Monday, October 28, 2013

Tough thoughts on Grangemouth - A reality check.

Grangemouth refinery is not a strategic asset of consequence and the petrochemical facility even less so. If refineries in Britain can be run profitably fine - let them do so. If not, finel as well. The products of an oil refinery are commodities that are plentifully available from a wide variety of sources. A refinery converts crude oil into these products at an operational and environmental cost. If the refiner's margin (the difference between the cost of the crude + processing and the realised value of the manufactured products) is positive then fine. Keep on refining. If, for whatever reason, it isn't then stop and buy the refined products on the open market.

One of the reasons the refiner's margin might not be positive is because the operating costs are too high. Too many staff paid collectively too much for example. Another might be if the environmental costs as a result of local or national laws are too high. It might sound harsh (it is) but however good the workforce and excellent the facility if it costs too much producing undifferentiated commodities then it is not viable. 

David Cameron’s elder brother heads the Chambers defending Rebekah Brooks – does it matter?

In life, especially in politics, nothing should surprise us. But the sheer crassness of the Cameron family’s acquiescence in the fact that the Prime Minister’s elder brother Alexander (pictured) heads the Barrister’s chambers briefed with the defence of Rebekah Brooks is staggering.

Alex Cameron is not directly in the loop in Mrs Brooks defence - it is his barrister colleagues who will be presenting her case in Court. But it’s hard to buy the line that he is completely uninvolved. Commonsense would say that in a case as high profile as this one many observers would assume that it would be discussed informally in the Chambers and that Alex Cameron would be involved in some of these discussions. This is speculation of course, but the alternative involving unscaleable Chinese walls at Three Raymond Buildings Chambers is rather too incredible to take seriously.

The origins of the case against Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks were in the pair’s close relationship with David Cameron. Coulson was selected by Cameron to be his Director of Communications and the Brooks family are  personal friends. Mrs Brooks husband Charlie was a close friend of Cameron’s at Eton. There is arguably nothing disreputable about David Cameron’s friendship with the Brooks’ – though many would agree that if you really want to know someday you should look at who they choose as their friends! And Cameron’s choice of Coulson was “just” a bad misjudgement rather than anything more sinister. Probably.

David Cameron has been damaged by the Phone-hacking scandal in part because it was some of his chosen friends and associates who were involved. There is a pall of rancid air hanging around the whole business which one hopes the court proceedings will clear away – one way or the other. But the charge that has been made against Cameron is that his privileged “set” in North Oxfordshire, of which the Brooks were part, is a sort of mutual support group of privileged “toffs” some of whom may have thought that they were above the law. This is probably unfair but the point is that we are talking about perceptions. Perceptions are reality because people believe them to be true.

So when the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that Rebekah Brooks had a case to answer David Cameron had to decide what he should do. Obviously he could not be seen to be involved in the case, and certainly not in the defence of Mrs Brooks. Indeed for him to make any comments about it, given his position, could have been seen to be prejudicial. And the management of perceptions was equally important. The charge, unfair or not, that David Cameron’s association with the Brooks family in some way conflicts him is one that many would make. So as far as the trial is concerned he has to be perceived to be squeaky clean! The fact that his brother heads the Chambers within which Mrs Brooks defence barrister works is emphatically not that. Remember you do not need to charge that anything improper has occurred or will occur at Three Raymond Buildings. You don't need to charge that David and Alex Cameron have had late night discussions over a bottle of Single Malt about how Mrs Brooks can be acquitted. You don't have to make any such charges. All you have to do is to assess how the public perception of the fact of Alex Cameron's “involvement” will play. And my guess is that it will play very badly.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Yes Clegg is a cynical opportunist, but just look at the wider world around him.

Political Journalist Iain Martin has written in the Telegraph about the “awful cynicism of Nick Clegg”. I agree with the broad thrust of the article but would extend it more generally. Iain Martin might consider whether the shenanigans at RBS which he wrote about recently could have happened in an earlier age, in the 1960s for example. I would contend not. Businessmen just didn't behave like that then. The 1960s saw the beginning of my business career in Shell. The behaviour wasn't perfect then by any means but it was mostly honourable and decent. Shortly after I retired in 2002 the CEO of the company was marched out of the building and fired. This dodgy Knight (Sir Philip Watts) had behaved in a way that would have been inconceivable forty years earlier. And like Fred the Shred he didn't break the law - or at least he stayed out of jail!

My point is this. Across public and private life behaviour has deteriorated as standards have slipped. The pile of corporate scandals - Enron, Shell, BP, (and that's just the Energy sector!), banking scandals,  scandals in the Health Service, the Police, the Media, Sport - you name it frankly.
There has always been some dysfunctionality in politics (Suez anyone ?) but the culture within which the dark arts were practised was broadly benign and decent in the past. But once businessmen created reward systems for themselves which meant their compensation could fly into the stratosphere then the "anything goes" culture took over at the top, or near it. The world of the movie "Wall Street" became the norm not the exception. Dogs began to eat dogs more than ever. The idea that employers had a moral duty to provide for employees retirement slipped away, as did loyalty to and often (inevitably) from employees.

The governments of the post Thatcher era have been riddled with cover ups, mendacity and self-interest. Clegg has behaved dishonourably - bad sadly he is not alone. And the world within which these deeds have been done, the bigger society we all live in, has become more selfish and more uncaring as well. There isn't an ideological vacuum - there is a moral vacuum and too many politicians are simply part of it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The English, the English, the English are best? Ha!

On The Spectator's "Coffee House" blog John Redwood has written a bizarre paean to "Englishness". I thought that it was a parody at first - perhaps inspired by John Major's very odd "A country of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers, and old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist." But I don't think that Mr. Redwood, a rather serious cove, does parody. So we had better take it seriously!
For me the idea of "Englishness" as opposed to "Britishness" is too obtuse to bother to define. Mr. Redwood's attempt is not worth the candle. I would contend that if you asked matched samples of English people to define in the one case what being English means to them and in the other what being British is there would be no difference. Indeed possibly the only way that you can only define Englishness as separate from Britishness is by saying what if isn't. If you are English you are not Scottish or Welsh or Irish! But what you are? That's another matter entirely. 
What Mr. Redwood should say is that there are only three tiers that matter in our islands and beyond them. First that that is closest to our home. For some this is coincidental with a nation - the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish. In England it may be a county - Yorkshire for example or a City - London or Liverpool or Manchester. The next is that that is coincident with our National identity - we are British. The final tier is that of being proud Europeans. Proud that the civilising influences of Dante, or Beethoven or Moliere or Shakespeare have given us so much jointly to be proud of with our fellow citizens of a modern united Europe. And especially proud that today's Europeans are at peace whilst sadly our forefathers were at war.
Nationalism has killed far too many to try and seek national identity where it doesn't exist. I'm proud of being British. And I'll happily support English sporting endeavour where that is the way it is organised - in Rugby or Football. But I actually prefer the unifying character of a British team – as at the Olympic Games for example. But I don't need the flag of St George, nor to harp back to the days before the United Kingdom was formed. I don't need an English Parliament when I have a British one. And I certainly don't need to be told to retreat backwards to a phoney sentimental Englishness when the right way is forwards to having confidence in the virtues of Europeanism alongside my Britishness.

Monday, October 07, 2013

It is not those of us who argue against an EU Referendum who are anti-democratic. It is those who argue for!

The charge is made all the time by our opponents that those of us who are against an EU referendum are being anti-democratic. The reverse is the case!

We live in a "Parliamentary Democracy" - indeed arguably we invented this idea. The underlying premise of this system is that we entrust our leaders with decision-making powers. Governments govern, subject to the will of Parliament. Parliament is elected by we the people. The present government has a majority in the House of Commons and does things. Some of those things it said it would do in a manifesto, some not. They are no different from their predecessors in that! That's how it works. And in 2015 we'll have another Election and the sequence will start again. That's our democracy for you.

The noisy (an often noisome)  Europhobics  understand all the above, at least the more thoughtful do. And they know, what is self-evidently the case, that no British Government is going to try and legislate us out of the EU with a vote in Parliament. And no sane political party is going to put withdrawal in a manifesto. So if our proper Democratic processes are followed we are in the EU to stay. So the Europhobics have to find a way around this.Thus the call for a referendum.

A referendum  is a thoroughly unBritish idea and one that has never been part of our Governance system. "Yes it is," The Europhobics will cry, where constitutional matters are concerned. Well actually no. The vast majority of our (unwritten) constitutional changes over the last two hundred years have come from democratic processes as described here above. As far as the EU is concerned the same applies, with the exception of that one referendum in 1975. There was a manifesto commitment for that from the party that held it and the House of Commons approved it. And it was about the principle of membership not of course the detail. It was a good debate (I took part in it) and there was never the slightest doubt at the time that the vote was final and exceptional.

The EU has changed since 1975 - of course it has. And democratically elected British governments have been party to these changes and have approved them. Further democratically elected British Members of the European Parliament take part in debates and vote. Is it fully democratic ? No. Is it "getting there"? I believe so.

We decided back in 1975 that we would be a full member of a European union. Since then our leaders have managed that membership. Opt-outs included. Where we haven't opted out-we've acquiesced. And we've played a full part, democratically, in creating the EU we now have and our part in it. Including, as it happens, a decision not to join the single currency. No absence of democracy in THAT key decision. And no referendum either!

So the cry that those of us should oppose a referendum are in some way undemocratic is nonsense. The reverse is the case. It is not us but those who argue for a referendum who seek to undermine our democracy by trying to bypass Parliament and appeal to the people over its head. You can't change the democratic rules just because you don't like the outcomes I'm afraid!

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Party conferences - a clear win for Labour

The problem is this. It was true that Tony Blair disguised lack of political depth with outstanding communications skills. He was shallow, he had, if you analysed, it no beliefs to speak of at all. After 13 years in the wilderness he wanted power. Everything else was subordinate to this. Cameron also wanted power. Everything was going for him. Brown was  by a country mile more discredited in 2010 than Major had been in 1997. (Unfairly in my view, but that's another story). And yet Cameron goofed in 2010. Nick Clegg had a good campaign and the combination of his Media-driven appeal and Cameron's campaigning failure (allied with the natural predisposition of sufficient electors still to favour Labour) gave us a hung Parliament. This was not voted for. Anymore than the Coalition was. 

Cameron was humiliated  by his failure in 2010. He assumed, not wholly unreasonably, that his lack of depth wasn't really a problem - it hadn't been for Blair. But he had little going for him in 2010 so he failed to win an election that (say) David Davis would have walked. Now three plus years on he cannot persuade anyone that he is on top of anything. The Cameroons are a strange tribe - leaderless and without any credible figures. It is quite possible that they are extinct.

So what about Cameron's conference speech? If you peel back the platitudes there's nothing really there. WTF (as the social media abbreviation has it) does Dave believe in ? I'm pretty sure that the only answer is "I've no idea". Simplistic motherhood words. A saccharin look back at a Thatcher. The usual descent into jingoism. The Lynton Crosby sound bites that attempts to link the Conservatives with "Hard-Working" suggesting that Labour supporters are lazy shirkers. 

It was not a disastrous Conference season for the Tories, but it wasn't very good. Labour and Ed Miliband did well, helped by Paul Dacre's malignancy. But British politics is entering a period where Labour can be the only winners. Right of Centre politics is in a mess. UKIP, a preposterous pressure group of no substance at all, is bad enough. But the Eurosceptic Right of the Tory Party are the real villains. It is they who are the real block to progress. Cameron is an ineffective leader but at least, so far as one can tell, he is a One Nation Tory.