Opinion

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.

Maggie could be seductive in private conversation one on one, more so as she matured,  the strident voice of the public halls giving way to a softer, more seductive style, hand on an arm, intent eye to eye in persuasion. She was afraid of nobody, respecter of no convention she considered archaic. The British custom at dinner parties was always for the host to murmur “coffee?” which was signal for “the ladies” to leave for the powder room while the men, over cigars and port, got down to serious business. It was  a small sensation — regarded in some circles as a grave breach of etiquette — when at a dinner party I attended thrown by her egregious confidante Woodrow Wyatt, Maggie stayed in her seat unabashed, uninvited,  and unfazed by the  arguments over the cigars (in this case by a couple of captains of industry who wanted to be part of Europe and she defiantly raised the Union Jack).

The trade unions at the time were busy wreaking havoc on industry. The far left had infiltrated Labour constituencies; Labour candidates were as scared of the militants then as primary Republicans of the Tea Party candidates today.  Local union chiefs called wildcat strikes, disrupted production.  The union movement, with some Labour ministers in support, threatened a closed shop in the press which would have curtailed free speech. I’d spoken out against it as had the  then editor of The Guardian, Alastair Hetherington. At another of those endless London dinners where Maggie  was the speaker and still not in government,  she referred to me as “one of us.” I wasn’t. I was just expressing a view on an issue. We had many things in common, both from the north, both educated in state schools, both brought up in a grocer’s shop, in my case one my mother started, in hers one her father ran. I admired her.  I was one of the millions of voters in the 1979  general election  which put her into power as the first woman prime minister. The country  was in dreadful shape, fearful and anxious during a winter of discontent in which trade union militants blocked cancer patients getting treatment and garbage piled up in  the center of London.

She saved Britain from anarchy and immediately restored a sense of purpose. She could be rough. As Prime Minister,  she had a limited tolerance for dissent and an infinite regard for personal loyalty. If you were not with on her everything, she  regarded you as disloyal, as unreliable, lacking conviction.  I suppose it was the reverse mirror of her indomitable courage. How valiant she was when the IRA terrorists blew up her conference hotel; they tried to murder her and almost succeeded.  She was often vindicated. She was impatient with excuses for inertia and woolliness — vividly represented  in Meryl Streep’s representation of her cutting off a Cabinet member in mid speech.  I disappointed her by giving space in The Times  to critics, especially one of them, Edward Heath,  whom she’d ousted as Prime Minister. The imperatives of news meant we published  news stories she didn’t like: she’d  sunk in the polls and recession deepened. Relations became a little chillier. As an editor, I’d never sought to cosy up  to political leaders,  but I now understand more of what she was up against – the Tory snobs in the counties,  the plotters in the party who eventually betrayed her, the “wets” and the “wimps”  who would yield on a principle she considered vital.

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.

from John Lloyd:

No Union, please, we’re English

The opinions expressed are his own.

In France, it is les Anglais. In Germany, die Engländer. In Italy, gli Inglesi. In Russia, Anglichane.

The peoples of the United Kingdom, for most other peoples, are habitually “English.”

Not unnaturally. The English part of the UK accounts for close to 90 per cent of the country’s population; the language is English; the capital is London, long the English capital; the accents heard are overwhelmingly English; the long-held stereotype of the country is an upper-class English gent, snobbish, prudish and insular.

from Commentaries:

CFTC prepares to recant speculators’ influence

johnkempcrop-- John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own --

Like Archbishop Thomas Cranmer before he was burned at the stake for heresy, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) seems about to make a dramatic recantation.

Later today, the Commission will hold the first of three public hearings to discuss whether to impose tougher position limits in energy markets and restrict the availability of hedging exemptions. But it is already preparing to release a report that will accuse speculators of playing a significant role in last year's oil price spike, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

While it might seem a minor shift in emphasis, it is a radical reversal of the Commission's previously stated view that there was "no evidence" that investment flows had a material impact on prices. Commission staff have doggedly maintained that physical supply and demand factors could explain all the observed volatility in oil and other commodity prices over the past two years.

China and the world economy

gerard-lyons Dr. Gerard Lyons is chief economist and group head of global research, Standard Chartered Bank. The views expressed are his own.

The world is witnessing a shift in the balance of power, from the West to the East. This shift will take place over decades, and the winners will be:
- Those economies that have financial clout, such as China
- Those economies that have natural resources, whether it be energy, commodities or water, and will include countries, some in the Middle East, some across Africa, Brazil, Australia, Canada and others in temperate climates across, for instance, northern Europe
- And the third set of winners will be countries that have the ability to adapt and change. Even though we are cautious about growth prospects in the U.S. and UK in the coming years, both of these have the ability to adapt and change.

China is at the center of this shift.

The scale and pace of change in China is breathtaking. Against this backdrop of dramatic change, let me look at China’s impact on the global economy, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Where the healthcare debate seems bizarre

healthcare-globalpost

global_post_logoMichael Goldfarb serves as a GlobalPost correspondent in the United Kingdom, where this article first appeared.

In America, the health care debate is about to come to a boil. President Barack Obama has put pressure on both houses of Congress to pass versions of his flagship domestic legislative program prior to their August recess.

Good luck.

Opponents are filling the airwaves with the usual litany of lies, damned lies and statistics about socialized medicine and the twin nightmare of bureaucratically rationed health care and high taxes amongst allies like Britain, France and Germany. So here is a brief overview of health care in some of Europe’s biggest economies: Britain’s National Health Service is paid for out of a social security tax. Services are free at the point of provision. No co-pay, no reimbursement. The budget last year was 90 billion pounds (about $148 billion). That makes the average cost per person about 1,500 pounds ($2,463).

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