Tuesday 21 December 2010

The truth about Vince's war

I suppose Vince's remarks were unwise, but that is easy to say.  Personally, hardly a day goes by without me saying something seriously unwise.  What they also seemed to me to be was overwhelmingly true.

We may not actually be at war with the Murdoch press, but if we are not at war with corporate privilege and monopoly power as Liberal Democrats, then we need to be.  That is the abuse of power which now threatens our liberty, just as Murdoch tightening his grip on the UK media is a threat to our freedom of speech.  The role of Liberals now is to launch the battle against monopoly, over our minds as well as our wallets.  The affair of the taped interview this afternoon was indeed a battle lost in this undeclared war.

The Conservatives may be led kicking towards the same position.  Labour will not; in fact they were the first to rush to Murdoch's defence, as usual, this afternoon.  What I find fascinating is that, although this central issue was barely mentioned in the party's manifesto, it seems to loom increasingly large in the minds of Lib Dem ministers - Vince Cable included.

That is as it should be, because - although it has gone almost unmentioned for half a century - the historic role of Liberals is to fight monopoly.  Today was a setback, but it did at least articulate that central truth, and not before time.

Ugh, utilitarians...

Utilitarians, ugh, they make me shudder.  And for some reason those in authority who make me shudder most, when I hear them in the radio, are actually refugees from the old New Labour regime like Lord Browne or Lord Freud.  There was something about New Labour, with its contempt for history and its narrow view of the world - measuring everything in terms of money - which made it the most utilitarian government in history.

This is what I wrote on Open Democracy about the mismatch between Lord Browne's university funding plans, now partly adopted by the coalition, and the hugely important idea of measuring well-being:


Saturday 18 December 2010

Subsidising the nuclear industry

The week since the worst moment of the fees vote has seen a whole tranche of recognisably Lib Dem ideas announced by the coalition, not the least of which was the Localism Bill and the ambitious re-organisation of the electricity market to boost renewable energy.

I'm not sure I'm getting used to the roller-coaster of emotions which being in government brings.  Perhaps I was too idealistic; perhaps I was naive.  On the other hand, there is a great deal which remains exciting and which I'm hugely proud to be part of.

I don't want to be part of a party that demands feeding all the time, a chirupping beak that is never quite full.

But I must admit that I am getting sleepless nights about energy policy (I never thought I would see the day that I could write that sentence!).

Because, as well as the vital aspects of the energy re-organisation, there are things that are so unwelcome - and such anathema to me as a Liberal - that I find it hard to stomach.  I don't want as a tax-payer to be subsidising an energy form I regard as corrosive, dangerous to our security and irresponsible in the way it hands over its pollution for my children's children's children to deal with.  I am absolutely determined that we should not subsidise nuclear energy.

I know we are all different.  We all have our pet issues.  It just so happens that this one is mine.  I joined the Liberal Party in 1979 because we opposed nuclear energy, and because we voted against the Sellafield reprocessing plant (and weren't we right - it's been a staggering expensive and polluting white elephant ever since).

I believed Chris Huhne when he made his 'watch my lips' promise. 

I know the pressure he must have been under.  I believe in his integrity and determination, but nonetheless, we are now sponsoring a new generation of nuclear white elephants.

1.  The new tariff system will give nuclear a guaranteed price over and above what the market would manage.

2.  The government provides the insurance for the nuclear industry, because the consequences of an accident are so vast that no insurer would do it in the market.

3.  The government will subsidise the clean-up, reprocessing and storage, for centuries, of the waste - a huge burden on our descendents.

I would be so delighted to be told that I am wrong.  Nonetheless, I believe this is what is happening.  DECC would no doubt explain that, given that nuclear is included in the government's policy, these subsidies are necessary.  That is true - but that isn't what we promised.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

The snobbery of the BBC

There are undoubtedly some worrying aspects about the Localism Bill – not to mention the perverse incentives to stay poor enshrined in the change in housing tenant status – but overall it is an important and urgent piece of legislation.

I’ve sent out in the New Economics Foundation blog how the ideas in it have emerged here.  Slightly triumphalist, but the genesis of some of the policies in the Sustainable Communities Act are pretty clear.

But one of the first reactions thrown up has confirmed what Simon Jenkins used to say about the BBC: they do have a policy; it is to centralise.

I heard him say that years ago while I was listening to an item on You and Yours asking when the government was going to legislate to make people’s front door numbers legible. It was dramatically confirmed yesterday when they used a clip from the Vicar of Dibley to illustrate how parish councils might work under the Localism Bill.

This reveals partly that the BBC is ignorant of the difference between a parish council and a parochial church council. It also reveals their staggering snobbery about the idea of local people taking decisions, and about local government in general.

That isn’t to say that there are no risks in devolving decisions quite so radically. I’m not clear what provisions there will be for appeals and oversight. There will certainly be mistakes and abuses. But they will be less than the sheer inflexibility, the vast waste of resources, the demoralisation and the damage done by the centralised system, and the certainty of that continuing without some kind of major decentralisation.

So stuff the BBC, I say – and the idea that decisions can only taken, under close guidance, by Oxbridge types with Masters in Public Administration. And only then, very occasionally. What the Localism Bill sets out is a means by which neighbourhoods can begin to take charge of their own destiny.

Yes, many of them won't.  Yes, there are also cuts. Yes, many local authorities have dismal jobsworth cultures after decades of recruitment on the basis of obedience to process. But this is the beginning of a way out of dull, clone town mediocrity, which impacts far more heavily on poor people than rich ones, and I’m excited about it.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Introducing the vampire squid

"The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

That was how Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi introduced his article on Goldman Sachs last year.  There was something rather thrilling about the words, as if someone had finally told the full truth about the banks.  Every generation has its own blind spot about moral outrage.  In the eighteenth century, it was slavery.  At the beginning of the twenty-first, it seems to me to be financial services - the huge and inflationary rewards, the corrosion of the real economy.

To celebrate the occasion, my colleagues at the new economics foundation have released a short animation about the vampire squid, and I thoroughly recommend it:

Green MP Caroline Lucas has tabled an early day motion in the Commons drawing attention to it, and three Lib Dems have signed already (Leech, Russell, Hancock).

Monday 6 December 2010

Eminent Corporations gets review

This is kind of immodest of me, but how can I sell my new book (Eminent Corporations) if I don't pass on the review in the Financial Times this morning?


OK, it is the other side of a log in (which is free).  OK, they call me Daniel not David.  But it is good to be noticed, and I can't help feeling - what with Caroline Spelman's outrageous decision to allow the sale of cloned meat and milk without labelling - that the strange history of Britain's big companies needs telling now more than ever.