Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Dear Scotland

I’m mostly English but part Welsh and part Scottish, and I don’t want my country to die. If you leave, that will cost me part of my soul.

Well OK, that’s a bit melodramatic. Not very British, eh? Either way, we’ll all survive – but I truly think separation would diminish us all.

Do you really find it so unbearable to be British as well as Scottish? If you do, then I won’t stand in your way. But if you don’t – if there are things about the rest of the UK that you’re glad to call your own – then you don’t have to give them up.

You don’t have to accept the line that self-determination requires independence. Self-determination is you making the choice of what kind of Scotland you want: a part of the UK family, or just apart.

You can stay with the rest of us and still be Scots. Three centuries of being British and you’re still Scots, and you always will be. The question is: are the other parts of this country so bad, so alien, that you need to get rid of them?

Looking at Downing Street, I can see the appeal. If I could flee from this government without moving an inch, I’d be tempted. But I’d rather stand and fight, because I want my whole country to thrive. I want social justice in London, and I want it in Liverpool and Cornwall and Merthyr and Scarborough and Omagh and Inverness.

While I don’t always get the government I want, I would not give up on part of my country for the sake of being able to win easier, smaller victories. So I’m with you – millions of us are – for as long as you want us.

True, Scottish and English politics have their differences, but I think it’s a strength of our union that we can be together without needing to be the same. And we have a hell of a lot in common too. Two episodes from our recent history come to mind.

In 1989, the Thatcher government ignored public protests and inflicted the Poll Tax on Scotland. A mean, unjust tax, its introduction was unforgivably arrogant. But do you know what was even worse? A year later, having seen the undeniable harm the Poll Tax was doing in Scotland, they went ahead and unleashed it on the rest of Britain too.

They screwed us all. A British government, hurting England and Wales as much as Scotland. We were in that same mess together, and eventually we got out of it together.

Sure, democracy’s a wonderful thing and all that, but sometimes an elected government just sticks its fingers in its ears and decides that it knows best. That’s true in the UK, it’s true the world over, and it’d be true in an independent Scotland.

You’d have a sovereign government in Holyrood, run by… politicians. Some of them would be decent people doing their best, but others would be incompetents, cowards, liars, rogues and ideologues. And if you founded that government as a symbol of Scottish pride, they’d have the power to disappoint you more bitterly than anyone at Westminster.

On the other hand, sometimes the Westminster government gets it right.

The G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005 still shines like a beacon. It was a time when government policy was in tune with the public mood, shown by a huge popular movement all around the UK.

Some international agreements are warm words that quickly cool and vanish, but this one got results. A big increase in aid to Africa, debt written off, and a longer-term shift in political culture towards fighting poverty. Even the Tories were reluctantly pushed to accept the need for more aid.

This wasn’t the result of Tony Blair’s diplomatic charm or Gordon Brown’s economic arguments. It happened because they were speaking with the whole weight of the UK behind them. We did it, together, and almost a decade on I’m still proud.

For all Scotland’s strengths, you would not have hosted and led a summit of the world’s major economies on your own.

And if Blair and Brown could put their rivalry aside and work to make something good, there’s really no excuse for the rest of us.

I don’t want us to become foreigners to each other. I don’t want to create a new class of immigrants who have done nothing more than move from one part of their island to another. And I don’t believe the problems we all face are going to be solved by creating a new border.

The UK is yours as much as mine. Scots have done so much to make our country what it is, and Britishness is your birthright as much as Scottishness.

I’m glad to share this country with you, and I hope we can manage to keep sharing it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Politeness and the invention of time travel

It’s a curious fact that the invention of the time machine was a feat not just of science but of good British manners.

For many years, physicists and philosophers alike had scorned the idea of time travel, citing the paradoxes that it would create: if you went back in time and killed your grandfather when he was a boy, you would never be born, so you wouldn’t be able to go back in time to kill him, so you would have been born and then would have gone back in time… and so on.

However, one Saturday afternoon, in a discreet and highly exclusive club in Mayfair, frequented by ageing grandees who preferred to avoid the company of the wrong sort, everything changed.

Sir Reginald Burr, who had inherited his father’s air-conditioning fortune and then trebled it by selling the family firm to an internet company in 1999, felt the call of nature and rose from a chair that cost more than your house. He made his stately way across the reading room.

As he reached the doorway that led to the bathroom, he suddenly found himself side-by-side with Sir Mortimer Frowse, whose estates encompassed half the land in one of the less fashionable English counties, and whose imperious bladder was also calling for relief.

They could not both fit through the doorway at once. One of them had to go first.

These two fine gentlemen did, of course, loathe each other for being if not quite the wrong sort then certainly not the right sort. And, of course, they were utterly determined to treat each other with unimpeachable propriety.

Thus began one of the greatest British stand-offs in history.

“After you,” said Sir Reginald.
“No, no, after you,” said Sir Mortimer.
“Not at all. Do go ahead, dear fellow.”
“Why really, I insist, old boy.”

This bout of competitive politeness raged calmly for over two hours, with increasingly vicious exchanges of deference and implacable self-deprecation. But neither could gain the upper hand, and their need was becoming ever more desperate.

It is not known which of them hit upon the idea first, but what is certain is that both of them muttered instructions to passing stewards (they had, naturally, bought each other drinks during the impasse, both to assert their own goodwill and to exacerbate the other chap’s problem). These instructions were identical.

The stewards conveyed to Sir Reginald’s people, and to Sir Mortimer’s, that they were to commit all necessary resources to the construction of a time-travel machine, so that their master could send his rival a few seconds back in time and thereby trick him into going through the doorway first.

Sir Reginald’s people called the physics department at Cambridge, offering generous funding for the work. Sir Mortimer’s people made the same offer to Oxford. The scientists protested that this was a preposterous idea, and that even if it were possible it might take centuries. They were told that this would be fine; once built, the time machine could simply be sent back in time for use in the present.

The universities took the money and set up research teams.

Work was indeed slow, but progress was aided by the Oxbridge merger of 2087, allowing the teams to combine their efforts on the understanding that they would send two copies of their eventual invention back to Sir Reginald and Sir Mortimer.

Breakthrough after breakthrough followed, along with a string of Nobel Prizes, and finally, in 2231, the notorious grandfather paradox was solved, when a work experience student suggested that it would probably be best not to give the time machine to any deranged smartarses.

The two copies were dispatched back to the club on that distant Saturday afternoon, not long before Sir Reginald’s and Sir Mortimer’s critically overfull bladders were due to rupture. Each man set his device to send the other ten seconds into the past. They pressed their buttons simultaneously.

There was a flash of light and, ten seconds earlier, they appeared in the same place, facing each other as they had shortly been.

Assuming that the damned thing hadn’t worked, they tried again.

And again. And again.

Their fate is unknown, I’m sorry to say. But some historians have noted in passing that that area of Mayfair had been agricultural land until the 1680s, on account of the rich nitrogen content of the soil.

(With thanks to Left Outside for nudging me toward the idea.) 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Help to Sell

Like George Osborne, I’m no economist. But I do know that a transaction has two sides: for every buyer there is a seller. And if I decided to sell my flat, I would want lots of ready, willing and able potential buyers to choose from, because higher demand increases the price.

The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, offering taxpayer-backed guarantees on 95% mortgages for people who are struggling to raise a deposit, will give me what I want. It will put people who might like my flat into serious contention to buy it. I will have more would-be buyers and so I’ll be able to get a higher price. I can pick the one who makes the best offer, and disappoint the rest.

The focus of the policy is on buyers. They are the ones who receive the help directly and they’re the ones who will feel that they’ve personally benefited from it. But the help they’re getting to reach higher will also help me to start from higher. So the people who really benefit are those of us already on the property ladder.

This isn’t really Help to Buy. It’s Help to Sell. And while it might be good for me, I’m not so sure it’ll be good for the economy.

As Osborne has said: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up.” Well, at least he has learnt from Gordon Brown’s mistake and isn’t promising to end boom and bust.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A polling analogy: 2001-05 and 2010-15

Robert Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup discuss the habit of drawing analogies between the next election and previous ones. They mention 1992 and 1983 as options but they don’t seem convinced. And quite right, too: no analogy is perfect and all sorts of things could still change between now and 2015.

But I’d suggest a partial analogy between the current parliament and 2001–05, although with roles reversed.

Similarities:
  • At first, the public gave the government the benefit of the doubt but without a huge amount of enthusiasm. (In 2001 this was because Blair had already had his honeymoon; in 2010 Cameron had a much smaller and shorter honeymoon.)
  • Satisfaction with the government gradually fell, although this didn’t lead to a significant swing between Labour and Conservative.
  • One big event caused a big swing between Labour and Lib Dem. (After 2001, this was the Iraq war; in 2010, it was the coalition deal. And of course the direction of this swing has reversed.)

Differences:
  • In 2001, Labour had a huge majority; they could afford to lose ground and still win the next election. Now, the Conservatives don’t have a majority and need to gain ground. In fact, they need to gain ground relative to Labour – which the swing from the Lib Dems makes even harder.
  • UKIP are also making life much harder for the Conservatives than Respect did for Labour in 2005. Yes, UKIP have taken support from all other parties and yes, some of that support will return home. But the biggest share of UKIP support has come from the Conservatives and some of that will stay UKIP

So while the dynamics of the two parliaments may have quite a bit in common, the end result – the government re-elected – is a lot less likely this time.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The emptiness and the irrelevance of the legal case for bombing Syria


The UK government’s legal position on Syria says:
If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided three conditions are met: 
(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;
(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and 
(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).
This is political waffle. One dead giveaway it where says evidence has to be accepted by “the international community as a whole”. No such entity exists. Then the talk about what is “objectively clear” and what is “necessary and proportionate” – who decides? It doesn't say. Not even the non-existent international community.

But then, a fair amount of international law is political waffle, so maybe that’s OK.

The “doctrine of humanitarian intervention” is not a legal document; it’s a family of related political opinions. Roughly, the idea is that it can be justified to use force against another government when that government is inflicting atrocities on tis own people. This upsets the sanctity of national sovereignty, but many people – me included – think this is sometimes justified. National sovereignty can be a bulwark against colonisers, but it can also be a cage for the subjects of tyrants.

The key thing is that this justification is moral or political. It is not legal. The UN charter continues to insist that force may be used only in self-defence or when approved by the Security Council acting under chapter VII of the charter, which covers the use of force.
There are, though, official documents that support the principle. Most notably, Security Council resolution 1674, in 2006, which:
Reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity
And the key part of 2005 World Summit Outcome Document says:

The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
This is all well and good, but it still puts the Security Council firmly in charge. And it doesn't commit the Security Council to do anything in any particular case if it doesn't want to. It’s just a statement of potential willingness.

You might say that if the Security Council fails to live up to the aims it has set itself, then that makes it legitimate for others to act. But legitimate is not the same thing as legal. The word gestures towards legality, but also towards morality and popularity.

In practice, what all this amounts to is that world leaders want to do what they want to do, and they want to do it while claiming they’re acting within international law. They want to claim that because it will help to give the impression that what theyre doing is the right thing. They know that no body will ever rule their actions illegal, so they can say more or less what they want on that front and can dismiss any disagreement as politically motivated or subjective opinion.

None of this is to judge whether airstrikes against Syria would be on balance good or bad. Nor is it to endorse the Security Council as a fine collection of wise, well-intentioned, disinterested adjudicators.

All I’m saying is that this “legal” case is purest political humbug.
 
 
Update:
 
Today’s parliamentary debate has shown a lot of consensus on the need to pay lip service to legality.
 
First, David Cameron: 

The very best route to follow is to have a chapter VII resolution, take it to the UN Security Council, have it passed and then think about taking action. … However, it cannot be the case that that is the only way to have a legal basis for action, and we should consider for a moment what the consequences would be if that were the case. We could have a situation where a country’s Government were literally annihilating half the people in that country, but because of one veto on the Security Council we would be hampered from taking any action. I cannot think of any Member from any party who would want to sign up to that. That is why it is important that we have the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which is set out in the Attorney-General’s excellent legal advice to the House.
I agree with the spirit of this, but he really is skating on the very edge of pretending to care about legality here. ‘That would be awful and we’d all hate it’ is not a legal principle.
 
Then, Ed Miliband. Despite Labour’s disagreement with the government, on this point they are as one:

…there will be those who argue that in the event of Russia and China vetoing a Security Council resolution, any military action would necessarily not be legitimate. I understand that view but I do not agree with it. I believe that if a proper case is made, there is scope in international law—our fourth condition—for action to be taken even without a chapter VII Security Council resolution. Kosovo in 1999 is the precedent cited in the Prime Minister’s speech and in the Attorney-General’s legal advice; but the Prime Minister did not go into much detail on that advice.
 Perhaps because there was not much detail to go into.
 
Nick Clegg, of course, holds the government line, but what really struck me on the Lib Dem side was Saint Menzies of Campbell, who made his name denouncing the Iraq war as illegal. Today he said:

The effort to achieve a resolution under chapter VII is a vital component of the doctrine of the responsibility to protect, because if no such resolution is achieved—here, I agree with the Attorney-General—we turn to what was once called humanitarian intervention and now is called responsibility to protect. It is a fundamental of that doctrine that every possible political and diplomatic alternative will have been explored and found not to be capable.
 They all agree: Security Council resolutions are optional, and anything they do is legal because they’re good people.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The paradox of forward guidance

By saying that interest rates won’t rise until unemployment goes below 7%, Mark Carney hopes to reassure us that rates will stay low for a long time. And, so reassured, the theory is that we’ll borrow more to spend more. This will boost the economy and create jobs, meaning that interest rates will rise sooner.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The rise of UKIP

The recent rise in UKIP support is bigger and longer-lasting than anything in the party’s history. Here’s a long-term view:


(I’ve used ICM and Ipsos MORI because they both did well at predicting the 2010 election result and they both have a series of monthly polls, with UKIP numbers available, going back this far. It’s also worth bearing in mind that they tend to show lower UKIP scores than most other pollsters.)

Previously, UKIP has spent its life plodding along to very little effect until a European Parliament election comes along (2004 and 2009) and gives it the publicity it needs to make headway. It gets a modest but sharp boost, about half of which then vanishes almost immediately.

That’s not what’s happening now.

UKIP’s vote has been rising pretty much consistently for over a year. Whether you look at its monthly poll rating or the six-month average, which smoothes away blips, it has been above its 2009 peak for over half a year and is now at more than double that peak. And this is without the benefit of a Euro-election. Next year’s will help the party keep its momentum up.

Far more people than ever before are taking UKIP seriously, and they have been doing so for longer than ever before. The longer the idea of voting UKIP spends in their heads, the likelier it is to settle.

But I suspect UKIP is pretty near its limit now. I’d be surprised if it managed more than 10% at the 2015 general election, and even more surprised if it won any seats. That said, it could still make a difference by changing the balance between the bigger parties.

Why is UKIP doing so well?

It’s not that people are suddenly so much angrier about Europe and immigration. Rather, a generally culturally conservative group of people, who initially gave the coalition the benefit of the doubt (and gave the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt in opposition), are becoming more and more disillusioned. Look at the chart and you can see that the dam started to break after last spring’s ‘omnishambles’ Budget.

The Conservatives and Lib Dems have bound each other in to a mesh of governmental disappointments and half-hearted compromises, and Labour remains deeply unimpressive and tainted by its own time in power. These cultural conservatives increasingly think the mainstream, ‘modern’ political class has nothing to offer them.

As Kenan Malik argues, people are becoming more likely to vote as a personal statement of belief or outlook rather than as a way of choosing a government. This is borne out by the recent rise in people voting for no-hoper minor parties:


True, when push comes to shove, some of the UKIP’s current supporters will return to the bigger parties – but many won’t. In a large poll last November by Lord Ashcroft, only about half of people considering voting UKIP said that letting their most disliked of the bigger parties win would be a factor in their decision.

The largest part of UKIP’s new support comes from the Conservatives. From the details of the latest ICM and MORI polls, and the daily YouGov polls from the last week, UKIP is currently taking between a fifth and a quarter of the Conservatives’ 2010 vote and about a tenth of Labour’s. The overall effect of that is to increase Labour’s lead over the Conservatives by 4 to 6 percentage points.

If half of UKIP’s recently gained support goes back where it came from by 2015, that would still leave Labour a 2-to-3-point relative boost. That could swing maybe 20 seats.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Evidence-basted policy

A prominent economic study, supposedly showing that growth slows down once national debt gets above a certain level, has turned out to be based on a few simple errors.

Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff’s research was quoted approvingly by supporters of austerity around the world, including George Osborne in a major speech in early 2010. Osborne has consistently argued that the government needs to reduce its borrowing and debt or risk all kinds of disaster, and this research gave him a handy few paragraphs of material.

But he won’t now reconsider.

Politicians like us to think – and they probably like to think themselves – that they go for evidence-based policy. This makes them look like wise, careful, well-informed pragmatists.

But, too often, they don’t go for evidence-based policy. What they go for is evidence-basted policy.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose your policy.
  2. Scour the publications of friendly think-tanks and academics to find evidence that seems to support your policy.
  3. If you also find evidence against your policy, cut this off and throw it away.
  4. Marinate your policy in the evidence that most complements its taste, and cook as needed, sealing in that delicious evidential flavour.
  5. When your policy is ready to serve, it will be all the more appetising.

All the austerity camp have lost this week is one ingredient for their marinade. But this hardly matters to them: that wasn’t the reason they chose this course. They’ll keep serving it, even if it now tastes a little bitterer. A change of evidence doesn’t mean a change of course.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

UK and international welfare spending

Using OECD data from Declan Gaffney (a great blog post – do read it), I’ve made the two charts below. They look at the amount of money different countries’ governments spend on benefits, excluding pensions and benefits in kind.

The first shows that benefit spending in the UK has fallen as a share of GDP, not risen. Of the 18 countries Declan compares, the UK spending fall was the fourth-largest from 1980 to just before the financial crash, and the fifth-largest from 1980 to 2009.

 

The second chart shows in more detail how spending has gone up and down. To avoid a mass of criss-crossing lines, I’ve included just six countries. This also shows that the UK welfare state – not counting pensions – is not particularly expensive by international standards.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Osborne unveils Plan D


Plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change…

The more George Osborne insists on sticking to his policy, the worse the results become.

He’s like a driver who refuses to reset his faulty satnav long after it becomes clear that the geography is nothing like what he’d expected. He’s still turning right in 200 metres, but the turn takes him into a ditch instead of the hoped-for motorway.

In 2010, we planned to borrow an extra £471 billion by 2015/16. Today I can announce that we will hit this target two years early.

He didn’t say that, of course. But it’s true.

So imagine what he would say about a Labour Chancellor who had presided over this:







At some point, the government has to take responsibility. Three years is past that point.

(Note on data: The public finance figures are becoming harder to unravel. The ones I’ve used above exclude the effects of various special factors such as the asset price facility and financial transactions. The result of this exclusion is to raise the borrowing and lower the debt in the most recent figures. See tables 4.36 and 4.37 of the OBR report.)