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Archive for July, 2009

Jul 21,2009

I have just finished reading Roy Jenkins’ life of Gladstone.  This weighs in at 698 pages, so it is not a quick read and it is too heavy to carry around for those odd quiet moments.  Nevertheless, I am pleased I persisted.  I enjoy Roy Jenkins’s written style most of the time.  Although occasionally his orotundity gets in the way,  by and large his political insight adds depth to the analysis.

I confess to having known only a limited amount about Gladstone prior to reading the book. I now know a great deal more, including more of the background to Dollis Hill House about whose future I campaigned a few years ago.

However, the abiding feeling is that Gladstone was only the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics because of his longevity (or as Woody Allen puts it 90% of success is turning up) and stamina (he was still cutting down trees for recreation (sic) in his eighties).  Of his four terms as Prime Minister, only the second can really be deemed a success and that ran out of steam some two years before it ended.  He failed to deliver a measure of Home Rule to Ireland, admittedly despite valiant efforts.  His attitude on many social questions was more conservative than liberal.  In his private life, he was unremittingly snobbish, searching out Dukes so that he could stay on their estates.  He had a strange fixation with “saving fallen women”, which might have been thought commendable were it not for fact that even he doubted his own motives as is shown by the guilt that it produced in him and which is recorded in his diaries.

I cannot help but conclude that the reason many modern Liberal Democrats revere Gladstone to the extent that they do is that he did succeed in winning four General Elections – something that it is difficult to envisage their current Leader coming anywhere near.

Jul 20,2009

It has been announced that the threat of a terrorist attack has been reduced from “severe” to “substantial”.  There have been various suggestions that such a change may be made for some time.  But what does it really mean in practice?  The answer is not a lot. 

In principle, the change is supposed to mean that an attack is “a strong possibility” as opposed to “highly likely”.  What does that mean?  Well, how will you change your behaviour as a result?  This encapsulates the problem with generic threat levels – particularly those with a five-point scale.  Whilst, in principle, additional security measures may be triggered when the threat level goes up a notch (and deactivated when the level goes down), in practice the response should be more graduated and should in any case be related to more specific factors (is the threat against iconic sites, financial centres or crowded places?).

Nonetheless, the decision to reduce the overall threat level is good news, particularly as until quite recently the official line was that the threat level was “at the severe end of severe” (whatever that might have been intended to mean).  It demonstrates the degree of success that the police and the security service have had in disrupting terrorist plotters and the work that is being done to divert individuals from violent extremism.

So we can relax?  Not really – the threat of attack remains substantial and a strong possibility.  And, of course, last time the threat level was reduced was in May 2005 – just a few weeks before the London bombings that July.

Jul 20,2009

…. or maybe it is just their way of getting their own back on Ben Bradshaw.

Either way the decision to have the real-life Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (played by himself), appear on an episode of Eastenders with the not-real Peggy Mitchell (played by Barbara Windsor) sets an interesting precedent.  The BBC is, of course, supposed to be politically neutral and we are all used to the Tories frothing at the mouth about the Today programme being a nest of pinkos and Newsnight the cradle of the revolution.  So why is the nation’s most popular soap giving airtime to a Conservative (or indeed any) Mayor of London?  Will Ken Livingstone now make a cameo appearance as well?  Or is this all intended as a subtle warning to the Cameronians that the BBC can play tough, and that, if there is too much talk about creaming off the licence fee and amending the BBC Charter, they will not hesitate to promote the arch-nemesis and Tory leader-in-waiting, Boris.

More to the point, how helpful is it to further blur the distinction between show business and politics?  Maybe I am old-fashioned and at the risk of sounding like Tony Benn, but politics deals with serious matters and should be about issues.  Soap operas are about entertainment, although they may be realistic and may on occasions deal with significant themes.  Is the BBC performing any sort of publuc service by muddling the two together?

Jul 18,2009

Of course, I don’t seek recognition, but, if anyone felt inclined to vote for me as one of their Top Ten Political Blogs, I would be honoured, humbled indeed, not to say cravenly grateful …..

Jul 16,2009

Sir Ian Blair, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has rushed out a press release claiming that he has been completely exonerated on all the matters relating to the award of the contracts to a company called Impact Plus run by a friend of his.

The Metropolitan Police Authority has now issued a statement saying that, having considered the investigation overseen by Sir Ronnie Flanagan, former Chief Inspector of Constabulary (although he wasn’t ‘former’ when he started his oversight),  it wanted to make it “explicit that its decision  …  does not amount to an exoneration of Sir Ian Blair’s conduct. In particular the sub-committee did not accept the third conclusion reached by Sir Ronnie Flanagan that ‘there is no basis upon which police misconduct proceedings could be recommended against anyone involved in this investigation’.  …  In reaching this decision the Authority wishes to make it clear that the sub-committee were only considering the conduct of Sir Ian Blair.”
I was not part of the Committee that considered the investigation report, nor have I seen it.  However, I do have the utmost confidence in the collective judgement of those colleagues who were involved. So if they have said that their conclusions do not amount to an exoneration, I at least take it seriously.
Incidentally, there seems to be some suggestion that the MPA stance is part of some ‘vendetta’ against Sir Ian Blair on the part of Mayor Boris Johnson. The facts are that Mayor Johnson, nor his representative on Earth, Uber Vice Chair and Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse, were not privy to the discussions on the Flanagan report, and as far as I know neither has seen it.
Presumably, what Sir Ian was trying to do was declare ‘victory’ or at least proclaim ‘exoneration’, in the hope that journalists would not look at what the MPA had actually said.  And this was presumably why his statement was made so late in the day and without giving the MPA any warning that it was due to be made.

Jul 13,2009

The Health Services Journal (reporting an investigation by More4 News) says that NHS computer systems were infected by more than 8000 viruses in the last year, most of which would have been avoided if the NHS Trusts concerned had kept their anti-virus software up-to-date.

This would be worrying enough (consequences described included the breakdown of patient appointment systems), but the complacent response of the Department of Health is breathtaking.

According to the HSJ:

“The revelation that NHS trusts have been poor at keeping their anti-virus software up to date has provoked concerns that they are vulnerable to viruses that could cause confidential patient data to be disseminated.

 “But a spokesman for the Department of Health said the electronic patient records systems provided through the national programme for IT were “protected by the highest levels of access controls and other security measures”.”

However, my understanding has always been that once an individual machine has been compromised – depending on what malware has been installed – then all the data accessed or stored by that machine is potentially vulnerable.  So if so many Trusts are failing to maintain up-to-date anti-virus software, then confidential patient data IS at risk.

The Department of Health spokesperson went on to say that:

“local NHS trusts were legally responsible for complying with data protection rules and were expected to record any breaches.”

So that’s all right then …….

Jul 12,2009

According to the FBI, Goldman Sachs fell victim to potentially one of the most costly losses of information ever when one of their computer specialists decided that the $400,000 a year he was being paid was not actually sufficient compensation for his talents and decided to move to another company who were prepared to treble his salary.  In the few days before he left, the employee apparently copied part of the code controlling Goldman Sachs’s electronic trading platform which enables them to respond almost instantly to market movements (probably in a way that makes those market movements even more destasbilising for the rest of us but is highly profitable for Goldman Sachs).

Of course, it could have been worse, he could have tinkered with the code as well before he left, so that the trading platform would have bankrupted Goldman Sachs instead of making them enormous profits.  At least, I assume that would have been worse …..

Moral: be nice to the geeks in your IT department.

Jul 12,2009

I have to admit to being a Bill Keegan fan, ever since I was a little boy in the late-1970s and worked in the Economics Division of the Bank of England and Bill was brought in as a Special Advisor to the Governor to bolster the (minority) Keynsian faction within the Bank.  He is in magisterial form in this morning’s  Observer.

He tells us that:

“Lately I have been especially worried by all these inspired reports that Messrs Cameron and Osborne are deep into the study of how the Thatcher team of 1979 approached government. It seems that for the Cameron Conservatives, the big new idea is an old idea. After a brief flirtation with Caring Conservatism, the emphasis is on cuts, cuts and more cuts. Meanwhile our beleaguered prime minister is being attacked on all sides for resisting the cuts that so many commentators regard as not only inevitable but also desirable.”

And goes on to remind us that:

“But let us be clear that the first years of the 1979-83 Thatcher period were an almost unmitigated disaster. The new government inherited an inflation rate of around 10%, promising to reduce it by means of an alchemist’s formula known as monetarism, and within a year, thanks to obeisance to that false god and other errors of policy, the inflation rate was more than 20%.  The fashion for “cuts” during that period was determined by the obsession with lowering tax rates, although the overall tax “burden” continued to rise well into the 1980s. Unemployment went up, and up, and up.”

In a few short paragraphs he spells out why the current terms of debate on economic policy are just plain wrong:

“But let us return to that wider economy to which the financial system has administered so much collateral damage. Things are rough. Consumers who were encouraged by the financial system to become overindebted are drawing in their horns. Businesses that have been hit by the credit crunch are not investing, and hardly a day goes by without our being told that a major company has, if not actually announced more redundancies, then put part of its workforce on short time or leave and/or demanded pay cuts as an economy measure to ensure its survival.

Cutting the wage bill may sound sensible for the individual firm, but across the board it does not exactly boost what economists call “effective demand”. On the contrary, it makes the overall economic situation worse, at a time when there are growing doubts about the prospects for early economic recovery.

Which brings us back to those “cuts” in public spending that are so fashionable, to deal with “the problem of the deficit”. Unless and until there are sure signs of recovery, even the Cameronian Conservatives should stop losing sleep over the government deficit.

At a seminar earlier this year Dick Sargent, a distinguished former government and bank economist, put it well: “Some people think that the national debt is like a company debt, owed to people outside the company. But most of our national debt is owed to ourselves, ie to UK residents (individuals, pension funds, trusts, banks, charities and so on). Since the government has the power to raise taxes to pay the interest, there can never be a question of default (‘the country going bankrupt’, as the media like to say).”

Another veteran economist, Professor Max Corden, pointed out in a recent paper that there is a flaw in what he calls “the Conservative allegation” that the current fiscal stimulus is bound to have adverse effects later.

As he says, this does not take into account the asset side – “the total value of the bonds [and equities] acquired by savers as a result of the rise in incomes brought about by the stimulus”. These constitute “a set of assets that exactly offsets the liabilities on which conservative critics of stimulus policies have focused”. Moreover, “one must allow for the reasonable possibility that some of the extra public investment that took place in the first period as part of the fiscal stimulus turned out to be socially productive”, thus becoming a “positive legacy”, not a future drag on the economy.”

Labour politicians may find these paragraphs helpful in stiffening their resolve that Government economic policy is unequivocally in the right direction.  And maybe others in the commentariat ought to read Bill Keegan’s words and stop feeding a consensus in favour of the “voodoo economics” (the description used by George Bush Snr to describe his predecessor’s monetarism) espoused by Cameron and Osborne.

Jul 10,2009

The Metropolitan Police Authority meeting on 26th July has been reinstated – or at least it has now been conceded that there can be a short meeting that day (although it is difficult to see how the Commissioner’s report and the HMIC report on the policing of the G20 protests can be constrained into an hour).

The reaction of those who took the decision to cancel the meeting was apparently that they couldn’t be “a***ed” (I quote) to have a row about it.

A net gain for transparency and accountability?

Jul 9,2009

The clearest sign that Sir Alan Sugar’s ennoblement is now imminent were the sightings today of him being shown round the House of Lords by the Clerk to the Parliaments.  He even spent some time in one of the Galleries watching the House of Lords debate (and subsequently defeat the Government by voting in favour of) Lord Waddington’s amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill upholding the “free speech” defence against inciting homophobic hatred.  (It is not recorded whether he would have been against homophobic hatred or in favour of free speech.  Since he will be accepting the Labour Whip, I assume the former.)

The word is that he will be formally introduced into the House and take his title on 20th July.  I am sure he will receive a warm welcome ……