Saturday, May 10, 2008

My speech on British environmental policy

The Heartland Institute have posted up an audio file (MP3, 20.4MB) of my speech in New York on British environmental policy. At times it gets a little hurried but we'll put that down to fitting a twenty minute speech into fifteen minutes rather than nervousness!

Otherwise I'm pretty pleased that I got the right balance between hitting important points and having a bit of fun at the expense of Britain's crazy green politics.

Scottish Independence

I'm currently trying to work out if this article is a satire that I don't 'get' or a breathtaking inane waste of space in the Telegraph's Comment section that could have been better used. Still, the fate of the Union is a topic worth returning to.

I'll go over the politics and then the issues - the money and the intangible benefits Scotland takes from the Union.

The politics

The SNP are playing an absolute blinder. Some promises such as subsidising first time buyers and paying off student debt have been abandoned but between freezing council tax and boosting police numbers they've got two tangible and very popular measures in place. Not bad for a minority administration in relatively tough times.

The Scottish Tories are doing alright as well, they handled the budget effectively, but they're a bit player in a fight between the SNP and Scottish Labour in a country with little appetite for Conservative leadership. The Labourites are losing that fight so badly it is embarassing.

In that context, Wendy Alexander's call for a Scottish independence referendum now makes some sense. She shifts the question from "would you rather have the SNP or Labour governing Scotland" to "do you want Scotland to become independent. The Union is currently a lot more popular than Labour so shifting the question in that way could improve her position. While it is always possible that Scottish Labour could screw up a Unionist campaign so badly the Nats win it might well be a risk worth taking to fight an independence referendum now rather than a few years down the line with a Tory government at Westminster and the SNP even more popular.

The money

I don't think the money is as big a deal as people make out.

From the English perspective, the pattern of regional fiscal transfers wouldn't change much if Scotland dissapeared. At the moment the Greater South East sends about 8 per cent of its regional GVA to the rest of the country. Everyone else, to a greater or lesser extent, comes out better off.

If Scotland were removed from the picture then there would be a bit more money to either leave with the South or slosh around the other regions but, in the grand scheme of things, not much would change. Things could even get worse if the Scottish subsidy was simply reallocated to the North of England and increased the extent of all the problems that an excessively large state already creates for the Northern private sector. There are only two ways of significantly reducing harmful (PDF, pages 9-25) regional dependency:

1) The wrong way - start winning seats as the Southern League (you would do ten times as well as the UKIP et. al.).

2) The right way - shrink and decentralise the state.

From the Scottish perspective the money is rather more important fiscally. Even if Scotland takes 90 per cent of North Sea oil revenues (as they probably would) they'll lose around 2.4 per cent of their GVA with independence. That's a lot of money and, combined with transition costs building a new state, will mean the Scots are seriously worse off in the years following independence.

However, that isn't the end of the story. When the Scots try to recover their economic position it seems entirely probable that the first country they'll look to learn from is Ireland. It is the obvious parallel as a former component of the United Kingdom and has been astonishingly successful. As Matthew Elliott, TPA Chief Executive, noted in his opinion piece for City Am yesterday:

"In 1993 Ireland was significantly poorer than the United Kingdom, with income per capita 28% higher in the UK. Its economy then took off, with average real terms economic growth between 1994 and 2006 of 7.4%. In contrast, the UK managed just 2.9% real terms growth in the same period. Today the Irish enjoy income per capita 20% higher than we do in the UK."

If the Scots can replicate that they won't be shedding too many tears over their lost Southern subsidy. In the end, the best way for a region to get rich isn't, thankfully, to try and extract a subsidy from wealthier regions. As an article by Benjamin Powell for the Cato Institute establishes, EU subsidies did little for Irish economic growth. As a result, I don't think the Scots should want to stay a part of the UK just so that they can hold onto subsidies from the South.

It is unfortunate and innapropriate that a debate that should be about national destiny is, so often, fought over the fools gold of state subsidy.

The intangibles

As I've set out before, I think that conservatives should be sad at the passing of a state with the history of the United Kingdom and sceptical that we can do better replacing it with something new.

However, I think it is the Scots, in particular, who would lose out from the United Kingdom being broken up. They would lose a grand stage. At the moment an ambitious Scot (and they're not all dismal Scottish Labour politicians) in business, politics or the arts has a domestic "market" that includes a population of 60 million and an international centre in London. Scottish Independence would make all that "abroad". The intangible, psychological effect would, I think, do damage to the ambition and prospects for greatness of all Scots.

Would Adam Smith have left the same legacy to history if he had not lived in the same country as the government of a great empire that could promote or enforce free trade, in particular, around the world?

So many talented Scots head South to make their mark. Any list of Scottish people who have gone on to great things would, I think, find few of them living in Scotland. That process isn't an accident. It is, I think, pretty common for small communities that their best and brightest must go elsewhere to explore their full potential. The same is true of small towns in the South East - people move to London to make it big. It only becomes a 'loss' to the Scottish nation with independence - when someone moving to London is moving abroad.

Sod off Ramsay

I don't like coffee. The bitterness just doesn't appeal and I've never enjoyed it. Normally, coffee has to be flown in from abroad. I think coffee should be banned.

"Not only [do other drinks] taste better, but it also helps to cut carbon emissions by reducing the number of miles needed to transport [it]."

I walk in to work. If there were no cars around it would be quieter for me. Walking to work might cut carbon emissions. Ban cars.

"Not only [is walking more pleasant], but it also helps to cut carbon emissions by reducing the number of miles [we drive]."

It's quite simple really. Combine an arrogant willingness to impose the choices you prefer, or find convenient, on everyone else for no good reason with an appeal to the global warming omni-justification and you can justify banning anything you vaguely dislike. Gordon Ramsay's call to ban out-of-season produce is illiberal nonsense.

Friday, May 09, 2008

...without a paddle

This, from the Sun, illustrates an important PR lesson:

I'm pretty certain the message most people will take from this isn't "the planet is in trouble, it's warming!" They'll think "these greens are completely batty!"

If you're going to try and communicate with a broad audience don't rely on implicit cues that are obvious to you but won't be to them. You might wind up sending a very different message to the one you meant to.

Drinking on the tube

Really bad reason to oppose Boris's ban on drinking on the tube

From Dave:

"Mayor Johnson, as we know, opposed the smoking ban. His voting history on the issue can be found on The noxious fumes produced by the evil weed were not, it would seem, enough in Mr Johnson’s opinion to warrant an
intrusion on people’s liberty and bar and pub workers would have to lump it; they could, of course, choose to be out of a job at any time if their health was such a big issue.

At Old Street station, there is a sign up announcing that alcohol will be banned from the first of June on public transport. The occasional drunken idiot is now more of a threat than smoking, which the World Health Organisation considers to be behind 26% of male deaths and 9% of female deaths in the developed world."

There is no hypocrisy here. The justification for Boris' ban on alcohol is that it leads to drunks on the tube threatening other people. When that happens the Millian sphere has been violated.

Therefore, the proper comparison isn't deaths from smoking but deaths from passive smoking. Those World Health Organisation figures are entirely irrelevant to this debate. The evidence for the dangers of passive smoking is very weak - see Richard North & Christopher Booker's impeccably sourced book for the full story of how weak.

Really good reason to oppose Boris's ban on drinking on the tube

From DK:

"I gave the example of consuming one beer on the way home; it was very pleasant, since from Southfields to Earl's Court is, like 55% of the Tube, not actually underground. The sun was streaming through the windows, the carriage was about only about half full, my Private Eye was interesting, and the gentle rocking of the train was complemented by my lovely bottle of cool ale.

The ale was all the more welcome since my colleague, who gives me a lift from Ockham to Southfields, needed to drop into the supermarket (where I had bought my beer) to buy his week's supplies and I didn't even get onto the Tube until nearly seven in the evening. With an hour on the Tube ahead of me, the beer really appealed."

I fail to see how banning drinking is easier than banning drunk and disorderly behaviour. Stick to banning drunk and disorderly behaviour. If you do so you'll allow a lot of people a little pleasure having a quiet drink on their way home. Those are the small happinesses that we lose to illiberalism.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Less fuel, less noise

This is the kind of innovation that can really solve problems like noise over the West of London and other urban centres and the huge amount of fuel aviation burns:

It is a creation of universities and private industry. No need for a tax as the rising price of fuel, the private market's response to scarcity, ensures innovation in response. Ordinary jets are becoming more efficient and this concept illustrates just how much more efficient planes can become.

Monbiot's approach to air travel is thoroughly silly:

"While a large commercial airliner cruises at about 900 kilometres per hour, the maximum speed of an airship is roughly 150kph. At an average speed of 130kph, the journey from London to New York would take 43 hours. Airships are more sensitive to wind than aeroplanes, which means that flights are more likely to be delayed."

Utterly unrealistic and not remotely justified by the harms identified by, for example, the IPCC. The only redeeming thing about the article is its brilliant self-parody of a headline:

If there is a God, he's not green. Otherwise airships would take off

...and there I was worshipping the Jolly Green Giant. Perhaps Monbiot is right, his failure to provide suitable blimps does make all the tasty sweetcorn a bit of a hollow pleasure.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The "there will be more scrutiny" conventional wisdom

Andrew Rawnsley repeats the argument put forward by several Labour ministers, that the silver lining for Labour with their dismal election results will be that Tory policy will now face more scrutiny. That's lunacy. One of the biggest problems that the Conservatives have faced for a number of years is that they can't get the public to listen to their policies. That policies become unpopular as soon as they are identified as those of the Conservative Party. If their policies are now taken seriously and subjected to scrutiny that offers them the opportunity to set out a platform for government.

Beyond that, there is good evidence that the more the Tories are in the news the better they do (this is discussed frequently by Mike Smithson). Of course, there are risks for the Tories. If they screw up, as they clearly did with the Quality of Life Policy Group report, then they'll have more to lose and are more likely to be found out. However, unless they never want to form a government this is an upping of the ante that the Conservatives have to be happy about. While things clearly could go wrong and Labour could be offered a way out of their current predicatement, this isn't much of a silver lining for them.