On logs and liturgies

19 Nov

The greatest diarists are self-absorbed failures who watch the powerful with envy and occasional cattiness. Alan Clark, Tony Benn, Chris Mullin, and (the surprisingly entertaining) Gyles Brandreth. Every day I worry I will one day turn into Gyles Brandreth. Incidentally if you haven’t watched John Hurt as the misogynist, leering wretch of a Tory, you really must. The start of each episode is hilarious. Devour:

Enough. Here is my review of Ruth Winstone’s political diary of Britain, from Woolf to Campbell:


Philip Larkin captures my Christianity better than any other poet. That awkward, half-hearted, half-whispered Christianity that the Church of England does so well. Here’s a clip of Larkin talking to Betjeman about “Church Going”. (Betjeman then recites it as Larkin acts it out. Terrific.)

I do like churches more than Church. Here’s a review of Roger Scruton’s history of our Church (C of E):



On island-selling, Ayn Rand, nightclubs, pigeons and neoliberalism

29 Oct

Owning an island seems a Randian dream: no taxes, no laws, no deficits, no society; just you alone in a luxury paradise. I look into the business for the Economist. There are still taxes, planning laws, eco legislation – finding a doctor and a school is tricky, too – and the government might not pay for defending your liberties if you are invaded by Fijians (as Mel Gibson’s isle was). 

Here I look at the trouble of owning your own island. 


Ayn Rand has many fans in India and Sweden.


A third of nightclubs have shut in five years. A snapshot of the industry.


Here I investigate in full something no national publication has properly looked into: the Chinese pigeon bubble.


Folk are sniffy about using the word, neoliberal. Lefties constantly misuse it; it is always pejorative and it is lazily used to mean something to do with free markets or something? But a word should not be ditched because one’s political opponents are misusing it. The first neoliberals – and Friedman – happily went by that name.

Neoliberalism is a good word to describe the second wave of liberalism. The word liberal will not suffice. Neoliberalism is distinct. Hayek and Friedman followed in the tradition of Adam Smith, but by the 1940s things have changed so much that one cannot say neoliberals were having the same argument as Smith. Would Smith have agreed with modern welfarism? Who knows.

Introduction over. Here is my review of Daniel Stedman Jones’s history of neoliberalism.


On Keynes, Hayek, the seaside, odd job figures and the microeconomics of TV

29 Oct

I look at the topsy-turvy world of modern politics. The ideas of Keynes (ever the pragmatist) have been lapped up by idealists, while conservatives have adopted Hayek’s utopian battle-cries.


Brighton is green buoy in the deep blue South. A portrait of a city and its politics.


Odd jobs. Employment keeps going up and up despite no growth. Why?


Homo economicus and couch potatoes.


On fake IDs, Nokia, high-street bank lending and the Dandy

29 Oct

In which I investigate the fake ID business (technology has not eradicated trade, but pushed it overseas and pushed up prices). Two days after publishing, the website IDchief shut down.


A quarter of Finnish growth came from Nokia between 1998 and 2007. Are there other one-firm economies?


The stairs are still on fire. A peak into the books of Britain’s banks.


The decline of comics. An analysis of the boys’ magazine industry.


On RBS, 70s inflation, teachers’ incentives and the curious case of the missing stuff

13 Aug

“Cabinet ministers” (*cough* Vince Cable *cough*) are talking about nationalising RBS. I look at the reasoning behind it.


Tories like to believe we are living in the 1970s. We are not.


In which Chicago economists – including Freakonomics‘s Steven D Levitt – dock teachers’ pay if their pupils get Fs. They say this raises educational standards. I dissent.


The UK productivity puzzle: why there is more jobs and less stuff? What are these extra 400,000 workers doing, if the economy’s 0.3% diddlier?


Boris is a greater political strategist than Osborne

29 Jul

The week we find out George Osborne has shrunk the economy (despite three budgets for “growth”, it’s smaller than it was under Labour), Boris Johnson is cheered like a rockstar in Hyde Park. Watch the video: the crowd love him, breaking into chants of “Boris! Boris! Boris!” No other modern politician could receive such adulation.

By contrast, the Chancellor’s reputation has withered with the GDP figures. Some senior Tories have lost faith. The Tory press, who hailed him as a great strategist, is now not so enchanted. Yet Osborne was never a great strategic thinker. He was simply more rightwing than Cameron. And read Caro. The Tory press mistakes this for strategy. Perhaps if Mr Osborne dropped his books on LBJ, he would realise he is analysing the wrong Johnson.

‘Ell BJ! It is Boris, not Lyndon, whom the Chancellor needs to heed

Let us first skewer the idea that Osborne is a political mastermind. On three occasions, the Chancellor has changed the rules of the game. On each occasion, the rightwing press dubbed him a genius. On each occasion, the political move was the wrong one.

First is the decision to bring Andy Coulson into government. Osborne was the mind behind it. The papers said it was a deft move to bring an Essex boy – a voice of the people – into the circle of blue-blooded cronies. How wrong it was. The closeness between the Tory PM and the tabloid hack, whose own activities at News of the World went unquestioned, was reckless and has grossly damaged the Prime Minister.

Second is the haste and the zeal with which the 50p tax rate was axed. Osborne not only opted to do this; he trumpeted the decision. While it might bring in more money (who knows? The Mail et al. seemed certain that it would), it is a political elephant trap. The image of the Conservatives as the party of the rich – which Cameron tried so hard in opposition to erase – has been rubber-stamped in one easy step.

Third, the most notable, Osborne’s move to scrap inheritance tax for everyone except millionaires. All applauded as he announced the plan at party conference in 2007. Brown, set to call a general election, thought the Tories now had the upper hand and cancelled the election. Because of Osborne, Brown bottled it: this was a master stroke, the papers cried.

But was this Osborne’s intention? To scare Brown into postponing an election? Surely the aim was to set out a policy for the upcoming manifesto. Brown’s retreat was an unforeseen by-product. Had Brown called a snap election – which he could have done – the Tories would have likely lost. William Hague called 2007 a “near-death experience” for the Conservatives. The inheritance tax cut, like the 50p tax cut, is further proof of Tory plutophilia.

Osborne is no strategist. If he were, he would have realised that the Treasury is not the best prime ministerial launch pad. The modern Chancellor (of some length) who covets the throne must wait about 10 years to seize the crown. The reason? The bloody British economy. Brown, who faced only a boom, is the exception. Macmillan and Major were at No 11 barely over a year: little time for things to go wrong. Callaghan and Churchill, who engineered separate disasters at No 11, waited nearly decade before everyone forgot their economic records.

Boris has worked out a far better scheme to reach high office. Forget the Chancellorship: become a mayor. It’ll leave your reputation intact; you can convince all of your political dexterity, hard work and popularity; you can afford to spout off about the EU, the Beeb, ‘elf ‘n’ safety, and other bugbears of the grassroots – especially if you have a column every week – all without compromising the job. Heck, you can even take aim the leader of the party, so long as you do so light-heartedly, with guffaws, hair-ruffling and a couple of references to Pericles.

That is the brilliant thing about a municipal role. As Boris says in his book, Johnson’s Life of London, “It was a seat of local government, a symbol of power.” He is referring to priests in Hadrian’s empire, but he could equally be talking of mayors. As Gorbachev ruled Russia, Boris Yeltsin built up his reputation as party boss of Moscow. That other populist Bo Xilai was forging a power base as party chief of Chongqing before central government moved against him. Local control is a great opportunity for demagoguery.

A true strategist would seize a mayoralty, rather than look after the British economy. Boris, Boris and Bo have got it right: to command the country, take control of a city.

On predicting, prices and electing Mervyn King’s heir

26 Jul

Apologies for the lack of posts of late. As some of my readers will know, I am now writing for the Economist. Which means slightly more restrained, less exclamatory writing! (And invariably economic.) I’ll keep you updated with my recent activity.

Inflation is now 2.4%. I have argued for the past year that growth – not prices – is and should be Britain’s main worry. Here I offer my thoughts:


There seems to be much fury directed at Mervyn King recently. He has far more power now than MPs, who can only carp. So should we elect his successor? Here I warn against it:


Markets can predict better than experts, a new paper indicates. But should we take note of predictions? Here I argue we shouldn’t: