It is often the little things that, in the final instance, make people visit food banks. Earlier in the year, at two food banks in London, I spoke to several people who explained why they had sought help. Mohamed’s electricity had been cut off, meaning that he couldn’t charge his phone, leaving him unable to receive messages from the job centre, which docked him four weeks of jobseeker’s allowance for missing his appointment. Jack, a driver, had taken a small loan to renew his car tax, but when tax credits weren’t paid as planned, he missed a debt payment and his liabilities rose. Natalie had found a part-time job but there was a three-week gap between some of her benefits stopping and her receiving that first pay cheque.

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The general election in May is one of the most difficult to predict in British history. The result will undermine old certitudes. An incumbent’s share of the vote typically dwindles from one election to the next. An opposition has never won with Milibandite ratings on both the economy and the strength of its leader. Two-party politics, injured in 2010, could be confirmed dead in 2015. Six parties could have a critical role in deciding the allocation of seats. The 650 constituency races each have their own dynamic; it doesn’t make much sense to think of this as a single election.

Scotland is a case in point. Since the independence referendum on September 18, the Scottish National party has taken a big opinion poll lead over the Labour party:

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In the excitement of the 650 people shouting about probably inaccurate economic forecasts that passes for a major state event, it can be easy to miss the big picture.

This big picture has three aspects.

First, we are only in the fifth year of what the government says is a decade of “fiscal consolidation”. By the time this process is complete, someone born on the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed will be attending secondary school.

Second, there will be further spending cuts. These could see the size of the UK state as a share of the economy return to levels last seen when Neville Chamberlain was prime minister, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Third, the government’s economic plans don’t really add up. In the next parliament, taxes will have to rise, fiscal targets will have to missed, or spending will to have to be cut in a way that is even more brutal than currently expected. Read more

This is why the stamp duty land tax was in desperate need for reform:

The chart above, via Neal Hudson, shows the distortions of the “slab system”, where taxes are levied on the whole value of houses above the stamp duty thresholds, as opposed to only the amount above that threshold. The biggest spike was just below £250,000; stamp duty was levied at 3 per cent on properties over £250,000 but only 1 per cent between those between £125,000 and £250,000. This was inefficient. Read more

George Packer has written a fascinating profile of Angela Merkel. As well as revealing the German chancellor’s views on Vladimir Putin, and explaining her cool decision-making process, the New Yorker writer includes this quote from Stefan Reinecke of the left-wing newspaper Die Tageszeitung about Ms Merkel’s views on welfare:

“Half an hour into every speech she gives, when everyone has fallen asleep, she says three things. She says Europe has just seven per cent of the world’s people, twenty-five per cent of the economic output, but fifty per cent of the social welfare—and we have to change this.”

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This month, in a plebiscite on Catalan independence, four out of five voters opted to secede from Spain. The vote was symbolic: Madrid does not recognise Catalans’ sovereignty or their legal right to leave the Spanish state. Artur Mas, the Catalan president, is under criminal investigation for holding the poll. The Spanish government says his plan for independence in 2016 is “a road to nowhere”.

We do things differently in Britain. We have real referendums on independence, where even the defeated parties end up as winners. On September 18, 55 per cent of Scots voted against seceding from the UK in a referendum whose question, timing and franchise were shaped by the Scottish government. By then, dizzied by the yeasty nationalists, the leaders of the main UK parties had vowed that a No vote would still lead to devolution of “extensive new powers” to Edinburgh. This week, a cross-party group tasked with turning that vague promise into reality issued its recommendations. The conclusion of the commission led by Lord Smith of Kelvin means that Scotland should soon become one of the most powerful devolved nations in the world. Read more

Since Scots voted against independence on September 18 the Scottish National party has surged in opinion polls and appointed a new, popular leader; pro-independence journalists have launched a newspaper, The National; and the Scottish government is preparing to wield more power than any other devolved parliament in Europe.

“No” voters could be forgiven for considering theirs a pyrrhic victory. After all, 55 per cent of Scottish voters opted against independence. Nevertheless, this was not a vote for the status quo. A majority of Scots want more devolution. The leaders of three biggest (for now) UK political parties belatedly then rashly promised as much on the eve of the independence referendum. On Thursday, the Smith Commission, charged with working out the details of further devolution, will issue its recommendations.

Although the comparison is imperfect, the recommendations will mark the point when Scotland becomes, in fiscal terms, the Basque Country of the United Kingdom.


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It often seems that there are only two types of voices in the debate on immigration. One rails against all immigrants and how they hurt the economy and the British way of life, whatever that may be. The other, in effect, mansplains, by persistently and condescendingly asserting facts about the benefits of immigration to the UK.

This leaves a large moderate majority of the country without a voice, according to an important new research report by British Future, a think tank dedicated to better understand of how immigration affects the country. Sixty-one per cent of people it polled have a mixed, moderate view of immigration; only about a third of Britons are absolutists. (The remaining share presumably say they don’t have an opinion.) Read more

If opinion polls prove accurate, on Thursday the UK Independence party will win its second-ever by-election – and its second in two months. Victory in Rochester and Strood – whose demographics are less amenable to a Ukip win than Clacton, which the party won in October – would be its latest hefty thwack to Britain’s mainstream political parties. It would lead Labour and Conservative members of parliament to call for their parties to change position on immigration, based on the assumption that Ukip’s policies are behind its success in the polls.

This is a superficial reading of why Ukip and other populist parties are gaining support across Europe. Contrary to what they or Jeremy Clarkson may say, party leaders have been talking a lot about immigration. They have changed their policies. And yet Ukip marches on. Something more profound is happening in politics in the UK. For a deep and prophetic analysis of what is going on, turn to Peter Mair, an Irish political scientist who died in 2011. Ruling The Void, his last and latest book, is a terse and cogent explanation of “the hollowing of western democracy”. Read more

The question raised by Labour’s intervention – and the various Conservative announcements, past, present and future – is ‘where does this end?’ Curbing migrants’ access to condiments, the Paddington Bear movie, Cafe Nero loyalty cards? Contrary to what politicians seem to think, there is no reluctance among Britons to talk about immigration – quite the opposite. The Labour and Conservative parties have talked a lot about migration. They’ve incrementally become tougher on EU migrants’ access to benefits. And has it curbed the rise of Ukip? It doesn’t seem so.  Read more