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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

Welfare, migration and Britain’s membership of the EU – three areas of policy that are unlikely to prompt cool thinking. Throw them together, as in the question of which benefits EU migrants should be entitled to, and you have a recipe for opacity.

On Tuesday, a European Court of Justice ruling cleared a few things up. It could – could – make for more comprehensible policy in an area that has been full of confusion, empty rhetoric, and public anger. It will also encourage the prime minister to think he can go further in restricting access to some benefits for some EU nationals, a move he is reportedly considering. This is not because the ruling changed EU law but because it clarified the law, implying that, broadly, the approach successive UK governments have taken is legal.

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Digital technology is changing the labour market, from the supermarket check-out to the trading floor. A lot has been written how automation will mean robots doing jobs otherwise done by humans, and how artificial intelligence means that professions are no longer immune from the change brought by machines. Many of these predictions cite research by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford university suggesting that 47 per cent of jobs in the US are at “high risk” of replacement in the next 20 years.

In a report published on Monday, Frey and Osborne apply their model – discussed in more detail in this post – to London. The chart below summarises their results, depicting the distribution of jobs in the city that are at low, medium and high risk of replacement in the next 20 years. Thirty per cent of jobs are classed as “high risk” – many of them in sales jobs or in office and administrative support work.

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On Thursday, Scots will vote on whether Scotland should be an independent state. Such a referendum seemed unlikely 10 years ago. A Yes vote would have seemed even more surprising. This is an attempt to explain why the vote is happening – and why it is happening now – for interested and befuddled people from all over the world. In other words, it is a history of 1,000 years of Scottish nationalism. Read more

“It is not about nationalism, it is about socialism.” That is the argument for Scottish independence made not only by many Scots but also by some on the English left. In Scotland, the Jimmy Reid foundation, Common Weal, the Scottish Socialist party, the Scottish Greens and some of the SNP have called for “radical independence”. This idea has attracted left-wing supporters from south of the border: Billy Bragg, John Harris, George Monbiot, Tariq Ali and other writers often found in the Guardian. They hope that Scottish independence will serve as a catalyst for England’s left. A No vote, Monbiot argues, would be an act of “self-harm” and “system justification”.

Although the formal Yes campaign has not gone as far as some of the fringe groups, its underlying argument in the final months of the campaign has been that Scotland is politically and morally different from the rest of the UK – it is crying out to be a social democracy, while the Conservative-led government in London drifts to the right. Read more

“Scotland will vote to remain in the United Kingdom, and by a decisive enough margin to settle the matter for many years to come”, wrote Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, at the beginning of July. But after reading the results of his new poll, released on Tuesday, the pollster is less confident. The pro-independence side in the Scottish referendum is “in touching distance of victory”, he writes in the Sun.

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Well, this is awkward for someone who has written a magazine article entitled the New Baby Boom. On Wednesday the Office for National Statistics published new data showing that the birth rate in England and Wales dropped from 2012 to 2013. I was more interested in the qualitative aspects of the boom – its diversity, how legal and scientific changes have allowed more people to become parents, and advances in knowledge about child development – than whether its size would be maintained. All of those trends look set to continue – the baby boom will still change Britain. I also used the latest data available, which showed that the increase in the number of births that began at the start of the 21st century was still apparent in 2012.

And yet, and yet, and yet ….

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The grey tower blocks that wrap around the Gascoigne Children’s Centre in Barking, east London, are in various forms of disrepair. Demolition jobs stand unfinished; cross sections of smashed homes reveal pastel wallpaper flapping in the wind. Families from more than 80 countries live in the remaining houses. Gascoigne is the last stop for many people who have been shunted around the UK’s social housing stock. It is also the epicentre of a demographic earthquake transforming Britain.

There are more babies per person in Barking and Dagenham than in any other local authority in Britain. One in 10 people in the area is under five and the local pre-school is thrice oversubscribed. Lunch “hour” at the packed primary school runs from 11am to 1.30pm. Inside the children’s centre, high-pitched wails ricochet off the walls. After 20 years working on the estate, Rahat Ismail, the centre’s manager, is used to the noise. Showing me into a quieter room, she sits down on a carpet beside nine mothers and nine babies. It is time for Babbling Babes, a singing session designed to help infants with their cognitive skills.

A 15-month-old boy with a wispy afro is asked to pick from two plastic figures, each representing a song. Handling objects improves motor development and, at this boy’s age, a baby begins to see that others’ experiences are different from his own. Glancing at his peers, the boy rejects a farmer by the name of MacDonald and opts for a black sheep. We sing, inquiring as to its wool. Read more

For some voters in September’s referendum, independence offers the prospect of Scotland “becoming the European social democracy we are politically inclined to be”, as Irvine Welsh puts it. Welsh, like many Scots (and many Scottish artists), sees the vote as a chance for Scots to “assert democratic socialist values over neo-liberalism”. It is a common argument made by those who aren’t necessarily staunch supporters of the ruling Scottish National party and yet still intend to vote Yes on September 18.

Now contrast that with the views of Ewan Morrison, another brilliant and sweary novelist. In a post on BellaCaledonia, a popular left- and Yes-leaning website, the author of Close Your Eyes explains why he will be voting Yes in the referendum:

“Not because I buy into any of the retro leftist idealism that seems to please the majority of Yes voters I know, but because I think its [sic] important that Scotland stops blaming the UK for its woes and tries to survive as an entrepreneurial capitalist country. I vote Yes to force a change in the Scottish psyche away from Nay saying, resentment, and ‘prolier than thou’ righteousness. I vote Yes to begin the cull of turn of the century unreformed and uncritical socialist ideals that have been holding this country back and scaring away investment.” Read more

‘England to flop as Brazil triumphs, Goldman Sachs analysts claim;
Telegraph.co.uk, May 28

I thought Brazil’s economic growth was slowing down.

Goldman is referring to the football World Cup.

Why would it do that?

If you are being cynical, then perhaps it is because nearly everyone likes football and nearly everyone dislikes bankers. But it could also be because it is a bit of fun. Read more

Regular programming will be resumed on May 26.

Britain has an urgent need to build more homes. This much has been obvious long before the current wave of house price rises. The real question is therefore not whether Britain should build more, but why it has consistently fail to do so?

In any other market, rising prices would be expected to trigger a supply response. But this doesn’t happen with homes. Successive price booms have only led to small increases in building at best. Perversely, though, this market is extremely responsive to downward swings: if house prices soften, supply plummets immediately. The result is that supply ratchets downward with every turn of the boom-bust cycle.

The reasons for this peculiar market behaviour are complex. But it comes down to land and competition. House building is different from other markets because it requires land – a uniquely scarce, fixed resource. As a result, competition between house builders works differently than in other industries. Read more

Mr Osborne, like Mark Carney before him, seems to have had no impact on voting intention. The ten opinion polls conducted since the chancellor’s speech in Edinburgh on February 13 show that “the currency intervention has not had a fundamental impact on the referendum race”, according to John Curtice, Scotland’s top psephologist. An average of those polls show the Yes vote on 43 per cent (excluding the all-important don’t knows), a two percentage point increase on the average between the start of the year and the speech. When asked by TNS BMRB, a polling company, to rank issues in order of importance to their independence voter, Scots placed currency eighth.

The good news for Better Together is that currency does not seem to matter much for Scots ahead of the vote on September 18. And yet the bad news for Better Together is that monetary union does not seem to be a decisive issue.

Let me try to explain this apparent contradiction. Read more

At the Budget last week, George Osborne said that “under this government income inequality is at its lowest level for 28 years”. Talk about chutzpah. Not only is this fact reflective of the financial crisis and the response of the social security system it is also marginal in a historical sense.

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“HS2 chief envisages benefits across north ” Financial Times, March 18

I’m buzzin’ for high-speed rail, like the rest of Manchester.

Some might say.

It’ll be supersonic.

It won’t be that fast but it will cut journey times among some cities north of London and between them and the UK capital, according to High Speed 2 Plus.

What’s that?

The latest master plan for the controversial rail network.

That’s well mint.

Doubtless. But before you acquiesce to a £50bn project, shouldn’t you ask for whom it is well mint? Read more

The nature of low pay has changed since the introduction of the minimum wage, 15 years ago. The chart below from the report shows that extreme low pay – earning less than half the median wage – has been nearly eradicated. But low pay – earning less than two-thirds of the median wage – is as prevalent as in the late-1990s.

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On Monday, the Labour party announced details of its “job guarantee” scheme for Britons aged 18-24 who have been receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance, the standard unemployment benefit, for more than a year. The Conservative party says that Labour is making an unfunded and unaffordable commitment.

The Treasury estimates that the scheme would cost £1.04bn per year. If that sounds conveniently like ONE BILLION POUNDS, I think you are on to something. The real figure would almost certainly be less than that.

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Raising the personal allowance further won’t help the poorest, never mind “just the very poorest”. With 4.6m workers (17 per cent) already not paying income tax, including an additional 2m due to the coalition’s policies, more of the gains will go to those on middle incomes. That might be a perfectly good thing to do but it is not helping the poorest.

the IFS calculates that 69 per cent of the £12.2bn cost of raising the Personal Allowance to £12,500 would go to working families in the top half of the income distribution, 16 per cent to pensioners, and a mere 15 per cent for working families in the bottom half of the population. Of course, any big tax cut like this one would mean public spending cuts elsewhere, which would likely fall harder on the bottom half.

The politics of the personal allowance rise is obvious but so too is its flaws. If you would like to help the low paid, there are better ideas.
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In January I visited my old school in Edinburgh, where I met four pupils from its gifted and talented programme. When I asked the 12-year-olds what they had been doing that day, one explained they were rewriting fairy tales. Her friend picked up the thread; once upon a time Ariel, from The Little Mermaid, had turned Jasmine, the heroine from Aladdin, into a similarly semi-aquatic character. Jasmine drowned. This ploy was meant to clear the way for Ariel to seduce Aladdin. Unfortunately for the princess, he turned out to be gay. His marriage to Prince Charming was imminent, continued another pupil. The End.

This story would not score well on the Programme for International Student Assessment. Pisa compares student achievement in OECD countries. Its latest results have worried western governments and parents; Chinese pupils, even those from poor backgrounds, are scoring higher than most of their American and European peers. Perhaps I should be horrified that the clever kids I met were sounding more like Roald Dahl than mathematicians. Read more

If you are an overseas investor curious about British people, or at least their property, I suggest you spend an hour watching the popular television programme Location, Location, Location. A typical episode will feature two couples, each looking for a house. At the outset, they tell us about their budgets, which are tangible, and their dreams, which are intangible but often manifest themselves through the medium of original fireplaces.

The tension between reality and aspiration, heightened by a pair of plummy presenters, makes the show. After a tour of the local market and the ritual sacrifice of an interior design fantasy, prospective buyers will find a place and make an offer, usually from a pub. Cue music. Will the owner accept the bid? Not for that price, surely? Yes! I would not say I enjoy the anxiety but, like millions of others, I cannot turn it off.

They call it reality television for a reason. Britain has mass angst about housing. Prices and rents are rising across the country, particularly in London, where growth is in double digits. In December, official figures showed that the average UK house price had for the first time risen above £250,000, or about 10 times median income. The divide in wealth between those who own property and those who do not is growing, and with it a gap between equity-rich baby-boomers and “Generation Rent”. Read more