Sunday, 21 September 2014

Labour, the bankers and the Barnett Formula

There is a richly appropriateness to the mess in which Ed Miliband now finds himself.

Think of it this way.

In 2008 the Credit Crunch brought the giddy spending of the Blair / Brown years to an end.  Bankers had found increasingly exotic ways of justifying lending to people who couldn't repay their loans, telling their regulators that they were spreading the risk.  In fact they were spreading uncertainty, and when it emerged that some people really couldn't pay back, the banks drew in their horns like a snail catching the first whiff of salt.  Capital flows dried up and so did economic activity.  This problem, arising first in the US, swiftly spread over here and we saw queues outside Northern Rock.

The obvious conclusion from this - that had the bankers behaved properly the spending spree of the 2000s would have come to an end far sooner - was lost on the Left, which preferred to blame the bankers without asking what it was they had actually been doing (lending us all money).

A further conclusion - that a country which is borrowing £150 billion per year just to stay afloat needs to make some spending cuts - was also fiercely resisted.  It suited Labour to blame George Osborne for austerity (despite the fact that overall government spending was actually still going up) because to acknowledge he might have been right would have been to invite speculation about the future of social democracy itself.

After all, if your raison d'etre is to spend more money to solve society's problems, it is rather awkward if it looks as if you can't even afford the spending you're doing at the moment, let alone the spending you say you'll do once you get re-elected.  So Labour carried on banging away at Osborne, and it went quite well for them until it turned out we hadn't had a double dip recession after all, let alone a triple dip.  The fact that with the economy growing at 3% we are still running a deficit of about £2 bn every week rather bears out Osborne's view of things: even as the good times look like returning we are still running at a massive loss in the UK.

Labour's failure to explain the stark consequences of 2008 to its supporters (and even its most educated supporters can hardly bring themselves to look at the financial pages, feeling that businessmen are on the whole either City fatcats in red braces snorting cocaine, or tedious people with Birmingham accents involved in the manufacture of widgets), has nowhere been more evident than in the West of Scotland.  Finding after the first debate with Alastair Darling that Yes was still way behind in the polls, Alex Salmond tried a new tack - he linked the possibility of iScotland with the creation of a new, fairer progressive society.  This wasn't what Salmond himself wanted, and he knew full well that it wouldn't be affordable, but needs must when the devil drives and Salmond was in a fix.

To give credit to his shameless ingenuity it worked like a dream.  Labour voters in the party's post-industrial heartlands went over to Yes in droves, and the pro-Indepence faction ironically did better in Labour strongholds of the Clyde valley than it did in its own SNP heartlands (which, without exception, voted No).

But the revelation that the massed ranks of Labour supporters in Scotland's most densely populated areas were switching to Yes so panicked the No campaign that they mobilised the Great Clunking Fist of Gordon Brown, brought blinking into the light like a long-interred Golem, bearing his new promises of extra powers plus retention of the Barnett Formula.  And these promises in turn enabled David Cameron to make his own pledge of solving once and for all the West Lothian question, the issue of English votes for English laws.

Ed Miliband's opportunist criticism of George Osborne's economic policy together with his failure to educate his own supporters of the new realities of life post-2008 has in fact come round in a great arc and struck him on the head. It will now be a miracle if Labour can escape the consequences of its own short-termism.  What goes around comes around.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland says Nae

I must have cared deeply about the Scottish referendum, because I dreamed about it twice last night, each time thinking the result had been No, and each time waking to the disquieting realisation that a Yes vote was still possible.

But here we are in Glad Confident Morning and the Scots really have voted No.

Some observations at random.

1. The Nationalists will never have a better chance of winning.  They only needed 51% of votes, and they were led by a man who could sell snow to the Eskimos.  If there's another referendum - and there surely will be, the Scottish psyche being as it is - the UK prime minister would be perfectly justified in demanding a two-thirds majority for a change so fundamental. The next time Alex Salmond will be an old man, if the West of Scotland diet doesn't get him first.   If Salmond had led the No campaign, Yes would have suffered a humiliating defeat rather than a decisive one.

2. Geographical distribution of the votes shows that Yes voters were disproportionately young working class, and No voters disproportionately middle-aged or elderly middle-class.  The Yes voters, more likely to be badly educated, inexperienced and badly informed, voted for a case that was emotional, nationalistic and utterly threadbare intellectually.  The Noes voted for one which made pragmatic common sense. I heard a man say, "This was a cry for help from Scotland's disadvantaged".  More accurate to call it a cry for more generous - and unfunded - welfarism.

3. The pollsters overestimated the Yes vote and underestimated the No vote.  This ties in with the many stories of intimidation by the Yes campaign.  The Noes were nervous at speaking out, even to pollsters.

4.  Simpson's law applied.  This principle, first posited in the beige heat of the AV referendum, proposes that whichever side has the most artistic Luvvies is not only wrong but will lose.  So here, when most Scottish Luvvies supported independence.

5. This is a disastrous day for Labour in England. In the wake of promises by Westminster party leaders that Scotland must have more powers, the notion that England must also have more powers has gained what seems like irresistible traction (though this may of course fade). If, as is long overdue, Scottish Westminster MPs are barred somehow from voting on English matters, that should put an end to Labour government in England for a long time.

6. I've already heard several English Labour politicians temporising hilariously on the prospects of a solution to the West Lothian question. Translated, their obfuscation means, "Please let our Scots colleagues keep on voting.  If you don't we'll never be in a majority and enjoy ministerial office again".  Self-determination is apparently only the Celtic nations, not for the English.

7. There are enormous problems inherent in working out new constitutional and tax arrangements. It's going to be hard to combine a UK-wide distribution from central funds with the idea of locally variable tax rates.  How will English politicians explain to their electorate that their taxes should be used to prop up the (over-generous) Barnett Formula to Scotland when the Scots are sucking in investment by undercutting English taxes?  But if all four countries start raising all their own tax and stop getting a central Westminster grant, those differing tax rates will lead to flows of businesses and populations as it becomes apparent that not all four countries are equally prosperous.  Is that really what we want? Ultimately there will have to be some sort of carry over from the richer countries (ie England) to the others.

8. Timing is everything.  Cameron promised the Scots it would be done quickly, and he'll have to keep to that at the same time as keeping the English onside.  There'll be a general election next year, and you'd imagine he'd be able to present a plan to the English electorate which would get a ringing endorsement. In the constitutional deliberations which will follow in the next few months I expect Labour to peel off pretty quickly, realising that English votes on English matters will assuredly mean electoral doom. Cameron had better get it right, but it isn't impossible.  (I wrote this post a few hours after the No declaration; in fact Ed Miliband by tea-time the same day was already babbling about a Constitutional Commission and English regional assemblies; translation - in which direction is the long grass?)

Still and all, although I'm not a flag-waving jingoist I think that willingness to change just enough to prevent upheaval reflects a good deal of credit on Britain.  I'm glad Britain still exists this morning and tonight I'll be cracking open a bottle of Aldi champage to celebrate.

Neither may be Great, but they're still probably better than some of the alternatives.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Things can only get better in Scotland

It has long been my contention that the Nationalists have been offering Scottish voters a false prospectus, and so on this momentous day I offer some extracts from Alex Salmond's Bumper Book of Lies - 

(1) We own the pound and currency union is inevitable.
(2) Even if there’s no currency union that doesn’t matter.

(3) We can join the EU without having our own currency or central bank.
(4) The EU will accept us with open arms without being obliged to sign away our sovereignty and adopt the Euro.
(5) Significant Scottish businesses are largely pro-separation. 
(6) Our financial services industry won’t melt away south of the border.
(7) We will keep all the oil revenues.
(8) Oil revenues are not falling and can only increase. 
(9) The NHS is at risk if we stay in the Union.
(10) Taxes will not increase in iScotland.
(11) Jobs will not be at risk in iScotland.
(12) Mortgage rates won’t increase.
(13) Interest rates on government borrowing won’t increase.
(14) rUK will accede to all of our negotiation demands.
(15) Pensions will be safe and affordable in iScotland
(16) The separation on offer is true independence.
(17) We will be immune from the budgetary pressures which force the UK to borrow about £2 bn a week just to stay afloat.
(18) We can walk away from the UK’s national debt without consequences.
(19) We can defend ourselves just as well on our own.
(20) English banks will be happy to make home loans to us in sterling even though there’s a risk that we might set up our own currency later.

And the biggest lie of all perhaps – 

(21) In iScotland “Things can only get better”! 

Some editions of Mr Salmond's book include another - 
(22) If we're wrong about the above we can always go and work in England

"Things Can Only Get Better"?  A more apposite anthem might actually be Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades”

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The decline of classical music - other people are noticing shock

An article in the Times breaks the news that, according to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, the number of pupils learning to play the electric guitar "has overtaken those learning the violin for the first time".

In October 2009 I wrote a post entitled "Barry Manilow and the decline of classical music" which sums up my attitude to guitar lessons.  Part of it read: "hardly had I got into double figures when I realised that girls had an irrational weakness for boys who could play the electric guitar. So the violin was a chore (enjoyed playing, hated practising), whereas the guitar was a pleasure to be indulged whenever there was a free moment. The school had a visiting guitar teacher, but the kids who had lessons were universally useless at rock and roll. That's because you cannot teach someone to play it. You have to work it out for yourself. Classical music requires technique, and if you can acquire one it will take you almost to the highest level, where only the last few percentage points of musicality marks the difference between Alfred Brendel and a journeyman. But rock and roll is not like that. In a discipline which prizes above all else the ability to improvise, every player has to find their own way: after all, the great masters of the electric guitar, from Hendrix to Richard Thompson to Tom Verlaine, have styles so divergent they might be playing different instruments. Not only were lessons useless, but they were given by adults. Pop music was ours, the music of the young, and we would no more have let them teach us about it than they would have known how."

But not only are electric guitar lessons pointless.  The fact that so many kids want to have them is symptomatic of classical music's loss of prestige and relevance.  Jonathan Vaughan, director of music at the Guildhall School is quoted as saying "Classical music is being sidelined in every possible area. We are sleepwalking into a crisis and no one seems to be acknowledging it."  Vaughan has noticed a distinct falling off in the quality of home-grown students.  Actually I would argue that the crisis goes back a long way and that we are already well into it.

The rise of pop music is partly responsible.  So is the "call-me-Kevin" school of child-centred education, where anything that might be "difficult" is avoided (as if we would teach Harry Potter rather than Shakespeare . . . oh, wait).  So also is the old-school nature of acoustic instruments, particularly in times when every teenager has access to a computer on which the most amazing digital signal processing technology is readily available, often for nothing.  So also however is the determined effort by the gatekeepers of performance time to keep out new classical music which might be popular with audiences in favour of stuff which they themselves think might be edgy and impressive.

There is a very simple lesson here.  If you take an artistic medium with a sizeable audience base and by a series of choices over many years manoeuvre it away from the tastes and interests of that audience, firstly the audience will tend to dry up, and secondly the audience's children will be less likely to want to engage with that artistic medium themselves, whether as consumers or performers. Thirdly, as interest wanes the provision made for that artistic medium in schools declines.  After all, if no one cares about it, why should we teach it?

Why are we surprised that kids don't want to learn a classical instrument?

I have an interest to declare of course, in that I am myself a writer of classical music that on the whole audiences quite like.  I once had a piece performed by an ensemble with a reputation for its interest in the edgy and impressive.  Afterwards one of the administrators told me that she had never received so many expressions of interest in and admiration for a new work.

I never heard from them again.

Monday, 15 September 2014

iScotland and the impossible dream

I said I'd give up blogging, but in the face of the Scottish referendum this Thursday I can only plead St Augustine - Not Yet.

Sentimentally speaking I hope the Scots don't go.  But let's leave that on one side because I don't have a vote and anyway sentiment is hardly a basis for making a decision like this.

What would I do if I were Scots?  I'd vote No.  That's because I think Scotland would be worse off. Worse off both economically and in terms of international clout.

Why worse off?  Because iScotland won't have its own currency (something I've been pointing out on here for three years), which means it'll face higher government borrowing costs.  Its financial services industry will drift away south, and so will the many UK government jobs currently situated there (National Savings for example).  Oil revenues will decline, and anyway iScotland won't get them all - at the moment they belong to all parts of the UK and the rUK government won't have any incentive - political or economic - to give them away.  English banks will be reluctant to lend to people in another country where there are currency uncertainties, and so mortgage rates will be higher.

Scotland is disproportionately dependent on government jobs and services, so severance from the rest of the UK will leave that burden falling on Scottish taxpayers.  And the burden will increase, because Scotland will lag economically and has a population demographic which is ageing disproportionately, raising the proportion of its national income that Scots must devote to pensions.  Moreover Scotland has an unhealthier population than the rest of the UK, so the cost of running the NHS will be disproportionately greater.  At the moment all these costs are borne by all the UK.  Post Aye, Scotland will have to bear them itself.

It is a no-brainer.  Scotland's national income will go down at exactly the same time that the money it needs to sustain jobs and services will go up.  Taxes will have to rise or services be cut; or both.  The effect of this will be to drive business and investment south.

To be clear, there is one way in which Scotland might make this all work.  It is by having its own currency and central bank, running a low-tax small-government economy undercutting rUK from just over the border.  And this is actually what Alex Salmond wants - not for nothing were the SNP known at one time as the Tartan Tories - but it isn't what Scots as a whole want, and it isn't the prospectus which is being laid out.  Which brings me to the way the campaign has been run.

I don't blame the No party for being negative and lacklustre.  They were a long way ahead in the polls for a very long time and to them their case must have seemed overwhelming (as it does to me).  It's very hard to make a case which depends on the sheer stupidity of the Yes campaign to seem anything other than negative.  Against any other politician than Mr Salmond it would have been good enough, but Salmond is just as much a tactical master as he is a strategic duffer.

How has he managed to make Yes draw level in the polls?  By appealing to the very substantial element of the Scottish electorate which wants to live in the sunlit uplands of Scandinavian-style high-tax welfarist Social Democratic nirvana.  Salmond doesn't want this himself, and knows it isn't possible; the money is just not there, and things will actually get worse rather than better after Independence.

But he also knows that an awful lot of mugs with no grasp of economics don't know that, and by selling them the Impossible Dream he has hiked the Yes vote from 20 points behind to within snatching distance of victory.

I personally blame Labour for a good deal of this.  The overwhelmingly clear lesson after the Credit Crunch was that the bankers had been looking for more and more inventive ways of lending us money.  The Crunch happened because it turned out that we couldn't pay it back.  We had in fact been living beyond our means for many years.  This was obvious to everyone who had made a habit of reading the financial pages, which excluded almost everyone on the Centre Left (with the notable exception of Frank Field).

The Left blamed the bankers, failing to see that the bankers were just helping us all borrow, and that if the bankers had behaved responsibly we'd have just had to stop borrowing and face reality even sooner.  The Left railed against austerity without seeing that although services have been cut, government spending is still rising and that, awkwardly for them, the UK is still having to borrow about £2 billion every week just to break even.  And that's when the economy is growing at 3% per year.

What's this got to do with Scotland, and why is Labour partly responsible?

The leadership of the Labour party has connived in a critique of the Coalition which is misleading and does its supporters no favours.  It has maintained the illusion that there is a magic button which David Cameron could press which would restore the UK miraculously back a decade to the "good" times when Gordon Brown was Chancellor, when money flowed and there was a Diversity Co-Ordinator on every street corner.  There isn't any such panacea of course, but people who hate the Tories need no excuse to bury their heads in the sand.

If Ed Miliband were a responsible leader he would have pointed out to his supporters that there is no magic button, that we are not as rich as we thought we were and that we can in the end only have the public services we can afford.  He hasn't. So a lot of people still believe it could be glad confident morning again if only the mean old Tories could be booted out.

It just so happens that people who take this view are very thick on the ground in West Scotland's industrial heartlands, and it is this wholesale mobilisation of the Scottish working class (largely Catholic) vote which has brought the Union to the brink.

The argument favoured by the Left for solving Britain's fiscal black hole (that is, amongst those who can bring themselves to admit there is one) is to Tax the Rich.  Whatever its other weaknesses, this argument doesn't work in Scotland because most of the rich live in, er, England.  Please forgive me for finding that quite funny.

And so we find ourselves four days away from Independence.  For someone like me who loves Scotland and has had an emotional engagement with the country for fifty years that is a sad situation. But the people I feel really sorry for are those who think their problems of joblessness, deprivation and ill health will be solved by a poorly-thought through attempt to create a socialist version of Brigadoon.

Things Can Only Get Better, is the Nationalist refrain.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that they might get worse instead.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The last post

It having been pointed out to me that spending an hour or so each week writing this blog might not be the best use of a busy composer / conductor / househusband's time (something of which I was in any event subliminally aware), I've decided to pack in blogging.  So this will be my last entry.

I've posted here for nearly four hundred times in five and a half years, my first attempt being in February 2009, generating a readership that's grown from nothing to about 50 hits a day, a tiny figure in web terms but not bad for a small-timer.  I haven't re-read my collected blogging works in full, but looking back over the entries I see I've had certain recurring preoccupations, and it's instructive to consider to what extent events have borne out the views I had at the beginning.

Starting with the issue on which I've been most egregiously wrong, namely the Eurozone. I thought that after the financial crisis the Euro would implode under the weight of its own contradictions. In the first place I underestimated the extent to which those at the top would be willing to bend the rules to keep the party going - the famous Draghi put was almost certainly illegal under EU law, but the mere fact of Draghi's "whatever it takes" utterance was enough to quiet the panicking money markets. Secondly I had not appreciated the extent to which the free movement of labour laws would enable Mediterranean states to export their impoverished and angry unemployed youth (largely to Britain). This game is not over yet, but it's amazing that we're still playing at all.

Elsewhere I've done a bit better.

It remains true that the Left has not on the whole understood that the massive hole in Britain's budget (we're still borrowing more than £2 billion every week) cannot be filled merely by taxing the rich more. The contradictions this exposes in the Social Democratic programme (whose raison d'etre is to provide an expensive social safety net) have not even been addressed, let alone solved. This doesn't mean Labour won't win in 2015 however.

The dangers of excessive immigration, in terms of the environment, the economy, the strain on public services and on social cohesion have if anything become even more obvious, most recently with the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools. Race doesn't matter much; culture assuredly does. How Britain is going to absorb an awful lot of people who regard its social mores with contempt is a problem for the future.

In an allied issue, it has become even more apparent that Britain is overpopulated. Bar Hong Kong and Bangladesh, we are one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Partly because of immigration, partly because immigrants tend to have a higher birth rate, we don't have enough houses. In the year to 2013 the population increased by 400,000. Yet paradoxically the more we try and build the more we build on farmland (that's not to say that all new housing is or must be built there). A recent Cambridge University study shows that we already have a massive food import problem; and our capacity to grow our own is diminishing all the time the demand for it is going up. Something has got to give.

My contention that the police are on the whole absolutely rubbish rather than insitutionally racist has been borne out by event after event. In fact in the last five and a half years the only story out of dozens I can think of which suggests that the police really are "institutionally racist" rather than incompetent, corrupt, lazy and sometimes racist (on an individual level) was the recent one about references to racism being removed from disciplinary reports. Everything else has been about mediocre or dishonest people doing a mediocre job.

Next, that hoary old chestnut - BBC bias. No-one of course can prove that the BBC is biased, although the Corporation has sometimes seemed to be acknowledging every other week that it is. I prefer to look at the long list of senior figures, most recently Jeremy Paxman, who agree (shame Jeremy that you couldn't bring yourself to say so while you were still in the job). You only have to ask what the opposite of a liberal bias might be to see that the BBC is effectively admitting an anti-conservative bias. I have no objection to that. I only object to having to pay for it. If the BBC wants to carry on taxing us to pay for services other people get for nothing, it needs to put its recruitment policy in order.

Tony Blair is a much reviled figure these days, and even I - a former admirer - concede that he has much to answer for, not the least the baleful consequences of allowing market forces into the university system on the coat-tails of an unjustifiably expanded student intake. But Blair was right that there was a cost in failing to intervene in Iraq which his opponents are reluctant to acknowledge, let alone discuss. We are seeing this cost now with Syria and Ukraine; indeed, I sometimes think that the greatest benefit to black Americans of President Obama's election might be the revelation that one of their chaps could become the most powerful man in the world and still be just as rubbish as Bush, Carter, Reagan and all the other duffers. "There is a red line", says Obama. If so, I haven't seen any evidence of it. A very talented public speaker who will no doubt do very well as the new Nelson Mandela after his presidency is over.

The other area in which I have consistently felt we are sleep-walking into trouble is that of freedom of speech. There is no right not to be offended, nor should there be, and nowadays people are being prosecuted (under legislation like the Telecommunications Act, intended for other purposes) merely for saying things that the CPS thinks some people won't like. Ultimately there are no objective ways of determining what is offensive and what isn't. The true civil libertarian should acknowledge this reality and come down in favour of individual freedom wherever possible. It seems to me a tragedy that the liberal Left - the sector of society which fought so hard for freedom of speech - should have instigated these sorts of restrictions and that the unreflective Right in Britain should have gone along with it.

Lastly Art. I've tried to expand on some of my enthusiasms and dislikes. I don't feel Modernism has really spoken to the human condition in a useful and articulate way. My own somewhat gentler art has been liked by audiences but not by those walk in the corridors of power.

I like the story about Berlioz. When the French musical establishment finally decided he was worth a job in the Paris Conservatoire it was as Assistant Librarian. If this is what the greatest ever French composer had to endure, who am I to complain?

If you have been, thanks for reading.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Why I love . . . #10 Richard Linklater's Boyhood

The other day I went so see Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood.  As readers of the press will know, Boyhood's McGuffin is that it was filmed, a few days at a time, over 12 years, allowing the actors to age, most notably the child leads, who start the film fresh-faced ingenues and end spotty, hairy and sexually active teenagers on the verge of adult life.

Some reviewers have found Boyhood boring, but I found its poignant ordinariness transfixing.  And walking home afterwards I was reminded of Jonathan Franzen's much lauded novel The Corrections. Franzen is a wonderful writer, but the mistakes made by the parents in his family saga were at first repeated by their children but then "corrected", and all three as I recall walked away and lived happily ever after. A let down to end on such a false note.

The greatest merit of Boyhood was that it allowed its participants no such luxury.  The feckless Dad and the Mum who kept ending up with alcoholics were allowed in middle age a degree of resolution to their problems - after all, most of us can learn to avoid repeating our more obvious mistakes given fifteen years to reflect - but there was no sense that Mason and his lovely sister were going to be free of the kind of difficulties which beset their parents.  I found watching these children age and seeing them standing uncertainly on the threshold of adult life touching and uplifting at the same time.