The Great Debate UK

from Breakingviews:

UK banks have much to fear from latest probe

By Chris Hughes

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The latest competition review of UK banking should aim to be the last. An antitrust probe in 2000 led to limited price controls after concluding that British lenders made excess profit. There were two more big investigations after the financial crisis. Yet concerns about market inefficiencies persist. That suggests the Competition and Markets Authority should do something radical this time.

The CMA says it is minded to conduct a comprehensive investigation of UK banking later this year. The industry is at least as oligopolistic as it was 14 years ago. Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland have 77 percent of personal accounts and 85 percent of small-business banking.

So-called challenger banks have emerged from disposals by Lloyds and RBS as mandated by the European Commission. But the market has become more concentrated, especially in mortgages, after Lloyds swallowed Halifax and Bank of Scotland and several former building societies collapsed. Customer dissatisfaction is high. Yet just 4 percent of SME customers and 3 percent of personal customers switch accounts annually. The banks say things are already changing for the better. Twas ever thus.

from Breakingviews:

London real estate at an inflection point

By George Hay

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Most real estate valuers in London think property prices in the UK capital are about to fall. That prediction has been easy to make and easier to get wrong in the last five years. This time, the evidence that global investors’ favourite housing market has peaked is looking credible.

from John Lloyd:

The UK’s paradox of faith

When David Cameron recently proclaimed in the Church Times -- the organ of the Church of England -- that he was a Christian, that his faith helped guide him through life and work and that Britain is a Christian country and should be proud of it, he was met with a wall of disapproval.

When a European leader says he's a Christian and that he lives in a Christian country, he's asking for trouble. The approved political position in Europe is that religion should be commended for its sterling values when it cares for the poor and condemned when it is used as a rationale for terrorism. Otherwise, politicians should steer clear and leave it to the clergy.

from Mark Leonard:

Syria and the politicization of British foreign policy

Syria’s population -- at the heart of so many proxy battles for influence -- last night found itself drawn into a different kind of conflict -- this time over the future of British politics. After the British Parliament's vote against action in Syria, the former Liberal Democrat leader, Lord Ashdown, tweeted that Britain is a "hugely diminished country" this morning: “In 50 years trying to serve my country I have never felt so depressed/ashamed.” But is he right to see this vote as a retreat into isolationism? I think it is rather a step into a more modern diplomacy, one where politics do not end at the water’s edge.

Once the dust settled on the vote, David Cameron’s closest ally, Chancellor George Osborne, said there will be a lot of "soul-searching" about Britain’s role in the world. There is talk about the shadow of Iraq, pacifism and anti-Americanism as a result of an unholy alliance between conservative little-Englanders and pacifists of the left. But though these tendencies were both represented in the lobbies of the House of Commons, they still represent a minority of the political spectrum. It is worth remembering that the Labour leader Ed Miliband did not argue against military action in principle, and even made a point of saying he could support intervention without a U.N. Security Council resolution.

from Hugo Dixon:

Cameron, UK hurt by Syria vote fiasco

Rarely has a UK prime minister done so much damage to himself in a single week as David Cameron has with his mishandling of a vote authorising military action against Syria. Cameron may cling onto power after his stunning parliamentary defeat on Thursday night, but he will cut a diminished figure on the domestic and international stage. In the process, he has also damaged Britain’s influence.

Cameron’s litany of errors began with his decision to recall parliament from its summer holidays in order to give the green light to British participation in a military strike designed to punish Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its people last week. The decision to get parliament’s approval was right, even if not constitutionally necessary. The mistake was to rush things before all the evidence of Assad’s culpability had been gathered and published. In France, which is also contemplating military action, the parliamentary debate is scheduled for next week.

from Breakingviews:

UK’s big build dreams still dogged by past binge

By Ian Campbell

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The UK government wants austerity to pave the way for bold modernisation of Britain. In reality its cuts don’t reverse the previous explosion in government spending and there isn’t much money for its big infrastructure dreams.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

If Europe wants Thatcherism, it must abandon austerity

Among all the obituaries and encomiums about Margaret Thatcher, very few have drawn the lesson from her legacy that is most relevant for the world today. Lady Thatcher is remembered as the quintessential conviction politician. But judged by her actions rather than her rhetoric, she was actually much more compromising and pragmatic than the politicians who now dominate Europe. And it was Thatcher’s tactical flexibility, as much as her deep convictions, that accounted for her successes in the economic field.

Governments in Europe and Britain today are obsessed with hitting preordained and unconditional targets: Inflation must be kept below 2 percent; deficits must be reduced to 3 percent of gross domestic product; government debt must be set on a declining path; banks must be recapitalized to arbitrary ratios laid down by some committee in Basel. In sacrificing their citizens’ well-being and their own political careers to these numerical totems, modern leaders often claim inspiration from Thatcher. And when voters turn against them, Europe’s leaders keep repeating Thatcher’s most famous slogans, “There is no alternative” and “No U-turn”.  But are these the right lessons to draw from Thatcher’s political life? A closer look at her economic achievements suggests otherwise.

from The Great Debate:

Margaret Thatcher, an enlarger of British freedom

My immediate and lasting  memory of Mrs. Thatcher -- Maggie as we called her -- is sitting next to her in the late sixties at a dinner table as she scorched a bunch of City of London financial types. I was astonished. She wasn't yet the Iron Lady. She wasn't  in government. Labour was in power. She was  an obscure back bench Conservative MP, elected only in 1959, noticed in those sexist days (has much changed?) as much for her hats and aggressive hair style as for  her passionate defence of grammar schools under threat of closure from Labour.

What she did with the City of London men  was later characterised as a  "hand-bagging." A black Asprey bag she always carried was metaphorically wielded against people she saw as standing in the way of the greatness of Britain as Boudica, the leader of a British tribe, wielded a lance against the Roman occupiers. I suppose that as a new national editor (of The Sunday Times), and with normal male presumption , I had expected to lead the questioning of the ten or so big names and the table. I didn't stand a chance. Maggie pounded and pummeled them all by herself for an hour. I can't pretend this is verbatim but it went something like this: "All you people are interested in is moving paper around, making money not things. What are you doing for British industry? When are you going to help business stand up to  the unions?"  They murmured, they shuffled, they were outclassed. British elections -- six weeks to  a vote and no paid television ads -- have never been as corrupted by money as much as American, so she was not turning off a potential source of funding as an American candidate would fear to do. Still these were  men -- all men of course  -- who were influential and articulate and used to reverence not rebuke.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

Even Britain has now abandoned austerity

The Age of Austerity is over. This is not a prediction, but a simple statement of fact. No serious policymaker anywhere in the world is trying to reduce deficits or debt any longer, and all major central banks are happy to finance more government borrowing with printed money. After Japan’s election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the undeclared budgetary ceasefire in Washington that followed President Obama’s victory last year, there were just two significant hold-outs against this trend: Britain and the euro-zone. Now, the fiscal “Austerians” and “sado-monetarists” in both these economies have surrendered, albeit for very different reasons.

Much attention has been focused this week on the chaos in Cyprus. Coming after the Italian election and subsequent easing of Italy’s fiscal conditions, the overriding necessity to keep Cyprus within the euro -- and its military bases and gas supplies outside Russian control -- will almost surely mean another retreat by Germany and the European Central Bank from their excessive austerity demands. But an even more remarkable shift has occurred in Britain. The Cameron government, which embraced fiscal austerity as its main raison d’etre, was suddenly converted to the joys of debt and borrowing in this week’s budget.

from Breakingviews:

Boris Johnson intervention reduces Brexit chances

By Hugo Dixon

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own

Boris Johnson's intervention in the European debate reduces the chance of a British exit from the European Union - or Brexit. The Mayor of London, a popular Conservative politician, says he will campaign to keep Britain in the EU provided it can negotiate a pared-down relationship based on the single market.

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