Wednesday, 30 April 2014
The United Kingdom's economy is growing again - consistently and strongly. No other message can be taken from Tuesday's Gross Domestic Product figures, which showed that the British economy is motoring ahead at about three per cent a year. It's a head of steam that seems to be gathering (a bit) and it's some way ahead of the historical trend rate of growth, which usually settles at something like 2.5 per cent a year.
But let's stop for a minute and consider what the number means. It's a measure of final output, domestically inside the UK's economy - as it says on the tin. But it misses a lot, and it can mislead. A huge amount of productive activity lies outside its remit - domestic labour within the family, for instance, increasingly important as more and more citizens. have to look after their ageing parents and grandparents. The black and grey markets is another example: the best estimates of the former are between 10 and 12 per cent of output, and registering the changes in this important sector of the economy is necessarily very difficult indeed. It's difficult to measure and count scientific and cultural progress except by crude cash inflows, which don't really do them justice - explaining what that's work that the US authorities are only just embarking on.
And, most of all, GDP doesn't tell us about the shape and style of production - its warp and weave, if you will. How it feels to live somewhere is really a factor of access to basic rights and services, on which the UK on one measure stands a (not too shabby) thirteenth in the world. Still, it's clear that there is more to be done if the electorate is to actually experience a recovery, rather than being told about it by self-congratultory politicians. The rise of zero hour contracting is just one example, making many workers feel as if they are existing, hand to mouth, rather than being valued as employees. Many Britons will welcome the flexibility granted by such work, of course - but many will not. The role of intermediate rather than end-point production in the economy, often chugging along steadily when headline GDP figures are caving in, and not expanding as quickly as final demand calls for in the good times, is usually a counterbalancing factor in busts and booms - one that isn't well captured in the 'big number' announced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). And so on.
Now all good economists and statisticians know this, including the ONS. They've launched a 'dashboard' of seven different ways of supplementing GDP (opens as PDF), including such variables as real household disposable income. It's worth saying that the pit we've fall into looks even deeper on some of these measures (as families have run down their savings and reserves, and real wages have fallen) than it does using the raw GDP figures. That means it's going to take even longer than we thought to climb out.
Most of all, if we look at GDP per capita, the economy has not really recovered much at all - and is still way below its pre-crisis peak (above). More workers are arriving, or moving into the workforce, and producing more. But they're not taking home more money - hence the very bad household income figures.
The British electorate are feeling insecure, misunderstood, poorer than their parents and no richer than they were about a decade ago. No wonder they're angry; no wonder previously fringe protest parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party are on the rise. No wonder the governing Conservative Party languish in the polls.
It's important to read the statistical small print. The economy is growing. But Britons are not getting wealthier, they're not saving more, they're not becoming more secure. Their real incomes have just begun to rise, quite slowly, after years of falling - and even that effects fades to nothing if we exclude London, and City bonuses, from the mix. It is, in some ways, quite a doleful picture - and one quite different from an understanding based on the crude measure of GDP alone.
Sunday, 27 April 2014
So I spent a chunk of time this month at the National Archives of the United States in Maryland (above). And since one of this blog's purposes is to uncover some of the actual practical work of being a historian - its art and craft, rather than its theory - it's good to come clean about what we historians both do and don't find when we dive into these memory holes. 'Public Policy and the Past' always tries to come clean about being a historian: the times when we just don't have enough time to photocopy everything on our topic, or those days when we run out of inspiration and just flake out while transcribing some difficult handwriting (or the like).
This trip raised the question: what about the times when you don't find as much as you'd want? I began with a question: to what extent did the United States' Clean Water Acts of 1946, 1956 and 1965 owe to European models, and specifically Britain's attempts to survey and scrub its rivers and estuaries? To what extent was 'transnational policy learning' occuring, to use the ugly jargon of technical policy writing? Well, more than you'd think. There was lots in Washington's policy files on the Rhine, and the German environmental movement. Plenty on the Pacific and the deep ocean. More than you could easily read on developing countries' cleanup efforts - surprisingly. And some great vignettes - only little snippets, mind - about the (mistaken) belief that the Soviet state was powerful enough to prevent widespread pollution. But about Britain? Well, not so much. Quite a lot of good material on oil pollution, which'll be handy when I come to write about the Ocean Dumping Treaties of the early 1970s. Some good papers on international co-operation in the North Sea. But it wasn't exactly a treasure trove.
So - what to do? Write about the way in which the British had a surprisingly small influence, especially given their own self-image as scientific 'leaders of the world'? Or have another go, through some other archives. Well, for a while at least, it's got to be the latter. I might not have had enough time, or skill in this particular coalface, to tease out something that really is there. So it's back to the UK National Archives in Kew, off perhaps to the Irish National Archives, and through of course some personal papers (including those of Prime Minister Harold Wilson). Maybe there'll show me something that wasn't easily accessible in the papers of the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department.
But in the end nothing might come up. We might have to conclude (drum roll) that we don't know, and to the extent that we do, we can put up a sign saying only something very uncertain: 'we haven't found anything here'. And it's important to be clear that we have to be happy with that. Nothing might have survived; there may have been no policy contacts; and, most importantly of all, we might be forcing an impression of co-operation forged in an age of NGOs, environmental fervour and constant academic contact onto an era that didn't think in the same way.
It depends on the questions you take with you. As Joanna Bourke of Birkbeck has recently noted in an insightful talk at the British National Archives, our interests are in constant interaction with the materials before us. Now, in the hundredth year since the outbreak of the Great War, we're thinking a lot about the energies and the fears unleashed in that great crisis. Our interests in gender and emotion, so different from the concerns of historians in the inter-war or post-war periods, are shipped with us into the archival records we study. There's lots there, in her case, as she shows if you listen to the podcast. But other concerns that we've learned to think of as important might not have struck our forebears as worth forging - and, most importantly in terms of the archive's practicalities, preserving.
Bourke calls these the 'deafening silences that are often the historian's lot'. We have to accept them and chug on, contetedly or otherwise. But they're a frustrating part of the discipline.
Friday, 25 April 2014
The new Institute of Fiscal Studies report into English universities' tuition fees shouldn't surprise anyone. You can read the whole thing here if you'd like (opens as PDF). But the headlines will do. Basically, it says that the new scheme might cost more than the old. It certainly won't save any money. This won't be any sort of shock for regular readers of Public Policy and the Past, because we've said from the outset that this system might be financially unsustainable.
But let's stop for a minute and have a look at the numbers. Although this won't do our specific argument about tuition fees much good, it's important to say that the wider point usually made by this blog is that the world is very complicated, subject to unexpected outcomes and strange tradeoffs. A point we've made again and again (and again) is that statistics are built by human beings, and that they're very hard to interpret - especially if you only go by those headlines. How else do you think bankers hid all those suspect financial 'packages' for all those years?
And what do we find here? Well, it's that the IFS have made a series of assumptions to reach their main, bold, bald figure - that the Government will never see 43 per cent of the student loan cash ever again. There's nothing wrong with this. We have to. Public Policy and the Past is always sounding off about opinion polls, trying to peer into the future and estimate what they tell us about the outcome of the 2015 UK General Election. It's a natural and a necessary part of human life. What did President Eisenhower say, recalling his time as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe? 'Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable'.
So the IFS have assumed that graduate earnings will stay low. They've assumed that the £21,000 graduates have to earn before they pay anything back will continue to rise with inflation, as the Coalition has promised. And that it costs the Government just over two per cent to borrow the money to lend to all those students - because borrowed much of it is. Still with me? Good.
Change those assumptions - imagine that graduate earnings start to accelerate again in a future boom, assume (shock horror) that governments change the terms of their deal with the electorate, and use the present bond market figures for government borrowing - and the loss might go down to 30 or even 20 per cent. Then the taxpayer really will be recouping a big saving, even while universities' total income is (for the most part) protected.
None of this is to say that English tuition fees are a good system. They're not. They're very risky. Graduate earnings might stay depressed - or fall. Inflation and borrowing costs might pick up. Future governments (especially a Labour one) might want to start all over again, given the total dog's dinner this compromised structure has become. But what it does tell us is this: anyone who tells you that they know exactly where all this is going should just be ignored.
Tuesday, 22 April 2014
The news from the Scottish independence campaign keeps getting gradually worse for the 'No' side - and for the UK Government. In developments that seem to defy all logic (if only for outsiders who don't actually understand Scotland), a campaign that has seen blow after blow rain down on the 'Yes' side has actually seen their numbers rise - and rise. Uncertainty has mounted over European Union membership. Over the future currency an independent state can use. Big companies have said they're leaving if Scotland leaves the UK. Defence chiefs have come out against the idea. Even former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been forced to stop recriminating in his tent, joining the 'Better Together' campaign to warn about future pension provision: in his own way and on his own terms, of course.
All to no avail. The numbers saying they'll vote 'yes' just keep climbing. There must now be a good chance that it'll happen.
We'll come to that again over the summer. But for now, consider what this will mean at Westminster. It's now generally accepted that this will mean the end of David Cameron (above) as Prime Minister, for a Conservative and Unionist leader will have presided the political cataclysm of the end of the United Kingdom itself. The impliciations certainly will not be confined north of Carlisle and Berwick. The status of Northern Ireland and Wales will undergo fundamental, if perhaps, gradual, changes over the years if Scotland does become an entirely separate state, and the end of Britain's nuclear deterrent may come as part of the deal much quicker than that. An insular English rump state is the likely outcome in the end, one which leaves the European Union and turns in on itself - a nightmarish outcome even to many (perhaps a majority of) Conservatives. No Conservative Prime Minister can lose Scotland and Trident. Perhaps no government could struggle on after that. The damage to the Coalition might be fatal, and the three most likely new Prime Ministers - William Hague, George Osborne and Theresa May - are hardly beacons of popularity likely to storm the country in a General Election.
So the Prime Minister's time in office will have ended in near-complete failure. What would the Government be able to point to as an achievement? University tuition fees, now likely to cost more than they saved? Well, no. Universal Credit and the Work Programme, two completely defunct 'policies' that cause most experts either to cry or laugh behind their hands as the Secretary of State sinks further and further into the mire? No again.
Deficit reduction? Yes, here there's been some solid progress - but only because the Chancellor completely ripped up his vaunted Plan A during 2012 and early 2013, returning to the speed of deficit reduction promised by Alistair Darling. Any wider programme of 'rebalancing' is stalled - mainly because private debt is being used to take the strain off the public finances in a situation where half of all Britons' wealth is tied up in the value of their houses. Don't expect that to change any time soon, under any circumstances. Free schools and academies? Maybe there's been some movement forward in Conservatives' own terms, but with increasing scrunity these schools are looking more and more like an expensive folly. Whoever thought that self-government, and direction by the Secretary of State, was likely to improve performance in and of itself?
For a Premiership that began with such high hopes - and for a Premier who had it within his grasp to be the new Stanley Baldwin, reshaping the political landscape for a generation - this would be a tragic and a pitiful end. He has 148 days to avert it.
Thursday, 17 April 2014
Historians often don't much care for 'learning from the past'. As A.J.P. Taylor once said: all politicians learn from history is how to make new mistakes.
But as the next UK General Election hoves into view, just a year or so away now, we've got so much data to hand that it's impossible not to look at previous contests for any hint that they might help predict the outcome.
In the relatively long-run past, as we've said before, there's definitely a tendency for polling numbers to shift back towards the incumbent government as polling day approaches. Between 1950 and 1970, that equated to a shift of between five and six points towards the governing party in the year before any General Election. But there were wide disparities in that figure, and some governments in the past (Clement Attlee's in 1950, or Jim Callaghan's in 1979) actually saw the electoral tide go out on them. You can cut it a number of other ways, and one blog has recently said that we should expect the gap between government and opposition to halve, and then add 3.5 percentage points to the governing party's score. Use either of these methods, and you're projecting a complicated result: the Conservatives winning most votes, but Labour winning most seats in the House of Commons. You can slice the numbers up differently and push the Conservatives up a bit, so that they might continue as a minority administration, or in a relatively unhappy coalition with the Liberal Democrats. But the lesson is clear: expect the Conservatives to win most votes, but that the fight for seats to be quite a close-run thing.
Not that time is the only variable we should look at. News that real incomes have started to rise, as unemployment recedes, will cheer politics' blue camp no end. Rising wages are usually a harbinger of re-election, as they were for President Obama in 2012. They had fallen on his watch, but they began to catch up with prices just in the nick of time for the Democrats. Just like David Cameron's long-hoped-for living standards recovery taking place in the UK now, US incomes started to rise about twelve months or so before the election (opens as PDF - see page ten); the President won a convincing, if slightly narrow, victory.
We need to be very cautious about all this. Not every election is like others. The data on the various parties' vote shares is now completely different, and counted in a totally different manner, than it was throughout most of the post-war period. Even if we do draw direct comparisons with past battles, 'swingback' towards the Government may be greatly limited by the fact that most of the Conservatives' problems are not with voters defecting to Labour, giving them a net gain of plus two every time one returns, but to the United Kingdom Independence Party, which might not win a single seat in 2015. Given Britain's productivity problems and deep-seated changes in the workforce, wage increases are also likely to be pretty weak over the next year - at one per cent or so, even if we take the Government's preferred Consumer Price Index at face value. That's a lot slower than the real household income gains, of maybe three or four per cent, made in the US across late 2011 and in 2012.
The lessons from contemporary history are clear: the battleground favours the re-election of Mr Cameron (above), even if that is likely to be as a continuing minority Prime Minister. A combination of forced choice between the Government and the Opposition, and rising real wages, both suggest as much. But a deeper dive into the numbers shows that the contest might be very, very tight indeed - coming down to just a handful of seats. Hold onto your electoral hats.
Sunday, 13 April 2014
So this blogger has just spent a few days at the National Archives of the United States in College Park (this explains the relative radio silence, by the way).
What did this involve? Well, looking at a lovely load of cherry blossom (above) while walking around downtown was pretty nice.
But the major part of it all involved chugging out to Maryland on the National Archives' (slow but certain) courtesy bus to look at files about US federal water quality policy in the 1950s and 1960s. Hey, it's not that glamorous, but it is fascinating - and it is a vocation, rather than just a job.
The whole thing gives you a lot of time to reflect on the historian's art and craft - such as it is. Because coming to a national archive for just a few days makes you choose. Which series to look at? How to cut through the many, many hundreds of square feet of policy boxes? Which keywords to employ while searching? How to shorcircuit the process?
When you've got the rest of a professional life to crawl over the National Archives of the United Kingdom, or the National Records of (a more and more likely to be independent) Scotland, you can take a leisurely attitude to these sorts of questions. Have a deep dive. Come back next time. Write down some reference numbers from the Whitehall or Edinburgh government notation to look for more material the next time you come. Take your time.
But the ability to fly for nine hours to an archive is necessarily limited. The funding is finite. And - frankly - the desire to travel so far, across the wide ocean, will not last forever. It demands - what's the Blairite phrase again? - a lot of hard choices.
So I went for a mixed approach. Some files came up from keyword searches. The next book's about The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain, and anything and anyone that I could summon up about British water politics sure as anything went in the digital camera archive. The 1967 Torrey Canyon oil disaster? Apparently an American fisheries team shot over from Ireland to Cornwall and London to see what was going on - and advise Washington about future oil cleanup policy. Yep, that went in there. And the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment? Apparently Uncle Sam relied on the 'Britishers' (as they seem to be referered to in the relevant file) to push the Brazilians and other non-aligned countries in the UN towards a 'western' position. You can rely on me to get all that material copied.
But beyond that relatively focused approach, there was a bit of a race to get as much as I could out of the place. Deciding that it was better to try to seize on a couple of record series than spread myself thin for the few hours that I had, I went over the records of the Water Pollution Advisory Board and the Department of the Interior's water policy files. And some great stuff came up from the stacks. Not much on transnational policy transfer (a high-falutin' term for learning from other countries), it's true - though there were a few gems about how the American officials throught Europe and the European Economic Community worked. On the other hand, there was a huge amount of material on the 1946, 1956 and 1965 Acts that really stood behind the more famous 1972 US effort to bring in regulations about clean river, estuary and oceanic water. It's going to be a good contrast and comparator to the British material, and that's for sure.
But the whole experience highlights perhaps-unanswerable dilemmas of the historian's work. To what extent have I just grabbed at what I could, and left behind the vital insights that would have come out of a longer engagement with these particular files? Have I just had imposed on me, my work and my book the structure of US federal agencies and the archivists who've filed and re-filed those papers? To what extent has the tyranny of the keyword search meant that I've just meshed my own historical mind with those of the file-title writers?
The answer is: I don't know. And no-one else does either. It'd be nice to have a hard-and-fast set of rules by which to cut through the archive, but history (and History) are a strange mix of a humanities and a social science subject. We march into the archive with every good intention of finding out truths about how the world works, but we know that only a fraction of the past has survived, and for political and administrative reasons as well. We know that we're time-constrained, with families, teaching commitments, graduate students and lives to live. Sometimes we just have to do our best, with a humanistic commitment to honesty about what we can find out.
We've got covering laws, of course - a social democratic version of public administrative history and post-Keynesian economics, in the current writer's case. That's our methodology, vague and unsatisfying as that can often be. But we have to recognise that sometimes, and in terms of what appears in our books and articles, chance and speedreading are as important as our principles and training.
It's a strange feeling, to have one's professional skills hang in the balance in this way, but it's reality.
Monday, 7 April 2014
Narrowing polls in the Scottish referendum campaign are not only causing grave concern in the 'No' camp - specifically its Labour components. They are also causing constitutional scholars and lawyers to begin a long period of head-scratching that could take us well into 2016 - and beyond.
A 'yes' vote is now quite possible - not yet strongly likely, but certainly possible. Gamblers now put the chance of Scots independence at something like 25 per cent. Given First Minister Alex Salmond's campaigning skills and the zeal of 'yes' campaigners at the grassroots, this blog would put the chances of an independent Scotland rather higher - at something like 30 to 40 per cent. Be that as it may, the headline is this: the Scots may go their own way.
This blog opposes such a move, partly because it could mean just about anything in practice, and partly out of a (perhaps idealised) sense of Britishness that is bigger and greater than its constituent parts. But that's irrelevant to what will happen if such an eventuality does have to be faced.
Start with this: if Labour has won a small majority, or is the largest party, after the General Election of 2015, they'll still have to form the UK government. The result of that vote hangs in the balance at the moment, but Labour will probably do quite well, and they have a good shot (at least) of retaining power at the first time of asking. But they'll almost certainly not win a plurality of the seats outside Scotland, a country that at that stage will still be nowhere near the exit door, and pretty much everyone except the Scottish National Party believes that it may take some time (three or four years, putting independence back to 2017 or even 2018) to actully finish building the new state. So there'd be a weak Labour government at Westminster, probably reliant for its legislation on Scottish MPs' votes.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is already having to fight off (self-interested) Conservative calls for Scots MPs to be excluded from the Commons if that country has already voted to break away. Such ideas are ridiculous. Scotland will remain part of the UK until its actual independence day, and its Members of Parliament will have every right to sit and vote to represent their constituents and their interests. But it shows us where the next Parliament will be going: every single thing that a Labour govenrment did would be opposed in the last ditch from Opposition leaders claiming that they had no moral or political right to do anything. It'll be a real mess, but it'll have to be faced.
And then? Well, on the day Scotland did leave, perhaps in the autumn of 2017, there'd probably have to be a second General Election. The 40 or so Scots Labour MPs having left, the Government would probably lack any ability to get its legislation through. It might be that they could then call on the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition; but that party might be so shrunken and traumatised by its experiences of government between 2010 and 2015 that it'd be in no position to help Labour out. So any govenrment led by the current leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, may well be a pretty short-lived one indeed: either a straight swap for the Conservative leader (should fixed-term legislation remain in place), or more likely another General Election just two years after the first, would be the only answer.
It's a confusing prospect, and it depends on many 'what ifs'. But there are quite a few scenarios in which this country is heading for a constitutional crisis of huge proportions. The uncharted waters are out there, and they're pretty cold, and pretty deep.
Friday, 4 April 2014
Start with this: the Conservatives will probably gain more votes than the polls are currently suggesting. There's a natural 'swingback' towards the governing party in the days leading up to a General Election, as discontent with any governors is replaced by a focused choice between two alternative administrations (and Prime Ministers). How big will this be? Well, there are a number of ways of looking at this, from statistical models that suggest that the Conservatives will have a few more MPs than Labour, to more straightforward looks at the polls since the 1980s - which also suggest that the Conservatives may well come back to be the biggest group in the Commons, but probably won't gain an overall majority.
We can go further back into Britain's post-1945 past, though - not to strictly comparable data, because polling changed out of all recognition after its debacle of a result in the 1992 General Election. But to gain some impression of how governments have done in hauling their way back into public favour in the year before General Elections. And the answer? Well, it's a mixed bag.
The Labour Government of Clement Attlee led by three points in the Gallup Poll of October 1950; they went on narrowly to lose the next election a year later (though they won more votes than Winston Churchill's Conservatives); the Conservatives were two points behind a year before the 1955 election, which they went on to win by over three points; in October 1958 Harold Macmillan enjoyed an opinion poll lead of four points, going on to win the General Election a year later by six points.
That's when it gets more hopeful for the Conservatives. They were twelve points behind Labour in October 1963, but they lost by only a tiny margin in 1964; Harold Wilson's government was a massive sixteen points behind in 1969, but lost out in 1970 by only three points. However, if we scroll forwards to early 1978, Labour leader Jim Callaghan enjoyed a rough partity with Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives, only to get hammered in spring 1979 after the Winter of Discontent had discredited Labour's links with the trade unions.
So electoral and polling history does point towards the Conservatives doing much better in May 2015 than the polls suggest right now. But an overall majority? That's their real, and perhaps unrealisable, target - without which David Cameron (above) might find himself faced with a party that regards him as a two-time loser.
Wednesday, 2 April 2014
It's never pleasant watching Ministers - of any party - twist and turn as they realise that they've painted themselves in a corner. And so it is with the Universities Minister, David Willetts, and his increasingly furrowed brow as he considers England's great tuition fees debacle - predicted on this blog again and again, of course. It charges the taxpayer just as much (possibly more than the old system). And it puts more debt on graduates. And it doesn't deliver much of a cash boost to universities. Well, that is a neat trick indeed - more money in, from everyone, and not much more product out. How have Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers managed it? It defies all logic.
Anyway, the really worrying thing now is what they think they're going to do about it - how they're going to contain rapidly-rising costs that were always going to threaten to bankrupt the system from the off. Impose aptitude tests to show that students are 'ready' for university? When they've already backed off pre-entry A-Levels, a necessary and reforming move that would have made universities' lives so much easier? It seems unlikely. And the really, really bad idea of stopping universities charging fees at all if they don't meet employability targets has been floated. Let's just have a think about this one. Suppose there's a recession. There'll be another one again, one day. Graduate employment will crash - just as earnings have stagnated in recent years. And then universities will suddenly find themselves cut off. Will Ministers really bail them out, or stop them charging altogether and let them go to the wall? Er, no, of course they won't. The threat is empty, and they know it.
The Labour Party's remedies aren't all that much better. Lowering the charging threshold to £6,000, before moving to a graduate tax, is fraught with the danger that the Treasury will try and choke off some of the cash in the confusion. Whatever else it has done, the £9,000 fees system has seen money continuing to flow into Higher Education coffers - with no observable impact on recruitment from non-traditional backgrounds, despite critics' fears. And will No. 11 Downing Street really allow a hypothecated tax to take root in the UK, after all these years of resisting it? How will Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish ex-students working in England be tracked and exempted? Your guess it as good as mine - and Labour's.
The truth is that we've got ourselves into a quagmire. With every step it gets worse, as the Heath-Robinson machine just needs another little fix here, and a tweak there, until no-one understands it at all - a bit like the 'new' National Health Service after years of micro-meddling. It's a classic example of unsuccessful 'puzzling', rather than 'powering' - inching forwards into the public policy labyrinth without a clue about its shape, the desired terminal point, or even how to navigate. Now each new crawling step feels like it's over glass, and going very slowly we know not where.
It would have been far better, from the point of view of the risk to which taxpayers are exposed, to have stayed with a simpler low fee, with the Government picking up most of the tab at source. If there weren't accounting reasons for charging very high fees (they appear on the assets, rather than the liabilities, side of the Exchequer's spreadsheet) we would have. Germany is abolishing tuition fees. Maybe, just maybe, England will go the same way.