Sunday, 26 December 2010

Unexpected side effects....

I have been on medication recently and, as well as addressing the illness, it had side effects, in my case dry and itchy skin. But then it's well known that most drugs have unintended or unexpected side effects. What is less well known is that Tory Governments also have unpredicted (not unpredictable) side effects.

There is a post on ConservativeHome asking "What is Conservatism?". The answer involves subtle philosophical and historical judgements, referencing Margaret Thatcher, the Whigs and the philosopher Burke (but not Hare).

It's not clear to me that the question is actually answered but, to my mind, it misses the point in any case. Conservatism may indeed be a product of historical and philosophical forces (how could it not be), it may indeed range across a number of possibilities and outcomes. But, if I may be practical for  few minutes, it's not the esoteric roots of Conservatism that concern me, it's the actual effects of Tories in government that worry me the most. And these are visible as much from the indirect as direct consequences of having Tories run the show.

Everybody knows that the Tories want "small Government". In their eyes, Governments interfere and are bossy and unpredictable, and are better out of our lives, taverymuch. Which sounds commonsensical, until you experience the practical results of this philosophical stance.

Example. The Conservatives believe that Government "shouldn't tell you what to think". So they have stopped public information advertising: it's  expensive and a waste of money. We don't need to be lectured. Nanny state. Blah blah blah. One effect is that this year there is no government funded campaign to get people to take their flu jabs. No TV advertising, no spreading of the message that vulnerable groups should get the jab from their doctor or the local NHS clinic.

But then there is the "unintended" consequence. No advertising of the message means that fewer people get the flu jab and, lo and behold, more people get flu. But winter flu is deadly to some people. So, more people getting the flu means more people seriously ill from the flu and more people dying from swine flu this year than last (last year swine flu was a pandemic, this year it's just around...).

There you have it. People may buy the message to vote Conservative for a "smaller government". But they forget to tell you that a "smaller government" can be a less effective government. So you save a few pennies on tax, and don't get bothered with TV adverts for flu jabs, but a few more people die early and unnecessarily.

I'm sure that many people voted Tory in May in the expectation of "small government": that's what they wanted. I'm also sure that none of them voted on a platform of more deaths from swine flu. Unfortunately, in the real world, it amounts to the same thing: it's just the unexpected side effect of having a Tory Government.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Vince Cable threatens to resign....

Vince Cable has been caught in a "sting" by the Telegraph, threatening to "go nuclear" in neotiations within the coalition...

The journalists wake up.

It has always puzzled me that people are taken in by David Cameron's "nice guy" act. I was never taken in. Cameron joined the Tory Party when Maggie Thatcher was at the height of her powers, when the mantra was "there is no such thing as society" and when Mrs T's policies were designed to back up that judgement with actions to cut "society" (read caring for your fellow citizen) down to size. David Cameron was Norman Lamont's (if it isn't hurting it isn't working) adviser on the day the pound collapsed on Black Wednesday. That's no background of  a caring and moderate "one-nation" MacMillanite wet.

No idealistic youngster would join the 1980s Tories to make things better for the majority. If you were willing to join Maggie in her crusade against all things "socialist" (i.e. decent and caring), you were no bleeding heart Tory wet.

It has been obvious for months to any sentient observer that Cameron and (at least) the Tory segment of the ToryDem coalition are no moderate modernisers either. That was the plot to get them elected. They are, in deep reality, still Mrs Thatcher's boys, and they were determined to move at breakneck pace to get their planned revolution implemented. They also saw that Tony Blair had been cautious in his first term and had lost some momentum after that, and they did not intend to be caught in that way.

The first indication was Michael Gove's dedication to getting his "free" schools established. Even before the legislation had been enacted by Parliament he was active, claiming 1100 schoos had volunteered (only 20 or so have actually decided to open next year, but that's another story...) and pushing local groups and local authorities to adopt his model.

The June budget with its immediate £8 billion in cuts was another signal, as was Eric Pickles "localism" drive to destroy local government, another example of a Minister being too impatient to wait for the legislation. Andrew Lansley at Health is eagerly cutting away at structures and abolishing PCTs while at the same time forcing GPs to take on organisational and budgeting responsibilities. Constitutional changes like fixed term Parliaments, cutting the number of constituencies and bringing in the Alternative Vote system have all been pushed through with effectively no consultation and very little scrutiny. The privatisation of university teaching  (disgiused as "raising tuition fees") is the latest radical Tory policy which has been railroaded through.

It's all rather breathless and uncordinated. Hit-and-miss might be a better way of putting it (the poor get hit, the bankers get missed).

Now the journalists are beginning to wake up to the pace and breadth of the revolution that is being carried out under our noses. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer detects a "Maoist" backbone to the Tory programme. "In 5 years everything must be different. Everything". Steve Richards on R4 today judges that the changes are faster and bigger than 1945. The valuable Diary of a Civil Servant blog in the Guardian has a similar message, with (in his view) the NHS changes being particularly rapid, unformed and potentially dangerous.

At bottom it's about philosophy. Conservatives believe in the past. It worked then and will work now. Except it didn't work then. We have publicly owned and run schools and hospitals because the old system failed the majority of the population. We have (or had) publicly subsidised university teaching because the old system favoured (even more than today) a restricted and constricted class of applicant. It was unsuiatble for a modern democracy and economy. Parish councils are all very well in prospect (remember John Major's old ladies cycling to church on a summer evening), but they are not the vehicle for serious decisions and spending at any level of reality. As for giving GPs the responsibility for £80 billlion of commissioning in the NHS: it's frankly bonkers. They don't want it, there's no guarantee that they can handle it any better (probably much worse) than it is currently handled. The real expertise in budgeting and commissioning is meanwhile being sacked, the skills lost, the individual is no longer payng taxes while picking up dole money!

And we haven't even mentioned George Osborne's gamble with the economy.

Hold onto your hats, it's gonna be a bumpy ride!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

George's "Age of Austerity" Debunked.

This Video is just brilliant at exposing the falacy that "austerity" is the answer to our economic problems.

It takes (at least it took me) a while to load. But stick with it it's worth the effort.

VAT, Cynicism and the ToryDem Coalition

Left foot forward has a very good post on the cyniism behind the VAT rise.

It includes this graph ....

....showing that VAT rises under the Tories and that it will  become, in January, equal to the basic rate of tax.

The Lib Dems made much of raising the tax threshold to £7000, taking some people out of paying income tax. But the VAT rise will hit the poorest hardest.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Give us a break, Nick

It's reported that the writ for the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election will be moved tomorrow - by the Lib Dems!

What's unusual about that? you may ask: well, it was a Labour seat and usually the sitting party gets to move the writ and choose the date of the election. Not that "constitutional experts" are saying that the Lib Dems are doing anything "wrong" within our ancient, unwritten and ramshackle "constitution". It's just unusual. It hasn't happened in my lifeteime.

So why are they doing it? Why have a by-election on the 13th of Januray...virtually in the Festive Season, in the depth of winter and with the weather we've been having?

Suspicion falls on the students: they'll be off home for the break and not organised to oppose the Lib Dem campaign.

Can it be as simple as that?

Anyone else got a better idea?

Fashionistas to the rescue...

As a rule, I don't pay much attention to fashion, but every so often it impinges....

Last Saturday's Guardian had an article in the News pages, not the Fashion section, which got me thinking.... it seems that someone called Patrick Grant, who is apparently "menswear designer of the year" thinks that;
"British men are too scruffy....."
It is tragic, you have to admit, this widespread laxness of masculine dress. Mr Grant is, naturally, devastated: "It makes you want to cry how scruffy everybody is", he says. And you can see his point.

Tuition fees riots, NHS cuts, Educational Maintenance Allowances cut for the most vulnerable youngsters, Wikileaks and Julian Assange under attack by all the governments in the world and besieged by the UK Justice System, Religious extremists bombing Stockholm, Siberian weather blocking our transport system........ all of these trivial issues claiming our attention.

But not for Mr Grant and the fashion industry. He and they keep an unrelenting focus on the real meat of the important issues that the man on the Clapham Omnibus finds so troubling.

Declining sales of gentelemens' neckwear, now there's a subject that raises the blood pressure in all true British households. Even so, the matter has mysteriously failed to grab the attention of governments and movers and shakers. Haven't they seen the bank managers rioting in the streets for the return of the bowler hat as compulsory business uniform? A good pair of brogues, that'll solve all our problems. In our hearts we know these to be eternal truths which we ignore at our peril.

It's good to know that there are, in our midst, modern day heroes like Patrick Grant and the Guardian fashion editers. Heroes who refuse to be led astray by the minor issues (wars, famine, natural and man-made disasters) that break out on the far horizon of the news agenda. Heroes who remind us, at great cost to themselves and against a blizzard of mainstream scorn, of the really important things in this life and vale of tears.  

Cravat wearers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion....

Monday, 13 December 2010

Whither the Social Liberals?

About three years ago I became acquainted with two Liberal Democrat activists. It was the first time I had any close contact with anyone who actually identified themselves as Lib Dem, and I was keen to understand what made them tick.

As I got to know them better I was puzzled: their differences on political issues and political language was quite marked. When I asked one of them why, I got the answer 
"He's an Economic Liberal Democrat".
"And you?", I asked.
"I'm a Social Liberal Democrat".
TBH, I wasn't much enlightened by this exchange. I had heard of the "Orange Book" grouping within the party, but I hadn't paid much attention.

Now, at least since the 2010 General Election, it has become a lot clearer. The "Orange Bookers" (Clegg, Huhne, Laws, Alexander...and a few others) are disciples of the 19th Century Liberal laissez-faire doctrine that markets are supreme: they are wise and are guided by a "hidden hand". Markets know best, they must not be interfered with, governments should let events take their course. It was this nonsense that allowed the administration of Liberal Prime Minister Lord John Russell (Russell himself gets less of the blame) to let the Irish Famine of the 1840s escalate into a historic tragedy. Millions died and the rest emigrated. Many of Ireland's current problems can be traced to the aftermath of this disgraceful episode in our joint history.

The parallels (and the historical links) between "Orange Book" Liberalism and late 20th Century Thatcherism are clear. Just like Thatcher and Osborne, the "Orange Book" Liberal Democrats are Manchester School/Chicago School market disciples. They have the same faith. They speak the same language and they believe the same things.Which is why Clegg et al have settled so snugly into the ToryDem coalition: they (if not the rest of their party cohorts, and certainly not Lib Dem voters) have found their natural home.

When the question is raised: why did the Lib Dems roll over on the economy? why did they roll over on tuition fees and so many other right wing policies?, the answer is clear: they (at least the party leadership) always wanted to and always would have, given the chance.

That's the "Economic Liberal Democrats", of course. What about the "Social Liberal Democrats"? The question now becomes: what will they do now that they have been betrayed by the Orange Book squad? How can they reconcile their view that a society needs a conscience with the Thatcherite/Orange Book belief that "...there is no such thing as society..."?

If they believe that the coalition and Nick Clegg will deliver progressive social policy they are fooling themselves. Their problem is: what do they do about it?

Whither, indeed, the Social Liberals?

Sunday, 12 December 2010

What's it all about.....?

Why the furore over tuition fees...?

The tution fees vote as come and gone and the coalition has "won", i.e. it got enough votes to carry the day in the Commons. But the reverberations linger on, and the fall out continues...

David Cameron has been on the telly piously redirecting attention to the violence and damage that accompanied the student protests at the fees rise. Better not to think about the huge damage done to universities and students by the policy. Better not to think about the damage done to Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems by the splits in their ranks. Better to claim that policemen were hauled from their horses and attacked by protestors (it didn't happen). Better to point to Prince Charles being shouted at rather than question why the heir to the throne was being silly enough to drive through a possible riot.

But the fury over the rise in student fees is not (really) about the violence.

Nick Clegg, meanwhile has been claiming that it's all about the coalition: he would be voting another way, but the coalition agreement won't allow him to do that. Sorry. Better not to mention that Clegg has always opposed the Lib Dem policy of abolishiong tuition fees. Better not to mention that he signed the pledge, but he always thought that tuition fees are a good thing, and that they would rise if he had the power (which he now does).

But the fury over the rise in tuition fees is not (really) about the coalition agreement.

And various Lib Dem aplogists have been telling us that the tuition fees rise is "fairer" to poorer students because they will only pay back as they earn more. Which may be true,

But the fury over the rise in tuition fees is not (really) about how "fair" the ToryDems think it might be in practice.

The Lib Dems also make the point that that other parties fail to deliver on manifesto promises.

But the fury over the rise in tuition fees is not (really) about meeting or not meeting manifesto promises.

All of the above come into the argument at some stage, but the rage over tuition fees rising in the way they have is about other, deeper, causes.

1. The Lib Dems promised in their manifesto to abolish (not just fight rises in) tuition fees. That's bad enough, but every single Lib Dem candidate signed a solemn pledge to fight the rise in fees. Now, a manifesto promise is made by a party that can say, in power, the situation has changed, we don't have the resources, we have changed our mind, or even we just did not place this issue high enough on our list of priorities. We will get round to it, but other things take precedence. But signing an individual solemn pledge is not the same as a party manifesto: it invests personal honour and integrity in the promise to do the thing you have pledged to do. And to renege (not just fail) on a solemn pledge is a sign of personal dishonesty and failure. Those Lib Dems who signed the pledge and then abstained or voted for the fees rise have lied and broken a personal pledge. It's not just me that's saying this: Lib Dem MPs who voted against the rise said so in Parliament and this Lib Dem has resigned from the party over it.

2. The rise in tuition fees is so steep because the ToryDem government has chosen to cut all of the funding that universities in England use to pay for their courses: £800 million has been taken out of their budget and they need to get the money from somewhere. The ToryDems say, " raise fees to £9000, that'll get you the money we heve just taken from you". If the budget had been cut by the same amount as every other department, the rise in fees would be hundreds, perhaps a thousand pounds, not a trebling of the fees.

3. The cuts are necessary at these levels because the ToryDem government has decided to cut much faster and further than is really needed to put the economy back on track. The Lib Dems wanted smaller cuts and a slower introduction of those cuts. Until they got elected. Another broken Lib Dem promise.

4. The Torys believe that too many people go to university, and that anyone who thinks that paying a large amount for an education might not be right, doesn't deserve one. The eventual aim is to privatise university education. Michael Gove, currently the Education Minister, said as much when in opposition.

Yes, there has been violence on the periphery of the demonstrations. Yes, there are manifesto promises made and broken. But the tuition fees have risen so much because the ToryDems have cut the universities funding for courses by 100%. And the real rage against the Liberal Democrats is a result of their about face on the over-all cuts and their personal betrayal in ignoring their solemn pledge to resist rises in tuition fees.

Antything else is smoke and mirrors.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Hospital waiting lists soar...

In the last ten years a "target culture" has grown up, with central and local government committing to the public to meet targets in the delivery of services. In particular the NHS has had a series of waiting list size and waiting time targets imposed on it. IMO this has been a good thing for patients, with targets monitored and reported and waiting lists and waiting times coming down dramatically over a ten year period. While targets have their critics, and are no panacea, no-one can deny that shorter waiting times for treatment is generally a good thing. In the case of severe ailments like cancer it can even be life-saving.

The Tories spent  much time and energy in opposition in ridiculing these targets, suggesting that they were just a bureacratic waste of time and, when in power, they couldn't wait to downgrade the importance of the commitments.

Today Pulse, the GP's newspaper, is reporting a surge in the numbers of patients waiting more than the guaranteed 18 weeks. 
"...Overall, 45,000 patients missed out on treatment in 18 weeks during September, up 15% from 39,000 in July. Some 12.6% of patients awaiting orthopaedic or trauma treatment, and 10.6% awaiting oral surgery, waited more than 18 weeks..."

The deterioration seems to have happened after the ToryDem government announced that it would no longer monitor or report on whether the target is being achieved. The message to Primary care trusts was: we don't care about these targets, do what you want on waiting times and we will not stop you.

However, the 18 week target remains a right and a government commitment. Pulse speculates that Primary Trusts (and GPs if they take on commissioning responsibility) may be open to legal challenge if the commitnment is not met in general or in particular circumstances.

The legal challenge is one thing, and that may concern GPs and other medical practioners. But it is the absolute reduction in delivering better and quicker health care that should concern us all. This development is a predictable outcome of the Conservative approach to public services.

Under previous Tory regimes (and I see no difference with the so-called coalition) public services were allowed to wither away: Education, the Police and the NHS were starved of money and political support, and they deteriorated as a result.

We have already seeen that Education has been cut, no new schools are to be built and university funding has been savagely cut. The Police are in the firing line with daily announcements of reductions in police-force numbers. Now the NHS is going backwards. Only six months in to the new Tory era and the indications for public services are gloomy indeed.

Monday, 6 December 2010

He's a right Jeremy Hunt....

James Naughtie proclaims an unacknowledged truth on Radio 4's Today programme, as he makes a bid for youtube fame with his inventive use of Scottish/Cockney rhyming slang.......

Is he not wrong..?

Thursday, 2 December 2010

David Cameron prepares the England World Cup bid...

What do they FIFA, Russia and Qatar have in common...?

Respect for an independent press and media.....?

Open democratic systems of governance?

A distrust of deals done behind closed doors...?


Not getting there, are we...?

Lots of men in suits with lots of accumulated wealth who don't like to answer questions on how they got it....?


No wonder they work so well together...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Crucifixion of Saint Vince......

Saint Vince and the Students
a cautionary tale

The Early Years
The recent elevation of the Blessed Vince Cable to Sainthood is nowhere prefigured in his early years. In his youth, Vincent (as he was then known) Cable was an adherent of the Labour creed and a modest, but some say quietly efficient, local councillor in the northern city of Glasgow. In the early 1980s he was subject to a visitation and conversion to the new sect of The Democratic Party under the leadership of the waywardly charismatic preacher, David Owen. Owen was renowned for his eloquence, although his honorary title of "Dr Death" hinted at more sulphuric qualities. The subsequent merger of the Democrats with the broader church of the Liberals and the dual leadership with the Blessed David Steel brought a some light and balance to the Alliance, eventually resulting in the Liberal Democrat canon, a merged and complementary system of beliefs. Through all of this time, Vincent worked quietly to hone his skills as an economist and mentor of his needy constituents, and showed none of the flair or overt showmanship that marked his later, more public years.

The Rise to Prominence
In less turbulent times is likely that Vincent would have toiled in happy obscurity. But the times were not nornal or placid: the extraordinary financial upheavals of the early 21st Century thrust this retiring man into public view. One brilliant joke about Gordon Brown and Mr Bean, and the heretofore invisible man of the Liberal Democrat Synod was confirmed as a seer and economic guru of majestic proportions. A small but significant group of Vince (as he was now known) worshippers grew up in the press and broadcasting and, as his competence was confirmed, his influence flourished. The modest man now became the trustworthy rock. When an economic truth was in need of establishing, Vince became, in the vulgar language of the time, the "go-to" man. "Is it true, Vince?", they would plead, from the pages of the Financial Times or from the holy-of-holies on Newsnight and Question Time. "Yes, it is true" or "No, I don't believe it is ": the sage would nod and the fact would be established or dismissed. The tranformation to the Blessed Vince Cable came about at this time. The holy man at the height of his powers bestrode the arena with no credible opposition. If Vince said it, it was true. If Vince denied it, the idea, and the opposition, crumbled to dust.

Sainthood and The Fall
During all of his years of rise and prominence, the suspicion lingered that The Blessed Vince harboured within his soul an echoing affection for his youthful Labour self. Not in a desire to return to that fold, but an attraction to the Labour credo of more caring concern for the masses. It was believed that Vince inhabited what is known as "left" or "the left wing" of the Liberal Democrat system of beleifs and that he had sympathy with bigger rather than smaller government and the need for fair taxation and distribution. Vince encouraged this belief. When asked if cuts should be faster or slower, deeper or less deep, he would always reply "slower and less deep is the way". And on the matter of charging for University Education he would say, and indeed pledge in writing, "no increase in fees is a matter of faith for me".

Sainthood was inevitable and in followed directly on the election of his group to support the larger Conservative convention in the Government of May 2010. Saint Vince became a Minister of Business and at last had the power to enact his principles. Which is where the tale takes a strange and tragic turn: for Saint Vince, far from being an all-seeing eye and predicter of economic recovery, changed his philosophy. No longer was it "slower and less deep", it became " faster and faster and deeper and deeper".. And the cry of "no increased fees" became, in the cold light of power, "triple the fees and beggar the students". It was as if the gentle shephard had become the ravening wolf. The Blessed Vince turned in an instant into the Savanarola of Westminster. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" became the slogan, cuts and cuts and cuts, the reality.

Recent events have led to many people questioning the miraculous powers of the newly minted saint. His apparent recantation of the commitment to the hike in tuition fees, a policy that St Vince himself codified, and his offer to abstain on the vote for the fees rise, have raised doubts as to his piety. How, the faithful ask, can one man be in favour of and against the same prescription at the same time? And how can he keep his sainthood in the light of such apostasy?

 It seems that the meteoric rise of St Vince is about to be followed by an equally sudden descent. A crucifixion has been arranged. The media is primed, the opposition is armed and the victim looks willing to accept his fate.......