By christopher fildes
It wouldn’t be allowed: this has been rated on good authority as one of the two most depressing sentences to be heard in British boardrooms. The other is: why doesn’t the government do something about it?
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They must now be depressing George Osborne. The green shoots of economic recovery have started to shrivel—always an awkward moment for a Conservative chancellor, and awkwardly timed for the party conference season. Worse still, the conventional fertilisers are out of stock. However much he might want to boost demand in the economy, he has no scope for borrowing and spending more money, nor can Bank rate, now at its lowest for 317 years, be usefully cut any further.
Still, if demand must be left to take care of itself, there is always the supply side. (Margaret Thatcher popularised the phrase but could never improve on it.) Ministers can try to make the economy work better, either by getting involved in more detail—intervening before breakfast, as Michael Heseltine preferred—or, on the contrary, by enabling the markets to work by removing the obstacles to competition and choice.
Intervening is always popular, at least to start with. It shows that the government is doing something. But many of the obstacles began as interventions. They are easier to install than to remove and some will finish up as focal points of resistance, making life more difficult for the government as the Chancellor and his colleagues are finding out.
Tact has not been the government’s strong point. Realising that we no longer need a publicly-controlled supply of pit props, its plans to sell off government-owned forests contrived to make the Forestry Commission popular. Then it advanced on health, retreated and paused to regroup. Moving on to planning regulations, it
George Osborne: Where are those green shoots?
has provoked first the National Trust and then the Women’s Institute. Already a group of backbenchers has dug in to preserve the Misbourne Valley in the Chilterns from the high-speed railway builders. The Metropolitan Railway has been there since 1892, but can now be forgiven.
If the planning laws are complex and the planning process dilatory, if the presumption—now challenged— is “it won’t be allowed”, they are not alone. There are the employment laws, which do so much to discourage employment. Every so often the European Commission puts a new layer of bricks on this obstacle. The health and safety rules mean that it is always safer to do nothing. The guide to the tax code has trebled in size in the last two decades.
A promise to tackle the supply side will not earn the Chancellor a standing ovation, even if his proposals come with a camouflage coat of green paint, but he needs to make the best of them. If we wouldn’t be allowed, why doesn’t the government do something about it? Sometimes the best it can do is to get out of the way.
By William Norton
Is there anything new to be said about climate change? Yes, and in Let Them Eat Carbon (Biteback Publishing, £9.99) Matthew Sinclair has said it. It is a fascinating, perhaps even important, book. Who should read it? Oh, anyone who drives a car, flies by aeroplane, uses gas or electricity at home, has a job or a pension, or does not grow his own food. That might, just, exclude Orwell’s old maid off to Holy Communion—but she is probably cycling through the morning mist to hear a sermon in favour of an eco-charity. She ought to read this book first.
This is not a book about global warming. That is what makes it so valuable. Ignore all the usual controversies, says Sinclair. Instead, treat climate change policy like any other and ask a basic question somehow overlooked in all the shouting: does it actually work?
The answer is no. Cap-and-trade emission control generates windfall profits for energy companies while making their prices more volatile; renewable energy plans are a colossal waste of capital which make power sources less secure; green taxes on transport are a government shakedown scheme which arguably overcharge for the impact of climate change (nobody can really be sure); biofuels inflate food costs; and the only green jobs that will be created are for bureaucrats, lobbyists and workers in the developing world where factories will be relocated.
Above all, claims Sinclair, the policies we currently follow will not actually reduce emissions and avert climate change—unless they cause a profound and prolonged economic depression in the developed world. Cure may well turn out to be worse than disease. It is time for a rethink.
The title refers to the intriguing fact that, because of the way in which the EU Emissions Trading Scheme is structured, UK households suffer higher energy bills and the average extra burden is more than they spend each year on buns, cakes and biscuits.
It is also, of course, a backward nod to Marie Antoinette, and this provides Sinclair’s theme for the second half of the book. The toiling masses (that’s us) are being taxed to the hilt to support an out-of-touch court of favoured lobbyists, environmentalists and e
October 2011 Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c.1670) by Jan Vermeer shows his ability to capture the intimacy of the 17th-century Dutch household. It forms part of the exhibition Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (reviewed by Michael Prodger on page 71), alongside three more works by the artist, including The Lacemaker, on loan from the Louvre, and 28 works of the Dutch Golden Age, including paintings by Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch and Jan Steen. The exhibition runs until January 15, 2012