These are worrying times for Tony Blair.
A month ago, everything in the garden was lovely with the Tories
lagging by 20% in the opinion polls and Mr Blair looking like
a shoo-in at a May election.
That was before the foot and mouth outbreak which could leave
Mr Blair with the awkward choice between postponing the election
or facing accusations that he is putting his party's interests
before those of the nation.
Meanwhile, the economic storm clouds gathering in the USA and
Japan could mean that all bets are off as far as the Chancellor's
spending plans are concerned.
If the problems in the world's two biggest economies does lead
to a severe global slowdown then all that lovely money for schoolsanhospitals
could be at risk.
If on top of that, the public get the impression that the foot
and mouth outbreak is being handled incompetently, Mr blair's
hopes of a second landslide could be severely damaged.
Old Grumpy has been taking a close personal interest in the
foot and mouth outbreak, especially the worst affected area: my
home County of Cumbria.
Yesterday I was told that several hundred sheep on my cousin's
farm near Silloth were down to be slaughtered under the recently
announced plans for a mass cull of healthy animals.There is a
strong suspicion that the reason the disease is running out of
control is that it is taking far too long to slaughter and dispose
of infected stock.
In one case I read about, it took four days from the disease
being reported to slaughter, and a further three days before the
cattle were removed from the farm to a rendering plant.
According to the farmer some of this delay was due to bureacracy
and form-filling and the rest to enviromental regulations which
prevent the speedy burial of carcasses on site.
Of course, burying animal remains can result in the pollution
of watercourses but leaving them lying around leads to an added
risk of the disease being spread.
Unfortunately the bureaucratic mind is not attuned to the speedy
evaluation of competing risks followed by decisive action.
I wonder how many times the phrase "it's more than my job's
worth" have been heard during the crisis
It hardly seems like yesterday that pundits were recommending
that Britain should abandon the short-termism inherent in free
markets and adopt the corporatist Japanese economic model.
But these siren voices have fallen silent recently as Japan
chalks up its tenth year of economic stagnation.
This despite massive public spending programmes, tax cuts and
interest rates a couple of decimal points above zero.
The problem to my mind lies in the word corporatist which these
days is the polite way of saying fascist.
Unfortunately, to call someone a fascist is to deliver the
ultimate insult because such a description automatically tars
them with the same brush as the unspeakable gangsters who ruled
Germany from 1933-45.
For some reason the same connection is rarely made between
communism and the barbaric regime of Stalin which murdered just
as many people as Hitler's Nazis.
The fact is that fascism is, like communism, a perfectly respectable
economic and political theory.
Both seek to promote the primacy of the state over the individual,
with the main difference being that fascism is a compact between
the state and big business while communist states have the workers
as their confederates.
What should never be forgotten is that both Hitler and Mussolini
came to power through the ballot box on the strength of promises
to regenerate what had become basket case economies.
And, in the short term, both succeeded.
But, while corporatism might have short term benefits, it cannot
deliver over the longer period because it suppresses what the
great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called "the creative,
destructive gales of capitalism".
What has happened in Japan (and in South Korea with the Chaebols)
is that the government, the banks and big business are all in
each other's pockets.
Failing businesses are propped up by banks which are in turn
propped up by the government with the result that the economy
suffers from creeping sclerosis as enterprising individuals are
This appears to suit everybody because firms don't go bust
and workers don't lose their jobs.
That shelters everyone from the destructive gales, but but
it also stills the balmy breezes of creativity.
A friend has drawn my attention to the government website www.open.gov.uk,
and a treasure house of information it proves to be.
All Acts of Parliament since 1988 are available by clicking
on HMSO and there is a complete run down on everything that goes
on in the National Assembly.
Old Grumpy notices that the Assembly is currently consulting
on the structure of the Standards Committees which all local authorities
are required by law to establish following the recommendations
of the Nolan Committee.
Clearly, the Assembly has noticed some alarming tendencies
in progress to date and is moving towards plugging some of the
more obvious loopholes.
One of these loopholes is that the legislation contains no
requirement regarding the make-up of these committees.
Pembrokeshire County Council, for instance has agreed to,set
up a committee composed of five elected members with an independent
chairman - a system better designed to defeat the Nolan committee's
objective of restoring faith in democratic politics it is hard
Alert to the problem of having elected members policing their
own conduct, the Assembly's consultation document asks whether
these Standard Committees should have an independent majority
and whether the panel selecting the independent members should
also have an independent majority.
The answer should be a resounding yes, indeed I would go further
and say that these committees should be entirely independent of
Not that my views or anyone else's are likely to make any difference
because replies to this consultation document are due in on March
21 and, from what I gather, even our elected representatives have
not been asked their opinion.
So, if the Council does respond whose views will be put forward?Not
those of the voters or their elected representatives, that's for
So much for democracy!
I have lost count of the number of times I have heard pundits
on Radio 4 blaming the foot and mouth crisis on the intensification
of agriculture as a result of our cheap food policy.
You can guarantee that none of these people has ever had to
get by on the equivalent of the basic state pension.
The fact is that cheap food is a boon to the poor, who, even
at present prices, devote 40% of their incomes to their bellies.
And the fact is that the most expensive food, in real terms,
is produced by Third World subsistence farmers of the type glorified
by the chattering classes.
They spend 70-80% of their labour on feeding themselves compared
to an average of 20% in the developed world.
That leaves us with a surplus of 80% to spend on holidays,
motor cars, houses and other luxuries, not to mention the taxes
we are able to pay to fund education and health.
In addition, the fewer people employed in agriculture the more
are freed up to man the hospitals, schools and hairdressing salons.
As a basic rule of thumb, the greater the proportion of a nation's
population employed in farming the greater the poverty in which
Old Grumpy reads in the Mercury that questions are being asked
about Milford Haven Town Council's continued occupation of the
It appears that this debate has arisen because the County Council
have decided to hike the rent from £4,000 to £15,000.
In the green corner we have Rhys Sinnett who favours holding
meetings in Community Centres around the town, and in the red
corner the old guard who want to stay in the Town Hall for, as
the Mercury so aptly puts it, "entertainment purposes".
When I first read that I wondered why the Town Council should
be more entertaining in the Town Hall than some other venue but
when I read on I realised entertainment meant the provision of
hospitality rather than amusement.
Two of the stay-puts, Cllrs George Max and Bill Morgan talk
of the Town Hall being necessary for the dignity of the town -
for which read dignity of the town councillors - and the third,
Cllr Anne Hughes, told the Mercury that when she was Mayor she
had been struck by "how impressed people are when they visit
a chamber such as ours".
While Old Grumpy is all for a bit of civic pride and dignity
I am not so sure that our Town Council, three of whose last five
Mayors the Ombudsman has found guilty of breaching the Code of
Conduct, is the place to look for it.
Two of the Town Councillors interviewed by the Mercury, Cllrs
Hughes and Morgan, also display a poor grasp of recent history.
Cllr Morgan is quoted as saying: "My feelings are that
the building should never have been handed over in the first place.
It was built and paid for by the rate payers of Milford and now
they want to sell it back to us", and Cllr Hughes says: "We
handed it over to the former council [Preseli Pembrokeshire] in
good faith. Why can't the county council now reciprocate and give
it back to us if they no longer have a use for it".
The fact is that the building became the property of Preseli
DC as a result of the Local Government Act 1972 which aggregated
the functions and assets of Milford Haven UDC, Neyland UDC, Haverfordwest
RDC, Haverfordwest UDC and Fishguard UDC into Preseli District
The same Act led to the establishment of Milford Haven Town
Council which is, despite its delusions of grandeur, a mere community
council like those in Tiers Cross, Johnston and Herbrandston.
The upshot is that the Town Hall never was the property of
the present Town Council, so any talk of them handing it over
is the purest nonsense.
But perhaps the strangest contribution to the debate is that
of Cllr George Max.
Reading what he has to say it would be easy to overlook the
fact that he is a member of the County Council's ruling Independent
Political (sic) Group which, one assumes, approved the rent increase
which has caused the problem.
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