31 July, 2008

The Minimum Wage

Today is also the tenth anniversary of the minimum wage, introduced by Tony Blair. Economic studies show that a minimum wage almost always leads to more unemployment, although this is denied by its supporters.

The problem is the level at which you set it. As from October this year it will be £5.73 per hour. Now, clearly, if it were £57.30, millions of workers would be laid off. Companies just couldn't pay it. If, by contrast it were £0.57 an hour it wouldn’t be of any help to anyone. The government has to set it where it brings some nominal enhancement to someone but causes as little damage to the economy as possible. It is a political patch up.

As things stand, if a business can afford to pay its workers only £5, and there are workers willing to work for that rate, it has to go underground, and when that happens fewer taxes are paid and training, safety procedures and so on are neglected. Some will remember the tragic case of the migrant workers drowned collecting cockles in Morecambe Bay a while back. The cockle business can’t pay as much as the minimum wage so it hires illegal immigrants and ignores their safety. Without the minimum wage those workers might still be alive today.

There is only one area in which I would support a minimum wage: if it were paid by the government. Everyone gets a minimum, and if you earn more than that the government pays you (‘negative income tax’) and if you earn more you pay taxes to the government. It could have to be tweaked a little to provide some incentives to work at the margin but it would simplify and reform the tax system, to everyone’s benefit. And the government would no longer be poking its nose into labour contracts entered into freely by both sides.

A Free thinker

Today would have been the 96th birthday of the Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman. He died in 2006. He was head of the Chicago School of libertarian free marketeers and the author of many of the free market reforms which have enriched the Western world.

"The market gives people what the people want instead of what other people think they ought to want. At the bottom of many criticisms of the market economy is really lack of belief in freedom itself."

30 July, 2008

PM's holiday snaps

Mr Brown has so little going for him that I hesitate to touch on the personal but I just wanted to ask: has there ever been a worse, more contrived political photo? The things you should know are:

Photographs with wives are supposed to give a normal, family sort of image. These two look like something from a horror movie.

When being photographed out of doors you are advised to point at something to introduce a little action to the picture. But look at Sarah Brown, who with bent elbow and extended finger seems to be pointing at something small, close at hand. An insect, perhaps.

Politicians are advised to do something with their hands so they don’t look like zombies. Brown is doing the ‘these are the crucial arguments’ pose but what is he talking about, on holiday in Southwold? Reciting the local statistics ‘twelve bus stops, forty-two percent of family pets are labradors..’ while his wife, bored to tears, says ‘I think that’s a bluebottle..’

And what are they wearing? Hard to find this stuff in a Welsh Oxfam shop.

Dear oh dear oh dear. If you can’t act, act natural.

The Beast is slain

On seeing the news of Labour’s disastrous by-election result in Glasgow East, Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, is reported to have said ‘this is my moment’. David Milliband, the Foreign Secretary, is reported to have arranged a nationwide tour on the absurd excuse of informing the public on the work of the Foreign Office (kow-towing to the Chinese, failing to take a stand on Zimbabwe or Burma, accepting everything Brussels throws at us – should be a laugh a minute). Indeed Milliband seems to be coming out. He writes a piece in the Guardian today. It is an odd monograph, seeming to say ‘let’s stand on our record and the Tories are empty vessels who don’t agree with us’. I rather think that to connect with the voters he will have to accept that much of Labour’s record is dismal. He needs to start apologising and showing Labour has changed, in the way Cameron has done for the Tories. A new leader will need to be seen as a new broom.

So is it all up for Brown in August? Some papers report that at least 10 ministers are threatening to resign if Gordon doesn’t throw in the towel.

At the same time, Boris Johnson writes that none of the contenders have the courage to stand against Gordon Brown, who will lead Labour into the next election. Others say that the brightest and best see themselves, doomed to defeat, as William Hague figures, history’s also-rans, if they lead the party now. They would rather sit this next election out and then become the new brooms.

My own view is that the Queen should not permit a second successive prime minister untested before the electorate, and that anyone attempting this, should Her Majesty roll over, would suffer for it at the hands of the voter.

But I think in this leadership fervour, this Kremlinology (did Jack Straw actually say.. or was he careful not to say..’) we are missing one of the most crucial political moments since the war. Gordon Brown will go, now or in 2010, and we will see the passing of the last major political figure who believes that more taxing and more spending, more of the ‘sometimes the gentleman in Whitehall really does know best’ type of interference in the daily lives of the people, is really the way forward. From the nationalisation of the railways and of Northern Rock to the man arrested for smoking in his own van, or the way literally millions of people are both paying taxes and receiving benefits, this has been the crowning characteristic of New Labour. Yet few of the other potential candidates seem to share this: Purnell and Milliband seem more late liberal-Blairite, and Alan Johnson has admitted (to the Fabian Society!) that the government is unable to tackle obesity and people must make choices for themselves.

For the other candidates, Jack Straw, an interferer out of habit, and Harriet Harman with her soppy feminist credentials, they will be constrained by the simple fact there is no money left in the kitty and will eventually realise that little has been achieved with all this spending.

And so breathes his last gasp the final heir to the Attlee-Crossman-Benn consensus of the mid-20th century; ‘All good things around us are sent from Gordon above.’ We can wait a year or so now we are sure the beast is really slain.

24 July, 2008

Bike theft

Boris Johnson once wrote that he had had his bike stolen and, walking over Waterloo Station bridge, encountered Cherie Blair, who told him he was putting on weight. He said the experience seemed to encapsulate New Labour: failure to protect his property and gratuitously lecturing him on his private life.

Now it seems David Cameron has had his bike stolen. He says he had gone into a supermarket to buy 'a few bits of salad' and I must say something in me regrets that it wasn't some white veal and a packet of Capstan full Strength, but nevertheless he should make the most of it.

I reckon well managed this story is worth 100,000 votes.

Glasgow E (2)

The by-election is today. I can't remember a time when all three major British parties wanted the same result - Tories and Lib Dems are terrified that if Brown loses he will be replaced by someone electable.

Labour to win narrowly is my guess but it seems to be so close it will be the turnout that decides it

22 July, 2008

Science shock

One gets fairly used to scientists saying one thing one day and the opposite a week later but I must say that even I was surprised to read on the BBC 'Tobacco could help treat cancer'. But before you reach for the Rothmans it isn't lung cancer, it's follicular B-cell lymphoma.

Oh, and you don't set fire to the tobacco first, apparently.

Metric cricket

I suppose it couldn’t last. Europe is finally abolishing the acre, a measure of how much land could be ploughed by one man and an ox in a day, in favour of the hectare, which is a thousandth of a percent of the distance from the equator to the North Pole through Paris, squared. Whilst wondering which measurement will be more in tune with our times and customs, I cannot help but reflect that people should use such measurements as they jolly well please.

For those confused by the new measurement, a useful comparator is that an acre is a bit more than three cricket wickets by three, whereas a hectare is a little less than five by five.

20 July, 2008

Politics and the starving

There are reports that the EU has a ‘spare’ 1 billion euros and that it plans to give it away to Africa. The sum is sitting around unused because with food prices high they don’t have to subsidise the farmers quite as much.

A few points need making here:

1 The money results from overpayment by member states and should be returned to them, leaving them with the decision as to whether to increase aid to Africa.

2 The EU is trying to muscle in on another area. Aid should be left to member states unless they vote a specific sum to a specific project run by the EU, the UN or whatever The Eurocrats are hoping no one will say no because it is going to a good cause.

3 One of the reasons Africa is in need of aid is the EU farm policy itself, which prevents African farmers selling their produce to the richest market on earth.

This is a political manoeuvre and nothing else. It will do little to help Africans and much to help those who are working, by fair means or foul, towards a political union.

18 July, 2008

Reward for failure?

David Cameron has brought forwards proposals for a Chapter 11 in Britain. This is a system used in the USA whereby a company which is in danger of failing can apply to the court for protection from its creditors while it digs itself out of a hole.

The proposal has met with a raft of criticism. The pro-Cameron Spectator is against it, together with a large number of economic libertarians. Their reasoning is that in the business law of the jungle failures must be allowed to fail. Chapter 11 has propped up the failing US airline industry and it is hard to see where this has been a success. In the UK the creditor which most often pulls the plug is HM Revenue and Customs (I seem to remember from my time at the coalface that the VAT were considerably more unpleasant than the old Inland Revenue). Thus Ch 11 could be seen as a Government subsidy to a failing business. Others point to the fact that in the US unscrupulous entrepreneurs have used the system to avoid paying their employee’s pensions.

And yet...In the UK there is a certain stigma about going bust, a puritan, Victorian idea that you must have cheated someone: we have seen examples in Dickens and Trollope. In America, however, whilst not quite a rite of passage, no stigma attaches; something went wrong – perhaps out of the control of the managers (oil prices? An unnecessary recession?) - and you should have a chance to put it right if you know how to. The result is that Americans are more prepared to take risks and their economy is healthier, more entrepreneurial, than ours or Europe’s. And it must be pointed out that in Britain, when a company goes bust, the State creditors, Corporation Tax, VAT, Business Rates etc rank ahead of ordinary creditors. The State is given first feed at the corporate corpse, often resulting in nothing left for the others. There’s a market distortion, if you like.

This is an idea not without merit. As it is refined into a detailed policy, Cameron needs to make sure he has adopted the best of the American system and ditched the worst. The company would need to show that there is some overall benefit in it continuing, particularly under the previous (failed) management, and its plan for recovery must be rigorous. And there must be time limits. I hope we see a more detailed outline in the months to come.

15 July, 2008

Not this time

The normally reliable Open Europe has been peddling a story, apparently from the News of the World, that Caroline Jackson MEP (Con) has a conflict of interest being on the advisory panel for the European Waste Directive and on the board of Shanks, the loo-maker.

I stood against Caroline in the 1994 Euro elections and found her a decent cove so am happy to print that I have a copy of her speech which repeats her declaration of interest.

I am all in favour of chasing up this sort of thing and think it only right (OE please note) to retract when it is wrong.

14 July, 2008

Stay out of the shower!

The new government adviser on knife crime is called Alfred Hitchcock.

12 July, 2008

The gravy train

Far from being the worst crime of Soviet Russia but symbolically one of its most sickening aspects was the Zil lane: not only did the party apparatchiks have their own cars but a special bit of the road apportioned to them so they didn’t get stuck in jams with the hoi polloi they were supposed to be representing.

Now European apparatchiks have their own train: from Brussels to Strasbourg for the pointless and expensive rotation of the parliament. It is more luxurious than the standard train and a return ticket costs twice as much: 220 euros (£175). Only MEPs can go on it. It is paid for, naturally, by the grateful taxpayer.

They work for you, remember.

09 July, 2008


The maker of Matchbox cars, Mattel, is now worth more than the largest carmaker, General Motors.

08 July, 2008

Ignorantia Legis

Gordon Brown has pushed through a record 2,823 laws in his first year as Prime Minister. That’s more than 10 per working day. Feel any better for that? Well listen to this.

The doctrine of ‘Ignorantia legis neminem excusat’ means you cannot claim as a defence that you didn’t know something was illegal. So you are assumed to know them all.

Get reading!

07 July, 2008

The Great Man of Kirkaldy

No, not Gordon Brown, but the great 18th century economist Adam Smith. His book The Wealth of Nations can still be obtained and is a surprisingly easy read. He was the first to realise that the profit motive which drives businessmen is what makes the market flourish.

'It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.'

Smith's ideas formed the basis of classical economics and of free trade.

I mention this because there had until recently never been a statue of the great man in his own country. Now, under the aegis of the excellent Adam Smith Institute one has been erected in Edinburgh, where he lived his later life. The unveiling took place last Friday.

Gordon Brown should have gone.

Eat it up!

When in the future we try to recall life under New Labour surely high on the list of worst examples will be the Prime Minister at the G-8 summit urging us to throw away less food.

Philosophically bankrupt, bereft of reasoning, it’s hard to know where to start.

Gordon Brown gave no thought as to whether it is the proper function of the State to tell us what to eat and what to throw away; his mind skimmed over the likely effect this would have on world food prices (none); he took no interest as to whether his words might have any effect, whether anyone would listen, because all he wanted to do was create an impression, mood music. Gordon Brown cares about starving children.

He must have had assistants, advisers, all of whom thought this was the stuff to give an international audience concerned about world food shortages. I find it really embarrassing that this is the standard of person we have representing us at an important summit.

Glasgow East and the aftermath

The election in a fortnight’s time promises some real drama, but first I have been rather intrigued by the run-up to it.

The newspapers report that the favourite for the Labour Party nomination, George Ryan, changed his mind, and didn’t turn up to the selection meeting. So the selection was cancelled. But what about the other candidates for the job, the second and third favourites and so on? Why wasn’t one of them chosen? Not really fair on them, effectively being told they were just there to make up numbers. Instead it is said that Gordon Brown has been helping the constituency by phoning round possible candidates for the job and ‘they’ are ‘likely’ to pick Margaret Curran, a former minister in the devolved Scottish Executive.

Now, either Mr Ryan was not in fact ‘the favourite’ but a one man shoo-in, or Labour have some serious democracy issues to settle within their own party. Either way it is not a good start.

So, what if Labour loses? Would Gordon Brown have to go, or would HMQ finally pluck up the courage to say she didn’t fancy the idea of two unelected Prime Ministers on the trot and insist on an election? Ironically Brown could find himself in exactly the same position as Blair, only able to cling to his job by promising to leave before the next election. The country has the unwelcome prospect of a lame duck Prime Minister (a bad advert for the Labour Party), a second unelected PM (which could be just as bad), or an election. Whichever, it seems likely that New Labour will have been swept aside before long. Traditional Labour is still unelectable and the prospects of a new centre party are slim because the LibDems have chosen someone closer to the Tories than to Labour. We might be about to see a period of the Tories against the rest. Interesting times.

Nevertheless I have just a slight feeling that the Labour Patty might win the by-election in Glasgow East.

But it won’t do them any good. People will rather resent Gordon Brown for putting the kibosh on a more exciting story.

In politics, when you’re a goner, you’re a goner.

05 July, 2008

(no) Italian News

Italian News at this time of year is limited to where celebrities take their holidays (largely Sardinia for fear of meeting British footballers in Portofino). Accordingly the Italian News item will be irregular during the summer, or very irregular if Wayne Rooney comes back.

Holidays in Italy are, semi-officially, August, but some people start in July and some finish in September so to get anything done (like running the country) we are talking about a two month lapse. But life goes on as before, showing that continual lawmaking is not a prerequisite for a happy country (quite the reverse).

I am reminded of the time in Berlusconi’s last administration when Italy had the rotating presidency of the EU. This honour, which could have been forecast years in advance, was received by the government like a rugby footballer being unexpectedly thrown the ball while running in the wrong direction. They spent June and the first part of July thinking about it, then went on holiday, returning in mid-September in time for a hasty summit and a superbly organised dinner in a Roman palazzo. Nothing happened, a eurosceptic’s delight.

It leaves one feeling that Britain and America would be vastly better places if the political class took two months off a year (and that’s apart from the skiing holidays).

04 July, 2008

Happy Birthday

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..’

Jefferson's words still sound pretty stirring today, don't they?

Happy Birthday, America


I had to have two attempts at an article in the Times by Libby Purves on whether Boris Johnson was homophobic before realising I was more interested in the etymology than the opinion.

Homophobia was originally one of those hybrid words like television, part of the word having Greek origins (tele – distance; phobia – dread or abhorrence) and the other part Latin (vision, homo meaning man). It used to mean a dread or abhorrence of men.

Interestingly (I hope you find this interesting) in the latter part of the 20th century it changed to being all-Greek, and meaning dread or abhorrence of homosexuality, which itself comes from the Greek hommos meaning ‘the same’.

It appears to have changed its meaning again (but not its root) to ‘discriminating against or intolerant of homosexuality’, which is something a great deal different from being revolted by the concept; one could easily be the latter but not the former.

We need a new word: hommo-intolerant?

A legally divided society?

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, has made a curious statement about Sharia Law, echoing one made by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I should mention that Worth Matravers is a village on the south coast of England with what used to be one of the finest pubs in the country. Probably not relevant: he looks like a dry, sober man, as the LCJ should.

Less so in his pronouncements, though. He is reported as saying that it is not very radical for Dr Williams to argue that Sharia law can be used to help govern issues like family disputes and the sale of financial products. "It is possible in this country for those who are entering into a contractual agreement to agree that the agreement shall be governed by law other than English law....there is no reason why principles of Sharia law, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution."

Phillips used to be a maritime lawyer and it is indeed common for maritime matters to be settled according to a preselected legal system – Panamanian Law, for example, even if the dispute occurs in English waters. However what he speaks of now is the social fabric of Britain, which is quite different from a piece of average adjustment.

Take the treatment of women, for example. Just as it is not possible in England for someone to agree to be a slave – the contract would be invalid, however freely entered into – so it is not possible for a number of practices permitted under Sharia (the role of the father, forced marriage, second rate education of girls) to be enforced. He mentions the Beth Din courts for Jews (they always do, don’t they?) but these are to decide what is Jewish, not what is legal in England.

The Muslims in England are already permitted to hold meetings – ‘courts’, if you like – to decide on matters muslim, a simple example being whether meat from a butcher is halal. But it can only be a mistake to offer imams an opportunity to encourage law breaking and to present a lay Muslim with a dichotomy between church and state. Even countries with well developed constitutional divides between Church and State are having difficulty with this: for Britain, with its fragile uncodified constitution, it would be disastrous. And that is not to mention the confused resentment among other Britons with no access to these 'courts'; a breeding ground for the BNP.

Phillips has dipped the judicial toe in the murky waters of politics, where it doesn’t belong. He should go back and breathe the unsullied sea air of Worth Matravers, which can clear a man’s head.

03 July, 2008

Bare faced

Alistair Darling: ‘although we are going through a hard time, our economy is better placed now than it ever was to deal with these problems.’

Up to our ears in debt, the proceeds of which have been squandered on increased wages in the unproductive public sector and he says the economy is better placed now than it ever was...What I want to know is ‘where do we find these people?’ Not just the fraudster who said it, but the people who believe him?

01 July, 2008

Two refusals

Der Spiegel reports that both the German and Polish presidents have refused to sign the Lisbon Treaty, the first because there are legal challenges, the second because it is pointless.

Most amusing

The Monarchy

News that the Queen is short of money has unearthed the usual cynicism and mealy-mouthed republicanism-lite from people who don’t really mean it. For myself I can’t get excited about the monarchy costing £40 million; a president would cost just as much, and I remember reading that the Italian presidency costs a lot more.

There is another issue to the monarchy which I think we should all be talking about and Mick Hume, an interesting man underneath his Marxist hoodie, touches on it in an article in the Times but in my view doesn’t quite get there.

When I have been asked why I am in favour of the monarchy, my reply has always been that I like there being someone more important than the Prime Minister: I get reassurance from the fact that some nutter who has climbed the greasy pole can’t abolish or recreate the army, can’t call an election without the monarch’s say-so. We invest powers in the monarchy to save us from nutty or corrupt politicians and we call this checks and balances.

The last time I can recall the monarch using her powers was concerning the removal of Gough Whitlam as prime minister of Australia in 1975 (he was another politician who didn’t use his right name; his was Edward). But since then, nothing.

Truth to tell, the monarchy, or, let’s be honest, the Queen, is too scared to use any of her powers for fear the populace might rise up in anger (there are still mumblings in Australia about the Whitlam business 33 years later). And the crucial point here is that rather than go into abeyance the powers are instead vested in the Prime Minister, who has enormous powers of action and of patronage: he can start wars, call elections, extend treaties, appoint bishops and peers, all in the name of the Queen.

Now this is not, in my opinion, satisfactory, and not what we had been led to believe we were getting. If there was to be any proletarian chipping away at the monarch’s powers the chips should have gone to the people and their parliament, not to a dictator who to cover up the extent of his power still pretends to ask the monarch’s advice and walks backwards out of the room. And to some extent I blame the Queen for this: she, in my opinion, has allowed it to happen because she doesn’t understand what is going on.

I would be in favour of a different monarch – I think Charles is far and away the most intelligent and thoughtful member of the Royal Family – but I should prefer republicanism to dictatorship disguised as subservience.