Sunday, 30 October 2011

Should private schools be abolished?

Believe it or not, this ridiculous notion was recently debated at the illustrious Oxford Union.

Toby Young and Tom Paine have both blogged on the subject.

I don't know whether Toby was just playing to his audience with his opening remarks:
I want to start by agreeing with the honourable members on the other side. The fact that only seven per cent of the British population attended independent schools, yet 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors and 45% of top civil servants have been privately educated is iniquitous. Unquestionably, private schools have a good deal to answer for when it comes to the preservation of the English class system.
He went on to say
But what of the moral objection? Here, I think, is the nub of the issue. The issue doesn’t turn on the desirability of reducing the number of children at private schools – most of us agree about that – but on how far the state should be allowed to go in bringing about a socially desirable outcome.
Personally, I think he conceded too much. I commented on his blog as follows:
I find it disturbing that you accept their premise that there should be fewer children in private schools.

The less influence the state has in education, the better.

If we must subsidise education, let's at least allow full and unrestricted competition. Free schools should be truly free: to choose their curriculum, their entrance policies, and their fees. If they want to make a profit, and they can, good for them -- it shows they're meeting market demands efficiently.

Ideally there would be no subsidy at all. The whole system should be voluntary.

As for charities, I suggest we abolish them, along with corporation tax. Too many of them are fake anyway, paid by governments to astroturf.
Too extreme for the students at the Oxford Union, I'm sure. I don't know what Toby really believes, but if he was simply making a rhetorical calculation with a view to winning the debate, it was probably a sensible choice. Such a shame, though, that this is necessary. That state education is accepted as normal and desirable.

I refined my position slightly in a subsequent comment at The Last Ditch:
I actually have mixed feelings about how much say the government should have in taxpayer-funded schools (I don't want my money spent on creationism or madrassas).

Most likely, it [full freedom with the risk of misspent money] would be a price worth paying, but I can think of a couple of alternatives that might mitigate the impact:

1) Push education funding and oversight down to the local level. People in a community are more likely to agree about what should be taught than people across the entire country. Unfortunately, the socialists would kick up a stink about deprived areas, and the policy risks further balkanizing our country into Muslim and non-Muslim areas.

2) Give tax rebates to parents who put their children in private education (equivalent to the cost of state education), so they don't have to pay twice, and leave those private schools completely free to teach as they choose. State schools could remain pretty much as they are today. The policy would still distort the market by introducing a price floor, and non-parents would still be effectively subsidising parents, but it seems like an improvement on the status quo -- only those reliant on the state should have to accept education on the state's terms.

Of course, what the world really needs is a newly-discovered, mostly-unpopulated continent, where we can set up a libertarian society on an opt-in basis ...
You'll sense the despair in that last sentence. I firmly believe that a libertarian society would be both morally and materially superior to our current statist mess, but it's very difficult to see a path from where we are to where I'd like us to be. Too many people have bought into the current order. Too many have given up thinking for themselves.

But the fight goes on.

What's so great about an ever closer union anyway?

Hoping to find some historical references, I recently googled for "ever closer union" [1]. What turned up was an article in Time Magazine from Wednesday, Mar. 14, 2007.

I've reproduced their 20 points in full below, for the sake of posterity, and for your amusement.

The author's name isn't given, so we must assume this is the official voice of Time.

Can you imagine this being written today?

1 | No Kidding, Peace
It was the Americans — with the Marshall Plan, and then nato — who laid the groundwork, but the E.U. has helped to give Western Europe its most peaceful 60 years since records were first kept. Here's the big picture: France and Germany had fought a war in each of the three generations before the Treaty of Rome. Twice Europe's wars had sucked in the rest of the world. By locking together economies, societies and political structures, the E.U. has made such horrors unimaginable. For that alone, give thanks.

2 | The French Countryside
There has to be something to be said for the Common Agricultural Policy, and indeed there is. The timeless contours of la France profonde — at least south of the wheat and beet belt — are a testimony to the long subsidy of French farming. The cap may offend free-trade purists, but on a summer morning somewhere in the Dordogne there's something to be said for impurity.

3 | Easier Travel
The Oresund Bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö; the Channel Tunnel; high-speed rail links snaking out from France — all have done their bit to knit the Continent closer together than ever before. But perhaps above all it is the growth of budget airlines — stimulated by regulations that came into force in 1997, allowing an airline from one member state to operate a route in another — that has made easy travel around Europe available to all.

4 | Ireland's Revival
E.U. structural funds aren't the only reason that the Emerald Tiger roars, and Ireland isn't the only place where money from Brussels has helped build a modern infrastructure. But there's something about the scale of the transformation of Ireland's economy since membership in 1973 that boggles the mind.

5 | That Burgundy Passport
Remember the days when your passport got scrutinized by some suspicious official on even the most straightforward trip from Innsbruck to Bolzano? Some of us do. But since the signing of the Schengen Agreement in Luxembourg in 1985, the free movement of people has become more than an aspiration — and an attribute of modern Europe, remarkably, that has survived the struggle against terrorism of the last decade.

6 | GSM
You may not know that it stands for Global System for Mobile communications, but the E.U.'s decision in 1987 to adopt a common standard for digital mobile telephony gave both the telecoms and handset manufacturers like Ericsson and Nokia the security of knowing that there was a huge single market for their products. The consequence: a whole new appreciation for the virtues of the opposable thumb.

7 | Work Where You Want
It took years for the Treaty of Rome's dream of a single labor market to come to fruition, but now — cue joke about Polish plumbers — the right to live, work, and indeed retire, in another Union country is established, and such freedoms will gradually be extended to citizens from the 12 countries that joined since 2004. This means working to the same rules, too; though national legislatures had taken the lead, the Treaty itself enshrined the principle of equal pay for equal work for men and women, while the 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights proclaims workers' entitlements on issues from labor mobility and collective bargaining to equal opportunities.

8 | Good News for Galicia
And Wales, Sardinia and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. For regions on the periphery of their nations, with proud cultures and traditions of their own, the E.U. has been a godsend. The Committee of the Regions provides a political voice while the E.U.'s regional policy has channeled funds for projects aimed to tackle economic and social disparities within member countries. The consequence? Not a Europe homogeneously harmonized, but one that is more diverse than ever before.

9 | Cern
Since 1954 the European Organization for Nuclear Research on the outskirts of Geneva has been in the forefront of advanced particle physics, figuring out what stuff we're made of. Bonus: Tim Berners-Lee was on the staff there when he developed a new way for scientists to share information over the Internet — the World Wide Web.

10 | The Euro
The single currency — introduced on Jan. 1, 2002, and now used by 315 million people in 13 countries — did more than eliminate those tiresome collections of small coins that we used to bring back from vacation. By making prices transparent, the euro made the single European market a reality.

11 | Airbus
Sure, we know, the jewel of European industrial collaboration looks pretty scratched these days as the aerospace company's management weaknesses are exposed. And yes, "launch aid" for new planes is a taxpayer subsidy by any other name. But the weirdly cobbled together planes — wings made in Britain, tail fins in Germany — have at least ensured that there's some competition in the global commercial aviation market, and forced Boeing of the U.S. to raise its own game.

12 | Better Football
Started as the European Cup in 1955, dominated by Real Madrid in the early years, the Champions League now gets audiences from Minsk to Munster watching the same images, and the final each year has become Europe's Super Bowl. Plus: the Bosman case in 1995 — where the European Court ruled that players at the end of their contracts could move freely between clubs — enabled top teams to become the collection of international talents they are now.

13 | Erasmus
Since 1987, over 1.5 million university students have benefited from the Erasmus European exchange program and taken comparative knowledge of local beers to unimagined heights. The E.U.'s Lifelong Learning Programme has a $9 billion budget for the next seven years to develop areas such as cooperation in education policy, student exchanges and adult learning.

14 | Tabloid Heaven
British Euro-skepticism may irritate others, but let's be fair — it has much contributed to the gaiety of nations. What would the London red tops do without the constant supply of stories — most of them urban myths — about European standardization of everything from cucumbers to condoms? Our favorite: the widely reported claim that E.U. safety rules required circus tightrope walkers and jugglers to wear hard hats.

15 | The Fourth Movement of Beethoven's Ninth
To tell the truth, we find the "Choral" a bit crass, as symphonies go. But at least since Beethoven's tune was adopted as the E.U.'s anthem in 1985, kids learn at least one bit of classical music. It would be even nicer if they knew the words of Friedrich von Schiller's Ode to Joy. Plus: as flags go, those gold stars on a blue field make a pretty decent one.

16 | Clean Beaches
In 2005, 96% of Europe's coastal beaches were deemed clean enough for swimming, thanks to the 1976 Bathing Water Directive — toughened up last year — which set binding minimum water-quality standards. More than 200 pieces of E.U. environmental law, aimed at staunching toxic fumes, eliminating dangerous pesticides, phasing out cfcs, protecting birds and creating the European Environment Agency have generally made the place more pleasant.

17 | Safer Food
In 2005 French President Jacques Chirac was recorded unawares by a French journalist joking with the then German Chancellor and Russian President, "the only thing [Britain has] ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease." His point, surely, was that food scares such as bse had the salutary effect of speeding moves to set basic health and labeling standards. The European Food Safety Authority was established in 2002, and in 2006, food-labeling regulations were tightened to substantiate nutritional claims like "low-fat" and "lowers cholesterol."

18 | Taking Climate Change Seriously
Al Gore has been the Cassandra of global warming, but the E.U. was the driving force behind the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. As part of the Kyoto process, the E.U. set up its Emissions Trading Scheme, a market to trade pollution permits for carbon dioxide emissions. In recent months, Europe has aimed for even lower emissions standards through initiatives on cars and aircraft exhaust, and has already set minimum biofuel targets.

19 | A Reason to Go to Brussels
We would not go so far as to say that we love the place, but the Belgian capital deserves more respect than it gets. The food and beer are great, it's developed a nicely cosmopolitan flavor and it's more green than almost any other European capital. It is also the home of Magritte, Bruegel and Tintin, is a center of Art Nouveau and has enough Gothic architecture to do you for a lifetime.

20 | Eastward Look, the Land is Bright
There were times when it seemed bogged down in bureaucratic technicalities, but the decision after the fall of the Berlin Wall to offer membership to the former communist nations of Eastern Europe was a courageous and generous act of leadership. There are now 11 former Soviet republics and East bloc states in the E.U., and the boundaries of democracy and free markets have been decisively moved East.

[1] My recollection was correct. The phrase appears at the very beginning of the Treaty of Rome: "DETERMINED to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe".

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Absolute and relative poverty

Daniel Hannan writes:

Here's a bit of good news: we can look forward to a sharp decline in poverty over the next two years. No doubt Polly Toynbee is even now composing a paean of praise to David Cameron for achieving what Labour never could.

Oh, hang on. On closer inspection, it turns out that things aren't quite so straightforward. The reason fewer people will be poor is that poverty, these days, is defined as earning less than 60 per cent of median income. Although downturns are bad for everyone, including the destitute, wages are depreciating in real terms faster than state benefits. People dependent on welfare payments will be worse off in absolute terms, but their incomes will fall more slowly than those of working people. As the median wage drops, the poverty line drops with it.

Thus we see the absurdity of the Joseph Rowntree/IFS measure of poverty – the measure uncritically accepted by the BBC and most other media. I've remarked before that, by these metrics, policies that shift people from dependency into productive jobs are defined as 'regressive'. Now we see that, by the same token, an absolute decline in Britain's living standards means a reduction in poverty.

Here's what the IFS report itself (PDF) has to say on the matter:

the living standards of low-income families are set to fall over the period - which will increase absolute poverty - but they are forecast to fall by less than the living standards of families at median income, and so relative poverty is forecast to have fallen in 2010-11. Indeed, at its low point, real median household income is forecast to be 7% lower in 2012-13 than it was in 2009-10, and to remain below its 2009-10 level until at least 2015-16. This unprecedented collapse in living standards is chiefly due to the (actual or forecast) high inflation and weak earnings growth over this period. As families in poverty get much of their income from state benefits and tax credits, which are typically increased in line with inflation, a fall in real earnings closes the gap between them and families around median income, who get much of their income from earnings.
But that doesn't quite capture the full absurdity of their definitions, because it turns out that "absolute poverty" is also relative:
The Child Poverty Act, passed with all-party support in 2010, commits successive governments to the eradication of child poverty by 2020. The Act lists four measures of child poverty, each with their own target which needs to be met for child poverty to be said to be eradicated, but this Commentary concentrates on relative and absolute poverty, as the other measures cannot yet be modelled. The Act defines an individual to be in relative poverty if his or her household’s equivalised income is below 60% of the median in that year; and he or she is in absolute poverty if the household’s equivalised income is below 60% of the 2010-11 median income, adjusted for inflation.

I couldn't quite believe it, so I decided to look up the text of the Act:
The absolute low income target:

(1)The absolute low income target is that less than 5% of children who live in qualifying households live in households falling within the relevant income group.

(2)For the purposes of this section, a household falls within the relevant income group, in relation to a financial year, if its equivalised net income for the financial year is less than 60% of the adjusted base amount.

(3)The adjusted base amount”, in relation to a financial year, is the base amount adjusted in a prescribed manner to take account of changes in the value of money since the base year.

(4)In this section—

  • the base amount” means the amount of median equivalised net household income for the base year;

  • the base year” means the financial year beginning with 1 April 2010.

I'm not sure whether the actual figure is available yet. The latest ONS report I was able to find, Social Trends 41 - Income and Wealth (PDF), has the data for 2008/09:

It shows a mean weekly household disposable income [1] of £507 per week (£26,364 p.a.) and median of £407 per week (£21,164 p.a.). That puts 60% of median at £244 per week (£12,688 p.a.; £1057 per month).

Now, that's not a huge amount of money to play with, but it's more than enough to cover the essentials — food, shelter, clothing, and housing. It's a far cry from a dollar a day! And the numbers already take into account the challenges of larger families [2].

To put this in context, let's look at the ONS figures for household income over the last 40 years:

There we are, then. Although 'relative poverty' will never disappear, all we need to do get rid of 'absolute poverty' is to drive median incomes back down to where they were in the mid 80s.

I'm sure Caroline Lucas could arrange that.

[1] "Disposable income is the amount of money that households have available for consumption expenditure or savings and is calculated by taking total income from all sources and deducting expenditure on taxes, social contributions and other expenses such as insurance premiums" — it all seems a bit arbitrary to me, and I'd prefer to have details of the "other expenses", but hey ho.

[2] Note that these are 'equivalised' values, assuming a childless couple as a baseline, with some arbitrary weights for spouses and children of different ages to fudge the values. Appendix 5 of Social Trends 39 (PDF) explains the details.

Labour resurgent; let the polls be wrong!

I don't know how I missed the news reports at the time, but it seems Labour are actually ahead of the Conservatives in the polls, and have been for some time:

I can imagine very few things worse than our current government, but a Labour majority would surely be among them, especially since we'd be stuck with it until 2020!

I can understand people abandoning the Conservatives. What I can't understand is them turning to Labour. And yet support for that party, which did so much to destroy Britain over its 13 year reign, has risen from 34% in May 2010 to 42% today.

The only potentially encouraging sign is that those intending to vote small has doubled, from 7% shortly after the election to 14% today. The bad news is that as many people seem prepared to vote Green as UKIP.

Source: Reuters/ Ipsos MORI October Political Monitor; Fieldwork: 22-24 October 2011 (PDF)

We have just 3.5 years for the electorate to come to their senses.

Tebbit on the way forward for Europe

In light of our greatly diminished sovereignty, and our almost total lack of influence in the EU (detailed in my previous post), Lord Tebbit considers the best way forward:

There are three possible ways to resolve the matter. One is to surrender our remaining independence, join the euro and advance to political union. Another is to simply leave the EU and stand back as it is engulfed in economic and political crisis, not next week, perhaps not next year, but inevitably because political union over such disparate nations will not work. We would however be badly harmed by that collapse. The third is to at least try to develop an alternative European architecture to preserve open and free markets in our mutual interest, ready for when even the eurocrats are compelled to face reality.

Tebbit discussed this third option in a previous post:

we should begin to draft the outline of a new European Treaty which would create a wider EFTA like structure with better provisions for trans-border controls over matters such as pollution, and would allow those states wishing to achieve total integration within a single state to do so. There might be such a state centred on Germany, and perhaps one on the north coast of the Mediterranean, and they could inherit the Commission without charge. Thus the integrationists could have their way to ever closer union between nations who may want it, and the rest of us could simply be individual nation states, all as members of the super-EFTA.

It would be an attractive formula for many in the Baltics, the central European states such as Poland and the Czech and Slovak Republics, not to mention Ireland. Here we could have a referendum to give the Government a strong negotiating mandate, and if Brussels was obstructive, to call a European Conference (a new 21st century Concert of Europe) to convert the draft into a new Treaty which would annul the Treaty of Rome.

Tebbit is under no illusions that transforming the EU into a more sensible arrangement would be easy:

At present that looks to be formidable, perhaps an impossible, task. However, the history of this kingdom has been one of having to intervene in our own interest to save the masters of Europe from their follies. So now once again it may be our future.

Personally, I am among those who want to exit first, and then re-engage, but Tebbit sets himself apart from our Coalition overlords by his clear expression of his objectives, and his firm statement of what we should do if these are not met.

It will be very interesting to see what role Europe plays in the 2015 general election:

1285 days to go!

Who rules Europe?

I've written before about how difficult it is for British MEPs to influence anything in the European Parliament:

If 51% of MPs wanted to reverse the UK smoking ban, they could do it tomorrow. But if 100% of British MEPs wanted to reverse an EU smoking ban, they wouldn't be anywhere close to a majority in the European Parliament.

British MEPs control just 72 seats out of 736 (9.8%). Even if they were united on an issue, they would need to convince 297 of their European colleagues. For 60 million Britons to re-allow smoking in British pubs, we would need to consult the representatives of 440 million foreign residents, many of whom will never even visit Britain, much less live and work here.

It's actually worse than that, since the European Parliament doesn't have the power to initiate legislation. They only 'debate', and occasionally seek to amend, the legislation handed down to them by the Commission.

The EU's Europa website explains their "unique institutional set-up":

Setting the agenda

The European Council sets the EU's overall political direction – but has no powers to pass laws. Led by its President – currently Herman Van Rompuy – and comprising national heads of state or government and the President of the Commission, it meets for a few days at a time at least every 6 months.


There are 3 main institutions involved in EU legislation:

  • the European Parliament, which represents the EU’s citizens and is directly elected by them;
  • the Council of the European Union, which represents the governments of the individual member countries. The Presidency of the Council is shared by the member states on a rotating basis.
  • the European Commission, which represents the interests of the Union as a whole.

Together, these three institutions produce through the "Ordinary Legislative Procedure" (ex "co-decision") the policies and laws that apply throughout the EU. In principle, the Commission proposes new laws, and the Parliament and Council adopt them. The Commission and the member countries then implement them, and the Commission ensures that the laws are properly applied and implemented.

I don't know whether "in principle" is a tacit admission of the fact that the Eurocrats don't respect their separation of powers, but if anyone's leaning on the unelected Commission to propose new laws, it's not the people's representatives in Parliament, but rather the ministers on the Council of the European Union and the heads of government on the European Council (two different but similar-sounding councils, there's also a third: the non-EU Council of Europe; the confusion is deliberate, I'm sure).

Lord Tebbit's latest blog highlights a worrying feature of these executive Council gatherings:

Last Monday, I asked in the House of Lords whether an agreement by the seventeen eurozone member states to make agreements outside the Council of Ministers and then to vote in the Council as a bloc for such agreements would constitute a transfer of powers sufficient to trigger a referendum here. Lord Strathclyde, the Government Leader in the Lords, understood my point clearly enough. That was that the eurozone group can always outvote the remaining member states. What we said or how we voted would have no effect on the decisions which they reached.

Tom Strathclyde confirmed that as no treaty amendment was involved, no referendum would be triggered. Now it seems that the Prime Minister has understood the problem. We and the other nine states outside the eurozone have been disfranchised on many of the key questions of taxation and commercial regulation.

The British are powerless on the EU Councils, powerless on the EU Commission, and powerless in the EU Parliament. Is that the way our leaders in Westminster like it?

Whoever rules Europe, it's not us!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

If not now, when?

As Labour and the Liberal Democrats conspired to deny the public a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, David Cameron insisted that one was appropriate:
Where you stand on the referendum says a lot about your politics. It says a lot about how much you value trust between the government and the governed.
Gordon Brown's flip-flopped on this before. First he was against the Constitution, then he was for it; one day he promised a referendum, the next he backtracked. While he has chopped and changed, our position has remained exactly the same. We are the only major party to have consistently said that it is up to the British people to decide on our future in Europe.
Cameron recognised that the EU post-Lisbon would be a fundamentally different beast from the EU pre-Lisbon. But with the metamorphosis complete, he now denies us a referendum on our relationship with the creature. It says a lot about his politics, and how much he values trust between the government and the governed.

Daniel Hannan's latest blog post is well worth reading:
No one has yet answered Charles Walker's question. 'If not now, when?' asked the amiable and popular MP for Broxbourne during Monday's referendum debate, before promptly sitting down. Flawless brevity; flawless pertinence.

We used to be told that a major renegotiation would be inappropriate because the EU wasn't a pressing issue; now we're told it's inappropriate because the EU is a pressing issue. In fact, of course, the dégringolade of the euro offers us a unique opportunity. The 17 eurozone countries have rather bigger things to worry about at the moment than whether the UK is in the Common Fisheries Policy, the financial services framework or the employment directives. They need our permission to make treaty changes in which we have little direct interest. Any other member state in our situation would exact a price for its acquiescence.

Ministers are making vague noises to the effect that we might seek to repatriate jurisdiction in the event of a future treaty change, but almost no one is convinced. MPs know that there is already a treaty change before Parliament: the one-paragraph modification which will retrospectively authorise the bailouts. They know that the Government did not seek to recover powers from Brussels in exchange and that, despite all the verbiage about referendum locks, there was no question of putting the amended treaty to the voters.
Where do we go from here? Hannan has a sensible suggestion:
The way out is to set a date for an In/Out referendum as an agreed end-point of any renegotiation talks. It doesn't have to be tomorrow, or next month or even next year. If the Government is genuinely worried about the timing, it could declare that the referendum will take place on, say, 7 May 2015, the date of the next general election. Supporters of EU membership would then have every incentive to improve our membership terms in advance of the poll.
Hard to argue with, if you respect logic and democracy. Sadly, Cameron and his ilk respect neither.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Betrayed by our political class

As Daniel Hannan has often noted, mainstream political pundits make much of the 'Tory split' aspect of the EU referendum rebellion, but the question we should really be asking is why so few of our elected representatives, across all the major parties, are prepared to give the people a say on who governs this country.

The DUP and the Green Party both gave 100% support to the referendum proposal (8/8 and 1/1 respectively). Lady Sylvia Hermon (Independent) also backed it.

By contrast, only 26% of Conservatives MP backed it (81/307), along with just 7% of Labour MPs (19/258) and one lonely Liberal Democrat, Adrian Sanders, out of 57 (less than 2%).

And it's not as if the people are indifferent on the matter. A recent Guardian poll found:

There is a clear majority for staging a referendum in all social classes and regions of the UK. Men and women are similarly keen, although rather more Conservative (71%) than Labour voters (65%) are calling for a poll.

Overall, just 23% of all voters say they would be against a vote that "could ask the public whether the UK should remain in the European Union or pull out instead".

That's 77% of the public in favour of an in-out referendum, compared with 17% of MPs (111/650).

All parties broke previous promises for a referendum on the EU Constitution Lisbon Treaty, but the Lib Dems win the hypocrisy prize:

When our elected representatives refuse to represent us; when they break their promises with impunity; when the only say we get is a 5-yearly multiple choice, and whoever gets in continues to hand our money and our sovereignty to foreign bureaucrats; you have to wonder whether we pass that most basic test of a democracy: the ability to remove our government without violence.

A BMW with lasers!

Recently seen at an airport:

It turns out this is the i8 concept car. I've always been a sucker for such things, and even though this one panders to the eco-mentalists, it does look quite stunning.

Under the bonnet:
At the front axle is the electric motor adopted from the BMW i3 Concept and modified for use in the BMW i8 Concept's hybrid power train, while a 164 kW/220 hp turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine developing up to 300 Nm (221 lb-ft) of torque drives the rear axle. Together, the two drive units take the vehicle to a governed top speed of 250 km/h (155 mph). Like the electric motor, the 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine was developed entirely in-house by the BMW Group and represents the latest state of the art in conventional engine design. Acceleration of 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in under five seconds combined with fuel consumption in the European cycle of under three litres per 100 kilometres (approx. 94 mpg imp) are figures currently beyond the capability of any vehicle powered by a combustion engine of comparable performance.
They also claim:
all-electric driving range of approximately 35 kilometres (20 miles). The battery can be fully recharged in two hours at a standard power socket.
But what really got my attention was this:
For the first time BMW introduces as part of the BMW i8 Concept the newly developed Laser Light.
The intensity of laser light poses no possible risks to humans, animals or wildlife when used in car lighting. Amongst other things, this is because the light is not emitted directly, but is first converted into a form that is suitable for use in road traffic.
Finally, a car with laaaaasers!

It will be interesting to see what eventually reaches the road.

Labour MP votes sensibly

On Thursday I blogged about my most recent letter to my MP:
Dear Mr Smith,

When I wrote to you in March, you replied that you are "sympathetic in principle to our membership of the EU being subject to a further referendum at some point, given in particular it is now so long since the original one on the Common Market, and so much having changed since then".

I see that you have not yet signed the People's Pledge.


How do you intend to vote on Monday?

The proposed referendum question seems perfectly reasonable to me, and long overdue.
I was delighted to receive the following reply yesterday:
Thanks for this. I see I got your name wrong in our previous email exchange; please accept my apologies for that.

I voted this evening in favour of a referendum.

Best wishes,

Andrew Smith MP
And indeed, the BBC's coverage shows that Mr Smith was one of only 19 Labour MPs to put country and constituents before party:

Meanwhile, David Cameron wins the PR-man prize for the boldest truth inversion of 2011:

Some Conservative MPs were annoyed that the party imposed a three-line whip on a backbench motion.

Asked whether he regretted the order - which meant any Conservative MP who voted against the government would be expected to resign from government jobs - he said: "No I don't, in politics you have to try to confront the big issues, rather than try to sweep them under the carpet and that's what we did yesterday."

So by refusing to allow the people a say on the EU, Cameron claims he is not sweeping a big issue under the carpet. Amazing.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

This parliament will finally debate an EU referendum

I recently tweeted about some good news. The latest post from Daniel Hannan has the details:

On Monday, in response to a popular petition, the House of Commons will divide on the following motion:

This House calls upon the Government to introduce a Bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the United Kingdom:
A) Should remain a member of the European Union on the current terms;
B) Should leave the European Union;
C) Should re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation.

Cameron and Clegg must be furious, and will no doubt be instructing the whips to deny the people a say. Will our supposed representatives show backbone?

I have sent my MP another email:
Dear Mr Smith,

When I wrote to you in March, you replied that you are "sympathetic in principle to our membership of the EU being subject to a further referendum at some point, given in particular it is now so long since the original one on the Common Market, and so much having changed since then".

I see that you have not yet signed the People's Pledge.

How do you intend to vote on Monday?

The proposed referendum question seems perfectly reasonable to me, and long overdue.
I eagerly await a reply.


I've just seen James Delingpole's latest blog. He quotes a Telegraph article that confirms my suspicions:

Even as MPs agreed to hold a Commons vote on a referendum, government sources made clear that the Tories would be whipped to vote against a poll.

Mr Cameron's decision to impose a three-line whip has angered many MPs, since the vote was called under rules the Coalition promised would give backbenchers more freedom.

Toby Young on Ricky Gervais

Toby Young's latest blog post is worth quoting in full:
I'm torn over the Ricky Gervais story. On the one hand, I'm delighted he's getting it in the neck. He's a conceited, vainglorious, self-aggrandising little tick whose carapace of ego is so thick it could take a direct hit from an Exocet missile and still remain intact. Yet, at the same time, I cannot join the hordes of hand-wringers who are tut-tutting over his use of the word "mong" on Twitter. Yes, it's offensive and, no, I don't buy for a minute his excuse that he was just using it as a synonym for "dopey" or "stupid" and had absolutely no idea it was short for mongoloid.

But as a libertarian Tory I don't think any group should be out of bounds when it comes to making jokes, however innocent or vulnerable. If we ring-fence people with Downs as a protected species on the ground that they've done nothing to deserve their disadvantages shouldn't we also ring-fence the stupid and the ignorant and the Welsh? (Okay, I added that last category to be provocative, but you get the idea.) If we confined those we made jokes about to just those who deserved to be the object of ridicule, life would be pretty dull. The best jokes are unfair, cruel, offensive … you name it. That's what makes them funny.

So carry on Ricky. You're an odious little man, but you're entitled to make jokes about whomever you like.
I couldn't put it better.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Two today

This blog is two today*.

Time flies!

Somewhere between eking out reasonable living and having a bit of fun, I've found time for 542 posts and 918 tweets.

This time last year, I resolved:
to put aside my daily rage and produce more posts that I can be proud of, even if that means producing fewer overall.
That October resolution was about as successful as the usual January kind.

I also vowed to read more books, but though I've bought a copy of the excellent Libertarian Reader, and more recently a signed copy of The Art of Suppression, I haven't got very far with either. On a recent flight to Toronto, however, I found time for Nigel Lawson's An Appeal to Reason: A cool look at global warming. I recommend it to everyone.

Last year my blog had received visitors from 40 countries. It's now up to 69, including one from Iran.

Last year saw visits from 77 different UK cities. The total is now 204.

Oxford still tops the list, and much as I'd like to claim a substantial local following, I think it's still mostly me.

My most popular post by far was one about aardvarks, and my follow-up piece about the strange aardvark traffic itself saw many visitors, so I introduced a special aardvark filter to Google Analytics. It sounds like the work of bots to me, but who knows? Maybe I do have a following among aardvark aficionados.

My blogroll isn't so different from last year. I still follow DK and Tom Paine, though both blogged less in 2011 (for different reasons). I still look to The Cobden Centre for voices of sanity in the economic wilderness. I still enjoy the posts from Daniel Hannan and Norman Tebbit, though they seem increasingly to repeat themselves (I can't really blame them; I do the same).

For a bit of variety, I've added Toby Young and James Delingpole to the list. There was a time when I was put off by the strident tone of the latter, but I'm now a fan. I'm not sure whether this signals enlightenment or madness. I'm certainly more firmly sceptical of AGW than I was a year ago, as my environment blogs attest.

My latest blogroll addition, and one of my favourites, is Christopher Snowdon's Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. His cool analysis and sharp wit are the perfect antidote to neo-prohibitionist stat-fudging and nanny state hectoring.

For my part, though lacking in both time and talent, I will blog on. It will be interesting, one day, to see what my grandchildren make of it.

Thanks again to those who've taken the time to read here, and especially to those who have commented.

* 'today' being the 13th of October, 2011, when I started writing this post, not the 31st, which is when I finally posted it!

Boxed into a corner

Every once in a while, you see a speech in Hansard that tells it how it is:

It seems to me that we are now boxed into a corner. We know that we have got into this mess through low interest rates, yet we cannot now afford to allow interest rates to rise—far too many people are far too indebted.
The Chancellor is correct, and has been for some time, to call for an economy based on “save and invest” and on real productive savings. It does not do to expand the money supply in excess of real savings, by which I mean prior production and consumption that is less than that production. The accumulation of capital is the only sustainable way to raise real wages for normal people.

Hannan: The EU will never reform the CAP or anything else

With the possible exception of the CFP, nothing better sums up the corrupt corporatist collectivism of the EU, and our self-destructive relationship with it, than the CAP.

Daniel Hannan's latest blog puts it beautifully:

Seven years ago, Tony Blair surrendered a large chunk of Britain's EU budget rebate in return for a radical overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy. Brussels trousered the money, but the promised CAP reform never materialised.

Now the Commission wants the rest of our rebate, but isn't even pretending that CAP reform is on the agenda. Agriculture will continue to absorb nearly 40 per cent of the entire EU budget, and spending will in fact increase slightly in absolute terms. Nor is it just Eurosceptics who are protesting: the Euro-enthusiast greenie pressure groups are every bit as angry.

We shall carry on, as we have for the past 40 years, subsidising wealthy French farmers at the expense of poor African farmers. Those self-styled Eurosceptics in Britain who talk of reforming the EU should ponder the story of the CAP and search their souls.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

DK: with this manacle, I thee wed

When I saw the story on BBC Breakfast about new laws on the way to combat 'forced marriages', I felt I should blog about it. Thankfully, DK has saved me the trouble:

Over at the Commentator, Hannah Stuart has lauded Dave Cameron's plans to make forced marriage illegal.
In a speech on immigration today, Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to criminalise forced marriage, a move that is likely to have a strong impact on tackling the wider issue of honour-based violence in this country.

Forced marriage should not be conflated with arranged marriage: individuals enter into arranged marriages voluntarily; whereas people forced into marriage are usually tricked into going abroad, physically threatened and/or emotionally blackmailed to do so.

No, Hannah—no, no, no!

One of the tendencies that we all used to excoriate NuLabour for was their mania for making law after law after law.

"Don't make more laws," we cried. "Just bloody well enforce the ones that we already have!"

The same is precisely true for this case. Much as I deplore forced marriages, the laws to tackle such things are already on the statute books: both kidnapping and slavery are illegal already (as defined in a number of different offences)—simply enforce the laws that we already have!

And I don't care whether this will help tackle the "wider issue of honour-based violence in this country": assault, rape and murder are already illegal—once again, simply enforce the laws that we already have!
He concludes:
Prosecute them as rapists; prosecute them as women beaters; prosecute them as murders ... charge and convict these scum under the existing laws, so that they understand that they are not exempt from the law of this land.

And, in the name of all that's unholy, Cameron, fulfil your own promises and start cutting some laws—not imposing more!
I couldn't say it better.

Monday, 10 October 2011

No, Minister

I just caught up with a brilliant speech by Peter Lilley from a couple of years ago:
When I was a Minister, officials would frequently say, “No, Minister, you can’t do that”, because something was within the exclusive competence of the European Union.

If the Lisbon treaty goes through, a further salami slice of powers will be transferred to the European institutions. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who served with distinction on the European constitutional convention and who knows more about the implications of the Lisbon treaty than almost anyone else in the House, except for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), recently told the Fabian Society:

    “If the Treaty of Lisbon is ratified and devolution...continues apace, in fifteen to twenty years this House of Commons will have only two raise taxes authorise war”.

She went on to say that we are making

    “fewer and fewer decisions that matter”

to people’s daily lives, and that she could not tell her constituents that the buck stops here.

Admittedly, declaring wars kept Parliament pretty busy under the previous Prime Minister, as does raising taxes under the current incumbent of No. 10. However, our constituents want us to wage fewer wars, raise fewer taxes and focus on the huge range of issues that affect their daily lives, over which they assume and hope that we retain the powers that they pay us to exercise on their behalf.

Few voters, or even Members of this House, fully realise how many powers have been, or are about to be, transferred elsewhere. There are three reasons for this. The first is that Governments of all persuasions deny that any significant powers are being transferred. The second is that, once powers have been transferred, Ministers engage in a charade of pretence that they still retain those powers. Even when introducing measures that they are obliged to bring in as a result of an EU directive, they behave as though the initiative were their own.

Indeed, Ministers often end up nobly accepting responsibility for laws that they actually opposed when they were being negotiated in Brussels. They took the rap for costly and troublesome home improvement packs—which have added to the woes of the housing market—even though they were actually mandated by a Brussels directive. Similarly, they took the rap for fortnightly bin collections, hospital reconfiguration and a number of other measures, even though they had all been triggered by directives from Brussels. At first sight, it is odd that Ministers—who, in this Government, are not normally slow to blame others—should nobly defend and accept responsibility for Brussels’ legislative progeny, in whose conception they have often played little part. They prefer to claim paternity rather than admit impotence—the fate of the cuckold across the ages.

The third reason is that the transfer of power occurs not all in one go but by a process of salami-slicing, and it is easy to close our eyes to what is happening. As a result, there is a danger of Parliament sleepwalking into becoming little more than a provincial assembly. If that is what is happening, we should be paid accordingly—just as district councillors get less than county councillors, and county councillors get less than Members of the devolved Assemblies.

I do not have a masochistic desire to see MPs’ pay cut, but I want still less to see our powers diminish. The best way to prevent the latter might be to link pay to responsibilities. I do not know any Member of Parliament who entered Parliament to become financially better off. None the less, just as the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully, so the prospect of finding our pockets a bit emptier at the end of the month—and having to justify that to our spouses—might wake up those who have shut their eyes to what is happening. If we do not face up to what is happening, we will find ourselves being progressively relegated to what Bagehot called the dignified part of the constitution. As Tony Benn once rhetorically asked:

    “I wonder how long it took for the yeomen of the guard to realise that they were no longer part of the regular army.”

My Bill is designed to provide a wake-up call whenever we risk going further down that route, although I accept that it has little chance of becoming law in this Parliament. Those who support the transfer of power from here to supranational institutions should logically accept that our pay should reflect the diminution of our responsibilities. But, strangely, all the Euro-enthusiasts whom I asked to sponsor the Bill declined to do so without explaining why. Too many Members are happy to avert their eyes from what is happening, so long as they retain the prestige and emoluments that were appropriate to a fully sovereign Parliament. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas.

Hansard (Commons), 3 June 2008, column 644 (emphasis mine)

H/T to Olly Figg, who features this speech in the Introduction to Europe On €387 Million A Day (page 26). I'm only part way through it, but it does seem worth reading, even though it's depressingly statist in parts.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Money printed, gold down

Bank of England prints £75 billion, gold falls.

Go figure.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Britannia save us

A year ago I wrote:
I recently purchased a few Silver Britannias.

Each contains one troy ounce (31.1g) of fine silver, and has a face value of £2.

The Royal Mint sells them for £22.50.
The Royal Mint is now selling them for £57.50.

I recently purchased some more, but at the more reasonable price of £32.36 from BullionByPost.

The 2011 design isn't nearly as nice as the 2010 (almost as if some subversive lefty has overlaid two symbols of Britain in an effort to deface them both) ...

... but the silver content is the same.

As it happened, BullionByPost initially (and wrongly) advised me that the Britannias would be unavailable for a few weeks, so I ordered an alternative.

It seemed appropriate. And these are some pandas that are worth saving.

Since my purchase, the Wise Men at Threadneedle Street have decided that what this country really needs is more pounds chasing the same goods and services.

Hoarding gold and silver does feel a bit apocalyptic, a bit tinfoil hat, but there is a certain reassurance in the fact that they can't just print more of it. I'm sure some of the savvier citizens of Weimar Germany felt the same way.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

RIP Steve Jobs

As I blogged in July, my first Mac was a G4 PowerBook, which I bought in Boston in 2005 after years of coveting those of richer colleagues. It was something special, and the first of many purchases from Apple.

Of all the tributes to Steve Jobs that I've read, the best and most moving was by Tom Paine at The Last Ditch:
Steve Jobs managed to live just two years longer than Mrs Paine. Cancer cut him down in the end though his wealth gave him unrestricted access to the best medical care in the world. I feel for his family today. They will feel that all their wealth and all their luck is in vain. I hope they will soon be able to look back with gratitude on a life lived well and thoroughly.

He was a business genius and - like all despised businessmen - did more good than any do-gooders. He was not really a technologist at all. Unlike his geeky competitors, he loved not the hardware or software, but what it could do and how well - if beautifully designed - it could enhance our lives. He made the world a better place, while making his partners, employees and family richer.
The video Paine linked to, of Steve Jobs's Stanford Commencement Address (from the same year I bought my PowerBook) is well worth watching.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Osborne takes a small step back from carbon loons

Another good post from James Delingpole:

One and a half cheers for George Osborne. As the UK economy prepares to hurl itself off a cliff, he has decided it should do so with a parachute with lots of holes in it. Which is an improvement on his Plan A, which was to do so with no parachute at all: (H/T Benny Peiser/Global Warming Policy Foundation)

George Osborne has vowed that the UK will not lead the rest of Europe in its efforts to cut carbon emissions, raising the prospect that the country's carbon targets could be watered down if the EU does not agree to more ambitious emission reduction goals.

In a potentially explosive intervention, Osborne insisted the government will only cut emissions in line with its neighbours in order to ensure British businesses are not put at a disadvantage.

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference on Monday, the Chancellor accused environmental regulations of "piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies" and argued that the government should not adopt green targets that damage the business sector.

As Allister Heath rightly notes, the announcement is not nearly as growth- and business-friendly as the Tory spinmeisters might like us to believe:

But the chancellor’s message – that carbon reduction would not take place any faster than in the rest of Europe – suffered from incorrect benchmarking. The UK’s rivals when it comes to the location of manufacturing activity are not in Europe – they are in emerging markets. It might have sounded like a pro-growth statement to the Treasury (which spends more and more time dealing with Brussels) but to UK Plc (which spends its time dealing with the world) it means nothing.

At least, though, it shows encouraging signs that the Coalition is trying to find wriggle room to escape from among the most damaging and expensive pieces of legislation in parliamentary history – the 2010 Climate Change Act which commits Britain to spending a minimum of £18 billion a year till 2050 chasing carbon reduction targets so hopelessly optimistic they could only be achieved by closing down the UK economy.

As I noted this morning on Norman Tebbit's latest post,
lumbering the UK with the world's most ambitious carbon-reduction plans ... will simply mean that the carbon gets produced elsewhere, while Britons miss out on the jobs and profits
The only 'sensible' option for forcibly reducing the carbon footprint of British consumers would be a tax on all goods, regardless of where they're produced.

But even this would be insane, partly because it's fiendishly difficult to calculate the total carbon output involved in the production and transportation of goods, partly because the UK consumption is inconsequential on a global scale, but mostly because CO2 isn't worth worrying about at all.

Global temperatures have been stable for the past decade. Even if they start to rise again, it's far from certain that that CO2 is the primary factor. Even if CO2 is the main driver, it's not clear that the costs of warming will outweigh the benefits. And even if the costs do outweigh the benefits, adaptation is likely to be far cheaper than avoidance.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Transparency and non-corporate vested interests

James Delingpole writes:

Top environmental campaigner George Monbiot has publicly disclosed his laundry list in order to show how transparent he is.

This is a comprehensive list of my sources of income, and any hospitality or gifts I receive (except from family and friends), beginning in September 2011.

I have opened this registry because I believe that journalists should live by the standards they demand of others, among which are accountability and transparency. One of the most important questions in public life, which is asked less often than it should be, is “who pays?”.

All well and good, though we might wonder who his friends are, and how much they have given him.

Monbiot concludes:
I believe that everyone who steps into public life should be obliged to show on whose behalf they are speaking: in other words who is paying them, and how much. I would like to see journalists, like MPs, become subject to a mandatory register of interests. But until that time I hope to encourage other journalists to declare the sources of their income voluntarily – by declaring mine.
A mandatory register for journalists sounds like a very scary idea to me, and we shouldn't be surprised that the likes of Monbiot support it.

But for key decision makers in the public sector, our supposed servants, it does seem appropriate to insist on transparency. Delingpole provides a rather shocking example:

Thanks to FOIA requests from the American Tradition Institute's Chris Horner we are learning more and more about the vast sums of luvverly dosh to be made for those lucky enough to be on the "correct" (ie Establishment) side of the global warming argument. For Jim "coal fired power stations are factories of death" Hansen, AGW has proved a very nice little earner indeed.

The lawsuit claims Hansen privately profited from his public job in violation of federal ethics rules, and NASA allowed him to do it because of his influence in the media and celebrity status among environmental groups, which rewarded him handsomely the last four years.

Gifts, speaking fees, prizes and consulting compensation include:

– A shared $1 million prize from the Dan David Foundation for his "profound contribution to humanity." Hansen's cut ranged from $333,000 to $500,000, Horner said, adding that the precise amount is not known because Hansen's publicly available financial disclosure form only shows the prize was "an amount in excess of $5,000."

– The 2010 Blue Planet prize worth $550,000 from the Asahi Glass Foundation, which recognizes efforts to solve environmental issues.

– The Sophie Prize for his "political activism," worth $100,000. The Sophie Prize is meant to "inspire people working towards a sustainable future."

– Speaking fees totaling $48,164 from a range of mostly environmental organizations.

– A $15,000 participation fee, waived by the W.J. Clinton Foundation for its 2009 Waterkeeper Conference.

– $720,000 in legal advice and media consulting services provided by The George Soros Open Society Institute. Hansen said he did not take "direct" support from Soros but accepted "pro bono legal advice."

Daniel Hannan has also picked up the story:

Oddly ... Monbiot says nothing about the money and influence on the other side. Yes, the oil, tobacco and (above all) pharma lobbies are active in politics – every day I spend as an MEP teaches me quite how active. Even more frenetic, however, are the poverty lobbyists and green NGOs: Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, War on Want, the WWF, Greenpeace and, not least, Christian Aid.

The global corporations and the global NGOs are mirror images of each other. Both distrust the democratic process, preferring to reach understandings with key opinion formers. Both, accordingly, love the EU, immediately intuiting that it was designed to be immune to public opinion. Yet, for some reason, most of those who complain about the anti-democratic tendencies of the multi-nationals have a blind spot when it comes to the eco-lobbies and anti-free-trade campaigns.


Saturday, 1 October 2011

Dodgy tracking from the Royal Mail

I've been in all morning awaiting a delivery from the Royal Mail.

There hasn't been a knock at the door, so I decided to check in at Imagine my surprise when I saw this:

Their website suggests:
If your item has been delivered to a residential address but you have not received it, please first check with family or neighbours to see if they signed for it. If you still cannot locate your item, contact Customer Services on 08457 740 740 or complete the enquiry form online and we will investigate the situation.

In most cases we will also provide an electronic Proof of Delivery (ePOD) on items that have been signed for. This will show the related Track and Trace number of the item, the time of delivery and most importantly, the printed and signed name of the person who received it.
Sounds very dodgy to me. Someone trying to meet their targets by faking deliveries?

UPDATE: I called Customer Services, who were monumentally unhelpful. They assured me that the delivery had been made at 12:30, but said it could take several days for them to track down the signature. The best they could suggest was to contact the local delivery office.

Thankfully I didn't have to do that, as a couple of minutes after I got off the phone, a man arrived to actually make the delivery!