Monday, August 28, 2006

Always ask for the whole story

Like many people, I was quite shocked when I heard that a football player had, as it was reported, been cautioned by police for making the sign of the cross at a Rangers v Celtic match.

The sign of the cross is made by both catholics and protestants. I'm Church of England myself and this weekend my wife commented on the fact that I made the sign of the cross without even thinking of it when we passed the site of Friday's fatal car accident on the A595 and I sent up a short prayer for the victims.

So if the situation had been that someone made the sign of the cross in prayer with no other context, and had then been cautioned on the basis that showing reverence to God is itself provocative, that would be disgraceful. Some of the initial reports of the incident certainly read as if that is what happened.

However, I am very grateful to my old University contemporary and friend Iain Dale. He wrote a blog piece expressing concern at the caution, but to his credit Iain also put in a link to "Mr Eugenides" who was actually at the match and had a different point of view. You can read it here

This appears to be a classic example of a story where the information you are given may be correct so far as it goes, but if one piece of the jigsaw is missing you are likely to arrive at radically different conclusions from what you would have thought given the whole picture.

All the initial nreports I had seen of the incident explained that football matches between Rangers and Celtic are often marred by Catholic vs. Protestant sectarianism. What they left out, but according to "Mr Eugenides" also happened, is that the "sign of the cross" gesture was made while looking directly and deliberately at the other side's supporters and immediately followed by an insulting and obscene gesture.

The BBC updated their internet report to add references to "other gestures" in addition to the sign of the cross, which I take to mean that the account by "Mr Eugenides" has some substance.

Anyone with the least understanding of the Christian faith should understand that if the sign of the cross is coupled with a crude insult, it is no longer "a gesture of religious reverence." In fact to abuse what should be a sign of respect for Jesus in this way amounts to blasphemy. Sadly, religious sectarianism has a long and tragic history, but nonetheless baiting people in such a way is totally opposed to the message of Jesus Christ.

"Mr Eugenides" thought that the police reaction was a something of an over-reaction to behaviour of legitimate concern, and on the basis of his account of the match I find it difficult to disagree with this view. Whether it is correct or not, this whole sad story is an excellent example of what a good idea it is to try to get the whole facts of a case before you make a judgement on it.

Digital TV Public Meeting: 21 September 2006

Residents of Whitehaven and surrounding villages should have received a letter this month about the Digital switchover.

In Autumn 2007 Whitehaven will become the first town in the UK to experience the change to a different system of TV broadcasting. Some residents of the area already have arials, televisions etc which are fully compatible with the new digital system. Others will not. If residents with older systems do not take appropriate action before Autumn next year their TV will stop working come the switchover.

Details of the digital switch can be found online >here

There is also a public meeting, chaired by Jedi Jamie, in Whitehaven Civic Hall, at 6.30pm on Thursday 21st September. I would strongly encourage any Whitehaven resident who is interested in television, or who has friends or relatives who depend on their TV, to come along and find out more about what is going on.

Another A595 tragedy

On Friday, for the second time in a few weeks, there was a fatal accident on the A595 near my home. It seems that every week we hear of yet more death on Cumbria's roads. The butcher's bill so far this year is 41 human lives.

Because there is such a lot of nonsense applied in the name of health and safety, and because some politicians and officials are too quick to take every opportunity to bash the motorist, you have to be very careful how you discuss road safety. It is far too easy to sound like a car-hating killjoy.

And anyone who is himself or herself a driver who says anything meaningful about road safety takes a huge risk of appearing to be a hypocrite. Show me any regular driver who claims that they have never driven too fast or made a potentially dangerous mistake when behind the wheel of a car, and I'll show you a liar.

But I think that all of us who drive regularly on Cumbria's roads, particularly those like the A595 on which death or serious injury are a depressingly regular occurence, should stop and think about how we drive. Especially about how fast we drive, whether we allow any distractions while driving that we should avoid, and how readily we try to overtake the vehicle in front. We should all think about whether there are changes we should make in our driving style which might reduce the risk that one day our loved ones will hear that we are never coming home. Or what is almost worse, that we might have to live the rest of our lives with the knowledge that we made a mistake which killed someone.

I believe that all speed cameras should be clearly visible, that they should be marked with or sited very near to a sign showing the applicable speed limit, and that they should only be sited where there is an road accident record or good reason to believe that there is danger of serious accidents.

The object should be to save lives, not raise revenue - the most successful speed camera does not catch a single motorist because it changes behaviour. But provided they meet those criteria, maybe we need more cameras. In my old council ward in Sandridge, there was a spontaneous local demonstration calling for speed cameras after a fatal accident.

And the government should reconsider their recent decision to downgrade the A595 south of Calder Bridge. If de-trunking this stretch of road means that it takes longer to get road improvements, there is too great a chance that the consequence will be more wasted lives.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The death of trust - and how to rebuild it.

A letter in the News and Star by a Dr K Davis, headlined “Terrorist scare was bogus” suggested that the recent airport security alarm and associated police raids were not based on a real threat, and inferred that this had been manufactured by the government for political purposes. The letter appears to have been written before any charges had been brought and before it was announced that bomb-making equipment had been found: it predicted that no evidence would materialise and all those arrested would be released without charge.

The fact that Dr Davis could write such a the letter, and get it printed (It appeared on August 19) demonstrates how far Tony Blair’s government has damaged trust in politics in this country – not because the letter was right, but because it demonstrated that sane people can take seriously the possibility that the government and police would organise a large number of raids, arrest twenty people, and disrupt the travel arrangements of many thousands, on the basis of such a monstrous lie.

Unfortunately, the same government took us to war, sending thousands of troops into another country at the cost of over a hundred British lives and nobody knows how many Iraqi ones, on the basis of evidence which was, to put it politely, grossly overstated and seriously inaccurate. Once something like that has happened, to expect that official pronouncements will carry the same moral and persuasive authority is to be seriously naive.

I know plenty of people who supported the Iraq war at the time because they could not believe that any British prime minister, even Blair, would take us to war without being certain that his allegations about the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were true. When it became clear that the weapons of mass destruction which Blair told the House of Commons could be launched within 45 minutes did not exist, many of those who had supported the war up to that point were furious. Naturally, they
still feel conned, angry, and distrustful of anything any politician says. Even when the government is telling the truth.

When the central plank of the justification for war in Iraq was shown to be nonsense, and Labour gave no sign of an apology or real contrition but simply changed the justification, they did more than damage their own credibility. They seriously injured trust in the whole political system. Then add to this the fact that the brightest young people who will be the leaders of tomorrow have been sold out at two consecutive general elections because Labour first promised not to introduce student tuition fees, then promised not to increase them, and broke both promises. This more or less guarantees that there will be a high degree of cynicism about politics among educated Britons for at least a generation.

And add to this the fact that after the Iraq war the chairman of the committee which produced the "Dodgy dossier" about Iraq not merely wasn't sacked but was promoted.

Now I admit that if the individual concerned had been sacked while no heads rolled among ministers, every opposition politician in the country (including me) would have accused the government of making a civil servant a scapegoat for their own mistakes. But to promote someone who has just presided over the worst intelligence failure for 20 years, and especially to do so just after he gave evidence helpful to the government at a public inquiry, sends the most dreadful signal both to the public and to public servants.

Any one of the three things mentioned above would have been a serious blow to trust in politics. Put them all together and it is no surprise that respect for polticians and the system as a whole is at an all time low.

But before we assume that everything the government says is therefore wrong ...

While anti-terrorist police, like any other human beings, can make mistakes – the shooting of an innocent Brazilian being the worst recent example – I do not believe the British police would have mounted an operation of this magnitude on political orders without real evidence of a threat.

The fact that the government and intelligence services in Pakistan, who are very proud of their Islamic faith, held a press conference to claim that they had provided some of the evidence which lead to the raids shows pretty conclusively that this particular alert was not an attempt to discredit the Muslim community.

Since the letter from Dr Davis was published, police have in fact lodged charges against 11 individuals, eight of them with crimes which include conspiracy to murder. Without wishing to pre-judge the guilt or innocence of the accused or anyone else who may have to stand a criminal trial, the fact that the police found enough evidence to charge 11 people does appear to confirm that this is not another Forest Gate.

Dr Davis says that “wolf” has been cried too often. True, but it is because there really is a terrorist wolf that crying “wolf” in error is such a serious mistake.

Restoring trust in politics is not going to be easy.
But it has to be done. For a start, politicians of all parties need to think carefully about their promises and only offer what can be delivered.

And all citizens would be wise to think equally carefully before jumping to the conclusion that anything we hear is true, or that it is false.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The government must act now for next year's A Levels

Any comment about A levels should start by congratulating all those students who have just had their A level results on their hard work.

Regardless of what one thinks about the system, getting through the exams does take a lot of effort, and getting an A grade does not happen without both ability and hard work. Any comments we make about the system should not be presented in a way which belittles what this year's students have done to earn the grades they have just been awarded. They deserve to be allowed to feel proud of their achievements.

Nevertheless, failure by the government to act now so that improvements to the system can be made in good time for next year would be to betray next year's students, betray universities, and betray employers.

There is a lot of debate about whether the increasing rates of passes and of high grades represents an improvement of performance or a drop in the difficulty of the exam, but that isn't actually the most important issue. The key point is that any exam in which around 25% of candidates are awarded the highest possible mark is not adequate for the purpose of distinguishing those students who are merely good or very good from the very brightest candidates.

This year the number of students with straight A grades at A level exceeded the total number of University places on offer at Cambridge, Oxford and the next two or three Universities, such as my old University, Bristol, put together. So how can the Universities possibly find an objective and fair way to decide who to admit?

We all know exactly what an impossible situation the top Universities are in. Every time they turn away a working class student with straight A grades some troublemaking populist idiot of a politician may do a Gordon Brown and accuse the University concerned of bias and snobbery. Every time they turn down an ethnic minority student with straight A grades they risk accusations of racism. Every time they turn down a student from the independent sector with straight A grades they will be accused of inverted snobbery and politically correct bias.

And because the exam system is failing to provide an objective way to assess who is brilliant, who is very bright, and who is merely highly competent, there is no way that Universities can make those decisions which is clearly fair.

The simplest way to put this right which has the smallest number of things which can go wrong with it is to introduce an "A*" grade which is limited to those students whose performance is not merely good but clearly outstanding with respect to the majority of their contemporaries. A similar "A*" exists at lower levels of the system. One possibility would be to award an A* to either the top 5% of those who took the exam or the top 25% of those who get an A grade, whichever is fewer. However, I am less concerned about exactly how it is done than by the urgent need to provide an objective assessment of who are the most able students.

The idea of an "A*" grade has been discussed in a number of places this week and clearly has considerable support. Sadly there are some people in education who have opposed the idea on the basis that this might impose more stress on students. Well, any change will always impose some stress, but in my opinion introducing an A* will cause an awful lot less than is caused in the present situation because nobody knows where they stand.

As I mentioned above, the question of whether standards are going up or down is not the most important question, but I do have a comment on it. This debate has been going on for a long time, and when I was chairman of the East of England region of the Conservative National Education Society, I orgaised a debate with a panel consisting of a recently retired secondary school teacher, a Univerity Admissions tutor, and the head of a substantial business which recruited a lot of new people each year. Interestingly all three of them had the same opinion, which was that the overall standards of attainment amongst people leaving school was neither dramatically rising nor collapsing.

All three speakers were of the opinion that on average students were getting better at some things, which included both IT skills and the ability to pass examinations, and worse at others, particularly some things that were prized in the past but regarded as less important now such as spelling and rote learning. All of them felt that the general quality and attainment of the young people they were seeing come through the system was pretty much the same as it has always been.

The debate about whether standards are rising, falling or stable will run and run, but we cannot allow the debate about whether A levels should have an A* grade to do the same. It needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Next year's students cannot afford more dithering.

If the government announces now that they are introducing an A* grade from next summer, and starts consultations with exam boards, schools, Universities, and employers on the details, there is time to consider how to get this relatively simple change ready for summer 2007. But if they do not start the process quickly we will end up with another half-cock change which is not properly thought through, just like the last set of changes to A levels. Or we will end up not doing anything in time for 2007. That would be a disgrace.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Is the Health and Safety culture "Malevolent" ?

This morning on a TV newspaper review Kate Adie, who knows something about working in dangerous places, referred to a press story that Health and Safety rules were interfering in the humanitarian effort in Lebanon. She suggested that when it starts interfering in the ability to help people in need the "Health and Safety Culture" can become "Malevolent".

As Kate Adie admitted, that was a strong word to use. There have been a lot of newspaper stories about or extreme applications Health and Safety legislation, but we have to balance this against the fact that where the laws work as they are supposed to and save lives in the process this is much less likely to be newsworthy. Nonetheless there are quite clearly some instances where the rules have been inappropriately applied.

An extreme example was the legal action brought by the Health and Safety executive against the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, after two officers pursued a fleeing criminal onto a roof and one of them was injured. There are some jobs, particularly the police, fire service, and armed forces, where some degree of danger is an inevitable consequence of doing the job properly to protect the public. It is right and proper that people in authority should try to minimise avoidable risks, but the Health and Safety Executive should think very carefully before assuming that it knows more than experts in these fields what degree of risk comes with the territory.

It is perhaps time that the terms of reference of the Health and Safety Executive, and the wording of Health and Safety legislation, should be reviewed to ensure that a sense of proportion is applied, particularly where risks that someone has to take to protect the public or a vulnerable group is concerned.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Elective Dictatorship moves a stage nearer ...

The charge of threatening democracy in Britain is made too often by opponents of the party in power when they don't like what the government is doing. Certainly it has been made very frequently against Tony Blair. But as with the story of the boy who cried wolf, one of the main reasons we should be careful not to make the charge too frequently is the risk that people will not listen when it is true.

I hope that justifiable concerns about what today's arrest of suspected terrorists and extreme measures against an apparent threat of mass aircraft bombings does not completely divert attention from the measures the government has just put forward about defence lawyers.

The government has slipped out in August, when Blair himself and half the country is on holiday, the proposal that judges should be able to sack defence lawyers. Doubtless they hope that people will not realise how serious this is, and that anyone who speaks up against it will be assumed to be interested in defending criminals rather than their victims. That would be a huge mistake.

One of the key safeguards which protects people who really are innocent from arbitrary misuse of power is that we have a legal system based on the principle that being accused is not the same thing as being guilty.

For centuries it has been a principle of our laws that a man (or woman) is innocent until proven guilty. I have no doubt that too many people who were as guilty as hell used this to get away with their crimes, but it has also given many people who really were innocent a chance to prove it.

If we don't plan to lock up innocent people, they must have access to good legal advice, and defence laywers must have the opportunity to make a nuisance of themselves. Once you start down the line of allowing judges to sack a defence lawyer, you are starting to fatally compromise the safeguards which keep Britain a free society in any meaningful sense of those words.

I don't say this because I have anything against judges, the vast majority of whom are honourable and capable people. It's not that I don't trust judges with the power to sack defence lawyers, I don't trust anyone other than the defendant with that power.

A few brave journalists, bloggers, and especially brave MPs recently fought an important battle to modify a law which would have given ministers the power to rewrite laws without reference to Parliament. That was an important battle, but the fight to defeat the government on giving judges the power to sack defence lawyers is even more important. If the government wins on this one, liberty in Britain will not be safe.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Book Review - How to Win Every Argument

"How to win every argument - the use and abuse of logic" by Madsen Pirie

This is an updated version of a classic guide to logical thinking and how to spot mistaken arguments.

We've all been in the situation where some smart-alec produces an argument, often as a joke, which everyone knows must be wrong but where nobody can quite see the mistake.

More seriously, I suspect most of us have seen debates where one side appears to have much more evidence to support their case, until someone comes along who presents the other side of the argument so much better that everyone is convinced - at least until after the superior speaker has won the vote/verdict/board or council decision, by which time it is too late.

Madsen Pirie's book is a masterly and very entertaining guide to the different tricks which people can use to make their argument sound much stronger than it really is, how to spot them, and what the holes in their logic are.

He lists the logical fallacies which, by accident or design, can lead people to support false conclusions.

Unfortunately, as Madsen Pirie points out, knowing why the argument you are listening to is wrong does not always make it easy to defeat the person advancing it. Arguments "ad baculum" (by threat of force) do not go away if you prove the person making the threat to be wrong, irrelevant humour, if it is funny enough, can carry away a valid argument on a gale of laughter, and emotional appeals can be extremely hard to stop with mere logic.

Nevertheless, to be able to understand why an argument is wrong is a useful start - if you don't know yourself you have little chance of persuading anyone else. And this book is really helpful at showing you how to see where faulty logic is in play.

This book is an updated version of a book published in the mid 1980's with the title "The Book of the fallacy - a training manual for intellectual subversives." The new text is about 95% common with the earlier version, although it has a few updated concepts such as "Thatcher's Blame."

"Thatcher's Blame" means setting up two possible outcomes so that whichever happens everything that goes wrong is the fault of the person you are trying to scapegoat. For example, early in Mrs T's premiership when we were still recovering from stagflation (actually caused under the previous Labour government), law and order problems were represented by the left as being due to poverty in general and the Thatcher government's supposed callous disregard for the poor in particular.

A few years later when the economy was roaring ahead the same commentators represented law and order problems as being due to materialism and people having too much money due to the policies of the same government. (Yes, Polly Toynbee and Roy Hattersley, Madsen's got you bang to rights. Come along quietly now ...)

Very sadly the new book does not include the highly amusing cartoons which illustrated the original version. That is almost the only fault I can find with it - a criticism which would be covered under the chapter of the book on "Trivial objections."

Friday, August 04, 2006

Book Review – “The Rise of Political Lying” by Peter Oborne

I know from experience that there are still honest politicians around in both the Conservative and Labour parties. There may even be some honest Liberal Democrats. But this book is depressingly successful at showing how many others have set out to deceive the voters and why respect for politics is at an all-time low.

Oborne appears to have gone to considerable length to make only charges which he can substantiate - doubtless he would have been sued otherwise.

His book starts with an instance where a politician told the truth and was represented as lying because of it. In 1994 William Waldegrave was asked whether it might ever be acceptable for a minister to say something untrue to the House of Commons, and he replied that in "exceptional circumstances" it might be. This was immediately portrayed as an example of tory sleaze, and various future Labour ministers who would have had to resign if they themselves were held to the standards they demanded, used Waldegrave's statement to condemn him and the government.

Peter Oborne admits to some feelings of guilt for having sprinted out of the room to file the story, which resulted in a media firestorm, because as he puts it "There was a great irony at work here. William Waldegrave was doing something very rare for a modern politician and trying to give an honest answer to an honest question. If anyone was lying, it was his Labour opponents, who set an impossibly high standard of truth telling, and one they had no intention of meeting themselves. It was Waldegrave's misfortune that his remarks played straight into the Labour Party strategy. Labour was determined to portray Conservative politicans as cheats and liars."

Any reader who deduced from this start that the book is not completely balanced and will mostly be an attack on New Labour politicians is absolutely correct. Oborne does devote the next ten pages to attacking lies and deceptions by the Thatcher and Major governments, and rogue individual tories such as Archer, Aitken, and Hamilton. Almost all the remainder of the book denounces New Labour.

But although the book is partisan in the sense that it concentrates on New Labour deceit rather than that by other parties, the details given of the spin, smears, character assassination of anyone who gets in their way, deceptions, double counting spending announcements, and outright lies, are extremely convincing in making the point that the leadership of the present government will say whatever they think they can get away with.

Oborne argues that the New Labour leadership has a "narrative truth" which is what they want to believe and want everyone else to believe, and that their statements about every subject relate to the greatest degree possible to that "narrative" rather than what is happening in the real world which the rest of us inhabit.

He compares and links the attitudes to truth and reality of the Blair government and the George W Bush White House, comparing the roles of Alistair Campbell and Karl Rove. Oborne quotes a senior adviser at the White House who told a journalist that he (the journalist) was part of what the spin doctors called the "reality based community" and added "That's not the way the world works any more. We're an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that new reality - judiciously as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities."

Oborne alleges that the people around both Blair and Bush do not believe in objective reality as most of us understand it, and instead see reality as something which can be shaped, not just by changing what is really happening in the world, but by changing what people think is happening.

One major omission in the book is that, because it concentrates on governments, it almost completely ignores the Liberal Democrats. Now, it is unheard of for a politician to tell you that his own party are the most prone to lies and dirty tricks. This is hardly surprising. Someone who is personally honest is less likely to join a party he or she believes to be full of liars, and somebody who isn’t personally honest isn’t likely to admit to something electorally damaging. So it would not be a useful exercise asking people to rate the honesty of their own party.

But in my experience, if you ask a group of Conservative or Labour politicians which of the other parties are most prone to dirty campaigning and least likely to tell the truth, I will bet you the vast majority will instantly finger the Lib/Dems as the least trustworthy, and most of them will also try to give you examples of the dirty tricks they have experienced at the hands of Liberal Democrats.

My opinion that the Lib/Dems are the dirtiest fighters in British politics, while it is shared by a great many Conservative and Labour politicians, is one that a reasonable person could possibly disagree with. However, no reasonable and well informed person could possibly argue that all Liberal Democrat politicians and councillors are innocent and spotless angels of virtue, nor that they are on a significantly higher moral level than the other parties. So their omission from Oborne’s book is perhaps its most serious failing.

The book concludes with six suggestions to try to improve the level of public honesty in Britain - things like establishing a "fact-check" in this country similar to the one which exists in America, and making the national statistics office independent. Some of these ideas are quite good: others such as "make political lying a crime" would be very hard to define in such a way that they could effectively be enforced.

Where Oborne is undoubtedly correct is that there is far too much political dishonesty and that what we really need is a change of heart and a refusal to accept this.

Other books which might be of interest to anyone who wants to read more on this subject include "Lying in state" by Tim Slessor, "Dirty Politics, Dirty Times" by Michael Ashcroft, and "The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

"Whitehall's last colonies" and "The fur-lined mousetrap"

“Whitehall’s last colonies” is the title of a report on the regions which was written by Professor Nick Bosanquet and two colleagues and published on Monday by the think tank “Reform.” It studies the difference in regional economic performance between, on the one hand, London and the surrounding areas, and on the other, what the report calls “challenged” regions such as the North East and North West of England.

In London and the South East, economic activity, population, the number of new businesses and average income are rising. In Scotland, the North East, North West, and Northern Ireland, population is actually falling while economic activity, business starts, and income growth are all lagging behind.

Bosanquet and his co-authors argue that regional differences are becoming more accentuated and that “certain regions are, in effect, becoming client areas dependent on state employment and state funding.” They believe there is a serious danger of a vicious circle in which outlying areas of Britain become more and more dependent on the public sector, with fewer opportunities for new small businesses, and an increasing proportion of the most talented young people and modern industries will move to London and the South East. The report suggests that outlying areas of the UK such as Northern Ireland, Wales, and the North West and North East are in danger of becoming Whitehall’s last colonies.

About the only respect in which I would take issue with this report is that it understates the extent to which this is the inevitable consequence of a deliberate policy by Gordon Brown and John Prescott to force the London, South East and East of England regions to grow even faster than they might otherwise. As David Davies once put it, their policy has been to “bulldoze the North while concreting over the South.”

As someone who now lives most of my time in West Cumbria but still spends the remainder in the St Albans area where I am coming to the end of my time as a councillor, I can see this happening at both ends of the country. The government as been encouraging authorities here in the North West to bulldoze houses and restricting the number of new homes which counties like Cumbria would like to build. Meanwhile in the South East counties like Hertfordshire are being forced to plan for many more houses than most elected councillors believe local infrastructure can support. The latest mad idea to emerge from a government panel is to try to force St Albans and Dacorum councils to allow thousands of houses to be built on Green Belt countryside in the vicinity of the Buncefield Oil terminal which blew up earlier this year. That idea is being incorporated into proposed housing targets now even though the inquiries into why the explosion occurred and what the future of the terminal should be have yet to produce their final reports.

In West Cumbria the extent to which the local economy is dominated by the state has been hidden by an even more extreme dependence on the nuclear industry. But the majority of local large commercial employers other than the nuclear industry have closed or greatly downsized during the life of this government and the pattern of employment is one which we very much need to diversify. After BNFL the next three largest employers in Copeland are the NHS and the County and Borough councils. Similar patterns are repeated over much of the North East and North West – for instance in the North East the ratio of public spending to the wealth created in the area is 54%. In the South East the comparable ratio is 29%.

Most people have heard of “Parkinson’s Law” which stated that “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion” and similarly that “Expenditure rises to meet income.” Some 35 years ago the creator of that law, C Northcote Parkinson, wrote a book called “The fur-lined mousetrap.” His argument at that time was that in attempting to create a society where state spending could solve all economic problems, we had entered a cul-de-sac – a society which appeared at first sight to be comfortable but where there was no dynamism, no ability to respond effectively to outside challenges, and no ability to improve things.

As Parkinson wrote at the time, “Our industrial landscape is still littered with useless debris from past periods of enterprise. Equipment is still in use which ought to be on the scrapheap, or in a museum.” If anything he was understating the case. I can recall at the beginning of my career discovering that equipment was still being manufactured which was two generations out of date and should have been in a museum. By the end of that decade even the Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, made a speech to Labour conference pointing out that the policy of relying on public spending to solve the problems of unemployment had failed.

However unfashionable it is these days to say anything nice about Margaret Thatcher, the fact is that her government restored incentives to work and save, reduced the burdens of tax and red tape, and democratised the trade unions, reducing the ability of old-fashioned Scargill-style shop stewards to wreck the economy. By so doing she enabled Britain to escape from the “fur-lined mouse-trap.”

At a national level, some of the measures which took us out of that trap are unlikely to be reversed. No Labour minister has dared contemplate repeal of the laws requiring ballots before a strike, halting the sale of council houses, or wholesale re-nationalisation. And giving independent power to the Bank of England to set interest rates subject to a fixed inflation target, just about the only New Labour decision which really was as beneficial as they claim everything they do is, has ensured that the economy as a whole will follow a much more stable path.

However while Labour’s top level economic policy has been successfully subcontracted to the Bank of England, their detailed policies – what economists call Microeconomics – has often been far more harmful. Stealth taxes, starting with the £5 billion a year raid on pension funds have caused increasing distortion of the economy, particularly the destruction of incentives to save. More and more bureaucracy has been imposed on individuals and on the public and private sectors alike.

Because London’s economy is plugged into the world economic system, it has continued to roar ahead, almost regardless of economic conditions in the UK, and acts as an engine of growth which pulls the economies of much of the South East with it. But in those parts of the UK which are further away from this source of growth, gradual increases in bureaucracy and stealth taxes, combined with disproportionate growth of the public sector, have begun to drag the economy back.

It used to be orthodox wisdom that public spending would stimulate the local economy. However, “Whitehall’s last colonies” produces evidence for an inverse relationship between local public spending and local business activity. There is more than one possible explanation for this, but the results are consistent with the possibility that public spending is sometimes “crowding out” business activity and private employment. The “fur-lined mousetrap” has re-emerged, except that now it is a regional rather than a national problem.

This problem is much easier to identify than to solve. I entirely agree with Professor Bosanquet that the level of education and training in the local and regional workforce of an area is likely to be critical to that area’s success. Partly this must be addressed through improving local educational facilities, partly it is a matter of attracting and retaining skilled people.

One point that is not made often enough during the debate on student loans and tuition fees is that the level of student debt which will be inflicted on those who complete Higher Education is likely to further denude the regions of young graduates. People leaving university with £10,000 or more of student debt are much more likely to head for London where they can earn enough to pay it back faster, and consequently less likely to seek a job near where they grew up, especially if that is an area of lower incomes. Hence the policy of top-up fees will help denude regions like the North East and North West of their brightest young people and exacerbate the vicious circle which is in danger of turning those regions into client areas of Whitehall.

As “Whitehall’s last colonies” argues, re-establishing a low-tax economy must be an essential part of any strategy to promote regional revival. We also need new partnerships between the public and private sectors, measures to encourage highly qualified young people to see their futures as being in the regions, and an innovative and pro-business approach to development by local councils.