Episode 15: Sinn Féin changes the maths

It’s that time, now traditional – traditional since 2010, anyway – when the general election is so close that people start to speculate/fantasise about a possible role for Sinn Féin in the electoral aftermath. The important role they’re most likely to play is not being there. There are 650 seats in Parliament, so the winning line is 326: that’s the number which gives a party an absolute majority. The presence, or rather absence, of Sinn Féin changes that. The Shinners, as they’re known in Ireland, currently hold five seats, and are on course to hold them all. But the Shinners don’t actually come to Westminster to take up those seats, because they won’t take the oath of loyalty to the crown. This changes the maths: 650 minus five is 645, so the real winning line is 323. Given how tight this election is, that could make the difference between Cameron being able to bodge together a minority government, and not. More »

In Baltimore

The National Guard was unleashed on Baltimore yesterday to quell unrest following the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died of injuries sustained in police custody. On 12 April, Gray was pinned to the pavement by officers before being loaded into a police van. When he was taken out of it his spine was ‘80 per cent severed’, according to the family’s lawyer. He spent a week in a coma and died on 19 April.

On Saturday I went to join a protest due to start at the corner of Presbury and North Mount streets. On my way there from the subway station I passed an alleyway with four police cars in it, their lights flashing. The cops appeared to be questioning people. A group of residents, all black, stood at the entrance to the alley, their phone cameras trained on the police. More »

Episode 14: The Buy-to-Let Racket

Sometimes, when you try to do something positive, it only draws more attention to what you aren’t doing. Ed Miliband has announced a new policy in relation to private sector rentals: for three years, landlords won’t be able to raise rents above the rate of inflation. It’s not hard to spot that this policy is targeting private sector renters. This demographic is young, and strongly represented in London, the only area of the south-east where Labour have good winning chances. For all the talk about London house prices and the winners from the housing bubble there, more London households rent their homes than own them. The bubble and the rental explosion are the same thing: homes zoom up in price, and a direct result is that fewer people can afford them. More »

In Brent Cross

In Patrick Keiller’s film London (1994) there’s only one moment at which the camera moves: on the up escalator in the old central court of Brent Cross Shopping Centre, a once magical attraction for children all over north-west London. The fountain you can see in the court and the panels of rainbow-coloured ‘stained-glass’ in the cupola above aren’t there any more. They disappeared in 1996, in an ‘improvement and expansion’ scheme. More »

Episode 13: Nudge, Nudge

The Nudge Unit

The Nudge Unit

In the world of apparatchiks and backroom boys where the political parties find their leaders, there is usually a hot idea or ideas. These come in waves, obviously. Not long ago, nudging was a big thing. The idea came from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge. Downing Street set up an in-house nudge unit. Don’t laugh – even if you’re old enough to imagine Frankie Howerd apologising for having nudged your unit. The nudge unit, whose official title is the Behavioural Insights Team, was so successful that it attracted the highest, most meaningful, most irrevocable honour in our modern democracy: it was privatised. More »

Our NHS (not yours)

The UK has introduced a healthcare surcharge for immigrants from non-EEA areas. Adults have to pay £200 a year for access to the NHS whether or not they make use of it; students have to pay £150. UK citizens who want to bring their partner to the country must apply for a 30-month residency visa: the NHS surcharge on this is £500, almost doubling the previous cost of the visa (£601). Skilled migrants can be stuck with bills of more than £1000. An applicant with a dependent spouse and three children could be charged £5000. More »

Risk Assessments

I woke yesterday morning to the news that the vice chancellor’s office at Queen’s University in Belfast had cancelled a symposium, due to take place in June at the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo. ‘Incomplete risk assessment’ was the reason given. All day yesterday I kept schtum. Too busy working. At least I convinced myself that was the reason. When I woke in the early hours of this morning I wondered if I hadn’t actually been carrying out a bit of risk assessment of my own. More »

Bear Markets

bears

Sanctions and low oil prices are forcing Russia to give some serious thought to China. On a recent trip to Shanghai, the owner of a Russian pipeline fittings business was surprised to find three Chinese suppliers of 48-inch ball valves able to withstand 250 bar and 370ºC. ‘I have been lazy for too long,’ he told me. ‘The valves I’ve been buying from Germany, the Czech Republic and Finland were actually made in China: the only difference is that these ones come with a Chinese logo; and they’re 60 per cent cheaper.’ More »

Episode 12: Severe Amnesia

So the Tories believe they have finally found a theme which can ‘cut through’ on the doorstep: the peril of Scottish nationalism. Sir John Major was wheeled out yesterday to stress the danger we all face. In Major’s words, ‘this is a recipe for mayhem. At the very moment that our country needs a strong and stable government, we risk a weak and unstable government, pushed to the left by its allies and open to a daily dose of blackmail.’

If that was all he’d said, it would be fair enough as an expression of opinion. The trouble came earlier in his speech:

The SNP have offered to support Labour in an anti-Conservative alliance. And of course, as you know, the Scot Nats are deeply socialist. And by support I don’t necessarily mean a formal partnership but an informal understanding, perhaps even an unacknowledged understanding, to keep Labour in power. Labour would be in hock to a party that pushed them slowly but surely ever further to the left.

There is a difficulty with that statement: it assumes that everybody in Scotland has severe amnesia. More »

Where is Ukraine?

One of the problems with Ukraine is that no one really knows where it is. For many people, not least Vladimir Putin, it’s an extension of neo-tsarist Russia. For others it’s a Central European state of frustrated blood-and-language nationalism which just needs the chance to build strong institutions to express its essence. The Nestor Group, a collection of Ukrainian thinktanks and intellectuals, has meanwhile concluded that Ukrainian value systems reject both the Russian model (deification of paternalistic authority) and the language-and-bureaucracy-makes-a-state logic of Central Europe. Instead, Ukrainians lean towards horizontal civil society bonds: the ‘sotni’ who made up the revolution on the Maidan, the volunteers who fund and feed the army, church congregations and small business associations, criminal gangs and football hooligans. According to Yevhen Hlibovitsky, a member of the Nestor Group who was involved in both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Maidan in 2014, this puts Ukraine in the same bracket as Mediterranean countries such as Italy or Greece.
More »

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