March 19 2001

Events, dear boy, events.

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


Land of the setting sun?

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 frozen out.

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.

Democratic deficit

A friend has drawn my attention to the government website, 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 to imagine.

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 the council.

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 sure.

So much for democracy!


The poor need cheap food

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 they live.


Town Hall tales

Old Grumpy reads in the Mercury that questions are being asked about Milford Haven Town Council's continued occupation of the Town Hall.

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 Council.

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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