Reverse Corn Law: Prepare for massive price hikes

This evening the FT has flagged up a story that I hope gets the prominance that it deserves, but some how I doubt it.

China will tax grain exporters
China is to introduce taxes on grain exports in the latest attempt to rein in food-driven inflation that reached an 11-year high in November.

Exporters of 57 types of grain, including wheat, rice, corn and soya beans, will have to pay temporary taxes of between 5 and 25 per cent, the country’s Ministry of Finance said on Sunday.
Now I don't want to panic anybody but that is quite an extraordinary act. Think about it for a moment, we in the European Union are currently subsidising the Common Agricultural Policy to the tune of dozens of billions a year, meanwhile China is introducing export taxes on grain... of up to 25%. Now the Chinese don't do things by accident, and I suspect that though they claim this move to be temporary, so was the income tax, in 1799.

With grain prices in the UK doubling in the last 12 months, and their being a global shortage of food, expect that food inflation over the next year to leap. Of course this won't just affect the price of bread and risotto. The largest cost in chicken, pig and cattle is fodder. Beer will go up even more.

As the Telegraph points out today,

This will be a global trend... but higher food costs too. In 2007, wheat prices doubled - with the price of other crops like cocoa and coffee also jumping.

Next year, the growing - and increasingly wealthy populations of the developing world will keep global food demand rising. Global supplies - hit by more droughts, floods and the increased use of land for bio-fuel production - will struggle to keep up.

That's why, in 2008, high food prices will replace expensive oil as the bogeyman of Western consumers and central bankers. Because food accounts for a large portion of disposable incomes, escalating food prices will seriously dent consumer confidence next year, while preventing deep base rate cuts.

What does the the EU do? As Chris Booker states today, many of these problems are either caused or exacerbated by the European Union; a schlorotic conception which has an elderly system designed to deal with the like of Pharoh's dream of seven fat years, but utterly unprepared for his nightmare of seven years of fallow.

People often tell me that the European Union is irrelevant to their lives. If t is in part responsible for a doubling of basic fod prices and the consumer crisis that this will bring about then maybe, just maybe peoiple might begin to notice how big an issue it is.

Imagine a single mother living on an estate on benefits. With just one child she is spending upwards of 30% of her weekly income on food. If that price doubles in the next twelve month what on earth will she do? Is the country at all prepared for the hike in taxes required to deal with this situation. All those on low incomes, pensioners, the unemployed, school leavers, the disbled, imigrants, those living on the minimum wage.

The thought is terrifying. Funily enough Gordo failed to mention this in his New Year message.
Odd that.

Book Review: “The Origins of English Individualism”, Alan MacFarlane

I bought this book, mainly due to seeing it too often referenced by authors I admire (James Bennett being a case in point). And despite its relative antiquity (it was written in 1978) it is still a draft of intellectual cold, still water. Essentially in this book Professor MacFarlane attempted to swim against 150 years of received opinion about the development of the distinctive political and social milieu of England (and yes it is about England rather than the United Kingdom or Britain that he writes).

He had been drawn to this by his previous work on witchcraft in which he noted that in England witches were remarkably different to their continental cousins (In England covens and cannibalism were virtual absent, as was intense sexuality and a hatred of the newly wealthy, instead English witches were individualistic, decorous and essentially targeted their wrath against those who were a drag on society). If witches were so different then it surely suggests that society itself was different?

The traditional view of English history is of the long, slow progress of freedom, from a past of feudalism and an omnipresent peasantry though some strange sublimation by which England created a form of freedom from which derived the industrial revolution, the rule of law and the greatest empire the world had ever seen and then on to a socialist society (Marx). Before the Civil War and the rise of Protestantism (Weber) Britain was analogous to the rest of Europe in that it was a traditional peasant society. By this was meant that all, bar the aristocracy and some in the few small towns, lived in family groups. Land was synonymous with family and was held not by an individual as property but as a group familial holding. Many generations lived in the same homestead and all worked the family property; people neither left, sold nor transferred their land except in extremis. Wage labour was almost unheard of. In this it was much like France and Germany of the 17th/ 18th Century and like Russia and Eastern Europe in the pre Communist period. More importantly it was similar to India, Africa and China of modern days.

This similarity of modern peasant societies makes the study of the England’s development extremely important as policy makers should be able to extrapolate from our experience. This should allow the rapid development of those unhappy parts of the world by following policy short cuts and ironing out the mistakes made in England.

MacFarlane’s work however seems to fatally undermine this thesis. By extensive research in legal documents, church records, diaries and so on, he comprehensively rebukes the traditional idea that, “The past is a foreign country, people do things differently there”. Indeed he claims that whereas this might be true for the rest of the world the people of England were remarkably similar to us today in their way of life.

The key drivers of English exceptionalism were he says, the method of inheritance the transferability of property, the large pool of wage labour and the nuclear family. All this is allied to a level of equality before the law and a level of litigation almost American in its scope. Marriage was late, and indeed often not at all with women having all rights to property (a big difference to the Continent). Indeed it seems that instead of the traditional Weberian idea that Protestantism increased individual rights as it concentrated in an individual relationship with God had the counter intuitive results as it strengthened male power.

The book is full of apposite quotations from the documents but I shall include just the one here, about a chap called John Thedrich, described by Professor Zvi Razi as a, “typical wealthy Halesown peasant”,

“He inherited from his father a yardland holding or more yet in fourteen land transactions he purchased and leased at least another yardland. He leased for life a holding of half a yardland or more and another smaller holding for a year. He also leased three meadows for his livestock. In 1314 he acquired from the lord a plot of wasteland to enlarge his barn and in 1320 he bought a parcel of land from his neighbour to extend his courtyard. In 1320 and 1321 he exchanged land with four villagers in order to consolidate his lands into one block. He had sub-tenants and at least two living in servants. During the peak periods he used to employ several extra labourers. He and his wife were amerced forty-three times for selling ale against the assize... He sued villages for various debts...He was amerced eight times for assault and shedding blood. John Thedrich had between 1294 and 1337 at least 196 court appearances and the fines and amercements which he paid during the time amounted to £2-10.3.” (the average annual wage at the time being £5-1.0 approx).
The key point here is that this activity is inconceivable in a traditional peasant society, where land being sacrosanct and virtually inviolable. Not only that, from his court appearances we can see that he is not a million miles away from modern England beyond merely his financial transactions. Another point to make clear is this is all happening decades before the Black Death that is often claimed to have created the circumstances by which the feudal locks of peasants to specific land were forced.

The problem that MacFarlane has however is that before 1200 documentary evidence becomes sparse, thus though he is able to show to his own and this reviewer’s satisfaction that England had an entirely different societal dispensation from the Continent after this time he fails in his stated aim of defining the ‘Origins of English Individualism’. He can neither point to its start, no can he define where those origins came from.

As he himself writes in his postscript ,
“I have my own suspicions as to where those ‘origins’ were in time and space and
they are similar to those of Montesquieu”.
Montesquieu’s thoughts in ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ were these,

In perusing the admirable treatise of Tacitus On the manners of the Germans we find it is from that nation that the English have borrowed their idea of political governance. This beautiful system was invented first in the woods”. Nor was it merely the political system that was ‘borrowed,’ but also, he suggested, the land law and inheritance system. Crucial here was the fact that, as Montesquieu observed, the Germanic system as described by Tacitus was one of absolute individual property; there was no group which owned the land, and hence no idea that the family and the resources were inextricably linked. In his description of the Salic law he stresses that it ‘had not in view a preference for one sex to the other, much less had it a regard to the perpetuity of a family, a name, or the transmission of land. These things did not enter the heads of the Germans...’ Montesquieu was clearly not in a position to show how the English could have come to take over this or other aspects of this ‘beautiful system.’ It is sufficient for our purposes here that this enormously wideranging mind should have realised that England was different from every Continental country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and to have believed this difference had very old roots.
Of course this book has its enemies, after all he was targeting almost the entire historical establishment of the time, but its thesis seems more convincing than the idea that the essential Englishness that created the industrial revolution (and yes I know that that is now a contentious phrase as it was more gradual than previously thought – a conclusion that fits MacFarlane’s ideas rather well) was either some great fluke, or indeed that it popped up fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head.

Or maybe Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London in 1559 was right all along when he said that “God is an Englishman”.

British Vision: Observation and Imagination in British Art, MSK Ghent

How long would it take you to visit almost every provincial art gallery in Britain in order to see the cream of work from our Islands? About a fortnight. That is if you jump onto Eurostar and get yourselves to Ghent to see what must be the most complete and eye opening exhibition in recent years before it closes on the 13th January.

Robert Hoozee, the director of the Museum Voor Schone Kunsten has scoured 63 UK and 14 foreign galleries and museums in putting together what is, in the opinion of your correspondent the most complete and staggering collection of British works assembled in living memory.

The purpose of the exhibition is to show how the exceptionalism/individualism in the English character that created the industrial revolution had an echo in the art produced there. As Hoozee puts is his fine introduction to the lavish catalogue,
“At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Voltaire was already full of praise for the climate of freedom he encountered in England. With respect to religion, he wrote in 1726 that ‘England is properly the country of sectarists...An Englishman, as one to whom Liberty is natural may go to heaven his own way’. Until well into the ninetieth century, artists and critics were fascinated by the specific circumstances under which art in Great Britain was able to thrive. One of these, Théophile Thoré wrote in 1863,
“Self-Government is complete in English Art, just as it is in all the institutions and all the customs of this proud people, where individuality asserts itself. It is this that lacking in French artists, who almost always obey some higher authority, tradition or prejudice”.
He claims, with some justification that in Britain art followed a distinctive path from that on the Continent, charmingly he describes it as ‘marginal’, which has as its mainstay the empirical experience of reality and otherwise wild flights of fancy and the visionary.

As one wanders through the gallery, through the 14 rooms over 300 works in all media, barring conceptual and video (oh what a shame) dating between 17 and 1950 at every stage and around every corner lies the shock of recognition. Work after work that has lodged in the mind over the years lies there to see.

The empirical tradition is exemplified by Joseph Wright of Derby whose magnificent rationalist alterpiece ‘A philosopher lecturing on the Orrery’ takes the high drama of religious work and places it firmly in the world of a questing for scientific knowledge. It was painted in 1766 and has to be seen in the context of works by Fragonard to see what a radical departure had been taken in England.

Add this to Bill Brandt’s photography, Richard Dadd, that photograph of Brunel, Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Stanley Spencer, Lowry, Freud, Stubbs, the original Alice in Wonderland, Mad Martin, Ruskin, Epstein... you get the picture.

If you live in Belgium you have no excuse, go now, today. If you live in the UK, well get a move on.

Project Pygmalion

Another day, another Government IT project. This latest one is brewing up in the Cabinet Office and is supposed to be a system by which the online services across government are handled. 18 companies are already signed up to provide the service. This worries me as they claim to have a userbase (read database) of 10 million who have logged onto Government Gateway websites. The key details mentioned by the Government in the tenders is that the firms should be, and here comes the scary part,

"specialists in areas such as security and identity assurance".
You will understand my concern immediately. When I took a look at the bidder briefing for the first time I began to understand why the whole scheme is named "Project Pygmalion" which seems a pretty odd name for it when one considers either the Greek original, Shavian or indeed 'My Fair Lady' version of the tale. Man falls in love with his own creation. Artifice is preferable to reality.

The project is being run by the EDT (E-Delivery Team) which operates out of the Cabinet office and aims to support,

the Transformation Government activities.

Whatever the hell they are.

The key point to this is that another IT project is speeding to fruition, an IT project that is supposed to be able to manage a database with 10 million people and businesses details involved, that is anybody who has tried to get government services online, benefits and so on. The level of personal details required in such transactions is colossal.

Shall we lay a bet that this one snarls up as well?