Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Property In The UK 11: Squeezing Out A Little Bit More

The house I live in has been on the market since September 2010.  Not a good time to be selling a house, but as regular readers know, I have never been lucky with property.  If it were not for HM Revenue & Customs admitting to overcharging me £16,000 worth of tax in 2008 and refunding it (with no apology) then, by now the house would have been repossessed.  I have been unemployed for 11 months, bar six weeks' of a few days of work (some weeks one day, some two days per week) and despite still having regular interviews I seem no closer to getting back into employment.  Consequently, because of the woman who lives in my house running a business I am not entitled to any benefit to pay the mortgage.  The mortgage lender, Nationwide Building Society, has repeatedly refused to discuss my inability to pay, saying that if I have enough to pay at least one month's mortgage payments, then it is too early to discuss me defaulting or going on to interest only payments.  With unemployment rising and despite 27 interviews now, no sign of work, the only option is to sell the house.  Of course, that is easier said than done.

I acknowledge that I am very bad at selecting companies to provide me a service.  I always pick the worst company available (though on a number of occasions, recommended to me) for the particular job.  Consequently I have been ripped off by letting agents, removal companies, electrical repair companies and now estate agents.  Within a five-minute walk of my house there are at least five estate agents, though the best decided to morph instead into a financial advice company, much to my frustration and the company they recommended nearby only lets, not sells properties.  Consequently I picked a large company close to my house that was tied into national networks so as to get the coverage.  However, the staff turned out to be clueless, making no effort to learn about the neighbourhood (even though you can see their office from my house) or the potential buyers coming round and what they were looking for (buy-to-let, buy-for-family, buy-for-self; elderly, middle aged, young; with/out children; local, from London, etc.) and said nothing bar 'this is the living room'.  They had the cheek to say they would no longer do accompanied viewings because I simply took over the sales role.  I said that was insulting as I had only taken that role because their staff made no effort to address the viewers or sell the property.  Anyway, we got one buyer from them, but it took him three months and he had not even sent round a surveyor.  We abandoned both him and the estate agent.

The next company we went for, is tiny, but works incredibly hard and within a week of transferring to them we have another buyer, offering £2000 more than the first.  I live in a town with still high demand for property, very close to a good range of shops and good primary schools.  Despite paying £240,000 for the house in 2007 it is now worth £230,000; to be expected with the downturn in the market.  Offers have come in starting at £205,000, not leaving enough to clear the debts on the house and have enough to put down a deposit on a rented property.  We have managed to get offers now up to £217,000 helped by the move from Winter to Spring, but still in line for a heavy loss.  Given the location and the benefits of the property, once the economy recovers, the value is likely to rise fast, especially with the revival of buy-to-let mortgages reported this week.  Thus, the person is getting a good deal on the property, £13,000 less than the valuation given even now by the estate agents.

These days, it is apparent, that a good deal is not enough for house buyers, they constantly want to squeeze out more from the seller.  I have experienced this even back in 2007 selling my flat in London, a time when the housing market was much healthier.  Due to being bullied by the landlord's representative, I effectively sold a two-bedroomed flat for the price of a one-bedroomed flat in the area of Newham.  It was clean and modern and I had replaced the bathroom and the windows and made other improvements in the six years I had owned it, primarily for my own benefit when living there, but clearly improving it over some of the neighbouring flats.  In my hurry, the buyer got a very good bargain.  However, this was not enough.  Living in rented accommodation I had no desire to move the furniture and white goods from it.  This was initially not an issue, but then suddenly the buyer wanted them gone at my expense.  Then he wanted the flat to be cleaned, by him even before he owned it, at a cost of £500 (€565; US$805).  The flat was not unclean and it took £40 to employ a woman to clean it thoroughly.  However, it was clear the buyer was using it as an excuse to squeeze more money for me, even though he was paying about £30,000 (€33,900; US$48,300) less than an equivalent flat in the same area would have cost him.  Once the front door lock had been destroyed by the estate agents' carelessness on the day before the contract exchange occurred, I took the opportunity while it was being replaced to ensure that the buyer would receive a welcoming gift of rotten milk, a mouldy fridge and faeces when he arrived.  Any waste paper and other rubbish I could find, was distributed over the flat so he could really see what an untidied flat looked like.  As you can understand, I was angered, by the attempt to squeeze more and more from me, even when I was selling the place at a bargain price.

A very similar thing occurred with the current house.  The second buyer we accepted first sent around three inspectors.  The surveyor spent three hours at the property and people came to check the central heating and electricity too.  This dragged out over a couple of weeks.  The buyer did not take efforts to conceal her contempt for us and I overheard her ridiculing myself and the woman who lives in our house as stupid.  Clearly she, like the buyer of my flat, believed that we were so desperate that she could humiliate us and we would have to swallow it.  I have no idea why humiliation is now seen to be a necessary part of buying a house.  Certainly getting an extra £500 from the buyer now seems to be part of a fashion.  In this case she did not demand cleaning, she asked instead that we paid £500 towards the £1000 it would cost to build an additional wall around the kitchen; a wall that we would gain no benefit from.  We naturally refused.  The estate agent felt the demand was ridiculous, which suggests that it may not be as common behaviour as I have experienced, but he did offer to take £500 off his commission instead.  The woman, disgruntled with our refusal to comply with us immediately withdrew her offer, over two months since she had made it, and like the first buyer, during that time, had effectively blocked other potential buyers.

These may be isolated incidents, but to me there does seem to be a trend that, as a buyer you see what you can squeeze out of the sellers.  Getting a good price is not enough.  There has to be some specific demand imposed on the sellers to make it clear to them that you hold the power.  To me this does not seem to be a healthy way to do business.  Either you want the property or you do not.  Either you can afford to buy the property or you cannot.  There is obviously room for discussion over the price and we have engaged with that, all the buyers (we are now on to the third, who rather worryingly has requested a third viewing of the house as I have been writing this) have got a price well below the asking price.  When seeing Niall Ferguson talking about the success of Western capitalism and how now it is not thriving so well as it is in China, he noted the fact that honesty in business is one trait highly valued in Chinese commerce.  This element seems to have gone from buying and selling in the UK and slows down exchange and discourages commerce.  This applies to selling on eBay in the UK as it does to selling houses.  Sometime in the previous decade, perhaps prompted by television programmes, buyers have been encouraged to move from simply getting a good deal, to squeezing unnecessary extras.  After all, on a £217,000 sale, the commission to the estate agent is usually £4880 and unless the buyer if a first-time buyer the Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) is £2,170, so what is the fuss over £500?  It seems to be a principle that Ferguson missed that is damaging to capitalism in the UK today.  It is not enough simply to make a profitable deal, now you have to 'win a victory' too and rub the face of your 'opponent' in the mud by asserting how much more economically powerful you are than them.  This is one thing which harms sales and business in the UK and seems to be increasing as the recession widens the gap between people who previously would have been on the same economic level.  Selling your house should not require you to kow-tow to someone who explicitly holds you in contempt.

P.P. 28/05/2011
This aspect of the house sale has taken on an additional unpleasant twist.  It is clear that I have a sign on my forehead that I cannot see but which instructs everyone else: 'patronise and exploit this man as much as you can'.  Last week I was fortunate enough to get work.  This means there is no longer a need to sell the house, though we will struggle with paying the mortgage until my first salary arrives at the end of July.  However, given that the house is worth tens of thousands of pounds less than when we bought it and we own 1/300th of it more, every month of the mortgage we pay, if we can hold on to it until prices have at least returned to their 2007 level, then we will at least be a little better off.

Once the job had been confirmed, I telephoned the estate agent to tell him we were taking the house off the market.  I said I expected an invoice for services rendered in the four months they had been selling our house for us.  I assumed he would inform all the relevant parties.  Today, however, I received a very snotty letter from the solicitors' office, asking why they had not been informed as well.  It was clear they had found out in two days of me telling the estate agent anyway, but that I did not crawl round to them and kiss their feet and apologise for not continuing with the sale, was clearly sufficient to leave them indignant.  They were not our choice of solicitors anyway, we only took them as they are the ones the estate agent uses.  All our communications, bar one visit, have been through the estate agent.  Given their attitude now, I am actually glad I did not call them.

It gets worse.  When our second buyer decided that because we were unwilling to pay her £500 and have a wall built to no benefit of us, she would break off the sale, we were left with the solicitor's charge for the work they had done already, a sum of £300 [€318; US$483].  We contacted the buyer to see if she would reimburse us this money.  She did not say no, she simply refused to respond to any attempts to contact her.  We accepted that with no written contract we could not get the money out of her.  Now, however, this time we have broken the sale and now this latest buyer is trying to get his solicitor's fees back out of us.  Despite being employed by us, our solicitor seems always to be working on behalf of other people.  In the first case she did nothing to help us recoup the money from the buyer who broke off.  In this second case, however, she has forwarded a bill from the buyer's solicitor, at a cost of £8 to us, and written to tell us it is 'only fair' that we reimburse the buyer.  Why is it 'fair' that we have to pay the fees for everyone?  The solicitor seems to have no interest in aiding us, despite being paid by us, at fees £66 higher than those levied by the latest buyer's solicitor.

Part of the problem seems to be that we are too honest and treat people politely.  In contrast the two buyers have behaved in a 'chav-plus' manner.  They behave as if thuggish, self-centred people from a housing estate, terse and rude in their manners, expecting always to get that bit extra, and yet, they have the money to speculate in property.  I could be terse and aggressive in my business dealings, put on the accent and behaviour I learnt in Mile End and it is apparent in not doing so I somehow signal that I am open to being exploited by all and sundry.  My advice is: the only way to go into buying or selling a house in the UK in 2011 is to behave as if you are some small-time gangster who has retired from the Ocean Estate in Stepney to Chigwell.  In addition, avoid Aldridge Brownlee solicitors.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Electoral Reform/Deform?

As many readers know we are rapidly approach local elections (5th May 2011) for about a third of the seats on local councils in Britain.  This year for the first time since 1975, the UK also has a referendum.  It is on whether we should change from the so-called 'First Past the Post' (FPP) system of elections to the Alternate Vote (AV) approach.  This was part of the deal that the Liberal Democrats made with the Conservatives when they went into coalition with them almost a year ago.  The Liberal Democrats, as I have shown on a couple of occasions on this blog, have long failed to turn the number of the votes their candidates receive into anything even approaching an equivalent number of members in the House of Commons.  They have long been supporters of electoral reform, moving voting to the Westminster Parliament (well, the bit of it which is elected, the House of Commons; the House of Lords, the upper house is totally unelected) towards some form of proportional representation (PR).  Proportional representation is seen as being 'fairer' as it more accurately reflects the level of support each party receives.  With the FPP system if a candidate receives just one vote fewer then they do not win the seat, even though they may have had tens of thousands of people voting for them.

In the world around 43 countries (of those which are democratic) use FPP, many have had connections to the UK such as the USA, Canada and India and it was adopted in Taiwan when it moved to democracy in the 1990s.  Some countries have a partial FPP system, such as France where there are two rounds and only candidates receiving a certain percentage of votes move into the second round.  However, the bulk of EU countries use a proportional representation system.  This has sometimes elicited xenophobic hostility from the British who see PR systems as foreign and 'unstable'.  In particular, Weimar Germany 1918-1933 and Italy since 1945 are held up as examples of countries for which PR has led to political instability and short-lived governments.  In a patronising way some have even portrayed PR methods as being too complex for the average British voter given how low turn out is at elections.  For example, most UK constitutencies see only 35-40% of the electorate turn out for local elections and 50-70% for general elections.  These arguments have lost lots of ground in the UK in recent years.  The current coalition which has lasted almost a year has shown that actually coalitions can be strong as (West) Germany has demonstrated since 1949.  In addition, for all elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, a form of PR, the single transferrable vote (STV) system has been in use since these bodies were introduced over a decade ago.  I know turn out is low for European Parliament elections, but combined this does mean that many people in the UK population have had some, and many of these, regular, interaction with STV.  Anyone who has been to university will be familiar with it as I know from personal experience that students' unions have been using STV in their elections for over thirty years.

The AV system (used in many Australian elections where voting is compulsory), as even people who support PR acknowledge is a hybrid.   Like STV you rank If someone wins more than 50% of the vote on the first count then they win the seat just as is the case now.  In many constituencies, despite what the No campaigners for the referendum campaign are arguing, this is what will happen.  If no-one gets 50% or above then the second choice votes of the candidate who came last are counted, i.e. the people who put a '2' rather than a '1' by the candidate and so on.  Of course, this quickly eliminates all the minor and obscure parties; supporters of whom are unlikely, despite what the campaigners say, to have rated the larger parties much.  Ultimately, it will generally come down to the redistribution between the larger parties.  Of course, once any candidate goes over the 50% mark the process stops; this is a difference to STV.  It means, in fact that in most cases, the candidate with the highest number of votes in the first round will simply pick up sufficient to go over the 50% mark.

The No campaigners argue that this will mean that someone who received 3rd place in the number of votes on the first count could potentially win.  Yes, this is possible if they first three candidates are close together.  The reason why they fear this is that historically some Labour supporters would 'tactically' back the Liberal Democrat if they thought they stood a chance of getting in, in that district and some Conservative voters might too.  Thus, it is assumed that the Liberal Democrats may receive lots of '2' votes from both Labour and Conservative supporters and so may get in, in more constituencies.  Of course, it would not affect the 'heartlands' of any party where the majority is usually clear, but it will impinge on marginal seats which are the ones parties pour most effort into.  The one factor that makes AV more palatable to traditionalists is that whilst providing a slightly better reflection of the support for parties, it still returns one representative from each constituency.  Strangely, this is now enshrined as an important principle for British politics, despite the fact that the UK had constituencies returning more than one member of parliament up until 1950.

Things have changed through the formation of the coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, as this has disgruntled both Labour supporters who previously would have voted Liberal Democrat and, of course, many traditional Liberal Democrats have abandoned the party.  In fact, from the Barnsley by-election, it seems the Conservative might benefit from UKIP supporters giving them a '2' vote, if not in a Labour heartland like Barnsley but in other more uncertain locations.  All PR encourages people to give support to smaller parties, thus we might see Greens gaining votes from across the political spectrum, from people, who in the past would not want to 'waste' their single vote on a Green candidate.  Of course, for Labour and the Conservatives any advance of smaller parties, even the Liberal Democrats, weakens their traditional position.  This is why, despite promising electoral reform before the 1997 election, once in power Tony Blair abandoned the ideas and only had the Jenkins Commission and then ignored its advice through all his time in office.

I do not think the vote for AV will succeed.  I would prefer that we went to STV as is the case for so many elections already in the UK.  By having the referendum on the same day as the local elections David Cameron, a clear opponent of any adjustment of the FPP system, has muddied the waters.  Britain is a very apolitical country with few people taking interest in politics these days let alone the electoral system, even though these are factors in them losing their jobs and public services.  They actually tend to blame other people like immigrants, than the politicians whose policies have impinged on them, but that always seems to be the way in the UK.  Other referenda, such as in Canada have had insufficient turn-out to bring about change in the electoral system.  Given how few people vote in local elections, I think the same will happen here.  The failure of the referendum will allow David Cameron to dismiss for ever any discussion of changing from the FPP system.  This is important for Cameron as he has ready plans which will make it easier for the Conservatives to remain in power indefinitely.  By abolishing 50 constituencies and redrawing boundaries, called gerrymandering, something the Conservatives of Westminster Council were very adept at doing in the 1990s, will make it hard for anyone but the Conservatives to win a majority of seats in parliament for the foreseeable future.  Just as Tony Blair seemed eager to reduce civil liberties in the UK, Cameron's mission appears to be to reduce democracy, in the broadest sense of the word, through both reducing opportunities for ordinary people and also to make it harder for any other party except the Conservatives to come to power.

My life has seen the steady erosion of liberty and democracy in the UK and it appears to be proceeding now even brisker than ever.  It is a pity that AV will not come in, but in many ways the whole set-up is just a blind for the damage that the Conservatives seek to impose on British democracy.

P.P. 21/04/2011
This morning I received the first piece of publicity about the referendum, a leaflet from the No campaign.  I was interested by its approach, which suggests the No camp are unnecessarily nervous, because the lines it takes are very much about scare mongering.  Of course it starts with 'keep one person, one vote' probably the most equitable issue about sticking to FPP.  Interestingly it says 'none of your taxes have been used to print this leaflet', well, the Yes campaign can say that too, but there is a sense that it is suggesting others would use tax money.

Inside the cost is the first issue that is raised is the cost.  It is argued that the cost of AV is £250 million broken down into a number of components, first, £91 million for the referendum, despite it being piggy backed on local elections in many towns.  Next is £130 million for electronic counting machines, which actually have nothing to do with AV.  Northern Ireland uses STV (as does Scotland and Wales) which is more complex than AV and yet they still count by hand as it makes clear on the website of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland.  FPP votes could be counted by electronic machines, but the UK has chosen not to use them.  Thus, there is no connection between electronic machines and AV.  The final cost is £26 million on explaining the new system to the voters.  I have no idea where that figure comes from.  Given that every part of the UK uses STV for at least one election, I see no reason for this cost.  We did not have training in STV when it was adopted for European elections.  As the publicity points out, this £250 million could pay 2,503 doctors, presumably for a year; 6,297 teachers; 8,107 nurses; 35,885 hip replacements or 69,832 school places.  So, the party which is most opposed to AV, i.e. the Conservatives, will not then be cutting public spending budgets?  Oh, yes, in fact they are and by much more than £250 million.  Let us compare that £250 million, even if AV did cost all that to other current expenditure.  By 20th March 2011, the UK had spent £55 million on firing 110 cruise missiles at Libya; every sortie by a Tornado costs £30,000 just for fuel and the loss of a single Tornado would cost the UK £50 million to replace.  As for the war in Afghanistan, that now costs the UK £4 billion per year (£10.95 million per day).  So, to save £250 million we only need to not fight in Afghanistan for 23 days, less than one month.  The No campaign says, when many people are facing job losses or pay freezes should the money be spent on a 'politicians' fix'.  The argument against this is quite simply with PR it is unlikely we would have had such policies in the 1980s let alone now.

The next argument is against the technical aspects of AV which I outlined in my posting above.  The No campaign argues that 'the votes of the least popular candidate decide who wins the election', that is a false portrayal, as in fact that candidate is eliminated, it is the other votes, for other people on those ballot papers which actually decide who wins.   Yes, someone who was in 2nd or 3rd place at the first stage may go on to win, but they, at least will have a majority of the support from the constituency. 

The No campaign argues that the views of BNP supporters will be counted again and again. It is unlikely, unless all candidates are so far from the 50% line (and in many constituencies there are only 3 candidates anyway) that so many lower preferences will have to be counted.  As this referendum has simply come down to a Yes/No, there has been no discussion of different aspects of AV, for example the '2' votes carrying less weight than the '1' votes, the '3' votes less than the '2' and so on.  Given that it has been deemed by the government and many campaigners that the electorate, who, as I remind you, already use STV for many elections, cannot possibly understand the system, there is no discussion of the actual form AV might take in the UK.

The section entitled 'AV is Unpopular' is very misleading.  It shows a map of the world and coloured in green for countries who 'Don't use AV' and purple for 'use AV'.  The countries using it are Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, all according to the pamphlet are unhappy with it. In fact many states of Australia use STV.  The misleading thing about the map is that many of the countries shown in green of course would not use AV because they could equally be coloured as 'Don't use democracy'.  Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Burma, North Korea and, of course, China where a quarter of the world's population lives, are shown as 'Don't use AV'.  Well, of course they do not use AV, because they are (or until recently) dictatorships.  It also neglects the fact that, as noted above, that over 70 countries shown as 'Don't use AV' actually use STV, a more proportional form of voting, far removed from the FPP system, including India where around 21% of the world's population lives; Brazil (3.7%) and Russia (2.7%) and 23 members of the EU including Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece and Poland, use STV.  The French system, whilst not precisely identical to AV is very close to it, and more similar to it than FPP.  The suggestion is that if you do not use AV the only alternative is FPP, whereas, in fact, most democratic countries have gone for something very different and more proportional.

The final element of the publicity is down right hilarious.  It turns history on its head.  Having said that the Liberal Democrats, correctly, are the only party which is wholly behind AV (many Labour and some support it Conservatives support it, though ironically not the BNP), then they associate it with the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats.  The publicity says 'AV leads to broken promises', saying that Clegg reneged on his promises not to allow job cuts, a VAT increase, the raising of university tuition fees and the cuts in public spending.  However, I ask how did AV lead to this?  AV is not in place.  We had these broken promises under the FPP system which is how the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power.  Interestingly, there is no mention of David Cameron and the Conservatives, the strongest critics of AV and the party with its virulent monetarist approach which has brought about all these cuts.  They, of course, kept these policies secret before the election.  Clegg is portrayed as only supporting AV as a way to save the Liberal Democrats at the next election, despite the fact that the Liberal Democrats have been pressing for electoral reform since the 1990s and one reason why they fell out with Tony Blair, was, after his huge electoral win in 1997, he was no longer willing to consider electoral reform despite what he had been promising the Liberal Democrats 1994-7, in preparation for a potentially hung parliament in 1997 when he possibly would have formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and so, as David Cameron has had to face now, also allow a referendum on electoral reform.  If this was the case, would not the Conservatives be ardent supporters of it too?  Even loyal supporters of theirs have begun defecting to UKIP. 

The argument is simply that AV would give more seats to Liberal Democrats and so there would be more hung parliaments and more deals involving the Liberal Democrats.  This totally ignores the democratic principle, the Liberal Democrats, even now are heavily under-represented for the amount of support they have constantly commanded at elections.  In addition, ironically, without the Liberal Democrats then the Conservatives, would, at best from their view, have a minority government now and would not be in a position to implement these 'broken promises' policies which they argue are necessary for the country's welfare.  This line of argument is utterly bizarre and turns chronology upside down.  It also neglects the fact that the Liberal Democrats actually want STV and have only been compelled by their comparative weakness to accept AV.  It seems incredible that the No campaign can twist facts around so extremely and somehow make it appear that Clegg alone is responsible for the harsh policies we are suffering.  With AV this situation, in fact would have long been avoided.

David Cameron has cleverly buried the issue and the only electoral 'reform' will be his gerrymandering of constituencies to ensure a Conservative majority at the next election and the foreseeable future.  In the meantime we are being patronised by campaigners who think that the British electorate, pretty used to STV, lacks the intelligence to engage with AV and so can be told distortions.

P.P. 23/04/2011
I have now updated last year's posting looking at the impact of PR on the 2010 general election to also consider how the situation would have turned out if AV had been in place: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2010/05/what-if-proportional-representation-had.html

P.P. 07/05/2011
As I had anticipated, AV was defeated in the referendum, though by a wider margin than I had envisaged, 70%:30% on a 41% turnout of electors.  It is interesting that in some districts, however, in Glasgow, Cambridge and parts of London the method received a majority 'Yes'.  This was exactly the outcome that David Cameron not only hoped for but engineered through the timing of the referendum.  In addition, he was aided by a very misleading 'No' campaign, notably supported by the 'Daily Mail'.  I was sickened by its headline today 'The Day British People Stood Up For Democracy'.  That is downright insulting to people fighting for democracy across North Africa and the Middle East at present.  Despite how the newspaper portrayed it, the referendum was not about saving or abolishing democracy, just different ways of running elections in a democracy.  However, to the 'Daily Mail' even to suggest a minor challenge to the way things have always been done is an a grave affront.  The system that is retained means that votes of around 50-60% of voters are disregarded in any general election.  You can argue, that anyway, the UK is little better than a semi-democracy given that, still, the upper house of parliament is entirely unelected.

Of course, the view that our method of choosing and running government is the best in the world is one that is held widely.  However, it seems with the coming changes to constituencies even this is going to be eroded further and I suspect that the 'Daily Mail' will make no complaint as Cameron builds a system that allows the Conservatives to remain in power for decades.  Cameron as a unionist will bitterly oppose the steps by the SNP, now with a clear majority in the Scottish parliament, to move towards independence for Scotland.  However, ironically, if he permitted it, then he would eliminate on average 40 Labour MPs from the Westminster parliament, making his goal of an elective dictatorship that much easier.  AV was probably the last chance we had to see off the further erosion of democracy in the UK by ensuring that even with the constituency re-arrangement there would be a greater chance of a wider range of parties being represented in parliament than will now be the case.

In many ways I wish the 'Daily Mail' would just be honest and say that actually it does not support democracy and would prefer a Conservative authoritarian state to be imposed, because then at least we would not have to see such hypocritical headlines.  I have long noted the erosion of civil liberties in the UK under the Blair and Brown governments.  Whilst this had seemed to slow up in recent months, Jan Culik, lecturer in Czech Studies at University of Glasgow, writing to 'The Guardian' this week noted how the police approach towards potential protestors at the royal wedding last week, was the same as that used by the Czechoslovak Communist regime in the 1970s and 1980s.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Most Dystopian Pop Song

Last month I was walking around a large branch of Marks & Spencer, the clothing retailer which for many years has also sold housewares and food.  The customer profile of the store is predominantly people aged 55-75, so born sometime between 1936-1956, and in their twenties 1956-1985.  Thus, I guess that it was unsurprising that the music playing in the store was from the late 1960s which falls pretty much in the period when the bulk of the customers were aware of the popular music scene or those songs were still lingering on radio play lists.  Currently it seems to fit with the styles in the store.  Much of the women's wear is based on 1970s styles, making the wearers resemble the character of Margot from 'The Good Life' (1975-8) but in homewares a lot of crockery has a more style and especially iconography of the mid-1960s, with lots of emphasis on London, the kind of thing you might expect to see in Mrs. Peel's flat in 'The Avengers' (1961-9; Peel era: 1965-8). Of course, not everyone in there was over 55, but interestingly there is a lot of cross-generational shopping groups, notably mothers shopping with daughters and quite often with grandchild too.

Anyway, I was walking around browsing to the sounds of 'Waterloo Sunset' (1967) by The Kinks and then 'In The Year 2525' (1968; though it did not chart until 1969/70) by Zager and Evans, a real oddity of 1960s pop music which rather jarred with the jolly crockery and summer shades of clothing.  However, I guess it is supposed to be background music rather than you actually paying attention to it.  It is interesting how the record has endured despite its very bleak message.  The record was produced by Denny Zager and Rick Evans from Nebraska along with Dave Trupp and Mark Dalton, collectively known as Zager and Evans.  It was written in 1964 and recorded in 1968 but it took over a year to get into the charts, but reach number 1 in the USA and the UK.  By 1970 the single had sold over 4 million copies and to date it has sold 10 million.  It effectively became a 'one-hit wonder' as the follow-up single, 'Mr. Turnkey' was too bleak for customers to stomach being about about a rapist who nails his own wrists to a prison cell wall.

I accept that 'In The Year 2525' probably fitted in with the futuristic feel of the period, it reached the top of the US charts at the time the manned mission arrived on the Moon.  However, it is a bleak pondering of the future of mankind, and, as one might expect from two men who met at the Nebraska Wesleyan University, it actually has religious aspects to it.  I doubt that many listeners actually considered the lyrics very deeply and that like 'Spirit In The Sky' (1969) by Norman Greenbaum with its clearly Christian message and 'My Sweet Lord' (1970), the George Harrison version, the only Hare Krishna focused song ever to enter the charts (to my knowledge) the distinctiveness of the music simply carries the listerner along.

'In The Year 2525' is an example of how to draw the listener in.  It starts very slowly with the vocalist's voice dominant: 'In the year 2525/ if man is still alive / and if woman can survive / they may find ...'  (the year is said as 'twenty-five, twenty-five'), then for the rest of the song until the conclusion, it moves through at a break-neck speed, jumping from century to century pondering all the problems that man is likely to bring down on himself.  Given that it was written in 1964, it is pretty much ahead of its time.  I have read magazines from 1964 in which the damage to the ozone layer from CFCs in aerosols was warned about but it was 5-10 years before environmental concerns. 

It is not unusual for heavy metal and goth bands to record bleak songs, it is far more atypical for a pretty mainstream (though to the fringes of this, I accept) rock band to go with such a song.  It has been re-recorded by artists such as gothic Fields of the Nephilim, industrial Laibach, techno new romantics Visage, German electronic Project Pitchfork and kind of indie Ian Brown.  I do wonder what those versions sound like.  It would be interesting to find out as a different arrangement may not work because it lacked the operatic-style fast-paced drive of the original.

It is probably easiest if I lay out the entire lyrics and then comment on parts in turn.

In the year 2525
If man is still alive
If woman can survive
They may find...

In the year 3535
Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lies
Everything you think, do, and say
Is in the pill you took today

In the year 4545
Ain't gonna need your teeth, won't need your eyes
You won't find a thing chew
Nobody's gonna look at you

In the year 5555
Your arms are hanging limp at your sides
Your legs not got nothing to do
Some machine is doing that for you

In the year 6565
Ain't gonna need no husband, won't need no wife
You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too
From the bottom of a long glass tube

In the year 7510
If God's a-comin' he ought to make it by then
Maybe he'll look around himself and say
'Guess it's time for the Judgement day'
In the year 8510
God is gonna shake his mighty head
He'll either say 'I'm pleased where man has been'
Or tear it down and start again

In the year 9595
I'm kinda wondering if man is gonna be alive
He's taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain't put back nothing

Now it's been 10,000 years
Man has cried a billion tears
For what he never knew
Now man's reign is through
But through the eternal night
The twinkling of starlight
So very far away
Maybe it's only yesterday

In the year 2525
If man is still alive
If woman can survive
They may find

In the year 3535
Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lies
Everything you think, do or say
Is in the pill you took today ... [fade]

The song was written by Evans.  Many of the concerns are ones that we can identify as being part of 20th century science fiction.  The idea of a pill to give you your opinions is pretty much like 'better a gram than a damn' from 'Brave New World' (1932) by Aldous Huxley which is set in the year 2540.  Similarly that novel features children being grown in test tubes such as in the 'long glass tube' mentioned for 6565.  Commentators note that such concepts were not commonly discussed among the public at the time.  However, the book had sold well internationally and had been dramatised on CBS radio in the USA in 1956.  In addition, remember that Evans and Zager were university students in the early 1960s so would have been exposed, like many US teenagers and students to the extensive range of 'pulp' science fiction magazines of the time and science fiction novels and short stories.  The belief that, in the future that robots would take over so many chores was one that endured right through the 1960s and 1970s, so the sense of us becoming limp as robots did everything for us was again, a not overly-challenging suggestion. 

What is interesting is how already, in Zager and Evans's lifetimes so many of these things have become true.  If we think of Prozac and how many people have been prescribed it in the USA a country long obsessed with correcting the mental health of people.  Test-tube babies became a reality by the late 1970s and now we are even cloning sheep.  These things have been happening decades rather than centuries after the song.  Whilst household robots have not appeared, the 'limpness' of the human body is with us, notably in the USA where in 2009 all states had between 19-30% of their populations deemed to be obese, rather than simply overweight.  On average this means about something like 75 million Americans are obese.  The general comment about man taking out of the Earth and not putting back in, touches on the kind of environmental damage we have been witnessing for centuries, but notably through the late 19th century and the 20th century and is still continuing as flooding, global warming and acid rain show.

The song slows down for what is the final verse before the reprise.  It suggests that man will eliminate himself as the 'reigning' species.  It leaves it open whether God will clear it away instead.  From 7510 onwards God is shown considering whether to have judgement day.  It is interesting he ponders this for anothet two centuries, though I guess if you are eternal this is not very long.  I tend to envisage this rather than the Second Coming, something more like the Flood.  God promised humans that he would not repeat this, but the suggestion in the song is that humankind has so wasted the gift of Earth that it all needs to be cleaned out like a sewer.

I know this is only a pop song and not a philosophical consideration of the future of humankind.  However, it fascinates me that a song which rather than portraying fun or love but rather questions consumerism and technology and how this interacts with religion could be chart-topping.  It also seems a very ironic song to be playing in a shop which is pandering to consumerism, trying to get people to buy more and more.  I know Marks & Spencer tries to avoid exploitative production of its items and waste of the World's resources, but it is part of a consumerist system which actually is rapidly draining out so much.  I do wonder, sometimes if we will survive to 2125 let alone the year 2525.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

TV Settlement Re-enactment Programmes: The Next Generation?

Back in 2008, I wrote about television programmes which took ordinary people and had them live for a time as people in a particular time period: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2008/09/why-tv-historical-settlement-re.html   Since the 1970s this has been a increasingly popular genre, one that in turn fascinated and horrified me.  My key problem with the programmes was that the people who had been selected to participate often could not cope at all and either constantly whined about being separated from their boyfriends or sneaked in anachronistic make-up, or conversely, in a high status role, used their position to lord it over others.  There was a constant demand for modern day attitudes and the respect of the 'me first' behaviour so prevalent in today's society which led to the break down of scenarios in which people had to buckle under, and, vitally work incredibly hard, far harder than the vast majority of people (at least in Western society) work today.  To some degree it led me to wonder if what was effectively turning into a 'Big Brother' television style of historical programming was going to grind to a halt.

Even while I was writing this, creeping up, hidden away on channels like BBC3 which at the time I could not even receive, was a new approach which I believe has clearly addressed the sort of concerns I raised back in 2008 and has thus allowed fascinating and highly informative re-enactment programmes to be produced.  This trend has saved the genre, and, importantly, has provided accessible historical programmes, something we always need.  The last of what I see as the old format of re-enactment series, which began with 'Coal House' (2007), 'Coal House at War' (2008) and now 'Snowdonia 1890' in northern rather than southern Wales.  I guess given that these are made by Welsh television and people, certainly in the first two series are living where some people who really experienced the events of 1927 and 1944 which featured in the series, there is a bit more gravitas, though not having seen much of the series I can comment for sure.

Of course, some programmes, have gone down the more 'game show' approach, shifting from one popular approach, the 'Big Brother' one to a more directly competitive one.  The extreme example is 'Ben Fogle's Escape In Time' which ran initially in July 2010 in which two families were based on the Acton Scott farm, which was featured in the documentary series, 'Victorian Farm' (2009) and have to make the best job of whatever task they are set that day, such as ploughing or mucking out.  Their efforts are judged by experts who as in some of the more documentary style series make judgements on how well they have done.  As seen in 'The 1940s House' (2001) experts can be capricious and sometimes pretty anachronistic in their judgements.  I guess this highlights that it is not only the participants that can find it hard to separate modern day assumptions from the experiences, especially the work, of the past. 

A similar though less extremely competitive was 'Turn Back Time - The High Street' (2011).  In this series shopkeepers from today took over empty shops in Shepton Mallett and each week ran them as if they were in a certain era going from the late Victorian period to the 1970s in stages.  One advantage over many re-enactment programmes was that these people actually knew the trade they were going into.  However, the three judging experts (including chef Gregg Wallace and social historian Juliet Gardiner), who unlike the participants and expert visitors, never bothered to dress up in the clothing of the time, made capricious decisions; the dressmaker suddenly had to run a hairdresser's; the couple who were bakers in real life were compelled to switch their baking and retail roles when in the scenario.  The profits of each were measured in a competitive way, but that was an unnecessary element for what was otherwise an interesting series.  Giving them more time in each era would have helped.  The dressmaker took a week to make a dress that was then obsolete by the following week, so constantly found it near impossible to make much income.  They were better on things such as the adulteration of food in the 19th century and the issues of wartime rationing and the black market; these things gave drama enough.

I seem to have come at this issue from the wrong end, featuring more of the same in terms of quality, and in some ways, a deterioration in re-enactment programmes towards yet another series of 'reality' game shows, which primarily seem to delight in setting one group of people against another in order to derive the greatest bitterness from them.  This, however, neglects, what I see as a much healthier trend developing in re-enactment programmes.  Perhaps it can be traced back to 'Living with the Tudors' (2007), not really a re-enactment in itself, but a documentary based on participatory social science research about re-enactors at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk, Europe's oldest and largest re-enactment centre.  The programme took four years to make and the directors, Kate Guthrie and Nina Pope, were also participants, learning from the people working at the centre.  Importantly, a key flaw of many of the re-enactment programmes I have discussed, i.e. whingeing volunteers trying to impose contemporary assumptions on what they are doing, was avoided.

Though started after 'Living with the Tudors', but broadcast in 2005, was 'Tales from the Green Valley'.  This really signalled a new era in re-enactment programmes and introduced us to 'stars' of this genre.  This programme involved four experts working on a Welsh farm as if the year was 1620, so the early Stuart period.  The work was incredibly hard but though they did not know everything about the era before they started, the five presenters, Chloe Spencer, John Letts, Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Alexander Langlands, were historians and archaeologists with at least a passing knowledge of historical behaviour.  In addition, vitally, they were willing to buckle down and work incredibly hard even while eating period food.  Each week guest experts to talk about particular farming methods, entertainment, construction, etc., came in, appearing in period costume; sometimes relatives of the presenters would come along to help too.  The programme was both incredibly informative but also engaging in a way so many re-enactment series have failed to be.  For Goodman, Ginn and Langlands, it was the start of a new career.  These three have gone on to appear in very similar series, 'Victorian Farm' (2009) at Acton Scott farm in Shropshire and 'Edwardian Farm' (2010) in at Morwellham Quay in Devon.  Not only did they try out genuine farming methods, construction, handicrafts and cooking from the relevant periods, but they also worked, especially in the Edwardian era, on industrial projects.  Burning lime or mining ore or cleaning a great house shows the resilience of the presenters.  I suppose they have a love for the participation. 

If you visit Goodman's and Ginn's websites, you can see they make a living lecturing on social history, but also in projects, reconstructing aspects of a particular period.  Goodman also appeared in 'Victorian Pharmacy' (2010) along with historians Nick Barber and Tom Quick.  The pharmacy was located at Blists Hill, a re-enactment Victorian town, not far from the Acton Scott farm.  This was a less demanding series for the participants, but was fascinating all the same.  Again the programme is useful in actually testing out what we know about how things worked at the time, but provides gentle entertainment. I have seen Goodman so often in period costume, that when I saw her in contemporary dress on 'The One Show' in September 2010 she somehow looked wrong.  Comically one of the regular presenters Christine Bleakley immediately apologised for Goodman's language (the programme being live) because she referred to the 'shitty jobs' that children from Victorian workhouses went into.  That incident was funny given how much credibility Goodman has compared to presenters like Bleakley who seem to thrive on making a fuss about trivia rather than getting to grips with what many of our ancestors really experienced. I imagine there were tensions between the presenters at times on recent re-enactment programmes, but whilst we are not spared seeing the hardships of working hard in bad weather, we do not get people whining to camera about how hard it is and that somehow they deserve privileged treatment. 

Re-enactment is big business in the UK as locations such as Blists Hill, Morwellham Quay and Kentwell Hall demonstrate.  I suppose to some extent there will always be a simplification for visitors, that goes for any museum.  However, I believe in the latest crop of documentary-style re-enactment programmes, that the right balance has been found in how they are presented, something which has been missing for thirty years from such programmes shown on British television, whether made in the UK or USA.  I trust now that a template has been set that will allow us to avoid yet more whining participants, who were really only there to get on television, not to be part of a project, and seemingly with no understanding beforehand of just how incredibly hard this kind of work is.  The bulk of us do not have the energy and tenacity to do such hard work and should stay well away from it.  I accept that more populist versions of re-enactment programmes are a stepping stone for people to engage with social history.  'Turn Back Time - The High Street', probably was just off the right balance, better, more involved 'judges' not making capricious decisions and not expecting miracles in a week would have made it an excellent series.  I am glad that we have moved in this country, to a better approach to re-enactment television.  It is a fascinating, educating genre with gentle entertainment, and when it is handled well, it provides excellent television, when handled, as it has too often in the past, it is just an encouragement to switch off.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Me And Asperger's

It is interesting the impact that genealogy (tracing family trees) can have.  A friend of mine once said that all the people he ever met doing that (and he spent a lot of time in local record offices) were convinced that they were somehow related to the Royal Family.  I met one women who certainly was not convinced of that, as she knew that for many generations her family had served royals on a particular estate.  Finding out genealogical information is the second greatest use of searching on the internet after seeking out pornography.  My own family got into tracing their family back in the 1970s long before there was a public internet and anyone had even thought of computerising censuses.  There were certainly on online discussion groups around particular names or database software to lay it out sensibly.  They managed to get back into the mid-19th century before the paper-based resources ran out.  Of course, most of us are descended from labourers and only occasionally some ancestor who was interesting pops up, usually for doing something that would have been condemned at the time, such as committing a crime or adultery or running away to London.  One friend of mine found out his mother had lived on estates in India where her father was a manager and then moved to Mesopotamia (now Iraq) where he oversaw road building.  Despite a range of photos from the 1930s she would not talk about it and now she is dead that slice of a colonial life is gone.  Another friend's relative was a female script writer who left Scotland to work in Hollywood in the 1920s, presumably given some credit on some silent movies, maybe under a pseudonym at a time when very few women were in that line of business.

Anyway, this is not a posting about genealogy though it does touch on inheritance and discussion of what now seems clear that I suffer to some extent from Asperger's Syndrome, was triggered by a cousin of my mother's exploring her family tree.  I had absolutely no memory of her, though apparently we had met when I was a child in the 1970s.  It turned out that we lived 48Km apart and for five years I had been working in the town where she lived; if I had been able to secure a post I was interviewed for late last year, her son would have fallen into my remit, totally unbeknown to either of us.  I have not ascertained her age, but there has to have been some generation slippage as she is far closer to my age than that of my mother, but I guess that happens when one sibling marries early and has children young and another does it much later, especially if this then repeated by their children.  When at primary school I had friends who were already uncles.  Anyway, she had been carrying out genealogical research and emailed me to ask if I was interested in seeing what she had uncovered.  I have no memory of meeting her mother but knew the woman by reputation due to her three marriages and her involvement with political movements abroad, things that enter the folk memory of a family far down the different branches of the tree. 

We got into discussion about common ancestors and she also spoke about her children, ranging from grown-up to primary school age.  She mentioned a number had conditions on the autistic spectrum, which encompasses things such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger's and autism itself, all with varying degrees.  This brought back to mind an informal diagnosis I had had three years back in which it was suggested that I had Asperger's.  I did not want a formal diagnosis as I feared it would count against me in job applications.  Mental health issues still seem to remain a taboo subject and one for which covert discrimination is rarely challenged.  When raising the issue of me possibly having Asperger's with my immediate family, I received completely no response and a kind of metaphorical awkward shuffling of embarrassment that I might be daring to say that such a condition could have been passed down to me. 

Bascially, the characteristics of someone with Asperger's are as follows: at least average and often high level of intelligence but difficulty with high-level language skills including reasoning and problem solving as well as taking things literally, a challenge in our coded and euphemistic society.  They may lack of empathy with others partly through an inability to see another person's point of view.  This can hamper close relationships with people.  The emphasis on focused tasks is a commonly known trait of people with autism with people referencing Dustin Hoffman's autistic character in 'Rain Man' (1988).  People with Asperger's might find it difficult to chat or have 'small talk' because in many ways there are far more important things to be thinking and talking about.  They may be unable to control anger, depression and other worries.  Though, saying that, seeing all the road rage and anger which you witness on a daily basis, I do wonder if that is now a trait of the bulk of the population.  Perhaps the challenge is that they cannot articulate their concerns well or through lacking empathy with others, see these challenges as being just for them alone.  The adherence to personal rules and rules set by others is another well-known trait as is a focus on a particular pastime or activity.  Again, many people like to structure their lives and in certain jobs and in studying these are in fact real strengths.  The challenge for others is the stress the individual experiences when their routine is broken.  However, I have also seen the positive side.  Having worked occasionally with people with degrees of autism, I know how hard they work. 

Another trait is talking at length on a subject.  In the past that would have been less of an issue, but these days when everyone wants everything communicated very quickly, the enjoyment or the need someone with Asperger's gets from outlining on their favourite subject, is actually seen as unacceptable.  People with Asperger's often tend to misinterpret body language or other cues.  However, I believe that they also have a different valuation of what is in fact important or the truth.  Often today, many people put much emphasis on very frivolous subjects and present themselves as things they are not, things which are an anathema to a person with Asperger's. Thus, while there is more recognition of the condition, how it manifests itself may now be less acceptable in society than it would have been 50 years ago when someone with Asperger's would have simply been put down as a 'windbag', a 'bore' or 'eccentric'. 

Reflecting with my distant relative about my grandfather and his generation of the family, we certainly can now see rather obsessive traits that were seen as cranky at the time, as traits of Asperger's.  Apparently men are three to ten times more likely to manifest Asperger's than women are, though given that the symptoms are different between the two genders the ratio, as yet, is not clear.  However, with current knowledge it certainly seems that with my mother and her cousin it could easily have skipped a generation going through women.  Examples of my grandfather's Asperger's-type behaviour include his inability to empathise with anyone else's situation even that of his wife and child; his obsessive driving across Europe in a matter of days; his ability to retain large amounts of information by memory.  Until the 1960s the ability to recite poems from memory or play a piano with no sheet music were admired, but are now skills that are seen as rather 'odd'.  Asperger's is hereditary and given what my relative from that side of the family has experienced as well as my own circumstances, suggests it has gone down through the blood line.

I certainly seem to tick many of the Asperger's boxes.  I went to university at a time when only 6% of the UK population did which suggests that I have above average intelligence.  I am very focused on my hobbies, over 700 postings to my blog in under 4 years probably shows that.  My postings show my focus on 'the truth' and insisting that it is heard, often at length.  When looking at the Changing The Times website I saw just how much more I write about a counter-factual than the average contributor.  Being able to expound on a topic sometimes very complex ones and see its structure, has helped me when running staff training sessions.  I have become aware of not overwhelming people and keeping it bite-sized chunks.  Ironically, I usually use far fewer Powerpoint slides than my colleagues.  However, it might have come from me having to work at such things in the past where as these colleagues have never questioned their approaches.  I have turned my focus on topics into an enthusiasm which is often infectious, so that has turned it into a positive.  My standard structuring of content and slides, probably fitting the issue of routine, has meant some people find what I produce repetitive.  Certainly in my daily life I did adhere when living alone to a pattern, doing the same chores on the same days, and eating the same meals.  Living with a woman and her child has helped bring variety and when we part I will probably go back to my set pattern, though with more ideas, certainly for recipes, if not for doing laundry on another day to Monday.

Asperger's sufferers' tendency to adhere to certain rules, probably explains why I made so many mistakes when dealing with women and that I had no sexual partners until I was 34. It is interesting as at the time, when I was walking away from a potential relationship I could almost step outside myself and seeing I was doing something that was going to make me unhappy and yet was not able to take the step and make myself say the right thing. Issues around avoiding embarrassment and also, importantly, having low esteem after all the derogatory remarks I received over the years from teachers, my parents and other children, which I can recall word-for-word even today, made me feel I was not worthy of going out with that woman.

The greatest problems for me have come in the workplace.  I have to tell the truth, I recognise that now.  In addition, if I am asked to research something and report, I try to do this as thoroughly as I can and most people working in offices cannot cope with that.  They simply want short answers that confirm the view they already hold.  I know having to accept that is actually physically uncomfortable for me as I have to let it lie.  The focus on brevity is also a problem, as the tolerable length of phonecalls and emails seems to fall every year and I am racing to keep up as to just how far I need to cut down the information I am providing.  In many ways as I have posted recently, I do not think this is a useful approach in business as it leads to people overlooking any conflicting or challenging information and ignoring potential pitfalls that they could be alerted to.  We need a culture shift in which those seeing potential problems are not condemned but rather seen as protecting the company from making mistakes that could have been foreseen. 

In terms of empathy I believe I am out of step with the standard Asperger's profile.  I can often connect with people facing stresses.  This often makes me unpopular with management that sees me as 'having gone native'.  However, I believe all workers of every level need respect and an appreciation of the stresses that are being imposed on them especially at times of upheaval in the company or more broadly in the economy and society.  It may be because I have a very accurate memory of many incidents that often occurred 35 years or more ago.  I have been through so many embarrassing and stressful situations that I cannot only call to mind but often haunt me, that even if I cannot understand what the individual is precisely experiencing I can recall my feelings during a similar situation.  So, maybe, my empathy is second hand, but it works better than those who seem to shut down any empathetic sense they may have as a 'weakness' inappropriate for business.  Perhaps if you are a loan shark or an assassin then it is inappropriate, but for the average office or shop job, it certainly is not.

People with Asperger's are supposed not to realise when they have made social faux pas.  I have the completly opposite problem.  I am often unable to make myself avoid saying things which are going to cause embarrassment, but am immediately aware of the embarrassment caused, it is almost a physical thing, I can sense the wave of embarrassment sweeping through the room.  Subsequently such incidents will haunt me and something I said wrongly back in the 1980s will be replayed vividly in my mind, pricking me with the embarrassment yet again as if it had happened only moments before. This has made me a very cautious person and very nervous of getting into any situations that have the potential to lead to embarrassment. 

I know we all blush when embarrassed but I feel distinctly uncomfortable through my entire body, with my stomach screwing up and I feel very nervous when witnessing other people in embarrassing situations, even if it is simply a character on television.  I cannot watch scenes in which people have no chance to get out of a situation or they suffer simply as the result of the caprice of someone else.  In real life I hate seeing people arrested and will walk away or in one case gave a stranger £20 so he could pay his train fare rather than me having to witness him being fined.  To some degree I have an over-empathy even with complete strangers and can see myself precisely in their situation.  This seems counter to one of the standard traits of Asperger's but as all the advice notes, the symptoms vary a great deal between individuals.

Possibly more characteristic were other phobias that used to be strong in me when a child.  One thing I loathed, again with an almost physical reaction was being compelled to wear a badge or a sticker with any writing on it. Even now I avoid teeshirts with designs on the front and though I can tolerate a small logo over the breast pocket, I am physically conscious of it being there as if it was on my skin rather than my clothes.  Another one was what friends and I called 'ticketaphobia' the fear that I would lose a train ticket (usually envisaging it falling down that crack between the train and the platform) and so would get into trouble.  I also avoided going into shops just to browse, convinced that I would be accused wrongly of shoplifting.  If I had nothing to buy in the shop I would wait outside; some shops were worse than others, I remember I would stay away from one local toyshop in particular, I believe, because I had seen them accuse people of shoplifting when I had been in there.  When at university, asking among a group of 15 friends, I found out I was the only one who had never shoplifted.  I once witnessed a friend do it and was very distraught.  These days with electronic tags it is far harder back in the 1970s it seems that shoplifting by children was endemic, but not for me, I could not even stomach others doing it let alone myself.

Since looking into Asperger's I have become aware that I probably process information differently to other people.  When reading about how autistic people tend to believe that anything they know must be know universally even if it is kept concealed, I realised it showed a different way of processing.  I think the one example of this I have been aware of longest is that when I read some information or a story, I immediately associate it in my mind's eye with an image of a location, usually one I have visited.  Now, the place may have nothing to do with the details or the information or of the story but it becomes a kind of 'tag' which is triggered when I come back to the book or article.  I realise that trying to stop that happening missed a trick when I was at school.  I should have developed it and developed a kind of visual library in my mind, a quite reference system back to the information or story.  I find now that a lot of my writing is triggered by images rather than other input such as sounds or smells.  Certainly the focus on a task and ability to keep details in my mind often for years, really helps doing creative writing and that is one aspect of the condition that has helped my hobby and may explain why I started doing it in the first place.

Another issue though, is other things I obsess about.  Perhaps this is why people with Asperger's have a tendency to get so angry or depressed, we cannot let the thing triggering those feelings, go from our minds.  There are a few examples of useless things that worry me regularly that are unlikely ever to happen so simply just waste my brain power.  One is that I keep considering what would happen to me if I was thrown back in time.  It has two formats, either I worry about driving on roads in the 1970s or finding work in the Victorian period or surviving with diabetes in the Middle Ages or I reflect if I was taken back 5 or 15 years in my own life and begin thinking of all the different decisions I could/should have made to lead to a better life.  These are regular thoughts in my mind which come back like a sore muscle.  It was naturally exacerbated by watching 'Life on Mars' and 'Ashes to Ashes' especially as they sent the characters back in time to periods I had lived through.  If I could relive my life I would have avoided watching those series however good they may have been. 

A similar example, when using things like biscuits, bread or milk is I begin to worry about being in a nuclear bunker and dealing with the situation when one particular item ran out.  I blame this on all the depressing programmes I had to sit through in my youth about what would happen to us if there was a nuclear war.  Those worries were thrust so forcefully into our lives as children that is probably not surprising that someone like me with my condition, still is concerned with then 20-30 years later.  I have certainly avoided watching the movie 'Blast From The Past' (1999) about a man coming out from having lived with his parents in a nuclear bunker all his life.

The other trait is having empathy for inanimate objects.  I know that I am not alone in this, it was a trait of the character Monica Geller played by Courteney Cox Arquette in the long-running comedy series 'Friends' (1994-2004).  She kept bottles of milk next to each other because she was afraid of upsetting them if she separated them in the fridge.  I do precisely the same, seeing 'families' and 'couples' among products on supermarket shelves and even among biscuits in a jar.  I know it is a ridiculous concept, but it something I have lived with all my life and cannot seem to shake.  I guess this stems from people with Asperger's wanting to adhere to a routine, as similarly I used to always wash out a glass three times to symbolise the Trinity even though I was not at all religious.  Similarly I tap biscuits on the table before eating them, as if I was a sailor from the time of Admiral Nelson.  Back in the 1970s when there was a lot on people remembering former lives, I thought I must be a reincarnation of such a sailor still adhering to old habits.

I think my great difficulty in learning foreign languages, in sharp contrast to the rest of my nuclear family may be explained by Asperger's.  I certainly have a very poor short-term memory and have to flick back and forth between one page or one webpage and another to get information across.  I think I package up foreign words in my brain in a way which means I forget them quickly.  I certainly can only retain one foreign language in my brain at one time.  Travelling to France after having been in West Germany for four months back in the 1980s I found myself almost entirely unable to speak French any longer.  I had no problem speaking English but when I tried to address a French person all that came out was German.  Most notably was the immense difficulty I had in remembering any Chinese characters even in simplified format.

The same problem applies to people's names, I can forget them within a matter of seconds of hearing them.  This makes it very hard when being introduced to a group all at once.  It was one reason why I failed as a school teacher as generally you have to learn 240 pupils' names in the first week of teaching in a secondary school.  That and the fact that I gave them more information in a class than you would get these days on the topic in a university lecture.  For some reason I have never been able to translate my association of novel-with-place to name-with-face.  Recently I have noticed I have even forgotten people's faces if I have not seen them for a while and have been surprised to meet someone again who I had remembered as looking very differently, and even of a different height.  This packaging of information and difficulty in getting certain information to stay in my short-term memory long enough to make it into my long-term memory, I believe also explains my inability to remember martial arts moves.  Perhaps also it is an issue of lack of physical co-ordination, an issue when I played sports as a child and balancing on a bicycle.  Given my clumsiness, I suppose I get no 'muscle memory' either, making it harder to recall the move.  Twelve years of studying Aikido and eight years of studying French have shown me that I am never going to have the mind that allows me to engage with either and, in fact I have forgotten all but a few crumbs of either skill.  It is frustrating given how well I can remember embarrasing incidents from the 1970s; why cannot I at least remember some of my French lessons as well?  I guess it is because they lacked the emotional discomfort that the incidents had to imprint them in my memory. 

I do not know if the diagnosis undermines what I have said on here before about British people having difficulties with languages and martial arts being far harder than the clubs make out.  However, even if you exempt me from the equation, I cannot remember the last time I actually met a British person who could speak any foreign languages, certainly not well, probably back in the early 2000s, so they cannot be that common even among the non-Asperger's British public.  Similarly, you do not meet black belts or even brown belts in Aikido or Karate down every street, so it must be pretty hard.

So, how does this stronger confirmation of what I have help me?  As readers of this blog know, anger and depression are things I have wrestled with over the last few years.  However, I do not think I suffer from them any more than the average person in the UK in these times.  Perhaps bringing me out of these situations needs a different approach from myself and those around me.  Working on anger management through Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) methods seems to have helped me a great deal.  Apparently looking at behaviour can help people with Asperger's avoid making blunders in social circumstances.  Despite everything that has been going wrong for me since really December 2009, I am more positive than I was even three years ago and certainly better able to cope with the challenges of computer systems not working and idiotic behaviour when on the road.  I also think I was in a spiral, because not being able to do much about either issue, getting angry was a narcotic that gave moments of relief and became pretty addictive.  Certainly now, I do not think I am simply out-of-step with 'normal' behaviour in the way people tell me basically when I will not kow-tow to  them.  I think differently, I accept that, but that does not mean I am wrong.  In fact it seems to help me to address people who also find themselves wondering what the rules are in the UK context, hence working well with people from China and other states outside Europe.  I think if I can assign certain behaviour to 'oh, that is the Asperger's speaking' then I can challenge it without feeling that I am challenging my whole approach to life.  I can categorise different elements and filter them accordingly.  I do not think I will ever shed my commitment to speaking the truth and I support all who do.  I might have a different way of engaging empathetically with people, but I do feel passionately that everyone's voice is equal and no-one should be shut down simply because of what they are.

Living in the 2010s is probably one of the worst times for people with Asperger's and we would have done better back in the 1910s.  This is because of the growing emphasis in society on how things appear rather than how they are in reality.  Someone with Asperger's will always have something to say about the difference between the two.  The emphasis on everything fitting into a tweet rather than being a proper exposition is also going to make it hard for us.  Empathy is increasingly seen as a weakness, though I think that the issue of empathy differs between what the person feels and how they express it and people with Asperger's are just as human(e) in their feelings as anyone else, often more so due to the prejudices they have suffered.  The positive aspects are that we can blog and we can find people who share our hobbies right across the world, very easily, so isolation is not a problem.  Given how poor so much social behaviour is, social faux pas made by people with Asperger's will be far less obvious.  Having Asperger's does not make you call a woman a 'whore' or a man a 'twat', that is done so commonly and derogatively by 'normal' people.  Our problem solving skills may be different, but I believe they are strong because we can hold an idea in our minds for long periods and look at it from so many sides and that is a useful if overlooked skill.  Knowing that I have Asperger's to whatever degree I do, makes some things make sense.  I know it does not hamper my ability to do a job well, in fact, in many tasks it helps.  However, for now, it is probably safest to appreciate that for myself and not risk sharing it with family and (potential) employers.

P.P.  Having drafted this posting and spoken, in passing, to my parents about my plans to go for an official diagnosis (so far I have had advice from professionals dealing with the condition but nothing written on paper) I was stunned by the reaction of my father.  He rung up and bellowed at me that the condition does not actually exist; denied that the genealogist relative was actually any relation of mine, saying that her father was not in fact her true father and then accusing me of living in a 'fantasy world'.  I said that I accepted he might have a different viewpoint on Asperger's.  I have worked with people who have denied that even dyslexia exists and have treated sufferers simply as malingerers, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  I said he was entitled to hold that opinion though I disagreed with it, I would not insult him in the way he had me.  I did challenge him for ringing up simply to insult me.

I think his problem is that he has always believed in a eugenic approach, that people born with particular conditions should not be helped to survive.  He does not go as far as to say that people with genetic conditions should be sterilised or killed, but he is clearly on the path to old-fashioned eugenic views.  I remember that he was incredibly upset when I was diagnosed with diabetes until it was revealed it was from a virus I had caught, not a condition I had inherited.  Now I feel he cannot cope with the fact that he might have passed on some condition like Asperger's even though, from the limited evidence I have it seems more likely to have come from my mother's side of the family.  I note this to warn people if you reveal you have a condition like Asperger's which is often not diagnosed until adulthood, you might get an unexpected and hostile reaction especially from your parents and perhaps other family members too.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Myth Of An Alternative To The Bank Bail Out

Last month I was particularly angered by a comment from Defence Secretary Dr. Liam Fox when he said that the main reason for the cuts in defence expenditure was no fault of the coalition government rather it was the consequence of the sustained damage Dr. Gordon Brown had inflicted on the economy as prime minister 2007-10.  Among leading Conservative politicians, Fox has been one of the most vocal in attributing the blame for the UK's economic problems on the previous Labour governments, more so even than Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne.  Cameron and Osborne use the large deficit created by bailing out the banks at the onset of the recession as the excuse for their harsh public spending cuts, which would have been imposed even if the UK was in a boom because the current batch of Conservatives believe that the state is too large and needs to be culled as abruptly as possible.  Fox, however, takes it a step further and peddles the idea that for some reason Brown and his government deliberately 'wrecked' the economy for some unknown motive.  Fox, in many ways, is a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s seeing some Communist conspiracy at the heart of British government trying to do the worst for the decent British public.  The reality was that whilst governments do and pursue a particular agenda, and Brown less vigorously than the prime ministers that bracketed him, a lot of their activity is responsive rather than proactive, particularly in the age of the globalised economy when the demand from copper in China leads to thieves in the UK disabling electricity sub-stations and sections of railway in order to get the scrap copper.

All governments say that they could have done things better than their rivals.  There is an implication in everything that Cameron, Osborne, Fox, et al say, that if, for example, rather than Tony Blair handing the premiership to Gordon Brown in June 2007, there had been an election and David Cameron had come to power, then the banking crisis and the recession which came the following year, would have been handled so differently, so much 'better', if Fox is to be believed, that, in fact, we would not now be facing such a large deficit and the consequent 'need' to slash so much of public service.  So let us look at what the Conservatives might have done differently.

The first thing to establish is what would have happened if the government had done nothing.  Even before the global recession had started, in the UK, the Northern Rock bank ran into problems.  It lent 18.9% of all of the mortgages in the UK and handled deposits of £24 billion compared to loans and assets of £113 billion.  In the summer of 2007 it found it difficult to borrow money to cover its lending.  As the US sub-prime market began to stagger, lenders became reluctant to lend on any mortgages even though British lending was generally on a far more restricted basis.  I was not surprised that Northern Rock was struggling having had much anecdotal evidence of its poor customer care combined with its aggressive marketing of products including very high percentage mortgages; this has raised its market share from 14.6% in 2006.  Rapidly fading faith led to a 'run' on the bank with £1 billion in deposits being withdrawn on 14th September 2007. This was the first run on a British bank for more than a century.  To stop the bank from collapsing, the British 'lender of last resort', the Bank of England lent the company £27 billion and in 2008 bought up £3 billion of effectively worthless shares in the company.  In February 2008 the bank was de facto nationalised. 

At least ten other offers to buy the bank were rejected because these potential owners were unable to repay the public money loaned to the company.  Interestingly, the US company Lehman Brothers which was soon to collapse in a spectacular way was one of the bidders.  Others were equity funds such as Terra Firma Capital Partners, J.C. Flowers and Ceberus, investment companies like Olivant and other banks like Bradford & Bingley and Lloyds-TSB.  If Terra Firma's bid is anything to go buy, some of the equity fund purchases would have been de facto asset stripping processes.  Interestingly, before Northern Rock was effectively taken over by the state 40% of its best business accounts was transferred to a company called Granite based in the Channel Islands which have different tax laws.  Though Granite does not receive new business, this effectively meant the cream of the bank's business (and profit potential) remained free of state control.

Now, if the state had not stepped in, then we would have seen the run on the bank continue, reducing the amount of deposits even further than before in relation to its loan commitments. There was one incident in which one bank manager was barricaded in their office because two customers were unable to withdraw their £1 million after the online banking facility of Northern Rock collapsed.  It is likely that violent scenes would have continued as the bank would have found it impossible to cover all the withdrawals with the relative low level of reserves it kept. At this stage the bank would be compelled to foreclose on its mortgages, i.e. insisting lenders immediately repay their loans or lose their homes to the bank.  This would not have helped the bank much as they would have had to dispose of the property quickly to recoup funds and in many towns the housing market would have been utterly disrupted as numerous properties were auctioned off.  As it was some borrowers, including charities, accused Northern Rock of pursuing aggressive repossession especially in 2007-8.

Some borrowers could have transferred their mortgages to other banks but this would have brought pressure on to them as they would increasingly have faced the challenges Northern Rock had already faced to raise loans to cover the mortgages they lent.  Thus, even before the main recession started, not bailing out Northern Rock could have become a crash in the UK economy. The issue for many was that the total support to Northern Rock came to £100 billion which was added to the National Debt meaning it was equivalent to 37.5% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) close to what is seen as the highest permitted level of debt by a state. 

I suppose that the difference that the Conservatives would have done, is being so averse to nationalisation, they would have allowed Northern Rock to have been sold to another bank, with no guarantee that the public funds put into the bank would ever be returned.  Under the de facto nationalisation, by August 2008, the bank had already paid back £9.5 billion of what it had been given, so reducing its part of the National Debt.  It seems unlikely, given that so much Conservative support comes from property owners that they would have allowed Northern Rock to collapse, it held too large a market share.  Thus, there would have been addition to the National Debt just in the way the Conservatives complain about.  In addition, there approach would have meant that the government would not have had a chance of ever seeing the money it had provided returned at some date in the future. 

The key difference would have had to have occurred back in the 1990s when regulation of banks and The City financial bodies was far too lax.  The Blair government like the Major and Thatcher ones that had preceded it, seemed beholden to the financial institutions and was happy for them to act recklessly and earn big profits.  The 'invisible' trade of financial products has been Britain's strongest industry since the 1980s and no prime minister seemed to have the will or the wish to temper the behaviour of not only merchant banks but also high street banks too.  The conversion of mutual building societies into banks after 1986 and their focus on shareholders rather than customers did not help the situation in the mortgage sector, because they were prone to take more risks.  A lot of this could be foreseen, the Bank of England had apparently been working through scenarios of such difficulties as early as 2004 and like many others saw Northern Rock and Halifax/Bank of Scotland (popularly referred to these days as HBOS) as likely candidates.

The ongoing sub-prime mortgage crisis in the USA and the subsequent tightening of loans to banks meant that many UK banks beyond Northern Rock began to experience crises.  The Bank of England offered £4.4 billion in relief in September 2007 and it was drained by banks within hours. In October 2008, the Bank of England offered £37 billion to Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Lloyds TSB and HBOS who were struggling to cover their loans and certainly to grant new ones.  Would the Conservatives have refused to offer such funds to the banks and so, having avoided the collapse with Northern Rock, have seen even greater problems as these banks collapsed?  RBS had assets of £2.5 trillion in December 2008 and Lloyds Banking Group £1.195 trillion, thus the scale of their demise would have made that of Northern Rock seem minor.

RBS had had difficulty in raising funds from April 2008 and in the end first 60%, in March 2009 70% and in November 2009, 84% of the bank was taken over by the state.  RBS has been shedding assets since early in 2008 but did not close its tax avoidance department until March 2009 and in December 2009 stood by plans to pay £1.5 billion in bonuses to staff in its investment arm.  Lloyds-TSB already an amalgam of an old bank and a building society turned bank, took over HBOS in September 2008.  Like these other banks, through 2008 HBOS itself an amalgam of a bank and building society turned bank, saw rapid falls in its shares.  The government approved of the combination of Lloyds-TSB with HBOS even though it was effectively counter to competition as the 'super-bank' has 38 million customers, compared to a UK population of 61.8 million people.  This buy-out effectively relieved the government of having to take over HBOS itself.  However, the continued difficulty in banks raising funds meant that in 2009 the government bought 43% of the Lloyds Banking Group.  EU rules means that by 2013, it will have divested itself of the TSB brand and hundreds of branches of the retail group.  Now, it seems unlikely that the Conservatives would have overseen the nationalisation of any bank.  They certainly would have backed the buy-out of Lloyds-TSB of HBOS, but then in 2009 what would they have done with this super-bank running into difficulty given that so many people and businesses were dependent on its stability?  The likely solution from their view would have been to sell it to a consortium of equity funds.  Given equity funds' desire for fast profit, it is very likely that we would have seen even faster shedding of staff than the 15,000 made redundant by the company in 2010, a fifth of the total workforce.  By November 2009, RBS has similarly shed over 19,000 jobs.  Again, if the state had not stepped in and the only remaining source of support had been equity funds or perhaps foreign banks, then this figure is likely to have been higher. 

The Bradford & Bingley bank's mortgage book in was bought by the government in December 2008 whilst the savings and bank network was bought by Abbey National, itself owned by Spanish bank, Santander. Without UK state intervention, the only way to have avoid collapse of banks, many far bigger than Northern Rock would have been to hawk them to equity funds or to institutions from other countries.  Spain with its insistence on higher reserves being held by its banks almost inadvertently put its banks in a stronger position to weather the financial crises of 2007-9.

Aside from the state taking over banks, the British government, following the US model, but leading the way in Europe also provided funds that could be used by other banks, 'quantitative easing' to stand in for the lack of available funds on the commercial market. In October 2008 the government made available £500 billion but only RBS and Lloyds-TSB took any of these funds.  Barclays (with £2.3 trillion assets at the end of 2008) refused assistance and turned instead to the Qatari government for funds.  So, even though it would not accepted one government's funds it was happy to take them from another government.  This may have been a model that a Cameron government coming into power in 2007 would have promoted more widely for UK banks in the place of the British government nationalising or providing funds.  HSBC (with £1.736 trillion assets), the other key bank in the UK, was able to weather the financial crisis in the UK through share issues and that unlike the other banks discussed it was a multi-national bank on an already large scale.  A second package of another £50 billion in January 2009 and an increase of state ownership of Lloyds-TSB shares to 65% was announced due to the bank suffering from having taken on HBOS's losses. 

Now, the Conservatives may argue that there was no need to come forward with these funds, especially by 2009 when things seemed to be settling.  To them, no doubt, it all appears far too Keynesian in approach, stimulating the economy through state intervention.  However, much of what happens in the financial world depends on confidence.  A key problem for British banks was not that they had so many bad loans (though some did have a sizeable number) more that international lenders lost confidence in lending to any business engaged in lending mortgages no matter the quality of them.  Thus, the extra funds put forward in the latter stages were important in rebuilding this confidence, not only of lenders, but vitally of savers.  Banks have moved far from when they were dependent on depositors to provide the funds for their businesses, but what is saved cannot be ignored.  In fact, banks that weathered the situation were those who tended to have more deposits and reserves.

In total, the government paid out £131 billion in funds to keep banks from collapsing; including £107 million in fees for financial advice from companies from December 2007 to December 2009.  Other potential expenses such as borrowing support, money put into increase liquidity and protection for savings, brought the total costs to £850 billion, though of course with the easing of the situation not all these funds were called upon.  In addition, through nationalising banks, the government to some extent ensured they would get some of their money back; having them sold to private companies especially foreign ones would have meant that the government's investment to bring stabiliy, and, vitally, to try to increase the amount of lending needed by businesses and house buyers, would have never come back and in fact would have left the UK economy.

To blame the Labour government for the size of the National Debt resulting from the support it gave banks 2007-9 is false.  No government would have been able to allow Northern Rock let alone RBS or HBOS to collapse.  Even the folding of Bradford & Bingley would have had severe consequences beyond just those who saved with or borrowed from that bank.  The Conservatives, many of whom come from banking backgrounds, would not have let their friends go to the wall.  Thus, billions of pounds was needed and this would have gone on the National Debt.  I accept that rather than nationalising, the Conservatives most likely would have encouraged buy-outs by private equity companies and foreign companies.  Whilst this would have saved funds in the short-term, it would have meant that any money paid to banks most likely would never have come back, and, particularly with the private equity companies, the stability would be short lived as the banks would be broken up for what assets they could release.  The UK since the 1950s if not longer has had a real focus on privately-owned housing as a core element of its economic life, much more than any other country.  Instability in the housing market impinges widely in the UK economy and society.  Thus, the closure of banks, the foreclosure of loans, even just a greater restriction on lending than we see now, would all have dented this important sector of the economy, having a knock-on effect on purchasing and in turn jobs and economic activity.  Perhaps the Conservatives could have save a few billions by now bailing out the banks to the extent they were, but the cost would have been more instability and in turn falling tax returns, so reducing any saving they may have made.

The increase in the National Debt was a responsive policy not a proactive one as Fox and other Conservatives pretend.  If they had been in power they would have been compelled to do very much the same.  The alternatives would have only saved some small sums and at a cost to longer-term stability that many would have baulked at.  If seeking blame, one focus has to be on the freedom which financial institutions have had since the years of the Thatcher governments, though, of course, this has been a global trend, especially in the USA from where so often the UK takes its lead.  The Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, in line with other Conservative governments throughout the 20th century but boosted by New Right attitudes that appeared in the 1970s, believed in deregulation and the state standing back in many sectors of the economy, not least in the banking world.  Allowing building societies to become banks was one element in this trend building towards the UK aspect of the crisis of 2007-9.  However, on coming to power in 1997 under Tony Blair, Labour was beholden to the Thatcherite attitude.  Blair was a Thatcherite, making the Bank of England independent was an element of this.  Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer was prudent, but in many ways was simply lucky.  No-one during the Blair years tried to rein in the behaviour of the banks and it was only sheer good fortune that meant the crisis did not hit in 1999 or 2003 or some other time in that period. 

Of course, the current government is a clear advocate of deregulation, unsurprisingly as it has been an unchallenged political trend of the last 30 years.  However, it means that the banks remain as free as ever to behave irresponsibily.  It is right that protestors from UK Uncut go into banks and turn them into libraries or woodland.  We could not let the banks collapse, it would have led to a social and economic crisis in the UK unlike anything we had seen.  The taxpayer provided the funds to bail them out after their mistakes, driven by pure greed for massive profits.  We have paid twice because now to fund that the government says it has to be taken out of public services with huge cuts, not by getting the banks to pay back what they received and in this I mean not only funds but also the steps to boost confidence and stop runs.  They do not even have the grace to curtail their vast earnings, they just behave as they did before, uncowed by what happened.  There is nothing to stop a similar crisis manifesting itself this year, next year, sometime soon and then where will be the funds to save the banks this time? It is not a scare story to recognise that in the life of this parliament we could see the end of a banking system that we have become familiar with in the last 40 years and a return to something very dated and very out of step with the rest of the world. 

It seems that, next time, UK banks will, in large part, stop being owned by British companies but by European and probably Chinese institutions.  A number will be asset stripped by equity funds, the only ones who have the money to afford to intervene.  Say goodbye to your savings, say goodbye to getting a mortgage unless you are already wealthy, say goodbye to free banking, say goodbye to even having a bank account if you do not have a well-paid job (especially once the Post Office accounts are privatised).  The current government panders to its banking friends and uses the myth that somehow Brown deliberately wrecked the economy as the excuse for their reverse social engineering and smashing up of the state.  It is a myth.  In the same position they would have done minimally different and like Blair and Brown, have done nothing to stop the chance that it will happen again, this time with no safety net.