1960s had relatively high levels of equality but salaries for senior executives took off along with the 'rediscovery' of market forces in the 1970s and rocketted to the end of the century, ultimately feeding causally into the banking collapse in which we are still entrapped. Reviews, here and here provide longer analyses than I have space for.

Let me conclude this all too brief review with this quotation from the book:

'Early socialists and others believed that material inequality was an obsacle to wider human harmony...The date we present in this chapter[on community life and social relations] suggest that this intuition was sound.: inequality is divisive, and eevn small differences seem to make an important difference.'(p.52)

How you progress from this analysis to doing something about it is also addressed but I have insufficient space to comment on that. However, as with any problem, it's vital to diagnose its causes correctly: this book does that for so much of what is wrong with us right now. Finally, you can buy this important book, destined to become a modern classic, for £14 from Amazon-UK: it really is a bargain.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Chink of light for Labour Election Prospects

Nobody will be too surprised at the results of the poll in today's Guardian which reveals Labour could get a boost of 8 points in any election 'if it can show the economy is beginning to improve by polling day'. After all, this is what Major managed in 1992 when voters believed those 'green shoots' of recovery were appearing. This current poll result, discussed at length inside, reinforces the theory that voters are volatile and are not following any regular partisan patterns. If the Tory lead is 'soft' as Labour ministers allege, this really does offer an opportunity if Labour can contrive to exploit it.

The inside page article suggests Labour should craft a coherent vision for the future to dispell the impression of being 'burnt out' after 11-12 years in power. A leading British psephologist, I spoke to on Monday reckoned the Tories need a swing of 10% even now; their poll lead suggests they could make it but it would be as big a swing as the historic one in 1997. So there is still something to play for. But it would be foolish to ignore the negatives in the poll:

i) this is the third month in a row when the lead had been 12 points

ii)45% say Cameron would make the best PM compared with 24% for Brown, a 13 point increase on April 2008.

iii)69% said it was 'time for a change' including 27% of Labour supporters.

iv) 44% think we would come out of the recession faster under Cameron compared to 35% under Brown.

v) 66% think Labour has 'run out of steam, out of ideas'.

However, finally, another chink of light, perhaps: 82% think the government should 'take active steps to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor'. This suggests an area where Labour might make some inroads if it is sufficiently bold before the next election arives and remember: it's only just over a year away.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


A Well Considered Bouquet for that Congressional Address

Must confess I enjoyed reading this article on Brown's speech to Congress. OK, it's a bit belated in terms of news but I found it touched and enhanced a part of me hitherto unreached: an appreciation of Brown's positive qualities. New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen, rightly described this event as the 'best political speech of his life'. He focused on Brown's well known and even passionate affection for America, adding:

... listening to his speech, I warmed to Brown and realised something: that Obama has not yet found his presidential voice. In the place of fireside chats needed to comfort and inspire a suffering population, the new president has given fireside lectures.

Brown did also tell Congress memebers things they did not like- about resisting the seductions of protectionism of course and he contributed a vintage piece of 'Brownery' which could not fail to resonate with Democrats, if not Republicans:

"My father was a minister of the church, and I have learned again what I was taught by him - that wealth must help more than the wealthy, good fortune must serve more than the fortunate."

Cohen concludes by praising the optimism which Brown expressed, a sentiment, perhaps, Obama has not yet so far in the crisis managed to express effectively. Brown offered:

"So we must educate our way out of the downturn, invest and invent our way out of the downturn and re-tool and re-skill our way out of the downturn."

For me this article provides a useful corrective for a Labour supporter whose support has worn dangerously thin. When this leading American journalist can find not only so much to praise in our prime minister's speech but dares to suggest he can teach the sainted Obama a thing or two, it is time to flag up how successful Gordon's foray into the USA was. Maybe it is not too fanciful to hope the upcoming G20 conference in London and his delayed budget in April will provide further succour and support.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


In the Land of the Blind who is King?

Stephanie Flanders, the brilliant BBC Economics Editor stressed on Today a few minutes ago, how crucial the G20 in London will be, for Gordon's future, indeed for the world's economy. There seem to be three major problems to solve:

1. We learnt from The Guardian yesterday that a split is emerging between the US and Europe over fiscal stimuli: how much and how administered. Europe favours smaller injections it would seem than UK and US.

2. The US Treasury team do not yet seem to be in place; the product of their system whereby incoming administrations appoint their own people. Not like our permanent civil service types who serve whoever is elected. Sir Gus O'Donnell recently said 'There is nobody there' of his dealings with the US Treasury.

3. So far, nobody knows if any of this injection of huge funds is actually working. We are all still very much in the dark, where the blind are trying to lead ther blind.

But here's a comforting thought for Gordon; in such a world, the land of the blind, who is said to be king? The one eyed man. Well, he must be the only one eyed national leader among the G20 crowd.

Monday, March 09, 2009


Nationalists' Protection of Gunmen is Now Crucial Question in Ulster

Hugh Orde warned us terrorist activity was looming closer once again in Northern Ireland, but we didn't want to hear that. We have a curious ambivalence to the province. Visitors praise the friendliness of Ulster denizens as well as the beauty of the landscape but we have long had little patience with their incomprehensible 'medieval' disputes.

'Religion? what's that all about?' we secular Brits have sniffed. I recall my people loving grey haired old mother saying, despairingly after yet another atrocity, she thought the whole population should be torpedoed in mid Atlantic. But if you read any history of Ireland you begin to understand a bit more: the Troubles were the fruits of our centuries of misrule, come back to haunt us, as such things often do. Terrorism is never conceived and nurtured in a benign vacuum. My students at Liverpool who come from the province have been saying for a while that, even though the surface looks calm, the two communities are as divided as ever. [Tiny example: one, a Catholic, said another, a Protestant, would not be able to visit her house back home.]

It's weird to hear McGuinness and Adams condemning the violence when they would say nothing when their own platoons were doing it only a short while back. Cynics would say 'Yes, they condemn it now that they have won power for themselves'. But it is in reality a hugely positive sign. The real test will be if the Catholic community offer up the Real IRA assassins or continue to protect them as they did their predecessors for over three decades.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


Gordon Needs More Than 19 Congressional Standing Ovations

Much has been written about Gordon's spoeech to both houses of Congress. It has to be allowed, it was a really good speech. Apparently Brown bedcame obsessed with it and its composition took up huge amounts of time- in the circumstances time reasonably well spent one would have to admit. It must have been so wonderfully liberating for him, afder the less than supportive Commons to deliver a speech which was so well received: 19 standing ovations! But I can't help feeling the thing was essentially Brown's vanity project.

Congressmen and women agreed with all the gushing stuff he said about the USA we know he loves so much, but when it came to the tough bits- the bits about resisting protectionism- they remained glued to their seats. And some listeners on this side of the Atlantic, might have wondered why Brown made not a single mention of the fact he endlessly hammers back home: that the whole crisis began in the very place where he was making what the Mirror called his 'historic' speech.

But only a fool would have expected such finger pointing. The speech and the visit has gone some of the way to establish good relations with the shining new lithe 47 year old president- who would surely hammer the crumpled, chunky 58 year old Brown, should they ever get to play that game of tennis. Obama did not have to ring to congratulate Gordon on the speech but he did. He didn't have to praise the 'special relationship', but he did (it was a 'link and bond... that will not break') and he didn't have to mention the vexed area of Iraq, but he did, declaring Britain's loyalty over the conflict 'would never be forgotten'.

So, moving on to that other key objective of the speech, has it helped him at home? Martin Kettle suggested yesterday that it was extremely doubtful:

The reality is that very few speeches change the political weather. When they do, it is often because they define someone who was until then an unknown quantity. It is far harder for an already deeply familiar figure like Brown to recast his reputation overnight. Yet Brown is a man desperate for such a transformation. He is 16 points behind in the polls. Two-thirds of Labour voters think he is an electoral liability. Hence the overselling.

Kettle thinks Gordon still dreams of turning it around. The speech was the first leg of the master plan: job done. The second leg is the G20 meeting in London in April. Here he hopes to strut on its stage as the leader of the 'fiscal stimulus' economic school of thought, Europe-style. If he can win agreement, it will provide cover and an imprimatur, of sorts, for his third leg: a borrowed money giveaway budget on 22nd April.

My fear however, OK, call it a prediction if you like, is that: the speech will only prove important as a proud and key chapter in Gordon's memoirs; the G20 will resolve into empty statements of intent; and the budget will merely add to the government's slide in popularity which the 6th June Euro-elections will merely reinforce.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Gordon and Barack Show Proves a 'No-Show'

So it wasn't like George Bush in his flying jacket and Tony with his crotch squeezing chinos, but if you look at the picture left you'll see an even more adoring, sycophantic expression on the face of Gordon Brown as he gazes in awe at the charismatic politician who is (still) the most popular man in the world right now.

If you are interested enough to read press coverage of the visit the Daily Mirror today,you'll learn that:

The Barack & Brown show got off to a promising if unspectacular start at the White House.

Hmm. If you read the rest of the press, you'll get a completely different impression; take Alice Miles in The Times for example:

Gordon Brown and Barack Obama will hold a press conference and have a working lunch, No 10 announced. Oh no, they won't. the White House said. There was no formal press conference. And the lunch wasn't even an hour long. Except it wasn't actually lunch. It was “talks”. With a photo opportunity attached.

Oh dear. Poor Gordon, he's trying so hard and it shows. This debacle was only a tad shy of a humiliation I'd say. I do hope his speech goes well though I'm fairly confident, any standing ovations he gets will be made more out of politeness than enthusiasm.

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