Monday, 22 January 2018

Switching On Or Off





There has been a lot said about the Channel Bridge proposal of Boris Johnson, the headline grabber in chief of the Conservative Party. We have been here before.

In the issue of  "The Engineer" for 27 January 1893, page 85, there is an article discussing what would be required in a positive way. It suggests a bridge would be superior to a tunnel.

One of the requirements would be, quote, "a most comprehensive and elaborate system of illumination signals and foghorns", which perhaps brings us back to Boris.

Over on page 86 as the article continues at the bottom of the middle of the page are nine lines about a talk given to the Society of Arts given by Professor Fleming FRS on electrical currencies.

Whatever happened to electricity?

Can Your Spare A Deficit?





Another day, another crash, another disaster in the pensions funding. The politicians have been playing the pensions industry for a long while and the strains are showing in many ways.

Deficits and profits do not go together according to City Unslicker in the web site Capitalists At Work. This is turn becomes a major drag on the economy and investment.

Moreover, Quantitative Easing, QE, is at the root of it in the impact on interest rates and monetary movements as well as the balance sheet effect.

In short the magic money trees by their growth have done what fast growing trees introduced into a forest usually do. They crowd out the other trees.

And when used the smoke gets in the eyes.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Bringing The House Down





One of the features of the media is fake news with manipulation of the public mind along with propaganda and the rest. The major providers of news and comment, thanks to the net etc. have closer examination than in the past from many who are ready to question what governments, corporations and the media tell us.

It is not simply news, it is found in other sectors and entertainment. When putting up a BBC TV progamme dealing with history the question is which, how and why etc. boxes will be ticked and in what way. A fascinating part is often what is left out rather than what is in. Another is how the presentation might suggest facts when it is analysis, or guesswork or simple supposition.

The series running at present "A House Through Time" is a good example of this given the mix of family, social, economic and political history it tries to fit in within the limited time and scope. We are given shots of library shelves, archives, original documents and expert comment to suggest it is all true and to persuade us that the conclusions are necessary.

The house is in Liverpool and the four programmes cover it from building around 1840 to the present. This is a lot of people and a lot of change and each programme selects some and goes for three main parts on the basis first what information is available and secondly the personal interest that can derived from them.

But I have known Liverpool since the 1940's, knew grandparents who knew it from the 1880's and they knew people from the previous decades. More to the point, my interests have meant a lot of work done in research etc. and one field has been in Liverpool. This has included transcribing original documents, writing and assisting the Liverpool Family History Society.

Three episodes in and while a great deal has been said about class and status religion has been left out of it apart from a reference to the small Jewish community. This is astonishing. The Liverpool I knew had major religious divides and this went back more than a century. To add to the Irish influx not just Catholic but Orange and fiercely Protestant, Lancashire had long been home to a major Old Catholic community. The many Scots had brought with them their own congregations as did the Welsh.

At the other extreme, episode 3 involved a saddler, named Snewing, with a rich Uncle Charles. We were given the impression that property was the source of the money. But Charles had bought a horse cheap and entered it for the Epsom Derby. In a large field and unruly race the nag "Caractacus" won and Charles put it out to stud early. In short the family money came from coupling horses, perhaps too rich for the BBC.

The slavery issue came up early in episode 1, with a cotton broker, Wilfred Steele of the 1850's. This rested on the cotton being loaded by slave labour onto ships in America. It was assumed that the cotton brokers were happy with slavery and benefited from it. That Steele went on to join the Union Army during the Civil War was down played.

But we do not know whether the individual brokers did or not support slavery, I suspect many did not. One of the names glimpsed connected to Steele was a John Vero, a ship broker. His Vero's were connected to people whose families had been at the forefront of Abolition in the British Empire and later fully supported the Union during the Civil War.

On the Liverpool docks in the 1850's before the age of modern Trade Unions many of the labourers unloading had arrived in Liverpool as a result of the Irish Famine and Highland Clearances along with the English escaping agriculture and the landed gentry, for example the Britten's in Birkenhead and Benjamin's grandfather. The cotton went to factories notorious for child labour and bad conditions and the servile status of the mill workers.

Near a century later in the house in episode 3 by then was a low income family sharing with others. The man had epilepsy and this was taken for theorising about how he managed to work as a labourer being disabled and the role of the Trade Union and that being before the 1948 birth of the NHS it was untreated.

I recall Liverpool in the 1940's as a place very much ahead of many others in its medical services and facilities and with a medical school. It is most unlikely that he did not have some medical help. In those days epilepsy was something for which there was no cure. What did happen with the disabled, of which there were many for various reasons, was that it was the norm for the families or communities to take care of them.

When labouring on the railway in the 1950's we had a school leaver of very limited abilities and a veteran of WW1 who needed help when he freaked out. They did the "soft" work and the fit did the "hard". It was common for the disabled to be "carried" as far as possible.

The last episode to come will deal with the post war decline of the district and the slum it became. It is fairly predictable I think which boxes will be ticked. I wonder what they will leave out this time and why?

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Trust Me I'm A Shareholder





As it becomes clearer what the size of the fallout from the Carillion Crash could be, it becomes ever more scary.  In the Guardian, George Monbiot weighs in with a clearly written piece raising the ghosts of an unruly horde of Private Financial Initiative schemes from the days of Brown and Blair.

Among the many nasties that this pair bequeathed to the nation for the future these schemes were an extreme form of buy now but pay later and much larger sums. Designed to keep the marginal voter happy in the relevant constituencies it soon became an extensive way of paying off anyone anywhere.

They were the delight of the corporate financial world and many bosses and their helpers did very well, especially Carillion. How far it goes now is major question of the moment. The consequence is that some people are calling for blood and want to go to the jugular.

This is the principle of Limited Liability which became law in 1855 with the Limited Liability Act which transformed the business world of companies. Before if you were a shareholder in a company and it went bad you were liable for all your wealth and the only answer was to head for the docks and the first boat out with what you could carry.

The trouble was that not only the company top men etc. lost out, every other shareholder would be liable and could be stripped for all they had to pay not only their own share but that of any defaulters. Quite literally, if their trusts or investments had shares which went bad, widows and orphans could lose all as well.

But in 1855 between the needs of Empire trade, the demands for new railways to transform communication along with the telegraph, the projects for steam shipping and the needs of rapidly expanding industry in cotton and hosiery etc. Limited Liability was seen as the answer to the problems of business and financing.

The passing of the Act led to the rapid expansion of company formation, once begun it almost literally changed the world. There was opposition. Henry, 3rd Earl Grey was one and he was closely connected to the Whitbread's, the long standing brewing firm who believed in family trusts as the basis of business, and perhaps did not want too many rivals getting access to new capital.

Can we replace Limited Liability or make laws to prevent its misuse in our new world of mega debt, asset stripping and destructive change? Quite what can replace it and yet allow capital to flow where it is needed? The Left has its answer, centralise, government control in general and detail, magic money trees and creation of debt never to be repaid and worse, the politicians making the decisions.

In the late 20th Century and into the 21st, we had a Labour Party which became attached to the big beasts of corporate finance to buy the votes to buy their stay in power. But we have had a Conservative Party that is no better and have avoided taking the obvious steps.

As George suggests this one has been coming for some time and nobody has been willing to admit it and even less take any steps to deal with the consequences. Much worse they do not understand even what has been happening and what could happen.

Limited Liability has been and is a useful means of dealing with business finance but it comes at a price. That is proper regulation, clear and good accounting and a determination to keep the markets clean and pursue the criminal and irresponsible instead of feting them to help the political party funds.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Carry On Carillion





The more we look at the government etc. of the United Kingdom the more we are reminded of the "Carry On" films of the past, where a crew of jokers and no-hopers bungle their way through life in whatever roles they play.

It was tempting to have "Ding dong bell, the cat's in the well" as the title to this item relating to the name of the construction firm Carillion being close to Carillon, a chime of bells, but that would have been too obvious. Big Ben of Parliament was in mind reminding me that half a century ago I was in small group privileged to be allowed in to the bell chamber there.

One thing which perhaps will not be discussed is how the ideas of "capitalism" and "socialism" of the past are now so outdated in trying to understand the present. Carillion are down the pan for one and a half billion smackers it is said. It is assumed that the government will need to fork out for all the consequences.

Very many of these are government projects of one kind or another. So Carillion, in theory a capitalist firm is in effect a branch of government engaged in project planning, construction and the rest. It is difficult to separate it from a nationalised firm relying heavily on "private" capital.

Only the "private" is no so private and what matters is not so much the construction as the business of funding and financing. This relies on extensive forms of government creation of monies and borrowing in order to do so. In short it is one of the biggest trees in the forest of magic money trees.

So we are seeing corporate capital arising from nationalised financial funding integral to government projects for public and some private entities in which the organisations etc. involved and the people are all close, reliant on one and other, interact and in effect run both government and corporate finance.

If there is a word for this, might it be "boondoggle"? and we might ask "What do all these people really do for a living?"

The answer is screwing us for the taxes and costs of it all.


Friday, 12 January 2018

Patients Need Patience





The question of the National Health Service is at the forefront of the news again, the several layers of crises now compounded in the queues at hospitals and pharmacies. In the debates we forget that the NHS was born in crisis and that medical crises were recurrent in the previous decades and centuries.

In 1937 the retiring Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin delivered a call to Empire (it is on Youtube) which referred to Britain as a "sacred temple", saying "And what is her secret? Freedom, ordered freedom, within the law, with force in the background and not in the foreground: a society in which authority and freedom are blended in due proportion, in which state and citizen are both ends and means."

In the Empire, however, there were peoples who disagreed with his vision and their views were shared by many in Britain, notably in the then Labour Party and its associates. But they had their own "sacred temples", nationalised industries and services, that would be the core of a new Britain.

The Labour win of 1945 under Clement Attlee, a former Major in the South Lancashire Regiment who did time in the trenches; and Lecturer at the London School of Economics, enabled them to build these temples, if not in a green and promised land, in one that they intended to control forever and a day.

By the late 1940's despite extensive local provision and other services plus charities and Friendly Societies, Trade Unions etc. the demands had overcome the supply. Two world wars had left many disabled and damaged men and women. The filth and smog of the air in major industrial and areas had become intolerable.

That many jobs for men and some women was physical labour; often hard and risky, took its toll with mechanisation and modernisation being opposed to preserve jobs. We have fun with the extremes of health and safety ideas, but then these matters were ignored.

Last but not least there were not the medications and treatments then which we have now. Tuberculosis was still a scourge, typhoid a continuing risk and various illnesses common could leave people scarred or damaged for life. Then venereal diseases were rife, the product again of wars and social breakdown.

Another severe problem was the loss of hearing common. Often arising from ordinary ear infections but also noisy work. Air pollution and dirty jobs did not help eyesight along with other strains . Poor diet and lack of awareness meant teeth falling out. A good many people had lost their molars by early middle age.

There were other matters, not recognised or admitted then which may have played a part that we know about. Tobacco is the obvious one. Even doctors might recommend it as a palliative for catarrh or chest problems and its alleged antiseptic properties. Products with high sugar content continued to be promoted as healthy for decades come, if you could get it.

When the National Health Service opened to free treatment etc. for all, all came and the money was wasn't there, nor the staff. Moreover, while the Tredegar Model may have worked for Bevan, the Health Minister in Wales, it did not in many other urban areas which had developed long standing complex arrangements which did not fit the new boundaries etc. being imposed.

It is said that the consultants and doctors were opposed. They were to the way it was run, to what they saw as jumped up office boys telling them which patients they might see, how and where they were to be treated and which medications to supply.

The politicians at Westminster had been unaware of just how varied, complicated and interwoven health service had been and how destructive so much of the top down politically driven administration was.

This was seventy years ago and a reality of history that has been forgotten, if not ignored or put to one side because it did not "fit" with what people would have liked it to have been. By the late 1970's the NHS as a top down state funded nationalised service had become like British Rail, only without timetables or signals.

It could not stay the same, it could not go back to any past, it could not reorganise internally because it did not have the authority and in many ways it was having difficulty in maintaining basic service and only able in a limited way to cope with the advances of science and other world treatments.

So here we are today, with a set of problems which many look the same in some ways but is not. We are dimly aware of the impact of obesity via diet, alcohol misuse, traffic accidents, but not of other things. We have taken a liking to loud, very loud, sound regardless of the acoustic impact.

The amount of powerful chemical products in the foods of the masses as well as other products and in most of the air we breathe is astonishing compared to the past. Quite how all this interacts with the body, blood, brain and systems we are not sure.

Globalisation and air travel has made tourism a major part of modern life. But some tourists are less interested in the sights or history, they are more interested in perhaps the entertainments and an increasing number in what is on offer either cheap or free that cannot be had at home. So we have seen the growth of health tourism, especially free on demand, in the UK.

Many of those from abroad do not share our identity with the concept of individuality whether Neoliberal or of the Left. They see themselves as belonging to and part of extended families and population groups. So when one or a small number arrive we have opened the doors of our hospitals and surgeries to many more. To them could added the "students", the illegals and others.

The effect is cumulative so we no longer have a National Health Service, that has gone for good and will not be coming back. We have created a European and International service that the UK State cannot pay for at present and given its rapid expansion never will. So unless you can afford otherwise I'll see you in the queue.

As Stanley Baldwin said in 1937 at the end of his speech. "I can think of no better message to give you to take away than that."

Saturday, 6 January 2018

A Scribble On Writing





The great thing about a "what if" question is that you can make your own rules. With so many engaged in rewriting the past to fit their various bills beyond honest speculation anything goes. The last item was about an author, so what of others of that general era?

There has been a documentary on Beatrix Potter recently and this is an easy one to second guess. The author of those very special children's books was a woman with many talents. As well as writing she was engaged in property dealing with the objective of saving The Lakes as they were for posterity instead of being covered in bungalows. She is admired for this as well.

But she was a great scientist who never was. On writing a paper which deserved the attention of the Linnean Society she was neither permitted to join it nor to read it at their meetings. Had women been accepted she might well have become an academic and researcher of high standing. Also, she was a fine artist, again on the outside as a woman.

In earlier years there had been the author "George Eliot", above, otherwise Mary Anne Evans, again who also might have become a leading academic or commentator. There were the Bronte sisters of Yorkshire, who were so active in the field of letters. As daughters of a parson, what might (May?) they have become if they had gone into politics and social reform?

Which brings me back to that other parson's daughter, Jane Austen, who died too young. I like to imagine her living longer and having carved out a career in the Civil Service as a formidable administrator and organiser.

Imagine Jane at the Board of Trade, holding a discussion in the late 1820's in private meetings  with say the Duke of Wellington and other leading politicians and landowners on the subject of the proposed railway between Liverpool and Manchester.

She might have pointed out to the Duke that another prime county for railways would have been his Hampshire and given her knowledge of the local area she would have been able to tell him what other major families might have had to say and their objections.

Notably, that the real investment problem was the King's Highways, in a bad state apart from a few toll roads and all the parish roads. These heavy capital cost railways might be very useful for short distances, industrial plant and mines but on a larger scale were financial risky with running and maintenance costs little considered.

Also, the benefits were restricted largely only to those places and interests served by railways and their immediate areas. Indeed a few people might make a great profit but very many would suffer a loss. If the money went to railways where would be the funding for all the road works so badly needed?

Indeed steam had a future, but surely the investment and better returns would come from the maritime uses and in particular the vital role of the Royal Navy. In any case the power units could be of various sizes so smaller vehicles so powered could use the highways. Also, as there were other fuels than coal far wider scope would be available for transport.

Which brings me back to Beatrix Potter. Her father Rupert Potter is very underestimated man. As a leader in the Unitarian faith at the time he was at the forefront of a great deal in the arts, science and industry. Moreover, in 1871 when Beatrix was quite small he was the next door neighbour of Sir Louis Mallet.

Mallet was a KCB and Secretary to the Board of Trade, a key post. He went on to be on the Council for India and traveled there where he would have met Auckland Colvin, Treasurer for India, whose maternal grandfather, a clergyman, was known to Jane Austen.