Category Archives: George Osborne

Reflections on railway renationalisation and a Tory Brexit

My apologies, firstly, to readers for the general inactivity at the blog since the middle of April. This has been down to juggling work at a new job and the completion of my journalism dissertation, which I submitted on Thursday evening.

My hope is to achieve the 2.1 that will allow me to continue my studies into Masters level, with my eyes currently set upon an MSc at Royal Holloway in ‘Campaigns, Elections and Democracy’. I should now hope to return here frequently for the foreseeable future.

In my absence, this year’s General Election has gotten under way. A portion of the Labour Party’s manifesto has been leaked, and thanks to pledges to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail and energy sector, has been described as taking the UK ‘back to the 1970s’.

It may be worth remembering for a moment that Germany, a modern and well-run country, operates nationalised rail and worker-run energy co-operatives. Northern Ireland, too, (incidentally a part of the UK) retains public control of its rail system.

For the record, I don’t support renationalising Britain’s energy sector, but local, energy co-operatives, similar to those that exist on the continent do not sound like such a bad idea. I do admit to succumbing to the appeal of democratic ownership of utilities and co-operative privatisation (worker control of industry) of Royal Mail may be popular amongst postmen and women.

As far as our railways go, the ongoing debate around public and private ownership would seem to me to be a secondary issue. The primary issue is upgrading infrastructure and investment, and cancelling the vast amounts of money we seem keen to spend on vanity projects like HS2, which stands only to increase London’s workforce and damage the rural environment of the midlands. Any strong government ought to, by now, have scrapped such madness.

Britain’s rail infrastructure is predominantly Victorian and not entirely electrified, much to our national embarrassment. The billions put aside for HS2 should be re-directed towards modernising track and signalling, and towards investing in more medium-speed, medium-distance inter-city railway lines. London is too often used as a connecting city for long-distance travellers making their way across the country (and often finding themselves paying extortionate amounts).

The question of who owns rail services is made less important still by the fact that there need not be one single system of ownership, as demonstrated by the state operating of the East Coast mainline until March 2015. Britain’s rail system is not only franchised, it is regionalised, which means that, with very few exceptions, services are all co-ordinated independently of one another. The state can retain ownership of some lines whilst allowing for others to be run privately, depending on factors like performance and quality of service.

Immediate renationalisation would not make the running of rail services particularly cheap. As I have said, it is the cost of maintaining infrastructure, due to its age, that sets the cost of British rail travel above that of the rest of the continent. Upgrades to infrastructure ought to be at the centre of any debate about Britain’s railways and present a far more pressing concern than discussions over ownership.

I will not vote for the Labour Party on June 8th, but the aforementioned leaked manifesto content doesn’t look to me as if it will take us back forty years. This is merely dishonest Tory propaganda, no doubt aided by the incompetence of figures like Diane Abbott, who do nothing but discredit the Left and its labour movement.

Meanwhile, the Tories sit firmly in the driver’s seat of this election. They are rightly standing on a platform of seeing out the Brexit process, but of course, they are doing it for the wrong reasons. Many of them do not support out withdrawal from the European Union and thoroughly resent last summer’s referendum result. My vote for them in June (if I bother or indeed remember) will be more out of obligation than anything else.

I am at least glad that the Liberal Democrat leader this time around is Tim Farron, and not a young and fresh Nick Clegg, who managed to sweet talk the country into voting for him seven years ago. Thanks to Farron’s confusing position as leader of a party with which he has profound moral disagreements, the Lib Dems are not quite the force they could be.

Knowing that I was an adamant leaver, some readers might think that I am relieved the Tories are in poll position to win this General Election. This is not quite so. Something about the party’s (and indeed the Prime Minister’s) track record over the European question is cause for concern in my mind.

A couple of days ago, David Cameron made a comment that sparked some degree of doubt in my mind. He said that Mrs May needs a big majority so that she can “stand up to the people who want an extreme Brexit, either here or in Brussels.” It is a shame that UKIP can no longer muster the strength that it did back in 2014.

UKIP formed the ideal barricade against sentiments of this kind within the Conservative Party. There are many who call themselves conservatives, despite their continued existence that Britain should not govern itself and control its own affairs, who are fanatically supportive of the European project and of ceding parliamentary sovereignty.

When these people (Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan and George Osborne to name a few others) use the expression ‘extreme Brexit’, they demonise the reasonable belief held by large sects of the country, including especially much of the Tory grassroots, that the United Kingdom should control its own trade, borders, lawmaking and judicial process, no matter the difficulties which undoubtedly lie ahead.

Mr Cameron’s comments reminded me that placing complete trust in the Tories and giving them a free hand over such an important issue might not be advisable after all. We’ve heard ‘Theresa May’s hard Brexit’ quite a lot in recent months, but increasingly my fear is that when it is all said and done, Britain will no longer be halfway in the EU. Instead, she may find herself perching halfway out in what will look like an especially embarrassing position.


Article 50: 498-114 doesn’t tell the whole story

I find myself wondering what the result of yesterday’s parliamentary vote would have been had it been conducted on the basis of conscience or private opinion. Most certainly not 498-114, and there would not have been so many abstentions, either. Thankfully, the rare occasions on which we exercise direct democracy, which more easily illustrate the national mood, (the kind provided more easily by referenda than by elections) anchor our representatives more forcefully to respecting public judgement.

I usually like the debates surrounding big issues in the House of Commons. They tend to bring out the best and the passion in MPs, who by and large do care about things. One only has to go back and watch the day of the gay marriage bill to gain an understanding of the best of British politics, and I’m not referring necessarily to the result. But yesterday’s affair didn’t have the same sort of feel to it.

Parliament appeared tense, symbolised poignantly by row after row of gritted teeth and furrowed brows. MPs on both sides of the Commons, bitter in the fallout from a shocking referendum defeat, struggled to tap into any optimism, preferring instead to talk submissively about the importance of standing up for the democratic vote. George Osborne, arguably the biggest loser of last year’s EU vote, spoke of ‘provoking a constitutional crisis’ in the event of voting against the triggering of Article 50.

It is true that politicians ought to stick up for the values of democracy in times such as these, but what I found most peculiar about some of the speeches was the lack of enthusiasm for the new direction that the country has opted to head in. The chamber looked almost condescendingly anxious, with many of the MPs making up the 498 clearly too reluctant to praise the decision made by the electorate, or to welcome an exciting opportunity to re-establish Britain’s role in the world.

For the 114, it was the same old story. Nick Clegg tried his best not to take things personally,  channelling his blatant frustration into an irrelevant defence of the preferences of the majority of 18-24 year olds; the tiring implication being that elder generations stole the futures of the youth. I do not recognise this idea to be true, partially because I got to know many passionate youngsters who campaigned for Brexit during the referendum and partially because youth turnout is always notably low, or at least lower than it is among other age groups. Alex Salmond went as far as to call the triggering of Article 50 an ‘act of madness’, which, given his obsession with sovereignty, I couldn’t take all that seriously. A painstaking resentment was briefly interrupted by jibes aimed at Remain supporting MPs by an understandably jolly John Redwood, but for the most part, the debate lacked the energy that Westminster is renowned for.

But it was not just angst and disdain that characterised last night’s vote. It was also an opportunity to see quite clearly the depressing void that lies within Her Majesty’s opposition: a Labour Party still being eaten away at from the inside by Blairite residue and trying to decide whether it should stand by 70% of its constituencies and press ahead with European Union withdrawal. You would think that during such a significant period in British political history a major party would be able to pull itself together. It still amazes me that 94% of the parliamentary party backed Remain, despite profound differences now obvious with large swathes of its voter base.

Only the SNP, so hilariously brazen in their hypocrisy, managed to match Labour’s embarrassment. They defend Scottish independence and sovereignty in Westminster, they deride it in Brussels. They claim that, based on cross-border cooperation and commerce, it is in the national interest to work with other European Union member states, but they fail to apply the same argumentation to the issue of British union.  My gut instinct is that come the 2020 General Election (providing one isn’t called sooner), they will cease to be a serious political force. Even in the eyes of Scottish swing voters. In fact, more substantive change could take place in three years’ time than that. 114 MPs, at least open and honest in their disapproval of the public, rebelled against the national vote. Time will tell whether or not they are able to retain their constituency seats.

More than one hundred of Britain’s political representatives decided to ignore the legitimacy of the majority verdict in last night’s House of Commons vote. What truly shocks me is not the number of MPs who did this, but the number of MPs who didn’t.


Protests are admirable, but a looming Trump state visit is nothing to worry about

It is at least a promising sign for the future that so many people seem willing to engage with politics at present. Clearly 2016 was the kick in the teeth that large sections of the population needed. I am glad that, despite having my own disagreements with views and counter-views expressed in the public arena, people are organising themselves and allowing their voices to be heard. It is refreshing and suggests that history isn’t necessarily on an inevitable course.

Contrary to cynical dismissal, public protests are largely effective and represent two healthy signs in any democracy: firstly, that freedom of assembly is respected and people are free to campaign for causes they deem worthy, and secondly, that citizens care enough to fight for the change they feel should be enacted; a value in and of itself. History tells us that the brainwashing or brutalising of people into indifference can have awful consequences. 

Most democratisation, it is worth remembering, has nothing to do with government. Much of it is the collective attempts of passionate individuals to try to shape their surroundings, be it saving a local park or unionising at work. That is why I am appreciative of the very real efforts of individuals to fight back against both Donald Trump’s Executive Order on immigration and his looming state visit to Britain. It shows a willingness to respond to major political changes; a quality not easily found in the disenfranchised. I don’t necessarily approve of some of the reaction and hostility, but engagement is undoubtedly a positive thing. Protests are almost always admirable, and if I see them in the street I usually smile and aid efforts by posting a photo or two on social media.

Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ (which wasn’t a ban on Muslim entry to the United States, but rather a 90-day suspension on immigrant and non-immigrant entry for nationals of seven countries earmarked as terrorism hotspots) provoked understandable backlash, but much of it came from ill-informed audiences, who clearly had not bothered to read the order in full. While “Muslim ban” makes for a provocative hashtag, it was deceiving and represents one of the ways in which mass media has a quite corrosive effect on democracy; in that it misleads and makes it difficult for people to inform themselves. 

As for the new president’s upcoming state visit to Britain, which more than a million people object to in a hilarious new petition which claims that he should be prevented from making the visit so as not to “cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen”, there isn’t much to worry about. Touching though it is for the Left to spare a thought for royalty for a few moments. Far more reprehensible world figures have travelled to London amidst more muted public outrage, such as King Abdullah in 2007 or Xi Jinping a little more than a year ago. Now that I think properly about it, it is especially bewildering that more fuss meets the arrival of Donald Trump than did Saudi Arabia’s horrid monarch. Perhaps I’m giving Twitter a little more credit there than it deserves. 

Again, I try to give protestors (and I’m expecting quite the platoon upon his eventual arrival – the counter-event will no doubt take on a life of its own) the benefit of the doubt. They are making their voices heard and trying to influence things; a natural human response that helps to explain the popularity that democracy retains. So long as any exhibition doesn’t take the form of violence or riotous chaos, and showcases – as the best protests always do – some charming British wit, I applaud those who take part and respect their right to free assembly.

But the wave of anger that now confronts Mr Trump’s state visit to the UK isn’t justified. Yes, the President is himself thoroughly disagreeable in many aspects and cuts a controversial figure, but we should take a few important things into account. Lord Ricketts, a Foreign Office secretary during the days of the coalition government, said of May’s decision to invite President Trump so quickly: “It would have been far wiser to wait to see what sort of president he would turn out to be before advising the Queen to invite him. Now the Queen is put in a very difficult position.”

I do not think he is correct. I think precisely the opposite is true. It appears to me wiser to invite him at a moment in time in which world leaders are trepidatious and do not know how to react to him. I think this allows Britain to get ahead, establishing strong ties with Washington and a president getting a feel for the demands of his new job. State visits, no matter who sits next to Her Majesty in the golden carriage, are not about individual politicians. They are opportunities for strengthening bilateral relations, not personality tests.

Trump is not Hitler or Stalin. He is an entirely new entity that international diplomacy and world order are going to have to adjust to. Protests will not change these unalterable facts, but they might help to show America’s new president that not everybody appreciates his way of doing things.

 


A Sunday reflection on the week’s politics

I thought, for a change, that Sunday might be quite a good opportunity to sit down and reflect on the week’s politics, in a slightly different format. Whether I make this sort of post a weekly deal (I may well choose to do so) or not, I’m not absolutely sure as of yet. The post will not necessarily be in an order of any real importance but will include segments of news that have interested me over the last few days.

Project Fear hits the Premier League

There aren’t many things the ‘remain’ camp won’t say or distort in order to secure an EU stay after June 23rd. They know that football (and specifically the Premier League) is at the very core of British culture, and scaremongering over the importing of foreign players will no doubt present a great way of striking fear into what seems to me to be a heavily undecided electorate.

Not only did BSE (Britain Stronger in Europe) make the claim that various players would no longer be allowed to take part in English football, they also took the time to compile a list of players at each major Premier League club that, allegedly, would not have been able to move to the country without EU membership. I knew that our resident europhiles were unambitious and misguided, but I never had them down as clairvoyants.

Apparently those at ‘Stronger In’ don’t spend too much of their time following football (or logic, for that matter). Work permits are a common fixture inside the Premier League, allowing players to be transferred across continents with very little trouble at all. Problems seldom occur, and many talented players from outside the European Union have enjoyed great success in the UK.

Sol Campbell understands this simple concept. Why don’t Britain’s EU fanatics?

Another ‘Leave’ campaign enters the fray

How many unique campaigns now have their sights set on Britain’s departure from the European Union? With Grassroots Out, Vote Leave and Leave.EU currently the caretaker triumvirate in active competition for the mantle of official designated leave group, the phrase ‘too many cooks’ comes to mind.

In hindsight, this referendum’s ‘leave’ campaigners haven’t organised themselves particularly well. One campaign was enough to present the arguments for an exit, and so Friday’s news that a new Left-wing competitor, ‘The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition’, has thrown its name into the hat didn’t exactly fill me with joy.

I’ve sought to avoid baseless tribalism in recent months; opting for membership of both ‘GO’ and ‘Vote Leave’ in an attempt to meet more people and be as active as I possibly could be. I don’t have a dislike for any of the campaigns per se, but a more unified approach to the summer showdown could well have been preferable.

I am happy that the Left have representation as we march towards the end of June, as a European Union exit isn’t just about those of us on the Right, but I do feel that such a late inclusion will only splay and ignite more tension.

People can represent any campaign that they so wish, but the bickering and political point scoring must come to end; if not for the sake of those involved, then for the sake of our EU membership.

Is this a ‘Ta ta’ to British steel?

How sad it is to see a magnificent beacon of British industrialisation beaten to its very knees by incompetent politicians, dumping and malicious energy costs. I feel for workers at Port Talbot, and would very much like the government to save our steel industry (one of the few bright spots across the UK’s manufacturing landscape).

I’ve been sceptical over the weekend as to whether renationalisation was the way to go to combat the issues our steel faces, but if no other option presents itself, then renationalise we should. Since state aid ‘in principle’ is not generally permitted across the European Union, government intervention will likely be tricky to coordinate.

If Sajid Javid fails to salvage what is left of our steel industry, he may as well say a brisk goodbye to his integrity and any future cabinet positions. He has a tough job ahead of him, but so long as thousands of innocent, hard-working steel workers are not dumped onto the welfare system, he’ll get a pass from me.

As the signs read only a couple of days ago, we bailed out the banks, now it’s time we bailed out our steel.

Praise for the Mail on Sunday

Pleased I most certainly was this morning to read about the Mail on Sunday’s belated (but nevertheless necessary) campaign targeted at the government concerning the extortionate amount of money that Britain gives away in foreign aid.

The feature, based on Friday’s leaked report which revealed that over £170m had been spent over the allotted £12bn budget, encouraged readers to sign an e-petition which calls for the government to re-think the policy and consider putting some of the money to better use.

I’m not myself a fan of a foreign aid ‘budget’ as such. Instead, I believe that the UK should play its part in providing moral, humanitarian aid where possible on a sporadic and prioritised basis. By introducing a parameter in the form of a budget, some international disasters may not receive proportionate or adequate funding, and as has been shown over the last few days, over-spending is also inevitable.

Despite the Tory party’s target of setting aside 0.7% of our GDP for the purposes of global aid being a generous and fairly popular one, charity does often start at home, and over-spending should not be tolerated whilst Britain is gripped by intense industrial woes.

There is a fashionable line that argues that taking from the foreign aid budget is no way to cure domestic ills as it will only incur more suffering abroad. In some cases, this may well be true, but those fronting such an argument may like to consider that there is a huge wealth of difference between helping and appearing to help.

Much of the foreign aid budget is wasted on projects which do not provide direct relief to the intended recipients, and many governments shell out over-generously as a way of point scoring with ethnic minorities at home, or in a bid to bribe or sway certain international governments.

Britain spent £12.2 billion in foreign aid in 2015, and kind-hearted thought it may well seem, I think a far more moral approach would be to target crises individually and divert accidental over-spending towards problems happening at home.

2016 is the year that the UK’s steel industry urgently needs help, so let us hope that George Osborne does the right thing.

 


The new living wage is about to open up a whole new can of worms

There is something quite condescending about the term ‘living wage’. Much like with the delightful Tory-pedalled phrase ‘affordable housing’ (which is only affordable if you can afford it), the living wage is only sufficient for those who can live on it.

When George Osborne announced the introduction of the national living wage back in last year’s budget, I suspect he would have considered it an economic breakthrough. A pay rise for all those hard working people who keep the country ticking along was, on paper at least, a nice idea, but in reality the new national living wage ignores the problems that the labour market faces, and will create more problem than it solves.

As of today, Britain’s new national ‘living wage’ was ushered in. Previously set at £6.70, the new hourly pay for those aged 25 and over today rose by 50p to £7.20. Great, it would be easy to assume just by looking at the figures – until you begin to recognise that companies will try their utmost to get around this new wage hike.

For many low and unskilled workers living outside the UK and in the European Union, coming to live and work in Britain just got that little bit more attractive. I don’t say this to demean the motivations for migrating to the UK (of which there are many), but I do feel that for those wishing to see tighter control over borders and lower immigration figures, the news today will be particularly unwelcome.

It is well known that, in the main, immigrants who come to Britain do so for a better standard of living, and to work and earn money for themselves and their families. With the increase in Britain’s national living wage, migration (especially from the EU) is expected to soar even further.

George Osborne’s new national living wage will also create havoc for many workers and businesses up and down the country. As businesses are hit with higher costs in the form of increased wages, savings are going to have to be made. This could potentially mean mass redundancies across the board or a situation where companies look for the slightest possible excuse to lay off staff that don’t perform as well as is expected of them.

Larger corporations especially are renowned for paying employees lower wages, which will usually be topped up by the government in the form of tax credits. Whilst smaller companies are also culpable for this, it is looking increasingly likely that low or unskilled workers working for a wide range of companies will have their hours bumped down just enough so that employers will be able to make adequate cuts to expenditure.

The labour market has changed significantly in the twenty first century, and for many workers in developed countries, things have gotten significantly tougher. Cheaper transport, automation (in the form of self-service machines, CCTV cameras or ATMs) and globalisation have all ensured that the value of each individual low-skilled worker has been depreciated.

Wages have fought a gruelling battle with the scale of mass immigration, and employers of large companies have been able to pay employees minimal amounts to get by. The chancellor’s newly-introduced national living wage may look like a bright spot on the horizon for the low-paid, but believe me, it isn’t.


Sugar tax, stigma, Jamie Oliver and childhood obesity

There are three guarantees in this life: death, taxes and Jamie Oliver interfering in the dietary habits of the British public.

Mr Oliver, I suspect, would have been delighted by George Osborne’s introduction of a sugar levy on soft drinks yesterday, set to come into effect in 2018. His rallying for a penalty on teeth-eroding beverages took off late last year, and as I wrote here on my blog a few months ago, I was as unenthused by it then as I am now.

But unlike the UKs favourite celebrity chef, I’m not really a fan of the ‘Nanny State’ approach to modern societal behaviour. I find it to be an extraordinarily useless and condescending waste of time. Government interference in our personal lives and the economy is inevitable, but a punitive tax on sugary drinks will harm only the poorest in Britain.

How telling it is, too, that it was the Conservative Party, of all parties, to bring in the new measure. If anybody was in any doubt as to whether or not the Tories were New Labour in disguise, this decision should act as a wake-up call. Were the Tory Party in any way socially or morally conservative, no such interference would have been suggested.

In their surprisingly naive response to the announcement, the NHS declared that the measure is the “first step to tackling childhood obesity”, and that obesity “now affects one in five children, already costing the NHS £5bn per year. Obesity is the new smoking”. Well, forgive me, but seeing as taxation didn’t work with cigarettes, why on earth would such a policy be effective in countering our nation’s growing obesity problem?

Obesity is becoming rampant throughout Britain, without doubt. You only have to walk down the average high street for two minutes before you see the mouth-wateringly grotesque fat community, waddling in and out of fast food restaurants, concealing their lard rolls with appallingly baggy clothing and taking up entire seat rows on public transport. I may sound contemptuous and frustrated, but it is becoming a real problem.

When I was little, fat kids at school were called names. Those fat kids did not like to be called names, and in many cases (though often some years later in life), chose to lose weight as a means of pushing back against the bullies and dealing proactively with name-calling. In the age of hyperactive political correctness that we are now pretty much nestled into, advocates of social stigma are, of course, considered to be bigoted or extreme in some manner. But stigma works, and the process is far less damaging to those unaffected by obesity.

But, alas, Jamie Oliver has his way once more, and struggling parents and students will feel the strain of his agenda on their wallets and bank accounts. “Education, not tax”, too, is a commonly-propagated line which, to some extent, I agree with. It is a sensible proposition, but seems to fly over the heads of many parents who routinely fail to select healthier options for their children, or restrict the treats that they are permitted around the house.

If a little more parental responsibility was enacted, I’d suggest that many of the UK’s childhood obesity issues would begin to subside. Even children are fully aware that the more they eat and less active they are, the fatter they will become. It is a simple principle, which doesn’t seem to be registering as well as it used to. Education programmes have now been proven to be futile; taxation is a silly, penal measure which punishes everybody (to varying degrees), regardless of weight or dietary habits, leaving only a resurgence in social stigma as a plausible candidate to turn our woes around.

Schools, governments and parents can only do so much, though, and so it does seem to me to be time for society to play its role. But, whatever your opinion on the matter, Jamie Oliver certainly isn’t the answer.