Finding an antidote for Europhobia

When doing away with our yearly ritual of moving the clocks forward and back is condemned because a change would mean we’d be using “German” time I think we know we’re in trouble. When Conservative MPs like Julian Lewis feel able to go on record to criticise senior civil servants representing the UK in Europe for being too integrationist while others, such as Douglas Carswell, do so indirectly, it is clear that the forces of Euroscepticism are emboldened. Apparently the UK is sending people to Europe who are too positive about the whole European project. They are not sufficiently unyielding in their pursuit of the repatriation of powers.

Nigel Farage’s performance on BBC Question Time last week was typically monomaniacal. The institutions of Europe were portrayed as the very root of all evil. But you get the sense that, rather than being written off as a cartoon zealot put in the wingnut chair to provide some entertainment, his views increasingly resonate with at least some sections of the voting public. The New Statesman blog yesterday suggested that the Conservatives have more to fear from UKIP than from the Liberal Democrats, given the sentiment in the country. That doesn’t strike me as entirely implausible.

It would appear that the Eurosceptics are making all the running on Europe at the moment. Yet, it is not really helpful to talk in terms of Euroscepticism. Read more of this post

Clarity and freshness

In a recent New York Times blogpost Paul Krugman responds to a correspondent who complained about the looseness of his writing. Starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ seemed a particular irritant. Krugman is only too conscious of the challenge he faces. The subject matter he is dealing with is generally very dry. If he is going to make it accessible to interested non-specialists then it has to be written with some verve. And that may require taking a few stylistic liberties.

Krugman is constantly vigilant against producing indigestible economic stodge. I think he succeeds. Especially if you compare his popular writing with some of his work of professional economic audiences, some of which can be a little stodgy at times. Krugman cites George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English language as his ‘bible’.

I read Krugman’s piece on my phone while on the train. So, being at a loose end, I thought I’d reread Orwell’s essay.  Even though it’s one of the most famous pieces of criticism of political writing, I’d forgotten quite how great it is. Read more of this post

Ethical renewal to banish that fin de siecle feeling

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 15/10/11]

The Cash for Questions scandal and the associated perception of endemic sleaze contributed to the demise of the Major government. It ushered in a period of institutional renewal. The Committee for Standards in Public Life was established under Lord Nolan in the mid-1990s to keep an eye on MPs’ conduct. Similarly, the expenses scandal contributed not only in some small way to Gordon Brown’s demise but also to a substantial minority of Parliamentarians exiting stage left. It led to the end of self-scrutiny as the processing of MPs expense claims passed to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Equally significantly, it heralded a new government promising a new cleaner, fresher approach to politics. How quickly such promises turn to dust.

These were scandals afflicting tired governments. If we think about the significance of Cash for Questions or the expenses scandal, they did not really go to the heart of the business of governing. Cash for Questions was about some relatively inconsequential backbenchers receiving inappropriate payments for asking questions in the House. With its imagery of allegedly dodgy businessmen and publicists handing over brown envelopes of used notes to elected Members it caused outrage and played well in the media. But its impact upon the course of policy or the practice of governing was arguably relatively minimal. In the light of current experiences it all looks rather tame. Similarly, the expenses scandal exposed many MPs as greedy, grasping and out of touch, but it did not speak directly to the way in which policy is made.
The situation we face now has far more serious implications for government. Read more of this post

Boosting housing supply

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 05/10/11]

The Conservatives’ proposal to resuscitate the Right to Buy through increasing discounts appears to be an attempt to bask in some of Mrs Thatcher’s reflected glory. Unlike the 1980s version, though, Mr Cameron and Mr Shapps are emphasizing that each property sold will be matched with a newly built property at “affordable” rent. This is an attempt to head off criticisms that the Right to Buy reduces the supply of “social” housing. So, it would appear, this initiative could lead to a net increase in the housing stock.

Of course, things are never as they first appear. Read more of this post

Contortions and distortions – The party conference currency

Conference season brings out the worst in British politics. No question about it. Bad jokes intended to tickle the faithful. Set piece speeches designed to rally them if they’re flagging. All sprinkled with the odd soundbite designed to hit the news headlines in the mainstream media. We are offered question and answer sessions displaying differing degrees of robustness. Some appear genuinely challenging; some appear stuffed with planted questions from oleaginous party wannabes. Most of the material is delivered in a ponderous and uninspiring manner. The lack of gifted orators among the current generation of frontbench politicians is all too obvious.

But perhaps the most depressing aspect of conference season is how disconnected from reality it can all become. Hypocrisy is inevitable in politics. There are no doubt delicate diplomatic situations in which telling the unvarnished truth would be unwise or dangerous. But the industrial scale dissembling we witness at this time of year does little except bring politicians further into disrepute.

This is perhaps most evident at the current Conservative party conference. Read more of this post

Customers? Time for something a little more feudal perhaps

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 01/10/11]

How should we refer to the users of public services? What sort of identity should be ascribed to us? Over the last 30 years the concept of the service user embedded in policy has been radically reworked.

The language of “clients” or “claimants” in the postwar welfare state was criticised for its implications of dependency. Clients are reliant upon the discretion and largesse of public service professionals. The bureaucrats are in charge.

The Thatcher governments sought to reinterpret service users as consumers exercising choice. Major’s Citizen’s Charter was not so much about establishing the inalienable rights of citizenship as an attempt to import a culture of customer complaint into the public sector.

The later Blair governments were similarly enthusiastic about consumerism, choice and competition – sorry, provider diversity. Initiatives such as personalisation pushing these ideas further than the Conservatives ever attempted. But the Blairites spiced up the mix with communitarian-infused notions of self-discipline and of responsibility to the collective as a condition of accessing services.

One might argue that the Coalition Government’s Open Public Services white paper reprises many fo these well-worn themes. The rise of the choice-making, provider-disciplining public service consumer does indeed appear to be inexorable.

But is that the whole story? Are there, in contrast, signs that the wheel turns again? Read more of this post

Caring diddlysquat about democracy

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 27/09/11]

One of the less pleasant characteristics of the Coalition government is its cavalier attitude towards transparency, accountability and Parliamentary process. This is part of a more general impoverishment of democratic practice.

We hear reports of serious, but relatively small scale, issues such as Ministerial advisors using private email accounts for Government business in order to evade oversight and avoid Freedom of Information requests. We have last week’s news reports of the proposed scheme of Ministerial buddying with big business. This is a scheme which, in many other contexts, would be condemned as tantamount to formalising the corruption of the political process.

The Government is not above ignoring the letter and the spirit of good Parliamentary practice. Examples proliferate. Read more of this post

Penurious progressives

There will no doubt be much soul-searching at this week’s Labour party conference. There will no doubt continue to be subtle – and not so subtle – attempts to distance the party from the legacy of the Brown government and its cataclysmic electoral implosion. Without, of course, suggesting that it is therefore inappropriate for some of Brown’s closest associates to be leading the party to a bright new dawn, whether red, blue or purple.

The biggest issue on the agenda is the party’s stance on the economy. How can it regain credibility for its stewardship of the economy, given the perception among much of the electorate – successfully promulgated by the Coalition – that the poor state of the public finances in 2010 was almost entirely attributable to Labour’s uncontrolled largesse with other people’s money? Personally, I don’t buy the narrative that it was all Labour’s fault. But it doesn’t matter whether it is accurate or not. It is the one that the party will have to neutralise if it wants another sniff of power any time soon.

Yet, there is a different way of thinking about the problem. And it perhaps highlights the scale of the challenge the party faces. Read more of this post

Pop goes the #ldconf

The feature article in yesterday’s G2 magazine was a piece from the Liberal Democrat conference by the music journalist Alexis Petridis. It was fascinating to read the impressions of a party conference novice. All the more so because I wasn’t at Conference this time around (for reasons discussed here).

A leitmotif of Petridis’ piece is that Liberal Democrats at Conference are just enjoying being in government, after years in opposition. It may only be for short period of time before electoral annihilation awaits, but members are determined to enjoy the ride. He likens the atmosphere to that of a holiday camp. This may be the case for some. But I’m not sure enjoyment is the right approach to government. It seems to me that it underplays the awesome responsibilities one is entrusted with. Read more of this post

Economics as a vaccine against economists?

On Friday a quote from the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson was circulating on Twitter:

Purpose of studying economics – to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists

In fact, the full quote is:

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.

This pretty much sums up the spirit in which I teach economics to policy students, so I thought it was worth a Retweet.

But it triggered a bit of deeper reflection. Read more of this post

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