All Brexit, all the time

When a news story aligns with your views it can be difficult to critically assess how meaningful it is. An excellent example is today’s story that the Netherlands “will block UK-EU deal without tax avoidance measures.”

In particular, this story shows how the focus on Brexit in political reporting warps the discussion of important matters in potentially dangerous ways.

In certain regards it’s almost the perfect story for the Guardian and Observer, aligning with certain opinions which I will unfairly caricature:

  • If Britain leaves the EU everything will undoubtedly be worse;
  • The Europeans know much better than we do and we must heed their wisdom;
  • “Radical” leftwingers live in a fantasy world and only “sensible” centre-left politicians can lead us out of this crisis.

My point is not to criticise these views even though I may disagree with them in part or in whole. The point is to lay out, with perhaps a few quibbles, the papers’ view of the “Brexit mess.”

This tax-dodging story hits all the right notes: a “sensible” European centre-left leader has vowed to stop the Tories from turning Britain into a tax haven. Great! What’s to disagree with?

Well, the story is meaningless. It means nothing. Its picture of our current situation is false and the threat has no chance of being carried out.

To caricature again, a better summary would be: “Man with no power vows to prevent something that is already the case.” Let’s go through my claims in turn.

To start, it’s unfair to say that Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) leader Lodewijk Asscher has no power. He’s currently the deputy PM! But, like the Guardian’s favourite Liberal Democrats, his party got into bed with the country’s rightwingers (VVD) and, like the Lib Dems, could be annihilated at this year’s election.

Once Britain formally declares its intention to leave the EU a two-year timer starts ticking down. The PvdA are unlikely to be in a position to influence Dutch national policy at that point. So the threat is meaningless.

OK, what about the mischaracterisation of the current tax situation? Asscher writes:

Let’s fight the race to the bottom for profits taxation together which threatens to come into existence if it is up to the Conservative UK government. [Emphasis added]

It’s true, the Tories are bent on slashing (primarily) corporation tax. But the current schedule of cuts was set by George Osborne, who backed a Remain vote in the EU membership referendum. The main rate of corporation tax has already been cut significantly from 28% when the Con-Dem coalition was cobbled together in 2010 to 20% today. The plan is to take it down to at least 17%.

We’re already most of the way to 17%, so it’s wrong to say that “the race to the bottom … threatens to come into existence.”

And further tax cuts are even more irrelevant when you consider that tax-dodgers can legally avoid British rates by using Britain as a tax haven. Britain sits at the centre of a vast web of “secrecy jurisdictions” — starting in the City of London, reaching out to Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, and then further to the 14 overseas territories (including the notorious Cayman and British Virgin Islands) and to a certain extent the Commonwealth countries.

The compilers of the Financial Secrecy Index write of Britain (PDF):

Overall, the City of London and these offshore satellites constitute by far the most important part of the global offshore world of secrecy jurisdictions. Had we lumped them together, the British network would be at the top of our index, above Switzerland.

Government policy over decades to support the City of London as a financial centre has enabled the growth of this tax haven network. (For more on all this, I highly recommend Nick Shaxson’s book Treasure Islands.)

And then there’s the other, unmentioned, side of this accusation: the Netherlands as a tax haven (PDF). While it accounts for “less than 1% of the global market for offshore financial services,” an ocean of money flows through it:

The Netherlands hosts around 12,000 ‘special financial institutions’ used by foreign parent companies to route €4,000 billion through the Netherlands every year — roughly 10 times the Netherlands’ gross national product.

Further tax giveaways have led to “91 of the 100 largest” transnational corporations setting up financing firms in the Netherlands.

The point of this is absolutely not to say that Dutch politicians should get their own house in order before they start lecturing Britain, it’s to put Asscher’s remarks in context.

He made a fuss of Britain becoming a tax haven when it leaves the EU and a pro-EU paper here has given his views prominence — but the briefest examination shows that everything he says might happen has already happened.

My worry is that the obsession with the decision to leave the EU in almost all areas of policy is causing people (deliberately or not) to focus on it to the exclusion of other factors.

And since the Brexit negotiations are such a nebulous mess the danger is that people ascribe their fears or hopes to them when they should be taking action in more concrete ways that might actually make a difference.


(Just in case you think I’m being anti-Remain with the tax example, here’s one from the other side. Both left- and right-wing pro-Leave groups have criticised the EU common fisheries policy for harming small fishers. The EU does set quotas for each country, but national governments divvy up the quota between companies and Westminster gives most of Britain’s quota to giant firms.)

Plot problems in the RSS feed

The SVG plots I use seem to be problematic in some RSS readers. Reeder on my phone just displays a white bar, while Reeder on my Mac displays the image properly.

The URLs in the feed are valid and the feed is valid as a whole, so I’m not sure what’s causing this.

If you’ve got any ideas what the problem is, I’d love to hear from you by email or on Twitter.

Trains home and away

When I moaned about trains last week, I did you a disservice. Plonking in those train departures as a table really wasn’t the best way to go about it. What I really should’ve done is make a pretty plot to show just how bad the situation was.

Well, I have one for you today. Not only that, but I’ve taken the chance to look at other countries too.

To recap, I need to travel from London to Leicester on the night of Friday December 23 along with just about everyone else, using East Midlands Trains, but the cost of tickets is extortionate.

In the plot below, this London-Leicester journey appears labelled as East Mids. For comparison I’ve looked to the Netherlands (Amsterdam-Eindhoven, NS), Germany (Berlin-Leipzig, DB) and France (Paris-Amiens, SNCF)

Now, I should say that I know next to nothing about train services in those three countries so I don’t know if they’re the best comparisons that I could have chosen. They were picked because the distance (as the crow flies) is roughly similar to the 90 miles between London and Leicester, and journey times are all roughly between an hour and a bit to not quite two hours.

Only direct journeys on the continent were considered, as St Pancras to Leicester is (almost always) a direct train. All the costs are in euros, with sterling converted.

With that out the way, let’s return to the basic question: It’s the Friday before Christmas Eve and you need to leave the capital for a city 90-ish miles away. How much does a single train fare cost you?

A chart showing single train fares for selected journeys in England, France, Germany and the Netherlands on Friday December 23. English fares are high and erratic, whereas the others are relatively low and consistent.

This is not the prettiest plot I’ve ever drawn and I blame railway privatisation. What shocks me the most about this is not the extremely high fares on British railways (although it is ridiculous!) but how erratic the fares are.

I’ve drawn a one-hour moving average for East Midlands Trains to give some shape to the individual fares, and the fact that I haven’t bothered for the other three tells you a lot about the underlying fares: they’re so consistent that drawing a line through them just makes it harder to read.

Dutch fares are absolutely consistent (€19.20 for Amsterdam-Eindhoven), whereas in France and Germany there’s a basic price but occasionally you can get a ticket few euros cheaper. That is the only deviation.

What I think is happening on East Mids is the private operator is trying to gouge travellers by increasing fares at popular times. But even that’s a mess. When I wrote a week ago, it would’ve cost £58.50 to travel at 21:30. Now it’s £17.50! I picked a ticket an hour later to get that price, when I would’ve much preferred to travel earlier.

Should I have waited? Who knows? The train I’m on is now more expensive. What will the price of these services be in a week’s time, higher or lower? There’s no way to tell.

These countries — whose publicly owned train operators all make money from running shoddy services in Britain — provide an essential public service on the railways and it’s priced as such. Yet train travel in Britain is not a service but a commodity to be sold for as high a price as the “market” will bear.

Everything is wrong

Oh Claudio. Oh mate. I know, we’ve all been there pet. You’ve got your head down, working hard, but still, “everything is wrong.”

You just want to pull the duvet over your head and just hope it goes away. But when “everything is wrong” the best bet is often to take a good look.

Shall we? Let’s.

A chart showing Leicester City’s points in the first 15 games, 2014-15 to 2016-17 seasons

Claudio, mate, I know you want to prove that old Nige isn’t the only one who can summon a Christmas miracle for the Foxes, but this is a little too close for comfort.

I really was joking last time, there was no need to kick off a 2014-15 tribute band.

Good news, though; let’s think positive. We are more or less on trend for safety:

A chart showing Leicester City’s points over time in the 2014-15 to 2016-17 seasons as of 2016-12-10

But that’s not exactly what I’d call sustainable safety (ahem). As ever those flat periods representing losses are misleading, giving the impression that you’re treading water when you’re really sinking below the surface. Reorienting the plot around the safety line gives a more realistic view:

A chart showing Leicester City’s distance from the safety trend, 2014-15 to 2016-17 seasons as of 2016-12-10

That’s a lot of losses, occasionally topped up with wins. There aren't many draws in there, and there need to be more of them. The safety trend line is only just over 1 point per match. Keeping up with it by losing two and winning one has an obvious flaw: if you’re losing most of the time it’s unlikely you’ll bag the wins you need. Fighting out for draws and a single point means you can chip away at that total and hopefully spare yourself the need for any heroics.

After last season, boring conservative play is a come down, but we all know what the other option is.

Roads: a layperson’s guide

This originally appeared in the Morning Star of Tuesday December 6 2016.


WHEN Theresa May became prime minister, she signalled an intention to back away from austerity. In that spirit, new Chancellor Philip Hammond announced extra cash for infrastructure in his Autumn Statement, the centrepiece being £1.3 billion for new and “improved” roads.

Naturally with the Conservatives, all is not as it seems. The government isn’t really ditching austerity and the extra roads cash comes on top of huge amounts set aside by George Osborne. While there was supposedly “no money left” — to the point that it had to be taken from the pockets (and often the mouths) of disabled people, civil servants, firefighters, health workers, children… just about everyone — Osborne somehow found enough underneath the sofa cushions for a £15bn roads programme (announced first in June 2013 and reannounced, er, twice in late 2014).

How much exactly has been budgeted for capital spending on roads isn’t clear, but Transport Secretary Chris Grayling recently said that Hammond’s extra roads cash “is over and above the £23bn” already being spent on roads — I’d be amazed if anyone knows the true total.

It’s a huge wodge of cash when the Con-Dem coalition cut £25bn from the welfare budget between 2010 and 2015. This is major support for roadbuilding — Hammond said he would “end the war on motorists” when he was made transport secretary in 2010.

Osborne promised “the biggest investment in our roads since the 1970s,” to build “all available Highways Agency road projects to tackle the most congested parts of the network” including by “adding extra lanes to the busiest motorways” and “upgrading the national non-motorway network … with a large proportion moved to dual-lane and grade-separated road standard to ensure free-flowing traffic nationwide.” And Grayling recently reiterated that the road schemes are “focused on congestion.”

There’s a problem with all this: new roads and road “improvements” — code for wider and faster — tend to make congestion worse. It’s counterintuitive but proven: more roads mean more cars in the extra space, not extra space for the existing cars.

It’s been established since at least the 1930s, when the roads engineer Charles Bressey noted “the remarkable manner in which new roads generate new traffic.” In New York, Robert Moses was opening the Triborough Bridge, which quickly smashed traffic forecasts — congestion which Moses used to justify other bridges and urban motorways, which were soon jammed, needing more roads, and on and on.

The reasons are straightforward. People see the new road, think it’ll be faster and easier, and switch from other routes (which suffer a similar fate). Or switch to the car from public transport. Or make journeys they wouldn’t have made. Or make longer journeys. Or make journeys at the busiest times. Or move further away, dependent on the new road.

This is called induced traffic — traffic that wouldn’t have otherwise existed were it not for the new or wider road. Transport expert Phil Goodwin remarked 10 years ago that “for 80 years, every eight years on average, there has been the same experience, the same conclusions — even, for goodness sake, more or less the same figures” showing that when a road is built or widened it fills up with traffic.

Over 20 years ago the then Department of Transport accepted this principle after a major report (“Trunk roads and the generation of traffic”). This was important because for decades planners had put out inflated traffic forecasts and insisted vast tracts of new Tarmac be laid down to cope (known as “predict and provide”).

It appears we’re back to that, building for more cars when we must slash car use for the sake of our health and environment. Meanwhile everyday maintenance suffers as council budgets are cut; an industry survey predicts that £12bn is needed to get local roads up to scratch.

It’s no use moaning at people for driving when government policy has for decades been to provide for cars. For many people there are no other options — public transport is patchy and expensive when it’s there at all, and walking and cycling is frequently indirect, unpleasant and hazardous.

This isn’t inevitable and final. Reversing decades of decline and privatisation of our buses, trams and trains would take up many journeys made by car.

Look at London to see how much decent public transport can handle (though the Tube is increasingly overcrowded).

This obviously greatly benefits the quarter of households with no car — often the poorest who also most suffer from others’ car use.

But we absolutely must make best use of our road space and it’s here that the quickest, cheapest and often most beneficial changes can be made.

Two thirds of trips are shorter than five miles — under 30 minutes slow cycling, yet 77 per cent of trips of two to five miles are done by car. It’s easy to see why: 64 per cent of people think cycling on the road is too dangerous.

When good, safe cycleways are built people flock to them. In London, cycling on roads with new high-quality tracks has increased by half — when Blackfriars Bridge is busiest people on cycles make up 70 per cent of all traffic but in the space of just a single motor vehicle lane, next to a four-lane road.

It’s an incredibly efficient use of road space for moving people and great value, with a mile of protected cycleway costing £2-3 million. For comparison, turning the A9 from Perth to Inverness into a dual carriageway costs £37m per mile.

That’s also a narrow view of the value. Reducing car use reduces pollution, which each year causes 40,000 deaths and costs the NHS and businesses £20bn. Meanwhile walking and cycling improve people’s health and help to tackle obesity, which costs the economy £47bn a year with direct costs to the NHS of about £16bn from obesity and diabetes.

And of course, road transport accounts for a quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, which we must cut drastically to avoid roasting the planet.

Cycling offers greater independence for disabled people too, as the wonderful Wheels for Wellbeing has shown. Dedicated safe cycle infrastructure makes it possible for people of all ages and abilities to get around under their own steam.

A nationwide road modernisation programme that provides space for walking and cycling would pay for itself many times over and is an ideal candidate for a chunk of Labour’s proposed £500bn of public investment. It would greatly improve our transport where the Tories’ Mr Toad roadbuilding fantasy would leave us stranded on JG Ballard’s Concrete Island.