Opinion

The Great Debate

from Anatole Kaletsky:

It ain’t over yet: Last-minute promises to Scotland will scar the UK

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre in Aberdeen, Scotland

Astonishing as it was to contemplate the breakup of Europe’s most stable nation-state threatened by last week’s Scottish referendum, we now have an even more extraordinary possibility. In the days since the Scottish voters rejected secession 55 percent to 45 percent, a new threat has suddenly appeared to blight Britain’s political and economic prospects for years ahead. It now looks like Britain may be dissolved by one rogue opinion poll.

The YouGov survey, released shortly before the referendum, found nationalists overtaking the unionists for the first time. (And, as it turned out, the last time.) This triggered total panic among Britain’s establishment politicians.

The outcome was a signed statement on the front page of the Scottish Daily Record by Prime Minister David Cameron, along with the leaders of Britain’s Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, promising immediate legislation to give the Scottish Parliament almost complete control over income tax, health and welfare policies -- on top of the autonomy it already enjoys. They also issued a permanent commitment to channel £1,700 more per head in government spending to Scotland than to England, despite per-capita incomes that are approximately the same.

Deflated "Yes" campaign balloons lie on the grass in George Square after Scotland voted against becoming an independent country, in GlasgowBy signing the statement, Cameron and the other party leaders opened a Pandora’s Box of political and economic controversies that are certain to destabilize British politics. Businesses and investors who have viewed Britain as the most politically predictable and stable nation in Europe are in for a shock.

The Scottish vote, instead of confirming Britain’s historic stability, now looks like the prelude to a long period of constitutional, legislative and fiscal turmoil. This will certainly damage the current government’s re-election chances and could yet threaten a chaotic breakup of Britain.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

Why breaking up Britain could tear apart the EU, too

A bunch of 'Yes' balloons are seen as Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond campaigns in Edinburgh, Scotland

While recent opinion polls have swung slightly back toward the "no" camp, there remains a distinct possibility that Thursday's Scottish referendum will trigger a previously unthinkable breakup of Britain.

If this were to happen, the biggest risks for global businesses and investors do not lie in the economic problems created by Scotland’s choice of currency or the inevitable arguments about sharing North Sea oil revenue and the British national debt. These are crucial challenges for Scotland and have been much discussed in financial institutions and think tanks. But the crucial issue for the world economy and financial markets is about the resulting impact on the European Union -- and especially on Britain, which would remain the world’s sixth largest economy even if Scotland departs.

These political risks, which I discussed here last week, can be broken down into four questions: What would Scottish independence, if it happens, mean for British politics and economic management over the nine months, until the May 2015 general election? What effect would it have on the election results? How would all this turmoil affect Britain’s fraught relationship with Europe? Would Scottish independence act as an inspiration for secessionist movements in other European countries?

from Anatole Kaletsky:

How EU politics pushed Merkel to lift Germany’s austerity policies

German Chancellor Merkel and Luxembourg's Prime Minister Juncker hold a joint news conference after a meeting in Luxembourg

Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy who took the revolving presidency of the European Union this week, seems to be the sort of man that Napoleon was referring to when he reputedly said that the key qualification he sought in recruiting a general was good luck.

Renzi become prime minister without even needing to win an election because Silvio Berlusconi and all other rivals self-destructed. He took power just after Italy passed the lowest ebb of its economic fortunes. In May, he was rewarded for his good fortune by Italy’s voters, who anointed him with a strong democratic mandate in the same European elections that discredited almost all Europe’s other national leaders. Now he is taking the helm in Europe, as an economic recovery is starting and the European Central Bank is swinging decisively in support of growth.

But even a politician as lucky as Renzi could not have counted on his latest and most unexpected windfall: the unintended consequence of last week’s failed campaign by British Prime Minister David Cameron to stop the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Fighting for the future of conservatism

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech to placard waving Conservatives during an European election campaign rally at a science park in Bristol

Establishment Republicans have been delighted by the victory of Thom Tillis, their favored candidate in last week’s North Carolina primary. After expensive advertising campaigns by establishment bagmen like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, mainstream conservatives believe they have a candidate who can beat Democrat Kay Hagan to win a valuable Senate seat in November.

Some commentators see Tillis’s triumph as a sign that other impending GOP primary races will also deliver electable candidates. Having watched the Senate slip from Republican grasp in 2012, as Tea Party candidates such as Todd Akin in Missouri, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Richard Mourdock in Indiana depicted the party as too extreme, they say the Tea Party is in retreat.

Not so fast. The experience of conservative parties elsewhere suggests that when pragmatists triumph over dogmatists, the dogmatists either regroup and go on to overwhelm the moderates, eventually making the party their own. Or they set up their own party -- and trounce the moderates at the ballot box.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

David Cameron takes on the tax havens

There is nothing more likely to spark anger than an unfair tax regime. The American Revolution was founded on it. So the discovery that some of the largest and most successful companies in the world -- among them Google, Apple, Amazon and Starbucks -- have legally minimized the tax they pay, sometimes to as low as zero, in many nations in which they earn the lion’s share of their revenue is causing considerable irritation.

The result was evident at the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, where Britain’s conservative government, chairing the conference of the world’s richest nations, put making corporation tax fairer at the top of its agenda, after the civil war in Syria. David Cameron, who like most conservatives believes in low taxes, is in a bind.

In an attempt to reduce public borrowing he is imposing high personal taxation on the Brits -- lifting “value added” consumption tax to a record  20 percent -- but finds that many of the most profitable companies operating in Britain are dodging taxes altogether. He thinks it is unfair. And so do his voters. He is under intense pressure to deliver a solution or he can expect to be turfed out of Downing Street.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

When illogical policy seems to work

It’s cynical, manipulative and hypocritical – and it looks like it is going to work. How often do you hear a sentence like this, to describe a government initiative or economic policy?  Not often enough.

The media and a surprisingly high proportion of business leaders, financiers and economic analysts seem to believe that policies which are dishonest, intellectually inconsistent or obviously self-interested in their motivation are ipso facto doomed to fail or to damage the public interest. But this is manifestly untrue. The effectiveness of public policies and their ultimate desirability is in practice judged not by their motivations, but by their results.

Which brings me to the real subject of this column: the improving outlook for the world economy and why many economists and financiers cannot bring themselves to acknowledge it. Let me begin with a striking example anticipated in this column back in March: the boom in house prices and debt-financed consumption that the British government is pumping up in preparation for the general election in May 2015.

For Russia, Syria is not in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with (clockwise, starting in top left.) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. REUTERS/FILES

A string of leaders and senior emissaries, seeking to prevent further escalation of the Syria crisis, has headed to Moscow recently to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now, most recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon These leaders see Russia as the key to resolving the Syria quandary.

But to get Russia to cooperate on any stabilization plan, the United States and its allies will have to take into account Russia’s significant interests in the Mediterranean region.

Britain’s austerity experiment is faltering

It was the Welsh sage Alan Watkins who remarked that a budget that looked good the day it was delivered to the British Parliament was sure to look terrible a week later, and vice versa. The avalanche of new information dumped by the Treasury is simply too much to grasp at a single sitting, and governments tend to bury bad news in a welter of statistics. And so it proved with finance minister George Osborne’s budget served up last week.

The immediate headlines stressed that rich Brits would pay less income tax – down from 50 percent to 45 percent – but it only took a day before even traditional Conservative cheerleaders like the Daily Mail were condemning Osborne for funding tax breaks for bankers and billionaires by stealing from those living in retirement. The paper’s cover screamed: “Osborne picks the pockets of pensioners.”

Osborne insists he is sticking to his “Plan A” to reduce the public deficit by sharply cutting state spending by 25 percent over the five-year parliament and imposing severe austerity. Because he believes his “Plan A” is on target, all he needed was a touch on the tiller. He therefore designed his budget to be fiscally neutral – that is, for every tax cut there was a corresponding tax increase. He put up tobacco and alcohol duties and sliced a little off corporation tax.

Should Obama mimic David Cameron’s austerity?

By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.

In medieval times, a key member of a monarch’s retinue was the food taster, a hapless fellow who ate what his master was about to eat. If the taster survived, the food was deemed safe for the king’s consumption. President Obama has a taster of sorts in David Cameron, the British prime minister, who has embarked upon an economic experiment that echoes the recipe of wholesale public spending cuts and tax hikes needed if both sides in Congress are to agree to raising the federal government debt ceiling. How the British economy is faring offers Obama an idea of what a similarly radical policy of cutting and taxing here would mean to the American economy.

Cameron’s election in May 2010 coincided with the start of the Greek debt crisis. The Bank of England governor Mervyn King warned him that the public debt in the UK was so large that Britain, too, might see its lending become impossibly expensive, so Cameron decided that there was no time to lose in putting the fiscal books in order. He decided to slash public spending by 25 per cent over four years and immediately raise value added tax on goods and services from 17.5 to 20 per cent. Such a radical remedy found favor with the rump of British Conservatives who felt that Margaret Thatcher’s free-market, small government, “sound money” policies of the Eighties had not been pressed to their limit. In turn, Thatcher’s prescription to reduce the size of the state derived from her favorite thinker Friedrich Hayek, the author of “The Road to Serfdom,” who believed like many Tea Party supporters that government intervention inevitably leads to tyranny.

Cameron’s experiment in applying a radical cure to the British economy caught the attention of a number of conservatives here, among them George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson, who wrote in the Washington Post, “If Cameron’s approach works — dramatically cutting deficits without stalling economic growth — it will be an obvious, powerful example for America.” “If only the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress had been so courageous. Instead, they are choosing to put off these big decisions,” moaned Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief of the Economist, in a piece co-authored with Michael Green in the Wall Street Journal. Even Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner thought the British experiment worth trying. “I am very impressed, as one man’s view looking from a distance, at the basic strategy [Cameron] has adopted,” Geithner told the BBC.

from The Great Debate UK:

Cameron tasked with changing Brits’ expectations

-- Mark Kobayashi-Hillary is the author of several books, including ‘Who Moved my Job?’ and ‘Global Services: Moving to a Level Playing Field’. The opinions expressed are his own --

After thirteen years, it’s all over. The New Labour project is dead. Or is it? Tony Blair brought British politics to the centre-ground and ensured that a single party could support free-market economic policies as well as social justice.

And that’s what most people want today, a government that can help the citizen without hindering the economy through the dogma of dated ideology. The old notion of socialists waging war on small-government-right-wingers feels somehow quaint. Clearly Tony Blair knew that David Cameron would be his successor in the New Labour project, but nobody told Gordon Brown.

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