27 February 2011

Bridget Riley in London

Just off Trafalgar Square are two opportunities to see works from early and late in the career of Bridget Riley. She became well-known in the 1960s for her distinctive black and white (and later multicoloured) abstracts with marked optical effects – Op Art. Riley will be 80 in April and is still an active artist, as is Susan Hiller -a mere 70 - currently at Tate Britain. Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work at the National Gallery focuses on recent paintings, including two made directly on to the walls of the exhibition space. At the artist’s request, a selection of paintings from the Gallery’s collection are displayed which explain the relationship between her pictures and historical figurative work.

The small but free exhibition has been sponsored by Bloomberg, and quite possibly their support extended to the Catalogue. This is excellent value at £9.99 and expands considerably on the theme of the exhibition. The images of Riley’s Set Fair and Matisse’s Dance II (pages 37 and 38) seem particularly to make the point. The exhibition runs to 22 May.

Older Woman Looking Down
Bridget Riley, c.1950
Around the corner at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), until 20 March and also free, is a display of early life drawings, Bridget Riley: From Life. This was the area of her  training at Goldsmiths’ College. Perhaps fancifully, to me these seem to reveal an exploration of linearity even in addressing representation of the human face.

Nearby is a display, Camden Town and Beyond, of key portraits by leading members of the Camden Town Group, (Gore, Sickert) . It also explores the subsequent development of British post-impressionism in portraits by Augustus John and Mark Gertler. The display continues to 31 August.

24 February 2011

IEA Cuts for Oldies

Professor Philip Booth and Corin Taylor of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) have just released a discussion paper, Sharing the burden - How the older generation should suffer its share of the cuts. The IEA states that “... the government could save £16bn a year by cutting non-means-tested benefits to older people and reforming the state pension system.”

The paper addresses seven different areas for savings but oddly does not draw the conclusions together in a summary table, so I’ve supplied one below:

I have also attempted to identify the age limits for the impact of these measures in 2015. Raising the state pension age by 6 months in each of 2014 and 2015 to 66 obviously affects all who have not retired by 2015. (Currently men retire at 65 and the retirement age for women is planned to increase from 62.5 to 63 between April 2015 and April 2016). However, the age below which the impact becomes negligible is difficult to estimate – 15 years before retirement?

The extensive section addressing comprehensive pension reform does not identify any potential expenditure savings – it would be better as a separate discussion paper. On the other hand, more research into some of the other items would have been of value. For example, when were free bus passes and the winter fuel allowance introduced? It could be the case that the more recent a benefit, the less painful its removal.

It is a matter of political judgement as to whether the ire of a particular group in society and consequent loss of votes is worth incurring. However, the measures appear to range from the electorally difficult but economically realistic – abolishing free bus travel, to the barking – making people over 75, the majority of whom are widows, pay for television licences.  Another major issue which the IEA paper does not address is that of National Insurance (NI), not paid by the retired.  Out of a salary of £30000 from which income tax of £4705 is deducted, someone under retirement age pays a further £2671 in NI.

The paper would probably been of more use to policy-makers if measures such as the benefit to the exchequer of taxing, rather than abolishing, the winter fuel allowance had been assessed. Similarly, confining bus pass use to journeys which at least begin or end in the local authority of issue might be preferable to complete abolition. However, the IEA takes a consistently uncompromising view of the world – they can’t help themselves footnoting, when discussing TV licences, “We ignore, here, whether it is desirable to have what is effectively a state broadcasting service financed by a tax on televisions.”

Realistically the economic prospects for the UK suggest at best a slow arduous recovery by 2015. At least some of the measures identified by the IEA may have to be adopted, if only partially. If things go badly wrong in the Gulf, which doesn’t seem impossible at present, we may have to accept much worse.

22 February 2011

When you're clever but ill-connected

Michael Skapinker has a column in today’s Financial Times: How poor students become top scientists. The ambiguity of this title seems to have escaped the FT's subeditors. In fact, he is drawing on an OECD study of young people from poorer families who beat the odds academically:
What distinguished high achievers from poorer backgrounds, apart from spending longer in the classroom, was their attitude. “Resilient students are more motivated to learn science, more engaged with science and have greater self-confidence in their ability to learn science. The level of self-confidence in their academic abilities is in fact one of the strongest correlates of resilience,” the OECD study said.
Skapinker concludes:
Can companies, particularly science-based companies, encourage those attitudes? Sending their people into schools as mentors could help, the study says. So could other forms of interaction between poorer students and those working in science companies. Many companies offer internships and work experience. The problem, as other studies have shown, is that the best-connected often grab most of the opportunities. Where are the companies ready to declare that their internships will go to those who need them most?
I put this comment on FT.com:
The “high achievers from poor families” don’t just lack material resources, but also, as the article implies, face a shortfall in “social capital” including access to networks, contacts and internships. In these circumstances, studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths), where what you know matters rather than who you know, may be a better strategy than taking softer options with a more uncertain access to employment.

21 February 2011

Tate Britain: 'Susan Hiller' and 'Watercolour'

Tate Britain is hosting a “major survey exhibition” of “one of the most influential and innovative artists of her generation”, Susan Hiller. These are bold claims which I am in no position to dispute. Being a boring old techie (but younger than Hiller), I’m uneasy with “knowledge derived from anthropology, psychoanalysis and other scientific disciplines” (other!), particularly if her work “confers status on what lies beyond rationality or recognition”. The language of contemporary art criticism being way above my head, all I can do is experience her installations, constructions, vitrines etc and work out my reactions to them.

Magic Lantern
I’m afraid I couldn’t get to grips with some of her work, though I readily concede that (the apparently highly regarded) Belshazzar’s Feast: the Writing on Your Wall, inspired by apparitions on television screens after broadcasting closedown, and Psi Girls, clips of telekinetic powers and the like being exercised, are beyond the rational. Some works, though, are intriguing and thought-provoking, which is enough to make any exhibition worthwhile. Venn diagrams will never look the same again after seeing Magic Lantern. Witness is, I think, inspired – even if the voices coming from the 400 suspended speakers are describing encounters with UFOs. What was Hiller’s best work for me is just outside the exhibition area (and so can be seen for free). The J. Street Project is a collation of the filming of every street sign in Germany now incorporating the word Jude, and it is a deep and troubling evocation of the banality of evil.

On the way to the Susan Hiller show, the visitor walks through the Duveen Galleries and encounters Single Form: The Body in Sculpture from Rodin to Hepworth. This complements (and helps compensate for) the modern British sculpture currently being offered by the RA (blog post last month).

Downstairs Watercolour was much busier than the Hiller exhibition, full of Ladies Who Gouache. Its intentions are “to expand our horizons” (landscape pun?) and “to challenge conventional understandings” of the medium. I learnt much and always welcome the opportunity to see works by Ravilious and Nash. No Hockneys, but in recent years his watercolours have been generously exhibited.

Alison Smith, the lead Curator of Watercolour, asks:
... Also, what we would like to explore in this exhibition, is the question – is watercolour a particularly British phenomenon?
Klaus Kertes in the Spring edition of Tate etc suggests:
Perhaps being surrounded on all sides by water intensified the British propensity for the medium.
I certainly don’t know enough art history to begin to comment seriously, and I expect that other dull souls have suggested before that it might be our climate. As the CIA World Factbook puts it: “more than one-half of the days are overcast”. Perhaps also the humidity makes application easier, and the translucence of the medium is particularly appropriate to the light levels most of the year in the British Isles.

Watercolour by virtue of its breadth and historical depth is a highly educational endeavour, and Tate Britain should be congratulated on it. Particularly so when we learn of the BBC Trust and management’s depressing intention for Radio 4 of:
Continuing to develop the general tone of the station away from formality and perceived didacticism towards spontaneity and conversation. (Service Review, paragraph 115)
Tate seem to have realised that what many people want is to engage with substance, as attendance at any Literary Festival makes clear. Thankfully, with Miro and the Vorticists to come, it looks as though Tate is going to carry on being didactic.

17 February 2011

Wikileaks and recent posts

A Wikileaks report in the Daily Telegraph last week has linked two of my recent posts. One of these was about the Iraq Inquiry and the other, posted a week earlier, was about a public falling out between the former head of the British Army, Lord Dannatt, and the former UK ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles. The Iraq Inquiry Secretariat has been headed since its formation in 2009 by a career civil servant, Margaret Aldred. Previously she had been deputy head of the foreign and defence policy secretariat at the Cabinet Office and it was in that role that she met with the ‘Political Minister Counselor’ at the US Embassy in London on Wednesday 15 July 2009. The cable sent from the Embassy the following day which summarised their meeting was the basis of the Daily Telegraph Wikileaks report headed:
Lord Dannatt wrong on troop numbers, civil servant told US
The senior civil servant organising the Iraq Inquiry secretly briefed against Britain’s top general after he called for more troops to counter a surge of deaths in Afghanistan.
Going back to an article by Rosa Prince in the Daily Telegraph on 16 July 2009 helps shed light on the atmosphere at the time of the meeting and the subsequent cable from the Embassy:
Richard Dannatt: Boots on ground key to victory in Afghanistan
The head of the Army has added to the pressure on the Government to send additional troops to Afghanistan by saying "more boots on the ground" were vital for victory.
Following heavy British losses in Helmand Province, General Sir Richard Dannatt said that he would like to see "more energy" putting into speeding up the provision of equipment to UK troops.
He said: "I have said before, we can have effect where we have boots on the ground. I don't mind whether the feet in those boots are British, American or Afghan, but we need more to have the persistent effect to give the people confidence in us. That is the top line and the bottom line."
The General was speaking during his last visit to Afghanistan before retiring later this month, as Gordon Brown insisted that "everything we can" was being done by the Government to provide British soldiers with the equipment they needed.
The war in Afghanistan dominated Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday, with David Cameron saying that the number of British helicopters in Afghanistan was "simply insufficient".
Gen Dannatt appeared to back the Tory leader's warning, adding: "We are trying to broaden and deepen our effect here, which is about people and about equipment, and of course to an extent it is about helicopters as well.
It looks as though the purpose of the meeting at the Embassy the day before this appeared was to reassure the US “that HMG remains committed at the highest levels to maintaining its mission in Afghanistan.” The cable states:
[Aldred] stressed that HMG has "worked hard to get the right number of helicopters" ... Referring to General Dannatt's call for more troops, she stated that the PM decided how many British troops would deploy to Afghanistan only after close consultation with the MOD.
Aldred strongly criticized partisan ‘party politicking’ which, she asserted, attempted to capitalize on 15 British combat deaths over a recent 10 day period to cast doubt on HMG’s prosecution of the war effort. "Both opposition parties are seizing every opportunity to attack the government," Aldred said.
Many of the comments put on the Telegraph website about their more recent article brought Andrew Marr’s comment on bloggers to mind – “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night” etc. Margaret Aldred’s role as a top official was to support the policies of the government of the day, but the tone of the article, and many of the rather personal criticisms attached in the comments, failed to recognise this. Dannatt presumably saw his role at the time as supporting the British army, rather than the UK forces as a whole or the government. We now know that Dannatt and Number 10 had been at odds in late 2006 according to Jonathan Powell, and about Cowper-Coles’ version of his conversation with Dannatt in mid-2007 (earlier post). Then the goings on seemed to provide some sardonic amusement to a mere nonentity like me, albeit tinged with kleinburgerlich schadenfreude. However on this occasion that wouldn’t seem to be appropriate, and one’s sympathies have to be with the Madam Top Kneddy.

Watching BBC1’s Panorama programme on 14 February, Wikileaks: The Secret Story, and its depiction of Julian Assange, should increase anyone’s misgivings about Wikileaks. Listening to some of his former associates, the expression attributed to Lenin, ‘useful idiots’, came to mind. While it seems unlikely that the Wikileaks cables initiated the unrest which is spreading through the Middle East, we may well not yet appreciate all the damage that Assange’s activities can cause. The whole underlying principle seems dubious. A bank clerk who steals his employer’s money, even if to give to worthy causes, is a thief and goes to prison. Is that different from an employee who takes his employer’s confidential information and makes it accessible to the world, purportedly in the public interest? Wikileak’s first associate in the UK media was the Guardian. Assange, having fallen out with them, is now working with the Daily Telegraph, who ran the MP’s expenses revelations of 2009.

10 February 2011

Engineers and Technicians Revisited

Almost a year ago, Dick Olver, Chairman of BAE Systems, told the FT that gas fitters, photocopier repairmen and other technicians should stop calling themselves engineers. BAE Systems is Britain’s biggest employer of professional engineers, who account for just over half the company’s 33,000-strong UK workforce. An estimated two million people in the UK are in jobs where they sometimes call themselves engineers, even though they may have only minimal technical qualifications. Olver said the wide use of “engineer” in Britain to describe a range of technical jobs damaged the reputation of real engineers, making it less enticing to young people as a career.
“Britain suffers from a language problem in that the word ‘engineer’ is applied to a lot of different people who do a range of jobs. Professional engineers need to take ownership of the brand and keep it for themselves.”
Mr Olver said he would start trying to change people’s perceptions of the term “engineer” by talking to Sam Laidlaw, chief executive of Centrica, which employs 8,500 gas fitters at its British Gas subsidiary. But Centrica is unlikely to co-operate with his campaign. “We plan to continue to use ‘engineer’ to describe our employees who fit and maintain central heating systems,” the company said. “The word underlines the fact that these people receive a lot of training and are well qualified.”
A few days later the managing director of Pimlico plumbers, Charlie Mullins, wrote to the FT in a similar vein to Centrica:
Dick Olver’s comments that gas fitters should stop calling themselves engineers are simply ludicrous. At my company, Pimlico Plumbers, we have 133 professional engineers who are highly qualified with years of training and experience. They often have people’s lives in their hands – dealing with boilers and gas is a dangerous job. Why should they stop calling themselves engineers? This is just downgrading their highly skilled jobs. Maybe it should be the other way round, and the pen pushers should stop calling themselves engineers.
However successful his business, Mullins' ignorance of (or just ignoring) what is involved in acquiring an engineering degree and then chartered membership of an engineering institution is regrettable. No doubt every day hundreds of Londoners are grateful for the services of his employees, but perhaps he could have looked at the policy issues being addressed by the Royal Academy of Engineering, and considered how extensive his staff’s contribution would be.

It being Britain, nothing seems to have come out of Olver’s protest and probably never will. But the issue he raised makes an appropriate subject for the first Western Independent post to come from South West France. Here the invariably competent and courteous artisan who comes to repair a washing machine or gas boiler is a technicien. For him to call himself an ingénieur would invite being laughed at (or in some parts of Europe prosecution), the term being reserved for those who have been through academic and professional training. In the case of a particularly prestigious group, such as les ingénieurs de l’armement, this may well mean a five-year course at one of the grandes écoles, sometimes followed by a Masters at MIT or similar in the USA.

There are other long-standing anglo-saxon confusions, particularly relating to healthcare. In France a chemiste is a scientist following in the footsteps of Lavoisier, not a pharmacien. Then there is Doctor, as general practitioners of medicine (GPs) are traditionally called in the UK. In France a GP is a médecin (arzt in german, by the way). A docteur en médecin is someone who has a doctorat, a higher degree. The UK equivalent would be an MD. These seem to be more common in fiction (eg Dr Watson) than in fact – in a fairly healthy life I think I’ve come across one MD, but lots of Doctors with first degrees (MB). In the last few years, I’ve noticed that dentists have taken to styling themselves Dr, which seems a bit presumptuous, though I know one who was awarded a PhD for research in restorative dentistry.

Of course, nothing will be done to regularise “doctor” and “chemist”, any more than “engineer”. Does it matter? Well, it is an aspect of a reluctance in the UK to take high-level skills and professional education seriously by comparison with other countries, particularly where STEM (science, technology, engineering ,maths) is concerned. The adverse effects on our prosperity of muddling along as usual are too long-term for politicians to care about, but inexorable for the rest of us.

If any technicienne, pharmacienne, femme médecin or artzin has read this far, please accept my apologies – these omissions are only for brevity.

The Background to this blog shows vines in Entre-Deux-Mers (Gironde) in late summer, shortly before harvest and after a lot of growth. By way of contrast, and less familiar, this is what a vineyard looks like after pruning in February.
Vines in Entre-Deux-Mers, February 2011

7 February 2011

Blair and the Iraq Inquiry

Watching Tony Blair’s second appearance at the Iraq Inquiry on BBC News last month, it didn’t seem surprising that Cameron and Osborne are said to call him “The Master”, the soubriquet of another great performer, Noël Coward. It will be interesting to see how the Inquiry treats Blair in its report. Some of the more fanciful ideas put about by his detractors can be put in perspective by reading the Chairman’s statement of the Inquiry Terms of Reference:
"Our terms of reference are very broad, but the essential points, as set out by the Prime Minister and agreed by the House of Commons, are that this is an Inquiry by a committee of Privy Counsellors. It will consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath. We will therefore be considering the UK's involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country."
At a guess, Blair will be told off a second time for not running a tight enough ship (see below for the first). To judge by their style of questioning, it will come naturally to the Inquiry to put any criticisms in an appropriately oblique and circumlocutious way. Of course, various lessons and recommendations as to how to do better will be offered. It would be surprising if these improvements to the machinery of government didn’t require a couple of new posts at Senior Civil Service Pay Band 3 (Deputy Secretary in Sir Humphrey Appleby’s day), and the upgrading of some others.

There may be some consideration of the size of UK forces to be committed to such affairs in the future (they can only be smaller) and improving the planning including the consequences, but how will the Inquiry deal with one key ‘best interests of the country’ issue: what would the US reaction have been if the UK had declined to participate? The evidence in 2009 from Sir Christopher Meyer (UK ambassador in Washington 1997-2003) suggests that it wouldn’t have been the end of the world (p71-5):
SIR RODERIC LYNE: If we had sat out the war, would it have damaged British interests in the United States if that's what they were saying to us?
SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER: It is impossible to say, it is impossible to say. We had a very high reputation at the time inside the United States. There was no great popular surge, as far as we could tell, in favour of going to war. Polls weren't particularly encouraging for the administration. I was travelling a lot around the United States at the time. I didn't come across anybody except an oil man in Houston who was keen on invading. I doubt it would have done a lot of damage.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Apart from the applause factor that you mentioned earlier, what benefits to British interests did we gain, did we advance, by the role that we took?
SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER: That's a great question, and it is one that much pre-occupied me. I said to London, "The key thing now, quite apart from Iraq, is to translate this popularity into real achievements which benefit the national interest", and we failed. We failed, and I'll tell you where we failed. We failed on persuading the United States administration to liberalise air services across the Atlantic, a very big British interest. The other thing which was profoundly irritating was that almost on the day that 45 Commando arrived in Afghanistan to help with the war, the Americans slapped tariffs on exports from the UK of what they called speciality steel.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Just to make sure that I have properly understood this. To summarise what you have just said, it wasn't essential for the defence of British interests that we actually played the part that we did choose to play in Iraq. It wasn't essential, for reasons of British/American relations, that we did so. On the one hand, there wouldn't have been necessarily massive damage if we had not done so, and, on the other hand, we failed to secure specific benefits and in some cases areas you have identified, steel and air services, that we should have done.
While writing his book, The Accidental American, Jim Naughtie seems to have had privileged access to Blair, including an exclusive interview in 2004. He reveals just how heavily the relationship with the US seemed to weigh on Blair (p164-5):
Blair also understood the power of the secret network from the moment in the course of his first week in office when he was inculcated into the secrets of the UKUSA Treaty of 1948, which established the intelligence relationship with Washington, and then signed the papers giving him control of the nuclear missiles that were part of the defence arrangement with the United States. For any incoming prime minister, these arrangements become a matter of day-to-day importance that is often unrecognized by the general public. For example, the government's vast listening station in Cheltenham-GCHQ-is not only the hub of electronic intelligence for Whitehall but a vital part of the listening apparatus of the National Security Agency in Washington. That is why more than half the budget for GCHQ is paid for by American taxpayers, a fact about which British governments have been naturally reticent.
As with all their predecessors, the relationship between Bush and Blair was built on this practical foundation. The niceties of a shared language (more or less), the threads of family history that still span the Atlantic, and the memories of World War II are often portrayed as being the essence of the partnership: in practice, the hard facts of intelligence and defence are the links that pull the two governments together. They are bound together by their weapons, their satellites, and the tentacles of their intelligence networks.
The Inquiry didn’t ask Meyer (or Blair for that matter) about this intelligence/ defence relationship, for example whether he thought the Blair-Bush exchange of letters in 2006 on maintaining Trident would have been feasible if the UK had not stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the US in Iraq. The realities of timing (Blair and Bush were aware that their respective departures from office would be in 2007 and 2009) and a different conjunction of personalities might have made securing Brown-Bush or Brown-Obama exchanges at a later date much harder work. Beyond the Inquiry’s remit, of course, it is arguable that Blair’s current ship, The Office of Tony Blair, might not have been such a capable vessel, and in a position to be performing so many good works, if he had been less highly regarded in the US.

Could next time be different? Blair is not alone in thinking that some sort of confrontation with Iran is inevitable. Cameron or Miliband could find themselves in a very similar position to Blair (if Cameron were leading a Conservative government he would find it easier to take his party with him than Blair did, but not the LibDem part of the Coalition). The officials and the politicians, as might be expected, have opposing views as to whether the existence of a more elaborate bureaucratic apparatus would make any significant difference.  Lord Butler in his report in 2004 (Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction) has already gone over some of the Inquiry’s ground:
609. In the year before the war, the Cabinet discussed policy towards Iraq as a specific agenda item 24 times. It also arose in the course of discussions on other business. Cabinet members were offered and many received briefings on the intelligence picture on Iraq. There was therefore no lack of discussion on Iraq; and we have been informed that it was substantive. The Ministerial Committee on Defence and Overseas Policy did not meet. By contrast, over the period from April 2002 to the start of military action, some 25 meetings attended by the small number of key Ministers, officials and military officers most closely involved provided the framework of discussion and decision-making within Government.
610. One inescapable consequence of this was to limit wider collective discussion and consideration by the Cabinet to the frequent but unscripted occasions when the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary briefed the Cabinet orally. Excellent quality papers were written by officials, but these were not discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet Committee. Without papers circulated in advance, it remains possible but is obviously much more difficult for members of the Cabinet outside the small circle directly involved to bring their political judgement and experience to bear on the major decisions for which the Cabinet as a whole must carry responsibility. The absence of papers on the Cabinet agenda so that Ministers could obtain briefings in advance from the Cabinet Office, their own departments or from the intelligence agencies plainly reduced their ability to prepare properly for such discussions, while the changes to key posts at the head of the Cabinet Secretariat lessened the support of the machinery of government for the collective responsibility of the Cabinet in the vital matter of war and peace.
611. We do not suggest that there is or should be an ideal or unchangeable system of collective Government, still less that procedures are in aggregate any less effective now than in earlier times. However, we are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the Government’s procedures which we saw in the context of policy-making towards Iraq risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgement. Such risks are particularly significant in a field like the subject of our Review, where hard facts are inherently difficult to come by and the quality of judgement is accordingly all the more important.
The second volume of Alastair Campbell’s Diaries, Power and the People 1997-1999, reveals the gulf between Sir Robin Butler (as he was when Cabinet Secretary) and Blair’s team when they arrived in Number 10. Campbell (40 at the time) records on 28 July 1997: “Butler struck me as very amiable but very out of date” – Butler was 59, Blair 44. “Sofa government” had arrived, not that two of the witnesses to the Iraq Inquiry saw much of a problem with it in retrospect. Here the Iraq Inquiry Chairman (Sir John Chilcot) is questioning Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff (a political post) on 18 January 2010 (p8-9):
THE CHAIRMAN: So turning to another and broader machinery point, much has been written about so-called "sofa government", and I do put that in quotation marks, characterised, perhaps not unfairly, with informality and, indeed, a degree of intimacy with close and trusted advisers and colleagues, and, on the other side, people have asked, "Is there some risk of exclusion of other colleagues still holding and sharing heavy responsibility?", but in particular asking, "Did that mean that action following such discussions characterised to some degree by informality, action points might be lost or lost in translation, as it were, into the government machine?" Would you like to comment on that?
MR JONATHAN POWELL: Yes. We had this criticism of sofa government. I think it is actually misplaced. I don’t think it matters whether a meeting takes place in the Cabinet room, where John Major used to hold meetings, or in the sitting room, where Mrs Thatcher or Tony Blair used to hold their meetings. I think the key thing is that you have the right people there, the people who need to be involved in a decision, that they are properly informed, have the proper material before them, in written or in oral form, and that decisions are taken, then recorded, and then distributed to government to be followed up. As long as that happens, I think it doesn't really matter if someone is sitting on a sofa or sitting round a table.
THE CHAIRMAN: It would be primarily your responsibility to the Prime Minister and the system to ensure that the outcome of such discussions were recorded and were transmitted into the government machinery?
MR JONATHAN POWELL: Inasmuch as it is my responsibility to make sure that everything in Number 10 functioned, yes. Although the notes in such meetings would be taken usually by civil servants who were at the meetings.
THE CHAIRMAN: Right. ...
Over a year later, on 3 February, Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary in the period of interest) was the final witness (his third appearance), and made a closing statement (p151):
[Blair’s] style was less formal than others and certainly less formal than mine but the fact he used soft furnishings rather than hard chairs does not make him a bad person, nor, to make a more serious point, do I believe that a more formal process would have altered either the respect in which he was held by colleagues, the influence he had, nor the outcome of the decisions, but equally the fact the process was, frustratingly for some, less formal than it should have been I don't think necessarily meant the decisions were of a lower quality nor that they lacked the fullest range of opinions in the input.

2 February 2011

A Price Index Peculiarity

Inflation is a current worry in the UK, and the method of measuring it has also been attracting attention because the Coalition decided last year to use the CPI (Consumer Price Index) instead of the RPI (Retail Price Index) as the basis for increasing various benefits and pensions.

Every month the Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes a bulletin of consumer price data. The figures which get the most media attention are not the actual indices but the percentage changes over 12 months eg “Annual inflation as recorded by the retail prices index (RPI) stands at 4.8 per cent in December, up from 4.7 per cent in November.”

(Boring bit) The percentage change in month “m” over the same month a year ago “m-12” is simple to derive from the indices by the formula:

( Index for month m – Index for month (m-12) / Index month (m-12) ) x 100

or to put it more simply, if the index is 220 now and was 200 a year ago, the percentage change is:
(220 - 200) / 200 x 100 = 10%
Table 2 of the ONS Statistical Bulletin December 2010 gives the RPI and CPI data for the last 36 months. Using the ONS index data and the formula above, the percentage changes for the RPI for the last 24 months are easily calculated using Excel – not surprisingly these come out to be the same as the figures printed in the Bulletin.

Now here’s the odd thing. As the table below shows, for the CPI data eight times in the last 24 months the ONS figure is 0.1% higher than the calculated one. For these cases the calculated percentage is also shown with a second decimal place – which doesn’t provide any explanation.  If anyone can cast some light as to why this is happening with the CPI but not the RPI, please add a comment!

ADDENDUM: For the explanation see my post on 3 April 2011: http://bit.ly/i4mV6g