The pound rises

Much of the media and some commentators were keen to give prominence to any fall in the pound after Brexit. They claimed it was the result of Brexit, ignoring the falls before we voted. They said it would lead to higher inflation in the UK than elsewhere. So far our increase in inflation has been mainly owing to oil prices, and is less than the US with a stronger currency and similar to Germany’s.

Will they today report the further surge in the pound, now 8% higher than its recent low against the dollar and Euro? Will they offer a political explanation for the improvement, as they claimed for the fall? And will they now predict less inflation as the pound rises?  Don’t hold your breath.

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Shakespeare’s England – thoughts for England’s day, and the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday.

 

Some of you wondered why I did not say more on St George’s Day. The reason is I was to give a St George’s day talk on Thursday, and wanted to give it to the audience first. I would now like to share it more widely.

 

 

SHAKESPEARE’S ENGLAND

 THE ONCE AND FUTURE COUNTRY

 

The past is a foreign country, they say.

Our Elizabethan and Jacobean ancestors lived different lives in many ways

There were no cars, planes or trains. Fast travel meant frequent changes of horses.

Most people got around on foot.  They walked long distances but their range was limited to the local towns and villages.

They had no tv, radio, internet or mobile phones. Messages spread by word of mouth, by printed tracts and almanacs, or by sermons on Sunday.

The printing  press was their revolutionary technology which brought them more news and views. Entertainment came from strolling players,  music and  songs  at home and in the taverns, and from the new  theatres in London.

Their politics was gripped by violent arguments over religion, with the central struggle between Catholics, Protestants and Puritans behind much of the faction fighting. Parliament spent time debating the liturgy, altar rails, smells and bells, bishops and the Bible.

Rich men as well as women displayed their financial success by dressing in fine brightly coloured silks, furs and lace. People  carried weapons for self defence and quarrels could result in duels.

The labouring poor rented property and struggled to make ends meet. Food had to be preserved, pickled, or smoked to see them through the winter. There was  no refrigeration  or foreign imports of fresh produce when the larder was empty.

Were they to be able to visit modern London they would be stunned by its wealth and prosperity, amazed by its technical skill and variety of entertainment, bowled over by the pace of transport and the brilliance of electricity.

Shakespeare would doubtless be surprised that a replica of his theatre was built on the south bank. He would probably  want it to use the best of modern techniques to thrill when he had learned what we can now do.

 

Shakespeare’s past is well documented by the family properties which have survived, less well understood from the absence of revealing letters and account books covering his business and domestic dealings.

 

So why do we pause to study the Tudors and Jacobeans  so much when they are long gone and so different? It is not just curiosity about past times, nor a wish to be smug  how much better off  we are. It is because there are so many familiar features in  our Elizabethan past that strike a chord.

Some features of Shakespeare’s life are not the only continuity to today. England was ruled by a strong and successful woman. She was in a long running dispute with another powerful woman, the Queen of Scots. Before the union of crowns the border between Scotland and England caused uncertainty. Sound familiar?

Elizabeth’s father had stumbled into changing England’s relationship with the European neighbours. He had taken us out of the power of the Pope and the laws and court system of the Papacy. He asserted  England’s independence and his authority through important UK legislation. “This realm of England is an Empire, governed by one supreme Head and King” thundered the Parliamentary Statute in defiance of the  Papal curia. England moved to independence regardless of the threats of  the  continental Catholic powers who would have it otherwise.

One of the pivotal political events in Shakespeare’s life was the defeat of the Spanish Armada. In 1588 The mighty Catholic  fleet undertaking the empresa or conquest of  England was wedged  on Flanders mud fleeing English fire ships or dashed against  Scottish rocks as they ran  for home the long way round. England turned outwards to Asia and the Americas in search of more trade and early colonies.

The second defining moment was the attempt of  conspirators to blow up the King  and government in  Parliament in 1605, with echoes in our own age when terrorists  sought to murder the UK Cabinet and senior figures of the governing party with the  Brighton bomb. We still commemorate the Jacobean attack on Bonfire Night.

 

Contemporary England  in the second half of the sixteenth century had put behind it the ugly civil wars of the Roses.  Aristocrats, gentlemen and ladies turned to the pastoral and peaceful arts of farming, gardening, building wonderful country mansions. Many houses sported glass windows for light and greater warmth, good hearths as the source of good food and hot water, better furniture and rich cloth hangings. The Elizabethan gentleman sought more wealth and income from property ownership. Merchants, traders, bankers and professionals amassed fortunes from their work. London emerged as one of the world’s great cities, overshadowing the rest of the country. Does any of this sound modern?

 

Halls Croft on the edge of Jacobean Stratford shows us how well housed Shakespeare’s daughter and her doctor husband were. Maybe their comfortable domestic surroundings with a good garden owed something to Shakespeare’s own achievement at New Place where had built a large mansion for his own later years out of the profits of his thesbian enterprises.

 

The romance that surrounded the Queen throughout her long reign was deliberately built up by male song writers, poets and courtiers. Elizabeth encouraged the cult of Gloriana.  She made a virtue of her virginity. Her shrewd political head and sense of England’s history kept her from marriage. She did not wish her power to be rivalled or circumscribed by a male consort.   Fresh from surviving smallpox early in her reign,  Elizabeth may also have wished to avoid the dangers of giving birth, which was a hazardous feature of Elizabethan married life.

 

Shakespeare himself did little to fan the flames of the Gloriana cult. His plays portray many realistic powerful women. There is the evil Lady Macbeth egging on her husband to worse crimes. In Twelfth Night Countess  Olivia owns and runs the household and has to deal with an ill behaved elderly male relative.  Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing  it is a wit and a match for Benedict. Both think marriage brings all manner of inconveniences to their independence before love captures them. Even Kate in Taming of the Shrew is no shrinking violet at the start of the play. Though the apparent victory of male power is not to modern tastes, the audience cannot help but think that such a talented and headstrong woman would only put up with her husband’s control all the time it suited her to do so.  Elizabethan society was used to powerful widows with independent means, landed interests or flourishing businesses.

 

The professional classes and the skilled artisans preserved their pay differentials and their dignities by belonging to professional bodies or guilds. The lawyers of Middle Temple allowed the use of their fine Hall for plays, claiming the first production of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare himself was an actor as well as a writer, earning decent money alongside great actors who could command good fees.

 

So what of England?   Like many of my fellow citizens, I am at peace with its history.  I understand its past struggles, take pride in its many achievements, and can live with its past mistakes. I see England as a beacon for freedom, a pioneer of democracy, a country of enterprise and adventure, a country of global ambitions with human scale and understanding. To many around the world Magna Carta, the Restoration settlement of 1660 after the civil war, the long struggle against Napoleon and the resistance to Nazism are legendary victories that reverberated well beyond England’s shores. Much of England’s romance is shaped or developed by Shakespeare in his history plays, and in his detailed portraits of contemporary life.

 

England willingly merged much of her identity into the United Kingdom in a series of progressive changes to her relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland. England on her own  in the Middle ages was one of the first European countries to take political shape with a unitary government commanded by a King. This kingdom soon developed a doughty independence of mind. It took early and influential steps towards the rule of law, recorded and extended the rights of citizens and progressed to eventual democratic control. The story of England in its early days is one of how powerful men managed to control the executive and carve out for themselves and others inalienable rights.

 

By Shakespeare’s era England  fashioned a language of freedom and polished the idea of an Englishman’s liberties. The great achievements of the Bible in English, the Book of Common prayer, and much of Elizabethan drama and poetry defined a nation and created a common culture.  Parliament favoured limited government, rejected standing armies at home, and saw to its own defence at sea. Step by step Parliament wrestled control from the Crown, primarily by gaining control over the raising of tax and the spending of money.

 

In the twentieth century England was one with the United Kingdom. Representing 86% of the people and income of the whole, England willingly waved the Union flag, sang the Union’s National Anthem at its own events, and showed tolerance to the smaller countries that had joined the Union. The loss of the Irish Free State after an unfortunate and bitter struggle determined English politicians thereafter that our union has to be a union of volunteers. In recent years Scotland has tested its own wish to remain in the ballot box, and all three of the other parts of the Union have been given substantial devolved powers.

 

 

To me England is the once and future country. One of its most famous kings is Arthur, a figure more of legend than of historical record. No-one today expects Arthur to come again, but many now anticipate an awakening of England as a vibrant democracy and cultural centre. Removed from the political maps, it has not proved possible to erase England from people’s hearts or to forget its impressive contribution to world freedom and democracy today. The more some have tried to split England up into artificial regions and to balkanise the great country, the more there has been a resurgence of belief and love for it. Where once many were persuaded our flag had been demeaned by extremists, today we can be proud of it again.

 

This week we also celebrate England’s greatest writer. He towers over the world literary stage four hundred and one years after his death.  He is a world brand, a commercial phenomenon, the inspiration for many operas, novels and other works. For many versed in English literature his characters are part of their network of personalities, helping readers to understand human nature better.

 

Shakespeare often sets the down to earth and human scenes against the grand politics of the principal characters. In Henry V, the apogee of kingship and fine virtues, he also traces the formation of a company of soldiers determined to avoid danger, whilst  getting  in the way of drink and profit

 

 

Henry V: Act 2, Scene 1

NYM

For my part, I care not: I say little; but when time shall serve, there shall be smiles; but that shall be as it may. I dare not fight; but I will wink and hold out mine iron: it is a simple one; but what though? it will toast cheese, and it will endure cold as another man’s sword will: and there’s an end.

BARDOLPH

I will bestow a breakfast to make you friends; and we’ll be all three sworn brothers to France: let it be so, good Corporal Nym.

PISTOL

A noble shalt thou have, and present pay; And liquor likewise will I give to thee, And friendship shall combine, and brotherhood: I’ll live by Nym, and Nym shall live by me; Is not this just? for I shall sutler be Unto the camp, and profits will accrue..

Shakespeare’s genius lies in his ability to capture the timeless in human nature. His characters are immortal, though rooted in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.  We have all met modern examples of the decency of Cordelia, Lear’s one honest but loving daughter. We have encountered the evil of Iago, who thought any criminal means were justified to bring down Othello. We have admired others with the bravery of Henry V. We have witnessed some with the factional strength of Bolingbroke, besotted by the ambition to become King as Henry IV.  How many have we met, with the pretensions of Falstaff to be greater and more influential than he was? Whilst Malvolio’s puritanism and dress style are of the sixteenth century his pomposity and absurdity is timeless.  They are at one and the same time of their age and of every age.

 

Shakespeare was rooted in England. He was both countryman, living in rural Stratford, and Londoner, living in the melee of the busy and fast growing Elizabethan metropolis. He knew his flora and his fauna, and writes intricately of the seasons, the weather and the harvests. He observed minutely the mores and opinions of the many and varied people that traded, landed and lived in the capital. He wrote of their divergent religions, values, embassies and business.  Today  some think the Merchant of Venice too harsh. If we look more closely Shakespeare reminds us  forcefully  that Jews and Christians share a common humanity and are of the same flesh and blood.

 

In Midsummer Night’s Dream Titania the Queen of the fairies tells us how out of joint the world has become through her raging dispute with Oberon the fairy King. Shakespeare draws on his meticulous observation of England’s seasons and landscapes to make the point

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act 2, Scene 1

 

TITANIA    93   The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,   94   The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn   95   Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;   96   The fold stands empty in the drowned field,   97   And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;   98   The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,   99   And the quaint mazes in the wanton green  100   For lack of tread are undistinguishable:  101   The human mortals want their winter here;  102   No night is now with hymn or carol blest:

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s England is written into all the plays, whether they are ostensibly set at home or more usually in some more exotic location. The Merry Wives of Windsor is unique in its home  location and portraits of  the emerging middle class of contemporary England. Decent Mr Page and Mr Ford represent the comfortable men of some property and business that flourished as England grew more prosperous. We first meet Mr Page talking of eating venison and discussing his greyhounds. Their wives are to outwit the drunken and lewd Sir John Falstaff, who seeks to use his attachment to the court and his knighthood to win illicit favours of moral matrons. The Forest of Arden features in the plot of As You like it, woodlands well known to the author close to the haunts of his Stratford family. When we hear description of the grassy banks and leafy glades in Midsummer Night’s Dream it could as well be set in the rural England Shakespeare loved.

 

He is often kindly disposed to the beauties of the nature he was used to here at home. He portrays sylvan innocence and plenty in his comedies, contrasting shepherds and country folk, with people from the court. His rural settings have poor people with food to eat and gainful employment alongside the rich and powerful.

 

His portraits of working men capture the variety of Elizabethan society. The mechanics in Midsummer Night’s Dream number a carpenter, weaver, bellows mender, tinker, tailor and joiner. Elsewhere we meet lawyers and constables, justices and soldiers, treated with satire in mind.  Whilst he makes fun of many of them and gives them impediments of speech and understanding, there is often a loving tolerance of their foibles.

 

Between the court and the country lies the world of the jesters and fools. They often bring wisdom and judgement to the whirl wind actions of the principals. Perhaps the best known soliloquy is the one by Jacques in As You Like it:

 

 

All the world’s a stage

(From As You Like It Act II Scene VII)

 

Jaques to Duke Senior

 

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

 

 

 

Just as today some of the brightest choose to be acerbic media commentators or scurrilous sketch writers, claiming to offer a mirror of truth to power, so in Shakespeare’s time the great and mighty licensed fools to tease and challenge them. From Lear’s  Fool   to Costard, from Jacques to the players  in Hamlet these characters  provide a moral commentary and  help the audience understand the choices before the powerful. They are a crucial part of Englishness. England as a country has a long tradition of scatological and irreverent commentary on those who practise government and the law. An anti-clerical country, we have a natural scepticism about those who claim superior wisdom, who claim the right to govern, and those who seek to preserve mysteries beyond the artisan’s understanding. The Fools stand up for the underdogs, ever popular in the English tradition of self-deprecation.

 

So what was this England that Shakespeare so stroked with magical words?  It was a country at peace for a century after being riven by bloody civil wars. It was a country beginning a most extraordinary flowering, as a maritime and trading country, as a centre of great music, drama and poetry, as a power in Europe that could stand up to the superpower of the day, Spain. England was growing together, was becoming more prosperous. It was a land with more brick homes and more chimneys, more hearths and better food, more trade and more exotic products, more ships and more sheep, more cloth and more technology. London was bursting out, with a population above 200,000.

 

Shakespeare’s history plays have but one enduring hero, England. The plays chart the troubles and dramas which disfigure the body politic, interrupt prosperous commerce and at times overturn the natural order. The plays set bastard against legitimate heir, strong man against weak monarch, faction against faction, north against south, England against France, even father against son. Despite all this England shines through, greater than any King, always present. The plays point crookedly towards a better future. For Shakespeare the histories culminate in an England at peace under a mighty and much loved monarch Elizabeth I. Such is her achievement that the kingdom can pass without dispute to James of Scotland. Shakespeare himself can praise the new King whilst questioning his old kingdom in the dark and very frank account of Scottish politics in Macbeth.

 

I dwell on the history plays because they are about England. I also draw most from Henry V.  Henry V is the nearest we reach to Shakespeare’s vision of ideal kingship. Trained partly in the taverns of Eastcheap, influenced but not ruined by Falstaff and the drinking boys, as a King Henry has the common touch alongside the royal virtues of bravery and moral purpose. Under him England begins to live up to Shakespeare’s expectations as an important power. Shakespeare never wrote a play expressly about the achievement of Elizabeth. The speech from his Henry VIII points to the crowning glory of England’s achievements under the great Queen and has to suffice.

 

Henry VIII Act V, Scene V speech on the birth of Elizabeth “This royal infant….”

SCENE V. The palace.

CRANMER

Let me speak, sir, For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter Let none think flattery, for they’ll find ’em truth. This royal infant–heaven still move about her!– Though in her cradle, yet now promises Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings, Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be– But few now living can behold that goodness– A pattern to all princes living with her, And all that shall succeed: Saba was never More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces, That mould up such a mighty piece as this is, With all the virtues that attend the good, Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her, Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her: She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her; Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn, And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her: In her days every man shall eat in safety, Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours: God shall be truly known; and those about her From her shall read the perfect ways of honour, And by those claim their greatness, not by blood. Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix, Her ashes new create another heir, As great in admiration as herself; So shall she leave her blessedness to one, When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness, Who from the sacred ashes of her honour Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was, And so stand fix’d: peace, plenty, love, truth, terror, That were the servants to this chosen infant, Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him: Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine, His honour and the greatness of his name Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish, And, like a mountain cedar, reach his branches To all the plains about him: our children’s children Shall see this, and bless heaven.

 

 

Meanwhile, we can all enjoy again the passion of Henry’s St Crispin day speech, a peaon to our country, to honour and to bravery.

 

 

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow To do our country loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honour. God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more. By Jove, I am not covetous for gold, Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost; It yearns me not if men my garments wear; Such outward things dwell not in my desires: But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive. No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England: God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour As one man more, methinks, would share from me For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more! Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host, That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart; his passport shall be made And crowns for convoy put into his purse: We would not die in that man’s company That fears his fellowship to die with us. This day is called the feast of Crispian: He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named, And rouse him at the name of Crispian. He that shall live this day, and see old age, Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours, And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’ ……………………

 

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition: And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 

 

 

Henry V Act 2 Prologue, Chorus – “Now all the youth of England are on fire”

PROLOGUE

Enter Chorus

Chorus

Now all the youth of England are on fire, And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies: Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought Reigns solely in the breast of every man: They sell the pasture now to buy the horse, …………………….

 

 

O England! model to thy inward greatness, Like little body with a mighty heart, What mightst thou do, that honour would thee do, Were all thy children kind and natural!

 

 

The fitting end to this tribute to Shakespeare’s England must lie in John of Gaunt’s immortal words. He captures the magic and majesty of our country, damaged though it is by civil war and human failings.

 

 

Richard II Act II, Scene I, John of Gaunt “This royal throne of kings, this sceptre isle….”

 

JOHN OF GAUNT

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands, This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England, This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings, Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth, Renowned for their deeds as far from home, For Christian service and true chivalry, As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry, Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son, This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land, Dear for her reputation through the world, Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it, Like to a tenement or pelting farm: England, bound in with the triumphant sea Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame, With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds: That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself. Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life, How happy then were my ensuing death.

 

England’s glory shines through even in her times of adversity.

 

 

 

 

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Making and growing things at home

The Guardian decided to complain when I wrote on this website that were the EU to take the surprising course of seeking to damage their own trade with us, we would have plenty of options to make and grow things here for ourselves, or to import from elsewhere in the world with lower or no tariffs.

I was surprised that the Guardian seemed unaware that the Uk does already make 1.7m cars a year in this country. They seemed to muddle up cars made in UK factories with cars made by UK owned car makers. What matters – and what I was clearly talking about – was cars made in UK factories. If the factory is here so are the jobs, the sales, the profits and the investments. The Guardian should not be so dismissive of the great work done by Nissan, Toyota,Vauxhall,  Land Rover and Jaguar, to name but five who make significant numbers of vehicles here in the UK.

Even better news is out of the EU the UK will be free to slash tariffs on agricultural exports from emerging market economies if the EU imposes tariffs on our food imports from them by virtue of charging tariffs on our exports. The UK could remove tariffs on products we do not produce at home, gaining  other trading advantages for us with the emerging countries. We could simply remove the tariffs on food we have to buy abroad because it is not available at home just so we can buy more cheaply. We would obviously wish to help our own farmers to grow as much as possible for ourselves.

I have never understood why the EU wants to impose such high tariffs on foods from developing countries, and then pays them aid money as inadequate compensation. It would be better for them if we imported more of their goods.

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Additional UK government borrowing continues to reduce

The latest figures for UK government borrowing show it ended the most recent financial year to March at £52 bn, a little below the March 2016 forecast. It confirms that the UK economy has done well over the last year, bringing in extra tax revenues from growth to pay more of the bills for public services.  Total state debt stood at 86.6% of GDP on the official definition. If we adjust this for the debt the Bank of England has bought up, the figure falls to 65%.

This level of additional borrowing shows the recovery from the extreme levels of additional debt at the end of the last decade has gone reasonably well, though a bit slower than the original plans in 2010. These figures exclude future state pension liabilities, as they also exclude future tax contributions to pay for those pensions on the pay as you go model all governments have operated. The figures do now include the debts of Network Rail, guaranteed by the government, which the Labour government classified as private sector debt.

There is no need to raise taxes from here to reduce the deficit further. A bit more growth will be the best way of cutting borrowing, as more people get jobs reducing their need for benefits, and as more tax revenue comes in from the growing turnover of the economy. Tax revenue is up strongly from companies (plus 21%) as their profits recover, and is up by 4.7% from Income Tax as earnings go up, without any need for higher rates of tax.

The aim of policy should be to boost productivity and output by encouraging entrepreneurship, and ensuring government is run more efficiently to assist in economic improvement.

 

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Postings to this site

Some people are sending in far too many posts each day, and some are still sending in very long posts. This is an exceptionally busy time with Parliament trying to complete necessary business and people preparing for the election to come, so my time for moderating is reduced. I will have to delete more.

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The French election

We all mourn the death of a policeman in Paris. I send my condolences to his family.

The untimely death shortened the political campaigning, but could not derail the election.

Last  week-end French electors faced plenty of choice. The opinion polls held close to election day correctly predicted  that voting intentions were  very split, and many were still undecided. One of the most fascinating features of the polls was the collapse of support for the socialist party, the Labour party equivalent, and the difficulty for the Republican candidate, the Conservative equivalent, to catch up three others.

Whoever becomes President of France will not belong to either of the two traditional main parties. He or she did  not  gain more than one quarter of the votes on the first ballot. This means that the uncertainties created by such a wide open election will continue after we know who the President is. The Presidential election will  be followed by an election to the Parliament. If the Parliament votes are more strongly for the more traditional parties the new President will have limited powers and have to get on with a Prime Minister who does not agree on some big matters.

Mr Macron is the front runner to win in round two. A former socialist party Minister, he is now a reborn self styled centrist with a movement, not a political party. He might face a Parliament to his right. There could be clashes on economic reform and security. Were Mrs Le Pen to prove the pollsters wrong and emerge as the overall winner, she would probably face a Parliament to her left, with an inbuilt majority to keep France in the Euro and the EU when she wishes to leave.

It is a fascinating commentary on modern France that two of the top four candidates were outsiders, and one was an insider dressed up as an outsider. The only pure political establishment candidate was  damaged by his past use of public money to run his office. It implies that many French voters are unhappy with the terrorist attacks, the high unemployment, the lack of growth in living standards and the lack of control over their borders. Some  voted for a more left wing alternative who wants to take back control and go for more socialism in one country. Some  voted for the National front to leave the Euro and assert national borders. Some  voted for the independent who promises to do politics differently without being too precise how.

If the French people fail to give a decisive mandate to a new President, and then fail to give their President a decent level of support in Parliament, the anger and anguish will continue.

 

 

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US tax cuts – saving Speaker Ryan

I had the pleasure of hearing Speaker Ryan of the US House of Representatives when he was in London last week talking about the new Administration’s strategy.

He came across as able, engaging, well informed and keen to get on with the job. He wore power well, and handled deftly the questions of those in the media and think tank world who wished to trip him up or drive wedges between the House and the President.

There was surprisingly little reporting of his remarks on the media. He was warm and positive about the US/UK relationship. He constantly stressed its special nature and its long history, joked about the time the UK  burned the White House and made a clear offer of early progress on a US/UK trade deal just as soon as the UK was in a position to do so.  Given all the comments we hear reported on possible complexities in confirming our current free trade arrangements with the EU in a new format, it was odd we did not hear a lot more about a likely free trade deal with our single largest overseas country market.

He explained in a response to my question that both House Republicans and the President are keen on tax reform and reduction. Both agree on the shape of the simplification and reduction of personal income taxes. The differences over reform and reduction of corporate income taxes he thought to be easy to overcome, as both want the same direction of travel. Healthcare reform has been given priority because the spending reductions it produces are helpful in working out the  budget impact of the tax changes. However, if they cannot secure an early healthcare reform the tax reform can still proceed.

He repeated that Republicans understand the current mood of scepticism about political establishments. They understand they need to deliver on both healthcare reform and tax reductions to keep their promises and to speed the US recovery. Getting things through the Congress even when a party has a majority in both as the Republicans do is never easy. Speaker Ryan seems determined to achieve something before the year is out.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 32 Comments

Happy St George’s day

Today we celebrate England’s day.

We remember our greatest  dramatist and poet, William Shakespeare, who was  born and died  on or about this day.

I wish you all  a happy April 23rd.

Posted in Uncategorized | 42 Comments

Deficit reduction and EU rules

In a recent debate in the Commons the UK government presented its report to the EU over the UK’s progress in meeting the debt and deficit rules of the EU Treaties.

Every year the Uk has to report to Brussels on how far it has got with getting its running budget deficit down below 3%, and its stock of national debt down to below 60% of GDP. These rigid requirements have been an integral part of EU policy ever since the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Most EU states have conformed with the budget deficit rules, but few have got anywhere near reaching the stock of debt requirements.

Euro area members are subject to possible financial penalties for failing to comply. The EU authorities seem to take a much stricter approach to supervising the annual budget deficit rule than the stock of debt rule. They seem to recognise that making states repay large quantities of debt would  be very deflationary, whereas curbing annual deficits they judge to be less so. The EU does not have the same power to fine non Euro members, but it still makes the UK go through the business of submitting its plan for deficit reduction, and can respond with a statement  on whether it approves or disapproves of the approach being taken.

The issue arises as to how much impact this requirement had on the previous Labour and Coalition governments? They said they took the exercise seriously, and they have always faithfully reported their position against the Maastricht obligations. The Coalition  always pursued a policy of trying to get the annual deficit down, as did Labour after the crash,  and have always looked forward to a time when they will also be reducing the stock of debt as a proportion of GDP.

During the debate I found it fascinating that the SNP and Labour, parties who dislike deficit reduction and the spending cuts that often accompany it, could not  bring themselves to condemn the Maastricht requirements and the policies they have clearly led to on the continent. Apparently plans to cut the growth in spending or to raise taxes on anyone other than the rich are not desirable if home grown, but are just fine if in pursuit of compliance with the Maastricht Treaty, You would have thought parties of the left especially would welcome freedom from these debt and deficit controls when we leave the EU.

Free of them I do not suggest we let rip with larger deficits and faster  build up of debt. I just want us to make rational decisions of how much to borrow and for what purpose, given the state of the economy and the ability to invest sensibly. It does not seem likely that most EU countries will get to below 60% any time soon, yet the requirement still sits there unamended.

Posted in Uncategorized | 79 Comments

School money and class sizes

All UK parties have been keen to get class sizes down in state schools. Yesterday Labour decided to make an issue of this, forgetting that class sizes have risen quite a lot in Wales where they are in government. I was interested to hear one of their spokesmen defend this by pointing out satisfaction with schools in Wales had gone up at the same time as class sizes. He was then at a loss to answer the obvious sequel – if parents and pupils think things are getting better, why did class size worry him?

I am all in favour of decent funding for schools, and have been asking for more money for Wokingham and West Berkshire schools where  budgets are tight. I have been asking b0th for more in total to schools, and more as a proportion of the budget to areas like Wokingham that have traditionally been given much less than the best funded. I would, however, be interested in your thoughts on class size.

It seems to me there are obvious occasions when individual pupils need individual help. That requires a good staffing ratio., There are also occasions when a good teacher or outside speaker or lecturer has something interesting and important to say when you can open the lesson or lecture up to many more pupils, as many more can benefit from it. Class size is an average figure which can conceal as well as reveal. Some star teachers and star lessons are so good that they are recorded and used in a wide range of ways by many students. On line learning is both one to one and one to many.

The  best judge of how many teachers a school needs should be the School Bo0ard and management team led by the Head. There need to be sufficient teachers for those things that need teaching in small groups or require individual attention. There can also be other times of day and topics that can be covered in larger groups. In practice schools experiment with smaller and larger groups depending on subject and age range of pupils, and often have more than one adult in the classroom so individual pupils can have individual attention as well as more general group or whole class work proceeding. The number of teachers in a secondary school is also affected by how many subject options the school  wishes to offer. The number of subjects varies considerably between schools.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 93 Comments
  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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