Monday, August 27, 2007

How The Silly Season Works, Apparently…

Loathe as I am to “work” on a bank holiday, I feel duty bound to respond to today’s Western Mail advert against nuclear power, as noted by Peter Black. I’m required to call it that, because on closer reading we discover that this “news story” is actually just a press release from the Welsh Anti-Nuclear Alliance that the Mail has printed essentially verbatim because it’s that time of year. Nevertheless, I have to give credit to WANA for filling the gap in the silly season market and for providing such a thorough example of where the anti-nuclear argument is at the moment.

The first strand of attack is the economic one, but as ever, nothing so gauche as an actual cost analysis is included. Now I can understand why this is the case; I mean, if you were advocating massive increases in wind power, you wouldn’t want to admit that actually, the infrastructure costs of connecting the whole Isle of Lewis to the National Grid are so massive that they make your final costs look hideous. Mentioning the actual numbers takes away from the gospel assertion that wind is cheap and nuclear isn’t, so we don’t do that.

Instead, a variety of water-muddying titbits are thrown in, in the hope that they will reaffirm popular misconceptions. So here we open with nuclear requiring higher proportional capital investment than fossil fuels; this is true, but only because nuclear uses so little fuel that its proportional costs are weighted to the fixed end. WANA want you to assume that, because the fixed costs are proportionally high, no company will be willing to make the investment, but they offer no sort of figures to prove that it is so.

As a sub-plot to that, the British Energy bail-out is brought up again. While it may be nice for the campaigners to think that this is certified proof of uneconomic performance by nuclear specifically, a look at the history is instructive. Essentially, when British Energy was privatised, the government should have made a cash contribution to the new company to reflect the liabilities incurred up to that point. This did not sit with the ideologues concept of privatisation leading to money flowing into the treasury, so the eventual contribution was insufficient. When the British wholesale electricity market collapsed in 2002, BE ended up being worst hit purely because they’d been short-changed on the asset/liability ratio ten years earlier, as a result of which the government was required to step in to make good on its earlier failure. WANA may wish to blame “the nuclear industry” for being big and bad, but in reality they should blame the Major government for being grossly incompetent (so no change there then…)

The second strand is the process story. Now that the government has announced its ideas for “streamlining” the planning process, everyone wants to make out that the intent is to screw the public over. Far be it from me to defend the government, but the “streamlining” is largely a response to the Sizewell B experience, wherein the local planning inquiry was turned into CEGB vs. Greenpeace, FoE et al. and the whole nuclear industry was put on trial for ten years. The local planning inquiry should be about local issues, about whether site x is suitable for thing y; national strategy should be decided elsewhere and hopefully the new processes will deliver that.

By contrast, WANA make the bizarre claim that construction over-runs in the AGR programme were caused by the lack of public inquiry, a classic case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. To add to the weirdness, in this case WANA do offer a number, claiming that the average over-run in the AGR programme was ten years. Given that I know full-well that the longest over-run was at Dungeness B, and that over-run, on one of the two reactors, was sixteen years, I am at a loss to see how they can compute that the average over-run across a fourteen reactor programme was as high as ten years.

Another angle the process story allows is the idea that new reactor designs are dangerously experimental and will not be properly scrutinised. For that argument, I’ll merely offer you links to the official sites of the AP1000, EPR and ESBWR (for details of the evolutionary nature of these designs) and note that reactors such as these are under construction in Finland and China and have received design certification in the USA. The man at WANA may think what he wants, but nations around the world are queuing up to disagree with him.

And then, to add to the joy, right at the end WANA dip into an argument that I’m sure will develop over the next few years. I have always said that the greatest test of a new nuclear programme will come when the Daily Mail discover that the first new plant is being built by Electricit√© de France, and it’s nice to see WANA subconsciously adding fuel to the future xenophobia argument by mentioning the nationalities of the companies involved.

I have said before and will undoubtedly say again, our future energy policy must be holistic; leaving the debate to self-appointed experts and conducting it in a culture of unremitting hostility to anything said by the companies involved is no way to deal with the vast range of economic, environmental and security issues we face.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Judging Books By The Opposites Of Their Covers

It occurs to me that it is a little odd for a blog that is theoretically obsessed with semantics in modern politics to have failed to review the department changes that ushered in the nouveau regime. So here goes…

Looking at the changes as a whole, two trends are worthy of note, the first of which is the continued rise of the extended department name. In the early days we might have felt that the emergence of DEFRA and DETR were just local issues (specifically the historic inheritance of MAFF and the ongoing battle between the size of John Prescott’s belly and his ego) but now they are everywhere; indeed, with these changes, only Health, Transport, Justice and Defence have one word titles (and that represents an increase over recent years!)

Sir Humphrey teaches us that you should always get through the difficult issues in the title, and with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform there is certainly an element of that. The inclusion of regulatory reform is a particular masterstroke as it can be spun in two, almost mutually exclusive ways, namely “reform to make regulation better” and “reform to make regulation smaller”.

More importantly, Deeber* is an immensely symbolic name shift through the choice of words; after all, it was pretty strange having a department with responsibility for Industry in a country that didn’t have any anymore…

Still, at least Deeber has the words in some form of logical order based on relative important. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has the buzzword bit right up front, which rather begs the question of why that should be so. I suspect the logic goes something like this; we want an FE/HE department that has a strong business focus, but if we put “universities” first nobody will be interested in the rest of the name and if we put it last people will ask why, so whack “innovation” in there, let that get the message to the people we care about and no-one needs to ask questions about our relative priorities.

The trouble with all that is that I wouldn’t be averse to the idea of FE and HE policy being more focused on our economic needs if I felt the present government had a hope in hell of delivering such a thing. Instead we have unyielding adherence to the 50% HE entry target on the basis that it appeals to old Labour social mobility types and new Labour pseudo-socialist pseudo-intellectuals despite mounting evidence that it is actually damaging the earnings potential of many of those graduates and leaving us with a rapidly worsening skills gap.

Even so, Dius’ moniker is at least only inaccurate. The Department for Children, Schools and Families could be regarded as downright offensive; I may not be a family man yet myself, but Jed Bartlet would find that name immensely patronising and I have a policy of not disagreeing with him when he’s right. Then again, it could have been worse; someone might have decided to reinforce the starkly moralising tone of it all by putting Ruth Kelly in charge of it…

But I mentioned two trends to start us off, and two there indeed are. The smallest changes often have the biggest semantic effect and so it is here. To the untrained eye, replacing “of” with “for” in department names may not seem significant, but consider it in terms of the original example. The Department of Transport is actively involved in transporting things, it has trains and trucks and roads and rails; the Department for Transport thinks transport is a good idea and that somebody should look into increasing the amount of it that goes on.

That interpretation may not be a mortal lock, but it’s at times like this that I’m reminded of those wise words of Catbert; “Asok needs experience. But what he doesn’t realise is that cynicism is almost exactly the same as experience.”

* It occurs to me that the simplest way to put a stop to this nominative aggrandisation would be to treat all the names as acronyms to be pronounced as written, hence;

  • Business, Enterprise And Regulatory Reform - Deeber
  • Communities And Local Government – Ducklug
  • Culture, Media And Sport – Duckmuss
  • Children, Schools And Familes – Ducksuff
  • Innovation, Universities And Schools – Dius

Then again, maybe I’m just too fond of the idea of Jon Snow using the phrase, “…and here in the studio we have the Secretary of State for Ducklug, Ruth Kelly…”

Monday, August 06, 2007

Revenge Of The Soundbite

Certain things in politics are bound to leave you feeling slightly dirty. As it’s been in the blogosphere lately, I should go on the record at this point to say that Liberal Democrat practices at by-elections are not such a thing. The other parties should grow up a little and be clear that there is a difference between saying that the other candidate is an unqualified carpetbagger who doesn’t care about the area and saying, “He blows goats, I have proof”; one is a legitimate query about the suitability of a candidate for the job, the other is a baseless character assassination.

But I digress. The political thing leaving me feeling dirty at present is the creation of soundbites. Hopefully I should not need to explain to this readership the myriad of reasons why this is the case, but the problem remains that, very occasionally, soundbites have their uses.

The ongoing work of the Federal Working Group on Further and Higher Education has, unsurprisingly, brought the issue of fees to the fore in LDYS’ internal policy forums. At the moment, the intellectual right of the organisation are using the opportunity to score some points off the left, on the charge that the left’s opposition to fees logically results in us supporting subsidy of middle-class families.

Which is all very well, but it rather rests on the assumption that one should never spend any money on something purely because it is a matter of principle. What’s worse, at the moment that’s an easy assumption to defend because no-one has successfully established what the principle at stake is, exactly.

And so to the soundbite I’ve been struggling with, namely;

“higher education, meritocratic at the point of entry”

It’s an idea that often seems to be forgotten amongst all the debate about low socio-economic group access and internal markets, but I would hope that we as a party can at least agree that the mechanics of financing the higher education system should not obstruct the fundamental aim of that system, namely to identify and train the most able people in the country.

I’ll freely admit that this criterion doesn’t forbid fees, but it does place stringent conditions on how they can be assessed and charged and focuses on the requirement to consider fees holistically with maintenance requirements. This second point is vital to recognise; the current system does contravene the meritocracy criteria because, with the support loan limit as laughably inadequate as it is, many low-income students must rely on bursaries to meet their basic needs and as such bursaries are variable in the magnitude and availability, there is an additional market pressure on applicants choices.

So for now, let me just put the question out there; beyond the possible effects of a fees system on the social makeup of the university population, is there a deeper principle involved that requires us to get money out of the way of admission?

Never Trust A Funny Tory

Far be it from me to actually do something approaching real blogging, but you may like to check out this job advert posted yesterday by Anne Marie Morris, the theoretical challenger to Richard Younger-Ross in the constituency formerly known as Teignbridge. Of particular interest is this line;

"The post is voluntary, although expenses will be paid
... so long as you don't turn up in a private jet or something."

Normally I'd think this was a (very poor attempt at a) joke, but there are two important factors to consider;
  1. Having met a significant proportion of Conservative Future, I would imagine half the applicants wouldn't be seen dead in anything less than a private jet...
  2. Given that all train services into Newton Abbot are operated by either Stagecoach or First, using a private jet suddenly doesn't seem so ludicrous...
Still, it's nice to see that there's only one Tory who can really do comedy...

PS Apologies to everyone who commented on my last post, I've been out of action (and, indeed, briefly in hospital) in the last week or so, but I will get back to your comments soon.