Monday, 31 May 2010

Contentment and the common enemy

Casting my mind back several decades to my student days I recall observing a phenomenon associated with communal living. Almost all my fellow students spent some time in college accommodation before finding a flat to share with others. In the normal run of things three or four would share because money was extremely tight and the overheads of rent, rates (now council tax), water rates, standing charges for electricity and gas were little different for a three-bedroomed flat than a two so it made sense to get a bigger place and spread the cost three ways or more. I found a flat together with two friends. From the very day we moved in one of them became marginalised, as we would put it today, it was me and my chum against her whenever a dispute arose. Interestingly, the same was seen with all trios of sharers I knew. Indeed when four shared it was three-against-one.

As far as I could tell there was nothing intentionally malicious about it, it was just how things worked out. When there was a dispute about what colour to paint the living room or whether to buy logs or coal for the fire a decision had to be taken and the majority would rule. What I found interesting at the time and find interesting still is that being in the majority added to the pleasure of life. Had we all agreed about everything there would have been no sense of victory or accomplishment in getting ones way. It goes without saying that on a great many matters we were all in agreement, disputes were few and never bitter nonetheless I found elation in being on the winning side when push came to shove. The victors went to the pub and gloated, criticising their common enemy in order to boost their egos. Without a common enemy that experience would have been lost, there would have been no victory and no elation, life would have been less enjoyable.

What was absurd about the whole situation was that our flatmate was not really our enemy at all. She was a lovely girl and, I presume, is now a lovely middle aged lady; but she was our enemy for certain limited purposes and in that capacity she enhanced our lives. Sadly I have now lost contact with both old flatmates, for all I know they are in contact again and bitching about me.

We see the same phenomenon in all sorts of circumstances. In the workplace the foreman or manager is seen as the enemy of the serfs and forcing him to reverse his position gives pleasure far beyond any temporary material benefits that are received. A football club goes through a bad run and the supporters turn on the manager or owners. They get their way and cheer the replacement manager/owner to the rafters until next season when the exercise is repeated. Do they really cheer the new manager or owner, or do they cheer themselves for having won a battle whether or not the club's fortunes improve? British Airways cabin crew seem to be following this pattern with their current series of strikes. They might or might not gain long term benefits if the strikes result in their present demands being met, but you can be sure their greater pleasure would be winning the battle rather than enjoying what happens next.

It is only a short step to offer the prospect of winning battles as a political strategy to gain support. It matters not whether winning these particular battles will benefit those whose support you seek because they will support you for the chance of enjoying victory even if it leaves them out of pocket or out of work. This has been seen over the last couple of years with calls for penal rates of tax on "The Rich". No one can be certain that the future will mirror the past but all experience from around the world indicates that taxing income at more than around 40% results in a fall in tax revenue (because some move overseas to avoid it, some deliberately earn less and others find it worthwhile to spend a few quid on a specialist accountant to reduce their tax bill to the absolute minimum possible). That evidence suggests that a proposal to tax income at 50% would be counter-productive and should not be tried because it is likely to require higher taxes on the non-rich to make up the shortfall.

The policy has nothing to do with raising revenue and everything to do with gaining support from those who are encouraged to believe there is a group known as "The Rich" against whom a victory can be won. Support is given because the non-rich smell the sweet scent of victory, they sense the chance to get one over an opponent. The opponent only exists as an opponent because he has been described as such by those who invent the battle. Once the policy becomes law those who were persuaded to support it have won, they feel good, their lives have been enhanced by being a winner. Yet it seems likely from past experience that they are the very people who will have to pay when the policy backfires. That doesn't matter to the politicians, they will put forward a different excuse for having to raise taxes on the non-rich, their concern is getting votes by any means they can.

Lest either of my readers is tempted to tell me of Mencken's hobgoblins don't bother, I know them well but my point is different. He asserted, I believe correctly, that setting up mythical ogres gains votes because people want to be protected from the threat those ogres appear to pose. My point is that the prospect of victory against a fictitious enemy gains votes because victory is a benefit in itself whether or not the defeated person posed any threat. Promise the thrill of victory, any victory, and people will say "yes please, I'd like a slice of that". They say it because they know it will make them feel good. The more bitter, envious and spiteful they are, the better it will make them feel. It is a perfect tactic for the political left.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Laws' Choice

So, less than three weeks in and a cabinet minister has resigned. David Laws was found to have claimed reimbursement from the Treasury for renting a room from someone called James Lundie when he was actually in a sexual relationship with Mr Lundie and therefore living with him rather renting from him. I know not whether Mr Laws paid Mr Lundie the sums he claimed as expenses. I have heard it suggested that the nature of their relationship meant Mr Laws could have claimed reimbursement of the whole of Mr Lundie's mortgage interest payments, again I do not know whether that is the case and for present purposes it doesn't matter. Mr Laws initially explained his error as being due to not wishing to reveal his homosexuality. If I understand his position correctly, it is that he felt claiming to be a lodger would not arouse suspicion whereas any other claim might have done so.

David Laws had three options. He could have declined to claim any reimbursement for his London housing costs. If asked about it, he could have said he was staying with a friend rent free or that he stayed with a friend and made a contribution to costs but chose not to claim in order to save the taxpayer expense. His second option was to tell the whole truth and claim the maximum the rules allowed. His third option was to lie and claim something on a false basis - perhaps more than he was entitled to, perhaps less. He chose the third option. Silly boy.

For all his faults, the late Prime Minister Ted Heath always played this subject perfectly. When asked any question relating even obliquely to his sexuality he gave the same dead pan response: "I don't talk about these things". That was it, topic over, it was none of the interviewer's business and nothing was being volunteered. As far as I am aware neither Ted Heath nor David Laws has ever expressly asserted that they were not homosexual. Had they done so it would not have been an option to say "I don't talk about these things" because he would have done exactly that.

Indirectly Mr Laws did deny his homosexuality by claiming reimbursement of rent because rent paid to a sexual partner could not be claimed under the rules as they were at the time. (I refuse to sink so low as to refer to any such partner as a rent boy.) By claiming reimbursement of rent he was asserting that the person to whom it was paid was his landlord and not his "partner". That was untrue. He obtained money by asserting a falsehood. That is fraud. That he might have been entitled to claim the same or more money by telling the truth mitigates the offence. Indeed it might be such strong mitigation that no fair minded prosecutor would think it sensible to pursue criminal proceedings against him. It might even be such strong mitigation that a return to a senior position in government will be possible within a short period of time although I hope not, a propensity to fraud should be a disqualification for office not a requirement as it has been for the last decade.

Mr Laws' choice was to preserve his privacy and forgo money or to forgo his privacy and receive money. Preserving his privacy and receiving money was not an option without acting fraudulently and jeopardising his whole career. It is a shame he chose the corrupt option but he has now done the right thing and resigned. And all for £40,000 he now has to repay.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Lies, spin and goodwill

Whether you work in a trading business or a service business, your profitability is determined by your customers. It is easy to think of the profitability of a shop or a firm of architects being determined by how much money is received compared to how much money goes in costs and that is obviously the case in each individual accounting year. But what about next year? What you do this year and did in past years can have a significant effect on how well you do last year through the invisible power of goodwill.

The goodwill of a business is named aptly. Repeat business comes from keeping your customers happy and hoping they tell their friends about you. You generate goodwill among potential customers and that goodwill translates into custom in the future. When a business is sold it is common to find the price broken down between property, stock, debts owed to the business and goodwill. Ripping people off might turn a few quid now but it dissuades them from patronising your business again. So too if you are in a service business and provide a shabby service. The customer who has already engaged you might keep you on to finish the job because it would be more trouble to hire someone else to take over, but he won't use you again and might warn his friends and neighbours that you are to be avoided. This is all pretty obvious stuff.

The more competitors you have, the more you are likely to suffer in the future by letting down a customer today. That is one of many reasons why we have laws and regulations to limit the number of monopolies and place restrictions on those that do exist - give a monopoly free-rein and you create ideal conditions for a modern equivalent of the wartime spiv. The best explanation of this phenomenon I have ever come across came from the old television comedy Dad's Army. One of the characters is a spiv, a black marketeer, who offers something for sale for five shillings (I think it was knicker elastic, it usually is in English comedies) only to be faced by the comment "but it's only two shillings in the shops", to which he responds "ah, but you can't get it in the shops". Because only he could supply knicker elastic he could charge the highest price he felt his customers would be prepared to pay. Monopolies lead to higher prices, competition leads to lower prices because suppliers have to fight for your custom. Some suppliers will charge more and be busy because some customers value not just price but customer service, that's all part of the same thing - they offer something extra that people enjoy and are prepared to pay for.

My question today is: given all that I have written above, why do so many people lie to their customers when there is a problem rather than telling them the truth? The reason I ask is that I was talking to someone I know who has written and self-published a book, a "how to" guide to a particular craft. She keeps a stock of books in her garage and posts copies to individuals and craft shops as and when orders are placed. Every year or so she has to have a few thousand more printed and lets the printer know how many she needs. She's a well-organised person and arranges a reprint months in advance of the date she is likely to run out of stock. This year she ordered another five thousand and was given a date for their likely delivery. Two weeks before that date she telephoned and was assured everything was in place for that date to be kept. The date arrived but the books did not. Over the next few weeks she was given all sorts of promises of imminent delivery. In the end she received them three months late.

She had received an unusually high number of orders and her existing stock was exhausted a week after the original date set for delivery of the new print run. Being a sensible lady who wears sensible shoes, on receiving a new date from the printer she told her waiting customers of that date, only to have to do so again and again as lie after lie was told to her by the printer. Fortunately no one cancelled their order but the interruption to efficient delivery might have an effect in the future.

The true position was that the manager of the print shop had suffered a family misfortune which required him to spend a lot of time away from work - a fact only divulged once the books were printed and dispatched - causing the printing of everything in their catalogue to be delayed. Had the truth been told, her customers would have been told the same thing and everyone would know it was just one of those hitches that occurs from time to time through nobody's fault.

Customers make all sorts of allowances when they are kept informed of a problem that has arisen, allowances they will not hold against their supplier provided they do not later discover that the information they were given was simply a lie. Had the printing firm said "Mr Snodgrass's son is very ill and Mr Snodgrass can only be here a couple of days a week, we are running on 50% capacity so there will be a delay" the author would not have known when she would receive her books but she would have an explanation she could pass to her customers and the likelihood is that no goodwill would be lost between printer and author nor between author and putative reader.

As it is, she is looking for another printer because she was told numerous inconsistent untruths including: "we've started, it won't be long", followed by "it's next on the list, it won't be long" and then "we're waiting for paper supplies and yours is the first one to be done once they arrived". All of it garbage, all of it lies, all of it has lost goodwill.

That is just one example but I have encountered many examples of the same thing in recent years. Something goes wrong and there is no apology or truthful explanation, instead a load of deflective spin is spewed out to try to buy time. It does buy time but so would telling the truth and the latter would also retain goodwill.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

To judge the EU, judge the Euro

I have never been one for grand conspiracy theories except in one area, the European Union. Even then I don't go for the more sinister accusations about the intentions of our friends in Brussels (then Strasbourg for a few days and then Brussels again). I cannot accept that the intention of (most) of those behind the EU project is to create a brutal totalitarian state, rather I think they probably believe that political and economic integration based around a single bureaucratic, not democratic, Europe-wide government will be of benefit to the little people. In order to seek that end the grand pooh-bahs of the European integration project have lied about their intentions since those intentions were first formed.

Across the English Channel lying is part of the normal currency of business and personal relations. Here in blighty it is generally looked on somewhat differently, as the conduct of a scoundrel. The French know their politicians lie all the time and don't care because they don't consider much wrong in the telling of an untruth. We know our politicians lie all the time and it raises our blood pressure because we believe it makes them unfit for office yet still they get big salaries.

That is not the topic of today's meandering, I just wanted to say it. Today's topic is not about how they seek to impose their hidden agenda but about something much more fundamental - the structural problem that undermines the whole concept of EU economic integration and the Euro in particular.

It is a problem that affects the UK as well and can be illustrated by manufacturing. Although manufacturing industry has taken quite a battering as developing countries have been able to undercut the prices UK producers need to charge to break even, we still make a lot of stuff. In fact I recall reading somewhere that we are the ninth or tenth largest manufacturing economy in the world, it didn't sound right to me but it might well be because we have a lot of small factories producing specialist stuff and a few big manufacturing plants remain and what we sell tends to go for quite a high price (if it didn't we couldn't afford to produce it).

Those that use predominantly home-produced raw products and sell predominantly to the home market are affected almost exclusively by domestic economic conditions. Those that import raw materials and sell in the home market want the pound to be strong against the currency in which they must pay for their supplies. Those that use domestic raw materials and mainly export want the pound to be weak so that their goods can be sold cheaper overseas and undercut competitors. Those that import raw materials and sell overseas will be less affected by the pound rising or falling in value - a rise makes materials cheaper but sales more difficult and the reverse is seen when the pound is weak. Within England there exist thousands of businesses that want a strong pound and thousands that want a weak pound. It is impossible for both camps to be satisfied all the time. So it is also with interest rates. Some businesses benefit from rates being high and others can only survive if they are low. You can't keep everyone happy all the time.

If there were a government for a county that is heavily dependent on imported materials it would be reasonable to expect it to aim for its currency to be strong (so that things manufactured there for export will be cheaper for the customers). By contrast the government of a county heavily dependent on tourism would want Johnny Foreigner to come in droves, so it would work towards a currency that is weaker than its rivals in order to maximise the chance of attracting business. As it is, within the UK we have massive differences between different counties and a single currency, the pound, applies to all. Some gain and some lose when the pound falls or rises in value compared to other countries. We put up with that because what ties us together as a single country is much more than economic interests.

Not so, the Euro zone. No matter how much each country tried to manipulate its interest rates, exchange rates and trade cycles to try to find common ground with other Euro zone countries before joining the club, fundamental differences between the various national economies would always remain and will change as time moves on - some will become more dependent on manufacture, some more dependent on services, some more dependent on leisure and so on. Just as strains arise between different areas of the UK in certain economic conditions so they arise between Euro zone countries. The difference is that cultural and historical ties exist to keep the UK as the UK (until we have the good sense to let Wales and Scotland free to spend only their own money) whereas the only ties binding the Euro countries are those created by the Euro itself.

The collapse of the Greek economy illustrates a consequence of the structural problem behind the entire Euro experiment. In a sane world Greece would allow its currency to fall until it found its natural level - the level at which those who do not trade with Greece will find it attractive to do so thereby allowing the Greek economy to stabilise. It might also need a bail-out from the IMF, or the US, or China, or David Beckham because its governments have been absurdly profligate for years, but it would not be constrained by its currency having an international value that simply does not reflect the reality of Greece's position. That constraint will continue for so long as it is in the Euro zone because the exchange rate of the Euro is determined not just by how the rest of the world sees Greece but by how it sees the whole package of Euro zone countries.

More importantly, the rise or fall of the Drachma would have influenced Greek economic policy and might (it is no more than a possibility) have prevented the collapse we have seen recently. The Euro bureaucrats had no way of sending a message to the Greek people that things were going wrong and no inclination to do so because the very existence of the Euro project has always been more important to them than the Euro's effectiveness as a currency.

Having a single exchange rate and "official" rate of interest does not suit each county in the UK let alone each country and province. It is tolerated for reasons that have little if anything to do with economics. Having a single exchange rate and official interest rate for all Euro zone countries cannot work in the long term because the time will come when it will not be tolerated by those whose financial position suffers beyond the limit of political endurance.

We might be getting close to that point, the sooner it arrives the better. With any luck it will expose the whole EU project as the political equivalent of the Euro.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Coming up ... huge irritation

I have just caught up with the lunchtime BBC 1 show from the Chelsea Flower Show, presented by a woman who has really irritated me. It's such a shame to be irritated by one of the few television programmes I have any interest in watching. And the cause of my irritation? Two words ... "coming up".

The show lasted just twenty nine minutes including opening and closing credits and started with the irritating bint addressing the camera and stating the general topics that were going to be covered. Fair enough, I knew to expect a review of some show gardens, flower arranging tips and behind the scenes shots of exhibitors putting the final touches to their displays. I can cope with that, in fact it's rather nice to know there is a flower arranging bit because that means I'll have a chance to pop to the kitchen and make a cup of tea.

But then those dreaded words "coming up" and a whole series of clips from the things that will be shown over the next (by then) 24 minutes. Why? Why show a tiny extract from something I only have to wait a blink of an eye to see in full? And then, once I've blinked and the item is running it loses impact because I know the most interesting bit already.

This reminds me that the last time I watched a full 30-minute news bulletin on the BBC a couple of items were covered and then, half way through the show, the newsreader said "coming up" followed by clips from items I couldn't possibly have to wait more than ten minutes to see.

Do they think we all now have the attention span of a tadpole? Is it a reward for us taking the trouble to tune in, we've been good boys and girls so we are allowed to see the best few seconds twice. Or is it just a practice from commercial television when they try to ensure you don't turn over during the advert break? I don't know. But I do know it is incredibly irritating.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

The divisiveness of diversity

When I was a lad we did diversity. We were really rather good at it.

Those two chaps who ran the sweetshop and lived in the small flat above - they were left to live their lives in peace because they did a good job running a valuable local facility. Whatever their willy habits in the privacy of their own flat, they didn't thrust them down our throats so we minded our own business. That girl at school with cystic fibrosis who asked to stay back rather than climb a hill on an outward bound weekend, we attached poles to a dining chair and took her with us as though she were the Queen of Sheba. She didn't ask and she certainly didn't demand, but it was a group outing and she was part of the group. That family that fled Tito's Yugoslavia and was granted asylum was welcomed with boxes of food and voluntary lessons in English. They asked for nothing but we knew they had suffered enough and had come here for a new start, so we rallied round and helped a little.

Those three examples are real experiences from my life. There was something unusual about them because they were, well, unusual; perhaps they could be called extreme. But they are just examples of the way civilised people behave towards others. It seems I should say "behaved" rather than "behave" because treating people in a civilised manner is now something we must do according to an instruction manual. I am grateful to my friend Gerard for bringing this to my attention. He is undoubtedly correct in calling it "comedy gold".

Nothing creates divisions more than "official" classification of people. It is one of the great ironies that a policy intended to break down barriers actually creates new and stronger barriers. The irony is made tragic by the fact that the intention is entirely honourable, muddled but honourable. People bearing a particular characteristic were believed to be treated as lesser beings, so it was felt necessary to place them on the same level of playing field as everyone else. That is when the muddle set in.

When a particular group of people is perceived to be being treated unfairly there are three ways of dealing with the situation. You can do nothing and allow unfair treatment to continue, or you can tell those who are being unfair to behave themselves, or you can hold up the disadvantaged group as objects of pity and try to shame the rude people into treating them better. The first is only an option if you are a callous bastard. The difference between the second and third options is profound.

Of course all of this supposes we have a generally accepted standard of what is fair and what is unfair. In many fields this gives rise to all sorts of problems but when it comes to how we should treat people of different nationalities, pigmentation or preference of gender of adult bedroom partner I believe there is a common standard to which the UK subscribes. It is that all should be treated equally both in our personal dealings with them and in their treatment by the law so that their nationality, pigmentation or bedroom habits should not lead to them being treated as lesser beings. If I am right in believing that to be the generally accepted standard, the question arises how those who do not live up to that standard should be persuaded to change their ways.

This is nothing to do with opinions, it is all about behaviour. You can be of the opinion that a particular person should not be in this country either because he is a foreigner or because of his skin colour, but that should not change the way you treat him or the way the law treats him. So also if you believe it is morally repugnant for ladies to like labia or chaps to crave cock. Your opinions are matters you can debate if you wish but your behaviour towards others is what makes you civilised - "manners maketh the man" as the old saying goes. That is why the men in the sweetshop, the girl with cystic fibrosis and the Yugoslavian family were treated as they were. It's just how you treat people, it's the right thing to do because they are human beings. And it is all about equality, it is not about diversity at all.

Those who do not treat others with respect are, in my view, in the wrong. The victims of their rude behaviour are not the cause of that wrongness, the cause is the attitude of the "ruders" not the "rudees". Address the behaviour of the rude people and you tackle the issue whilst maintaining the equality of the rudees. If, on the other hand, you choose to shame the rude into politeness it is inevitable that you will highlight differences rather than teach the simple moral lesson that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.

In this context there is no way of highlighting differences without promoting inequality and division. Instead of the message being "all human beings are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect" it becomes "these people are different from us but you should treat them with dignity and respect anyway". The emphasis changes in a fundamental way. No longer is the spotlight concentrated on the core fact that we are all human beings, rather it switches onto the differences between people and concentrates the attention of the rude onto the very matters of opinion that should not feature at all.

I gave some examples of good "diversity practice" from my childhood at the start of this meandering. I'll end it with an example from my life today. I have a neighbour who turns 80 next week. She's as black as the ace of spades. Came here from the West Indies in the late 1950s with no formal qualifications and through a combination of talent, charm and hard work ended her working life in a senior managerial position in a very large company. She has lived close to FatBigot Towers for more than forty years. I doubt that any of the neighbours or the local shopkeepers or the hundreds of people she deals with during her still busy life of voluntary work for charity and church think of her pigmentation or nationality for a moment. She isn't different or diverse or even divers to those who know her, she is just a (splendid) human being.

And she objects vociferously to being labelled and to others being labelled. The view she has expressed to me is that everyone must be treated the same. She says give everyone the benefit of the doubt while they are learning, encourage them, guide them, help them gain promotion as far as their abilities will allow and don't hold back on either praise when they get things right or constructive criticism when they get things wrong. Very few will sink because there is a place for everyone who is prepared to make an effort, the vast majority will swim and live productive lives. She adds that all this must happen without labels because labels devalue achievements earned by merit and cause resentment in those who do not rise as far as they hoped they might. She tells you everything you need to know about why the modern approach to "diversity" is divisive.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The hipless 3,000 - a step in the right direction

The decision to scrap HIPs (home information packs) has caused no discernible howls of protest. There was always something fundamentally absurd about HIPs, although in one respect they were a reasonable idea.

When someone is deciding whether to buy a house or flat he will want to know various things about the property. Obviously he will need to be assured that the vendor has the right to sell it and he will need to know whether it is freehold or leasehold and, if the latter, the terms of the lease. He might also want to know something about the condition of the property and whether any recent work done to it complied with Building Regulations, but he might not. A HIP had to contain information on all these things together with a report on how "energy-efficient" the property is. Energy efficiency certificates will still be required as a matter of EU law, it is the other stuff that is no longer compulsory. Like so many elements of the interfering nanny State, failure to provide a HIP could result in a fixed penalty notice being issued to the defaulting vendor.

The problem with requiring the vendor to supply all that other information up-front is that any prospective purchaser will have to check some of it for himself anyway and might not be interested in the rest. No purchaser in his right mind will buy a property without being satisfied from his own enquiries about exactly what he is buying and that the purchaser has the right to sell it. No sane solicitor or licensed conveyancer acting for a prospective purchaser will rely on documents produced by the vendor as evidence of the right to sell, he will undertake his own search at the Land Registry - in fact this is done online and takes only moments. A conveyancer will also undertake his own searches of relevant local authority registers to ensure there is no risk to his client from such matters as threatened compulsory purchase or breaches by the existing owner of Building Regulations. Although the vendor's HIP will almost certainly tell the truth about these things, a conveyancer who does not undertake these simple searches himself would be liable to a claim from his client if a problem later emerged. Requiring the vendor to undertake these searches and disclose the results simply results in the same work being done twice.

So far as the condition of the property is concerned, a purchaser who wants to know something can ask. If the vendor refuses to answer his question he will, no doubt, walk away from the negotiation. But not all purchasers are interested in the property's condition because many plan to make changes once they move in and the current condition is pretty much irrelevant. Requiring the vendor to volunteer irrelevant information is a pure waste of time and requiring him to volunteer relevant information achieves nothing other than a possible speeding of the sale process by a day or two. In fact many conveyancers have followed the pre-HIP practice of making specific requests for information their clients want to know whether or not it was included in the HIP. They formed the view that it is better to have a specific answer to a specific question, so HIPs resulted in duplicated work again.

The one, limited, way in which HIPs are a good idea is in relation to properties with a problem (perhaps a new gas appliance was installed but not certified y a competent person or there is a proposal to build a sewage works behind the rear garden wall). It does happen that purchasers are interested in a property only to discover a problem later and back out after they have incurred time and cost; alerting them to such a sticking-point would prevent them even making an offer. Although this happens it is not common and is hardly a good reason for requiring all vendors to spend money on a HIP for fear of a fixed penalty.

It has been said by the Director General of the Association of Home Information Pack Providers (AHIPP) that 3,000 jobs will be lost and 10,000 will be affected (I presume he meant affected for the worse). I find that comment interesting in several respects.

First it is interesting that AHIPP exists at all.

Secondly, HIPs will still exist for those who want them. Any vendor who thinks it is a good idea to provide a HIP can still do so, yet AHIPP says 3,000 jobs will be lost. I infer from this that he knows most vendors will not want to provide a HIP and most potential purchasers will not be deterred by the absence of a HIP. If ever you want proof that HIPs are a piece of pointless bureaucracy, the Director General has provided it.

Thirdly, the lost jobs will be lost because they should never have been created in the first place. I have commented before on the cruelty of creating non-jobs. In that piece I discussed the public sector but the same point applies to the hipless 3,000. They entered this field of work in good faith because they were told it was important work of benefit to the country, no doubt many saw it as a stable job and a step-up from what they did before. As it is they will be out of work because there is no real demand for what they did. Time will tell what they find to do instead but I have no doubt many will end up worse off than if they had never entered the field in the first place.

Fourthly, I wonder how many ministers from the last government will condemn this as "taking money out of the economy" or will say it should not be done now because it will "threaten the recovery". Not many, I'd wager, because the jobs are in the private sector and only the State matters to them.

What I find of most interest is not the reaction of AHIPP but the fact, for fact it is, that there will be no outcry over this. Indeed there will be widespread relief that an unnecessary burden has been lifted. It is Step One on a very long walk.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Quantatively easing the curry house

I was in the curry house last night while the cleaner, Mrs Slipshod, did her best to rid the windows of FatBigot Towers of tar and cooking grease.

The conversation got onto quantitative easing. One of the proprietors said it sounds like a scam because the words used to describe it don't mean anything to the man on the street. He asked whether I know what it involves. I'm not sure that I do, but came up with an explanation and would be grateful for comments if I've not grasped it correctly.

To illustrate my understanding of the matter he sat opposite me and placed a £20 note on the table. He pretended to be a bank and I pretended to be the government. He lent me £20 for one year and I gave him an IOU promising to repay £20 in one year's time.

So far so good, the government has given an IOU and received a £20 note while the bank has parted with a £20 note in return for an IOU. Everything is in balance.

The government then decides to buy-back the IOU. It costs £20 to do so. Instead of using the £20 note it borrowed, it prints another £20 note and uses that. The bank is perfectly happy, it has received £20. The government is laughing because it still has the £20 it borrowed and no longer owes the bank £20. It has gained £20 by printing another £20 note.

By the simple procedure of buying an IOU using newly printed money the government had given itself an extra £20. It's tooth-fairy money, it doesn't really exist. Multiply that exercise by 8,200,000,000 and you have the "quantitative easing" project to a tee. I think.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

It's interesting, this coalition stuff

I can't say I had ever considered what a coalition really meant. In 1974 Ted Heath's attempts to woo Jeremy Thorpe never really got out of the closet and the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977 was not a coalition at all merely the acceptance of some Liberal policies in return for a promise not to vote the Labour government out of existence. The current coalition involves much more than just agreeing to a few tweaks of policy, senior and junior ministerial positions are held by Lib Dems and they are fully involved in deciding the detail of policy as well as its general drift.

So far the mock-chumminess has been rather nauseating but we can be sure it won't last for long. No doubt both sides think it necessary at the moment to say what super chaps they are working with after having spent the last five years denigrating them. Once people are settled into their new jobs they will just get on with it and window-dressing will not just be unnecessary it will be a distraction. Yesterday Clegg and Cameron giggled on the lawn of 10 Downing Street like a couple of school girls who had just been smiled at by the captain of the rugby team, I put that down to nerves and uncertainty, there is no reason to believe it will be repeated.

The greatest problem with a coalition is that it almost guarantees disappointment. Those who voted Conservative or Lib Dem because of a particular policy which has now been jettisoned have, in one sense, been betrayed. Their vote has been taken and used for a purpose for which it was never intended and in which the voter had no say. The same applies to those who voted for the package of measures proffered by one or other of the parties and would not have voted the same way had the compromise portfolio been offered to them. Those who will support the Conservatives or Lib Dems come what may might well feel their loyalty has been abused by a backroom deal in which the other party has got too much of its own way. Members of the Shadow Cabinet during the last Parliament will feel even greater disappointment as they see their precious jobs taken by others and the title "Right Honourable" denied them, perhaps for ever.

The formality of a full coalition gives far more to the Lib Dems than it takes from the Conservatives but the real beneficiaries are not Lib Dem backbenchers and party members but a small and select group of leading lights. They will become even more remote from their supporters than they were as the elite of a small Parliamentary party.

I can't help thinking that the continued existence of the coalition will be determined by Lib Dem figures in opinion polls. They are happy enough now, they have ministerial positions, some Conservative policies they disagree with strongly have been ditched and some of their own have been adopted. They are in government and that is a powerful drug. Unless something very odd happens it is hard to see the coalition being under threat for at least a year or two. Realistically, it can only collapse if the Lib Dems pull out and there must be little chance of that happening quickly given that they have waited decades to get any real power in national government.

Within a year or so a clear pattern will probably emerge of how power is really split between the two parties. Only the practical effects of a range of personality battles will set that pattern, but once it is set we will get a view of how the public see things and, in particular, of how the public sees the Lib Dems. It has been proclaimed that the coalition has been established to serve as government for five years. Two years in and the first whiffs of the next general election will be in the air, falling support for the Lib Dems will raise questions whether they should keep to the deal and risk a substantial fall in their vote. Substantial rising support and they might wish to cement their position by insisting on further senior government posts and a greater say on policy, which could upset the whole fruit basket.

There are all sorts of potential pitfalls of being the junior partner in a coalition that would not be encountered by a minor party giving informal support to a minority government. The latter can portray itself as an honest broker acting in the interest of stable government whereas a coalition partner is part of the government and subject to all the flak that can ensue.

Perhaps the most difficult thing of all for the Lib Dems is to keep a separate identity when all its big fish are swimming in the murky Whitehall pond. David Cameron has done something very clever already in this respect. By accompanying Vince Cable to his new offices he prevented Cable from presenting himself to "his" civil service team as the man in charge. Cameron was there to say he is in charge and he has allowed Cable his own department. His somewhat unctuous speech lauding the economic genius of Cable set a high standard for his minister to live up to. It was all there in the apparently kind and supportive act of holding his hand on the first day at Big School, - Cameron is the boss, Cable is the underling and Cable must be brilliant to justify his appointment. The man has nowhere to go but down. He has no room for carving his own empire because Cameron has made clear it is his empire not Cable's.

And what of Mrs Batty now that he is Deputy Prime Minister but has no specific ministerial portfolio? How does he mark Lib Dem territory when he cannot dissent publicly and has no department through which to do his own will? He would have done better by taking even the poisoned chalice of the Home Office alongside his position as Deputy PM, at least it would have given him something substantive to work with - as party leader he could run a department with an authority Cable does not have and cannot now try to create.

It's going to be very interesting to see what happens. I am not a betting man but if I were my money would be on ructions starting before the second anniversary as the Lib Dems find themselves marginalised in power and unable in practice to put forward an independent policy platform.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A new kind of politics?

It must be old age but I don't believe there is anything new in human behaviour. Gadgets - yes, fads - yes, styles - yes; but not human behaviour. Politics reflects this and has always reflected it. Principled politicians stand up for the things they believe in whether or not it gives them ministerial office and whether or not they effect changes in the law to reflect their beliefs. We have had plenty of absolutely genuine extremists in Parliament. At the other end of the scale are the flip-floppers who have no fixed view of anything. In between lie the majority who have certain core values they wish to see enacted but accept they cannot necessarily get everything they want and are amenable to making a little progress towards their aim when the alternative is no progress at all.

Where the government has only a small minority in the Commons it is inevitable that those of hardened views will seek to gain the maximum movement towards their position because they know their vote will really count and a stubborn refusal to go along with a wishy-washy proposal can cause the government immense difficulties. We saw this towards the end of the last Conservative administration, particularly on the issue of the EU. A large majority allows the government to ignore the fringes of its party and still pass legislation, so the entrenched views of some gain little serious attention because no one has to keep them sweet.

The new coalition government will have a nominal Commons majority of 49 (306 Conservatives, 57 Lib Dems and 8 DUPs out of a total vote of 644 because the Speaker won't vote and the IRA won't take its 5 seats). That is enough to last a full term in normal circumstances. Mrs Batty, the new Deputy Prime Minister, made a rather pathetic speech about the coalition marking the start of "a new kind of politics". I cannot see that the arrangement is new at all.

All political parties are coalitions between people whose views generally coincide on most issues but can be radically different even on core subjects. They hold together when the members feel there is more to lose than to gain by placing their true beliefs above the compromise position the party holds on each policy. In my lifetime it has always been the case that the Cabinet and ministries have contained people with strongly opposing views about what should be done but they reach a compromise in order that they can all keep their perks. The Labour Governments from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1979 contained a rag bag of assorted naive lefties of greater or lesser intensity in their loathing of the little people. The Heath government from 1970 to 1974 contained what were called at the time "hard liners" and "moderates". The Thatcher and Major governments from 1979 to 1997 contained essentially the same mix although they were then known as "drys" and "wets". Even under the more autocratic Blair and Brown years a wide range of views was held by ministers. It would be absurd to believe that anything else could be the position.

A formal coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems is no different. Some Conservatives MPs undoubtedly share more opinions with mainstream Lib Dems than with the mainstream of their own party and the same applies in reverse. Where there is a difference is that the Lib Dems also include some pretty extreme left-wingers for whom Labour is a natural ally and the Conservatives a natural opponent. But the Lib Dems only have 57 MPs and it would take dissent by almost half of them for important Bills to be defeated. That does not seem very likely, at least in the first year or so of the Parliament.

The idea that decisions will now be taken with a smile and a group hug over a cup of warm pureed tofu and that everyone will be happy is laughable. Decision making will be more difficult because there is no detailed Con-Lib manifesto providing the blueprint for the position on each main policy issue, but if they all want to keep their armoured cars and their faces on the telly they will just have to compromise and reach a decision by which they must all stand. Neither party can say "we are only doing this because the other lot insist", decisions will be joint decisions. If the situation ever arises in which the Conservatives simply refuse to give ground on something and the Lib Dems cannot agree with them the coalition itself will be at risk. Either Mrs Batty gets his people to back down or they must all stomp out in a hissy fit and risk being blamed for the arrangement collapsing. That is hardly the new kind of politics he can have in mind.

I find it rather difficult to see what's in it for the Lib Dems in the long run. There are insufficient of their policies being adopted for them to be able to point at successes and claim them for themselves, indeed they can't claim them for themselves because they are the junior partner and any decisions that prove successful will be made predominently by Conservatives and only to a small extent by Lib Dems. For very much the same reasons, if things go wrong they can hardly go to the electorate saying "it wasn't our fault" because at least in part it was, and whether or not it was their fault it was their responsibility.

At the next general election there will not be Con-Lib Coalition candidates, so the voters will be faced with separate candidates from the two parties who form the government. If it is a successful government I would expect the Conservatives to reap a greater reward than the Lib Dems. If it is a failure neither will earn any credit from the electorate.

Perhaps that is what he meant by a new kind of politics - a kind of politics in which his party will share blame but not be in a position to claim praise without that praise also reflecting on Mr Cameron's merry men.

Perhaps he meant that we will see a return to proper cabinet government in which matters are thrashed out between senior ministers rather than dictated from Downing Street. Although it would be a departure from the disastrous approach taken by Labour over the last thirteen years, it is nothing new; it was accepted as the only sensible way to operate for decades before autocracy and spin took over.

One new thing has happened. Mr Cameron said nice things about Gordon Brown. He will do so again when Parliament sits for the first time. Then the gloves will be off and the full panoply of Labour corruption and misjudgment should be exposed ruthlessly. Mrs Batty will join in the rubbishing of poor Gordon and his uncanny ability to have got every major decision wrong for more than a decade. There will be nothing new about that, it's been the way for generations because politics involves a constant fight for seats at the next election not the last one. The people involved always have the same range of abilities and characteristics as their predecessors and they will all have to fight for votes from now on just as they fought for them during the recent campaign. It's the same kind of politics and always will be.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Not the national interest

I haven't yet commented on the outcome of the election because I'm not quite sure what to make of it. There are all sorts of things the result is not and very few things that it is. Let me give a few examples.

It has been said that it was a clear rejection of the incumbent Labour government. To a degree it was, but only to a degree. It makes little sense to look at Labour's share of the vote, 29%, to decide on this point because it was the government for the last five years on 35.3% of the popular vote in the 2005 election. It makes more sense to look at parliamentary seats won because they held 349 before the election and now have 258. That is quite a decline but it's still more than the Conservatives had at any time in the previous thirteen years. And it is still 258 seats out of 650, almost 40% of the total. A serious decline but not obliteration, and not wholesale rejection of Labour as a serious parliamentary force.

It has been said Labour has lost its right to remain in government. This is a slightly different point from the one I have just made because it suggests they have no right to govern in coalition due to their fall in votes and seats. Any party has the right to be in government if it is or forms part of a workable majority in the House of Commons and even if it is or forms part of a workable minority and can secure ad hoc votes from others to defeat a vote of confidence. Labour certainly lost any right to govern by itself but no other party won that right. A Labour alliance with the Lib Dems would represent a majority of votes cast (although a minority of total seats) which could be said to give it more legitimacy than any government of the last sixty years.

Like it or loathe it, the election was held under the system we have had for a long time and we are stuck with the result. That result was indecisive because the little people made it indecisive. Once that happens everything is a matter of practicalities. It is a filthy sordid business in which one deal or another made behind closed doors will result in the new government putting forward a platform of policies for which no one voted because no candidate put it forward. That, however, is inevitable. It will happen after every election that delivers a hung parliament, which will be every single election if we adopt a truly proportional voting system.

I rather like it because it allows us to see our politicians as they really are. All their pompous guff about "the national interest" evaporates as we see them selling their souls for power. Policies that were an essential part of their electoral programme suddenly become unimportant and are ditched as they put their self-interest above their supposed principles. They have no choice if they want power, but they could be honest and admit that's what they are doing.

"The national interest" is a rather curious phrase for politicians to use in current circumstances because there is no such thing as "the" national interest. Those of strong political views, whether or not those views are currently reflected by either of the main parties, will always consider the national interest to be best served by adoption of their views. Party leaders with a sniff of power will consider it in the national interest that they are in charge rather than their opponents. A minority government that does good things is, it seems to me, acting in the national interest to a greater extent than a majority government that makes a mess of everything it touches. But then who is to say what are good things and what is a mess? Views on that change from time to time and are never held by a majority on all issues. A particular government might find a majority prefers its approach on one issue and the opposition's approach on another issue, whither the national interest then?

I even have doubts that the national interest requires us to have a government capable of winning votes in the Commons on all its core policies. The House of Commons sits for less than half the days in the year and has not been sitting at all since the 12th of April. It is now the 11th of May and the absence of a Parliament has not caused the country to collapse. In fact it's been rather refreshing to find nothing else has been banned and no new criminal offences have been invented for a whole month (a period only exceeded for the last thirteen years when the Commons has been in recess).

Not being of the anarchist persuasion I believe that we do need government and we do need that government to have its proposals subjected to effective debate and only put into law if it can win a vote in both houses of parliament. There is no national interest in the government being able to dictate law - a position that prevails under a heavily whipped system when the governing party has a large majority. I have difficulty accepting that a formal coalition is in the national interest if it merely results in two parties whipping a majority on poorly drafted legislation rather than one party doing so by itself. It might be that coalition would lead to better legislation as jostling for influence within the coalition will provide a motive for those on the government side to criticise government bills. Better would be use of the whip only on core issues of policy. Better still would be MPs of a far higher quality than the intake at the 2001 and 2005 elections, only time will tell whether that has been achieved (I'm not holding my breath).

I really can't go for "the national interest" argument while the current horse-trading takes place. Let them negotiate for power and reach whatever compromise they can, then judge the outcome by what the new government actually does. But don't let them dress it up as anything grander than a fight for power.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Smug ignorance on Gardeners' World

For anyone who doesn't know, Gardeners' World is a programme on BBC television. It has run for forty-two years and until last year was predominantly concerned with demonstrating gardening techniques for the benefit of new gardeners and forgetful old gardeners. In 2008 the main presenter, Monty Don suffered a stroke and left the programme, when the 2009 series started the new presenter was a chap called Toby Buckland and the rot set in.

Various types of rot can ruin old favourites in the garden. Some are the result of fungal or bacteriological infection for which the gardener is not to blame while other are the consequence of poor planting technique or maintenance. If you plant tulips in a boggy patch you should not be surprised to find the bulbs rotting in the ground before a single sprig of leaf is exposed to the April air. Let the branches of an apple tree rub against each other in the wind and canker is likely to develop. Leave too long a stem when pruning a rose above a bud and it can rot back to infect healthy wood. Most infections contracted by otherwise healthy plants from air-borne invaders can be treated if spotted early enough. No sensible gardener imports infected compost deliberately or plants an acid-intolerant plant into acidic soil. To do so would be to negate the very purpose of his garden.

When the man Buckland took over Gardeners' World an editorial decision appeared to have been taken to turn the show into a branch of the so-called "green" movement. Instead of demonstrating lawn maintenance and how to take basal cuttings there were lectures on the need to save water to save the planet and to provide wildlife habitats to protect against the ravages of "climate change". Needless to say it was a dismal failure. Viewing figures plummeted. This year they have returned to the hoe and the potting shed and, as far as I can recall, neither "global warming" nor "climate change" has been mentioned once in the first nine episodes.

You can take idiocy out of editorial policy but you can't remove it from an idiot. Let me take you back fifteen years and more to illustrate what I mean. The main presenter was a magnificent fellow called Geoff Hamilton. He did not believe in using factory produced chemicals in the garden because, he said, there was no need. Dung and garden compost provide everything the soil needs to sustain healthy plants and they are what would maintain those plants in their natural habitat. Why spend money on little pellets in a plastic tub when you can get the same results for less by making your own compost and leafmould free of charge with the occasional 50p spent on a bag of used horse food?

He knew most viewers needed to watch the pennies so he demonstrated how to make your own cold frames from cheap off-cuts and effective cloches from empty cola bottles. It was recycling with an eye on saving money and had absolutely nothing to do with the ludicrous delusion that re-using small amounts of otherwise waste materials could have any effect on the planet as a whole. Most, if not all, of the money-saving tips he gave were things gardeners had been doing for generations. He brought them to a wider audience so that others could save money on their hobby.

This week's show came from the Malvern Spring Show, one of a number of large events organised by the Royal Horticultural Society. A feature of such events is that people build gardens on a theme in the grounds of the venue and can be awarded medals if those gardens are considered good enough. One of the gold medal winners was a garden featuring lots of recycled materials including hand-made clay tiles to form a path and an old chicken coop.

Back in Geoff Hamilton's day (he presented the show from 1979 until his death in 1996) he showed how to make garden paths from a wide variety of waste materials including tiles and bricks. He also showed how to re-use wood from one structure to make a different structure and how to deal with the effects of wear-and-tear on a wooden structure without replacing the whole thing.

The idiot Buckland praised the recyling of clay tiles and the use of an old chicken coop rather than a new one as "bang up to date". This is so typical of the smug ignorance of the Greenies. People have been doing it almost since human life began. They did it because materials were in short supply and, in more modern times, cost money. Go to any allotments and you will find that when Fred decides to build a new shed his old one is not thrown away any more than his grandfather's was thrown away. Someone else on the site will ask if he can have it, or a number will take different bits until the whole is reused just as a dead blackbird is shared by pigeons and rats. It's nothing to do with saving the planet and everything to do with saving a few quid. And by no stretch of the imagination is it "bang up to date", it is an ancient ritual.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The election and the rhythm of life

Yesterday I quoted a tiny snippet from a song called The Rhythm of Life written by Dorothy Fields. The bit I cited was "the rhythm of life is a powerful beat", the next line of the song is pertinent to the topic of today: "puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet".

Today is the day. For ten and a half years the Labour government enjoyed a relatively easy ride, earning praise by spending other peoples money in ever greater quantities to buy shallow popularity and just enough votes to stay in power. Then the ordure hit the circulatory device because the money ran out. The folly of their works was exposed for all to see. Poor Gordon took on the reins of power just before it happened, has been on the brink of being ousted by various collections of his nearest and dearest colleagues and has shown himself to be a vile man and an inadequate leader. Today is the day we have the chance to remove him from the office he has sullied so deeply. That of itself should make today exciting but for me the excitement of this election day will come in two parts, as it does every election day.

Once the polls have closed a form of excitement always exists as the first few results are awaited and then they arrive in torrents in the middle of the night and it's all over for another few years. That is the excitement of the battle. I want to talk about the excitement of the process of voting.

FatBigot Towers is situated in a hard-core Labour constituency. I have never voted Labour and hope I never will, if I do it will be time to haul me off to the Twilight Happy Home for the Perpetually Confused under the care of the chief psychiatrist, Dr Raffia. Whether I vote Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or UKIP will make no difference to the result, Labour will win anyway. I am sure the total percentage of votes cast for each party has an effect during the period of the next Parliament, so even if my vote makes no difference here it will count in a vague and opaque way. That is not what excites me. What excites me is that I have a vote. However flawed the system, however much power really lies with the EU over most policy and the internal party machines over some policy, however little my vote really counts, at least I have a vote.

Those of us of a certain age probably feel closer to the events of the last War than those in their teens, twenties and possibly even thirties because our parents, uncles, aunts and grand parents were involved. These people are part of far more than our genes and they made huge sacrifices, sacrifices I hope never to be called on to make, to allow themselves and their offspring a vote at each general election.

When I waddle round to the polling station I take with me not just my right to mark a cross on a piece of paper but also the accumulated rights of earlier generations who fought-off threats to that very right. In 2001 it was pretty obvious Labour would win again but my thrill was undiminished because it transcends party politics. By 2005 there was a chance of Labour struggling to gain a majority but my thrill was not magnified. Today it seems likely Labour will be voted out. That will not increase the thrill of the voting process one little bit, although it will make the night's viewing hugely entertaining. I will await that entertainment and look on it as something apart from the voting process itself, that process is the real thrill.

I will have a tingle in my fingers and a tingle in my feet.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Bank Holidays and the rhythm of life

Maybe it's just me, but I find Bank Holiday Mondays consistently depressing. In fact I always have done, even as a child. It wasn't the forced visits to ancient aunts who made weak tea and never handed out enough biscuits or the absence of anything exciting on the telly. As an adult it isn't the voluntary visits to the now ancient daughters of the aforesaid ancient aunts (who also make weak tea and never hand out enough biscuits) or the absence of anything even vaguely watchable on the telly. Being British we like to joke about how it always rains on a Bank Holiday Monday, even when it doesn't, but it isn't the weather.

It's actually a simple matter of the rhythm of life. School weeks do not start on a Tuesday, they start on a Monday. At the end of term they might finish on a Wednesday or Thursday and that is a treat because the extra day(s) of the week away from school follow days when you were at school. Everything was normal with a Monday start.

When at my pomp I usually worked six or seven days a week, but the working week started on a Monday. I have always been self-employed and have been able to take days off subject to existing bookings. From time to time I would take Monday off, especially if there was gardening left unfinished over the weekend either in London or at the modest FatBigot annex in Sussex. It ruined the whole of the week because my flabby knees squeezed under the desk on Tuesday and I was doing Monday's work, it just felt wrong. If I also took Tuesday off the extra long weekend became a holiday and the rest of the week was like the first few days back from a real holiday, I was just fiddling around with a few things until proper work started again with the new week the following Monday. My habit became to take Friday off if I knew there were heavy gardening commitments so that I could be sure to start my next working week properly and make it productive.

Most courts do not sit on Bank Holiday Mondays. I could never perform as well during one of these truncated weeks as I did when the judge or jury heard my fluting tones on Monday as well. As I got older most of my working time was spent on paperwork and one might think that the intervention of a Bank Holiday should make no difference because I could still sit at the desk and do what I had to do. But it was never the same. Colleagues were not in, the Clerks' room had a skeleton staff, solicitors I needed to talk to about their cases could not be contacted in the office (and rarely enjoyed being telephoned at home on an official rest day), the rhythm was all wrong.

Curiously the long enforced period away from work following my cardiac incident did not change this feeling. I still had things to do which were very much work such as sorting out my tax affairs, jiggling around my pitiful assets to best advantage and keeping up with developments in the law. These were done on Monday to Friday. Unless Monday contained some work, perhaps just an hour or two, very little was ever achieved in the rest of the week. The same pattern is being followed now although I am only doing a little work here and there and do almost all of it from home so that I can smoke.

Dorothy Fields was right when she wrote "the rhythm of life is a powerful beat". Bank Holiday Mondays have always upset my rhythm. It would be far better if they were Fridays and far better still if we removed the absurd May Day Bank Holiday completely.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Mrs Duffy, Mrs Ledger and the insipid campaign

General elections generally come around every four or five years. A fifty year-old is likely only to have had the chance to vote in a general election at most six times. As we get older time seems to pass faster with the result that five years can go by in a flash but it's still five years. Some of us look back on events of twenty years ago and feel they were very recent, were we to add twenty years to our current age we would get a greater appreciation of just how long twenty years is in a human lifetime. Five years is also a long time. A lot happens in five years. I suppose most of it is spent in just run-of-the-mill living so it passes through our memories without leaving much of a trace. It is special events that leave memories: happy events, sad events, interesting events, unusual events. In the general scheme of things popping out to buy a loaf of bread and a pint of milk is not such an event unless you live in Rochdale and are called Mrs Duffy.

A lady not dissimilar to Mrs Duffy caught the television cameras and the public attention more than thirty years ago, her name was Mrs Ledger. It was during the 1979 election campaign, Mrs Ledger berated a government minister called Shirley Williams who was addressing an open-air meeting in Sussex. At the time inflation was one of the many curses afflicting the UK economy and Mrs Ledger was concerned that brown bread was rising fast in price. She waved a loaf at the minister and challenged her to think about the real cost of living for ordinary people. Her views struck a chord. Mrs Ledger had her fifteen and more minutes of fame because her attack on a failed government was graphic, entertaining and obviously correct. The 1979 campaign is not remembered for Mrs Ledger, however, but for combative debate between politicians about the future direction of the country.

Now we have had Mrs Duffy challenging the so-called Prime Minister about other real issues that affect ordinary people including immigration and the national debt. Since Mrs Duffy was exposed to the world the party leaders have mouthed a few platitudes about the issues she raised. Does anyone remember what they said? No, I thought not. Does anyone remember what she said? Yes, I thought so. This has been a stunningly insipid campaign which, I suspect, will be remembered more for her interjection than for anything else. Even if the result is a change of government I suspect Mrs Duffy will be remembered more than any policy the new Prime Minister put forward. We have, of course, seen the emergence of the millionaire leader of the Liberal Democrats, Mrs Batty, from behind the arras but his bubble appears to be deflating.

The elections of 1979, 1983 and 1987 are remembered for the titanic figure of Margaret Thatcher emerging, strengthening and then waning, during as well as after the campaigns. 1992 is memorable for Labour's implosion under the leadership of a patent incompetent and for the supposedly weak John Major showing great strength by literally standing on a soap box in town after town and facing anything the electorate wished to throw at him. 1997 saw the emerge of Tony Blair's charm offensive, 2001 saw the Conservatives fail by taking a path that was wholly unsuited to the electoral mood of the moment and 2005 witnessed Tony Blair asking for one last chance and the Conservatives falling short but making significant gains through a well-organised campaign under a leader whose personal standing increased as the month of electioneering progressed.

This time there is nothing. Mrs Batty did well until his policies were examined. Mr Cameron lost momentum before the campaign started by his clumsy handling of the cast-iron guarantee he had given over the Lisbon Treaty and has not regained it yet. Poor Gordon is lucky not to have faced opposition on the issues that worry the ordinary voter, until he met Mrs Duffy.

Now there are just a few days to go and neither of the major parties appears to have struck a chord as Mrs Ledger did with her loaf of sliced brown and Mrs Duffy did by slicing Brown.

Maybe Mr Cameron will make it to 10 Downing Street, time will tell. I bet this campaign is remembered not for anything he, poor Gordon or Mrs Batty said but for Mrs Duffy and only Mrs Duffy.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Keeping down the cost of passports

From time to time I am asked to countersign passport applications. These days there is quite a long list of people who can do this, what they have in common is formal qualifications or actual working experience from which it can be inferred that they might be vaguely respectable. I am by no means the only barrister who blushes at that concept, but there it is, I'm on the list so I can do it.

Yesterday I was told by a relative that her local medical practice charges £50 for a doctor or nurse to certify a passport application. I was absolutely stunned. How can anyone think it appropriate to charge money for doing this? It seems to me that charging a fee inverts the whole basis of having an official list of the sufficiently great and good. I am qualified to certify applications because my formal qualifications give me a recognised status.

The Law of Status used to be a subject in its own right, it was a course in university law degrees, these days it is rather out of fashion but it still exists. With status comes duty and one of those duties is not to profit from your status otherwise than by earning fees putting your knowledge and skills into use. One aspect of this is codified in the Bar's formal code of conduct which (paraphrased) says that no barrister should seek to gain any personal advantage by reason of his position as a barrister. For example, seeking to get a booking at a busy restaurant by pompously letting them know you like to wear a horsehair wig at work is strictly forbidden. No doubt few establishments would be sufficiently impressed but some might, so we are not allowed to do it and can be fined, suspended or disbarred if we do. This sort of example might seem trivial until you realise that it is not so much about preventing us getting an advantage as it is about others being disadvantaged by our actions.

Status is a double-edged concept. On the one hand it qualifies you to do work others are not permitted to do, often this means that your work is better paid than most. On the other hand it is a matter of how people perceive you. The days of doctors and magistrates being viewed with awe by Mr and Mrs Ordinary are behind us, but the presumption probably still exists that doctors and magistrates have qualities that Mr and Mrs Ordinary don't have. As such the status of being a doctor or a magistrate means that for some purposes they will probably be considered "better than" or "superior to" other people. Because that perception might exist, misuse of it has long been forbidden (yet long practised by those of the "do you know who I am?" school of thought).

It is a moot point whether it is legal to charge a fee for performing a non-professional task that relies on your status, where the profit takes the form of folding stuff rather than a nice table by the window it is arguable that it is unlawful. I am not going to dwell on that side of it today because it would take hours of detailed research. Regardless of the strict legality, I believe it is wholly wrong to make money from voluntarily exercising a power conferred by reason of nothing other than status.

If you think it's too much trouble to countersign a form and write a few words on the back of a small photo, just decline the invitation. If the person knows no one else who is qualified to do it then you should do it as a matter of duty. If they do know someone else then they must ask them once you have rebuffed their request. I have always consider it flattering to be asked to perform this small and simple task. I have also considered it something that I should do whenever asked, it is no burden but even if it were it is a small price to pay for the privileges that come with my official status; indeed I consider having the power to help someone I know obtain a passport is itself one of those privileges. It is not a service I perform in the exercise of my profession it is assistance given to someone I know who is kind enough to entrust that task to me.

Now I'm going to have to spend a day or two in the library researching the lawfulness of imposing a charge. I do hope I conclude it is unlawful, not only is it far too long since I had a serious paper published in the legal journals but I would love to nail the avaricious bastards.