A change of pace with my response to the Liebster blog award meme, for which I was tagged by JennieReadsStuff.
Here are the rules:
- Thank your Liebster blog award presenter on your blog and link back to the blogger who presented this award to you.
- Answer the 11 questions from the nominator and create 11 questions for your nominees.
- Present the Liebster Blog Award to 11 blogs of 200 followers or less who you feel deserve to be noticed and leave a comment on their blog letting them know they have been chosen. (no tag backs)
- Copy and paste the blog award onto your blog
The 11 people I have tagged are, in no particular order - dukeofstagron, popularculturevulture, needlesslydefiantwithtea, droughtofnines, missvariety, mustipaintyouapicture, probablyhuman, clottedcreamfudge, terminallyreclusive, woollymindedlib and redvedev. Have fun :D
This morning’s truly awful manufacturing data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has driven home the point also made over the last few days by other data series from the ONS; the British economy is spluttering along at a miserable pace. The spat between the Office of Budget Responsibility and the Prime Minister over quite why this is the case has thrown light on a long list of various contributing factors. Among them is the government’s austerity programme - a programme I’ve previously been openly and highly supportive of - as well as various factors beyond the control of the government, such as the crisis in the Eurozone and high commodity prices.
As Vince Cable reminded us in the New Statesman last week, Keynes was a firm believer in bending with the winds of change. Dr Cable has made the case separately for higher capital spending, funded primarily through taxing universal benefits for pensioners and ending the ring-fence on funding for areas such as the NHS and international aid. The Economist, a newspaper I would count as squarely in the Liberal camp, has also now come out and argued for a change in tack, including borrowing worth 1% of GDP, to stimulate growth. Put bluntly, they are both right - it is time to change tack. The facts have changed and we must change with them.
That means we must push back against the ideas of those such as Dr Liam Fox, who wants to press the government’s austerity trajectory even further, using some of the cash to fund extravagant tax cuts. My suspicion is that Dr Fox’s agenda would simply inflate a massive bubble of cheap credit and hot money flows in the British economy, which would all come to a dismal end 3 years down the line, when his temporary measures expire. Britain would experience Ireland’s fate, but at high speed. Dr Fox also conflates austerity and the objective shared by many Liberals and Conservatives, of reducing the overmighty state - and in doing so, he plays ably into the hands of his opponents. His analysis, bluntly put, is woeful.
That leaves the Cable/Economist route - and it is one I think we need to endorse. The objective of a smaller state; a state that allows people to live, make mistakes and grow on their own without having to look over their shoulder at a distant central state; should be kept in mind, but using a difficult economic period as a means to enforce it will only create a backlash against it. More importantly, it is a long-term thing - something that will only happen over Parliaments, rather than months or years. It is about developing individuals and communities that choose to stand on their own, that move away from the state of their own accord and so enable it to unwind steadily. We can wait a little longer for a smaller state in absolute terms - percentage of GDP - though we need to move more quickly on a few key points, such as the Secret Courts issue, to demonstrate that it remains a point of interest for us all.
With that in mind, we need to focus on the here and now. The UK government is still enjoying historically low borrowing rates. But the austerity package is not the only thing driving those rates; last March, HSBC published a paper that bluntly argues the case for states having rigged financial markets to enable them to borrow cheaply, austerity or no. They termed this “financial repression”, and it includes policies such as Quantitative Easing (QE), which has seen central banks hoover hundreds of billions of pounds worth of government debt, thereby lowering the interest rate.
We have, in other words, a window through which to slip and make a change. We need to mix our policies carefully to make sure that the markets don’t start to press back against the repression and break through the limits we have set on them. So, along with the growth measures outlined below, we need to demonstrate that keeping the deficit under control is key. Therefore, the government should look to scrapping funding for alternative medicine on the NHS, withdrawing universal benefits from pensioners in the higher rate income tax bracket and introducing a land value tax - especially targeted at large banks of undeveloped land - to help the project to restore the national finances to health on track.
But, on the other hand, we should take the advice of Dr Cable, and the Economist, and even the CBI. Quite simply, we need to start building stuff - the government should develop capital markets for local councils to borrow on for capital funding to build houses and roads. We should double spending on high-speed broadband and we should also bring forwards projects such as the Northern Hub to deliver infrastructure as well as housing. Other bright ideas from these quarters - such as removing stamp duty on AIM shares; using the Business Bank as a Small Business Administration to bring together all small business help schemes in one place, with funding, to help them grow; changing bankruptcy rules to make it easier to make a fresh start; letting the Green Investment Bank start to borrow in the next financial year ; and so on - should also be brought into the mix.
And if this means shifting the borrowing targets again, so be it. We have the low interest rates brought to us by financial repression and we can signal to markets that we remain serious about dealing with the deficit through other measures. But we have run out of room to stay on this course; we need to declare plainly that we are focusing on growth and that we are prepared to put serious sums of cash into doing so. An uptick in borrowing up of to the Economists’ 1% of GDP - £14 billion - over one year should be allowed for in the figures. We might even use some of that money to refinance existing debt at the new lower rates, if we can, to shave more money from the deficit by reducing government interest payments.
In short - the facts have changed. We need a new focus to deal with the crisis as it now is, not as it was in 2010. We need to remember that our focus here and now is to deal with the deficit and fix the economy, not to shrink the state in the short-term to stimulate a bubble. We need to own up to the slack we have already given ourselves on the fiscal trajectory and use the space gained by financial repression to kick-start existing projects for growth; as well as broadening the mix. I was wrong to stay this course as long as I have - I’ve had private doubts, but I should have said so sooner. Now, though, is a time for action - now is the time to change our minds.
There are principally two dimensions to any such event - the political and the economic.
Politically, this is bad news for the Coalition, in particular the central leadership of the Coalition and especially among that small group, the Chancellor. Having used the AAA rating as a stick to beat the Opposition at every possible opportunity, the Chancellor now finds it snatched from his hands and gifted to the Opposition to use against him. For Ed Miliband, it must feel like Christmas - a chance to turn the whole economic narrative against the government, shifting the large section of public opinion that still blames the crisis on the past government towards blaming the Coalition.
But he must be mindful of the risks of singing the praises of Moody’s too loudly. Remember that this was one of the clutch of ratings agencies that, in the run up to the crash in 2007, was happily rating securities containing sub-prime mortgages as AAA. If you are building a strongly anti-financial sector narrative; Labour seem to be pressing hard to be tougher on the bankers than the Coalition; then singing the praises of institutions in the midst of that sector that seemed to have played such a major role in the crisis will only take you so far before it lands you in trouble.
Economically, of course, the question is whether the UK’s borrowing costs will increase at all. The experience of the US seems pretty clear - that borrowing costs barely changed after their downgrade by S&P, which came in the middle of far greater inaction by their central government. France’s fate is less clear, but I would contend that the UK looks far more like the US than France economically; far more competitive, far more flexible labour market and more. Either way, I do not think the Chancellor is going to have to make a meaningful allowance for higher debt payments as a result of this in the March budget.
This, roughly, is how the House of Commons divided on the Second Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill yesterday; green is aye, red is no, grey is abstained/absent and white covers the Speaker and his Deputies, Eastleigh (currently without an MP) and the Sinn Fein MPs. I will aim to correct this map as soon as possible if you bring an errors to light; and please do so!
Some points of interest:
- South Yorkshire is the only English county where all MPs voted “Yes”; there are no counties where all voted “No” though Buckinghamshire (1 Aye, 1 absent & Speaker) comes closest.
- In a number of places; all the aye votes were non-Tory, all the others were Tory (Devon, Cornwall, Somerset immediately come to mind). In only one county that I can see - East Sussex - does the solitary non-aye vote come from a non-Tory (Norman Baker, who was absent).
- I suspect there’s work to be done on whether there’s some common factors linking the “No” voting seats together - I think there are two clusters, one traditional Tory and the other inner city areas; in essence, areas with a large small-c conservative tradition (no surprise there.)
EDIT: I have corrected the votes of the two No tellers, who were down as Yes, and two SDLP MPs who were absent for the vote. This means that, out of all the Northern Irish MPs, only 2 voted in favour of equal marriage - the Alliance’s Naomi Long (Belfast East) and the SDLP’s Mark Durkan (Foyle).
How does the world work and what role should Britain play in it? These two important questions frame this question-and-reply post to Olly Neville. In the first part, I offer some questions to Mr Neville to try and help him frame a wider post on his whole world view. In the second, I pick out my vision of Britain, what this means for war and some disagreement with Mr Neville on its usefulness.
Read more …
The influence of Howard Zinn on modern left-wing interpretations of America seems, to me, to be exceptionally strong. Yet, as Professor Wineburg eloquently and devastatingly points out, the nature of the history that Zinn offers students today suffers from a lack of complexity and nuance. Further, this lack of complexity is compounded quite often simply by his being flat out wrong, or under-researched, on key turning points in American history.
I’ve whined and lectured and hectored before on the importance of nuance and complexity in politics; the same must be said for history. I have not always lived up the standards I have expected of others, something that will doubtless happen again. But I still think it right to strive for a standard in politics wherein we understand that the other side is not evil, but wrong. Sometimes, this means surrendering our temptation to lurch into a moral outrage at issues close to our heart - wars, rights and so on - and considering closely the thought processes of others we reject as irredeemably evil.
His Grace the Archbishop of Westminster was at the receiving end of an outburst from myself in our kitchen yesterday morning over his comments on equal marriage. Yet he is wrong, not evil, on this issue. His beliefs point him to an interpretation of love different from my own, and denouncing him as a malign force because of that does not create a situation wherein we can build a future for this country that includes both people of faith and a whole variety of sexualities. It is not easy to admit that a man who does not want me to marry, nor sees my love as equal to that of a heterosexual couple, is not evil - but I do not genuinely believe he is so. Wrong, yes. Misguided, yes. But absolutely not evil.
To declare His Grace an evil man is to turn history into a mockery, to reduce the grand sweep of humanities’ common experiences to a political trinket and to demean the victims of the few thousand people in all human history we might say approach the actual status of the truly, irredeemably evil. It is to play to tune of Zinn’s orchestra; history is about the weak being good and right, and the powerful being evil and wrong. It is not - it is about the blind fumbling forwards of a whole species, sometimes into dark alleys, sometimes into the broad sunlit uplands of Churchillian rhetoric. It is not comforting to admit that history is not an endless progression of virtue, nor is it destined to be. It forces us to admit that those in power are as falliable as we; and, on the other side of that coin, that they make as much of circumstances as we ourselves would have done in their shoes.
I do not believe in a politics of cosy goodness and irredeemable evil, nor a history of the same. I believe in difficult choices, in common ground between all manner of people and in the creation of a climate wherein we can disagree without denouncement. I reject out of hand those who preach that intolerance of those intolerant of them is the cornerstone of politics. It takes a colossal force of will to stick to this path - a force I do not always possess, and a clarity I often fall far short of in many ways.
Howard Zinn and Archbishop Nichols are wrong, but they are not evil. If we take away nothing else from 2012, let it be this - we must allow good men to be wrong, or we will destroy our politics and our history in the search for a purity that does not, and can never, exist.
Briefly - is it time to stop talking about the “welfare state” and give it a new name to reflect a new vision of its role and purpose?
This idea I owe to my office mate, who suggested that the problem with the name “welfare state” is that it suggests one can rely on the state for everything, at the cost of one’s own responsibilities and livelihood. Such a system breeds resentment among those who imagine themselves to be outside the purview of the system, whilst weakening the impulse to work and self-improvement among those inside it. In essence, it distorts incentives and narratives and creates an unhealthy vision of the state from both supporters and opponents.
Names are, after all, important things - they signify what we expect something to do as well as what it is. The Ministry of Defence’s name is a case in point; we expect the Armed Forces to defend us, though what they are defending, how they do it and why they do it are contestable things, we are generally opposed as a society to aggressive war for the sake of war. They can symbolise and even create cultures, I would contend.
To that end, my office mate suggested a new name for what we currently call the welfare state - the agency state. The meaning here is two-fold:
- We, as taxpayers, view the state as our agent, discharging our social duties to our fellow man through the use of our taxes to provide services we cannot.
- The primary role of the state is to encourage agency in those who receive its help; to press people to take charge of their own lives and equip them to do as much.
Thoughts, comments and suggestions are very welcome!
Today is International Men’s Day, with the theme this year being focused on men and health issues. In a world where average life expectancy for men remains lower than for women in the majority of countries on the planet, where the victims of war are still overwhelmingly male and where finding good male role models can be a real struggle in the raising of children, I think it’s important to have a day to talk about this stuff.
I’ve long had a problem with the argument that dealing with women’s issues means that men’s issues will be dealt with as well, automatically. It strikes me that this argument does nothing to actually engage with men - rather, often, it pushes men away by seemingly deeming them to be either an enemy to be reproached or an idiot to be lectured. A joined-up approach; where we recognise that issues facing men are often as urgent and difficult as those facing women on account of their gender; is essential.
Ultimately, I would prefer an International Gender Day, or something of that ilk, wherein we can frame our conversations in terms of issues specific to our gender identity, whatever that may be - male, female or otherwise.
For today, Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife, written just before the First Battle of Bull Run.
I want to to tell you all about two men, very briefly. In the link above is my Great Uncle Tom’s obituary in the Telegraph. I never knew my Uncle Tom very well, but he worked for various aerospace companies on various projects - including the design of a British equivalent to the Space Shuttle in the 1960s. I’m very proud of him for all he designed and all he dreamt up. If you Google him, then you’ll get US patents in his name. I wish I knew my Great Uncle Tom better than I did, but sadly never got the chance.
Then, today, we had Grandad’s funeral. You won’t find my Grandad’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph, but I want to tell you about this very special man. Though, in the 5 years since my Grandma died, his health had steadily declined and the man I knew as a child faded away; I will always remember my Grandad. I’d like to tell you just one story about this calm, practical and hard-working man - a story that illuminates his good nature so well. In the final Christmas we shared with him and Grandma, he bought her an extra present, which he made sure she opened last. It was the most beautiful ring; and Grandma was utterly bowled over. My Grandad just sat on the sofa next to her, giggling away and lifting his feet in the air, practically glowing when she kissed him on the cheek. The two of them made each other so happy; and they made so much of my childhood just as happy as well.
I cannot tell you how much those two people made me the way I am today, nor can I adequately tell you just how much I miss them both. But I know I’ll see them again; and that is what gets me through.
"While the precise cost of rectifying these deficiencies is still unknown, investigations conducted in recent years indicate that it is already in excess of 40% of the insurance reinstatement value of the Palace (approximately £1.8bn). If the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.”
I hope we can get the cash together to save this fine old building, and indeed bring her up to the standard a modern Parliament needs.
I support an independent British nuclear deterrent. Those 7 words are enough to land me in hot water with a lot of people from across Britain. Trident is widely reviled as a symbol of the past, as a colossal waste of money and as an evil thing, a blot on Britain’s reputation in the world. Yet I believe that Britain needs nuclear weapons - nay, the world needs them - because they bring a blanket of security, ironically, without which the world today would be a darker place.
This is not to say that I believe that a like-for-like renewal of Trident is the best option, nor that I believe that the current set up of the nuclear weapons systems of this country are perfect. There are many ways we could seek to create a more versatile, perhaps even cheaper deterrent - smaller vessels than the Vanguard class, for example; missiles on warships and for aerial deployment as well.
But I do firmly believe that nuclear weapons have been a force for peace in my lifetime, and will be again in that time. I know I am not alone in this - a very senior member of the Labour Party once told me that nuclear weapons have been the greatest force for peace in the 20th Century, and there is much to commend that argument. One of the key barriers to repeating the Great Power conflicts that so marred particularly European history over so many centuries has been the ability of those states to totally annihilate each other; and in turn be annihilated. Quite simply, it is the fear of these weapons that have kept states in line.
They have not prevented war by proxy, or smaller states engaging in brutal conflicts with one another, each appalling in their own right. But we have not seen a repeat of wars on the scale of the past; the balance of power this time is weighted down with an even more awesome (in the older sense of the word) threat than Gatling guns and barbed wire. It may only be a shade safer world than before, but in the mud and blood of international politics, that shade safer is something I would like to keep.
You see, as eminently reasonable as we may think ourselves and our common man, as bound by reason and enlightenment and civilisation as we may look into the mirror and tell ourselves we are, we remain at the mercy of the same grinding logic of power politics as generations before and generations yet to come. We are, all of us, still capable of lapsing into that state of nature that Hobbes speaks of in The Leviathan; wherein all life becomes “nasty, brutish and short.” Those like William Golding who look into the human condition and find darkness are worth listening too because they tell us so much about the way international politics, as well as domestic affairs, can be shaped by these darker impulses and heavier truths.
This is why I am an English School scholar, and this is why I continue to support nuclear weapons. By seeking to manage, not reject, power politics we can try and tame, rather than ignore our darker impulses and the immovable truth of our circumstances in international affairs. Power politics is not something we can wish away; we have seen before how attempts to do so - the League of Nations is perhaps the greatest example of this - will always end in miserable failure and the suffering of a new, more violent war as we are reminded of these solemn truths. Pretending as though power is something that can be forever ignored, or removed, or belittled is inviting chaos and our own destruction. We must understand it, work with it and try wherever possible to steer it to a better world, yes. But we must never pretend that we are so different from our ancestors that we have, or can, move beyond it.
A Britain with nuclear weapons is one that recognises these truths and seeks to work with them. A Britain that agonises over them is one that understands the conflicts that we must all face - kings and peasants - when we struggle with the nature of man and the world around us. But a Britain that walks away, that pretends power politics is something we can ignore and that thinks that a world where we are weak is one where we will still get what we want, is foolish, blind and ignorant of the world. We must be at the table in full force if we are to get the world we want, otherwise we must be prepared for a world we cannot stand. That is why I support Britain retaining the bomb; that is why I think it is money worth the spending.