Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gray man v ginger rodent

 Just Iain Gray’s luck.  He makes his best conference speech since becoming leader, and is upstaged by a ginger rodent.  Harriet Harman’s extraordinary attack on the Liberal Democrat finance minister, Danny Alexander, as a redheaded rat inevitably stole the headlines at the Scottish Labour Conference in Oban.  There was no way that the Iain Gray was going to be able to top that.  But he did at least try.  

Sunday, October 24, 2010

CSR: forget it, Osborne isn't serious

 It’s one of Westminster’s favourite cliches that a budget that looks good the day it is delivered usually falls apart by the end of the week.  George Osborne’s CSR lasted about four hours.  That was how long it took the Institute for Fiscal Studies, to contradict the central claim that the deficit reduction plan was progressive and shared the burden equally across all income groups.  It clearly wasn’t.  It didn’t take a genius to work this out since most of the cuts announced last week hit people on benefits,  who are by definition the lowest income group. 

   Actually, the unfairness of the spending review isn’t really much of a political worry for the Tories.  They think, and there is ample polling evidence to confirm this, that the British people now have much less sympathy for those at the bottom of the heap than has been the case in the past.  All those press stories of families receiving £95,000 in benefits, plus the fact the welfare budget has risen by 45% in the last ten years, has made us much less soft-hearted as a nation.   The latest YouGov/Sun poll confirms this, indicating that nearly 60% believe the welfare cuts were “unavoidable”.  

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Osborne's CSR and the ghost of Gordon.

  We were warned in advance that it was going to be the most savage round of public spending cuts since the Geddes Axe nearly ninety years ago. An unprecedented  25-40% reduction in departmental spending.  The state would be reduced to a forest of bleeding stumps, forecast Labour,  after George “slasher” Osborne had swung his Condem chopper.   In the event, the headline cuts in departmental spending were only 19% - which is actually less than the former Labour chancellor, Alistair Darling had planned.  How they guffawed  on the Tory benches as Labour’s shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson tried to respond to one of the cleverest, and arguably the most cynical spending statements since, well, since the days of Gordon Brown.  
     George Osborne’s CSR had a remarkable similarity to one of Brown’s classic budget speeches. The hectic delivery,  the gratuitous self-congratulation, the blizzard of spending initiatives from Crossrail to the widening of the A11 around Norwich, which for some reason provoked cheers from Tory benches.  Cuts? What cuts? Pensioners are to keep their winter fuel allowances and free TV licences.  Child benefits for 18 year olds remain. Museums and galleries stay free.  

Friday, October 15, 2010

Broken promises: what would the Greeks have made of it?

As the general election campaign drew to a close in May, I wrote that the political parties were playing a game of bluff with the voters.  They didn’t want to tell us the truth  and we didn’t want to hear.  All of them knew that the deficit was running at around £150bn and that this is represented an extinction level event for many public services.  But they went right on and, well, lied about it.   I have thought carefully about using that word, which is of course unsayable in parliament. But I can’t think of any other way of encapsulating the scale of the misrepresentation. 

   David Cameron promised not to cut child benefits, free bus passes and winter fuel allowances for old people. Well child benefit has gone and just watch the others go in short order.  He also said the Tory plans “didn’t involve an increase in VAT” when they clearly did, for no sooner was Cameron in the door at Number Ten than he announced that VAT would rise in January by 2%.  The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg also promised not to raise VAT, which he called the “Tory tax bombshell”.  Then he dropped it.

  Yes, all politicians break promises,  but the Coalition has set a new benchmark in infamy.   “No more pointless and disruptive reorganisation of the health service” said David Cameron solemnly, before launching the most radical upheaval in English health care in decades.  Next will likely be  charges for “hotel” costs while people are in hospital.  Then what about road pricing, legal aid, pension taxes...

     However, all of this pales against the LibDem behaviour over tuition fees. Before the election, their MPs actually signed a pact that they would vote against any increase in fees, only Sir Menzies Campbell, the former leader seems willing to honour it.   Vince Cable said upping fees would be a  “disaster”.  Not any more, for in the Browne report he is endorsing the biggest increase in university fees in modern history.  In any other walk of life you would be able to sue people who behaved like this.  And don’t tell me he changed his mind when he ‘opened the books’ - he of all politicians knew exactly how bad the books were.  All that's changed is that he is in government.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tuition fees - bigger than the poll tax?

   It is one of the most cherished myths of Scottish national identity: the lad o’ pairts.  The image of proud Jock, of peasant stock, striding out of the kailyard with his bag of meal in one hand and his bible in the other. Whistling a Man’s a Man while preparing to take on the  upper classes  thanks to the free Scottish university system.    Like all myths, the “Democratic Intellect”, as George Davie described the Scottish tradition of open access higher education, involves an element of pure fantasy.  Scottish universities in the 19th Century weren’t free, for a start, though fees were very low and most students received bursaries courtesy of the Carnegie Trust.

   Nevertheless, there was some truth in the lad o' pairts myth, and cynics ridicule it at their peril.   At the end the 19th Century,  nearly 25% of Glasgow University students came from manual working class backgrounds, something inconceivable in  the English system,  which was the exclusive preserve of the upper classes.   The belief that higher education should be based on ability learn rather than ability to pay is deeply ingrained in Scottish  culture.  Universities have been seen here as national public institutions which should be mainly financed out of general taxation.  This is confirmed in opinion polls, such as the recent Scotsman/panelbase poll of 1001 Scots which this month showed that two thirds of Scots reject a graduate tax related to earnings.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Now I know why Cameron wears that condom

I’ve never quite understood the cartoonist Steve Bell’s caricature of David Cameron wearing a condom over his head, except for the rather obvious suggestion that he is, well, a male member.  However, following the row over how many children benefit claimants should be allowed to have, I finally do get it.  Vote Tory and stop one.