Mind your language…

Two particularly excellent bits of blogging I enjoyed this week about the ‘cleansing’ spat between BoJo and Bullingdon Dave:

Firstly, Tom Watson MP’s spoof ‘clarification’ from BoJo is well worth a read and Nicky’s comment that BoJo knew exactly what he was doing in the interview looks spot-on to me. And the reference to the ‘Cleggeron’ government – well, I already see Clegg and Cameron as lizards in a human skin straight from an episode of Dr. Who, so I may just have to adopt that.

Secondly, Tom Powdrill gets it exactly right in recalling in this context the incredibly distasteful use by the right, including Bullingdon Dave, of ‘apartheid’ to describe the pensions situation in the UK. Tories in glass houses, etc.

In one of the better bits of Question Time on Thursday night (in the section of the programme focusing on the spat), the historian Simon Schama referred very accurately to the deterioration in language when ordinary day-to-day events are descibed in extreme terms, which leaves us with few places to find meaningful terms when confronted with real tragedy – or, indeed, real excellence. I know it’s for effect, for headlines, tweets, publicity, etc. etc. – but we cheapen the political debate when we engage in it and we risk losing sight of the real issue, which – here – is the pernicious and unjust 10% automatic cut in housing benefit after one year. In a situation when one-half of renters cannot afford a cut in housing benefit, that will cause immense difficulties to a large number of families.

Still, I recall that Bullingdon Dave is well-placed to know the London housing rental market so no doubt he’s very aware of where hardship cuts in…

The universal citizen’s pension

Pensions Minister Steve Webb’s plans for a universal citizen’s pension of £140 per week – first broken on Citywire last Friday and confirmed on Monday with a DWP Green Paper due before the end of the year – is an attractive-looking option but, as always, the devil is in the detail.

Nigel at ToUChstone points out that the issues of the cost of the scheme and who pays for it, and unravelling the contracting out aspects (and see also Bryn Davies’s comments on the impact on contracted out pension schemes), present immense practical difficulties while the costs are likely to be well in excess of the suggested savings from abolishing the means testing elements; meanwhile, further leaks about the proposals (that the measure will not be introduced until 2015, by which time the state pension plus means-tested Pension Credit will be well above £140; and that, even then, it will be for new pensioners only) indicate that the gritty reality is likely to fall rather short of the ambitious glory of the headlines.

None of this means that the concept of a citizen’s pension is not worth looking at, while pensions tend to be considered within a long-term time-frame, so a gentle introduction is not completely incredible (though neither did that prevent Beveridge from radical, and rapid, reform to improve state pension provision, and at a time of course when the debt situation was *even* worse). The sheer complexity of the UK’s pensions system also implies a web of difficulties whenever reforms are attempted (and, in this context, today’s announcement of the outcomes of DWP’s review of automatic enrolment appears to be worth at least two cheers).

Even so, a new system with older pensioners on one regime and new ones on another does stretch the bounds of credibility, not least within a system whose essential characteristic is a striving for greater fairness. If greater fairness is not the outcome, any reform looks surely set to fail and, at least this side of the publication of the Green Paper, I can’t see any circumstances in which this reform might, at least under the current government with its, er, obsession with cuts, succeed.

An Artist of the Floating World

I’ve dipped into the history books with this, Kazuo Ishiguro‘s second novel, written back in 1986. Spare, restrained and modest, it unfolds the tale of Masuji Ono, a painter forced by circumstances (Japan’s defeat in the second world war and by his family, two issues which are not unconnected in the novel) to re-assess his personal role and activities in the war as an advocate of, and propagandist on behalf of, Japanese imperialism.

There are obvious parallels here with The Remains of the Day, his next novel, and Ishiguro has himself acknowledged that it could be said about him that he had re-written the same novel three times, but I don’t want to go too far down that road: in some aspects of the setting and theme, and the observation of manners and position, certainly yes; but otherwise there are not a lot of similarities between Britain in the 1930s (as later recalled) and immediate post-war Japan.

Narrated by Ono himself, the story unfolds as a lesson of an atomised society beginning to reconstruct itself both humanly and literally. New people, and foreign powers, are in charge and individuals must respond to new approaches and unaccustomed, not to say strange, ways of relating with each other, as well as face up to their own activities and attitudes. The true extent of Ono’s role during the war is never made fully clear, but that is scarcely the point: societies are only able to emerge from such devastating periods where ordinary people are able to confront their own pasts and their own roles in what happens to others.

The telling of the tale is cautious, each word being deliberately placed and each event slowly revealed. It would, nevertheless, be a mistake to view the work as in any way inconsequential. The care taken in the telling of the tale acts as a focus for Japanese minimalism as well as a means of drawing attention to the anachronistic formality of Ono’s dealings with others in the face of a world which is rapidly marching onwards and in which all of us, regardless of our time, must carefully appraise our own position. In it, Ishiguro has written another significant novel, all the more so for its apparent, but absolutely misleading, slightness: this is a multi-layered work whose capacity to teach is just one of its strengths for the more grounded among us and one which will re-pay a second read.

Covering Born to Run

With its title named after a Springsteen lyric, this blog yields to no-one in its respect for the Boss (well, with the possible exceptions of Chris Phillips and Dave Marsh). So it was with some trepidation that I read that one Storm Lee, a contestant in the current X-Factor (a televised talent show, m’lud), had covered Born To Run on last weekend’s show. Not being exactly a regular viewer of the show, I dug out the You Tube videos.

Hmm. It’s a quite dislocating experience to listen to a song you’ve grown up with desperately mangled by someone with a surfeit of enthusiasm over ability; and the performance? well, like Michael Jackson would have done it, and by someone with a more than passing resemblance to Boy George. I won’t bother linking to it: surreal doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Instead, here‘s how it should be covered: by a fan, who gets inside the song and who, by understanding the desperate searching that underpins the song’s surface glory, thus makes something new of it (and her (blonde!) version of Dancing In The Dark is not half bad, either). Bruce is also well-known for re-arranging and re-creating his own stuff, including BTR. I’m aware that I’m just possibly missing the point here: it’s not the function of X-Factor to make great music, or break new ground: it’s a Saturday night TV light entertainment show, delivering visual chewing gum for couch potatoes alongside a Warholian 15 mins of fame for the contestants.

But, still. Have a bit of respect, eh?

Broadband and the cuts

Broadband is reported today as having ‘survived the cuts‘.

Except that it hasn’t, of course. True, Bullingdon George outlined plans for £530m to encourage fibre investment in rural areas yesterday – albeit that £300m is pre-committed as part of the BBC licence fee, and which the Tories had said would be extended into the next licence fee period (and also now dictated settled), but the remaining element of which appears to be new money.

But in the face of the scale of the investment required to deliver next generation broadband rights across the country (about which I blogged below), and the need for the engaged involvement of the public sector if that is to happen outside the most profitable areas, let’s not kid ourselves that this is anything but a cut.

Banks benefit from £19bn tax gain

Nice piece of outrage on the main TUC website today – though not yet on its ToUChstone blog – that the banks are to gain around £19bn from offsetting losses incurred during the crisis against future profits.

It’s a well-established principle of corporation tax that losses can be offset against profits – but this is a different situation. Financial institutions caused this crisis and bailing them out has loaded plenty on to national debts, not only in the UK but globally; while economic stimulation packages leading on from banking failures, preventing economic freezing, have done the same. Banks have also, in several cases, been taken over by the state.

In this week of the announcement of the precise scale of the cuts envisaged by the ConDem government, this is a well-timed reminder by the TUC not only of what caused the crisis but also what might play a more important role in overcoming it – i.e. a greater attention to the tax regime, to whit: greater tax fairness. As regards financial institutions, a financial transactions tax would also go some way towards establishing financial responsibility for the crisis – in the continuing absence of which in the UK such further financial gains for the banks are simply amazing.

As the TUC points out, £19bn would go a long way towards ameliorating some of the cuts being proposed, including the switch of the basis of indexation of benefits from RPI to CPI, and on benefits generally. Furthermore, the direction of effective taxation among the banks, together with proposed corporation tax cuts, is likely to take the rate paid by banks, and other large companies guided by financial advisers, well below that of small companies.

Now, in the context of the need for economic growth, and in the light of today’s letter to the Telegraph by business leaders, now revealed as straight from Smith Square, that’s outrageous.