Monday, 27 April 2015

The Lanchester Review: Regardless of the Outcome

"Regardless of the outcome of this General Election, certain things are bound to happen. But certain other things need to happen alongside them, and those have not yet been considered."

"A Major Intervention"?

It has been on the Conservative Party's website as a kind of petition for weeks.

No one who did not know to look there would have heard of it, never mind signed it.

"Tory Activists Say To Vote Tory"? Well, I never!

Taking up about 60 per cent of the front page of what was once a serious newspaper.

The rest, almost as large, is taken up with an advertisement for Next.

But there is nothing about Nepal.

I miss the Telegraph.

The Stamp of Approval

Fraser Nelson writes:

I hate to admit it, but Ed Miliband has a point about the need for raising the stamp duty threshold to £300,000 for first-time buyers. (The FT has the story tomorrow, and Sky News has the £300k detail).

The tax was invented so the government gets a slice of the more expensive housing transactions – at least that was the idea when the £250k threshold was introduced.

But this £250k threshold has stayed the same while house values shot up: pretty soon, the average UK house will cost £250k. 

And as a result of this, stamp duty revenues were set to soar – a way for Osborne to cash in on the asset bubble that he is overseeing.

Stamp duty cost homebuyers £9.5bn last year – failure to adjust the thresholds threatens to send this soaring to £18bn by 2019/20.

A massive silent tax hike from Osborne, done through the anaesthetic of fiscal drag.

That’s not right: buying your first home is hard enough, without the government jacking up the price even further.

So lifting the threshold in line with inflation is fair.

I haven’t seen when Miliband proposes to bring in the £300k cap but it may be 2020 or something – ie, his policy would have the same effect as adjusting the stamp duty threshold for house price inflation.

I know that an election is a few days away, and Conservatives will denounce this policy as madness because it comes from the Labour Party.

But it’s a sensible idea, and one George Osborne should have come up with in his depressingly empty Budget.

Have The Right

Nicholas Watt writes:

David Cameron risks forfeiting the support of the Democratic Unionists in the next parliament after the party warned the Tories are in danger of “abusing” the House of Commons in their handling of Scotland.

In a blow to the prime minister, who is hoping to rely on the DUP in a hung parliament to keep him in Downing Street, the party’s leader at Westminster, Nigel Dodds, warned of the dangers of fuelling “nationalist paranoia” in Scotland.

Writing in The Guardian, Dodds said: “The UK not merely needs good and stable government after 7 May, it needs responsible politicians too, whether in office or opposition. At the moment, the current state of the campaign greatly concerns me.”

The intervention by Dodds could complicate the prime minister’s hopes of clinging to office after a YouGov/Sunday Times poll suggested he would need the support of the DUP to remain in No 10.

The poll projected that a combination of the Tories (278), Liberal Democrats (30) and the DUP (eight MPs in the last parliament) would create a block of 316 MPs.

This would be 10 short of a parliamentary majority but it would be seven seats ahead of a Labour (271), Lib Dem and DUP block on 309 seats.

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have rejected agreeing a deal with the SNP. In a sign of deep DUP unease at the Tory tactics over Scotland, Dodds is scathing about the commitment in the Tory manifesto to offer English MPs a veto over parliamentary legislation by introducing what is known as English votes for English laws. Dodds, who is defending his north Belfast seat in the election, writes in The Guardian:

“The Commons can’t be used as an ersatz, part-time English Assembly. It’s the Union parliament, and abusing it in this way wouldn’t and couldn’t answer the very real needs England has.”

The DUP had decided to keep out of the general election in Great Britain to focus on its fight to defend its eight seats in Northern Ireland.

It also has high hopes of recapturing East Belfast, the seat held by its leader, and Northern Ireland first minister, Peter Robinson between 1979-2010.

But the DUP leadership has become increasingly alarmed by the Tory tactics in building up the SNP as a way of damaging the Labour party in Scotland.

The tactics reached new heights on Sunday when Theresa May, the home secretary, warned that a post-election deal between Labour and the SNP would pose the gravest constitutional crisis since the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936.

Dodds is highly critical of those who question the legitimacy of SNP MPs at Westminster – as the home secretary did when she told the Mail on Sunday that a Labour / SNP deal would “raise difficult questions about legitimacy”.

Echoing the criticism of the former Scotland secretary Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, Dodds wrote:

“Take the ‘right’ of SNP MPs to vote in the Commons, or the supposed lack of legitimacy that stems from it. No one who purports to be a unionist can question it. They have the right. That’s why we fought and won the referendum: to enshrine the rights of Scots to go on sending representatives, fully equal to every other, to Westminster. Glib and lazy talk about SNP MPs somehow not being as entitled to vote in every division in the Commons as any other British MP simply fuels nationalist paranoia.”

The final straw, which persuaded the DUP to speak out, came when the Tories suggested they would be prepared to vote against the defence estimates as a way of highlighting how the SNP could pose a threat to Trident under a Labour government.

Ben Wallace, a Tory whip, hinted recently that a future Labour government might not be able to rely on the Tories to prevent the SNP from blocking the renewal of Trident.

Wallace tweeted that the Tories might not support Labour defence estimates – the vote to guarantee defence spending – after the SNP deputy leader Stewart Hosie said his party would vote against them if they supported Trident.

Dodds writes: “I can’t take seriously the notion that a responsible party of government would vote against the estimates. That has to have been tweetable overexcitedness by press officers and not a signed-off-on-line from on high.”

In a dig at the Tories, Dodds jokes that no party that professes support for the Union would damage the UK by talking up the SNP.

Adopting a sarcastic tone, Dodds writes: “Since it would neither be in the interests of the country nor those of any other party to intentionally talk up the SNP, we can assume that this hasn’t been happening. No one committed to the Union would deliberately do that. Obviously while we want a stable and secure government to emerge in the next parliament, no stability can come from any conscious effort to ramp up the numbers of anti-UK MPs in the Commons.”

Dodds calls on Scots to vote tactically for the best placed pro-Union candidate who, in most seats, will be the Labour one.

“Since no one ascends to or clings on to office by risking the country, this election calls for something beyond partisanship. In Scotland, pro-union voters should, just this once, give very serious consideration to voting for the unionist best placed to win their seat.”

The DUP insists it still intends to be equidistant between Labour and the Tories if it holds the balance of power in a hung parliament.

A DUP source said: “It is going to be the people who will chose the next government. We will just have to play the cards they deal in the election result.”

But the source said of the Tory tactics: “It it is going to give us pause for thought if this continues. We are half-depressed, half-bemused by what has happened. We really don’t think this is the behaviour of a responsible party of government. Scotland in the Union is more important to us than who is in No 10.”

And Nigel Dodds himself writes:

The general election is exciting in Scotland and Scotland is exciting the rest of the country.

Not many expected the result now rolling down the length of Britain towards Westminster, but we need to come to terms with what this is going to mean.

For the UK does not just need good and stable government after 7 May, it needs responsible politicians too, whether in office or opposition.

At the moment, the current state of the campaign greatly concerns me.

Naturally the SNP is the first concern. Listening to Nicola Sturgeon’s progressive pan-British rhetoric, you could have thought you were listening to one of the finest unionists of the age – there wasn’t a corner of the kingdom her concern didn’t extend to.

But for all the SNP leader’s talk of the common good, her unionist words are not going to be matched by unionist deeds.

By definition, the SNP does not have the interests of the UK at its heart. More will mean worse, if it’s more SNP MPs at Westminster.

Ironically the problem with the SNP will stem not from nationalist dogmatism, but almost unequalled political opportunism.

A party that pledged itself at Westminster not to vote on non-Scottish issues, that swore the referendum was a once-in-a-generation opportunity and claimed Scotland was economically ready for separation, now reverses all these positions.

It doesn’t matter that on any specific issue – say, full fiscal economy – SNP arguments disintegrate as soon as they hit reality, this is a party whose leaders will shamefully say anything in the expectation that their supporters will credulously go on backing them, whatever the flip flop.

In a hung parliament, regardless of ideology, these are not politicians set on stability and good government, even if they wanted it.

Yet whatever those of us who believe in the continuation of the UK as a pluralist, multi-national state might think, we mustn’t allow ourselves to be provoked into behaving the same way.

And this is where the campaign south of the border has so alarmed me.

Take the “right” of SNP MPs to vote in the Commons, or the supposed lack of legitimacy that stems from it. No one who purports to be a unionist can question it. They have the right.

That’s why we fought and won the referendum: to enshrine the rights of Scots to go on sending representatives, fully equal to every other, to Westminster. Glib and lazy talk about SNP MPs somehow not being as entitled to vote in every division in the Commons, as any other British MP, simply fuels nationalist paranoia.

In the last parliament, William Hague was badly served by the putsch attempted against speaker John Bercow but, if anything, even worse has been the using of him to drum up support for Evel (English votes for English laws)

I have yet to hear from a Tory colleague standing in England that a single door anywhere has been opened with the query, “whither Evel?” But it’s not just a flawed political tactic, it’s also a constitutional mess.

The Commons can’t be used as an ersatz, part-time English Assembly. It’s the union parliament, and abusing it in this way wouldn’t and couldn’t answer England’s real needs.

For far too long now we have blundered into unthought-out, one-sided constitutional change. This fatal habit has to end. Evel, unfortunately, would simply be more of the same.

Some of what has happened in the campaign so far is pure froth.

I can’t take seriously the notion that a responsible party of government would vote against the defence estimates.

Which, because of the Tory-Labour consensus on the nuclear deterrent, is what it would take to give parliamentary effect to the SNP’s bluff about Trident. That has to have been tweetable overexcitedness by press officers and not a signed-off on line from on high.

Since it would be in the interests neither of the country nor any other party to intentionally talk up the SNP, we can assume this hasn’t been happening. No one committed to the union would deliberately do that.

Obviously while we want a stable and secure government to emerge in the next parliament no stability can come from any conscious effort to ramp up the numbers of anti-UK MPs.

Many commentators assume a swift second election is almost inevitable. I don’t share this assumption.

In Northern Ireland we have a particular problem with it in that elections bring out the worst in Sinn Féin.

It has used the current one to run away from what it agreed to at the Stormont House talks last Christmas, and finds itself in an electoral mincing machine, between Westminster, Stormont and the Dail.

Nothing that encourages its tendency towards Micawberism does anything for peace and progress in Ulster.

However, my reading of both Tory and Labour backbenchers alike is that neither will be amenable to sweeping away the Fixed Term Parliament Act, whatever their frontbenches might want.

Since no one ascends to or clings on to office by risking the country, this election calls for something beyond partisanship.

In Scotland, pro-union voters should, just this once, give very serious consideration to voting for the unionist best placed to win their seat.

Brave voices such as Norman Tebbit have risked tribal discontent to urge this, and I urge it too.

The SNP is trying to get out of England the answer it couldn’t get out of Scotland last year.

No one who believes in Britain should assist them, least of all in England.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

On Your Bike

Three things were made clear on this morning's Andrew Marr Show.

The Conservatives have given up on this General Election.

Boris Johnson is already conducting the subsequent Conservative Leadership Election.

And Ed Miliband would wipe the floor with him.

Buy The Big Issue

This week's edition is guest-edited by Owen Jones, with an article by Peter Hitchens entitled "Nationalise It!".

Speaking of housing-related matters, I am all for controlling rents, as this country always used to do like any other part of the developed world.

But in principle, there is nothing wrong with being a private landlord, any more than with having a business.

In my experience, a lot of people who have one or two tenants, and sometimes more, are Labour voters, Labour members, Labour stalwarts.

The Real Party of the Countryside

John Prescott writes:

This week I saw how much the NHS is struggling.

A few years ago my daughter-in-law Roz lost her bowel after an ­aggressive form of colitis, an inflammation of the colon.

She leads a normal life now and has raised two wonderful grandchildren but she is susceptible to infections which can leave her very weak.

Last week Roz returned from Ireland with her kids feeling ill.

She thought it was a bug. When I saw her on the Saturday, though, she looked like death.

Her face was gaunt, she looked shattered and was occasionally being sick.

The doctor gave her a quick check, said she did have a bug and told her not to eat for two days.

By Sunday night Roz was in a bad way.

She was shaking and was sick 20 times that day.

My son David thought it was more than a bug so he called NHS 111 at around 7pm and talked them through the symptoms.

An on-call GP called him back and recommended calling 999 for an ambulance.

Although they live in the countryside now, having lived in a city for 20 years they assumed getting an ambulance to their home would be fairly easy.

But after completing another phone assessment with 999, they were told by East Midlands Ambulance Service it wasn’t an emergency.

They were told that because of shortages at the weekend and increased demand, an ambulance would not be sent.

David explained they couldn’t take Roz by car as she wasn’t fit to travel in the front seat for 16 miles to the nearest big hospital, Lincoln County.

And there was no one to look after their sleeping kids, Ava Grace and Evan.

They tried NHS 111 again to see if they could get 999 to send an ambulance.

They promised a nurse would call back but by the time she did two hours later, Roz was asleep from exhaustion and nausea.

The nurse was amazed East Midlands Ambulance Service hadn’t sent an ambulance.

On Monday morning they tried again. They called their local GP and eventually got seen.

The doctor then called an ­ambulance straight away and it ­eventually arrived – 20 hours after they first asked for it.

She was taken to Lincoln County on Monday afternoon where she finally had a blood test. It wasn’t a bug – it was a serious kidney infection.

It took Roz two days of undue stress and pain to find out what was wrong with her and the medical treatment she needed.

They don’t blame the ambulance service.

The real blame lies at the feet of a government that has under-invested in the NHS, cut social budgets and increased waiting times in A&E and GP surgeries.

According to Unison, a paramedic now leaves East Midlands Ambulance Service every eight days and the numbers of days they take off because of stress is 6,325 – twice as many as in 2010.

They face working up to 15-hour days as it takes much longer to transfer patients to hospital because of a shortage of beds and an under-pressure A&E department.

Whether it’s the police or the NHS, rural areas face huge problems getting the service they deserve.

Recruiting and retaining staff – paramedics, doctors or nurses – has always been difficult in the country.

So as my son David has said, I hope whichever party finds itself running the NHS after May 7 urgently looks to fairly rebalance health provision across town and country.

Otherwise more people like Roz will suffer undue stress and suffering.

A Fresh Injection of Venom

Patrick Cockburn writes:

Yemen is short of many things, but weapons is not one of them. Yemenis own between 40 and 60 million guns, according to a report by UN experts published earlier this year.

This should be enough for Yemen’s 26 million people, although the experts note that demand for grenades that used to cost $5, handguns ($150) and AK-47s ($150) has increased eightfold.

Whatever else happens, the war in Yemen is not going to end because any of the participants are short of weaponry.

Yemeni politics is notoriously complicated and exotic, with shifting alliances in which former enemies embrace and old friends make strenuous efforts to kill each other.

But this exoticism does not mean that the war in Yemen, where the Saudis started bombing on 26 March, is irrelevant to the rest of the world.

Already the turmoil there is a breeding ground for al-Qaeda type attacks such as that on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Waves of boat-people

The collapse of the country into a permanent state of warfare will send waves of boat-people towards Western Europe or anywhere else they can find refuge.

It is absurd for European leaders to pretend that they are doing something about “terrorism” or the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean when they ignore the wars that are the root causes of these events.

The Yemen war has been left to the Saudis and the Gulf monarchies, with the US ineffectually trying to end it. The reality of what is happening is very different from the way it is presented.

The Saudis allege that they are crushing a takeover of Yemen by the Houthi Shia militia backed by Iran and intend to return the legitimate president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to power.

In fact, the Houthis’ seizure of so much of Yemen over the past year has little to do with Iran.

It has much more to do with their alliance with their old enemy, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still controls much of the Yemeni army.

This enabled the Houthis, whose strongholds are in the north of the country, to capture Sanaa easily last September, though UN experts note that the capital “was guarded by no less than 100,000 Republican Guards and Reserve Forces, most of them loyal to the former president”.

The Saudi air campaign is geared more to inflicting severe damage on the units of the Yemeni army loyal to Saleh than it is to weakening the Houthis.

The Houthi militiamen are experienced fighters, their military skills and ability to withstand air attack honed between 2004 and 2010, when they fought off six offensives launched by Saleh, who was then in power and closely allied to Saudi Arabia.

It was only after he was ousted from office in 2012 that he reconciled with the Houthis.

The Saudi war aim is to break this alliance between the Houthis and the Saleh-controlled military units by destroying the army’s bases and heavy weapons.

The more lightly armed Houthis are less likely to be hard-hit by air strikes, but without the support or neutrality of the regular army they will be over-stretched in the provinces south of Sanaa.

In Aden, they are fighting not so much Hadi-supporters, but southern separatists who want to reverse the unification agreed in 1990.

The problem with the Saudi strategy is the same as that with most military plans.

The 19th-century German chief of staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, said that in war “no plan survives contact with the enemy”.

The same warning was pithily restated more recently by the American boxer Mike Tyson, who said that “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.

Uncontrollable

The danger for Saudi Arabia is that wars build up an uncontrollable momentum that transforms the political landscape in which they are conceived.

Had the Saudis not intervened in Yemen, it is unlikely that in the long term the Houthis would have been able to dominate the country because they are opposed by so many regions, parties and tribes.

Yemen is too divided for any single faction to win an outright victory.

But the air war has been justified by Saudi Arabia to their own citizens and the Sunni world as a counterattack against Iranian and Shia aggression.

It will not be easy for Riyadh to back off from these exaggerated claims to reach the sort of compromises required if Yemen is to return to peace.

A further danger is that demonising the Houthis as Iranian puppets may well prove self-fulfilling, if the Houthis are compelled to look for allies wherever they can find them. 

Yemenis insist that their society has not traditionally been divided along sectarian lines between the Zaidi Shia, a third of the population, and the two-thirds of Yemenis who are Sunni.

But this could change very quickly as the Yemen conflict gets plugged into the wider and increasingly warlike regional confrontation between a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia and a Shia counterpart led by Iran.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been one of the main beneficiaries of the militarisation of Yemeni politics, because it can present itself as the shock troops of the Sunni community and its fighters are no longer under pressure from the regular army.

As many Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans have discovered to their cost, Sunni-Shia sectarian hatred and fear is often only one massacre away.

Life has become unlivable

The Saudis and the Gulf monarchies worry so much about Yemen because it is very much their backyard.

But there is every reason for the rest of the world to worry too, because Yemen is joining Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia as places where warlords rule in conditions of anarchy.

They are places where life has become unlivable for much of the population, who will take any risk to escape.

This is the sort of national calamity that is filling the boats and rafts crowded with desperate emigrants that are heading across the Mediterranean for Europe.

And this calamity is particularly bad in Yemen, because the country was in crisis even before the present conflict.

According to UN agencies, malnutrition in Yemen is about the same as in much of sub-Saharan Africa and only half the population has access to clean water.

The country imports 90 per cent of the grains used for food, but no ships are coming in because its ports are blockaded by the Saudis or caught up in the fighting.

In any case it is difficult to move food supplies because of a chronic shortage of fuel. Lack of electricity means that essential medicines in hospitals cannot be stored.

This is not a short-term problem, Yemen is finally falling apart, but it may take a long time doing so, which means that there will be a vacuum of power.

AQAP and other jihadi groups are already taking advantage of this. America’s much vaunted drone war against AQAP has not prevented the organisation taking over whole provinces.

The Sunni-Shia confrontation has a fresh injection of venom.

Yemen has endured many wars that the rest of the world has ignored, but this one may well prove uncontainable. 

Welcomed By Influential Voices

Martin Vander Weyer writes:

The interesting thing about Labour’s pledge to abolish non-dom tax status — a squib designed to trap Tories into expressing sympathy for the rich, in the knowledge on the part of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls that it might cause loss of tax revenues and inward investment — is that it has been welcomed by influential voices in the City.

The Eds must be astonished to find Sir Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems and former deputy chairman of the Bank of England, bang on message: he told the FT that non-dom rules are ‘a relic of the past that unfairly favours the few at the expense of the many’.

Likewise veteran financier Dame Alison Carnwath, chairman of Land Securities and one of this column’s beacons of good City sense, said Leave aside the East India men and Greek shipowners for whom the rules were originally framed, and the reputable non-doms who pay HMRC £8 billion (5 per cent of all income tax receipts) on their UK income while sheltering overseas earnings.

What’s behind the Carr response is the suspicion that non-dommery has become a common tax avoidance device for highly paid executives of global businesses.

And that creates jealousies inside the silo of the seven-figure-salaried, notoriously insensitive to the plight of the world outside: the Canary Wharf trading floor on which dubious non-doms take home more than high-performing UK taxpayers is, we may guess, an unhappy place.

I once met a director of a famous investment bank who told me ruefully he was the only non-non-dom among 23 London board members.

For entirely the wrong reasons, the Eds may have hit on something that really does need reforming.

As for the Conservative promise of a post-election sale of Lloyds Banking Group shares with discounts and loyalty bonuses for small investors, it is aimed at bringing a feelgood whiff of 1980s capitalism to the closure to Lloyds’ painful passage through state hands — and it deserves a better reception than the Guardian’s description of it as ‘a bung to those people able to write a cheque for a few thousand quid at short notice’. [No, it does not.]

George Osborne’s ‘million-pound inheritance tax giveaway’, on the other hand, is less than it sounds, since it applies to married couples and civil partners who can already bequeath £650,000 between them tax-free and would now receive an additional £175,000 allowance per partner, applicable only to property bequeathed to direct family.

But ringing that magic ‘million’ bell should be just enough to catch the attention of homeowners in outer suburban and provincial postcodes that happen to fall in Tory marginals and targets.

And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

As the daily cacophony of cheap shots, non-answers, uncosted bribes and predictions of doom drowns out anything that sounds like vision, wisdom, optimism or national pride, I sincerely hope the tax status of the opposing ‘master strategists’, Australian Lynton Crosby for the Tories and American David Axelrod for Labour, makes it imperative for them to leave these shores on 8 May, never to return.

Influence

Nick Cohen certainly has some front. These were mainstream Labour voters until the Iraq War that he cheered on.

Cohen and others, the likes of David Aaronovitch and the Harry's Place blog, called all criticism of the Iraq War "anti-Semitic" every day for several years.

You know, the war that stopped the East End Bangladeshis, among so very many other people, from simply voting Labour.

The original legislation on "spiritual influence" related and relates only to what Irish Protestants thought (and English atheists think) that Irish Catholics believed.

No properly formed Catholic ever could have believed that he would go to hell if he had not voted as directed by the bishop or by the parish priest, or even by the Pope.

And Islam, especially the Sunnism to which Bangladeshis and Pakistanis overwhelmingly adhere, is a great deal less hierarchical than Catholicism.

If the Labour candidates do not win Brent Central, Finchley and Golders Green, Hampstead and Kilburn, Harrow East, Harrow West, Hendon, Hornsey and Wood Green, and Hove, then they should put in petitions to the Electoral Court, and I trust that they would, although I hope and expect that there will be no such need.

For, if they won before that Court, as Labour and against the power of the State of Israel, then this law really would be repealed.

And they would still have won.

16:35, Just deleted over on Comment is Free:

How astonishingly far to the Right the supporters of the Iraq War have moved in the years since. That is a recurring problem in people with Marxist backgrounds. As they move rightwards for the larger fees and what have you, they do not know when to stop.

Rahman is a crook, and that should have been enough. But no, Cohen endorses a judge who holds that liberal Anglican bishops can say what they like because they went to public school, and because in any case their mildly leftish economic and their fairly conservative social views are the opposite of their only possible readers', so they are never going to influence anybody.

But everyone, including themselves, has to be protected from the credulous Pakis of today, as surely as from the credulous Paddies of old. So says the judge, and so says Nick Cohen.

The ban on "undue spiritual influence" is like the former ban on "the promotion of homosexuality". That was a prohibition of something that was in any case impossible. This ought to be recognised as being a prohibition of something that is in any case impossible.

No prosecution was ever brought under Section 28, and no one much noticed when it went away. In fact, its time on the Statute Book coincided with an almost total change in the general attitude to homosexuality, and not in Section 28's direction. It was a dead letter from the start.

This, however, is something else. No action had been brought under it since the century before last. But it is back now. Cheered on by a man who thinks of himself as a leader of the liberal Left, in the pages of what regards itself as the senior print organ of liberalism and liberality in, at least, the English-speaking world.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

We Fear To Rouse Our Honoured Dead

Bloody Churchill. Very literally. Look how no one is mentioning his name.

But today would be a very good day for the Armenian Genocide to be recognised by Australia, by New Zealand, by the Imperial Motherland, and by the state that was 26 counties of that Motherland in 1915.

They were fighting against the perpetrators at the time. One of my grandfathers was fighting against the perpetrators at the time.

Though take note, you "Anglospherists", and those of you who have lately acquired an enthusiasm for the Commonwealth that you once wanted to leave while backing the very Boers against it.

It was not British accession to the European Communities, nor even the Fall of Singapore (Bloody Churchill, again), that caused New Zealanders and especially Australians to identify themselves as victims of British snobbery, incompetence, callousness, indifference, negligence and neglect.

Neither of those events helped. But it goes back beyond them, and at least as far as the event the reporting of which made the name of Rupert Murdoch's father.

Born on the battlefield, indeed.

The Mirage of Share-Owning Democracy

Prem Sikka writes:

Despite massive support from millionaires, corporations and most of the press, the Conservative Party has not made a breakthrough in the opinion polls.

So its latest weapon is to resurrect policies from the 1980s.

One of these is to sell £4 billion worth of shares in state-owned Lloyds Bank at a discounted price to individuals, effectively bribing people to secure votes.

The propaganda machine claims that the Lloyds sale is part of some process of building a share-owning democracy.

As privatisation of state-owned enterprises has been a key government policy since the 1980s, it is possible to test the claims of the propaganda machine.

But first a brief background to privatisation.

After the Second World War, the incoming Labour government nationalised swathes of industries, including shipbuilding, steel, water, gas, electricity, coal mines, and telecommunications.

Often private entrepreneurs were unwilling to make the investment in new technologies and the state provided the lead through investment in computers and biotechnology.

Rolls-Royce was nationalised by the Conservative government in 1971.

In the mid-1970s, the UK experienced a secondary banking crash and the crises spread to insurance, property and related sectors.

The then Labour government bailed out banks and other companies and negotiated a loan with the International Monetary Fund.

It was pressurised to sell part of its stake in British Petroleum (BP).

Thereafter it was ideological leanings rather than any economic compulsions which led the way to the sale of state-owned enterprises.

The 1979-83 Conservative administration under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership privatised Aerospace (BAE), Britoil, nuclear research company Amersham International, National Freight Corporation and sold 50 per cent of Cable and Wireless stake.

From 1983 onwards, privatisation became an active part of the government economic policy and BT, British Gas, Rolls-Royce, British Airways, Royal Ordinance Factories, water, gas, electricity, shipbuilders, bus and train companies were privatised.

Most of the shares were sold to financial institutions and a proportion also went to individuals.

The 1997-2010 Labour administration did not abandon the privatisation policy and the 2010-15 coalition government continued with it.

Royal Mail was its biggest privatisation.

As shares in numerous companies have been sold at knock-down prices to individuals, this should have increased appetite for share ownership. It hasn’t.

The table below shows changes in share ownership of companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) for the last fifty years. It is based on the most recent data published by the government.

(The table shows that direct ownership of shares by individuals has decreased from 54 per cent in 1969 to just 10.7 per cent in 2012.)

The only thing that has increased is foreign ownership of companies listed on the LSE. Many privatised companies, such as electricity, water and railways are now owned by non-UK investors.

Some individuals may have made quick gains by selling shares acquired on privatisation, but that has not persuaded them to return and acquire shares in other companies.

Share ownership cannot be associated with any semblance of democracy.

Any form of democracy is associated with rights, duties and powers, which are weak in corporations. At best, shareholders can appoint directors, but this does not give them any right to direct business strategy or any other aspect of operations.

They cannot personally possess, sell, or use corporate assets, as all property rights are vested in the company, which is a legal person.

Shareholders cannot demand higher dividends or see a company’s books.

They can appoint auditors, receive accounts, and pass resolutions at AGMs, but such resolutions are mostly advisory rather than binding on company directors.

The proposition that privatisation of Lloyds would deepen share ownership by individuals is not supported by evidence of privatisations over the last 40 years.

There is little democracy in governance of corporations.

Most shareholders need to work to earn a living and share ownership does not protect them from low wages, zero hour contracts, or poor employment practices.

So why is the Conservative Party pushing more privatisations, especially at discounted prices?

It is doing so for ideological reasons and desperation to remain in office, even if that involves naked bribes.

Prem Sikka is professor of accounting at the University of Essex

Work That One Out

Brian Wilson writes:

Call me a senile quisling if you like – pause for the entire Clan MacSheepie to concur – but I am puzzled about why anyone would take seriously the SNP’s new manifestation as the “anti-austerity” party.

It must be the first time in recorded history that the “anti-austerity” party is proposing longer, deeper cuts than the “pro-austerity” parties, as demonstrated by the detailed analysis of manifestos published this week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

In the measured words of the IFS:

“While the SNP’s plans imply a slower pace of austerity than those of the other three parties, they also imply a longer period… There is a considerable disconnect between this rhetoric and their stated plans for total spending, which imply a lower level of spending by 2019-20 than Labour”.

If we lived in rational times, this would be a key quote of Scotland’s election, blowing a torpedo through the false claims and denigration, particularly of Labour, on which the Nationalist campaign is founded.

As it is, one can only hope the “considerable disconnect” is spotted by anyone open to reason and with an interest in public services.

Even before the IFS report, you could spit peas through this “anti-austerity” guff. Surely one of the best measures of “austerity” is how vital services are affected by cuts in spending.

If we faced brutal austerity measures, then these would be reflected in the hospitals and classrooms of the land – and any “anti-austerity” government would strain every sinew to counter them.

But here we find something very odd.

Scotland has 18 per cent higher levels of public spending per capita than the UK as a whole and this is continuously protected by the Barnett formula.

Whatever money is spent in England, the Scottish Government gets a proportionate cheque which is not tied to the specific area of spending which generated it.

So it has been up to our “anti-austerity” government at Holyrood to make its own choices.

What has happened?

Remarkably, real-terms spending on the NHS in England and Wales has risen by 4 per cent since 2009 but fallen by 1 per cent in Scotland.

The gap is even wider on the schools budget. In other words, the “pro-austerity” UK government has shown more commitment to schools and hospitals than the “anti-austerity” Scottish Government.

Work that one out.

I was handed an SNP leaflet with their five key “pledges”. One was “additional investment in the NHS”.

How do they reconcile that with an existing failure to invest even the money that should have been earmarked for that purpose?

Another was “world-class childcare” when they have actually relegated Scotland’s position within the UK league table, never mind the world’s.

The “considerable disconnect” between rhetoric and reality is never far away.

The question which should be asked in Scotland is: “Where has the money gone?”

If schools and hospitals were not the spending priorities of the “anti-austerity” Scottish Government, what was?

There is certainly no evidence of measures which redistributed wealth and advantage away from those who have most of both these commodities towards the many Scots who have little of either.

I saw John Swinney being interviewed by Andrew Neil, looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights when asked to name a single measure which was redistributive towards the less well-off in Scotland.

It was as if he had never previously contemplated the question, far less come up with an answer.

Any redistribution by the “anti-austerity” Scottish government has been to the disadvantage of those who are suffering most from… austerity.

The “anti-austerity” card is being played by populist outfits in other countries, ostensibly offering an alternative from the left of traditional social democratic parties and always with the intention of destroying them.

The most conspicuous example is Greece, which has suffered austerity on a scale far beyond anything inflicted in the UK and where desperation for respite was understandable.

Nicola Sturgeon was one of many who latched on to vicarious association with the “anti-austerity” alternative which Syriza offered in Greece and which duly swept them into power, virtually wiping out the socialist party, PASOK, along the way.

It has not taken very long for that particular bubble to burst as the Greek version of “substantial disconnect” has manifested itself.

The imminent prospect of being unable to pay wages or pensions has concentrated minds wonderfully. The funds of municipalities are being raided by central government.

In Riga yesterday, the same ministers who had rock-star ratings in February were pleading for concessions, money and time – just like their despised predecessors a few months ago.

President Vladimir Putin is their new best pal.

It is a great irony that – unlike Syriza – the Scottish Nationalists will not have to face up to the implications of their own rhetoric, no matter how many seats they win, precisely because they are part of the UK.

Just as the scale and strength of that economy saved Scotland from the folly of its banks, so there will be no day of reckoning for an “anti-austerity” party which cannot form a government.

Thus, posturing looks like a free ride.

The one way to change that would be by offering the SNP what they are ostensibly asking for – the end of the Barnett formula and the retention of Scottish tax revenues in Scotland, also known as Full Fiscal Autonomy.

That demand is now so absurd, given the collapse of oil revenues on top of the pre-existing deficit, that the Nationalists have taken to saying that they want it “phased in”.

Their new chant could be: “What do we want? Full Fiscal Autonomy. When do we want it? Not any time soon.”

So the state they are trying to break up will be expected to keep paying the 18 per cent higher level of public spending in order to facilitate the timing its own intended destruction.

At some point, that is a bluff which deserves to be called. They can have the neverendum or Barnett – but not both.

In truth, there are no pro-austerity parties. It’s all a matter of degree and priorities.

The question about self-styled “anti-austerity” parties is less about the alternative they offer than how long it takes for them to be found out.

Less than two weeks to go!

Selling Out The Sovereignty

Ellen Brown writes:

"The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government". — Article IV, Section 4, US Constitution

A republican form of government is one in which power resides in elected officials representing the citizens, and government leaders exercise power according to the rule of law.

In The Federalist Papers, James Madison defined a republic as “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people . . . .”

On April 22, 2015, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement that would override our republican form of government and hand judicial and legislative authority to a foreign three-person panel of corporate lawyers.

The secretive TPP is an agreement with Mexico, Canada, Japan, Singapore and seven other countries that affects 40% of global markets.

Fast-track authority could now go to the full Senate for a vote as early as next week. Fast-track means Congress will be prohibited from amending the trade deal, which will be put to a simple up or down majority vote.

Negotiating the TPP in secret and fast-tracking it through Congress is considered necessary to secure its passage, since if the public had time to review its onerous provisions, opposition would mount and defeat it.

Abdicating the Judicial Function to Corporate Lawyers

James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers:

“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, . . . may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. . . .

“Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, forthe judge would then be the legislator. . . .”

And that, from what we now know of the TPP’s secret provisions, will be its dire effect.

The most controversial provision of the TPP is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) section, which strengthens existing ISDS procedures. ISDS first appeared in a bilateral trade agreement in 1959.

According to The Economist, ISDS gives foreign firms a special right to apply to a secretive tribunal of highly paid corporate lawyers for compensation whenever the government passes a law to do things that hurt corporate profits — such things as discouraging smoking, protecting the environment or preventing a nuclear catastrophe.

Arbitrators are paid $600-700 an hour, giving them little incentive to dismiss cases; and the secretive nature of the arbitration process and the lack of any requirement to consider precedent gives wide scope for creative judgments.

To date, the highest ISDS award has been for $2.3 billion to Occidental Oil Company against the government of Ecuador over its termination of an oil-concession contract, this although the termination was apparently legal.

Still in arbitration is a demand by Vattenfall, a Swedish utility that operates two nuclear plants in Germany, for compensation of €3.7 billion ($4.7 billion) under the ISDS clause of a treaty on energy investments, after the German government decided to shut down its nuclear power industry following the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

Under the TPP, however, even larger judgments can be anticipated, since the sort of “investment” it protects includes not just “the commitment of capital or other resources” but “the expectation of gain or profit.”

That means the rights of corporations in other countries extend not just to their factories and other “capital” but to the profits they expect to receive there.

In an article posted by Yves Smith, Joe Firestone poses some interesting hypotheticals:

Under the TPP, could the US government be sued and be held liable if it decided to stop issuing Treasury debt and financed deficit spending in some other way (perhaps by quantitative easing or by issuing trillion dollar coins)? Why not, since some private companies would lose profits as a result?

Under the TPP or the TTIP (the Transatlantic trade and Investment Partnership under negotiation with the European Union), would the Federal Reserve be sued if it failed to bail out banks that were too big to fail?

Firestone notes that under the Netherlands-Czech trade agreement, the Czech Republic was sued in an investor-state dispute for failing to bail out an insolvent bank in which the complainant had an interest. The investor company was awarded $236 million in the dispute settlement.

What might the damages be, asks Firestone, if the Fed decided to let the Bank of America fail, and a Saudi-based investment company decided to sue?

Abdicating the Legislative Function to Multinational Corporations

Just the threat of this sort of massive damage award could be enough to block prospective legislation. But the TPP goes further and takes on the legislative function directly, by forbidding specific forms of regulation.

Public Citizen observes that the TPP would provide big banks with a backdoor means of watering down efforts to re-regulate Wall Street, after deregulation triggered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression:

The TPP would forbid countries from banning particularly risky financial products, such as the toxic derivatives that led to the $183 billion government bailout of AIG.

It would prohibit policies to prevent banks from becoming “too big to fail,” and threaten the use of “firewalls” to prevent banks that keep our savings accounts from taking hedge-fund-style bets.

The TPP would also restrict capital controls, an essential policy tool to counter destabilizing flows of speculative money.

And the deal would prohibit taxes on Wall Street speculation, such as the proposed Robin Hood Tax that would generate billions of dollars’ worth of revenue for social, health, or environmental causes.

Clauses on dispute settlement in earlier free trade agreements have been invoked to challenge efforts to regulate big business.

The fossil fuel industry is seeking to overturn Quebec’s ban on the ecologically destructive practice of fracking. Veolia, the French behemoth known for building a tram network to serve Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, is contesting increases in Egypt’s minimum wage.

The tobacco maker Philip Morris is suing against anti-smoking initiatives in Uruguay and Australia.

The TPP would empower not just foreign manufacturers but foreign financial firms to attack financial policies in foreign tribunals, demanding taxpayer compensation for regulations that they claim frustrate their expectations and inhibit their profits.

Preempting Government Sovereignty

What is the justification for this encroachment on the sovereign rights of government?

Allegedly, ISDS is necessary in order to increase foreign investment. But as noted in The Economist, investors can protect themselves by purchasing political-risk insurance.

Moreover, Brazil continues to receive sizable foreign investment despite its long-standing refusal to sign any treaty with an ISDS mechanism.

Other countries are beginning to follow Brazil’s lead.

In an April 22nd report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, gains from multilateral trade liberalization were shown to be very small, equal to only about 0.014% of consumption, or about $.43 per person per month.

And that assumes that any benefits are distributed uniformly across the economic spectrum.

In fact, transnational corporations get the bulk of the benefits, at the expense of most of the world’s population.

Something else besides attracting investment money and encouraging foreign trade seems to be going on.

The TPP would destroy our republican form of government under the rule of law, by elevating the rights of investors – also called the rights of “capital” – above the rights of the citizens.

That means that TPP is blatantly unconstitutional.

But as Joe Firestone observes, neo-liberalism and corporate contributions seem to have blinded the deal’s proponents so much that they cannot see they are selling out the sovereignty of the United States to foreign and multinational corporations.

For more information and to get involved, visit:
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Ellen Brown is an attorney, founder of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books including the best-selling Web of Debt. Her latest book, The Public Bank Solution, explores successful public banking models historically and globally. Her 300+ blog articles are at EllenBrown.com.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Seeing Red

Raise a glass on the hundredth anniversary of Red Sunday, the expulsion of the Armenian intellectuals from the Ottoman capital.

Thus began the great Armenian and Assyrian genocide.

Today, Assyrians are facing another genocide in "liberated" Iraq, while Armenians fare little better in NATO Turkey.

But each, like the Jews, have a reserved seat in the Parliament of big, bad Iran.

Generation X

Harry Leslie Smith was like HRT.

Remember, he told his mostly student audience in Durham this evening, there was never a more cynical generation than his lot, formed by the Depression and the War.

But they still made possible the 1945 General Election victory and everything that followed from it.

Vote.

And Vote Labour.

Tripoli Troubles

Supporting the war in Libya was Ed Miliband's single biggest error as Leader of the Opposition.

But he did not launch the war, and there would have been a Commons majority for it even if every Labour MP had voted against it.

Neither Douglas Carswell nor Mark Reckless voted against it.