Monday, 27 January 2020

Why is ministerial turnover so high?

The Institute for Government looks at the high rate of ministerial turnover in the UK which is now as high as for football managers. It cannot be conducive to good government: Keeping ministers in post

Martin Lewis was making the point at Radio 5 at lunchtime that he often found in his discussions with ministers on financial issues affecting consumers that the minister had not mastered their brief and he had to give them a 101 course on what the problem was.

I remember Richard Rose tackling this topic decades ago and pointing out that ministerial turnover was actually lower in countries like Italy that have frequent changes of government.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

What does FlyBe tell us about the Johnson government?

British Airways has now submitted a state aids complaint to the EU. I am no expert on the complexities of state aid policy, although in principle one is allowed to boost regional economies. The actual mechanism used by the Government in terms of airport passenger duty may, however, be open to challenge. In political terms the Government would probably welcome a row with the EU that saw it on the side of the regions against Brussels.

The writer on Sanday, Orkney: you can get there by plane, but I used the boat.

The intervention does, of course, raise questions about the Government's commitment to climate change policy. However, those in the south-west and the Scottish highands and islands would argue that the connectivity that Flybe provides is essential to their ability to do business and attract tourists. I must confess that I have a personal interest here as I use Flybe's Birmingham to Aberdeen flights (almost always nearly full) and then connect via Loganair to Grimsetter international airport, Kirwall, Orkney.

The flag of Orkney is based on that of Norway: you can fly direct to Norwegian destinations from Grimsetter.

A Greenpeace spokesman argued on Radio 5 that we should not be supporting unsustainable rural lifestyles. I don't think the growing number of people living in the Orkney Islands, with an economy in which innovation in renewables plays a key part, would see it that way. Island council officials have to fly to the centre of power in Edinburgh: it can't all be done by video links.

However, should one offer a general subsidy to all domestic flights in the UK by adjusting APD? Or should one subsidise particular services that serve a social need, as already happens with Newquay to Heathrow flights by Flybe? The policy objective may be desirable, but there may be more efficient means of achieving it.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Sticking my head above the parapet

I have refrained from commenting about the crisis in the royal family. It seems to me that it is as much of a quagmire as the Labour Party leadership contest. Whatever you say, you will offend someone. When I made a mildly supportive comment about Jess Phillips on Twitter, I got trolled, largely by the hard right, but also the hard left.

It also strikes me that there are so-called 'royal commentators' round every corner, copying their views from each other or promoting their own website, Instagram account or book.

But with the Sandringham Summit today, I could not hold back any longer. Fortunately, two leading constitutional experts from the UCL's Constitution Unit have written a blog post stating that they think the so-called 'halfway house' solution cannot work: It just isn't an option

What is more they are writing a much needed comparative analysis of European monarchies. Remember there are three in the Nordic countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway. All the Benelux countries have one, although Luxembourg is a grand duchy. However, Luxembourg has the only two monarchs who can claim to be political scientists.

The current King of Spain does have an international relations from Georgetown. I had an audience with him when he was crown prince and he seemed very well informed and he asked me good questions. My Spanish handyman is very impressed by the photo of me with him.

Just one more thought. HRH the Prince of Wales intends to slim down the Royal Family if/when he becomes king. This is probably a good idea, but I do feel a bit sorry for the minor members of the royal family who are dismissed as 'hangers on'.

Obvs. I read the Court Circular every day and I am surprised by the number of mind numbing engagements the Queen's cousin, HRH the Duke of Gloucester, has to undertake. One day in the middle of a busy day he 'visited shops in Bridgnorth'. Was this to get a bargain at Poundland or a microwave meal for the evening?

The irony is that he never wanted to be a member of the royal family. He was training to be an architect when his older brother, William, was killed piloting a plane and the Queen told him he had to join the firm. No one ever told me what career I had to follow.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Two cheers for an Established Church

On Christmas Day morning I will attend Holy Communion at All Saints Parish Church in Leamington Spa where I happen to be chair of the Friends of the Parish Church. The Friends are not confined to members of the congregation and are trying to raise money to restore the deteriorating fabric and also see the space used more as a community asset. I am a baptised but not a communicant member of the Church of England and therefore cannot take communion. So as far as I am concerned I am taking advantage of my rights as a citizen to attend services.

In some ways it is frustrating to attend a communion service and not participate fully. I was even offered a fast track to confirmation, but made it clear that I did not feel I was anywhere near a state of grace. Confirmation would involve me stating things about which I have serious doubts, just as I cannot accept everything in the Nicene Creed.

Conventional reformist wisdom is that the established status of the Church of England is an anachronism, indeed many Anglicans would hold to that view. In a diverse country, why should one version of one religion be privileged above all others, including representation in the House of Lords? It is an argument whose strength I acknowledge. If and when Brian becomes king, he has made it clear that he will see himself as defender of the faiths in the plural.

One of the strengths of establishment was that it provided a bulwark of a middle road form of Anglicanism which discouraged cults and sects, but in many ways the Church of England is already highly factionalised. Disestablishment would be the final blow to an institution with declining and ageing congregations (other than various manifestations of the evangelical wing). Some argue that it would not be missed: one should take faith seriously or reject it, but not take it lightly.

Other countries have an established church (or churches) that benefit from state taxes (there are also countries such as Germany which do not have an established church but have church taxes). In Finland almost all of the money goes to the Lutheran church. A friend of mine wanted to disconnect himself and found it a difficult procedure that encountered puzzlement as to why any Finn should wish to take this step.

For me the greatest value of the Church of England was attending one of its primary schools, although this involvement is also controversial. The school I attended served what was then a predominantly white working class area. It now serves a diverse area with an increasing number of pupils for whom English is an additional language. It still making a contribution to the local community, respecting other faiths whilst proclaiming Christian values: St. Margaret's Church of England school

I find the different tendencies within the CoE quite difficult to classify, but I would say that the school I attended and the adjacent now demolished church was at least English Catholic. As a consequence, I had to wrestle with some heavy duty theology from the age of seven onwards which played an important contribution to my intellectual development. I had to wrestle with puzzles I could not understand, let alone solve. For example, I have discussed the doctrine of transubstantiation with Roman Catholic friends and Anglicans, but I am still left baffled by it.

We had excellent teachers (one was a published author of books for children), but they came from relatively middle class backgrounds. Hence, the advice that we could attend Catholic mass if we went to France was somewhat irrelevant. A day trip to Boulonge would be just about affordable.

All this left me mystified about the difference between Anglo and Roman Catholicism. Somewhat irreverently, I asked if the problem would be solved if the Pope was English and the Vatican moved to Canterbury, an observation for which I was expelled from the class.

The ethical principles of Christianity as expressed particularly in the New Testament were ones I was generally in agreement with, although I had difficulties with Saint Paul. I welcome women clergy and a church that seeks to be inclusive of a range of sexual identities.

Some would say that Anglicanism is all about doubt. I can just about adhere to it as an Established Church which I attend as a citizen, but the link is tenuous.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

How constituencies change over time

I had the following letter published in the Financial Times the other day: 'One of the aspects of the recent election that has not been discussed much is the changing demography in some constituencies. Jim Pickard (“Thornberry fires starting gun in race for Labour leadership”, December 19) refers to the transformation of Nuneaton from a marginal seat to one with large Conservative majorities.'

In recent years large numbers of new houses have been built in Nuneaton, relatively reasonably priced by Warwickshire standards. Given the existence of “good” train services, the town has attracted commuters to Birmingham, and even to London, so there has been quite a big change in the make-up of the town, which in turn affects voting patterns.'

One Nuneaton resident emailed me to say: 'I remember the same happening when Shirley Williams lost her Hertford and Stevenage seat in 1979. The electrification of the Hertford line changed things beyond recognition as new folks moved in.' The other thing happening in Nuneaton is that there are lots of new jobs but, of course, in logistics and the “traditional” industries (coal, quarrying, textiles) are long gone.'

Another example would be my own constituency of Warwick and Leamington which has shifted from safe Conservative to marginal Labour hold in 2019.

I don't know Blythe Valley or Bishop Auckland, but I did hear comment that there had been an inward migration of commuters to buy relatively affordable housing.

The 'Workington Man' stereotype attracted some criticism because it was seen as a media shortcut which conceals as much as it reveals. Nevertheless, there was a particular group of voters in northern England who shifted to the Conservatives: Realignment

It is very likely that constituencies will be redistricted before the next election, although it is not clear whether the number of MPs will be reduced from 650 to 600 as David Cameron originally proposed. One calculation is that the new boundaries would have given the Conservatives a majority of just over 100.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Will we see the Cap of Maintenance today?

Given that there is a scaled down Queen's speech today in terms of ceremonial I wonder whether we will see the Cap of Maintenance. It was such a long time to the last speech that I feared the moths might have got at it, but it was held aloft with due reverence.

I have never really understood Catholic symbolism in a country that has a nominally Protestant Established Church; it was given to Henry the Eighth by the Pope for his efforts in maintaining the Catholic religion before his breach with Rome. Henry did, however, remain very much a Catholic in his religious observance.

I suppose that reflects some of the contradictions in the Church of England which I struggle with as an Erastian, i.e., a believer in an established church. I realise that position is now under attack even within the CoE. It does mean that I have a right to the services of the Church as a citizen without being a communicant member.

Having been 'head hunted' to be the chair of the Friends of the local Parish Church, my position becomes even more contradictory. The task of the Friends is to involve people who are not members of the congregation in helping to preserve its fabric: it was built with a very soft sandstone and is larger than some cathedrals.

It is also being used more for community events, so we screened the Life of Brian, which caused a bit of a media storm, and hosted the opening concert of Fairport Convention's summer tour.

I feel some obligation to attend services on major feast days, but they are usually Mass or Holy Communion (sometimes one gets choked with incense, other times there is none) which makes it all a bit pointless for me.

10.58: I have just seen the Cap of Maintenance leaving Buckingham Palace, in its own (horseless) vehicle.

11.02: Correction, it is sharing a vehicle with the sword of state, the crown has its own vehicle.

Monday, 16 December 2019

End of the union?

In 1968 I published my first (co-authored) article in a respectable academic journal on Welsh and Scottish Nationalism. The article was derided by some colleagues, but I thought it was quite good for a third year undergraduate. I thought that the two emergent nationalisms need to be treated comparatively. I argued that Welsh nationalism had more of a cultural basis. Indeed, the four PC seats at Westminster are all adjacent to one another in traditional Welsh speaking areas. Gwn fod gan y blaid gefnogaeth mewn mannau eraill a'i bod yn ceisio adeiladu ei sylfaen drefol.

A subsequent and better received article was based on an analysis of SNP councillors in the two new towns of East Kilbride and Cumbernauld, one of the most fascinating pieces of work I have ever done and which gave me many anecdotes.

One of the potential longer term consequences of the general election is the possible break up of the United Kingdom. In the case of Northern Ireland, Nationalists now outnumber Unionists among MPs. Given that Sinn Fein saw their vote fall and the Democratic Unionists lost seats there may now be some impetus to get the power sharing arrangement working again so that urgent problems like the state of the health service can be tackled. Let no one say that a country can manage perfectly well without a functioning government.

Neither the UK nor Irish governments have any appetite for a border poll. However, in the longer run could we see a confederal arrangement on the island of Ireland, outside the UK, but with a devolved assembly at Stormont?

In this article, I am not going to deal with Wales, not because I think it is unimportant but because the future there is far less clear. There doesn't seem to be a real appetite for independence. Beth yw'r dyfodol i Gymru? Dydw I ddim yn gwybod.


I have a sentimental attachment to Scotland. In 1793 my direct ancestor James Grant left his birthplace of Urquhart on the shores of Loch Ness and his father Donald Bain Grant to join the British Army. He fought at Waterloo and showed dangerous Europhile tendencies by marrying a French woman. In 1970 I was proud to graduate from a Scottish university. I regard myself as British rather than English, particularly given that my mother's family came from Cornwall.

Sentiment aside, disentangling the over 300 year relationship between England and Scotland would make Brexit seem a doddle. If an independent Scotland subsequently joined the EU, what would this mean for the Anglo-Scottish border?

When I was in Edinburgh last year my taxi driver described Nicola Sturgeon as 'a very dangerous woman'. I think he was right. I don't like her or what she stands for, but I respect her effectiveness in the pursuit of her beliefs.

To me it is evident that momentum is building for independence in Scotland. Young people in particular are more inclined to support it. Indy Ref2 could be very close - I would find it odd if independence was won by a handful of votes. My guess is that it might be like the second Quebec referendum, close but no cigar.

Even so, the dilemma is whether to have one at all. I do not think this is just a matter for the people of Scotland. It affects England as well. 'Engerland' on its own could well become inward looking and xenophobic. In the past Scottish leaders have played an important role in offering leadership to the UK.

I think at the very least it is reasonable to say that any referendum should not be held until after the Holyrood elections in May 2021. The UK Government can reasonably argue that its focus this year, and quite possibly for some of 2021, has to be on negotiating a trade and security agreement with the EU.

Boris Johnson is clearly minded not to allow a referendum at all. That might simply build support for the Nationalist cause. There is talk of the Scottish Government holding its own referendum. This would be challenged by the UK Government in the courts and they might well win. If such a referendum was held, unionists would be well advised to abstain to deny its legitimacy.

I think there is a better than evens chance of Scotland becoming independent and 'walking tall among the nations' a decade from now. If Scotland re-joined the EU, it would be obliged to join the euro and we would then have the inconvenience of changing money at the border even if there was a common travel zone. (As it is, although Scottish notes are legal tender south of the border, many retailers won't accept them).

I know that some English voters think that we would save money given that Scotland has a substantial fiscal deficit funded from the south. The SNP would argue that the country's oil has been stolen. This is a controversial issue and would be one of the most difficult subjects in independence negotiations.

I don't think Orkney and Shetland would be too keen on an independent Scotland. In Orkney the local flag (an adaptation of the Norwegian one) is displayed when ministers make the trek from Edinburgh.

A YouGov poll earlier this year found that Conservative activists were prepared to see the dissolution of the union as a price for obtaining Brexit. It seems a high price to pay to me.