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The high price to pay for fuel

I wince as my gas and electricity bills arrive.  It’s so expensive now, domestic heating, despite all the penny-pinching things to use less fuel I’ve done to keep our costs down.

But another part of me thinks that it’s a good thing that domestic fuel is expensive.  If climate change is really a problem, then people should be trying to use less fuel and a high price will encourage them in their efforts to do just that.

The real problem is when the high price of fuel falls on the people who can least afford it.  Some 9 per cent of the population are said to be in fuel poverty, that is to say that to meet their energy needs would leave them with a residual income below the official poverty line.  A high fuel price, whatever its benefit to the climate, hurts these people most.

To fight climate change, therefore, is not just a matter of setting the right fuel prices but also of helping the people who would lose out the most as a result.  It is inseparable from questions of redistribution.  This is not to say what those redistributive policies should be, only that there must be some acknowledgement of the different places at which people start.

And if that is true within a country, it is so much more true between countries.  Here in the UK, we have an annual per capita GDP of $36,000.  In the US, it is around $50,000, while in Ethiopia it is only $1,200.  The carbon dioxide emitted in the UK, the US and in Ethiopia is just the same per barrel of oil, which means that the cost of the pollution from that barrel of oil would make up a much larger part of an Ethiopian’s expenditure, were fuel prices to be used as a means of reducing emissions.

A global approach to fighting climate change (and there can be no other) needs to based not only on the state of the atmosphere – how much carbon dioxide can we emit – but also on an acknowledgement of people’s different starting places.  It is a matter of science but also a matter of politics.

There will have to be shared political institutions to take those decisions about how much and how to reduce emissions, and who should pay for it.  The predominant focus that has been given to the science in recent years misses this bigger point.  If we are to accept paying higher prices for our electricity and gas, we have to know that it is money well spent.

Why do people vote?

Going to vote - what does this man think he's doing?

Going to vote – what does this man think he’s doing?

The theory that underpins modern economics is the idea that people act rationally.  Their actions will be based on an analysis of the information available to them and they will then act in a manner that maximises their own benefit.

If that is so, how to explain voting behaviour?  Not the decision about which party to vote for, that’s easy, but why to vote at all.  Is the time it takes to go to the polling station and vote justified by the benefit that will accrue as a result?

In the last UK general election, more than 29 million people thought that it was worthwhile.  But of the 649 seats nominally at stake in the election, as many as 382 were considered safe seats and thus the result of those was known before the campaign even started.  Among the remaining 267 marginal seats, the smallest majority in any of them was 4.  Not a single voter could have changed the outcome in any seat by the act of voting.

And even if there was a seat that could be changed by a single voter, there are 649 seats to be contested.  There has been no outcome to a British general election that would have been different if one seat had been won differently.

Against that hopeless mathematics, why vote?

The reason is, goes the best theory, that people don’t only vote in order to have an effect on the outcome of the election, but also to have an effect on themselves.  To vote is to express an identity.  I’m the kind of person who votes Liberal Democrat, I might tell myself, in which case I go and vote Liberal Democrat when the election comes round.  My vote doesn’t necessarily indicate any particular sympathy for the present Liberal Democrat party and its policies and habits.  This theory explains quite a lot.

First, there is the decline in general election turnouts.  The chart below shows how turnout has been on a steady downward trend since the second world war, most notably declining in the past 15 years or so.

Turnout in UK general elections (data from House of Commons Research Papers 01/37, 01/54, 05/33 & 10/36)

Turnout in UK general elections (data from House of Commons Research Papers 01/37, 01/54, 05/33 & 10/36)

Those 15 years have also been associated with the decline in political party membership and the decline in political identification more generally.  People are not less political, but they choose their politics more eclectically and are less willing to take automatically what they are given by any particular group of politicians.

Turnout in European elections (data from European Parliament)

Turnout in European elections (data from European Parliament)

Secondly, there is the decline in turnout in the European elections.  The chart above shows the quite rapid decline in turnout across Europe as a whole: in 30 years, it has fallen by one third (with a notable exception of the UK).  The identification here that is disappearing is not a party political identification but an identification with Europe.  This is why the UK is an exception to the fall in turnout: voting never was an expression of European identity in the first place.

If one of the main reasons for voting in the European elections is weaker than it was, what can replace it?  This is where the idea of nominating party candidates for president of the European Commission comes in.

Abstention signifies not opposition to the EU as such – there are political parties to vote for if that’s what you think – but the sense that the political choices on offer are no longer relevant to daily life.  The way to deal with this is to take the most important political choice – who should govern – and invite the voters to decide.

To keep the choice of Commission president in the hands of the narrow group of the connected and powerful removes from the European elections one of the main purposes of any election.  Encouraging people simply to vote “for Europe” is not enough.  People increasingly do not feel that way and keeping the crucial decisions out of their hands will make them feel that way even less.

The Daily Telegraph should make its mind up

Allister Heath (picture Policy Exchange)

Allister Heath (picture Policy Exchange)

There is a marvellous article by Allister Heath in the Daily Telegraph today, outlining an alternative to Scottish independence.  For Scotland to vote to leave the United Kingdom would cause a great deal of uncertainty for business and be very bad for the economy and for British influence in the world.

But sticking with the current position would not be workable either: the British constitution is very unbalanced with Scotland having a devolved parliament but England having nothing.

Better to have a federal UK based on the four home nations, each with its own parliament responsible for

complete control of health care, education, welfare, pensions, labour market rules, parts of transport and energy and as many other areas as possible.


The central government should control defence, foreign policy, trade relations, monetary policy, financial regulation and a few other key areas.

Of particular concern to Allister Heath is the need to instil fiscal discipline in the devolved governments.  They should raise and spend all their own money rather than relying on handouts from the UK; they should be free to borrow money but those debts would not be guaranteed by the UK; they would thus have incentives to engage in tax competition with each other.

There are two doubts about this proposal.

The first is whether the UK could survive as a federation as long as one member state, England, is four times the size of the other three put together.  The experience of federations elsewhere in the world (for example, south east Asia or the Caribbean) suggests that the member states need to be more similar in size than that.  This website has written about English regional government in the past for precisely this reason, but that would be fraught with its own problems of public identification and legitimacy.  The failure of the regional referendum in the north east of England in 2004 still haunts us.

The second is that, as the Daily Telegraph itself told us only last week, federalism, in the sense of constitutional protection for lower levels of government, does not exist.  Reporting on a speech by European commission vice-president Viviane Reding, we were told that a United States of Europe would be a

superstate relegating national governments and parliaments to a minor political role equivalent to that played by local councils in Britain.


the commission would have supremacy over governments and MEPs in the European Parliament would supersede the sovereignty of MPs in the House of Commons.

Is this what Allister Heath wants for the UK?  Under such a scenario, Scotland would have less power than it does now, if Whitehall were to regain “supremacy” over Edinburgh and if the House of Commons were to “supersede” the Scottish parliament.  Right now, the three devolved governments have a much greater role than that of local councils: are they to be reduced in status?

The Daily Telegraph appears to be very confused about federalism and what it means.  Perhaps its editorial staff could read here and here and here.

It matters who governs

François Hollande (picture Matthieu Riegler / Wikimedia Commons)

François Hollande (picture Matthieu Riegler / Wikimedia Commons)

Politics is not only about policies but also about personalities.  The very best ideas are no good if they are implemented incompetently.  Good leaders are able to recruit the right people to follow them.  And who knows how anyone will react in a crisis?

Voter choice is based on manifestos and policy proposals, but voters will also want to choose the candidates they like best.  How else to explain Boris Johnson?

Two stories from abroad illustrate the point.

Francois Hollande was elected French president in part on the grounds that his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy had demeaned his office.  “When I am President, I will ensure that my behaviour is exemplary every instant,” he said during the final TV debate of the campaign.

But now 600,000 copies of Closer magazine were sold in a weekend containing pictures of President Hollande apparently slipping in and out of his lover’s apartment on a moped.  Is this a shocking breach of national security?  After all, the president has his hands on the launch codes for the force de frappe.  No, not really, but it’s interpreted as a reflection on his character.  He’s not sticking to the things he promised.  That’s also true of his economic recovery.

And across the Atlantic, New Jersey governor, and 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, Chris Christie has to explain away the cause of four days of traffic chaos in the small town of Fort Lee, whose mayor happened to be one of his political opponents.  Traffic jams can happen anywhere, but are rarely preceded by e-mails from political appointees planning them for revenge.

Governor Christie denies all knowledge (having previously revelled in the image of a hands-on manager), but he still has questions to answer.  He is understood to be a man of rages and compulsions (a 25 stone man who cannot control his instincts, who knew?) and political discussion is now about whether those are appropriate character traits for the nation’s commander in chief.  His pragmatic and folksy approach to policies is being eclipsed by his personal behaviour.

The policies of different political parties are getting more and more similar, which means that the search for difference has to look elsewhere.

This is not due to the squeezing out of democracy, but rather to a growing understanding of what does and does not work.  Tax and spending plans increasingly now unite government and opposition rather than divide them, given the implacable force of the bond market and the need to reassure investors.  The skills needed to be a politician are becoming more and more specialised, so that the members of the political class come from similar backgrounds.  What’s left are their personalities.

This has consequences for electoral systems and also for party systems.  And it has consequences for European democracy, too.  If the personality of the president of the European Commission is going to matter more in the future, then so should the voters’ choice of that president.  The current and previous presidents were awarded the post after discussion behind closed doors among the heads of national governments.  Voter choice was largely excluded.

This summer, as the European elections get closer, there is the chance that we ordinary citizens can have a say, too.  The parties will present not just manifestos and policy ideas but also the people they ask us to trust in implementing them.  Personality increasingly counts, and we should be given the choice.

Three questions about free movement

Chuka Umunna MP (picture JocelinBec )

Chuka Umunna MP (picture JocelinBec )

Labour shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna has called for changes to EU law to reduce the freedom of workers to move countries in search of work:

On low-skill immigration we believe there was too much of it from the EU. There is one important thing about the EU. The founders of the EU had in mind free movement of workers, not free movement of job seekers.

This statement obviously leaves a lot hanging.

1. How does Chuka Umunna know that this is what the founders of the EU had in mind?  Which founders?  When did they say this?  I have never seen any such statements, and I am fairly familiar with the motives of the people who created the EU.  Nevertheless, there may be something I have missed.

2. What else did the founders of the EU have in mind?  The Schuman declaration, for example, spoke of

the realization of the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace.

Does Chuka Umunna also think it is necessary to fulfil what the founders of the EU had in mind in this regard?  If not, why does he think it appropriate to pick and choose between the sentiments of the founders of the EU?

3. Why does what the founders of the EU had in mind matter anyway?  They did their job in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.  The world is different now.  The validity of what they thought lies not in the fact that they said it, but in the fact that it was relevant to the needs of the time.  Its validity now depends on its relevance now.

The truth is that Chuka Umunna is aware that his policy idea is quite at variance with the idea of European integration and so has to dress it up differently.  What he is proposing is that skilled workers with cross-border personal networks should be able to take jobs in other European countries, but that unskilled workers without those networks should not.  In other words, Europe should offer its advantages to the middle classes but not the working class.  This from a spokesman for the Labour party!

Votes for prisoners comes nearer

Jack Straw, man of action (picture Ministry of Justice)

Jack Straw, man of action (picture Ministry of Justice)

Economics and immigration are not the only battlegrounds in the debate about Britain and the EU.  The rulings from the European Court of Human Rights that prisoners should not be automatically and absolutely deprived of the right to vote is another one.  The ECtHR is formally separate from the European Union, as most headline writers in newspapers do not realise, but it is institutionally difficult to imagine that the UK could reject the ECtHR but stay in the EU and it is politically even more difficult to imagine.

The origin of the issue is a case brought by John Hirst in 2001, upon which a final ruling was delivered by the ECtHR in 2005.  The court ruled that the blanket prohibition on prisoners voting in the UK was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, at which point the government set about doing as little as possible about it.  Prisoners are not popular in this country and granting them new rights would not be welcomed in the press.  Better to leave the issue alone and hope it goes away.

Jack Straw wrote in his memoirs:

In my last ministerial post as Justice Secretary I’d made many decisions about many things; but I’d also spent three years ensuring that the government took no decision in response to a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights that the UK’s ban on convicted prisoners being able to vote was unlawful. I’d kicked the issue into touch, first with one inconclusive public consultation, then with a second.

But of course the issue hasn’t gone away.  The House of Commons debated the subject in February 2011 and very few people were left happy.  A vote of MPs at the time overwhelmingly supported the current position in which no-one in prison can vote except for those on remand, in contempt or in default.  Furthermore, this was expressed to be an issue “for democratically-elected lawmakers” (i.e. and not judges).

Since then, a joint committee of peers and MPs has now recommended that a bill be introduced in the next parliamentary session to limit the ban to prisoners serving sentences of more than 12 months.  This is intended to meet the UK’s obligations under international law.

David Cameron has declared that “it makes me physically ill to contemplate giving the vote to prisoners”.  I think that might be a bit strong.

To be sent to prison is to forfeit certain rights, freedom of assembly for example.  While most citizens might have the right to take part in a public demonstration in Trafalgar Square, we not expect prisoners to enjoy that right.

But equally, prisoners do not forfeit every imaginable right.  They do not lose the right not to be tortured.

So, is the right to vote more like the right of freedom of assembly or more like the right not to be tortured.  That is what we are talking about, and I do not think that placing such a right on a spectrum of rights needs to lead to physical illness.  The report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill stirs no such response in me.

The bigger political problem is that, having talked up the difficulties of dealing with this issue, it will now look even more controversial when the issue is actually dealt with.  Not only will it be a question of giving prisoners votes (Boo! Hiss!), it will be a question of Europe forcing Britain to give prisoners votes. (Double boo!  Double hiss!)

As background to a referendum on British membership of the European Union, this does not look good.

Note, too, that David Cameron, when he finally gets off his sickbed, envisages leading the Yes campaign in a future referendum on EU membership.  Is he deliberately trying to make things difficult for himself?

Stab in the back

An illustration from a 1919 Austrian postcard showing a caricatured Jew stabbing the German Army in the back with a dagger. The capitulation was blamed upon the unpatriotic populace, the Socialists, Bolsheviks, the Weimar Republic, and especially the Jews.

An illustration from a 1919 Austrian postcard showing a caricatured Jew stabbing the German Army in the back with a dagger

A persistent complaint from the eurosceptics is that the British people were lied to about membership of the EU.  Joining wouldn’t reduce our national sovereignty, we were told, and we are suffering now as a result of this deception.

There are three responses to this.

First, membership of the EU hasn’t reduced our national sovereignty.  The very fact that the UK can talk about leaving proves that.  On a day-to-day basis, sovereignty is pooled rather than wielded individually, but it can always be taken back if we want.

A second argument is that losing national sovereignty does not mean suffering as a result.  National sovereignty is a dangerous weapon in other people’s hands, and relinquishing part of our own is the necessary (and cheap) price to pay in order to get our erstwhile enemies to relinquish part of theirs.

Thirdly, there was no lie.  In the debates about membership, the implications for national sovereignty were spelled out.  (Perhaps not in every statement ever made on the subject, but on enough.)  Here is Edward Heath on 25 April 1975, in the thick of the referendum campaign:

Of course a country, like an individual, can decide to go it alone. And in theory at least, they may appear to have more freedom. But freedom to do what? Free to buy what you want but too poor to afford it. Free to say whatever you like – but too weak for anyone to listen. This is the sovereignty and the freedom that the anti-Marketeers dangle before you but it is a sham sovereignty and a fictional freedom…

Now, these three responses are not completely consistent with one another, but each of them individually, and even more powerfully in combination, responds to the claim of deception.

The story of the great European lie is surely our equivalent of the German stab in the back myth of the 1920s, that the German army had not actually been defeated on the battlefield in the Great War but that a collection of socialists, republicans and Jews had nevertheless conspired to betray their country.  This nasty fiction was one of the tools the Nazis used to ease themselves to power, and its echoes today are unpleasant and alarming.

The European Union has changed a lot since the British voted on membership in a referendum, true, but each change to the treaties  has been approved by our parliament in the same way as every other law or constitutional change has been approved.  By all means, object to British membership if you wish, but we are here through choice and not through cheating.

The end of human rights

Contemporary illustration showing the five founding members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, around 1863

Contemporary illustration showing the five founding members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, around 1863

Things are getting better, no?  Economic growth is back, technology is advancing, life expectancy is rising and infant mortality falling.  Consumption of salt, sugar and saturated fat is in decline.  All good news.

Then Tony Fleming has to go and ruin it by referring me to an article in the Washington Post about the end to 150 years of human rights progress.

Starting with the foundation of the Red Cross in 1863, the world has seen a growing respect for equality and the dignity of the person, regardless of circumstances.  Prisoners, women, children, ethnic minorities: all are treated better.  Even wounded enemy soldiers, people who it is hard to imagine have a smaller claim on our goodwill, are entitled to protection.  (That was why the Red Cross was founded in the first place.)

But that process is now in retreat.  Europe, which was the birthplace of many of these ideas, is now, relatively speaking, in decline.  As a share of the world economy, and as a share of world decision-making, Europe matters for less than it did in the past.  The ability of the Europeans to advance their values is therefore weakened.  (The inability of the Europeans to organise themselves properly to do this makes this weakness all the greater, but this is an inability that this website wants to see fixed.)

America, too, is not the champion of human rights that it might be.  Its economic interests, notably maintaining a good relationship with China, and its security interests, Guantanamo Bay remaining open, militate against this.  And rising powers such as China do not share these ideas to anything like the same extent.

A further characteristic of the modern world is the growth in influence of organised religion.  Religious groups can be remarkably uninterested in the human rights of non-members, as religion becomes increasingly a matter of identity as much as of faith.  The European secular model is under challenge.  This is even true of Christianity: most Christians now live outside Europe and even the Pope is not a European (for the first time since Pope Gregory III in 741 CE).  It is likely that Christian and European values will become increasingly divergent, not to mention the resurgence of Islam and other religions too.

All told, the cosy assumption that the world can unite around the protection of human rights is no longer tenable.  Secular and democratic values are under increasing threat.  Those of us who still believe in those values need to be ready to work a little harder.

Who started the first world war?


Michael Gove: who started it? (picture Department for Education)

This year sees the centenary of the start of the first world war.  There will be commemoration of this sad anniversary throughout the country during the year, but there will also be much debate about the causes and consequences of the war, too.  While Federal Union was founded in 1938 specifically out of fear of the coming second world war, it was the experience of the first that motivated many of its early members.  If war could be so destructive and so expensive, surely there must be better ways to manage relations between states.

And it is that perspective that is missing from the debate so far about the origins of the war.  Education secretary Michael Gove launched the latest round in this discussion last Friday, with a piece in the Daily Mail arguing that the British war was a “just war”:

The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.

He also took a few gratuitous shots at Professor Richard Evans of Cambridge University (the two had crossed swords last summer over proposed changes to the history curriculum), who responded in the Guardian here.

Others, including Boris Johnson (read it here) and Labour shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt (himself a professional historian) joined in the argument.  The issue they all seem to be interested in is whether Germany was responsible for the start of the war, whether the British cause was somehow better than that of Germany.

This website has long been of the view that arguing over the rights and wrongs of history is less important than ensuring that those wrongs are not repeated.  Whether Gavrilo Princip or the Schlieffen plan should bear more of the blame is not as interesting as how come it was even possible to fight such a war.  The answer to the question of who started the war is that they all did.

It is painfully obvious to us now that European history would have worked out better if that war had never started – it led directly to the Russian revolution, for example, and the rise of the Nazis, and the destabilisation of the Middle East – and all the good things that it brought – the return of Polish and Irish self-government, for example, or the extension of the electoral franchise in the UK to women – could have been delivered by other means at much lower cost.  The collective benefits of not fighting that war would have been much greater than the individual benefits that might have arisen from winning it, but the international system possessed no means of identifying and pursuing those collective benefits.

A generation later, the international system still lacked such a sense of the collective benefit.  But two generations later, and three generations later, and, we trust, four generations later, that collective benefit now has a champion.  The European Commission was specifically set up, operationally independent from national governments in a way that no previous international institution had been, precisely to point out when national policies are collectively foolish and counter-productive and to suggest better and more productive alternatives.

The most important lesson to be drawn from 1914 is not the heroism of the British tommy, nor the incompetence or otherwise of General Douglas Haig, but the fact that, left to their own devices, national governments pursuing what they each think to be their own national interest will in fact achieve the opposite.  The veneration of the national interest is a problem, not a solution.

Immigration: blaming the messenger

Emigrating to Australia aboard the 'Georgie', 1949 (picture National Media Museum)

Emigrating to Australia aboard the ‘Georgie’, 1949 (picture National Media Museum)

We were threatened with, or maybe promised, a flood of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria from the start of the year, now that the transitional restrictions on the freedom of movement of these EU citizens have now come to an end.  Britain’s media descended on Luton and Stansted airports to watch as hordes of people from south-east Europe came to Britain to steal jobs and claim benefits. Famously, there was just a single one, who was forced to drink coffee with Keith Vaz MP before being allowed to go on his way.

Economically, of course, it is a good thing for a country to receive immigrants: they pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and the idea that jobs can be stolen – that there is a fixed amount of work to be done – is a well-known economic fallacy.

However, this line of economic argument does assume that an economic benefit to society as a whole can be shared by society as a whole.  If the main economic benefits of immigration are captured by a small group at the top of the economic pile and not redistributed amongst those who might be losing out – if increased competition for unskilled work drives down wages, for example – then it is not surprising that immigration might provoke resentment.  Add to that cultural concerns – people can find it unsettling when they can no longer understand the language spoken in conversation on their streets, or when the shops start to fill up with unfamiliar foods – and you have a situation ripe for exploitation by an unscrupulous and populist political force.

This is not to blame the immigrants, not even the people who might resent the immigrants.  Modern economics is all about systems and the correct design of incentives rather than focussing on the decisions and actions of individuals: the same should be true here, too.

And on the issue of immigrant wages versus benefits, the question of the design of incentives is crucial.  The two sides in the debate are talking past each other.

The formal position in the EU is that free movement applies to workers, not citizens.  People are entitled to move from one country to another to work, but not in order to claim unemployment benefits.  People who can support themselves are welcome; those who cannot are not.

But what of those people in the intermediate position, people who are working and claiming benefit at the same time?

In the UK, benefits such as the working tax credit and the child tax credit are paid to more than 3 million people who have jobs.  This can include people who have just arrived in the UK from Romania and Bulgaria.  Anti-immigration people complain that people are coming here for the benefits; pro-immigration people claim that the very same people are coming here for work.  Can these two statements really both be true?  If so, what is going on?

What is going on is the relative decline in average earnings in this country.  The median household income has grown more slowly than the mean household income, telling us that earnings have grown faster for the rich than for the poor.  Inequality has grown, and wages at the bottom end of the income spectrum are falling further and further behind the rest.

The need for in-work benefits arises from the fact that someone in an ordinary job no longer earns enough to afford to live in an ordinary home.  The welfare state steps in to make up the difference.  This is what is going on.

When the free movement provisions of the Treaty of Rome were first created, no-one envisaged that social welfare would become such a pervasive part of many people’s daily lives.  It was a safety net of last resort, not a trampoline that people would bounce on as a matter of course.

The concern about immigrants claiming benefits is thus not really about immigrants at all.  It is about benefits.  Free movement within the EU is not the problem, but has pointed out what the problem is.  Blaming the messenger is a familiar feature of modern politics, and this is another example.