Thursday, 30 June 2016

No Professor Lang, Brexit won't lead to food riots...


Tim Lang, Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at City University thinks Brexit could lead to food riots:

But given that the WTO rules are “the lowest common denominator” and the Codex Alimentarius is determined in meetings that are “dominated by big business and lobbies [making] the EU look like the most democratic organisation in the world”, this is far from ideal. The result would be food riots, says professor Lang.

Yes folks, this eminent food 'expert' thinks there'll be food shortages, huge price hikes and general chaos because we'll be outside the CAP and subject to the 'common external tariff'. Here's a sample:

The immediate impact of the decision to quit the 28-member state bloc looks like rising food prices in a country that produces and grows less than 60% of the food it eats and is particularly reliant on imports from the EU for fruit and vegetables.

Speaking to FoodNavigator yesterday, Tim Lang predicted it could take five to 10 years for the UK to become food self-sufficient in food products, if that extreme scenario ever arose. And in the meantime? “People will pay more for food. The British people have voted to raise the food prices," he said simply.

Now, given that Prof. Lang and his pals have been agitating for more expensive food for ages, you'd have thought they'd have loved all this but let's take them at their word. Do they really think those Spanish tomato growers, Italian orange farmers and French wheat barons are suddenly going to whack up the price of the stuff they're selling into one of their biggest markets? Or - as Professor Lang seems to hint - stop selling to us entirely. For a Professor of Food Policy this seems incredibly ill-informed on the basics of trade.

There might be an impact on prices if the pound falls against the Euro. But set against that the UK having better access to non-EU markets in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa - all of which grow the same crops as those Spaniards, Italians and French farmers - and it might be that us having more choice will actually drive prices down for the fruit and vegetables Professor Lang is so bothered about.

We have no need at all - none - to become self-sufficient in food because leaving the EU increases the security of our food supplies by taking us outside the anti-trade restrictions of the CAP and other EU controls. That a Professor of Food Policy doesn't see this should worry us. But then it's Tim Lang and he's nearly always wrong.


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

On referendum results - should politicians do their jobs or shout at the storm?


Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

The rules, broadly speaking, of direct democracy are that if one side gets 50% plus one that view prevails. Now I appreciate that there are rooms filled with learned political science and constitutional law stuff that discuss precisely what we might mean by 50% plus one, but the core principle remains.

In May there were elections to the Welsh Assembly - hard fought by all the political parties on issues relevant to Wales. We see democracy in action - representative democracy which has slightly different rules - and we think it good.

Remember this:

Just 721 votes separated the 'Yes' and 'No' camps in that referendum. Now if we accept the principle of direct democracy (and I know there are good arguments questioning referendums in representative democracies) then the right response is exactly the response we took over that Welsh result - accept that the people have spoken and make it work.

That is what the public elect us politicians to do - interpret the people's wishes and act on their behalf in deciding policy. The thing about referendums is that - whether we like it or not - people's wishes are clear (at least in terms of democracy). Shouting at the democratic choice of the people as if you were King Lear raging at the storm might make you feel a bit better but it does not serve the will of the people. So can we - politicians that is, the self-righteous commentariat seem to be beyond help - just do our job. Look at the options that Brexit presents, debate those options and arrive at a view - contested or otherwise - about which direction to choose in response to what the people have said.


Tuesday, 28 June 2016

If London is a truly world city then Brexit shouldn't matter...

So goes the cry from London's mayor - what's happening is bad news for London, for the jobs of Londoners and the prospects for the city. And all this, as urbanist Aaron Renn points out, rather questions the idea of a world city:

Yet most of the London establishment – and 60% of Londoners themselves in the vote – strongly supported the Remain option. They warned of disaster for London if it lost access to the EU single market.

This more or less demolishes the arguments for the city-state. If London, the world’s ultimate global city, can’t thrive without access to a continental scale de facto state in the EU, there’s little prospect anyone else can either.

It’s telling that so many city leaders hate their state or national governments, but love supra-national governments like the EU. The shows that their real desire isn’t to go it alone in the marketplace, but to create replacement governance structures that are more amenable to their way of thinking, that constitutionally enshrine their preferences, and are insulated from democratic accountability.

For all the talk of London being the 'world's capital city' and so forth, what we see here is a great fear that maybe, just maybe, this isn't true. Renn goes on:

...if London can’t recover from the inevitable turbulence around Brexit, this would show that not only do cities need to be part of states, they need to be part of very large and powerful ones.

We don't know the answer to this question - at least not yet. London is without question a great city, perhaps the greatest city in the world, but does that status - in finance, in law, in the arts, in advertising - require that privileged market access or is the truth that the big hinterland needs London a darn sight more than London needs that single market.


I wish I was clever...


I wish I was as clever as those people who write about how thick other people are. It must be fab being so super brainy. Every day you see this but the writers merely display their arrogance. For sure they want us to be in awe of their intellectual majesty - ho ho ho we're supposed to respond as we smile at the daring criticism of whoever it is our genius has decided makes two planks of wood look like a proto-Einstein.

If only I had the supreme confidence to declare a cabinet minister a "thicko" despite never having met that person, had a conversation with them or looked at their skills, experience or knowledge. It is a joy to behold that arrogant confidence in another's stupidity - even one who went to Cambridge and had a 20 year business career before getting to parliament.

I am not so confidently clever, I doubt my beliefs every day. When someone challenges my thoughts or comments a shudder of that doubt runs through my body.

But then I like doubt. My arm is elbow deep in that spear wound. Doubt is what keeps us from torturing people because god said so. Doubt is what makes us hesitate, makes us ask whether the other person might be right, makes us check. Makes us listen.

Over the past years I've changed my mind about a lot of things - climate change, gay rights, Europe, immigration, community, even god. But my mind is still not made up. So keep telling me I'm wrong - just as I'll challenge what you say. Just try not to to call people stupid, dumb, thick, ignorant, immoral - that's not helpful, kind or - much of the time - accurate. And it will never change anyone's mind about anything.


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Mushroom wars, Nepalese style.


This sort of thing:

A villager was shot dead in Nepal and three others were injured in clashes over a rare and valuable fungus coveted for its reputed aphrodisiac qualities, an official said.

Mugu district chief Keshab Raj Sharma said a gang of 10 to 12 looters was shooting "indiscriminately" on Wednesday night, and added that locals claimed the gang had stolen their harvest.

But when the mushroom in question sells for up to $78,000 per pound....


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Understanding the Conservative dilemma...


Here are two of the ward level voting breakdowns* for the Shipley constituency:

Wharfedale       Remain 4539 (60%)   Leave 3068

Bingley Rural     Remain 4190 (42%)   Leave 5776

Two wards both, broadly speaking, safe Conservative wards. About five or six miles apart yet showing almost perfectly opposite results. What we have to do now is ask how we bridge this gap - to over-simplify, deal with the very different outlook and expectations from AB voters in Wharfedale and C1C2 voters in Bingley Rural.

This isn't really about Brexit but rather it's about a stew of economic, cultural and social issues. For me (but representing Bingley Rural as I do, I'm biased) the priority should be reconnecting with the disgruntled C1C2 voters - what the Americans would call the 'middle class' - who live in places like Bingley Rural. A lot of the talk is about the 'traditional' working class but, for the Conservative Party, we need a leader who my neighbours, quite literally, believe has got their back.

So when we talk about security it shouldn't be only about the unlikely terrorist attack but rather about not being burgled, not mown down by idiot drivers and feeling it's safe to go for a drink in town. When we talk about the economy, it's not just about stock markets, banks and business leaders flitting across the globe but about opportunities for young people to get on in the world, about small business and the taxes we all pay too much of. And when we talk about services it's those boring old basics - good schools, access to the doctor, getting the bins emptied and the potholes fixed.

There's something else though. People want their culture to be respected. That what they enjoy is respected and appreciated. Hardly a day passes without some public school educated comedian taking the piss out of the dreary, dull and uninspiring lives of those middling sorts. We get sneery remarks about suburbia, selectively misleading guff about how 'millennials' are being robbed blind by old people, or yet another fact-free attack on drinking, vaping, smoking or fast food. Is it any surprise when these people turn round to media and political sorts and give them the finger. Is it any surprise that, if you spend months on end telling people they're racist xenophobic bigots, they don't exactly flock to buy your political message.

In the end this isn't about agreeing with racism, pandering to the worst sort of anti-immigrant nonsense or signing up to the sort of crypto-fascist autarky that now passes for UKIP's policy platform. Rather it's about respecting what people say, understanding the concerns that underlie those words and having a conversation with these people about what we can do to help them, about what they expect from government, and what realistically government can do to meet those expectations.

*The figures carry a caveat in that the postal votes were distributed evenly across the 30 Bradford wards - we suspect this slightly skews the leave votes.

The two referendum campaigns.


I got a call from the woman who runs Denholme Elders, a support group for older people in this village perched on top of the South Pennines. They'd been discussing what they wanted to do and had decided they wanted someone to talk to them about the forthcoming EU referendum - could I oblige.

I obliged and set out to give as balanced a presentation about the issues, for and against, as I could. I think I did a passing fair job and I got a little confirmation after about three-quarters of an hour when one gentleman said something like "OK Simon but how are you going to vote?"

It was an interesting hour where some, shall we say, pretty robust views were expressed in that 'do you really think I give a damn' manner that anyone working with the elderly will know. What was striking was that these old people weren't thinking selfishly about their circumstances but rather were asking questions about the sort of country their children and grandchildren would live in. They asked about jobs, welfare benefits, crime and immigration. And they were pretty universally appalled by the lack of seriousness and substance in the rhetoric of the two national campaigns.

Anyone whose sole appraisal of this referendum campaign is through the slogans of Vote Leave or Stronger In - as well as the writings of a host of media experts, bloggers and pundits - would despair at what has become of British politics. An avalanche of half-truths, insults, personal attacks and patronising condescension - plus a sort of proxy war over who succeeds David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party - has buried the real debate. And, as I saw in Denholme, there is a real debate.

During the first (and slightly quieter) part of the campaign, we had local elections here in Bradford. This meant that we spoke with perhaps a thousand people. A good number of these pushed aside our plea to talk about why they needed a Conservative councillor to ask about the referendum. Some had made their mind up but most hadn't and wanted to explore the issues. This wasn't from a 'please tell me how to vote' perspective but rather a conversation, the sort of engagement you'd have with friends or colleagues.

I've enjoyed this aspect of the referendum because most people know they've been entrusted with a very significant decision and are taking that responsibility seriously. Even last night one person was saying 'I'm voting out but I really want to hear the in case one more time to be sure.' This sort of engagement is in marked contrast to the scaremongering, divisive national campaigns - no-one's falling out, they're just trying to decide what they'll do on Thursday.

For me, after a lifetime in politics - I joined the Conservative Party in 1976 - it is affirmation of two things. Firstly that, given the responsiblity, people can and do take political decision-making seriously and can be trusted. And secondly that our current system, dominated by a London-based media and London-based politicians, does not deserve those people's trust and support. It's not just the familiar 'Westminster bubble' line but something more profound, it's a complete disconnection from the real lives, worries, loves and concerns of those people. Except when they can patronise them as some sort of victim, as vulnerable, or as people these caring politicians can do things do - most often in the form of telling them to stop something (eating burgers, vaping, smoking, drinking, telling jokes).

I saw a tweet - I think is was from the writer and journalist, Gaby Hinsliff - talking about the bitterness of the referendum campaign and the likely bitterness of the aftermath. And this is true, if your world is the world of the London media and London politics. Out here in the sticks people will simply get up on Friday morning and go to work, take the dog for a walk, look after the grandchildren, pop to the shops - do the sort of things they'd do on any other Friday morning. There might be a little disappointment if their vote was for the losing side or pleasure if for the winning option. But there'll be no bitterness - except maybe a sense that our national politics was shown to be nasty, selfish, short-term and consescendingly righteous.