Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Could the future be John McCain?

It seems incredible, but as the Democrats gather in Denver to anoint Barack Obama, America could be on course to re-elect a Republican as their president. Not just any Republican either, but a belligerent 71 year old who can’t remember how many houses he owns, would happily nuke Iran and whose answer to global warming is to drill for oil in environmentally sensitive areas off the coast of America which don’t even have much oil. But according to the polls, John McCain is drawing level with Barack Obama, and even drawing ahead.

Really, America it is a strange, strange country. After a disastrous and illegal war, in which four thousand American soldiers have died, in the middle of an economic crisis largely caused by the investment houses that finance the Republican party, you would have thought it almost inconceivable that the Republicans could be re-elected. Could any political brand be more toxic? Has any party in history deserved to be thrown out at an election more than the Republicans in 2008?.

George W. Bush has been recognised even by many neo-conservatives as the worst US President in modern history. The country is going to hell in a handcart as banks fold and inflation robs Americans of their savings. Ten million people risk losing their homes over the next two years as a result of the credit crunch. Real wages have been declining in America for the last five years. The country is awash with credit card debt.

America’s image in the world, so vibrant after 9/11, has been seriously tarnished by a series of epic foreign policy mistakes under the Republicans, the worst of which is of course Iraq. Yet enough American voters believe that John McCain might have the answers for him to become a serious contender. Which is scary. McCain is not an unknown quantity - he is a highly excitable politician with a notoriously short temper, who would bring his impetuous and confrontational style into American foreign policy. With the world entering a global economic slump, and old enmities raging in Europe, John McCain as President would be like a flame-thrower in a fireworks convention.

I got an insight into the McCain view of the world last week at the Edinburgh Book Festival in a session I did with Robert Kagan, McCain’s leading foreign affairs adviser, and author of “The Return of History and the End of Dreams”. The good news is that the war against terror is past tense, it seems, because he didn’t mention al Qaeda once. The bad news is that America might be about to revisit, not the cold war, but the era of 19th Century great power rivalry, which is how Kagan characterised the current state of international affairs.

He believes the great fault line is between America and an axis of authoritarianism represented by China and Russia. There is new era of geopolitical confrontation, according to Kagan, as Russia rearms and China builds the biggest army in the world. America has to step up. “The future international order will be shaped”, he says “by those who have the power and the collective will to shape it”. No prizes for guessing whether John McCain is up to the military challenge. Europe, which Kagan dismissed as an irrelevant entity in the new world of hard power, would get trampled in the rush.

This is all profoundly disturbing, so what are the Democrats doing about it? Barack Obama has to share the blame for making McCain credible. It’s almost as if the Democrats expended too much of their intellectual effort, their moral energy, on the contest between Hillary Clinton and Obama for the candidacy. After Obama’s successful tour of Iraq, where to Republican dismay he won the backing of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki for troop withdrawal, and then Europe, where Obama attracted 200,000 to his speech in Berlin, the campaign appears to have stalled.Certainly, the steam seems to have gone out of the Obama train.

Of course, the senator has been on vacation. He will likely be back in the lead by the end of this week, because candidates always get a poll boost after a party convention, and Obama will assuredly rise to the occasion on Thursday when he gives his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” address to the civil rights movement. But Obama shouldn’t be struggling: he should be storming ahead, leaving an aged and confused McCain in his slipstream.

The Iraq war is part of it. Obama’s was almost a single issue campaign at the start; an anti-war candidate, until the fortunes of war turned in Baghdad. The apparent success of the US troop “surge” in 2007 in lessening communal violence in Iraq has taken much of the potency out of the war as an issue in domestic US politics. Body bags are still coming back, and the war is still regarded as a mistake, but Iraq is not headline news. McCain’s call for ‘peace with honour’ sounds to many Americans more attractive than plain defeat and withdrawal.

Then there is the economy, stupid. The credit crunch has morphed into a full blown recession, without anyone really facing up to the implications. It has happened so fast, with sharpest drop in property prices since the Great Depression, the virtual collapse of mortgage banks like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the entire US political establishment is in disarray and confusion. We keep being told that “the worst is over”, only for it to get worse.

Obama has not developed any economic answers yet, apart from a bit of job protectionism here, a bit of help to mortgage holders there. He supports tax cuts to middle class families and tax increases on those earning over $250K. This has been attacked as “socialism” by the right, but it is far to anaemic and incoherent to be called anything recognisable.

Meanwhile, McCain has gone for the six-pack vote by calling for offshore oil drilling to cut petrol prices - a simplistic policy which would not do anything to reduce oil prices, but which sounds good to the Nascar voters of working class America. He is also promising tax cuts, but to the rich as well as the poor. Though McCain is on record as saying that no one worth less than $5m can be called rich.

This should be an open goal for a politician of Obama’s gifts. Yes, race is an issue, but not as much of an issue as the lack of clarity and edge to Obama’s political programme. He needs to target the root causes of the economic crisis and show that only Democrats have the route out of it. Reawaken the idealism of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal for a country ravaged by greed, irresponsibility and inequality. There is an historic opportunity to change the course of American history and bring the neoliberal era to a close. That’s the kind of change people really could believe in.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Alex and Maggie

“Linwood no more; Bathgate no more; Ravenscraig no more...Salmond no more” The First Minister has reacted with fury at the claim that he has praised Thatcher’s economic policies in the 1980s which inspired the Proclaimers' famous list of industrial closures. In an interview with Total Politics Magazine about Scotland’s attitude to Thatcherism the FM said: ‘We didn’t mind the economic side so much. But we didn’t like the social side at all.” Not an endorsement of Thatcherism, perhaps, but certainly a nod in the direction of her market-based policies.

But no one should be surprised that Alex Salmond is pro-business. Whatever else an independent Scotland would bring, it would not be socialism in one country. He has long made clear that he believes Scotland’s future lies in emulating Ireland’s low tax, low regulation economy, and its dash for growth through inflated house prices and attracting high net worth individuals.

A more important question than whether Salmond is embracing Thatcherism, is whether his support for Celtic neoliberalism may be obscuring his view of what is happening in the real economy. This is important because the inflated Irish economy has come to the brink of collapse as people have realised that house prices don’t equate to real wealth, and that greed isn’t necessarily good.

Now, like all First Ministers, Salmond spends a lot of his time in the company of bankers and financial types who dominate the Scottish economy. The Royal Bank of Scotland, is one of the biggest banks in the world, and practically owns the country. When you come off the plane at Edinburgh airport you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in a land called RBS such is the degree of branding around. The FM has come to support the RBS rather as if it were the national football team. A fortnight ago he issued a statement about their prospects which read like a Royal Bank press release. Dismissing the bank’s announcement of the second largest losses in banking history he said: “I am certain that the Royal Bank of Scotland will overcome current challenges to become both highly profitable and highly successful once again.”. Well, maybes aye and maybes no; but since when has the FM become the CEO?

I think this is carrying things too far. The Royal Bank of Scotland employs 8,500 people in Edinburgh and is a very important company in Scotland, but the First Minister should not be backing the banks uncritically. The reality is that RBS, under Sir Fred “the shred” Goodwin, has been behaving as irresponsibly as the rest of the banking world - perhaps even more so, given the scale of its losses in mortgage bonds and other assets and its purchase of the Dutch bank, ABN-amro. RBS piled into sub-prime lending in America in the craziest years of the boom and is now having to write down billions in losses. RBS has had to try to restore its books by issuing an emergency cash call for £12bn in June, the largest corporate rights issue in history.

The problem with a small country like Scotland is that big companies can exert a disproportionate influence on the political system. It’s not just RBS, but HBoS, Standard Life, all those ‘intelligent finance’ types in Edinburgh Park. They have colossal lobbying clout and produce much of the economic material that the Scottish civil service uses to frame its economic policies. The trouble is that these companies are not impartial observers of the economic scene - they are players who want their view of the economy to prevail. Politicians should be wary in case they turn unwittingly into their apologists.

The First Minister continued last week to show the influence of bank thinking in his comments on the housing market in Scotland. In his Donald Dewar lecture, at the Edinburgh Book Festival launch he said that house prices in Scotland were bucking the trend south of the border. “Scottish house prices appear fairly stable in comparison to other areas’”said Mr Salmond, “with prices in Scotland increasing by 2.9 per cent since the start of this year, compared to a fall of 2.8 per cent across the UK.”

There were two things wrong with this. First of all, he was wrong: according to the Register of Scotland, which is the only reliable source on house prices since it measures actual prices rather than estate agent spin, house prices in Scotland fell by 5.1% in the first quarter of 2008. That’s almost as precipitate a fall as in England. In Edinburgh new build flats are selling for less than 20% of their prices last year. It is a myth that Scotland is in some way immune to the credit crunch, and it is a myth that is being promoted by commercial interests who gain from it - principally the banks, who have been urging politicians to talk up the market. But not even Alex Salmond can defy the laws of economics.

The second problem with the FM’s speech is that he appears to think that high house prices are a good thing, and is calling for action to “support the housing market”. The FM is talking of bolstering house prices by spending millions on schemes for “affordable housing” and to “help first time buyers”. Actually, the last thing government should be doing is encouraging young families to enter a collapsing market. The best way to help first time buyers would be for the market correction to take place speedily, without government interference, so that prices fall by the 30-50% necessary to return them to sustainable, pre-bubble prices.

It was predatory lending by the banks - handing out 125% mortgages and the like - that pumped up the house price bubble in the first place. This was underpinned by central bankers who kept interest rates too low for too long to encourage an asset price spiral. On the basis of these unrealistic real estate values, banks like RBS and HBoS, built a huge structure of leveraged debt, which ensnared us all. Now the whole edifice is collapsing, leading to trillions in global banking losses and a severe tightening of credit.

Britain is now entering what is likely to be a long recession as the mess created by the banks is cleared up, and Scotland, like Ireland, is not well placed to weather it. We are heavily dependent on financial services, make very little and have high public spending. Alex Salmond is right to call for policies to counter recession, but he should be wary of asking the banks for advice. They have been responsible for what is emerging as an economic catastrophe, and the government should be thinking about how to help the thousands of people liable to lose their homes and jobs because of the irresponsible behaviour of Thatcher's children.

Everyone can have as many houses as John McCain

The Republican presidential candidate John McCain was left floundering last week over his property empire. Asked in an interview how many houses he owned “I think, eh, um, I’ll have my staff get back to you on that.”.

Well, it’s easily done. How can anyone remember how many houses they have now that everyone owns blocks of flats to rent out to illegal immigrants. I’m always mislaying the odd cottage here and there - well it’s remembering the names isn’t it. And with property so anonymous in towns, its hard to know your own front door these days.

Unkind people have said that at 71 McCain can barely remember his own name let alone how many houses he has. But we really mustn’t descend into the politics of envy and ageism His staff have been having a few problems with the numbers too. After the interview the senators staff got back saying the McCains own at least four houses including two beach front condominiums, an Arizona ranch and a loft.

But this was later increased to seven, once all his wife Cindy’s various holdings were included. Then it emerged that since mcCain has three houses on his Arizona farm, the total was really ten. But that may only be the start as McCain houses are now being discovered all over America. At the last count they were worth $14 million, or an average of $1.4 million per house, which is not bad going in a country where the average house price is only $200,000.

Now, it’s all very well for those moaning minnies here who say they can’t scrape together a deposit for a one bedroom flat in Glasgow. Anyone could have had ten houses if they really wanted them. I mean, just look around: there are houses everywhere - all you need to do is go out and buy them. Like Labour’s Michael Meacher who has seven houses or Keith Vaz, who has a property empire to make Donald Trump envious. Or those Tory MPs who sell their houses to a trust fund for their children and then buy them back again with their parliamentary allowances. Or is it the other way round.

Barack Obama says McCain is out of touch with sub-prime America where ten million families face losing their homes. But sub with US house prices down 20%, McCain may have lost millions He probably qualifies for emergency liquidity injections from he US Federal Reserve. We should organise a whip round.

And Obama isn’t so squeaky clean when it comes to real estate. A Chicago property developer and convicted felon, Tony Rezko, helped him buy his $1.6 million mansion in Chicago. In America, as they always say, the price of a man’s honour is only as high as his mortgage.

Wonder if you can take out a mortgage on the White House.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Talkin' Third World War

Great international conflicts have a habit of starting in ‘far away places of which we know nothing’: Sarajevo, Poland, Pearl Harbour, and now South Ossetia. The escalation of the conflict in the Caucasus into a kind of post-modern Cold War has been breathtaking. One minute, you are looking for South Ossetia on the map; the next people are talking of nuclear retaliation.

Fortunately, our diplomatic mechanisms are rather better at handling international crisis than they were in 1914. But that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods yet in the Caucasus. It’s a sobering thought that if George W, Bush had had his way and Georgia had been a member of Nato, we would now be at war with Russia. Nato is an alliance which, in theory at least, commits its signatories to react collectively to a military threat to any one of its members.

Would we really have been prepared to lay waste to Europe in support of the unstable and unreliable Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, who launched cowardly and brutal assault on the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali under the cover of the opening night of the Olympic Games? I hope not, but we can’t be sure. With someone like George W. Bush supposed leading ‘free world’, we can’t be sure of anything, except that it will be a mess.

The war in South Ossetia has been a huge error of judgement by the West, and further confirmation of the imponderable stupidity of the Bush administration. It was a gamble which should never have been made, on a conflict nobody wanted, and in the interests of a political leader who has no right respect or support. David Cameron will regret hot-headed dash to Tblisi to be photographed with Saakashvili once once it becomes widely known what actually happened in South Ossetia, where the Georgians used Grad missiles against apartment blocs and hospitals.

Now, I know that we are supposed to see South Ossetia as a brutal land grab but the Russian Bear, crushing gallant little Georgia under the Moscow boot etc.. The Western media has largely accepted the line put out by America that this was a brutal annexation of a sovereign country by an imperialist Russia - repeat of the Hungarian invasion of 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. But as always in war, truth is the first casualty.

The Caucasian war was launched by Georgia on August 7th in an attempt to crush the separatist movement of South Ossetia. While there was provocation on both sides, this was an act of bloody madness. It was like England launching a war against Scotland for wanting to leave the UK. I’m not saying that Russia did not have an interest in supporting a breakaway - it had been handing out Russian passports to Ossetians - or that Putin wasn’t playing politics in the region. But that did not justify an all-out military attack by Georgia.

The west - by which we mean essentially America - massively miscalculated in Georgia, supplying military hardware and expertise to Saakashvili without ensuring that he would behave responsibly. The Georgian leader thought would force the Americans to intervene militarily in support of his attempt to crush Ossetian nationalism. It did not, of course. Not even George W. Bush is stupid enough to launch a land war in the Caucasus. There is no evidence that the Russians plan to annex South Ossetia still less to invade Georgia with a view to forcing it into the Russian federation. The Russian military have been in no hurry to withdraw, but the evidence is clear that they are now preparing to do so. They don’t have the will or the means to occupy a country like Georgia.

Not only has Russia now restored its military self-confidence and credibility, it has exposed the West’s weakness, already evident in Iraq. But what is much worse is that America has handed the moral high ground to someone who certainly doesn’t deserve it: the Russian Prime Minister. Vladimir Putin. This authoritarian hard man, who has suppressed free speech in Russia and subborned its democratic system to ensure his continued rule, can now stand as a champion of the rights of the oppressed people of Ossetia. Protector of the weak against military aggression.

He can, with some legitimacy, compare his “humanitarian” intervention in Georgia with that of the West in Kosovo. And the truth is that his call for south Ossetians to be allowed self-determination like the former Yugoslavian province, is the only defensible one in the Caucasian context. The only solution to the confrontation there is for the people of South Ossetia to be consulted and allowed to chose their own destiny, under the inalienable right of all peoples’ to self-determination.

What must not happen is for the West, led by fools in the White House, is to compound this misjudgement by seeking to crush the independence movement in South Ossetia. Yet, by promising to defend the territorial integrity of Georgia, we are coming dangerously close to doing precisely that. We have no right to tell the South Ossetians which country they wish to live in, and after the brutal behaviour of Georgian troops in Tskinvali, it would be grotesque to try to force the South Ossetians to bend to the will of Saakashvili.

Putin played his hand very astutely, limiting his military action to destroying Georgian military positions around South Ossetia, agreeing to a ceasefire and abiding by it, and now by gradually pulling its military forces out of greater Georgia. Of course, there will be reprisals, communal violence, and stories of atrocities both by South Ossetians and Georgians. But eventually the West will have to recognise, when we see the pictures of the devastation in Tskhinvali (you can see them already on he internet) that Russia had - as the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov has said - very little alternative but to intervene in South Ossetia.

But perhaps the greatest mistake of all by the West was - as President Bush might put it- “misunderestimating” Putin and the Russians. Calling Russia “Saudi Arabia with trees” was more revealing of the decline of American diplomatic ..... Could you have imagined John F Kennedy calling Russia names? Placing missiles in Poland and arming Saakashvili were acts of provocation which no country could have ignored. Imagine if Russia had placed “defensive” missiles in Mexico and sent arms to Cuba? Well, it did of course, back in 1962 when Russia was the Soviet Union and Nikita Khrushchev was arming Castro. The American response then, quite rightly, was to demand the withdrawal of Soviet arms from its sphere of influence. The roles are reversed today, and we have Bush rather than Khrushchev gambling with world security. The world nearly went to war over Cuba - let’s hope that we can stop history repeating itself.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Credit Crunch 11: The Abyss

Cheer up! It could be worse. At least estate agents themselves have been the first casualties of the credit crunch. The greatest collapse in the housing market since records began, with home loan approvals down 70 per cent on the year, has turned the high street into a killing field. At least 15,000 estate agents will lose their jobs this year alone, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research. It may be the first time in history that estate agents become objects of public sympathy.
Britain, like the United States and Europe, is now entering a recession and it won’t be a shallow one. As the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King made clear in his latest exceptionally gloomy forecast, we have come to the end of the “nice” age – defined by “non-inflationary continuous expansion. Encouraged by central banks which kept interest rates too low for too long, the western banking system built a huge tower of debt on the uncertain foundations of inflated real estate values. As house prices plunge, this edifice is collapsing and the losses will be in the trillions.
Few will shed tears, though, at the impoverishment of the buy-to-let landlords, the other big early losers in the credit crunch. Britain’s one million amateur property tycoons are finding they can’t let their pokey flats at an economic rent and that the banks refuse to roll over their cheap loans. Thousands face bankruptcy as the value of their properties fall.
The good news is that once the correction has happened, houses will be affordable again. And, as owners dump unsold flats on the letting market, rents are also likely to fall. And who could resist just a little Shadenfreude at the news that Land Rover sales are down 32 per cent? We may be seeing the beginning of the end of the “Chelsea Hearses” – those big black monsters with smoked windows that clog our streets. Falling bonuses in the City are blamed. Mind you, even in what many are calling the worst financial crisis in 60 years, City firms still managed to increase bonuses this year to a record £13bn. It’s an ill wind, all right.
The more public money that goes into the banking system to beat the crunch, the more seems to go out to the private pockets of those who were responsible for causing it in the first place. The great survivors of the credit crunch are the bosses of the big high street banks, like Sir Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland, who have had to write off billions in mortgage-related assets and have seen their companies’ share price collapse, but keep their jobs and fabulous remuneration.
The real casualties are inevitably old people, and low-income families who have been hit from all sides as housing, transport, heating and food prices take off. But young professionals face difficulty too, especially those who threw caution to the winds to get on the “housing ladder”. Among these, 1.7 million recent home buyers will find themselves in negative equity within the year, according to Standard and Poors, meaning they will owe more than their houses are worth. House prices have fallen 11 per cent this year already, the steepest fall ever recorded. If house prices fall by 35 per cent, as expected, three million could be hit before the market bottoms out around 2010.
These families could be saddled with debilitating debts for at least a decade, for that is the minimum that it will take for house prices to recover. In the US, where house prices peaked in 2005, prices are still falling, despite interest rates being slashed to 2.5 per cent and hundreds of billions of federal dollars being pumped into the banking system in the form of “liquidity loans”. A third of all American homeowners who bought in the past five years are “underwater”, something that hasn’t happened since the Great Depression.
In Britain the slide has only just started. Many are still in denial. Moreover, the first year of the credit crunch has been something of a phoney war. Unemployment is rising (July saw the biggest jump since 1992) but most people are in work and hope to remain so. Students have come to accept debt as a way of life and remain unmoved by a financial upheaval that still seems remote from their lives.
Of course, there are lots of things you can do to protect yourself from the affects of recession. Simple budgeting for a start; that £5 lunch every day adds up to £100 a month. Turn down the thermostat and save hundreds more. If you can sell your house, do, and rent instead; it’s cheaper than getting a mortgage. Don’t take on more debts and consolidate those you have. Cut up credit cards or get an interest free one. Don’t get behind with bills because it will affect your credit rating. Avoid branded goods. In other words, be more prudent. The evidence suggests we can all benefit psychologically from giving up the frenetic shopping culture of the boom years.
Politicians, though, are living in the past, hoping that a miraculous recovery in the housing market will bring back the good times. MPs, like many middle-class, middle-aged people are largely insulated from the crunch by housing equity, index-linked pensions and other assets. But now that the days of easy credit are over, those under 40 are going to find themselves living in a very different world.

Day of reckoning

The bubble decade destroyed the last vestiges of the secure and predictable post-war society of ordered career paths, jobs-for-life, final salary pensions and steadily increasing prosperity. Even the Church of England is talking of abandoning its occupational pension scheme. People are having to learn to live with debt and insecurity (though fewer than half of us are saving for a pension and, according to the Pru, those who do are halving contributions because of the downturn).
People have become used to seeing their homes as pensions and as sources of easy cash through remortgaging. Now that this is being closed off, the day of reckoning is here. We collectively owe £1,400,000,000,000 in Britain and the banks want it back. Britain has one third of all Europe’s unsecured debt, so it is not surprising that personal bankruptcies are increasing ominously. The banks are using ever more ingenious means of relieving us of our funds, from credit cards with 25 per cent interest,to unlawful bank charges on overdrafts. Current accounts should bear government health warnings.
So, with easy credit and housing equity lost, people are going to have to learn to live within their means. The problem is that living standards are being eroded as wages and salaries stagnate while inflation rises inexorably toward 5 per cent, even on the government’s discredited CPI inflation index. According to the price comparison website mySupermarket.com, the cost of a basket of staple family foods has increased 20 per cent in a year, equivalent to £1,000 to an average family. Politicians warn of hyper-inflation if workers do not accept below-inflation pay settlements; but for people on low incomes, hyper-inflation is already here. Domestic fuel prices have risen by 19 per cent in a year, and petrol by 25 per cent. British Gas increased prices by 35 per cent last month and others will follow. Water companies have served notice that they too will be joining the inflationary spiral.
Yet only three months ago, the Bank was forecasting steady growth, low inflation and stable prices. One of the difficulties for ordinary people trying to cope with the credit crunch has been the failure of forecasters, private and public, to admit the severity of it. Central banks and financial analysts have been following events rather than forecasting them. We keep being told “the worst is over” when clearly it is not.
This leads to a kind of fatalism; a feeling that each of us is individually at the mercy of events. We live in a world in which the market has largely replaced politics and collective action. All those institutions of civil society – churches, trades unions, political parties, associations – that once sustained people in adversity have withered, replaced by the solipsism of the internet. Social networking sites offer a semblance of community, but are quickly invaded by commercial interests which, as with eBay, Google, Facebook, rapidly subvert the original social ideal.
What we need is a new generation of post-consumerist initiatives, like Freecycle and Gumtree, which allow people, by mutual self-help, to bypass the debt cycle.

Where is the left?

In the past, people looked to the state to protect them from the ravages of the market, but not any more. Where is the Left in the worst capitalist crisis in half a century? The government seems to have given up too. A defeatism about the credit crunch pervades Whitehall; a sense that there is nothing that can be done, apart from trying to use public funds to fix the holes in the financial system. One intellectual casualty of the crisis has been the myth of deregulation. Joseph Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank, said recently: “I no longer believe in the market’s self-healing power”. Many financiers have echoed his view. This is a paradigm shift, but Labour has failed to keep up. It has been left to bankers like Sir Ronald Cohen to condemn the greed of what the BBC’s business editor, Robert Peston, calls “the new plutocrats”. It was the Governor of the Bank of England who condemned the “bonus culture” of the City, not a Labour minister.
Instead, the government agreed, in April, to an extraordinary £50bn bailout of the banks in exchange for their unsellable mortgage bonds. The deal was supposed to be that the banks would reduce mortgage rates and free up lending to first-time buyers, but they simply pocketed the money and put rates up even further for people who couldn’t put up large deposits. This was a humiliation for the government. At the very least, ministers should have secured something tangible in return for giving the banks privileged access to public funds – restraint on bonuses perhaps, or help for people about to lose their homes.
The government should also be devising regulations and protocols now to prevent another housing bubble. Government was not blameless. Concessions on home ownership taxes (capital gains and inheritance tax) encouraged people to save in houses instead of pensions. It was the egregious tax concessions to buy-to-let landlords, who can set mortgage interest payments against profits, that led to the building of tens of thousands of tiny city flats unsuitable for families.
Above all, it was the collapse of social housing, through council house sales and the ending of council house building, which compelled people to take on ever larger mortgages to get a roof over their heads. For many people in insecure and low paid jobs, mortgages are a seriously bad idea because they lose everything if they can’t keep up the payments. They should have had a choice. If the £50bn given to the banks in April had been used to finance council housing, the government could have begun to solve the housing shortage and saved thousands of jobs in the construction industry.
Instead of dithering about stamp-duty holidays and tax free savings accounts for first time buyers, the government should be addressing the central problem: risk. Bankers lost any sense of it when they began handing out mortgages of 125 per cent, loans on multiples of six times earnings, not to mention self-certificated “liar loans” where people were encouraged to inflate their incomes so that they could get mortgages they couldn’t afford.
In Britain, mortgage borrowers shoulder most of the risk when they take on a mortgage. They can lose all their savings and end up in debt for years. But in America, most home loans are “non-recourse” loans, which means the borrower has limited liability in the event of repossession. If there is any loss in the sale at auction of a repossessed home, the bank that takes the hit and the borrower can walk away. This is a simple measure which would make a difference to victims of the credit crunch. The banks would hate it but it would encourage banks to lend more responsibly.
Beyond that we need a government prepared to recognise that a stable economy cannot be built on debt. We need a return to productive investment instead of speculation; a savings culture instead of credit; sound money instead of inflation; redistribution of reward instead of socialism for the banks. The great challenges we face, like climate change, need an economy, in which science and technology are deployed to create new markets in areas like renewable energy, conservation, agriculture, information technology and sustainable transport. Wealth is good but it should be made out of making things, not making debt. The New Labour economy has been built on the dream of unlimited housing wealth, on money for nothing. It is time to wake up to reality. l

Prescott does have two jags

John Prescott really does have two Jags. He didn’t when he was Deputy Prime Minister, but he does now. His old XJS is too low slung for Pauline, his wife, to gain an elegant exit, he claims. So, he had to buy a second hand Sovereign to restore marital balance. Well you would wouldn’t you.

He’s also picked up a speeding fine, he told the Edinburgh Book Festival last week, because he’s so used to being driven around in a government car, he didn’t know about 20 mile an hour speed limits. Mind you, since he was transport minister when these zones were introduced that’s a pretty strange admission.

Prescott talks as if he had just been released been in prison, rather than the post of Deputy Prime Minister, but perhaps the two aren’t all that different. Government, like jail, is a total institution which insulates you from the outside world.

Prescott WAS the outside world to the “beautiful people” - as he calls them - who ran New Labour. He was meant to be the link with the party’s socialist roots. But after speaking to him at length last week I get the distinct impression that he feels he was used. He was excluded from strategy meetings; once invited to Chequers; kept in the dark.

But should we have any sympathy for Prescott who, if he was used, clearly allowed himself to be out of vanity?
Well, it’s hard not to like him as he tells stories about how he used to box for the entertainment of Anthony Eden. In the 1950s, merchant seamen were expected to put on a show for VIPs during the voyage. Prezza is of course a useful pugilist, as he demonstrated in the 2001 election campaign when he floored that countryside protester with the mullet.

Prescott is 50% Bernard Manning and he has well-rehearsed lines about everything, even that croquet match in Dorneywood, his official residence. He claims that sales of croquet sets increased by 40% and that British Croquet Association has given him a ceremonial mallet in gratitude for his services to the sport.

But is Prescott simply a refugee from a working man’s club? Well, he was Deputy Prime Minister for ten years - the longest serving DPM in history. He was marriage guidance counsellor to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and probably prevented their relationship falling apart.

But the tragedy of Prescott’s long career is that he really did believe all that stuff about the “many and not the few”. He was one of the last socialists in Labour Party, but he ended up legitimising a project which erased all trace of socialism. I fear his image will forever be that Steve Bell cartoon depicting Prezza as a bulldog with its mouth zipped shut.

The Russians are coming! Again!

The world held its breath last week as Russia and America exchanged increasingly belligerent rhetoric over the crisis in South Ossetia, the worst we have heard since the end of the Cold War. Moscow has even hinted at possible nuclear retaliation for the siting of American missiles in Poland. Some see in the crisis in the Caucasus shades of Sarajevo in August 1914, when the world stumbled into war almost accidentally after the assassination of the Arch Duke, Franz Ferdinand (no relation). While there is little risk of South Ossetia igniting world war three, there is a risk of international relations becoming soured, not least by the intensely anti-Russian rhetoric of some in the West.

Russia has been accused by America of aggression against Georgia and of violating international law by interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. We hold no brief for Vladimir Putin, the hard man prime minister of Russia who has undermined free speech in his own country and manipulated the democratic system to ensure his continued rule. We are alarmed at the continued presence of Russian tanks deep inside Georgia and we urge Moscow to withdraw.

However, we are also appalled at the hypocrisy of the charges of from the Americans who so recently invaded the sovereignty of Iraq, with British help, killing tens of thousands of civilians in the process. The Russians claim their intervention was humanitarian, so did we. This looks like a story of one law for America, another for the rest of the world. The Russian defence of the citizens of South Ossetia was strikingly similar to the actions of western countries in 1999 when we bombed Serbian army positions to protect the people of the breakaway province of Kosovo.

The Russians did not start the war in the Caucasus - it was the Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, who launched a cowardly and bloody assault on the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali on August 7th under cover of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic games. There is evidence that multiple rocket launchers were used against a civilian population. This was a shocking act of war, and while the Russian claims of ‘genocide’ against the people of South Ossetia may be exaggerated, there is no doubt that the Georgian action killed many civilians and displaced thousands.

Russia has been accused of having territorial ambitions in Georgia and of wanting regime change in Tblisi, but we could have been accused of exactly the same thing when we bombed Belgrade and sought the removal from power of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. In fact, it is far from clear that the Russians do intend to annex Georgia, and act which Georgians would fiercely resist.
The Russians have largely kept their word on the ceasefire and have limited military action to the disputed provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Comparisons with the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 are wide of the mark. This has not been an attempt to overthrow the legitimate government of Georgia or impose a communist system of government. As the former president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachov has pointed out, the roots of the Caucasus tragedy lie in the repeated attempts by Georgia since 1991 to extinguish South Ossetian autonomy. The solution should be to establish some form of federal arrangement that gives the disparate communities of the Caucasus control of their own destinies, free from interference from ‘great powers’. Gorbachov has been a calm voice of reason amid the cacophony of recrimination and veiled threats.

There can be no question of South Ossetia simply being handed back to Georgia after what has happened. The population of the two dispute regions of Georgia have an inalienable right to self-determination. It is up to the people to decide their fate, not Washington or Moscow. In the meantime, could everyone please just ratchet down the rhetoric and stop playing cold war games.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Glenrothes: Brown's last stand.

It’s a measure of how much Scottish politics has changed in the past year that a constituency with a Labour majority of 11,000 is s now regarded as a safe seat - for the SNP. But such is the case with the Westminster constituency of Glenrothes in Fife. The nationalists require a 14% swing here to seize this Labour bastion, held by the popular MP John MacDougall http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7558573.stmwho died of cancer on Wednesday, but everyone assumes that the nationalists will walk it. The bookies already have them four to one on.

This is ideal territory for the Scottish National Party. They have been canvassing the constituency for most of the last year and have a strong local base. The SNP lead the coalition on Fife council and hold the Holyrood parliamentary seat which is largely contiguous with Glenrothes. It was much harder for the nationalists to win in Glasgow, where there is no real tradition of Scottish nationalism. Fife is on the other side of the country and has a very different political complexion from West Central Scotland.

Glenrothes itself was an invention of post war Labour regional policy -a new town built to compensate Fife for the loss of its coal industry. Even the name is new, having been created by adding “Glen” to the name of the old Rothes Colliery. Now the administrative centre of Fife, successive Labour councils had a good deal of success in attracting electronics and services into the area in the 1980s and 1990’s and today Glenrothes looks prosperous if a little soulless.

But Fife people have a proud and independent history. This was the area that elected Britain’s only Communist MP in the 1940s, and you still find echoes of the past in Fife street names, like ‘Gagarin Way’ celebrating Soviet achievement. The Scottish playwright, Gregory Burke, used the street as a setting for his acclaimed play of the same name at the Edinburgh Festival six years about the collapse of working class industrial culture and the dangers of political nihilism. But the decomposition of the old Labour vote in Fife appears to be benefiting, not anarchists and other political extremists, but the Scottish National Party, which has succeeded in capturing the imaginations of the aspiring middle class children of old Labour Fife.

There seems little prospect of Alex Salmond failing in Glenrothes, and he will dominate the campaign just as the SNP leader dominated Glasgow East last month. Which means a further hammer blow for Gordon Brown, who sits in parliament for the neighbouring constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and who, in accordance with parliamentary tradition, will be taking on the parliamentary duties of the late Mr MacDougall. Following the Glasgow East by-election, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/7522153where the SNP achieved a 22 swing against Labour, the party is in desperate trouble in Scotland. A YouGov poll commissioned by the SNP http://www.snp.org/node/14146 this week suggested that Labour could lose up to 20 seats in Scotland at the next election, including that of the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, and the Defence Secretary, Des Browne.

The impact of Glasgow East was muted because of the holiday season, but the Glenrothes by-election will probably take place in the full glare of autumn, just after Brown’s conference relaunch and his much-heralded cabinet reshuffle. It will be a devastating verdict on his time in office that even in his heartland in Fife Gordon Brown cannot hold onto one of the safest Labour seats in Britain. David Miliband remains unapologetic about his recent Guardian article in which he staked his claim as a future Labour leadership contender, and it is easy to see why. Labour simply cannot go on losing by-elections like this. Something will have to be done; and Miliband looks like the only something around. We could have a new Prime Minister by Christmas.

But could Labour defy the forecasts and hold on here? Might Brown suddenly rediscover his form and hurl himself into a contest which he can scarcely avoid becoming a part of? Well, there is a strong Liberal Democrat presence in Glenrothes. They hold the neighbouring seat of North East Fife and share the council with the SNP. The Liberal Democrats were first to discover Gordon Brown’s political unpopularity back in 2006, when they won the Westminster seat of Dunfermline and West Fife from Labour in a by-election, on a 16% swing. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7492927.stm Brown’s
Scottish home home lies in that constituency and it came as a profound shock to Labour in Scotland to discover that the then Chancellor, apparantly at the height of his powers, was such a vote-loser.

But the chances of the LibDems splitting the anti-Labour vote and allowing allowing Labour to come through the middle look remote. Scottish voters are primarily motivated right now by a deep hostility to Labour and a sense - almost palpable in Glasgow East - of betrayal. In the midst of a credit crisis, when inflation is reaching 5% while public sector workers - and most workers in administrative Glenrothes are employed by the state - are being held to pay increases of 2%, people are feeling very sore. They want to send a message, and they will use the most appropriate vehicle so to do. The Liberal Democrats just don’t cut it, in this regard, and were squeezed into fourth behind the Tories in Glasgow East.

No - the target of their antipathy will be Gordon Brown who faces yet another humiliation, possibly his last as Labour leader. Fife has turned against its favourite son. The final tragedy of Brown’s short reign is that he is likely to meet his political end in his beloved “Kingdom of Fife’ where he was brought up and where his political career began.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Belladrum: cuttings from the verb garden

I didn't know what to expect from at the Belladrum music festival in Beauly near Inverness at the weekend - except for a good time. I'd been asked to chair a some debates in the Verb Garden - a big tent devoted to the spoken word. Would anyone be interested, would anyone be sober, would anyone be able to hear over the din of amplified music? What the heck - it involved a chance to see Jefferson Starship and the Waterboys.

It turned out to be quite an education with full audiences for sessions on energy, prison reform, even agriculture. Here's a video from the verb garden - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAnpN4sdKlg The Belladrum Tartan Heart is becoming one of the defining events on the northern cultural calendar and has shown that is capable of doing a lot more than just raising a racket and selling beer.

Belladrum is sometimes described as the “Glastonbury of the North”, but it is much broader in its appeal. People from all social and class backgrounds are here and you quite literally see three generations of the same family all jumping to the same infectious rhythms. It is becoming a real focus of community cohesion and not a little pride among the thousands who gather here that they can stage something like this in the Highlands. The food is pretty damn good too.

As to the chat - well, rock musicians are rarely sought for their political views, apart from those, like Bono and co, they wear them on their chests like medals. So there was an element of risk in mixing them with the usual professional talkers from pressure groups and campaigns. Perhaps we were just lucky, but the musicians who made it to the Verb Garden turned out to by pretty articulate commentators on contemporary politics.

Justin Currie of Del Amitri, showed that he has lost none of the wit and intelligence that informed the lyrics of those seemingly innocuous pop songs from Glasgow’s vibrant music scene in the 1980s. Like his hit “Nothing Ever Happens” which contains the immortal lines: “Computer terminals record gains in the prices of copper and tin, whlie American businessmen buy up Van Goghs for the price of a hospital wing”. Pete Wylie, of the Mighty Wah, a veteran of the parallel Liverpool music scene of the 1980s, blew everyone away when he came on with Gerry Conlan, of the Guildford Four and Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six to campaign against miscarriages of justice and against 42 day detention.

Earlier, sixty seven year old Paul Kantner of Jefferson Starship gave a spirited defence of 1960s values as he lived them in San Francisco in the hippie era. Nor had he any apologies for making a record in support of the Sandinistas in the 1980s. There was a certain irony in this rock icon saying he still believed in the fundamental values of communism, but his optimism was refreshing in an age of fatalism and disillusion.

Politics was a lot simpler, I thought, in the 60’as, when the Cold War held the world in a relatively stable superpower balance. Not any more. As the amplifiers were fired up in Beauly, Russian fighters were bombing military targets in Georgia and hundreds were dying in the South Ossetian capital,Tskhinvali, at the hands of invading Georgian soldiers. Yes, the Tartan Heart festival at Belladrum is a long way, geographically and culturally, from this perplexing dispute in the Caucasus. But that didn’t stop people trying to grasp what was going on.

Who exactly are the good guys, when pro-Western, democratic Georgia resorts to military invasion to prevent a province, South Ossetia, from exercising its right to self-determination? We are conditioned to seeing Russia as the bad guys, though on this occasion they were apparently doing what we did during the Kosovo conflict in 1999: supporting the right of a province to secede and defending its people against aggression.

On the other hand, the willingness of hard man Vladimir Putin to use maximum force in response to Georgia's pre-emptive strike cannot but arouse fears that Russia may be returning to its old, expansionist ways. This is a very hard war to call, a kind of post-modern conflict in which no one occupies the moral high ground, not even the South Ossetians themselves who have been playing both sides against the middle.

There weren't any answers in Beladrum, just a sense of relief that in Britain we resolve our domestic territorial disputes with arguments not bullets. Here is Scotland with a nationalist government determined to secede - rather like South Ossetia - but there is zero prospect of Edinburgh being invaded any time soon by English tanks.

But then. we don't have a strategically vital oil pipeline running across the central belt which the United States of America wants to secure and which Russia wishes to control. Whatever else South Ossetia is about it is first of all about the energy crisis and a stark reminder that in a age of fuel depletion, oil and gas are becoming things to fight over. And we would do well to remember that Scotland, with 25 billion barrels of oil still lying under the North Sea, is delicately placed in the geopolitics of natural resources.

But many of the people whole turned up to Belladrum were concerned less with geopolitics that with the price of heating oil which has gone up 40% in the past year. Others were finding they can't afford to fill up their petrol tanks - a serious matter in the Highlands where people often have to travel long distances to work and where public transport is inadequate.

Perhaps that’s why some appeared to be impatient with the environmentalists and their elevated talk of micro-generation and renewables in the debate on energy. This is a difficult time for green activists, and not just because of the apostasy of the Guardian environmentalist, George Monbiot, who has come out with qualified support for nuclear power. People in the Highlands are as concerned about the environment as anyone, but they also want to heat their homes and get to work.

The environmental movement is always strongly represented in the stalls and fringe exhibitions at pop festivals and environmentalism is almost a religion in the rock industry. But one of the great strengths of Belladrum is the way it attracts what the politicians like to call “real people”. They are not impressed with people who expect them to buy costly organic food when they are finding it hard enough to feed their families, and they made their views pretty clear. All credit, by the way, to the Co-operative movement who sponsored the Verb Garden event, knowing that they would have to answer for their own purchasing policies and justify the environmental cost of importing fresh vegetables by air.

Of course, Belladrum is first of all about entertainment. But It is wrong to think that people aren’t interested in politics just because they don’t trust politicians. It isn’t just about the music. They listen to the words too.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Scottish Labour must declare UDI

I’m not sure of the origin of the phrase “elephant in the room”, except that it is American and applies to issues which are so large that only the most blinkered could fail to see them. Well, someone has finally spotted that that the world’s largest land mammal is sitting in the Scottish Labour Party’s living room. His name is Tom McCabe.

“No ifs, buts or maybes”, said the former Labour parliament minister in yesterday’s Sunday Herald. ‘Whoever takes over as leader of the Scottish Labour Party has to be in complete control of the organisation and policies that best suit Scottish circumstances”. In other words, the Scottish Labour leader has to become the real Scottish leader, with full autonomy and authority over policy in Scotland, without always having to look over their shoulders at Westminster. At last someone has had the courage to state the obvious.

You would think that, after Glasgow East, Labour MPs too would have started to notice the flapping ears and the tusks, but no. The leadership candidate, Andy Kerr, was accused of “nationalism” last week just for suggesting that the Scottish leader’s powers should be “beefed up”. London Labour want the Scottish leader to remain merely the titular leader of the MSPs in Holyrood, a docile and subordinate figure who has to lift the phone to Gordon Brown in cabinet meetings to be sure he isn’t getting out of line. And yes, that really did happen.

Tom McCabe isn’t supporting any of the candidates in the current contest and it’s just as well because he would never have been able to write his remarkable article, which is essential reading for anyone with the remotest interest in what happens to Labour in Scotland. He is reflecting the views of countless disillusioned Labour voters and activists in Scotland who have been yearning for a lead from someone of influence in the Scottish party and who are fed up with what Tom calls “the obscure language of prevarication that the public can see right through.”

McCabe as not had a reputation for strategic thinking or intellectual brilliance, but his analysis of the constitutional deficiencies of the Scottish Labour leadership is devastating in its directness and clarity. He has said what Wendy Alexander never managed to say. It is the most important Labour strategy statement in decades, and should be nailed to the door of every Labour constituency association in Scotland.

The kind of leader Labour needs, says McCabe, is one who is able to “say and do what is best for Scots, no matter who it might upset”. “A leader”, he goes on “who is prepared to publicly ask the government in Westminster, irrespective of its political colour, why companies such as Shell can make £8bn profit in six months, while Scots can scarcely afford to fill up cars and vans. A leader who wants to have responsibility for raising the money their government spends and be chastened by that accountability in the process. Finally, a leader who accepts that the council tax has become an unfair burden...[and set] a firm timetable for abolition” Wow! When have you ever heard any Labour MSP talk like that before?

McCabe will of course be monstered by his colleagues in Westminster for these heresies. But he’s ready for them: “For too long”, he says, “there have been Scottish Labour politicians at local government level and at Westminster who have been resentful, and even contemptuous, of the Scottish parliament. That behaviour needs to stop.” He’s absolutely right. This attitude goes back a long way, to the time when Labour regarded the Scottish parliament as little more than a device to undermine the SNP.

Labour MPs cling on to an anachronistic notion of their own constitutional superiority. But you have to ask, who are these people? The days when the Scottish Labour group in Westminster was composed of Donald Dewars and Brian Wilsons are gone. They should take a look at themselves sometime. In fact, the voters of Glasgow East did precisely that - took a long cool look at their own MP of thirty years, David Marshall, and decided that they wouldn’t be fooled again.

For the last decade, Labour MPs have sat round Westminster claiming generous expenses and feeling self-important, while most of the issues that concern their constituents are handled by the MSPs in Holyrood. The truth is many of the Scottish Labour group in Westminster would find it very hard to survive in the rough and tumble of the Scottish Parliament. Look at Lord George Foulkes, the former Labour cabinet minister turned MSP, who has just won the paranoid buffoon of the year award for claiming that painting Scotrail carriages in the colours of the Saltire amounts to “brainwashing” by the nationalist government. Labour’s MPs have very little cause for self-congratulation, and the fact that if Glasgow East happened across Scotland, the only MP left in Scotland would be Tom Clarke, tells you all you need to know.

Tom McCabe could probably do without my endorsement, since it will only help his critics to tar him with the brush of “proto-nationalism”. But I think he can look after himself - as he has done in nearly a decade in the front line of Scottish politics. One of McCabe’s achievements was making the case for the smoking ban, and putting backbone into Jack McConnell in his battle with the Labour establishment over the policy. The ban was opposed by many Labour MPs as an electoral liability. Turned out that the ban was the greatest single legislative achievement of the Scottish parliament, one of the few truly lifesaving policies that ha been implemented by either parliament, north or south, in the last thirty years. And of course, Westminster ended up following adopting it.

The former First Minister, Jack McConnell, could tell you of a dozen similar episodes, which didn’t end so happily - where Westminster vetoed his attempts to get Labour into contention in Scotland. Over Iraq, Trident, asylum, immigration, attendance allowances and many other policies, McConnell struggled to free himself from a UK party line which was politically ruinous in a Scottish context. Perhaps the greatest fiasco was the council tax fudge at the Scottish election campaign in 2007, when McConnell was forced to defend ‘reform’ of the policy which was so incoherent he couldn’t explain it at its press launch. The former First Minister wasn’t even allowed to recognise that Labour had lost the Scottish election in 2007, such was the myopia of his Westminster minders.

Well, al last a line has been drawn under all that. Tom McCabe has provided a rallying call for all those in the party who want to save Labour from itself. But the first thing they have to do is recognise the nature of problem. It’s time for others in the party to get out the elephant gun and take aim.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

free festival fringe

Slouching around Edinburgh in the rain and it has been pretty thin Festival for politics. You’d have thought that the implosion of Gordon Brown would be a gift to satirists, and Barack Obama is a fascinating media construct waiting to be deconstructed. There’s a nationalist government in Edinburgh for Heaven's saek. But the shows seem stuck in the past.

‘Tony of Arabia’ (Pleasance Dome) is a sequel to lasts year’s hit “Tony - the Blair Musical’ . We now find our hero trying to make a new life in the Middle East, complete with whining Cherie. It’s well performed and amiable, but a little passe. Like Tony.

But the Fringe has itself become highly political even if the shows aren’t. Since the great Schism, when the big venues like the Pleasance and Underbelly set up their ‘own’ comedy festival, there has been war among the clowns. The ‘authentic’ Fringe, led by Tommy Sheppard’s undeniably excellent Stand comedy club, has been staging running battles against the Dark Side - the plutocrats with their PR budgets and fancy ticket prices. Comedians are being asked which side they're on, and some, like estimable Stewart Lee, are boycotting the Pleasance/Gilded/Assembly Underbelly.

Others have given up altogether and gone free. now, doing a show at the Edinburgh Festival for nothing might seem like complete madness, when most with debts running to high four figures. One comedian, Doug Stanhope, is highlighting the problem by staging a one person show, for one night, with one ticket costing £7,249.00 which is the average amount comedians lose at the Fringe every year. I may give it a miss this year

Instead I spent a damp Wednesday afternoon seeing what the free fringe festival was like at one venue. “Where’s Yak” is a two woman show about the fantasy lives of Wimpy burger-flippers, and the performances really had star quality, though let down by some weak material and noisy airconditining “Hurricane Katrina” turned out to be a leggy stand-up with a multiple-personality routine who was quite funny. She even brought her mum. Dean Scurry, a scurrilous Dublin comic, was a hoot - though the audience were almost a funny as he was. I think the audiences feel more involved because the shows are free.

You do pay, of course, since a bucket is waved in your face as you leave. They ask for a fiver and people seem to give two or three quid, on average, which sounds poor, but makes commercial sense for the performers. They don’t pay for the venues and therefore don’t end up with huge debts And even with fifty quid a show, they can eat.

I think this could be the future. It’s certainly truer to the original idea of the Edinburgh Fringe. Whether the army of festival reviewers will agree though is another question. They get their tickets for nothing from the big venue promoters. But at free shows, well, you just can’t walk out without donating something, can you?