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Saturday, 26 July 2008

Does Scotland really need England?

It has long been received wisdom that Scotland is dependent on English taxes. Commentators will quote the unfairness of the Barnett formula, and from time to time the papers will get themselves into a froth over per capita government expenditure in Scotland being £3k a year higher than England. Or whatever. So I was a little surprised this week when a report from Oxford Economics virtually slipped under the radar.

The 'Standard' carried a paragraph yesterday:
London and the South-East's subsidy to the rest of the country is rising rapidly and is now nearly £40 billion a year compared with just over £20 billion in 2004. The study by Oxford Economics balances Government spending against tax revenues in each region. It shows that London, the South-East and the Eastern regions made a net contribution of £37.7 billion to the UK public finances in 2007. The North, the Midlands and the South-West joined Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland as a net drain on the Exchequer.

Which prompted me to find the original report to see exactly how much Scotland's deficit is running at. And was astonished by the data - most easily understood in the graphs below. Scotland is very nearly fiscally balanced; Salmond would only need to raise an additional £2bn a year in taxes from the Scots to break even. It seems what London and the South East is really paying for are public services in Wales and Northern Ireland. Which makes the DUP's recent treachery over 42 days even more galling.

Friday, 25 July 2008

A suggested walk for Gordon

If Gordon's feeling in need of some quality time next week, I'd recommend a walk. From Walberswick in Suffolk to Dunwich down the coast is about three miles of hard walking on saltmarsh and shingle, but worth every step. To your left is the North Sea, once teeming with rich harvests of Cod and Herring, now barren and swept by factory trawlers from Spain and France. To your right is the depression that once formed the Dunwich River; seven hundred years ago it would have been crowded with shipping and vessels. At the end of the walk is a car park and tea-room, maybe a fishing boat pulled up on the beach, a tiny village and some intriguing earthworks. This is Dunwich, once a city to rival London, and England's biggest port in mediaeval times. Legend says it had fifty-two churches; it didn't. I think the count was about thirty. Legend says it lies under the waves; well, bits of it do. The usable bits were usually removed as the sea advanced, leaving wall-cores of flint rubble to lie in a fallen jumble on the sea-bed.

The Dunwich story and Labour's have some intriguing parallels. Dunwich went from greatness to oblivion and obscurity. The town's wealth came from the pockets of others. The burghers of Dunwich wasted vast amounts of public money on a losing cause. In the end, even the taxpayer wasn't enough to save them.

You see, at one time the River Blyth didn't reach the sea at Walberswick, but turned south into the Dunwich River and emerged into the North Sea three miles away at Dunwich. All Walberswick's trade and goods, all its fishing boats, its lighters and barges, all at one time had to pass through Dunwich. And the burghers of Dunwich made the most of it, levying fees and duties for each bale of wool that left, each tun of wine or basket of herring that passed through. They became fat and wealthy. And greedy. And they were always a year or two or more behind in paying their taxes to the King.

Then one stormy night the sea broke through the shingle at Walberswick. At once they were free of the tyranny of Dunwich. The burghers of Dunwich weren't going to let this go; they sent men and boats to try to block up the new channel. There were skirmishes. Men were killed. They appealed to the King for money to help pay for blocking up the new channel and restoring their ancient rights. The King very fairly replied that they could keep half of what they owed him.

Well, this went on for a long time - scores of years, maybe even a century, but all the expenditure was wasted. The Dunwich River silted up, the town was battered and nibbled by the sea and not rebuilt, the people left for richer towns (Walberswick now amongst them) and Dunwich continued in slow decline. Perhaps now the only village that is a Church of England See - a Bishop of Dunwich is still appointed, as has been the case since St Felix brought the cross to the Angles.

And perhaps, as with aching calves Gordon enjoys a cup of tea and an egg sandwich in the beach cafe at Dunwich, the realisation will come that when the tide of events turns against you and that there's no way back, it's time to go with grace and dignity and make the most of what you've got left.

Redwood's common sense

John Redwood's take on the Glasgow result this morning is as interesting as I'd expect from one of my top ten bloggers. And I can't argue with his common-sense economic stability plan - except that interest rates of 2.5% sound dangerous:
1. Impose a staff freeze on the public sector staff (other than teachers, nurses, doctors, police and troops and other important front line personnel). Stop the flood of spending on computers, consultancies, new logos, spin doctors, and all the other paraphernalia of the quango state. Get public spending under control.
2. Cut fuel duty so oil taxation is back on budget, helping cut inflation.
3. Cut interest rates to 2.5%
4. Reduce taxation on new exploration and development of oil and gas in the UK
5. Cut the Corporation Tax rate to attract more business to the UK
6. Announce decisions on privately financed infrastructure projects in energy, transport and water to offer work to the hard pressed construction industry.
7. Speed CAP reform to allow more agricultural activity in the UK and to give us full access to world markets for food.

Will he or won't he go?

I don't stay up for elections these days. The delicious pleasure of the 6 a.m. news bulletin on the radio is too good to miss. And this morning put a huge grin on my face that will take hours to subside.

So, will Brown front it out and stay? Or will we have a second and extraordinary change of horse in mid-stream? Or will he go to the country?

I'd be astonished if he did anything but front it out. The Micawber-esque prospect of 'something turning up', however remote, is actually better for Labour than its poll ratings right now.

Mosley - the outrage of the hypocrites

The News of the World is a filthy little rag, pandering to all that is most base with an editorial style that mixes pious prurience with vulgar titillation. Comically, though it has no qualm in printing pictures of naked women, it can't bring itself to print the word 'penis', usually retreating to the Barbara Cartland-esque word 'manhood' to describe the organ. Even the Daily Mail this morning pronounces pompously that "It is not the kind of paper that most of our readers would have in their homes." Yet the Mail, too, deplores the Mosley judgment - itself lapsing into the NOTW's pious-prurient style in condemning the fact that's it OK for Mosley "to pay five women £2,500 to take part in acts of unimaginable depravity" without it being reported by the press.

The Times rolls out William Rees-Mogg to proclaim loftily that "Any reduction of the ability of the press to investigate and to publish is likely to have serious consequences against the general welfare of society". Comment across the main stream media is similar.

I suspect that many of my generation will have difficulty in empathising with all this outrage. Mosley's games were almost straight out of a 'Carry On' film, or a seaside postcard. His 'exposure' was a sting, a set-up, engineered to produce a front-page scandal to sell newspapers and make profits for the owners. The outrage is as feigned as Aitkin's 'Sword of Truth' nonsense. It's hard to see any genuine 'public interest' justification here at all.

Besides, anyone with a peculiar taste for scurrilous gossip about those richer and more talented than themselves can best find it these days on the internet; Popbitch is full of it, as is Holy Moly, as are many similar sites. Even the NOTW's readers may be enlightened by the sort of stories that even that rag can't print on grounds of taste.

And the internet, and the international blogosphere, is a better guarantee of freedom of expression than the MSM will ever be. And unlike the red tops, the web reports stories. It doesn't engineer them for the financial benefit of shareholders.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

5/- fine for cycling without lights

Before the Statist central control of sentencing over the last twenty or thirty years, a magistrates' bench pretty well made up its own mind on which were important offences and which they considered trivial. A succession of minimum fines for a particular offence signalled to police officers not to bother bringing miscreants to court; thus prosecutions for the offences of riding a bicycle without lights, or a bell, fell into gradual desuetude after 5/- fines became the norm. Or 25p for our younger readers. So reading on the Beeb today that

A pub landlady has been prosecuted for allowing customers to smoke in her pub, and smoking behind the bar herself.

An undercover investigator sent by the council to the Stag's Head pub in Barnstaple, saw people smoking inside. Landlady Joanne Kendall admitted breaching the Health Act 2006 and was fined £130 plus costs by Barnstaple magistrates. The local council had been alerted by other pub landlords claiming they were losing customers to the Stag's Head.

Tends to suggest that the bench would rather be bothered by something more serious - the maximum is £5,000. When a £10 fine becomes the norm, you can assume that quite sensibly no one will bother enforcing the law at all any more.

Veggies fire more blanks

To be filed away in my file of 'red wine cuts heart disease', 'smoking delays Alzheimer's', 'aerobics shortens lives' and similar stories is 'Soya decreases sperm counts'.

I always knew the hand-knitted yoghurt sandals wearers were firing blanks. Of course, the NHS should now refuse infertility treatment to anyone who doesn't eat meat. But I wouldn't hold your breath.

Malthus again

The BBC news this morning warns of the grave risk of starvation in the Horn of Africa amongst a population 'battered by increases in world food prices'. To a point, Lord Copper. In last night's 'Standard' Nick Cohen profiled Anthony Browne, Boris' new Policy Director. Browne is a man with a reputation for impatience with expedient lies of the kind that the BBC used in this morning's news summary. As Cohen writes
A concern for fact and a hatred of conventional wisdom have marked his progress from journalism to the Conservative think-tank Policy Exchange, and now on to one of the most powerful jobs in London. Browne has stood up for free speech and against liberal alliances with radical Islam, and exposed the civil servants who were pretending that a rise in HIV was due to poor sex education rather than immigration from African countries where the virus is raging. A former press officer at the Department of Health staff told me that his arguments caused consternation, not least because they were true.
So I suspect Anthony Browne would rightly be critical of the BBC's contention that the Horn of Africa is in trouble solely because of 'world food prices'. The proximate reason they're in trouble is because their population has been growing at an unsustainable rate. The top map below shows world population growth; the bottom one world food shortages. Together they also show those nations whose population growth is sustained mainly by current oil revenue - and the location of further problems when the oil starts to run out.

The BBC will always prefer the global cost of food explanation over the unsustainable population growth explanation; the former is somehow our fault and therefore OK with the BBC's political orthodoxy. The alternative implies criticism and God forbid a neo-Imperialist interference in the rights to self-determination of these places. But hiding from the truth will cost millions of lives in the long term - these nations don't need a one-off emergency food handout, they need responsible governance and birth control.

Links to big images / sources:
Food shortages -

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Top 10 political blogs ...

Although I've never met him, I've got a very soft spot for Iain Dale. He comes across as a really nice bloke; genuine, helpful and always ready to give more recognition than he needs to to the shoals of minnow blogs that swim around the big fish. He's built a real web nexus for sensible political comment, has a sterling record of enterprise and innovation and displays a real sense of duty and commitment to what is really a voluntary activity. A perfect Conservative, really.

So when I rant and rail against the depredations of the Political Class and their negative effect on politics in the UK on here, or elsewhere, I'm aware that Iain is a fully paid-up member of the Political Class par excellence and always mentally mutter 'nothing personal.' TOTAL POLITICS, Iain's new venture, is the house magazine for the Political Class. And as a business venture, I wish him well with it. So when Iain invites nominations for bloggers' top political blogs it leaves me with a moral quandary. Participate, and risk supporting the organ of the Political Class I feel so strongly about, or ignore it and risk being an old dog in the manger. So after a long and hard forty seconds of deep moral equivocation, I've decided to vote, but mainly or, erm, partly for anti-political blogs. See, conscience solved.

So here's my top ten:

A Very British Dude
The Devil's Kitchen
Capitalists @ Work
Angels in Marble
Looking for a voice
Tim Worstall
John Redwood's Diary
Behind Blue Eyes
Stumbling and Mumbling
Archbishop Cramner

No great justification - I've just enjoyed reading all of these over the last year.

Right, carry on.

Monday, 21 July 2008

CABE's opinion not worth a broken brick

CABE, the government's official architecture and design watchdog, has said that 8 out of 10 new schools funded by the government's 'Building Schools for the Future' programme are mediocre. This may be true. The problem is, CABE's opinions on design aren't worth a broken brick and have even less credibility than Gordon Brown assuring us that the UK economy is safe in his hands. They praise the most alienating and hideous structures - buildings and places that are condemned by the much more reliable US Project for Public Spaces. PPS describes Exchange Square in Manchester thus:
Like Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam, Exchange Square is known as an "event space." The problem is that it only works when events are taking place. Its fancy paving, sweeping design statements and hidden water feature dress the square up, but leave the user with no place to go. Over-designed, inflexible, and dominated by rows of awkward sitwalls that impede pedestrian flow and gathering, this square should be exchanged for a place that actually displays a rudimentaty understanding of how people use public space. It masquerades as a civic square, but actually prevents this space from really evolving to celebrate the true richness and diversity of Manchester.
Strange how CABE can find little fault with it. This is due, I suspect, to the fact that CABE tend to assess the abstract aesthetics of design, rather than how real people use and value real places and spaces. CABE is really little more than an onanistic out-branch of RIBA.

In Hadleigh in Suffolk, a small market town I know well, Tesco are proposing to build a truly awful supermarket that will kill the vibrant high street, dominate the clusters of intimate spaces that have grown organically for the best part of a thousand years, impose a ghastly Speer-esque footprint on a small scale and highly articulated street form and thrust something ugly and intrusive into one of Suffolk's loveliest spaces. You'd expect CABE to oppose all this, wouldn't you?

Not a bit of it. As Private Eye has documented, they praise the damn thing. So would you trust them to get an opinion right on anything?

Time to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Irish

Pity the Irish as the suffocating sludge of the European superstate descends on the Emerald Isle today; Msr. Sarkozy is coming to tell them they must vote again on the Lisbon Constitution Treaty and this time they must get it right. Irish fishermen entitled to only 15% of the available whitefish quotas around Ireland may feel aggrieved that French fishermen are entitled to 42% of Irish whitefish, but of course they're not Irish whitefish any more but Euro whitefish.

And if you think the prospects for the UK economy look gloomy, look at Ireland. Our growth is predicted at 1%; Ireland's is currently headed for 0.5% and predicted to be 0%. With a dramatic fall in domestic consumption and a rise in unemployment due to the collapse of the bubble construction sector in Ireland. In the old days Ireland could have boosted exports by devaluing the Punt, but no longer. Msr Sarkozy has made it clear that Euro exchange rates are run for the benefit of France and Germany all European nations, and casualties such as Ireland and Spain can expect no help.

But let's remember that the Irish must hold off from voting 'Yes' to Lisbon until May 2010. Cameron's undertaking to hold a referendum in the UK is conditional on the Treaty not having been ratified across Europe.

Times are set to be hard here, but they'll be harder in Ireland. For generations, Irish men have come here to work. Now they'll be back again, and we should do everything we can to accommodate them. So bar owners, hire an Irishman not a Lithuanian. Homeowners, look for the Murphys and O'Connors in the yellow pages to fix your plumbing. Employers, send your job details to the local Catholic Club. And for the rest of us, eschew Tuscany and the Loire this year for Galway and Donegal. The Irish have done more than enough for this country in the past. It's time we started repaying.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Oh for a modern Pitt!

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter; the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.

So said William Pitt the Elder, speaking in Parliament in 1763.

Now, some 245 years later, Admiral Lord West has catalogued the 1,000 ways the State can break into your home.

When police officers reveal their true colours

When 'Bystander' on the Magistrate's Blog dared to question the wisdom of a high-speed police chase that resulted in the death of innocent people, the 'hate' he drew from serving police officers was entirely predictable. I raised a similar question on a sailing forum some months ago, and the sheer rudeness and vituperation that I got from serving and retired plods for the suggestion was truly eye-opening. You ask whether it's right that 30 people a year or so should die in police chases, but what they seem to hear is 'I want to cut your testicles off'.

The comments that Bystander drew are eerily similar to those I got. To precis: it seems that plod thinks that young men who drive cars without tax or insurance (invariably referred to as 'scumbags') deserve to die not for not having a current tax disk but because they fail to stop for the police. Innocent motorists or pedestrians who get killed or seriously injured are an unfortunate consequence of maintaining the rule of law. If the police stopped chasing young men in cars at high speed then the country would collapse into lawlessness. No-one but a policeman is qualified to discuss this subject.

A few weeks ago in Trafalgar Square a patrol car with screaming siren and lights drew up behind a black cab waiting at a red light outside St Martin's. When the cab didn't cross the light to let them through, they gave him a prolonged blast on the horn. He still declined to move. When he chugged off on the green light, the patrol car swerved around the inside to overtake the cab and squealed to block him side-on outside the South African High Commission. A furious red-faced little policeman leapt out to berate the cabbie volubly and at great length.

"Must have been a really urgent call, then" remarked the very ordinary man beside me in the knot of spectators on the pavement.

The gulf of opinion between police officers and the law-abiding public on the use of 'blues and twos', on the use of macho high-speed cars, and on the 'rights' of the police to act in a way that many regard as disproportionate is perhaps the most emotive divide that separates the police from the people they serve. It is right that it should be questioned and debated. And like the Magistrate, I've got a thick skin too.