The Sottish Referendum: from the sidelines

August 25, 2014

Like two heroic leaders of a bygone age, Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling prepare for battle. The symbolic War of independence in Scotland is reaching a crucial stage

Have no doubt of the symbolic nature of the war. The matter is to be decided through votes cast for or against a single six word question by those edible by rights of age and location. No voting rights for exiled Scots.

The six word question

“Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Numerous polls have shown roughly 50% of eligible voters disposed to vote NO, 40% YES,, and around 10% DON’T KNOW. The shifts in voting intention have shown enough of a drift to the YES vote to keep those involved anxious and willing to keep on campaigning.

The dilemma of intervention and MRDA

There seems to be a dilemma for interventions from what is seen as beyond-the-border vested interests. These have tended to be from those offering reasons why the Scots should vote No. These have been most most effectively rebuffed years ago by the famous Mandy Rice-Davis retort .  When challenged in court that Lord Astor denied sleeping with her: ‘he would say that wouldn’t he’. I understand it is now found in tweets as MRDA , standing for Mandy Rice-Davis Applies.

Even if MRDA …

Mandy’s line is strong on dramatic force, but those with vested interests may still be making valid points.

Even if MRDA here, Is it significant that the final Yes No question was reduced to six words of blatant over-simplification? “Should Scotland be an independent country?”appears to be asking for some moral or universal rights assertion. It leaves open for debate whether the voters will benefit more from one outcome rather than the other. Not to mention that the outcome reaches into the haziest of futures. Further confusion is added by the dodgy nature of the statistical missiles deployed in the skirmishes.

Worse, as stated the question reveals the difficulties in laying out the decision by with a say in its phrasing. From the outside, I have not been convinced by the justifications offered for voting Yes or No. In that respect I would be among the 10% Don’t Knows.


Budget Notes and Car Park Economics

March 25, 2010

Yesterday (March 24th 2010) I missed much of the budget speech by the Chancellor, Alistair Darling. Although, you can’t miss such an event these days, as it remains on line and available unexpurgated except in those parts of the World which have fallen foul of Google, and/or been indulging in a bit of web-censorship

As a matter of fact, I caught some of the budget speech while I was driving back to Tudor Towers (which is how a colleague and sometime class warrior refers to the modest Northern HQ of LWD).

Never mind the dangers of using mobile phones while driving. Listening to AD while driving was pretty damn dangerous too. You can be become far too relaxed by the soothing and gentle monotony. Rockaby baby time. Far worse than a dodgy accelerator pedal.

Then the opposition replies. First, dancing Dave, all sound and fury. I pictured him as rosy-cheeked with rage, but later I saw he had gone white with fury. And then, I’m not just a Nice Guy Nick, almost succeeding in attacking in a way that didn’t sound like an echo of Dave’s rant.

More Rottweiler than Dead Sheep

Those in the know say that Alistair is his own man. Won’t be bullied by Gordon. Not like, say, that equally soothing politician of yesteryear, Geoffrey Howe ,who eventually turned and savaged Margaret Thatcher, more a Rottweiler than the dead sheep he had been cruelly called by another tormentor.

I couldn’t help thinking that Darling’s speech had a charm that would have been lost if it had been delivered by Gordon Brown. There were still the careful constructions which, together with the delivery, created a reality in which Government had pretty-much rescued the country from meltdown. Gordon eventually drives you to sleep with an unremitting hail of statistical blows. Alistair is more hypnotherapist than pugilist.

By the end of the day I had overdosed on the speech and its implications. I didn’t need any more explanations of why not one of the main parties had been specific about what’s going to be cut in order to meet what fiscal deficit based on what assumptions.

A starter for ten

Here’s a starter for ten. Back of a car-parking ticket stuff. Everyone has fewer assets than they thought a couple of years ago. Not just in the UK, but let’s stay local geographically. If we tot up what we own and what we owe, the answer is a bit closer to a nasty red debt figure than a nice blue credit one. No politician is saying, but the change in expectations of personal debt is quite a few percentage points. Anyone arguing it’s less than say 30%? No? OK. So we are all quite a bit poorer than we believed a few years ago. That’s a lot of pain, household by household.

All this talk I heard of politicians not being able to say anything more specific until ‘the books are open’, or ‘the figures for 2010 are available’ is just a bit disingenuous. And another reason why even gentle, honest-sounding politicos like Alistair Darling are lumped together with those found guilty of fraud, pimping, or just blatant self-serving behaviours.

Leaders in the news: Winners and losers

October 13, 2008

Howard Schultz Starbucks

Howard Schultz Starbucks

In times of crisis, some leaders step forward, others are deemed to have failed. There have been examples of each, as the global financial crisis enters a new critical stage

Fred the Shred takes the fall

Pressure mounted on Sir Fred Goodwin to resign as chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) as the bank seeks to tap the Government’s £500 billion rescue fund. The Government is reluctant to a deal with RBS’s participation unless he relinquishes his role. Although he clung on tenaciously this has been a very bad week for Sir Fred. Another former city hero exits ignominiously.

Sir Fred Goodwin 0

Gordon Brown is no dead cat

The deeper the crisis, the more polls seem to swing towards Prime Minister Gordon Brown. David Cameron and George Osborne grudgingly offer support the government. Are we seeing a ‘dead cat bounce’, or is there life in the political career of Gordon Brown? He appears more relaxed in the last two weeks than he has been since taking over from Tony Blair as Prime Minister.

Brown 1, Cameron 0, Osborne 0

Boris Forces Resignation of Sir Ian Blair in Leadership Battle

The resignation of Sir Ian Blair [October 2nd 2008] develops into a political story. The BBC traced his turbulent career. Boris Johnson, incoming Mayor of London, is proving a hands-on leader willing to act forcefully. Sir Ian, under pressure on operational and personal fronts, was called into a ‘meeting without coffee’ by the Mayor before tending his resignation.

Boris 1 Blair 0

Obama and McCain Round 2

The second televised debate between the two candidates [October 7th 2008, Nashville, Tennessee] is as stage-managed as the first.
A key negative moment was was reported widely as

Jabbing his finger and spitting out “that one” instead of naming Barack Obama, John McCain showed an angry side

Polls suggest that Barack Obama is moving ahead.

Obama 1 McCain 0

Dick Fuld faces the music

Dick Fuld, controversial CEO of Lehmans has had a very bad few weeks. When ‘invited’ to testify before a hostile congressional committee following the crash of his company, he demonstrates his robust leadership style, denying wrong-doing or ethical weakness. He ticks the boxes for the callous Wall Street fat cat. Fuld very much the loser here.

Dick Fuld 0

Darling’s drastic rescue bid of the banks and maybe Gordon Brown

As The Times sees it
Chancellor Alistair Darling [October 8th 2008] launched a drastic rescue of Britain’s high street banks [to avoid] a cataclysmic failure of confidence by announcing a part-nationalisation plan with £50 billion of taxpayers’ money. Alistair Darling, like Gordon Brown has had a better week.

Alistair Darling 1

Starbucks, Schultz and the running taps

Howard Schultz, returned to the chief executive role at Starbucks earlier this year, faced with serious loss of froth in the business. Poor figures and closures continue. This week [October 8th 2008] the ‘running taps’ story threatens to sully the firm’s good environmental reputation.

Starbucks 0, Howard Schultz 0

And in the long run?

Not all these cats are dead. And, as we know, cats have seven lives.

Budget leak theory confirmed?

March 13, 2008

Pre-budget predictions in the media this year were remarkably accurate. Was this a triumph of journalistic detective work, or evidence that The Chancellor and Gordon Brown, like the Owl and the Pussy Cat, had gone to sea in a spinning sieve?

Yesterday’s pre-budget post listed predictions of what would be contained in the Budget. These were based on contributions I received from colleagues, and from comments published in the press.

I am now sated with the post-budget fare of reactions. The experience has left me feeling that I’ve been fed from a pretty predictable and unexciting menu.

But there is one leadership angle which has not received much attention, and to which I now return. It arises from the remarkable accuracy of the pre-budget predictions.

Didn’t we do well?

The results of the budget predictions have surprised me. Take the evidence I compiled for the post. This can be split into roughly a dozen items. An assessment of the post reveals these predictions:

(1) He has little wriggle room for major surprises
(2) I think he will dodge the big issues …and go for technocratic adjustments in most popular areas like taxation …
(3) …environment …
(4) …and mortgages
(5) Mr Darling has no option but to downgrade his forecasts for the economy
(6) The surge in oil prices may be just the event for the Chancellor to seize upon.
(7) Chancellor Alistair Darling is expected to introduce measures to encourage the use of cars with low CO2 emissions
(8) The chancellor is likely to accept proposals from a report commissioned by the Treasury from Julia King, the vice-chancellor of Aston University
(9) Plastic bags taxed
(10) Beer up [penny on pint favoured]
(11) Wine up
(12) Spirits up

These seem to be remarkably accurate, although just twenty four hours ago they seemed more plausible than of high probability. I didn’t feel confident enough to place an electronic bet.

The list can be seen to contain very few ‘false positives’, and the only obvious errors were of assessing the level of an item, rather than getting the item wrong. For example, booze taxes were under-estimated, and the ‘plastic bag’ environmental tax was made provisional on self-regulation by the supermakets.

My colleagues in the forecasting game always add cautions about the uncertainties which weaken any confidence to be placed in predictions whether they be political, strategic, or technological.

In that light, the overall accuracy seems impressive. Even the weakest of the predictions erred only on the precise level or timing of a change introduced (booze was taxed more severely than was predicted; plastic bags is held back to assess voluntary actions from the supermarket giants). Some were rather obvious and had been pretty-much signalled.

What’s going on?

I argued yesterday, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the Chancellor and Gordon Brown, like the Owl and the Pussy Cat, had gone to sea in a spinning sieve.

But is there something here to get the conspiracy theorists interested? In a recent post, I suggested that Alistair Darling and his aides were following a strategy in planting information with Robert Peston of the BBC, about Treasury plans for Northern Rock.

But neither the Owl nor the Pussy Cat would to jump to conclusions on such flimsy evidence. That would be imprudent. And the Owl and the Pussy Cat would not approve of that, would they?

The Budget: Has the Chancellor Gone to Sea in a Sieve?

March 11, 2008


Alistair Darling faces his first budget with little wriggle-room to protect his future prospects. Is there some event that he can turn to political advantage? Might he be accused (like the Owl and the Pussy Cat) of going to sea in a spinning sieve?

A typically cool view of the budget prospects from Chris Giles, economics editor of the Financial Times. He captures the complexities of the situation admirably, and pinpoints what he sees as the key issues. I found his economic perspective more enlightening than those offered by more politically-minded commentators.

Pity Alistair Darling. The chancellor of the exchequer has a mere five days left to prepare his first annual showcase Budget, but he is boxed in from all sides. Mr Darling has no option but to downgrade his forecasts for the economy.

There is little room to make progress on Mr Darling’s twin ambitions – simplification of the tax system and greater fairness. Fairness presumably requires tax reductions for the poor or higher public spending. Politically effective tax simplification requires buying off the protests of losers. His botched mini-Budget last autumn was an example of naive tax simplification – a simpler capital gains tax structure was announced without temporary protection for losers, resulting in a humiliating climbdown.

Did I say it was an economic analysis? Chris Giles manages to arrive at a crisp political observation, as well as offering some political advice:

First, he should do everything possible to build a reputation for solidity and prudence on the economy. The credit squeeze was certainly not his fault, nor is the state of the public finances, but he will begin to take the blame if he has to come back to parliament every year with fresh excuses for why things are worse than he set out a year .

The view was shared by one of our correspondents (thanks I.E.).

I do not think he will be able to please most people, like Gordon Brown did in the past. He is in a tight corner. Government borrowing is high which limits his ability to spend on social causes. The global financial turmoil continues and there is no guarantee that another bank would not fail.

Financial institutions and markets are increasingly nervous about policy statements. He needs to be very careful about how the City reacts to taxation and bank regulation, but I think he should not give in to the demands of the City, which I believe is very much de-coupled from the UK economy.

There is a real danger that UK gradually evolves into an economy where a City State (London) which is run by global capital, pulls the rest of the economy with little globally exchangeable skills.

The current financial turmoil reduces London’s contribution to the UK economy and this should be an opportunity to develop competitive skills elsewhere in the economy. High commodity prices and inflation are serious concerns too.

Does he have the vision to address these big problems- falling housing prices, instable financial institutions, less contribution to the economy from the City, and inflationary pressures due high commodity prices? He is in a tight corner and I think he will dodge the big issues and go for technocratic adjustments in most popular areas like taxation, environment, and mortgages.

What about the oil price?

The temptation must be to find a last-minute-dot-com rescue plan for his future prospects in this week’s budget. If so, the surge in oil prices may be just the event for the Chancellor to seize upon.

Commentators are already calculating how much of a budget gift could be made to motorists.

Prudence: The Sequel

In his early months as Chancellor, Mr Darling, for all his appearance of playing the lead part in the political movie ‘Prudence II’, has been seen as a bit light-footed and twitchy under pressure of events.

The budget [Wednesday, March 12th 2008] promises to be as fun-free and measured in tone as Gordon’s performances always were playing the title role in Prudence I. As for content, we already know many of the changes which have been pre-announced. It’s the additional proposals which may tell us a little more about Alistair Darling’s style, and his development into his new starring role.

The pre-announced changes are part of a recent trend by this Government to smooth out its economic measures, through a pre-budget announcements. These became associated with multiple claims of ‘new’ measures, counter claims of the slipperyness of what the Government was doing.

Commentators are writing as if they know quite a bit about the forthcoming budget. Then there are the pundits who like a bit of fiscal detective work. There has been plenty of comments of these kinds around. You can place pre-budget bets on the colour of AD’s tie, number of mentions of Northern Rock, and odds of a 1000: 1 that (pet-owner) Darling will offer a tax-break to pet-owners.

The Owl and The Pussy Cat

There has also been just a suspicion that some of the contents of the budget have leaked out. Has the chancellor, like the Owl and the Pussy Cat in the poem, gone to sea in a sieve?

The BBC retains much of its well-earned reputation for balanced journalism at times like this.

It has arrived at its predictions with whispers from its unparalleled network of political narks, from other press sources and lobby groups such as environmental activists, the CBI, and the Unions.

Chancellor Alistair Darling is expected to introduce measures to encourage the use of cars with low CO2 emissions. Weekend newspaper reports say the chancellor might introduce a levy on new, larger cars that could increase their price by £2,000.

Both the Sunday Times and the Observer say the chancellor is likely to accept proposals from a report commissioned by the Treasury from Julia King, the vice-chancellor of Aston University.

Speculation, or evidence of a leaky-sieve?

Does it matter anyway?

Not according to the brilliant contrarian economist Roger Bootle.
He pinpoints the issues neatly for The Telegraph

This Budget will not be a firecracker. They never are nowadays. Indeed, the institution is a bit like Parliament in microcosm.

The outward form is still largely the same, which gives the appearance of continuity, but in reality the life has gone out of it. The important events are happening outside the Westminster bear pit. The Budget should be regarded as essentially a piece of political theatre.

In another telling phrase he notes

…what happened in Brown’s Britain was a gigantic spending and borrowing splurge. Never mind binge drinking, what about binge spending?

Back to the sieve

I still can’t get those lines out of my mind from the famous poem by Edward Lear:

The water it soon came in, it did,
The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin.

And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!

A Sieve. Spinning around. A state of denial … Surely there’s a connection somewhere with the budget?