Thursday, 31 May 2012

A crack in the anti-smoking edifice?


Only a small one:

Health bosses have announced they are planning to install controversial smoking shelters at the James Paget Hospital despite it being a smoke free site for more than seven years.

There are predictable exclamations of outrage from the normal culprits plus, a new entrant to the nannying fussbucket ranks, Unison:
And Unison, which represents thousands of NHS workers, thought health bosses had more opportunity to address the problem rather than just installing shelters.

Jeff Keighley, Unison regional director, said: “Three quarters of smokers want to quit when asked and I would expect this to be higher in health professionals and hospital workers. 

So much for looking after the workers!

There's a poll on the idea with the article too.


Lies, damned lies and alcohol statisitcs (revisited)

The National Health Service Information Centre (NHS IC) has released its latest report on alcohol statistics. As ever Nigel Hawkes of Straight Statistics is on hand to try and help us with comprehension. However, even Nigel is confused:

The bottom line is that the NHS IC admits that its old method of measuring admissions attributable to alcohol exaggerated the increase since 2002-03 because it failed to take account of changes in hospital coding practice.

So that's clear. Except: still publishes a table (4.2) based on the old, discredited calculations, as well as another table (4.11) that takes account of the adjustment. Which are we supposed to believe?  According to Table 4.2, total alcohol-related admissions rose between 2009-10 and 2010-11 from 1,056,900 to 1,168,300. But according to the adjusted measure in Table 4.11, they fell over the same period from 1,208,100 to 1,168,300.

Right, alcohol-related admissions have either risen or fallen over the last year. This is very helpful.

Nigel thinks that the measures are all a lot of toss (he actually says "unfit for purpose, adjusted or unadjusted") but this won't stop the usual collection of nannying fussbuckets from making the most of the figures. And guess which figures those folk will use?

There is a serious problem with NHS coding (and not just for alcohol-related conditions) - it relies on turning complex conditions into answers to a check list and is open to manipulation both at the point of collection and subsequently. Yet we are making huge decisions about health priorities on the basis of this sort of dubious, unreliable data.


Today's load of old nonsense...


...courtesy of the Centre for Local Economic Studies & New Start:

We’re in a systemic crisis of human and environmental capital. This is the moment that things are going to get re-organised and radically transformed. Our generation will see the biggest transformation since the corporate firm was born 200 years ago. We will see that same magnitude of change as we fundamentally shift how we, as humans, organise ourselves. This transformation will take place whether we like it or not, the economic conditions are there. We’re going to need to rebuild most of the institutional infrastructure of the UK. Some of it because there’s no other viable way of keeping it going, while other institutional infrastructure – like education – is being actively challenged by changes in business model, by value extractable. We’re in a remarkable place that’s changing the nature of being, of who you are and how you have to behave. Whether you call it the Big Society or the Good Society, the idea that civic society is going to become more self-organising will happen. We’re on the verge of new tipping point around that. Whether it’s about setting up a co-op to buy energy that creates a whole new market relationship with providers or about DIY-producing our own furniture, this is the new behaviour of society and it will fundamentally change the nature of production, the relationship between consumers and producers, and the nature of investments. We are in a great restructuring, a great transformation. Technology, culture and human consciousness – how we exist in the world – are changing.

I'm not even going to try to get underneath what this is all about - every trendy community, greenie, social enterprise cliché is crammed into a hundred words of so. Let me just pick out one sentence of astonishing wiffle:

We’re in a remarkable place that’s changing the nature of being, of who you are and how you have to behave.

Now please tell me that I'm going to grow long har, wear a kaftan, live in a yurt and listen to the Grateful Dead? This sort of hippy nonsense went out with that generation I thought! The capacity to string senseless platitudes together to make a pleasing sound was fine when it was just a few teenagers sitting in muddy fields but when a 'repsected' academic body - a veritable think-tank promotes it, I start to wonder.

This 'fundamental shift', the re-organisation and 'radical transformation' - all just meaningless mumbo-jumbo designed to impress the gullible. The 'speaker', one Indy Johar, provides not substantiation for his trendy polemic, there is not challenge, just the spouting of what might be described (and was by my wife) and "the words of a naive but articulate 15-year-old.

CLES really should do better.


Krugman...Or When You Get Stuck Change the Subject


I have just watched Paul Krugman's master class in punditry (note the use of this term rather than the term "economics" - there wasn't a great deal of economics in evidence) from yesterday evening's Newsnight. You can follow the link from the Great Man's blog .

What struck me wasn't that Krugman succeeded in putting the case against "austerity" although this was the billed intention but that whenever he reached the point where he might trip over his own argument he shifted the subject.

When confronted with the moral argument that debt means having something now rather than later - meaning of course that we, given the likely timescale for debt repayment, are taking that from future generations - Krugman chooses instead to talk about the lack of graduate job prospects. Rather than addressing the real issue raised - government debt as deferred taxation, Krugman chooses to talk about a relatively minor labour demand issue.

And then when Angela Leadsom raises supply side considerations - how to help the economy create jobs - Krugman lapses into accusations that Ms Leadsom and others are ideologically motivated and using the current crisis to shrink the size of the state. At no point in this does Krugman respond to or consider whether there are any supply side constraints. He waffles vaguely that there's no evidence of supply side constraint (in the US) and states baldly that the whole problem is a matter of demand. More seriously - from the point of debate - he accuses others of insincerity and exploitation without evidence.

On one level this was great telly - a clever pundit parading his skills and, no doubt, successfully flogging a few of his books (the real reason for his presence, of course). But, given that Krugman is billed as a "Nobel prize-winning economist" it was really disappointing that he chose political and ideological arguments as the basis for his opposition to austerity rather than economics.

Maybe that's because he doesn't have an economic leg to stand on? I wanted to understand the arguments - the economic arguments - against austerity but instead got political argument. And, whenever the challenge got close to denting that argument, Krugman either made ad hom attacks or changed the subject. We had the spectacle of two very polite 'opponents' allowing this man to attack them rather than responding to the serious points they raised. Rather disappointing really.


A thought on social mobility - and my Uncle Ray...


My late uncle Ray was a judge - not a grand high court version of that beast but a more humble sort sitting in County Courts. But then I'm a Tory politician, you'd expect me to have at least one uncle sitting as a judge!

My uncle didn't go to university. Indeed he left school at fourteen and got a job in a solicitor's office doing odds and bits of jobs around the place. By dint of application and night school (not to mention working every hour god sent) Ray got to be a solicitor, then a partner and then a judge.

So Ray, from an ordinary working-class background in South London, ended up in the most bewigged of middle-class professions. All without spending time in and around the dreaming spires, redbrick halls or tatty '60s blocks of a university. And there are plenty of others of Ray's generation who took the same route - school, office job, night school or correspondence college and hard work.

So it rather galls me (someone who swanned from school to university without much thought) when people speak of university access as if it were the only means to resolve issues of social mobility. And I am struck by Alan Milburn's observation about the professions:

"The question posed by this report is whether the growth in professional employment is creating a social mobility dividend for our country - the short answer is not yet. In fact, the lack of progress on opening up the professions to a wider pool of talent risks squandering that enormous opportunity for social progress."

In times past plenty of lawyers, accountants and bankers learnt their skills while doing the job. It was a recognised and celebrated route to the top. For sure, the grand still paraded from Harrow to Oxford to a posh chambers in London but that was not the only route.

It is not just a matter of getting into university but persuading those professions - law, accountancy, nursing and so forth - that a vocational route is as valid for them as it is for quantity surveyors, marketing directors and bakers.


Wednesday, 30 May 2012

I always knew a lot of doctors were in it for the money...


Not all, of course, as this comment shows:

Dr Dan Poulter MP said: "As a doctor, my first duty is to my patients. That is why I would not participate in strike action. Doctors have taken the wrong decision today, urged on by their trade union the BMA.

"Industrial action will harm patient care. With the Government's final offer to doctors being a pension of £68,000 a year, the public will simply not understand why doctors have called for strike action over pensions that private sector workers and many other frontline NHS workers can only dream of."

I watched a row of wealthy men in suits - the BMA bosses - lined up at a press conference claiming to be hard done by because some doctors will have to wait until they're 65 (like the rest of us do) to get their pension of nearly seventy grand a year (like the rest of us don't).  And I wanted to put a bar stool through the telly. How dare these people act in this way, how dare the BMA - usually so ready to lecture us on how we're living our lives wrong - threaten patient care so they can retire to the golf course or the Dordogne a few years early. How dare they....

...they're only in this for the money it seems so perhaps they'll shut up with all the "caring public sector professionals" rubbish now. I do hope so.


Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Come on Christine put your money where your mouth is...


Christine Lagarde called the other day for Greeks to pay their taxes:

And I think they should also help themselves collectively [by] paying their tax"

Today we discover that this grand lady doesn't pay any taxes either:

As an official of an international institution, her salary of $467,940 (£298,675) a year plus $83,760 additional allowance a year is not subject to any taxes.

So come on Christine put your money where your mouth is...if you want others to pay taxes, pay some yourself.


We may yet get that referendum...


And yes, I will - given the chance - vote to leave the ghastly corruption that is the European Union. More to the point, most Tories are on my side of the argument:

Special ConHome poll: Almost three in four Tory members would vote to leave the EU now

As the chap from C4 says:

"...the pressure to have an absolute non-negotiable commitment to a referendum on the EU in the next Tory manifesto may well be insurmountable now."

In truth, it will probably be the price of many members' support.


The NHS as bully boy...


Not that it's a huge deal but the NHS has no power or authority to suppress truth - doesn't stop it trying:

Dan first worked for Forest in 2007. A few years ago, via a third party, he also did some work for an NHS Primary Care Trust. Proud of the work he had done for Forest and the NHS he added both bodies to the client list on his website.

Imagine his surprise when, a few weeks ago, he received a request – prompted by the work he had done on the Hands Off Our Packs campaign – to remove the reference to the NHS from his site. "Working for the NHS and then being funded, albeit indirectly, by the tobacco industry" represented a "conflict of interest", he was informed.

So this business is told that it can't have any NHS business - or even tell the truth that it did some business with the NHS! Seems wrong to me.


Monday, 28 May 2012

...and sometimes I sits and thinks (this time about Westfield and Bradford)


"Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits." Satchel Paige

This lunchtime I was sat in the little temporary park that sits in part of what is now known as the “Westfield” development. The sun was shining, a few folk were taking advantage of the space to catch a tan and I was eating a ham and coleslaw sandwich. And thinking - would I have made the same decisions faced with the same situation again?

There’s a great deal of noise about this development – at the weekend some masked “occupiers” camped out in the ‘hole’ (as an aside “V for Vendetta” has a great deal to answer for mask-wise) and plenty of local agitators make random, mostly unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, incompetence or ignorance.

I’m going to start with the unpopular bit – throughout the development the council has acted in good faith and has delivered on the promises it made to developers, Yorkshire Forward, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and through them the European Commission. Occupiers, agitators and those riding the bandwagon of local annoyance may wish it to be otherwise but councils are in the business of running local services not developing shopping centres.

Around ten years ago, I sat in a series of meetings with the chief executive and chairman of Yorkshire Forward where, along with council officers, we argued that Yorkshire Forward should support the Broadway development (as it was then known) despite Will Alsop – creator of Bradford’s city centre masterplan – preferring to make the area another park. In the end, we won the argument and the scheme remained. Bradford went on to secure millions in ERDF funding to move the roads and sort out the services.

The demolition – following a long-winded compulsory purchase action – was entirely funded by the developer. And, if you think for a few seconds, this is why you can’t put on a penalty clause – all the scheme funding is from the developer so any ‘penalty’ would be pointless. You can’t penalise a developer for not developing. It’s a bit like me fining you for not putting up a house extension.

There’s also no point in an end date – at least not a short- to medium-term end date. Think again for a moment. With an end date the developer does not control the asset – they’re expected to spend a lot of money without the minimum assurance of owning the property at the end of the process. In the case of Westfield, the developer has spent many millions already – this would not have happened without allowing them to develop at their own pace. We would still have a set of tatty 1960s shops and offices, we would have no prospect of European funding for off-site works and we probably wouldn’t have a developer.

Maybe we were all wrong. Perhaps Will Alsop’s anti-development masterplan was the right thing to do – the current prospects for the retail industry suggest this might be the case. But back in 2004 the Bradford public’s repeated desire – expressed in surveys, letters, comments at meetings and countless informal encounters – was for “better shopping”. Imagine the response had we turned round and said; “sorry Bradford but you’re wrong, we’ll build a park not a shopping centre”! Not to mention the recipe for scandal as we tried (at great cost) to extract ourselves from a development agreement – for the record dating back to 1998 and originally between the Council and Caddick, the Leeds-based developer.

In a way, it would be good to have an enquiry into all this – I’m pretty confident that the agitators would be disappointed in what comes out. For my part, as I sat on that bench in the temporary park, I came to the conclusion that faced with the same situation and the same information, I would make the same decisions. We’d still have pushed for demolition, we’d still have acted quickly so as to secure ERDF funding and we’d still have encouraged a swift planning process.

In 2006 when I finished as Portfolio Holder for Regeneration, I left behind a development agreement with a strong developer, a cleared site, completed services and road diversions and a full planning permission.

All that remained was for the developer to build the shopping centre...


Closing Bradford's police stations - bad management, buck-passing and pretend consultation


Last Wednesday I posted an e-mail from a colleague on council about the closing of front desks at police offices in Bradford. The proposal has now popped up in the local newspaper and the Chief Supt has a comment:

Bradford South Divisional Commander, Chief Supt Simon Atkin, said the demand for public inquiry counter services had reduced. A consultation earlier this year found eight out of ten residents surveyed said they hadn’t visited an inquiry counter in the past year. 

My colleague had this to say on the subject:

"Some months later The Chief Supt called as usual to use the police car to drive to and from work and informed the officers at the station that it would soon be closed in the evening as there was no demand for it to be open. The PC produced the Callers Book and said what about this demand! Mr Long was very angry and snatched the book from the PC and threw it across the room."

Might well be a different senior police officer but it's clear that this closure was planned long ago and the Police Authority had no intention of consulting residents about it - or even local MPs and Councillors it seems. Expect the decision to be put down to "cuts" rather than lousy management. And that management problem is beautifully displayed by the hand-wringing buck-passing from the Chair of the Police Authority:

Chairman of West Yorkshire Police Authority Coun Mark Burns-Williamson said it was the responsibility of divisional commanders to consult councillors, MPs and members of the public about the plans

So what is the Police Authority for then? There's a couple of million pounds spent on Cllr Burns-Williamson's little empire over in Wakefield, what exactly do they do with all that money?And don't you just love the police's response:

Anyone who would like to give their views should contact their NPT

These are the beat coppers, the bit of the police force that's doing the job us residents want - patrolling local communities, being on hand to deal with crime, anti-social behaviour and so forth. They're not there to act as the means by which the police 'consult' on decisions to close down services to the public.

So here's a thought - trying writing directly to Cllr Burns-Williamson:



Sunday, 27 May 2012

An indication of everything wrong with our political order...


OK it's from America but...

One recent arrival says word has gotten out to new graduates that Washington is where the work is. “It’s a place where a ­liberal-arts major can still get a job,” she says, “because you don’t need a particular skill.”

That's politics for you. Is it any different here?


Sunday mornings...

I don't know about you but I've never been able to get to grips with this habit of showing political programmes on a Sunday morning. There is a place for interviews with the great and the good, faux little debates and the endless scandal-mongering that passes for political journalism these days but it isn't for Sunday morning.

I gather from extensive investigation (I asked some bloke down the pub who seemed well informed) that this politicisation of the sabbath morn is, like so many other bad things, an import from our former colonies in North America. Which is odd because I though they were a deal more god-fearing than us and troop in their droves (do droves troop or rather meander?) to vast churches built using the same architects who, in England, design warehouses for electrical component distributors.

So now, as I sit with my morning tea (dreaming sweetly of bacon sarnies) before the telly, I am regaled with Andrew Marr interviewing some or other grandee - today it happens to be Nick Clegg. Marr's interviews do rather remind me of the "great microphone of state" and provide rather less insight than Desert Island Discs. It's almost like a staged, scripted event - a few gentle questions, the grandee getting his (it's usually a 'he') point across and Marr being able to extract just the one theatrical squirm from the interviewee.

Sunday mornings are to blame for this softball approach - if the interview was at seven thirty on a Wednesday evening, it would be all businesslike, stern and of infinitely greater value to the viewer (although less useful to the political superstar being grilled). Sunday mornings are for tea and slippers, for having breakfast in the garden, for the slow life. Sunday mornings are when we should savour things - the sun, the grass, our families and all the good things around us.

Sunday mornings aren't for politics.


Saturday, 26 May 2012

The end of risky smoking (but not if the anti-smoking industry has its way)


To a certain extent the battle over tobacco covers up a profound change - albeit one that the anti-smoking fanatics are opposing. The decision of Lorillard - part of "Big Tobacco" - to acquire an e-cig company tells us that these companies see less risky means of delivering nicotine as a significant growth market (unlike their cash cow of cigarettes).

This decision puts a tobacco company at the forefront of smoking harm reduction:

Through its acquisition of blu ecigs®, Lorillard is now officially in the business of harm reduction and it is devoting a substantial amount of resources to promoting smoking cessation via the use of electronic cigarettes.

The problem is that the anti-smoking brigade will not accept e-cigarettes as a legitimate means of reducing the hard from tobacco use - indeed ASH, the main anti-smoking use is actively trying to ban e-cigs:

Attorneys general in 49 states are being petitioned to ban the further sale of e-cigarettes until their safety can be determined by the Food and Drug Administration [FDA].  They are being petitioned to follow the lead of the Oregon Attorney General's office which has just obtained such court orders, by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the group whose legal petition, and scheduled appearance on NBC-TV Nightly News, precipitated last week's FDA warning about some of the dangers of e-cigarettes

A proven means of stopping smoking is not recommended by those campaigning for people to stop smoking - unlike a leading tobacco company:

In an irony of epic proportions that is an embarrassment to the anti-smoking movement, the Lorillard Tobacco Company is now promoting smoking cessation among thousands of consumers using electronic cigarettes, while most anti-smoking groups are not.

Believe it or not, here is the actual advice that Lorillard and anti-smoking groups are giving - publicly - to current smokers who are thinking of quitting smoking using electronic cigarettes:

Lorillard: Do.
Anti-Smoking Groups: Don't.

But then it's not about smoking any more, it's about control and, too often,acting on behalf of their paymasters in the pharmaceuticals industry - the big competitors to e-cigs.


"Pay your taxes..." Or how to annoy a Greek.


As ever, I start with the caveat that I'm not an expert on Greece's economy or how it might resolve its current problems. But I am pretty sure - no absolutely sure - that the solution to Greece's economic problems does not lie in getting the populace to cough up more taxes. That might make a small dent in that suffering country's problems with government finances but it won't deal with the consequences of the 'big lie' visited on Greece by its politicians - that the Drachma was equal to the Mark.

Yet - in a great campaign slogan for the Greek worshippers of the Mystic Money Tree (usually referred to as Syriza) - this is precisely what Christine Lagarde, boss of the IMF has done:

"As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.

"I think of them equally. And I think they should also help themselves collectively [by] paying their tax"

If anyone out there really believes that getting people to pay more taxes is a route to economic salvation they should be gently removed from any positions of decision-making (and probably kept away from sharp instruments). The resolution is always - absolutely and every time - in the private sector, in economic activity rather than the legerdemain of public financial manipulation, currency fiddling and regulation. These are the things that created the problem and we aren't going to resolve the problem through more self-important central banking.

In the end, the solution lies in the real economy - in the decisions of consumers, in the promotion of economic activity. And the drivers of that economic activity in Greece are the folk who dodged the taxes - take more money off them and, as sure as eggs is eggs, there will be less economic activity. Meaning that next time, there's less money to take off folk in taxes...

As ever, in this matter, government is most of the problem and very little of the solution.


Friday, 25 May 2012

"Live Free Or Die..." - thoughts on the imperative of freedom

“Live Free or Die!” goes the motto of New Hampshire – not for that place these cute Latin bon mots but a raw, clear and understandable statement of political intent.

The motto became "Live Free Or Die," as once voiced by General John Stark, the state’s most distinguished hero of the Revolutionary War, and the world famous Old Man of the Mountain was voted the official state emblem.

The motto was part of a volunteer toast which General Stark sent to his wartime comrades, in which he declined an invitation to head up a 32nd anniversary reunion of the 1777 Battle of Bennington in Vermont, because of poor health. The toast said in full: "Live Free Or Die; Death Is Not The Worst of Evils." The following year, a similar invitation (also declined) said: "The toast, sir, which you sent us in 1809 will continue to vibrate with unceasing pleasure in our ears, "Live Free Or Die; Death Is Not The Worst Of Evils."

We take liberty lightly because we want to believe the best of those around us – including those whose job is to serve. And, as a result, we accept constraints on liberty because they seem for most of us little more than an inconvenience. While we would find it odd to have to justify a daily journey, we accept other little bites into our freedom – the requirement to identify ourselves, the cameras peering at our movements, the regulation of our business and the restriction of our pleasures.

Too often, people who lay claim to being conservatives are in the vanguard of these little attacks on liberty – for, they tell us, freedom is nothing without security. It is as if the post-apocalypse story – perhaps The Postman, maybe just Mad Max – is burned into our psyche. Without authority, without the security that authority brings there is unrule, anarchy, chaos.

At the same time – without any hesitation – those same conservatives cry freedom. The spirit of free enterprise is invoked, the idea of a free nation is proclaimed and, over in New Hampshire, the nation dubs itself; “Land of the Free”. This conflict – between security and liberty – is central to conservatism – it is not resolved any more than the socialist can resolve the need for social control and the idea of man’s perfection. But I will always argue that the imperative of freedom must win – that is the message in the New Hampshire motto, not that freedom means license but that living free, in peace and independent is the aim of politics, government and the life we live.

When asked what drives my politics I usually respond:

“Free Speech, Free Enterprise, Free Trade”

And of these I wrote:

These are the three things that matter most to me - fighting for them is the reason I remain in politics. Little else matters when you get to the crunch - free speech opens the doors of discovery, free enterprise allows us to create wonders from that discovery and free trade allows the riches of that discovery and creation to be shared by all.

Whenever people propose new rules, the controlling of things they don’t like and the directing of people to your purpose rather than theirs, I look at it through the prism of these three freedoms. For it is those very things I wish to conserve – if by the setting of rules we lose some of that liberty, speech, enterprise or trade are compromised then, as conservatives, we should oppose.

“Live Free or Die...” – understanding this is central to conservatism. It is the imperative of freedom.


Thursday, 24 May 2012

Aaaaagh! Or a considered comment on the Leveson Enquiry....

The world does on occasion appears to be filled with people who can't see beyond the end of their rather snub noses. I appreciate that times are hard but, just because they are, doesn't remotely justify the rejection of common sense or that misplaced belief that if you're all right now, you'll be all right if you just dump everybody else in the accumulated ordure of today's world.

I'm fed up to the back teeth with the Leveson Enquiry - examining "the culture, practices and ethics of the media" is what the front page lays claim to (and I guess is what whoever was daft enough to commission the thing in the first place asked for) but the reality is different. What we've seen is a load of lawyers asking questions of assorted journalists - some, it seems, favoured by the glitterati some not - and a rag bag of celebrities and self-promoting politicians. All without a great deal of edification and certainly without even approaching those big questions of "ethics" (for heaven's sake what would a lawyer know about ethics), "culture" or "practices".

Perhaps the endless circus - each day brings another turgid, pompous inquisition of another stage struck character - is just a front and behind the scenes some real work is going on to actually try and answer the question asked? Maybe there's an anonymous office block - in Basingstoke or Solihull - filled with clever people discussing those "ethics", pondering on the "culture" of the media and deconstructing the practices of that sinful profession. Somehow I doubt it.

What we see instead is the triumph of the gossipmonger, the focus on minutiae - who sent a text to whom, which politician was at which lunch and how often did some government department meet with the large business that it regulated. None of this helps. If there is criminal activity - and it seems there might well have been a rash of hacking, tricking and voicemail harking - then we have police officers, prosecuting services and courts to deal with it, we don't need millions of pounds of enquiry. So what is it all for?

Partly it's vengeance - those who feel wronged (mostly by Murdoch and mostly because his newspapers had the temerity to switch sides) want a bully pulpit where they can point their accusing fingers at the evil ones. Partly it's a media circus - there is nothing the BBC, the Guardian and all the grand glitterati of our chattering classes like better than a nice exposure of other media sorts who don't come up to their exalted standards or share their elitist, metro-liberal world view.

But mostly it's the media manufacturing a great circus on which it can report - that it will pretend is real news. A cynic might call it bread and circuses - a distractions from things that really matter. You know, things such as whether the Euro will fail, how we might get out of a recession, where tomorrow's jobs will come from, how we deal with international migration and many other of the world's goings on. Things that actually matter to people who live 250 miles from London and really couldn't give a toss whether some celebrity or other had his or her voice mails listened to by a newspaper hack.

So - after all this, my considered reaction the Leveson Enquiry is partly - it's an obscene waste of money. But mostly:



Cullingworth Village Hall - a tale from the Big Society

Back in the early 1970s, the villagers of Cullingworth laid their hands on the redundant Salvation Army Citadel in Keighley and moved it, every last screw and post, to the village where it has served as the village hall since 1973. Not bad for a second-hand wooden hut!

Today, the hall is showing the wear and tear of time. All those plays, play groups, pensioner lunches, parties and parish council meetings have left their toll, the roofline sags, the wooden structure doesn't quite stand up straight and the running costs don't get any lower. The management committee - led by Bryan Hobson (the new younger chairman at a mere 80 years old - replacing Ken Batchelor, who'll be 90 this August) - have decided a new hall is needed.

Which rather explains why I was at the Hall this morning along with people from Bradford Council's Estates Management to talk about how this might happen and how the Council (which owns the land) can help us along. It's early days yet but we've opened up a dialogue and now face not just the challenge of planning, land swaps and sundry bureaucracies but the need to raise around £500,000 to actually build the new hall! Any help is, of course, welcome!

Afterwards, stood in the car park in the glorious sunshine, we spoke to the couple who look after the garden at the hall. Ken mentioned that they'd not really contributed much beyond a few Marks & Spencer's vouchers to the efforts in making the Hall's flower beds look great - and they do. Yet again, a couple of neighbours have been willing to put their own time, their own money and their own care into making our village look good.

Somebody once asked what the "Big Society" was - well this it it really. Ordinary folk caring for the place where they live and for the neighbours they live by - not for money or medals but because it's what we do. Long may it continue.


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Callers at Police Stations and the closing down of police stations


From this gentleman:

Police Constable 3415 Michael Walls Retired
Holder of the Police Long Service and Good Conduct Medal

Comes an e-mail (Michael is also a Bradford Councillor) - it says a lot:

Once upon a time there was a Police station in Bradford Called Toller Lane, it used to be open 24hrs a day and lots of people called in for help and advice as the Police officers who worked there were very friendly and helpful and took the time to talk to people, and the people liked this and thought very highly of the Police Officers but eventually when some Senior Police officers became involved in running costs and forgot why they joined, they decided to limit opening to 0800 to 2400 hrs. But people could still call, which they did in large numbers. Then one day a certain Ch Supt who we shall call Long called at the police station to park his own car and drive down to H Q in the Div Police car to save his petrol as he did every day. One Day he said to one of the office PCs... stop keeping the Callers Book (this was a book...was one in which every caller at the police station was logged.) Being a very astute officer this PC took no notice and continued to keep the book.

Some months later The Chief Supt called as usual to use the police car to drive to and from work and informed the officers at the station that it would soon be closed in the evening as there was no demand for it to be open. The PC produced the Callers Book and said what about this demand! Mr Long was very angry and snatched the book from the PC and threw it across the room.

And so the police station was closed in the evenings and eventually closed down completely and the people who would have called in now started to ring in and ask for a police officer to come and see them, and so the police officers were very busy!

And so our police "service" continues to fail to serve!


Politics and the tragedy of the commons


In the context of Hardin's classic 'Tragedy of the Commons' essay, I was struck by the truth of this observation:

One thing that Hardin overlooked is that the political process often replicates the same economic dynamic that encourages the tragedy of the commons -- a dynamic fostered by the ability to capture concentrated benefits while dispersing the costs. Like the herder who has an incentive to put out yet one more animal to graze, each interest group has every incentive to seek special benefits through the political process, while dispersing the costs of providing those benefits to the public at large. Just as no herder has adequate incentive to withhold from grazing one more animal, no interest group has adequate incentive to forego its turn to obtain concentrated benefits at public expense. No interest group has adequate incentive to put the interests of the whole ahead of the interests of the few. The logic of collective action discourages investments in sound public policy just as it discourages investments in sound ecological stewardship.

The rest of the article is worth a read and addresses the importance of property rights in driving environmental improvement and conservation.


“’s not a matter of whether you win or lose but how you place the blame”

I recall a ‘Peanuts’ cartoon that took the rise out of an old saw with:

“’s not a matter of whether you win or lose but how you place the blame”

We all smiled but underneath this pleasure at a little witticism lies a darker truth – we do, all of us, seek to lay the blame somewhere other than on ourselves. And with this goes our pleasure – that schadenfreude – at going over past failings so as to point the finger of condemnation, to lay the blame. Such passing of responsibility’s buck has become not only institutionalised but expensive.

The Saville report's numbers are their own indictment – 434 days in session, 12 years from inception to publication, a £191m budget, tens of millions of words and finally a retail price of £572.

It’s not for me to enquire whether this enquiry provided catharsis for those involved or merely a bully pulpit for republicanism but merely for us to appreciate that the blame game now sits at the core of how we behave. Everywhere we look people seek excuses for this mistakes, faults and failings – we have become a nation of Heinz Kiosks crying at every opportunity: “we are all guilty”.

We have become dependent rather than free, supplicants to the state in all its forms and ready to play a fine hand of excuses – race, sex, social upbringing, drink, drugs, peer pressure – whenever something goes wrong. We are no longer prepared – unless forced by authority – to accept personal responsibility for our lives and how we live them.

For the conservative this is a problem – personal responsibility is central to what we believe. Yet human instinct seems to draw us away from accepting that responsibility – the first response of the sales clerk or shop assistant is seldom to apologise. More usually it is to seek excuse – to explain why the product or service failed. As if we care about how short staffed they are or how the supplier let them down or whether they were ill - that is their problem, not mine. It is their responsibility.

The problem is that this culture of dependence and supplication leads us to an expectation that our problems will be resolved by others – parents, employer and, most commonly, the government. The state must act to “create jobs”, to “protect families”, to “promote well-being” – to lay down “solutions” to all the problems of our lives. And when there’s a problem – new or old – there’s a lobby group on hand and opposition politicians ready and waiting to call for action, for “something to be done”.

There are two big problems with this dependence – the first is that is creates a class of folk dependent on the government. Either because they – in ever larger numbers – work for that government or because they are financially dependent on the handouts of that government (rather ironically called “benefits”). But there is a second problem, more insidious yet – the rejection by so many of any responsibility for ordering their lives divides society.

The big divide in western societies is no longer between rich and poor, nor is it between ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ classes, the big schism is between the dependent and the independent. Between those who, most of the time, act independently of government and those who depend on the state. The growth of the latter – of the state-dependent – squeezes out private action and initiative, stifles innovation. Why get involved, why innovate when there is a benign state to care for us? I recall my mother bemoaning how difficult it was to recruit volunteers for the day centre – the most common reason for rejection: “that’s the council’s job”.

The principle of responsibility has become so compromised that it results in injustice:

Reggie Bush is a good case in point. Playing for the University of Southern California, he won the 2005 Heisman Trophy as the most outstanding college football player in the USA, while his team won the national championship. The results of an NCAA investigation, however, found that Bush knowingly broke the rules by allowing a sports agent hoping to represent him someday to provide free housing for his parents. Although Bush might have to return some awards, he is safe and sound as a very well paid professional football player. His coach at the time of his violations, Pete Carroll, is now coaching the Seattle Seahawks professional football team and will not be punished. The penalties go to the school, USC, and its current football players who will be barred from bowl games for a couple of years. The people most responsible for the violation -- Bush and his coaches -- go mostly unpunished.

And our rejection of personal responsibility has led to a veritable frenzy of lawyers scrapping over the opportunity to extract value from blaming someone else – personal injury claims, employment tribunals, class action cases against smoking or drinking and a host of other lucrative sources of legal business. For sure, I know the defence – sometimes it really is someone else’s fault – but we have reached a stage where the first response of some to a trip or a bump is to ring the lawyer, to lay the blame on some other poor fellow. “Ah, but the insurance will pay” is the cry – as if the insurance company owns a special breed of money tree! And when the premiums rise there’s a lobby on hand to call for government action, for regulation.

As a conservative, I believe I have a primary duty to myself, to my family and to my neighbours. This duty is not discharged by passing across responsibility to government in return for a tax bill. It is discharged by me taking responsibility for my life, for all the crisis and chaos, for all the pleasure and excitement, for all the ups and downs. It is discharged by me doing the right thing by my family, my friends and my neighbours. There is no government in this, no regulation, no lawyers, no church, no god – just me and my responsibility. As Robert Heinlein put it:

I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

My place - the essence of conservatism


The other day I tried to explain my understanding – obviously vicarious – of David Cameron’s conservatism. At the heart of this was the idea of ‘putting something back’ – noblesse oblige – and the importance that we place on administration by the established institutions of society (and do note that it is society’s institutions we are concerned with not merely the institutions that are of the state). In doing this I pointed out that David Cameron’s conservatism was not my conservatism, that my idea of being a conservative was:

...founded on the idea of place, the principle of responsibility and the imperative of freedom

So I felt obliged and slightly urged to describe that conservatism a little further. So here goes – starting with the idea of ‘place’. I see an understanding of rootedness, of belonging, as the crucial distinction between liberalism and conservatism – liberalism’s essence is captured best for me in the words of Thomas Paine:

The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.

These are noble sentiments – my heart rejoices that men believe in the goodness of mankind and that all are equal. But the World is not my country. England is my country and this I cannot change however much other men may pretend differently, however boundaries are drawn. And more that this, the glorious South Pennines is where I live and love – Bradford is my place. I am not a Yorkshireman but I still feel the place – some while ago I wrote:

I look across Yorkshire’s green hills, listen to the birds singing and look at those things seeming timeless – the beer, the food, the walls and trees, the rounded vowels and, above all, that view that this land is ours to cherish. To understand what it means to be conservative, you have to grasp that this is everyone’s.

You will have your place – it may be some corner of a great city, it is perhaps a hill above the woods or even an old mining town fallen on hard times. But it is your place, where your life is lived, where your love is played out. Or rather you will have that place if you are a conservative. As ever, Kipling – the greatest of conservative poets – captured this in speaking of his place, Sussex:

God gave all men all earth to love,
    But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
    Belovèd over all;
That, as He watched Creation’s birth,
    So we, in godlike mood,
May of our love create our earth
    And see that it is good.
So one shall Baltic pines content,
    As one some Surrey glade,
Or one the palm-grove’s droned lament
    Before Levuka’s Trade.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
    The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
    Yea, Sussex by the sea!

So find your place, live there, care for it, love and cherish it. Leave it as you would wish another to find it – not unchanged but better. Better for being your place. That is the essence of my conservatism.


Monday, 21 May 2012

The purpose of environmental regulation is the suppression of economic growth


It would appear that our MPs (or at least the ones on the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee) haven't been listening to the deep green rhetoric. As a result they don't seem to appreciate that the whole point of environmental regulation is to reduce economic growth. For, as we know those deep green folk like the WWF believe that you can't separate resource consumption and growth. Ergo growth is bad.

"As development increases beyond a certain level, so does per person Footprint — eventually to the point where small gains in development come at the cost of very large Footprint increases."

You've got that? It comes from WWF's Living Planet Report, a report encapsualted as follows: campaigning group WWF...has stated that economic growth should be abandoned, that citizens of the world's wealthy nations should prepare for poverty and that all the human race's energy should be produced as renewable electricity within 38 years from now.

So the whole point and purpose of those green regulations is to slow - better still, eliminate - economic growth. Right now that's not good politics, so our MPs pretend otherwise. As does the chap from WWF UK:

 "Far from putting British companies out of business, environmental policies may well be the saving of them. Leading businesses are crying out for measures such as mandatory carbon reporting and policy certainty for development of the renewable energy sector," said WWF-UK economic policy officer Luke Wreford."

Now you are confused aren't you! Regulations designed to prevent over-use of resources, to reduce "carbon footprints" and, bluntly, to stop growth are described as the salvation of business. And to justify this we've dreamt up that most oxymoronic of ideas: green growth:

The committee calls for a long-term view based on a proper strategy for green growth, including more investment in renewable sources of energy to reduce UK reliance on imported fossil fuels. 

For investment read "government spending"! Either economic growth is a bad thing (as the Living Planet Report sets out pretty clearly) and regulations or protections are needed to stop it or else it isn't, in which case we need fewer of those controls. In the end environmental regulation will always be anti-growth.

Sadly, our MPs seem not to have worked this out yet.


David Cameron, Conservative (and let's not forget it)


Yesterday evening, amongst the usual chatter and gossip, we had a few thoughts about what we mean by being a ‘conservative’. And, in some ways, with the loudness of the Tory “right” and the seeming success of UKIP this discussion is important. After all (and I know it’s not universally agreed) UKIP folk often lay claim to being “libertarian”.

The starting point was my observation that David Cameron is the most “High Tory” – the most ‘conservative’ – prime minister since Stanley Baldwin. I was asked to explain not least because, as readers here know, I get very angry at Cameron’s knee-jerk nannying fussbucketry. So how could I, as a conservative, describe Cameron as the “most Conservative leader”?

The answer to this lies in two central concepts of conservatism (or at least English conservatism) – the first is what we might call ‘noblesse oblige’ and the second is the idea of government as administration.

‘Noblesse oblige’ is the idea that a person laying claim to nobility is obliged to act nobly. We could describe it as a duty on the citizen to assist those less fortunate or even, to borrow from Hillaire Belloc:

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.

Some recoil from this concept seeing in it the ossification of society, the triumph of aristocracy as an institution. But for Cameron – and we see this in his enthusiasm for “social action” – such an obligation to act nobly is essential to conservatism. We are defined by what we do rather than what we support. Passing laws to help the poor in Africa or to care for communities in England is not sufficient; we must act ourselves to help society. A central tenet of Cameron’s conservatism is the idea of “giving back” – we are fortunate so it behoves us to put some of that fortune back into society.

The second concept is the idea of administration. Some people see the purpose of securing political power as the way to effect change, to direct the forces of government so as to improve mankind. In Cameron’s conservatism this is not the case; the purpose of power is administration – the running of good government.

A Tory friend at university once described this as “soft loo paper conservatism” – the object of government is to deliver contentment, comfort, security and maybe happiness to the citizen. There is no place in conservatism for the idea that mankind can – or should – be bettered or that government, through planned action, can improve society. If society is to get better, it will do so because people act nobly not because government willed it so.

As importantly, Cameron’s “conservatism as effective administration” requires attachment to and confidence in institutions – the National Health Service, the Civil Service, Royal Colleges, Universities. Government should concern itself with ensuring these institutions are well administered rather than with the outcomes of the institutions work. Put the right leaderships in place and trust in their judgement is what government must do – and then act to implement and enforce the plans those leaders create.

This may not be my conservatism – mine is founded on the idea of place, the principle of responsibility and the imperative of freedom – but no-one can say that Cameron is not a conservative.