Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Everything we hold dear!

Conjure up three images that sum up Middle Britain. I can't think of a better three than these:

The Volvo estate, the tidy lawn and the Labrador. I'll grant that not all of the British middle class owns a Volvo, lawn and Labrador but they still play a vital role in making Middle England what it is. For as long as we've been able to afford it we've been buying them (or substitutes). Others have their ethnic dress or their culinary traditions, we have dogs and the gardens and cars needed to hold them.

Volvo estates are some of the hardest hit cars in the Government's Vehicle Excise Duty hike, Labradors are being turfed out of bed and breakfasts thanks to ludicrous EU food safety regulation and now Government reports are attacking our right to have gardens with lawns.

Our very identity is under attack.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A question of priorities

LhcThe Large Hadron Collider (LHC) begins operations this week. It has drawn criticism from Sir David King:

"The project has drawn more down-to-Earth criticisms too. Sir David King, the government's former chief science adviser, believes it diverts top scientists away from tackling the more pressing issues of the time, such as climate change and how to decarbonise the economy. In total Britain has contributed more than £500m towards the LHC project."

Okay, let's compare what we're spending and what we're getting for our money with the LHC and just one of the Government's flagship policies aimed at 'decarbonising the economy'.

Our spending on the LHC has been around £500 million over more than ten years, making up around 10% of the programme's total budget. For that money we make a vital contribution to this project:

"Beneath the rural tranquillity of the Geneva countryside, where ramshackle sheds dot the wide-open fields, scientists are getting ready for a trip into the unknown. Here, under 100 metres of rock and sandstone, lies the biggest, most complex machine humans have ever built, and on Wednesday they will finally get to turn it on.

For Cern, the European nuclear research organisation, it will mark the end of a lengthy wait and the beginning of a new era of physics. Over the next 20 years or so, the $9bn (£5bn) machine will direct its formidable power towards some of the most enduring mysteries of the universe.

The machine will search for extra dimensions, which could be curled up into microscopic loops. It might produce "dark matter", the unknown substance that stretches through space like an invisible skeleton. And it will almost certainly discover the elusive Higgs boson, which helps explain the origin of mass, and is better known by its wince-inducing monicker, the God particle.

At least that is the hope. For the machine to work a dizzying number of electronic circuits, computer-controlled valves, airtight seals and superconducting magnets must all work in concert.

The machine is called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and when working at full tilt it will drive two beams of particles in opposite directions around a 17 mile (27km) ring at 99.9999991% of the speed of light. Every second each of the beams will complete 11,245 laps of the machine.

At four points around the ring the beams will be steered into head-on collisions, causing the particles to slam into one another with enough energy to recreate in a microcosm the violent fireball conditions that existed one trillionth of a second after the big bang. Giant detectors, one of which is so enormous it sits in a cavern that could accommodate the nave of Westminster Abbey, will then scrutinise the shower of subatomic debris in the hope of finding something no one has ever seen before."

Absolutely remarkable. Up there with the Apollo programme and Concorde as one of the greatest technological achievements of mankind. Something that stands a good chance of providing vital insights into the nature of the universe and making possible huge technological advances.

By contrast, we spend around £1 billion every year on the Renewables Obligation (RO). A substantial burden on ordinary families paying their electricity bills. In return, we get unreliable windmills that contribute little to providing the generating capacity we need or reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as the quantity of power produced is so small and unreliable and back up capacity needs to get turned on and off, reducing its efficiency. The main effect of the RO is to turn ordinary people's money into bumper profits for the renewable energy companies.

Of course, this is just one part of the package of measures designed to reduce emissions. However, as a scheme which offers as expensive and poor value as the RO has been put in place the idea that greenhouse gas reduction policies are suffering because they aren't getting sufficient priority compared to the LHC seems somewhat absurd.

In terms of value for money, I'd take the Large Hadron Collider over the Renewables Obligation any day of the week.

I want you to know, trees, that we care

I think we can add these people to those who have had abortions, been sterilised or even turned vegan in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the 'driven insane by environmentalism' corner.  From David Thompson, via DK. - Watch more free videos

The energy crisis

The Renewable Energy Foundation are one of the most important organisations in politics today.  Their work sets out the scale of the challenge for energy policy clearly, no one has any excuse not to appreciate the trouble we're in.  How a decade of believing in the fantasy that a combination of gas and renewables can reliably deliver the power we need has created a serious danger of the lights going out.  A good introduction is an article (PDF) by their Director of Policy and Research, John Constable for Power UK.

Their Chief Executive, Campbell Dunford, has put out a response to Gordon Brown's speech to the CBI which sums up the political situation well:

"Campbell Dunford, a former international energy banker, now Chief Executive of the Renewable Energy Foundation, said:

“There are two parallel debates here. On the one hand the energy experts tearing their hair out with anxiety, and on the other the bland Westminster discussion typified by the Prime Minister’s empty and trivial gestures. This must change. Only courageous leadership can prepare us for the gathering storm. Will Mr Cameron speak up and confront the realities, or will the realities get there first?”

Why is it that the term “middle class” has such different meanings in the US and the UK?

Alexander Belenky, writing today at Comment is Free about struggling Americans watching TV programmes about the pampered rich, uses the term “have-nots” and “middle class” pretty much interchangeably. The alternative to “middle class” in the American discourse is invariably “rich”. Both left and right appeal to the middle class as their economic and cultural heartland, respectively. The caricature is that the middle class are bitterly clinging to god and guns and struggling to maintain a comfortable lifestyle while the rich, arugula-munching (that pretentious leaf, generally known as ‘rocket’ here in the UK, is a big deal in American politics) coastal elite enjoy greater incomes and are increasingly secular in their outlook.

By contrast, here when people attack Radio 4 for being too middle class they are arguing that it appeals to well-off Home Counties families who own Labradors, fill the best schools and quietly sidestep the social problems that afflict the troubled cities. When someone suggests that a political party is trying to appeal to the middle classes, they are suggesting that it wants to help the well-off. The alternative to being middle class is generally expected to be becoming part of the downtrodden poor underclass. The exceptions to this dichotomy are the numerically tiny but politically powerful urban elite – the closest analogy to America’s arugula class.

I think what the two middle classes have in common is that both the American and British middle classes are thought of as the backbones of their respective countries. The unassuming middle class in both countries gets on with things while the underclass is debilitated by social and economic ills. Also, in both countries the middle class are seen as culturally sensible or old-fashioned (depending on your perspective) compared with the urban/coastal elites.

Are the robust families that are the backbone of American society really poorer than their British counterparts?